One of Us?
"The leaves…the leaves…they-they fell…fell…they fell…the leaves fell…" The words were like a broken record, causing Slade to pause in his scolding of the hero.
Since the moment he saw the lost hero stare out across the ocean as if he never saw one before, Slade knew that the child wasn't firing on all thrusters. It was only confirmed when the boy noticed him and talked to him as if they were friends. The criminal had expected cursing, yelling and shock, not the comfortable, friendly taunt.
Then there was the scuffle with the guard. Radioing the Titans that he had someone, Slade watched in fascination as Robin fought with a ferocity that sprang forth from those punches. He could even recall the loud snapping of ribs before the scream. It wasn't too long before the chase ensued and Slade was surprised at how at ease Robin was of having his arch nemesis run next to him. When a bullet whizzed by his face, Slade had had enough. Turning, he pulled out his own bomb and threw it right in front of the guards.
The explosion sent a cloud of sand in the air. A smirk graced his features when he heard the moans of pain emitting from their pursuers. With no one on their tail, Slade continued to jog quietly behind Robin till the boy had smashed his foot and then sprained his ankle. His arms were on automatic pilot as they caught the boy.
Silence had filled the air as Robin caught his breath. It wasn't until the small hero gazed up at Slade, that the villain concluded that Robin had thought he was someone else. The fear and the quick, strong attack proved his point.
Now standing a few feet away, Slade narrowed his eye at the rambling boy. What he had hypothesis had come true. Robin was different. But not the harden difference Slade was expecting. No, the Boy Wonder was insane. Which was a pity considering he had a side-plan of stealing the boy from under the Titans' noses.
The said boy was still trembling in his spot. Bare feet were scratched and caked in dirt. The tattered, grimy clothes of what appeared to be a gray uniform hung like rags on the boy's thin frame. His black hair was a bit longer and clung in patches of sweat and mud with a few leaves and sticks jutting out. The rest of his body was no better. The arms were littered with scratches. And his hands were by far the worst. Holes peppered his palms and were newly open, causing fresh bright red blood to stain the sand. However, his face held the most emotion. His crumpled mask was tilted slightly to the side, but not enough to reveal its' most precious secret. His right eye was sporting a stark black eye against his pale, scratched taunt face. Red lips, the bottom cracked open, continue to ramble out illogical words.
"Th-the leaves fell…you're…you're r-real," bleeding hands began to rub up and down his arms. Robin began to sink down and curl in on himself. "You're…real…real…cause the…l-leaves f-fell."
Slade scoffed and folded his arms, "Yes, I am real Robin."
Masked eyes gazed shyly up at him, a distant look falling on his face. "Slade." But no one answered his call.
Blinking, Robin continued to tremble. He wasn't sure how to deal with this Slade…the real Slade. The hero was about to open his lips to ask what he was doing out here when a flash of red invaded his peripheral vision. Spinning around, he scrambled away on his feet and arms from the flying figure of red, green eyes beaming with joy.
Self-ridicule boiled up in him. He should have known that this was some sick joke from Egyed. The redhead, maniac green-eyed doctor liked to get his sick thrills at scaring him, particularly when it involved the dust.
But a young, feminine voice shot that argument down the drain. Landing softly on the sand, a young woman with a purple top and skirt held out her tanned hands. The long red hair blew softly behind her as green-eyes gazed down at him with pure concern.
"Robin," whispered Starfire.
Robin just stared at the girl, his mouth forgetting how to talk. Slade sighed and walked up to alien princess. "He's…not himself at the moment."
Starfire glanced at Slade before focusing back on Robin. Taking a step forward, she reached out even further. "It is I, Starfire."
The small exchange between the villain and the heroine erupted a wave of anger in him. Shoulders tensing up, he snarled at the pair. "You're not real! None of you are real! Starfire would never work for Slade!"
"No!" Robin tried to lunge out but he blacked out briefly, falling face first into the dirt.
When he came to, Starfire was kneeling next to him. Her flower perfume washed over him and Robin wanted to believe that she was real. That she had not stood next to Slade. Speaking of which, Robin propped himself up onto his elbows, shaking sand out of his hair. Gazing around, he locked his eyes on the criminal who stood a few inches away.
Eyes lowering themselves, he took in the dark stain of Slade's shadow on the ground. His Slade never had one, he mused softly.
"Robin, you must rest," noted Starfire, her small hands touching his arm gently as if they were afraid he would disappear.
