Chapter 1: Haunted
"Looks like Slade pulled off one last trick…"
Robin lifted his heavy, achey head, his eyes – one swollen, both burning with exhaustion – falling on the cybernetic teen speaking to him. Nearby, his other friends turned, their attentions beckoned by the enormous screen that comprised one entire wall of the hospital wing. Concern mingled with curiosity on faces deeply illuminated by the fluorescent lighting from above.
Cyborg noted their attention, and continued. "His mask contained a chemical reagent that infiltrated your central nervous system."
It clicked in Robin's mind, as tired as it was. "The dust…" The Boy Wonder lifted one of his bruised hands, pulling off the electrodes taped to his forehead and held them out in his palm, as though they weighed heavily. He stared down at them, mulling the information over. "It caused me to see, hear and feel Slade… even though he wasn't really there…"
"And the more you fought," Starfire spoke up, a sadness to her voice, "the more harm it did to you."
"And anyone else who got in the way," Raven griped, rubbing her chin.
Cyborg was still staring up at the monitor. A small, relieved smile spread across his half-human face. "Scan says you're all clear now, though."
"Yeah? Well… just to be sure…" Robin got carefully to his feet, his aching body sluggish as he moved to the lightswitch by the door. He paused a moment, glancing out into the room, at all of his friends. He flicked his wrist, and the room plunged into darkness interrupted only by the screens and monitors of the wall. He glanced around, eyes moving from the bed, where not even an hour ago he had ripped himself from his bindings thinking Slade was trying to kill him, over to the window, where rain still drummed its soft melody. His gaze scanned back, falling on his friends, who stared back at him with quiet apprehension.
But there was no sign of Slade waiting for him in the darkness…
Robin sighed, and turned the light back on. His heart felt heavy, and his brain was muddled with humiliation, guilt, confusion, exhaustion… "I've been fighting Slade so long…" he found himself saying, almost to himself. "I guess it's hard to just let it go. But sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who's still looking for him. The only one who can stop him."
He looked up, to find other others still watching him with careful consideration. There was a long moment of silence, no one quite sure how to respond.
Finally, Starfire stepped forward, hands clasping sincerely. "Robin, you are never alone…"
Robin looked at her a long moment. He'd heard those words once already that night, but somehow, coming from her, it sounded wonderful…
"And if Slade ever does come back, we'll be ready," Cyborg added determinately, then, a little more gently, "We got things covered here, man. Why don't you go get some rest?"
"Sounds like a good idea," Robin murmured with a grateful smile. He looked around at them all one last time, before turning and exiting the hospital wing.
As he made his way down the hallway, he could hear their voices filtering after him. Beast Boy was saying something… the girls responded with laughter… and Robin smiled to himself. All was right with the world again.
He turned a corner, listening as the distance growing between them withering their voices into silence. His footsteps faltered to a halt, and he glanced around, eyes falling on a patch of shadow in a far corner
I am the thing that keeps you up at night… the evil that haunts every dark corner of your mind…
Robin winced at the memory of those words. His hand clutched at his side, sending shooting pain up his ribs.
Slade hadn't done any of this... Slade had never been there at all… He'd done all of this to himself… He glanced down, at his tattered, almost mutilated costume. The bruises on his arms. The drips of blood here and there. His heart was pounding a little fast in his chest.
He knew it was over… but his overactive nerves were still on end. He glanced over his shoulder without thinking, and then caught himself with a growl.
Slade isn't going to leap out of the walls and attack you… he told himself, pushing on towards his bedroom. Not anymore. Just go get some sleep…
He couldn't help but eye every dark area suspiciously the whole way back to his room. He turned the light on as he closed the door, and paused a moment. His lungs pulled in a deep breath, and he relaxed a little with the comforting scent of his own little space. Setting the lock on the door, he made his way to his closet and began peeling off the shredded layers of his costume, wincing anytime he had to move his arms or legs too much.
There were more bruises than he'd realized. More cuts, more scrapes. His wrist felt swollen, his ankle hurt… his eye was almost completely swollen shut now. He glanced at his full-length mirror. He looked a complete mess… he looked like he'd just had a run-in with Slade…
He swallowed hard, looking away as memories began flooding back to him.
It'd all felt so real, and his mind remembered it as though it was… he remembered being on the floor of the basement, begging Slade to stop… begging…
And that wasn't an effect of the reagent… his reactions, his pain… the conviction that he was going to die… that'd all been real… too real…
He suddenly became aware that he was shaking a little. His eyes shot to the mirror again, meeting his own terrified gaze through it. He could see himself trembling. He was barely able to stand. His stomach was twisting and churning like it wanted to throw up. A little too quickly, Robin swung the closet door open, banishing the mirror to face the wall as he pulled a fresh costume from its hanger.
All he needed was some sleep. He was still on edge because of all that had happened that night, that's all. It was understandable that his body was shaking, that his brain was a little scrambled. He'd gone through a lot of stress that night... He pulled his costume on as quickly as his weak, tired, injured body would allow, and made his way to his bed, falling gratefully face-first into his plush pillow. His hand grappled automatically on the nightstand for the remote that extinguished the light, but as his finger hovered over the appropriate button, he froze, twisting his head and looking out into the room with wide, anxious eyes.
Come on, Dick. What are you, three? Just turn of the lights… you've faced scarier things…
Finally, holding his breath, he shut his light off, dowsing the world with darkness. He barely blinked as he continued staring out into the room. His heart was racing, his hands sweating. He waited…
But nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. He set his remote back on the nightstand and plopped back into his pillow with a huff of frustration. He couldn't believe he was acting this way. It was all over. He didn't have to be afraid of the dark. Slade was not going to jump out at him.
There was a small sound. He snapped his head up expectantly, glancing around nervously
It's just the tower settling… there are always noises in the night… nothing's coming to get you…
He made himself put his head back on the pillow, but he had a hard time settling himself down. Every creak, every noise, every far-off crash of thunder made him internally jump, his eyes clenching shut as tightly as his bruised knuckles clutched his bedsheets
Nothing's going to happen nothing's going to happen nothing's going to happen, he chanted to himself silently in his head.
After a long time, his exhaustion began to override his paranoia. His tense muscles slowly began to relax into his mattress, his hyperactive pulse slowing to normal speed, breathing growing steady.
Nothing's going to happen…
Then, before he knew it, he began to feel the familiar pull of sleep…
"Don't think this is the end, Robin."
Robin snapped back to full awareness with a gasp of horror, flailing out onto his back and scrambling himself backward up against the headboard of his bed. His breathing was harsh and labored as he frantically looked around the room, a hand snatching up a birdarang from his belt, ready to strike.
He was still here. Slade was still here… he was certain… he… hadn't imagined it, right?
But there was no one staring at him through the darkness. No breath of air, no voice, no glint of gold as the lightning flashed in his window. Robin felt a trickle of sweat roll past his ear, sending a shudder through his spine.
…had he just imagined it? He'd nearly been asleep… sometimes you hear things when you…
He was just being paranoid… there was no way he had actually heard that…
A trembling hand reached for the remote. He turned the light back on and laid cautiously back down. He barely blinked as he watched the room, his hand still shakingly clutching the untransformed birdarang.
It was a good hour before he could fall asleep again, and even then, his sleep was restless, haunted by terrible memories and that horrible, familiar mask…
Chapter 2: Linger
"Good morning, Robin! I trust you slept well?"
Robin looked up a little too quickly, his gaze falling on the smiling Tamaranian girl landing in front of him. He noted his startled heart racing again, and mentally reprimanded himself for being so jittery.
"I kept waking up, so I'm a little tired," he answered casually, rubbing his stiff neck. He only spoke partial truth, but thankfully, Starfire didn't seem to notice.
Raven and Cyborg were also in the room, Raven off to the side reading a book, Cyborg at the counter eating. He looked up from his pancake breakfast, eyeing the Boy Wonder carefully. Robin's injuries looked just as terrible that day as they had the night before. The bruises had all settled in, becoming more noticeable in size, dark and purple in hue. His left eye was completely puffy and swollen shut. A bad scratch by his ear looked like it could easily get infected. Cyborg frowned. "You better take it easy today, man. Some of those bruises look nasty…."
"I know… I will…" Robin sighed, opening the fridge and peering into it with his one good eye. He pulled out the carton of eggs and an energy drink before shuffling through cupboards for a clean frying pan. He straightened and looked over at the others, all three of whom were watching him carefully. "What? I mean it."
"Oh sure, sure. Who said you didn't?" Robin could detect the nervous rise to Cyborg's voice. But Robin just gave him a little smile. He understood. He knew what his own tendencies were… He turned his back to them as he prepared the stove, his tired mind wandering.
He couldn't believe how stupid he'd been all night. Jumping at every bump… sleeping with the lights on… thinking he was hearing things he obviously wasn't…. He'd acted like a five-year-old girl who'd accidentally just watched an intensely scary movie. A tiny, self-ridiculing smile graced his face as he began cracking eggs into the warmed pan. It was all so silly, really.
"So, where's Beast Boy?" he asked without turning his attention from the pan.
"He's resting down in the hospital wing. He's still pretty sick."
Robin glanced back in surprise. "Wait, he's sick?"
There was an exchange of glances that made Robin's skin prickle. He looked between them with some confusion, feeling like he was missing something.
"He caught a pretty bad cold last night," Raven spoke up evenly, her eyes returning to her book. "From running around in the rain."
"It's okay, man," Cyborg spoke up at the look on Robin's face, sheepishly rubbing his neck. "You were a little, well, preoccupied last night…"
"Yeah, I noticed."
A tense silence enveloped the room as Robin began flipping the eggs over. He narrowed his eyes down at the shiny yellow yolks. He felt like a jerk. He'd been so obsessed, so completely taken over by that stupid dust that he hadn't even noticed Beast Boy was sick. His knuckles tightened on the handle of the spatula. What if something more serious had happened? What if one of his friends had been in serious danger and he'd been too out of it to help?
"Robin, seriously, don't go beating yourself up—"
"I'm not," he spat, flipping his last egg over. The egg whites popped and sizzled on the fryer as Robin pulled a plate from another cupboard. He could practically feel their eyes still honed in on him like a beacon, and he hunched his shoulders as though to will them away.
It's all over… why can't we just put this all to rest and move on…?
With skills honed with practice, his flicked the frying pan, the eggs cooking on its surface leaping to the air and landing gracefully on the plate. He set the pan aside and stared hungrily down at the eggs. With all the "excitement" of the previous day, he realized, he'd forgotten to eat. Not even a Nutrigrain bar or a protein shake…
He picked up his plate and turned to glance at the others. They had gone back to their business – Raven reading her book, Cyborg noisily drinking his orange juice, Starfire eating something that looked completely inedible. Robin couldn't help but smile. It was these quiet moments he always enjoyed with them. He grabbed a fork, and began to make his way around the counter to sit beside them.
Eyes widened. Breathing froze. The plate slipped from his hands and shattered brilliantly on the floor, sending eggs and ceramic shards in every direction.
"Robin!" Cyborg and Starfire gasped in unison, getting to their feet.
Robin stared down at the mess on the floor with terrified eyes, the blood completely drained from his face. His heart was beating painfully fast, his mind swiped clean with horror.
He had heard that. It had been directly in his ear, saying his name. He had definitely heard that…
He looked up at the others. They're horrified, confused faces confirmed everything.
They hadn't heard it.
"Robin, what's wrong?"
He didn't answer a moment, looking back at the eggs.
…he had to have imagined it, right…?
Finally, he gripped his shoulder and winced. "Sorry, I… I hit my arm against the counter weird and it hurt so bad I..."
Cyborg was already on the move, striding around the counter to his side and inspecting his arm carefully. "We never did any x-rays – you think you may have broken something last night?"
Robin swallowed, eyes still focused on his eggs.
Inside, the rational center of his mind was screaming. Why are you doing this? Why are you lying to them?
"Come on, then. Let's go get you checked out."
Cyborg steered him away from the broken dish, towards the front door. Robin glanced behind him, at Starfire and Raven, both of whom looked back at him with concern.
I've already made you guys worry about me enough… this time, I'm going to figure it out on my own.
"There's a lot of swelling in your left wrist, but I can't find any broken bones or torn tendons there. Looks like it's just a bad sprain. However, it looks like you've got a pretty bad nondisplaced rib fracture. You're really going to need to take it easy for awhile."
Robin listened to these words with quiet consideration, his eyes focused blankly on the cylindrical ceiling of their special full-body x-ray machine. …it took a lot of force to crack a rib… what exactly had he done the previous night to…
He grunted in reply, glancing towards the little camera inside the machine. Cyborg was sitting at the controls in the next room, glancing over at the small monitor that showed Robin's face in black-and-white. The chocolate-skinned teen frowned in concern. The Titan leader looked a little… out of it. Exhausted, lost in his own thoughts. Cyborg glanced at the various numbers and meters. His heart rate was a little elevated, blood pressure a little higher than usual, brain waves a little sporadic. He flipped the microphone switch again. "You okay? Is something wrong?"
Quick, to the point…. Cyborg frowned a bit, leaning closer to the microphone, tone growing more serious. "You haven't seen Slade at all since last night, right?"
"Right." Robin responded, forcing a small smile.
Heard… not seen…
"Okay. Just wanted to make sure." Cyborg went back to looking over Robin's skeleton again, checking for any other problem areas. Robin remained still and silent in his cylindrical prison, staring back at its white, blank surface.
He'd thought he'd heard Slade twice now… he didn't know what to think. Could it have just been his imagination? Like how you think you hear someone say your name, but you turn and there's no one there? It happens to everyone, right? It was only coincidence it was happening now…?
He swallowed. He hoped so… but he really didn't believe in coincidences…
"Alright, everything else looks good."
Suddenly, the machine jarred him, the platform beneath him rolling him back out of the depths of the device. He blinked at the blinding lights outside, rubbing his one good eye as the last of his body cleared the machine's roof. Cyborg stood at his side, a hand already outstretched to help the injured boy up. Robin took the offer with some reluctance, wincing as he sat upright.
"Now remember what I said, the keyword is "Easy." You need to cut down on your training and fighting time, got that?"
"Got it," Robin bit back with some annoyance. He'd been injured before. He knew what he needed to do.
"What're you guys doin…?"
Robin and Cyborg both looked up to see Beast Boy flopped backwards on his bed, his chin resting where his feet would be. Robin swallowed. Beast Boy looked sick, his skin a pale, sickly shade of green, his eyes baggy and exhausted. His nose looked raw from sneezing and blowing, and his body definitely didn't radiate the energy and vivacity that was Beast Boy.
"Hey, BB," Cyborg said gently. "How you feelin'?"
Beast Boy replied with a bubbly groan and a sneeze, morphing into an ostrich before turning back into human.
Robin frowned deeper. He stood up and moved closer to the ill changeling. "Hey, Beast Boy… look, I wanted to say I was sorry for yesterday…"
Beast Boy sniffed hard, his nose very stuffy, but he forced a weary smile. "S'okay. You weren't really all there. I understand… Now Cy over there, he should apologize."
"What? What did I do?" Cyborg looked genuinely appalled.
"You weren't hallucinating anything. Why didn't you let me come home and sleep?"
"Well – I – You – "
"Just get me some veggie noodle soup and maybe bring up the Gamestation, and maybe I'll forgive you…" Beast Boy gave the bigger Titan a wry smile.
"Oh I get it, think if you guilt trip me I'll do whatever you ask well you KNOW WHAT? …you're RIGHT and I'll be right back!"
"Bring me some orange juice too, will ya?"
Robin couldn't help but chuckle a little as Cyborg stormed out of the room with a huff. Beast Boy cackled a little, too, until he was interrupted by a sneeze and a transformation into a hedgehog.
"It was your fault…"
Robin froze, and glanced over his shoulder, all hints of lightheartedness vanishing from his face. This time, it seemed like the voice was far off, maybe coming from the back of the room… but there was no one there.
"Thought I heard…" he glanced over at Beast Boy, who eyed him with bewilderment. Robin shook his head. "Never mind. Rest up, Beast Boy. Let me know if you need something."
"Sure, but what did you—" Robin didn't let Beast Boy finish his sentence before he swept from the hospital room.
His breathing was shallow, and his heart stampeding in his chest, as he made his way as quickly as possible back to his bedroom. He locked the door behind him, passed through his large closet area to his bathroom. He turned on the faucet and quickly splashed some ice cold water up into his face.
He was shaking again. He pressed his hands against his face, applying enough pressure to make his bruised eye throb. Water droplets trickled between his fingers, forming rivers as they travelled down his arms to his elbows, forming larger drops and plummeting to the porcelain sink below. He groaned into his palms, trying to stop trembling, but he couldn't.
This wasn't right… he knew it wasn't… He hadn't simply imagined it… His stomach twisted and curled inside him, like it was trying to do acrobatics beneath his skin, but was too connected to his other organs to get very far. He sighed, and slowly pulled his hands from his face. He gripped the counter for support, staring into the water pouring from the faucet.
What was this…? Was this just a lingering effect of the dust? Was this just his jittery nerves playing tricks on him? His knuckles turned white beneath his gloves as he tightened his hold on the counter edge.
Maybe… he was finally just losing it…
He glanced up at the mirror, to look at his own beaten face.
But instead, he saw that familiar, golden faceless mask, peering at him over his shoulder.
He cried out in absolute horror, spinning with an arm flailing, as though to knock that face away. But when he turned, all he found himself staring at was the tiled wall of his shower. He staggered sideways with dread running through his veins, moving until his shoulder hit the next wall. He found himself sliding down to the floor, clutching his arms to himself, pulling his knees towards his chest, shaking more violently than ever. He was wheezing now, hyperventilating, glancing around his bathroom with wild, paranoid eyes.
"This isn't good…" he murmured to himself. He curled up into a tighter ball, a dry sob wracking his chest as he clutched his head, shaking it back and forth violently. "…this isn't good…"
Chapter 3: Jitters
He couldn't help but wince, his forehead crinkling as that familiar bite of pain shot through his skin and up his arm. He released the breath he'd been holding, struggling to hold himself steady as trembling fingers pulled on the plunger of the syringe, slowly dragging blood from the vein in his arm. He hated that feeling, the weird sucking feeling of having blood drawn. He forced himself to breathe calmly and not shake too much as the vial slowly filled. Lungs froze again as he slowly withdrew the needle from his arm, another wince gracing his pale face. He peeked at the cold, red-stained tip for only a moment before setting the syringe aside and taping a cotton ball clumsily against the puncture in his arm with his other hand. With a snap, he released the rubber tourniquet and flexed his fingers, already moving on to his next task.
Black and white newspaper clippings stared him down as he made his way around the table and over to the wall where his big computer stood. His movements were jittery, clumsy, tense; he could actually feel his shoulders trembling minutely along his back, but he chose to ignore it as he carefully uncapped the vial and snapped it into place in the digital analyzer. Taking his seat before the computer monitor and keyboard, he froze, glancing over his shoulder expectantly.
Only Slade's printed face stared back at him from the clippings patterned like wallpaper around the room.
Calm down, Robin… calm down… you're already acting like a lunatic…
Shaking himself mentally, he turned back to the computer, his fingers a blur of green over the keys as he typed out hotkeys and commands. A microscopic view of his blood appeared, and beside it, an image of his blood from the previous night. Data began compiling, windows and messages popping up on the screen. Robin's eyes scanned it with well-trained eyes, looking for any anomaly, any sign, any hint…
The computer beeped, announcing it had finished its analysis. Robin's shoulders sank, his hand grappling for the mouse as he scrolled up and down the screen… no, it had to be some mistake… there had to be traces of the reagent left…
"You won't find it, Robin."
He gasped, and turned reflexively to look over his shoulder.
The light of the computer screen glinted against Slade's mask, the man looming over where he sat.
Robin yelped and snapped away, his chair toppling over and crashing to the ground as he reeled back. Without even thinking, he pulled his bo staff from his belt and held it protectively before him, his footsteps panicked and unsteady as he added more distance between himself and his long-time nemesis.
"What's wrong, Robin?" Slade asked in a mocking tone, taking in his shaking, defensive stance with an air of smugness. "Aren't you glad to see me?"
"You're not real…" Robin stammered in a trembling voice, his shoulder blades meeting the cold wall behind him. Newspaper clippings crinkled and protested as he leaned against it harder. "Y-you're not real!"
"No. I'm not." Slade's eyes flickered, revealing that there was a smile playing behind that vile mask. "And you can't figure out why. After all, there's no reagent this time… nothing to cause this…"
Robin was trembling completely now, his face twitching with horror. This had to be another trick, another chemical in his system, something hidden… There had to be some explanation…
Slade was stepping forward, moving closer to him, his arms clasped behind his back like he was simply strolling through the park. He glanced around casually, at the many news articles taped upon the wall. He paused at one, staring at his own face in the crinkled newsprint, a small chuckle rolling through him. "You know, I must say, I enjoy the décor in here. It's really no wonder your obsession has turned to this…" He turned and looked at him, eyes still twinkling.
Suddenly, he moved in, unbearably close, leaning in so his mask was just a breath from Robin's face. "Why don't you just accept it Robin? You've lost your mind…"
Robin had heard enough. He lashed out, his movements driven fully by the dread clogging his system. Slade easily side-swept the attack, and Robin turned and charged at him with a cry.
He hit the floor hard face-first, the bo-staff spinning from his grasp to lie at rest under the lab table. Robin lifted his head, but for some reason, he didn't move. He felt frozen, rooted to the spot. He was shaking more than ever, rolling his shoulders in a hunch, clenching his eyes tight. He waited for the attack he knew was coming… It was over now, wasn't it? Slade, real or not, had returned to finish what he'd started last night…
But no blow fell. Nothing happened. Robin blinked at the ground in confusion, before that voice suddenly hissed dangerously in his ear.
"I'm not here to fight you, Robin…"
"Then why are you here?" he croaked weakly.
"That's for you to figure out…"
He gasped and looked up as the door to the room slid open, the light from the hallway suddenly pouring in. He slowly got to his hands and knees as Starfire came hurrying in, falling to her knees beside him and grabbing his arm. "What happened? You are okay?"
He stared at her a long moment, then glanced behind him.
Slade was gone.
He looked back at her. "I'm fine…" he said in a small voice, letting her help him to slowly stand. "I just… I just fell…"
"Did you trip, or did you collapse?" spoke up another voice. Robin looked up to see that Cyborg and Raven both stood at the door now, looking at him seriously.
He gaped at them a long moment, frozen with indecision... should he just tell them…?
He swallowed, and suddenly gave them a coy, reassuring smile.
"Would you guys stop worrying about every little thing? I only tripped." He was surprised at how quickly he was able to steady his voice for them… how easily he could act like nothing was wrong… he shrugged his shoulders and glanced around. "Just a little clumsy today, that's all. Nothing to freak out about."
"You shouldn't even be in here. You should be resting," Raven spoke up in a serious tone.
"Yeah, what were you doing in here anyway?" Cyborg's eyes glanced up at the computer monitor. Robin followed his gaze.
"I was curious about the reagent. Looking at the blood samples you took and everything. Just wanted to know what the chemical was, where Slade might have gotten it…"
Robin's skin was crawling as he looked around at them. He didn't all like these questions, didn't like how easily they distrusted him… But he really didn't want to tell them what was really happening. At least, not yet. He wanted to see if he could figure it out first…
"…I don't like it when people mess with my head…" he finally said, looking at them sternly. "That's all. I just have to know, have to understand. You know how I can get with these things…"
"Yeah, we know," Raven said dully. "But sometimes, there's nothing more to understand."
"You just need to let it go, Robin…"
He glanced at them, and then at the floor, his face growing cloudy. "I know… I'm trying to…"
A long silence enveloped them. The others glanced at one another, as Robin kept his gaze fixed to the floor. Star's hand still clutched his arm from helping him up, and she tightened her grip compassionately.
"Let us do something, then, Robin. Something to occupy you from what happened. We could… watch the television, perhaps? A movie?"
Robin thought it over a moment, glancing again back, to where Slade had been, to the computer. He laid a hand on Starfire's, and looked up at her with a soft look. "That sounds like a good idea."
He accompanied her out, the other two Titans following behind him, clearly making sure he didn't try to sneak away to go back to work. As the door shut home, a cold, sinister disembodied voice hissed directly into his ear.
"I'm still here, Robin… and I'm not going anywhere…"
His grip tightened on Starfire's hand. The Tamaranian girl glanced at him with a hint of surprise. Her grip tightened again on his arm in response, and she smiled at him softly.
"My favorite moment of the movie was when the girl played the sunset with her musical instrument – though I did not actually notice a sunset, I am still quite fond of the moment."
Starfire looked at Robin with a smile, but after looking him over a little, her smile faded to a frown. Though Robin nodded his head, he did not appear to be paying attention. She prodded his arm. "Are you thinking about your favorite part?"
"Huh?" Robin was startled from his thoughts, looking over at Starfire as though confused. She frowned a little deeper, inspecting his expression closely.
"Did you not like the movie?"
"Oh no, I did!" Robin was quick to answer, nodding his head more fervently as he glanced up at the credits scrolling on the enormous screen. "I liked how he taught that kid the drums, you know?"
"But that boy died in war…"
Robin stared at her a long moment before looking away pensively. "Oh, yeah. Right…"
Starfire continued frowning at the boy beside her. He did not seem his usual self, did not seem as engaged or focused as the Robin she knew. Through the whole movie, he'd seemed very distracted, lost in thought, but also a little jumpy, like a small creature expecting to be devoured at any second. She rested a hand on his shoulder, looking at him carefully. "Are you alright?"
"Just tired," he answered softly, rubbing a hand over his face. "…a little headache…"
"Perhaps you should go to bed?" she suggested caringly.
Robin didn't answer. He glanced around, his eyes looking towards a nearby corner and focusing there for awhile. Starfire followed his gaze, but saw nothing. "Robin?"
"I… kinda don't want to be alone… not right now…" he murmured in a quiet voice. He glanced over at her, and upon seeing the concern lacing her face, he offered her a small smile. "I'm still a little jumpy from last night, that's all…"
"We could put on another film," Starfire suggested, nodding at the pile of movies scattered all over the coffee table.
"Alright. Go ahead and choose one."
"But I chose the last one."
"I don't mind." Robin's smile grew more genuine.
"Alright… um…" She slid from the couch to the floor, shuffling through the pile of DVDs on the coffee table. She looked at all the covers, considering each title and each picture carefully. After a few minutes of deliberation, she finally chose one and held it up for him to see. "What about this… one…"
As she looked up, she was startled to see that Robin had sprawled himself sideways on the couch, his head resting on his arm. He wasn't smiling anymore, just kind of staring blankly at the floor in exhaustion. Realizing she was addressing him again, he glanced up, and nodded. "That's fine."
Starfire watched him a small moment. She didn't know quite why, but a terrible feeling was growing in the pit of her stomach as she took in his curled-up form. She sighed as she stood, making her way to the computer, setting up the DVD player for the new movie. Then, she sat herself back down beside him, his head resting near her leg. She looked down at him as the copyright warnings began to play, carefully resting a hand on his shoulder. "You are certain you are alright?"
He didn't speak, but reached up and gripped her hand, his eyes falling closed with a gentle sigh. She swallowed as she watched him, squeezing his hand back gently. She could see how badly his eye was swollen in the light of the television, could see every scrape and the bruise on his face and arms. His exhaustion seemed like a cloud that enveloped him, its edges touching her, causing her to practically feel it herself.
Last night, he'd almost died, because of something imagined inside his own head…
It was no wonder he looked so tired… why he was so reluctant to be alone…
She leaned a little, and brushed some of the hair away from his face. His lip twitched in a slight smile, his eyes opening for a moment to glance up at her, before he shifted and settled more comfortably beside her, eyes closing again.
It wasn't long until he was snoring softly beside her, his face peaceful beneath the bright glow of the television screen.
Awww, how cute!
So, I thought it would be worth mentioning that there will be no blatant shipping going on in this story – no slash, no kissing, nothing. I play off what was established in the show – what could actually happen in the show. Starfire and Robin are canon, but since this is only season 3, they are not a thing yet. (Besides: God I hate that movie!).
Chapter 4: Translucent
Sleep melted away slowly, like an ice cube on a spring afternoon. Robin's eyes opened, and he blinked at the ceiling. At first, he was confused as to where he was. He glanced around, his eyes grazing past the familiar orange designs on the command center walls, the back of the couch, the movies on the coffee table. His eyes finally fell to rest on the gigantic television screen. It glowed and flickered with the menu of the last DVD they had watched the night before… well, the one he had slept clear through. On either side of the screen, through the two remaining windows of the great room, he could see the morning sun rising behind the rolling hills of Jump City. It cast the whole town in shadow, painted the sky with brilliant watercolors. It seeped through the glass, basking the room in soft, peaceful light.
He heard a small snort beside him, and his heart skipped a terrible beat. He craned his head, and was relieved to see it was only Starfire, her golden figure stretched out on the couch beside him like a slumbering cat. Her head lay only a foot away from his, her thin chin tilted back, mouth stretched wide with a gurgling snore. He smiled, relaxing a little, somewhat amused by her expression.
But even with such a silly face, she was still beautiful. He wondered if she was even aware of it.
"Good morning, Robin. I trust you slept well…"
He shot upright, his heart galloping against his ribs as he turned to face the sudden voice. He gripped the edge of the couch cushion beneath him, as though to ground himself as he took in the familiar figure staring him down from the corner of the room.
Slade was still there…
Starfire stirred a little beside him, but didn't wake. Robin glanced over at her, and then back at Slade with wide, wary eyes.
"Careful," the old criminal said lightheartedly. "You don't want to wake her, do you?"
Robin swallowed and got to his feet. He stepped away from Slade's unblinking eye, walking around the couch, as though to place it between them. He didn't speak, didn't look his way, trying to pretend nothing was wrong.
But Slade suddenly appeared right before him, causing him to halt abruptly, his head snapping back so quickly it hurt in his neck.
"What's the matter, Robin?" Slade bemused darkly. "You were so quick to speak to me before. Why not now?"
He's not real… he told himself frantically, struggling to steady himself, to steady his shaking breath. He walked around Slade, heading to the kitchen.
"What, are you going to try and ignore me? See if maybe that'll make me go away, and stop bothering you? That may have worked in the movie A Beautiful Mind, but it won't work here."
Robin kept quiet, pulling a cup from a cabinet, moving to the sink, turning on the water. He tried to focus on what he was doing, and only on what he was doing… but his hand was shaking despite himself.
Slade walked up behind him, leaning horribly close to his ear. Robin could see him, out of the corner of his eye.
"How long do you plan to do this, Robin? How long do you think you can?"
As long as I need to… he thought to himself, clenching his eyes closed. Long enough to figure out…
"I may be a figment of your imagination, Robin, but I can't read your thoughts. That's not how these things work. Come on, tell me. What do you plan on doing? How long do you think you can handle this?"
"Get… out…" Robin hissed through clenched teeth. His arms were shaking as he clutched the counter, as though to keep himself from collapsing.
"No, Robin..." Slade was so close now; Robin could almost feel his breath on his ear. "I'm not going to go anywhere. I'm going to stay right here, ever present, ever watchful. Do you think you can handle it? Handle me?"
"I'm going to try…"
"I thought you weren't going to talk to me."
A frustrated growl left his lips as he swung his arm. If Slade had truly been there, his elbow would've smashed into his mask. But this Slade was far quicker, already out of reach. Robin couldn't stop himself from continuing forward, lashing out with his other hand, but Slade was gone again, and Robin slammed painfully into the kitchen counter. He coughed as he flopped over it, all wind knocked painfully from his chest, his eyes stinging. He backed away slowly, his fingertips sliding along the counters smooth surface, his eyes clenched tightly as his shivering doubled.
This can't be happening, he thought numbly. He pulled his arms towards himself, elbows folding, his palms pressing against his forehead with fingers stuck out stiffly. This can't be happening to me…
"If there's one thing I know you don't have, it's patience," Slade went on, as though nothing had happened. "And I know how to test it… distracting you… taunting you… not letting you lay a finger on me… Obviously, it's working. You are already at your wit's end… at my mercy…"
Robin shook his head, leaning over and letting his elbows rest on the table, his eyes staring blankly at the counter as Slade spoke. This couldn't be it. He couldn't be going crazy on his own. There had to be something… there had to be something… the blood work hadn't come up with anything… but what if whatever was going on with his brain couldn't be found in his blood, couldn't break through the blood-brain barrier?
He snapped his head up with epiphany. If he could just see inside his brain, see what it was doing…
"Thought of something, have we?"
Robin ignored him, glancing over at the clock. 7:30AM. The rest of the tower was sure to be sound asleep still…
He charged forward, brushing by Slade's judging face as he headed for the door.
"What you're thinking - it won't work, Robin."
Robin froze, but didn't turn to look at him. "I thought you said you couldn't read my mind," he grumbled under his breath.
Slade chuckled a little.
"I don't have to…"
When the hospital wing's doors open, Robin was startled by the loud snoring pouring from within. He peeked in, his heart strangling inside his chest upon seeing Beast Boy lying on the nearest cot… He'd totally forgotten….
"Hospital wing. Isn't this where they had you tied up like a mental patient…?"
Robin tried to not pay him any attention, slowly moving towards Beast Boy, stepping lightly to silence his footsteps. Robin hovered a bit over his friend's slumbering form, which was sprawled out oddly on his bed in a manner most people would find uncomfortable, but for some reason the green changeling often seemed to favor. Drool dribbled along his cheek, dripping and soaking into the sheets beside Beast Boy's head.
A nervous bead of sweat trickled by Robin's ear as he turned from Beast Boy to look at the enormous machine in the far corner of the room, the one Cyborg used to do his x-rays. But that wasn't all it could do. It was multi-purpose; it also contained a CT scanner, and a magnetic resonance imaging device… exactly what he needed to see inside his brain.
"MRI machine. I get it. Clever." Slade's sarcasm was anything but subtle as his lone eye flicked from the machine to the sleeping Beast Boy "How do you plan on using it without waking up the green one?"
Robin looked at the villain darkly, then reached over and gripped a tray of things beside Beast Boy's bed. With a flick of his wrist, he toppled it. The table hit the floor with a resounding clatter, video games, empty bowls, comic books and medicine bottles scattering everywhere.
Beast Boy merely rolled over, snoring louder than ever.
"He sleeps like a brick even when he'd not under the influence of Nyquil," Robin murmured out loud, not really bothering to keep his voice down as he turned away from the mess. He pulled the curtain around Beast Boy's bed, and shot Slade a cold, hateful glare. "And why don't you keep your mouth shut for ten minutes?"
Slade chuckled a little, leaning against a nearby counter with his arms crossed as Robin moved to the enormous machine. He watched him input information with a knowing gaze. "That was bitter and resentful, Robin. It reminds me of why I chose you first…"
Robin bared his teeth in aggravation as he typed commands into the machine, his arms twitching with desire to smack Slade into silence. It won't work anyway… he can't be touched, can't be affected…
The machine whirred to life, its cylindrical body humming and lighting up, its platform bed sticking out like a tongue. Robin pressed a few more commands into the computer, then quickly jumped up on the platform's flat surface, lying back as the platform slid back into its depths.
"This isn't going to work, Robin."
Robin closed his eyes, listening to the machine do its thing. Flashes of light bled red through his eyelids as the machine went to work taking full scans of his head, silently amazed with technology, that particles of energy were passing through his skull and relaying information to a machine…
He listened to his heart beat… he prayed this would reveal something… anything…
And he barely breathed, as though anymore sound than the machine would cause Beast Boy to wake up… would cause someone to come in. Though they had some of the best technology available, the whole process would still take roughly half an hour to complete…
"THIS IS POINTLESS, ROBIN!"
Slade's voice reverberated through the circular cavern of the scanner, bursting in his eardrums. He jumped a little where he lay, and clenched his jaw and eyes tight as he fought to remain still. Shut up, shut up… you'll ruin everything…
But Slade did not shut up. He hovered around the entrance to the machine, speaking into it, every word echoing around Robin where he lay.
"You're not going to find anything, Robin, and then what? What will you do? What lengths are you willing to go…? Am I annoying you yet? You want to attack me… oh, what was that? Did you just hear something? I think someone is coming"
Robin strained his ears, heart thumping more sporadically. No, no one could find him like this….
Just… shut… UP!
No one came. After what felt like an eternity, the machine shuddered him into motion, ejecting him back out. He snapped his eyes open, a nervous queasiness taking over his stomach.
Please… it had to have worked… it had to show something…
He shuffled himself out before the scanner bed had even ejected halfway, hurrying his way around Slade and bending over the computer, fingers already at work on the keys. He could barely breathe as he tapped out memorized sequences.
"You sure you're inputting the right information? You're not just typing the commands you should use for the analysis computer in your lab, are you?"
Robin's fingers hesitated for the briefest moment, his mind faltering a second in doubt. He shook himself, and growled. No, he couldn't let Slade affect his judgment like that…
Don't listen to him. Don't take anything he says into consideration.
He typed out the last few commands and hit enter. The hourglass appeared, signaling that the computer was processing, preparing.
"You won't find anything."
The printer hummed to life. Robin straightened, crossing his arms around himself as he shifted his weight from foot to foot in impatience as he watched the black and white transparencies slowly print.
Footsteps resounded in the hall. Robin snapped his head up in horror, glancing to the door. He knew immediately who's footsteps they were, recognizing the heavy force behind them. He glanced at the printer… one page had printed… the other was almost done.
"Come on, come on…" he hissed desperately, glancing around.
"WHAT? Huh?" gasped another voice suddenly.
Robin snapped up in horror, eyes falling on the curtain was separating Beast Boy from them. He was awake – he had to hear the scanner now, had to realize someone was there. Robin looked back at the scanner, now panicking. Almost done… COME ON!
The door suddenly open, Cyborg appearing with a plate of waffles in his hands.
"Alright!" Beast Boy said elatedly, sitting upright in his bed. "Breakfast!"
Cyborg stood there a moment, frowning in bewilderment. "How is it you always wake up when I show up with food?"
"Dude, I have the nose to rival that of a wolf. And food is my favorite smell."
"Right…" Cyborg took a moment to glance around the room, his human eyebrow knitting with his mechanical one as he took in the turned over the table and the lit-up machine. "What happened in here?"
"What do you—AUGH! My games!" Beast Boy leapt out from under his covers, scrambling on the floor and picking up his handheld video game, kissing it tenderly. "Oh, Mister PSP. Why are you on the floor? Tell me everything!"
Cyborg turned from the changeling, rolling his eyes a little before something else caught his attention. He frowned, moving toward the other side of the room.
"And why is the scanner on?" His eyes roamed over the machine inquisitively, looking in it and around it. "I'm pretty sure I turned it off last night…"
Robin held his breath from where he hid, curling himself up into a tighter ball beneath the machine. He shut his eyes closed, as though that would make himself more invisible. He clutched the printouts to his chest, chanting inside his head… please don't find me… pleeease don't find me…
"He's right over here," Slade said casually with an outstretched finger, standing just feet in front of Cyborg. Robin snapped his head up, his heart racing to a new pitch, forgetting for a moment that no one else could see him.
Cyborg moved right past the villain, frowning down at the display. His enormous shoes were just inches from Robin's feet. Robin settled himself further against the wall, folding his knees so tightly his legs hurt.
He was sure Cyborg's sensors would find him… he was busted…
But Cyborg merely reached up and hit the power button of the machine. The enormous device's humming slowly died to silence, the displays and illuminations extinguishing. Cyborg frowned at it for a moment longer, then shrugged. "Huh, guess I didn't… anyways, eat up Beast Boy, and then get your stuff out of here."
"Come on, man. I can tell just by looking at you that you're feeling better."
"Uuuuurgh…" the changeling gurgled dramatically, slumping to the floor. "But… no… I feel aaaachey… and stuuufffy… I don't think I'll make it… go on without me… and bring me a soda…"
"I won't be waiting on you hand and foot today, Bea, so drop the act! I can tell you're all better!"
"But… your guilt…"
"Ain't gonna happen. Now eat your waffles before I force feed it to you with my foot!"
Beast Boy pouted, pulling himself back to his bed and eyeing the plate on the counter. "They're vegan, right?"
"I dunno. Why don't you find out?"
"Come on, dude! That's not cool!"
"They're so useless…" Slade spoke, watching over them from where he stood. His lone eye flickered down to Robin, who was fighting to keep his panicked breathing silent in his hiding spot. "So weak, so clueless… Someone snuck into this room and tore it apart, and they didn't bother to figure out who, or why. Didn't even consider it. Seriously, what do you see in them? Why don't you get rid of them? Worthless… pathetic…"
Robin remained silent. He curled up tighter into himself, knees pulling closer to his chest, arms resting upon them. He lay his head down on his forearms, the printer paper crinkling in the middle of it all.
He was shaking again…
Chapter 5: Backbone
A rasping, frustrated cry broke the silence. A gloved hand swiped violently across the lab counter, sending the disarrayed clutter atop it tumbling and crashing to the floor. Robin bent over its newly bare surface, cradling his forehead in his hands. The MRI pictures hung on the light board on the wall before him, its light bleeding through the black and white images and casting brain-shaped shadows over him as he grimaced.
"Temper, Robin. Temper."
"Who the hell are you to talk to me about temper!" Robin spat at the countertop, his fingernails digging into his scalp.
"Don't get mad at me. I told you that you wouldn't find anything."
Robin slammed his fist down on the counter, sending a shockwave of pain through his wrist and arm. His frustration was clutching at his chest like a vice, filling him with white hot anger. He snapped his head up, glaring at the printouts of his brain through blazing eyes. He reached out and snatched them down, looking down at them, silently seething.
It was true… there wasn't anything there. Not one little blip of an anomaly. No hazy areas, no blots, no indications of infection or poisoning or tumor growth – not one hint of what was happening to him. It was just a brain like any other brain…
But right now, my brain isn't like any other brain… why?
"So, what now, Robin?" Robin gritted his teeth. Much of his irritation stemmed from the constant, persistent distraction that was his own personal Slade. The villain hovered nearby, a little too close for comfort, but Robin knew there was nothing he could do to stop him. The masked man continued impassively. "Knowing you, you're not going to let it go that easily."
"Gee, it's like you've been inside my mind or something," Robin retorted sarcastically, sweeping by the phantom of his past. He marched around the table and violently shoved the printouts into the wastebasket.
"You really are an angry child…"
Robin closed his eyes, taking a deep steadying breath. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
This was getting bad. His lead had fallen through, and his hallucinations had grown incredibly severe. The day before had started off with just mild auditory hallucinations, then the sporadic visual ones… Now, he was experiencing them without pause. Even when the dust had been ailing him, Slade had only plagued him periodically….
…only in the darkness…
Robin swallowed, a cold feeling sweeping through his stomach as he looked up at Slade. The masked criminal looked back at him curiously, as Robin began to process it all inside his head. Under the influence of the dust, Slade had only appeared when there was very little light… but now…
"What're you thinking about Robin? Wondering if the white of a straitjacket will clash with your mask?"
Slade ducked as an empty glass beaker flew straight for his head. It slammed home in the light board, a brilliant burst of glass showering to the floor.
"This can't be it!" Robin stammered, clutching his hair with his eyes stinging. "There has to be something else! Something I'm missing!"
"Well, if it's not in your blood, and can't be seen in your brain, then what else could it be?"
"Would you just shut—" Robin froze, his eyes widening down at the floor, his fingers releasing their hold on his hair just a bit.
…not in his blood… not in his brain… couldn't be seen, but that didn't mean there wasn't something there… There could still be something on the other side of the blood-brain barrier – something in the fluid, something clear, something invisible to scanner. Something that could hide forever, unless he got a sample of it…
He was already moving, tearing forward with his jaw set, his eyes wide and manic as he began wrenching drawers from his lab table.
"Looks like someone has an idea," Slade commented in a flat voice, looking bored as he stood beside Robin, watching him tear apart his lab in his frantic search. "You should be quiet, though – what if the others hear you."
But Robin didn't listen to him. He was done listening to him. He pulled open another drawer, peering into it and almost chucking it aside before he realized what he was looking for was inside. He shifted through the contents, and pulled out a sterilized package containing an incredibly long, incredibly thin surgical needle.
"…a spinal tap, Robin?"
A strange, almost demented smile split across Robin's face as he stared at the extra long syringe. It was exactly it – this was his last shot, and this time, he knew he was going to find something.
He was already pulling off his shirt.
"Robin!" Slade shouted, his voice taking on a serious, almost worried tone. "You can't be serious! A spinal tap is dangerous enough, but to try and do it on your own is just asking for a wheelchair."
Robin was grinning up at him as he backed away, kneeling down on the floor. "You just don't want me to do it, because you know I'll find something."
Slade strode forward, his eyes wide and stern. "Do you realize what's happened here, Robin? What I am to you now? I've become your voice of reason – and you have officially crossed over the line into insanity!"
"SHUT UP!" Robin shouted at him.
"You're going to paralyze yourself this way, Robin! There is no way you can do this properly on your own!"
Robin turned his head from Slade, tearing open the sterile packaging of the syringe. His mind was set - he had to do this. He had to know once and for all… He curved his back and twisted his arm, his fingertips feeling the ridges along his spine.
He could definitely do this… he could…
He held up the syringe, staring at it intensely. Its long tip glinted in the dim light.
Slade had remained still and silent for all of this, watching Robin with an unblinking stare. Suddenly, he took a step back, head shaking slightly, as though in disbelief. "Is this truly the lengths will you go to protect your friends from your problems? Will you seriously risk yourself like this? Are you really that desperate?"
"Please shut up…" Robin tried to say, but somehow, he couldn't. He'd forgotten how to breathe. His eyes remained focus on the cold, sharp tip of the needle. He was shocked to realize it wasn't staying still, but rather wavering badly.
His hand had begun to shake.
It would be over quickly, he told himself. He'd read how to do this… he knew how to do it… he was certain he could…
But he was slowly growing aware of the fact that it was not just his hands that shook. Powerful tremors rolled through his entire body, through his back, through his legs, through his face. He clenched his eyes tight, forcing himself to breathe, to calm himself done.
Just a little pinch… that's all it would be…
He could feel its sharp tip scraping against the valley of skin between two vertebrae.
Just push… just… have to do it….
Robin's eyes snapped open, reality crashing upon him like a bucket of cold water. The needle clattered to the floor, and he found himself snapping away like he'd been burned by something. He curled over his knees on the floor, clutching his stomach, eyes wide and unblinking as he stared down at the needle lying on the floor, surrounded by the mess of overturned drawers.
A tidal wave of full and intense nausea hit him, and he clapped a hand to his mouth.
He had almost tried to shove a needle into his spine.
…he had almost tried to do something completely stupid… senseless, reckless… insane…
…and it was his own hallucination that had to reason with him to stop…
He gagged again, tears streaming down his cheeks as he slumped to the floor.
What is wrong with me… what the fuck is wrong with me?
Slade hadn't moved from his spot, his lone eye taking in the scene with a look of scorn and contempt. Robin clenched his eyes closed, curling up into himself, as Slade's voice echoed through his head.
"…I knew you couldn't do it…"
"Told you asking Raven was a stupid idea…"
"Leave it alone, Bea. So she likes to spend time in her room. Big deal."
"It's way creepy!" Beast Boy drew his lip up in a sulk, tossing a gigantic ball of dirty socks between his hands as he glowered over his shoulder. "Now we can't even finish our game."
"I don't know why you wanted to ask her to begin with. What about Star, or Robin?"
"Dude, we had that referee outfit made for a reason!"
"And whose idea was that? Face it – I just think you want to see her wear something other than blue."
"She does wear the same outfit everyday…"
"So do you!"
"SO DO YOU!"
"Well, MY outfit doesn't come off," Cyborg pointed out bluntly, tapping his chest armor as though to prove it. Beast Boy chuckled nervously, and turned away, lower lip stuck out in thought.
"We have to finish this game… get through the lightning round… but we can't without…" Something caught his attention, and he snapped his head up eagerly. "Robin!"
Cyborg followed his gaze, and saw the familiar spikey-hair teenager ahead of them in the hallway, closing the door to his lab. At Beast Boy's call, he jumped a little, startled eyes snapping over to them. After staring at them a few seconds, he relaxed a little, falling into a small smile.
"Hey, guys… um… what's up?"
Beast Boy ran forward and began to explain their sock-bred shenanigans with excited, animated movements, while Cyborg lingered back, frowning a little as he took in the dark-haired Titan. He wasn't sure what it was, but something seemed off about the Boy Wonder. It might've been his hair – it was in a bit of disarray, not in its usual gelled perfection. It might've been the lack of color in his face, or his distracted gaze, or his restless stance…
It wasn't like any of these things were abnormal for Robin. There was always something churning in his head and distracting him when he was around the tower. His face was always a little pale, his movements typically always done with a hint of restlessness. Even his hair wasn't always so perfect, particularly after battle….
So why did Cyborg just get the feeling that something wasn't quite right?
Robin backed away from Beast Boy a little, coughing as the foul stench of the Stankball fully embraced his olfactory system.
"Good god, Beast Boy. Some of those socks have to be weeks old!"
"Yep! Come on! You know you wanna help us."
"I'd love to," Robin's voice was muffled by his hands clapped before his face. "But I would really rather not."
"Aww! Party pooper!" Beast Boy groaned. He turned to Cyborg, and motioned for them to continue. "Come on. Starfire likes gross things. She'll probably help us."
"Good thinking," Cyborg agreed with a nod. He took a few steps to follow, but faltered to a halt next to Robin, who had fallen into quiet, almost serious contemplation.
"Hey, man. Is everything okay?"
Robin looked up, as though surprised he was still there. He shifted a little, nervously. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine."
"Yeah. It's nothing. Really."
Cyborg kept his eyes focused on Robin's young, pale face, as though trying to zoom through him and read his mind, to find out if he was telling the truth or twisting his leg. Robin didn't look away, refusing to blink, as though challenging him to think he was lying.
"Okay," Cyborg said after a long moment. "You know I'm here, if you need something."
"I know. Thanks."
Cyborg threw him a curt nod, and turned to follow Beast Boy, when a hand suddenly grabbed him. "Wait. I think I could use your help."
"I'm sorry, say what?" Cyborg asked, a little alarmed. Robin? Asking for help?
Robin gave a strange smile, as though reading Cyborg's disbelief. The smile faded into a frown, and he dropped his gaze. "Look, I just… this is going to sound weird, but I want a sample of my cerebrospinal fluid."
"What? Why?" Cyborg's face grew grave, almost reproachful.
"I'm still trying to figure out what that dust did… trying to figure out if it's still doing anything…"
"Do you think it is? Have you been seeing—"
"No, I haven't." Robin's voice was stern, almost forceful as he said this, glowering darkly, a strange, haunted look to his eye. "I've… been having nightmares though… and this lingering feeling that something is going to go wrong… that maybe he'll come back…"
A strange chill ran up Cyborg's spine, and he grabbed Robin's arm roughly. "Robin. You're just being paranoid. Come on, I checked everything, man. You were clean. You're fine. Slade is not coming back."
