"All points, there is a situation at Robinson Park," Oracle's voice crackled across the coms. Throughout Gotham masked and cowled heads perked up to glance in that direction.
"The protest?" Red Robin asked.
"Ivy's taken exception to it," Oracle confirmed. "Between her, the counter-protestors, and the cops… B wants all hands on deck."
"Batgirl on the way," Batgirl checked in.
"Red Robin, heading that way."
"On it." This from Black Bat.
"Signal, already there."
"Batwing on the move."
Oracle waited a few moments. Robin was already with Batman, Red Hood never answered his coms anyway and likely wasn't in the city at all. Which left— "Nightwing, you local? Has anyone heard from N?"
"Last I heard he was tracking a lead in the packing district. Something about a rash of diamond thefts?" Signal said.
"Seriously? The city's about to riot and he's chasing diamonds? It's probably just Catwoman and we'll end up seeing her at the protest," said Batgirl.
"I'll track him down," Oracle said. "The rest of you, get to the park."
Affirmatives echoed across the line and Babs switched half her monitors to the cameras she had watching the park. The protest – a demonstration against police brutality – was going strong and had been all day. Thousands of protestors had braved the heat of Gotham's summer to set up in the park that morning and were refusing to disperse now that it was night. If anything they were only gaining energy now that the sun had gone down.
The heat had been brutal all summer long, each day bringing the kind of sidewalk-wavering temperatures that made tempers rise right along with the mercury. People who could afford to crank the air down stayed indoors. People who couldn't lounged on stoops, flooded the public libraries, loitered in shops. There were more people out at night than usual, and it seemed the police had lost the ability to tell who was just trying to get some relief from the sun and who was actually a suspicious character.
Then a month ago some cop had shot an unarmed kid who'd been – allegedly – stealing a candy bar. A candy bar. Babs had asked her dad about it. He'd only shaken his head, said the cop in question was suspended pending inquiry, that his officers did their best and what more could anyone ask? Babs had stared hard at him, had tried to argue, but her dad's brain must have been fried from all the long shifts because it was like talking to a brick wall. Usually she could at least get a solid argument out of him. Babs had wheeled herself out of the room, out of the building, angrily and hadn't spoken to him since.
Much of the city seemed to share her sentiment – hence the demonstrations in Robinson Park today, though of course there were also counter-protestors. And you weren't going to gather a massive crowd in Gotham without also gathering some of the more colorful residents…
"B, I'm showing movement on the north side," Oracle reported.
"Confirmed," came Batman's reply. Oracle could only determine it sounded slightly breathless due to years of talking to him over com lines. "Creeping vines— Robin, down!" Explosions over the coms were reduced to light crackles thanks to the compression technology that also protected the wearer's hearing, but Babs recognized those, too, as Batman deployed defensive maneuvers against whatever Ivy had thrown at him.
"Backup's on the way," Oracle reported.
Batman grunted, then opened his own line to the rest of the team. "Batgirl and Signal, stick to the south side. Make sure nothing between the protesters and counter-protestors escalates. Batwoman, go wide, keep an eye on the perimeter. Make sure this isn't a distraction from something bigger. Nightwing and Red Robin, see what you can do to make sure the police keep their heads. Black Bat and Batwing, on me."
"Nightwing's MIA," Red Robin reported.
"Nonsense," Robin said. "I spoke to him earlier today. He's still in the city."
"No time to track him down. Red Robin can handle the police." Batman closed his com line and focused on avoiding the lash of a vine as large around as he was. Robin scrambled through trees toward the overgrown cluster of greenery the vines seemed to be coming from. That was where Ivy would be, and if they stopped her, they'd take the civilians out of danger. Well, out of danger from anyone but themselves.
Batwing swooped in, firing off an arc of projectiles to buy himself a little space and landed next to Batman, followed almost immediately by Black Bat dropping out of a nearby tree. "Reporting for duty," Batwing said.
"Good. Keep the vines busy and make sure they don't head any farther south."
Batwing grumbled at decoy detail, but Batman was already moving. He definitely didn't want Robin encountering Ivy alone.
Later, Batman watched as Ivy was carried away in special restraints back to Arkham. She'd always liked Robinson Park. Batman had assumed some protestors had trampled a bed of daffodils or something, but Ivy hadn't mentioned anything specific amidst her usual rhetoric about the Green and the sins of humanity against Mother Earth. Actually, she hadn't done much monologuing at all, which was a relief but a little unusual. The area she'd chosen to stage her little plant uprising was a little unusual, too, but the north side of the park had a lot more greenery to work with than the south. The plants would have reached the protestors eventually.
