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The Apprentice

Chapter Text

"Titans, move!" Cyborg orders.

All around them, the neon letters of Wayne tower explode and collapse, sending dark plumes of smoke into the night sky. Cyborg freezes, his heart pounding as he desperately searches for an escape. He hears mechanical groaning from behind him, and he feels his chest tighten. Sparks and smoke overwhelm his vision. A large bat – beast boy – flies over his head. There's no time to get out of the way! The neon A falls forward, and in a final grasp at safety he ducks. The letter crashes onto the ground, Cyborg standing in the gap. He was safe – he was fine! He straightens, hardly able to believe his luck. A thought almost forms in his head: Did Robin plan this? He clenches his fists and dismisses it. His teammate -- his friend -- is...

"He's gone." Raven says, her sadness scratching through her emotionless surface. Cyborg runs over to her and Starfire's side, checking to see if everyone was okay.

"Uhh..." beast boy starts as he drops from the sky, assuming his 'human' form. "I know where Robin picked up that heat ray, but... where did he learn that little glow-y hurt-y trick?"

"I don't –" Starfire stops, looking resigned. "I don't know."

Chapter Text

Robin steps forward, bathed in the orange glow of Slade's lair. A shadowed figure sits on a throne of metal, surrounded by giant rotating cogs. In Robin's hand is the spiked metal cylinder he'd been asked to steal. Slade spots it and stands, walking towards him with slow calculated steps.

"Well done, Robin. You're advancing far faster than I had initially imagined." He says. "Now, hand me the weapon."

The apprentice's expression goes dark and his hand twitches closed when suddenly one of Slade's S-shaped throwing knives embeds itself in his hand.

"Gah!" Robin cries and drops the machine, which Slade catches before it hits the ground. Slade inspects it as Robin pulls the knife out of his hand. His master's eye narrows.

"You were planning on destroying this before I could ever use it, weren't you, Robin. How very cruel." He comes closer and continues. "That is why I chose you as my apprentice. I took you in as the other Titans were beginning to doubt you... to see you for what you really are."

Slade grabs Robin's wrist and pulls it up. Robin groans, his master's grip pressing into his knife wound, and watches Slade put a USB drive in his hand. "I have another mission for you, Robin." Slade says, letting him go. "As a former... assistant... of the Batman, you know the whereabouts of his hideout. Download all the contents of his supercomputer onto that hard drive and return it to me before midnight."

Robin's eyes widen in surprise. His expression goes dark. "I won't. I won't do it!"

Slade's demeanor is unchanged. "Oh, I believe you will, Robin. If not for your friends, then for the thrill."

Robin's pride sets him on edge. He won't let himself be pushed around any further... it was time to take a stand. Robin cries out in anger and charges forward for an attack. His first punch is caught by Slade, who fakes a punch to his face to distract him, then strikes Robin in the ribs. Robin's breath is knocked out of him, but he quickly reacts by using Slade's grip on his hand to jump and kick Slade in the stomach, separating them with the force and shock.

Robin throws a handful of small metal beads at the ground and dark smoke explodes out of them, obscuring both their vision. Slade chuckles as his eyes scan for movement. The glow of Robin's heat ray pierces through the smoke and misses Slade's shoulder by inches.

Robin jumps down from above, trying to land another kick. Slade steps out of the way and grabs his foot, swinging him over his head to hit the floor with extreme force. The master lets go and watches his apprentice groan and try to get on his feet.

"Your strategy is developing, Robin. I see it in every fight. Hone the trick with the smoke, and it could be formidable."

Robin holds his aching side and turns to Slade, his face full of unrefined rage. "I'm going to stop you, Slade. I will find a way... to save my friends."

"As my apprentice, I expect no less from you than to try," Slade states, beginning to walk in circles around Robin. "However, I've been perfecting this plan ever since I first saw you fight. I can monitor your every movement, every second, everywhere. You cannot stop me, Robin. You can save your friends only by obeying my every command."

Slade pulls back one of his metal arm guards to check the time. It's 7 p.m. "Tick tock, Robin. Gotham is far, and the deadline is approaching. Return the hard drive to me before midnight, or I kill your friends one by one."

Robin clenches his fists and grits his teeth. He knows he has no choice but to bite his tongue and pocket the hard drive.

Chapter Text

Robin runs across the rooftops of his city. Slade gave him no way of getting to Gotham, and he'll never make it in time if he goes by foot. Slade is testing him, seeing how he'll adapt to the circumstances.

Robin watches the cars below. The traffic is coming to an end, the streets are clearing, and soon he and the crime of Jump city will be all that's left. He ducks into an alley where a motorcycle has been left unsupervised. His chest tightens. This is what he wants me to do. He wants me to steal again. He knows I don't have a choice.

Robin's chest gets tighter and tighter as he hotwires the motorcycle. His hands feel heavy and useless, and he can taste salt on his lips. The bike flares to life, and Robin makes a mental note to bring it back to that same spot. Slade may hold his friends' lives hostage, but not his conscience.

The apprentice drives far beyond the speed limit of the highway, eyes narrowed behind the mask and visor. At this rate, he'll reach Gotham by... 8:30 pm. That leaves him plenty of time to get in and get out.

Once he enters the outskirts of Gotham city, he drives off the road that should lead to Wayne Manor and circles the premise, finding the hidden access door in the mouth of a cave. It only opens to members of the Bat family, to a chip in their suits. Luckily, Robin swiped the chip before Slade confiscated his suit. It sits snuggly in the pinky finger of his right glove.

He hides the motorbike and opens the hatch quietly, taking out the sensor with one of Slade's throwing knives before it records Robin's entrance. Even in the dark, he's memorized the location of every sensor and security camera in the entire cave. This is why only he can smoothly complete this mission.

He descends into the cave, keeping to the shadows and the corners that the cameras neglect, and spots the giant bat computer he's supposed to hack into. He takes a single step before his spine tingles and he feels the hairs raise on the back of his neck. Someone lurks in the shadows in front of him.

Robin gets into an offensive position and the figure steps forward, revealing himself to be Batman. The apprentice's eyes widen and he loses some of his conviction just by looking at his old mentor... his father figure. Batman speaks curtly in a low voice, as he always does, but reveals a slight tenderness that very few people ever get to hear.

"Robin... You're back."

Robin hesitates just long enough to hear Slade repeat the familiar line in his ear. "Not a word, Robin. You know what to do."

Robin, however, doesn't move. He lets this play out. Batman continues, his every question sounding more like a demand due to his monotonous voice. "The Teen Titans said you went missing. Why are you here, what—" he suddenly notices Robin's uniform. "What are you wearing."

"Now, Robin." Slade hisses sharply, and Robin throws an S-shaped knife towards Batman. The bat catches it between his fingers and observes it briefly, giving Robin just enough time to run up and attempt a kick. Batman blocks it, but his surprise makes him sloppy and he gets pushed back a few feet.

"RAAA!" Robin bellows, striking multiple blows with speed and skill. Batman frowns and he throws a few small metals beads by Robin's feet. Green smoke is released with great pressure around him. Robin gasps and pulls back, recognizing instantly what it is. Quickly, he throws another knife that misses Batman, and it plummets below the platform they're standing on. It embeds itself into the rough stone wall by the lake. Little does Batman know, he'd stuck the USB drive to it, hiding the evidence of his motive. Robin lands on his feet but sways slightly, and the world starts to blur and double around him.

He tries to form a thought, to move, but it gets increasingly difficult to even breathe. Before he knows it, Batman is by his side, staring down at him. "You're done, Robin."

He hits the ground.