"Just humor me," Robin growled darkly, his eyes sharp and determined as they looked up at him. "Or I might just end up doing it myself."
The cybernetic teen fell into stunned silence, staring down at his friend with that strange concern seeping back into him. He hated thinking it, but he knew that once Robin had his mind set on something, he would go to extraordinary, stupid lengths to get what he wanted. Finally, Cyborg sighed harshly, narrowing his eyes at the younger teen. "Fine. I'll humor you… But it's going to cost you."
"Name your price."
"You do my chores this week."
Robin's face changed, his mind clearly recalling the wad of moldy disgustingness that was the Stankball. He shuddered noticeably before sighing in defeat. "Fine."
The Boy Wonder brushed by Cyborg with a scowl, heading in the direction of the hospital wing. Cyborg followed quietly, watching the back of the shorter boy's head in thought.
You better not being lying to me, Robin…
"Alright, just relax, Robin. You'll just feel some pressure, and then it'll all be over."
Cyborg glanced up at the boy curled up in a fetal position on the hospital bed before him, his shirt pulled up to his arm pits. His jaw was clenched tightly, eyes focused on the far wall in strict resoluteness. But he couldn't help but flinch when Cyborg pressed the needle into the small of his back.
"Just breathe, Robin. Relax. You're not helping at all here."
"Sorry." The word came out in a croak, Robin's eyes remaining closed. He breathed a small laugh. "Good thing I decided not to try this on myself."
Cyborg glanced up, that familiar uncertainty tensing in his chest. "You weren't seriously considering it, were you?"
Robin's eyes opened, and flickered to their side, as though to try and look at him. "Fleetingly… I'm not that stupid…"
Cyborg didn't respond to this. He turned his attention back to his work. Though he had large hands, they were steady and nimble as he began pulling fluid from Robin's back. This was one of those moments where he was actually grateful for his robotic body – it meant robotic-like stability and precision. He couldn't imagine how much more difficult something like this would be to someone with normal human reflexes.
It didn't help that even to him, the sight of the needle in Robin's spinal column was enough to give him the willies. He found himself holding his own breath as the vial slowly filled.
"Okay, done," he finally said, withdrawing the needle and setting it aside. Robin had already begun to sit up, and Cyborg quickly threw a hand out to stop him. "Oh, no you don't! Lay your butt back down! Your body needs a chance to recover."
Robin didn't object verbally, but his annoyance was evident on his face as he settled his head back on his pillow. Cyborg really wasn't surprised – the caped kid always had to be doing something, always. Something important, something serious, something world-changing, even and especially if it was at his own risk.
And someday, all that is going to come back and bite him, Cyborg thought glumly. Being under so much stress for so long… if he kept up like this… well, it was just surprising that Robin hadn't had a complete mental breakdown already…
Cyborg sat down at the computer and snapped the tube of Robin's spinal juices into the analysis machine. He typed on the keys and sat back, watching the screen work its magic. Robin craned his neck around, arms wrapping around his pillow as he strained to see.
"Negative," Cyborg said as the computer finished its analysis. "No foreign substances, no abnormal cell growth, no strange antibodies, no infections. Your nervous system is as healthy as ever." He turned to smile at the Boy Wonder, but was shocked to see the boy was not smiling back. He had turned his head away, staring out before him, as though he were suddenly incredibly tired. Cyborg straightened in concern. "Hey, you okay?"
Cyborg moved forward, a sense of urgency to his gait. He knelt before the Boy Wonder, so their eyes were level. "Don't lie to me, Robin. I just punctured your spine – I need to know if you're experiencing any bad side effects. I need to know if anything is wrong."
"I just feel a little dizzy," Robin murmured quietly. "Probably from the needle…" His eyebrows furrowed, and he continued, quietly, as though to himself more than to him. "I was certain there would be something…"
Cyborg watched Robin a long moment, his face solemn and worried. "Robin. This paranoia… it isn't healthy. You know it isn't. Nothing is coming to get you. Slade is gone, the dust is gone, and you are going to be just fine, okay?"
Robin didn't answer, avoiding Cyborg's gaze and quietly listening. Cyborg swallowed, growing increasingly unsettled by all of this. "You said you were having nightmares…?" Robin gave a small nod, indicating he was really listening. "I don't know what to do about that. You're going to have to figure those out for yourself. I mean, your 'encounter' with Slade was only a few days ago. It's not surprising you're still a little shaken up about it."
Robin remained silent. Cyborg waited a few more moments, then stood. He glanced up at the monitor, as though double-checking to make sure he hadn't missed something. A sigh heaved from his chest, and he glanced down at the curled-up Titan carefully. He laid a hand on him, forcing him to roll onto his back. "Just concentrate on you right now, okay? You need to lie on your back a few hours, or else your body is going to be incredibly unhappy with you. No moving, no leaving, no going to the computer to look at the sample yourself. Just stay there, you got that?"
"Right… got it…"
"I mean it!"
"I know. I don't mind. I probably could use a nap anyway."
Cyborg opened his mouth to speak, but froze. He was struck by how flat Robin's voice was, how he stared so blankly at the ceiling.
"Robin… are you sure you're okay?"
"I promise, Cyborg. I'll be fine." Robin finally looked at him, a small smile on his pale face. "I promise."
"Okay… I'll be checking on you. If you leave that spot until I tell you, there will be hell to pay."
Robin chuckled a little before closing his eyes. "I already have laundry duty. What more could you do to me?"
Cyborg's lip twitched, but he couldn't fully smile. He quickly powered down the computer, shut the lights, and moved to the hospital room door. He glanced back at the young Titan leader as the doors opened for him automatically.
You better not be lying to me, Robin… he thought gravely, passing through the door and walking solemnly down the hallway. You better not be.
Chapter 6: Subdermal
It was a strange sensation on his forehead that aroused him from sleep. He moaned a little, reaching to swipe the odd feeling away and maybe fall back asleep. His fingers grazed something flat and crinkly where the skin of his forehead should have been, and he squinted through bleary eyes, perplexed at the yellow square obstructing the middle of his sight.
...oh... a post-it note...
He fumbled for it clumsily, sleep still holding too firm a grip on his fingers for them to work properly. He finally managed to peel the adhesive paper backing from his skin, and frowned as he peered down at the note, flipping it over, inspecting it groggily.
"The fact I was able to put this on your face without waking is proof of how asleep you were," the note read on one side, and on the other, "Thanks for following orders. You are now free to move about the tower. ~Cy"
Following orders, Robin thought with a weary little smile, crinkling the note into a ball, casting it aside and then slumping into the mattress, head against the pillow. The day he orders me around…
He suddenly blinked into the bedsheets, as though just realizing where he was, and just remembering why.
He gulped and slowly lifted his head, carefully glancing around the dim hospital wing. A clock read 11:53pm. Small emergency lights illuminated the room with a soft glow. Curtains beside each cot fluttered eerily from the air conditioning. On the counter at his bedside stood a vial of liquid, labeled with his name, standing atop another post-it note.
But where was…
He backtracked a little, and felt his heart sink as his gaze fell upon that familiar figure, standing in the corner, lone eye gazing at him with watchful intensity. Robin swallowed back his disappointment, slowly sitting himself up, turning his gaze away from the stalking villain. It fell on the vial. He reached a hand out and grabbed it, glancing at the note.
"'There's nothing wrong with you, but I knew you'd want this anyway,'" he read quietly aloud. He read it over again silently, as though that would make the beginning of the note suddenly become fact. His fingers closed securely around the small glass container as he shut his eyes tight, taking a deep breath, feeling a wave of emotion gathering strength.
How could it be? There had to be something. Hallucinations didn't just happen…
He expected Slade to interject with something – some snide remark, some withering insult, some annoying question. But the room remained deathly quiet. Robin stole a glance at the masked mercenary.
Slade hadn't moved from his spot. He simply stood there. Staring.
"What, are you broken?" Robin asked in a hushed voice, standing up. He slowly trudged up to the motionless criminal, clutching the vial closer to himself as he went. Slade's eye followed him the whole time, but he remained silent. Robin gritted his teeth. "Come on!" he rasped, trying to yell while still keeping his voice down. "Aren't you going to pester me, frustrate me? Drive me completely crazy? Say something!"
Still no answer. Robin found himself tensing up completely, his free hand becoming a tight fist at his side. An aggravated growl tore through his throat as he swung his arm up, ready to strike Slade, ready to make him pay…
…but he stopped. A splinter of reason in his mind stayed his hand. He was reacting exactly how Slade wanted him to… Slade was being quiet to mock him, to irritate him. To get even further under his skin. Robin backed off, watching the villain with wide, vigilant eyes.
"It's not going to work," Robin murmured. A wry grin shot to his face, and he turned, making his way toward the door. "In fact, why don't you just stay that way, stay right there. I could definitely use some peace and—ACK!"
He opened the door, to find Slade standing straight before him, eyes staring unblinkingly down at him. Robin backed away a step, a haunted chill running down his spine.
"…That's not going to work…" he stammered in a small voice, more to himself than to the masked rogue. He composed himself and sidestepped him, watching him intently. But when he turned, there Slade was again, just ahead of him in the hallway.
He's just going to follow me like this… that's fine. I just can't let him bother me… can't let him get to me…
Robin tried to focus entirely on just walking, to not jerk away every time Slade popped up just before him. He simply wound his way around him like any other obstacle, face set with determination. As he reached a crossroads in the hallway, he stopped, looking around, as though lost.
To his right was the lab… To his left was his room…
He twisted his head back and forth, staring down each direction for a long moment before changing to the other. His eyes then trailed down to his hand, opening his grasp enough to see the fluid sloshing around inside the little glass vial. He swallowed, that familiar restlessness coursing through his veins.
He wanted to test it himself. He wanted to test it a hundred times, retesting and retesting with hopes that something would show up… that all this could just end…
But he recognized that overpowering feeling… that line of reasoning… that calling card of his obsession…
He glanced up. Slade was standing right before him in the large hallway, staring down with that cold, steely, emotionless gaze.
He still didn't make a sound.
Robin began to realize… if he had any chance of driving him away… he had to try and let him go…
With far more difficulty than it should have been, he guided himself to the left, and headed for his room. Closing the door in Slade's face, he turned to see him again, beside the chest of drawers Robin was already heading for. Placing the vial in a lockable drawer, he turned to see Slade standing by the corridor of closets heading for the bathroom. Robin moved towards him, but didn't look at him. He paused before the bathroom, turning to look into the floor-length mirror bolted to his closet door, inspecting himself curiously.
He still looked tired, but the injuries from that one day, from the dust, were beginning to vanish. He hadn't really even noticed that the swelling in his eye had gone down, the skin around his mask now simply a bluish purple that would be gone in another day or two. Other bruises were showing signs of healing, scratches scabbed over. His wrist didn't look so swollen.
Slade was watching him over his shoulder, his mask visible in the mirror. Robin couldn't help but grin, looking at that reflection.
"I think it's funny you're so quiet," he said lightly, eyes flashing impishly. He chuckled, and shrugged smugly. "After all, I did tell you to shut your big mouth."
Slade's expression didn't change, but Robin didn't stop smiling. He was feeling a little more confident, a little more in control. His physical wounds were healing. Maybe, next, his mind would heal, too.
Maybe whatever this was, would soon be over…
Suddenly, the room seemed to bank and spin. The sound of glass shattering deafened in his ears. Pain seared over his shoulder, his arms, his side. His back collided with the ground, lying amidst the shattered shards of mirror, gasping for air, grimacing against the piercing, searing pain seizing hold of the entire left side of his body. His arm rested on his face, somehow placed to protect it from the brunt of the attack. Huge fragments of jagged glass stuck out from the skin on his arms and legs. Blood was already soaking into his clothes.
He could sense Slade hovering over him where he lay. He could almost see his furious, blood-lusting expression.
"Okay…" Robin rasped weakly, still struggling to breathe. "I get it… I get it… please… no more…"
No answer. No attack. After a long moment, Robin slowly removed his arm from over his eyes, his body trembling with shock and pain.
But Slade wasn't there. From where Robin lay, he couldn't see Slade anywhere. Robin's eyes focused numbly on the ceiling above for the longest time, as though waiting for Slade to come out and say it was okay for him to move. He never did. With slow, excruciating movements, Robin finally sat himself up, wincing as movement prompted the shards of glass to burrow further into his skin. A few more slivers shoved themselves into his hands and knees as he pressed them to the floor, then grappled at the closet door to get himself all the way onto his feet, the glass crunching beneath his boots.
He paused, hunched over, still fighting for breath as he leaned against the closet door for support. Tears had broken free, dampening his mask as he stared down at the mosaic of broken mirror, his own pale, deadened expression staring back up at him in the bloodied fragments.
He didn't lift his head as he staggered slowly into his bathroom. His movements were stiff, automatic. He wasn't even aware of what he was doing or why. Blood tinted the metal of the faucets of the shower as he found himself twisting them, the nozzle overhead roaring to life with an artificial rainfall. He stepped beneath its downpour before it even had a chance to warm, without shedding a single article of clothing, without shutting the door. Sliding to the floor with a wince, the water soaking through his costume, dripping down his face in rivulets, stinging in his wounds. Leaning back, focusing on the gaps between the tiling. He sat, simply sat, allowing the false rain to beat against him and soak him through to the bone.
His face was blank, eyes empty as he stared at the tile, as though he had forgotten how to feel anything. The confidence he'd briefly felt before, the hope, the anger, the fear, all of it seemed to be swirling around the drain with the blood.
He didn't look into the bathroom, but knew that Slade was there, watching him once more. He didn't care. It didn't matter.
With nothing else to do, Robin began absentmindedly digging the glass shards from his body, with the same vacant interest as someone picking lint off a shirt. The fingertips of his green gloves became stained a disgusting brown, not even noticing the pain anymore as he dug deep to get the shards free. He set them aside, one by one, into the soap dish until it became an overflowing pile of bloody, jagged reflections.
The streaks of red swirling around the drain slowly grew into thick bands before the flowing water became completely stained with blood.
He continued numbly, quietly, as though it was his job, his punishment, to dig and scrounge until every shard was pulled. When he was unable to find anymore, he slumped faintly back against the tiled wall of the shower, the water stampeding over his clothed body, closing in on him, encasing him like a prison.
He waited. Slade continued to watch from the sidelines, his arms crossing. The expression in his eye was impossible to read.
Neither of them spoke. More blood slunk away into the drain.
After what seemed like an eternity, Robin got the feeling that time out was over. He crawled from the shower, his arms and legs feeling like dead weights, his head spinning and dizzy. His soaked costume sloshed around him, his cape pulling on his shoulders like a heavy burden. Blood stained his bathmat as he leaned weakly against the exterior wall of the shower, his arms and legs sprawled out limply before him, head drooping to the side.
Movement caught his attention. His eyes flicked up to the steel-toed boots moving slowly towards him. Legs folded, a dark hunched form crouching into view, golden mask twisting on its neck to meet Robin's gaze.
"I hope you've learned your lesson, Robin…"
Robin didn't answer. Gravity secured a tight grip on him, pulling him over sideways, his wet back squeaking against the ceramic tiling before he landed to rest on the cool floor. He stared blankly before him, watching the water from his costume puddle red on the linoleum, his vision beginning to fade.
Yeah… he'd learned his lesson…
Chapter 7: Shattered
The T-shaped insignia on the command center doors split in half and separated into the walls as Starfire strolled in from the hallway. She hummed softly to herself, her slender fingers combing through her damp hair, getting rid of the last few tangles. She squinted a little in the bright late morning sunlight that poured in through the large windows across from her, and couldn't help but yawn, even though she'd been awake for hours already.
She was surprised and delighted to find that a few of her friends were also already awake that morning. Cyborg was hard at work mashing buttons on the video game controller, Beast Boy sitting beside him on the couch, disinterestedly gnawing on a muffin.
"Greetings and a happy morning to both of you, my friends!" Starfire said cheerfully, leaning on the back of the couch with a wide grin. "What is above?"
"You mean 'what's up,'" Beast Boy corrected in a deadpanned voice. He slumped down into the couch cushion, absentmindedly peeling the paper cup from the button of the muffin and tossing it to the floor, where Starfire noticed more than half a dozen more wrappers lay abandoned.
"I am sensing the feel that there is something 'up' with you," Starfire told him with a frown, leaning over the couch a little. "Tell me, what is wrong?"
"Nothing," Beast Boy grumbled through a mouthful of muffin. His eyes glanced sideways to the clock on the wall. It was a little past ten.
"Liar." Cyborg's gaze remained glued to the TV, his huge mechanical arms around with the controller, his thumbs a blur over the buttons. "Seriously, dude, just go talk to her."
"I'm not gonna," Beast Boy grumbled.
"Talk to whom?"
"Beast Boy said some mean things to Raven yesterday. She hasn't left her room since then. Pretty sure you hurt her feelings, man."
"Look, I got it, okay!" Beast Boy snapped with a hint of irritation. He glanced at the clock again. "Just cuz she hasn't left her room doesn't mean she's still mad! Maybe she's still sleeping!"
"You know she usually never sleeps past ten."
"Well, maybe today she did!"
"You better go talk to her."
"Maybe I will, but I'm not stupid enough to do it now. If she is asleep, and I wake her up, she'll kill me! She's grumpy enough as it is without waking her from her beauty rest."
"You know, when you're always saying things like that about her, it's a wonder you don't get into trouble with her more often."
"Agreed," Starfire spoke up. "You really should attempt to be nicer—"
"I know, I know, I know, okay?" Beast Boy shouted, absentmindedly crushing the remainder of his muffin between his hands in frustration. "Just bug off, you guys. I'll deal with it…" His eyes flicked over toward the clock one more time. "Just… not yet."
A moment of silence enveloped them. Starfire swept some stray strands of hair behind her shoulder, and leaned against the couch, frowning with thought. After another quiet moment, she licked her lips and spoke. "Have one or both of you seen Robin yet this morning?"
"Nope," the two answered in perfect unison.
"He usually has left bed by this time. Perhaps I should go check on him."
"I think he went back to his room last night," Cyborg spoke up. "I went to the hospital wing this morning and he wasn't there anymore. …although, knowing him, he might've gone to his lab…"
Starfire frowned a little. "I think I will go check…" she said softly. The two boys didn't respond - Cyborg too focused on his video game and Beast Boy too focused on the muffin caked to his hand. Starfire made her way out the room and down the hall, taking a lift to the next floor down.
She decided to check the lab first. As she made the familiar journey through the tower, she grew increasingly glum and worried. Cyborg had explained to them the night before what Robin had asked him to do, taking a fluid sample from his spinal cord. It was so like Robin to still be so focused on Slade, so obsessed with him, and it was only natural he be focused on what had happened with the dust as well… But something about all this felt a little different, and Starfire couldn't help but feel anxious about it.
She reached Robin's lab and rapped on the door. "Robin?" she called out loud enough to be heard through the door. "Are you in?"
There was no response. Star hesitated a moment, then hit the button to open the door. It shot upward with the squeal of metal against metal, but as she stared into the dark room, it quickly became apparent that Robin was not there.
"Perhaps he is in his room, then," she murmured to herself, frowning at the messy lab for a bit before closing the door and walking back down the hallway. She rubbed her arm as she walked, feeling a strange chill pass over her as she rounded the corner, coming closer and closer to Robin's room.
She stood outside it a long moment, her eyes staring blankly at the round font spelling out his name upon the door. Finally, she lifted her hand, and knocked carefully.
"Robin? The morning is half over and you have not left your room. Are you asleep still?"
There was no answer. She pressed her ear against the cold surface of the door, straining to hear anything on the other side. She felt strangely unsettled, her skin prickling with an ominous sensation. Her knuckles knocked on the door again, louder this time, the sound reverberating through the metal walls like a drum. "Robin?"
Still no answer. Starfire was growing more nervous by the moment. She took a step back, as though to walk away - after all, maybe Robin just needed more sleep…
Somehow, she couldn't simply leave. Something, some intuition, some premonition, was telling her not to. She swallowed, her fingers reaching for the control pad beside the door. "Do not be alarmed, Robin. I am coming in."
She hit a button, and the door slid open. The darkness of the room beyond was broken by the light pouring in behind her. Her shadow sprawled out on the floor before her as she took a careful step in, leaving the door open for the light. She wavered a moment, clasping her hands together.
Something in the air made her feel that something was wrong.
She heard a sound, and pricked her head up in attention. A mass of blankets shifted a little on the bed in the middle of the room, a small groan accompanying it. Starfire made her way forward, and as she grew near, was able to see her friend's dark hair and pale forehead peeking from the folds of sheets. She reached a careful hand out and pulled the sheets back a little, revealing his full face. "Robin?" she asked again.
His eyes opened slowly, glancing up at her with a strange, almost confused expression. As Star stood there, a hand resting on his shoulder, she realized he was shivering, and his face was far paler than it usually was.
"What is wrong, Robin? You do not look well." Her voice was soft and concerned as she spoke. She grazed a few of her fingertips along his hairline, and realized he felt clammy, cold.
"I… I'm not feeling so good," he grumbled in a voice very unlike his usual one, curling up into a tighter ball in his blankets with eyes clamping tight.
"Did you perhaps catch the sick from Beast Boy?"
"…yeah… maybe… that could be it…"
Starfire frowned deeply, lines of concern etching into her usually smooth, beautiful orange face. It was so odd to see Robin like this – ill, weak, tired… completely lacking his usual energy and strength. She laid her hand fully on his forehead, feeling his damp, sweat-coated hair, his icy skin against her palm. "Shall I get Cyborg or—"
"No, no. Don't worry about it. I'll be okay." He looked at her and forced a small, shaking smile. It was short-lived, though, as he settled weakly back into his pillows, closing his eyes. "I just need rest… just some rest…"
"…Okay…" The Tamaranian girl watched him a long moment, her hand still resting on his forehead. She still felt uneasy, concerned, almost afraid. She had no idea why. Something just felt… wrong.
Why did she feel like she was losing him?
After a long moment, she stood. Robin needed rest – being here was not going to make that any easier. She turned and stepped away from him, heading towards the light of the hallway. Halfway across the room, she stopped, staring at the bamboo flooring in thought.
"Robin?" she asked carefully. "If… if some thing were to be wrong with you… would you ever inform me?"
Robin stared at her back a long moment, stunned by the seriousness in her tone. After a few seconds spent gaping up at her, his face softened. "Nothing is wrong, Starfire. Just a cold."
"I know. But, if days from now, or years from now, there was any thing wrong with you… would you inform me… or would you hide it?"
The silence that followed was too long and too tense. Starfire didn't look back at him, her eyes focused on the wood grain of his floor. She finally sighed. "As I have told you before… you are never alone, Robin. Please, do not forget that."
Starfire stepped out before Robin had a chance to reply, the door heaving closed with a loud slam. She stood in the hallway a long moment, trying to quiet her overactive nerves. She wrapped her hands around herself, glancing at the door for only an instant, before walking back down the hallway.
Robin stared after her a long, empty stretch of time, his eyes slowly adjusting to the minute amount of sunlight peeking through his curtains. After awhile, he struggled to sit up a little, gasping with a wince as terrible pain shot through his body. He slowly pulled the away his layers of covers, the lower layers soaked through from his still-damp costume. As he peeked down through stinging eyes, he found himself unable to breathe.
Large patches of blood littered his sheets and costume, the water from his clothes diluting the maroon fluid, causing it to spread through the threads of fabric in splotchy, flower-like patterns.
So, it hadn't been a dream…
Last he remembered, though, he'd passed out on the floor. How did he end up in bed?
He tried to get up, but his balance gave out and he crumpled to the ground with a hiss of pain. As he clutched his side with a gasp, his legs sprawled awkwardly beneath him, he peeked down at the floor, at the faint but present bloody footprints leading from the bathroom to his bedside.
"I couldn't just leave you there," Slade's voice chimed from the darkness. Robin looked up reluctantly to find the specter leaning in the corner, holding a hand to his face as though inspecting his fingernails through his gloves. "So, I had you get up and go to bed. Don't you remember?"
Robin stared blankly at the floor, swallowing back bile as he saw the rips in his costume, the deep gashes in his skin, the still-wet drips of blood. Slade looked up, eye flashing dangerously. "You don't, do you? Sounds like you're getting worse by the second."
Robin opened his mouth to tell him to shut up, but he froze before the words could come out. Panic-stricken eyes glanced up, seeing the shimmer of broken glass by the closet door.
The last time he'd told Slade to shut up… this had happened…
He sighed, clenching his eyes tight and hanging his head.
He was so grateful Starfire hadn't noticed the glass… hadn't noticed the blood…
How could he ever try to explain any of this to her?
After a moment, he gripped the nightstand and forced himself to stand. She might come back… he couldn't let her see him like this. His fingers fumbled clumsily at his belt, and he pulled free his bo staff, snapping it to full length and cautiously leaning against it, his weak body shaking under the pull of gravity. When he was certain he could, he slowly made his way to the bathroom door, a noticeable limp to his gait. He paused before it, glancing down at the shards of glass surrounding him.
A rush of horror and disbelief crashed through him as he looked from the scattered fragments of mirror up to the frame that once held them.
It wasn't Slade that had done this. Slade wasn't real. That meant… he had done this. To himself.
He swallowed hard, his knees going weak beneath him as it all churned inside his battered mind. The only way he could have shattered it so thoroughly, could've caused himself so much harm, is if he'd backed up halfway across his room, and charged into the mirror at full-speed…
But that wasn't how he remembered it…
He found himself sliding weakly to the floor, his knees pressing into the sea of glass, cracking fragment into smaller pieces with tiny pops of sound. His body had begun to shake worse than ever, his hands still gripping his bo staff to keep himself upright as he stared down into his broken reflection.
…I am getting worse…
Tears threatened him, but he forced them back. He swiped a hand across his mask, wiping away the moisture that had seeped past.
….Starfire was bound to come back soon… or Cyborg… He couldn't let them see him this way… couldn't let them figure it out. He laid the bo staff aside, out of the way, and slowly unclasped his cape from around his shoulders. Using it like a rag, he carefully swept all the shards into a pile, wrapped the fabric tightly in a ball around it, and shoved it all into the open closet door.
"You continue to lie to your friends," Slade pointed out matter-of-factly, watching him work. "Is that your idea of heroic?"
"They don't need to know just yet…" Robin murmured quietly, tossing the last little pieces of mirror he missed into the closet before shutting the door. He reached for his bo staff, and pulled himself back to his feet.
"Oh? When do you feel is the right time to tell them? On your deathbed?"
Robin felt a shudder cascade through his spine. His knuckles tightened on the bo staff supporting him, his face growing dark. He pushed himself forward, nudging the bathroom door with his uninjured shoulder. The hinge squeaked a little as it swung open.
"…I'll tell them when I have no other options…" he finally whispered, his face becoming increasingly graver as he glanced around the bathroom.
There was blood everywhere… more than he'd thought… How was he even still standing…?
"Did you know an athlete like you can lose much more blood than the average person?" Slade asked casually, leaning on the far counter and looking down at the bloodied sight. "Truly remarkable…"
"You're sick…" Robin croaked, eyes narrowing.
"You're the sick one here, Robin."
Robin didn't have a reply to that. He made his way to the sink, glancing up into the mirror above it. He could see his shoulders shaking with weakness, could see the fear and exhaustion in his eyes. Patches of blood decorated his costume, staining them deep and dark. His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed back the stinging pain lingering up and down his left side. Carefully, he set his bo staff aside, and slowly began to peel the layers of his costume away, starting with his gloves. Blood from his clotting wounds stuck to the material of his costume, causing him to wince and gasp as they hindered his progress. The dried blood didn't yield, and he ended up ripping away scabs and hairs as he yanked the material away, allowing fresh blood to flow a little. He set his gloves aside, then nearly cried out as he struggled to pull his shirt over his head, the cuts along his ribcage protesting his movements.
Slade simply watched with a thread of disinterest, as though a teenaged boy covered in blood were as normal in his day to day life as a dog walking by on a leash. Robin tried to ignore him as he dropped his blood-stained shirt, kicked off his boots, and then painfully discarded his torn leggings, leaving him standing in his boxers, the cold air biting his bare skin. He glanced up into the mirror, at his bare torso, at the bad cuts all along his arm, his shoulder, his ribs and stomach, his thighs. A wave of dizziness caught hold, and he fell against the counter, barely gripping its edge to keep himself from crumpling into a heap on the floor again.
"You're pathetic, Robin," Slade muttered darkly, eyeing the shaking, naked boy with a furious glare.
"Yeah… I know…" he responded without thinking. He pulled open a draw, pulling out some bandages and some Neosporin, before sliding down to the floor. With lethargic, graceless movements, he slowly began to dress his wounds, Slade hovering over him the whole time.
"Just remember, Robin. This was nothing. You know what I am truly capable of. Next time, I won't go easy on you..."
Robin had no reply. His fingers trembled as he wrapped the gauze around his injured leg. His throat hurt. His eyes stung.
He wanted this to be over. He needed to find a way… there had to be a way…
He had to figure it out before the others realized something was really wrong.
Or before this killed him…
Chapter 8: Grateful
"…really, Robin? Really?"
"This is your brilliant plan to try and get rid of me? Some ridiculous metaphysical chant?"
"Nice mantra. Verrry original…"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Am I distracting you?"
"Yes, yes, think it a little louder. Maybe it'll actually start to work."
"Well. I sure do feel relaxed now. Don't you?"
"I know you don't have the patience for this. I know how aggravated you're already getting."
Several days had gone by since the mirror incident, since he'd feigned sickness to Starfire. In retrospect, that one lie was probably one of the best he could've ever hoped for under the circumstances – he was, for the most part, left to his own devices within his room. Being away from the others allowed him to focus entirely on solutions to whatever was going on in his mind, to come up with plans, solutions, ideas. He'd already wired himself up to electrodes to monitor brain activity. Those results were inconclusive. He had tried a few electroshock treatments (late at night, when no one else was awake). So far, those hadn't done much. He'd tried listening to music as loud as he could on headphones – but it was as though someone had dubbed Slade's voice over the music, his dark, malicious cadence overriding the vocals of the tracks, the rhythms of the music. Meditation was the most recent idea. If Slade really was only in his head, then there must be some way to control him, to shut him out… Mind over matter…
But Slade, imagined or not, was right. His patience had run into the ground. He'd spent much of the last day meditating, but none of it seemed to be working at all. No technique, no mantra, no relaxation exercise was effective enough. He still couldn't concentrate, still couldn't get control of his thought processes… of Slade… If it had done anything, he couldn't tell. All he knew was that he now had a splitting headache.
He sighed finally in defeat, peeking through exhausted eyes and glancing at the clock on his bedside table. He didn't even need to see the stiff digital numbers to know how late it was. The setting sun through his blinds was indicative enough.
All day… he really had spent the entire day trying to get some kind of control over Slade… But, why couldn't he? He knew how to meditate – it had been a major focus in his early training as a crime fighter... He knew it should have worked… maybe with enough time, it would…
I just don't know if I have that kind of time…
The throbbing in his head grew more pronounced. A groan caught in his throat. He bowed his head with his fingers pressing into the spaces between his eyes and the bridge of his nose. He could feel Slade's relentless stare boring into him.
"Giving up already?"
Robin remained silent, slowly tilting sideways to lie on his bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. He couldn't respond. Responding to Slade was only encouraging himself to hold onto these hallucinations, to make them stronger, to give them power. He had to stop responding, had to ignore him.
But that was easier said than done. Slade, or the delusion of Slade, hadn't left him alone even once since he'd first materialized. He was always there, constantly talking, constantly insulting him, constantly threatening him. Robin could barely get any sleep, any privacy, or even a moment's silence to think. Slade hadn't hurt him again, but that possibility was a fixture in Robin's mind, the bandages decorating his body a continual reminder.
No, Slade hadn't hurt him… he had hurt himself… he had to keep reminding himself that…
Slade sauntered up beside him, leaning over and blocking his view of the ceiling.
"The Robin I knew wouldn't give up so easily. You've grown weak."
I'm not weak, Robin thought to himself, closing his eyes. I'm as strong as ever.
He wasn't sure he entirely believed it, but it felt good to tell himself that.
Slade made a noise of disapproval. "Pathetic. Truly pathetic, Robin. Worthless."
I'm not pathetic…. I'm not worthless… I'm… valuable. Worthwhile.
"You stupid little…"
Not stupid… Smart…
"Can't even figure out…"
I will figure this out…
Slade was growing irritated – Robin could sense him leaning close, his angered breathing brushing against Robin's face. But Robin kept his eyes shut, his body growing strangely relaxed, a small smile playing his lips.
Huh… sometimes positive thinking really does help… how about… I'm amazing, I'm fantastic, I'm powerful… I'm in control….
He felt Slade's hand grab his arm, wrenching it painfully, forcing him to sit up. He flinched a little, but kept his eyes closed.
"What's the matter, Slade?" he asked calmly, a dreamy lilt in his voice as a small smile perked the corners of his mouth. He peeked through heavy lids, glancing down at the dark gloved hand clutching his arm. He could see Slade's fingers pressing into his skin, could feel its grip tightening in warning.
That's not his hand… it's not really there…
Almost as he was thinking it, the sensation of Slade's grip began to dissipate. A flash of awe shot through the Boy Wonder's tired face.
…it was working…?
A small cry suddenly leapt from his throat as a surge of pain shot through his arm. Slade gripped it like a vice, yanking him up off the bed and holding him close to his face, so Robin's nose nearly touched the line where gold and black bordered on Slade's mask.
"You didn't think it would work that easily, did you?"
Robin winced against Slade's tightening grasp, tears springing to his eyes as his fingers began to grow numb. He struggled to release himself, his head spinning a little as he fought to go back to that sweet spot in his mind, where he had felt so in control, felt like he'd had the upper hand. The world spun around him, and he found himself down on his knees upon the wooden floor, Slade twisting his arm behind his back and leaning over him with his voice as menacing as ever. "I am in control here, Robin. Don't you dare forget that."
No… you're just in my head, just in my mind… I can control you… I will…
A strangled rasp clutched his throat as Slade twisted his arm a way it never should go, forcing Robin to fall forward over his knees, his forehead pressed against the wooden paneling of his bedroom floor. He fought to breathe, his eyes stinging and moist.
Just in my head, only in my head!
"Let me ask you, Robin," Slade murmured in a low, quiet voice. "Why me? Out of everyone from your life, out of anyone it could be… out of all your enemies… why do you see me?"
Robin swallowed hard, clenching his eyes shut tight. He didn't want to hear any more.
"Is it because you were so obsessed with me? But why? What made you so totally obsessed, so utterly fixated on me that you would even turn your back on your friends, on your own morals, to figure me out?"
"Was it because I focused so much on you…? Did you like that kind of attention…?"
"Or is it because you were always afraid… afraid of what I might know about you…?"
"Shut… up…" The words passed through his clenched teeth like gas escaping. He had begun to shudder, his arm still searing in pain behind him.
"You'd always wondered how much I knew, didn't you? How much I figured out? I always was miles ahead of you – you never even figured out my name. My hair color even. My age. …My reasons… You didn't know anything about me."
Robin felt his nerves igniting with cold dread. He pressed his face against the floor, fighting desperately to regain control over his mind, his senses, his body. None of this is real… none of it is real… he's not really here, he's not really saying these things… calm down… just calm down…
He could feel Slade leaning against him, could hear his breath near his ear. A low chuckle rolled through the villain's chest, sending Robin's nerves further into overdrive.
"The truth is… I knew everything about you, Robin. I even knew your name…"
"Don't…" Robin gasped before he could stop himself. Tears had sprung free, his mouth stretching into a grimace as he jerked his shoulders away, trying to distance himself from Slade's venomous tongue. But he couldn't move, couldn't escape. His chest heaved against his knees, hyperventilating gasps wracking his lungs.
…just a hallucination… just in your head… he's just in your head… please, just in my head….
Slade's free hand clasped Robin's shoulder, pulling him upright a little, closer to him. Robin, stared blankly out into his empty bedroom, paralyzed with dread.
Hearing those words… that name… his name on Slade's tongue was more than he could bear, real or not. A bottomless rift seemed to cut into his heart, releasing a flood of deep-seated fear and despair into his whole body, rendering it useless. As though sensing this, Slade released him, throwing him against the ground, where he lay silently shaking, his fingertips digging into the surface of the wooden floor.
"I know everything, Dick," Slade continued, the name rolling off his tongue like it was the sweetest taste in the world. His footsteps rang in the large room, as the villain paced around Robin, a circling vulture eyeing dying prey. "I know about your past, about your parents, about their deaths. I know about Bruce, how he took you in, how you found out his secret, how he let you fight crime beside him. I know all of it."
"Stop!" Robin gasped against the floor through a sob, his shoulders rolling up towards his ears, his fingernails threatening to snap off, he was clutching to the floor so intensely. He felt like he was drowning, drowning in a terrible dream that he desperately wanted to wake from. It didn't matter if Slade wasn't real – his voice, saying these things… it was Robin's worst nightmare come to life.
Slade's footsteps strolled up beside him, and he crouched low, his lone eye surveying Robin carefully, a smile evident in his gaze.
"How long ago did your mom and dad die? Six years ago? Seven? So, tell me… have you ever wondered, Robin? Wondered what life would be like if they hadn't fallen to their deaths?"
Robin didn't speak, his eyes snapping open to stare numbly at the floor. He shook his head against it, his shaking doubling.
Please… stop… please….
"Where would you be now, hm? Would you still be in the circus? Would it even still be in business? Or would you be in high school now, like any other normal kid? Doing homework. Worried about zits. Thin, awkward. Probably bullied. 'Circus Freak,' that's what everyone would call you. You'd be a teenager, a normal teenager… not a Teen Titan…
"But what kind of teenager would you have become? A jock? A geek? A loner? A rebel? Maybe you would've broken a few laws. Turned against your parents, made their lives a living hell… Turned to drugs, or gangs… Or maybe, best case scenario, you'd have been an A-plus student, captain of the soccer team. Part-time job. Chess club. Bowl with friends on the weekend. Certainly not saving lives or stopping crimes in the shadow of night…"
Slade spoke wistfully, like someone contemplating the shapes in the clouds. But his eye remained fixed on the boy cowering before him, burning with destructive hunger. "And what about your parents? Would they have been able to handle life outside the circus ring? What kind of dead end job would they unhappily be enduring, to make ends meet? Do you think their marriage would even have survived? …Because, trust me, Robin. It wouldn't have."
A surge of anger sent Robin's arm swinging out on its own, to smack Slade away, to silence his words. His fist sailed through empty air, throwing him off balance, sending him against the frame of his bed. He slumped against it weakly, staring out at nothing with his whole body shaking horribly. Even his face trembled, contorted and pitiful with anguish. Slade simply smiled at him, still crouching low, as though addressing a small child.
"In your mind, you've constructed the illusion that your parents led perfect lives, that they loved each other and you so unconditionally… but how much of that memory is true, and how much is just the innocence of a child's mind, your own flawed memory? You forget that they fought. You forget that they worried about money. You forget that they were human, that they made mistakes, that they had their vices and their faults. Most likely, they would have eventually stopped loving each other. They would have gotten a divorce. And you would have had to watch their love disintegrate, would have had to ultimately choose between them, and you would have been miserable. Just another lonely child with a broken, unhappy family. "
Robin curled up on the floor, clutching his head. He'd heard enough. He'd heard absolutely enough. Tears soaked into his mask as he clenched his eyes tight. He could see them, see his beautiful parents, inside his head. The way he remembered them… the way they would always be to him… a memory… perfect…
He felt sick.
Slade knelt over him, a hand laid gently on his shoulder. He leaned in close, murmuring quietly in his ear.
"Face it, Robin…. You're grateful they died…"
"NO!" Robin spat through a sob, gripping his hair so tightly a few strands ripped out by the roots.
"You are. "You're happy they died, so you didn't have to see what they would become… so you'd never have to see them disappoint you.
"And, you're happy they died, to allow you this life you lead now."
Robin found himself upright on his knees, clutching onto Slade's armor with trembling hands. Anguish boiled and burst inside him, tears pouring down his cheeks as he screamed at the top of his lungs into that terrible mask. "THAT'S NOT TRUE! SHUT UP! JUST SHUT UP!"
A long moment passed in silence. Robin trembled violently, eyes wide and panicked as they stared into that single eye. Slade simply stared back.
"I'm a figment of your mind, remember?" Slade's voice was slow, careful. "I'm just the messenger. Everything I've said? It came from you… it's all inside your head."
The wrath in Robin's face melted away at Slade's words, slowly replaced by cold, empty horror. Understanding caught hold of him, burrowing into his chest, seizing hold of something deep inside him and snapping it in half. Everything suddenly became dizzy, empty, his legs giving out from under him. He crumpled to the floor, shaking, numb, shattered. The last strand of his composure broke, and his stomach failed on him, forcing up all of its contents onto the floor between his hands.
Slade stood back, watching with the casual interest of a window shopper as the distraught teenager fell apart before him. After a few more dry heaves, Robin collapsed into a trembling heap beside the putrid mess, sobs consuming him.
"You really are pathetic, Robin. Your parents are lucky they didn't live long enough to find that out…"
Consciousness began to ebb, the world retreating away from him. Slade's voice chuckled from a distance, and within his own mind, he saw the kind, gentle faces of his mother and father, staring at him from the past. They weren't smiling, weren't holding onto each other, weren't telling him that they loved him, like they always would in his dreams. They turned from him solemnly, walking away in separate directions, leaving him alone with his despair.
….he would always be alone….
A soft, annoying buzzing wafted through the hallways of Titans Tower. A green fly floundered around lazily, not in much of a hurry to get anywhere, lost in his own thoughts.
Beast Boy pouted internally (it was awfully hard to pout externally as a fly). He'd just snuck out from a stake out in Raven's room. Malchior… all this stupid Malchior business… Malchioooor, he thought mockingly, sarcastically. What was the big deal about some stupid know-it-all wizard trapped in some stinky old book… the guy was, what, a thousand years old? Raven was, what, almost 16? Pedophile, to say the least...
He landed on a wall and fluttered his wings, buzzing a grumble to himself. It bothered him and he didn't know why. He wanted to smack Raven and tell her to stop being such a ditzy Malchior fangirl – that was totally what she was, a fricken fangirl. He had heard her little giggles – it was so… not Raven of her… and that really bothered him... that and Malchior... old perv...
A noise interrupted his moping. He turned his head, his many eyes creating a kaleidoscope of the long hallway, making it appear to be millions of hallways leading in every direction.
What was that…? Someone shouting?
He transformed into a dog, landing less than gracefully on the ground. He turned his beagle-like head towards where he thought the sound had originated, lifting one droopy ear up to listen.
There it was again, louder, longer, but far in the distance. He couldn't make out the words, exactly, but he recognized the voice.
He bounded forward, his paws padding along the corridor as fast as he could run. He skidded around a corner, slamming into the far wall before clambering back to speed. His tongue flapped beyond his droopy lips, his ears fluttering behind him.
He skidded to a halt before Robin's door, the pads of his paws squeaking against the metal floor. He pressed his nose to the gap beneath the door, taking in a deep whiff.
He wheezed a hacking cough, falling back gracelessly and morphing back into a human. He snapped a hand to his nose, clamping his nostrils shut with his eyes breaking into tears.
Good god that smelled terrible. Almost like vomit.
Wait… no… exactly like…
He scrambled up onto his feet, facing the door with focused awareness. He knew what he'd heard, knew what he'd smelled… he didn't even bother knocking, hitting the control pad, prompting the door to snap open.
Immediately, his hands clamped back on his nose. He blinked through watering vision, and felt his stomach lurch both with what he saw and what he smelled.
He hurried into the room, taking care not to step in the puddle of puke splashed upon the floor. He kept his focus on the collapsed boy. Beast Boy dropped to his knees beside him, one hand keeping a firm grip on his nostrils while the other reached out and pulled the fallen Titan onto his back.
Robin's face looked paler than a ghost's, sweat glistening on his brow. His eyes were closed, his breathing ragged, labored. He shook terribly, like he had just been pulled from arctic water. Beast Boy clutched his wrist, feeling his pulse. It was racing.
"God, Robin… you're really sick, aren't you…?" Beast Boy murmured, feeling a twang of guilt. Robin had been dealing with the cold he'd just gotten over… had it simply become terribly worse? But Beast Boy didn't remember ever feeling nauseated while he'd been sick…
His fingers remained planted on his nose as he fumbled for his communicator. He blundered a little as he spoke, his voice nasally and high-pitched from his blocked nose. "Cyborg – hey, Cy. Come in. We got an emergency here."
"No, Beast Boy, I told you, I don't care what Malchior said this time—"
"No," Beast Boy spat, his voice squeaking. "It's Robin. Dude, he's really sick. You'd better get in here."
Cyborg's face immediately grew serious. "Already heading up there. What happened?"
"He threw up. He's unconscious. He doesn't look good at all…"
"Got it. Just stick with him. I'll be right there."
Beast Boy nodded in reply, and snapped the communicator closed. He set it aside, and stared down past his clasped hand, looking at Robin with wide, almost disbelieving eyes.
Robin… never got sick. He never looked weak, never ever showed it when he was tired, or in pain… to see him like this…
Beast Boy sighed and sat back, feeling useless and helpless. All he could do was wait for Cyborg.
This just didn't seem like an ordinary cold. Beast Boy rubbed the back of his neck, as though to flatten down the hairs that stood on end there as a chill raced up his spine.
"What the hell is wrong with you, Robin?" he wondered aloud.
Chapter 9: Disclosure
The world seemed to spin slowly around him as he came to, a sense of sea-sickness washing over him, fighting for control. He groaned, and rolled over, pulling his knees to his chest, wishing with all his might that he could pass back out again, and he couldn't even recollect why he would feel that way…
Robin peeked through tired eyelids, the familiar sight of the hospital wing slipping slowly into focus from his hazy vision. His eyes wandered lazily, kind of flicking around the room randomly before falling on a familiar face above him. One eye gazed at him in the dim lighting of the room, and without thinking, Robin felt a rush of anxiety, of panic. It wasn't until his mind settled back into place that he even realized that the eye was on the wrong side of the face, surrounded by rich dark skin, not gold, and was accompanied by a blazing red partner.
"Hey, man," Cyborg said carefully, staring down at him with a solemn, serious expression. "How're you feeling?"
Robin swallowed. His mouth felt dry, his stomach felt queasy. His brain was sluggish, empty. He felt extraordinarily weak, his body pulled down into the mattress, as though by some unseen force. He felt… worn… like everything he was, everything he had, had been torn away from him.
A shift of movement caught his eye. His gaze darted past Cyborg, to a familiar masked figure lurking just beyond. That familiar gray eye sparkled with accomplishment.
It all seemed to come back to him at once, eliciting a flinch and moan from the young teen as he rolled into his pillow, clenching his eyes tight. He wrapped his arms around himself, tucking his knees as close to his chest as he could.
"Robin!" Cyborg gasped in alarm, bending over the curled up Titan with eyes flashing in concern. "What is it? What's wrong?"
Robin shook his head into his pillow, curling up even tighter into himself beneath the covers. He felt like crying. He felt like screaming. But he couldn't do either, not with Cyborg hovering over him.
You're happy they died… you're grateful they died…
Away in the back of the room, Slade was murmuring. His voice was soft, but venomous.
"…pathetic… useless… weak… coward…."
Robin clenched his eyes shut tighter, as though that would shut his ears down too. He wanted this to stop. He wanted all of it to just go away.
A hand grasped him roughly by the shoulder, forcing him over on his back with incredible strength. Robin gave a shout, his overactive nerves alight with dread. Fight or flight response kicked in, his hands moving up to protect his face, or possibly strike, he wasn't sure yet. Another hand grasped one of his wrists tightly, holding it away.
"Robin! Robin! Look at me!"
The frantic teen wheezed a gasp, eyes snapping open to stare into the dark, concerned face of his friend. Cyborg's expression was alive with a mixture of worry and aggravation, his gaze bearing down into Robin's eyes with such intensity it caused Robin to fall still in astonishment. Cyborg's grip tightened on his shoulder and wrist, as though to reassure him silently. The robotic teen opened his mouth to speak, a flash of panic appearing in his handsome face. "Look, Robin. You have to talk to me. I can't help you, can't treat you, unless you talk to me! And don't even dare try and tell me nothing is wrong!"
Robin gaped up at him, suddenly forgetting how to breathe, let alone speak. He tried to swallow, tried to think, glancing away from Cyborg with his hazy mind reeling.
"Like he really needs to know…" Slade spoke up from the other side of the room, calmly, curtly, like one commenting on a boring movie. "You don't need him, Robin. You don't need friends. They'll only turn on you in the end…"
Robin flinched a little, eyes shutting tight. Cyborg didn't say anything, still holding onto him, staring down at him with such fierce determination that it was amazing Robin's hair didn't catch fire.
…but Robin found himself completely unable to talk. He shook his head, looking away. Cyborg's grip slackened a little. A sigh of frustration escaped through his nose.
"You're such a… fricken… spiky-haired… little…" Cyborg seemed unable to talk coherently, his aggravation overtaking his concern. He released the Boy Wonder roughly and stepped back, throwing his arms up in defeat. "You and your goddamn martyr complex, Robin. There is nothing wrong with admitting you need help!"
"Martyr complex," Slade repeated thoughtfully. "The robot's using fancy words now…"
Robin didn't respond to either voice, staring down at the sheets of his hospital bed with numb silence. He was shaking a little again… why was he always shaking…?
He could hear Cyborg's footsteps as he stormed toward the door. "There's a trashcan beside your bed if you feel like puking again, Robin. I think this is the last time I'll be asking you what's wrong - I hope you learn to suck up your goddamn pride and reach out to us on your own. We're your friends. We just want to fricken help you."
The door to the hospital wing opened. Robin sat up, turning in time to see Cyborg just reaching it, about to storm through.
"Cy… wait…" he croaked, his voice tight and coarse in his throat.
For a moment, Robin thought he hadn't been heard, and that Cyborg wouldn't stop. He dropped his head, closing his eyes, wincing as he heard the large automatic doors hiss shut. But when he blinked and glanced up, Cyborg was standing there, staring back at him, listening.
A long silence passed. Robin opened his mouth to speak, but found himself unable to find exactly the words to say. How hard was it to just say it…? Just a few simple words…?
"Don't do it, Robin. It's not like he can help you, anyway," Slade spoke up from where he lingered.
Emotions caught hold of him. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes again, trying to steady his nerves, his shaking, the tears suddenly threatening his eyes. He grappled for courage he just couldn't find…Some hero… he thought coldly. He released his breath carefully, his lungs feeling constricted, broken.
Facing a loaded shotgun would be easier than this…
He glanced up at Cyborg, who was waiting patiently, irritation still woven into his expression.