Starfire shot her head towards the area behind Robin. "Beastboy, Raven, Cyborg, you must all come quickly. We have found Robin!"
The news spurred the rest of the Titans to run even faster, arriving to the small trio in less than a minute. Cyborg couldn't believe their luck, his red eye glowing more brightly. Sitting there in the sand was Robin, their leader. Despite looking battered, Beastboy yelped with joy and was about to tackle Robin, when Slade's voiced snapped out at him.
The Titans halted a few feet away. Glaring at Slade, Beastboy folded his arms in front of his chest. Just like Slade to ruin the fun.
What none realized was how Robin was scurrying quietly away from them. His breaths were ragged and coming in short gasps. Disbelief was etched on his sweating face. It wasn't real. The Titans, his friends wouldn't listen to Slade like that. They wouldn't be standing next to him at all.
"No, no, no," murmured Robin as he rose unsteadily on his feet.
Starfire reached out to him, "Robin, you must be-"
"No!" he screamed. Fingers began to play with themselves as he tried to blink away the image of the Titans and Slade together. "No, no, no!"
Beast boy's ears dropped at the tone, "Robin, take it easy."
"Yeah, man. It's us, your friends," reassured Cyborg.
"No," Robin squeezed his eyes shut, swaying slightly. He knew that he wouldn't be able to run, not anymore. He was losing too much blood and the pain was finally taking over. Heart hammering against his chest, Robin dug his fingers into his bleeding palms. "It's not true..."
Raven narrowed eyes and reached out to probe Robin's mind. His mind was a whirlwind of shock and fatigue. All she could see were flashes of jungle and their faces. Taking a deep breath, she dug a little deeper and found the small bond she and Robin shared buried underneath a pile of rocks. "Ro-"
The witch never finished when something dark grabbed her from behind and threw her out of Robin's mind. Staggering backwards, Raven grabbed her head.
"Rae!" Cyborg reached out to steady the dark-cloaked heroine. "You ok?"
Shaking her head, Raven lowered her hand and stared at Robin. "His mind is not stable…something pushed me out…"
The Titans and Slade focused on Robin. The boy had stopped swaying and seemed to be rigid. His breathing had eased and his fingers had slowly uncurled themselves. The tilt of his head and the slanting of eyes made it appear as if he was listening to something they could not hear.
And he was. Slade—his Slade—had wrapped his arms around Robin's shaking form to calm the boy. Lowering his head, Slade gazed out onto the Titans before focusing on his alter self.
"Easy Robin, breathe."
"They're not real," whispered Robin's tired mind.
Slade's eye looked at Robin with what appeared to be pity. "They are real, Robin." He felt the boy tense. "Don't worry about it right now. You have to rest. We're free, Robin. And it's all thanks to you." Robin relaxed in his grip and Slade summoned up the black box. It would calm the boy down and block any more intrusions from Raven. If Robin noticed the walls, he did not react. "We're going home."
Starfire yelled out his name but thanks to Raven's quick magic, a black hand caught the unconscious Robin before he collapsed onto the ground, preventing any more injuries. Cyborg ran forward and collected his best friend in his massive robotic arms.
A frown appeared on his face. "He's too light."
The rest of the Titans gathered around the robot, taking in their lost leader. Cyborg was right. Robin had lost precious weight. The startling black eye made them take notice of all the other injures and the gunshot wound. They realized that whatever Robin went through, it had not been easy. The lost, disbelieving look Robin had shot each of them with only reminded that deeper wounds lay beyond skin deep.
Cradling the small, fragile hero, Cyborg was afraid to move. Never before had he realized to the extent how vulnerable…how human their leader was.
"I suggest we return to the boat before anyone finds us here," ordered Slade.
"Yeah, we need to treat his wounds immediately," complied Cyborg.
With that said, the Titans and Slade ran back to their boat. They had only made landfall this morning. Deciding it would be safer to dock on the opposite end of where the other boat docked, the Titans began to search the beach before heading inwards. Cyborg, Starfire, Raven and Beastboy would have headed in, if it had not been for Slade radioing to them that he had found someone. Never in a million years would they have thought that they would find Robin so quickly. But the price came in the form of the injured leader.
Clambering up the plank, Cyborg rushed down below into the captain's quarters, Raven right behind him. Starfire and Beast Boy stayed above to keep an eye out on any pursuers while Slade drove the boat out to sea. In the quarters, Cyborg pulled out the first aid kit as Raven worked her magic to cleanse the wound.
