Batman Quest: City of Fear, Issue #17

It’s cold in Gotham tonight. A thin sheen of precipitation hangs over the city like a gossamer veil, obscuring the worst of her indecencies to would-be suitors. Of those, there are many. Alongside the usual theft, drug trade and black marketeering the metropolis sees so much of, its conspiracy of super villains have been exceptionally active lately. Starting several months ago with the assassination of a Gotham bigwig, the city’s descent into madness has accelerated precipitously. Shortly after, one of its few beleaguered guardians, the young hero named Nightwing, went missing for several weeks. You have since learned that he was held against his will by Deathstroke, a super-human assassin, and likely tortured. Since his rescue (thanks in no small part to the vigilantes Batwoman and Nightrunner), he has been sullen and uncommunicative, retreating to his loft apartment in downtown Gotham to lick his wounds.

You believe Nightwing’s abduction to be linked to other events occurring in Gotham around the same time, namely the killing spree in the Narrows perpetrated by Waylon Jones, the hideously mutated mass murderer you know better as Killer Croc. You have since apprehended Croc and ascertained that this particular rampage was triggered by his exposure to a new mutation of Scarecrow’s fear toxin, administered by the good doctor himself. Scarecrow was presumably performing the final test runs, working out the ‘kinks’ (or making sure they made it in). Since then he’s abducted scores of Gotham’s citizens to use as both test subjects and human incubators. Once a person has been subjected to the drug long enough, they become chemically addicted and will suffer horrific withdrawals if separated from it.

Worse still, you’ve found out that it isn’t just the city’s masked criminal components arrayed against you; traditional organized crime appears to be an issue now, in the form of Sofia Gigante Falcone, daughter of Carmine Falcone and successor to the throne. Last night you paid Sofia a visit, rudely interrupting her clandestine meeting with Director Bones, head honcho of the Department of Extranormal Operations, the group Batwoman has aligned herself with and not much better than Falcone and her lot.

Having analyzed Falcone’s hard drive (obtained last night at her home in the palisades) and the data chip on Bones’ phone, you’ve been able to piece together that the Department wanted Scarecrow’s operation shut down, but not before they could obtain the formula to his new toxin. ‘To ensure the formulation of a publicly available antidote’ was the official line, but you don’t buy it. They want to turn it into a weapon they can use, refine it. As if it weren’t deadly enough already. Though Falcone initially turned Crane down when he proposed a partnership with her, the DEO leaning on her (or on her wallet, more specifically) changed the crime mogul’s mind.

James Gordon, your friend and long-time ally has been framed for crimes he didn’t commit by someone who has so far been very good at staying just beyond the light of your scrutiny. On suspension until a verdict is reached on his trial, Gordon has been weathering the storm with his family in their shabby downtown apartment. A stand-in commissioner has been called in from Metropolis to bridge the gap; Cyril Hobbes has played the media part, all-but condemning Gordon in every press release made available to him. It doesn’t add up with his boy scout reputation in Metropolis, but you haven’t had time to pursue the matter more thoroughly.

Somewhere in all of this, Thomas Elliot, the crazed surgeon now known as Hush, exerts his influence. Announcing his presence in the city with a string of his signature murders, you’ve since run into him again; he held you against your will when you were taken down while attempting to break up another of the Scarecrow’s operations. You escaped, but barely.

Now you sit at the computer console in the Cave, watching news reports fly by on the monitor, planning your next move. The sun has dropped behind the shoulders of the hills. Stars glitter in the pale, shivering night. Time to go to work.

You make use of several encrypted proxies in order to send Amanda Waller a simple message, vague but close enough that she should get the point without any other eyes that might manage to see it doing the same:

“The Bones are rattling in the closet.”

That sent, you patch into the upstairs intercom and summon Alfred. He is prompt as ever, and soon stands at your elbow in the Cave, his presence aristocratic and comforting. After a long moment of silence in which you sit with your hands steepled in front of you, you speak up.

“Alfred, I’m concerned. Frankly, I’m not sure how to handle the situation with Dick.”

The butler’s body language betrays little but for a pang of concern that is unmistakable.

“Indeed, sir. It perturbs me as well… I’ve rarely seen him so… Well… Like you, master Bruce.”

You grunt. “Thanks.”

The elderly gentleman shakes his head. “You’ve mistaken me, sir. I do not mean to say that your character is not an admirable one–certainly it is not last on my choices of desired outcomes for master Grayson–”

“That’s a comfort.”

“–But it is unexpected. There is something inside each of us, master Bruce, something you know better than I. It is something not easily described, nor interpreted, but it is always definitely one way or quite another.”