…just say it…
"I've… I've been hallucinating…" he finally managed to whisper.
Cyborg's face slowly changed, turning from barely controlled frustration to full disbelieving concern. It was almost too much for Robin to look at, his gaze glancing back down at his bed. He forced himself to breathe, those damn emotions welling up again. He felt ashamed, stupid…
"Hallucinating?" Cyborg asked quietly, almost fearfully. He made his way closer to Robin's bed. "What have you been hallucinating?"
Robin shook his head. That, he couldn't say aloud. But apparently, he didn't have to.
"You're still seeing Slade, aren't you?"
"Oooh, he's a smart one. I wonder if he's a hallucination," Slade spoke up in a mocking tone, circling around them. Robin's eyes flickered towards the masked delusion, then back to his sheets, avoiding Cyborg's gaze. He felt sick to his stomach as he nodded.
Cyborg didn't say anything for a long, tense moment. "You never had a cold at all, did you…?" Robin nodded. Cyborg glanced around, slowly wrapping his mind around it all. "And that's why you wanted the spinal tap… but if there's no dust…"
"I know," Robin muttered. He kept having to force himself to breathe. "I… don't know why I'm seeing him…" His composure was slowly breaking away, as hard as he tried to keep himself calm, he was aware of himself shaking more… he couldn't keep the fear that was consuming him from showing up in his face.
…he never really thought about it before… but he was afraid. He was fully, inexorably afraid that he really was going crazy…
Cyborg moved over to the bed, crouching a little so his face was level with Robin's. The young Boy Wonder could see his dark, concerned face through his peripheral vision, but had to keep his focus locked on the bedsheets draped over his knees.
"Is… he here now?" Cyborg asked carefully, calmly, eyes barely blinking as they surveyed the younger Titan. Robin couldn't stop his gaze from glancing over at the wandering figure in the corner. He nodded a little. Cyborg released a small breath, looking away in thought.
"You know what they're going to do, don't you?" Slade spoke up, sauntering up to his side. "Tie you up in a strait jacket… throw you in a mental institute… strip you of your mask, your costume, your life…"
Robin dropped his head into his hands, tears threatening him. Cyborg gripped his shoulder, leaning in closer. "Look Robin, I don't know what's going on but we're going to figure it out, okay? I can run some tests and—"
"I've done them all," Robin sputtered in a cracking voice. His palms pressed down on his temples, causing his head to ache a little. He clamped his eyes shut tight, as though to force the tears back. "I've checked everything… I've tried everything…"
The cybernetic teen heaved another soft sigh. Robin pulled his knees a little towards himself, as though slowly rolling himself into a ball to protect himself like an injured hedgehog would. Cyborg's fingers squeezed his shoulder comfortingly.
"It could be stress, Robin…" he said carefully. "You've been under so much lately that maybe after the whole dust thing it just kinda…"
His voice tapered off into uneasy silence again. Slade chuckled.
"He doesn't know what's wrong with you. He's just floundering. He doesn't want to admit that you might be psychotic, that you might be incurable. Schizophrenic…"
Shut up… Robin thought harshly, his face contorting against Slade's vicious words. Please just stop…
Cyborg seemed to sense what was happening. He pulled on Robin's arm, forcing him to face towards him. He placed both of his large hands on his friend's shoulders, looking him intensely in the eye. "Whatever he is telling you Robin, just don't listen, okay? I promise, I'm going to help you sort all this out."
Robin looked away, his Adam's apple bobbing as a creeping dread crawled into his chest.
"What if you can't…?" he breathed.
Cyborg craned his head to match his gaze, a calm, reassuring smile on his face. "Come on, man. Have more faith in me. Have more faith in yourself. We're the Teen Titans. We can do the impossible just as well as we can do the possible."
Robin couldn't help but smile a little at Cyborg's determination. The robot clapped him on the shoulder, and straightened up. He glanced around the room, and held up a finger, as though to ask Robin to wait a moment. He made his way to one set of cabinets in the corner, opening them and rifling through the contents. Robin watched with some distraction, Slade coming to sit at his bedside.
"What impossible things have the Titans done?" the villain wondered with his arms crossing. "Please, enlighten me."
Would you just shut up?
Cyborg found what he was looking for, and made his way back to Robin's side. "Here," he said, holding out his hand. Robin slowly stretched out his own, and Cyborg placed a bottle of pills into it. "I want you to start taking these."
Robin swallowed hard, reading the label on the prescription canister. "Anti-psychotics…" he mumbled quietly, his voice shaking.
"It's really for the stress, Robin. Just to cut that down. But… it will also help if this does turn out to be something… more serious…"
"In other words, he thinks you're a nutjob," Slade spoke up. "It's only a matter of time til he sends for the men in the white coats to take you away."
….please shut up….
Robin curled his fingers around the canister, feeling sick again. Cyborg looked at him pointedly. "Look, I know this isn't what you want but it will help you in the short term. We just need you stable enough so that we can focus on the long term, okay? Your body and brain can only handle so much stress… if you're throwing up because of your nerves - that's a bad sign…"
"I know…" Robin felt completely numb, bare. He still felt like crying… he still felt like screaming… but he knew he couldn't do either. He took a steadying breath, and looked up at Cyborg. "Please don't tell the others…"
"Robin, they're worried, too. They would want to know."
"You're helping me," Robin stated carefully, determination setting in his jaw. "I just don't want them to know… not yet at least…"
Really, he just didn't want to see that same nervous, pitying look on Starfire's face that Cyborg had now…
Cyborg slowly nodded, but looked uncertain. "You did at least confide in me… that's definitely better than nothing at all…"
"If we can figure this out," Robin went on, looking around. "Then it'll be fine. They'll never even have to know. Life can go on as normal."
Cyborg nodded reluctantly, but didn't say anything. He shifted a little, as though uneasy.
"Promise me, Cyborg. Please swear you won't tell any of them."
The larger teen sighed reluctantly. "Fine. I promise I won't tell. Just keep on your meds, okay, and take it easy. We'll wait a few days to see how it works, and go from there."
"Get some rest. I'll come in to check on you later."
Robin nodded. He almost spoke up as Cyborg headed for the door, almost asked him to stay, but for some reason, he didn't. He watched the large Titan step from the room, and waited a few long moments, looking back down at the prescription bottle in his hand.
"Don't do it, Robin," Slade said with warning. "You can't fight crime with your brain muddled by drugs."
"I can't fight crime with you incessantly distracting me, either," Robin sniped back, ripping the cap violently off the bottle and digging out a pill from its depths. "…I'll go with the lesser of two evils…" He clapped the open bottle down on the counter and snatched up the cup of water waiting for him, drinking down the medicine and the entire glassful of fluid in a few quick gulps. He slammed the glass down hard, causing it to ring dangerously. He flopped down on the bed and pulled the covers over his head, curling up tightly into a ball.
"Crazy Robin," Slade said in a sing-song voice – as sing-song as Slade could get anyways. "Talking to himself, taking drugs for his psychosis…. What would your mother say?"
Chapter 10: Challenges
"Rackin… frackin… stupid… Cyborg and his stupid… Creeper? What's he talking about creeper… He's lucky I'm a nice guy or… GAH!"
A clamor echoed through the long hallway of Titan Tower, the hollow sound of a small cardboard box hitting the ground followed by the noisy clatter of plastic items scattering across the floor. Beast Boy gaped down at the chess pieces rolling away from him, an expletive leaping from his throat as he rearranged the other game boxes in his arms.
"Oh, come ON!" he griped in annoyance. He slammed the stack of boxes down on the floor and morphed into an octopus, his tentacles flopping around as he tried to gather all the runaway game pieces into a pile before they rolled to far.
"'Why don't you play a game with Robin,' he says," Beast Boy continued grumbling to himself, human once more as he raked the wayward figures back into their box. "'He could probably use the distraction.' Please. He's either gonna kick my ass or make me sick again…"
As he picked all the games back up and balanced them precariously atop one another in a little tower in his arms, his thoughts shifted to the day before, when he found Robin lying beside his own pool of vomit. He gagged at the very memory. If he ended up in the same boat, he was really going to let Cyborg have it…
He wobbled a little as he carefully carried the stack of games around the corner. It was all Cyborg's idea – he'd forced the stack of games into Beast Boy's reluctant hands, and told him to spend some time with their sick leader. BB had, of course, protested – after all, not only was video games much, much more fun, but he still was trying to learn more about what Raven was up to.
…Creeper… he couldn't believe Cyborg had called him that… what was wrong with being interested in what Raven was up to? Why wasn't he so concerned? Books aren't meant to talk! Didn't people read Harry Potter?
The top game box slid a little atop its brother, causing Beast Boy to stick a foot out awkwardly to balance himself out and prevent the game from falling a second time. He carefully forced himself forward again, moving quicker, feeling the stack of boxes teetering. The hospital wing's door was just ahead, ready to open for him when he got to it…
His toes slammed into heel of his other foot, and he found himself falling with a strangled yelp. The door before him opened in time for him to slam hard on his chin on the hospital wing floor, the boxes scattering from his grasp with an intense, noisy racket.
"Beast Boy! What the hell is the matter with you?"
Beast Boy groaned, lifting an empty box cover from his head, looking up to see Robin upright in bed, a birdarang clenched in his hand as though to defend himself. The green-skinned teenager smiled apologetically, getting himself to his feet.
"S-sorry. Cyborg sent me in here… and I lost my balance and…"
He glanced up at Robin as he began organizing the overturned contents of the boxes, and found himself a little taken aback by the Boy Wonder's appearance. How his fingers shook as they gripped his weapon, how he gripped tightly onto his sheets with his other hand, how unkempt his usually tidy hair was… the paleness in his face, the wild look in his eye, the way he barely breathed, as though he were still in danger. Beast Boy sat back on his heels, raising an eyebrow. "I… take it I woke you up?"
Robin's shoulders slunk a little as he relaxed a bit, his hand falling, snapping the birdarang closed. His face fell into dark disapproval. "You think?"
"Look, if you want me to leave I can, but Cyborg thought maybe I could come cheer you up—"
Beast Boy's face darkened. He didn't know why he hadn't seen this coming. Robin was speaking to him the way he always did, like a child, like a nuisance. He wondered why he'd even bothered, why he hadn't simply ditched the games after leaving Cyborg and done his own thing. He straightened up, clutching a rook tightly in his hand. "What the hell is your deal? Look, I know you're sick and cranky. I get it. But for once, would you not treat me like a pesky little brother and instead treat me like your friend? I'm so fed up with it!"
Robin stared at him with mouth agape, completely flabbergasted and lost for words. Beast Boy glowered darkly, picking the half-filled chess box off the floor and throwing it angrily on the bed at Robin's feet. "Look, if you don't want to hang out with me, fine! I'll leave you alone. But I am your friend, and you look like you could use some cheering up. But whatever. Be alone and miserable! It's your choice."
Beast Boy turned from Robin's stunned face, kicking aside another board game container with his foot, more pieces scattering across the floor. He crossed his arms, and glanced at the door. He really wantedto walk back through it. Robin was always such a…
Beast Boy glanced over at him. It was his turn to be stunned. That was not at all the reaction he'd expected.
"Dude, did you seriously just apologize?"
Again, Beast Boy expected a certain response: an annoyed quip, some kind of irritated "Yes, I said it, let's move on." But Robin remained silent, his eyes focusing on his knees hidden beneath stark white hospital sheets. Beast Boy felt the last of his sore temper trickle away, only to be replaced with confused incredulity.
"O…kay… this isn't freaking me out at all," he murmured to himself, shifting awkwardly. He had no idea how else to respond, or what to do. This was complete uncharted territory.
Robin's gaze drifted, focusing somewhere in the middle of the room. Beast Boy followed his gaze, but didn't notice anything.
"…we can play something. That'd be great," Robin suddenly croaked, rubbing the side of his face with his palm, as though massaging away a headache. Beast Boy didn't move, surveying him closely.
"If you don't want to I can leave—"
"No… no. It's fine. In fact, I… I could really use the company."
Beast Boy found himself taken aback again, this time by the look in those masked eyes. It was an expression completely foreign to that face, so foreign Beast Boy had a hard time placing a label on it. It almost looked… pleading…? Scared…? Helpless…?
None of this was making any sense to the changeling… was Robin just sick or...
"Oh… um… well, what should we play?"
This felt so awkward.
"Well, the chess board is right here… do we have all the pieces…?"
Beast Boy's eyes scanned the mess of jumbled board games on the floor before him, already noticing some wayward pieces. This was all so awkward. They'd lived together for how long? As Beast Boy sifted through the messy pile and pulled out pieces, he tried to recall the last time they'd even played even a video game together, just the two of them… But, as he thought about it, he realized he couldn't think ofany time they had… in every memory he dredged up, Cyborg had sat between them….
Despite the uneasiness, a little smile played on his lips as he snatched up one last white pawn and straightened. "You know you're going to kick my butt at this, right?"
Robin smiled weakly. "You said you wanted to cheer me up."
Beast Boy cackled a little, sitting cross-legged on the foot of bed as Robin set the checkered board between them. "I would think you'd like a little more of a challenge. What's a win if you don't fight for it?"
"Still a win," Robin proclaimed smugly, setting up the pieces on his end of the game board. Beast Boy got to work on his own side, moving swiftly, clumsily, as though getting his pieces up first was part of the overall game. Robin clued in on this very fast, his own green-gloved hands a blur as he stood them all up. "HA!" he shouted victoriously as he placed his final pawn with Beast Boy still three figures short.
"Oh fine. Then you go first."
"I'm white. I go first anyways."
"…right, I knew that."
Robin moved a pawn. Beast Boy considered all the pieces, then moved one of his knights. Robin moved another pawn. Beast Boy scratched his head. The other knight? No… a pawn. Robin moved out his bishop. Beast Boy, the other knight. A third pawn. A second pawn. A knight. A rook.
They played silently, falling into a rhythm. Beast Boy honestly tried to think up some strategies – he'd played enough Starcraft and Age of Empires in his life… that had to have given him some kind of advantage, right?
Robin quickly stole a pawn, then a dark knight. Beast Boy's teeth chattered on his fingernails through his gloves as he contemplated his next move. No… he couldn't do that… that would put his queen at… but what if he…
He moved a bishop, and sat back with his arms propped behind him on the bed, grinning up at Robin. He would never guess what he was planning…
Robin gazed down at the board a quiet moment. But his eyes remained fixed on no spot in particular, not glancing around thoughtfully like they ordinarily would. After what seemed like a few minutes, he blinked, as though suddenly remembering what he was doing, and moved a pawn.
Beast Boy felt a jolt of electricity through his heart. Robin had just left himself wide open! His dark eyes glanced around the board. No, there was definitely no way he could…
He moved his bishop, capturing Robin's queen.
"Sucka!" he whooped, holding up the queen over his head like a trophy, a victory fanfare from a video game going through his head. "Now, now, it's nothing to get upset ov—"
He looked up, and realized Robin had stopped paying attention again. He hadn't even seemed to notice what'd happened. His gaze had wandered into the room again, as though he were lost in thought, or listening for something. The green changeling frowned, holding out a hand and snapping his fingers a few times. "Hellloooo. Earth to Robin! What's capturing the best piece if you won't even let me brag?"
Robin looked up at him, a dazed look to his face, still. Beast Boy pouted a little in annoyance.
"…it's your turn."
Robin glanced down at the board. He didn't comment on his missing piece, moving a knight into place. Beast Boy surveyed his move, and immediately moved a pawn, taking the knight out.
"Okay. Are you just trying to let me win, now?" Beast Boy asked, waving the knight in the air like it was evidence.
Robin didn't speak, his gaze focused toward the game board again. Beast Boy frowned, beginning to grow restless, impatient. He leaned back on his hands again, letting his head fall back against his shoulders, chin up towards the ceiling with blood rushing to the top of his skull. His foot bobbed impatiently next to the game board.
"…are your parents still alive?"
Beast Boy straightened slowly, eyes widening as he looked over at the other boy. Robin's gaze remained low, a hand absentmindedly toying with one of his pieces. He moved it without a sound, and sat back, waiting for Beast Boy to move. The green changeling simply stared a long, tense moment, unsure what to think, or feel, or answer. He glanced down at the game himself, choosing a pawn to move with little thought.
"…no. They aren't…" he finally said, looking up at Robin with a mixture of curiosity and vigilance. Robin never asked these sorts of questions… with any of the Titans. When Beast Boy had been so concerned about Raven when the Titans had first formed, it'd been Robin who'd said the past didn't matter. … He'd been so quick to let Terra in without knowing anything about her past, was willing to even let the Titans form without even knowing any of their real names… So why this? Why now?
Robin moved his remaining knight, knocking out a dark pawn. He swallowed noticeably. "Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if they hadn't died?"
Goosebumps prickled on Beast Boy's skin. He eyed Robin carefully, feeling uneasy and wary. He tried not to let it show too much on his face, shrugging a little, glancing down at the little figures spread out between them. "I dunno. Never really gave it all that much thought. I mean, I'm green and I can change into any animal. Even if they were still alive, I definitely wouldn't have ended up with any kind of normal life…"
Robin nodded a little contemplatively, his gaze still distant.
"…do you ever wonder if maybe… maybe you're better off this way…?"
Beast Boy snapped his head up, offended. "What the hell do you mean by that?"
Robin blinked and looked up. Horror crossed his face, as though he was just realizing he'd even been talking. His eyes darted around the room, as though looking for something to cram into his mouth other than his own foot. "Look, I didn't… I didn't mean it like that… I just…"
Robin lapsed into silence once more, and Beast Boy felt himself settling into tense concern. He realized just how worn the Titan leader looked… like a sand castle, battered by the tide, just realizing he would eventually be washed away.
"Robin?" he asked after he felt too much time had passed. The Boy Wonder looked up, his expression empty, lost… almost pleading again. He quickly glanced away, a breath hissing through his teeth as he bowed his head, shaking it a little.
"F…forget I said anything…"
Beast Boy sighed, scratching his arm absentminded as he fell into thought. He was still so confused by all this. Why was Robin acting this way? Why would he ask such personal questions? After a moment, something dawned on him, and he glanced up. "We're not really talking about my parents, are we? We're talking about yours."
Robin didn't respond. As though to occupy himself, to just do something, he moved a piece on the board. Beast Boy watched him silently a long moment before moving a piece of his own, not really paying attention to what the piece was, nor even if he was moving it in the right pattern. The game had simply become a means of distraction now.
So…. Robin didn't have parents either… but what was all of this? All of this wondering of whether life would be different… better off…? Beast Boy glanced back up at Robin, and curiosity consumed him. What would Robin's life have been like, then? Would he not have become a hero? Would he maybe not even have been Robin if he hadn't lost his folks? A million questions began bombarding him. Then, was Batman Robin's surrogate family, like the Doom Patrol had become to him? If Robin had never become Robin… then what?
He could barely even believe that reality could've ever been possible. Robin was… Robin. He had another name, sure, just like Beast Boy did, but that name had never been important. He was Robin; the Boy Wonder… the kid he'd always looked up to as a young superhero…
…but he knew as well as anyone: no one ever really chose this life as a hero, especially not so young. You were always thrust into it headfirst, kicking and screaming while your life crashes to pieces around you… just a way to make the hurt go away… to forget about the guilt or pain or grievances of your life…
He thought of his parents. He missed them. He was sure Robin missed his, too.
He was certain that if Robin could, he would gladly give up his life as a superhero, if it meant being back with them… because who wouldn't? He knew he would… in an instant….
But sometimes, he supposed, he, personally, rather liked the life he led… he was grateful for it, felt lucky for it. He was grateful to be allowed to be here, to be a Titan, to help people. He was grateful to have such good friends, a new family. It didn't mean he liked his old life any less… it just meant he knew how lucky he was, under the circumstances… there were millions of orphans in the world… he doubted any of them had it easy…
Finally, he sighed, looking up. He felt the need to say something…
"Look, Robin. I don't know much… about you, about your past… or anything really." He laughed sheepishly, and continued. "But you can't let the "what if's" get to you, y'know? You'll go crazy doing that."
"Tell me about it…" Robin said with a strange smile, moving a pawn forward.
"And I do know one thing for certain...Your parents… Well, I mean, sure, they would be proud to know about what you do as a Teen Titan… but honestly, I'll bet they would've been proud of you anyway… You're one of the good guys, and that's not because of the mask, you know?"
Robin remained silent, his hidden eyes glancing up to look at him with a mesmerized gleam. Beast Boy smiled nervously, unsure if what he said helped, or even made sense, or was even what he wanted to say. He felt a little stupid, actually…
Finally, Robin glanced up, and slowly returned the smile. "Thanks…"
Beast Boy grinned fully now. "No, thank you, Robin."
Robin looked perplexed. "Why?"
Beast Boy looked down at the board, and moved his queen into position. A cocky, beady little grin graced his green face. "Because I think I just won."
The green teenager laughed and crossed his arms, looking downright smug as Robin curled over the game board, mouth hanging open in numb shock. "It's okay, dude," the changeling chuckled. "You can't win them—"
"Oh, no wait. Here we go." Robin slid his rook to the side, knocking over Beast Boy's queen. "Checkmate."
"….Dude, you have to be kidding me?" He scanned the board with numb but frantic disbelief.
"Can't win them all?" Robin asked haughtily, crossing his own arms as Beast Boy's face grew surly in defeat.
"…Fine! You win! But I call for a rematch! And this time, we play this!" Beast Boy snatched up a game box from the floor beside him, waving it in Robin's face. The Boy Wonder looked from the cartoony animals and bright colors adorning the box to his emerald-skinned opponent, an eyebrow raising behind his mask.
"… 'For ages three-plus'…?"
"Hey, we're three-plus! You just scared I'll win."
Robin's eyes sparkled with humor. He swept the chess game back into its container, threw it on the floor, and gestured to the newly vacant space on the bed.
"I'd like to see you try…"
"Oh, you are so on, Bird Boy!"
"Who you callin' a 'Bird Boy,' Bird Boy?"
Okay, seriously, guys. Wrack your memories and tell me – do you EVER remember Robin and Beast Boy having any kind of serious heartwarming moment together? Or even just them hanging out together? Cuz I seriously have no recollection of anything like that ever happening. Robin and Cyborg were BFFs, Beast Boy and Cyborg were BFFs… but Robin and Beast Boy were always kinda just… roommates. Or even just teammates, always getting under each other's skins XD I think the closest instance there is for this is from X, when Beast Boy is like "So… you're probably kicking yourself for not getting rid of that Red-X suit when you had the chance, huh?" Which was so not the right thing to say. XD They'll occasionally try, but it always falls flat. Things like this chapter really never happened...
Anyways, tell me what you thought of this chapter! Really! I mean, how interesting was it to read about people playing CHESS? xP (It was strangely fun to write…)
Chapter 11: Fantastic
The sun shone through the gaps in the curtains on the far end of the room. Its intense morning light tore through the gaps in the curtains, racing across the tiled floor, leaping over the flat surfaces of empty mattresses, chairs, tables. It made its way without pause, running up the folds of curtains which hung lazily from the ceiling, before pausing to catch its breath against the sleeping incandescent lights. One bed in the hospital room was occupied, the thin figure upon it caught up in his slumbering dreams. He rolled over beneath his beddings, but didn't wake. No sunlight reached him, but the glow of it against the gently wafting curtains illuminated his sleeping face.
A figure gazed down at him from beside the door, cast in shadow, unmoving, unspeaking. It watched with focused, solemn eyes, as the teenaged boy shifted a little more on the bed with a groan, a flicker of his dreams becoming reality in his face.
"Slade…" the slumbering boy murmured, his voice strained, almost pleading. "…please, let me go…"
The observing figure moved a little, shifting position, wavering between action and passivity. No breath escaped as the watchful gaze remained fixed on the teen's fidgeting body. After a few moments, everything fell still. The raven-haired boy relaxed a little on the bed, falling back into deeper rest as the door to the hospital wing opened.
"Oh. Hey. How long have you been in here?" a deep voice rumbled softly. Light poured in from behind him, illuminating the orange face of the Tamaranian Titan standing there. She glanced at Cyborg quietly, a note of sadness to her gaze.
"Not very," she murmured in a hushed voice, so as not to wake the slumbering teen. She cast her gaze away, as though sheepish. "He appears so peaceful when asleep…. I did not want to wake him."
Cyborg nodded quietly, staring down at the boy with quiet contemplation. Starfire followed in turn, her eyes glowing mystically in the low light. She crossed her arms, her beautiful face sullen, sorrowful.
Robin had spent much of the last few days sleeping. He said it was because of the medication he took for his illness, but nevertheless, it worried her. This illness worried her. Being from another planet, she was completely unfamiliar with Earthly diseases. She had gathered enough that these "colds" were common, not life-threatening, and nothing to truly worry about… but she had also gathered, by how long he'd been sick, by the looks on the others' faces, that this was not an ordinary cold.
She sighed softly, face growing a little dark. "He speaks of Slade. In his dreams…"
Cyborg pricked his head in attention. "Somehow, I don't find that too surprising…"
"He told Slade to let him go." Her expression was growing graver with each passing nanosecond, her arms wrapping tighter around herself, as though to protect her. "It is as though Slade still haunts him in his nightmares… still torments him, still causes him suffering… even though he is gone, and the dust is gone.
Cyborg didn't answer. Starfire glanced over at him, worry burrowing deeper into her heart. "I feel that something is truly wrong with Robin. Something that he is not willing to share with us…"
"I get that feeling, too, Star. But he's so freaking stubborn, he won't tell anyone…"
"Do you suppose it is something truly serious?"
"I don't know, Star… I really don't…"
She watched his sullen expression for a long while, before turning her attention back to her sleeping friend. She was not sure what else to say. A shiver caught her spine as Robin rolled over again, head lolling to the side, mumbling something she was unable to interpret.
It all felt almost… unreal to her. Robin being sick, having nightmares… even the fact he hadn't woken up at their voices was completely different from the world she thought she knew and understood. She felt afraid for him, afraid that something terrible was happening to him, and that she was helpless to do anything about it… She wanted to help him. More than anything, she wished she could help him, save him from his own nightmares. But she couldn't. She never hated anything more than she hated her own helplessness, her own inability to do something…
A hand on her shoulder snapped her from her thoughts. "Come on. If we don't want to wake him, we probably should leave him alone."
"I desire to stay just a little longer."
Cyborg nodded slowly. "I had a feeling you'd say something like that." He turned back towards the door, but paused. After moment's thought, he spoke up, as though not only addressing her, but the room as a whole. "Whatever is going on, we'll figure it out. You have to believe that."
Starfire kept her emerald gaze fixed on her sleeping friend as Cyborg stepped back out of the room. The door closed between them, plunging the room back into semi-darkness. Clouds wafted across the sky outside, dimming the room even further as Starfire slowly crept forward.
"What is the matter with you, Robin?" she asked in a tiny whisper, staring down into that familiar face. Robin didn't respond, his head tilted away from her, his chest rising and falling with heavy breaths beneath the blankets. She released a sigh, glancing away, looking around the room a little bit.
"I do not like you being here, Robin," she continued without thought, her voice a mere breath in the room. "I do not like you being sick. I do not like feeling like… like I can't help you." Her fingers twitched a little at her side, and she found herself raising them up, reaching for the slumbering Titan. Fingertips swept against Robin's forehead, beside his hairline. Beads of sweat tingled cold on her skin at the contact, sending a shiver down her spine. Her fingers wandered, slowly trailing through his dark bangs, which lay limp against his forehead with the absence of gel.
Tears were gathering in her eyes, one spilling over before she even figured out what was happening. Her heart felt like it was swollen with worry, that at any moment, it would rupture. She lay her hand down completely on Robin's clammy forehead. He winced at the touch in his sleep, a look of pain and struggle flashing through his face for just a moment.
"Robin?" she asked softly, gently. Was he still dreaming terrible dreams? Still dreaming of Slade?
His breathing was growing more rapid, and he shifted restlessly where he lay. He twisted his head in his sleep, as though to shake Starfire's hand from him.
"Stop…" he croaked weakly. "Don't… Slade… please don't…"
Starfire swallowed, retreating her hand back as she watched him struggle inside his own mind.
She had to do something… she just had to…
"Robin," she said loudly, leaning over him and clutching his shoulders, shaking him a little with hopes of breaking the spell of sleep. "Robin! Wake up! Slade is just a dream. He's not real. Just wake up. Please wake up."
Robin thrashed a little against her grasp, his face stretching back into a grimace, eyes still clasped shut behind his mask. Starfire shook him one last time. "ROBIN!" she shouted desperately.
His eyes snapped open. His groaning cries were silenced with a choking sound. He shot upwards automatically, and their heads collided with a loud clunk. Starfire cried out and whirled away, twinkly stars exploding behind her eyes as she pressed her hands to her forehead, wincing against the burst of pain. She blinked back tears, moaning a little. She felt as though her very skull was reverberating with the force of the impact.
"S-Starfire?" Robin rasped. She glanced over at him from beneath her arm. He looked at her, one eye clamped shut as he forced through the pain in his own head, his palm massaging the lump forming on his forehead.
"I'm sorry, Robin… you were having a nightmare. I thought it best if I wake you from it."
Robin nodded, groaning as he massaged his head harder. Starfire swept closer. "Are you okay?"
"I'm…" He suddenly paused, eyes staring blankly before him. He lifted his head from his hand, his arm remaining frozen in place as he glanced around, as though confused, or looking for something.
"Robin?" Starfire asked after a moment, frowning deeply.
"I'm…" he muttered again, distractedly. He finally blinked, and glanced over at her. A strange expression passed over his face, as though he couldn't believe himself. "I'm fine."
"Are you certain?"
He swallowed, and looked around again. "I think so..."
Starfire did not feel relief. Not yet. She watched Robin carefully, as he stared off into nothingness, losing himself in his own thoughts. She cautiously reached out and rested the palm of her hand on his forehead, over where their heads had collided. His skin did not feel so cold anymore, or so clammy. He glanced over at her, as though he'd forgotten she was there.
"Let's go upstairs and get some breakfast," he suddenly said, his mouth stretching into the brightest smile she'd seen in days.
"I… um… does this mean you are feeling better?"
As though to answer her, Robin rolled out of bed, snatching up his cape from the nearby chair and clasping it around his neck. He combed his fingers through his hair to make it look more presentable. He reached into the drawer of the coffee table beside him, pulled out a bottle of pills. After popping one into his mouth and swallowing it down dry, he threw the bottle back into the drawer and turned to face her, still beaming brightly. His eyes sparkled, much like they did after every successful battle, every arrested criminal.
"I am feeling fantastic."
The walk with Starfire up to the command center was unbelievably, wonderfully peaceful.
Starfire spoke excitedly to him the whole way. He listened passively, smiling the whole time, as Starfire told him what had been going on during his long week of rest – how they'd fought a strange criminal named Cardiac, what sort of mischief Beast Boy had gotten himself into, how Raven had made friends with a wizard trapped in one of her books. (Robin kind of chuckled upon learning this – it was so like Raven to have books with spirits bound inside them). She spoke of their worry for him, and remarked on how relieved everyone would be to see him up and about.
Robin remained silent for the most part, just reveling in the sound of her voice. He casually would glance around as they walked, looking down each hallway, glancing at every corner. He couldn't help but expect something to leap out to get him, to stand in his way, to whisper some malicious words in his ear, but with every step that passed with nothing, his spirits only lifted higher.
It was really strange… he knew any other day, any other time, he would've felt completely paranoid about it. Uneasy, unsure, even fanatically so. He ordinarily would have figured that this was just another of Slade's tricks, that he was hiding out in wait, to let him drop his guard. At some level, he still felt that, still worried about that. But for the moment, he couldn't dwell on it. It didn't matter. He just felt relieved. Purely, overwhelmingly relieved.
Might as well enjoy it… he thought, smiling at Starfire absentmindedly. Just in case…
The door to the command center parted ways in front of them, and they stepped into the familiar expansive room. The sounds of video game beeping greeted them, followed by a loud expletive.
"How is it you always beat me at these games?" Beast Boy snarled angrily, leaning in towards Cyborg. The large teen simply turned his head to smile back smugly. Movement caught his attention out of the corner of his eye, and he craned his head to see Starfire and Robin approaching them.
"Robin." His voice suddenly fell, becoming serious. He abandoned his controller and stood, looking torn between relief and uncertainty. The scale apparently tipped more towards the latter, because his face grew a little more concerned. "How, uh, how are you feeling?"
Robin stared at him a moment. He caught the hint of context under Cyborg's words, understood the question he was really asking. That smile continued to tug on the Boy Wonder's lips.
"I feel great. The medicine I've been taking must be doing its job."
Cyborg's eyes remained on him, as though trying to see through him. Robin kept his gaze fixed, not looking away, as though challenging him. Finally, the cybernetic Titan relaxed a little, and smiled. "I'm glad to hear it, man. You've had us all really worried."
"Chh, yeah, dude. You slept so much I thought the only way you'd wake is if Prince Cyborg here kissed ya."
Cyborg and Starfire both shot Beast Boy a withering look. The changeling glanced between them, then laughed nervously. "I-I guess the joke would've worked better if I'd said Starfire… she really is a princess after… …um… you know what? I think I'll just shut up now…"
Cyborg continued to glower at Beast Boy awhile before turning back to Robin "Well, we're glad you're feeling better, man. Between you and Raven, it's been pretty lonely around here."
"Yeah, Starfire told me about that…" Robin shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe it'll be good for her to have a teacher."
"Pfffph. Teacher. Stalker loser magical pedophile boyfriend. Same diff," Beast Boy spat angrily. He faced the TV, his thumbs mashing absentmindedly on the buttons of his remote. The game before him did nothing, stuck in pause until Cyborg hit the start button on his own controller.
"You're just jealous," Cyborg piped up.
"Dude, they were making fireworks together." His fingers mashed more violently. "I don't even want to know what that might mean…."
Robin raised his eyebrow in amusement, and opened his mouth to make some comment. But almost as if on cue, the door behind them opened, causing all of them to turn.
For a second, Robin wondered if he was hallucinating again.
Raven hovered on the threshold of the doorway, stretching with a wide, noisy yawn. Her outfit was like nothing they'd ever seen on her before – it was the same leotard and cape, but pure white. She dropped her arms and looked up at them, nodding a small acknowledgement before floating to her right, towards the kitchen, humming as she went.
They all exchanged bewildered looks. Beast Boy seemed to have lost much of his color, leaning in towards Cyborg.
"…dude… like I said… fireworks…"
"Would you shut it?" Cyborg hissed back, looking a little queasy himself.
Raven paused at the fridge, opening it and mentally pulling out an apple. The Titans all exchanged glances again, before slinking their way quickly into the kitchen behind her.
"Um, hey, Raven," Robin said haltingly. "Haven't… seen you around much lately."
"Yeah, that's because you were in the hospital wing and she hasn't left her room in over a week—OOF!" Cyborg slapped his hand down on Beast Boy's head to silence him, then looked up at Raven with a friendly grin.
"I, uh, like the new look."
"So… when do we get to meet this friend of yours?" Robin asked with interest, cocking an eyebrow.
"I am unable wait!" Starfire suddenly sang, rushing forward and grabbing Raven by the shoulders and hopping up and down vigorously. "Beast Boy has told us much about the Malchior and how he remains trapped within a book but—"
"Now how would Beast Boy know something like that…" Raven murmured, her face growing suspicious as she eyed the now sweating changeling. Everyone else glanced his way too, and he laughed nervously once again.
"Heh heh… I may have… kinda… been a… a fly on the wall in you room?" He instantly transformed into a buzzing little insect, as though to prove his point.
"Funny… you look like a rat to me…" Raven said with a strange gleam to her eye. Robin glanced between them, looking at Beast Boy just in time to see him shift into a rat, falling to the floor with a squeak and a thud. He morphed back to normal, upside down with his feet splayed in the air over his head, a hand pointing out with total astonishment.
"You morphed me! How did you do that?"
Raven didn't answer, simply hovering and smiling with satisfaction.
A siren rang in the room. Robin was already moving, heading to the computer terminal set into the kitchen counter. His fingers flew over the keys. Just two seconds reading the screen was all he needed, before he pointed to the door, a man on the mission.
"Titans! Mo—OOF!" he began, his command interrupted as he turned and instantly collided with Cyborg's armored chest.
"Now where do you think you're going?"
"I… was going to help."
"I don't think so."
"What?" Robin gasped, looking up at him. "I feel great! I'm not sick and I haven't been—OW!"
Cyborg reached forward and pressed his thumb very lightly into Robin's ribcage. The Boy Wonder staggered back with a harsh cry, the flashes of light bursting behind his eyes coinciding with the lightning pain shooting through his chest and side. He blinked, grasping the swollen area, struggling to breathe while his knees grew shaky beneath him.
"Cracked rib, remember? You're still out of commission for at least two more weeks." Cyborg's face softened a little as he backed up towards the door. "Don't worry, man. We got this. You take it easy, you got that?"
Robin grumbled darkly under his breath, rubbing his side. He watched as they filed out of the room. Raven was the last to leave, so lost in her humming that Beast Boy actually had to call after her to move.
The room fell into intense silence. Robin straightened slowly, the pain in his side dulling to a discreet ache. A shudder raced through his spine, and he glanced around.
He was alone again…
That paranoia he knew he should've felt the whole morning suddenly came back with a horrible vengeance. Panic seized his body. He reached out and clasped the kitchen counter with his free hand, the other still thoughtlessly clutching his side as he struggled not to collapse to the floor. His muscles all tightened, his stomach twisting on itself painfully. He felt sick as he stared around him
…this was where he'd first truly seen him again, wasn't it? Right there, in the kitchen. His fingers tightened around the edge of the counter as he stared blankly before him. He'd hurt himself here, trying to attack someone that only existed in his own mind.
He'd seemed so real… had caused him so much grief, so much pain… His fingers felt the texture of the bandages beneath his uniform as he clutched his ribs.
…was he really gone?
Robin stepped away from the kitchen, walking his way into the middle of the room with an unsteady gait. He glanced around recklessly, staring wide-eyed into the deepest corners of the room, above him, below him. He fought to breathe, fought to remain calm. It was becoming increasingly difficult.
"I know you're still here!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, wide, masked eyes snapping from spot to spot. He stumbled backwards, his tailbone colliding with the back of the couch. He clutched it behind him, staring at nothing, his voice wheezing out his chest painfully. "I know you are… this is all just another trick, isn't it, Slade…? Just another one of your ways to get under my skin... to make me crazy…"
A grimace crossed his face, and he bent over a moment as though in pain. His head suddenly felt like it weighed a million pounds. He clutched it with trembling hands, growling low in his throat. "This isn't going to work!" he spat to the empty space between his elbows. He threw his arms aside and straightened, tall and proud, curling his hands into fists as he stared out at the empty room. "I'm better than you are, Slade! I am stronger than you are! This ends NOW!"
He heard his own voice reverberate through the empty room. His eyes darted around again, as though waiting for response, waiting for that inevitable attack… physical – a knee in the gut, a trip across the floor… or another venomous verbal assault, designed to shatter his spirits again…
But the minutes passed, and nothing happened. Nothing came for him.
A slow, burbling sound began low in Robin's chest, rising slowly until he was laughing out loud with more mirth and happiness than he ever had before. With complete and utter abandon, like the weight of the world was tumbling from his shoulders at long last.
He had won.
He knew he had won.
Slade was gone.
The terrible nightmare was finally over.
He was free.
Chapter 12: Spellbound
This time, when I break you, stay broken…
Raven! Careful! The girl!
What is WRONG with you?
Is it dark magic, or is it simply misunderstood… like you?
…you're still alone… Is that what you want, Raven… to be alone…?
All those words from the last hour were plaguing her mind and heart as she placed the last book upon the ground. Tears formed in her eyes she stepped before the wooden podium, but she quickly forced them back. The familiar book was propped open before her, strange words scrawled upon the pages in a flourished hand. She looked up at the figure before her, at the man, the wizard from long ago, wrapped like a mummy with pages of the book that had imprisoned him for centuries. He stared back at her with gentle eyes.
"The incantation," he murmured in his soft British accent. "Just like I taught you."
She nodded. Her mind went blank as her hands moved, almost of their own accord, words slipping from her tongue in a fluid, beautiful pattern. An ancient spell… one that would lift his curse… would let him be human again… let him be with her, forever…
Her heart fluttered and sung with the very thought.
The last words left her breath, and she felt that familiar, terrible surge of power and energy bursting from her. The circle of books around Malchior's figure burst with white light, blinding her. The pages that formed his temporary body were swept away, like leaves in a wind storm. The ancient book before her flapped through its pages on its own, halting on a picture – an illustration of the wizard, Malchior.
And she watched, in horror, as his figure turned dark, a silhouette of magical ink on the parchment pages. It cried out, falling to its hands and knees… sprouting large, demonlike wings….
"Malchior!" she cried out. A surge of powerful energy slammed into her, knocking her back, away from the book. She hit the ground hard, her head spinning. An abandoned page from the book fluttered to land before her and she lifted it up, staring down into the familiar illustration she'd grown to know so well. She watched with growing disbelief, as the names of the dragon and the wizard switched places.
"You changed it…" she whispered. "Malchior wasn't the wizard… he was the… NO!"
She scrambled to her feet and leapt for the book, desperation gripping her pounding heart. Another shockwave of power slammed into her, sending her skidding backwards towards the walls of her room. The energy swirled into a mighty vortex, and from it, enormous purple legs appeared… followed by arms… wings… and a terrible reptilian face, with piercing red eyes.
The ceiling, the walls… her room crashed to pieces around her as she found herself staring at an enormous purple dragon.
…this wasn't her wizard… her wizard didn't even exist… he'd been a dragon all along…
A surge of fire leapt from the beast's mouth, heading straight for her….
A cry leapt from her mouth as she threw her hands up to block the attack. The fire surrounded her, its heat searing hot, even through the force field surrounding her.
"Raven!" a voice shouted, as though from a distance.
She crouched low, her heart shattering around her as the dragon's hot breath suddenly vanished.
She listened numbly as the dragon tore through her ceiling, ripping its way through floors of the Tower toward the sky above. Chunks of concrete, rebar, and furniture clamored to the floor. Once everything had settled to silence, she dropped her magical field.
She was only mildly aware of her friends standing in her doorway. She didn't even care. Her heart was still shattering inside her chest.
"He lied to me…" she murmured under her breath, more to herself than to them. "He lied. And I gave him what he wanted…"
No one spoke for a moment. Cyborg, Beast Boy, and Starfire looked at one another, then up at the ceiling.
"Come on!" Cyborg ordered, in the absence of their leader, turning to the hole in the ceiling. Starfire grabbed his arm, and pulled him up through to the sky.
Beast Boy turned, looking at Raven with great concern. "Raven, are you…?"
"Please… just… get out of my room…."
Beast Boy stepped away slowly, frowning deeply. He didn't want to leave her, but knew the others needed help above. He turned into a bird, and flew up through the cavity in the ceiling, leaving Raven truly and deeply alone.
While Raven was preparing her books and reviewing her spells in her room, Robin was in the kitchen on the top floor, standing before the microwave, staring into it with a look of deep and intense concentration. The bag inside leapt excitedly as the kernels of corn within popped and sizzled. The smell made him grin a little, but he barely blinked as he watched it.
Popping corn was an art form. It had taken many trials and errors to truly master how to pop a bag of popcorn perfectly – not too many kernels left unpopped, but not too overcooked. He listened for the right gaps between popping, his hand clutching the handle of the door, fingers twitching as they prepared to throw it open.
After so many days under such intense stress, dealing with his own brain and his own personal demons, he was perfectly content now to spend an evening kicking back and watching a good ol' fashioned kung fu movie. A private celebration of his renewed mental health, of sorts.
Finally, with 23 seconds left on the timer (microwaves' "popcorn" function were always inaccurate like that), Robin tore the door open and pulled the bag off popcorn out. He passed it from hand to hand, chirping "Hot Potato" and laughing a little at the fact he could barely feel the heat through the material of his gloves. He yanked a bowl out of a cabinet, spun it on a finger, and set it down.
Geez, he thought. Calm down, Boy Wonder. Your peppiness is enough to make Bruce scowl even from across the country.
He couldn't help but grin even more at that. He couldn't help it. He was just so relieved to finally be done with all of it. A humming tune reverberated in his throat as he tore the bag open and began pouring the contents into the bowl.
Suddenly, the floor beneath him jerked and shuddered, forcing him to stagger hard into the counter and scattering the remainder of the popcorn in the bag all over the counter and to the floor. He dropped the bag and stumbled backward, looking around at the shaking tower, his joyfulness all but forgotten, replaced by terror.
What was going on? An earthquake? He leapt into action, abandoning his popcorn and hurrying toward the door of the room – he knew the drill, standing in the doorway. Even hanging out in the hallway was safer than being in the middle of the huge main room.
But he only made it part way before the entire floor seemed to burst upward beneath him, hurtling him across the room into the back of the couch. He groaned in pain, the floor rising to meet him. He pressed against it, wheezing and sputtering, the breath knocked from his chest, his ribcage ignited with searing hot pain from his stupid injury. He winced as he looked up.
And then, he froze.
A large, purple reptilian face stared at him from a gaping hole in the floor. Clawed hands scraped at the ground. Wings stretched up through the crevice and slammed into the walls and ceiling as this huge, terrible beast hoisted himself up into the room. It barely gave Robin a second glance as it raised itself up, lifting his head and stretching its jaw wide. A huge burst of fire erupted from his throat, slamming into the ceiling, ripping it apart with a burst of smoke.
Robin couldn't move, frozen with his back pressed up against the couch as chunks of ceiling fell around him. His eyes were the widest they could go as he watched this terrible thing try and claw its way through the newly-created chasm in the ceiling. Robin felt himself beginning to tremble.
Am I… hallucinating this…?
Shattered glass and smoldering chunks of metal rained down as light fixtures were ripped apart. The beast tore a huge sheet of metal plating from the ceiling and hurtled it in Robin's direction, forcing him to somersault out of the way before it crashed into him. It hit the couch, throwing it over and tearing its upholstery apart. The Titan sprinted forward, placing himself so the kitchen counter separated him from the large beast. He clutched his head protectively as more debris raining down on him furiously.
"Snap out of this, Robin!" he gasped to himself, clutching his head tighter as he heard something large drop yards from where he crouched.
The huge creature roared terribly, and Robin looked up in time to see his long tail whipping into view. He leapt up just in time, the tail sailing beneath him, taking out the counters and cabinets surrounding him. Robin landed hard and stumbled, whipping a few exploding discuses free from his belt and turning to the great beast, ready to fight.
But he froze, staring wide eyed as the creature's tail slinked up and vanished through the torn roof. Reality settled in a little. If this was truly a hallucination, he couldn't react, couldn't fight back….
He glanced around at the destruction numbly. How could any of this be imagined? The medicine had been working… How could he go from Slade to seeing this? It didn't make any sense.
He forced himself to his feet. Both legs felt like jello as they carried him towards the gaping hole in the floor. He glanced into it, down into the depths of the tower – it went down at least four floors, he'd say. He craned his neck. He could see the sky through the gap in the ceiling, stained a strange sickly green.
…a green sky…?
He found himself falling backward onto the floor. He was still trembling fiercely, terror sweeping through his body. Flames shot through the sky above him, the dragon's wings flapping into view.
Robin glanced up to see Cyborg, grasping onto Starfire's arm as she floated up from the hole in the floor and headed to the hole in the ceiling. Robin gaped at them incredulously, Cyborg's face stony and resolute. "Get somewhere safe, man! We'll take care of this!"
"Are you telling me that thing was real?" Robin shouted as he fought to stand.
"Stay!" Cyborg spat, pointing a finger at him as though he were a mischievous puppy. Robin watched, mouth hanging open with incredulity, as Starfire and Cyborg disappeared through the missing roof, a green bird emerging from below and chasing after them.
….was this just more hallucinations…? He stepped backwards shaking his head. Weirder things had happened to them than a dragon… but… he just didn't know…
And that terrified him more than anything…
He stood a long while, just listening to the strange sounds coming from overhead. The roar of the dragon. The cries of his friends as they fought the terrible beast. The way the green sky illuminated with searing orange fire, again and again. The tower shuddered dangerously as the creature stepped on the rooftop, sending more debris raining down from the torn roof.
Finally, Robin took a deep, steadying breath, forcing his nerves aside.
This wasn't a hallucination. In the last few weeks, he'd only hallucinated one thing, and one thing only – Slade. There was no reason to think he could be hallucinating anything else…
The tower heaved another terrible shudder. The creature above roared again.
Something slammed down on his head and he crumpled with a cry. He blinked against the ground, a hand grasping his head, throbbing pain rocketing through it.
Stupid, he thought dazedly, groaning and rolling over. Cyborg had said to go somewhere safe… the roof is collapsing… move!
He pulled his hand away, blinking through bleary vision. Splotches of blood stained his hand. He growled in annoyance and slowly crawled to his hands and knees, forcing himself onto his knees, glancing around him.
It was weird to think so, at a time like this… but the roaring dragon… the flash of lights… it kind of evoked a sense of nostalgia…
It was as though the walls of the room were slowly melting away. He looked around, numbly, blinking a few times. The roaring lingered, morphing into a sound much more pleasant, much more recognizable – the roar of a crowd. He got slowly to his feet. He felt suddenly lighter, suddenly calmer, the ache of his head subsiding as he glanced around. The command center of the tower was replaced by the circus tent of his youth. A circle of cheering spectators wrapped around its base. The flashes of fire of the dragon above were instead the blinding brightness of spotlights traversing the arena.
….This wasn't a hallucination. It was a memory. A dream.
He was dreaming. That explained everything. Just a dream… Perhaps the clonk on the head had actually knocked him unconscious… it all made sense now.
He glanced at his feet. He wasn't standing in the command center at all. The high platform of the trapeze supported his weight, the circus ring many feet beneath him, the ringmaster just a tiny speck encircled with light. His deep voice spoke from the past, announcing the tremendous Flying Graysons, and their death-defying act…
Those words churned a well of bitterness and resentment in his chest, and he frowned deeply.
Death-defying… if only…
He looked up, to see familiar figures leaping across the swinging trapezes, doing fantastic tricks. He stood, and watched numbly, unsure whether to feel happy to see them performing again after so long, or afraid… afraid that they would…
They would. He knew they would. As though to prove his point, his eyes dropped to the captivated crowd below, scanning for a familiar face.
There he was.
His heart tore apart in his chest as he looked back up. Tears were already streaming down his cheeks.
This wasn't a dream. It was a nightmare. The same one he'd had since that fateful night, when he was only nine years old…
And there was nothing he could do but watch. He knew, no matter what he shouted, no matter what he did, he couldn't save them…
The acrobatic routine played out in perfect form. Mom swinging from the back trapeze, clasping a hold of Dad's arms. Robin held his breath. This was it. Their combined weight would cause the unraveling rope to snap. They would fall, and he all he would be able to do was watch, screaming, as his beloved parents fell to their deaths in the middle of the circus ring, again.
