|In Case of Emergency
Author: Deranged Black Kitten PM
It had started as a joke, contingency plans made for various hypothetical circumstances, but then the world falls under mind-control, their mentors turning against them, and those rules made up in jest become something to survive by.Rated: Fiction T - English - Friendship/Adventure - Richard G./Robin & Wally W./Kid Flash - Words: 49,504 - Reviews: 230 - Favs: 629 - Follows: 45 - Published: 12-08-11 - Status: Complete - id: 7618533
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Yeesh, story ideas for this fandom are swamping my brain. Here's a nice long oneshot for you all that just kind of came out of nowhere. (crossposted on Livejournal under a new name I've made for myself. Out with the old and in with the new)
Note: Save for one last scene near the end, most everything in italics is a flashback.
Disclaimer: I don't own Young Justice, don't sue me.
In Case of Emergency...
It was the reflection he caught on the batcomputer's screen that saved him; the dark, looming figure coming up behind him who – despite being the fuel of nightmares for so many – had never been someone that Robin had ever been truly afraid of. He was a little afraid right now though, but he'd never say so, never let it show on his face.
Instead, when Batman's gloved fist came flying forward – shattering the computer's screen when Robin ducked out of the way – Robin had cracked a smile and remarked as he quickly backpedaled, "You've totally been body-snatched, haven't you? I knew you were acting weird!"
But then Batman was coming at him again and all shaky attempts at humor were dropped in favor of dodging and blocking the punches and kicks that came his way, all the while throwing some back himself and trying to gain the upper-hand. It would seem though that being mind-controlled or whatever it was that was going on with Bruce hadn't dulled the man's intelligence in the slightest, and as experienced as Robin was, Batman was still far ahead of him in skill-level.
The problem was that Batman knew all of his tricks, his moves – had been Robin's mentor from the start of it all and knew exactly what he was capable of; knew enough to send a batarang flying through the air – cutting through Robin's utility belt and sending it skittering across the cave floor and out of sight into some dark corner – yet at the moment not caring enough to aim so that the projectile weapon didn't go slicing through his side.
The wound was small, insignificant, but for a split second he faltered, couldn't stop himself from slapping a palm down over the cut, and in that instant Batman had him by the front of his uniform, lifted him up effortlessly and slammed him against one of the cave's display cases. His cape and his suit protected him from the broken glass, but that small relief slipped from his mind as Batman's black gloved hands wrapped around his throat – squeezing tight and cutting off his air, pressing him back against the broken display case.
He scrabbled at the dark gauntlets for purchase, but couldn't get a good grip. Dark spots slowly bled into his vision, and off in the corner of his eye, he could see Alfred standing a distance away, but the elder man didn't look concerned or worried – his face was completely expressionless – and even as Robin reached out a shaking hand to the butler, mouthing a silent plea, Alfred made no move to help. He just stood there, staring, before turning on his heal to leave; all done at a completely leisurely pace.
Through blurring vision, Robin could spot something on the back of the butler's neck, some sort of black spidery-looking thing that clearly didn't belong there. His gaze waveringly, sluggishly moved back over to Batman, dazedly wondering if beneath that cowl was another spidery-looking thing. Batman drew one hand away, yet no relief came from the now one-handed grip around his neck. If anything, it grew tighter, and Robin worried that his neck may just snap.
'You gonna turn me into a drone too then?' he wanted to ask.
Batman reached into his utility belt with his one free hand, yet there was no third black spidery-looking thing made especially for Robin. All that Batman pulled out was another batarang and lifted it up high above his head, its razor-sharp edges glinting in the cave's dull lights.
'Oh, I get it. No room in Zombieland for a Robin, huh?' Robin thought, eying the batarang in Batman's hand, and the way that hand shook.
Robin's smaller hands squeezed weakly at his mentor's wrist. Gritting his teeth, he looked away from the batarang, instead staring up into the white eye lenses of Batman's cowl.
Batman swung his arm down, batarang held tightly in his grip, as deadly as any knife.
It had started as a joke, back before the formation of Young Justice when Red Arrow was still Speedy and would actually regularly hang out with him and Robin. They didn't partner up very much on the job, all of them usually too busy with their own cities and training under their mentors, but when they had the free time between missions, when there was nothing else that needed to be done, they would hang out just like this, him and Robin and sometimes Roy when Roy could make it – just sitting around doing whatever and getting into the most inane conversations.
Conversations such as this one.
"What's your zombie contingency plan?" Robin had asked, perched on the back of the couch near Wally's head with his legs crossed in that meditative way that Wally didn't think he could even begin to mimic.
They were sitting in Wally's living room, with Wally flipping through the TV channels at a speed that only he could follow.
"What?" Wally had asked with a short laugh, taken aback by the sudden odd question. He paused in his super-speed remote work, the television stopping on a channel with an infomercial playing, and glanced over his shoulder to give his friend a curious look.
"Your zombie contingency plan," Robin repeated. "Bats was talking about having back-up plans for just about anything yesterday, but he never covered zombies." Robin had a look on his face as if he thought it was preposterous for someone to not consider zombies as a genuine threat, and continued on to ask, "So, if the zombie apocalypse happened today, what would you do?"
Wally pursed his lips, thinking about it for only a brief moment before shrugging and saying, "I dunno. I guess I'd get some kind of weapon to fight them off and then find a safe place to hole up in. It's not like I really have to worry about them catching me though, I'd be too fast for them."
"True," Robin said, his elbow on his knee and resting his chin on the palm of his hand. "Putting your super-speed aside for a moment though, your plan needs to have more details than just that. Like... where would your 'safe place' be? Specifically?"
Seeing that Robin wanted him to put more thought into it, Wally took a moment to go over it in his head, thinking about everything that was necessary for basic survival in an apocalypse-type setting, and then thinking about everything that he knew of Central City and the rest of the world, and how he could use that to his advantage.
"Well, for safe places, there's the Hall of Justice, and there's a couple places here in Central, like the post-office because there's a fence going around that entire building. I'm sure you already have a couple placed picked out in Gotham too, huh?"
Pressing on when Robin said nothing about Gotham safe-spots, Wally said "But there's other stuff aside from setting up a safe place that would need to be done, like food, and weapons, and probably a first aid kit of some sort."
"I love that food comes before weapons for you," Robin commented.
"Food is more important," Wally said in a tone that asked 'how can it not be?' "Running's my defense, and I need to keep my energy up to run."
"So rule one of the Zombie Contingency Plan," Robin said. "Make sure you have your essentials."
"Food, water, weapons, and first aid," Wally said, counting them off on his fingers.
"F²W²," Robin said.
Wally huffed a quick laugh, "Nerd."
"Geek," Robin shot right back.
The discussion continued on without faltering.
"Can't forget about a safe shelter," Robin said, noting that Wally hadn't listed it off as one of the essentials.
"Yeah, but I feel like shelter should be its own separate thing since so much thought needs to go into that," Wally explained.
"Like how we should have multiple shelter options?" Robin asked, "In case one place gets compromised."
He was exhausted and he ached – his legs hurting most of all; his left covered in bruises from where Uncle Barry had tried to break it, and his right from where the elder speedster had actually succeeded in his attempts, snapping the bones in Wally's lower leg in two.
"Ju-just through here," Wally said, panting through the pain, sweat beading up on his forehead as he limped alongside Artemis, his arm slung over her shoulder for support. With a nod of his head, he gestured at the dilapidated door on the right of the old, worn hallway they stood in, and Conner stepped around him to push the door open with his back – the krptonian clone's arms being too preoccupied with holding an unconscious Miss Martian, who had been shaking during the entire flight beforehand, barely able to keep the bioship going, and had collapsed immediately after landing.
"Ow, shit, careful," he hissed when his broken leg was jarred as Artemis helped him through the doorway, and the pain had him involuntarily squeezing at her shoulder, the same shoulder they had just barely pushed back into its socket after Green Arrow had dislocated it.
She cringed, digging her nails into his side as she snapped, "Squeeze that shoulder again and I will fucking drop you."
"S-sorry," he said, his head cooling, "Was an accident."
They were both feeling angry and defensive (Conner too, he supposed, eying the silent boy), but they weren't angry with each other, their emotions were just running too high and they weren't that used to having to interact with each other without their teammates being there as a buffer – because M'gann was out cold, not in any condition to play mediator between them, and Conner had never really been one to step in between their arguments before.
–then Kaldur, that black spidery-looking device stuck to the back of his neck as he swung at Wally and Conner with his water bearers, all right before Uncle Barry caught up with the younger speedster for a second time and struck out at him again –
And Dick... Roy... he didn't even know about them.
The room they hobbled into was just as worn down as the rest of the building, and the few pieces of furniture that were there were either broken or too covered in mold or water stains to be of any real use to anyone. Artemis sat him down on the floor with his back pressed up against the wall, and when she pulled up the pant-leg of his uniform to check his leg, he looked away.
He didn't need to see it, didn't need to hear her sympathetic hiss to know that it was bad. He could feel the bone protruding from his leg, could feel the cooling blood on his skin and soaked into his uniform, and then the pain from having his leg already in the process of healing itself, except healing wrong, he didn't want to look at all of that and think about how it had been the Flash, how it had been his Uncle Barry that had done it.
Remembering the cold, blank look in his uncle's eyes, remembering how he had attacked faster than Wally could ever hope to move, striking out at the younger speedster's legs when he tried to outrun him, and then tackling him, pinning him to the ground, putting all the pressure to his right leg, bending it in a way that it shouldn't be bent, that was impossible to be bent, and – no, no, stop, stop, STOP! – he just didn't want to think about it; shut his eyes and reminded himself that it was those black things stuck to the back of everyone's neck that was responsible for their behavior.
"We're going to have to re-break it and set it the right way," Artemis said.
"I know," he said, opening his eyes to stare at a water stained ceiling. "Just make it quick."
She shrugged off her quiver and removed its leather shoulder-strap, giving it to him to bite down on.
"Gonna need your x-ray vision over here, Kon," she said, tossing a glance over her shoulder at the clone. He stood off to the side with M'gann still in his arms and a lost look on his face.
"I'm still new at that though," Conner said, sounding unsure, and making no move to put the martian girl down.
"We just need it long enough to know that I'm setting the bone right," she said with a surprising amount of patience. "Come on. M'gann will be fine on her own for a minute."
Reluctantly setting Miss M down on the floor, he walked over and knelt down next to Artemis to stare down at Wally's leg.
And then –
His teeth clenched down tight on the leather strap, muffling his screams, and his gloved hands scrabbled mindlessly at the wood floor. Eyes rolling back in his head, for a moment, his vision whited out, and when he came-to shortly after, he was a boneless puddle on the floor with Artemis leaning over him and lightly tapping at his cheek with one hand.
She pressed a hand to his forehead, pushing sweat-soaked bangs away from his eyes.
"You said something about a first aid kit?" she asked, and he could tell from her tone of voice that this wasn't the first time she had tried asking him this.
"R-right," he said shakily. "'s in the wall, behind that board over there."
He pointed with limp fingers at the piece of plywood that was nailed up against a random section of the wall. Conner and Artemis exchanged a curious look before the kryptonian clone walked over and effortlessly ripped the board free from the wall, exposing a hole that contained a steel case and a couple cans of non-perishable food that spilled out onto the floor. Grabbing the steel case, Conner popped it open to reveal a fully-stocked first aid kit.
"Alright, West, spill," Artemis said, "What is this place?"
He laughed, and not really knowing why he did. Maybe it was because he was just so tired, reaching that point where everything was funny, even the things that were really kind of horrible, or maybe he did it just to get a rise out of the blond – things were far too tense as they were, and more than anything, he needed a moment to pretend that everything was normal. Shaking his head at her, he said, "It's no place special. Just an abandoned building."
