Dick was glad Bruce was back. He hated the cowl, hated the weight and the burden it carried with it. His experiences as Nightwing hadn’t been pleasant either, but they were his experiences, not Bruce’s. He didn’t carry the weight of decisions Bruce had made, decisions that Dick didn’t have any knowledge about until the repercussions came knocking at his door.
The cowl had seen laughter, anguish, heartbreak, and misery. Yet Dick didn’t have the memories to match. All in all, it was a miracle to have his own black and blue kevlar on his back, the Nightwing insignia pressed to his chest, no cape to drag him down.
Being Nightwing was a breath of fresh air. He didn’t feel like he was suffocating beneath the cowl, or that the cape was dragging his shoulders, or that the shoes were too heavy. He felt free and liberated, and happy that his father wasn’t dead as previously believed.
And being Batman, in some ways, had made Dick Bruce’s equal. Most of the time. As the two sprinted across the rooftops, not mentor and sidekick, but partner and partner, equals, Dick marveled at the feeling of cool air whipping past his ears, tickling his brow.
But it wasn’t a leisurely night either. A new crime lord had recently risen in the slums, and all reports indicated that it was a local meta. He went by Doctor Rubix, and according to the informants both Bruce and Dick had under their wings, he loved games and blackmail. Apparently being able to delve into the deepest depths of people's minds was a great way to dredge up their deepest secrets.
But Bruce and Dick had come prepared. Both Dick and Bruce had conditioned their minds to withstand the work of a telepath. Even the martian couldn’t invade without permission; and he was a strong telepath to come to odds with.
Overall, finding Rubix was easy enough. Too easy, one might say. Much like the Red Hood had once done, and Black mask after him, Rubix was uniting the criminal underworld in Gotham; and one of the bat informants had caught wind of a meeting taking place in Restaurant Row. According the informant, one of the many crime families attending, the Rossi family, owned a local Italian Restaurant, the Pugnale d'argento .
Slipping in was the easy part. It was a stealth mission that involved non lethal yet fast take down of severa; perimeter guards, followed by a quick trip to the roof, where the attic window would allow them access inside. Already, they could hear the murmur of criminals down below, families of Gotham’s most sinister underdwellers seeking to expand their empires and unwittingly playing right into Rubix’s hand.
The clink of someone bouncing a spoon off the delicate side of a drinking glass echoed through the walls. Dick slipped down the stairs, followed by Bruce. He listened for anyone on the other side of the door, finally daring to crack it open when he didn’t hear any commotion on the otherside. He and Bruce emerged into a kitchen.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” A shrill Italian accented voice rose above the crowds. “Please, please quiet down!” Dick crept forward, searching the counters and half walls for cover. Bruce was behind him. “Presenting… Mr. Rubix!”
“Aw, thank you m’dear.” Came a suave voice. Dick peered through the serving window. Mr. Rubix didn’t dress like one might expect, in a Rubix cube colored outfit with funky facial hair. He was a young man, possibly late twenties, with slicked back blond hair and a black monkey suit… or tux as the more sophisticated preferred. A cane sat nestled in his hand. Around the tables were Gotham’s most eligible crime lords and duchesses but Mr. Rubix stood at the front of the room. “Before we begin our meeting-” Rubix leaned forward against his cane, waving his hand ever so slightly. Bruce watched Dick reel, clutching his head and staggering back into a shelf of pots. “I need to deal with some undesirables.”
A soft murmur filled the crowd, before a mighty ruckus tore from the kitchen, metal vibrating and bouncing with a vengeance. Several cooks, lined up against the back walls, grabbed guns from potted plants and other discrete locations around the room; but by the time they arrived in the kitchen, it had been vacated.
“Now where were we?”
“Both Dick and I have been well conditioned.” Bruce murmured, looking over his unconscious ward in the cave. The Martian Manhunter frowned, studying the young man who’d worn the cowl for the league. “But Rubix waved his hand and took Nightwing down. He’s been unresponsive since.”
“How long ago?”
Bruce brushed his cowl off, still looking imposing, but more tired than anything else. “Four hours. What really concerns me is this-” He pointed silently to the readout monitors. The brainwave monitor was flat and lifeless.
Manhunter frowned. “Didn’t you develop technology to keep telepaths out?”
“Yes. Our training and the electronics in my cowl and his mask usually produce enough feedback and resistance to keep people out of our heads. You know that first hand, but… This guy, he-”
“-didn’t glean. He took.”