But then, something unexpected happened. Mom suddenly swung off of Dad's arms, somersaulting in mid-air, flipping four times – and landing beautifully, gracefully, at his side.
"Go, on, Dick," she said with a bright smile, her hand on his shoulder. He stared at her blankly, mouth agape. She gave him a reassuring smile. "Now go on, it's your turn, Boy Wonder. Don't tell me you're scared after all this time."
He glanced out. Dad was now parked on the far platform, clutching his trapeze swing and waving at him. Robin swallowed hard, looking up at the trapeze before him.
But it was gone.
"Where did it…?"
"Use your grappling hook," his mother said, as though it were obvious.
"Oh, right." He blushed. He felt so foolish. Of course that's what he was supposed to use. He grabbed it from his belt, aiming at the latticework of lighting and catwalks high above them. The crowd was cheering him on. The announcer was saying something about him. His heart was fluttering with excitement as the hook caught hold and he swung out into the open air.
His father swung at the same time, to meet him. But as his speed began to slow, Robin realized he hadn't gathered enough momentum to be able to reach his father. He swung back like a pendulum, turning, but realizing he wasn't going to make it to the other side, either.
He was going to get stuck in the middle of the air, stall out and ruin their performance in front of thousands of people. He felt ashamed, blood rushing to his face in a blush. He kinda wanted to cry. He looked back at his mom.
Her face was stricken with panic. He frowned at her, confused as she suddenly leaned forward, shouting his name and pointing above him. He looked up, the air feeling thick and slow as his eyes fell onto the cord holding his weight.
It had been cut. It was unraveling.
Everything seemed to grow cold and still, his eyes widening. He glanced around in panic, trying to figure out if there was anything he could do, anywhere he could leapt toward to break his fall.
His eyes fell upon something, and all breath was strangled from his lungs.
A strange platform, jutting out from the wall of the big top, like the floor of a building that had no wall. And standing on it, a familiar, masked figure.
The illusion was broken. The big top vanished. Robin found himself suspended in midair within the chasm that had been torn through the tower, Slade staring at him from one of the exposed floors with the most malicious glint in his eye. Robin swallowed, and glanced at the cord above him.
It was still unraveling. Everything in the world grew silent, his own breathing falling still as he resigned himself to the inevitable. As though on cue, the tension of the cord went slack in his hands, gravity catching hold of him. He plummeted, passing through dead empty space where floors and rooms and structure should have been. An audience was gasping and screaming in horror. A voice from long ago screamed in anguish. He knew the sickening sound of a body slamming into the hard ground long before one could reach him.
But before it did, a voice murmured quietly in his ear, dark, deep, spiteful, ringing through his head even after the bottom floor stopped his body hard and painful.
"You didn't think you could get rid of me that easily… did you…?"
"Silly girl… you can't possibly hope to defeat me. I taught you everything you know."
"You taught me spells… but I just learned a curse."
The dragon roared terribly, rearing back and emitted a violent torrent of flame and smoke as the familiar white leather-bound book rose from the tower and into Raven's hand. She held it protectively, throwing out her other hand, fingers splayed with a burst of power to counter the fireblast. All she had to do was repel him just long enough to recite the entire spell, the one she'd read in the book just a week before.
"Aldruon en lenthranall losolomirus nor!" she chanted from memory, thrusting the book open before her like a shield.
It burst with a brilliant light. The dragon screamed terribly, its fire extinguished. It writhed and twisted midair, streaks of darkness bursting from his joints and seams, tearing through him and entirely engulfing him, making him seem no more than a smear of ink in the night sky. The blackness fled towards the book, as though pulled by a vacuum, sucking the whole dragon back into its pages with a pulse of radiance.
Everything fell suddenly quiet. Raven snapped the covers closed and floated slowly back down to the rooftop of the tower. Her feet touched ground, and her knees almost immediately gave out beneath her. She fell upon them, the book falling to the ground between her shaking hands. As she stared down at it, she could feel herself changing again. She saw the fabric on her arms and around her shoulders and head shift from white to black, felt the sick pull in her stomach as she stared despairingly down at the cover of the book that had brought her so much happiness – happiness that had been a lie.
She slowly grew aware of the other Titans closing in around her. She said nothing to them, and they said nothing back. The whole world seemed just one terrible, heart-wrenching silence.
Finally, after a long moment spent gathering her strength, she pulled the book into her arms, and slowly got back up onto her feet.
"Raven, are you—?"
"This won't happen again," she said bluntly, turning away from them and moving toward the gaping hole in the tower's roof. She winced at the sight – so much damage and destruction. She'd caused her friends unnecessary inconvenience and pain. She felt like a fool, and idiot. She reached the brink of the chasm, staring down into it. She clutched the book tightly to herself, but not like she once had – it wasn't out of security… it was the closest she could get to strangling it. She wanted nothing more than to tear it to shreds, to destroy it. …but Malchior, the dragon, was adhered to the book. Destroying it was akin to killing him. That was something she was above, no matter how hurt her heart was.
Something felt wrong, though, as she stared over the enormous hole in the tower. Her grip lessened on the book, her heart pounding in her chest as she stared down the dark drop. Some of the sunset's light filtered in to the space, through the gap in the top, through the windows throughout. But she couldn't make out the bottom.
"…where's Robin?" Starfire suddenly murmured from behind her.
Cyborg lifted his arm, his arm computer snapping open. "Hey, Robin. Coast is clear man. You alright down there?"
There was no response. Raven felt her mouth part a little, her eyes widening down into the hole. She saw something glinting just in sight – a straight, with a grappling hook clinging to one of the exposed steel beams in the exposed roof.
She suddenly understood why she felt so ill at ease. Instincts, intuition, told her what was happening. She charged forward, book nearly forgotten as she dropped down into the crevice in the roof, reaching out with her powers to slow down her fall. She passed through the floors, following the dangling grappling hook, staring down past her feet, her cape fluttering above her as wind whipped by her.
As she neared the bottom floor – her room – she slowed completely to a halt, eyes wide with horror.
"Robin!" she gasped.
The teen was sprawled gracelessly upon her bedroom floor, surrounded by tower debris and ruin. His face was turned from her, his eyes closed, no discernable rise or fall to his chest. Raven dropped to the ground beside him, casting the book aside and falling to her knees beside him. Guilt and regret and grief welled up in her chest as she leaned over him, tears blurring her vision as she pressed her head against his chest, listening for breathing, for his heartbeat.
They were there, but only just.
"Robin! Hang on!" she gasped desperately, straightening back up. She reached out with trembling hands, grasping careful hold of his face, at the stream of blood cascading over his mask and cheek.
Something happened, and she heaved a harsh gasp, clasping her eyes shut. A terrible wave of images, of memories, assaulted her mind, crashing through her like a stampede. It was as though someone was flipping the channel of a television far too quickly, but the message came through nonetheless.
She opened her eyes slowly, staring down into his pale face, barely able to breathe as the others appeared beside them.
"Oh my god."
"What the hell happened?"
Raven sat back on her heels with a sigh. It took a long moment before she was able to look up into their horrified faces.
"Slade…" Her voice seized up inside her throat, and she winced at the sound of it, turning her face from them with a shake of her head. "Robin has been hallucinating Slade this entire time…"
Horror spellbound them. Mouths fell open. Eyes widened. Faces paled. Beast Boy shook his head, muttering the word "Dude" under his breath. Cyborg glanced away, jaw set and face stony and cold. Starfire fell to her knees, a lost, empty look on her face as she stared tearfully down at the injured boy lying before them.
"He lied…" she whispered. Her voice was barely above a whisper, yet somehow they all heard her. "…he lied…"
Chapter 13: Disconnect
\ An hour passed before Robin showed any sign of coming to. The sun long had set, making the lonely fluorescent lights in the hospital wing their only comfort from the darkness. The four Titans sat around in silence, glancing at one another from time to time with concerned, uncertain faces. When Robin finally stirred, groaning and wincing against the lights above him, it was Starfire who stood first.
"Robin," she gasped, leaning over his bed. The others stood at attention in their places, watching carefully as Robin stared up at the redheaded girl. After a moment, he pushed himself into a sitting position with great difficulty, flinching at every movement. Starfire reached out to help him, as Cyborg stepped closer.
"You shouldn't be moving, man. You're pretty hurt."
But Robin didn't answer him, didn't even acknowledge his words. He leaned over his legs a little, one hand pressed to his head with a moan as Starfire carefully held him, as though afraid he'd fall over if she didn't.
"W…what happened…?" he finally croaked weakly.
"We were hoping you would be able to tell us…" the red-haired Titan murmured quietly beside him.
Robin massaged his head, moaning and bending over a little more. "I... I don't know… I don't remember…"
"Just tell us what you do remember, then…" Raven spoke up, approaching his bed, her usually stoic violet gaze laced with concern.
He winced, squeezing his eyes shut tight, fingers tightening on his hair as he struggled to think. "It's all jumbled… I think I hit my head…"
"You did, after a four-story fall."
"After a big purple dragon tore through the tower."
The Boy Wonder blinked numbly at them, dumbfounded. "You mean that thing was real…?"
There was a tense silence in the room as everyone glanced between one another. "It's a long story…"
"If you remember that, what else do you remember?"
Robin grimaced as he fought to latch onto his hazy memories. "My grappling hook… it snapped on me… that's why I fell…"
"Robin…" Cyborg's voice was low, slow, careful. "When we found you, and your grappling hook, it was all in one piece. It didn't break."
Robin merely blinked dumbly at his sheets, his face somehow becoming more pale as he struggled to make sense of it. "But it had…" he whispered. "It unraveled and snapped, and I
fell… that's what happened…"
"Why were you grappling over a four-floor drop to begin with? I'd told you to go somewhere safe."
This time, Robin couldn't answer. He swallowed hard, his gaze shaking as he stared into empty space before him. The other Titans exchanged more uncertain glances, no one sure what to say next. After a long moment, Raven took a breath, her face stony, as concerned as it could get.
"Robin… just tell us the truth. The full truth. You've been hallucinating. You've been seeing Slade."
Robin snapped his head up in horror, staring at her with full disbelief. He glanced around, at all the faces staring at him. And finally, his eyes fell on Cyborg.
"You told them?" he gasped incredulously, eyes widening in horror.
"You knew?" The rest of the team rounded on the cybernetic Titan, who looked utterly lost as he stared at the Boy Wonder with his mouth falling open.
"What-I- I didn't know anything!" Cyborg stammered, looking around at the other Titans frantically. "He never told me anything!"
"You're lying!" Robin was suddenly ripping himself from Starfire's grasp, tearing across the covers of his hospital bed and lunging at Cyborg, snatching him by the top of his chest armor and pulling him toward him, screaming in his face. "I told you what happened! I told you everything!"
Cyborg could only gape stupidly completely stricken senseless as he stared down at the dark-haired teen clutching at him. He surveyed the crazed, horrified expression in the young Titan's face, the reckless intensity of his gaze causing Cyborg's stomach to twist and knot uneasily. He carefully gripped Robin's wrists, forcing him to release his hold. "You never told me anything, Robin…" he whispered carefully. "I asked you to, but you never did… you never told any of us…"
Robin just stared at him, mortified. "But I told you… I know I told you…"
"Cyborg, are you certain…?" Starfire began, leaning forward to grasp Robin's shoulders.
"It's not like I would forget something like that…"
"But you helped me…" Robin went on in a strangled voice as Starfire forced him to sit back on the bed. His eyes were wide and frightened as he dropped his stare to the bedding beneath him, as though begging it for all the answers. "I told you everything and then you… you helped me… you gave me my…" His voice suddenly trailed off as he craned his head around, staring at the bedside table behind him. Before Starfire could react, he was scrambling from her grasp again, falling off the bed, his arms shaking noticeably as he ripped the bedside drawer open and began rifling through its contents.
"Robin…" she began carefully, reaching a hand out to him.
"Where is it…?" he gasped without any notice of her. A scowl flashed across his face, and he suddenly ripped the drawer completely out of the nightstand, random items scattering across the floor as he raked his nails through the random assemblage of papers and pens. "What did you do to it? Where did you put it?"
"My medicine! Where is it?"
Once more, no one spoke. Robin turned to look at them, his eyes wild, his face twitching. "What did you do with it?" he screamed, throwing the drawer at them, at Cyborg, who barely sidestepped in time for the drawer to hit the opposite bed with a terrible crash.
"Dude, calm down!" Beast Boy gasped.
"What medicine, Robin? What are you talking about?" Cyborg gasped, hurrying around the bed, his form beneath the harsh fluorescent lighting casting a shadow over the Boy Wonder.
But Robin didn't respond. And for the first time, his illness was perfectly written on his face. The paleness of his skin, the bags under his bloodshot eyes, the tics and twitches in his cheeks and lips, his disheveled hair… The wild, abandoned look in his gaze, like a lost child, as he glanced around at them.
Then, the effect only grew more pronounced, realization dawning on him. He gave a whispering exhale, slumping against the bedside table weakly. "I never told you…" he croaked. "None of that actually happened…"
"What else never happened? What else did I just imagine?" he rasped fearfully. His body began trembling more fiercely now, and he wrapped his arms around himself, as though to make it stop. He dropped his head, his fingers snaking to his hair, tangling around greasy strands and tugging hard. "Oh, God, I've lost my mind…"
"Robin," C yborg said more forcefully, crouching before him, clutching him gently. "Look at me, it's going to be okay… we'll figure this out."
His wild gaze rose to meet his. A flash of terror rocked through him and he suddenly struck out, pushing Cyborg away and scrambling across the floor away from him, away from everyone, pulling himself to his feet on the next bed and backing slowly away.
"You've said those things before!" he shrieked in panic. "How do I know it's not a hallucination this time!"
"How do I know!" he shrieked at the top of his lungs. He was shaking in full force now, his face becoming almost grotesque, twisted and changed by his delusional paranoia. He continued backing away, hitting the far corner of the room, staring at them with wide, distrustful eyes as his trembling doubled. "How do I know if any of this is real…?"
The Titans could only stare at him in horror. Seeing their leader, their friend, this way was the most unsettling experience they'd encountered so far. Cyborg merely stared, unable to speak a word, unable to believe any of this was happening, and felt utterly helpless to do anything about it. Starfire had gotten to her feet, but appeared paralyzed, her heart breaking inside her chest as she watched her dear friend falling apart before her. Beast Boy was in a similar state of uselessness, face blank with horror as he watched Robin slink to the floor, curling into a ball with his head in his hands.
It was Raven who finally stepped forward. She stopped just before Robin, kneeling carefully down. She slowly reached a hand out, laying it firmly against his forehead, her eyes closing. His reaction was oddly delayed, his head snapping up after her touch, eyes wide and fearful as a hand reached up to grip her wrist. After a moment, though, he relaxed a little, his own eyes falling closed with his chin tilting to his chest. The remaining Titans held their breaths, wondering what was happening, what Raven was doing.
Robin, she thought gently, stretching out her mind to him, as she had once before. Please, you can trust me. I'm not a figment of your imagination. I'm just here to help you.
You can't help… A wave of deep hopelessness accompanied the thought. There's nothing you can do…
Don't say that, Robin. Please, just trust me.
She could feel the outer layers of his defenses falling away. Tell me, Robin. Slade. Is he here right now?'
The language area of his thoughts hesitated, but she saw a glimpse of his face before Robin finally responded. Yes…
And she felt the rush of emotions emerging from him in full force. He'd thought Slade was gone. He thought he was recovering. Everything was falling apart more than ever. She tried to wrap her thoughts around him, to calm him down, to prevent his emotions from affecting her too much. Let me see him, Robin. Let me see him through your eyes, just like before…
He'll hurt you…
No he won't. I won't let him this time. Please, let me help you, Robin.
More barriers began to fall. Her breathing and his breathing suddenly synced in time, his racing heartbeat slowing to mirror hers. The world seemed to shift, to weave in with another, and the next thing she knew, she found herself sitting where Robin was. She opened her eyes.
But the world she found herself in wasn't the one she just left. Where she should have seen her own figure crouched, she saw emptiness. She stood slowly, her own cloak falling over her shoulders as she glanced around, confused for a moment. The walls of the hospital bay were gone. Their friends were gone. There was nothing but emptiness, a void as far as her eyes could see.
She wasn't seeing through Robin's eyes. She was seeing through his mind. Seeing the disconnect, where reality ended and his delusions began.
But where did this disconnect happen? And why?
"You won't find your answers," said a deep, calm voice behind her. She turned slowly, to find that familiar two-toned mask staring her down from across the void. She watched him carefully, positioning herself in a defiant stance, her face resolute.
"You're not wanted here," she muttered quietly. "At this rate, you'll destroy him."
"You make it sound like I should care."
"You're simply a figment of Robin's imagination. A delusion, a memory. And you're not welcome here."
Slade merely chuckled, walking forward. "That is true. I'm just a wayward portion of Robin's mind, of his memory. The irrational portion, gone awry. You honestly think you can reason with it, and it will just go away?"
Raven frowned. "No. That would be too easy."
"So what will you do?"
Raven took a deep breath, then stretched out with all her powers. Dark tendrils of magical energy stole across the empty space between them, twisting and dancing before slamming home at Slade's feet. Slowly, it crept upward, devouring the specter in a darkened shroud, slowly encasing him until nearly his entire form was entombed.
But Slade merely chuckled.
"You silly girl, you'll never destroy me…"
"I'll try," she growled low. She struggled to hold her focus, but the emotions surrounding her, Robin's fears, his mania, barraging her from every side.
"And you'll fail…" The voice suddenly spoke just beside her ear, and she gasped, the magic dissipating to reveal vacant space where Slade had been. Raven spun around, and Slade grabbed her by the arm, clenching it tightly in her grasp. She knew it wasn't real, but she flinched regardless.
"You're not real," she murmured quietly. "You can't hurt me."
"You foolish girl, of course I can," Slade murmured quietly. "In this world, it's my hand holding on to you. But in the real world, it's Robin's…"
Understanding slammed into her. "Robin, don't-!"
There was a flash of startling white, a burst of enormous pain that wrenched her from the disjointed reality like a noose around her neck.
And somewhere in the empty space where open minds still mingled, she heard Robin scream for her, from far away. And somewhere else, closer, was Slade's low, throaty chuckle, even as Raven slammed to the floor, screaming.
He watched her face, the spark of understanding right before her features morphed and twisted in pain, her scream shattering the air. He felt, faintly, as though only in memory, the sensation of his arm moving, the feeling of bone snapping beneath his grasp. It was strange, because his brain was aware of two realities – the one where Slade and Raven were facing off with one another, and the one where his grip slipped from her wrist as a pair of hands seized him, hurling him against the wall. He could only stare in frozen horror as two Ravens collapsed to the floor, their forms perfectly synchronized, linking the two worlds together like puzzle pieces sliding into place, becoming one reality. But there were still fragments missing. Sound didn't seem to travel as it should – lips were moving, forming words in his face, but its accompanying voice lagged behind, warbled, barely recognizable. Gravity seemed to shift and twist, yanking on his stomach as Slade stood up, looking at him smugly, brushing his hands together as though to say a job well done. That hooded figure, on the ground, Beast Boy kneeling beside it, looking up with horror marred into his face. Large, metal hands shaking him, voices screaming from miles away, echoing and broken.
What the hell is the matter with you…?
The way time seemed to speed and slow and kick and spin made him feel dizzy as he watched Beast Boy help Raven to her feet, watched her wince in pain as she glanced up at him. Cyborg's voice, roaring for Beast Boy to get her out. Pressure on his arms revealed just how tightly the robotic hands were clutching him. And all the while, Slade merely watched, amused.
What the hell is the matter with you…?
The question was echoing endlessly as the very air around him seemed to spin, trying to find its balance. That familiar dark half-cybernetic face bore down on him with furious eyes, expression cut with animosity. He was speaking, but Robin couldn't hear him. All he could see was the pale, pained face of the girl now disappearing behind the slamming metal doors. All he could feel in his chest was the recollection of bone snapping beneath his grip. Somewhere off to the side of his brain, he was minutely aware of Cyborg's expression shifting from seething rage to pure concern at the sight of Robin's numb, washed-out look. Empty. He simply looked so empty.
And in another section of his mind, there was Slade. There was always Slade.
What the hell is the matter with you…? Cyborg's voice echoed again, like a broken record, even though the older Titan's mouth didn't move. He was simply watching him, holding onto him as though to prevent him from collapsing, but that voice still echoed. And this time, Robin finally answered it.
"I don't know…" he rasped. Cyborg's face grew blurry before him, and he slowly became aware of the icy sting of tears down his cheeks. Emotions swelled, and he felt his knees give out, Cyborg's grip the only thing keeping him upright. He gritted his teeth and hung his head, the sensation of bone snapping under his grasp lingering, causing his whole body to tremble. "I just don't know!"
"Okay, just calm down, man. Just calm down, it's going to be okay…" Cyborg's voice was filtering in from miles away, a strange echo, barely recognizable. Robin felt his knees folding, the solid surface of the floor greeting him, the wall cold against his back as his body began shutting down in panic. Cyborg's face kept wavering in and out of focus, his strong hands still clutching him as he trembled even more fiercely, struggling not to break down completely.
But then, the world shifted again, like a flash of thunder. Cyborg was gone, and another large figure took his place, clutching him with gloved hands, that one-eyed mask peering on him dangerously close.
"That's right, Robin," Slade's voice hissed dangerously, leaning in so close Robin's eyes lost focus. "It will all be okay. I'll make sure of that."
As quickly as Slade had appeared, he was gone, leaving Cyborg's perplexed face staring at him. A pained gasp shot through his lungs as he remembered how to breathe, his hands clasping at Cyborg's arms with sudden desperation, mouth bearing back with a grimace of terror and pain. "Cyborg, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!" he gasped frantically, more tears washing over his cheeks. "Please, help her! I didn't mean- please help her…"
"She's going to be alright, Robin. Before I help her you need to tell me what's going on."
"No, help her! Just help her!"
"Didn't you hear her? She won't let me help her until you talk!"
Robin stared up at him incredulously. He didn't hear that. He barely knew what was going on. He still clutched Cyborg's arms, all his weight hanging on him weakly. He glanced past that metal face, noticing Starfire standing just behind, looking wary and worried.
That bone-cracking sensation, again. This time, he could hear Starfire's scream inside his head.
"Please, Robin," Cyborg went on. "Talk to us. We're here now, just talk to us. Tell us what's been going on."
His lungs burned. He struggled to breathe. He blinked, and swallowed, and finally forced himself to speak. "No…"
"I won't… I won't talk unless you restrain me."
"You guys were so quick to do it last time… you didn't even give me the chance to hurt anyone…" His voice sounded dead inside his own ears, lost, defeated."
"Robin, I don't really think you could hurt me…"
A rush of anger seized him, and Robin suddenly struck out again, snapping out a birdarang and slashing it across Cyborg's metallic chest, managing to slice a deep cut in the thick steel surface. Cyborg wheeled away with a cry of surprise rather than pain, as Starfire suddenly leapt behind the armed hero, grasping him in a tight hold, forcing the weapon from his hand.
"Are you afraid now?" Robin was screaming in abandon, struggling in Starfire's grip. "Don't you get it? I'm not safe! I'm unstable! I hurt her!"
"Robin, please calm down. Please."
Starfire's voice rolled softly beside his ear. It was soothing, like a lullaby, sobering him and causing his muscles to slacken. Her hug-like embrace only tightened as he dropped back to his knees, bending forward against her hold with a choked sob.
"I'm not safe…" he whimpered in a strained voice. "Please… I don't want to hurt anyone else…"
"I'll go get the straps, then…" Cyborg said, his voice mingled with anger and annoyance, his fingers running over the deep gash in his chest armor.
"I tore right through those last time," Robin spat, glaring up at him. "You really think those can stop me?"
Cyborg glared down at him. "What do you want? A strait jacket?"
The words washed over him like a frozen sea, pressing in on his chest and forcing his skin to pale. "Do we have one…?" he murmured quietly, almost hopefully.
It clearly wasn't the reaction Cyborg had been expecting. The few fragments of skin left on his body turned a wan ashen color, the anger in his face melting away to be substituted with shock. He blinked a few times, then swallowed warily. "We do, actually…"
"Then, please… please, Cy… do it…"
A look of deep pain and remorse flashed through the cybernetic Titan's face before he could stop it. Cyborg shook his head with a strained exhale, almost like a sob, rubbing the back of his neck as his eyes glanced around, a decision struggled to be made behind them. Finally, he cast a forlorn gaze at Starfire for just a moment, then made up his mind and moved away to the far corner of the room, opening cupboards and searching.
Starfire continued to grip Robin from behind. He dropped his head, falling against her, the feel of her gentle embrace the only thing keeping him from sprawling out on the floor before him. After a long moment, though, her grip loosened, her hands grasping him instead by the shoulders as she pulled slowly away. Alarm bells rang in his head, especially as he caught a glimpse of Slade sneering at him from the corner of his eye.
"Don't," he gasped, snatching a hand out and grasping her arm, dragging it into place back across his collarbone and neck. "Don't let me go… I could get away… I could hurt you…"
"I don't believe you would hurt me, Robin."
Robin swallowed, turning his head, glancing at her through the corner of his eye. Tears threatened him again. "I've done it before, Star… last week, with the dust, I hurt you…" A lone tear broke free, and he curled inward, grimacing. "Please, Star, I never want to hurt you again…"
A static moment passed, before Starfire slowly wrapped her arms around him again, holding him in much more of a hug than a restraining hold. Everything began to spin a little again, become unreal again, as Cyborg appeared after a moment, cradling some white fabric in his arms. Words once again seemed out of sync with the movement of lips as Cyborg instructed Starfire to help rid Robin of his belt and gloves, his steel toed boots. Robin didn't put up any kind of fight, feeling blank and empty-minded as they led him back to the bed. He sat on it numbly, his body beginning to tremble again as he watched his arms disappear into stark white sleeves, encasing him, entombing him as the sleeves crossed before him, brown straps buckling into place behind him.
He could suddenly picture so many images from his past… villains and madmen, strapped up tight in white jackets so similar to this… screaming, or laughing, as they were forcibly dragged down the long tiled hallways, disappearing into the shadowy depths of Arkham Asylum, the places he'd only heard of, but had never been allow to witness.
Now, as his own jacket tightened around him, it was all suddenly, horrendously real. He bent double, his face stretching into a wide grimace. Tears flowed freely now, a harsh sob racking through his chest. Soft hands caressed his cheeks, trying to sooth him, to reassure him, but he knew such gestures were false.
He was crazy. He was really truly out of his mind.
As his forehead and eyelids pressed into Starfire's shoulder, her fingers dragging through his hair, her voice humming words he couldn't comprehend, he suddenly heard Slade's cold, malicious laughter somewhere nearby.
"I said that you would end up in a strait jacket… didn't I…?"
Chapter 14: Embrace
Well, now… this is awkward…
Well, maybe awkward wasn't the right word… but it was definitely uncomfortable, sitting in silence in the room adjacent to the hospital ward, where Starfire and Cyborg were trying to calm down the manic Boy Wonder. Beast Boy shifted uneasily, rubbing the back of his head, periodically glancing at the girl next to him, not sure what to say, or even whether or not he should say anything.
Raven hadn't moved a muscle since she'd first sat down on the floor. Her eyes were closed like she was meditating, but she wasn't floating like she ordinarily would. She cradled her injured arm to her chest, and though it was mostly hidden by the folds of her cloak, Beast Boy could see a glimpse of the damage done - the purpling skin, lumps where lumps shouldn't be. It twisted his stomach, made him feel sick. He couldn't believe Robin had done that to her – with one hand, no less. It just didn't seem possible, even now. How could the Titan leader injure one of his own teammates? One of his own friends? Was he really that crazy…?
A cry from the next room pricked his ears, and he shot to his feet, out of habit more than anything. A Titan, through and through, quick to attention, ready to fight, his heart hammering inside his chest. He realized with a jolt that it'd been Cyborg that had cried out this time, like he was hurt. Had Robin attacked him now, too?
Robin's shouts began to filter in from the other room. "Are you afraid now?" he hollered "Don't you get it? I'm not safe! I'm unstable! I hurt her!"
Beast Boy had almost reached the door when a soft voice rooted him to the spot. "Don't, Beast Boy. Just let them handle it." He turned where he was, glancing over his shoulder at the small figure on the floor, obscured by her purple cape.
"But…" he began, then stopped. But what? What would he do? What could he do that Starfire or Cyborg couldn't do perfectly fine on their own? He looked back at the door, still able to hear voices on the other side, lower now, barely audible. He swallowed hard, turning back to the female Titan in the room with him. The need to do something, anything, was overpowering.
Raven had opened her eyes, looking at him as though to say "sit down." Beast Boy watched her a long moment, lost in silent awe. She was so calm, so collected, even with her arm so completely broken. He knew if he'd been in her place, he would've been swearing and whining so badly everyone in the Tower would've been sick of him.
He caught a glance of her arm again, his stomach twisting once more inside his rib cage as he slowly made his way back over to her, sitting beside her, glancing up at her with worried eyes just as she let her own fall closed again. He merely watched, with that same awestruck gaze, thinking over the whole night, the whole week, everything that had happened. How messed up everything was, between all of this with Robin… and then Malchior…
"May I help you?" she suddenly asked, peeking through one lid with an air of annoyance, as though able to sense him watching her – or maybe she actually did sense it, he realized with a leap of his stomach.
"I just…" he glanced at her arm again. It looked like it was only getting more swollen, and it looked painful. "Let me just put that in a splint or something."
"Come on. It'd give me something to do…"
"You really think that in order to cure your restlessness, I should let you mess with my broken arm?"
Beast Boy couldn't hide the stung look from his face. "Come on, I'm not that… um… what's the word? Uncapable…?"
"Yeah, that o—" he froze, and felt his stomach plummet through the floor to the basement. He frowned, and hunched his shoulders. "You picked that word out way too quickly."
"I read a lot of books… vocabulary is something I'm good at…"
Beast Boy just scowled, and glanced away. The room lapsed into uncomfortable silence, Beast Boy sulking quietly. He jutted his lower jaw out, mulling everything over in his head again. With a strike of determination, he shot to his feet, heading over to one of the cabinets along the walls and rummaging through them.
"What are you doing?"
"Showing you I'm not incompetitive."
"Yeah, that." He managed to find some ace bandages, and after a moment contemplating how important it was or how easily it could be fixed, he pried away a thin shelf from one of the cupboards, turning into a bear so he could easily snap it into two forearm-length pieces.
"Please, Beast Boy…"
"Just humor me," Beast Boy grumbled as he shifted back to human form, cradling his scavenged items in his arms as he made his way toward her. She frowned darkly, still clutching her arm.
"I said I wouldn't let anyone help me until Robin tells us what's happening."
"Robin's not here. He doesn't have to know. And it's not like I'm fixing it completely. Cyborg's the one who does stuff like that. I'm merely providing some basic first aid."
Raven still looked entirely unconvinced, but suddenly sighed in defeat, carefully releasing her hold on her arm. "Just note that if you mess up and hurt me, you are going to find yourself hurtling through the nearest wall."
"I'll be gentle then," he replied with a nervous smile, reaching out and tenderly taking her injured arm in his hands. He couldn't help but wince a little at seeing the full extent of the damage, and he tried hard to not directly touch the fractured bones. He set to work with the boards, carefully sandwiching her arm between them and with slow, focused movements, began to wrap the bandages around them.
At one point she hissed a little, and he froze, glancing up nervously. "Sorry, did I—"
"No, it's fine…"
Beast Boy just watched her a moment more, half expecting to be thrown through the nearest wall as she'd threatened, and half just wanting to make sure she was alright. She avoided his gaze, staring at his hands as they went back to work. He realized how tired her expression was, how sad even. He swallowed hard, turning his attention back to her arm, lest he mess up somehow.
"Look, Raven, I…" he began, then stopped, as though trying to piece his words together just right. He swallowed, his gaze flickering up to her just a moment before returning to what he was doing. "I'm sorry."
"For what? You weren't the one who broke-"
"No, not this. Malchior." He looked up at her in time to see a flinch of sorrow flash across her face, as though she'd forgotten and the mere mention had brought it all back. That one look almost silenced him, but he found himself still talking. "I'm sorry he… broke your heart."
Raven blinked a few times, and looked right at him. Beast Boy felt his chest seize up. He didn't think he ever saw an expression like that in her face before. He could nearly see her broken heart through her violet eyes. She finally glanced away, once again focusing on his hands bandaging her arm.
"I know it was all a lie," she murmured quietly, almost to herself. "But he was the only person that made me feel like I wasn't... creepy. And don't try to tell me I'm not."
"Okay, fine. You're way creepy…" Beast Boy shot her an apologetic look, shrugging his shoulders a little before continuing on, more seriously. "But that doesn't mean you have to keep yourself locked up in your room."
He paused to tie a knot in the bandages, carefully smoothing them and setting her hand gently down on her knee. "You think you're alone, Raven. But you're not."
She didn't respond, her gaze far away as his words churned over inside her head. Beast Boy watched her carefully, and for a moment, wondered if maybe he'd said the wrong thing.
But suddenly, he found his weight doubled, a corner of wood pressing into his back as her arms wrapped around his neck in a hug. His brain flashed a "Does Not Compute" error, his arms splayed absurdly behind her as her grip tightened. He could practically sense all of the emotions pouring from her, could almost feel her heart beating against his chest… and that thought alone made him blush. Once his mind seemed to restart, his hands fumbled stupidly for her shoulders, gripping her and prying her away clumsily. She settled back on her heels, looking up at him with a strange expression, somewhere between touched and embarrassed. Beast Boy felt his cheeks burning, and he opened his mouth, hoping words would form that didn't make him sound like idiot.
But he didn't have a chance to say anything, the moment suddenly broken by a strangled yell through the door behind them. They both turned in unison, eyes wide at the door as they heard the sounds of struggling, Starfire and Cyborg shouting Robin's name over the boy's sudden shrieking.
"Don't touch them! Don't hurt them! Slade, please! Please stop!"
"Calm down, Robin! He's not here, nothing's going to happen!"
"Please Robin! Listen to us!"
Beast Boy hadn't noticed himself getting to his feet, hadn't realized he'd placed himself between Raven and the door, as though Robin would suddenly leap out and try to attack her again. He watched the door with breathless vigilance. The sounds coming from the door, from Robin, made the hairs all along his spine stand on end, like a frightened cat.
What the hell is going on…? he wondered, a cold drop of sweat trickling uncomfortably past his ear as the shrieks began to whither and wane, becoming more like dying moans. Robin, what the hell has happened to you, man…?
As the Tower settled back into troubled silence, he turned to look at Raven. The girl looked just as unsettled as he felt, her face the palest he'd ever seen it. Her violet gaze flickered to meet his, and he could see the worry in her eyes, the uncertainty. It only served to escalate own dread.
After what felt like hours of waiting, the door finally snapped open, Cyborg sauntering in, looking stern and serious.
And before the door closed behind him, the changeling managed to catch a glimpse of the room beyond. The sight of Robin's head sticking out of a stark white straitjacket… fastened to the bed with straps, crying weakly with Starfire sitting beside him, trying to comfort him…
…good God, he was crying…
The doors slammed closed, hiding the scene from view. Beast Boy blinked a few times, and before he realized it, his own voice was breaking the silence. "What the hell happened…?"
He turned to Cyborg, and was mortified to see the deep incision carved into the metal plating on his chest. His eyes widened to their full extent. "Dude…" he rasped, tapping the spot with a outstretched finger.
"Knock it off," Cyborg grumbled, smacking his hand away.
"It doesn't matter. What does matter is figuring out what's going on, and how we can help him. We need answers."
"Did he tell you anything?" Raven was getting unsteadily to her own feet, standing beside Beast Boy, holding her bandaged arm to herself with her cloak falling closed over her. Cyborg sighed, and shook his head regretfully.
"We didn't get that far… I had to sedate him…"
That explains why the screaming stopped like that… Beast Boy thought, another chill coursing through him.
"So what now?"
"For now, it's like I said. We need to find answers on our own. Do a little digging. There must be some clues in his room or his lab, something to help us figure out exactly what we're dealing with, here."
"Are you saying this is different from before?" Beast Boy spoke up dully. "Different from the mask dust?"
Cyborg nodded quietly. "The lights were on, Bea, and Slade was still there. This is completely different from the dust. It's worse." He paused to swallow, glancing between them. "I just need some answers, some understanding of what Robin has been hiding from us this whole time. Because from what I can tell at this point… it's not looking good…"
"You sound like you've already figured some things out…" Raven muttered pointedly.
Cyborg shifted uneasily in place. He glanced at the door out of the corner of his eye, releasing a heavy exhale. "All I know is, he has bandages he didn't have before..."
No one spoke for a long moment. Raven bowed her head, her face vanishing in the shadow beneath her cloak. Her hand lightly grazed along her splinted arm. "I can delve into his mind," she murmured quietly. "See what I can figure out."
"I want you to hold off. Even with him restrained, we know from before that you can be hurt without him physically touching you. Besides… I think Robin needs some rest… and so do you." He looked at her arm pointedly, and though he seemed a little surprised by the bandages, didn't say anything about them, merely glancing between her at Beast Boy a second, as though piecing it all together. Finally, he gestured. "Come on, Bea. I need your nose."
"Oh… okay…" Beast Boy moved to follow, but found himself hesitating, glancing at Raven as though unsure he wanted to leave her alone. She merely looked back, a strange, relaxed smile on her face. Cyborg was already moving to the door, and Beast Boy knew if he didn't move now, the older Titan would only get irritated. He forced a curt, awkward nod at the girl before him, then headed for the door.
"Thanks, Beast Boy," she suddenly rasped behind him, just before he reached the exit. He spun to look at her again, but she had already turned away, sitting cross-legged in midair with her back to him. He watched her for only a moment, wondering if he'd only imagined her words, before spinning on his heel and hurrying to catch up with Cyborg.
The only sound in the room was his slow, ragged breathing. But it was a welcomed sound – at least he wasn't screaming anymore… or hyperventilating… or crying…
The soles of Starfire's purple boots drifted a foot from the ground, the pressure of the mattress on the back of her knees causing her toes to fall asleep, but she didn't care. Her sorrowful gaze remained fixated on the boy beside her, barely allowing herself to blink as she combed her fingers gently through his hair, listening to him breathe. Every so often, he would shift a little, his eyelids fluttering as he struggled against the hold of the sedatives, but he always settled back into his pillow, eyes closing once more, maybe muttering something incoherent under his breath.
She was scared. She was absolutely scared beyond wits by everything that was happening to her friend. She didn't know what to do, what to think of any of it. And her heart ached endlessly inside her chest as she recalled the day's events – finding Robin unconscious at the bottom of the hole in the tower, the look on his face as he realized the extent of his own madness, his screams as they tried to tie him down to the bed, so violent he'd become that Cyborg had to stick a needle in his neck…
She shivered, her eyes snapping shut and head shaking as though trying to catapult the memory from her mind. With a sigh, she looked back down at him, watching her knuckles slowly brush over his cheek, her thumb grazing the soft strands of hair by his ear.
Why is this happening to you, Robin? she wondered desperately, icy grief choking her veins.
His head suddenly twisted a little from where it poked out of the white jacket, a groan leaping from his throat as a flinch struggled across his face. Starfire pressed her hand more firmly against his cheek and jawline, as though to assure him that she was there with him.
"It is okay, Robin," she murmured in a hushed, gentle voice, like one would tell a sleeping child. "I am here. Everything is going to be all right."
His breathing was growing shallow again. Starfire twisted in her spot, her other hand grasping at Robin's arm through his white imprisonment. She followed the contours of his forearm, the little bump that indicated his wrist, and the concave curves as his arm transformed to fingers. She dug her own fingers into the fabric, gripping his hand as best as she could, her other hand still firm on the side of his face. "Everything is going to be all right," she repeated, combing his hair down a little with her fingertips.
His fingers flexed under hers. His eyes fluttered open, unfocused as they centered on her. His body shook minutely, a spasm of anguish in his face as he watched her.
"I'm sorry," he sputtered. He screwed his face up, teeth baring as though fighting away some terrible pain. "I'm so sorry."
"Please, Robin. There is no need to be sorry. This is not your fault."
"I never wanted this… I didn't want you to ever see me like this…"
Star honestly didn't know how to respond to that. She squeezed his hand a little tighter, rested the palm of her other hand on his forehead as she racked her mind for something to respond, finally settling on "I know, Robin… I know."
He shifted under his restraints. Starfire glanced down on him. His arms securely wrapped in the white coat, arms crossed over his torso like some strange kind of hug. Leather straps wove in and out of the tangle of limbs and fabric, over his lap and around his legs and ankles, securing him to the bed so tightly he could barely move. It looked so uncomfortable, and it pained her as even she admitted to herself it needed to be this way. Just for now. Just until they could help him before he hurt anyone else… or hurt himself…
"…why do you keep calling me that…?"
The faraway lilt to his voice brought her attention back to him. She stared down at him in concern, swallowing hard. "What do you mean…? It is what I have always called you…"
His face shuddered, shaking slightly. "You never called me Robin… you were gone before I ever…"
Understanding crept in, and she felt her heart seize with horror. She leaned in. "Robin. Who am I?"
He blinked at her, his distant gaze wavering as though trying to remember. He suddenly burbled something like a laugh, as though the very question was silly. "What are you talking about…?" he asked, his voice cracking with childlike frailty. "…you're my mom."
Starfire felt all her breath disappear as she stared down at him, her stroking hand falling still in the air beside his head. His gaze pierced her through his mask, wavering with something like expectancy, or certainty. Starfire felt tears burning, watering her vision a little.
He never spoke of his mother. He never spoke of parents, of family, of any life before the Titans. She'd always found that so odd, as she'd always found herself talking of her home planet, of her gnorfka, even of Blackfire… but Robin never did. Sometimes she'd wondered if maybe Robin just didn't want to remember any of that… didn't want to remember that there was a boy without Robin's name… the one called whatever his mother had called him.
And Starfire's heart hurt terribly for him. The way he looked at her, the way he spoke… the way he'd never mentioned her before… it was very clear what had happened to his mother.
Robin's face suddenly twitched, his conviction replaced with doubt, almost dread. "…you are… aren't you…? Or… is this just…"
Starfire couldn't say a thing. She could see Robin begin to curl in on himself as understanding began to grab hold. Tears began trickling down his cheeks again, and he pressed his eyes tightly closed, his body shaking with silent crying. "…I just miss you…" he whispered hoarsely.
Starfire took a deep, shuddering breath, lightly sweeping some wayward strands of hair from his forehead as she leaned in. A small idea scratched at her attention, and wouldn't let go. "Just listen to me…" she murmured in a soft, tender tone. She hesitated a moment, wondering how to approach this, wondering if it was even a good idea. Before she'd even really decided, she was already speaking again. "I… I may not be here, but your friends are. They will do anything for you. They will do everything to figure this out, but they need you to help them. You have to trust them."
Robin slowly opened his eyes, peering through heavy lids up at her. She tried to smile, but the effect was worn a bit. Robin leaned into her hand a little bit, nuzzling it like a lonely tabby.
"I do trust you guys, Star…" he suddenly croaked, making her freeze with guilt, especially as he shot her a knowing little smile. "But I can't believe you just did that…"
"I'm sorry, Robin, I thought you were still—"
"It's okay… it was kinda funny…. Besides, it's not like I've been very truthful to you, lately…"
She could only gape down at him in astonishment, watching with a heavy heart as he sighed, closing his eyes as he rested his head against her hand again. His form went blurry behind tears, and Starfire wondered why she was crying now, why her heart ached so hard. She pulled in a breath and held it, trying to stay her emotions, trying to be strong like she'd always been before. She squeezed his hand through the sleeve of the strait jacket, swallowing hard.
"Everything I said was the truth, though, Robin… please, put trust in us. We only want to help you. We only want to see you get better."
He didn't say anything else. His shaking had begun to ebb, his body slumping into the surface of the mattress. She felt his hand relax beneath her grasp, and she realized that the drugs must have overpowered him once more. She watched his face quietly, watched it relax into something much more peaceful.
And for a moment, she almost leaned in and kissed him on the head, much like a mother would… much like she wished his mother could… but she held back.
Robin's mother… she thought numbly, resting her other hand protectively on Robin's forehead. I promise you, I will protect your son where you cannot… I promise we will make him well.
"Dude, and I thought my room was messy…"
"Less talking, more sniffing."
Cyborg rubbed his neck as he looked around the chaos-riddled laboratory. If he had hairs there, they'd be standing on end. Robin never allowed his space to get messy like this. Sure, sometimes when he's more focused the table tops would be littered with projects or papers, but it looked like someone had torn the place apart, drawers ripped from places, stuff scattered all over the floor. Broken glassware, crumpled papers…
It would've seemed truly terrible, if they hadn't visited his bedroom first. The recollection of the broken mirror, the red-stained bathroom, the bloodied and torn costume, still brought chills to his spine.
He shifted uneasily where he stood, not really sure where to start. His gaze fell into the paper basket beside him. He bent double, pulling out and uncrinkling a transparency, inked to show various views of Robin's brain. Even in the dim light of the room, he could tell there was nothing abnormal to be seen in the scans.
"He was really thorough about all this…" he murmured quietly, glancing up at Beast Boy, who was rummaging through the mess as a green-furred beagle, his nose sniffing loudly. His tail hung between his legs, his ears droopy as he sniffed his way around the table, half out of sight. Suddenly, he yelped, his hair and tail sticking straight from his body before staggering back, morphing back to normal and rubbing his nose.
"What happened?" Cyborg gasped, hurrying over, careful not to step on anything under his feet.
"Who the hell leaves something that sharp right there?" Beast Boy stammered before mumbling some choice swears to himself. Cyborg glanced around at the shattered glassware, then knelt down where the changeling had been snooping, craning his large body awkwardly to see under the lab table.
His body seemed to freeze cold as he found himself staring down the shaft of a long, sharp needle.
"Robin, you didn't…" he whispered to himself, reaching under the table and pulling out the familiar long needle, holding it up in his outstretched hand. He glanced at Beast Boy, and could see the blood draining from his face, turning his green skin a mottled gray
"…that's one really big needle…" he floundered dumbly, backing away a few inches.
"It's made to puncture and draw fluid from a spinal cord…" Cyborg muttered coldly, more to himself than to Beast Boy. He turned the long syringe over. There was no indication that it'd been used – the blood on the tip was fresh, from where it'd prodded Beast Boy, but it was only on the tip. The rest of the needle seemed pristine, and the syringe's reservoir was empty.
But its very existence in the lab was enough information for him. "He lied… he really was prepared to do it…"
"Do what? That?" One could see the willies passing through the young changeling, his face twisting with the disturbing thought.
Cyborg once more thought back to the scene in the other room. The ripped and bloodstained clothes in his closet… the piles of broken, bloodied glass in the soapdish of his shower…. Cyborg crouched to look more closely at the broken glass on the floor, looking for any sign of blood here, too
After a few seconds, he felt a twinge of paranoia, like someone was watching him. He looked up, his eyes falling on a familiar masked face. Slade. He was staring at him from every direction, his likeness recreated in countless of snapshots taped to the laboratory's walls. They were haunting, a continual reminder of their past with him.
And he thought of how much time Robin had spent in this room over the months. How long the memory of Slade had surrounded him, watching everything he did…
Cyborg forced his gaze away, swallowing hard. "See what else you can find…" he murmured to Beast Boy. He dropped the syringe in a plastic bag and placed it carefully on the bare counter beside the unwrinkled brain scan. He glanced between the two clues, and wished, with everything he had, that they found better answers than this. Because these weren't answers… they were just more questions.
There has to be something… he thought desperately, almost prayed. He bent down and began rifling through the mess on the floor, overturned drawers and broken glassware. No one just goes insane…
…unless the insanity had always been there… and the dust just finally…
The malicious one-eyed stares from the wall bore into him where he crouched, and he swallowed hard. He refused to believe any of that. Robin wasn't insane… not like that… there had to be something else, something they were missing… There had to be some way to undo the damage to his mind. No one just goes insane like that…
Dudes, you didn't think I could take away my favorite BB/Raven scene in the entire series, did you? Not only did I figure out a way to keep it in, I made it BETTER! BOO YAH
Chapter 15: Tentative
None of the other Titans got much sleep that night. Starfire stayed rooted to Robin's side, refusing every suggestion of resting or taking a break. Cyborg was off to the side, hunched awkwardly over a low counter, test tubes and bottles scattered as he laboriously tested Robin's blood and cerebrospinal fluids again and again, checking under microscopes, checking the computer in his arm, the whole while with a focused, determined look on his face. Beast Boy sat on the floor out of the way, kind of half-heartedly tapping on his portable game system for lack of anything else to do. Every so often he would look up at the others, looking more than anything like he wished he could help, but would always just sigh and go back to his game until sleep finally curled him up in a ball as a snoozing cat.
Raven, meanwhile, was seated floating in midair. She tried to get some meditative rest, but wasn't having the best of luck. Her newly casted arm felt heavy on her leg, and she scowled at its presence – it had already become an itchy nuisance. She pulled it out from beneath her cloak, looking down at the pictures Beast Boy managed to scribble on the colorful cast when she'd had her back turned. With a sigh of annoyance, she mentally tried to itch the skin hidden beneath its blue surface, but it didn't quite work.
Why did I let them talk me into this cast… Beast Boy's first aid job was almost more comfortable…
With a frustrated sigh, she lifted her head, glancing around at the others in the solemn quiet of the room. At Starfire, eyes fallen closed, her head nodding gracelessly as sleep grappled for dominance. At Cyborg, scratching his head as he looked over some charts and compared them to a test tube in his hand. At Beast Boy, rolling around in his sleep, his furry feline stomach stretched to the sky.
And finally, at Robin. His face looked so sallow and gaunt, bags clearly visible under his mask. Every so often he would mutter something incoherent and twist a little where he lay without ever coming to. His legs were completely immobile, thick straps wound around his thighs, calves and ankles to ensure he couldn't kick himself free this time. His arms were thin poles lost in the fabric of the oversized white jacket, which in turn had more straps holding him fast where he lay. The whole setup looked uncomfortable and confining. It put some grim perspective on Raven's lone bound wrist.
Time dragged on. The young sorceress closed her eyes and tried to rest a little, but only managed to make it to that odd place between sleep and wakefulness - where time's flow shifts a little, but recovery from the day never really occurs. Before she knew it, she was blinking blearily at the early morning sun glinting in through the window blinds, cursing it for its brightness so soon in the day. Rubbing her eye with the palm of her good hand, she let her feet drop to the floor, gravity taking hold once more. With some tired groans, she marched to the window and snapped the curtain shut with a flourish. Still not dark enough. She admitted defeat, returning to the lone occupied bed while trying to massage a crick out of her neck.