Chapter Text

"Nng... ugh..." Robin groans, getting up and instantly reaching for his stinging head. He tries to make sense of where he is, and finds himself in a glass box by the supercomputer, in the same enormous chamber where he and Batman had fought. After a moment of drowsiness, he suddenly gasps and checks the time. 9:30 pm. He's only been out for an hour. He reaches for his utility belt and feels it gone. He looks around and spots it on the supercomputer's counter.

To his surprise, Batman isn't there to interrogate him, and upon looking at the supercomputer screen he finds out there'd been an attack somewhere in the city and he'd gone to deal with it. Coincidence?

Robin searches for a way to get out of the box and act before Batman returns. He removes his coms and puts them by one of the walls, then steps back and presses a button on his sleeve. He covers his ears and an instant later the coms explode, and there is a small but significant hole in the cell. He crawls through and grabs his utility belt, then uses the grappling hook to swing down and snatch the USB drive. He returns to the supercomputer and plugs it in.

Instantly the screen goes white, there are multiple warning signals of errors, then the screen returns to normal. Robin looks down at the drive. A bar has appeared on its side, tracking the download.

It had been a year since he left in search of leading his own team... Batman called it the 'next step in his training'. He smiles to himself a little... because nothing in the cave changed. With his back to the supercomputer, he can see that the main platform for the Batmobile is surrounded by other platforms, some holding souvenirs like the giant dinosaur, the giant penny or even the giant Joker card. Batman calls them reminders, but really at this point, they're just there to liven up the cave a little.

Suddenly, Robin hears the roar of the Batmobile descending down towards him, and he freezes. What does he do? What can he do? The coms are down, so Slade can't speak to him, but Slade can still hear him through the microphone in his collar. He has to keep Batman from seeing the flash drive until it's done downloading. So he stands and fights.

Before the Batmobile can even properly stop, Robin throws a knife into its windshield. It explodes on impact, sending glass shards everywhere. Batman leaps out of the car through the broken window and throws a Batarang back, which is intercepted by another one of Robin's mid-air. Robin bites his lip. This fight is going nowhere fast. If Batman throws another one of his tranq balls, it's over. Robin has to disappear.

Robin throws smoke bombs and uses the cover to check on the USB. It's almost done. He just needs a little more time. Robin throws knives and keeps moving, never letting Batman know where he is.

"Robin, this isn't you. You know better than this. So tell me why." Batman finally says, on guard and waiting for another attack. They're both as still as the dead, Robin fighting his urge to reply. Batman straightens, guard down, his concern breaking through his mask. "Your coms are down. Talk to me."

You don't understand!

Robin looks over at the USB and finds it finished downloading. He grabs it and pockets it, then climbs up towards the exit.

Batman's yell echoes off the walls. "Robin!"

Robin turns around and aims his laser. He fires and brushes his cheek, close to Batman's left eye. Batman falls back, hand over his wound, and while he's disoriented Robin makes his escape. As he's driving away from the Bat cave, he realizes Batman isn't following him. Robin squeezes the motorbike's handles hard. Did he hurt him worse than he'd thought?

His heart is thumping hard. Is it anger, or adrenaline? He shakes his head. Slade is just messing with him, there's no way he could have... found that a thrill.

Chapter Text

He finally makes it back to Jump city at 10:45 pm. The night is quiet except for his motorbike, and... the sounds of fighting? Two streets down, he can hear Starfire's starblasts. He drives on and picks up the pace, hoping they won't notice him.

It's 11 pm. He makes it back to the base and opens the door. "There, I did it!" Robin snaps, pulling off his helmet. "I did what you – No..."

The entire base was empty. Reduced to a simple warehouse. The five screens of the supercomputer are gone... the gear work no longer moving. He looks around, searching desperately for a sign. "How can this... what's going on?"

Slade can't help but rub it in. The speakers sound around him. "Well done, Robin. I was beginning to worry you weren't going to make it back."

"Slade!" Robin calls out, searching for him.

"Then again... you still might not make it in time. I look forward to seeing how you handle this next challenge."

The speakers shut off, leaving Robin frustrated beyond belief. "Slade!" he yells again, then punches a wall so hard dust shakes off. "Damn it!"

In the darkness of the empty warehouse, he spots a blinking red light on the floor. Robin bends down and finds the source: a tracker on his ankle. Batman must have put it there while he was knocked out. Robin rips it off and smashes it without a second thought, then freezes. Did he just stop his only way of being found and helped by Batman? By instinct? He tries with difficulty to shake it off and think of the task at hand. If he doesn't concentrate... he'll unravel and all will be lost.

11 pm. He's got one hour to find where Slade has moved his headquarters. His first instinct is to check the old warehouse by the docs where Slade set his first trap, but he knows that's wrong. He can't be thinking of where but how he'll find it. He looks up at the security camera blinking silently at him. "You're enjoying this, aren't you."

Then he stops. Slade did mention that he's always monitoring his every move. Robin knows that means the city's security cameras were being hacked into, but that could also mean he can hack the hacker. Track the tracker.

The only supercomputer nearby powerful enough to pull this off is the one at Titan's Tower. Did Slade want this? Did he plan this all along? It wouldn't be surprising.

He gets on his bike and sets out right away. The sounds of battle drift through the night. It won't be long before the Titans finish and go home. He doesn't have much time.

The drive is painfully long, but he makes it to Titan's tower at 11:20 pm. The Titans were dumb enough to keep him on the security system, so he had no problems getting in. Once at the computer, he gets to work, the glow of the screen lighting up the living room.

"Sorry guys, I've got work to do." He says quietly to himself, struggling to hack into the security camera's transmission signal. It's times like these he wishes Cyborg could help him.

No one can.

"There!" He cries five minutes later. Five painful minutes. A map of the city appears on the screen and a red dot emitting signals pulses in the upper right corner. That's just half an hour away, if he moves fast he can—

"Robin...!" a familiar voice gasps from behind him. Robin turns at light speed to see Cyborg standing dumbfounded at the entrance. "You're... back?"

Robin unplugs the computer, hopefully not covering his tracks while still making it convincing. He throws a decoy knife towards his face to distract him, then throws another in its shadow that embeds itself in his leg.

"Gaah!" Cyborg cries, toppling to the side as his leg's controls shut down. Robin throws a smoke bomb and performs his new signature trick, a sharp shot laser strike. Robin aims for Cyborg's human eye, then at the last second strikes the robotic one instead. At least that one can be replaced. Cyborg groans and buckles over, clinging to the broken hole in his face.

Robin uses his heat ray on the main window, shattering it and jumping through. His grappling hook latches onto the edge of the glass and he has enough rope to swing down to the first floor. He lets go and rolls across the pavement to avoid breaking any bones. The apprentice looks to the sky and spots Starfire and Raven, Beast boy joining them as a pterodactyl.

Robin leaps onto his motorbike and drives off at top-speed, leaving black skid marks on the pavement. They catch up quickly, Raven rising from the pavement itself. He can tell they're all exhausted from the battle they'd just fought... without him.

"Azarath metrion—"

"Raven!" Robin cries suddenly. She gasps, her emotions spinning out of control and her spell failing. It had been the first word he'd uttered towards them, normally against Slade's rules, but this time used to his advantage. He throws a ball at her face, which pops into a mess of sticky goo over her mouth. Beast boy reaches him next, turning into a whale above him. Robin gasps and leaps off his motorbike down into the nearest open manhole. There, he runs, the impact of the whale hitting the ground shaking dust from the ceiling. He twists and turns around the many halls to ensure the Titans can't follow his trail, then escapes through another hole a few blocks over and runs on. There are no cars in the street for him to steal now. He spots a couple on another motorbike waiting for the streetlight to turn green. He hesitates at what he's about to do... but does it anyway. He's getting better at disregarding his morals for the sake of saving time. Robin punches the boy down and the girl screams, flying off the bike. He leaps on and drives off. His watch blinks... 11:40 pm. It'll be tight, but if there are no more distractions—

"Robin, please stop!" Starfire cries from above him. He picks up speed, which she adjusts to easily. "Robin, please!"

