A/N Just another quick heads-up: there's some more disturbing imagery up ahead. Not a whole lot though ;o)
Robin did as he was told. He swallowed hard and bit his lip. The mission had been a disaster. He'd lost everyone. His whole team was gone. Dead. He'd failed all of them. Nothing Batman said or did could possibly make him feel any worse about himself at this point.
"Do you know what failure looks like, Robin?"
"Allow me to show you."
Batman picked up something from the table that had been hidden behind his cape and tossed it at him. Robin automatically caught it; it was roughly the size of a football, but it felt- weird. There was a lot of soft tissue and- hair?
When he looked down at the object in his hands, his stomach rolled, and he fought the urge to fling the thing as far away from him as possible.
It was Wally's head.
Dead, green eyes stared at him, mouth agape, skin a bluish purple, swollen and already beginning to rot-
Dick jerked awake, biting back a scream and tearing his eyes open- only to find himself staring up into the same pair of green eyes he was trying to escape from. Wally's face was hovering close enough that Dick could see the freckles and a few fading bruises on his – very healthy-looking – skin. For a moment, Wally's lively features blended horribly with the image of the gruesome, dead face that was still floating in his mind—
"…Dude, you okay?"
— and then Dick was sitting up, ignoring his screaming ribs, and pulling Wally into a tight hug.
Wally squawked a little in surprise, but didn't resist and after a moment, Dick felt the older boy's arms go around him carefully to return the embrace.
"I'm really glad you're alive," Dick whispered.
"Uh…I'm really glad you're alive, too… You uh…you didn't have another hallucination, did you?" Wally asked anxiously.
"More like a bad memory."
"I've been remembering bits and pieces of hallucinations," Dick elaborated, his chin digging into Wally's shoulder a little as he spoke. With a start, he realized he was still pretty much clinging to Wally and let go of his friend quickly, his cheeks aflame. He hated that Scarecrow's toxin was making him feel so vulnerable.
Wally didn't seem to notice his embarrassment. "Oh. That's- wow," he said, straightening up and grabbing his usual chair. "As if having to go through them once wasn't bad enough, you have to remember them now? That sucks, dude."
Dick nodded. "Just flashes though. Doesn't make them anywhere near as scary."
"Well, this last one seemed like it was pretty scary. You uh…do you want to talk about it?"
"Okay." Wally regarded him for a moment. "Wait- you've 'been' remembering hallucinations? Since when?"
"Uh…since you left, I guess."
"See, I knew it! I knew I should've stayed! Dude, did you get any sleep at all? 'Cause, you know, you kinda look like crap."
"No, I did, it just wasn't always…asterous. Tornado told me both Scarecrow's toxin and the antidote are almost out of my system now though, so the effects should only last for another day or so."
"Wally, it's fine. Don't worry." Dick swallowed. "So…is- is Batman back yet?"
"Uh…no, not yet."
"Oh," Dick said, trying very hard not to take Bruce's continued absence personally. Batman was out chasing bad guys – that's what he did. He wasn't staying away because he was mad at him. Or because he was disappointed. He wasn't.
"I can ask uncle Barry to give Batman a call and tell him you want to see him? 'Cause I'm sure he'd—"
"No, no, that's okay," Dick interrupted. "Batman's got more important things to take care of. They both do."
Wally frowned. "Dude, what could possibly be more important to Batman than making sure you're okay?"
"Catching bad guys, saving civilians."
"Well, yeah, that's important, but it's not more important than checking up on you."
"Batman thinks it is."
"Yes. No. I dunno. Look, Wally, I don't really want to talk about this, okay? I'm kinda tired."
Dick lay back against his pillows and closed his eyes. Wally being Wally, of course, did not take the hint.
"Dude, come on. What's bugging you? I mean, aside from revisiting infinitely terrifying hallucinations in your sleep. Something about Batman."
"Come on, I'm your pal! Your bud! Your best friend! Talk to me, it'll make you feel better."
Dick sighed and opened his eyes. "I'm just- scared, I guess."