As she lifted her head and looked down on the boy lying there, she was alarmed to see his masked eyes staring blankly at the ceiling. She crossed over to the side opposite Starfire, leaning carefully over him. "Robin?" she asked carefully. Her voice was immediately accompanied by the scrape of chair legs, Cyborg standing up behind her, alert.
Robin didn't respond right away. His eyes seemed glazed over, unfocused, and Raven wondered if he was still lost under the hold of the sedatives. But after a few seconds, he blinked, turning his head, his gaze falling on her. It seemed to take his brain a few moments to register who she was, but once it did, his face surged with sudden emotion, his body twisting in its tangled prison.
"Raven," he croaked. His eyes glanced down, catching a glimpse of her cast. The guilt and remorse on his face swelled, his chest rising in something like a short sob. His eyes locked on her, his face twitching as he shook his head. "Raven, I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry."
"It's okay. I think I'll live." She tried to sound more reassuring than her usual deadpan tone, but couldn't tell if she was pulling it off. Apparently she wasn't, because Robin just grimaced in self-loathing.
"It's alright, Robin," Cyborg spoke up, placing himself beside Raven. "It… wasn't your fault."
The other Titans stirred with their voices, Starfire nearly falling out of her seat as she startled awake. Even Beast Boy somehow awoke, despite his heavy sleeping habits, getting groggily to his feet and rubbing his eyes as he joined the crowd around the restrained Titan. Robin just looked around at them, his body shaking a little. Starfire leaned forward and smoothed his hair down quietly, causing him to settle into his pillows a little.
"Look, Robin. We need you to talk to us," Cyborg went on, squaring his shoulders as he grew more serious, like an older brother taking charge. "We went looking through your room, and the lab. You've been hiding a lot from us, and that needs to end now."
"We need to know what's been happening, Robin," Raven inserted. "You need to talk to us."
"Yes, please," Starfire spoke up, worry choking her voice. "Tell us, so we may help you."
Robin looked around at them, then up at the ceiling. His jaw tightened noticeably, his eyelids squeezing shut.
"Come on, Robin. Please?"
"We're your friends, dude."
"We can't help you unless you—"
"Would everyone just shut up?"
The room went deadly quiet. Robin's head hovered above his pillow from the force of his shout, his eyes clenched painfully tight, lungs heaving shallow, pained breaths. His shoulders hunched, his arms struggling in their white confinements, as though he wanted nothing more than to bury his head into them. A harsh gasp left him, and he fell back on the mattress, fighting to breathe, blinking tears from his eyes as he shook his head. "Shut up…" he rasped weakly. "Please just shut them up…"
Raven felt her skin crawl as she understood. It wasn't their voices that were too much for him. It was the other voices, the ones inside his head, the ones only he could hear…
She found herself stepping forward, the fingertips of her good hand stretching for his temple. Beads of sweat clung to his skin, making it clammy to the touch as she reached out with her powers, wrapping tendrils of energy through his battered mind, encouraging peace among his wayward, fragmented thoughts. She could feel it working, could feel his shoulders slowly relaxing. He blinked over at her, his breathing falling still a moment, almost in disbelief.
"That better?" she asked quietly, offering a minute smile. He simply nodded, dully, and with the connection, she could feel the gratitude mixing in with his other emotions.
"Why don't you just start from the beginning, Robin," Cyborg spoke up, his own voice a little gentler. "When did all this start up again?"
Robin looked at the ceiling a moment, as though searching it for words to string together. Raven could sense how laborious the process was, her fingers twitching beside his head as she could feel him struggling to pull pieces of his memory together, and some courage to speak. "The day after the dust… I kept hearing him. Just… little things, very sporadically. I thought I was only imagining it: figured it was just nerves. …But then I started to see him, too. And, I knew. I knew this was something different. It wasn't like the dust… it wasn't like it at all…"
"Robin, why did you not tell any of us?" Starfire murmured, her emerald gaze full of sorrow.
He licked his dry lips, a visible shudder passing through him before he could answer. "…I thought I had…"
The room plunged to cold silence at that, the reminder of that situation striking a harsh chord. They looked between one another, no one really sure what to say next. Cyborg finally set his jaw, furrowing his brow in concentration.
"You said you had told me everything. When?"
Robin searched the ceiling again. "Right after I'd thrown up, and woke up in the hospital wing. That was when I… thought I'd told you."
Cyborg shook his head, his own memory flashing in his head. "I just walked out on you…" he murmured quietly, more to himself than to Robin, his voice racked with guilt.
"Your primary hallucination has been Slade, though, right?" Raven piped up as Cyborg lapsed into self-deprecating silence. Robin nodded. "What does he do? Has he hurt you?"
"But he has," Cyborg asserted, snapping out of his conscience. It wasn't a question, but a statement. Robin winced a little at his words, avoiding making eye contact with any of them as he nodded once more.
"Yeah, when we went snooping around in your room and stuff," Beast Boy spoke up for the first time, rubbing the back of his head. "We…we saw all the blood…"
"Just tell us everything that happened. Don't leave anything out."
"I'll be able to tell if you do," Raven muttered pointedly, her fingers twitching beside his ear as though to prove her point.
It took a while, Robin's voice growing hoarse as he recounted the whole last week to them. He spoke haltingly, occaisionally rendered silent as he recalled certain moments, so that the other had to encourage him to keep talking through more questions. He told them about his failing attempts at finding an answer, his deceits and lies, what Slade had said and done to him. They listened with growing unease, every terrible detail sending shudders down their spines. Cyborg looked particularly ill as Robin described his moment curled on the floor, the enormous needle aimed at his spine. He told them about how he'd believed he'd been recovering, and what'd happened while they were fighting Malchior.
When it was clear he was done, another silence enveloped the room, as they let the whole story digest through their heads.
"There must be a pattern," Starfire finally spoke up. "Just as there was with the dust. Then, the pattern was Slade only appearing in the darkness. Maybe—"
"There is no pattern," Robin spat bitterly. They turned to him, astonished by the frustrated, seething look on his face as he stared at the ceiling.
"Well, we can run some tests and see—"
"Nothing. There is nothing." Robin's eyes flashed with manic conviction as he continued glowering at the lights above him. "No chemical reagent, no bacterial infection, no tumor, no poison. Nothing. I checked everything."
"You had to have missed something—"
"I checked everything!" he suddenly screamed at an ear-splitting pitch.
"Robin, calm down," Raven said in a warning tone. "Look… you're sick. Your mind has spent the last week playing tricks on you. It'd only be fitting that it would prevent you from seeing the solution, even if it was staring you right in the face."
Robin blinked, her words churning in his head. After a moment, his face softened a little, his body relaxing. "You think I'm just… hallucinating there not being a reason for my hallucinations?"
"That's a mouthful," Beast Boy muttered.
"It's possible. There has to be something." Cyborg frowned in thought, scratching his bald head with his nail-less hands. "This is too sudden and too convenient to be coincidence. We'll run every test over again, see what we could have missed."
"And I want to chart out all of these hallucinations," Raven added. "Write down all the hallucinations you've had so far, when they occurred, and what happened. And write any new ones you have. There might be a pattern, just not one as obvious as before."
"We can put you on some anti-psychotics, too. …real ones this time."
"We should also keep constant surveillance on you as well. That way we can see what happens during your hallucinations, see if there's any patterns, and help you find ways of overcoming them."
"And also prevent you from being hurt by them again…" Starfire added, looking over at him solemnly.
Robin didn't speak. His gaze remained glued to the ceiling, and for a moment, Raven wondered if he was even still listening. He blinked a few times. "This… this could actually work…" he croaked, barely above a whisper.
"We won't give up until we figure out what's wrong with you." Cyborg looked stern and determined, standing tall like he was facing down a foe. "I promise."
Suddenly, a small smile graced the Boy Wonder's tired face. He closed his eyes, as though trying with all his might to keep his tears at bay. After a moment, he glanced around at them, his eyes still looking watery, his face growing a little pink as their determination touched him. "You guys are the best…" he managed to say with a shaky voice, relief and hope evidenced on his face for the first time. "Thanks."
"Duh, you'd do the same for us," Beast Boy said with a beaming grin, leaning over the footboard of the bed.
"We're practically family here, Robin," Cyborg said softly. "And we're not letting you go without a fight."
Robin was shaking a little more under Raven's touch, and she realized that he really was crying now, silently, his shoulders quaking under his brilliantly white straitjacket. Silence fell. In any ordinary circumstance, a group hug should've happened, but this time it couldn't. It's not really possible to group hug a boy strapped to a bed.
It all went along as they had planned. Robin was never left alone, the Titans taking shifts watching over him, there for him when things started to get a little too unreal, there to stop him and comfort him when hallucinations grew too strong. Cyborg spent his spare time at work in the lab, running and rerunning tests, pouring over scientific journals and whatever secret databases they had access to, hoping to find a breakthrough. Raven did as she said, making charts of Robin's symptoms and delusions, plotting them all out on a massive spreadsheet with color coding and symbols, so that she could put it on the enormous Titan computer monitor and sit back, trying to find some clues in the data. Starfire and Beast Boy mostly helped by taking longer shifts with the Boy Wonder – Starfire playing the role of caring guardian, bringing him food and holding him when he awoke at night screaming; Beast Boy playing the role of friend, doing everything he could to keep Robin smiling, and playing both board and video games with him.
Not every moment was spent in the strait jacket. There were times when he was freed from it, when he was allowed to stretch his muscles, eat, use the restroom, and beat Beast Boy at chess some more. But then, there were the times when games were left unfinished, food left untouched, because something would happen – Slade, whispering terrible words in his ear, telling him he should fight and escape, telling him his friends were to blame, that they wanted him out of the way. At times like those, he would look up, with a distant, pale gaze, and ask to be put back in his restraints.
He really hated it. Overall, he hated all of it. He hated not knowing what was wrong with him. He hated not really truly knowing whether everything happening around him was real or not. He knew that Slade wasn't real, but there were times when he'd have to stop, and wonder if something his friends had said, something that had happened between them, wasn't also just another hallucination.
Especially when it was growing more apparent that he was hallucinating more than just Slade. Every so often he would mention something, and no one knew what he was talking about…
And then there were the times when his friends were called into duty, and he was racked with insurmountable guilt to watch three of them run off to danger unaided. He would always beg and plead with the one that was left behind, demanding them to leave him alone and help the others. But they always refused.
"It's just Adonis," Beast Boy said to him one day, forcing a laugh that wasn't quite genuine. "They can handle him without us, no problem."
But only barely. He could see it on their faces after every battle, each one was becoming harder and harder as they stretched themselves too thin. But they always smiled at him, and acted like nothing was wrong, just telling him to focus on himself, that he needed to get better.
But as the days grew, as a week passed, his patience - with himself, with his condition, with the world around him, with Slade's never-ending presence - was worn away to nothing. Why didn't they have any answers? Why weren't the hallucinations going away? Why was this happening to him?
But anytime he wondered, Slade would jeer at him from wherever he lurked, staring at him with that familiar, haunting gray stare.
"It's because you're insane, Robin," he'd say. "Because you're insane."
…maybe I am…
Did you guys notice what I did there? With the Adonis mention? xD Now we don't have to deal with Beast Boy being all jerkish animalistic on top of Robin being cuckoo crazy. *taps noggin* I think these things out, lol!
Chapter 16: Frustration
He never thought he would ever feel this kind of exhaustion again, after the accident that replaced his human body with one that was battery-powered. Cyborg groaned and rubbed his human eye, his metal palm cold against the surface of his skin. Even with his eyes closed, he could still see the remnants of colored spreadsheet boxes on his retinae, words and sentences garbled in his head as he fought to think.
It'd been almost 10 days since they'd first found out about what was going on with Robin, and a conclusion didn't feel any closer at hand. Cyborg groaned again, pressing his face into both hands now, shaking his head a little.
"We have to be missing something here…" he muttered to his palms, squeezing his eyes shut. "Something we're missing… there just has to be…"
"Talking to yourself?" a voice suddenly piped up, causing him to snap upright, startled. He spun to see Raven walking in with slow, even steps. Her cloak hid her small form in its dark folds as she stepped past the wooden boards providing a temporary solution to the enormous holes in the tower. Cyborg dropped his shoulders as she joined him on the couch. He sighed heavily and looked back up at the information displayed on the enormous screen before him.
"I wish I were talking to myself… I mean… if I were hallucinating too, we'd know for sure that he isn't just…" His voice caught in his throat. There was no way he could finish that sentence. He blinked a few times, leaning over his knees, bracing himself against them and staring down at the floor. He glanced over at her. "Did you just finish your shift with him?"
"How is he?"
She shrugged a little, her face a strange hue under the glow of the monitor.
"Still no improvement…" he said for her, looking back at the floor. Raven sighed, picking a piece of lint off her cloak.
"Anti-psychotic medications take a few weeks to kick in fully…" she murmured in a quiet tone. "We just need to hang on a few more days and hopefully they'll…"
"But then what?" Cyborg was startled by the sudden frustration in his voice as he shot her a cold look, and she lapsed into silence. He gritted his teeth, his hands folding into fists on his lap. "Medicating him is not the answer, Raven. It's not foolproof, especially not for something as… erratic as this!" He gestured to the screen as though to make his point, then suddenly sobered a little, hunching his shoulders and dropping his voice to a more calm level. "And all the tests are coming up clean. Even after sending samples out to various labs, still, there's nothing. Nothing at all. We're coming up empty here…"
He paused for a very long time, and Raven seemed to let him, as though knowing what he wanted to say and not wanting him to say it. He glanced over at her, and she avoided his gaze, just passively scratching at the edges of her cast. He finally swallowed hard, fighting for the words. "Do you think he might really be… just…"
"…insane?" It was her turn to talk for him. He looked over at her, that word hanging in the air like a phantom. Raven sighed, lowering her chin so her hair curtained her face, blocking it from view as she shook her head a little. "I don't know…"
"Come on. You can see into his mind, Rae. Can't you tell?"
Her violet gaze flashed over to him, looking almost appalled. "What, can I tell if he's legitimately crazy or whether something external is making him that way? No… no I really can't." Her face softened a little, and she pressed her lips tightly together a moment before speaking again. "I will say… if it were a chemical or an infection… it'd either have worked its way out of his system or have killed him by now...."
Cyborg sighed, and rubbed his neck. "We're definitely running out of options—"
A loud sound interrupted them. A blaring siren, accompanied by flashing red lights throughout the entire room. Cyborg suddenly gritted his teeth, his hands clasping into fists again. "Goddamnit, shut up!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. Before he could stop himself, he snatched up the first thing his hand could grab and hurled it at the screen before him. A clean, jagged hole shattered through the glass, revealing the night sky on the other side of the window.
"…we didn't need that tv remote anyway…" Raven murmured to herself in deadpanned humor, even as Cyborg dropped to the couch clutching his head and struggling to get himself back under control. His nerves felt on fire. This was too much to handle all at once. He didn't want to fight. He didn't want to work. He didn't want to do anything. He just wanted a moment to think, to breathe, to figure things out.
A hand on his shoulder nearly startled him again. He looked up at the girl next to him, at her muted but caring face. "Come on," she said, her voice rising in volume to be heard over the blaring sirens. "This place has enough holes in it. You can go take out your frustrations on whatever bad guy is causing trouble this time."
Cyborg couldn't help but give her a little grin. "You got a point there…" he murmured, getting to his feet. She led the way out the room, but as he reached the door, he glanced back at the enormous screen, now jagged with dark cracks and a large hole in the center. A strange shudder passed through his nervous system, filling him with complete, unexplainable trepidation. He forced those thoughts aside, focusing instead on the flashing siren lights, sprinting to catch up with Raven. He hoped, with everything that he had, that their job wouldn't be too difficult tonight.
"Oh, maaaaan, you gotta be KIDDING me!" Beast Boy bemoaned theatrically, watching with puppy dog eyes as Robin tossed his cards aside and pulled the peanuts that comprised the pot into his personal stash, which had grown into a considerable mountain compared to Beast Boy's little puddle. Of course, the changeling would've had more, if it weren't for the similar pile of empty shells on his other side and the crumbs on his face. Beast Boy shook his head, growing determined and snatching up the cards. "THIS time I'll—"
"I'm done, Beast Boy."
"Oh, you don't wanna play anymore? You're just worried I'll make a comeback."
"No, not really." Robin's voice held no humor as he spoke, flicking a few peanuts away out of boredom. Though his gaze remained downcast, he could tell the other boy was put off by his mood, his shoulders slumping in disappointment.
"What'sa matter?" The other boy's tone was more serious now, frowning a little with something like concern as he watched the Boy Wonder carefully. Robin frowned, too, still watching the peanuts.
"Nothing's wrong." He knew the question Beast Boy was really asking. Was Robin not wanting to play because hallucinations were getting in the way? Was he feeling sick, was he feeling wrong? Anger welled up in his chest, and just as Beast Boy opened his mouth to say something else, he found himself swinging his arm, scattering the peanuts all over the floor. "Nothing is wrong!" he repeated in a shout, sliding off the other side of the bed, kicking wayward peanuts away as he stormed down the hospital bay.
Beast Boy was close behind him, sprinting to catch up and grabbing him by the arm. "Dude. Calm down." Robin looked back at him, at that uncertain, vigilant look he was giving him. That same look everyone gave him now. He growled, violently wrenching himself free.
"Knock it off! I'm not having some psychosomatic meltdown here, okay? I'm just frustrated! Am I not allowed to be frustrated?" Beast Boy's eyes widened, looking like a pathetic lost puppy as Robin turned on his heel, looking out the small, lone window into the darkness of the night sky. He leaned against the windowsill, his shoulders hunching in anger. "I'm so sick and tired of this… stuck in here, with my goddamn head. Not even allowed to train, barely even allowed to eat or go to the fricken bathroom without someone wondering if I can handle it." He could feel his shoulders shaking, and he pressed his eyes shut, furious tears threatening. "Why isn't anything happening?! Why am I not getting better?!"
"Dude… I'm not exactly the right person to be asking…"
"Then shut up and leave me alone!"
The moment Robin said it he regretted it. He could almost see Beast Boy's reaction, as though he had eyes in the back of his head. The flinch away from the words, the hurt, sour face. Robin sighed softly, his shoulders relaxing. "Sorry… I didn't mean…"
"Right…" Beast Boy grumbled quietly, clearly not convinced. It was Robin's turn to flinch, cursing himself for his own emotions, his own brain. Why couldn't he keep himself under control? Why couldn't he handle this?
He found himself glancing sideways, into the corner of the room where a familiar figure sat, his arms behind his head, looking downright bemused. "Don't look at me," Slade murmured, shrugging his shoulders. "I'm not responsible for this."
Yeah, right… Robin thought bitterly, gritting his teeth in annoyance.
"Robin? Beast Boy? What's going on here?"
Robin turned, a little startled by the new voice. The door to the hospital wing stood open, the oldest Titan standing on the threshold, looking around at the mess of peanuts with a frown. Beast Boy leapt back, snapping a finger toward Robin.
"It was all him!"
Cyborg glanced from Beast Boy to Robin. Robin wanted to force him a smile, shrug apologetically, something, but all he found himself able to do was avoid Cyborg's mismatched gaze, his stomach wrenching below his ribs. He could almost feel Cyborg's level of concern expand and fill the room, causing him to flinch before he could stop himself.
"I see. Well, your shift is over, Beast Boy, so—"
Beast Boy was already on the move, sprinting over to his meager stash of peanuts on the bed. He stretched out his shirt, sweeping his winnings into it (along with some of Robin's that hadn't hit the floor), then charged out of the room with only a quick "Hey great that was fun see you later!"
The room fell quiet. Robin turned away from Cyborg, back to the window, looking back out over the bay.
"So, what's going on, Robin?"
It wasn't a lighthearted greeting. Cyborg spoke low, seriously, and Robin could almost feel him burning a hole into his untidy hair with his eyes. Robin leaned against the window, his jaw clenched tight. He didn't want to answer. He didn't want to have to answer all of these stupid questions.
Robin squeezed his eyes tight. He hadn't even realized he'd begun speaking until his voice vibrated through his clenched teeth. "What's going on, Robin…? What's wrong, Robin…? What are you seeing, Robin? What are you feeling, Robin?? What is he telling you now, Robin?!" His voice rose as he spoke, until he was shouting at the window, his hands clutching at his head.
"It never ends! It'll never end!" he continued screaming, even as Cyborg was trying to grab him by the arm. He twisted himself out of his grasp, backing away towards the corner, his hands held out in a defensive karate stance, as though expecting Cyborg to attack him.
It wasn't a paranoid thought at all. He could see the indecision in Cyborg's eyes, the glint of fear, the air of suspicion. He knew he was debating whether to hold Robin down and sedate him, or wrap him up in his special hug-me jacket, or simply try to talk him down. As time passed and Cyborg didn't make a move, he figured it was the last one.
But then, Cyborg lifted his chin, casting a smug, almost derisive smile on the boy before him. "Go ahead."
Robin blinked, confused. Go ahead? And do what? Cyborg noted his lost gaze, and gestured his hands towards himself with a strange grin. "Come on and give me your best shot. No better way to burn off some steam than a good ol' fashioned sparring match."
Robin's bare hands lowered halfway, the frustration melting from his face as he stared at the other Titan before him. A sparring match…?
The red flags went up. This wasn't right. This was his brain's way of trying to get him to injure his friends again, wasn't it…? He backed full into the wall, his arms falling as he shook his head.
"Cy… I think I'm…"
"You're not hallucinating, Robin. Not this anyway." Cyborg rolled his shoulders. "We used to spar all the time. You don't have your weapons or your boots. Just hand to hand, that's all this is. Training."
"I don't want to hurt you," Robin whispered, feeling his skin crawl.
Cyborg merely smiled quietly, strolling forward and leaning so that their eye levels matched. "I'd like to see you even come close to trying…"
Robin still wasn't convinced. The apprehension was written all across his face. Cyborg relaxed a little. "You're unarmed, Robin. If you were to attack me without my consent, you'd only startle me a moment before finding your ass on the ground and sedatives in your bloodstream. I promise you, this is only a little training spar. Work out some of those frustrations. Okay?"
Robin nodded slowly, blinking at the ground. If Cyborg wasn't really saying these things to him, his responses would've already been met with some sort of restraint… so was this the real deal then? Cyborg leaned closer, within arm's length, as though teasing him.
"Unless, of course, you don't think you can take me on man to man…."
He didn't need to be provoked again. With a small, smiling growl, he was charging down the enormous Titan, dodging his lumbering, swinging arms, narrowing avoiding being kneed in the stomach. The movements, the grace, the freedom, was all hardwired into his body, no matter how out of training it was. He vaulted over Cyborg like he was a gymnast's horse, swinging his leg to try and trip him, but Cyborg was already leaping back. A huge metal fist swung out, and Robin blocked it easily, then another, letting himself be led further back in the room, where more furniture stood to use as leverage in his acrobatics.
He was growing short of breath. His muscles had begun to sting a little after such a long time spent inactive. Sweat burned his eyes. But none of that mattered as he drowned in the familiar rush of adrenaline, of excitement, of sheer relief. He felt normal again, for once. He felt like Robin, and not just an insane child in a costume mask.
His lack of training was becoming apparent, though, as he lost a little strength in a jump, allowing Cyborg the perfect opportunity to grab him and hurl him halfheartedly aside. He tucked his head and rolled painlessly, landing on his feet. His bad side, the one with the rib, seized up hard, and he finally hung his head and raised a hand.
"Okay… okay, I think I'm good…" he panted, lifting his head.
Then, he froze. Masked eyes widened down the glowing blue barrel of Cyborg's sonic cannon.
"You had enough…?" Cyborg's voice was thick, deep. Without humor, without kindness. Robin stumbled backward, fight or flight panic seizing his muscles, forcing them to shut down on him as the sonic cannon roared to life.
"Cyborg, don't!" he gasped.
The shot fired. Somehow, his body reacted before his brain knew what was going on, and he was diving behind the bed. True dread paralyzed his lungs as he curled up as tight as he could, as though taking up as little space in the room as possible would make him invisible. Cyborg's steps rumbled in the floor beneath him.
"Cyborg, what the hell are you doing?" he gasped, as wayward sonic fire blazed over his head, its heat singeing his hair before colliding into the next bed. It collapsed in a smoldering heap, feathers from the pillows fluttering to the ground. Panic mounted as Cyborg's footsteps neared, visible under the bed he hid under. His breathing grew more labored as he clasped the bed for dear life, clenching his eyes tight.
"Cy, stop! You can't do this! You would never—"
And that was when it slammed home. Hard. The fear he harbored for his life was replaced with completely horror.
This wasn't real.
He lifted his gaze up. Cyborg loomed over him, looking downright frightening, his eyes blazing with hatred and death as he lifted his sonic cannon, setting it point blank in Robin's face. Robin stared into it, at all the pieces of technology far within that allowed it to work. It hummed to life, its light blinding him. His hands shook at his sides as he stared at certain death, fingers curling into fists.
He suddenly swung one fist. His cheek and jaw erupted with an explosion of pain, stars scattering through his field of vision. When they receded, he was bent over, his arms pinned sorely behind him, Cyborg's voice directly in his ear.
"It's okay man. It's okay, just calm down."
Cyborg's tone had returned to something much more normal. It was firm, but kind, like a parent trying to comfort a startled child. Robin couldn't respond, his body still trembling in the older Titan's strong wrestle hold. There was the well-acquainted taste of blood in his mouth, his lower lip already swelling from the blow. As his nerves began to settle, as the panic died away, as Cyborg continued to speak in a way that didn't sound like he wanted to kill him, Robin fell limp against the hold on his arms, his head hanging lifelessly.
"That's… that's better…" he mewed weakly.
"You would never do that…" Robin muttered simply, barely above a whisper. "You would never, ever try to just cold-bloodedly kill someone like that… I had to snap myself out of it…"
Cyborg remained quiet for a long time. After a solid two minutes, he seemed to decide that Robin was no longer an immediate danger to himself, and slowly released his grip. The Boy Wonder dropped to the floor, bracing himself against it weakly, his forehead nearly grazing the linoleum as he fought for breath. When his arms finally felt in control enough, he managed to lift one hand, pressing the back of it to his swelling lip. Pulling it back again, he found himself staring at a huge splotch of blood by his wrist.
"Should I go get the—"
"No," Robin said a little too quickly, a tremor passing through his body as he recalled the confining embrace of the white strait jacket. "No… I'm fine."
Cyborg sighed deeply, sitting clumsily on the floor beside him, staring off into face with a grim look. "I shouldn't have asked you to fight me. I'm sorry."
Robin couldn't look at him, sucking on his lip unconsciously, his tongue running over its busted surface. The salty, metallic taste was overwhelming. Finally, he lifted himself up a little, trying to steal a glance at his friend but failing.
"No, it was exactly what I needed, up until the part when my brain decided to fuck with me."
The room lapsed into silence again. It was overbearing, consuming, pressing in on him from all sides. Emotions rose without warning, and Robin suddenly bent double again, pressing his face into his bloodied hand. His limbs were shaking more violently again, and he desperately struggled to keep the tears held back.
"Why won't it stop?" Robin found himself gasping into his hand. A sob cracked through him, causing him to grimace with self-loathing. "And why the hell am I crying? I hadn't cried once since we started this team but now it's like every other moment…"
"You're stressed. It's okay."
"No, it's not okay!" Robin lifted his head, self-conscious of his puffy eyes and water-stained mask as he looked up at the cybernetic teenager beside him. "I'm Robin! I'm the leader! I can't show weakness like this! "
"…look, Robin. That attitude is all well and good in front of the badguys, but here… it's us, man. Your friends. We're not going to suddenly abandon you just because you're only human." He frowned deeply, his voice softening a bit. "You don't have to constantly put that kind of pressure on yourself, Robin. And honestly, you really shouldn't. It's not healthy."
Robin couldn't speak. Cyborg's words took a few circuits around the room, making long pit stops in Robin's conscious thought patterns. After a long time, he felt a large hand on his shoulder. "Come on, man… it's late. You should get some rest."
Robin nodded slowly, still thinking about everything a little too slowly. He pressed his hand to his lip again, pulling it away to find more blood. He frowned deeply, then sighed, giving Cyborg a sidelong glance. "I think I want to get a shower tonight…. Just kinda cool off a bit, not to mention I feel a little gross…."
"…are you sure…?"
There was that uncertainty again. But as Robin stared at the stain of blood on the back of his own hand, he didn't feel any anger toward it, toward being asked another question. Instead, he felt grateful. After a moment's thought, he glanced around at the quiet, almost peaceful hospital room, and finally nodded a little. "I think I can handle it… besides, you'll be just outside the door in case something else happens."
"True." Cyborg grabbed his arm tightly with both hands, helping him to his unsteady feet. As Cyborg helped him gather his stuff – towel, change of clothes, toiletries, etc – he took a moment to just stand, and note the shakiness in his legs, in his very core. For some reason, he could not cast aside that memory. Staring down into Cyborg's cannon, believing his best friend was really, truly going to kill him.
It was a nightmare he knew he'd have for weeks.
Chapter 17: Slipping
The bathroom connected to the hospital wing didn't have a shower, which meant a trip down a few floors. Cyborg and Robin made the trip in silence, their footsteps resounding through the slumbering Tower hallways. Robin clutched his towel and other shower necessities to himself as he walked, glancing around at the shadowy corners despite his every effort not to. He'd begun to feel so out of place in the rest of the Tower, as though the hospital wing was all he'd known for years.
They reached the hallway bathroom, settled in the middle of the cluster of familiar doors bearing familiar names. A chair stood outside, ready for whoever held the task of guarding over him. Robin pressed the automatic opening button, the door shooting skyward, revealing the dull, unfamiliar bathroom within. When his "hospitalization" first began, he'd insisted on this bathroom over his own; it didn't hold as many painful memories…
"I'll be right out here, if you need me," Cyborg said simply, holding up a newspaper as though to reassure him. Robin nodded and stepped into the bleak, tiled room, turning and closing the door so only an inch of space remained underneath – the technologically-advanced equivalent of leaving it slightly ajar. He stood there for a moment, listening to Cyborg settling into the chair just outside. Finally, with a sigh, he walked over to the counter, setting his stuff down and grappling at his shirt, pulling it and his cape off over his head.
He paused and looked up into the mirror. He took in his sallow, sickly looking face with his stomach tensing a little. The gaunt angles to his cheeks and jaws that weren't there before. The dark circles visible beneath his mask. His unkempt, flattened hair. His red, swollen lip. He licked the raw lesion absentmindedly, causing it to sting. It tasted like copper.
He glanced around at his surroundings through the mirror. True, Cyborg was right outside, able to hear everything he was doing through the crack in the door, but essentially, he was completely alone. These were the only times he ever truly got to himself anymore. A part of him welcomed the break from social interaction… but only part. The rest of him remained apprehensive, because no interaction meant no distraction from…
"Alone at last…" murmured a dark, sinister voice just behind him, that faceless mask visible over the shoulder of his reflection. Robin flinched before he could stop himself, shying away from the voice by his ear, leaning over the counter. He swallowed hard, squeezing his eyes shut. No… he had to stop this. He couldn't let these hallucinations get to him… he had to be stronger than them…
And even though he knew Slade wasn't real, it was completely unsettling to be undressing under the scrutinizing gaze of that bastard. He pulled off his socks, peeled away his leggings, keeping his boxers on for some decency as he turned and fumbled with the shower curtain and then the faucet handles, the shower roaring to life with a high-pitched scream. He waited for steam to rise before quickly kicking aside the last of his clothes and jumping into the tub, wrenching the curtain shut tight between himself and that vicious single-eyed glare.
The spray drenched him quickly. His hair flattened, sticking to his forehead and hanging in his field of vision. Rivers streamed over his back and down his arms and legs. He lifted a hand, lazily watching the miniature waterfalls dribbling from each finger.
"So, tell me, Robin… why do you never take off your mask anymore, even to shower…?"
That familiar, broad-shouldered shadow lingered on the other side of the frosted curtain. It shifted, coming closer, obstructing more and more light. As he leaned in, the gold of his mask was clearly visible through the nearly opaque plastic of the shower curtain. Robin turned to the wall, his stomach clenching, making him hunch over a little, like a weary traveller. He set his jaw. He wouldn't respond. He wasn't going to let these hallucinations overpower him. He forced himself to straighten and grab his body wash. As he covered his arms with a layer of suds, massaging it into his skin, his fingers ran over the lingering remnants of his injuries, the last little scabs from his cuts. He frowned at them, rolling his arm through the spray of water, revealing them more clearly. There were only a few left, just from the worst, the rest having long healed. He absentmindedly found himself picking at one. It itched, it looked gross. It tugged on the hairs of his arm, clinging to the layer of skin underneath it, stubborn. He scratched at it a little more forcefully, as though determined to get rid of it, get rid of them all.
The warm water suddenly felt cold around him. The room around him shifted, the tiles changing shade, the tub turning into his own walk-in shower. His insides turned to ice as he suddenly envisioned the gloves back on his hands, his green fabric fingertips stained a terrible muddy brown as he dug them into his arm. Shards of glass surrounded him, casting his broken reflection back on him from every direction. Blood swirled in the water around them, thick ribbons that spun and danced through the gatherings of shards on the way to the drain, pooling and darkening before being sucked down.
He bent double. His stomach lurched and bucked, threatening to send up his half-digested dinner as the room shifted back to normal. He crouched down low, hugging his arms to himself, tucking his head, fighting to breathe again in the choking steam of the shower. Water continued raining down on him heavily, parading down his shuddering back and face. His eyes stung, but the water prevented him from knowing if he was really crying or not.
It was just a flashback… he assured himself, rubbing his arms as though to still his uncontrolled trembling. He peeked down at the scabs littering his arm and leg; they still looked like they were bleeding, even though he knew they weren't. He clenched his eyes shut tight, rocking a little to try and calm himself down. Just a flashback… just my imagination…
"I wish you could see yourself right now," Slade's voice rolled through the steam, rumbling like thunder over the horizon. Robin snapped his head up abruptly, his eyes falling on the villain looming over him in the bathtub. The showerhead continued spraying behind Slade's jeering gaze, causing rippling rivers to cascade down the reflective gold surface of his disguise, over the metal plating of his armor. Droplets of water trickling, collecting, growing bigger, staggering over to join the rivulets over his face. That lone gray eye, piercing him.
Another painful memory seized the Boy Wonder. The shower was overtaken by the downpour of rain, splashing through the bathroom. The porcelain tub sunk into mud and grass, the tiled walls around him bleeding away into a thicket of dark trees. The scent of rainfall. The flash of lightning. His hair clinging to his forehead, his soaked cape hanging like a weight as he stared up at that terrible mask.
I merely freed Cinderblock to grab your attention… and now that I have it…
…but, Robin… there was no one there…
…I will never rest… and neither will you…
A muted, gurgling moan seized his stomach, and he bent over again, grasping his head, shaking it as though to fling all of those memories aside. It'd been weeks since it'd happened… since all that had happened… yet here he was, reliving it, every detail as sharp and clear as if it'd just happened an hour ago.
"Seriously, Dick…" Slade continued in a deadly tone. "Just look at yourself. Look what you've become…"
Robin struggled back to the present, blinking at Slade's steel-toed boots with his vision blurring. He swallowed painfully, trying to force back his panic, his urge to break down into sobs. He blinked a few times, taking deep breaths, forcing himself to calm down.
As he blinked again, he realized that again, something had changed. He was no longer staring at Slade's dark, armored boots. He was staring at a pair of green tights, feet hidden inside soft, flexible ballet shoes. All breath left the Boy Wonder, his whole body going numb with disbelief.
It couldn't be….
"Just look at what you've become, Dick…"
A new voice… low and careful, disappointment robbing it of any warmth… yet it was still kind… still handsome… still loving… His eyes slowly rose, following that familiar athletic form, the familiar colors of the old aerialist costume… his chin lifting, tilting into the spray of the shower, until his masked gaze finally fell on the face of the man before him.
A silent scream leapt from his throat. He bolted upright, staggered back, landing against the tiled wall of the shower. His feet slid from beneath him, and he fell against the side of the tub, clutching it for dear life as he stared up at the face of his own father. John Grayson looked back down on him, his face aged and saggy, eyes tired. There was no hint of his fun-loving, free-spirited demeanor beneath the surface. No sign the man had laughed since that day… not once…
But it wasn't his aged appearance that horrified the teen. It wasn't the disapproving look, or the sparkle missing from his eye. It was the cracked skull… the exposed gray matter… the blood…
…exactly what he'd managed to see just before someone wrenched him away from their lifeless bodies… the last thing he saw of his dad as those final heartbeats stilled…
John's familiar eyes looked over his son's crumpled, naked form. Sorrow passed through his gaze, and he shook his head, disappointed. Disgusted. A sob tore through Robin's heart, and he found himself stretching a shaking arm out, grabbing onto his father's leg.
"Dad…" he tried to say, his emotions robbing his lungs of air. "Dad, please…"
"Just look at you…" Disgust was dominating his father's voice now. He scowled and wrenched himself from Dick's grasp, taking a step back and glaring down at him. "Just look at what you've become. You are not the boy I raised… you are a stranger… a failure…"
It was becoming too much to bear. Robin slunk over the waterlogged bottom of the tub, grasping his ears and clenching his eyes tight. He didn't want to hear anymore. No more…
But no matter how hard he pressed his hands to his ears, every word his father spoke reached his drums. "You are a failure. A failure to our memory. A failure to everything your mother and I taught you. Not even using the name we gave you… You know, in a way, I'm glad, Dick. I'm glad that we were taken away from you when we were. We didn't have to live long enough to see what you would become…"
Robin shook his head violently, a sob gripping his chest. It wasn't true… it wasn't…
"And he's not the only one you've failed. Not the only one who is grateful not to have to deal with you anymore…"
The new voice slammed into him, curling around his spine and twisting it beneath icy cold fingers. Robin slowly turned, his eyes falling on knees hidden beneath dark spandex and armor. Eyes scaled up the enormous, looming figure, his yellow belt, the symbol on his chest. Into those eyes, hidden behind that familiar pointed mask and cowl. Batlike ears pointing to the ceiling like spires, cape billowing around him, threatening to completely encase Robin as he crouched before him.
And Robin could only shake his head in numb horror, gaze trapped by the intensity of the Dark Knight's glare. Batman's head finally shook in dissatisfaction.
"I led you into this life, Robin. I trained you. I gave you your mask, your costume, your equipment. I taught you everything. You told me you could handle it. You promised me you could handle it."
"I—" Robin began tearfully, but the Dark Knight wasn't finished yet.
"You've lost your team. You've let your obsession over an enemy destroy your mind. You're unfit for combat, unfit for civilian life, unfit for even a reclusive life in my home. You're not fit for anything except a strait jacket and a cell in Arkham!"
Robin shook his head, fighting to breathe, tears mingling with the water clinging to his face. Oh God, don't say that... for the love of God don't say that, Bruce…
The rings of the shower curtain screamed against their metal post as it swung wide open. Robin spun in a panic, his eyes lifting to take in Slade's golden mask.
"You turned your back on us, Robin…" Slade murmured quietly, pensively, his fingers slipping from the curtain to fall limp at his sides. That lone gray eye pierced him, and Robin could feel Batman's and his father's doing the same. "You turned your back on your father by leaving the name of Dick Grayson behind, by leaving that whole world behind. You turned your back on your guardian by abandoning his home, his training, his influence on your life. You turned your back on me. Leaving me to die in a pool of lava."
"You are not like them… you… you will never be…"
"Teenaged boys… they love to rebel against their fathers. They love to upset them, to show them how much better they are to them. Meanwhile, fathers continue teaching, continue showing their little boys the right path, helping them to learn, to grow…" The villain slowly crouched beside the tub, leaning over closer to Robin's eye level. His voice became low and dangerous as he continued. "This is why you've obsessed over me to the point of insanity, Robin. The desire to replace that enormous hole in your heart… to seek that guidance where you had none… to fend off your loneliness… That is why you sought me out… just admit it…"
Robin shook his head once more. He choked a sob, leaning against the wall of the shower, his forehead resting against the cool surface of the empty soap dish. Even with his eyes welded shut, he could tell the three of them were closing in on him, surrounding him, trapping him…
Slade went on in that same cold voice. "Look, Robin. We are the three men who raised you… who made you what you are… And now, we're gone from your life. You turned your back on us. We exist now only in your haunted memories."
"Stop…" Robin gasped, his eyelids pressing together so tight it hurt. He rolled his head against the soap dish, his hands sliding along the wall as though to find something to hold, to keep him from slipping away. "God, please stop…"
"We won't stop. We won't go away. But even with us here, even with whatever other company your mind drudges up … you will always be alone, Robin. For the rest of your life, you will be alone. Just a scared, trapped little child, hiding behind a mask. A mask just like mine."
Those words burrowed themselves into his chest. A mask like his…?
Why do you never take your mask off, even in the shower…?
Who is Slade…?
…who is Robin…?
…A mask just like mine…
The steam of volcanic activity… the burning, bubbling surface of lava overtaking that black and gold mask… his dusty, shaking hands as he ripped it free from the cooled molten rock. Staring down at it from within his memory… in the cave under Terra's frozen stone gaze… in the basement, coughing as the dust infiltrated his system… on a rooftop in the city, numbers counting down to zero.
He was no better. He was no better than Slade. He hid behind a mask, just like Slade. He lied to his friends, hid his identity from them. Pushed everyone away. Caused so much pain and sorrow.
He was no different from Slade…
He practically was Slade…
A scream ripped his throat. His vision flashed white, his head slamming as hard as it could into the soap dish, again and again, until it finally broke free and splintered on the porcelain ground beside him. Screaming, as he continued striking his forehead against the wall, the sound of shattering ceramic filling the room. Hands forming fists, slamming against the wall with everything he had. Screaming, just screaming, while the three ghosts of his past watched him idly.
It was too much… it was just too much…
Hands leaping from nowhere, snatching him, pulling him from the tub. He flailed blindly against their grasp, kicking, struggling. Screaming. Screaming with everything he had. Screaming, because it was the only thing he could do, only thing he knew how to do.
Those three male faces turning away from him, abandoning him as he'd abandoned them. Too ashamed to see him scream any more, and yet he couldn't stop.
…too much… just too much…
She couldn't sleep. She had laid in her bed for a solid two hours with her eyes closed, just waiting to be swept away to the world of dreams, but it never happened. She rolled to her side in her pink sheets, wrapping her arms around her pillows and pulling them to her chest. A deep sigh rolled through her chest as her emerald gaze flickered to the clock beside her bed, watching the numbers change after each minute.
This was nothing new. This was how every night had gone for the past week and a half. It didn't matter how exhausted she was, how little sleep she'd gotten before. Every night was a marathon of tossing and turning and sighing with worry. Eventually, she knew she would fall asleep, but that moment was still a long way off…
Restlessness finally pulled her from her bed. She slipped her boots back on and trudged to the door. Maybe she should go upstairs and have one of the middle of the night snacks, or just get a glass of water. Do something. Anything.
She cast only a mild glance to the table beside her door, absentmindedly wondering why it looked like it'd been chewed on before pressing the door release and stepping into the hallway.
An unexpected sound caught her attention. The high pitch, pattering sound of water running. She turned, looking down the hall, where a pair of mismatched eyes looked back.
"Star? What are you doing up?" Cyborg asked in a hushed whisper, lowering the newspaper to his lap. Starfire moved toward him, running her fingers through the tangles in her hair.
"I was unable to sleep. I am often unable to sleep." She moved to his side, leaning against the wall with her shoulders slumped, watching the steam rolling under the door and tumbling down the hall like morning fog.
"I'm worried about him to…" Cyborg murmured quietly, distractedly turning the page of his newspaper, as though looking for something, but really was just trying to keep himself busy. Starfire watched him quietly, before sighing again. Long, slender fingers pressed against her eyelids, massaging the itchiness from them. Cyborg looked up at her, a little startled. "Star. It's gonna be okay… don't…"
"I am not crying." She spoke a little defensively. "I am merely tired. And discouraged. And feeling terrible feelings about everything." Another sigh. "I want him to recover. I want him to be well again inside his own mind."
"I know, Star. I…"
Cyborg's voice trailed off. Star turned to him, to see that he had looked away from her, his head craned to look at the door. She stepped away from the wall, moving closer, so she could see one half of his face. His eyes were wide and vigilant, and he held up a hand to silence her before she could even consider speaking.
"Robin?" he suddenly said louder, setting his newspaper down and getting to his feet. Starfire frowned in confusion. She didn't hear anything…
Then, a scream. A long, anguish-filled scream that caused her heart to wrench painfully inside her chest.
They shouted in unison. Cyborg was fumbling for the door. Starfire pushed against him impatiently, wanting to get inside, wanting to help her screaming friend. Finally, the door open and Cyborg charged inside at full speed, wrenching the curtain aside as the screams continued on and on.
Starfire froze at the threshold, the sight before her barring her from moving any closer. She couldn't even breathe as she watched Cyborg haul a soaked, bloody, naked boy from the roaring shower. She felt like she should look away, that this was something she was not supposed to be seeing, but she could not. Her eyes didn't blink as Cyborg struggled to maintain a grip on the shrieking boy. Robin's wet skin kept allowing him to slip through Cyborg's metallic grasp, but Cyborg managed to regain his hold, finally grasping Robin by each arm, clutching him tightly and leaning in toward his face.
"Calm down, Robin!" Cyborg roared forcefully, desperately, eyes wide and face mortified. "You got to calm down!"
Robin's shrieking had dwindled into shallow, high-pitched gasps. He swung himself around, trying to pull himself from the larger Titan's grasp, but Cyborg's robotic strength held fast, Robin's wrists too thin and his hands too thick to slip away again.
"Oh, dude… what's…"
Raven and Beast Boy were behind her now, their forms pushing against her, her paralyzed form blocking them from coming any closer. But they didn't seem any eager to get closer. Both of them glanced away, unable to look at his bare form.
A long, still moment passed. Starfire watched Robin's masked, frantic face. He was staring at Cyborg's hands, hyperventilating as he flexed his fingers. A strange sort of grimace shot through his features, as though a thought had occurred to him...
And then he twisted, hard. There was a loud, sickening crack – a horribly familiar sound – followed by a yell of pain. Cyborg cried out and snapped back, releasing his grip on the boy, who crumpled to the ground, grasping an arm now bent in the wrong direction. Cyborg fell against the counter, horror and disbelief plastered to his face.
"Oh my god… oh my god…" was all he could say, his hands shaking as he clutched to the counter.
But if Robin felt the pain of his own injuries, he didn't show it. He was scrambling across the floor, heaving labored breaths, the blood pouring down his face and dribbling to the floor. His exposed, scrawny body looked like a starved animal as he crawled through the thick steam toward them, toward the lone exit.
Starfire swept forward before she even realized was she was doing. She ignored his naked appearance, did not even allow herself to think about it as she grasped him by the arms, trying to hold him down as well. The only thought that she allowed in her mind was how very sick he was… how badly he was hurt… how he needed her help and how this time, she could give it.
He was screaming again, thrashing against her with every limb, fighting back even with his injured arm. After only a few seconds trying to hold him down, Starfire found herself knocked to the ground, her chin and jaw erupting with pain, her vision going blank for what could only have been a few seconds. When she finally blinked back to her surroundings, Raven's pale face swam into view above her.
"Are you okay?" she asked hurriedly, her voice uncharacteristically thick with emotion. Starfire responded by grabbing onto her, using her as support to lift herself up to sit, her eyes frantically searching the room for Robin.
He was pressed facedown against the floor, writhing, crying out, but unable to go anywhere. Beast Boy held him firmly to the ground as an enormous bear, Cyborg reaching beneath one of his large front paws and plunging a long needle into the space between Robin's neck and shoulder. Starfire could only watch with her hands over her mouth as Robin's screams dwindled slowly into exhausted wheezing, his struggling body falling still.
Finally, the only sound they could hear was the wail of the showerhead. Cyborg fell back onto his heels, his face wrought with horror as he stared down at Robin's unresponsive, naked form. He glanced at Beast Boy, a small nod indicating that it was okay to let him go. Beast Boy shrunk back to normal, dropping onto his rear on the floor, looking around with a lost, helpless look on his green face. Raven rose to her feet above Starfire, turning from Robin, as though his splayed body was too much for her to look at.
Starfire glanced aside, her eyes falling on a towel lying haphazardly upon the floor. She staggered unsteadily to her hands and knees, snatched it up, and made her way slowly across the wet, blood-splattered floor to the fallen boy. She wrapped the towel carefully around his thin form as she slowly rolled him over, mindful of his injured arm. Tears threatened her as his head fell limply in the crook of her arm, the blood from the gash in his forehead drenching the entire right side of his face. It was already staining her bracers and skirt.
Cyborg heaved himself to his feet, staggering back a few unsteady gaits. He looked absolutely sick to his stomach. He lifted his hands, looking down on them with his face growing pale. They were shaking, violently, and the metal surface of his palms were completely covered in Robin's blood.
"Cyborg…" Raven murmured quietly, moving to his side, her hand looking small as it lay upon his large upper arm. A strange sound leapt from his throat, and he shook his head, eyes still locked on his bloody palms.
"They're shaking…" he muttered in a strained voice, twisting his hands over and back again, as though inspecting them. "I… didn't even know they could shake like that anymore…"
Raven squeezed on his arm, on one of the few human places left on his body. He shrugged her hand away, moving across the bathroom. He reached the shower, looking down on the ripped curtain, the broken tiles, the shattered soap dish. Swallowing hard, he reached out, holding his trembling hands under the harsh, scorching stream of water. It washed the red from his fingers, but the shaking remained. He gripped his hands together hoping that'd make them stop.
Raven looked around helplessly, taking in the wet, bloodstained tile, the broken shower wall, the injured boy in Starfire's grasp. Raven pressed her lips into a tight line, shaking her head slowly as she blinked the odd stinging feeling from her eyes.
This was too much… just too much…
Chapter 18: Fragments
So, what now…?
It was just another one of those long nights with little sleep. Beast Boy propped himself up against the wall of the hospital wing, as he'd grown accustomed to during the worst points of the last few weeks. He numbly watched Raven and Cyborg do their thing - stitching up the Boy Wonder's busted head, casting up his broken arm… He'd really done a number on himself.
That chilled Beast Boy down to the bone. Robin had done this to himself. His stomach twisted and churned as his memory replayed what he witnessed earlier. The screaming boy, naked as the day he was born, twisting himself until his own arm snapped in Cyborg's grip. The blood… his incoherence… kicking Starfire in the jaw as she struggled to help him… Beast Boy winced at the memory of it all, at the feel of his shaking form under his own grasp, as he held him down for Cyborg to sedate. He couldn't believe it all happened. He just couldn't believe that Robin might actually be… that he really was…?
