Red Hood saw Batman reach for his grapple and shifted his weight just as a car came into view. They’d been waiting longer than they had planned for but not quite long enough to call off the stakeout, and he’d been resisting the urge to light a cigarette. He didn’t normally have a problem with kicking the craving a few hours down the road when on patrol, but Batman’s hunched silhouette on the other side of the roof was slowly driving his stress level up bit by bit. He was trying his damnedest not to give too much thought to waiting outside a warehouse again. Especially not with another rogue involved.
A few months back, people started disappearing in clusters. Five or six people would disappear over the course of a day and the only thing linking them was the fact that they belonged to the same demographic. There’d be nothing for a couple weeks, and then a cluster from a new demographic would disappear. He’d originally been working the case from a human trafficking angle, but those kinds of operations didn’t tend to include a rotating category of victims.
“The car’s made the turn.” Batman spoke quietly into the comm. “Hold your positions until he gets out.”
Hood rolled his eyes at the unnecessary reminder of their plan and heard Nightwing mutter something that made Robin scoff. Batman only adjusted his stance.
Since the Red Hood’s debut in Gotham, even when they didn’t seek each other out for whatever antagonistic reason, he and the Bats would still occasionally cross paths. Frequently, it ended in confrontation and accusation more than anything else. But slowly confrontation led to mere avoidance, and then recently, it changed to something else. It wasn’t anything as formal as a truce, but it had begun to be easier to interact with them without rage and heartache nipping at his heels and itching his fists. Lethal force had stopped being his go to until eventually he switched to rubber bullets and his use of excessive force was dialing back into what he knew that Bat’s clan was more comfortable with. And they had all started being more respectful of his territory and his presence in Gotham in general. Batman saw him now and didn’t immediately brace to shield the others. He traded quips with the birds when he ran into them on the really slow nights and again on the really busy ones. Oracle contacted him now to give him information and helped him out if he asked. He told himself that it wasn’t anything for them; not a gesture or an acquiescence or anything. And that it certainly wasn’t for himself; he just found himself staying his hand and finding other solutions that he couldn’t see before. He’s given no ground. He hasn’t been brought to heel. It wasn’t a big deal. But it did mean something.
It meant something when Batman dropped into one of the crime scenes he was going over about a month ago and asked him if he wanted them to work the scenes outside his territory or if he wanted to do it himself. It was only after he’d left that Jason realised the reason the conversation felt so notable was because Batman asked. He didn’t assume or order or imply. And Jason didn’t really know what to do with that. But a couple weeks later, Batman dropped in on him again to let him know that not only had Scarecrow broken out of Arkham, but that he’d broken out and no one had noticed. They didn’t know when exactly it had happened or who had aided him or, more concerningly, why he hadn’t made a move yet but it was priority one for Batman and Robin.
It meant something when two days ago Red Hood sought out Batman and found him patrolling with Nightwing, and that Batman listened to him when he said he thought their cases were connected. That the reason people were disappearing like they were and the reason Scarecrow was laying low might be because he was conducting some kind of clinical trials. Crafting and tweaking a new kind of fear toxin.
And it meant something when Nightwing asked him how he thought they should proceed and when Batman listened to his answer. Once they knew what the people were being abducted for and roughly what Crane would need to conduct his experiment, it wasn’t hard to narrow down potential sites while Oracle processed security footage and funding and Batman spoke with Commissioner Gordon. The only opposition that came up was about roles. Despite anything that Red Hood or Nightwing had said, Batman was adamant that Jason be paired with him and that they handle the hostages. It was a near thing, but Jason just about managed to not interpret that as Bruce not trusting him. As Batman wanting the Red Hood under his eye in case he couldn’t handle a fight in a warehouse. Jason was pissed that he was the one to put it together, but that Batman was trying to stick him on the sidelines like a wayward Robin. He wanted to have a hand in taking down Scarecrow. But, much as it wrankled him to admit it, he didn’t come to them out of any sense of professionalism or even because they already had some of the pieces. He just didn’t think he could handle this properly on his own. So it kicked at his pride a little, but he relented to a compromise.
Which is how they ended up here. Nightwing and Robin inside the warehouse watching the thugs Scarecrow had left there while Red Hood and Batman waited outside for him to show up so they could come in behind. Red Robin, Black Bat, and Batgirl were with the police and preparing to raid the building holding the abductees. And Oracle was keeping each team appraised of the other so they could take each location simultaneously.