"Of Batman- Bruce kicking me to the curb one day."
Wally blinked. "Why the heck would he do something so stupid?"
"Because I'm not contributing. Because I'm a liability. Because I'm only going to end up disappointing him. Because I get people killed. Take your pick."
Wally spluttered. "What do you mean, you get people killed? That's ridiculous!"
"Never mind. The point is that I'm never gonna be able to fill his shoes, and the truth is that I- I don't want to. I'm never going to be able to be what he wants me to be. I don't- I don't want to be like Batman…"
"Dude, I think Batman's known you didn't want to be exactly like him since you first started out as his partner, since before you even realized it yourself. I mean, you chose to be Robin, not Batboy or Batman Junior or Kid Bat or something like that. That's a pretty obvious clue right there," Wally pointed out, grinning when Dick smiled a little.
But Dick's smile faded quickly. "I hear what you're saying, but- Wally, what kid doesn't want to grow up to be their dad or, you know, their mentor? I mean, don't you want to be like Barry when you grow up?"
"Well…yeah. But that's different!"
"How is that different?"
"Well, I dunno, it just is!"
Dick heaved a forlorn sigh. "I'm, like, the worst sidekick in the history of sidekicks."
And I guess that's why Batman's staying away...
Wally West zipped into Mount Justice's main communication center and pulled up the holographic display.
Unlike Batman or Bruce, Dick wasn't the brooding type. Quite the opposite, he was the most upbeat and optimistic guy Wally had ever met. Well, except for his uncle Barry, maybe. But on the rare occasion Dick did get himself into a funk, it was hard to get him out of it. Wally liked to think he'd gotten pretty good at it over the years, but this was one time he was clearly out of his depth. There was only one person Dick was likely to listen to at this point, and that person happened to be roaming the streets of Gotham City in search of Scarecrow, instead of being here at Mount Justice to look after his protégé – which was where Wally thought he ought to be.
So Wally had enlisted M'gann and Conner to watch his back, while he hacked – that's right, hacked – into the League's communications system. It only took him, like, seven tries (Rob had shown him how to do it a couple of times, but a couple of times clearly hadn't been enough), but he had finally managed to get in. It was a good thing the communications systems were the least difficult to get into, according to Rob, because he didn't think he could handle anything more complicated than this.
He slowly pressed a series of buttons, making absolutely sure he was entering the right combination – the last thing he wanted was to trigger some alarm and have the whole League come bearing down on him in full battle mode.
When he was positive he hadn't tripped any alarms – silent ones or otherwise – Wally took a deep breath. His finger hovering over another button, he paused to consider the magnitude of what he was about to do: he was going to contact Batman, THE Batman, to tell him off for not being there when his partner needed him. He swallowed, feeling an imaginary noose tighten about his neck as he pushed the button. Please don't kill me, please don't kill me, please don't kill me…
"Hello? Uh…Batman?" he said uncertainly.
"…Who is this?" Oh yeah, that was a growl. Definitely a growl.
"It's Wally," Wally all but squeaked. "Uh…Kid Flash, I mean. Sir."
"I know, I'm sorry to disturb you, Sir, but uh…it's about Robin."
"Is he all right?"
"No. I mean, uh…yeah, he's okay physically, I guess, but uh…those hallucinations are still really bothering him."
"He can handle it."
"Well, yeah, he's Rob, but some of those hallucinations were about you and…" he trailed off, suddenly wondering how much of what his friend had confided in him he should reveal to Batman. Man, he really shoulda thought this through!
Wally hesitated. "Well, uh…he thinks you're gonna hate his guts and kick him out because he's not…uh…living up to your standards. Which is ridiculous, of course, but he's being kind of stubborn about it and I think that it would be good if maybe you could…uh…talk to him?"
Oh yeah, Wall-man, you're really telling him off now, he thought, resisting the urge to slap himself for sounding like a scared little ten year-old. There was a moment of silence, during which Wally fretted and chewed on his thumb nail.