Taking a deep breath, she pried the bullet out of Robin's shoulder. A groan spilt forth from the unconscious boy. Cyborg moved in and with a washcloth cleaned the skin before he began to sew in the stitches.
Raven moved on and began to remove the tattered clothes, "He's in bad shape."
"Robin just needs a good washing, some new clothes, a good night's sleep and some food," replied Cyborg. "He's be back to his bossy self in no time."
Raven smiled softly. She wanted to believe the robotic man, but what she had felt in Robin's mind still caused doubt to grow. A soft knock on the door signaled the arrival of Starfire. Leaning into the room, the alien princess was worried sick for Robin.
"Is there anything I can do?"
"You can get a wash bin of water and the extra packet of clothes," answered Raven.
Starfire nodded and closed the door quietly behind her, leaving the two older Titans to tend to their leader.
A soft bunk, a warm blanket wrapped over him and the quietness made Robin smile softly. Rubbing his head deeper into the pillow, his tired mind laid down the walls of the box quietly on the ground as not to disturb Slade. Walking towards consciousness, he waited to hear the faint typing or the smooth humming of an unknown song. Yet, nothing greeted his ears.
His closed eyes squeezed a bit in response to a flash of worry. Where was Maura? She usually was here whenever he woke up. Scooting upwards, his battered body screamed in pain. Halting immediately, Robin's eyes snapped open. At least one did, his right eye barely cracked open. His hand began to rise when an even more burning white pain blossomed from his shoulder.
Moaning, Robin squeezed his eyes shut and titled his head away from his shoulder. Memories of the past day flashed like a fast-forwarded movie. Right, he was shot and then some people rescued him.
"B-boss," cracked Robin's voice. Nothing but the dull thrumming of an engine responded.
"M-" Just as he was about to call out Maura's name, Robin remembered his promise and quickly shut his mouth.
Sighing, Robin let the rocking of the room wash away the pain. After a few minutes, he took a deep breath and began to kick off the blanket. Once freed, he slide his feet down onto the ground and shifted his body against the wall. Pushing against it, Robin slowly sat upright on the small bed.
Pausing, the hero took in deep breaths to ease his thundering heart. With his good hand, Robin wiped a few beads of sweat away from his forehead. Lowering the hand, Robin took in the bandaged hands, the wrapped shoulder and the cushioned ankle. The baggy black sweat pants and a large oversized white tee-shirt were the only clothes he wore. Gazing around the room, he tried to find his old clothes but nothing greeted him except for a pile of cloths on the farthest dresser.
Rising slowly to balance himself on the heel of his sprained ankle, Robin hobbled over to the dresser, with his injured arm hugged close to his chest. Reaching out with his good arm, Robin was about to touch the clothes when his hand froze a few inches above the black cap. Peeking underneath, splashes of yellow, green and red glowed at him with fierce intensity. Limping carefully away as if the uniform was a rattlesnake, Robin turned and made his way to the small round window. Pulling up a chair, he sat down gently and stared out into the wide blue ocean.
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
Slade leaned against the wall behind Robin and stared outside. Robin eased back into the chair, "You put me back in the box."
"It was the only way to prevent you from waking up when Cyborg and Raven were treating you." Slade's voice held a monotonous tone, which surprised Robin considering their situation.
Nibbling on the corner of his lip, Robin steadied his gaze, "This is going to be strange."
Slade chuckled, "Indeed."
Staring into the crashing waves, the sunlight reflecting off the sparkling blue water, Robin felt his eyes begin to droop. "Slade…"
"I'm so getting back on you for the black eye," murmured Robin's sleepy mind
Slade rested his hand on the boy's shoulder. He didn't know what had happened. He was still irked that Robin was gaining control over him. But, on some level, at some point of time, he had begun to look out for the boy. Maybe it was instinct, or maybe he had realized fully that he was truly a figment of the boy's imagination created from the dust. Whichever one it was, Slade felt both disgusted and comforted that Robin and him were slowly getting along.
Backing off, he whispered, "Heal and then we'll tackle this new issue."
Robin nodded and was on the verge of jumping off the cliff into sweet bliss when the door creaked opened. In a blink of an eye, Robin's body straightened up, his body tense and his eyes trained at the person entering the room.
Beastboy laughed as he rubbed the back of his head. The intense stare Robin was giving him was starting to make the youngest Titan uneasy.
"So…" The changeling eyed Robin's meager outfit. "We figured it would be best for you to sleep in some clothes we found in the captain's quarters. But, since you're up." Grabbing the outfit from the dresser, Beast boy made his way to Robin, "You can change into your uniform." Thrusting his arms out, the changeling sent his widest smile.