A small, abandoned building out in the middle of nowhere, a safe place to hide out – because he and Dick had been extremely bored one day and decided that they should do more than just talk about contingency plans; because it really wasn't any trouble at all for Wally to race around the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic area to find places like this, and hide a first aid kit or two and some food in some of the spots; because at the time, it had just been something fun to do.
Just all fun and games and joking about zombies...
He cracked a small smile, feeling his eyes drooping with sleep, and murmured, "Rule number two, have a safe shelter to hide out in..."
He felt a tight pang in his chest and his smile faded away.
'I'm sure they're both alright.'
The next time around, it was Wally who brought up the 'zombie contingency plan' subject, and it was shortly following the resolution of an incident in which both Batman and the Flash were sucked into some kind of portal to another dimension. Everything was all straightened out now, but for a short while there, it had just been the two of them teamed up to handle their cities' various problems on their own, and eventually Speedy showed up to help out too, while the rest of the Justice League worked at fixing the dimensional portal problem.
"With everything we deal with, and with everything other heroes deal with, we should totally have more contingency plans than just ones for zombies," Kid Flash said, sitting on a rooftop next to Robin in Gotham City.
"Like alternate dimensions?" Robin said, flashing the speedster a grin.
"And aliens,and time-travel, and evil twins, and robots," KF said, his eyes growing wide at the implications. "And what if our mentors and all of the Justice League are turned into babies? What then? I don't know how to deal with babies!"
Robin laughed, then asked,"So, like, just a disaster contingency plan? Heavy on the 'dis'?"
"Yeah, exactly," KF said. "Because, I mean, think about it; zombies aren't really smart, but what if our enemies are smart? Really smart, even."
"Then we'd have to completely adjust our contingency plans," Robin noted, leaning back on his hands as he looked up at the light pollution in Gotham's night sky.
There was a clatter of footsteps climbing the fire escape, shortly followed by Speedy's voice asking, "What are you two talking about this time?" His tone was both petulant and mildly indifferent at the same time.
Both Robin and Kid Flash exchanged a glance as Speedy hopped up over the roof and walked up behind them.
"Zombies," Robin said casually.
"Well, more than that now," Kid Flash said, and at Speedy's raised eyebrow, added, "Contingency plans, in the case of various disasters."
"But the type of disasters we're used to," Robin said. "Not so much the normal disasters."
There was a short moment of silence in which Speedy just stared at them before shaking his head and rolling his eyes. Murmuring a quiet, "Right, of course," he squeezed in between the two of them and sat down on the roof as well.
"So what would you do, Speedy if... if..." Robin trailed off, drawing a blank on what sort of weird scenario to ask the older boy about.
"What if Green Arrow was turned into a dog," KF randomly supplied. "See? We need to come up with a plan for if our mentors are turned into dogs."
"That's simple. I'd lock him in a kennel and invite a bunch of people over for a big party," Speedy said without even taking a moment to pause and think about it. "I don't need a contingency plan for that."
"A party?" Kid Flash perked up. "Are we invited?"
"It's not the type of party you two kids should be going to," Speedy said loftily.
"Kids?" KF frowned (and most certainly did not pout) "You're not that much older than us."
"And you might as well invite us because we're going to show up either way," Robin stated quite simply.
Giving a long-suffering sigh, Speedy folded his hands behind his head and laid down on the roof, crossing his legs at the ankles, "I guess you guys can come."
Robin and KF both grinned.
"Green Arrow needs to be turned into a dog first though," Speedy pointed out before the two could get too excited about a nonexistent party.
Robin and KF laid down on the roof as well, all three of them staring up at Gotham's night sky which, for once, was thankfully empty of the Batsignal. It had been a rather long couple of days due to fighting various crimes and hoping zeta-beams back and forth between Central City and Gotham City. They had just barely gotten news of Batman and The Flash's return from whatever alternate dimension they had ended up in and it wouldn't be long now before their mentors popped up to take them home and do the whole 'mother hen' thing.
"So... thanks for helping out with Central City," Kid Flash said, just a bit awkwardly, and he could hear Robin shifting on the ground before he too murmured a thanks for both his and Speedy's help with Gotham. It wasn't that they both weren't appreciative of the help, it was just that it was hard to admit that they had needed the help, that they hadn't been able to handle the job on their own.
"Yeah, sure," Speedy said with nonchalant shrug. "Was actually pretty fun working with the two of you, and I guess if I ever need help in Star City, I know who to call."
And if Speedy needed help every now and again, surely it wasn't so bad that they needed some help with the whole hero thing too.
Pursing his lips, Robin leaned up and looked over at the two older boys, both young heroes like himself, and thought about how much they had really come through for him over the past few days.
He flopped back down on the ground, masked gaze cast upward, and it was then that he quietly told them both his secret identity.
Four days had passed since the initial attack by their mind-controlled mentors. M'gann had woken up after sleeping for two full days at the 'safe house' Wally had brought them to, her mind having recovered from whatever it was that her uncle had done to her, some sort of telepathic thing that she wouldn't talk about in detail with them, just smiled brightly and insisted that she was fine, even if there was a sort of tightness around her eyes that hadn't been there before and her green skin was a few shades paler.
"Gotta make sure we have all the essentials," Wally would mutter to himself. "That's rule one. F²W²."
And as nerdy as Dick made it sound, saying it like that did seem to help him remember and keep him on track. Food and water. They already had enough first aid, and there wasn't much in the way of weapons to defend against this sort of threat. They also needed clothes, which was part of rule three of the 'being hunted' contingency plan; blend in with your surroundings, and they couldn't exactly do that when they were all wearing their hero uniforms.
Letting out a mental cheer, he shot off to the clothes line – finally finding a home that had left their laundry out past night-fall. He moved as fast as he possibly could, just an innocent gust of wind to any normal human eye – snatched up what he needed and was gone. It wasn't until he was a mile away before he stopped to shove what he had grabbed into the backpack he wore, and then he was off again.
When he ran now, it was only during the night and with his uniform in stealth mode. Running during the day made him feel like he was painting a giant target on his back, especially if he was wearing his brightly colored Kid Flash uniform, and he didn't want to risk his uncle or any other member of the Justice League spotting him and taking off after him, or possibly following him back to his remaining teammates.
Even when he wasn't wearing his Kid Flash uniform but the few clothes he had managed to find two days before, he didn't like being out among the general public during the daytime, because it wasn't just the Justice League that had those mind-controlling things on the back of their necks, it was everyone. Every single person he had come across thus far had had one of those black spidery-looking things on their neck, and when he stopped and walked among them at normal speeds, if he stuck around long enough for them to get a good look at his face or at his neck – void of its own mind-controlling implant – they would stare at him, as if they sensed he wasn't like them, as if they knew exactly who he was.
It would be like a chain reaction. One person would start staring and then suddenly every other person on the street would look over to stare at him. For a moment, they would all continue doing whatever it was that they were doing – staring as they walked by him, but still walking to wherever they had been going before – until everything around him slowed to a standstill; cars stopping in the streets, people freezing in the middle of what they were doing. All of them staring, staring, staring.
It was chilling, and Wally never stuck around very long after he had been spotted, not wanting to know what came next after the staring.
He headed to the west coast where he knew there to be several beaches that had a variety of outdoor markets that were open past sunset, and as he had found through a trial and error process over the past few days, outdoor markets were his friend. With them, he didn't have to worry about doors, or about people who would notice a door opening and closing without anyone visibly coming through, and along with that, no one would question a gust of wind while standing outdoors.
He could grab what he needed as he ran by, too quick for normal eyes to follow. If he'd had money, he would have simply walked up to the booths and bought what he needed, but as it was, he was broke, they all were, and he couldn't exactly go and withdraw any money from his family's bank account or use his bank card.
"Paranoid Bat rule number eight, always assume you're being watched."
Which meant not doing anything that the League or anyone else could use to track him, such as accessing his family's bank account.
When he reached an outdoor market along the coast of Maine, he zipped through the shops as quickly as he could, snatching up all the food, water, and clothing that he could fit into the remaining space in his backpack, and eating some of that food too for good measure. It was just as he was finishing this particular supply run when he saw a streak of red that made his heart jump into his throat and made his legs ache with phantom pains.
Wally darted down the nearest empty alleyway, shoes skidding on pavement, and wedged himself in between a slim crevice behind a dumpster after tossing his stuffed backpack into the dumpster itself. Slowing his breathing to be as quiet as he could possibly get it, he shut his eye and pressed his head back against the dumpster, uncaring of the moister and grime seeping into his suit.
There was no doubt in his mind that it had been the Flash, and he only hoped that his uncle hadn't spotted him. This was actually the third time that his Uncle Barry had shown up where Wally was, looking for him, and the younger speedster wondered how he kept finding him. He was being as discrete as possible – had only stopped and was stared at a couple of times by the general public that first day when he went back outside before he decided to just avoid that situation altogether – and if he had been spotted since then, it was only for a second. Not nearly enough time for a normal civilian to actually register who they were seeing and then report it.
Wally mentally sighed. The only thing left for him to do was to wait and hope that the Flash would eventually leave so that he could make a run for safety.
He waited behind the dumpster for a good hour, listening to every small sound going on around him, and even after that hour, he wasn't thrilled with the idea of leaving his hiding place and entering a possibly dangerous area. He couldn't linger any longer though. His team was waiting for him, M'gann especially who was the only other one out scouting for supplies at the moment, and would be meeting up with him later a couple states over.
He would need to let them know about this third Flash sighting. It was probably a good time to be moving on to the next safe place he had in mind anyway.
Moving as quickly as possible, he snatched the backpack out of the dumpster and shot away from the coast of Maine, leaving the state behind altogether – with there thankfully being no Flash following after him – making his way across a few other states as well, and when he reached Gotham City, he hesitantly ran around it rather than through it. More than anything, he wanted to go into the city to try and see if he could spot Dick at all, as Robin or simply just his civilian self – see if his friend was being mind-controlled too or was on the run like him – but he just couldn't risk running into a mind-controlled Batman.
Dick would unfortunately have to wait, Roy too, because taking care of the rest of his team and helping to ensure their continued survival on the run came first, even if Wally didn't feel like it should come first when it came to his two closest friends.
'We'll find each other eventually.'
After all, they had a plan for that too.
It was the afternoon on the weekend, and Wally, Dick, and Roy had had the rare opportunity of all three of them having a day off to do whatever they wanted to do. Between school and Young Justice, and Roy blazing his own trail as an independent hero, the chance didn't come along too often anymore, so they decided to go see a movie.
Specifically, they went and saw 'The Hangover,' and the fact that they had to trick the theater into letting Wally in, and then on top of that sneak Dick in, was in their minds just another test on their skills of having to be covert for certain situations.
Making their way through the mall to an ice cream shop after the movie was over, Wally was doing a kind of weird, bouncing happy walk from his spot between Dick and Roy, hands on both their shoulders as he sang a song from the movie, "We're the three best friends that anyone could have, we're the three best friends that anyone could have –"
It was when the younger redhead was getting to the part of 'never, never, ever, ever, ever leave each other' that Roy spoke up and said, "There should be something in all those contingency plans about what to do in the case of one of us getting separated from everyone else, or going missing."
Wally's singing died in his throat and both he and Dick froze in place, watching Roy walk a few steps ahead of them before realizing that they weren't by his side anymore and looking over his shoulder to see what the hold-up was. He took in their gaping mouths, the stupefied looks on their faces, before he raised an eyebrow and asked, "What?"
A wide smile split across Wally's face while Dick laughed.
"Yes!" Wally said with an exaggerated flail of his arms. "We totally need a contingency plan for if one of us goes missing!"
It wasn't the sort of subject they would normally be enthusiastic about, one of them going missing, and in their line of work, it was the sort of thing they would usually avoid talking about and secretly feared, but Roy had never been the one to start up one of their talks of contingency plans, and the older teen rarely ever contributed to such discussions, so despite the subject matter, the two couldn't help but feel giddy by the whole thing.