Beast Boy snapped his head up, blinking away his thoughts. The room had emptied save for Raven, who stood watching him with that half-lidded, unamused gaze. She nodded her head in the direction of the door, indicating he should leave the room. Beast Boy blinked again, glancing at the Boy Wonder, who was strapped up tight on the bed once more, arms encased in white fabric, brown straps holding him fast. He appeared unconscious, but that'd never stopped them from….
"He's drugged pretty heavily," Raven murmured quietly, as though reading his mind (oh, wait, perhaps she was actually reading his mind…). "He'll be okay on his own for just a little bit. Come on. We're having a family meeting."
"Family meeting?" Beast Boy repeated, dully.
"That's what Cyborg called it…"
Beast Boy pushed himself from his leaning perch, rubbing some stiffness out of his neck as he followed her. He frowned a little as they passed through the doors into the next room, frowned even as he looked up at the others. Cyborg sitting uncomfortably behind a table, drumming his fingers impatiently. Starfire standing beside him, looking preoccupied with worry – she still hadn't changed out of her blood-splattered clothes. Raven, settling into a cross-legged seat in midair. Beast Boy swallowed hard from where he stood beside the door. He could feel an emptiness in the room, where Robin should have been.
We really are kind of a family, aren't we…? He glanced behind him, at the door barring them from Robin. And family means no one gets left behind… right?
He swallowed hard at that thought as he absentmindedly grabbed a chair, dragging it closer, sitting on it the wrong way with his arms leaning against the back. He glanced around again, waiting for someone to speak.
Finally, Cyborg ran a hand over his smooth head, sighing deeply. "This has gone too far…" he murmured.
No one replied. Cyborg sighed again, staring at the surface of the table, as though not wanting to look any of them in the eye. Beast Boy watched the changes to his expression as he struggled with himself inside his own head – a frown, a scowl, a grimace. Finally, he lifted his chin, looking at all of them. "I've decided it's time we call Batman."
Beast Boy's eyes widened to the point that it hurt. Batman?
"So far, nothing we have done has been of any help. It's been weeks, but the medication isn't working… there's nothing more we can—"
"Wait a second!" Beast Boy found himself on his feet, the chair beneath him teetering and hitting the ground with a loud clatter. "When you say Batman—you're talking about sending Robin away!"
No one spoke a second. Cyborg blinked at him, then scowled a little. "Yes, that is what I'm—"
"I'm sorry, but when did he die and make you leader?"
Cyborg slammed his hands down on the table. "You wanna call Batman? For the love of God, please, be my guest!" Raven shot him a warning look, and Cyborg scowled, settling himself down a little bit, glaring at the table. "And, he almost did die, Bea... If I hadn't been there—if we hadn't stopped him—"
"What I'm saying is that you are not our leader! He is! And, okay – he's unfit to lead right now. I get that. But, you can't just decide these things without us! I thought we were a family!"
"Families need leadership, too, Bea! That's what parents are—"
"Oh, now you're our parent?"
"No! If anything, I'm your babysitter!"
"WE SHOULD NOT BE FIGHTING!"
Cyborg and Beast Boy fell quiet, eyes flicking toward the orange girl clasping her hands into fists before her, eyes pressed shut from the force of her shout. As the room went silent, she dropped her arms heavily, her shoulders hunching as though a large weight were pulling her down. She sighed, head hanging. "Please. The last thing we need is fighting…"
"Are you supporting this then, Star?" Beast Boy asked incredulously. "You want them to send Robin away?"
Starfire lifted her eyes. Sorrow imprisoned her emerald gaze as she bit on her lip, looking uncertain for a moment before finally giving a small, almost imperceptible nod. "I want what is best for Robin…"
"Batman will never let him come back!" he rasped desperately.
A resolute, yet grieving look crossed the Tamaranian's face. "If that what it must take for Robin to be well again, then I will gladly accept it."
"You don't understand, Beast Boy…" Raven murmured quietly, fixing him with a look he'd long grown wary of – as though she could look right through him, and pick him apart piece by piece. He shifted uncomfortably under that look, glancing away. "This isn't like all those other times, where all it took was some equipment, some science, and he's healed up and ready to fight the next day. This isn't that simple. It will never be that simple."
Beast Boy frowned and crossed his arms, grumbling to himself barely above a whisper, "Kicking him out sounds simple to me…"
The chorus of voices startled him so much, he hit the floor, transforming into a turtle and pulling his head feet into his shell, it spinning around on the floor a little. He hadn't really meant for anyone to hear that, but even inside his shell, he could sense their seething, furious glares. After a few seconds, he returned to normal, untwisting himself, grasping the overturned legs of his chair and pulling himself up to his knees, wincing a little at their faces.
"Alright, alright, I'll shut up. Geez." He turned his chair back on its feet, crawling up to sit on it, dropping his chin to his arms and frowning. "I'm clearly in the minority anyways."
"The thing is… this is something we should have done days ago…" Cyborg said with a sigh, rubbing his head. "We just… we were ignoring the most obvious conclusion, searching for every other complicated possibility…"
"Wait, so what's the obvious solution?" Beast Boy piped up, already forgetting that he had vowed to be quiet.
Cyborg glanced up at him. A horribly sorrowful look crossed his face, and he had to swallow hard. "That Robin is just out of his mind… all on his own…"
Beast Boy shook his head, dumbfounded. "But, you guys just said it couldn't be simple… and it never is this simple! I mean, what about mind control? Alien probes? Sun spots? Zombies?"
"Now you're just making stuff up…"
"There has to be something! Something in the water! Something in the air! Something in his boots – I dunno! Maybe the fibers of his mask are—"
"Forget it, Beast Boy…" Raven murmured.
"I'm telling you, there is no way he could be crazy on his own!"
That question sobered him, like a bucket of water over his head. Raven's face was blank as she looked at him, continuing on in a level tone. "Robin is only human, Beast Boy. His chance of developing a mental illness is just the same as everyone else born of this planet."
Beast Boy blinked a few times, turning away, glancing at the nearby wall. A set of monitors flickered and beeped, showing Robin's vitals, his brain waves, his heart rate, oxygen levels. It reminded him so much of that first night, the night with the dust.
…it couldn't be… He shook his head, turning back to them with eyes wide in urgency. "But – but real mental illnesses are rare, right? I mean… what is the chance that he is actually…"
Raven and Cyborg exchanged glances. "About 1% of the population suffers from schizophrenia… that's 1 in 100 people…"
"And it commonly manifests itself around Robin's age…" Cyborg added quietly.
Beast Boy was still shaking his head, feeling sick to his stomach. There was no way… they could not possibly be serious…
"He can't be…" he croaked, his voice squeaking. He could feel his eyes burning, and anger seared his heart. "Schizophrenia is a term you use for crazy bums on the street who think they're the Pope! Not Robin!"
"It's the only explanation for his symptoms…"
"I'm telling you, there has to be something else!" Beast Boy hollered. His knuckles were hurting, he was gripping the back of his chair so hard. "We can't just give up on him!"
"This is beyond us, Beast Boy…" Cyborg sat back in his chair, looking fatigued and weak. "We can only do so much… we're not psychiatrists…"
"Besides," Starfire spoke up quietly. "We cannot keep going into battle with only three Titans. We have nearly met defeat each time."
"So call up one of our honorary Titans!" Beast Boy gasped. "One of them could help!"
Cyborg shifted in his chair. "Actually… I already have."
"Beast Boy, I swear to god if you throw the 'without asking us first?' card I will shove you into your own laundry hamper."
Beast Boy growled, but remained silent.
"You finally tracked someone down?" Raven spoke up quietly. "Who?"
"Speedy. He'll be here in a few days."
Beast Boy swallowed hard, staring at the floor before his chair. So this was really happening…? Robin would be sent away, and Speedy was going to be replacing him? This just felt wrong. It didn't feel like something that should ever happen.
And another flare of anger swept through him. Why did it sound like Raven knew? His gaze snapped up to her, then glanced at Starfire. Even she seemed completely unsurprised by all of this. Why was he the only one in the dark?
As this realization hit him, he couldn't even put what he felt into words. He got to his feet, snatching his chair and swinging it around, sending it crashing across the floor.
"Goddamnit, Beast Boy! What the hell?"
"I'll be in my room!" he spat, storming toward the door. "Keep that in mind if you ever want to ask me my opinion, cuz in case you never noticed, I'm part of this team too! It'd be nice to be kept in the loop for once!"
He reached the door. He was ready to stomp off through it, leave the others in a lurch before they could even respond. But a sudden, odd sound stopped him dead.
A bleeping, a buzzing… monitors going crazy in alarm…
Just like that first night….
Again, it was like a cold bucket of water over his head, extinguishing the fire in his chest. He listened to the others scrambling to reach the next room, he himself only able to stand like a dumb idiot, staring at the door before him with his heart wrenching.
…he almost did die, Bea... If I hadn't been there—if we hadn't stopped him—
…I want what is best for Robin…
…about 1% of the population suffers from schizophrenia… that's 1 in 100 people…
Oh my god… he thought numbly, still staring at the door before him as he listened to the strange sounds coming from the next room. The others yelling things to one another. The alarm still blaring.
He… he really is sick, isn't he…?
And the others couldn't…?
He found himself transforming into a small green retriever, slinking into the corner and curling on the floor, his muzzle nestled into his paws. This wasn't happening. This perfect little world he'd grown so fond of – the technological marvels all around him, fighting crime and never getting defeated, always figuring out the problem before it was too late – had shattered completely. They weren't invincible. They couldn't fix every problem. Everything was falling apart…
Why did things have to change…? Why did this have to happen…?
Consciousness was just an arm's length away. He knew. He could feel it there, dangling above him in the murky place between awake and sleep. He tried to raise his arms, to clasp hold of it, but his arms wouldn't move. The muscles and nerves required to make movement happen appeared to be missing, so his arms where just blank tubes of air. His whole body felt that way – not a body at all, just a shell full of mist and lethargy, lying in a dark room.
As he blinked at the void above him, lines and forms began to take shape. Slowly, familiar surroundings began to materialize. That hospital room. His hospital room.
His body was still numb, his muscles and sense of touch still missing as he struggled to turn his head, to take a look around him. He couldn't. His eyes just swiveled in their place, his vision going in and out of focus so often it made him dizzy. His brain moved at a snail's pace.
Drugged… he reminded himself dully. This is the feeling of being drugged… they drugged you again…
He released a breath, marveling at that bodiless feeling, amazed he was even awake. They must not have used enough... or maybe he was becoming tolerant of it… But at any rate, something had happened to make them sedate him. He could remember bits and pieces, but couldn't quite grasp the whole scene. Or maybe he didn't want to…
He glanced around him again. Speaking of friends, who was there with him now? Which of his friends…?
"Hello, Robin," murmured a dark, quiet voice.
His heart started to race. His head twisted lamely on its stand, eyes bugging as he looked toward the source of the voice. Slade stood beside his bed, staring down at him with a dispassionate look to his eye. Robin stared back up at him, frozen. His sense of touch was rushing back to him, so he was all too aware of the straps cutting into his legs, the fabric wrapping his arms into place. He was completely and utterly defenseless, and that realization sent a bolt of panic into his body, so he writhed and growled, fighting to pull himself free.
But as he struggled, his gaze remained fixed on the man above him, watching, waiting. Slade merely stood there, unmoving, watching him struggle like a chess player considering his next move. It sent a terrible chill down the Boy Wonder's spine, and he only struggled that much harder, his muscles straining to the point of tearing as he tried to pull himself free.
Slade's gaze suddenly flashed. A furious intensity glaring through that lone eye. He moved at remarkable speed, and Robin didn't even have a chance to cry out before Slade's hand closed around his throat, pressing down, squeezing his windpipe closed.
"I'm sick of this, Robin…" Slade's voice was the deadliest it had ever been, hissing in his ear like a serpent. His eyes narrowed as he pressed down harder. Robin flailed in his prison, pressure building behind his face as he strained for air. "I am sick of having to stand here and watch you fall apart. It was fun at first, but I'm an impatient man." He pressed down even harder, causing tears to trickle down Robin's flushed cheeks. "So why don't we just end it, Robin…. Put you out of your own misery…."
Panic, like nothing he'd ever felt before, seized him. He was suffocating. He was going to die. His whole body spasmed and thrashed, his lungs screaming for air it would never get. Spots of light exploded behind his vision, darkness crowding around the sidelines, waiting to dive in, as Slade crushed his wind pipe further.
I'm going to die… I'm going to die and I can't do anything to stop it…
…for the love of God, someone help me… someone please help me!
His vision was going. His lungs were collapsing. His whole body was shutting down so that even panic was out of the question. He was just waiting for the flash of his life before his eyes, and whatever happened beyond that. …just waiting to die…
Then, from nowhere and everywhere at once, a voice screamed his name.
The whole illusion shattered like the glass of a broken mirror. He gasped, air sweeping into his lungs so suddenly, so forcibly, it felt like acid in his trachea and lungs. He heaved a harsh, ripping cough, fighting to breathe in more oxygen than his damaged lungs could allow. Relief clutched his chest, tears breaking loose from their moorings in droves. His body shook violently, racked with the lingering aftershocks of his panic and dread.
…he'd almost died… Slade had almost…
…but Slade wasn't…
A wrenching sob hit him, and he twisted in his spot, pressing the side of his face into his pillow, as though to hide. It'd been a hallucination. The whole time, it'd been just a hallucination. …But it'd seemed so real. He had been so sure that he was about to die…
"Robin… Robin, it's okay… you're okay…" It was that voice. It sounded so far away, yet so close at the same time. He opened his burning, waterlogged eyes, blinking away blurriness and glancing through his peripheral vision, not wanting to move. A girl, right where Slade had been. Where Slade had been leaning over to wring his neck, she bent over him with a hand against his head, her palm directly over his temple. Soft fingertips curled a little, running gently over his hair as she offered him a gentle look. "I've got you. Everything's going to be alright."
She was speaking like one would to a frightened child, or a person in extreme shock. As his stomach wrenched and his body quivered, he realized that's where he was – in shock. He pressed his eyes shut tight, unable to hold back his panicked cries.
"Why can't it just stop?" he choked out, screwing his face up tight against his own emotions, his own fears. "Why won't he just leave me alone? WHY?"
Raven couldn't answer. No one could answer. Robin curled up against his restraints, baring his teeth. "I was defenseless… I couldn't fight him… I couldn't…"
"I know… it's okay, Robin…"
"NO IT'S NOT!" He was beginning to panic again, his breathing labored, mad, as he pulled on his restraints, twisting beneath their grasp. "It's not! It's not! He'll do it again! He'll try to kill me again and I can't fight him like this! I have to be able to fight him! I can't fight him like this!"
"Robin," spoke up another voice. "Please, calm down—"
"Get me out of these things!" he cried out in desperation, fighting ever harder on his bindings, his joints and muscles threatening to snap as he twisted them in ways they weren't meant to go. "Get me out GET ME OUT GET ME OUT!"
"Robin, man, you've got to calm down! Just calm down!"
But terror had taken over whatever was left of Robin's rational mind. He screamed and thrashed against his restraints. He had to get out. He had to break loose. He had to find a way to protect himself. He could almost see Slade waiting to get him again, even with his eyes closed. He could feel him there. He wasn't safe. He was dead. He was as good as dead.
"He's going to injure himself!"
"Hold him down!"
He snapped his eyes open as hands reached out and clutched him, holding his head to his pillow, holding his arms and legs in place. He was hyperventilating now as he saw a needle glinting into sight out of the corner of his eye.
Another scream burst from him. "No, no, NO!" he shrieked, throwing himself so hard against everything holding him in place that his bed moved a little. "No, please no! Don't!"
"It's for your own good, Robin," Raven murmured quietly, her hands shaking as they held his head firmly to the pillow. He felt the needle piercing his lower neck, felt numbness seeping in from its tip, spreading throughout his body.
"You can't do this!" he screamed at an ear-piercing pitch, eyes bugging as he frantically took in all of their faces. They were just standing there, letting him be drugged… helping him be drugged. He gritted his teeth and threw himself against the restraints, even as the drug began robbing him of strength. "Don't you get it? He'll get me! IT'S JUST WHAT HE WANTS! HE'LL KILL ME IN MY SLEEP! HE'LL KILL ME!"
No one responded. They just watched him in horror as the drugs began to take effect, causing him to fall back against his mattress. Tears burned in his eyes as he twisted weakly on his mattress. "You guys are with him," he gasped, fighting to stay awake. His head rolled around, his eyes falling on a dark figure just behind their frozen stares. That lone eye focused so keenly upon him, unmoving, unblinking... just waiting for him to fall back asleep… Robin shook his head, even as the drugs muted his panic. "You're just helping him kill me… you're going to kill me…"
…it's all making sense now, he thought as the darkness of unconsciousness began to sweep in again. They want me gone, too… they want me dead....
As he began to succumb to the sedative's pull, felt his own heart crack and splinter inside his chest. It shattered brilliantly… just another sea of fragments… just like everything else.
The last thing that went through his muddled head before everything washed away, was the wish that Slade would finish what he began… he couldn't take this anymore…
He was finally quiet. The whole room was finally quiet. No one spoke. No one could even look at one another. Robin's terrible cries still seemed to echo around them.
You're just helping him kill me…
Cyborg was the first to finally wrench himself away from his stupor. He threw the empty syringe to the ground. Its reservoir splintered, the bloodied metal tip rolling away. Still no one spoke as he marched through the door, his jaw set with a mixture of grief and rage. As he passed through the next room, heading to the hallway that would lead him upstairs, his eyes caught the sight of the little green dog nestled in the corner. The large Titan paused midstride, not looking anywhere but his own feet, grief overpowering his anger as he spoke, quietly.
"…do you still think we can do anything to help him…?"
Beast Boy's only answer was a small canine whimper.
"Oh Bruce! I'm so happy you suggested this! The gardenias are in perfect bloom!"
"Now, remember, dear. We are here to discuss important matters, not fawn and frolic over the vegetation."
"Oh, come now," Bruce spoke up to the ornery politician, breaking out one of his boyish smiles and ushering them towards some chairs. "What good is a garden if there is no one to enjoy them?"
The old politican grumbled as he settled into his chair. His wife, a dotty woman with horribly dyed hair and a face full of Botox, sat gracefully in her own chair as Bruce offered it to her, adjusting her hat to better shield her shrunken eyes from the sun. "This boy here knows what he's talking about, Vern. Oh my – are those chrysanthemums? At this time of year?"
Bruce settled himself down on the opposite end of the patio table, absentmindedly ruffling through some papers in a folder before his seat. A morning meeting at his own home – this was not what he'd had in mind, and this certainly was not his own idea, despite her insistence. This had been her idea, born of a few too many sips of wine at a company banquet the weekend before. As much as he detested her fake personality and airheaded ways, he had to humor her, and hopefully the man wrapped around her finger. If this meeting went well, it could mean good things for the Wayne Foundation – and the good causes the foundation represented.
He wanted to get right down to business, but this woman had other things in mind. She went off on sudden, long-winded tangents, talking about the most frivolous and unrelated matters. Talking about the honeymoon she'd taken with her third ex-husband, talking about her precious prize-winning shitzus, discussing Broadway shows and which lesser politicians were being harassed for infidelity this time. Bruce forced himself to let her talk, wringing dry the reserves of his patience. Over an hour passed, and they hadn't discussed any of the matters they were there to discuss.
Alfred came through at periodic intervals, offering tea, offering scones, offering his services. The dotty plastic woman would wave her hand dismissively at the elderly butler before Bruce could even open his mouth. "Oh no no no, boy, that's perfectly fine, no need."
…boy… she was calling Alfred "boy."
He imagined his teeth grinding inside his own head, as he couldn't allow them to grind in real life. It took every amount of restraint not to take the proposal in his hand and shove it down her dentured mouth.
As time rolled into the second hour, and his tenth attempt at getting to matters were derailed by her apparent attention disorder, Bruce glanced above her head to see Alfred approaching once again. There was just a slight glint of distaste in the old man's face, a look that was well-hidden to the untrained eye. Bruce shot him a pleading look, as though begging for something – anything – to be free of this nightmare.
Alfred parked himself stiffly beside the table, head tilted up in the typical butler stance. Old Mrs. Fuddy Duddy – as Bruce had begun calling her inside his own head – noticed him and waved that wrinkled hand dismissively again. "You do not need to—" she began.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," Alfred said firmly in his quaint British accent, clearly not sorry at all. "But, Master Bruce, you have a phone call."
"Did you tell them I'm in a meeting right now?" Bruce asked, hoping with every fiber of his being that this was just a stunt to get him to freedom.
"Yes, how rude to interrupt us!" the woman snorted with derision, picking a piece of lint off her expensive but dreadful peach pant suit.
Alfred ignored her, his gaze fully focused on Bruce. "Sir – it's Master Dick's school."
Bruce blinked up into that intently focused gaze. It took a few seconds for the hidden message beneath Alfred's statement to register. A bitter chill rose in his chest, and he embraced it, letting a look of worry flash across his face as he looked from Alfred to his guests and back. "That doesn't sound good. I should probably take it…" he began, rising in his seat.
"Oh, Bruce, sit down," the bossy frumpy woman began with her nose tilted to the sky. "He probably got in trouble. The academy calls us every week about our young Mikey."
Bruce allowed a little laugh. "Well, Dick is a good kid, so if that is the case, I'll be surprised." He glanced from the woman to her husband (who snorted, his head tilting toward his chest), giving a small, apologetic nod. "My apologies, but I'll be right back."
He turned his back to them, and his smile died immediately. He shot Alfred a look as he passed, trying to read any information off his wizened face, but Alfred merely looked back at him – concerned, but only in general. Bruce swallowed hard. "I'll be on the 'downstairs phone'" he murmured quietly.
"Quite right, sir. I'll keep your, erm, 'honored guests' entertained…" There was a hint of reluctance to Alfred's voice, and Bruce couldn't help but cringe at the thought of him dealing with that old woman alone. He could hear her nasally, over-privileged tone all the way into the manor, finally losing it as he entered the study and made his way through the secret staircase.
As the familiar scent of the cave wafted around him, he moved with more purpose. The enormous computer monitor was lit with a "Call On Hold" screen. Bruce hastily got himself into costume, pulling it on over his dress shirt and forgoing the tight pants – the camera didn't pick up anything below his utility belt anyways. It took far longer than he wanted it to, pulling on his cowl, attaching the cape, tugging on gloves. Finally, he swooped in on the computer, hitting buttons. He held his breath a little bit as he depressed one final large button, and lifted his head.
A new image flashed to life on the screen. A large face stared oddly out into the Batcave. Batman recognized it immediately from the newspapers and tabloids, and dread immediately leapt into his bloodstream.
"There are only handful of reasons why you would be the one contacting me, not him…" he began, his voice low and dangerous, masking his own terror. "None of them are good reasons."
Cyborg shifted a little on screen, his gaze dropping away. That sent a bolt of terror straight into his heart, and he wanted to attack the screen with shouting demands – what happened? Where is he? Is there even a body to claim? – but he held himself firm, somehow finding patience enough to let the Titan speak. His hands rolled into his fists at his sides though, his heart pounding as he waited for the news he prayed he'd never hear.
He's dead… you should never have let him go…
"He's alive," Cyborg reassured instantly, casting his eyes back upward. "He's not in any immediate danger, we don't think, but—"
"You don't think?" Batman interrupted. His eyes narrowed behind his mask, gaze becoming intense and deadly. It had a definite impact on the older teenager, who seemed to shrink considerably under that glare.
"It's… Batman, he's…" His hesitation was not helping. Bruce's hands shook beneath their gauntlets, and he was thankful his cape hid them from view. Finally Cyborg lifted his gaze once more. "He's very sick… Sick in a mental sort of way."
Mental sort of way…? Batman frowned further, asking without words for a full explanation. Cyborg shifted uneasily once again, sighing deeply. He set his jaw, focusing his attention on just speaking. "For the last few weeks he's been experiencing progressively worsening hallucinations and delusions. Seeing things – seeing people – who aren't actually there."
A red flag rose. That sounded like a toxin or neuro-pathogen. Venom, poison, drug. He was about to open his mouth to speak, but Cyborg was already continuing. "We've already run tests on samples of blood and urine and cerebrospinal fluids – nothing. No nanobots or viruses or anything. And Raven has performed multiple mind delves and hasn't found anything to suggest it's anything external."
"I'm sure you've missed something," Batman murmured cynically, crossing his arms.
Cyborg rubbed the back of his head, looking away. "To tell you the truth, I hope we did, Batman… because if not…"
He was hesitating way too much, again. Bruce narrowed his eyes once more behind his mask. "If not, what?" he asked a little forcefully, the words hissing through his clenched teeth.
"If not… then Robin is having a full-blown mental breakdown. And that's not something we can possibly begin to know how to help with." He looked up at Batman through the video connection, his face focused and somber – a young man desperately wanting to be taken seriously. "He needs help, Batman. He needs serious help."
The tone of the cybernetic boy's voice quieted the skepticism and bitterness in Bruce's system. He dropped his own gaze, looking at the computer console in quiet reflection, his heart pounding a little hard in his chest.
A mental breakdown…?
Since Dick had left them over a year before, he'd expected a phone call. But this… this was not what he'd had in mind. It was better – better than death, anyway. But…
He swallowed hard, lifting his gaze once more, his face and voice a little softer as he spoke again.
"Tell me what happened, Cyborg. Tell me everything."
Nearly twenty minutes had passed before Bruce reemerged from the manor. He winced under the blinding torrent of the sun, holding an arm up to shield it from his eyes. He was astonished to find that the table he'd left his guests at was abandoned, save for one lone chair. Alfred sat there with a bemused little smile, sipping on the teacup he'd taken from Bruce's spot.
"Alfred?" he asked with a hint of concern to his voice, a suspicious squint to his eyes. "Where did…?"
"Oh, the fine madam fancied herself a stroll through our gardens and took her husband along. I offered to accompany them, but she said it was 'quite alright,' and that she 'could not possibly get misplaced in a garden half the size of her front lawn.'"
Bruce flinched, shaking his head. Her pompous superiority complex was just a little too much – particularly knowing how much larger the grounds of Wayne Manor actually were compared to her own estate. "How long did you plan on letting them wander around lost?"
"Only another half an hour or so," Alfred said with some bemusement, taking another sip of tea. He set the cup gracefully on its saucer, then picked up the folder of papers, holding it out to him. "By the way, I convinced them to sign the paperwork before they wandered off. Distracted her by mentioning that she could clip any flowers she wanted. She got her husband to sign the deal in no time flat."
Bruce couldn't help but grin, despite his wandering mind, grasping the folder and flipping through the pages. Sure enough, all the appropriate places were signed. "Forgive me," Alfred continued. "But if you had allowed her to go on another hour, I would've shoved a batarang down her throat."
"I guess I'm too kind for my own good sometimes," Bruce murmured quietly.
"Only with this mask on, sir."
Bruce nodded absentmindedly, closing the folder and dropping his hands to his sides. His face grew serious as he glanced out over the garden, as though concerned spies were planted beside the magnolias, waiting to hear any secrets. Finally he spoke, a low, hushed murmur "I have to go…"
Alfred's face grew concerned. "Is it something serious?"
"He's not dead," was all Bruce said, settling the folder under his arm and burying his hands into his pockets. He glanced back over the garden.
A wave of nostalgia struck him. He suddenly pictured two figures – one large, one little – stepping slowly through this same garden. No flowers lined their journey, there was none to be found in the dead of winter. A downpour of freezing rain tugged on their fine suits, soaking them even with the umbrella above their heads. The look on the boy's grieving face as he explained to him that, if he wanted, he could stay here, for good.
It was such a distant memory, it seemed, yet it'd only been six years ago. Bruce swallowed hard. It had been a long time since he'd allowed himself to remember all of that, remember that Dick wasn't just an unruly, runaway teenager, but actually still his…
"He needs me right now."
Alfred had been watching him quietly, knowing that reminiscent look on his face and knowing not to say anything. Alfred's long, aged fingers roamed the handle of his teacup, but didn't lift it. He looked up at Bruce finally, uncertainly.
"It's that bad?"
Bruce felt the blood rush from his face as he thought over everything Cyborg had told him. He nodded. "Sounds like it, yeah."
Alfred nodded as well, and got to his feet. "Then go. I'll take care of things here."
Bruce winced again as he heard her voice filtering over the garden. It was far off, but somehow it still cut through the air ominously, like a crow's call. "You're a saint, Alfred," he murmured apologetically.
"If I don't survive this, I'd only expect to be considered as such." Alfred's eyes twinkled, even though he did not smile. Bruce smiled for him, a strange, halfhearted grin.
"Martyrdom? That's going a little far, don't you think?"
That twinkle vanished, replaced by a surge of fire as he turned to tidy up the table a bit. "She told me to fix my ridiculous accent if I planned to stay in America."
"…I stand corrected."
He blinked at the ceiling. He blinked again. Still the ceiling. A little blurry, but he was certain it was the ceiling, but why did it look so different? Why did the blood in his head rush the wrong way? Why did he feel so disoriented, so blank, so strange?
He rolled over a little. The blood rushed in a different way, and his legs splayed out beneath him, twisted up with one another. Again, something seemed off about this. Just not right. It wasn't right. His shoulder pressed to the soft cushion of his mattress. And one half of his ribcage, one of his thighs.
He blinked again. And again.
Why wasn't he strapped down?
He lifted his head, just a little, turning it. Now he knew why he had a hard time understanding the ceiling – it wasn't the ceiling. It was a wall. But a strange wall, one he hadn't seen before. As he rolled and twisted, looking around him, he found four others just like it, including the one he was laying on – oh wait, that was the floor, wasn't it?
It took an agonizingly long time for anything to make even the slightest bit of sense. But slowly, his brain began to churn, and his breath grew rapid and wheezy as his eyes widened in horror.
Padded… these walls were padded…
…he was tied up in a strait jacket… in a padded room…
A cry leapt from his lips. He kicked and twisted, managing to worm his way across the cushioned floor to one of the walls. He rolled against it, pressing his face against it, wishing nothing more than to slip through the cracks, slip out of here.
Where was he? How did he even get here? Where were his friends?
He bent double, as though his heart were trying to be wrenched clean out of his back. His friends. He remembered now. He remembered what they'd done to him. How they were helping Slade. He remembered. He bared his teeth, screwing his eyes shut. He couldn't believe they would be helping him, couldn't believe they would hurt him, drug him… throw him into a padded cell…
He pressed his face into the soft wall. The padding smelled familiar. Salty, murky, like the mats from the workout room. So strange.
His ears rang oddly. He rocked a little where he laid, his arms twisting in their white fabric sleeves. He wanted to clutch his ears and drown out that noise. It was like feedback, garbling the sound that echoed through the room. He shook and rocked, finally contented to just wrap his arms more tightly around his torso, not even caring about the cast cutting into his upper arm. He rolled his face against the padded wall. Just slip through it, just fall away from this dreadful place…
He began to grow aware that the noise leaping around the room was becoming clear. It was a single word, repeating itself like a reverberated echo, bouncing and fighting with itself as it fought to become whole. Finally, he recognized what it was saying.
He turned without really thinking, responding to it a little late. He hadn't noticed her in the room before, but now she was right over him, carefully resting a hand against his shoulder. Raven looked wary as she watched him, a hand brushing against his forehead, and his thoughts grew a little clearer.
…why can't she do that more…? an unusually sane voice murmured in the back of his head. He rolled away from her a little bit, closing his eyes against the padded wall.
"Robin… there's someone here to see you…" Her voice tumbled around him, sounding a little warbled and strange. Robin frowned, glancing up at her. Someone to see him…? Her pale face turned from him, looking up somewhere else in the room. Robin twisted his head, fighting to see.
All breath left him.
Chapter 20: Promise
The very air of Titans Tower seemed to change. The molecules and particles comprising the empty spaces between walls became suddenly heavy, and trembled with a kind of nervousness. The shift was so immediate and so apparent upon his arrival that those in the floors above knew he was there before anyone could tell them so.
The legendary Batman was in the Tower.
Cyborg stood alone in the large hanger at the bottom of their base, feeling like a soldier at attention, ready for the drill sergeant to tear him apart. The beautiful black jet was still powering down, humming and making the wind whip through the enormous space as Batman emerged from the cockpit. He dropped from his stealthy plane like the shadow of night, his cape billowing around him upon his landing. Cyborg couldn't help but hold his breath, eyes widening nervously.
Keep cool man, just keep cool… it's the fricken Batman, but for the love of God, just keep cool…
Screwing up his courage, he moved forward to meet the renowned superhero, feeling it somehow rude to make Batman come to him. As the distance between them quickly vanished, he suddenly and painfully realized he had no idea how to greet him, acknowledge him… hell, what do you even say…?
But Batman didn't even give him the opportunity to trip over his own words. He didn't even stop, brushing right past Cyborg with his cape flapping behind him. As he passed, Cyborg was able to size him up – he himself wasn't what you'd call small, yet he felt dwarfed compared to the Dark Knight, though it had nothing to do with height. Cyborg swallowed numbly, then trotted off after him. "Uh, you can see that the Tower is pretty big," he stammered stupidly. "Robin's up on the eighth floor. If you want I'll show—"
"I want to look at the data." Batman's voice was nothing but a deep, throaty growl, serious, emotionless as he marched on. "I want to see what you've checked for."
The cold, abrupt nature of his response took the teenager back. "But don't you want to…?"
Batman suddenly halted midstride, shooting him a deep, intense look that silenced him immediately, as though daring him to possibly tell him what to do. Cyborg's mouth made a thin line, his eyes wide in horror, as though silently saying "No, sir, of course not, sir," before Batman turned again. Cyborg relaxed as that steely gaze left him, and couldn't help but feel appalled. Batman was Robin's guardian… he'd come all this way… didn't he wanted to at least see him first…?
They exited the landing bay. Cyborg struggled to keep in stride with the ominous hero, silently guiding him in the right direction without actually being allowed to lead him. A few flights of stairs and a few hallways later, they were standing outside a familiar door. As they crossed the doorway into the dim lighting of the room, Slade's jeering, teasing face watched them from every direction.
"This is Robin's lab…" Cyborg murmured quietly. "It's where most of our best equipment is so I set up shop here when he…"
Cyborg turned, expecting to see Batman at his side, but he was surprised to see that Batman had moved away toward one of the walls, looking up at the patchwork of newspaper clippings. Cyborg felt a chill pass over his spine, as he watched Batman peer at the face covering seemingly every square foot of the walls.
"He's… been saving those for a while now…" Cyborg murmured quietly in explanation, Batman's continual silence making him grow more and more nervous. "Slade was his biggest rival…"
"And you're sure he's dead?"
Cyborg hesitated a moment. His mind wandered to that mask in the basement. The neurotoxin that first made Robin experience hallucinations, it had come from that… released because of a signal beyond the tower. He swallowed hard. "97% sure…"
"But not 100%..."
"He fell into a pit of lava. I mean, who can survive that?"
"You'd be surprised what people can survive…" Batman growled darkly. He continued walking around the perimeter of the room, masked eyes scanning the articles beneath the pictures. He paused a moment, his head turning to the side, so he seemed to be looking at Cyborg through his peripheral vision. "Did Robin have anything to do with his death? …did he…?"
"No!" Cyborg quickly waved his hands before himself in reassurance. "No no, it was another Titan. Terra."
"That was the girl that helped Slade take over your city." Batman's eyes flashed fully at him now, judgment clear in his voice. "So, she killed him?"
"She…she didn't walk away from the encounter, either…" Cyborg found his voice sadder than he'd expected it to be.
Batman didn't have anything else to say on the matter. He glanced up at the papered walls one last time, then turned to look him straight-on, that masked glare focused on him fully. "Show me what you've found."
"Right! Right!" Cyborg gasped in sudden panic, his arms feeling oddly jittery as he turned to the table. He felt a bead of sweat drip down his remaining human ear as he clumsily gathered up the scattered papers of data, organizing them haphazardly and handing them over. As Batman flipped through the pages, he lingered with a sick feeling in his stomach. He felt like a student under scrutiny of his teacher, dreading a possible failure.
A hard shock hit his system as he realized – for once, he didn't want to be right. He didn't want to win this one. He wanted to have missed something, wanted Batman to find it and point it out and say "Right here is what you missed. That's something we can fix easily…"
But such a statement never happened. "You said his hallucinations were first caused by a neurological toxin, correct?"
"Y-yeah." Cyborg leaned awkwardly over Batman's shoulder, turning the corners of the pages, trying to focus on what he was looking for and not the fact that he was touching Batman's armor. His techno-junkie brain went crazy, wondering what kind of metal it was made out of, what caliber of bullets it could deflect, what sort of secret compartments it had for weapons or tear gas, whether it could oxidize or rust or scratch or… He mentally slapped himself across the face, forcing himself back on task. He finally found the pages he was searching for and holding them up side by side. "This picture here, this is when the neurotoxins were affecting his system. And this, this is what it looks like now. As you can see, there's no trace of it, nor of anything else for that matter…."
Batman snatched up the second page, holding it close to the pointed tip of his mask, his eyes narrowed as they darted around. His face didn't reveal any emotion as he pulled it away. "Appears not…"
"We've checked everything, Batman," Cyborg murmured quietly, going through the papers again. "Brain scans, chemical tests, hormone levels, tested every body fluid, even. The only thing that had any kind of deviation from the baseline was his resting heart rate and his dopamine levels – although both of those fell in the margin of error."
Batman didn't respond, and Cyborg glanced away, looking around at all the Slades staring at them. He swallowed hard. "Trust me, I want to be wrong, Bats…"
Batman's eyes narrowed a little. "…Don't call me that again."
Cyborg jumped like a dog just tried to bite him. "Yessir!" He immediately scolded himself – what was he, a fricken fangirl?
Batman was going through the papers again. He paused on one, a color-coded spreadsheet full of typed writing.
"You guys compiled a record of his hallucinations…?"
"Raven's idea. We were trying to see if there was some kind of pattern. Whether it got worse during certain times of day or during certain situations, whether the content was always the same, something like that. But there's no consistency whatsoever, not that we can see. Slade shows up most often, but even his presence or behavior isn't constant."
The Caped Crusader was thumbing through the list without a sound. Cyborg stood awkwardly beside him glancing between the pages and his face, kind of hoping to catch a glimmer of emotion in the man's face – worry or horror or sorrow. Just something. But the only emotion Cyborg ever seemed to catch was irritation.
Was this what Robin had been forced to deal with? Was this why he left? Surely, Bats – erm, Batman – wasn't like this 24/7…
Batman reached the end of the document. He flipped the paper over, as though expecting more to be on the back of the page, but nothing was there. "Where are the records of the last two days?"
Cyborg didn't speak a moment. He rubbed the back of his head. "We haven't been able to get anything from him for the last few days… he's…" A chill passed through his spine, and he fell quiet, unsure how to finish his sentence. Batman didn't respond, his eyes still fixed on the incomplete spreadsheet.
Slade's many faces just stared hauntingly.
"Where are you keeping him?" Batman finally spoke, his voice low and level.
"Well, um, we were keeping him in the hospital wing, but he was thrashing around so badly during his last delusion that…" His voice trailed away a moment as Batman's gaze turned to him intently. He swallowed hard, struggling to find his voice again, avoiding that intense gaze. "…that we decided to pad down one of our spare rooms with mats from the gym and…"
"You put him in a padded room."
It wasn't a question. It was a statement of disbelief, of condemnation. Cyborg opened and closed his mouth a few times, even as Batman brushed past him, clearly furious as he headed for the door. Cyborg struggled to find words, his whole being feeling numb with how completely unreal the whole situation felt as he turned frantically, running after the man as he marched into the hallway. "He would've pulled a tendon or snapped another bone if we'd kept him restrained like we did! And any more sedatives and we run the risk of—"
"I didn't ask for explanations."
The finality to Batman's voice rendered Cyborg useless. His feet rooted to the hallway floor, fixing him in place as the Dark Knight of Gotham stalked away from him down the hall, ducking into a stairwell and out of sight. Cyborg hadn't even the thought to go after him. His whole being was stunned senseless, his mind frozen in horror. But as the seconds ticked and the shock began to ebb, an extreme heaviness fell upon him, and he slumped against the wall, blinking at the floor like he might cry, but no tears came. All he knew was overwhelming, consuming remorse, and he pressed his face into his metal hands.
How did everything get so fucked up…?
The eighth floor. That's where he'd said Robin was.
The dark disguise felt heavy and clumsy around him as he trudged up the flights of stairs. Bruce's jaw was set tight below his cowl, his gloved hands in tight fists as he focused his gaze on the journey before him. A small part of him felt bad for leaving the large Titan the way he had, but that small part was vastly overshadowed by the rest of his mind and heart. His brain tore through the pages of data he'd just absorbed, thinking through all of it again and again, trying to piece together an explanation, a reason for all of this. His heart was focused on the boy in a padded room somewhere above him.
A padded room…
…was it truly that serious…?
Titans Tower was much larger than he'd ever anticipated it to be. He'd seen it so many times in the papers, had even seen it in person from a distance on several occasions, but this was his first time actually on the inside. He didn't take any detours to sightsee, just periodically glancing at the little numbers on the wall naming out the floors. When the seventh floor became the eighth floor, he veered through the fire door and into the adjoining hallway.
It was a large, bare hallway that spread in either direction, just like the hallway he'd just left Cyborg in only moments before. He looked up and down, trying to determine through instinct which way was the right way. As he stared pointedly to the right, a voice startled him.
"You are him. Robin's k'norfka. The Batman."
It was a girl's voice, soft and solemn, but without that twinge of awe most voices had when speaking to him for the first time. He turned slowly, his eyes falling on a slender but strong orange-faced teenager. She stood by the corner, holding a pair of coffee cups which still steamed with their contents. Her beautiful young face looked aged with exhaustion and worry as she watched him without a word.
Bruce didn't know quite how to respond to her. She did not seem at all afraid of him, at all affected by his presence - not like Cyborg before her. To her, he was just another person.
No, there was something there. He saw it as she cast her gaze away for a moment, then back up at him.
"I will show you to him," she said in that quiet, almost hushed voice, stepping towards him, then past him, barely giving him a glance. Bruce couldn't help but feel a little dumbfounded, maybe even fascinated by her indifference toward him as he followed without a sound.
Starfire. That was what her name was, wasn't it? He'd done research on all the Titans, but she had been harder to get information on. A being from another planet. Not unheard of, but definitely rare enough, even for him. It was interesting, but his curiosity was already being overridden by the thought of where she was leading him. He began to prepare himself for what he might be seeing. He wondered how bad Dick really was…
Suddenly, the girl stopped. Bruce stopped to, his gaze snapping up. They had just passed one pair of doors, but were nowhere near the next set. He furrowed his eyebrows in concentration. What was going on…?
She turned slowly on her heels. Those strange eyes gazed back at him – very strange, every part a bejeweled, almost glowing shade of green. They seemed sullen, but vigilant.
"You are going to take him away from us, aren't you?"
Bruce didn't speak. He really hadn't thought it through that far. The girl seemed to take his silence as an answer though, and she turned from him with a small sigh, staring down at her cups in pensive thought.
"Will you be able to help him?"
Again, he found himself struggling for words. Those emerald eyes remained fixed on him, making even him feel nervous for reasons he didn't quite know. He swallowed hard, and prayed his emotions didn't show on his face. "I will do everything I can to help him," his voice rumbled softly.
This seemed to satisfy her, and she turned from him again, allowing him to relax a little. He trailed after her down the hallway again, glancing around a little.
Even though he'd never been there before, something about the Tower felt familiar. It took him a little bit to realize that he was seeing little touches of the Batcave and the manor in the construction of it. The width of the hallways and the spacing of the doors, the color of the walls, even the brand of the recessed lighting in the ceiling. Dick had paid for everything himself, with the money he'd received after his parents' deaths. Of course he would have modeled a lot of the design from his past.
He got so caught up in his thoughts, he almost ran right into the girl leading him. He glanced around her – they hadn't reached another door yet. Why had she stopped this time…?
It was then that he realized what he was hearing.
He knew that voice.
Starfire's feet had left the ground. She was flying, now, down the hallway. He tore off after her, his cape beating behind him, his heart pounding. She landed before a door, which opened as she pressed a button beside it, and hurried inside. He followed after her, the door slamming closed behind him.
He found himself in a spare room that had been sectioned into two parts. He stood in what could only be described as an observation room. A wall, clearly temporary but still standing stable and strong, separated them from the shouting boy. There was a door in the wall, bolted shut, and a window where another girl stood, staring into the room beyond with a sorrowful look on her face. She turned as they entered, her sullen, dark gaze flicking from Starfire to him. It remained on him, for what seemed like a long time, as though she were trying to look right through him. A chill passed up his spine, and he hoped that wasn't really what she was doing.
"He just woke up…" was all she said, turning back to the window as though the presence of Batman was the most normal thing in the world. The screams in the next room had diminished into something more like hyperventilation… or crying… Starfire set the cups quickly down on a folding table and went to join her. Bruce, on the other hand, hesitated, frozen to the spot as he listened to the sounds coming from the other side of the door.
He was the Batman. He had gone up against unthinkable dangers, leapt from tall buildings without knowing how he would survive the fall, faced some of the most horrible, most deadly villains on the face of the planet. But this…? This was beyond him. It took everything he had, every ounce of his nerve, for him to move towards that window, to lift his head and look through it, to finally look on the boy he'd helped raise, see what he'd become.
And what he saw was almost too much to bear. That familiar thin, lanky figure, curled on the ground with his arms strapped up in the familiar white of a straitjacket. His back was to them, his head pressed against one of the padded walls. Rocking… just rocking on the ground, as though to comfort himself, as he wheezed strange sounds.
Bruce shook his head dumbly, not even realizing exactly how much emotion was showing on his face. This couldn't be him…
He found himself moving before any decision registered in his head. He was moving towards the door. He wanted to be on the other side. He wanted to somehow help him, save him, do something. He had to do something!
All he could think of was that boy he'd taken in… had promised to take care of… How could he have let this happen?
A small hand grabbed his arm, and he froze, stunned. He turned, to see that dark girl – Raven, he recalled – placing herself between him and the door. She glanced at him over her shoulder, her face stony and serious. "He'll think you're a hallucination. He might even attack you. I have to kind of guide his mind back here, try and anchor it here before you can hope to talk to him." She paused a minute, swallowing hard. "And prepare yourself. We… never had a chance to tell him that we called you."
Bruce swallowed back his emotions, staring at the back of her head numbly as she stepped through the door. Her feet left imprints on the mats beneath her as she crossed the padded room to where Robin lay madly rocking. He stood in the doorway, just watching as she knelt beside him, laying a hand gingerly on him, as though to wake him up. After a few delayed seconds, he responded, rolling his head away from the wall to look at her. She murmured to him quietly, her fingertips resting on his head a few moments.
"Robin…" she murmured carefully after a few more seconds. "There's someone here to see you."
Bruce tensed where he stood. His jaw grew rigid and lungs stilled as he watched the boy slowly twist where he lay, his masked face appearing over his shoulder, gaze falling on him. He watched, still holding his breath, as those eyes widened to their full circumference.
The boy snapped his head back to Raven, as though to confirm that Bruce was really there. Upon reading her expression, his breathing grew ragged and his face broke into a terrible grimace. "You called him?"
"Robin…" she tried to say, but he was curling into a sitting position, his face wild, demented. He tried to shout, but his overworked throat cracked his voice, spit flying from his lips. "He'll take me away! He'll take me away and he'll never let me come back! I knew it! I just knew it! You guys want me gone! You want to get rid of me!"
"We're trying to help you, Robin." Raven spoke surprisingly calm, considering he was literally spitting in her face and claiming they were double-crossing him. "You can't see it but we're trying to help you. Please understand that."
Raven rose to her feet, glancing at Batman with a look of deep pain as Robin slumped to the ground with a strange cry, curling up into a fetal position with his back to them. She walked away from him with some hesitation, pulling her cloak around herself, leaning so her hood shielded her face from Batman as she passed him. Bruce listened to the door close behind her, and suddenly realized with a burst of horror that they were now alone.
Seconds ticked by as he watched the boy. Robin was rocking towards the wall again, wheezing strange sounds, muttering something so quietly Bruce couldn't make it out. Bruce just stood like a dumb idiot, staring down at him with mouth agape. He didn't know what to do. He legitimately had no idea what to do. He would almost rather face all of his rogue's gallery at once than face this situation….
He swallowed hard, and found himself slowly moving into the room, toward him. The soft ground beneath his feet made him feel unstable, his heart drumming at his throat as he approached the boy. Soon, there was only a foot of padded floor between them, Batman's signature shadow falling over the boy. After moment of internal struggle, he knelt carefully, staring down at his small, shaking form, feeling sick from the mere sight of the white straitjacket on him.
So many thoughts hit him at once. His entire history with this boy – the horrible scream in the circus tent as that trapeze rope snapped, the look on his face as Bruce told him he could stay with him, saving his life as he tried to find his parents' murderer himself at the age of nine. The night when Dick discovered he was Batman. The years of training, of fighting beside one another. The months of growing apart… the night Dick ran out, wanting to make it on his own… The whole last year, being allowed to do nothing but watch out for him from afar, always hoping nothing would ever, ever, happen to him…
His hands shook a little as he pulled off his gloves. He didn't even really know what he was doing, but the next thing he knew, he was leaning forward, one of his bare hands resting on Dick's untidy black hair. The boy leapt a little at his touch, turning to look up at him with wide, horrified eyes. He just looked down on him, emotions churning in his chest and showing a little on his face.
Their gazes connected, and the outrage in Dick's masked eyes melted away rapidly. He gaped up at him, incredulously, as Bruce let his hand drop a little, gripping his shoulder. He somehow managed to find a smile, and he knew that, even with the mask on, to the boy he was Bruce.
"It's okay, Dick," he hummed softly in his natural voice, squeezing a little tighter as tears burned his own eyes. "It's going to be okay."
It was all he could say. It was all he needed to say. Dick stared up at him for the longest time with a gaping, stunned expression. Then, his face contorted, tears streaming down his cheeks as he pressed his face into the padded floor, sobbing hard as Bruce silently rested his hand on the back of his head, smoothing his hair down gently like he was nine years old again.
We'll figure this out… he thought at the boy silently, sitting cross-legged on the floor and refusing to take his eyes off of him. We'll get you well again. I promise
Chapter 21: Flight
It was a day she had thought would never come.
She had thought their lives together would never end, that the Teen Titans, as she'd known them, had grown to love them, would exist together forever. A family, bonded by trust and friendship, that she'd thought could only grow in numbers, not dwindle….
Her heart was squeezing and breaking inside her chest as she and the others scoured the tower, finding and gathering things to send with Robin. Things they knew were of value to him – his communicator, his belt, the circus poster from the wall of his room – and things that were of value to them – notes of well-wishes, a CD mix of music that they had all enjoyed together, a photograph of the five of them together at their pizza hangout, smiling and laughing…
Will we all ever eat pizza together again…?