“Car’s stopped.” Nightwing said, “We’re ready.”
Oracle updated the other team as Red Hood and Batman took care of the sentries Scarecrow had posted. Gunshots sounded inside the building and Hood was sprinting after a thug who’d run between some shipping containers when he heard tires come screeching up to the warehouse as Oracle cursed, “Okay. Plans have changed, boys.”
“Tt. Too late.”
“Already engaged. We’re gonna need more than that, O.” Nightwing was ever a more affable counterpart to Robin’s surliness.
Red Hood dodged a few bullets by tackling the surprisingly nimble lummox and smashed the butt of his gun over his head. He rolled to the side and hugged the side of the container and peered around. Two SUVs had pulled up and a dozen more lackeys had come tumbling out.
“Experiment’s probably over. The hostages were dead when they breached.” Oracle recounted. “Executed.”
Jason remembered the slow, warm feeling he got when Batman and Nightwing agreed to follow his plan and felt it wither and die inside him. Then he cursed himself for both reactions. “Trap?
Batman grunted, “Making a statement.”
Hood disabled three more henchmen in the lull before Oracle responded, “Most likely. The other location was trapped. A few officers got their masks ripped off and were exposed to the new toxin. Police are handling the criminals while Black Bat and Batgirl deal with containing the exposure and Red Robin goes through their records.”
“Based on the behaviour of the exposed officers, it seems to be forcing people to relive memories of intense fear as opposed to simply creating terror-inducing hallucinations. There’s a lot less screaming and fighting, so restraints don’t seem to be as necessary. But there’s a lot more begging and negotiating, so prepare for that. Red Robin doesn’t have anything more concrete yet and they didn’t keep digital files. The only thing he did say was that Scarecrow apparently was trying to target memories of a specific type of fear.”
Hood squared off with a man who looked like he was no stranger to a broken nose but the man’s attention shifted to something behind him almost immediately. He twisted to the side in case it was a trick and looked back in time to watch Batman plant a hand on one guy’s head and use it to vault over him in order to kick someone else in the chest and send them flying. He reached out, grabbed the hair of another man, and then slammed the two foreheads together before letting them collapse in a heap. Batman ran after someone else and Jason chuckled loudly enough to be heard past the helmet, turning back to his own fight. The man he was up against looked a little more intimidated and Jason rapped the side of his helmet.
“That looked fun. Wanna give it a go?”
The guy didn’t respond, but even the warning didn’t give him time to stop Hood from getting inside his defence and headbutting him in the face. He looked up to find another target and caught Batman giving him a look. He would have been irritated but he also heard the quiet, amused noise the older man tried to suppress. He stepped back on instinct and narrowly dodged a punch from a woman hoping to surprise him. A second later, he heard the screeching of the car that came bursting out of the warehouse, closely followed by Nightwing’s motorcycle as he shouted, “We’re on him, B!”
“The criminals inside have been subdued.” Robin reported. Hood swore as the kid sped past on his motorcycle. “Nightwing and I will apprehend Scarecrow while you finish up here.”
The woman he was fighting grabbed something from her jacket pocket and threw it at him where it exploded into a small cloud of gas. Most likely she’d thrown it to try to cover her attempt to bolt than in an actual attempt to expose him, but this new gas was much more translucent than earlier variations and he was able to grab her quickly. He knocked her out and dragged her away from where the gas was dispersing. His helmet’s filtration system was very good and had been updated by Batman before the mission. It would now function to keep him with breathable air for ninety minutes of continual exposure, but he wasn’t sure how that number would hold up to a new toxin and he wasn’t eager to find out. The Joker might not be in this warehouse, but fear gas could probably bring him right quick, especially since this new one apparently traps people in their real memories. When Batman had first suggested updating his helmet for the mission, he’d wanted to get angry about what might have been a criticism, but the simple fact was he wanted any and all measures between himself and any specters the warehouse might bring. He was happy to disguise his apprehension with Bruce’s paranoia.
A large cracking noise brought him out of his musings and he shook himself, angry that he was letting his fears interfere. He looked around and saw Batman engaged with the last three lackeys. It took a second before he was able to identify the noise as the cracking of the gas mask Batman was wearing. He dodged a second blow, but a third ripped the mask completely off his cowl. A cloud of gas erupted in his face before he could move away and left him staggering. Red Hood was there in a blink and coldcocking the third bastard. “O, Batman just got dosed. What do we know?”