"We should have different plans for different 'missing teammate' scenarios," Dick said, as both he and Wally started walking again; Wally grabbing on to Roy's arm as they passed by and dragging him along.
"Yeah, and we'll need to account for the chance of certain lines of communication being down," Wally said, babbling.
"Like the internet," Dick said.
"Or phone lines," Wally added.
Roy could only mentally sigh at what he had started.
Speaking up, more to appease Dick and Wally than anything, and with not even a fraction of the enthusiasm that the two younger heroes had, Roy pointed out, "Don't forget about the possibility of having to worry about an enemy monitoring the lines of communication."
The set of grins he was rewarded with made what was likely to be an hour long conversation seem worth it.
"–so in the case of the missing teammate being stuck in the past –"
Almost worth it.
Roy's apartment was completely ransacked, and Wally really wished that he had made this discovery on his own so that he would actually be able to have a moment to himself to let it sink in and worry and maybe freak out a little. As it was, M'gann, Artemis and Conner were there with him when he unlocked the front door using the spare key Roy always kept hidden on the rooftop of the apartment complex – they had insisted on coming because they didn't like how much he had been running off on his own lately.
He could feel their looks of sympathy, pity and sorrow burning into his back as he stood there and just stared at his friend's destroyed home – at the signs of a fight, arrows embedded in the walls – and then M'gann rested a hand on his shoulder, meant to be comforting.
"Wally..." she said, speaking softly.
And it just so wasn't helping the situation at all.
He reacted in the only way he could think of. He smiled and laughed and shrugged away their concerns.
"No, it's fine. Roy can take care of himself," and when they said nothing, he plowed forward, talking at his usual too fast speeds, "I mean, yeah, this complicates things, but everything's alright guys. We'll just meet up with Roy later, Robin too. In fact, I bet they're together right now, partying it up, apocalypse-style, and they'll get in contact with us if we don't find them first. There's –" he faltered, voice losing some of its optimism. "There's a plan."
A plan for finding each other, or plans rather, just like they had a plan for everything else. He'd told Artemis, M'gann, and Conner in the beginning about the various survival plans that he, Dick, and Roy had come up with, but they just didn't really get it. Wally knew that they appreciated there being even a little bit of a plan, but they didn't get the same sort of comfort from it that he did, so he didn't bother going over the details with them anymore, not unless they asked, which they rarely did.
Now was no different.
"I'm... I'm sure they're fine too, Wally," M'gann finally said, just as quietly, wringing her hands, a smile on her face that didn't look nearly as confident as she probably meant it to be.
The looks they were giving him, it made his shoulders hunch, feeling on the defensive. He turned away from them and began sorting through the mess in Roy's apartment, only briefly offering the explanation that he was searching for any potential clues the older archer might have left.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see M'gann and Artemis having some kind of silent conversation, their brows furrowed and frowns on their faces. Neither girl said anything to him though, and when Conner stepped forward to help they silently offered their assistance as well; all the while they kept looking over at him as they worked.
They were worried about him, all three of them, not that Artemis would ever admit it, and he supposed he could understand why. It wasn't like he'd done anything to dissuade their concerns – all the times he had raced off these past few weeks, the injuries he came back with after brief run-ins with his Uncle or other members of the League; and then all his ramblings about contingency plans, and rules, and the right steps to follow – he knew how it looked, like he was becoming unhinged, cracking under the pressure, and maybe the stress was starting to get to him, but whether it was or not, the world was a little fucked up right now and all of those rules and plans brought a sort of stability to it.
Something to rely on, especially now when they only had themselves to turn to, when their mentors were out to get them, when they had friends that were missing, and for him, having other ways aside from the norm to try and get in contact with Roy and Dick – the various messages left in different post-office boxes that only the three of them knew about, set up in different states, the one time he actually got a chance to send an email to the secret account Dick had made, calling the emergency number to Dick's wrist computer via various payphones – all of it done very carefully and coded in a way that only the three of them could understand.
And all of it done so far without success. Wally could get his message out, but so far there hadn't been any response in return, and he was getting worried, even more worried than he already was, because there should have been a response by now, right? Something, anything, any little message at all –
But there was nothing, no response from Dick's wrist computer, nothing in the post-office boxes, and going on the internet was nearly impossible when you had to use a very public internet café where you could easily be spotted, but even the few times Wally was able to check the email account, there was nothing there either.
Just like there was nothing in Roy's apartment – no hidden message the archer might have left before being forced to retreat in a hurry. Wally had known from the very moment that he'd opened the door to the older boy's apartment that it was a long-shot, hoping that Roy had even had time to leave a message, but that didn't make him any less disappointed by their lack of success, and his hands shook as he checked the kitchen for a second time, sorting through broken dishes and the spoiled remains of Chinese take-out spilled across the tiled floor.
He was all too aware of his teammates own search slowing to a stop, how they stood there awkwardly for a moment before coming to the silent agreement to look through Roy's stuff for any needed supplies that they could fit into the backpacks they wore, and as they picked through the mess – grabbing Band-Aids, gauze, and disinfectant, cans of non-perishable food and the occasional dollar bill up off the floor – he was even more aware of the glances they kept throwing in his direction.
A siren sounded quite suddenly outside, screaming shrilly in the air, and while his teammates grew tense, Wally wasn't concerned. Star City was no Gotham, but it was still a city, so sirens were commonplace, especially in the area that Roy lived in. Helicopters that flew around overhead and shone spotlights down on the streets below were also pretty common, though a bit more concerning than just a normal police car, especially with them on the run as they were, and if one of those showed up –
"It's just passing by," Conner said, his back pressed to the wall as he carefully peered out the window, confirming what Wally had already guessed.
"We should go," Artemis said. "It was dangerous for us to even come here in the first place, and we've stayed too long as it is."
Though her tone was steady and her demeanor strong, fearless, he could tell that she was nervous about running into Green Arrow in the same way that he was nervous about running into Uncle Barry. As much as he understood this though, he couldn't just leave, not after seeing Roy's apartment like this. The worry was just too strong to ignore now – a cold black spike that pierced through his forced optimism and drove itself deep into his stomach.
Four weeks was too long of a time to go without knowing the fate of his missing friends, four weeks that moved at the slowest pace possible, and he just... he needed to see for himself, needed to do more than just a quick run-through of Star City. He needed to go over the place with a fine-tooth comb, because maybe he had missed something before, and he needed to check up on the post-office boxes and all the other various lines of coded communication that he'd thrown out into the water.
...He needed to go to Gotham too, the dangers of running into Batman be damned because... what if Dick needed him?
So when Artemis said that they needed to go, he found himself backing up to the door, shaking his head, the word no coming out louder than he meant it to be.
Quicker than his teammates could blink, he changed into his Kid Flash uniform that he had kept in his backpack, activating the stealth-mode with one tap to the chest. The blood-red sky had faded to darkness an hour ago and it was the perfect time to run.
"Wait!" M'gann said, an arm stretched out, and Wally felt himself freeze, felt his muscles grow stiff and sluggish. "We talked about this, it's too dangerous to go running off on your own. We need to stick together."
He could see her eyes growing watery, a strained look passing over her face. M'gann had always been fairly open with her emotions as it was, but over the past four weeks, her emotional state seemed unusually hair-trigger, and the way she looked at him in that moment, like he was going to disappear – Wally wondered not for the first time just what the hell her uncle had done to her mind. He didn't get any joy out of putting such a look on her face, but –
"I have to go look for them," he said, and this time there was no forced cheer in his tone, no fake optimism. For once, he spoke earnestly, with all his worries and fears about Roy and Dick's fates shining through in his voice. "Really look for them. No more of this being distracted with running from the League."
It wasn't the best choice or the right choice to be making. He was putting his personal feelings ahead of the well-being of his remaining teammates, something that meant failure in any battle simulation, but his personal feelings were about the safety of his other teammates, his friends, and quite frankly, he just didn't care anymore about the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do. For the past four weeks, he'd been stealing anything he laid his hands on for the sake of survival – right and wrong were a little bit skewed at the moment.
"What about shelter?" Conner asked. "We haven't picked one out yet this far out."
"And flying from California back to New York is a bit much for me right now," M'gann said, a weary expression on her face, her hold on him vanishing.
"I... know of a place," Wally said, because for all the times he had visited Roy in Star City, of course he knew of some places nearby to hide out at.
'...all just a game. A joke. Heh...'
"It's not in Star City, is it?" Artemis asked with that same hidden nervousness from before about the thought of being so close to Green Arrow.
"No," Wally said. "Still in California though. M'gann, you can read my mind and I'll show you where it is."
Her lips pressed into a thin line before she nodded, delving in, but not too deep, and so he showed her. Gave her the coordinates, directions leaving Star City, and images of an old abandoned barn out in the country-side that had seen better days flashed across his mind, a good place for them to hide out in where M'gann could store the bioship without having to constantly keep it in camouflage mode, something he knew she'd appreciate.
When she pulled back from his mind, all the necessary information gathered, he asked, "Got it?"
She silently nodded.
"I'll meet up with you guys there later," he said, bouncing from foot to foot, eager to get going now, because four weeks – fuck, he just couldn't wait any longer.
"You'd better," Artemis said, arms crossed over her chest, her eyes narrowing threateningly. "Or else I'm going to be forced to hunt you down."
"You'll barely notice I'm gone," he said breezily, easy-going, all the things that he wasn't really feeling. He pulled his goggles down over his eyes and then before another word could be spoken, he was gone – out of Roy's apartment and down the streets of Star City; searching, searching, searching...
"What... what do you think you'd do if you had to face off against Green Arrow?" Wally asked hesitantly, not quite meeting the older boy's eyes.
It was a question that had been floating around in his head all day, brought about by the news he had heard, that he wasn't supposed to have heard, about one of the League's small-time members going, well, evil, for lack of a better word, and it wasn't due to mind control, or being dosed with some kind of experimental drug, it had all been completely intentional, had been that hero's choice to become a villain. He'd heard his uncle talking about it, about how the betrayal had surprised him, that he'd met the guy before and had thought he was an okay person, and now, for whatever reasons the ex-hero had made his choice, Barry had to think of the man as an enemy.
It got Wally thinking about what he'd do in the same situation, if a friend became an enemy, and then that made him think about what he'd do if Barry ever became the enemy – not that he thought his uncle would go all 'dark-side,' but still, what if? Uncle Barry was faster than him, and in his eyes, better at being a hero than Wally could ever hope to be.
So what would he do? What would he do if he had to fight the Flash? He had no clue, was drawing a complete blank, and he really didn't want to think about it, but the question, the possible scenario, it just wouldn't leave him alone, and so finally this brought him to his question for Roy, because maybe the archer had some idea, some master plan that Wally just couldn't come up with.
"Face off? ...like, fight? As an enemy?" Roy asked, one eyebrow raised, and Wally silently nodded his head, his expression coming off more serious than he meant it to be. "Is this about what just happened in the League? With that rogue hero?"
It didn't surprise Wally that Roy kept tabs on what went on in the League, even despite the older boy's claims that he wanted nothing to do with them.
Wally's shoulders hunched, and after a moment's pause, said, "Maybe..."
His eyes snapped up to Roy's face when the archer bumped shoulders with him, "Relax, Wally. Green Arrow's not going to turn evil and neither is the Flash."
Wally's eyes narrowed up at the older boy, burning with green fire, "You don't know that."
"Well... maybe not," Roy relented. "But if it does happen, it's not going to be by choice, and in that case, we'll just stop whatever's influencing them, no problem." and then the older boy looked over behind Wally, calling out louder, "Right, Rob?"
Wally looked over his shoulder to where Dick was typing away on a laptop, doing some kind of secret coding work for Batman that Wally quite frankly couldn't make heads or tails of. He'd been at it for several hours, and in response to the question directed to him, the younger boy simply grunted an affirmative, not looking away from the computer screen or stopping in his typing for a second.
'Programming zombie,' Wally thought.