Robin keeps his mouth shut, further increasing his speed. The turns become three times more dangerous, on one occasion he's forced to use his grappling hook around a street lamp as leverage.

Starfire flies lower. "Robin! Robin, why are you hurting us? Why did you join that monster?"

Robin snaps and yells as loud as his lungs can handle: "SHUT UP!"

Starfire gasps and her shock knocks her out of the air, unable to fly without joy. He speeds off, leaving her in the dust with tears in her eyes.

The drive has no more interruptions. He checks his watch. 11:56. He's going to make it!

He brakes hard and flies off the bike, breaking the lock on the warehouse with one of his last throwing knives. The doors fly open to reveal the exact same thing. The warehouse is empty.

"No! NO!" Robin yells, searching frantically for a sign, for anything.

11:57.

Without enough time to think clearly, Robin throws three S-shaped knives into the ground and leaps back, detonating the bombs implanted within. The scaffolding shakes and dust fills the air, and a hole big enough to fit him appears.

11:58.

Robin leaps down and finds his hunch was right. He's in a newer and more advanced version of Slade's warehouse. The five monitors sit on a wall, a panel of buttons in front of it, and a raised throne of metal stands in the center. The rest of the room is empty, and quiet. Slade's figure mingles with the shadows, for once a reassuring sight. Robin runs up to him and faces him. He puts the USB drive in Slade's hand while frantically saying: "I'm here! I got it in time! Just take it!"

Chapter Text

"Just take it!"

 

Robin steps back and Slade looks down at his closed fist, then chuckles. "Well now, this is certainly unexpected."

"...What?"

Slade shrugs and slides into a stride, circling Robin slowly and looking down at the USB drive. "You did not hesitate one moment before giving me this... Before giving me all of the Batman's personal information."

A shiver runs up Robin's spine, and he watches Slade continue tensely.

"Not only that, but you removed his tracker and attacked your friends the Teen Titans without me having to prompt you. Never have your endorphins and adrenalin been so high. Don't even try to deny that you somehow enjoy this challenge."

Robin wants to fight back... but everything Slade said was true. All he can do is stand there, clench his fists and look down at the cold concrete. Suddenly, Robin feels a hand on his shoulder. He looks up and Slade is by his side. "I'm proud, Robin. Your progress is far faster than I had anticipated. I couldn't ask for a better apprentice."

Robin shrugs him off and stares up in anger, but this anger feels different. It's not exactly hatred for Slade, but for himself. Slade turns halfway towards an elevator behind him, adding "Take a break, Robin. Explore the facilities."

Robin hesitates, staring at the elevator and the hole he'd come out of to reach this place. Why should he go down? Why not try fighting him again, and get the remote out of his hand?

He sighs and walks towards the elevator. That wouldn't fix anything. Slade definitely already has a contingency for that. Robin has to free his friends of the nano-bugs before he can take any obvious action against him. As the elevator doors close and separate him from Slade, Slade stares Robin down and says "I'll see you in the training room in one hour."

The doors seal closed and Robin takes a deep breath, slumping against the wall.

"What's happening to me?" he whispers to himself, and doesn't move until the doors open again.

The hallway is pristine, the ceiling littered with cameras. He reaches a door with the word "Robin" etched carefully into the metal. The door opens automatically upon recognizing the new chip in his suit.

The room is large, and although it only has basic necessities (bed, walk-in closet, desk, and punching bag), its design and use of the space make it beautiful... far more beautiful than his room in Titan's tower. Behind an entire wall of lit-up glass runs a waterfall, and Robin begins to wonder just how long this base has actually existed, and if the other base was set up just to throw Robin and the others off this one's trail.

Robin looks around him as he walks, and finds a tasteful grey box sitting on his desk. His eyes narrow and he lifts off the cover. On a bed of grey silk sits a new mask, with dark grey eye covers instead of his usual white. There are words on the inside of the box's lid:

Heat vision

Night vision

Motion sensor

Flare-proof

Steel mesh

It's all the characteristics of the new mask, all of which could have been very helpful on his last mission.

Robin's eyes widen and all he can do for a minute is stare at it. His mind becomes clouded, and confused, and conflicted...

Slade has gone so far as to give him a new mask.

Chapter Text

Slade watches Robin open the box and freeze at the sight of the mask. Slade's eye narrows and he leans towards the screen. This test will determine just how close Robin has gotten to him, and how far he's gotten in his apprenticeship. Will he comply and wear the mask, or will he openly reject it? Slade will make no effort to encourage him towards it, he will just watch and see.

He watches Robin put the box down... slowly... and sit at his desk, elbows on the table, his fingers knitted together for his chin to rest on. Good. He did not openly reject it.

Slade can tell Robin is conflicted now: his friends no longer trust him, he betrayed his own mentor, and now his new master has offered a truce. With or without Slade's help, Robin is severing all of his ties and will eventually be left with only Slade. He's most likely already realized this.

Robin stays in that position a long time, thinking. Slade smirks, because he knows Robin does this to keep Slade out. He cannot track the mind, after all. He moves on to read some of the files on Robin's flash drive. One of them is labelled "Superman". He opens it and finds several more files, the most interesting one reads "To do".

Inside that file is a list of all the kryptonite of Gotham city and its surrounding cities, which Batman planned on acquiring one way or another to keep from getting stolen. One catches his eye. He turns on a com labelled 'rat' and says: "Tell the H.I.V.E five to rob Jump city's biggest bank tomorrow night, try around 10 pm."

A gargling voice replies "I'll make it a top priority, sir."

He sits back with content. This would make an excellent test for Robin. He'll send him out tomorrow night.

Chapter Text

Robin takes the hour Slade gave him to think. Hard.

How can he shut down the nano bugs?

I could try and access them from Slade's supercomputer, but to do that I'd have to get Slade out of the way, through the firewalls and through every puzzle. The challenge just might be too great.

Would an EMP work? Only temporarily. I'll set that idea aside to possibly compliment another plan.

Better think of the situation more than the solution.

Anything I do will be seen and heard by Slade. I'll constantly be tracked by GPS. How can I do anything when my plans will end before they've even begun?

Robin takes a deep breath to calm himself. One thing at a time.

Cameras. Start with the cameras. They are the ultimate restraint. How can I take out the cameras without Slade getting suspicious?

He can still hear Batman's exasperated voice. "Robin!"

I'm sorry, Bruce. He thinks to himself. Suddenly, he gets excited. His body almost betrays it, but he manages at the last second to stay still. The one place Robin can't be seen is in the...

Bat cave. No one, not even Slade, can hack into the Bat cave's cameras. That's where I'll go. Now to think of how...

I can't just leave whenever I want, but I'll let myself get captured more easily the next time Batman shows up. It's my best chance.

He checks the time. 1 am. Is the hour gone already? He gets up and rushes out of his room to train.

The training goes on until 6 am, then Robin feasts on surprisingly good food. He wonders where Slade got it, and continues to train alone until 9 am. Little does Slade know, every punching bag has his face on it — scratch that, Slade probably does know.

At 9 am, Robin's punches miss their target. The weights he lifts come crashing down on him. He's forced to call it a day. He showers (carefully, because odds are there are cameras in there too), and falls asleep as soon as he hits the pillow.