“Give me a second.”
Blood spattered off his gun and onto his helmet, but the prick was only knocked out. One reached for Batman and he managed to subdue them, more instinct than anything intentional but was swaying concerningly. The last man bolted back for the warehouse. Hood gave chase and snarled, “Oracle!”
“It’s fast acting. He’s already getting caught in the memory. Red Robin says his state is slightly malleable to physical affects which -”
“What the fuck does that mean?” he tackled the man and slammed his head into the concrete, and then again to be sure.
“Which means,” Oracle growled, “That while it won’t break him out of the toxin’s influence, what he experiences physically can impact the state of the memory. That’s very good if you can think of anything to do or say to bring the memory to an end and very bad if you end up triggering the memory to restart. Anything that doesn’t push it one way or another will simply be incorporated into the memory. If there was no box in the memory but he trips over one now, it’ll be absorbed into it. It won’t be something you can use to anchor him.”
“Will the antidote we have work at all?” Jason asked as he wracked his brain for something to do. He wasn’t sure if Bruce was pleading with the gunman before the shooting or if the memory had already progressed to where he’d watched his parents die yet but the man’s cowled gaze seemed trained on something behind Jason. He wasn’t sure what to do to bring the memory to an end because he wasn’t sure how the memory actually ended. While it was nerve wracking to have to try and figure this out on the fly, it was still a little reassuring to know that there would potentially be a logical flow to how this trip would go.
“No.” The whimper was too low to hear except for on the comm and Bruce staggered forward a couple steps, “God, please.”
“It has to be modified. Red Robin forwarded the specifics to the cave and Agent A is handling it as we speak. I’m bringing the batmobile to you and it should be ready by the time he gets to the cave.”
Jason put his hands up and slowly moved toward Batman. Before he could get close, however, he stopped staggering but charged forward. Caught off guard, Jason didn’t move but simply braced to stop him. Bruce had a couple inches on him, but Jason was heavier and more muscled and was able to hold the man still, though not easily. Bruce tried to break the hold, but most of his attention was locked on whatever he was seeing. Commissioner Gordon was there the night Bruce’s parents died, right? Maybe he could lean into that somehow? Bruce gave an agonized moan and stopped trying to get around Jason, instead planting a foot on his thigh to try to vault over his shoulder and bellowing, “Jason!”
Jason’s knees buckled and they both went down but it wasn’t Bruce’s weight that knocked the wind out of him. The driving force for Batman was the brutal deaths of his parents. Everyone who knew that Bruce Wayne was Batman knew this fact. The worst day of his life was the day his parents died. Everyone knew this. The most terrifying, horrific memory Bruce had was the memory of his parents being shot down in front of him. Everyone knew this. Everyone knew this and yet here he was, keening like some dying animal, never taking his eyes off the warehouse. Wildly struggling to free himself. Failing.
“Jason.” Bruce was crying, “Jayjayjay.”
Jason let go. Bruce scrambled up and off him and ran into the warehouse. Jason sat up but couldn’t get any further. His world narrowed down almost completely. He didn’t hear Barbara telling him to respond. He didn’t hear Dick or Damian trying to figure out what was going on while also trying to apprehend Scarecrow. He didn’t hear the clicks that signaled two people had left their channel. But he did hear Bruce screaming for him. He did see Bruce look around frantically. He did see Bruce try to tear into the crates inside with his hands. He did hear the rush of his own blood in his ears. He did feel his racing heartbeat echo across his body; cracking across the back of his skull, battering his ribs, shattering his tibia. But he shoved that down. It was different enough. Just different enough. A different cadence to the fear. A different voice in pain.
“Jason! Jason, you need to let me know where you are. Jaylad, please.”
Almost as fast as it was gone, everything came rushing back. He looked around and saw as the batmobile came speeding around the turn down the road from where Batman had stashed it. “Bring the car into the warehouse. I’ll get him in.”
He heard Oracle let out a breath, “Got it. And Hood?”
He was up and jogging toward Batman. He wanted to get there, but didn’t want to come up too fast and make things worse. Who knew what had happened after Bruce got to the ruined warehouse in Ethiopia. That brought him up short. Who did know? Bruce had gone alone. “Yeah?”
“Don’t ever just go silent like that again. Got it?”
