Batman: The Salem Protocol

Chapter 4: Heart of a Dark Knight

Roy sized up the situation automatically. He wasn't sure what was in the paper bag, but from where he was standing, it looked pretty full. Odds were good that Bruce hadn't sampled the contents yet. He felt a momentary relief, before he realized that Bruce hadn't tossed the bag away either. He took a deep breath.

"Hi, Bruce. How's it going?"

Bruce's eyes, which had been squeezed shut a moment ago, snapped open. "What do you want?"

"Just to talk," Roy said easily. "For now."

Bruce gave a noncommittal grunt in response.

Leave it to the Bat not to make this easy. Roy had talked people down before, but he'd never imagined doing it with Bruce.

And a few years ago, Ollie never would've imagined you were hooked on heroin. Forget about Batman. The guy standing in front of you is a man with a problem. Nothing less, nothing more.

A pair of spiked-haired youths in chains and black leather peered curiously into the alley. Roy shot them a cold look, and they moved on quickly.

"This isn't exactly the best place to have a conversation," he said. "Maybe we could head into Burger Barn and I'll get you a cup of coffee?"

Bruce leaned back against the brick wall and shook his head. "No."

That figured, Roy thought. Memories or no memories, he was the same suspicious, paranoid, controlling, son of a… He paused. "Okay. I'm open to suggestions. You have somewhere else in mind?"

For what seemed an eternity, Bruce didn't reply. Then, "I can't."

Roy waited until he was sure he could keep his tone neutral. "Can't?"

His brow furrowed. "As long as I stay here…" Bruce explained haltingly, "I can fight. I'm more… me in this place than anywhere else I've been today." He snorted. "Whoever I am."

"You don't know?"

Bruce shook his head. "I know my name, but I don't know… myself." He exhaled. "It's… frustrating."

"Sounds like it." Roy thought for a moment. "You hungry? There's a hotdog cart on the corner. I can bring you one to eat here. My treat." He watched Bruce consider the offer.

"One," Bruce said finally. "Mustard, pickles, corn relish. And a bottle of water."

"Comin' right up."

When Roy returned five minutes later, Bruce hadn't left his spot, but he had slid to a sitting position. Roy knelt to hand him the hotdog.

"Thanks."

"No problem."

Bruce let the dimebag drop to his lap. He took the hotdog in both hands. An eyebrow lifted. "Is this truly healthier than…" his gaze flickered down to the drugs.

Roy grinned. "Just a bit. Honest."

Bruce didn't answer. He was too busy consuming his first solid food in over twelve hours. Roy waited until he'd finished the hotdog and drained the plastic water bottle before he spoke again. "Mind if I ask you a question?"

Bruce's eyes narrowed. "Of course: the catch."

Roy held up his hands, palms up. "No catch. You don't want to answer, you don't have to. I'm just wondering about that stuff in the bag. I mean, you're not using it. It's obvious you don't want to. But you're still holding on to it."

Bruce picked up the bag again and weighed it experimentally in his hand. "When I woke up, two days ago," he said slowly, "it was… unpleasant. But I could recall… glimmers of what I was feeling prior." His blue eyes took on a new intensity. "I… hurt," he said quietly. "I have since I found myself in the street. And all that I can clearly recall from my life before that moment… is that being in pain is not… unfamiliar to me. But when I was…" He closed his eyes and seemed to shrink into the shadows.

"I'm not a fool," he said, in a voice barely louder than a whisper. "I know what this is. I know what it can do. What it will do. But it… or something like it… made the pain stop. For the first time in years, I… stopped hurting." His grip tightened on the bag. "Is it so wrong to want to… not be in pain?"

"No," Roy said quietly. "Of course not. Except… you know what the catch is for this one." He started to lay a hand on Bruce's shoulder, but the other man shied away. Roy let the hand fall back to his side and continued. "If you want it to take away the pain, then you have to let it take over your life."

Bruce flinched.

Sensing his advantage, Roy pressed on. "It might not happen right away. Some people can keep it under control for a little while, but sooner or later, it steps into the driver's seat and it doesn't get out again." He paused. "But you already know that," he continued, a moment later. "You've read the statistics. You know that it's got nothing to do with 'strong' or 'weak' or 'willpower' or…"

"Enough."

