Disclaimer: Not mine, no infringement intended
Warnings: T for mentions of killing and assorted criminal activities
Crane twisted the stem of the blue flower between his thumb and index finger. It was a meaningless gesture. He had been experimenting with a shipment of these flowers for some time. Almost every compound that the flower had to offer had been isolated and purified. He was up to the stage of testing these compounds and integrating likely candidates into his own synthetic formula. The final product should be ready any day now.
"So how is your research progressing?"
Crane sighed to himself and placed the flower on his desk. "I'm surprised that you're checking up on me like this, Ducard. I would have thought that my correspondence was sufficient."
"Ra's al Ghul likes to be very sure of his investments."
Crane gave his associate a long look. "Does he now?"
"There is significant lag time between communications."
"I suppose that's what happens when you choose to have your base of operations located in a remote mountainous region."
Ducard frowned. "I suppose the merits of a reasonably pristine environment would not be immediately obvious to an individual who is content to live among the vermin in this pestilent city."
The head of Arkham raised an eyebrow. "As much as I enjoyed the week long trek to your hideout for negotiations, Gotham is not a place that I expect you to understand."
"I, like you, merely follow the orders of Ra's al Ghul. I do not need to understand."
"I am not one of his toy-soldiers, Ducard," Crane asserted.
"No, you're not." Though his tone was mild, Ducard phrased his reply as if suggesting that this was a deficiency.
Crane scowled, but he brought the conversation back to its original aim. "My research is progressing well. I plan to have a refined compound in the next few days. At that point it will be a simple matter to introduce it to Gotham's water supply."
"After that, the League will make the threat and the ransom should proceed smoothly from there."
Or we could unleash the toxin on the city anyway.
Crane ignored the insidious thought that slid through the back of his mind. This was about funding for his research, not about… the fascinating opportunity to study fear in such a large cohort.
"Yes, the ransom," Crane spoke just a little too loudly, "I trust my involvement in this affair will be untraceable."
"That's really up to your discretion, Dr Crane. The League of Shadows certainly won't be the ones to give you away."
Crane nodded. Almost unconsciously, his gaze slid down to the flower that was lying on his desk.
Ducard followed the line of his associate's gaze. "Ra's al Ghul knew that you were the right choice for this project. We have been using this flower for centuries, but as yet, no one has managed to prise apart its secrets."
"Considering your resources, I find that difficult to believe. I don't imagine any of you have ever really tried," Crane murmured. "I am interested in refining fear. Your League is content to use it in its natural state without any sense of study."
"Fear is something to be conquered or to be used to tear the unwary apart. That is all."
For the first time in the conversation, Crane found his carefully constructed demeanour cracking. A flash of irritation crossed his expression before he could stop it. "I disagree. Fear is not something to be tamed. I will concede that it can be used, but like fire, it must be treated with a certain degree of respect. Fear can overcome even the most rigorous training, Mr Ducard."
"You do not wish to tame fear?"
"If you think that that is my objective, then you have no understanding of me."
"I am not a psychiatrist, Dr Crane. I have no interest in pulling apart your psyche."
"But you know that I was studying fear and synthesising toxins before your proposal. It's how you found me."
Ducard sat back in his chair and gave the psychiatrist an appraising look. "I am beginning to see that your opinions on fear seem a little less than professional, Doctor."
"I would say a little more than professional."
Despite his assertions of disinterest, Ducard leaned forward and tried to search Crane's face for a hint of meaning. "Fear draws you in, doesn't it? To use your analogy, like a moth to the flame."
Crane's expression remained impassive. "That is one description."
"But not one that you would choose?"
"Perhaps fear will consume me one day. There are worse things that could happen. I would not relish the prospect of living with no fear at all."
Crane stared into the middle distance as he spoke. He did not mention how his experiments with his unrefined fear toxin had begun to impact his baseline fear responses. He was afraid that one day he would simply lose the ability to fear as his toxin eroded away the parts of him that responded to the complex mix of hormones and neural signals. Still, as long as he feared that day, there was hope.
Ducard nodded, seemingly satisfied with the types of answers that he was getting. His next statement drew Crane out of his musings.
"I believe you will make a useful game-piece in this endeavour."
Crane tilted his head to one side and gave Ducard a searching look. "I am surprised that you admit to that particular viewpoint."
Ducard shrugged. "I wouldn't insult your intelligence by suggesting that I see you as anything other than a game-piece to be used."
"Very well, I suppose that it's only fair that I admit to feeling the same way about you and the League."
Ducard leaned forward. "Indeed. We all use each other and find the notion, that we ourselves are being used in turn, as laughable."
Crane gave a cold little smile. "Of course. However, I can't help but feel that you see everyone as a game-piece."
"Very perceptive, doctor. In many ways, even I am a pawn. People die easily and even societies end. It is ideas that live on. In the correct circumstances, a name can be immortal."
"I see what you mean… Ra's al Ghul."
Ducard gave no outward indication of surprise, but he raised an eyebrow.
Crane made a dismissive gesture with one hand. "Oh please, I worked at one of Gotham's universities for a time and I became familiar with the senior board. Now I can spot a figure-head at fifty paces. The figure head at your base kept glancing at you during the primary negotiations. What you had to say about names confirmed my suspicions."
"You are sharp, Dr Crane. Be careful that you do not cut yourself."
Crane smirked. "Veiled threats? I thought that this was the point where you were supposed to offer me membership to your little club."
Ra's al Ghul frowned at the facetious description of the League of Shadows. "You must know that no matter how sharp you are, you are not suitable to join my League."
Crane remained silent, but he folded his arms. He knew it was a defensive gesture and he knew what he was being defensive about. He just hoped that Ra's al Ghul wasn't overly familiar with body-language.
"A body can be trained, Dr Crane. Your physicality had no bearing on my assessment."
Damn, he picked it.
"You see," Ra's al Ghul continued, "I train a very specific sort of individual. I find broken people and I put them back together. This allows me to shape their personalities and their methods. It ensures loyalty without question. You've already been put back together. Perhaps you even did it yourself."
Crane's eyes narrowed. "For someone who claims to have so little interest in psychiatry, you certainly seem sure of your perceptions."
"Over time one learns to recognise patterns. I tend to look for useful ones."
"The other reason that you would be an unsuitable choice for joining my League is your attitude."
Crane unfolded his arms and chuckled. "Oh, do tell."
Despite his associate's mirth, Ra's al Ghul's expression remained grave. "When I kill in cold blood, I regret it. Each death weighs heavily upon me and I have never stopped hating the destruction of life, no matter how deserving the individual. What I do, I do out of necessity."
Crane kept his scepticism to himself. Ra's al Ghul was histrionic enough that he might actually mean it. The man called himself 'The Head of the Demon', for goodness sake.
"As I said, I recognise patterns," Ra's al Ghul continued, "I can see that you would be indifferent to killing. Perhaps you would even grow to enjoy it."
Crane sat back and rested his chin on one loosely clenched fist. "That is an interesting observation. I hadn't given much thought to that particular matter."
"Tell me I'm wrong."
"I'll tell you if I ever develop a satisfactory answer."