Chapter Text

He wakes up again around 5 pm. Unlike the Teen Titans, Slade has him sleep during the day and work at night. The only other person he knows who does that is Batman, so aside from him, whenever he runs into trouble he has the advantage of being fully awake while the heroes are begging for sleep.

The minute he puts his coms on, Slade's voice fills his ears. "Robin, come to the main center in five minutes." Robin puts on a scowl, wolfing down a quick breakfast on his way. Slade stands as he always does, with his hands behind his back, and Robin spots a map on the main monitor.

"...What now?" Robin asks none too politely. Slade's eye narrows and he approaches him.

"The Natural History Museum closes at 7 pm. Wait until 8 and steal for me the following objects."

He hands Robin four photos, all containing green gems. Slade then gives him a can of high-density hardening foam.

"...Ha. Short on money, Slade? Should I rob a bank on my way home?"

Slade chuckles. "As a matter of fact, you should. First Jump city's biggest private bank, then Metropolis Central Bank."

All the color leaves Robin's face. "I was just--"

"Kidding? Obviously, Robin. However, I am not. You have until 6 am to strike all three of those locations."

Robin tenses. Slade leans in close. "What's wrong, Robin? Too much of a challenge?"

Robin is trembling with rage. He throws a quick punch without warning, which Slade blocks without even breaking eye contact. Robin feels so ready to take him on again. A battle strategy was already forming in his mind, but to his surprise, Slade backs off.

"I would suggest using the new mask. It could come in handy."

Robin bites his lip and calms down. "I can't."

Slade hesitates for once. "And why is that."

"My current mask can only be taken off with a spray in the Bat Cave. It's a contingency to protect my identity."

Slade didn't expect that, though he should have. Robin's been working for Slade for almost a week and hasn't removed his mask that entire time, even to sleep.

Slade shrugs and walks off, not taking the time to discuss the matter further. Robin thinks hard. The Natural History Museum, the Bank, and then Metropolis. All before 6 am. That leaves him 13 hours, which should be plenty.

All he has to do is continue to work for Slade, and hope Batman can find him. He just has to see him face to face with no cameras to mouth his message: "Titans in danger. Nano-bugs."

...He just has to wait.

The Natural History Museum was an easy grab. No interruptions, just a routine break-in. He's done it dozens of times whenever a villain was up to no good. Who knew he'd be the villain this time? It takes him little under an hour to get there and get what he needs. As instructed, he waited until it was 8 pm before breaking in. Now, at 9 pm, he counts his remaining time. 10 hours. To rob two banks.

Slade is forcing his hand, giving him nothing and expecting Robin to get it himself. He sets out right away on his motorbike... the one he'd stolen from the couple. The previous one he'd promised to return was crushed under the weight of a whale. Hope you had insurance for that...

The first bank is on the other side of town. 45 minute's drive if all goes well. Slade is purposefully giving him distant locations to waste his time, he can tell. Slade hadn't even specified how much money Robin had to steal... that's a bad sign. Robin's smart enough to know that it means Slade doesn't care. Robin is doing this for another reason entirely, and the money's just a bonus. Is this another test?

Aren't they always?

Chapter Text

"Hurry up, gob-munchers! We've got a sweet deal tonight!" Gismo squeals over his shoulder as he flies towards the bank they'd been assigned to rob. Mammoth yaws and stretches. "But Gismo, we usually rob during the day, we're tired!"

Jinx walks past him with a hint of swagger. "The H.I.V.E is watching us, Mammoth. We can't mess this one up. If we pull this off, then they'll have no choice but to let us form our own team."

See-more pulls up behind her, rubbing his head. "Thanks for letting me join you guys tonight, it's cool I get to replace Stone in your team."

Jinx blushes at the memory, then messily recovers her aura of superiority. "Whatever! We just got used to doing four-person battle formations, okay?"

Gismo cuts in, flying between them. "This is it!" He cries, pointing to the tiny air vent that would only fit him. "Once I bypass security, I'll give the signal and you guys will waltz right in through the front door."

He crawls until he's on top of the security room, then jumps down and pulls out a tablet from his backpack to start hacking. His tablet lights up with green Robin faces smirking at him.

"What? But this is..." He starts, surprised. "Security's already been hacked?"

Suddenly a hand closes over his mouth, and he's pulled away from the security camera's view. He turns around and spots Robin staring him down.

"What are you doing here?" They both demand at the same time. Gismo prepares an attack when he spots Robin's new uniform.

"What! But you're-- and he's-- and you--"

"I'm working with Slade now, Gismo." Robin spits, his words laced with venom. Gismo's eyes widen. "No freakin' way!"

"Gismo, what's the hold-up?" Jinx's voice rings into his ear. He pushes his thumb on his com and replies "You guys won't believe this, Robin's --"

Robin instinctively knocks his hand away from his com.

"Hey!" Gismo yells. "What was that for?"

Robin steps back, a hand on his forehead as he tries to wrap his head around this mess. He looks up at the security camera. "Slade's test. He wants me to..."

Gismo crosses his arms as his wings uncross behind his back-pack. He takes to the air.

"Are you a threat or not, Snobin?"

"That's what I'm trying to figure out." Robin mutters.

"Well, stay out of our way while you make up your tiny bird-brain." Gismo replies with a scrunched up face, flying past him. He reaches the entrance and lets his friends in. Jinx looks worried "Gismo, what happened to your coms?"

He grins and point over his shoulder "Bird-boy from the Titans switched sides. He's with Slade now!"

"What?" Jinx cries, voicing everyone's expressions. She folds her arms "Out of all the heroes... I guess it makes kind-of sense. Batman's the darkest hero, and Robin's no ray of sunshine either. Is he here?"

Gismo scrunches up his face again "He said something about a test. I can't tell if he'll stop us or not."

Mammoth punches his palm with his fist, a show of determination.

"He can try, but all by himself he doesn't stand a chance!"

Mammoth barges into the Bank, Gismo freaking out behind him. "Wait! The security guards!"

Mammoth points. They've already all been knocked out. The entire team grins.

They walk deep into the bank, searching for the main safe. To their surprise, it hasn't been opened yet, and Robin is on the other side of the room, typing into one of the computers.

Eyeball gets to work opening the safe by melting a hole big enough for them to walk through. Mammoth pulls the door away and they start packing their bags with cash, giddy with joy.

See-more wanders over to Robin, who has a stern expression on his face, and gives a little cough.

"You know, there's plenty of cash in there for all of us. We wouldn't mind if you took some, since you took out security and the guards for us."

Robin looks up at Eyeball, and surprisingly Eyeball's words calmed him.

"Slade sent me here with no bags, and no getaway car, expecting me to steal. I think he set this up so I'd run into you. He wants to see how I react."

See-more scratches his neck. "And you're reaction is...?"

"Done!" Robin exclaims, and Eyeball whips around the counter to see what was on the computer screen.

Numbers are flying in every direction, from hundreds of bank accounts, draining into the one at the center of the screen. See-more gasps and his eye shines with amazement.

"Oh wow, great thinking!"

Robin stands and shuts off the computer. "I didn't take much. Fifty from each account."

Robin can't help but admire his growing skill at hacking, and no longer having to rely on Cyborg. This could come in handy for future missions. He checks his watch.

11 pm. 7 hours left to steal from the biggest bank of Metropolis. I hope Superman sleeps through it...

"You done for the night?" Eyeball asks, pulling Robin out of his thoughts. He shakes his head.

"No, I..." Robin thinks hard about what to do next. He chooses his words carefully. "Why do you steal?"

See-more gets caught off guard. He thinks for a moment.

"...Well, for lots of reasons."