She tried not to think those thoughts, but they kept creeping in from the dark corners of her mind as she helped carry the bags of Robin's belongings down to the Batman's jet plane. Her whole being felt twice as heavy with grief, so her feet grazed the ground as she floated along. It took every bit of effort not to start crying.
She could hear Robin's voice drifting from her own memory, that reassuring look on his face, that boyish, confident smile.
"We're not going to drift apart, Star. I promise. We'll all be friends forever."
Will we, Robin? Will we? she wondered with a nauseated feeling. Her heart wringed itself at the recollection of Robin's manic screams. He believed they didn't want him there. He believed they were even trying to help Slade kill him. Her vision grew blurry with tears as she remembered all of this, and she held her breath to banish them as she set his bags down beside the dark landing gear of the stealth jet.
This is what is best for you, Robin, she reminded herself, straightening and look around, her eyes falling on the familiar "R" of Robin's motorcycle. Of course, more than anything, we would want you to stay… but only if you were well enough to stay…
A hand on her shoulder startled her from her thoughts. She turned to see Cyborg standing there, looking as sorrowful as she felt. They didn't exchange any words. They didn't need to.
The elevator chimed on the far end of the room, and Starfire startled hard, snapping to attention expectantly. The door flew open, and she relaxed as Raven emerged, carrying the last of Robin's belongings over her shoulder. She approached silently, looking the gloomiest they'd ever seen her.
"They're on their way down, just behind me…" she murmured in a muted tone, handing her bag to Cyborg, who went to work filling the Bat-jet's cargo hold. Starfire shifted around restlessly. Half of her wanted this whole situation to end quickly, but the rest of her wanted to prolong it as long as possible. She didn't want him to go…
As the elevator chimed again, signaling the approach of the elevator car once again, panic shot through her. She looked around desperately. "Where is Beast Boy? Surely he does not want to miss saying goodbyes?"
Cyborg tossed another bag into the cargo hold, then casted her a half-lidded, disgruntled look. He paused a moment, stretching his hand behind his back, and plucking a green rodent free and holding it out. "Okay, man. That's enough. Man up and deal with Batman, okay?"
The rodent squeaked, then shrunk into a cricket and began crawling up Cyborg's arm. Cyborg snapped an incoherent swear and flicked his arm, sending the bug flying to the ground. Beast Boy returned to normal form, lying on his back with his feet dangling haphazardly above his head, looking dizzy and ill.
"Do you have any idea how disorienting that is…?" he grumbled weakly, rolling over and staggering to his feet.
"I don't care. You're doing this."
"But dude!" Beast Boy squeaked. "It's Batman!"
"And this is Robin. Remember how much you geeked out over him when you first met?"
"…Y-yeah… but this is different!"
Cyborg and Beast Boy looked up at once, the smaller teen backing away behind his older friend and watching the door carefully. Starfire clasped her hands together against her thighs, not allowing herself to so much as blink as she watched the elevator door. Time seemed to stretch much longer than the thirty seconds they waited, until the door finally opened, revealing the two figures inside.
Her breath caught painfully in her throat. Tears were already burning.
This was it…
The whole journey downstairs was like a death march.
The entire world was disorienting and strange, despite the familiarity of his surroundings. He felt like he was walking through a strange dream, like nothing was real. His body felt disconnected from his mind, the clumsy legs below him constantly tripping up as he was led through the deserted hallways of the Tower. A hand clutched at his shoulder, fingers gripping the loose fabric of his white coat, wrenching him upright anytime he lost his balance, pushing against him to steer him in the right direction. Every few moments, panic would suddenly grapple for him, as he would suddenly forget who it was clutching him. Snapping his head back, expecting it to be Slade. But no… it was only Batman… Then, only some dread would remain as he remembered – Batman wasn't meant to be there, yet here he was.
He still wasn't convinced he was real this time…
They entered an elevator, and the Dark Knight pressed a button. Robin tossed his head around, looking at all the lights and sounds before the floor beneath him lurched, sending him bowling forward against Bruce's tight grip. The old hero pulled once more on his restraints, forcing him back upright.
Where were they going…? What was going on…?
He frowned at the floor, his arms wrestling a little inside their trapped sleeves. He felt like it'd been explained to him… but he couldn't quite…
The elevator sounded its arrival at their destination. The floor came to a sudden halt, causing him to sway but not fall this time. He lifted his head unsteadily, watching the metal doors part way before him, revealing the mystery room beyond.
The enormous hanger. Its bright lights and scent of motor oil. The one lone black ship in the center, seeming out of place and intimidating next to the brightly-colored vehicles around it.
And before it, four Teen Titans, turning to look at him.
He remembered now. His heart pitched against his ribs, and he remained frozen in place until Bruce finally exerted enough pressure on his back to make him move forward. Each step was staggered, reluctant. His head fell, overgrown hair hanging in his face, blocking his friends from view. His shoulders hunched toward his ears.
They're sending me away… they don't want me here so they're sending me away…
He clasped his hands into fists where they were strapped. His adam's apple bobbed against the collar of his strait jacket. He screwed his eyes shut tight, so that he was stumbling blind, just allowing himself to be led past them. He couldn't look at them. He couldn't…
And somewhere, even though he couldn't see him, he knew… he just knew, Slade was watching…
They came to an abrupt halt. He wondered if they'd reached the jet, but somehow, it didn't seem like they'd walked that many steps. He peeked carefully through one eyelid, then the other. An obstacle stood before them, barring their path. Panic loomed again, but his eyes wandered up, and his brain slowly registered skin the color of a sunset, the purple outfit, the immaculate green gaze. He avoided those eyes for as long as he could, but he was strangely drawn to them, until his masked gaze was finally locked on them, drowning in their depths.
He barely had a moment to think her name before she rushed at him, arms wrapping around him in a tight embrace. Robin could only gape stupidly, his chin rested against her shoulder, her soft red hair grazing his cheek. Her scent, her warmth, her heart drumming against his as she squeezed him tighter.
Tears had formed and fallen before he even realized it. All anger or distrust he'd felt before melted away, and he suddenly relaxed into her hold, his head turning to rest his cheek on her shoulder. He closed his eyes, and scowled quietly to himself that he could not hug her back…
A weight fell upon them, hugging, squeezing. Cyborg had stepped forward, his large metal arms awkward around them as he held them both tight. Beast Boy followed close behind, worming his way under Cyborg's arm to clutch them with a strange sniffle. Even Raven joined in, albeit only after a few seconds of indecision about it.
And they stood that way, for a long time. Robin just stared out into the room, his heart thumping hard in his throat, silent tears still falling unchecked.
These were his friends. These were his dearest friends, who cared so much for him, and whom he cared so much for in return. How had he ever thought…? How had he ever allowed himself to think that…?
He bore his teeth in self-loathing, rolling his head so his eyes rested on Starfire's strong shoulder. He breathed in her scent, and absorbed the embrace of his friendship. He didn't want it to end. He didn't want this group hug to ever end….
But at some point, they'd all decided at once that the moment had reached its limit. They pulled away, one by one, until finally Starfire was the last to pull away. He swallowed hard and looked back up into those emerald eyes. They were shining with tears, dark streaks of moisture on her ginger cheeks.
"Get well soon, Robin…" she murmured in a hushed voice, her hand grazing his cheek. He couldn't help but sigh at its touch, leaning into it a little.
"And don't worry about us, man…" Cyborg spoke up gently. "I'll take good care of the team. We'll still be here when you're ready to come back."
Robin blinked a few times, then turned to look at him. In a serious voice, he murmured "When did I die and make you leader…?"
A tense silence seared the room. Cyborg's gaped down at him in horror, until Robin finally broke into a tired, but teasing grin, and Beast Boy leaned forward, pointing up at the cybernetic teen and shouting "HA!" The girls exchanged glances, not sure whether to smile or be concerned. Cyborg's horror melted into a small, disbelieving smile. "That wasn't cool, man…"
"It was worth it for that face…" Robin croaked, still smiling lopsidedly. He glanced around at the others, and was glad to see that their moods had lightened, just a little. Yet seeing their smiles, even sad smiles, pulled on his heart strings, making his own smile melt away. He looked back at Cyborg with a somber look, swallowing hard. "Lead them well."
Cyborg nodded in grim understanding. Robin bowed a little, as though taking his leave, and turned, his eyes falling on Raven, even as Cyborg leaned and murmured a patronizing "Ha" to a flabberghasted Beast Boy.
Raven said nothing as he stared at her. She moved forward and gave him a relatively quick hug. He leaned into it quietly, eyes falling closed as he mumbled a soft thank you in her ear. She nodded, releasing her hold and taking a step back. They said nothing else. They didn't need to.
He turned to look at Starfire, but found a green figure standing there instead. Beast Boy's ears drooped, his mouth turned downward in a pitiful sort of frown. "I get a hug too, right?"
Robin smiled apologetically. "I'm a little tied up, but if you want, you can hug m—urk!"
He was interrupted as Beast Boy dove forward, giving him the quickest, most awkward one-armed boy hug Robin had ever experienced. The green boy staggered back, rubbing his neck and looking around sheepishly. "Get well soon, kay? And I promise not to burn the place down or blow it up or anything while you're—"
Beast Boy's eyes suddenly grew wide, and he squeaked, vanishing behind Cyborg. Robin felt a familiar presence by his side, and he craned his head to see Batman just beside him. The ol' man said nothing, but his face said everything – they'd stalled long enough. He swallowed hard, and glanced around at them. "I guess this is it…"
"Take care, man."
"Come home, soon, okay?"
"Just focus on yourself, alright? Don't worry about us…"
He nodded at them all in turn, until his eyes fell back on Starfire. Their voices died away a moment as he watched her solemn face. He stepped toward her, leaning against her in his own version of a hug, and she held him back, squeezing hard once again. As she pulled away, she leaned in, planting a soft, careful kiss on his cheek – close to his mouth, but without actually touching it.
His heart simultaneously fluttered and froze as he realized that this was almost exactly how their friendship had started... that first time he'd seen her, that first time they'd interacted… it started with a kiss…
…was it now ending with a kiss…?
He felt suddenly numb, almost soulless as Batman's hand was on him again, leading him away. Their words were jumbling together as he was led up the metal steps to the cockpit of the Bat-jet. He lowered himself into the passenger seat, and felt his body growing more and more numb as Bruce leaned in, unhooking the special straps he'd built in for passengers in straitjackets... he had had so many of them….
All at once, he began to panic once again, but for completely different reasons. This was really what had happened. He was really so insane that he was sharing company with people like Professor Crane… the Mad Hatter… the Joker…
…what if he ended up in Arkham, too…?
As Batman threaded the straps between his arms, he seemed to notice Robin's quickening breathing, his paling face, his terrified eyes. The Dark Knight paused, looking right up at him, quiet and serious.
"Dick… calm down… It's okay, I'm just taking you back home. I promise."
His words didn't help his nerves much. Bruce strapped down the last straps, then vanished, moving to the other side of the jet. Robin slowly realized he was trembling a little, once again, and he found it hard to breathe properly.
His eyes drifted toward the cockpit window. Beyond it, he could see his friends. They were waving frantically. …they were crying…
He hadn't said goodbye. Not truly goodbye. He hadn't said any of what he wanted to say to them, hadn't told them how much he would miss him, how much they meant to him. He couldn't even wave goodbye…
The plane was roaring to life. Tears streamed down his cheeks. The world lurched and tilted as the plane hovered, preparing to take off.
And as Robin stared at his friends for the last time before the plane jerked and shot off out the open hatch door, a voice suddenly appeared in his ear, as though its owner was leaning over the back of his chair.
"You know…it was only a hallucination, Robin…" Slade hummed poisonously in his ear. "Just one big happy hallucination…. It never happened."
His whole being felt like it was drowning in a frozen sea. His stomach twisted with nausea, and he clenched his eyes closed tight, gritting his teeth. In the darkness behind his eyelids, he fought for the memory of their smiles… the feel of their embraces… their words… their friendship…
"Yes it did…" he croaked, tears burning. "I know it did…"
"What was that…?" Bruce spoke up, turning to look at him.
"…nothing…" Robin murmured. He opened his eyes back up, staring out the window, taking one last look at Jump City, one last look at the familiar shape of Titans Tower against the horizon, before the jet tilted toward the east and took off into the clouds.
Chapter 22: Shock
The flight was long and unbearably silent. Neither of the passengers spoke the entire trip. Batman focused on flying the whole way, choosing to forgo autopilot to give himself something to do, while Robin sat slumped a little in his seat, his head leaning against one of his shoulder straps. The sixteen-year-old hero just spent the journey staring out the window, quietly watching the blue afternoon sky roll into the colors of evening, then darken into night. Stars twinkled to life around them, and the moon rose from beneath the clouds billowing at the curve of the earth. It was strangely serene. Well, except during the moments when he thought the engines had died and that they were plummeting to earth. It was only after the second time that he realized it was all in his head…
He recognized the lights of Gotham immediately, even with the sporadic cloud cover that hid much of it from view. He stared down at it in quiet nervousness as the jet banked and began its descent, lowering into the cloudy canopy and snagging through turbulence. As the whisps of cloud swept past, and the sea of lights expanded brilliantly below them, his eyes grew wide, and his fingernails dug sharply into his palms beneath his white sleeves..
"There's no guarantee he's taking you back home…" Slade was murmuring sinisterly in his ear. "He could be taking you to Arkham… why would he want to deal with you…?"
Robin knew he shouldn't listen, but he couldn't help it. His eyes were flicking around frantically scouring the city, trying to make out that familiar facility in the tangle mess of lights. He was breathing rapidly once again. Suddenly, everything was becoming so startlingly real… too real…
Especially Slade, who still lingered beside his shoulder, between him and Batman. Mocking him idly in a sing-song tone, "They're coming to take you away, haha, they're coming to take you away, ho ho… to the funny farm… You do know that song, don't you…?"
He swiveled his head around wildly, eyes falling on the shadowed pilot. Bruce stared back at him through that pointed cowl, looking uncharacteristically concerned. He didn't say anything else, because he didn't have to – the look said everything.
Just calm down… don't be afraid, everything will be alright…
Robin swallowed hard. With one last agitated look out the canopy glass, he screwed his face up, squeezing his eyes shut tight, forcing himself to breathe long, steady breaths. But his whole body still felt alight with panic, his very skin trembling.
Bruce would never take me to Arkham… he couldn't… he wouldn't want me telling anyone about… It's okay, it's going to be okay…
"You're a fool," Slade merely hummed beside him.
The jet pitched left and right, losing altitude, engines quieting to drop their speed. Robin gritted his teeth, clenching his eyes shut so tight it was beginning to hurt.
Then, the jet touched down, a little hard. It startled him, and he broke into a harsh coughing fit, leaning against his restraints with his hacking breaths hitting his knees. Cold air rushed into the cockpit as the canopy rose, and as he forced air back into his lungs, a wonderful, familiar smell flooded his senses. Dusty, murky, chilly.
It was the Batcave. He knew before his eyes even opened that it was the Batcave.
Somewhere beyond the cockpit, a voice was calling up to them. "Sir, this is probably the worst possible time, but it appears that Poison Ivy is having a go at the mayor."
"Of course she is," Bruce muttered darkly as he hit more switches, powering down the engines.
Robin's relief was all consuming. He fell against his seat, chuckling a little to himself even as Bruce leaned over and began unhooking his buckles.
It was funny… just a little…
How completely gone his mind was… the stupid tricks it was playing on him… It was starting to get funny…
…in a sick, twisted way that made him dry heave between his legs as the last of the buckles fell away. His body wracked with spasms, tears burning in his eyes as his stomach continued trying to hurl up what simply wasn't there. As the spell passed, he found a pair of hands clutching his shoulders, a calm, patient voice at his side.
"Come on, Dick. It's alright… just calm down…"
That only made him feel worse. Bruce never spoke like that… it was really bad if he was speaking like that…
With his head spinning a little, he was helped to his feet. Bruce leapt down from the jet on the driver's side, then appeared below him, gestured for him to follow. Robin sat himself on the edge of the plane, carefully balancing himself to swing his feet over without using his arms, and then slid down the side of the plane. He fell the last few feet, and landed gracelessly, staggering forward right into the Dark Knight, who helped him back upright.
"All right?" Bruce asked, holding onto his arms as though afraid he'd collapse where he stood. And Robin dully noted why – he was still shaking badly, like a malnourished kitten in a snowstorm. He felt weak, and a little dizzy. He dug his fingernails more fervently into the surface of his palms, hoping that'd jar him out of it.
Movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. He glanced over Bruce's shoulder, and tried to swallow, his mouth suddenly dry.
"Master Dick…" murmured the familiar old gentleman in his soft, English cadence. He approached, stiff and courtly, gazing down his nose at the young boy. Robin found himself stepping back from Bruce, staring at Alfred blankly as the butler paused just before him. The old man's face slowly softened, and he lowered his head, looking on him as a grandfather would. "Let me just say… despite the circumstances, it is wonderful to have you home, sir."
Robin felt his face grow warm and tears prick his eyes again. He found himself trudging awkwardly forward, pressing against the old butler, laying his head against the shoulder of his waistcoat. Alfred stiffened a little, as though taken back, but then his arms appeared around his shoulders, holding him gently. "It has been a long time…" The old Englishman noted quietly.
"Did you bring everything down that I asked you to?" Bruce asked in a solemn voice, breaking the moment. The embrace ended, and Alfred stepped back, resuming his refined stance.
"Of course. Right this way, sirs…"
Alfred led the way, and Robin followed in teetering steps, Bruce keeping in stride beside him. They approached a table off to the side of the enormous cave lair, and Robin noticed that on its surface sat a pile of clothes, a small, brown pill container, and a cup of water. He squinted at the label of the little bottle, but couldn't make out its contents… some drug or another… just another drug…
Alfred was already snatching it up, uncapping it and letting the little white pills fall into his hand. Robin felt an irrational bout of apprehension as the old butler held one out to him. What kind of pill was it…? What would it…?
He ultimately decided he didn't care. It didn't matter what it was, what mattered was whether or not it would make him better. He nearly bit Alfred's hand as he eagerly took it, swallowing it dry before water was even offered to him. It tasted acidic in the back of his throat, and he winced as it caught a little behind his chest.
Alfred gave him a satisfied sort of look, but it vanished as noise began blaring from the computer on the other side of the cave. All three men looked at it, and for a moment, no one spoke.
"Gotham needs you, Master Bruce. Go on. I'll take care of Master Dick."
Bruce looked at him, then down at the boy. Robin avoided his gaze pointedly, staring at a spot on the ground four feet to his left. Bruce's armored body shifted, and he leaned close to Alfred, murmuring low, but not so low Robin couldn't hear him.
"I told you he's dangerous, Alfred…"
Robin winced, despite his every effort not to.
"I think I'll take my chances, sir. If something happens, I'll give you the license to say 'I told you so.'"
Robin kept his eyes closed, so he didn't know what happened next. But then, he felt a hand squeeze his shoulder, and a voice by his ear. "I'll be back soon, okay?" before footsteps began to recede in the cave. Robin didn't open his eyes again until he heard the Batmobile roar to life and fire off, the sound of its jet repulsors deafening in the echoing cave.
As his hearing returned, he realized Alfred was speaking to him from behind him, hands on the back of his jacket. "Come on, sir. Let us get you out of that disguise and into normal clothes…"
He froze a little inside as Alfred began unbuckling the straps on the back of his strait jacket. He cried out and leapt forward, out of his grip, wheeling and staring at him with a horrified gaze. "What are you doing!" he gasped.
Alfred seemed unperturbed. "Please, Master Dick-"
"Are you deaf? Even I heard him – I could hurt you Alfred! I'm kind of completely out of my mind, remember?"
Alfred's normally stoic demeanor shifted a little, the creases of his wizened face revealing something like sorrow. "I do not think you will, sir. And even if you tried, you should already know I am capable of defending myself."
Robin shook his head a little, unconvinced. But Alfred was already striding forward again, and there was something in his demeanor that forced the boy to yield without any more of a fight. He stared numbly at his feet as Alfred began unlacing the straps.
"You know, I think you've grown…" Alfred spoke up casually, as though to lighten the moment.
"I doubt that…" Robin responded glumly, as his sleeves slackened their hold. His shoulder and elbows seemed to creak and protest as he moved his arms in directions they hadn't been allowed to in days. Alfred continued unclasping the straps holding the jacket in place, until it finally fell away, snagging on the teen's cast before hitting the ground at his feet.
"Well, at any rate," Alfred continued, helping Robin as the boy struggled to take off his cape, his cast impeding his movements. "I brought down some of your old clothes along with some of Master Bruce's old clothes, just in case…"
Robin was only half paying attention. He looked down on himself, on his cast, then his hands. He held them out, palms upward, and found himself a little disturbed by the deep, bleeding cuts he had dug out with his nails. He sneakily wiped them on his red shirt before trying to pull it over his head, hoping Alfred hadn't noticed. The old man didn't say anything as he helped him with his shirt too, and Robin didn't say anything either as he grabbed one of his old tees, pulling it on. It fit fine. He quickly swapped his leggings for an old pair of pressed slacks, and was astonished to find that the pant legs now ended well above his ankles, yet somehow the waistband hung loosely, threatening to fall on him.
So he had grown… but he'd also lost a considerable amount of weight over the last few weeks… Perfect…
Alfred set down a pair of slippers for him to step into, then turned to the table, folding up his costume and setting it down neatly. Robin crossed his arms as though he were cold - or as though he were still in the straitjacket - and looking around numbly.
It felt so weird to be out of costume…
"Hm…?" he asked, distractedly. His eyes had fallen on a certain, gold-masked figure, staring at him from the other end of the cave platform, looking like an unwelcome demon in the sanctuary of the cave.
"Your mask. You haven't taken it off yet."
His heart froze solid. Slade was already thirty feet closer to him, watching, sneering, jeering.
"Go ahead, Robin… take off your mask… Let me see…"
"Do I have to…?" Robin rasped, turning to the butler with a pleading stare. Alfred looked astonished, then suspicious as his gaze flicked to where Robin had been staring, where Slade now stood idly.
"…I would have to say yes, you have to. You can't just wander around the manor with it on. I'll go get the alcohol for the adhesive…"
Alfred was wandering off, and Robin gaped after him numbly. A cold presence was right up against his side now, so close he could feel that armor grazing his shoulder as the villain leaned in.
"It's finally time, isn't it? Time for me to see your face. See your eyes. See the fear inside them. That's the moment you've always dreaded, isn't it, Dick? The day that I would see you, before you ever saw me…"
Robin fell weakly against the table, hanging his head, trembling.
"You're not real," he croaked, so weakly it barely carried past his lips. And he said it again, as though reminding himself, "You're not real…"
"Then do it… prove to yourself that you're not afraid to show your face to a hallucination…"
Robin gritted his teeth. His hands were against his face, the texture of his mask rubbing against the grooves of his fingerprints. His nails scraped at the edges, and the next thing he knew, a scream leapt from his throat as he tore the mask away like a band-aid.
The mask fell to the floor as he staggered. A hand clasped his face in pain, his body folding as he squeezed tears back into submission. His breathing was returning to normal even as Alfred grabbed hold of him, forcing his face up for him to see. Robin winced through the pain, peeking through at Alfred's horrified stare.
"Master Dick—why did you—you should have waited until... " Alfred's voice trailed off as took in the extent of the damage to the boy's young face. There weren't just the wounds of skin being pulled away by the glue – there was also areas rubbed raw where the adhesive had failed, and areas torn away where it seemed the skin had actually begun growing around the mask. Alfred frowned deeply, running one of his aged thumbs over a blistered spot. "Sir...how long have you been wearing that mask?"
Robin blinked, brain still dulled by the stinging on his cheeks, distracted a little by the hints of red out of the corner of his vision. When was the last time…?
But he couldn't remember. It hadn't seemed that much of a problem… it never really seemed to get dirty, to smell weird or… any of that… He wore it all the time. He was Robin all the time. He never wanted to be caught off-guard without it, so there hadn't seemed to be any need to ever take it off…
Alfred seemed to read all of this information off his expression. He sighed, picking the mask up off the floor, folding it delicately and depositing it somewhere within the lapel of his jacket as he turned to grab the bottle of rubbing alcohol. After pouring a good amount on a handkerchief he pulled from his sleeve, he pressed it to Robin's raw face, eliciting a pained moan from the boy. "Good thing I went and got this, then, wasn't it?"
Robin didn't answer, wincing against the stinging and the stench, flinching away from it, but Alfred held him firmly in place with his other hand. The old man looked him up and down carefully, then slowly spoke. "If I may, sir… I would say it's unhealthy to wear your mask so often … And I'm not just talking about the damage to your complexion…" He flashed Robin a meaningful look, and Robin swallowed hard.
"I don't think my mask caused this, Alfred," he grumbled with a strange, almost manic smile, before flinching away again as Alfred pressed the damp, stinging fabric on the other side of his face.
"Perhaps not. But…I will just say this… if Batman never took his mask off… well… I don't think there would be much of Master Bruce left…"
Robin didn't speak as Alfred wordlessly instructed him to hold the cloth in place, then turned away from him. Robin's entire insides seized up horribly as he stared ahead of him.
…could that be it…? was it just the pressure of being Robin that had…?
Movement from the corner of his eye. Robin looked reluctantly, his insides wrenching and tearing more violently than ever as his eyes fell on that menacing, faceless mask. There was a sparkle in that eye, and he could almost see the grin behind that blank, reflective surface.
"Well, well… look at you… You are a real boy…"
Robin's blood was plummeting in temperature as his eyes remained permanently fixed on that scrutinizing stare. But even as his eyes focused on Slade, there was more movement in his peripheral vision
"Just a child," murmured the dark voice of Brother Blood. "Just a simple, weak little child."
"What kind of a name is Dick, anyway?" growled the jeering voice of Johnny Rancid from behind him, before he burst into laughter. "Such a stupid, pathetic little punk!"
Robin swiveled around where he stood, his hand releasing his hold on the blood-stained cloth as he took a step back, staring around him in pure horror.
He was surrounded. Every direction, hundreds of familiar faces, watching him, staring at him, learning his secret, learning his identity. Every villain he'd ever faced… every terror he'd ever known…
"We'll break you, Dick," spoke up Mammoth, cracking his knuckles as Gizmo and Jinx cackled beside him. "We'll destroy you."
"Molecule by molecule…" seethed Professor Chang.
"We'll make you pay…" hissed Dr. Crane, somewhere behind him.
"What an absolutely pathetic excuse for a brat. I don't understand what Bats sees in you," added the Joker with a dismissive wave.
They all spoke at once, taunting him, threatening him, speaking his deepest secrets, the darkest moments of his past. A cacophonous symphony of villainous voices. Their faces pressed in on him, sneering, shouting. He staggered, clasping his hands against his eyes, crying out as a pair of hands seized him.
"Everyone knows now, Dick Grayson…" Slade murmured in a hushed, lethal tone. "Everyone knows about you… you can't hide behind that mask anymore…"
He pressed his hands more firmly against his eyes with a scream. Those hands clutched him more desperately as he fell to his knees. The voices were getting louder, the faces pressing in on him, suffocating him.
"Master Dick! Please answer me! Look at me!"
He gasped. Eyes snapped open beneath his hands, staring through the gaps between his fingers to see Alfred just before him, blocking his view of the many sneering faces. Alfred's kind old face was oddly emotional, stricken with concern. He was speaking, but none of the words registered in Robin's failing mind.
And then, Slade's voice hummed in his ear… soft, soothing… barely above a whisper…
"He has your mask…"
His breath fell still. His gaze was unblinking as his hands slowly fell. For a long moment, he could only watch Alfred, the sounds of his enemies disorienting and disabling.
"I need my mask…" he breathed with rising panic, eyes widening at the old butler. "I need it back…"
Alfred stared at him open-mouthed in concern; wary, vigilant. His hands slowly tightened on his arms, as though to hold them in place. "Master Dick…" he began in a careful voice.
But Robin didn't have the patience. He tried to wrench his arms from his grasp, hands reaching, grappling for the old man's coat. "Give it back!" he shouted frantically as Alfred struggled to fend him off. "They can see me – they can all see me! I need it back! I can't let them see me!"
"Master Dick – calm down! Just calm down! Don't-!"
A gargled shout reverberated through the cave. Robin drove himself forward, grabbing the elderly man by the collar and throwing him against the table. The wooden surface shuddered violently, legs wobbling, the container of pills rolling, falling off the edge, hitting the stone floor with a rattling thud. "Give me back my mask!" he screamed with everything he had. "Give it to me! Give it to me!"
Then, suddenly, everything exploded in a burst of pain. His whole body went rigid, and he opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came out. He hit the ground, and after a few more agonizing seconds, the pain vanished, leaving lingering twinges behind. His body fell limp against the stone floor. He couldn't move, could barely breathe, the world spinning around him with his mind struggling to comprehend what'd just happened.
After a few seconds, a blurry face swam into view above him.
"Sir, I'm sorry," Alfred's voice filtered in from somewhere far away. "I'm so sorry..."
A sob hit him, and he screwed his eyes shut. As his body began to function again, he slowly rolled onto his side, shaking violently as he dragged his arms across the floor, toward his face. He pressed his palms tight against his eyes, blocking out all the faces leering at him, hiding himself from them as weeping cries started rattling through his chest and throat.
"You just attacked Alfred…" Slade uttered quietly above him, words laced with an air of incredulity. "You are really far gone, aren't you…?"
Robin could only sob in response.
Chapter 23: Accountable
Dick. I'm Doctor Thompkins. I'm a friend of Bruce's.
Bruce asked me here to talk with you. To help try and figure out what's going on with you. How does that sound?
All right, so, how are you feeling?
A shrug isn't an answer, Dick. How are you feeling?
…okay, I guess…
I see… So, what are you doing?
…just laying here…?
But why are you covering your face like that?
…I have to… they'll see me… I can't let them see me…
…them… all of them…
Who will see you, Dick?
…the bad guys…
Bad guys where, Dick? Here?
You're seeing them right now?
Dick. There's no one here.
There is no one in this room but you and me.
…I…I know that…
So why are you hiding your face like that?
…I have to… they seem so real… no chances…
But you said you knew they weren't real.
...I can't tell…
Can't tell what?
…what's real and what's not… I mean… are you real…?
You aren't, are you…
Dick, of course I am…
…but I can't know for sure… I'll never know for sure… no chances…
Tell me, Dick. Apart from me, who else is in here?
A lot of people? Just a couple?
Dick, I need you to talk to me. I can't help you unless you talk to me.
…I've heard that one before... and that turned out to be a hallucination, too…
It doesn't matter… it just doesn't matter…
It's doesn't matter if I talk. Nothing will be fixed. Nothing will change.
You don't know that for sure.
…I've already talked alot… I told them everything and still…
The Teen Titans?
… told them everything… ask them…
They aren't doctors, Dick.
And I did see what they had written up…
…then why are you talking to me…? You have everything you need right there…
No I don't. I have a list of your hallucinations, but only those before you came back. And I don't know anything about your feelings, Dick. What you're dealing with, how this is affecting you. I can't read your mind. But, I can see that you're hurting, and I just want to help you.
…what if I can't be helped…?
We won't know unless we try… you can't be helped if you won't let anyone help you.
You haven't been eating… you haven't so much as moved from this position since you got here, right?
Dick, what will happen if you move your hands? Even just to eat?
What do you think will happen?
…they'll… they'll know everything…
But you know they're not real. So what harm will it do?
Dick, I want you to try. For just thirty seconds.
…You're tired of me right? You don't want to talk to me right now?
If you do this one thing for me, if you take your hands away for thirty seconds, I won't make you talk to me for the rest of the day.
You can't spend the rest of your life hiding behind your hands like that, Dick. Come on.
Okay, then. We'll go back to talking about—
…I don't want to talk anymore…
I already told you what you need to do.
No, take your hands all the—there you go. I'll count, okay?
F—no, Dick, you have to keep your eyes open, too. That's still hiding otherwise… okay
Ten. See? Is this so hard?
Sixteen – just breathe deep breaths, Dick. Don't hyperventilate.
Twenty-four – just hang on, don't move those hands
You did it! See, was that so—
…I did it, so get out… please just get out…
Alright… I'm going. But just realize, Dick – did anything happen during those thirty seconds?
…not this time…
What are you expecting to happen?
Oh, I see. Right, no more talking.
But I'll see you tomorrow. And we'll try this again.
…it's okay, Dick. Everything's going to be okay. You don't have to cry…
Alfred journeyed stiffly through Wayne manor, balancing a tray of food and tea on his fingertips with all the experience of his age. The tea in its pot barely swilled with his footsteps, as he made his way through the front parlor, through the enormous grandfather clock, and down the stone steps to the hidden headquarters of the infamous Batman.
A few more days had come and gone. Master Bruce had hardly left this chamber since young Dick had arrived back home. He only left it when it was necessary – to fight some great menace that only Batman could take care of, or to make an appearance to the surface world, business world and tabloids as the notorious playboy Bruce Wayne.
But he hadn't visited Master Dick since that first night. Not once.
Alfred reached the end of the impossibly long set of stairs, strolling into the middle of the main platform carved out of the enormous cavern. As he set the platter down beside the computer module, he was greeted by the squeak and fluttering of bats somewhere in the darkness beyond the spotlights.
"I brought you some dinner, sir," he called out to the cavernous room, opening the lid on the dish and inspecting the contents inside.
"I'm not really hungry, Alfred," came the response. The old butler turned, following the direction of the voice. It was only then that he noticed Master Bruce crouched in the middle of a clearing, hunched over something on the floor. Alfred frowned, replacing the lid on the meal.
"I already have one child who refuses to eat, sir. I do not need a second."
"…he still isn't eating…?"
Something in Bruce's voice surprised Alfred a little. Behind the general pensive tone there was something else, like concern, or regret.
"He has barely moved from his position, sir," Alfred continued, his own voice sounding flatter than usual. "Dr. Thompkins is upstairs with him currently, sir. She's been working with him every day since we called her in, but…"
Bruce got to his feet, making his way to a table on the opposite side of the platform from Alfred. The old butler abandoned the meal at the computer, and made his way down to the other man's area, stepping from beneath one spotlight and into another. He looked down at what Bruce had been so absorbed in on the floor, and his skin prickled. It was a set of chained handcuffs, newly bolted to the floor.
"Um… sir… might I ask…" he murmured quietly, not even sure what to think about them.
"It's for me, Alfred," Bruce stated simply. Alfred shot a further confused look at his back, and after receiving no further explanation, made his way over to his side. His eyes fell on the cluttered table Bruce bent over. Vials of chemicals, computer hardware, tools, papers. Robin's mask, with a section cleanly cut from its black surface. Alfred frowned down at it.
"What's all this about…?" he asked quietly.
"I have a theory, Alfred," Bruce spoke without pulling his focus from his work. He was holding up a vial of some strange powder, looking at it closely. Alfred watched him as he did, and was alarmed by the exhausted bags under the man's eyes.
"A theory about Master Dick?"
A nod. Bruce set the vial down and picked up a messy stack of papers, flipping through it. "He's never had hallucinations like these before, Alfred. Not until the incident with the dust. The dust must be the key."
"But I thought his system was clean of it."
"It is… but that doesn't mean it didn't affect him." Bruce spread out the papers, and Alfred looked down at them. It was a list, a timeline of what'd happened that first day. The old butler frowned as he read over it. "I had the Titans compile this before I left. It's a complete outline of what happened that night. How long the neurotoxin affected him, how he reacted to it, what happened to him during that time, how much time passed before it nearly stopped his heart." Bruce pointed to the relevant information as he spoke, his eyes wide in a kind of feverish excitement.
"Sir… how long have you been awake?" Alfred murmured quietly, watching him closely.
"Two days." Bruce was already moving on, talking in a strangely fast manner. "Which is perfect. It's absolutely perfect. Just the amount of stress I need to pull this off."
"What are you talking about sir?"
"You see, Alfred. At first, I thought it was his mask causing the problems. If he hadn't changed it since the dust, maybe there was some left, some soaked into the material, enough neurotoxin to keep the hallucinations lasting. But that wasn't it. There was barely a trace, and besides, it would've shown up in his system. But then I thought, what if the initial dose of neurotoxin somehow changed his brain structure? What if it caused this? It would mean Dick isn't schizophrenic at all, just dealing with a side effect of the initial poisoning."
"Schizophrenia caused by drug poisoning is still schizophrenia, sir…"
"If I can figure out if that's what happened, there might be a way to counteract those effects, Alfred. Change his brain chemistry back."
"How would you figure that out, sir?" Alfred was getting more and more uneasy, and he glanced back toward the chains on the floor. Bruce looked back on him, as though the answer were obvious.
"I'm going to administer the neurotoxins to myself."
"Master Bruce. Forgive me, but are you sure that's a good idea."
"Never said it was a good idea, Alfred." Bruce had turned back to the powder in the vial, and Alfred realized with a jolt that it must be the neurotoxin. "But if I simulate what happened to Dick, and the same thing happens to me, then we can reverse it…"
"That's not a guarantee, sir," Alfred felt himself growing more and more concerned, and he grabbed the larger man by the arm, half a mind to drag him away from the table kicking and screaming, if he had to (or if he could). "If that is what caused this, it could be permanent. You can't put yourself in such great risk like this."
"…it wouldn't be the first time."
"Master Bruce, please—"
"I have to figure out what's wrong with him, Alfred!" Bruce turned to him, his eyes wide with a kind of mania. "I have to help him!"
"Disabling yourself is not the answer, sir." Alfred spoke firmly, but didn't raise his voice. Somehow, he knew that no matter what he said, the other man would never listen. He was stubborn, and his mind was set. But as Alfred watched him turn back to the table, going back to work, he couldn't help but shake a sickening feeling that this was not a good idea.
"I'm going to need your help, Alfred," Bruce said after a moment, as though that conversation had never happened. He snatched up a remote and pointed it at the enormous computer on the other end of the cave. It lit up, displaying a strange sort of stopwatch timer, which had yet to be started. "As the dust takes control of me, the computer is going to indicate when certain things need to happen. For example, about two hours into that night, Robin was knocked unconscious by one of his friends. I'm going to need you to simulate that, preferably with your taser."
"You can't be serious…" Alfred murmured quietly.
Bruce didn't seem to hear him. He handed Alfred a face mask, then put one on himself as he opened the vial of powder. "After that, Robin's vitals began to peak dangerously. If they hadn't figured out the dust, it's likely he would've suffered massive cardiac arrest. I'll need you to hit the lights as I get close to that point. The computer will keep track of my vitals, and will alert you to that when the time comes."
Alfred swallowed, his mouth dry as he watched Master Bruce measure out a specific portion of the dust, dumping it onto the table as he consulted his papers. Using a spatula, he carefully scraped it in a line, then pulled off his mask, giving Alfred an ironic sort of smile. "Never thought I'd find myself doing something like this, but…"
"This isn't a good idea."
Bruce hesitated, just a moment, staring down at the dust with a blank expression on his face. "…maybe not…" he muttered softly, rolling up a piece of paper. "But I have to do something…"
Alfred looked away as Bruce inhaled the neurotoxin, pulling all of it into his lungs and heaving a terrible cough. He didn't waste much time, though, already staggering away from the table, taking a second to hit the start on the computer clock, then dropping the remote and making his way to the chains on the floor. "This isn't the best room to hallucinate in," Bruce spoke bluntly, still with that awkward smile as he picked up one of the cuffs. "Rather than go falling off a cliff, I thought it best to restrain myself in a way so that I can still fight the foes that aren't really there…"
"How long does it take for the hallucinations to start?" Alfred asked with concern, stepping over to help him clasp the cuffs into place, eyeing the chains and hoping they'd hold. Those cliffs were quite high…
"I don't know." Bruce settled himself cross-legged on the floor as Alfred slammed the second handcuff home on his wrist. "The Titans believed it only took twenty minutes for the toxin to begin affecting his system."
"Perhaps while you wait you should eat something?"
Bruce shook his head. "I have to keep all the variables in place, Alfred. I haven't eaten in a while, just like him. I haven't had sleep in a while, both to replicate his own lack of sleep, and to simulate the sort of stress he'd been putting himself under. And then, once the delusions start, I'll have to fight whatever my brain throws at me, and I have to believe it's there…"
"That last part may not be so easy…"
A strange smile graced the man's handsome face as he pressed wireless electrodes to his chest and forehead. "It's amazing how real hallucinations can be, Alfred… even when you know they're just hallucinations…"
Alfred nodded knowingly. This was not the first time Master Bruce had dealt with hallucinations. He'd bumped into the Scarecrow enough times, after all…
The room fell silent. Bruce closed his eyes, and fell into what looked like meditation, except his face twisted a little, like he were forcing himself to think of terrible things. With a sigh, Alfred went and fetched himself a chair, taking a moment to look at the forgotten meal apologetically. He settled himself in his chair, just close enough to the man to show his reluctant support, but far enough away for his chains.
"Alfred?" Bruce said after a solid ten minutes of silence, startling the old butler a little. "Is this my fault…?"
"What, having neurotoxin in your system? Why, yes, that was your fault, sir."
"…no. I mean, what happened to him. If my theory is wrong, and he really is just… Is it my fault?"
Alfred didn't speak a moment. Bruce kept his eyes affixed to the stone floor before him, still sitting in that meditative pose. Alfred sighed quietly.
"No, sir. Mental illness doesn't exactly work that way."
"…I know a few people who would argue otherwise…"
"…well, true, there is often a combination of factors, sir, and often times, genetics and biology are the determining factors with things like this, not environmental or social interactions. But I know you know all that."
"…But how he ran off before… how we treated each other… I haven't been the best parental figure, Alfred."
"But I'd hardly put you at the top of the list of factors at work here, sir. If it truly is schizophrenia - naturally-caused schizophrenia – then it most likely would have appeared at some point even if he'd never joined the Titans. Even if he'd never become Robin. Even if his parents hadn't died."
Bruce didn't respond, still frowning at the floor, as though purposefully avoiding the old butler's gaze. Alfred's face hardened a little. "You can blame yourself all you want, but it will not change anything."
"Well, it's my blame that's making me do stupid things like infect myself with a dangerous neurotoxin." Bruce gave him that ironic sort of smile again, and Alfred internally grimaced. "That could change something."
"Let's hope it's not your permanent reception of reality, sir."
"Let's hope it is, so we can figure out how to help Dick."
"So you don't regret your decision and want to stop this experiment?"
"Not a chance. In fact, could you hit the lights? I think it's probably been long enough now…"
Alfred did as he was told, albeit reluctantly. The room fell into almost full darkness, the emergency lights and the glow of the computer monitor counting the seconds all that existed to illuminate the dark cave. As Alfred made his way back to the clearing, his eyes slowly adjusting to the lack of light, he saw the glint of the screen in Bruce's wide eyes.
"Master Bruce…?" he asked carefully.
Bruce didn't speak a moment. His breathing had grown heavy, and his eyes remained fixed on a pocket of empty space before him. After a moment, he spoke.
"…how did you…?"
"Did I what?" Alfred questioned with a raised eyebrow.
Bruce swallowed, his gaze flickering to Alfred and back to the spot in space. The old butler realized what was happening. "What are you seeing, sir?" he asked quietly, goosebumps prickling his skin along his arms and neck.
"It's him…" Anger mixed with remorse as he glared up into the empty space. "How… how did he artificially create such an elaborate neurological response, so that whoever is affected can only see him…? …how on earth did you do it, Slade… ?"
He didn't have a chance to speak again. He cried out and hit the ground, the chains chiming as he rolled a little and got to his feet, striking out at something unseen, something in his own head. Alfred remained quiet, those goosebumps never really going away as he watched everything unfold. After only five or so minutes, the computer made a sound, instructing him to turn the lights back on. Bruce stood, glancing around as the room flooded with light.
"He's gone…?" Alfred asked curiously.
"A feat of science, this neurotoxin."
Bruce just nodded, swiping a bit of sweat from his forehead.
Not long later, he was instructed to turn the lights back off. No other instructions happened for a while, and he could only watch in silent horror as the hallucinations grew worse, and began to affect him more and more. Bruce was being worn down, clawing and heaving throws at his own body, ripping apart his clothes, shouting to someone who wasn't there. He strained against his chains, screaming in pain, throwing himself across the ground. It was like watching a terrible pantomime… it was the worst display Alfred had ever been forced to witness, made only that much worse knowing he was not allowed to stop it...
After what felt like an eternity, the computer finally instructed him to turn the lights back on. He did so eagerly. As light flooded the room again, the computer sounded once again. He looked up at it.
Get taser ready…
Alfred felt his stomach curdle. He shook his head, yet found himself making his way to the delusional vigilante, pulling the small device from his coat pocket.
This was the last thing he wanted to do…
Master Bruce… you say you're a poor guardian to Master Dick… but what parent would ever go to these lengths…?
As he heard the hum of the electronic device, as he heard the screams, as he heard his own heart shattering inside his chest, he looked away.
…and at times like this, I feel like the guardian who failed here was me… and if that is the case… I'm so sorry…
He only knew one thing for certain…
This was going to be a long, painful night… for both of them…
Time... time was a truly strange thing.
It just… happened. That was the only way to explain it. Days were passing, but he could barely comprehend it. Every moment, every hour, just an empty blur, something that happened beyond him, without him. The rise and fall of the sun, the faces of those that spoke with him, his room, his whole world, all remained firmly hidden on the opposite side of the hands that remained pressed to his face, blocking his view, hiding him from sight. He vaguely remembered being forced to move them a few times, while a voice counted from some arbitrary number. Time seemed to pass differently during those times – seconds felt like hours, each number uttered with a longer gap between, and rather than a blur, his world would become horribly clear, panic affixing the leering, knowing faces into his memory. Nightmares to accompany him through his solitude.
Since that first night back, he hadn't lashed out again, though. He wasn't able to. He never moved. He wouldn't eat. He wouldn't sip water. He would only sleep when exhaustion finally snatched hold of him. He'd begun to notice his body beginning to shut down, his muscles weakening, his insides aching, but he didn't care. He didn't care about anything anymore. He just wanted to hide there, behind his hands, away from all the pain, away from all the voices. Just until it was all over. Until he withered away to nothing. That's all he wanted…
A strange sound broke through the haze of his mind. It wasn't Alfred coming in to check on him, as he did frequently. It wasn't Dr. Thompkins, opening the door and greeting him with strange kindness. It wasn't a sound he was used to. And yet… it was such a familiar sound… a song… a little electronic song, coming from somewhere nearby.
But it was just another hallucination… wasn't it…?
It chimed a second time. Without realizing what he was doing, Robin spread his fingers a little, glancing through them into the world beyond.
He was in the room he'd grown up in, but it didn't seem like it did back then. It'd always felt stuffy and off-putting, like everything else in Wayne Manor, but now it felt like something out of a dream. Most of the furniture and decorations had been taken away, lest he go into some sort of manic attack and damage himself on any of it. Curtains blocked most of the daylight, and a fluorescent glow shone from a few dimmer sconces on the wall, casting soft shadows that leapt around wooden trim and furniture.
At first, he thought he was alone. He'd been left alone so much the past few days – he never moved after all. But his eyes fell on that one figure… that perpetual figure… hiding in the corner. The gold half of his mask glimmered softly in the glow of the lamps.
And from somewhere in the room, muffled but strong, that song sang again.
"Where there's trouble you know who to call…" Slade sang along in an eerie voice. He leaned into the wingback chair he sat upon, hooking one leg over the other as though relaxing after a long day's work, then turned to him, eye twinkling. "Aren't you gonna answer it, Robin?"
Robin swallowed hard. The room spun a little. He wasn't even fully aware of what was happening… what he was doing… His weak body, sliding off his bed, to the floor. The hand clutching his face, palm over one eye, fingers over another, as his other hand grappled at the floor, helping him crawl across the room, toward the source of the sound. He was lead to the wardrobe, its door already ajar. He pushed his way into it, his free hand trembling as he dug into the bags on the wardrobe floor. His fingers closed around a cold, round object, and he pulled it out, staring through the spaces between his fingers at the familiar yellow cover, the black stylized letter T.
That electronic tone rang again, unrestrained. It filled the room. It beckoned him to answer.
But he couldn't. He couldn't open it. He couldn't show them his face….
The song rang again. Invisible eyes bore into his back, causing him to dig his fingernails into his scalp, pressing his eyes closed. Shoulders shaking. Knuckles aching as he clasped the communicator with everything he had.
But he just couldn't…
The jingle chimed one last time. He listened to it longingly. He wanted to keep hearing it. It was… oddly comforting. But he subconsciously knew how many rings were allowed… he knew it was gone… He slumped against the wardrobe door, curling his knees up to his chest, staring down at the surface of the communicator with tears threatening.
They'd called him… they had actually called him…
Those jumpy nerves of his wanted him to run to action, out of habit more than anything. Surely the reason they called was because they were in trouble. They needed him. They needed his help. But a strangely rational part of him knew that wasn't it. They wouldn't call him for help – not in his condition. They'd called to check on him… they'd called because they'd cared…
He suddenly felt a presence at his right side, where he firmly clasped hold of his face blocking his own view. A dark voice murmured in his ear.
"It's a hallucination, you know. That communicator isn't real…"
He swallowed hard, as his fingers closed even tighter around the communicator. It was the perfect size and shape… the surface felt just right under his fingertips… A hallucination…? How could it be…? It felt so real…
But so did Slade's breath against his ear as he went on "Seriously, Robin. You need to stop deluding yourself into thinking that anyone would care about you…"
The round device tumbled from his grip. He found himself slumping over sideways to the floor, curling up with both hands back to his face. His chest ached, his eyes burned. He just wanted to slip away, fall through the floor… be free of this…
…but that was never going to happen, he realized. It would never end like that… never so easily… when had his life ever been easy…?
Slade was still talking from somewhere, but he somehow managed to ignore him, thinking. Thinking as he hadn't for days. He thought of his friends, thought of how much they meant to him, how much he missed them. And how much he knew he meant to them, despite what Slade said. He thought of their hugs as he was leaving.
…he wanted to be back there… he had to get back there…
His hands – both of his hands – slowly crept from his face. He crossed his arms as though to secure them, restrain them, and stared out at the room, focusing his eyes on a fixed point. Just as he would when walking tightropes. Something to focus on, to keep his concentration, to keep himself from losing balance.
"What are you doing, Robin…?" Slade growled from nearby. "You know we can see you, right?"
Robin didn't answer. He licked his dry lips, and began to croak, quietly.
"One… two… three… four…"
"This is stupid, Robin…"
"…five… six… seven… eight…"
His voice wavered, his face burned as he felt those eyes bearing down on him, as he heard Slade ridicule and threaten him. But still he counted, like a mantra. Something to focus his mind.
He had to learn to deal with this… he had to overcome it…
…he couldn't keep hiding anymore…
He was well into the thousands when Alfred finally came in. His voice had long gone hoarse, his body quaking as he fought to remained focused, arms so tight around his torso it was as though he were in a strait jacket again.