Batman swiped a thumb over a cut on his cheek where something had lashed him. The movement of the plants had been choppy, frantic. Whatever new thing Ivy had been testing out, it had made them quick… but considerably less sneaky. No spores, no toxins, no subtle attempts at control. It had, overall, been a very straightforward fight. That left Batman feeling uneasy.
"Report in," he ordered over the open com line.
"Protestors are breaking up and heading home," Signal reported.
"No one got shot," Batgirl added. "I call that a win."
"No injuries here," Red Robin said.
One by one, the others who had been in the park chimed in. Robin was last.
"I am en route to Nightwing," he said.
Batman's eyebrows crashed together. Robin had been with him not ten minutes ago. Batman closed the open line and addressed Robin alone. "Robin, status."
"Barely even tired from that mockery of a fight. I intend to find out why Nightwing missed it."
"Nightwing is unresponsive on coms. Robin, wait for backup," Batman said, already moving toward where he'd left the Batmobile.
"Tt," said Robin. "I'm already approaching his tracker's location. If you want me to have backup, get here faster."
Batman muttered a curse and called Oracle. "O, any update on Nightwing?"
"His tracker's broadcasting, though it hasn't moved in a while. I've sent you the location, and it looks like Robin's on his way already."
"He is," Batman growled. "Any idea what he's going to find?"
"I don't have cameras everywhere in the packing district so I can't see N specifically, but the area looks quiet. You want me to ping the others?"
"No. Robin and I will handle it. Batman out."
Robin circled the old factory once before deciding on a shadowed ledge from which to watch the activity inside. And there was activity inside. Robin's lip curled as he recognized the hallmarks of one of Mad Hatter's operations: a dozen blonde girls and a few heavies wandering about in a vague sort of way. They didn't seem to be doing anything, and Tetch himself wasn't in sight, but there was an office in the corner. Robin would lay even odds he was in there.
He scanned his surroundings one more time, looking for Nightwing. It was possible he was standing back and watching for something, just like Robin was, but that wouldn't explain the radio silence. They had tap codes for times when stealth didn't permit them to speak, and Nightwing hadn't used them.
Then Tetch burst from the office, a small box under one arm, and started herding his crop of Alices toward a large bay door. One of his enforcers gestured to a corner where a few crates were piled up, clearly asking a question. Probably whether to take the crates with since they seemed to be vacating the premises. Tetch became agitated, though, yelling and gesturing wildly. He shoved the box he was carrying into his minion's hands and pulled a small remote from his pocket, jabbing the buttons on it furiously while staring into the corner. When nothing happened, he shook the remote violently and started yelling at the crates.
Robin frowned and shifted slowly across the ledge, heading for another set of windows so he could see what was in that corner more clearly. He'd thought it was just piled up crates, but as it turned out there was a small space in the midst of them. Slouched against a slightly shorter stack, boneless as a rag doll, was Nightwing.
Robin's breath caught in his throat and his vision narrowed to that corner.
Nightwing wasn't moving. There was a thin trickle of blood trailing from his nose and one of his ears. Around his head was a steel band. As Robin watched, the Hatter crouched over Nightwing and knocked twice against the band with one knuckle. Nightwing's head lolled to the side and Tetch threw up his arms in exasperation. He turned – and ran directly into Robin's boots.
Tetch hit the ground and Robin grabbed the front of his obnoxiously patterned shirt to pull him back up. There was a faint smell of burned paper on the air, but nothing currently appeared to be smoking or on fire, so Robin focused on Tetch.
"What did you do to Nightwing?" Robin demanded.
The Hatter shrieked. "Protect me!"
Robin looked over his shoulder and saw the Alices converging on him, as well as the more run-of-the-mill thugs – about a dozen girls and two burly men. He scoffed. The biggest challenge would be not hurting any of them. He introduced his elbow to Tetch's temple and had already moved on to the first of the men before the Hatter hit the floor, unconscious.
Robin made short work of the thugs, dodging the Alices all the while, then pulled out a grapple and manually unspooled the line. He tethered each of the girls to the others and then looped the whole thing around a pylon, leaving them to bump clumsily into each other as they tried to carry out the Hatter's order. Robin had hoped it was a situation where the Hatter's control would break once he was no longer actively dominating their minds, but apparently this was somewhat more advanced tech.