“Yeah.” He approached Bruce carefully. Sometimes he’d imagined what Bruce might have been like in the face of his death. Not in the days and weeks after, but right when he found out. When he saw the warehouse. For some reason, he’d always pictured Batman finding him immediately. Maybe his body had been exposed in the debris, though he knew how unlikely that was. But Batman and the Joker knew each other well; maybe he’d simply deduced where the psychopath had put Jason. Or maybe he’d counted on Jason being able to get himself and Sheila to the door and had gone there. He’d imagined Batman finding him, maybe holding him close. Maybe saying something sad or profound. But probably saying nothing. Picking him up. Carrying him to their plane. Covering him in a shroud. Calling Alfred. Batman was stoic. Batman could handle untold amounts of pressure. Batman could bear anything. But Batman was unconnected to Bruce Wayne personally. Maybe that’s why the memory he was seeing is so different from his imaginings. When Jason died, it wasn’t the death of Robin. Tim and then Damian proved that. So it wasn’t Batman who had to sift through the rubble. Jason had never, not ever imagined this. Bruce Wayne, a desperate, terrified father in a bat’s costume on his hands and knees begging his son to breathe. To speak.
So he would. Jason took off his helmet and braced himself for Bruce to run at him again, to throw his arms around him and be grateful that he’d lived. Oracle said he couldn’t break the toxin’s effects, but maybe she was wrong. “Bruce?”
The man whipped around. But Oracle, he’d come to learn, was very rarely wrong. Bruce didn’t recognise him. He was still distraught. His eyes, red and wet, weren’t focused even as they looked at him. Bruce saw his shape, but it didn’t fit the memory, and goddamn if that didn’t land like a blow.
Bruce got up and staggered toward him. His hands reaching, grasping, bruising Jason’s arms. Jason heard the batmobile pull up behind him. “Please.” The other man’s voice sounded wet and raw and like it hurt to speak.
Jason opened his mouth but Bruce lifted one of his hands to touch the mask Jason had worn under his hood. He’d forgotten. Maybe if he took it off Bruce would recognize him. “Please. There’s a boy trapped in here.”
“I know. I -”
“My son. My son is trapped here.”
“I know. Bruce, listen -”
“Please. I can’t find him. I can’t hear him. He knows to call for me but I can’t hear him. He’s fifteen but he’s small. He has black hair and blue eyes. I’ve checked this area over here already.” Bruce gestured behind him.
Oracle cut in, “You can’t engage with this, Jason. It’s a just memory. Just get him in the car and we can get him back to the cave.”
It took a second for her word to sink in past Bruce’s, and then another for him to force himself to move. “Fuck. Right. Okay. Bruce, you need to get in the car.”
The doors opened and Bruce fought against him and continued calling out as Jason tried to get the older man into the car and out of the warehouse. He finally managed to just shove Bruce into the backseat, but got a foot shoved into the solar plexus as Bruce tried to fight him off. Before he could get out of the car, however, the batmobile’s radio crackled to life.
“Master Bruce? Are you there?”
Bruce turned back into the car and Jason slammed the door shut. He ran around to the driver’s side. “A, he’s been exposed -”
“Alfred!” Bruce gasped, “I’ve got him. I’ve got Jay.”
Jason stalled out for a second. Right. Move the memory along. “Oracle, will the modified antitoxin be ready when we get there?”
“Yes it’s ready. Hood, I can drive the batmobile remotely if you need.”
“I know how to drive the damn car, O.”
“I know, I -”
He pulled the car around and sped off, snarling “I said I’ve got it.” It wouldn’t be until much later that he would realise she was trying to tell him that he didn’t need to stay to listen. That he didn’t need to stay after this. He flicked a glance in the rearview mirror. Bruce was hunched in the back. In the memory, Bruce was probably holding Jason’s body. With nothing to hold onto in reality, the man’s arms were tightly wrapped around himself.
“Alfred, he’s hurt. I can’t - I don’t know what to do.”
“I know Bruce, that’s alright.”
“It’s not. Please, dad, please help him.”
“I will. I’m here Bruce.”