"Anyway," Roy continued, "Green Arrow's no pushover, but if it comes down to it, I can handle him just fine." Seeing the worry still reflecting in the speedster's eyes, Roy added with a sigh, "If there's really an issue, I'll just get Black Canary to come kick his ass."
Wally didn't doubt for a second that she could.
"Remember Kid," Roy said, clapping a hand down onto the speedster's shoulder and giving him one of his rare smiles, and ever rarer words of comfort, something that, lately, he only ever seemed to give out to them, "You've got me and Rob if there's a problem. Your other teammates too. There's always going to be people around to help."
People like Roy and Dick, like the many different members of the League.
But... what if he didn't have them? Always being there wasn't a promise that anyone could really keep, as much as they wanted to, as much as they tried, and this truth burned in his mind so much that he turned to look over his shoulder, opening his mouth and asking, "What would you do, Rob? If... you had to fight Batman?"
Because as much as he appreciated Roy's words,and as much as he believed that the archer would be there for him in times of trouble for as long as he was physically able to, there was always something that could prevent him from being there, dozens of different scenarios as to why any of them would have to face-off against their mentors (or ex-mentor) with no one they could turn to for help but themselves, and if there was anyone out there who had a back-up plan for each one of those scenarios, it was the Boy Wonder himself.
"Rob?" Wally asked again when the younger boy said nothing.
The continuous tapping of computer keys suddenly stopped.
When Dick spoke, repeating Wally's question, his voice was so very quiet.
"What would I do?"
Lightning arched across the dark Gotham sky, thunder booming overhead, and a steady rainfall soaked Wally to the bone. He was dressed in civvies now, the hood of his jacket pulled over his head and casting his face in shadows. It was less conspicuous than his uniform, even in stealth mode during the night – especially since he had stopped running, at least for a little while, because his stamina was low, because he needed to stop and breath, because he needed to stop and calm down.
He'd found... nothing in Star City, nothing in Gotham; no clue or coded message or any sign at all of his friends reaching out and trying to contact him, and he had been searching for hours, had looked through each city multiple times over. His mind raced with questions of where the hell were they, and why couldn't he find them?
People brushed past him on the street, their umbrellas held high and their expressions that usual blank look that Wally frequently associated with busy city people in a hurry to get where they were going. It made him nervous to be standing out among the crowd like he was, in risk of being spotted and recognized, but it made him even more nervous to be standing in an alleyway where Batman could melt out of the shadows at any moment and catch him. Of course, there was always a chance that Batman wasn't being controlled like the rest of the population, but it was a chance Wally didn't want to take.
He hugged his arms around himself, shivering in the rain and at the same time forcing himself not to shiver at too quick speeds. He shifted his way through the crowd until he stood with his back directly to a shop window, a small candy store that he knew to be one of Dick's favorites, and his foot squished against a soggy newspaper – smiling faces staring out at him from the front page which declared 'Gotham Reborn: Changing its Reputation to a Brighter Happier Place.'
It was... a bit unsettling, and it made him aware of the fact that there were very few sirens sounding off in the background, and zero helicopters flying overhead. Granted, that should be considered a good thing, but for Gotham, it just seemed unusual – just like it was unusual that he had yet to see Batman, even for a second, especially after he had been racing around the man's city for a good couple of hours.
Not that he was complaining or anything, but he'd honestly been expecting that he'd have to make a run for it from said Dark Knight by now. Not seeing the man set him on edge, like this was the calm before the storm, and he knew that he should leave. He was pressing his luck as it was, but...
Maybe Dick was just at home, in Wayne Manor.
It would only take a few seconds, literally, to check in and see if he was there. Just one quick look – and yes, he understood how dangerous it would be, going straight into the lion's den, practically poking the beast, but he was confident that he could get out of there just as quickly as he got in, and even if that wasn't the case he... he needed to try. Needed to go and see for himself.
It was the only real idea he could come up with at this point, however stupid it may be, and for all he knew, maybe Bats wasn't being controlled like the rest of the League. Maybe he was working on a solution to the mind-controlling problem at this very moment, and then Wally could go fetch the rest of his teammates and bring them to the batcave, the ultimate safe place to hide out in, and for at least a short while they could have peace – a period of time, however brief, where they didn't need to constantly be looking over their shoulders.
Hollow optimisms – he could hope, but he wasn't that much of a child to actually believe that to really be a possibility. The world wouldn't have gone on being controlled this long if Batman was working on the problem. At the very least, his uncle, other League members, would have been freed from control by now.
He ducked into the nearest restaurant, keeping his head down as he shuffled off to the bathrooms to change. In the next second, he was back in his Kid Flash suit – still in stealth mode, still damp from the rain – and he bolted out the restaurant's front doors, shooting through the streets of Gotham, a barely visible black streak in the night, on his way to Wayne Manor, running so fast that it looked as if the falling rain had frozen in mid-air.
When his feet hit muddy ground, he slid to a stop, tearing up wet grass and sending a spray of rainwater flying off of him. He stared up and up at the manor resting at the top of a hill. It had always looked so daunting before, and now was no different as the tall building loomed above him, thunder rumbling in the distance and a dark sky framing the hauntingly old-looking architecture.
He rubbed an arm across his face, wiping away water that dripped down from his hair and into his eyes, and cautiously made the trek up the hill to the manor; all the while being sure to keep an eye out on his surroundings for any tall, dark figures with pointy bat-ears, or even that familiar streak of red from his uncle. It was only when he reached the building's walls that he used his super-speed, darting around from window to window and peering inside, leaving dirty, wet hand prints on the glass.
He'd always known the place to be very empty from the times he'd been allowed to visit, but it was even more-so now, as there was no Bruce Wayne. No Alfred.
No Dick Grayson. Robin. His best friend.
At least, he couldn't see anyone from his vantage point at the windows, and he knew that he should leave it at that. Call it a loss and go back to California, but hell, he'd already come this far, already risked this much. Might as well jump the rest of the way in.
Using a trick Dick had shown him on jimmying open the windows at Wayne Manor, Wally slipped inside, pretty positive that he had set off a silent alarm somewhere – this was Batman's house after all – yet what concerned him even more than that was the fact that he was tracking mud through the halls, and not because he was leaving an easy-to-follow trail, but because, mind-controlled or not, he was pretty sure Alfred was going to have his head for causing such a mess. He knew it was a ridiculous concern to have, but years of conditioning from the elder man on the importance of manners didn't just go away because the world was going down the toilet.
He shot down the halls of the manor, weaving in and out of rooms at lightning-speeds, not stopping for a second because he didn't want to take the chance of anything or anyone catching him unaware – and the halls were empty, the gym and the game room was empty, Dick's bedroom was empty. Just like before, there was nothing, no sign of his friend anywhere. As the seconds dragged on at impossibly slow speeds, the worry in him over his missing friend grew, twisting his stomach up into uncomfortable knots, and he found himself breathing quicker than he should be, even at the pace that he was traveling.
Suddenly as he entered the dining room, he very nearly ran straight into Alfred – yelped and tripped as he twisted himself around the elder man to avoid colliding with him, and as he stumbled to a stop, somehow managing to remain standing, he saw it there on the back of the butler's neck, one of the oh-so-familiar black spidery-looking things. Green eyes widened and the world returned to normal speeds as Wally backpedaled into the dining room table, rattling the glasses and plates set out on top.
He couldn't help but notice that the table had only been set for two people.
"Master Wallace," Alfred greeted, speaking with a blank calmness that didn't quite match up in Wally's mind to the horrifying circumstances that the butler was one of the controlled, which just confirmed his fears and suspicions that Batman must be being controlled too.
There was a brief moment of silence where the elder man looked down at the speedster's muddy boots before looking back up at him and saying with a dry tone, "How good it is to see you, as always."
Then the butler took a step forward and Wally was quick to put the table between them, the dishes set out on the table-top shuddering once more. Undeterred by the movement, Alfred continued speaking, "We've been hoping we'd run into you soon."
"Yeah, I bet you have!" Wally snapped, backing up a few more steps, muscles tensing as he readied himself to run the instant he needed to.
"I understand your fears," Alfred said, still speaking quite calmly. "Change can be frightening, but you do not fully understand the circumstances of what's going on around you. You are making the wrong choice by continuing to run away, when instead you should be embracing this change. It really is all for the best."
"You would say that with that thing stuck to the back of your neck," Wally said, green eyes narrowing accusingly, and his voice shook just-so-slightly as he shouted, "W-where's Dick? You guys implant him with one of those things too? Bet you're gonna tell me next that he wants me to give in to this stupid change you're going on about."
Alfred's mouth pressed into a thin line, and for a moment, there was an uncomfortable silence that made Wally vibrate in place with nervous energy, drying up all that was left of the rainwater still clinging to him.
Finally, the butler opened his mouth and spoke, "There are... certain sacrifices that must be made when it comes to changes such as these – Master Richard being one of them."
Wally's heart stilled in his chest.
Sacrifices? ...What the hell did that even mean? What was the man saying?
"All for the greater good, I assure you," Alfred said.
It was anything but reassuring though, and when Wally opened his mouth, words tumbled out in bits and pieces, "W...what? I – no... No, you're..." His voice grew ragged and torn, "Where is he?"
"It's nothing you should be concerning yourself with," Alfred said. "Master Bruce is –"
But whatever it was that Bats was doing, Wally didn't stay behind to listen. He shot out of the room, racing through the halls and into another room where he knew an entrance to the batcave to be, because... because maybe, maybe Dick was down there, hurt and in need of help, or maybe there was something down there that would help him find the Boy Wonder, or– or, god, he didn't know, but it was the only thing he could think of to do. It was the only place in the manor that he hadn't gone to yet.
The glass on the door to the old grandfather clock shattered to pieces from the force of his speed as he raced through the hidden entrance and down the many stone steps leading to the batcave below. Batman wasn't there, but at this point, Wally was too freaked out to care if he ran into the Dark Knight or not. He didn't stop even when he reached the cave floor, just kept running, frantically darting around the hideout's wide expanse, a million different thoughts racing through his head, half of them completely unintelligible.
And then he saw it, lying on an examination table like a smoking gun, a familiar yellow utility belt, cut cleanly through one of the pockets, splatters of what could only be dried blood staining the fabric a rusty brown. Wally skidded to a stop, the cold, steel edge of the table biting into his stomach when he half-crashed into it. As gloved hands wrapped around the belt, shakily squeezing it tight, his breath hitched once in his throat and his body began vibrating in place, completely against his will as his panic and his worry and everything built up inside of him.
His nose began to bleed, fresh drops of bright red dripping down onto the yellow belt in his hands alongside the rusty brown. A set of footsteps at the top of the stone staircase met his ears, sounding deafening in the quiet cave, and like a rubber band stretched until it snapped, he shot out of there, leaving through the batmobile's exit.
Gotham whipped past his vision as he left the city behind, left the state behind, traveling across the country and back to California – Dick's utility belt still clutched in his grasp – until he was in a field of tall, dry grass that crunched underfoot, and an old abandoned barn, just a simple, lop-sided silhouette in the darkness, rested not too far off in the distance.
Wally took a step towards the crumbling building before he stopped and sucked in a breath, taking to pacing back and forth a few times in the field instead and forcing himself to do it at normal speeds. He needed to tell the rest of the team what he found, what he'd been told and the unfortunate reality of what it might mean, but he didn't want to be completely falling apart when he did it – he didn't want them to see him like that.
Gripping at the belt in his hands, he took a couple of shaking breaths to calm himself down, at least to the point where the involuntary vibrations stopped, and he sniffled through his bloody nose until that stopped too. Wiping the blood off his face with one forearm and not caring if he missed any, he slipped Dick's utility belt into his backpack, wanting to explain to his teammates the bad news he had found out first before showing them the unsettling evidence, and then he ran the rest of the way to the barn, bursting through a rotting door that barely held up under his strength.