Bruce blinked, looking at Jonn apprehensively. His cowl was back, meaning the only defense he had was mental; but that didn’t stop the alien from detecting the fear and concern behind the steely blue eyes of the bat.
“Richard’s mind is not off, or destroyed. It’s misplaced… or perhaps displaced. This…” He gestured vaguely at Richard. “Is a body without a mind, a shell. I would suspect that he had less protection than you, which is why this… Rubix found it so easy to uproot his mind and put it somewhere else… But figuring out where that would be is nearly an impossible task.”
“If I got Rubix to talk, do you think you could fix this?”
The martian pursed his lips, folding his arms carefully across his chest. “It is possible. But I make no promises. The mind can be a tricky thing. And… If Richard’s mind is not sharing another body, then it has been placed in a void between the mental plane and the physical realm. I cannot guarantee that I can save him before his mind disperses.”
“Without the tether of a real body, it will slowly fade into non existence. Stopping Mr. Rubix is of the utmost importance. For both your city, and Richard."
Dick was stuck. He was laying on something hard and uncomfortable, eyes shut. On top of that, he had this splitting headache, like someone had driven one of Roy's arrows right through his skull. He mentally recoiled. Why was his first thought of Roy? His mind was muddled, and cramped, like there wasn't enough room to think; and why couldn't he move his body?
He heard a groan, but it wasn't his voice. He was still trapped, but he felt his lips move. Not with his permission. "My head." A raspy voice tore from his throat as his eyes opened. He was staring up at a metal ceiling with thick bolts, and a hand came up to rub his nose. It was his own hand, but once again, moving without his permission. It was clad to the wrist in orange sleeve -a jumpsuit- he realized.
He sat up, and Dick's nonexistent totally imagined pulse drummed in his ears. His body had just swung his legs over the side of his bed, a cot, but that wasn't what bothered Dick the most. What bothered Dick the most was that he was staring through a reinforced glass partition that stared across a hallway and through yet another glass partition. And in the cell on the other side of the other partition sat poison ivy.
He refocused his eyes, or rather his own view to study the reflection in that glass. He was staring into the murky green eyes of his red headed, murderous little brother.
There were many things on his mind, but the first to be voiced was... well crap.
Dick realized much to his own horror, that as often as he tried to reach out to Jason with his mind, it failed. Of course Jason had the same training the rest of the bats did. Of course it would be impossible to breach the nineteen year old's mind, even if they were sharing the same headspace. Dick realized he was a guest in Jason's head, unable to do anything but spectate.
And Jason had yet to move off the bed. Dick noted that his back was sore, but for some reason it also didn't bother him. He'd been on that bed for a long time. No he hadn't. He mentally shook the thought away. Was Jason's mind unconsciously bleeding into his? That would prove to be a problem. He didn't need Jason mucking up his mind.
"You look terrible, John." A voice called. Jason snapped his head up, instantly reeling as the headache spiked. Rough fingertips came to massage the bridge of his nose.
"Thanks, Ivy." Jason shot back, pained hitch in his voice. "You're looking fairly green yourself."
"Well flatter me some more why don't you?" She dramatically draped a hand over her heart, feigning bliss. "No I'm serious. Go on."
Jason didn't oblige, standing up and stretching. He went through stretches typical of morning training, before dropping down to do pushups. Dick was used to pushing himself. It came with the territory of being a bat, but Jason didn't stop, even when he'd reached 100, arms straining and aching beyond belief. But he didn't give up, despite Dick grumbling in frustration. Average pushups for someone Jason age was typically 35, but the bats could do more. Still, Jason had been in Arkham for quite some time, without fighting and using the muscles he did on the streets. He couldn't, not without giving his identity away to people who would undoubtedly hurt him. Dick had no doubt Jason had suffered some form of atrophy. He knew Jason's max was 125. And clearly, Jason was pushing to beat again.
Are you done yet? Okay, maybe not. Gonna go for another one. And another... I'm dying, goshdarnit! Would. You. stop!
And suddenly Jason gripped his nose, leaning back on his knees and halting mid pushup. "Argh..." He growled, trying to massage the agony away. "What the heck is this?" He demanded, suddenly feeling less inclined to finish his pushups. Dick realized for the first time just how small this cell was. He found himself wondering if Jason had been out. Probably not. He didn't know entirely how Arkham worked, but he knew with all the dangerous criminals it held, security must be pretty tight.