"Understood. Batman out."
A click and then Batman was gone. Wally blinked. "Wait- 'Understood'? That's it? What does that mean? Is he coming back or not?" He threw his hands up in frustration. "Seriously, how does Rob live with that guy?" he muttered, carefully exiting the communications system and shutting down the holographic display.
He sighed. Well, at least he'd tried.
There was a slight sound at the door and Dick shifted his eyes away from the ceiling with a sigh. He wasn't really in the mood for company right now. He had no idea what time it was, the artificial lighting in the cave's infirmary not giving away any clues. But he didn't particularly care. All he knew was that it had been more than twenty-four hours since he and Wally had been captured and that he still hadn't seen cowl nor cape of Batman.
Throughout the day, his teammates had made a point of dropping by to "see how he was doing". It wasn't that he didn't appreciate it. He did; they were obviously trying to cheer him up and get his mind off things. It was just that he was too tired to plaster on a smile anymore and pretend to be laughing at their jokes. He knew they meant well though, so the least he could do was to be nice and humor them. Trying to summon enough energy for a smile, he turned his head towards the door- and almost bolted upright.
"Batman! You're- you're back!"
Batman, looking as stern and stoic as ever, strode into the room and stood by the bed, staring down at Dick. "How are you feeling?" he asked gruffly.
"Fine," Dick replied, hoping his voice sounded strong. He swallowed, feeling nervous under Batman's stare, and was suddenly glad he was wearing his shades. "Did- Did you catch Scarecrow?"
"He got away?"
"It was brought to my attention that I have a more important matter to take care of, so I discontinued my search."
"You- you discontinued-?!" Dick stared at Batman incredulously. "Uh, who are you and what have you done with Batman?" Nothing was more important to Batman than getting the bad guys!
Batman pulled off his cowl and suddenly Dick was staring into the concerned blue eyes of Bruce Wayne. As his guardian sat down in the fold-up chair beside the bed, Dick realized with a jolt that he was the "more important matter" Bruce was referring to and that he had been why Bruce had returned to Mount Justice. "Oh," he said, shifting slightly and feeling a blush rise up in his cheeks. "You- you didn't have to break off the investigation for me. I'm fine. And- and what if Scarecrow infects more people?"
"Flash and Superman are on it." Bruce leaned forward and reached for Dick's face – pausing when Dick flinched – and gently removed the sunglasses to reveal Dick's own blue eyes. "And you are not fine, Dick."
Dick looked down at his fidgeting hands; he wanted to deny it, he really did, but this was Bruce, his mentor, his guardian, and he needed to know- "Bruce, why- why did you leave? I mean, I know why, but did you- did you even check on me?"
"Of course I did, kiddo. Tornado's been giving me hourly updates on your condition. On your physical condition, that is. I should've realized the emotional impact of those hallucinations. I'm sorry, Dick. I was angry- not at you," he added when Dick paled. "I just couldn't sit here and wait for you to wake up. I needed to be out there, tracking down the ones responsible for putting you through hell. In doing so, however, I underestimated the importance of having a friendly face around while you were going through the aftermath of Scarecrow's toxin. And for that I'm sorry."
He sounded genuinely contrite, and Dick gave him a small smile. "It's okay."
"So tell me about those hallucinations, kiddo. What were they about?"
Dick squirmed. "…I- do I have to?"
Bruce leaned forward once more and lightly brushed Dick's bangs aside. "No, you don't have to. But you're always the one telling me that talking about things makes you feel better than bottling everything up…"
That surprised another small smile out of Dick. "Well…then- I guess I should listen to myself, or you're never gonna listen to anything I say anymore." He forced his hands to stop fiddling with the sheets, took a deep breath and proceeded to tell his guardian about what he remembered of the horrors that had played in his mind.
"So, um…that's- that's about it," Dick concluded awkwardly. He swallowed, studiously avoiding his guardian's gaze. His hands twisted into the sheets as he waited with dread for Bruce's response. Bruce was not going to be happy.