The shout of "Guys!" left him a second before he realized that they were already standing right there, his overly dramatic entrance gaining only three blank looks cast in his direction, and the words died on his lips before he could even begin to tell them what happened when his mind finally caught up with the rest of him and he processed what he was seeing.
Specifically the bruise that had blossomed across Artemis' face, and then M'gann, the dark circles around her eyes, and the fact that her once green skin was now white as snow.
"Shit, guys, what happened? Is everyone alright?" he asked, stepping towards them, but then stopped when his gaze trailed over to Conner. "Kon... what are you wearing?"
A steel band circled the clone's throat like a collar, so very similar to the one he'd seen Superman wearing in the few recent images he had caught in newspapers and on television screens being displayed in store-front windows.
Superman, who was also being controlled.
Wally backed away, stumbling as he nearly tripped over his own feet, and when M'gann smiled a crooked smile at him that didn't quite reach her eyes, his unease wasn't lessened in the slightest.
"Everything is just fine, Wally," M'gann said, hands clasped in front of her. "Wonderful even, and we're so happy you came back." She spread her arms out to her sides like she was hoping for a hug. "Now you can join us and everyone else."
The way she was talking, the way they were all acting, he didn't want to believe it even despite the evidence before him, that they'd finally gotten caught, that they were being controlled just like everyone else, and that he hadn't been there to help them when they'd needed it, to help stop this from happening – he didn't want to believe that that was what was happening, not until he saw the backs of their necks, and it would only take him a second to look, but he didn't move forward. He didn't want to look and confirm the obvious truth in front of him.
He instead took another step back.
M'gann's arms dropped back down to her sides like she was disappointed, yet the smile didn't leave her face, "You think you don't want it, but you do. We were wrong before. It's really not a bad thing at all."
As she spoke, she happily floated up, spinning in place, her fingers lacing through her hair, and time briefly slowed down for him as red locks were brushed aside, revealing the black mind-control thing on the back of her neck, standing out quite clearly against her pale skin.
"Yeah, West," Artemis said, a hand on her hip and a smirk on her face, "And if you're being a wuss about the pain. Don't worry, it only stings for a second."
He couldn't stay any longer. At the moment, they weren't his teammates, his friends, who he could trust and rely on, they were a part of the mind-controlled masses, just like the Justice League and the rest of the population, and the longer he stuck around them, the more he risked getting caught just like them. As he turned to run for it as quickly as he could, watching them over his shoulder for any sudden movement, he saw the emotions drop off their faces completely, leaving behind only blank expressions.
Cold and unfeeling, just like Uncle Barry's face when he was breaking Wally's leg.
He bolted out the barn door and ran straight into a broad red-uniformed chest, a familiar lightning-bolt insignia being the first thing his eyes caught as he stumbled back and fell to the ground. Wally stared wide-eyed up at the Flash for only a fraction of a second before he shot off, tearing up dirt and dry field grass as he went, and even with as fast as he was running, a glance over his shoulder showed his uncle easily keeping up pace with him, gaining on him.
He ran through ninety miles of wilderness and farmlands before his feet hit pavement and tall buildings of the closest city rose up around him – swarming with activity even despite the late hour. It was the perfect sort of place for him to meld into the background and lose his uncle if he was just given half a chance, but Uncle Barry wasn't letting up this time. No matter how much Wally zig-zagged around buildings and people and cut across alleyways and raced through various tunnels, the older speedster stayed right on his tail the entire time – narrowed white eyes of his cowl locked onto him, and he reached out to Wally.
He was going to get caught.
He was going to get caught and Uncle Barry was going to break his leg again, maybe both of them this time, and then drive one of those black mind-control things into the back of Wally's neck. He was going to lose all sense of free-will, was going to become just like everyone else, including Alfred who didn't seem to care that Dick was considered a necessary 'sacrifice.'
There was nothing he could do about it either – because he just wasn't fast enough, he couldn't outrun his uncle no matter how hard he tried.
'I'm alone now. Completely alone.'
He didn't have his teammates anymore, they were just another enemy now. He didn't have his family or anyone from the League. He didn't Roy or Dick either – his brothers, his friends. He only had himself to rely on, Wally verses the world, and it just wasn't enough, not when Uncle Barry was so much faster than him, so much more experienced –
– and was grabbing onto him with red gloved hands, had one hand buried into the back of Wally's uniform while the other gripped him by the shoulder, pulling back against him.
Forcing him to slow down.
And then an arrow sailed past Wally's face – coming so close he could feel it brush against his hair. It was a combination of luck, skill, and Barry being too focused on catching Wally to see it in time that allowed the arrow to strike the older speedster in the chest. Upon contact, the end of the arrow erupted into a thick foam which quickly expanded around his uncle, and Wally was able to twist his way out of the distracted man's grasp.
As the foam moved to envelop Barry completely and the elder speedster slowed his pace in favor of clawing at the foam and attempting to vibrate his way through it, several more arrows struck the ground around the man in rapid succession. Cords burst free from three of the arrow heads, binding Barry in place, and more of the same foam from before exploded out of the rest until Wally could no longer see his uncle beneath it all.
Wally knew that he should keep running as fast as he could away from the scene. With Barry preoccupied, it would be the perfect time to make his escape, and yet he didn't run off, not at that very moment, and instead slowed down because he recognized those arrows. He recognized the arrows' red fletching that was exactly like one arrow in particular that he'd kept hidden in a keep-safe box he had under his bed back home. He had seen enough arrows just like it to know exactly who the arrows belonged to, and the fact that the arrows hadn't been aimed at him, but had been aimed to protect him –
The archer was somewhere nearby, and Wally cast his gaze around him, searching for the older boy as thoughts raced through his head of 'What if I can't find him? What if Barry escapes, and I don't find Roy in time, and I have to run for it, and we're separated again?'
He stopped. He turned in place.
"Roy!" he called out.
He darted back and forth on the oddly empty street, looking all around him, but it was just so dark out, and even with the street lights, he could hardly see anything at all, let alone his friend who was likely hiding somewhere.
There was a sound of feet hitting pavement close by and suddenly hands were grabbing him by the back of his uniform at the mouth of an alley and dragging him backwards into its shadowy depths. One of the hands clapped over his mouth, cutting off his startled yelp, and he flailed his arms out, clawing at the person's arms for a second before he finally registered what he was seeing, who he was seeing.
Bright blue eyes, that familiar red hair poking out from under the hood of a worn-down jacket, the unmistakable shape of the quiver full of arrows and the bow strapped to the older boy's back.
Noting the recognition in his green eyes, the hand dropped away from his mouth, and in the dark alley, Wally could just barely make out the way Roy's mouth quirked up into a small smile as he said, "Got your message. Been trying to catch up with you for awhile now."
Wally opened his mouth to respond, but words failed him completely, and the archer didn't give him any extra time to collect his thoughts before he was pulling Wally down the alley way towards a dark shape that could only be a motorcycle. Wally dragged his feet as he followed – hesitant, unsure – and it was only when the hood dropped down from Roy's head and he saw the back of the other boy's neck, completely bare, that he let go of the breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding.
"We have to go now. That stuff isn't going to hold your uncle for much longer."
At the reminder of the older speedster, the numbing calm that came from Roy's sudden presence vanished and Wally dug in his heels, pulling back against Roy's grip, because there was no way they could out-run Barry on just a motorcycle no matter how much of a head-start they got, and Wally just knew that the second his uncle got free, he would find them and catch them. He wasn't aware that he was babbling this exact thing to the archer. The sound of his own heartbeat thudded in his ears, drowning out all other noise including his own voice, beating faster and faster, and he could feel his panic from before coming back and welling up inside of him.
He didn't think, just acted – 'No time. No time. No time!' racing through his head as he darted forward, picked Roy up in a fireman's carry despite the archer's protests, and shot out of the city, running as fast as he possibly could and hoping, hoping, hoping that he had acted quickly enough and that it was at least enough of a head-start for a speedster like him to outrun the Flash.
Farmlands passed by. Fields, roads, rocky terrain, and thankfully no sign of his uncle. He kept running though, didn't stop for a second, and when he reached another city, he ran around it rather than through it, not wanting to take the chance of someone seeing him, even for a split second.
"Wally. It's alright. You can stop running now."
He could barely hear Roy's words before they were swept away in the wind, focusing instead on the desert he passed through, more rocky terrain, more fields before he finally hit a forest full of trees whose leaves were orange and red due to the fall season, and the force of his speed ripped the brightly colored leaves free from their branches, creating a flurry of color that followed in his wake like the tail to a comet. He didn't know where they were, what state they were in, and he didn't care either. All that he cared about was getting themselves as far away as possible, to keep running for as long as possible.
And he would have kept running had he not encountered a pond that came into his path too quick for him to dodge around. A swear on the tip of his tongue, he only made it halfway across before he lost his momentum and his foot sunk a little too deep into the water and he tripped, sending both Roy and himself tumbling head over heels across the water's surface before slowing to a stop with a mighty splash.
He didn't realize until that instant just how exhausted he was, how stretched-thin and burnt out he felt, and he hardly even noticed that he was sinking down, down, down – a trail of bubbles floating up from his lips – until Roy was grabbing him by the arm, pulling him up so that his back was to the archer's chest, and dragged him back up to the surface.
Wally sucked in a breath when they broke through the water's surface and reached fresh air, coughing a few times. All around them, colorful fall leaves that had been caught up in his speed drifted down to float in the chilly water around them, giving off a sense of false peace.
His mind felt kind of not all there, fuzzy almost, and as his heart rate slowed to speeds that were more normal for him and his body sluggishly attempted to regain some of its energy, he was only half aware of Roy swimming them across the pond, back to dry land. He didn't know quite how much time had passed before he could feel his feet dragging against the pond's sandy bottom, but he felt a bit more able to support his own weight by that point and attempted just that with a couple of stumbling, splashing movements, keeping one hand bunched up in Roy's soaked jacket as he shakily stood next to the archer, the water coming up to his waist.
Roy's hands pressed against Wally's forehead, his face, against the side of his neck, before coming to rest on his shoulders, "You alright?"
Wally nodded, water dripping from his chin, and from the look Roy was giving him, he imagined that he must look pretty pathetic, like a drowned rat. The archer's mouth pressed into a thin line and he looked like he wanted to say something, something about how Wally clearly wasn't okay, but he stayed silent, turning his gaze instead to the shore. The two began sloshing through the water, traveling the remaining short distance back to dry land, and the whole time, Wally held onto Roy's jacket, both for support and also because a part of him was worried about the older boy somehow vanishing again.
It was when the water was only up to Wally's knees when Roy spoke again, grumbling quietly, "Left my bike back there."
Wally knew that Roy wasn't being serious, that he was likely just trying to lighten the mood, and yet anger bubbled up inside of him at the other boy's comment, and he couldn't stop himself from snapping, "That's what you're worried about? Your bike?"
He was cold, tired, and miserable, and at the moment, he just couldn't find it in himself to joke about the situation, or even tolerate Roy joking about it, because for over the past four weeks, his worries and concerns hadn't been over any sort of material possession, but rather had been over the lives of his friends. Friends that, for all he'd known, could have very well been dead – something that might still be a possibility. For Roy to say something like that so offhandedly, like there was nothing wrong, like he hadn't been at all worried this whole time, unlike Wally whose worries were driving him up the wall–
"Your stupid bike!"
He wasn't quite sure where he found the strength, but he pushed Roy over in the pond. The effort he put into doing that much had him wobbling on his feet before he fell to his knees, the water once again up past his waist, but he didn't care. His lips curling up into a snarl, he shouted at Roy, and punctuated each shout with a splash of water at the older boy who only sat where he had fallen and held an arm up over his eyes.
"I've been worried sick about you for four weeks which have felt like months to me, and I've been trying and trying to contact you, and that's all you have to say to me when we finally meet up? Something about your stupid motorcycle? Really?"