Bruce rose stiffly to his feet and beckoned to Roy to follow him further into the alley. "We'd gotten about this far…" he said slowly, stopping almost midway through the narrow passage. "Then he… stepped out of the shadows… with a gun." His breath was coming harder now as his tone grew more agitated. "He demanded my father's wallet and then… he went for the… the pearls." He turned a furious countenance to Roy. "Do you know what happened next?"

Roy nodded. Dick had told him ages ago.

"Until a moment ago," Bruce said raggedly, "I didn't. Or at least… the memory was blocked from me. I knew something had happened here, but I didn't know what. I only knew that I had… l-lost something irreplaceable here." His voice grew softer. "I… dislike feeling vulnerable. It would be easy for me to avoid that emotional state. All I need to do," he said slowly, "is…" He lifted the bag again. His tone hardened. "I could do this. Easily. But masking the feeling of vulnerability would not make me stronger." He shook his head. "It would blind me to the truth, and that blindness would weaken me." Bruce stretched a hand out before him, as though, Roy thought, he was trying to touch the images in his newly awakened memories.

He turned back to Roy, eyes haunted, but backed by a renewed strength of purpose. "I still don't remember much," he admitted, "but one thing that I do know is that using this," he held the bag aloft, "would be an act of weakness. It would dishonor my parents' legacy." He drew back his arm, the bag still tightly clenched in his grip. "And I," his voice grew louder with each syllable, "am stronger… than THIS!" He threw the small paper sack as far as he could.

An instant later, a small missile pierced the bag in mid-air. The bag burst into flames and an odor like burning plastic filled the alley. A moment later, there was nothing left of it save a few charred wisps of paper, which were well on their way to becoming ashes.

Bruce whirled around in time to see Roy lowering a small crossbow. "I didn't want to take any chances," the archer said.

"Understandable." There was a part of him that still might have run to pick up the bag, had it landed intact.

Roy started to say something else, but Bruce checked him.

"There'll be time for talk later. Let's get out of here." Without waiting for an answer, he walked quickly out of the alley.

Roy followed a half-pace behind.


Two pairs of eyes looked up as the newcomers entered. "Bruce!" Dick called out. "Roy."

Bruce gave a stiff nod. He took in his new surroundings stoically, and it was impossible to tell whether he recognized the cave.

Dick's eyes glanced past Bruce to where Roy was rapidly, but discreetly, signing a message.

He still hasn't remembered everything, but it's coming back slowly.

Dick nodded and took a step forward. Tim followed

Bruce eyed them searchingly. "I'm… All right, I recognize the costume." He turned to Tim. "I suppose you're Robin." He turned to Dick. Street clothes, he winced. No hints there. "I'm sorry. I should know you, but…" he spun around to frown at Roy. "This is pointless. You should have waited for more of my memory to come back before bringing me he—" He broke off as Dinah came into view. "Oh, this is just perfect."

Dinah took a deep breath. "Hi, Bruce."

Bruce spun around. "I have nothing to say to you."

"That's okay. You don't have to talk," Dinah said quickly. "But I… I hope you'll listen."

"To what?" He whirled back to face her. "You're sorry, and you'll never do anything like it again? Spare me."

"Look, I don't blame you for—"

"For being upset? For wanting to leave? Wonderful. Then you'll understand why I'll be on my way, now."

"Bruce…"

"Did I leave anything out? Were you planning on giving me excuses, after all?"

"No! What happened was inexcusable—"

"And unforgivable. Good. We understand each other."

Dinah recoiled as if he had slapped her.

Bruce took note of her reaction, then turned again and headed for the door. Roy was barring his path. "Get out of my way," he snarled as a slender hand came down on his shoulder from behind.

"Bruce." Dinah's voice was steady.

She barely dodged the blow in time.

Wide-eyed, Bruce stared at his fist, as though his hand was somehow a separate entity. If he had struck with that level of force… The color drained from his face. He had almost… he could have… He looked at Dinah again, and saw that she too was processing what had just transpired. "I…" He started to say. "I…" I didn't mean to use potentially lethal force on you? It was an accident? The irony of the situation engulfed his sensibilities… just as Dinah landed a high kick to his jaw.

Bruce's head snapped back, and he staggered, but regained his center before his opponent could follow up with another savate souplesse de lateral. His hand shot forward, catching her upraised heel.

