More than skin deep
Egyed arrived early the next morning to patch up Robin. With a wide grin, he casted the two fingers, bandaged cuts and gave Robin a quick smack on the head. "That's for all the trouble you're causing me."
Robin rubbed the aching spot, sending an uneasy smile at the doctor. "I'll take th-that as a com-compliment."
The doctor placed a hand on Robin's forehead, feeling a steady heat rise from it. "Did the drug work well last night?"
Eyes dropped down to the floor. "No."
"How do you feel?"
"A bit nauseous, tired, hot…but the shaking eased up." Robin tapped a finger on the white material on his hand, not really wanting to discuss anything more.
"Listen, we're taking you off the drug."
Robin's eyes snapped back up, shock written over his face. "What! Why?"
Egyed raised an eyebrow, "It's not doing anything anymore." He watched as Robin's face tightened with anger and his uninjured hand curl itself on his knee. "Besides, you want to be off the drug, right?"
"Of course," sneered Robin, his face emanating anger but his eyes flickered with fear.
Egyed caught the flicker but said nothing. "Well, I'm off. Got other patients to tend and torture."
Dusting off his knees, the doc nodded briefly at Curt and Kyle before leaving. In the silence, Robin shifted deeper into the bunk, resting his back against the wall and curling his legs up to his chest.
"Do you see?" whispered Curt, who moved his body into the same position as Robin.
Kyle jumped down. Placing a hand on the cot above Robin, he peered down at the boy. "First. Don't worry about your identity. We don't know who the hell you are and we promised we wouldn't tell anyone you're Robin. Second, ignore Mr. Ghost Man for a second. And third, are you going to be ok when we leave you alone?"
Robin blinked up at Kyle, letting the words click with meaning in his mind. "Thanks." Resting his head on his knees, Robin kicked himself mentally for totally forgetting about how he had removed his mask in the box. But who could blame him? It was a long time ago, a long painful filled period of his life. "Yet, I can't ignore him. Ignoring a man of his caliber is dangerous."
"But he's not real," growled Kyle softly. "You know that, kid."
Robin sent a small, sad smirk at the man. "It doesn't matter."
Time passed with Kyle doing his warm-up routine and Curt playing with his shirt. Robin had yet to move from his position, watching his cellmates from the shadows. Their noises and movement were unsettling but Robin forced himself to learn of their habits. It was time to reconnect with a world beyond the colors and darkness. The marching of boots marked the arrival of the guards. Kyle went to the mines and it seemed Curt had kitchen duty. All they left behind was a familiar warm bowl of mush. When the coast was clear and counting to a million, Robin slid out from the dark confines of the bunk and ate the small meal in silence. When he dropped the spoon in the bowl, Robin gazed at his broken fingers. "They'll be fine." He reassured himself to no one in particular, taking in a deep breath.
Leaning backwards, Robin stretched out his cramped, bruised body into an arc. Pain stabbed at his two fingers, but the boy ignored it. It was only pain and pain was a reality, something he had learned hard in the last session in the box.
"Ok. Let's try this. One, two, three," groaned Robin. Easing his feet into the air, the Boy Wonder balanced himself precariously in a handstand counting seconds into minutes. Shivering, he exhaled a deep breath and licked away the salty water from his face. Arm muscles began to burn and his legs swayed slightly.
He had been in the box too many times. And the red fights only kept his instincts honed, not his training. Add lack of sleep and a good meal and Robin concluded with a grimace that his body was weakening. He could barely do a simple stretch without exertion. A stab to his stomach sent black dots splashing into his vision. Staggering, Robin felt his arms give out and with a painful thump that caused more agony to his bruised body, he collapsed to the ground.
"Like I said before, pathetic."
Robin pushed himself up enough to slide over his knees. Raising his face, Robin shook away the stars and sweat. "Shut up."
Slade did not react to the accusation. The villain merely stood in his corner, which happened to be straight in front of Robin. "Your time in prison has lowered your vocabulary, Robin. I remember there used to be a time when that flippant mouth of yours spilled such corrosive words."
Robin snarled at the man and tried to twist himself away when another stab made him groan. He knew the symptoms by heart now. "Drug."
"Ah yes, that wonderful liquid. Sorry but there will be no more of that," mocked Slade.
Questioning hazy blue eyes stared at the single-eyed man. Slade unfolded his arms and flicked a finger at one of the metal bars, sounding off a low ding. "Did you already forget that the doctor is no longer prescribing you the drug?"
Small, pale lips parted. Robin's gaze dropped to the ground. That was right, Egyed did mention that. Why did he forget? What was wrong with him? The doctor only said that statement a few moments ago, right? "Great, withdrawal."