He glances back at the others, who seem to be doing fine without him. See-more's honesty and newness in the trade allows him to confess to Robin without worry.

"Unlike your fancy tower, we have to pay for ours. All the tech and bills are on us since H.I.V.E headquarters got destroyed by the Titans. Then... to stay in this line of work we have to show H.I.V.E we can make a certain amount... oh! And we have to pay student debts for attending H.I.V.E academy."

Robin is surprised "How much is all that?"

Eyeball sighs. "Bills total to 2 million a month. We're beginners, so one hundred thousand's profit per month to stay an independent team, and all of us owe H.I.V.E 50 million total in school debts."

Chapter Text

Robin's heart was racing the entire time. His hand itched more than once towards his utility belt. They were stealing right in front of him. Practically emptying the main cash reserve, and it had been him who disabled security effectively to make sure the Teen Titans wouldn't see. Robin initially thought of taking them down, until Eyeball told him why they did it. They're trapped, just like him. Did Slade know that too? If he did, he didn't think of how it would affect Robin.

Metropolis is a four-hour drive by car, but he can half that if he takes the train. Unable to pay for a ticket, remove his mask or change into civilian clothes, getting on one will be far from legal. He drives by the rails and waits for one to show up, and it does around 30 minutes in. He drives as fast as the motorbike will go on the uneven rocky terrain, then uses his grappling hook to attach to a side ladder and pull himself on.

He sits on the roof and counts the minutes, the numbing cold and whipping wind letting him distance himself from his problems. While he's there, far from any security camera, he realizes a better plan. He pulls out two throwing knives and carves into one using the other. The sound is drowned out by the wind, and he successfully draws into the S-shaped groove: "Titans have nano-bugs."

Now all he has to do is wait until he's back in Gotham, and is targeted by either Batman or the Titans.

...When he first started out as Robin, Bruce would tell him about his work with Superman to improve Metropolis security. Every little detail flows slowly back into his mind as he concentrates on how to access the bank. It's obvious Slade is testing him on his ability to break into high-security facilities, successfully steal and get away, so he's going to have to remember as much as he can.

Finally, the train pulls into Metropolis at 2am. Robin is a new costumed hero in this city, and can't travel by motorbike like he usually does without attracting attention (namely Superman's). A hoodie and some sweatpants would effectively hide his costume, and a visor will do the trick for his mask. Without delay, he breaks into a sports store and takes what he needs, steals another motorbike, and heads towards the bank.

This bank is far more difficult to access than the one in Jump city. The first step would be to sneak into the police department and rewire the street cameras, then disable the speakers that would receive alarms from the bank.

He achieves this in less than half an hour.

The second step would be to enter the bank without being noticed by the guards. Even air ducts will have cameras, and every aspect of its security can only be accessed on independent servers inside the bank. After some thought, Robin knows what to do.

Chapter Text

The guard faithfully watches his monitor, especially focusing on the street cameras the police department provided. It's 3 am, and he'd slept all throughout the day so he could effectively do his job. And yet... spit dribbles down his chin and the world spins and blurs. He tries to steady himself on his desk but misses and plummets to the ground, thinking his last thought of the night: Shit.

Chapter Text

With the alarm systems and security guards down, no one will be supervising the cameras. He pulls off the air vent grate and throws in a few smoke bombs. The grey smoke mingles with the green mist of the knockout gas he'd thrown in earlier. He pulls out a small grey cylinder that he bites into, feeling instantly the cool oxygen flowing into his lungs. Robin crawls through the air ducts, the smoke concealing him completely, and reaches for the grate that would lead to the main computer room. Slade's voice pierces the silence, reminding him that he is there.

"Your clever trick will not be needed, Robin."

Robin freezes and listens.

"You've by now realized the money does not concern me. This is training, Robin. Sometimes you have to do things the old-fashioned way."

Before Robin can even think of an answer, the static drops and Slade is gone. Robin curses to himself, knowing exactly what he means. Slade wants him to open the main safe.

Robin drops another smoke bomb down the grate into the computer room and jumps down, finally disabling the cameras and any other security he can access. As he expected, the safe door runs on its own electric generator and can't be accessed by normal computers.

He makes his way over to the main safe room and inspects the door. It has enormous iron bars, a keypad, a fingerprint scanner, and a keyhole. There must be an order. Robin checks his watch. It's already 3:20 am. He has to work fast.

In the security guard's monitor room, Robin speeds through a few old tapes, and in under 10 minutes, he finally identifies not only the order but also the code on the keypad.

One at a time, Robin unlocks the safe with surprising ease. Slade had given Robin a can of high-pressure hardening foam, the only tool he provided for this mission, and Robin now understands its purpose is to replace the key. He uses powder and plastic from his utility belt to repeat the fingerprint, types the code, and sprays the foam into the keyhole, giving it a sharp turn.

Suddenly, a loud high-pitched wail blasts through the air, and Robin is practically knocked off his feet. His balance is ruined without hearing, but still, he manages to stumble into the safe and grab one wad of cash as proof. His head is spinning, his vision a confusion of light and movement. The air vent was to his left, he remembers. If he can just get away...

The alarm turns off and Robin tries to gather his composure. One step later he bumps into something—someone, and looks up.

"Gosh, villains are really just getting younger and younger. " A man's voice states above him. Instinctively, Robin whirls around and lands a kick on the man's thigh, finding it no more useful than kicking a rock. He flies back, his vision stable enough to identify the iconic blue and red.

"Let's get you over to the police station, son, your parents must be worried sick."

Robin searches his utility belt under his hoodie for his grappling hook, when his fingers brush his previous spoils of the night from the Natural History Museum. Without Robin realizing, Slade had given him another tool for this mission.

Robin pulls out his stolen jewels and Superman instantly drops to the ground, no longer able to hover. Superman now looks half as bad as Robin feels. He throws a piece of kryptonite to Superman's left, and keeps the others in his hand, as he hoists himself up the air vent and crawls his way out of the bank. As he's driving, Superman flies over him and attempts another move. Robin had prepared a contingency, and with his disorientation finally having worn off, he aims properly and fires his kryptonite-tipped grappling hook up at Superman. It hits him in the chest and Superman plummets, smashing apart the concrete road.

The whole time Robin is thinking hard: If I throw the engraved knife at Superman, would he just melt, dodge, or crush it? Will he make the effort to read it like Batman and the Titans would?

3:45 am. No matter how hard he tries, the distance to the train, and from the train to the base, is over his time limit by half an hour without even considering when the train will leave the station. He's not going to make it in time.

He grits his teeth. What can I do?

Slade's time limits have always been tight, but never has he overshot it. He's been sloppy this time, and won't make that mistake again.

That is... if I ever get another chance to make a mistake. Starfire — all the Titan's lives rely on me right now. I can work through this.

He's left Superman in the dust, and debatably has time to think. If the train is too slow, what is faster? A plane. A civilian plane will be too difficult to reach. Instinctively he thinks of the Bat-plane. He can kill two birds with one stone: get Batman the message and make it back in time. The only way to do this is to get him to come here.

Robin turns his motorbike around and speeds back towards Superman. The caped hero has recovered a little after the attack, but hasn't found the strength to get to his feet. Robin throws two more kryptonite pieces into the hole of broken concrete and gets off his bike. He can feel the static turn on in his coms, which means Slade is considering intervening.

"Not so strong without powers, are you?" Robin calls down to Superman, circling the hole cautiously. Superman looks up none too pleased.

"Batman and I never needed powers to stand and fight, and that's what makes us stronger."

That got the message through. Superman looks perplexed, then understands with fearful awe.

"...Robin? What happened to you?"