Dinah didn't hesitate. She brought her other foot up into the air sweeping in a wide arc, catching Bruce at the back of his head. Both tumbled to the stone floor and the fight began in earnest.

"Stay back," Tim cautioned Dick. "I don't think you're up to this, yet."

"Neither are you," Roy cut in. "Let them work it out."

"But they—"

"Need to get through this without our interference," Dick nodded to Roy, as he placed a warning hand on Tim's shoulder. "Besides, you don't want to get caught between those two, right now. Trust me."

On a normal day, it wouldn't have been much of a fight. Bruce's first move would have neutralized her canary cry. After that, Dinah might have gotten one or two good punches in, possibly even a toss, before Bruce took her down. And it was mostly due to the rigorous training she'd undergone in the last couple of years that she would have landed those punches in the first place.

Now, they were more evenly matched. Bruce still had his combat skills, but he hadn't used them against an opponent who knew how to fight back. His reflexes were just a fraction slower than they should have been—just enough to cost him—just enough to give Dinah a fair chance.

There was something more, though. He hadn't wanted to attack her, and he didn't want this fight. He didn't have the total commitment to victory that might have given him an edge. After a few moments of moves, blocks, and countermoves, he realized that Dinah showed signs of that same reluctance. She hadn't even tried to use the cry—and he'd given her a few opportunities.

Was she… giving him a chance to strike out at her? He rolled over, pinning her shoulders to the ground. Fire met ice, as two sets of blue eyes clashed. His eyebrows shot up. A small answering smile played on her lips. Then, she brought her knees up quickly to his midsection, and broke away.

"Not… bad…" Bruce grunted as he feinted for her eyes.

"I've been… practicing." She braced herself on the ground with the palm of her hand, and aimed a capoeira kick at his chest.

He rolled with the kick and came back with one of his own. "Attacking you was a reflex."

"I figured." She ducked, somersaulted, and landed in a half-crouch. "After my own instincts kicked in."

"Ah."

"I should have stood up for you," she said as he blocked another strike. "Even if I would've been outvoted."

He took her arm, drew her over his hip, and tossed her. "That's right. You should have."

"Apologies won't change the past." She pulled him down after her.

He rolled her onto her stomach and twisted an arm behind her back. "Correct."

"I'm still sorry. Even if it doesn't fix anything."

Bruce mulled that over.

From her position, Dinah couldn't see his expression change, but the three other men in the room did.

"Bruce?" Dick asked. "What's…" Wrong? What isn't wrong?

Bruce's narrowed eyes still focussed on Dinah. "You lead the Justice League," he stated. "I'm… in the League. Which means that despite knowing what you did, I was willing to trust you." He released her arm and moved away. "There's a lot that hasn't come back to me yet," he admitted. "But it seems to me that my judgement would have been less impaired when I had my memories intact."

He rose and helped her to her feet. "I think," he sighed, "we've both wasted enough time being foolish. Now, we need to get down to business."

Dinah's eyes opened wide. "Both?"

Bruce was already heading for the computer station.

"Does this mean we're friends again?" She called as she followed.

"No…" Bruce said slowly, without turning. "But we aren't enemies. Leave it at that, for now."


Barbara had nothing new to report. Whatever files Bruce had downloaded from the spoof site had overwritten portions of his existing codes and inserted new directives, but she was still working to establish what those changes had accomplished. One thing was certain: the new programming had been running for over six months.

Bruce listened impassively. Then, he retreated to one of the sleeping alcoves to assimilate it all. He couldn't remember any of this, and yet, he must have done it. He had allowed something to infiltrate his systems, only instead of wiping his computer's hard drive… His frown deepened. He was fairly sure that he didn't frighten easily. He wouldn't be Batman if he did. But this had rattled him to his core.

A light tap on the wall roused him from his thoughts. He looked up to see the older of the two young men who had been present when he'd come back with Roy. "Mind if I join you?"

The bed he was using as a bench was certainly long enough to accommodate another person. Bruce slid down a few inches. "I'm supposed to know you," he said. "Aren't I?"

The newcomer's smile didn't quite mask the hurt in his eyes. "Well, I was hoping you would. My name's Dick." He paused. "Dick Grayson."

Bruce closed his eyes, thinking. "So far," he said slowly, "nobody's mentioned my surname. But I imagine it would be 'Wayne'?"