Flinching from the uniform being close, Robin couldn't help but start to hug the wall. He didn't see Beastboy anymore standing in front of him. Instead the eyes were shining with the craziness of Curt and the smile blending the madness with that of the glee of Egyed's scariest grins.
Beastboy's concerned voice pulled Robin out of his memories. Eyes fell down to the ground. "Sorry, BB, but I'm not up to changing into those colors…just yet," he quickly added.
"No problem," laying the clothes on the desk, Beastboy turned towards the door. "It's dinner time actually, so if you're hungry..."
Robin's stomach grumbled sending a blush flying across the Boy Wonder's cheeks. Beastboy laughed. "Guess that's a yes." Holding out a hand, he sent a toothy grin, "Come on."
Reaching out, Robin balanced himself on the small boy but was surprised that they were almost the same height now. Beastboy draped an arm across his waist. "Off we go! And be grateful, Star ain't cookin. Cyborg actually found some decent micro-wavable food on board. Chef Boyadee and other weird nasty stuff that NASA probably invented."
Robin quietly listened to Beastboy's rambling. He was more concerned of not stepping fully on his foot as they climbed up the small set of stairs. When they broke the top, a breeze of fresh air assaulted Robin. The injured hero couldn't help but laugh causing Beastboy to send him a strange look.
Robin smiled at his friend, "It's fresh air."
"Uh, huh." Beastboy didn't know what to make of that sentence. Except that it was strange to hear Robin laugh and say something that vague. Eying his friend quickly, Beastboy decided that Robin must be suffering from some alien mind control or had regressed to the age of five. Guiding Robin, Beastboy made his way to the small dining area where the other Titans sat. Slade was sitting a bit off from the table, nursing a glass of water.
Starfire's head shot up, her face beaming with joy. "Robin! You are awake, I am so glad!"
Cyborg sent a grin as he set down bowls of the noodles and meat, "I'm surprised you're even up. You've only been out for a couple hours. We're about half way back to the mainland."
Sitting carefully on the table, Robin sat across from Starfire and Beastboy leapt next to him. Sitting next to Starfire, Raven merely kept a steady gaze on him.
"You shouldn't be out of bed," whispered the Goth.
Robin mustered up a smile. "Thought you knew me better Rae."
Cyborg sat down next to Raven at the head of the small table. "Well, dig in everyone."
Robin stared hard at the bowl in front of him. The slight smell of cooked noodles and beef was making his mouth begin to water. Reaching out with a trembling hand, he stopped as he noticed that there was a fork and knife on either side of the spoon. His lips curled up into a smirk.
Grabbing the spoon, Robin let the metal hover over the food. No more fruit or veggie mush after this. No more sulfur tasting water. It was back to actual food from here on out till he died.
Beastboy clapped his hands and swallowed a spoonful of noodles before spitting it out all over table. "This stuff is nasty!"
Turning, Beastboy pointed angrily at Cyborg, "You can't even cook a microwave dinner right!"
But neither Cyborg nor the others were paying attention. They all had their eyes fixed on Robin. Sighing, Beastboy eyed his neighbor and felt his jaw drop open. Robin was practically inhaling the food. It didn't seem to matter to him that the can was months old or that it was made from nasty water or even that it was muke warm.
Robin finished the bowl in less than five minutes. The burst of rubber texture and the crumbling pieces of beef was intoxicating. It was meat! It was solid food in general! Scrapping the edge of the bowl with the spoon, Robin cleaned his bowl. As if that wasn't enough, he set the spoon on the table and picked up the bowl. He was about to lick the bowl when he heard Cyborg cough.
Lowering the bowl down, Robin noticed that his friends were staring at him with wide-eyes. Robin laughed nervously. "I was hungry."
Cyborg shook his head as he held out his hand. "Well, man, you don't have to clean the bowl so spotless. You can have seconds, if you want."
"Really?" Robin blinked. He could have more? Usually in the prison, they were only one bowl and that was it. "But, you're not in prison anymore. You're free." The concept was still new as Robin held out his bowl, embarrassed that he forgot the notion of seconds. "Yes, please."
Five bowls later, pretty much Robin finished the small pot plus Beastboy and Raven's bowl as well, the hero gave one final lick at his spoon. With a smack, Robin was about to turn and brag at Slade when he halted.
This wasn't his Slade. The criminal was real and probably the same cold-hearted domineering villain he last left behind down in Hell.