Robin puts on the best scowl he can and pulls off his hoodie. "Gotham was getting cramped. I thought I'd trade cities for someone easier to handle."

That's the fourth time Robin has broken the no-voice rule. Almost every time it was for strategy only, to get what he wants and so by extension – to get what Slade wants. Considering his friends are still alive, Slade understands that.

Robin pretends not to see, but catches Superman discretely raising his hand to a com line. He listens hard for what he whispers into it but only catches bits and pieces.

Superman to Batman... Robin is in... kryptonite...

Who knew the man of steel could be so gullible? Robin gives a convincing snigger, now thinking of a way to attract Batman's attention without drawing the whole justice league into this. The Bat-plane is extremely fast, he should be here in ten minutes tops. Robin thinks quickly of a way to attract Batman's attention to him, and upon realizing how, he smirks at his own genius.

"Who are you chatting with, big guy? Can't have that."

He exposes the rest of his kryptonite in his hand as he dashes towards Superman. Before Superman can properly react, slowed by his weakness, Robin smacks his hand away and removes his com, crushing it in his hand.

Except I didn't crush it.

Chapter Text

"I'm already aware. He was here last night." Batman answers.

A gasp flies out of the speakers, and Starfire leans into the camera. "Please, you must understand, this is all our fault! We pushed him away when he was in most need of us. Slade was making Robin very dark... and angry, and instead of helping him we — I – was afraid."

Batman doesn't move, but narrows his eyes in concentration. She continues: "We searched for him for days, and suddenly we find him at the sight of the robbery of the enterprises of Wayne, dressed like the man he most hated, he most rivalled... he most resembled. I don't know what we must do."

He replies with little emotion. "Contact me the next time he makes a move."

She is abruptly and immensely relieved. "Oh, thank you very much!"

Batman aims to turn off the transmission when she slowly adds "Mr. Batman, surely you would know, is it possible for Robin to have become evil?"

Batman ends transmission and pulls off his cowl, exhausted. His hand instinctively reaches for the bandage by his left eye, where the burn of the heat ray still stings. He's at the supercomputer again, his hands knitted together as he thinks hard. Dick had been gone a year, and managed to set up his own team to further his training as Robin. Bruce expected him to come back at some point... either to rejoin his side or ask to prolong his time as a Titan. Never could he have seen this coming.

Was letting Dick go so soon the wrong choice? He's only been Robin for four years, and still has a lot to learn. Bruce stiffens, a terrible knot in his throat. Someone got to him, corrupted him, and he couldn't save him.

Alfred appears by his side with some toast and milk, looking concerned.

"Master Bruce, are you alright?" He asks, then a moment later, "I'm sure there is a good reason for Master Richard to have... um..." He falls silent.

Bruce gets up and heads towards the elevator, leaving Alfred's breakfast behind.

"Done for the night, Sir?"

Bruce rubs his eyes and presses the button. "I'm done being Batman tonight."

Suddenly, the supercomputer flares to life with the message "incoming transmission"

Clark's strained voice fills the cave.

"Superman to Batman: I don't know what happened... between you two, but Robin is in Metropolis. He's robbed the Central Bank— and he's got kryptonite. I thought you might have wanted to keep this quiet, so this is a private transmission. The Justice League doesn't know."

Bruce is back at the computer in an instant, holding down the coms switch. "Understood. On my way, hang in there."

Alfred watches attentively as Bruce grabs his cowl and heads for the plane. Before Bruce is out of earshot he calls to him "Sir, what will you do?"

Bruce answers as the glass top closes over him.

"...I'm bringing my son home."

The plane roars through the cave and takes off, speeding to its max. Robin isn't getting away this time.

On his way, he goes over the evidence and tries to form a case. Robin disappears from the Titans, then shows up as the apprentice of the villain he hated... yet resembled. Just like that he's switched from hero to thief – although Starfire explains Slade has been a constant presence in Robin's life since he first became a Titan. Next Robin is attacking his former teammates and stealing from Bruce's business without explaining himself... or talking at all for that matter. He then breaks into the cave with no evidence of motive and leaves as soon as he can. Now he's in Metropolis, robbing banks and targeting Superman.

Bruce tries to go into greater detail on any changes in Robin's personality or fighting style – the latter in itself is an extension of the former. He's fighting smart and discrete, as he once had by Bruce's side. Starfire told him Robin's fighting had become more and more angered and reckless before he became the apprentice. Sloppy, unrefined.

Something tugs at his mind. If he'd been stealing discretely and efficiently, then why the show of force in Metropolis? Why go from angry, to strategic, to cocky? Bruce forces himself to disregard nothing. Everything matters. Everything is a clue. That was a lesson he'd taught to Robin and one he will not forget.

Before he manages to make sense out of anything, Metropolis's skyline appears before him. He follows Superman's com link to the outskirts of the city—coincidentally an area large enough for the plane to land and take off in.

Bruce pulls on his cowl and exits as Batman, searching for any sign of Clark.

A fog has rolled in, and Batman senses something is off. He realizes too late this is no ordinary fog, and a trap!

Batman had breathed in too much to avoid the symptoms, and starts to black out. Robin flies out of the smoke and attempts a kick, which Batman hastily dodges. Robin tries a few more punches, and lands most of them, before Batman causes him to retreat by throwing Batarangs. Robin retaliates with three of his own, two missing and one embedding itself right next to his hand. Robin then turns and runs for the plane, jumping in and taking off with Batman struggling for consciousness. The smoke had dispersed a lot when Batman landed, so it won't be enough to fully knock him out.

He sinks down to the ground and rests for a bit, trying to recover. He pulls the throwing knife Robin had used out of the wall and compares it to his own Batarang. This one has a round center with two curved blades protruding from the sides.

Bruce looks closer and spots something that changes everything.

Titans have nano-bugs has been carefully etched into the metal.

Batman puts his hand against his forehead, staring in wonder at the message.

Robin... Thank God.

Chapter Text

The sound of cucumbers being chopped fills the kitchen. Old and experienced hands lift each slice delicately and arrange them evenly on a piece of toast with honey. Alfred sighs happily, his heart fluttering.

It will be so nice to have Master Richard home again, even if only temporarily, he thinks to himself happily, picking crumbs off his pressed suit. He knows that cucumber sandwiches were his favorite before he left to gain independence in Jump city. I hope he's been eating well there...

The butler chuckles at himself and his trivial worries, carrying the plate over to the grandfather clock that conceals the long stairway to the cave. There is an elevator now, behind the fireplace, but Alfred wants to take the stairs today. He enjoys the exercise, and that staircase is infused with so many memories of when Master Bruce first started his journey as Batman, almost seven years ago. Alfred smiles, his stomach tight with excitement. He wouldn't change a thing.

Alfred breathes harder than he'd like to admit once he makes it to the bottom of the stairs. His old age is catching up to him, but he'll keep running for years to come, no doubt. He walks towards the main platform, hoping to check Master Bruce's estimated arrival time based on his current location. Before he reaches the computer, however, the roar of the jet's engine shakes his very bones. It's a powerful, almost threatening sound, useful for intimidating both enemies and allies. In this case, it is a very welcome sound. They're back so soon!

The plane slows to a stop, and he can see the young master's head on the pilot's side. How heartwarming it is that Master Bruce is trusting him with the controls so soon. He gingerly carries over the plate, trying to control his racing heart. He must remain composed, dignified, like the perfect butler he is. Despite his professional role in the Wayne household, he can't help but feel like he is greeting family.

As he approaches the Bat-plane, he catches the teenage boy yell something in an argumentative tone.

"I told you, I don't know where it is!"