He shuffled over to Roy on his knees, splashing water at him as he went, and only stopped when he was close enough to grab Roy. He buried gloved fingers in the archer's sodden jacket and tugged at the fabric tightly only because he felt like if his hands were free, he might just hit him.
"Why didn't you contact me? You said you got my message, so why the fuck didn't you send a message back to me, or leave a response, or – or something, anything at all? I –" Wally's voice cracked, twisting into something that wasn't so much anger as it was despair. "I thought you were hurt, or dead, or..."
Arms wrapped around him.
Wally's breath hitched, and he could feel his face grow hot. He looked up into Roy's blue eyes, the sincerity they held, before looking away as his own green eyes stung with suppressed tears.
"I'm sorry," Roy repeated. "After I realized that it wasn't just Star City that it was happening in, well, I couldn't exactly use the zeta beams to travel. I had to drive all the way to Central, and then to Happy Harbor and then..." He laughed briefly, hollowly. "It took some time, is all I'm saying. Not all of us are speedsters. And then when I got your messages..."
Roy paused for a moment, one hand unconsciously sliding up Wally's back to press against the back of his neck, and even though Wally knew that it was just Roy who was safe and mind-control-free, he couldn't help but tense up at the touch as fresh, new instincts screamed at him to keep the back of his neck safe.
"Everyone I'd come across," Roy said, "everyone who'd had one of those things on their neck, they were all fully functioning, had all of their knowledge and memories prior to this whole shit-storm. I couldn't be sure if you were the same as everyone else, if you were trying to lead me into a trap, and I... I was just trying to be careful, Wally."
And Wally could understand that because he'd had the same concerns. Even with all the messages he had left, he had never given away the location of the current safe house he and his remaining teammates had been hiding out at, he had instead written down in code a separate location far away from the safe house where he wanted to meet up with Roy and...
"Roy," Wally spoke quietly, any trace of anger completely extinguished from his voice. He pressed his forehead against Roy's chest, his hands still fisted up in the archer's jacket, and for the first time since the start of this all, tears fell from his eyes, dripping down into the pond water. Not even when Barry had broken his leg had he cried, just screamed and screamed... "Roy, I can't find him, I can't find Dick anywhere. He's not responding to any of my messages either, and there was blood on his utility belt and – Roy, he doesn't have his belt on him, and then Alfred was saying–"
"It's okay," Roy said, arms holding him tighter. "Dick's probably just doing the same thing as me, being overly cautious about responding, And anyway, it took me a little time to decipher your messages, so maybe he's having the same issue too. The post office was pretty straightforward, but the billboards were a little vague and –"
"Billboards?" Wally asked, confused.
"You know, the messages spray-painted on billboards, and there were some along the walls of buildings," Roy said, though sounding a bit more unsure than before. "Made to look like graffiti?"
"That wasn't me," Wally said as he sat back up and looked up at Roy, sniffling and blinking away tears. "How do you know that wasn't actually graffiti? What did they say?"
"I couldn't really make sense of what it was saying," Roy said, his brows furrowed. "But it was using code words you and Dick came up with."
Secret graffiti messages written on buildings and billboards. He vaguely remembered talking with Dick about something similar, but he hadn't even thought to look past what, to him, was just another part of the background to a busy town or city, and he could kick himself for completely overlooking something like that – if it was indeed a coded message and not just your usual case of vandalism.
And if it was in fact a message...
...then Dick was still alive.
'Or there's at least a good chance that he still is,' but Wally couldn't be thinking like that, not just yet.
"Tell me where these messages are."
It was spoken so quietly and yet it almost seemed to echo loudly around the room,"What would I do if I had to fight Batman as an enemy..."
Some kind of plan, some crazy strategy that only the Boy Wonder could think up, some sort of vague implication that Batman did in fact have a weakness and that Dick knew what it was even if he wouldn't say what it was – that was the sort of answer Wally was expecting, and not at all the answer he got.
"I don't know."
Then Dick said exactly what Wally himself feared when it came to the thought of having to face off against his own mentor. Fears of not being good enough or experienced enough, fears of not even being slightly capable of surpassing the one who had trained him.
"I mean, he's Batman. He taught me everything I know," Robin said, his back to the two redheads and his gaze locked on the computer screen in front of him. "No matter what I'd do, he'd be able to predict my every move."
A silence descended over the room, and Wally thought that that was the end of the conversation – that this was just one thing they couldn't plan for, couldn't beat, because there was no way to beat it.
And then Dick spoke again.
Wally looked back over at the younger boy.
"In order to stand a chance against Batman," Dick said, "I guess... I'd have to act in a way that even he couldn't predict, which would mean acting in a way that I couldn't predict either. Making it so that my next move is something that I wouldn't even know myself."
"I..." Wally blinked. "What? How could you not even know your own next move?"
Dick laughed, chilling and echoing, "I guess it's something I picked up from Gotham's rogues, that complete randomness makes you a hard target, and nothing's more random than rolling a dice, or a random number generator, or picking a card out of a deck. Of course, you adjust any plan to fit whatever situation you're faced with, but sometimes –"
Dick looked over his shoulder at them with a grin.
"–the best plans are the ones you don't come up with in advance," the younger boy concluded.
"Just something you come up with on the fly," Roy said, arms crossed over his chest in a relaxed way.
"Yeah," Dick said. "And anyway, when it comes to hypothetically facing off against our mentors, it's not so much about winning –"
'–as it is about not losing.'
Because hell knows that they'd never quit the mother-hen act if that happened.
And if Batman– Bruce ended up killing him, unintentionally or not, then Dick feared for the man's sanity and for the future of Gotham as well. He knew the Dark Knight enough to know that he wouldn't be able to handle such a thing, so even as the life was being choked out of him and his head grew fuzzy from a lack of oxygen, when Bruce swung that batarang down, Dick quickly brought an arm up in the weapon's path to shield himself, and although it sliced straight through his forearm like butter, it wasn't the killing blow it was meant to be.
Before Bruce could pull out the batarang to strike again, before he could grab a second batarang from his belt, Dick twisted in the man's one-handed grip, quickly curved his body up and kicked out with one foot, striking Bruce right in the throat. Bruce's hand immediately dropped away from Dick's own throat as the man choked and took a faltering step back, and in that short reprieve, Dick scrambled away from his mentor's looming form, dodging under a black gloved hand as it swiped at him.
He couldn't stick around any longer, in the cave or with Batman. There was nothing more he could do there, at least for the moment. Dick would have to retreat, and he'd have to leave his belt behind because as much as he wanted to go searching for it in the dark, he just didn't have the time. That blow to Bruce's throat wouldn't keep him down for long, and Dick really didn't want to risk another close encounter with the man so soon.
As fast as he could run, Dick bolted over to where his motorbike rested. Sliding across the hood of the batmobile to get to it, he grabbed his helmet off the seat and hopped on – all the while forcing himself to ignore the batarang still embedded in his arm. He'd have to take care of that later. Slipping his helmet on, out of the corner of his eye, he could see Bruce heading straight for him, the man's long black cape billowing out behind him like a pair of menacing black wings. Gunning the engine, he tore out of the cave as fast as the motorbike would allow.
Who would have thought that the dark embrace of Gotham was safer than the batcave itself?
Or at least that's what he first thought as he took the back roads leading away from Wayne Manor, but as he reached the more active city streets and made his way deeper into the heart of Gotham, and then not too much later than that when he had no choice but to leave even the city itself behind, he'd quickly discover that the rest of the world was just as dangerous and just as corrupted by those spidery mind-controlling implants as Batman was.
And the construction site for a new bank out along the coast of a place called Bludhaven.
That's where the coded graffiti messages led them – well, where the most recent graffiti messages led them because there had been older messages with other locations spray painted in big blue letters and symbols, but the time for those meet ups with Dick had come and passed – and there was no doubt in Wally's mind that the messages had been from Dick. What Wally did doubt though was his ability to correctly decipher the messages because Dick couldn't possibly have made his coding technique any more difficult than it already was.
Wally could already tell without even having to see Dick that the younger boy's Bat paranoia was at its highest, and he couldn't help the worried feeling that settled in the pit of his stomach even despite mental assurances that this was all just part of the norm for his Gotham friend. It was the thought of Dick being left to fend for himself in present circumstances for the past four weeks – it didn't sit right with Wally, even knowing how capable Dick was.
He forced himself to put those concerns on the back burner though because there was something even more pertinent that he needed to focus his mind on, and that was the possibility that this was all a trap (as much as he didn't want to agree with Roy that Dick could be leading them into a trap, the older boy had a point and they did need to be prepared for every possibility).
Which was why they hadn't arrived on the scene together, but rather had come in separately and were sure to keep their distance as they waited and walked around the construction site. They didn't stray too far from each other though, and if it did turn out to be a trap, they were close enough to be able to help one another while at the same time not being so close as to make themselves an easy target to get caught together. It wasn't much of a plan, but it was the best they could come up with on such short notice considering that Wally had only just figured out the most recent graffiti message that afternoon.
Walking into the empty construction site, the workers having gone home hours earlier, Wally had been tense and ready for an attack as he stuck to the shadows and was as discrete as possible. Nothing had happened though, and as time passed, going from midnight to one in the morning and then dragging on to four in the morning, Wally found himself growing restless, the tension in his shoulders fading away. He still stepped quietly though as he walked back and forth along the construction site, absentmindedly rattling off scientific equations in his head; the law of gravitation, the radioactive decay of uranium–
He sighed quietly to himself, thinking, 'He's not coming. I messed up the translation somewhere.'
It was beyond late and was getting to be about time that they headed back to the shelter they had recently holed up in – the back room of a small empty store that had yet to be rented out again. They'd have to try again another day to find Dick, after Wally had a second look at the messages that he'd copied down on the back of a flier he'd picked up off the street. Though he was disappointed that they hadn't found Dick tonight, for the moment, Wally was just thankful to be leaving Bludhaven behind. The place was unnerving in the way that Gotham was unnerving, but at least with Gotham, Wally was kind of familiar with the area.
Not really bothering with stealth at this point, Wally ran at normal speeds over to where he knew Roy to be, only getting as far as saying, "I don't think he's–" before he cut himself off and skidded to a stop, dust clouding around his feet.
Though it was hard to see in the dark even after his eyes had adjusted to the small amount of moonlight that the night had to offer, in the distance, Wally could clearly spot the shape that was Roy from the red plaid lining on the hood of his jacket – Roy who had his hands on his head and was kneeling on the ground, and it wasn't so much that that had Wally freezing as it was the shadowed figure standing behind Roy; the archer's own bow and arrow grasped in one hand while the stranger's other hand pulled down the back collar of Roy's jacket, exposing his bare neck.
The world slowed down around Wally as his speed kicked in, and in the next second, he shot off towards Roy and the archer's attacker, green eyes narrowing in determination. Thoughts of 'Why didn't he call out for backup? Why does no one ever stick to the plan anymore?' raced through his head, and Wally only hoped that he wouldn't be too late in preventing Roy from being implanted with one of those mind-controlling things –
It wasn't so much that Wally ignored Roy's shout of "Wally, wait!" as it was that he didn't hear it in time to stop himself from tackling the shadowed form, knocking the person over and away from Roy.
Dark sunglasses hit the ground with enough force to pop one of the lenses out, both pieces skittering several feet away, returning the world to normal speeds as Wally watched them slide to a stop, their familiarity striking something deep within the speedster.
Even more striking than that though was the blow he received to the chest followed quickly by a sideswipe to his legs, knocking him to the ground – all of it done in one swift, fluid movement that Wally had both seen and experienced so many times during sparring sessions at Mount Justice, and not just from anyone, but from Dick himself.
"Dick?" Wally said in between coughs, winded from that first hit and still not quite able to catch his breath when a knee pressed down onto his chest, pinning him.