Whatever. They were contained, the goons were down for the count, and Hatter had been perfunctorily zip tied, stripped of any devices, and then literally kicked aside. Nightwing was the priority. Robin dropped to his knees by Nightwing's side and pulled the steel band from his head, flinging it away.
"Nightwing, wake up," he said. "I've taken care of your mess. Open your eyes so I can yell at you properly." Robin felt for a pulse and found it strong, but rapid. The line of blood under his nose was dry, cracking where it had run over his lips. The trickle from his ear was already tacky, nearly dry. Neither was actively bleeding, that was clear. But Nightwing didn't move.
"Robin," came Batman's voice, suddenly directly behind him. Robin hadn't heard him arrive or approach, and didn't care. "Report."
"He won't wake up," Robin said, not taking his eyes off of Nightwing. Batman pulled him back gently and took his place. He ran his hands carefully over Nightwing's head, took his pulse just as Robin had done. Robin craned over his shoulder looking for the slightest movement – but then Tetch stirred and Robin's attention snapped to him.
He was on top of him in two steps, fist raised. "What did you do to him?" he demanded once again.
Hatter's eyes widened and he squirmed in his zip ties. "I don't know why he's like that! The crowns worked perfectly on everyone else!" Robin hit him. Tetch's head snapped to the side. "No, no, really, I don't— he shouldn't have resisted!" Tetch howled. Robin snarled and hit him again. Blood spurted from his nose.
"Tell me about the crowns," Batman said, suddenly looming over them both. He had the headband Robin had flung aside held between two hands.
"Oh, by ladess work," Tetch said nasally, a hint of pride in his voice. Robin raised his fist again. "Don't!" Tetch cried. "Iss a stronger wave form, thass all! Bedder cooling, bedder— ugh, by dose, I can't—"
"How do we fix him?" Robin hissed.
"Robin. I'll handle this. Take care of Nightwing," Batman said.
Robin glared up at him but dropped Tetch after a moment and spun on his heel. Batman had shifted Nightwing so that he was lying flat on the floor. Robin dropped to sit cross-legged near his head. "We will fix it," he said. "You will be your usual annoying self in no time and then you will tell me how you were so foolish as to get into this situation in the first place." Nightwing's chest rose and fell steadily. Robin put two fingers on his pulse again, just to make sure. "We will fix it."
They transported Nightwing back to the Batcave as carefully as possible. Whatever Batman had learned from Tetch, it hadn't made him happy. He called Dr. Thompkins on the way to the cave and she was waiting when the Batmobile pulled in. She helped Batman move Nightwing to an exam table while Robin watched, too short to effectively lend a hand. Then Alfred was there, a hand on his shoulder, turning him away, asking questions.
Damian answered tersely, one eye on Batman and Leslie as they conferred over Nightwing's still body. It took him longer than it should have to realize that Alfred was guiding him toward the stairs.
"No," Damian said. "I need to know what happens."
Alfred pressed his lips together, but conceded. Damian settled himself at the computer and began logging evidence, keeping one eye on the adults.
The box Tetch had been carrying had been full of diamonds, all clearly stolen. There had also been the components for Tetch's new "crowns". The parts were commonplace, the design not too different from Tetch's usual equipment. The diamonds were the new addition, being used as components in the upgraded model Tetch had been so pleased with. At least that explained the thefts, which had been somewhat outside the Mad Hatter's usual MO, but it didn't explain—
"That's Mad Hatter's design?" Tim asked, looking over his shoulder. Damian scowled.
"It's a little advanced for him."
"Advanced? This is a crude application of diamonds as semi-conductors." Diamond material in tech was usually synthetic, crafted specifically to the tech's purpose. Tetch had been using any old cut of diamond and jamming it into the crowns' circuits in a rudimentary sort of way. "Even you could cobble together something better than this."
"Not the execution. The concept," Tim said. Damian could tell his brain was trying to work something out because Tim wasn't getting annoyed by Damian's attitude.
"Perhaps Tetch picked up a computer science magazine at some point in the last ten years," Damian said. "Everyone knows diamond is more efficient than silicon."