“I don’t see what you’re getting at.”

“Well sir, what I mean to say is that with you it is definitely the one way, and with master Grayson it has ever been quite the other. The way I know the young man–and dare I say it, I know him as well or better than you, sir–he should not be capable of being entirely like you. It implies something is wrong. To me it does, at any rate.”

You’re silent for a while then, taking time to assimilate what Alfred has said. It confirms your own fears and suspicions, though. Something was done to Dick while he was at the mercy of Deathstroke’s goons. Something that has had previously undetectable consequences. There is a shifting occurring there. Finally, you break the silence again.

“I’d like to visit him. I’d like you to come with me.”

At this, there is a prolonged silence from Alfred.

“Sir, with all due respect, it would seem rather odd to me if tomorrow’s newspaper featured sightings of the Batman alongside Bruce Wayne’s Butler. Would it not? In any case, I feel this may be something better addressed by the two of you. There are levels to both of your psyches to which I simply cannot relate. I fear I may only be a hindrance.”

Alfred nods, then makes a small breach in decorum that speaks volumes of his sympathy to your situation. He leans forward, placing a gloved hand on your shoulder.

“Richard sees you as more than just Gotham’s dark knight, master Bruce. To him, you were his protector before you were theirs,” he says, gesturing to the video feeds, displaying the washed out city streets and the strangers that prowled them, “And if he has become lost… If that darkness in all of us has brought him low, well… I’ll be damned if there’s someone I trust more to save him than you, sir.”

Then he clears his throat, straightens, and the moment passes as suddenly as it was upon you.

“At any rate, I’ll have one of our more… Clandestine cars prepared for you. Perhaps one of those quaint Italian coupes we picked up last year.”

You nod in response, and Alfred disappears moments later. You make your own way up from the Cave soon after, shedding the cape and cowl in favor of a simple slate suit, classically trimmed and fashionable. The utter essence of the Bruce Wayne persona.

Driving in from the palisades, you scarcely hold back more than you would with the Batmobile. Wayne is reckless, daring and utterly convinced of his own immortality. It wouldn’t do to not play the part. Forty-five minutes later you’ve reached the downtown area where Dick’s loft is located. The downtrodden citizenry gape as you drive past, unaccustomed as they are to seeing vehicles such as yours in the possession of anyone but high-end dealers and pimps.

The building that houses Dick’s loft is shabby in a comfortable, homey kind of way. Exactly the kind of place you’d picture him living. Though Fox certainly saw to properly investing the small sum given to him when his parents passed, Dick has never really taken to the money, spending it when and where he believes it to serve a good cause, never frivolously. You’d like to believe you had a small part in the formation of that character. Your thoughts stray into yesteryear as you vault the stairs to his apartment, lingering on the time you spent together as Gotham’s first dynamic duo. Though you never looked at it that way, Dick always thinks of those days as an old adventure. He often reminisces fondly of encounters with madmen you remember being terrified of, and you’ve realized that for him, these are the memories of a father and his son. Where most would hearken back to a summer day in a field with a baseball, Dick remembers the ridiculous snort the Riddler gave when you first told him you’d outsmarted him, and the expression of horror when he realized you weren’t bluffing. Those days will always be his golden days, cast in sepia by the kindness of time. Let him remember them that way.

Finally, you come to Grayson’s apartment, draw in a deep breath to prepare yourself, and knock. When there is no answer, you knock again.

Still nothing.

“Dick, it’s Bruce. Are you in?”

You knock again, your sense of unease growing steadily. The door is secured by Wayne Tech, so your personal identification sequence should be enough to bypass it, but you’re hesitant to invade in Dick’s privacy like that.

There’s still no answer.

“Dick? I’m coming in.”

You flash an override key card in front of the door lock and it clicks open. Stale air wafts out from inside the apartment, accompanied by the stench of food beginning to rot. There are no lights on that you can tell, only the pale glow from the moon filtering in through the windows. The apartment is in disarray, clothing and furniture strewn across the floor, stains on the walls… Something is definitely wrong. Now on high alert, you begin a room-by-room search, beginning with the kitchen. The fridge stands open, its fan whirring loudly, struggling and failing to keep its contents from turning. Half of those lie on the ground, torn open and half-eaten as if by some wild beast.

Hurried footsteps draw your attention to the living room. Blankets thrown hastily on the couch, costume in a ball on the carpet. Sloppy. What if the super had been the one to check in on him and not you? TV’s still playing some terrible daytime police drama. Dick always hated those, said it completely misrepresented the work he did in Bludhaven.