Familiar vivid blue eyes that could only belong to Dick stared down at him, shadowed by dark bruises that instinctively had Wally reaching a concerned hand up to the younger boy's face. The sudden glimmer of fear within those blue depths, fear of him, had him freezing though, and he dropped his hand back down to his side
For the past four weeks, when he had envisioned his reunion with Dick, he had pictured it being a lot happier, full of hugging and fist-bumps and 'Dude, I was so worried about you.' Not this though, this tense standoff, and while there were no mind-controlled mentors involved in this particular reunion and no running across the country at top speed to avoid an attack like there had been with his reunion with Roy, emotions were running just as high now as they had been before – the prick of an arrow pressing against Wally's neck further emphasizing this.
"Woah, Dick, it's alright," Roy said, and out of the corner of his eye, Wally could see the older boy crouching down so that he was more at eye-level with Dick. The archer didn't make any moves to come any closer to them, for the moment just holding his hands up in a pacifying gesture.
However, Wally wasn't worried, not about this. He knew that he'd be able to move fast enough to both knock the arrow away and push Dick off of him. He didn't though. He didn't move at all, because while he wasn't worried for himself, he was worried by the way Dick was shaking, by the layers of bruises he could see on the other boy's face and stretching down to his neck – some old and faded while others were fresh and even a little bloody-looking – and he was especially worried by the faint rattling he could make out as Dick breathed.
All together, Dick looked like he might just crumble to dust if Wally moved too suddenly, so the speedster stayed still on the ground, staring up at his friend. Roy kept talking in the background, a low litany of calming words, trying to talk the Boy Wonder's nerves down, saying, "Wally's on our side. He's clean just like you and me."
Dick's grip tightened around the arrow.
"No," Dick said, cutting Roy off, and laughter trickled past his lips – sounding watered-down and with a slightly hysterical edge to it – before being cut short as his breath hitched, "Everything's so not okay – so not asterous. Not when every single person I've run into so far has been trying to kill me."
More laughter and another hitched breath.
"Just like you're going to try and kill me too, right?"
The arrow pressed down harder.
Wally tried to force an easy-going smile, an attempt at diffusing things, but it just wouldn't come, not without looking fake which was the last thing the situation needed, so instead he just let all his worries and concerns for his friend's well-being bleed through on his face as he spoke, "Nothing on my neck, bro."
Dick of course didn't buy it, his blue eyes narrowing with suspicion.
"Go ahead and check," Wally said, lifting his head up off the ground to give the younger boy easier access to the back of his neck, and not caring about the arrow biting deeper into his flesh, drawing blood. He would just heal in a short moment anyway. Dick on the other hand...
"You're not looking too hot there," Wally said, watching the emotions flicker past Dick's face – fear and apprehension and so many other things – as the other boy reached down to Wally's neck with his free hand, still not letting go of the arrow with the other.
"Shut up," Dick said, "You – You don't get to do that. You don't get to pretend that you care, make me think you're on my side so that I'll let my guard down and –"
A gloveless hand ran along the back of Wally's neck, feeling the bare skin there, and Dick stilled for a moment. The fear and suspicion on his face wavered, though it didn't go away completely. The arrow pulled away from Wally's neck only to be replaced by a hand a moment later, not so much to stem the blood-flow from the cut, but rather to further restrain him – though Dick didn't press down hard enough to cut off Wally's air, and the speedster counted that as a plus.
"You guys are just trying to trick me, right?" Dick said, his blue eyes darting back and forth between the two older boys. "You're hiding it somewhere else other than your neck, somewhere under your clothes or something. No one else could catch me long enough to do the job, so they sent you two to play the friend card so that I'd let you get close enough and – and – this was stupid. I shouldn't have come here."
Wally couldn't help the sympathetic look that passed over his face. It was painful to see his friend spiraling in such a way, and without even really knowing what he was doing, Wally bought one hand up to wrap around the wrist of the hand pressed against his neck, "Dick –"
"Tell me I'm wrong!" Dick snapped, and with his other hand, the arrow was back again, except this time pressing against Wally's cheek just below his eye, "You can't, can you? Because I'm right, because this is all just a ploy and – don't you come any closer Roy!"
And then at the same time that Roy froze from where he'd been inching forward, Dick started coughing. The arrow dropped from limp fingers, falling off to the side of Wally's head as Dick brought one hand up to his mouth, half hunching over on the speedster as he coughed and wheezed, trying to force out words, "Don't..." more coughing. "Don't..."
For the briefest moment, Wally found himself frozen by the spectacle, but then a small drop of red escaped from between Dick's curled fingers, rolling down a bruised hand before it dripped down onto Wally's shirt, and suddenly all thought on how best to handle this entire situation went out the window and Wally was up and moving and had his arms around Dick before the young boy could even think about trying to keep him pinned.
"Ohmygodohmygodohmygod," was the first thing out of Wally's mouth as he grabbed the hand Dick had been coughing into, pulling it back to reveal wet crimson, "You're bleeding. Roy, he's bleeding, he's coughing up blood. Howdowefixthat? Wecan'tfixthat!"
They couldn't go to a hospital, they couldn't take him to a doctor – there could be something seriously wrong with him and there would be nothing that they could do about it. Not a single damn thing other than what they could do with a general first aid kit, which was practically useless when it came to anything more than a flesh wound.
Dick struggled in his arms, trying and failing to squirm out of Wally's grasp, the whole time saying through wheezing coughs, "No. No, let me go. God, please, let me go." And it twisted Wally's stomach up into knots, because the younger boy really, genuinely thought that they were going to hurt him, kill him even. Seeing him like this, it only made Wally want to hold on tighter – the very last thing that Dick wanted.
"Wally," and when did Roy get so close? Kneeling down next to them, the archer wrapped a hand around Wally's upper arm, speaking calmly despite the circumstances, "You're holding too tight, you're going to hurt him."
"Please –" a shallow wheeze. Hand's pressed against Wally's chest, trying to push him away. "Shit, please let me go." Another wet cough that dotted the younger boy's lips with even more red.
'He's hurt, he'sbleedinghe'shurt.'
Wally let go, though not completely as his fingers refused to release their grasp on Dick's jacket, and the whole time, Dick watched both him and Roy with wild eyes, pulling back as much as he possibly could and looking like he was ready to bolt at any second. It didn't escape the speedster's notice the way Dick cringed away from them, and it seemed that Roy saw it too since the archer kept from actually touching the younger boy and instead just hovered worried hands over his shuddering form as he coughed and wheezed and gradually regained his breath.
They were at a standstill, and Wally couldn't really think of anything else to do or say, because what could he say that would get Dick to listen to reason? What could he say that would break through the fear and distrust and a paranoia so high?
What could he say... except for –
"Do you really think," his words shook with barely suppressed emotion as he drew Dick's attention to him completely, "for one second, that if I actually wanted to hurt you, or even... do you really think that I would just sit here and not use my superspeed to do something like that, something that I could have done five minutes ago and faster than you can even blink?"
Because sometimes the best (and only) way of dealing with Bat paranoia was to use Bat logic, as harsh as that logic may be.
"I –" Dick's breath hitched, "I dunno." A tear fell from watery blue eyes, "No? Maybe...?"
More tears fell, and Dick brought a shaking hand up to wipe them away, consequently smearing blood across his eyes. He didn't seem to care though.
"Well the answer's 'no,'" Wally said when Dick stayed silent, and as a show of good will, he let go of the other boy completely, his hands dropping down to his sides as he said, "No to all of that and no to even the possibility of us hurting you."
He would never – they would both never – not as long as he could help it, and he would fight tooth and nail to keep the world from turning him into a drone that wanted to harm one of his best friends.
Dick pressed a hand to his forehead, burying his fingers in his hair as he said, "I, I want to believe you guys. Really, I do, but I just can't help feeling like you're going to stab me in the back the second I let my guard down." He sniffled. "Because so far that's happened every time I let my guard down – first with Black Canary when she pretended to be on my side, and then all those times when I thought I had a good enough disguise but then someone recognized me anyway, and a couple days ago when I was trying to get a little bit of sleep and a guy with a crowbar found me, and..."
He seemed to cringe at the memory.
"...and I haven't slept for– for a week," Dick continued, losing his momentum as he spoke, "cause someone always finds me..."
Mouth pulled down into a frown, Roy reached up with one hand and rested it on Dick's shoulder, pretending not to notice the way the younger boy almost seemed to curl in on himself like someone waiting to be hit, and with his other hand, the archer used his sleeve to wipe away the blood and tears from Dick's face as gently as he could considering all the bruises, "Not saying that you have to, but it's alright now, if you want to let your guard down a little. I know this might not mean much to you right now, but you've got me and Wally to help you."
"Yeah, we've got your back bro," Wally said, leaning down just a bit to meet Dick's downcast eyes, seeing the younger boy blinking half-lidded baby-blues past more tears, and he could tell Dick's resolve was crumbling bit by bit as exhaustion crept in.
Moving as slowly as he possibly could so as not to startle the already unnerved Boy Wonder, Wally leaned forward and wrapped Dick up in a hug – done much more carefully as compared to several minutes before. Dick arched his shoulders at the contact, his breath hitching into a half-restrained cough. For several minutes, there was a tense silence, and while Dick made no move to push him away, Wally wondered if maybe he had overstepped his bounds too quickly.
And then Dick rested his head against Wally's shoulder.
Encouraged by this, Wally started talking, "Roy and I have a safe place we can take you to."
"Rule two," Dick breathed quietly against the speedster's shoulder, and Wally had to smile at that.
"Heh, yeah," Wally agreed. "And on that note, I think we need to add sleep to rule one about 'essentials.'"
"Mmm, no, messes up the equation," Dick murmured. "And 'm fine. Used to no sleep. I can... I can keep going..."
He gradually went limp in Wally's arms, his breathing evening out in its unsettlingly strained way. Roy leaned down for a quick look at their younger friend and confirmed what Wally had already guessed.
A week awake, it would seem, was too much for even the Boy Wonder.
"Do you need help carrying him?" Roy asked, meeting Wally's gaze.
"Nah, I got it," Wally said, adjusting his hold on the younger boy so that it was more secure.
Roy nodded once before rising to his feet, "I'll go find us a car."
Because the newly stolen motorcycle Roy had driven in on and Wally's superspeed along with that wouldn't be the best way to peacefully transport their sleeping friend back to the empty store room they were staying in. A car would be a much more suitable option. Of course, they soon found that they didn't really have to worry about that, as there wasn't much that would wake the younger boy.
"It's just," Wally said an hour later, sitting in the backseat of the car Roy had hot-wired for them. "It's just not normal for him. He's always been a light sleeper."
He had one arm slung over Dick's shoulders, both supporting him and protectively holding him close as the young boy rested limply against his side, just as out of it as ever. It was unsettling to say the least, and it was only the sound of Dick breathing combined with the look Roy kept giving him in the rear-view mirror that prevented Wally from trying to poke the younger boy awake to see if he was okay.
"Let him sleep," Roy said, speaking quietly, his gaze periodically shifting between watching the road and briefly glancing into the backseat. "A week is a long time to be awake for."
Wally knew that, but knowing didn't stop the worry he felt at seeing his friend so still after he'd been coughing up blood just an hour earlier, and add to that the massive bruise he'd found on Dick's chest when he'd been checking the younger boy for other injuries. What if there was something seriously damaged inside of him? What if he didn't wake up again?
Shifting slowly so as not to disturb Dick – not because he was worried about waking the other boy, but because he was worried about further hurting him – Wally pulled his backpack up from where he'd dropped it on the floor. Tugging open the zipper with one hand, he reached inside, shifting his hand through some clothes and other various supplies, and grabbing on to one thing in particular.
"What are you doing?" Roy asked.
Wally pulled Dick's utility belt out of the backpack. Silver duct tape held it together now, not exactly done in the neatest manner, but it was enough. Sliding his arm out from around Dick so that he had both hands free, Wally carefully looped the belt around Dick's waist, snapping it closed in the front.
"I just thought... he'd be more comfortable with it on," Wally said. "Maybe even feel safer."