"Yes," replied Slade. Breaking away from the wall, the phantom walked up to the boy. With a soft kick, he knocked the boy onto his back. Crouching down, Slade placed a hand on the sweaty forehead. "It seems beside memory loss, you are running a fever." Slapping at the boy's forehead as if he was the cause, Slade rose. "I cannot do anything with you in this state."
Robin closed his eyes to dull away the pain that Slade's slap had caused. "Sorry to put a dent in your plans, Slade. But last time I checked, you aren't real thus you don't have any plans."
"I beg to differ." Stepping out of the way, Slade watched with interest as Robin rolled himself back to his feet.
Gripping at the post from Kyle and Curt's cots, Robin staggered upwards. Stretching out, he grabbed a hold of his own post. Taking a small break, Robin pushed away the wave of nausea. A few baby steps later, Robin made it to his cot. Lying down, he was surprised to find himself grateful for the bed. It was heaven compared to the cold floor. "I really shouldn't have done that stretch."
"No, you shouldn't have," reprimanded Slade, who now was sitting on Curt's cot and staring at the boy. "It is strange that the withdrawal is happening this quickly with such extreme side-effects."
Robin smirked, tilting his head at Slade. "Finally, something you don't know."
Slade scoffed earning a chuckle from Robin. "You want to know something else," continued the boy. "I'm kinda liking this withdrawal…not afraid of you."
The villain lowered his head but kept his ice-cold glare on the boy. Standing up, he stepped forward with a chilling declaration. "Not afraid?" he purred.
Robin jerked backwards, slamming hard into the wall. His heart pumped faster and he felt the familiar fear that he had jokily declared was gone come rushing back.
Slade noted the flash of fear and let mirth enter his tone. "Childish boy."
Breaking the gaze, Robin ran a hand through his damp hair. Curling on the cot, he fought to get back the cocky attitude. "You're not real."
"Reality has nothing to do with it, Robin," purred Slade as he stopped in front of the cot. Lowering down, he reached in and gripped onto Robin's raven locks, yanking painfully the head to the side so those hazy blue eyes stared straight into him. "The true question you should be asking yourself is why me?"
Slade leaned into the cot so he was eye to eye with the boy. "Your mind had the ability to choose whomever you wanted to be haunted by, but you chose me." The phantom paused, allowing the voice of the Titans, Fumio, Maura and Egyed to echo in the background: the invisible friends from the dark corners of the box.
Robin squirmed underneath Slade's grip, his hands trying to pry off the grip. "Stop…"
"I won't Robin. You need to learn that I am real, real enough for you. And once you accept that, then you will be ready for my plan. In the meantime, I will provide my answer for the question. I think on some deep level," Slade released his grip on Robin's head and eased back, "You cannot exist without me. You're a lost soul, Robin and only when I'm around do you find a purpose to live. And that is why you chose me to haunt you."
With those parting words, Slade left the shaking superhero lying on his cot. Turning over, Robin let his back face the world and stared at the blank wall. Pressing his hot forehead against the cold rock, he let fatigue zap away his conscience. The last thing he wanted was to ponder over Slade's parting words, but the question still echoed in time with his heart. Why did he choose Slade?
Maura walked down towards Robin's cell, with Ben trailing quietly behind her. Shifting her hold on the warm bowl Robin's lunch of the usual mush, she spotted the boy in questioned lying on his cot. Nodding to Ben, the guard opened the door picking up the discarded bowl off the floor. Straightening her shoulders, the boss forced herself to be in a kind and happy mood. It was show time.
"Robin, it is time for lunch," greeted Maura, which totally sounded out of character for her. Ben seemed to have the same train of thought, for he suddenly partook in a coughing fit. Maura sent a dark glare over her shoulder, silencing the man.
"Robin," purred the woman as she stepped up to the boy's cot.
Robin groaned and pushed himself deeper into the shadows. Frowning, Maura set the bowl to the side and reached in. Gripping the boy's shoulder, she pulled him away from the wall. "Robin, look at me." The stern tone was back in full force. The non-too gentle tone worked, for Robin twisted enough to lie on his back and gaze up at her with dull, hazy eyes.
Reaching out, Maura placed her cool hand against a hot forehead. "You're burning up. More than what's expected."
"Wi-with-withdrawal," stuttered Robin as his body shivered slightly.
"True to an extent, Robin. You were supposed to have a slight fever and nausea, which you were experiencing earlier today. But this is something else." Sliding her arm underneath him, Maura pulled Robin out from underneath the bunk. "Up you go."
Leaning on Maura for support, Robin fought back a wave of white pain. "Wh-where ar-"
"Don't need to worry your pretty little head ," grinned Maura, pulling Robin closer to her. Even threw the uniform, she could feel the heat radiating off of him. "A walk will do you good."