"Hm," said Tim, but he didn't look convinced, and he didn't look like he was going to drop it. Damian rolled his eyes and started logging the victim information, which simply meant copying it from the police database. GCPD had picked up the Alices shortly after Batman had alerted them. Removing the crowns from each girl had caused her to snap out of the Hatter's haze and all of them seemed like they were going to be just fine. That didn't stop Damian from wondering if maybe he shouldn't have torn the crown from Nightwing's head, maybe he should have waited, what if he'd made it worse, what if—
Enough. The victims were textbook, perfectly within expected parameters for one of Hatter's schemes. Whatever his end goal with the improved crowns had been, it didn't matter. He'd been stopped and he was already back behind Arkham's imposing walls. Case closed.
"If you're going to continue hovering like that you may as well be the one doing this," Damian said to Tim.
"Yeah, thanks," Tim said absently, taking the chair when Damian vacated it. Damian rolled his eyes. He glanced (again) over to the infirmary where Dr. Thompkins and Batman had been holed up for hours, having finally wheeled Dick into one of the closed-off rooms after most of the batfamily had drifted through, in turn, wanting to know what they could do to help. They were, for the most part, dispersed at this point, aside from himself and Drake.
Damian wandered to the sparring area but didn't have the energy to run through any exercises. Instead, he pulled a rack of bladed weapons from the armory, honing and cleaning them, the familiar and repetitive motions soothing, allowing his mind to settle, the edges of his thoughts to soften.
When J'onn J'onzz walked out of the infirmary, though, he dropped the cloth he'd been using to oil a katana and jumped to his feet. Batman was right behind J'onn, and Damian hurried over. Even Drake's head had lifted from the computer monitors, watching them curiously.
J'onn and Batman spoke quietly outside the infirmary. Moving closer, Damian could see Nightwing lying on the table, his mask set aside. He looked like he was sleeping.
"Father?" Damian asked, approaching them. Tim turned from the computer, curiosity pulling him over as well.
"If that's what it takes," Batman was saying, ignoring both Damian and Tim. "Then that's what we'll do."
"What's going on?" Tim asked. "J'onn, when did you get here?"
"Batman called me when it was clear that Nightwing's condition was trauma-based. Mental trauma," J'onn said.
"J'onn," Batman said warningly. J'onn gave him a mild look.
"They will have to know, if this is to work. The entire League will need to know, or else the risk is too great. Even then I would suggest removing him to a remote—"
"No. He stays in Gotham. I'll watch over him," Batman said. Damian snuck a look at Tim, but he seemed as lost as Damian was.
J'onn inclined his head to Batman. "I believe you, friend. But the point remains that we must inform the others of the situation."
Batman sighed and turned to Tim and Damian. "Nightwing is experiencing a… mental rift. From what we can tell, it happened when he tried to resist the Hatter's control. His mind has shut down in self-defense, but the odds of healing this kind of psychic damage…"
"Are very, very low," J'onn filled in. The muscle in Batman's jaw tightened as Tim and Damian stared. "I have been inside his mind. It is… not good. The struggle between Nightwing's will and the Mad Hatter's technology has fractured him. He hovers in a void, pieces of himself drifting and unable to reconcile."
"So reconcile them for him!" Damian exclaimed, hands in fists at his sides. "You have the ability. Go in and put him back together!"
"It's not that simple," Batman said, and Damian could hear the strain in his voice the way he normally only did when his father had been awake for more than two consecutive nights.
"The trauma still exists," Tim guessed, eyes narrowed in thought. "He'd just split again, over and over, unless he has a chance to process it."
"Which he won't," Batman said. "The rift is too deep, and he was under for too long." A gauntlet creaked under strain. "Our options are to leave him as he is now and hope that he wakes up some day – and hope that when he does he's still himself – or… to patch the tear."
"Well that's it, then," Damian said, exasperated. "Patch it. Why is this even a question?"
"The patch is just that: a bandage that will waken Nightwing and allow him to function," J'onn explained gently. "But we will need to be thorough in covering up the originating trauma. Very thorough."
"We will remove all memory of Nightwing's life as a vigilante," Batman said bluntly. "Build him a new life, one where his thoughts never have any reason to go anywhere near that patch."
Tim's eyebrows came together. "For how long?" he asked.
Batman didn't answer. Neither did J'onn.
"Forever?" Damian demanded. No one contradicted him. "No," he said. "That is not a solution. Grayson will heal, and he will come back the same as he always was."
"There is less than point-zero-five percent chance that that will happen," Batman said.
"We beat the odds on a daily basis," Damian shot back. "We beat death. This is no different!"
"It's not your call," Batman growled.
"What does Dr. Thompkins think?" Tim asked quietly.