"Was there something you wanted Robin?" Slade finally spoke to the hero. Throughout the entire dinner, the criminal watched the boy with an intensity that would have rivaled the Bat glare. He knew that Robin was astonished with the food and the utensils. And then the notion of seconds proved that the boy had gotten accustomed to the prison lifestyle. A lifestyle that would be hard to break, but over time normalcy would return.
But underneath it all, there was a paranoia radiating off of Robin. His stiff posture, the shifting of feet just in case he might have to get up and lastly how his eyes were locked down to the bowl. Robin was barely comfortable around his friends and did not say a word while he ate, unless someone addressed him specifically.
Robin gazed up at Slade's mask, staring hard into his eye. This was new for Slade, in that the boy only did such a move when he was extremely angry at him. But the only emotion coming from those masked eyes was an apologetic glance. "Just…just wanted to see if you were still there."
"Well it is hard to leave a boat in the middle of the ocean."
Robin chuckled softly, "True."
By then the Titans were gawking at Robin. This figure was truly an imposter. Their Robin wouldn't have eaten so much food and he definitely wouldn't be having a regular conversation or laugh with Slade.
Beastboy jumped back, thrusting out a fist, "Alright, what have you done to Robin?"
Robin shifted and sent a sad look up at the changeling.
Starfire nodded, "Yes. We would like to know what is this change in attitude?"
Appearing next to Robin, she began to poke and prod. "Are you an android perhaps? Or a long, lost twin?"
Pulling himself away, Robin frowned yet did not look at Star. Instead, he locked stares with Raven. "How long was I gone?"
Cyborg sighed, "I don't think-"
"I don't care what you think," snapped Robin suddenly. "If you want to know why there is a change in attitude, I suggest you answer the question."
Starfire and Beastboy backed away from Robin, just noticing the tense posture. Slade narrowed his eye in interest.
Raven closed her eyes. Sagging her shoulders, the witch replied, "Three and a half months. That is how long you have been missing."
Robin nodded, "Thanks. And that is why there's a sudden change in attitude."
"Huh?" escaped from everyone's mouth.
Robin twirled around on the bench to leave. Rising wobbly on his feet, Robin bit back a groan as pain shot forth from his ankle and shoulder. "Did you truly think that after three and a half months in a prison, I wouldn't change?"
"But there's some people who stay in prison for years and don't change," retaliated Cyborg, not pleased with the response.
Robin limped towards the entrance. Halting a few inches away from Slade, so the villain appeared to be off to his side, Robin gazed out into the dark blue night sky that had begun to creep on the horizon. His face was devoid of emotions, as if he was in deep thought. "This…prison was more like a concentration camp, if you get my drift."
Seeming to be pleased with that response, Robin continued his slow passage to the deck, leaning on the wall for support. Cyborg and Raven shot each other confused looks as Starfire and Beastboy sighed in frustration.
Slade rose from his seat, "I wouldn't question him further today."
"Why?" asked Cyborg.
"Robin is not use to this new setting. Let him absorb the fact that he's free, that he has escaped from a prison that clearly he didn't think he would live through."
"How long do you suggest we give him?" Starfire began to wring her hands in her skirt, looking at where Robin's form was seen disappearing around the corner.
"A couple days to months, depending on the person," responded Raven, her voice cracking in stress at the days ahead. "But considering that this Robin we're talking about, I would say days."
"Then that is glorious news, yes?" chirped Star.
Slade laid the glass of water on the table, "Maybe. Or maybe something worse will come of this."
Cyborg felt his face scrunch upwards, "What do you mean? You said that you wouldn't take him from us."
"And I will not," emphasized Slade, "But when Robin snapped at you, I sensed that there was a bit more hostility, something darker that wasn't there before. And whatever it is, it's not wild like when I trained him. No, it's honed in and restrained." Turning, so that the Titans only saw his profile, Slade shot a glance outside, "Robin's learned some new tricks and that once his shock wears off and his injuries heal, this new attitude will reveal itself in all its' glory."
The Titans shivered and gulped as if they had just watched some dark prophecy from a horror flick. Feeling that he drove his little point home, Slade turned and walked out of the room. "Good night, Titans."
Long after he left them, the Titans could not sleep for in fear of the nightmares where Robin was wearing Slade's colors and was killing each and every one of them. Not being able to handle such tragic thoughts, Starfire broke down on the table and cried herself asleep till Cyborg carried her to her small bed down below.