Knowing that he wasn't in a condition to decline, Robin allowed himself to be walked out of the cell. The walk upwards was tedious and Robin needed a break to lean against the bars of another cell to catch his breath. Ben stood quietly behind him, watching the boy like a hawk. Maura, on the other hand, stared at him like he was a lab rat. When a few sprinkles of strength entered him, Robin nodded and they were off again. They passed the medical cell, which left Robin puzzling over where they were going. He also noticed that Egyed was not present.
Finally, they reached a locked metal door. Pulling out her key, Maura spared a glance at the guard behind them. "Ben, go find Egyed and tell him to come here."
Ben gave a curt nod and bounded back down the hall. The door creaked opened and Maura led Robin inside. With a slam from her foot to close the door, Maura pulled the boy towards her bed. Robin sighed with relief as his body settled down on the worn-out mattress with a dull, dark blue blanket on it. Glancing around, he took in the contents of the small room. A shower, a sink even a personal toilet. The walls were bare except for a cracked mirror. Besides the bed, there was a chair, a desk, typewriter and another chair. A coat/uniform rack was propped up against a corner. Lastly there was a small dresser in which Maura opened a draw and pulled out a small white towel.
Curiosity gave Robin the edge to stay awake and watch Maura as she walked over to the sink. Even Slade seemed intrigued at the woman's actions, making himself glide over to the sink. Hands folded behind his back, Slade watched as Maura soaked the towel in water before wringing it out. With a quick snap of her wrist, the towel cracked in the air. Robin jumped backwards at the sound causing Slade to chuckle.
"Jumpy are we, Robin?"
Robin frowned and narrowed his eyes. "Am not?" he snapped back before biting back a groan of pain, the nausea coming back.
"Am not Robin?" questioned Maura as she lowered herself on the bed next to Robin. "I'm guessing that that statement was directed at Slade."
"You tend to talk," commented Maura as she placed the wet towel on Robin's forehead. "Now lie down."
Robin did just that, smiling as his head hit a small pillow. Blue eyes studied Maura's neutral face as she padded the towel on his forehead.
"This is your room isn't it?" whispered Robin.
Maura sent him a cold smile, "Even when sick, you're still perceptive."
Robin took that as a yes and turned his eyes into the center of the room, where Slade was standing. From the straight, military pose Robin knew that Slade wanted to see how this conversation would turn out in the end.
"Why are you…helping…me?"
Maura laughed and got up to rinse out the cloth again. "I'll answer yours if you answer mine."
Robin scowled and was about to make a snide comment when that welcoming cold cloth came into contact with his skin again. "I should have known you were going to say that."
"I'm glad to see we are on the right page. So, here is my question. Why is the dust in your system?"
Silence engulfed the two people. Shock was Robin's first response. He had expected the question to be why he was a hero. Stunted for a few seconds, Robin kicked his brain into trying to find an appropriate way to this new answer. It didn't help that Slade had narrowed his eye on Maura, disapproval radiating off of the man.
"Be careful how you respond, Robin. She knows how to choose her words," warned Slade.
"What?" croaked Robin, not caring if Maura sat back and patiently wait for him to finish the conversation with Slade. She must have been used to talking with insane people.
Slade tilted his head towards the woman. "She said why, not how, when or where. In asking why, she wishes to know the whole truth of the situation. Which brings to mind-"
"How she knows about it in the first place," finished Robin as he stared up at Maura with a pair of new eyes. He never told the Titans, but he had always wondered where the dust came from. Not to mention that out of all the times he picked up the mask, why in that one night did he lose his mind?
Maura smirked, her gray eyes shining with cold glee. "I suggest that in the future, if you wish to talk to Slade, you do it mentally. Unless of course Robin, you wish for other people to pick up half your conversation."
Robin pulled himself upwards, feeling a bit better from the cool down. "How do you know about the dust?"
"A question for a question, you should have been a politician." Standing up, Maura dropped the towel in the sink. "Fine I will answer that question, if you answer mine. I know about the dust because Eyged detected it in your bloodstream and brain scan."
Maura turned and leaned on the metal, "We created it."
Robin's breath hitched just as the door opened and Egyed stepped in. "Oh, well this is new."
"Robin's withdrawal is more serious than expected, so I thought it would be better if I brought him, where he will be under close supervision."
"Good, good. What are his symptoms?"
"They're the same, but his fever is too high and he was sweating and shaking."
"Sounds more like a flu, which wouldn't be surprising after his quick dunk in the lake.''
Robin was only half-listening as the two exchanged words. Did Maura just say that they created the dust? Was this prison where the dust had come from? He had always thought on some level, that the dust was something Slade had created as the last victory against Robin. But, then again a part of Robin—a part that thought like a criminal—knew that the dust wasn't Slade's style. And now that part of him was laughing in joy at being right all along. Robin frowned and stared hard into the blanket. Looking back now at Egyed's drugs, Fumio's insight into the mind, Maura's drive and the colors, the fact that these people created the dust no longer seemed so absurd.