"W-welcome back, Master Dick!" Alfred stutters, his pre-determined sentence now feeling out of place. They've only just landed, and already he and Master Bruce are arguing. Alfred isn't all that surprised. Master Richard spent a year living with teenagers unsupervised... it's only natural he's become a little rough around the edges. Why, when Alfred was Richard's age—

Alfred makes eye contact with Dick for a brief moment, and the boy's eyes widen to the size of the plate the butler is holding. He ducks, his head disappearing from view.

"Master Dick?" Alfred enquires, reaching up to open the pilot-side door. The door opens, and the butler inspects the scrunched up boy curiously. He finally notices Master Bruce is not in the jet at all.

"Where is Master Bruce?"

"Hh..." Richard wheezes hoarsely, sitting up. "H-he stayed behind... to talk to Superman."

The boy winces, as though he'd suddenly heard a loud noise, and the color drains from his face.

This amazing art is by PixieHobbit! You can find her art here: https://www.deviantart.com/pixiehobbit and her story here! https://archiveofourown.org/works/12336774/chapters/28054656

"I see." The butler sighs, then holds up the plate. "I prepared your favorite snack! Are cucumber sandwiches still your favorite? You'll have to catch me up on all that's been going on once you're settled again, I want to know what you like to eat these days!"

Dick drifts out of the plane like a ghost, appearing to have temporarily lost touch with reality. He must be tired... it is almost 4:30 am, after all. The butler holds the sandwich out to him, and the boy's fingers twitch towards it when he winces again and stops, his arm settling once again by his side. He isn't making eye contact with the old butler, staring straight through his chest mechanically.

"Where is the... mask removal spray?" The boy asks in a hushed voice.

"Oh? Of course, let me retrieve it for you. You stay here and enjoy your breakfast. I swear, you're just as bad as Master Bru..." He slows to a stop. The young master looks as though he's going to be sick.

"Master Dick?" He starts, but his words just seem to be making it worse. "I... I'll be right back. You sit down now, alright?"

Richard doesn't move or speak. His hands are trembling. Alfred forces himself to turn and walk towards the secondary tool section of the Bat-cave. Richard's uneasiness seems to have settled into the old man's bones, and he takes the time to control his breathing. He learned, while serving as medic for the U.S and British army, that an emotion lasts six breaths.

He takes seven breaths.

Chapter Text

One...

"Good afternoon, young lad, it is a pleasure meeting you. My name is Alfred Pennyworth, and I am the butler of Wayne Manor."

Two...

"Master Wayne, I must protest. He is just a child, and shouldn't be drawn into a life of... crime fighting."

Three...

"Happy Birthday, Master Richard. I sewed you a little something I hope you'll like..."

Four...

"I'm glad you're excited. Just stay by Master Bruce's side, and do everything that he says."

Five...

"Going away? Are you sure you're ready?"

Six...

"The house is so quiet now, Master Bruce. It's surprising, I've grown used to his youthful energy filling the halls."

Seven...

"I'm sure there is a good reason for Master Richard to have... um..."

Alfred opens his eyes, his shaky hand reaching for the can of mask removal spray. He hopes that his hands are shaking from the Arthritis, and tries to ignore how unsuccessful the seven breaths were. He turns around and his heart leaps out of his chest.

Master Richard was standing a hair's breath away, staring at the spray can anxiously. Alfred, for a moment, is at a loss for words. His hand moves on its own, and he slowly hands over the can. Richard takes it, and pauses.

"Alfred, go upstairs." He finally says.

Alfred swallows. Something is definitely wrong. The boy must be going through more than what he had initially imagined. Nonetheless, he cannot comply with such an unexpected and suspicious request.

"Master Dick, I must—" he starts, when Richard grimaces, wincing for the third time. He opens his mouth and stops before any words could form. Alfred watches the boy's internal struggle with shocked silence. Sweat tickles his receding hairline.

Suddenly, Richard strikes him in the ribs.

Alfred wheezes, his lungs stunned and unable to take in air. He takes a knee and looks up to see his young master's leg milliseconds away from connecting with his jaw. His military instincts kick in before his mind does, and he catches the foot, hitting it with equal force, then puts his entire weight into pushing it away, sending the young master tumbling to the ground. He sucks in a breath, his trail of thought finally catching up to him, and he hesitates for only a moment as he debates what to do next.

It only takes a moment.

He glances over at Dick's pained expression as the vigilante points a device connected to his wrist straight at Alfred's chest. The boy's whole arm is trembling, disrupting the aim.

Pennyworth reaches out to knock the arm away, but doesn't make it in time.

Robin fires. Alfred is struck in the shoulder by a heat ray, the blast searing his flesh and knocking him off his knees. He grits his teeth, somehow preventing a scream from escaping, and feels his shoulder pop and sizzle. Robin's blurred silhouette shrinks as he retreats, but there is no way for Alfred to fight through the pain and stop him. He hears the rev of a small engine, and the screeching of tyres receding into the distance.

The butler groans and gets to his feet, his legs threatening to give out at any moment. He takes slow laboured steps towards the supercomputer's comlink, his good arm reaching towards the emergency contact switch. The world tips sideways and he hits the ground, everything going numb.

His eyes roll to the back of his head and his body goes slack.

Chapter Text

"What did you make me do? What did you make me do?!" Robin roars, storming towards Slade in their new headquarters.

"What you've always—"

"No!" Robin snaps, "Don't spin this into one of your stupid mind games! I just shot a man at point blank range! You have no idea how I'm feeling!"

Slade's eye narrows, and he remains almost too still. Robin doesn't notice, his blood boiling in his ears. The apprentice reaches his master and stands on his toes to get in his face.

"But I do! I know how I feel!" He spits, then attempts to strike Slade unsuccessfully. "I hate you, and I hate this!"

All Slade does is back away from each attempted hit, keeping his body facing Robin, his full attention on the boy.

"I hate that you turn everything into a game!"

Miss.

"And I hate that you drag everyone I care about into it!"

Miss.

"Alfred is a good man, he was giving us what we wanted! And I shot him!"

Miss. Miss. Miss.

Robin heaves, his mask damp with tears. He presses his hands to his face and backs off, trying not to sniffle.

"What if he—What if I– What if he doesn't make it?!" He gasps, his voice cracking. Robin stands there, shaking, humiliated by his show of weakness. All he can do to fight back the tears is breathe, trying to hide his red face. Slade observes him silently, then walks slowly towards his supercomputer. He sighs.

"What you need now... is distance."

Robin looks up, his expression shifting from exasperation to annoyance. Slade removes a knife from a holster on his side and plays with it between his fingers.

"You've successfully severed ties with all of those nearest to you. Now, it is time for you to sever the link between your new identity... and your past."

"What are you—"

"Five days in the H.I.V.E, Robin." Slade finishes, his gaze shifting from the knife to his apprentice. "You can take that time to calm yourself, and identify future allies for cooperative missions."

Robin takes a step back to balance himself. His shoulders slack. "You can't be serious...?"

"I am. You leave this evening."

Robin takes a deep rattling breath, in a final attempt to compose himself.

Five more days... He thinks to himself reassuringly. Just five more days.

Slade returns the knife to its holster and approaches his apprentice, his body language neutral.

"Now, the kryptonite." He states simply, surprising Robin.

What was I expecting? Another pat on the shoulder?

The thought made him sick, because he didn't have a definitive answer. The boy wonder unclips a pocket in his belt and pulls out the three remaining gems. They dance in Slade's hand as he falls into his usual lecturing stride.

"Your strategy is at its peak, Robin." He praises, pushing a button on his wrist-guard to pull up his new and growing bank account on one of the monitors. "There are still improvements needed, such as acquiring more, more effectively, and better securing the area of the heist. You were caught by surprise a number of times: the H.I.V.E students, the alarm, the Man of Steel, the Batman... even your butler. You need to observe your surroundings, disable everything to avoid any mistakes, and secure a perimeter."