"Do you think they'll catch him soon?" Ivy was close to the glass now, glancing down the hallway to Jason's right. Dick was mildly curious. He could think of three rogues currently at large in Gotham, Freeze, Two-Face, and Clayface. He and Bruce were actively tracking them down; but Ivy could be referring to any one of them. Had Jason been making friends?
"Dunno." Jason replied, voice suspiciously flat. "Hope so."
"You hope?" Pamela's green eyes had widened, shock and surprise flitting across her face. Her voice sounded shocked and a bit mortified.
"He's hurting people." Jason replied bluntly, with a tired tone that made Ivy realize she was on thin ice.
"I forgot, as much as you're like us. You're like them too."
"Ha! That's rich." Jason scoffed. "I'm not one of them. Not anymore. If there was even a hope of me being welcome back in the 'bat'family... or even cared about, one of them would have visited by now. But let's face it. I'm out of their way. I'm too much trouble for them to bother... and the fact that they haven't tried, tells me loud and clear that they couldn't really care less about me."
Oh Jason. Dick sighed, frustration and heartbreak tearing his heart apart and laying it out for all to see. But truth be told, Dick had helped fortify this thinking, by not being there when he should have.
"You're awfully open about it." Ivy hummed, listening regardless.
"I've just repeated what he says."
Again with this he and him. Who are they talking about? And who's saying these things to Jason?
"Well you shouldn't." Ivy replied coldly.
"But It's true." Jason sat back down on the bed, hard matress barely bouncing under his weight. He tipped cool tap water from his plastic crunched up water bottle down his throat, swallowed, and sighed. "They don't care. Never have... And now I'm wondering why you care."
"Because I'm crazy, not cruel." She replied casually, as if she'd been anticipating the question for a while now. "And you know I've always had a soft spot for you robins." Dick felt a smile tug at Jason's face.
"Do you mind?" A voice growled from Jason's right. It was scarecrow -of that Dick was certain-. "Some people are trying to think up fear toxin formulas and the yapping is breaking my concentration!"
"Ya ya ya ya!" Jason smirked deviously. He put on his best British Accent, which was unsurprisingly on par. "I came in like a wrecking ball!" He sang at the top of his lungs off pitch, with the accent. "I never hit so hard with fists! All I wanted was to break your walls-"
"And destroy your formulas!" He finished, not even bothering to make it match the song, but rather just letting the tune die mid sentence.
"I lost it! You brat! I lost it!" Scare crow shrieked. " Oh- when I get outta here!"
Jason held a hand up, flapping his fingers to mime a mouth, whispering "Blablabla." While Ivy silently giggled from her own cell.
Dick could only watch in semi horror and amusement as Jason drove Crane into a fit of wailing hysterics. What surprised him, was that the guards at the end of the hallways -how he knew they were there was something he refused to dwell on- had done absolutely nothing. He knew Jason was reckless, but not only had he let his alter ego as a vigilante slip, but he was ticking people off right and left.
He was aiming for a fight should another break out occur in Arkham, not an if, but a when. Ivy was eventually led out of her cell, but it hardly mattered, Jason was done talking. Food was brought by on a cart, and packets were slipped through a slat in the bottom of the door that opened form the outside. Jason walked over, scooping it up and unwrapping it. The meal was on a tray, consisting of lumpy hard mashed potatoes that had clearly cooled, unsalted green beans, and a piece of microwave heated soggy fried chicken. Dick recoiled at the food, but Jason forced it in his own mouth, meaning Dick had to taste it too.
That's nasty. Blech. Please for the love of all things good and merciful, find me soon, Bruce.
But Dick knew that was a slim chance at this point. Jason deserved to be in here. He'd killed and tortured, and quite frankly, was out of his mind. At least as far as Dick was concerned. It was an hour later, and Ivy was brought back by the two guards. She was pale, but otherwise unharmed. "Don' I get my turn." Jason scoffed as they strode by his cell. "It's been a few weeks." Jason tacked on, acting suave. Dick frowned. Prisoners were supposed to have sessions at least every other day. The guard sneered, a wad of spit hitting the glass of his cell. He silently raised an eyebrow.
What the heck. Dick growled furiously. He'd stuck Jason in there to get help. But this? This wasn't help. What the heck is going on here?