"It would seem that Batman plays a rather prominent role in these hallucinations," Bruce commented neutrally.
"Why do you think that is?"
Dick kept his eyes downcast. "I- because I'm…afraid."
"No. Of- of failing Batman. Of failing- you."
"Dick, you could never fail me or Batman."
"But, I've-I've already failed you."
"…I let KF and me get caught, for one thing."
Bruce's fingers brushed lightly over a bruise on Dick's arm. "I hardly think you just let yourselves get captured, kiddo. And from what I hear, you were pretty instrumental in your escape."
"But I was totally blind-sided. I should've been more alert."
"Probably, and we'll work on that a little more during team training. But you're human, Dick. You're not infallible. Nobody is, not me, not Superman, and he's not even human. We all make mistakes."
"But my mistakes get people killed…like- like Judge Watkins, and- and I got my team killed! And all those other people…that- that little girl…"
Bruce got up and the mattress dipped as he sat down beside Dick. "Dick, we've talked about this. What happened to Judge Watkins was NOT your fault. And you can't hold yourself accountable for decisions you made in a hallucination. And that's all it was, a hallucination. Nobody died, Dick."
"I- I know, but- it was so real…"
"You've felt the effects of Scarecrow's toxin before."
"I know, but this was- different. It was never this bad. And the gas actually knocked me out for a while; it's never done that before. It took longer for the first hallucination to manifest itself, too."
"It also took longer for the antidote to take effect. Red Tornado even had to go so far as to give you a second dose. It appears that Scarecrow has been making modifications to his toxin. It may be necessary to analyze this new gas in order to develop a more effective antidote."
Dick nodded. "Bruce?" he began hesitantly. "I-I know it was just a hallucination – this time – but- have you ever had to make that choice? I mean, have you ever had to make the choice between saving someone you care about and a civilian? Like- like Two-Face made me choose between you and Judge Watkins?"
Dick didn't think Bruce was going to elaborate, but then he spoke again, his voice unusually quiet. "But if I'm ever faced with such a choice… Truth be told, I know the kind of decision people like us are expected to make, but if I'm ever forced to choose between you and a civilian, I'm not sure I would be able to make that decision myself."
Dick felt his eyes grow wide. "Really?"
"Really. I would sacrifice myself and the entire League in a heartbeat if I thought it was necessary, but you…"
Dick sat back, stunned. Bruce had…doubts? Batman had doubts? Wow. And- he didn't know if he'd be able to sacrifice-? Wow. "So…you're not mad?"
"No. Dick, I know I can be hard on you, and you know why I need to be hard on you in this line of work. But we all make mistakes. The important thing is that we learn from them. And let me make one thing very clear," Bruce said, gently nudging Dick's arm, prompting Dick to look up. "You could never fail me. You've already far exceeded my expectations both as yourself and as Robin. Now, there may come a time where we don't see eye to eye, and there will be times that I will be angry with you and that you will be angry with me. But that is never going to change the fact that you are my son. Understood?"
Dick stared at his guardian; that was the closest Bruce had ever come to saying 'I love you'. Dick would take it. He beamed and leaned against Bruce's side a little. "Understood."
Bruce smiled one of his rare smiles and combed his fingers through Dick's hair. Dick was pleased to find that this time, when Bruce reached for his face, he didn't flinch.
"So what did you find out about Scarecrow?" Dick asked after a while, his curiosity getting the better of him. "What was he doing at that warehouse? And who's that Knyazev guy?"
"Well, from what I've pieced together so far, Anatoli Knyazev, AKA the KGBeast, is a former soldier employed by the KGB. These days he's a gun for hire, and Crane hired him for protection – from us, most likely. I will need to interrogate Crane about the specifics once we have him in custody, but it's probably safe to assume that he was working on another way to spread his fear gas throughout Gotham. When I sent you and the Team to check into those warehouses though, I was unaware that Crane was using the building you and Kid Flash had been stationed on as his own basis of operation. It was purely coincidence. My guess is that Knyazev was patrolling the building and spotted the two of you on the roof."