Oracle was doing her best to clear the streets for them, but Jason needed to focus on something that wasn’t the panicking, grief-blind man behind him. Something that wasn’t the young and bleeding thing in his chest. He was clocking people, tracking cars. He was listening as Oracle told him that Scarecrow was caught, that they’d found a second group of hostages who were still alive, that the others were on their way back and would be there soon. And then finally they were screeching to a stop in the cave. Jason was out of the car and opening the back door in seconds while Alfred hurried over with the sedative. Jason tried to pull Bruce out, but he struggled against him and Jason couldn’t get enough leverage in the small interior to haul the man out. He felt a hand on his shoulder and moved away to let Alfred in.
“Bruce, you need to come out.”
“The bleeding’s stopped, Alfred. I’ve stopped the bleeding, but he’s hurt.”
“Bruce let him go. You need to let go of him and come out.”
“Dad, I can’t. He was alone. I can’t, please. We’re running out of time.”
Alfred reached in with one hand and put it on Bruce’s arm, “Give him to me, Bruce. Give me Jason. It’s alright.”
It was too much. He couldn’t listen to this. He couldn’t be here for this. He remembered wanting to hurt Bruce, but he didn’t want it to sound like this. He didn’t want it to feel like this. An alert signaled the approach of several small vehicles and Jason retreated before they got into the cave. He was stripped and in one of the showers with barely a thought. Scalding hot water pelted down on him, but he didn’t adjust it. He just stood still under the spray and tried with everything he had not to replay anything he’s seen or heard tonight. Tried his best not to think of his own memories of the warehouse in Ethiopia. His knees hit the shower floor with a crack when he failed at both and he pressed both hands to his mouth in the hopes of holding even some part of himself together and he shook and sobbed under the water. If the others came in, he didn’t know. If the others even knew if he was still here, he didn’t know. He stayed until the water ran cold and he was shaking with it instead of the grief.
When he left the showers, Bruce was lying sedated on a bed in the medical wing and Alfred was organizing something in the drawers. He watched the elderly man for a moment before his gaze found his way to Bruce and allowed his body to follow until he was at his side. His face was relaxed and had been cleaned of tears but there was still something strained in the expression. Something sad. Or maybe Jason was just projecting.
Jason didn’t look away. “Was it just the toxin?”
Alfred stopped what he was doing but Jason could see from the corner of his eye that he didn’t turn. “I couldn’t say, Master Jason. It’s possible that the drug amplified some aspects, but near as I recall that was exactly how he reacted when it actually happened.”
“I always thought he would have been more in control. More...I don’t know.”
Alfred turned to give him a sharp look that gentled when he found no contempt or criticism in Jason’s expression. “I daresay that you would not have been alone in that assumption. Master Bruce has always worked hard to be in command of his emotions. But if he did not feel deeply, he would not have to work so hard.”
The silence after that lingered for a while. Alfred didn’t go back to his organising but walked over to Bruce’s other side. “How did he fly the plane back if he was like that?”
“He didn’t. I flew it remotely.”
“Why?” he saw the confused look Alfred shot him. “I mean why was he like that? Why did he…”
Alfred looked back at Bruce. “Shock. Grief. Fear. I’d wondered if maybe he’d thought you were still alive when he first reached you, and then simply couldn’t process that you weren’t. But I honestly couldn’t say. We never spoke of it. I’d thought that perhaps he didn’t remember.”
Jason shifted his weight. “Do you think he’d mind if I stayed with him?”
Alfred looked at him with open surprise, “My dear boy I cannot fathom anything he would like more.”
Jason nodded and reached for the chair behind him. Alfred reached out and smoothed his hand over Bruce’s hair and then backed away. “The others have all gone upstairs. I will let them know that you are remaining here and will ensure they give you your space.”
“Please alert me if his condition changes.”
“I will. Goodnight Alfred.”
“Good night, young sir.” The older man finished tidying his station and then went upstairs. Jason stayed by Bruce’s side until the sedation wore off and he transitioned into natural sleep. There was a moment in the middle when Bruce woke, eyes casting around to orient himself, arms coming up automatically to move himself to a seated position. Jason reached out to catch his arm but Bruce caught his hand and looked at him, eyes widening. “Jason?”
“Hey, old man. I’m here.”
Bruce continued staring at him, but Jason could see he was already fighting falling asleep. “You’re here.”
“Yeah, Dad. I’m here. I’m home.”
Bruce’s eyes filled but slumber claimed him before the tears could fall. Jason didn’t know how long he sat there just holding Bruce’s hand. But eventually he leaned forward, put his head down on the bed, and fell asleep. When he woke, Bruce was still holding his hand and his father’s eyes were soft as they watched him.