Jason chuckled softly, stepping back and plopping down on the bed. His arms came to rest behind his head, creating a cushion that he didn't otherwise have. Slowly, Dick felt the other presence in Jason's head let its walls down, ever so slightly, as sleep dragged him under.
He woke up to the morbid heat of an Ethiopian desert, tied up, surrounded by a warehouse filled with boxes. "Hello little birdy." A shrill voice cooed, sending shivers down Dick's spine. He frowned. He could feel terror, pure unrelenting terror. "Remember me?"
Dick had felt a lot of pain, but being forced to endure a piece of unyielding metal being driven into your jaw was unbearable. He felt the crack, heard himself -in Jason's voice- cry out as the crowbar slammed into his chest. He coughed, ribs creaking.
"Argh!" Dick growled out, trying to inhale past the pain. He saw Jason, old and grown up, leaning against the wall, next to Sheila Haywood, eyes closed. She was smoking a cigarette, watching on with disinterest. "Jason! Help!" He cried in young Jason's voice, trying to warn the man.
"I've tried Robin." Dick felt his heart sink in horror. "Every night since I've stepped out of the lazarus pit..." He sank down against the wall so they were more eye level as the Joker's crowbar hit Dick's back, knocking the breath out of him. He couldn't even whimper in pain. "Believe me, I've tried."
He thinks I'm him, that this is a normal -Agh. Dream.
"Hahaha! Welcome home, Jason!"
Dick felt his stomach bottom out in worry. How Did Joker know his name?
"I'm not talking to you-" Joker grinned, as if Dick had spoken aloud. "I'm talking to him." He pointed elatedly at the older bird -as far as the dream was concerned- slumped against the wall with a tired and burdened face.
"Not interested in replaying this over again-" Jason sighed tiredly. "-like I have every night of my life since it happened, Joker."
Dick grit his teeth. Jason had been living this hell out over and over again? For years? He'd been watching himself die every night, stuck in his own dreams? It didn't feel like either of them could wake up. Dick felt sick. "Jason, it's me-" Dick ground out, and for once the normal sequence of events gave way as Jason stared at him, confusion lurking on his face. Without warning, he shot the joker, his face and chest exploding as the bloody corpse hit the tile. Dick couldn't say it wasn't satisfying.
"Don't have long before he comes back. This dream feels different. Why?"
"Because it's me." Dick repeated. "Dick. I'm stuck in your head- have been all day!" Man it hurt to talk. It felt like he'd really been done in by a piece of metal. Jason was just staring at him.
That's when chilling laughter filled the cell. Cell? No warehouse. Jason didn't even flinch. He just stared at Dick for a long moment, glancing over as a new resurrected Joker strode in, crowbar in hand. "Aww, you didn't really thing that would work did you?"
Dick flinched. He'd only been a part of the dream long enough for Joker to get in a few good shots; but his body felt like he'd been hit longer than that. Dick knew Jason sure had. He wanted it over. He was consumed by a helpless despair as he realized he was trapped here, that Batman wasn't coming to save him. Jason glanced at Joker, then at Dick. Suddenly Dick saw the barrel of the gun level with his face. "Jason, what are you-"
"Believe me-" Jason replied coldly. "-this dream goes on for much much longer."
The laughter didn't stop once the dream ended in a flash of white, it still rattled on down the hall, and Dick's heart tightened. Because rather than acknowledge Dick's presence, as Jason was undoubtedly trying to do, he fell off the bed, gripping his ears as the stone floor slammed into his shoulder and hip.
This wasn't a dream. They must have brought Joker back while they slept.
The mental wall between the brothers was down, and Dick could feel his little brother's panic muddling with his own. It hurt. He couldn't breath. His raspy gasps filled the cell, halted and hitching in absolute and utter horror.
Despite the emotions that were leeching through, reinforced metal walls had slammed into place, locking down Jason's thoughts. There was more wriggle room, but not much. The Joker's laughter doubled, only making the panic attack worse. Jason's panic had a grip on Dick's mind, trying to strangle away any coherent thoughts. He gasped and writhed, Ivy looking on grimly.
Finally the laughter subsided, but Jason didn't move. He was still stuck, hands clawing into his red hair, eyes shut tight.
"What's wrong, little birdie?" A cold voice drifted from Joker's cell. Dick's spine chilled. He'd heard too much of that voice. Jason whimpered, curling further in on himself. His mind was still cold, blank, unmoving. He'd dissociated, but Dick sure hadn't. He still had utterly no control, and that panicked him even more. "Did I disturb your pleasant dreams?"