Robin avoids eye contact, his worry for Alfred threatening to surface once more. He tries to stay positive. Batman can save Alfred, as well as his friends, and put an end to Slade once and for all. He clenches his right fist, feeling Superman's com safely stashed in his glove next to his chip to the Bat-cave. Robin smiles, ignoring the rest of his master's lesson, because Slade was right.

His strategy has improved.

Chapter Text

"Looks like your boy got us good, huh?"

Superman chances a smile, reaching down to help Batman get on his feet. The dark knight stays stone-faced, lost in thought. "I guess you trained him too well."

Batman, regretfully leaning on his friend for support, shakes his head. "No such thing." His arm pokes out of the depths of his cape, holding Slade's throwing knife.

"I trained him just enough."

Superman eyes the knife momentarily, his smile wavering. After a pregnant pause, Batman sighs.

"Look closer, Superman."

The iconic hero complies, and his eyes widen. "Oh gosh, wow. So this means everything he's done—"

"Has not been of his free will, yes." Batman concludes, tucking the knife back into his utility belt. "I was a fool."

Superman's shoulders slack, his chest tightening in empathy. "You couldn't have known--"

"I should have known." Batman hisses through his teeth, and Superman has to pull his friend's arm over his shoulder to keep him from falling over. The dark knight works to control his breathing, still recovering from the knockout gas lingering in the air.

Superman's eyebrows furrow. He itches to say something, anything, to ease this tension, but his tongue feels too heavy to move. He takes a deep breath, straightening his posture and puffing out his chest.

"Look on the bright side, Batman." He finally says, a thin layer of confidence hopefully masking his unease. "You know now. You can help him!"

Batman doesn't respond, his gaze distant, but his body noticeably relaxes. Superman smiles in genuine relief. "See, there you go! Let's get you home, so you can get that big brain of yours working!"

Batman flinches as his feet no longer connect with the ground. The man of steel is holding him princess-style: one arm supporting his back, and the other under his legs. Without warning, Superman bends his knees and takes off.

Batman grabs bunches of Superman's shirt fabric instinctively, then forces himself to let go. His words ooze with menace.

"Cl—Superman... what do you think you're doing?"

Superman adjusts his grip, gaining height and speed with every passing second. The wind whipping past their ears causes them to yell at one another.

"Your boy stole your jet, right?! And this is the easiest way for me to carry people while i'm flying! Please bear with it, we'll be out of sight soon! Your 'cool guy' reputation is safe!"

Humiliated groans mingle with the whistling wind. Superman laughs heartily.

The trip lasted twenty minutes. Ask either superhero whether that's long or short, and you won't get the same answer. Their footsteps echo off the cave walls.

"You see? Easy." Superman beams, his long strides matching Batman's perfectly. His darker partner grumbles sourly, unwilling to restart that conversation. His steps faltered for a brief moment, not unnoticed by the man of steel. "Are you alright?"

"It's here."

"What's he—"

"The plane. It's... here."

Batman had already taken off towards it when Superman finally wrapped his head around what he was saying. Batman peers in through the passenger window, but his gaze drifts straight through to the other side, landing on an unexpected shadow on the ground. He motions for Superman to be careful, then circles slowly around the front of the plane.

He chokes on his breath.

Alfred was lying face down on the ground, his limp hand reaching out towards the supercomputer. Batman's fists couldn't decide on clenching or unclenching. His heart twitched. In that instant, Batman knew to harden his heart. He couldn't let his emotions get in the way of what came next.

"Alfred?" Superman exclaimed, briefly pulling Batman out of his headspace. Batman couldn't even open his mouth to answer. He waved his hand at Superman impatiently and rolled his butler over. He had suspected a wound, but not one this... unique. A foot-long burn rippled over Alfred's shoulder like a target, the mark of a heat ray. He makes the connection to Robin almost instantly. His frown somehow burrows deeper down his cheeks, pulling against the healing scab of his own burn. Carefully, he lifts Alfred from the ground and towards a nearby platform dedicated to treating wounds. At first glance, Batman seems composed if not a little rushed, but Superman can take a much closer look than any human. The dark knight's heart is racing against his chest, his breath shallow and uneven. Superman even notices a slight shake in his hands as he works, finally wrapping a sterile cloth around the exposed shoulder.

"He's breathing fine, Batman. He's going to be alright."

Batman doesn't give so much as a nod, though he agrees. They found him early enough, and his condition is stable for now. Alfred can't heal like he used to, but he's still a healthy man. After a long, silent pause, Batman gets up and makes his way to the supercomputer. Superman hovers behind him, his expression furrowing slightly.

"What are you doing?"

A giant T appears on the screen, the light bathing their faces.

"Contacting the Titans."

Chapter Text

"Just remember that you're talkin' to me though, you need to watch the way you talkin' to me, yo. I mean, after all the things that we've been through..."

"Sometimes, it all gets a little too much... but you gotta – realize that soon the fog will clear up!"

"Lithium... I want to stay in love with my sorrow. Oh... but God, I wanna let it go."

"We... are never! Never! Never! Getting back to... oh my."

Starfire puts the microphone down, letting the music continue to play in the background.

"I do not think the karaoke night is working as I had hoped..."

The three other teen titans sitting on the couch gulp, unsure if Taylor Swift's melody in the background is making their silence more awkward or less. Raven opens her mouth as if to say something, then closes it.

"It's okay, Star." Beastboy tries, "I think I feel a little better."

Starfire sighs. "I miss the goofing off. I miss... Robin."

She turns off the music and the three others silently sigh in relief. Beastboy chances a smile "I'm sure he misses us too."

"Really?" Cyborg laughs suddenly, hurt in his voice. He stands. "He misses us? Oh, yeah, I can feel it in my leg." He taps the newly replaced part. Robin's throwing knife had dug into it the day before. When their old friend's trail had gone cold, Starfire, Raven and Beastboy had found him limping, clutching his face, trying to get to his workshop. "Yeah. I can really see he cares." Cyborg finishes, pointing at the broken hole where his mechanical eye used to be. Starfire winces, and Beastboy steps forward plaintively.

"Cy—"

"If you miss him so much, then let's get out there and bring him back."

A restless breeze whistles through the broken window behind him. The last of the sunset's light reaches over the horizon, its rays outlining Cyborg's figure like fingers.

"We can't keep lettin' him get away. This time, no holdin' back."

"We must wait a little longer!" Starfire cries, her voice piercing the atmosphere that was trying to form. She had almost been forgotten in the heat of the moment. Starfire takes a deep shaky breath.

"Please, the Bat man will come, and all will be well! Robin is our friend. He tried to speak with me at the enterprises of Wayne, I know it. Therefore, I must ask..."

They all lean in. Cyborg's shoulders slack and he exhales silently.

"...Would anyone like some popped corn?"

Beastboy and Raven were leaning forward so aggressively that the surprise knocks them off their seats, and they tumble to the floor. Cyborg throws back his head and laughs powerfully. He pats her teasingly on the back with surprising force, but her super strength results in her feeling next to nothing.

"Thanks but no thanks, Starfire. I think I've had enough entertainment for one night."

"Same here." Raven grumbles, sinking into a shadow on the floor and rising back up by the door. "...But, Thanks."

Beastboy gets up and rubs his head. He looks up and sees Starfire alone on the stage, shrinking in on herself. His eyebrows furrow for a moment as he connects the dots.

"Yeah, Star. I want some popcorn. What movie d'ya wanna watch?"