Dick nodded. "You remembered that?"

"Not in the way you're hoping," Bruce said. "I know that Bruce Wayne adopted Dick Grayson. If everyone is calling me 'Bruce', and you say that I know you…" He looked away. "I'm sorry. This situation is… frustrating for me but," he paused, "it must be… painful," he finished awkwardly, "for you."

Dick let out a long breath. "I'll get over it. And you'll remember." He grinned, and added, "Not necessarily in that order."

Bruce's lips twitched. "And this was done to me? Deliberately? I didn't just… hit my head? Or… or have a stroke?"

"Well, if you were in the hospital," Dick said, "they should've caught something like that. I think, for a stroke, they have to keep you for observation for a couple of days. But, anyway, we got a copy of your medical file. Physiologically, you're fine."

"I had to ask," Bruce said, "if only to rule out the possibility. But, I do believe that my condition is more than happenstance."

Dick nodded. "Mind if I ask what brought you to that conclusion?"

"First," Bruce said, "I woke up on the street. That could have happened if I'd been…" What was Bruce's—his—reputation, again? "If I'd been partying or," if he'd been Batman, "under cover. But, if it was the former, I doubt I would have changed my clothes. And if it was the latter, I wouldn't have knowingly taken drugs." He looked sharply at Dick. "I don't use them," he said with conviction. "Do I?"

Dick gripped his forearm. "No way."

Bruce sighed with relief. "Good." And yet, from the depths of his memories, he thought he heard his own voice saying, "Need help. Your help… Want you to lock me in the cave. Don't let me out for a month, no matter what." The hopelessness in that phantom voice, the despair, the… his expression hardened. This only bolstered his theory.

"Second," he said, "every memory that's returned on its own, without someone's prompting it, what the League did to me, my parents' murder…" the thought that just sprang to mind, "shares a common thread. They all remind me of times when I have not been in control. When people whom I trusted turned on me… abandoned me." He'd had to beg…who? Someone… to come back and help him, that last time. "Times when I've been… helpless. If the only memories that I have are of people I relied on betraying that trust, then it would be natural for me to shy away from the people whom—I suspect—are my true allies." His eyes narrowed. "If I were the person who'd done this to me, I think I'd prefer that my… target be isolated, fearful, suspicious..."

Dick nodded again.

"Third, even when it would have helped your case, nobody here has been less than honest with me."

"And we won't be," Dick said. "Though I reserve the right to plead the fifth if you ask something I don't want to deal with."

And that, too, was an honest answer. Bruce smiled wearily. "So, if I'm Batman, and I've met Robin… you're Nightwing?"

Dick grinned. "Got it in one." His expression turned serious. "Did you want me to try to help you remember more?"

Bruce thought about it. "Facts aren't the problem. It's the… experiences."

"I understand." An idea occurred to him. "We met when I was nine," he said softly. "You were in the audience at Haly's circus on the night that…"


"Barbara thinks she found it," Dinah interrupted a few minutes later. "And she's not happy."

Dick gulped theatrically. "So she wants us back at the main terminal to listen."

"She does." Her expression sobered. "There's a problem."

"You're kidding!"

Dinah gave the younger man a playful clout on his ear. She looked at Bruce. "There's a trigger phrase that set this whole thing in motion. We… haven't been able to determine whether hearing it a second time will do nothing, restore your memory, or wipe out what you've gotten back."

Bruce considered. "Which option would be the most probable?"

"We can't tell," Dinah admitted. "Not without a visit to S.T.A.R. Labs' Neurosciences Division. And even then, we may just be making a more educated guess." She bit her lip. "Sorry. Babs was saying that if it were only a computer issue, it would be easy. But when you're dealing with the brain…"

"If we had all the answers, there wouldn't be a need for places like Arkham," Dick muttered. "Bruce," he added, "it's up to you. Some of it is coming back. The rest will, too."

"You hope," Bruce said. "But there are other considerations. Specifically, the patterns emerging in the memories I've regained thus far. It could be coincidence. But if those patterns are being… engineered, then I believe I'd prefer to forge my own." He took a deep breath. "Let's go hear what she has to say."


"It can't be just subliminals affecting you," Barbara explained. "Even Checkmate is light-years away from being able to pull something like this off."

Tim frowned. "Amnesia can be induced, though."