"Robin, pay attention!" hissed Slade into Robin's ear. Robin yelped out of his shock earning strange glances from the other two occupants in the room.
Eyged sighed, "You told him."
"I told him, we created the dust Eyged. Now, Robin. You tell us why it is in your system."
Robin fidgeted under the pressure, but his brain couldn't think of anyway to get out of the situation. It was going to be humiliating and the guilt of threatening his friends burst the dam. "I told the truth that Slade had forced me to be his apprentice. After I broken free, he took on another. Her name was Terra but in the end, she sacrificed herself to kill him. The Titans thought he had died in the river of lava, but I knew better."
In his peripheral vision, Robin watched Slade walk between Maura and Egyed sizing them up for future reference. Swallowing, he continued. "Every night, I would search the city for any signs. And after I came home, I would open my box and study the things he left behind. I inhaled dust numerous times before, but nothing happened till a year or so ago. All of a sudden I saw Slade everywhere, but the Titans didn't believe me. In one night, he beat me up pretty bad. If it wasn't for the Titans telling me that he wasn't real, I would have given in…"
Robin paused, remembering how he begged the man to stop. Slade seemed to sense the memory and shot a pleased look at the boy. Robin curled into himself, "Cyborg was able to make the dust inactive. He said my system was clean…"
"Well, he lied," stated Egyed. "The dust was shut down, but your body wasn't clean. In actuality, some of the dust has become permanently lodged in your body, specifically the brain. Some point through your time spent here, your brain couldn't handle the stress and the dust reactivated itself."
"Well can't you shut it off?" yelled Robin unintentionally. Maura saw fear flash on his face. It was clear that the boy didn't want to relieve the event.
"Just so happens," Egyed pulled out a syringe filled with a blue liquid from his coat. "This is our old inhibitor. It will permanently destroy the dust reagent in your body. But, there is nothing I can do about the dust in your brain, unless of course you want brain damage."
"No," whispered Robin, "Guess I'm stuck with an imaginary Slade in my head forever."
"Yep, congratulations," Egyed's pleased tone earned a dark look from Maura and Robin. "Hey, don't worry. We've got experience in this area to help you handle the man."
Robin locked away that tad bit of information, "So, why did it happen in one night?"
Maura and Eyged exchanged a quick look. Maura stepped forward and sat on the bed. "In the past, the progress of the dust's manifestation was slow and took weeks. First there was paranoia and then glimpses before physical side-effects occurred. Usually, the prisoners saw loved ones. You see, the purpose of the dust was to push someone beyond their mental and physical limits so they would break and spill all the information we wanted. The later the stages, the more extreme measures the dust's form would take."
"But why loved ones?" questioned Robin, intrigued at the thought process of the dust and growing oblivious to the pains of the withdrawal.
"It is loved ones with who people open up the most too," responded Maura in a tone that indicated her disappointment that Robin did not know the answer. Robin remembered Slade's question and shivered inside.
The woman didn't pause. "When the goal was achieved we would deactivate the dust and that was it. But around a year ago, a guard stole a sample of the dust and sold it to Slade. We tried to track down the man but it was futile. I then decided to activate the dust to its' full extent. When the dust's goal is achieved and has not been deactivated it continues to plague its' host to the point where the body can't handle it anymore. Everyone died and the dust rendered useless."
Robin picked up on the slightly lowered tone and played off of it, "Are you saying-"
"Robin, the moment you would have given in…" Maura licked her lips slightly, revealing a tiny hint of the turmoil of how to word the statement. It never had been hard before, but then again…Gazing into those soulful eyes, she never had to tell a child this. "You are suppose to be dead, Robin. By some miracle you are alive and it might be because of the dust's mutation."
Egyed clapped his hands, "And that is enough for today. Before we go trampling down that path, you need to get through the withdrawal first." Stepping forward, the doctor picked up Robin's arm and injected the blue liquid. "At least one worry is down."
Robin felt himself being lowered, but he didn't care. He was supposed to be dead. Dead. If he had given into Slade's beatings and begged some more, he wouldn't be here but six feet below the ground. The nausea and sweat rumbled back into his head. Robin had brushed death numerous times before. But this was more like getting a peck on the cheek by the Grim Reaper.
Slade remained quiet, simply standing in the shadows. His single eye drilled hard at Maura and Egyed. The rage, no Robin thought, it was more like contempt filled the room. Yet, none felt it except himself. Blinking his eyes slowly, Robin heard Egyed mutter something about sleeping and resting. Yet, nothing could break the boy's attention away from the seething Slade. The man knew the truth now of his existence and the fact that he could have been exterminated with a single command did not bode well with a criminal who sought total control.
Robin laughed for the first time in days, startling Maura and Egyed. Closing his eyes, Robin shifted deeper into the mattress. "Oh, the irony," mused the Boy Wonder as he drifted into slumber.