The bathroom light’s on, and the doorway to the bedroom stands open.

You move quietly toward the bedroom, slipping out of your shoes as you do so. Something is obviously wrong, something you’ve missed. You scour your brain for anything that might have previously escaped your notice. There was nothing on the toxicology report filed by Alfred, but that was before you’d been able to enter the chemical profile of the new fear toxin. Without that profile, the presence of the substances used would seem largely irrelevant. It’s the volatile reaction created when they’re combined in such specific quantities that makes it so dangerous.

Bed doesn’t look slept in. Clothes have been torn out of the closet, thrown carelessly about the room. Broken lamp, shards of glass where the bulb burst.

“… Dick?”

Movement, just registering in your peripheral. On the other side of the bed, toward the window. There’s someone hunched there, facing away from you, moonlight evaporating into his dark hair. It has to be Richard. He stirred when he heard your voice. You settle down on your haunches, begin talking in a slow, measured voice.

“It’s alright, Richard. I’m here now. It’s Bruce.”

There’s no reply for a moment, but then the figure stirs and speaks. It’s Dick’s voice, but it sounds hollow and strained.

“What makes you think you have the power to decide anything? What makes you think you have the strength to enforce those decisions?”

“I don’t know what you mean, Dick. Whatever’s going on here, we can work through it together. Just like old times.”

At that, Grayson’s head snaps up and he springs to his feet. He’s completely naked, cuts and bruises covering most of his body. Some inflicted by Deathstroke, others by someone else. You try not to think who. He’s advancing on you, his posture aggressive, belligerent.

“‘Just like old times’? You mean when you used to drag a prepubescent child into hell with you, use him as a shield to cower behind when the maniacs got to be too much like you? Those ‘old times,’ Bruce?”

You stagger back, shocked as much by what’s being said as by the tone of his voice. He doesn’t sound anything like the young man you’ve gotten to know over the years. Now he’s getting close.

You refuse to be intimidated.

“Dick, calm down. Where have you been the past few days? Alfred and I have been worr–“

“Oh, NOW you’re worried? You leave me at the mercy of that madman for weeks, but I take a few days off and now you’re concerned? You fucking hypocrite!”

He swings, violent and unfocused. You step backward, raise a hand to catch the blow, and realize you’ve been played. While that clumsy, telegraphed attack was closing, the real one had already snuck under your guard. Grayson seizes the forearm intended to block his attack, then drags your arm over his shoulder, tripping you as he does. In less than a second you’re on your back, and he’s kneeling on your chest, forcing the air from your lungs. He cracks a cheekbone with his knuckles.

“You know what I was most afraid of, my whole life? More than Tony Zucco, than the Riddler, Bane, any of them? Do you know what I feared more than the Joker, Bruce?”

He’s screaming now, beating at your face and chest. Stronger than you would have thought possible. You’re blocking most of the attacks, but they’re so powerful, so damaging that you won’t be able to keep it up for long.

“I feared YOU! Letting you down! Letting the Batman lose faith and watching Gotham die for it! I feared the day I could no longer prop you up like the broken idol you’ve always been!”

Forearms are on fire from taking the brunt of the assault. Can’t get your legs up under you, brain is experiencing oxygen deprivation. Things are going badly.

Grayson is good, but only as good as you trained him to be. Sure, he’s picked up a few new tricks here and there, some in Bludhaven, others while he was standing in for you, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Getting your arm free, you slam rigid fingers into the cartilage on the side of his knee, sending the leg into spasms and giving you a chance to breathe. You throw him off you and get up onto your knees, gasping for air. He’s already back on his feet, trying to get control over the nerve cluster you targeted in his leg. His eyes are wild and he’s breathing heavily, raggedly.

“I’m nn-not… Gonna be afraid anymore. Not of you. Never of you.”

He hurls himself at you again, but this time you’re ready. Really ready. Besides that, his mental state is deteriorating. He’s no longer cognizant enough to be a worthy opponent, and a simple judo-style toe trip puts him on his back. You squeeze just long enough to put him under, then you call Alfred. He answers on the third ring. Always the third.

“Alfred? I’m with Dick. I’m bringing him to the manor, discreetly. Have the operating theater ready when I arrive. We’ve missed something.”

“Very well, sir. How is master Grayson? Was he receptive to your calling upon him?”

“Things didn’t go well, no.”

There’s an extended silence, after which Alfred reaffirms your orders, then excuses himself and disconnects. After getting him into some clothes, you bring Dick downstairs and set him into the back of the car, then make your way out to the palisades.

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