"Not this selectively. And the trigger phrase," she shook her head and looked at Bruce. "It's been programmed into your computers, and it's obviously the key, but I'm not sure what it does."

"Post-hypnotic suggestion?" Dinah asked.

"Maybe, but the initial hypnosis would have to be pretty recent. Suggestions fade over time, and the longest recorded instance of one lasting—and that's with regular reinforcement, mind you—is something like six months." She paused. "More to the point, most post-hypnotic suggestions are concrete and specific. For example, if someone is undergoing hypnosis to…" she broke off for a moment, "to stop biting their fingernails, the hypnotist may tell them that once they 'wake up' every time they bite their nails, it'll taste like soap. By the time the suggestion fades, the bad habit's probably been broken." She glanced at Bruce again. "This is a bit more sophisticated. I don't think a trigger phrase alone could accomplish it."

"And you don't know what it might accomplish," Bruce said tonelessly.

"Without saying it," Barbara admitted, "no."

Bruce bit his lip. "I'll risk it," he said. His hands were sweating. He looked quickly from one face to the next. "But be prepared," he cautioned, "for anything."

Dick grinned. "I think we're pretty much used to that, by now."

Barbara gave an encouraging smile and spoke three syllables aloud: "Zur-en-arrh."

Bruce shrieked.


"Bruce!" Dick watched in horror as his adoptive father fell to the floor and curled up, trembling in the fetal position.

Bruce was beyond hearing. His eyes screwed shut, his hands clamped tightly against the sides of his head. "Zur-en-arrh!" He moaned. "Zur-en-arrh!"

Dick slid to the floor. "Bruce."

Tim grabbed his shoulder. "What are you doing?"

"Playing a hunch," Dick replied without turning around. "Let go."

"But if he—" The Thorazine hadn't finished messing with Dick's reflexes yet and if Bruce were to lash out… Tim didn't want to finish his thought.

Dick's voice was steady. "Then you and Roy step in. Let go."

The note of command was unmistakable. Robin's hand dropped to his side. He glanced over and caught Roy's eye. The archer didn't look happy, but he wasn't wading in either.

"Bruce," Dick said softly, "remember who you are. Remember why you are. Remember what you do and why you chose to." His voice grew firmer with each 'remember'. "Remember what you told me, even before you started training me for real." He took a deep breath.

Bruce was still lying on his side, knees to chin, but, Dick observed, he had stopped his groaning. The older man seemed to be listening intently.

Dick took another breath. It was now or never. "You made me take an oath," he said. "One that you told me you took a long time earlier. Remember? You had me swear to fight crime and corruption and…"

"N-never swerve from the p-path of justice," Bruce completed in a whisper. His eyes flew open. "Dick? What happened?" He looked around in confusion. "The last thing I remember, I was in the main cave with Jezebel. There was something I needed to pull up from the computers and…" He frowned. "How did I get here? Where's Jezebel? What are they," his gaze slid over Roy and Dinah, doing here? "And for that matter, why aren't you in New York?"

Dick grinned. "Any time you blank out your own memory, I figure it's a good time to pop in for a visit."

"He what?" Roy gasped.

"Think about it," Dick said, as he tried to be subtle about inching toward the nearest wall. Getting up was going to prove interesting. "All those practice sessions with J'onn. The techniques he learned in the Far East." He noticed that Tim had drawn closer and was bending down to help him up. He accepted the assistance gratefully. "Jezebel?" He mouthed.

Tim shook his head.

Dick shrugged mentally and turned back to the archer. "Roy," he pointed out, "he's fought off overdoses of truth serum. For anyone to do something like this to him, they'd have to know his mind inside-out." Dick staggered to his feet. "I figured we either had a telepath in town who made Psimon look like Clever Hans, or this was self-induced."

"Why?" Dinah asked.

Bruce shook his head slowly. "A failsafe," he said. His eyes met Dick's. "Someone had to be getting close to piercing through those mental shields you were praising a moment ago. Under the circumstances, the most prudent move was to ensure that if those walls fell, there would be nothing useable left behind them." He sighed. "I agree that it was a drastic decision, but it was a necessary one."

"So," Tim said, "what's our next move?"

Bruce allowed himself a fleeting smile. Then it was gone, replaced by a look of grim determination. "We strike back," he declared. "As soon as we know who and what we're dealing with."


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