Jason get a grip. He shouted, part of him wanting Jason not to hear whatever nonsense was about to spew out of the Joker's mouth, the other wanting him to bit back some snide remark. Jason's mind walls didn't so much as budge.
"I mean, you must have been dreaming of little ole me. That's what your file says."
Holy Heck. Dick cursed. Joker has his file!? Guilt curled in Dick's gut. The file I gave Arkham. Oh Jay, I'm so sorry.
"Hmm.... Right here!" The sound of rustling paper. "Subject suffers severe night terrors! About what, boy blunder?"
No. No, Jay, I never knew-
"Shut up, Joker!" Ivy hissed. "Call it a night would you?"
"I don't think so! It's been too long since I've been able to torment my precious little boy-blunder! Uncle J only wants to catch up! You've missed me! Right, Jaybird?"
This is my fault. I threw him in here, to this.
Jaybird. That was the nickname Dick had used for his son on many occasions, and Jason had recoiled before eventually choosing to begrudgingly put up with it. That was before things between them had utterly gone to heck and Jason had gotten himself thrown in Arkham. He felt sick. He'd been unwittingly calling Jason the Joker's pet nickname.
"Come on Jaybird- The show must go on." Joker whispered conspiratorially. "Work with me here." Jason's walls had slowly started coming down, and Dick was overwhelmed with a hopelessness he'd never felt, even on his darkest days.
Jason, you gotta block him out. Listen to me, Jay. He isn't going to win this. Dick whispered brokenly, as even more sadness, anger, and despair washed over him. Please, Jay! I'm sorry! Shut him out. Don't listen! Tears dripped down Jason's cheeks as the world seemed to shrink. The wall between Jason and Dick fully came down, and Dick witnessed flashes of a life that weren't his own. And he wanted to scream at the feeling of worthlessness washing over him. This is Jason. His mind screamed at him. This is your brother! And you left him.
The memories of starving -of sitting alone on Christmas half buried in the snow, trudging down the streets, beaten with a tire iron in his grip, waking up half drowned in a lazarus pit, being cleansed by the Al Caste, being thrown through a wall by Bruce, and on and on- were quickly pulled back as Jason forced up new walls to keep them contained, but still allow himself to interact with the foreign presence in his brain.
Dick lay stunned. He'd gotten glimpses, felt the absolute agony and despair of being abandoned and alone. And it was horrific. He felt sick, knowing he couldn't throw up since his stomach was heck knew where.
He muttered mentally, brokenly.
Jason's already been in one hell, and I put him in another.
Dick felt Jason's consciousness pushing against his own, but Dick knew they were both stuck. So he shrunk as much as he could, allowing Jason the most control of his own headspace. It made thinking difficult, like trying to Talk when someone's got your chest pressed to a wall; but he managed. The wrestling had somehowmanaged to drown out Joker's inane chatter.
Suddenly Jason relaxed, pulling the pillow from his bed over his face and taking a rattling breath as he slammed his foot into the floor to drown out the clown five cells down.
Five cells. And Dick never knew. He never bothered to check. Jason was trapped night and day with his killer; and Dick could have helped him... Months ago.
Dick, what the freaking heck are you doing here?
It's... A long story, involving a telepath. Dick replied reluctantly. He could feel Jay glaring at him, though the anger was barely there, floating behind a multitude of negative emotions that Dick couldn't even begin unrambling. Jay...
Don't. Jason growled bitterly. I don't want your pity. You said it yourself, I deserve this. I'm a monster.
I never said that you were a monster, and you don't deserve this. I can tell right from the get go that these people are totally under the inmate's thumbs... minus you. When was the last time you've been out of this cell, or in clean clothes? How many meals a day are you fed? Who gave the joker your file?
Three weeks, a month, one meal a day, and... YOU.
Dick recoiled. I gave Arkham your file! Not the Joker!
Jason's laughter bounced around in Dick's head, cold and dark. But Dick felt utter heartbreak and terror, dread mingled in there too. Jason was hurting. Bad.
Oh, Dick..." He laughed icily. "As far as anyone in here's concerned... the Joker owns Arkham.
Once again, I'd like to re-iterate that this is not connected to any other stories of mine. This is alone, in its own world; and Arkham Asylum is corrupt, perhaps more so than in the main continuity.
AN: Much of the dream dialogue was taken from RHATO vol2 issue 10