"There's nothing Leslie can do," Batman said. "She went home hours ago."
"That's not what I asked," Tim said.
"I didn't ask her," Batman said. "It's my decision."
Tim crossed his arms. "For the record, I agree with you," he said. Damian shot him a glare that would have stopped the heart of someone less used to it. "But I am not going to be the one to tell the rest of the family."
"Damn it, Drake—" Damian started.
"Look at him, Damian," Tim said. "He's not moving."
"I know that!" Damian snapped back.
"But it's Dick. He should be moving. He should have a life. We can't keep him buried down here on the off chance he might snap out of it. Think about what he would want instead of yourself for a change!"
J'onn looked like he was getting ready to sink into the wall to escape the tension. Damian's eyes darted from Tim to Batman and back. "I'm getting Alfred."
In the end, J'onn put a stop to the argument by informing them that the longer they waited, the harder it would be to successfully repair Dick's mind to any degree. Batman told him to do it in no uncertain terms.
To Damian's utter horror, Alfred agreed with Batman, as did Duke. When J'onn had shut himself in the infirmary to work, Damian called the Clocktower where Cass and Steph had decided to keep Babs company while waiting for news on Dick's condition.
It was so late it was early and Cass answered the video feed bleary-eyed and fuzzy-haired. Steph took a little longer to stumble into coherence, and Barbara joined them last, nudging them out of the way as she wheeled up to the desk where they were huddled around the feed.
They all woke up quickly when Damian explained the situation (and then Tim explained it again with more accurate details and less swearing).
"That's… they're already doing it?" Babs asked. "Of course they are. Heavy-handed, B," she muttered.
"Good," Cass opined. "Dick needs…" She gestured in a vaguely circular motion, her normal expression of trying to figure out how to verbalize a concept. "Life."
"It's not life, it's a lie," Damian growled.
"Okay, but how is this even going to work?" Stephanie asked. "Dick knows everyone. And what about Bludhaven? What'll it do to crime rates if Nightwing suddenly vanishes?"
"If this is happening, we'll have to keep a close eye on him," Babs said. "Let me guess – Bruce's next step is to inform the League?" Tim confirmed that it was. "Okay. And if I know him, he'll want to transfer Dick to Gotham so we can control his exposure to superhero types. He'll need a place to stay, maybe a source of income… we can't exactly erase his public profile, though. He'll still need to be Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne's ward," she said thoughtfully, already going through her files for the resources she'd need to pull this off.
"This is absurd," Damian grumbled. Barbara paused.
"Well, you're right," she said. Damian looked up in surprise. "It is absurd. But that's our lives. I agree that B's being kind of a dick about this, and I wish he'd talked it through with all of us. I'd rather be able to look in on Dick happy and oblivious than have him out cold in the basement for the rest of his life, but this plan is still risky. Has there been any discussion about what happens if it fails? What it looks like if something does trigger Dick's memory?"
"According to J'onn it would have to be something pretty extreme. It's not like he's papering over the memories with Kleenex," Tim said. "But apparently if it does happen he'll most likely just fall back into the coma, no worse than he is now. Except less chance of waking up again."
"Most likely?" Babs asked.
"J'onn just didn't want to speak in absolutes. This kind of thing isn't common, so it's hard to say for— hey!"
Damian shoved Tim out of the way. "What he means is that they have no idea what they are doing and are taking an unnecessary risk with Grayson's mind," he said.
"I can't believe you want him to be a vegetable for the rest of his life," Tim said, shoving his way back into view.
"Just because you don't believe in him doesn't mean all of us are willing to put him at risk. We won't be able to control every element of his life!" Damian insisted.
"It's not like seeing the Batsignal is going to break him," Tim said. "J'onn said so. It'd take more, actual conversation with one of us for example. Serious reminders, multiple exposures, that kind of thing."
"Well, we'll make sure that doesn't happen, then," Steph said fiercely. "The League will cooperate."
"Jason," Cass said. Everyone froze for a moment.
"He wouldn't deliberately hurt Dick," Steph said. "Would he?"
"No," said Cass, at the same time as Tim said, "Depends."
"They're on good terms last I checked," Babs said. "Or, not bad terms, at least. We have to tell him, but… has anyone heard from him lately?"
No one had. Jason had been out of Gotham for at least a month, or if he was in Gotham he was laying low. Babs sighed.
"I'll find him," she said. Which meant she would also have to be the one to explain all of this to him. That would be fun.