He just had to keep counting. Counting until he felt comfortable in the world without his mask… until he was comfortable being Dick Grayson again… not Robin…
Slade had power over Robin… but not over Dick Grayson… he had never even met Dick Grayson…
He was so focused on counting, he didn't even notice the hands that grabbed him and helped him back to his bed. He didn't notice any of the faces around him, or the voices speaking to him. He just counted. Counted until his words were coarse whispers. Counted until the sun around the curtains faded to black. Counted until exhaustion finally made him lose track… finally pulled him to sleep…
Chapter 24: Windows
There was a strange sort of quiet to the air. A shadow looming, that had nothing to do with the clouds building up outside, though that certainly helped it along. It was as though the atmosphere outside had changed to reflect the atmosphere inside the manor…
Dr. Leslie Thompkins sighed softly at the cloudy sky before releasing her grip on the curtains in young Dick's room. They fell heavily back into place, extinguishing that small remnant of daylight away from the room once more. She turned, looking over at the boy on the bed.
He had gotten worse. Before, he would at least speak to her, at least notice she was there, but now he would not respond at all, no matter what she said or did. He seemed completely trapped in his own mind. When his hands were away from them, his eyes would stare out into the room, unblinking, unfocused, as though staring down something that wasn't even there. He would sometimes mutter to himself, and though she tried to make out his words, they were garbled, lost beyond recognition. The only word she had ever caught for certain was "Slade."
It was baffling… troubling… She'd had such strong hopes for him. The last week of working with him, helping him face his demons, helping him pull his hands away, to deal with the world without his mask… she'd thought he'd been progressing. She'd thought he'd been healing.
She recalled that night… The phone call from Alfred… Dick's weak, distraught voice counting… just counting… Every time she thought about it, it made the hairs on her arms stand on end, and her heart strain with guilt.
After all, she thought, as she laid a hand carefully on the boy's cold forehead, rubbing her thumb along one of the wireless electrodes that keept track of his brainwaves and temperature. I had been the one to start the idea of counting…
There was a small knock on the door that startled her from her thoughts, her hand retreating back to her side. "Come in," she called out, certain of who was on the opposite side.
"Sorry to interrupt…" Alfred spoke as the door swung inward.
"Not much to interrupt," Leslie murmured quietly, crossing her arms over her doctor's coat. Alfred meandered his way in, looking down on the boy with a kind of exhaustion that was completely foreign to the old man's face. He frowned at the hands clasped to the boy's face, and Leslie followed suit. She didn't know which way she hated more – hands in place, or eyes staring out at nothing. Maybe it was the mystery of why he switched at all that she hated most.
"How is he doing…?" Alfred asked in a hushed voice.
She shook her head solemnly, and it took her a few moments before she could speak. "He still isn't responding… It seems he's deteriorated into a completely catatonic state."
"Is there anything that can be done about it…?"
Her shoulders tossed a small shrug. "There's the smallest chance that this is a bad reaction to the antipsychotics I'd prescribed him. I took him off of them, and I'll get him a prescription of benzodiazepines in the morning. Hopefully, they'll help bring him out of it…"
Alfred settled himself carefully into a chair beside the teenager's bed. Leslie watched him in stunned awe. In all the years she'd known him, she didn't think he'd ever seen him sit down in this house, even just to eat. It was disconcerting to see, and she found herself glancing away, as though it was something she shouldn't be seeing.
"So, what has Bruce been up to…?" Her voice grew steely and suspicious mid-sentence. "I haven't seen him once since the two of you first called me in. He's getting himself into trouble again, isn't he?"
Alfred's dark eyes flickered up to her. "How on earth did you know?" His sarcasm was hidden, but years of experience allowed her to pick up on it.
"What's he done this time?"
Alfred leaned back in the old chair, looking down on the boy. He was hesitant to speak, and that only made her more concerned. "He's convinced he can find a cure for Master Dick's ailments. In order to figure out what's causing his symptoms, he decided to administer a dose of Slade's neurotoxin on himself."
"He did what?" Her voice was flat, appalled. Only a second of consideration was spent before she found herself moving to the door, hands clasping into fists.
"Dr. Thompkins! Wait!"
She tore the door open, hurrying down the hall in the direction of Bruce's room. Her eyes were narrow slits as she marched along, glancing around the ornate hallway as though trying to decide what to snatch up along the way to bean that stupid fool over the head with – an 18th century vase, or the sword from a suit of armor…?
"Please, Doctor! There is no need for any of that!"
Alfred was hurrying to catch up. She found herself slowing, not wanting to force the older man to run, but she still glowered at the path before her, her hands still clasped into fists as the long-time butler reached her side, panting a little.
"No need?" she repeated in a stern voice, like a teacher to a delinquent student. But before she could speak again, she felt as though a set of eyes were watching her, and she glanced up in spite of herself. From the wall stared a familiar face – Thomas Wayne, her former classmate… her professional colleague… her departed friend… Alfred's eyes followed her, as though knowing just what she was thinking.
"When he left, I promised I'd look after his child. You did too. How could you let him do something so utterly stupid?"
"I didn't just let him… I helped him…"
Her knuckles now hurt, she was clenching her fists so hard. "Alfred!"
"He would have done it anyway, with my help or not. At least I was able to be there in case anything went wrong."
"And did anything go wrong? Tell me, what did he find out? Do I have a second psychotic patient on my hands? Is that what you came to talk to me about?"
"…no." There was a strange look about the butler's face, and he didn't elaborate, causing the aging woman to glower in annoyance.
"No, what, Alfred? I asked a lot of questions there. Just one answer isn't going to satisfy me."
"You don't need to worry about Master Bruce. It's been three days. After the initial bout directly from the neurotoxin, he hasn't seen anything out of the ordinary since."
"…Master Bruce would like to think otherwise…"
"Of course he would." Leslie shook her head, crossing her arms and glancing back up at the old painting on the wall. Bruce… That stupid… single-minded… All the times he'd put himself in harm's way for the benefit of others… just for once, she wished she thought of himself… or those who cared about him…
"…I have to admit…" Alfred went on quietly, watching the painting solemnly. "I had kind of hoped he was right, to a point."
"Are you serious, Alfred? Or have you lost your mind as well?"
A spasm of sorrow creased the lines on the old man's face, showing emotion in a way she hadn't seen since the night Bruce's parents had died. He hid it quickly, moving toward a nearby window, so his back was to her. "It's just hard to think that this could just… happen to someone as near and dear to us all as young Dick is to us all. Tell me, madam Doctor. If this is truly what you suspect it to be… what can we expect? What is going to happen to him? Will… will he ever be the boy he went to the Titans as…?"
"…you're being awfully inquisitive, Alfred…" she noted quietly, almost to herself. Any other time, those words would've been a form of teasing, a kind of prod at Alfred's demeanor. He was naturally a questioning sort of person, but usually out of cynicism – a trait bore from his past with British intelligence. But this time, he questioned of out general uncertainty, and that troubled her. Alfred was not ignorant by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, she'd often thought him as one of the smartest people she'd ever known. To find him at a loss like this… it was unsettling.
And she didn't know quite how to answer his questions. She moved to his side, following his gaze out the enormous hall window. The clouds were growing thicker, darker, making it seem more like dusk than midday. A flash of lightning could be seen behind the windswept trees, somewhere far in the distance. She idly counted the seconds til the accompanying thunder roll… if it was true what they said, the storm was still ten or so miles away…
"…It's hard to say…" she finally sighed. "The only thing I know for sure is that the months ahead of us are not going to be easy. But I promise, I will do everything I can to help him…"
Another flash in the distance… twelve seconds til the rumbling thunder. A few raindrops landed on the windowpane, the scouts for the army that was to come.
"Come on, Alfred," she said with sudden determination, grabbing hold of his elbow. "I'm still not done being angry with Bruce. You're going to tell me where he is, and then you're going to lead me there."
"You seemed so certain to his whereabouts before…" Alfred said with a hint of humor, gesturing toward the direction she'd been headed.
"I didn't really expect to find him there. I assume he's down in his little hideout."
"Your assumptions would be right."
"Does he even sleep anymore?"
"Only begrudgingly, and often in inappropriate places, such as on top of his computer keyboard or underneath the lab table."
"It was not exactly my pleasure swabbing the drool from between the computer keys…."
They made their way down the grand staircase and around the corner. Alfred showed her to a chair in the formal living room, instructing her to wait before disappearing out of sight. Leslie settled into her seat, busying herself by picking a piece of lint off her skirt.
Of course… she couldn't expect to ever be able to see the Batman's lair with her owns eyes…
A clock in the corner struck the hour with a dismal tone. Another clap of thunder rolled in the distance, but much closer this time. She glanced out the floor-to-ceiling window, the rain spattering against its glass casting shadows of intricate swirls and patterns over the room. Wind danced with the trees outside, and she shivered once more, realizing she would have to go out in that rain to go home…
A pair of footsteps pulled her attention away from the darkening clouds. She was on her feet before the owner of the steps had even appeared, and she crossed the room to meet him as he entered, rubbing exhaustion from his young face.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't bend you over my knee like the child you are," she said sternly, crossing her arms and giving Bruce a terrible eye. The man gave her a sheepish sort of look, running his hands through his dark hair.
"I think the best reason is that I'm a child who's twice your size," he muttered with a muted version of that suave little grin of his. "I think I'd break your lap."
She didn't smile, still glaring up at him. She lifted a hand and gave him a playful little slap on the arm, just to release a bit of her frustration. "What am I going to do with you, Bruce?"
"You've been saying that for as long as I can remember. You're awfully indecisive if you can't make a decision in over thirty years."
She swatted him again, extra hard this time, and he leapt back with yelp, more out of surprise than pain.
"I can't believe you're joking around like this, Bruce…" she murmured darkly. "At a time like this…"
"…yeah… well…" His face sobered quickly, and his exhaustion immediately leapt back to his face as he dropped down into one of the many old chairs littering the room. "It's rare I get to joke around. Guess I just jump at the opportunity."
Leslie frowned down at him, and seated herself on the ottoman just beside him, shooting him a deadly look. "So was Alfred telling the truth? Did you seriously…?"
"Alfred doesn't lie about things like that, I'm afraid…"
He was avoiding eye contact with her. She hated when he avoided eye contact with her. "Are you okay? You should let me do a full examination to—"
"I'm fine, Leslie. No worries." He shot her a strange smile that vanished after only a second.
"You haven't been seeing anything?" she asked, ignoring him and grabbing his head, pulling on his eyelids, checking his pulse.
"No. I haven't." His voice grew deep, somber almost. There was a flash of something like disappointment in his eye, before he jerked a little away from her. "Please, Leslie. Seriously, I'm fine."
She settled back on her seat, sighing as she watched him. Rain drummed more heavily on the windows, wind humming around outside. A flash of lightning illuminated the room for a second, followed by a deep thunderclap that rolled over the manor like a chill along a spine. Her thoughts meandered, wandering to the boy somewhere in the mansion above them. She frowned deeply.
"You haven't visited him at all since he's been here, have you…?"
Bruce glanced at her, then quickly away again, clearing his throat as his face grew darker. "…no, I haven't…"
"…you need to."
Bruce seemed even more determined to not look at her. "Alfred's been telling me what's been going on."
"I'm not saying you need to go look at him and see how much worse he is. I'm saying you need to go be there for him. Be by his side. Show him you care, like a father should."
His gray eyes snapped to her, and his face grew infinitely gloomier. "I'm not his father…"
"You're the closest thing he has, Bruce," she murmured quietly. "Just like Alfred is to you. That boy doesn't have anyone else…"
Bruce got to his feet halfway through her sentences, stepping away from her toward the window. She frowned toward him as a flash of lightning silhouetted him. "Typical Bruce Wayne avoidance…" she grumbled to herself, crossing her arms.
A little cough caught both their attentions. Alfred had appeared in the entryway of the room, clad in his dark trench coat and cradling an umbrella and her purse over the crook of his arm.
"Doctor Thompkins," he drawled, straightening even taller and casting them both a careful glance. "I hate to interrupt, but I suggest that you should consider making your way home before the weather takes a turn for the worst. We're supposed to have quite the storm this evening."
"I think you're right, Alfred…" she replied softly, rising to her feet and flattening out her doctor's coat around her. She took a glance at Bruce, who hadn't turned away from the window. She stepped up beside him and patted his arm. "You take care of yourself, Bruce. I want to see a lot more of you if I'm going to be visiting the manor this often."
"…right…" He barely looked at her, still focused on the rain building up outside. She watched him closely for a long moment, wishing more than anything that she could hear what was going on inside that head of his.
Alfred was clearing his throat again. That was the hint that it was time to go. She patted his arm one more time and followed Alfred out of the room, silently wondering to herself as he led her to her car whether or not anything was ever going to change.
…a flash of light…
…the rumble of thunder…
…a man moving so quickly as the lightning interrupted the darkness, you'd almost think he were a ghost…
His hands pressed to his ears. His eyes clamped shut. He curled up in a ball, shaking, wheezing, as the light of the storm burned through his eyelids, as the crack of thunder bled through his grip.
"…it's just like that first night, isn't it Robin…?"
He pressed down on his ears tighter, moaning. Just go away… just go away…
"Yes… just like it. The scent of rain… the call of thunder… that overwhelming darkness of a storm... the perfect darkness to hide in… to thrive in…"
…go away… please go…
"…I can see your face, Robin." The voice was so close now, right before him. He cried out, lashing out, tumbling off the bed to the floor while his hands grappled blindly for his face. He shuddered and whimpered, as that voice loomed around him. "I can see everything… your fears… your pains… your memories… I can see it all…"
"…j-just go…" he gasped, his voice stale and weak. "…please…"
"Never. I'll never let you go…" Hands seized him, pressing him against the nightstand. Pill canisters upon it tumbled and fell, little capsules littering the floor. "I'm here forever, Robin. The thing that keeps you up at night… the evil pulling apart all the threads of your mind… tearing and tormenting until there is nothing left. Nothing but an empty shell…"
He choked a sob, digging his nails into his forehead.
…that was what was going to happen, wasn't it…?
…pulling…tearing…tormenting… ripping his mind apart…
…nothing left… was there anything left…?
Somewhere, far away, hidden by the rising roar of thunder, there was a voice. What it said, he couldn't quite tell… but its very presence was oddly comforting…
The hands seizing him clenched hold of his wrists, violently, trying to rip his hands away from his face. He screamed and struggled against their assault, thrashing, kicking
…no…they couldn't… he couldn't… no…
"Calm down, Dick. Just calm down."
Slade's voice was venomous… yet fading… The hands that held his wrists loosened their hold, just a little. A clap of thunder rumbled through the floor, and he tensed, as though expecting Slade to get stronger with every instance.
But his voice had vanished… another took its place… that one from the distance.
"…that's right, Dick. Just calm down… it's going to be okay… just calm down…"
…it couldn't be…
His fingers parted, just a little, just enough to see the mask-less face before him. Rugged and grim, yet kind, handsome, calm. Eyes that might've been blue in another life, now a stormy gray, just like the sky outside. They watched him carefully, filled with a warmth he'd grown to forgotten. The man's strong hands clutched his arms as Slade had, but gently, not forcefully.
"Come on, Dick," Bruce murmured quietly, slowly and gently applying some pressure on his arms, to guide them away. "I know Leslie's been working on this with you… you're not supposed to be hiding your face like that…"
He felt a little entranced as he allowed Bruce to pull his arms away. The Gotham Knight guided his arms to his sides, pressing down as though to stick them in place, then slowly, cautiously released his hold, his hands wavering just inches away as though to catch them if they popped up again. They didn't. Satisfied, he settled down on his heels, giving Dick a comforting sort of smile. "Atta boy," he mused, placing a hand on Dick's head, as though to ruffle his hair like he used to when he was a child.
Dick could only stare up at him, vacantly. There was something about all of this that felt enormously unreal. …was that what life was like now? That his hallucinations had become his reality and the real world had become his fantasy?
…he didn't quite know. He didn't really care. There was something wonderfully comforting about Bruce being there… finally being there…
But even as that thought hit him, suspicion arose in his chest. Wait a second… he hadn't visited him before, had he? Ever since that first night, when he'd attacked Alfred… he hadn't seen Bruce since that night…
There had to be another reason he was there… there had to be…
"Why are you here…?" His voice staggered and caught in his throat, sounding more like a dying frog's song than his own voice. Lightning flashed outside, startling him, causing him to react without warning. His hands clutched the collar of the man before him, gripping it for dear life as he stared into that familiar face with wide, paranoid eyes. He spoke through clenched teeth. "Why are you here?"
Horror swept across that face. Hands clutched at his, and he frowned deeply. "Dick… I'm sorry. I should have visited sooner."
Robin could only blink at him. …Bruce… was apologizing…?
…what did that mean…?
"I don't like this…" he hissed in spite of himself, his shoulders quaking a little. "I don't like that you're here… it means something, doesn't it? You wouldn't come here unless something was really wrong…"
Bruce just stared at him, frozen. Robin tensed up again, struggling against his grip. "You're going to send me away, aren't you?" he gasped. "Lock me up with the other crazies! That's what you want, isn't it?"
"Of course not…"
"Then why are you here? Why? Wh-."
His gasping cries faltered. He found himself pitching forward, yanked by his arms, and the next thing he knew, he was trapped in a careful embrace, his cheek resting on Bruce's strong shoulder. He gaped stupidly out into the room, his eyes falling on a masked figure casually watching, his whole mind wiped clean as Bruce hugged him tighter.
…Bruce… hugging him…?
It didn't compute. Not one bit. He didn't know how to respond or react. Half of his battered mind screamed that this cinched it – he would be sent away. Bruce would only do something like this if something serious were about to happen…
But his other half broke open a memory, one buried deep down… a rainy day like this… carefully shined shoes dirtied in the muddy grass… his suit drenched and clinging to him as this same man spoke through the darkness that had become his life.
I got the paperwork together. If you want, Dick… you can stay here, with me…
He remembered what that felt like. In a world that'd seemed so cruel… had taken so much from him… here was a perfect stranger who was willing to take him in… willing to give him a home and family… It'd never felt odd, or scary. It'd felt like what was supposed to happen…
And he remembered falling against him, tears springing to his eyes for the first time that day. He remember clasping onto him for dear life, as though afraid he, too, would fall and be taken away from him…
And Bruce had hugged him back… murmuring very similar words…
And tears sprung to his eyes now, as he clutched Bruce back.
"It's alright…" Bruce was saying quietly. "You don't have to be afraid, Robin. I'm here. I'll do everything I can to help you…"
The teen blinked against the shoulder pressed against him.
…Bruce… would never call me Robin out of costume…
The world felt sluggish as he pulled away, staring up at the face beside him with sudden terror. Bruce looked at him bewildered. "What…?"
"…you're not really here…" he breathed, panic gripping him. He was clamoring to his feet, staggering away, staring down at the man before him with growing dread. "…you're not really here…"
"What do you mean… of course I am…"
Robin shook his head violently, grasping his head and weaving unsteady steps away, until he felt the texture of the window curtains before him. He grasped hold of them, as though to keep himself from falling over. His hold pulled them open a little, a flash of lightning flaring, thunder shaking the enormous manor. He stared down out of the window, at the soaked world beyond.
Again, nothing felt real. He clasped the window weakly, feeling like he was going to collapse.
"Stop calling me that!" he screamed to the window pane. "Bruce doesn't call me that! He would never call me that!"
A cold silence wafted through the old bedroom. Robin felt himself shaking even more terribly, gripping the window frame for support. The floor-to-ceiling glass separating him from the drop beyond made it feel like he was going to fall…
"You're just a hallucination…" his voice wavered, his breath fogging the glass as he trembled. "Just another…"
In the surface of the glass, he could see that figure coming up behind him. Just a fuzzy reflection, hiding all features of the man. Bruce came up just behind him, grasped hold of his shoulders, and leaned in carefully.
The breath caught in Robin's throat as his eyes widened at the window, his heart staggering to a halt inside his chest. "You're right, Dick. I'm not really here. I was never here. …I never will be here…"
He shook his head, stupidly. Those hands squeezed his shoulders, as a strange laugh rolled in the man's throat, just as thunder rolled outside. "You really thought I could be here for you? That I would ever care about you?"
Robin tried to hold onto those early memories… in the rain… how Bruce had…
"I will never be the father that you lost." Bruce's voice had grown deathly cold, bitter… more like Batman than anything. "I will never be there for you. I will never stop disappointing you. Never stop hurting you."
"…no…" he gasped, clenching his eyes shut. One hand grasped the window, squeaking a little along its cold surface as his knees threatened to give out.
"Face it, kid… it doesn't matter whether you go by Robin or Dick Grayson… It just doesn't matter. You're alone. You'll always be alone."
"Stop!" he screamed.
"…just do us all a favor…" Bruce's voice had morphed almost beyond recognition, a steely, venomous voice that struck at his heart with a blade. "And leave us be… free us from the burden of dealing with you… just go away…"
A sob wracked the boy's chest as he stared out the window.
He was very high up… The muddy ground seemed so far away…
…it was a very familiar height…
His chest caught as he imagined to figures plummeting past him… he wanted to scream…
…he wanted to dive after them…
"Just do it… Please… I don't want you here anymore… No one wants you here anymore."
The world went blissfully blank again, as it had for countless days. Bruce's grip on his shoulders vanished. His reflection vanished. The sound of glass shattering was like a wistful symphony, and the cold air rushing around him numbed all feeling and thought.
He knew it in his heart… It didn't matter… nothing mattered…
… a set of faces in the back of his mind… smiling at him… holding him…
… no… not even they mattered… they were so far away… he would never see them again…
… just like his parents…
… He was alone…
… he really was alone…
An alarm sounded.
Bruce snapped up, startled from his work. He turned from his workbench, dropping his welding goggles as he looked up at the computer on the platform above him.
He threw down his blowtorch and gloves, abandoning his armor and hurrying up the stairs two at a time. He settled into the computer chair and tapped out on the keyboard, unlocking the operating system and pulling up details of the alert. Words scrawled out explaining the nature of the breach – a busted window… robbers, perhaps? He typed in a few more commands, and a map of the entire manor leapt to the screen, a little flashing red light indicating where it'd happened.
The whole world seemed to freeze solid around him.
…but… that was…
He was already sprinting as fast as he could, his body seizing up with dread as he took the stairs two or three at a time.
…a broken window… on the third floor… in his room…
…no one could possibly break in from that height…
…but someone could certainly break out…
…oh please, God… no…
Chapter 25: Reflection
The storm outside drummed against the enormous old house like a tribal chant. Electricity streaked through the sky, casting through the windows, illuminating the enormous main hall as Bruce stumbled around a corner, sprinting with everything he had toward the enormous main stairway. Thunder roared ominously as he bounded up them as fast as his legs could carry him, grappling for the banister as though pulling himself along would get him up there that much faster.
He was panicking. He was legitimately panicking. It'd been so long since he'd experienced this level of fear…
And that only worried him more.
The door to Dick's room was open as he barreled down the hallway toward it. He slammed into the doorframe to stop his forward momentum, gasping for breath and clutching the wall for support, afraid to lift his gaze.
But he felt the draft of wind through the window. Heard the unhindered sound of rain pouring outside. He finally forced himself to look up, and his chest seized up tight, crushing his ribs.
The room was empty, save for one person. Alfred had beaten him there. The old man stood in his dressing gown beside the shattered window, his back to Bruce as he stared out into the stormy darkness. Bruce felt his legs grow weak beneath himself, but he forced them to work, forced them to carry him across the room. He reached Alfred's side, and his eyes widened in horror as he noticed the blood dripping on the jagged edges of glass. He weakly reached out and clutched the curtain dangling beside him, already soaked through from the moisture the wind swept in the broken window.
…blood… Dick's blood…
…good God, it can't be…
Bruce gritted his teeth, clutching the curtain even tighter. The way Alfred's voice sounded… it was shaking… Alfred's voice didn't shake…
…this isn't happening…
He turned to the broken hole and frantically looked out. But it was dark, too dark to make out anything as the rain poured harder. He squinted hard, as though to force his eyes to work, to make out something, anything.
And as he desperately tried to see, a memory clawed its way into consciousness. The snap of a rope… the sickening sound of two bodies hitting a cement floor. Cheerful music vanishing in an instant, replaced by a chorus of screams and cries. Mothers and fathers grasping their children's faces, to shield them from the terrible sight.
But there had been no one to shield his eyes… and no one to shield Dick's…
Even in his memory, he could pick out Dick's scream of anguish over the cries of the crowd. And even now, so many years later, he could recall with perfect clarity the way those two figures looked sprawled on the ground… surrounded by blood… their lives extinguishing so fast…
Was that how he would find Dick now…? …was this…?
…no… it just couldn't be…
A streak of lightning cut through the sky. It illuminated the whole world, and Bruce's eyes widened as suddenly, he was able to see…
"…where… where is he?" Alfred gasped incredulously, leaning partway through the gaping hole in the window.
Bruce's heart leapt. Dick wasn't there. He wasn't lying dead in the mud fifty feet below them. But what did that mean? Had he simply survived the fall – he knew how to roll and avoid injury from a height like this, but in his condition would he have been able to…?
His mind frantically worked. He glanced around the room, glanced at the blood on the jagged glass. Glanced back outside as lightning lit the world again.
"Sir, we should go outside and look for him!" Alfred gasped, holding a hand up to block the rain splattering through the hole.
Bruce stared out as lightning flashed again. Far below, in perfect trajectory, lay the broken remains of one of the old chairs that had adorned the room, covered in mud. Bruce took in the blood once more, then leaned through the window, inspecting the walls of the manor. Vines… a rainspout…
"Don't bother, Alfred..." he muttered darkly, just loud enough for the butler to hear him over the sound of the storm.
"He's a circus performer, Alfred… So, he went up…" Bruce was already clamoring onto the windowsill, carefully trying to grab a handhold without cutting himself as well.
"…oh, that is so worrisome…" Alfred mumbled, his voice thick with a rare amount of emotion.
"…yeah…" was all Bruce could say, and he leaned out the window, one hand clutching the curtain to prevent himself from falling to his own death. He grabbed hold of the network of ivy clinging to the wall beside the window, and tugged, to see if it would hold his weight. It seemed like it would. With his heart drumming in his ears, he released his grip on the curtain, grasping to the ivy, and to the rain pipe. Water poured off the roof in thick streams, pounding on his head as he started the trek up to the roof juts above them.
"What should I do sir?" Alfred called as one of his hands grabbed hold of the rain gutter.
"She won't have made it home by now!"
"She has a pager, doesn't she?" Bruce growled in irritation, as he struggled to pull himself up onto the rooftop. The rain made everything slippery, he was constantly in threat of losing his grip.
"…she should really get a cell phone…" Alfred muttered to himself, vanishing from the window as Bruce finally pulled himself over the drainage pipes and onto the rooftop.
The roofs of Wayne Manor were enormously steep, rising high above the walls like the peaked heights of a cathedral church. Bruce grappled at the lines of roofing tiles, made slick from the rain, water cascading down in rows of beautiful rivulets. The rain poured even more viciously, soaking him through already, causing his hair to stick in his eyes and only make his climb up the steep grade that much more difficult.
After what seemed like hours, he made it to the very peak of the rooftop. He paused, panting hard, cursing the rain that made his clothes heavy on him, but realized it would've been that much worse in the Batman costume. He swept the hair from his eyes, took a moment to pull his shoes and socks off so he could get better footing, and stood, like a trapeze artist, balancing on the roofline as he looked around.
Lightning broke the air again, and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. The storm was right on top of them. If he wasn't careful, he could get struck up here…
But that really didn't matter… all that mattered was finding Dick…
He took a breath, calming himself. He took a few steps, feeling the surface of the rooftop, the ridge, the tiles, the water, searching for his balance. Once he felt steady, he took off, his years of training allowing himself to hurry along the ridge of the roof without teetering once, without worry of falling.
"Dick!" he shouted as he leapt onto a dormer, glancing around the enormous expanse of Wayne Manor, the vast range of steep peaks and towers that made up its rooftop. His skin prickled as he glanced out towards the edge.
If Dick did come up here… could he have fallen…?
…maybe he should have sent Alfred out there after all…
He straightened again, panting softly, more out of fear than exhaustion. He blinked through the rain clinging to his hair and face, wiping it away as lightning lit up the world again.
"Dick!" he called again, hurrying back up to a taller section of roof, to get a better look of the whole area. He clasped a rod sticking up from a peak, then realized how stupid of a move that was in a lightning storm, and quickly hurried away from it, sliding down a valley to a corner of roof and up again.
He froze. As electricity cracked through the sky again, as thunder rolled after it, he saw him. A little figure lost against the enormity of the mansion, hunched in a ball beside one of the many chimneys sticking from the roof. Bruce leapt forward a little too eagerly, nearly losing his footing as relief replaced all the fear that had clutched him this whole time.
But as he approached, he knew something was wrong. Dick's knees were pulled to his chest, his face down in his hands, just as Bruce knew they'd been for much of the past week. He shook noticeably, though it was unlikely it was because of the rain. The whole scene made his skin break out in goosebumps, and intuition told him he had to be gentle with this. He slowly approached the boy's side, and crouched down, like he were about to talk to a child much younger.
"Hey, Dick…" he spoke up in a gentle voice. "Whacha doin up here?"
Lightning flashed again, and the thunder was almost right on top of it, snapping through his eardrums and causing him to wince. Dick pulled up into an even tighter ball, clutching his face.
As the light illuminated him, though, Bruce was able to see the blood dripping from Dick's hands. He could picture it now – the distraught boy clamoring through the window, grasping the ragged edges and slicing his palms open. That was where the blood came from… and by the looks of what was on his face and arms, he'd cut them really badly. Bruce slid down the roof, just a little, just so he were a little below Dick's level, trying to see past those hands to that face.
"You're soaked through," Bruce went on in a calm, comforting tone. "And it looks like your hurt. Come on, Dick, let's get you…"
Bruce fell quiet. The boy spoke so feebly, he almost didn't hear him over the rain. He swallowed hard. "Why, what, Dick?"
"…why did you follow me… why can't you… why can't you just leave me alone…?"
His mouth was growing dry, even with the rain soaking the rest of him. "I just want to help you, Dick…"
"No you don't…" His voice was growing more strained, and his nails dug into his forehead, drawing more blood. "You made it quite clear… you're better off without me… you don't want me…"
Bruce gaped at him, stunned senseless. "I… Dick, I never…"
""Yes, you did!" Dick twisted his head, pulling his hands down so his fingers were like a cage between him and the outside world. "You… you did…"
The realization struck Bruce just as it seemed to strike Dick, flashing through his wild, frenetic eyes before his hands moved back to cover them. Bruce frowned sorrowfully. "You were just hallucinating, Dick… I would never…"
He reached out to grab Dick's arm, to either comfort him or insure he didn't fall from the roof – he didn't know. But the moment his hand connected with his sleeve, the boy wrenched away, snapping back against the chimney.
"DON'T TOUCH ME!"
Bruce froze as light flooded the world again, thunder bursting through the air. Dick staggered to his feet, clutching the chimney with his bleeding hands, staring down at Bruce with a truly manic expression as he wheezed shallow breaths in panic.
And Bruce lost his ability to breathe at the sight before him. He almost didn't recognize the boy. His thin, starved appearance. The sallow, sunken lines on his face that had never been there before.
But it was the blood on his face that chilled him to the core. It was smeared where his hands had clutched him, giving the sickening impression of a mask… a horrible red, dripping mask…
"Dick…" he began, taking a slow step forward. He was horribly aware now of the steep grade of roofing lying on either side of them, and the sheer falls just beyond that. "It's okay, Dick. Just calm down…"
But Dick was already moving, clasping the chimney with his shaking hands as he moved around it, as though to hide behind it. "NO! STAY AWAY—JUST STAY AWAY FROM ME!"
"Please, Dick." Bruce was growing more apprehensive, glancing out at the fall just yards away. "Please, just calm down."
"Why should I listen to you?" Dick spat through a grimace. He was still moving around the chimney, clumsily stumbling over the rise and fall of the angled roofs and converged there. "You could be just another hallucination… you probably are another hallucination!"
"Dick. Please believe me, I'm not."
"HOW CAN I TRUST YOU? HOW CAN I TRUST ANYTHING?"
Dick's hands left the chimney. Panic struck Bruce's chest, and he pitched forward. But Dick was moving away from him, his well-trained feet following the peaked ridge of the roof behind him.
He's going to fall…
"Dick please!" he gasped. But Dick had spun around, tearing off down the roof, balancing along the top ridge at an astonishing speed. Bruce leapt after him, slipping almost immediately and managing to catch himself before he slid past the eave. He quickly recovered his footing and took off after him, overwhelming dread gripping him once more.
"Dick!" he shouted frantically, but his cry was lost to the thunder. Panic clutched him even stronger as he saw the edge of the roof drawing close. He was going to run right off of it…
But Dick slid to a halt, staggering back from the roof edge. Bruce hurried to catch up with him, lurching to an unsteady stop just yards behind him, not wanting to scare him off the edge. Dick turned, slowly. The rain was dribbling down his face, spreading the blood so it covered most of it.
"Dick…" he gasped weakly. "Dick, please… please, let me help you…"
Dick shook his head. He took a step away from him, back, back towards the edge. "…you can't…"
"I can try. Please, please let me try."
He was still shaking his head. Another step closer to the edge. "…you're too late… you can't help me… no one can…"
Another step. Bruce was already sprinting forward. "No!"
One last step. His foot sailed through the empty air, his body falling after it. Time seemed to slow to an agonizing crawl as Bruce threw himself forward desperately, reaching out to try and grasp one of those swinging, flailing arms.
Please, please no!
His fingers clasped hold of one bloodied hand. He gripped for dear life, but Dick's weight had gone too far over the edge, and his own forward momentum was too much.
They were both falling.
He threw out a hand with a cry of desperation, reaching blindly for something, anything, to break their fall.
And then a cry of pain as his hand seized a windowsill, nearly wrenching his arm from its socket. He swayed dangerously, his hand shaking to keep a grip on the water-soaked ledge, and on the hand beneath him. He looked down, at the boy dangling limply below him.
Horror struck the Dark Knight. Dick's soaked, bloody hand was slipping in his grasp. He tried to reestablish a firm hold, but it just wasn't going to happen. Panic gripped him fully as he stared at the fall just beyond them.
"Dick!" he screamed. "Dick, please, grab on to me!"
At that moment, Dick looked up. Their gazes caught, and Bruce could see everything behind those eyes… all the fear… all the pain… all the desire to fall the rest of the way…
"No!" he gasped, as his hold slipped a little more. "Dick, please! Grab onto me! Please!"
Time seemed to slow once again. Bruce's heart was shattering inside his chest. "I can't lose you, too, Dick! Please!"
There was a flash of something beneath that blood-stained face. Recognition… understanding… something he couldn't put a finger on.
And Dick suddenly swung his free arm, grasping onto Bruce's wrist with a cry, his wounds stretching open more.
"That's it! Just hang on!" Bruce gasped, almost laughed with relief. Then, he took a moment to glance around.
They were still trapped up there. He couldn't pull them up to the window ledge his hand clasped to – his grip there was beginning to fail as well. But maybe the window just below them. He looked down at the boy. "Dick!" he gasped. "The window!"
Dick looked up at him, then at the window. It took longer than it used to, but understanding seemed to leap into place, and he gave Bruce a familiar nod. Bruce swung his arm, grimacing as his other hand began to slip again. But as Dick swung himself around, lifted his feet and kicked through the windowpane with perfect form, Bruce felt, just for a moment, that the heavy clothes around him was his disguise, and the boy diving through the glass was in his old red and green costume again.
…just like old times…
His weight vanished as Bruce released his grip. Wayward shards of glass mingled with rain, showering to the darkness below. Bruce swung himself, now, just as his hold was beginning to fail, and leapt down onto the window ledge, falling into a squat, like a gargoyle on a gothic building.
Adrenaline and endorphins pounded through his system as his clamored down into the room, sliding to the floor, back to the wall with a strange little laugh. They were okay… Dick was okay… he was safe now…
He swept the water from his face, his bangs from his eyes, and looked out into the dark room. It was a room they never used anymore, full of furniture draped with white cloth, giving the appearance of strangely shaped ghosts in the otherwise deserted room. The dusty ground was littered with glass, and just beyond that, was Dick, crouched over his knees on the floor, head resting against it as he trembled, fiercely shaking.
Bruce got quietly to his feet. He stepped across the lake of glass, his years of training allowing him to ignore the way the shards popped and bit at the bottoms of his bare feet. He felt anxious again as he reached Dick's side, and he slowly crouched beside him, concern sweeping its way into his system at the sight of all the blood.
"Dick…" He reached out carefully, grasping the boy. But the boy jerked away again.
"D-don't touch me…"
Bruce's broad shoulders slumped, as he frowned remorsefully. He sat back on his ankles, watching the boy silently, then glanced up at the room.
A few moments later, he knelt back down, draping a sheet from one of the musty pieces of furniture over Dick's shaking form. It covered everything but his head, and he looked up as it settled around him, glancing up at Bruce with an almost confused look. Bruce just sat down, watching him silently.
Finally, Dick slowly sat up a little, grasping the sheet with his bleeding hands, pulling it tight around him. A shiver passed over Bruce's spine – that shade of white was just too familiar…
A long silence marched through the room. Bruce didn't speak, and didn't move. He just watch Dick carefully, ready to help when he needed to, certain he'd know when the time came. Dick slowly sat back on the ground, his knees drawn up before him, leaning against them as he wiped the white sheet over his face, wiping some of the blood away.
Then, finally, after what seemed like half an hour, Dick finally spoke. "Bruce…? Can I ask you something?"
Dick's eyes remained glued to a spot away from Bruce, and for a moment, he wondered if he was seeing something else… but as Dick glanced around, it was clear he just didn't want to look at him. He took a deep breath, drawing the sheet tighter around himself. "Bruce, if… if you were to go back… knowing all this would happen, knowing how much trouble I would be… would… would you still have taken me in?"
Bruce wasn't sure what question he was expecting, but that wasn't it. His mouth fell open a little as he watched the young teen, who still avoided his gaze.
But it didn't take much thought at all. It really didn't take any though. "…in a heartbeat…"
Something between a laugh and a sob broke through the teen's throat, and he dropped his head, pressing his hands to his face through the sheets. "You're such a goddamn liar…"
"I wouldn't lie about that, Dick. I would never…"
"You don't want me here…"
"Sure I do."
"Then why didn't you come after me before?"
Bruce froze. Dick shot him a bitter, seething glance. "When I ran away… when I went to Jump… why didn't you…?"
Bruce dropped his head a moment, a sigh drawing through his chest. After a slow moment, he looked up again.
Dick's head snapped up in shock, and Bruce's face softened into a strange sort of reminiscent smile. "The moment I figured out where you'd run off to, I followed. I hung back, to see what you were doing, what kind of trouble you'd get yourself into, and telling myself that the moment you couldn't handle it, I'd jump in, and demand you come home."
"…so why didn't you…?"
"…because I was there when you met her. And the others. I watched everything. I saw everything. I saw how well you worked together with them. I saw how much you learned even from that short time with them. And… I decided that maybe that was where you needed to be. To become stronger, to become your own person… I dunno…" He rubbed his head. "It seems really stupid now… and I realize I made that decision as your training master, your crimefighting partner… not your guardian…"
He looked up at him, at the horrified expression still stuck to that blood-smeared face. "That wasn't the last time I checked in on you, either… I was there on your birthday… on the anniversary of… of your parents' deaths… when Slade had captured you… when Terra took over the city… I was there, hidden… ready to help you. And I did – I mean, you didn't think it was some stranger who helped you after Terra struck you down, did you…?"
Dick looked even more dumbstruck, gaping at him in silent disbelief. "But I never wanted to destroy what you had built. If the people of Jump knew you needed Batman to save you, they would never trust you, and your team wouldn't trust you. I didn't want to ruin that. But, if you ever really needed me… if you ever reached out to me… I was prepared to drop everything to fly over there to help you. …and I did, when Cyborg finally called me."
Dick looked away, absentmindedly wiping the blood and moisture from his face with the sheet as he tried to take in all this new information, his face screwing up a little as emotions built up. Bruce settled against his own knees, feeling like weights were being lifted from the burden on his shoulders. He glanced at the boy carefully. "I'm sorry, Dick. I…I haven't been the best to you… but, if I were to go back, knowing what I know now… I would still do it."
"Why…?" Dick's voice was strained, like he was close to crying. Bruce looked at him tenderly.
"Because of everything else, Dick. You're sick, and we don't know what the future holds for you now, but… I can't imagine a world without you in it. I don't know what I would be now if you hadn't stumbled into my life. You give my world a whole new meaning, give Batman a whole new meaning. Before I think I was just saving people to stop my own pain. But now… I dunno. I think I do it because of you. I don't want anyone else to deal with the pain I had to watch you go through… and I only wish I could do more to take that pain away for you…"
Dick was watching him again. There was moisture around his eyes that Bruce was certain had nothing to do with the rain. Bruce forced him a careful smile. "I'm glad you're in my life, Dick. And I'll be here, for as long as you need me to be. Even if it's in my own awkward, uncomfortable, uncertain way. You never have to feel alone..."
Somehow, that's what did it. Dick curled up against his knees, choking a strange sob as his shoulders bobbed. Bruce found himself reaching out, gripping the boy around the shoulders in a sort of hug. Dick leaned sideways, resting against him as he pressed his hands to his eyes, drawing himself up tighter as he fought not to cry.
It's okay to cry every once in awhile… he thought, but couldn't say. You don't have to always act strong in front of me… I'm not always like Batman…
Something caught his attention, and he lifted his gaze in time to see Leslie and Alfred appear at the door. The woman looked mortified at the sight of blood, pitching forward with hands snatching open her medical bag, but Alfred grabbed her shoulder and wrenched her back, shooting her a scolding kind of glare. Bruce felt his face grow red a little, as he rested his chin on Dick's drenched black hair.
"Everything's going to be okay…" he murmured softly. "It's going to be okay…"
Weeks passed… months passed…
Dick didn't remember much of it. It was all kind of a hazy blur, a strange collage of broken memories and feelings. Much of it nightmarish. Much of it that made him glad he couldn't remember more than he already did.
But the few memories that really stuck, that he really remembered, were good memories. Like how surprised and elated he felt when he realized he'd gone an entire day without seeing Slade – knowing for certain that it was from the new antipsychotics, and not just his mind playing tricks on him again. And the day when he realized he felt like Dick again – not trapped in the role of Robin, not trapped under the burden of his worries and his pressures… Just Dick Grayson… That was a wonderfully freeing moment, as well… he felt like he could carry on again…
…and he still remembered everything Bruce had told him… He still remembered that…
The spring sun shone through the enormous windows of his room, warming him where he sat, flipping through pages in yet another book. Pretty much all he did now was read books. It wasn't like he could go to school yet – if he were to enroll now, it'd only raise suspicions of his true whereabouts to the tabloids. As far as they knew, he was going to a private school in Europe….
A bird chirped outside his window, and he looked up in spite of himself. It fluttered on the window ledge just outside the surface of the glass, ruffling its feathers and chirping its little song.
And Dick gave an ironic little smile as he noticed the bird's brilliant red breast.
A robin, huh…?
He looked away, trying not to feel anything as he flipped another page in his book. He drew his feet up beneath him on the enormous armchair, and reached for his teacup as he let himself be drawn into the words again.
A sound startled him. His fingers froze on the handle of the teacup.
…was it already…?
His eyes roamed the room, falling on a familiar yellow device lying on his nightstand. He closed his book and got unsteadily to his feet, walking between patches of sunlight to the side of his bed.
…the golden metal plating… the stylized letter T…
He picked it up. It felt so strange under his grasp, like he'd forgotten how much it weighed, or how smooth its surface was.
When there's trouble you know who to call… a voice sang from his own memories… but just from his memories…
His hand shook as he stared down at it. His face grew cloudy, eyebrows furrowing in sorrow.
…this happened every week. Every week… they called him. At the same time, every week.
…and he still could not answer… he didn't know if he could ever answer…
He set it back down on the nightstand, still listening to that ringtone chime. He took a few steps away from it, staring out into his room, at the light from the windows, at the book sitting abandoned on his chair.
"…is this really what you want…?"
He startled, glancing behind him.
But there was no one there.
"Welcome home, sir."
"Thank you, Alfred. Good to be home."
Bruce straightened out of the back of the car, readjusting his suit jacket and brushing the wrinkles out of his pant legs. The pink hue of sunset cast over the world as Alfred moved to the trunk, opening it and pulling Bruce's luggage from it. Bruce would offer to assist him, but he already knew Alfred's scolding answer.
"No you don't, Master Bruce," he would say. "You have other things to busy yourself with. But I? Not so much."
"You're an angel, Alfred."
"Yet I still don't have my wings, sir."
"Now that's a lie – I know you've got a pilot's license."
A twitch of a smile beneath that mustache. "How did I forget."
Bruce hurried up the front steps into the house. He paused in the old entryway, looking around. He'd only been gone just a little more than a day, but it felt like he'd been gone much longer. He looked around, up the staircase and then to his side, toward the side parlor that led to the secret grandfather clock entrance.
Indecision wracked him. Say hi to Dick… or check on the state of the city…
He frowned deeply, casting a look up the stairwell, then passed it completely.
…he could say hello later… right…?
He felt a little heavy as he made his way through the parlor, through the secret passage to his command center. He hit a light, flooding the ancient cave. Bats screeched and fluttered in annoyance somewhere high above him, as though demanding he shut that darn light off so they could rest. He chuckled just a little at this thought, but his mirth was short lived as he shoved his hands in his pockets and casually wandered down the stairs.
…maybe he should go back and say hi to…
Halfway down, his steps faltered to a stop, and his hands fell to his sides.
The boy didn't answer. He stood off to the side of the Batcave, looking up at something on the wall. Bruce made his way the rest of the way down the steps, skipping the last few and rounding the corner, to see what was going on.
Dick still didn't speak. He didn't move. His back was to Bruce as he approached, and Bruce realized what he was staring up at.
…the Robin suit, in the display case.
Bruce looked from the costume, to the boy before it. He then noticed the yellow device in his hand, clutched so tightly that his entire arm shook.
"Dick…?" he asked carefully, grabbing his shoulder.
Dick startled, as though he hadn't realized Bruce was there. He snapped away with a cry, leaning over just a little as he fought to regain his breath.
"Sorry," Bruce gave a small, apologetic smile. "Didn't mean to startle you."
Dick didn't respond. He recovered quickly, then turned back to the display case. Bruce looked him over closely. The boy looked so much stronger than he had just a few months ago, but there were still signs of what he'd just overcome. He was still unnaturally thin, his face pale, eyes sunken. He knew of the scars on his palms from the night on the roof, and the scars elsewhere from earlier attacks.
But he was better now. For the most part. Leslie was of the opinion that what happened to Dick wasn't full-blown schizophrenia, but an acute psychotic episode due to stress and other factors. It'd started so quickly, and ended so quickly, that it was unlikely to be full paranoid schizophrenia.
…though she didn't rule it out completely, and said his chances of developing it or another mental condition later on had increased substantially…
A chill passed over his spine as he watched the look on the boy's face. He looked withdrawn into himself, as he had during the worst of those days before. Bruce gripped his shoulder again.
"Whacha doing down here…?" he asked carefully, watching him with vigilant eyes.
Again, Dick didn't respond. Bruce noticed his hand gripping the communicator tighter. He glanced out at the batcave, at the computer that was flashing messages for him.
He swallowed hard, and suddenly turned to the young teen.
"…I was… going to go on patrol. If… you wanted to come along."
Blue eyes snapped to him, round in disbelief. "Are you serious…?"
"I didn't just think this up on the spot…" Bruce murmured, pulling out his keys and moving to the display case, unlocking it. "Leslie and I have talked about it, and we think the only way we will truly know if you're better is if you put the mask back on…"
He reached up and pulled the mask off the mannequin and turned. But Dick wasn't there. He'd begun backing away, looking mortified. Bruce felt his heart fall. "I'm not saying you have to right now, but…"
"Y-you'd actually let me go back out? After everything that happened?"
Bruce frowned a little. "You don't have to. I would never force you. But… do you really want to live in fear of that part of you?" His eyes flickered to the communicator, still clutched in his shaking grasp. "And don't you want to talk to them again?"
Dick's face paled a little more. Bruce gave a small smile. "I know they've been trying to call you. They've been calling me too. I know why you don't answer… you're afraid you're not better… and you're afraid of them seeing you without your mask."
He held the dark fabric out, watching him carefully. "Robin and Dick… Batman and Bruce… they're different, and yet it's still you, and it's still me. We just need to find a way to balance them both."
Dick took a step back, still looking very uneasy. "I… I can't…" he whispered weakly, watching the mask with unblinking eyes. "I just can't… not yet…"
Bruce lowered his hand. He gave a slow nod. "Okay. Not until you're ready…" He moved back to the display case, returning the mask to its spot, and locking the glass shut once more. He turned from him, heading to the computer. "No pressure. You can be Robin again when you want to be… if you want to be…"
He couldn't speak. He listened silently as Bruce shuffled away to get into his own disguise… into his own mask. His whole body trembled, alight with something caught between dread and desire. His fingers clasped the communicator, his thumb following the contours of the letter T…
…to be Robin again…
…to face that part of him… the part that had so very nearly destroyed him…
…to face the memory of Slade… to face his friends…
He looked down at the device in his hand, then back up at the display case.
He could see his own reflection staring back at him through the glass. It was positioned just right in the pane, so it seemed to wear the costume on the other side…
"…wait…" he found himself croaking, weakly, as though it was forcing its way through his throat against his will. But as he swallowed, as he looked up at that mask, he felt a familiar, welcome rush of adrenaline and excitement… a kind of elation he'd long since forgotten.
He suddenly turned, giving Bruce an eager, goofy smile – another thing he'd forgotten for so long.
"I'm in, Batman. I'm in."
…and sometime, when I'm trained up… when I am comfortable being both Robin and Dick again… He looked down at the communicator, still smiling wistfully. I'm coming home. I promise…
…and maybe this time, I'll share with you guys who I really am… trust you as you all trusted me… because I shouldn't be afraid of who I really am… I shouldn't have to hide it from you…
"Everything's going to be all right," he said with a grin, as though reassuring the communicator, and his friends that were connected to it "I'm all right. I'll be home soon."
"If you're going to keep talking to inanimate objects, I might reconsider my offer."
"Augh! Sorry!" he gasped, nearly fumbling the communicator, as Bruce laughed behind him, opening the display case once more. He held out the mask, and this time, Dick grasped it eagerly, and held it to his face.
Welcome back, Robin… he told himself silently, pulling the mask away and looking down on it with a sense of nostalgia. It's good to be back…