"I don't get it though. Where did Crane get the money to hire a mercenary like Knyazev?"
"He got lucky."
"He apparently inherited a small fortune from a long lost relative."
"You're kidding. I mean, of course you're not, 'cause you're Batman, but…criminals inheriting fortunes. Wow. There's something seriously wrong with this world."
"Well, Joker had the misfortune of inheriting a couple of millions once."
Dick grinned, remembering how Joker had once inherited millions from Edward "King" Barlowe, one of Gotham's crimelords, only to have it all turn out to be an elaborate ruse to humiliate him. "True," he said, chuckling. Then he stopped short. "Wait, 'the misfortune'?" he repeated. "Bruce! Was that a pun? It was, wasn't it?! Now I really know something's wrong with this world!"
Bruce laughed quietly. "I think you're rubbing off on me, kiddo," he said, ruffling Dick's hair. Then his expression grew serious. "Now. I want to talk to you about Kid Flash."
Robin glanced up at the sound of the door opening, his shades firmly in place. "Hey, Wally."
"Hey. Wow, dressed already?"
"Yeah, Batman's picking me up in a few minutes. I wanted to be ready to go." He slowly pulled his knee up to prop his heel on the edge of the mattress and bent forward a little to tie his sneaker, but jerked upright with a gasp. He felt the blood drain from his face as he rode out the pain that lanced up his chest.
"Geez, let me do that, you idiot," Wally chided, immediately stepping forward to tie both shoes in record time. "How did you even manage to get yourself dressed properly?"
"Slowly," Robin managed when he got his breath back.
"Did you hear the news about Scarecrow?"
"Oh yeah, Artemis took great pleasure in telling me about how Batman pretty much broke his face," Robin said with some satisfaction.
"Aw man! I wanted to be the one to tell you that!"
"Gotta be faster next time, Wally," Robin said, chuckling. He stopped himself with a wince.
Wally frowned. "You gonna be okay?"
"Yeah, just have to take it easy for a few weeks," Robin replied, still sitting on the bed, his legs dangling over the edge.
Wally sat down beside him. "Okay. So uh…did you and Batman have a good talk yesterday?"
Robin grinned. "Actually, we did. About you."
"About me?" Wally almost squeaked.
"Bruce said you could stay over some time. You know, at the manor."
"You mean, like, a sleepover?"
"Seriously? Dude! That. Is. EPIC!" Wally was practically bouncing, and Robin chuckled, wrapping a protective arm around his ribs. Then Wally paused mid-bounce. "Wait. Wait, wait, wait. Why now? We've practically been begging for months, but he's always said no."
"I dunno. Did you do something to impress him lately?"
Wally stroked his chin, thinking. "Not that I- wait."
Robin raised a questioning eyebrow and Wally filled him in on how he'd hacked into the League's communication systems and contacted Batman.
Robin stared at him. "You hacked. Into the League's communication system. So you could be mad at Batman?!"
"Yup," Wally said, beaming proudly.
"And he didn't kill you?"
"Wow. WOW. Walls, I can't believe you did that."
"Believe it, dude."
"I mean, I can't believe you did that!"
"You said that already."
"Well, it's worth repeating! Wally, you rock!"
"Wait, you were trained by the Bat and you're only just now taking note of my awesomeness? Dude, you're slipping."
Robin grinned. "I guess I'll have to pay better attention on our next stake-out together."
"Well, obviously. After what happened two days ago though, I'm never going to complain about boring stake-outs again."
"Oh, really? Can I get that in writing?"
"Okay, maybe not never, but, you know, for a mission or two at least."
Despite his aching ribs, Robin couldn't help but laugh. "I still want to get that in writing!"
- END -
A/N If you're curious about exactly what happened to Judge Watkins, you can read it in Robin: Year One. Thanks, everyone, for sticking with me and for the wonderful reviews! Every time I get a review it feels like opening a present. Thanks so much :o)