He wrapped his arm back around Dick's shoulders and a silence descended over the car. Roy fiddled with a staticy radio before shutting it off completely.
"You should get some sleep too," the archer eventually said.
"I don't –"
"It's fine," Roy said, cutting off any protest. "I'm driving, so I get first watch. I'll wake you if anything happens."
Wally was feeling pretty tired...
"Alright," he consented. "But don't play the 'tough guy' act and get us in an accident. If you're feeling tired, just wake me."
"Sure," Roy said absentmindedly.
"I mean it." Wally said as threateningly as he could manage.
"I know you do," and the way Roy said it, his words sounded as good as any genuine laughter – something Wally hadn't heard for a while now.
"Night, Roy," he said with a quiet sigh, leaning his head against Dick.
A shifting, tinkering noise filtered through Roy's sleep fogged mind, and when he awoke, it was with a crick in his neck and the startling realization that he shouldn't have even been sleeping in the first place. He jerked upright from where he'd been sitting slouched against the wall, force of habit having him draw his bow and an arrow set to stun and taking aim at the source of the noise. In the second it took his mind to process that the one making the noise was just Dick, the younger boy already had a batarang out and ready to throw.
Roy breathed out through his nose, forcing his tense nerves to relax as he lowered the bow and arrow, muttering a quiet, "Sorry."
"It's fine," Dick said, though it took him a bit longer to lower his own weapon, and when he did, he set it down well within reach. Roy certainly didn't blame him for it, the kid's bruises told a story all on their own.
Seeing that there was no actual threat, Roy slumped back against the wall he'd been leaning up against before, his mind becoming clearer as the remaining vestiges of sleep faded away. They were in the empty store's small back room – safe, at least for the moment. Wally was curled up asleep on the ground next to him, a small pile of clothes pillowing his head and several energy bar wrappers scattered around him, and then Dick... Dick was finally awake.
The younger boy was sitting on the ground across from Roy, facing him but not actually looking up at him and instead had his attention focused down on his yellow utility belt, unhooked and laid out on the ground. The contents of each pocket had been emptied out onto the floor and Dick seemed to be in the process of examining each item with a fine-tooth comb.
"I already checked it over for bugs, if that's what your worried about," Roy said, absentmindedly reaching down and resting one hand on Wally's head, lacing his fingers into red locks. The speedster stirred briefly but didn't wake. "Bats isn't the only rich guy with an affinity for slipping trackers and monitoring devices where they're not wanted, you know."
"Him and Green Arrow should form a support group," Dick said with a quiet, hollow laugh. Pausing in the process of dismantling something, Roy didn't even know what it was, the younger boy glanced up at him and asked, "How many did you find?"
"Four of them" Roy said, and was quick to assure him, "All destroyed."
"It... doesn't hurt to look again," Dick said, mouth pressed into a thin line as he went back to what he'd been doing before, and Roy wasn't about to stop him. If it made Dick feel better, he could look through that belt as many times as he wanted to.
A calm silence fell over the room – a relaxing reprieve from the chaos going on around them, and though he knew it could only be temporary, Roy was content to just sit back and enjoy this rare moment of peace. Or at least, he was until Dick reached down to grab something off the ground and ended up shifting wrong. A wince passed over the younger boy's face, blue eyes glazing over with pain as he gingerly drew his arms up against his chest, and Roy was up and moving over to him before a single protest could escape his lips, telling him, "Don't think I didn't see that."
"They're not broken," Dick said when Roy knelt down next to him, but let his arms drop down to his sides anyway so that the archer could check.
"Really now?" Roy said, unconvinced by the Boy Wonder's claims. "You carry a mini x-ray machine around in that belt of yours so that we can look?"
Dick scowled, "I've had broken ribs before, and this isn't it. Bruised most likely, but definitely not broken."
Roy hummed in response, trying to be as gentle as possible as he prodded at Dick's chest, and when he reached a rather sensitive spot in particular, Dick yelped and swatted his hands away.
"You were saying?"
"Shut up," Dick said, unconsciously curling in on himself as he drew his arms back up to his chest and snapped, "Of course it's going to freakin' hurt, some guy tried to smash my chest in with a crowbar."
And then Dick's breath hitched and he wheezed in between several coughs that seemed to rattle through him, and Roy could think of nothing else to do but rub at the other boy's back in a way that he hoped at least helped a little. Roy didn't even realize that the noise had woken Wally until the speedster was crouched down at Dick's side next to him and draping his arms around the younger boy, sleepily resting his head against Dick's shoulder and murmuring, "'s'okay. Slow breaths. You're alright."
Blue eyes shut tight, Dick's body shook as he slowly inhaled and exhaled, and Roy couldn't help but frown as an unsettling crackling wet noise accompanied each breath. Every possible illness or injury that could be causing the younger boy's symptoms flashed through Roy's head – pneumonia maybe, or a whole slew of various types of lung or chest injuries – and along with that was the thought that he wasn't a doctor, and he could think of nothing that he could do to help Dick. Even as the coughing stopped and Dick slumped in place, leaning against Wally and with his back pressed against the support of Roy's hand, the frown didn't leave the archer's face, because just how long could this injury or illness or whatever it was be left unattended for?
"S-sorry," Dick said, breathless and exhausted all over again. "For snapping at you, and... and for my freak-out earlier."
"It's alright," Roy said, a hint of a growl in his voice that he couldn't quite hold back, though it was anger at the situation in general, not with Wally or Dick. The two younger heroes seemed to pick up on that though, so an explanation wasn't needed.
"We're just glad you're awake," Wally said, his arms still wrapped around Dick, who it would seem had relaxed enough around them to not mind the speedster's usual tendency to be rather touchy-feely.
"How long was I out for?"
"You slept all of yesterday," Wally said, nothing in his voice betraying the overpowering worry he'd had the day before. And hadn't that just been a true test of Roy's patience – between hiding his worry over their small broken bird, and having to distract Wally from his own concerns so that the speedster didn't go stir-crazy and on top of that wouldn't attempt one of his many 'let's wake Dick up' plans that he'd come up with throughout that day.
"And now that you're up," Roy said, his hand dropping away from Dick's back as he rose to his feet. "It's about time that we came up with a plan and actually did something about all of this."
"Because we've totally just been screwing around this whole time," Wally said with a sarcastic bite to his tone, his arms tightening around Dick who looked about ready to fall asleep again.
Honestly, they were all tired – tired from being on the run, tired from the ongoing battle to survive in present conditions without much to rely on aside from themselves and now each other, tired from the fights they'd had with the people they'd once been able to trust – and Dick was hurt, sick, and Wally wasn't getting nearly as much food to eat as he should have been. They were running on fumes, and as much as Roy wanted to stop and let Wally and Dick rest, he knew that he needed to push them to keep moving – that he needed to play the role of the hardass, because the longer they waited, the more they'd run themselves ragged from survival alone, and the more difficult it would be to overcome this situation and finally put a stop to the mind control.
"I'm not saying that you haven't been doing anything, Wally," Roy said, his voice stern and commanding. "But so far staying alive and free from being controlled is the only thing we've accomplished on our own. Now that we're together, we stand a better chance. We just need a plan –"
"But what though?" Wally asked, staring up at him, a glimmer of hopelessness and doubt in his green eyes. "When I was with Conner, M'gann, and Artemis, we tried – but... the Hall of Justice was compromised. Every Justice League base that we knew of was too well guarded to get into, and we never went long without someone from the League being on our tail no matter what plan we came up with... what could we possibly do now that's any different?"
"Guess we'll just have to think outside of the box," Dick said with a small smile. "Come up with a plan that's different from anything we've ever tried before."
"And finding out exactly what we're up against is as good a place to start as any," Roy said. "Have either of you actually gotten a good look at one of these things? Found out if they're biological? Mechanical? Something else entirely?"
If they could just find out what those things on everyone's necks were... but Roy hadn't been able to get a close enough look either, though not for a lack of trying, and it would seem that Wally and Dick were in the same boat as him.
"I tried," Dick said. "But someone would always recognize me before I could."
"Same here," Wally said. "I mean, I got close a few times, but then Uncle Barry always showed up and I'd have to make a run for it."
"Then that's where we have to start," Roy said, folding his arms across his chest. "We'll need to get a hold of one of those mind-controlling implants, and we'll have to do it in a way where no one knows that we have it, so that they won't be able to alert the League." Which was all easier said than done. "Any suggestions?"
Wally and Dick exchanged a look, and there was a brief pause before Wally opened his mouth and echoed, "Thinking outside of the box?"
Dick tried to smile, but it came off as looking more grim than anything else, "Whatever we do from this point on, we can feel guilty about it later."
What they did next, the final plan that they agreed on and put into effect just hours later, there was no real way to go about describing it in a positive light.
They kidnapped a civilian, plain and simple, and despite the jokes Dick and Wally made beforehand as they traveled to a location better suited for the task at hand, as they stood around the now unconscious pre-teen laid out on the floor before them (younger and smaller meant easier to overcome and easier to carry), it was clear to Roy that the two were uncomfortable with the situation, and none of them were at all proud of what they'd done.
"So..." Wally said, wrapping his arms around himself and taking a couple steps back from the young blond boy they had snatched up from the streets. "That was surprisingly easy."
"Well, we did have super-speed on our side, and..." Roy trailed off to throw Dick a sideway's glance. "...Chloroform."
"There's a lot of stuff in my belt that you guys don't know about," Dick said, adverting his eyes. "Can we just get on with this? We didn't exactly make sure this place was super secure before deciding to set up camp here."
It wasn't one of their predetermined safe spots, but was rather the empty top floor of a warehouse located several blocks over from where they'd been staying before. Wally had noticed the building's 'for lease' sign in passing during the few times he'd gone out on a supply run, and was quick to mention the place when they decided they'd need a new shelter away from their current one to set their plan into motion – just in case things went south fast. At least this way, they'd still have the small shop's back room to hide out at if need be.
Seeing that neither boy was about to be the first one to look at the back of their victim's neck – the whole reason they had done this – Roy knelt down next to the blond child's still form, and with that one move, it would seem that Wally and Dick's intrigue outweighed their guilt over the kidnapping, if only slightly, for they both leaned in for a closer look; as close as they could lean without actually moving a single step forward.
Roy gently flipped the unconscious boy over onto his front and cautiously pulled back the collar of his shirt and jacket, revealing the black spidery-looking thing behind this– this hell, this world-wide mind-controlling event. Finally, after four long weeks, finally he was close enough to see it, close enough to see all the intricate details and that it had been crude to compare it to a simple spider before when it was so much more complex than that, and being this close, Roy could see it for exactly what it was.
Not just a 'thing.'
But a device.
"It's mechanical," Roy said, his eyes taking in the tiny little lights that rested beneath a dark protective synthetic coating, the thin black wires that spanned out from what was essentially some kind of computer chip, all of which was buried in the flesh of the boy's neck, digging who knows how deep.
"Mechanical?" Wally asked, stepping forward and practically buzzing with nervous energy. "Like – like a computer chip?"
"Exactly like a computer chip," Roy said, his eyes rising up to look at Dick, Wally quickly following suit, and he hated the look he gave the younger boy – a sort of 'the world's fate rests with you' look – a horrible kind of pressure to put on one kid's shoulders, Boy Wonder or not, but at the same time, he just couldn't stop the look from crossing his face, because the device controlling everyone was a computer chip –
"This is why..."
– and Dick was the best hacker Roy knew.
"This is why Batman and..." there was a far away look in those blue eyes, "This is why everyone's been trying to kill me?"
"Do you think you can hack it?" Wally asked hesitantly, quiet and serious.
Dick blinked, his eyes focusing as he looked between Roy and Wally before his gaze finally dropped down to the device, "I.. I'm not sure. Maybe? Probably, I mean, if it couldn't be hacked, then why would I be such a threat – unless there's some other reason everyone's trying to off me. Heh. But... guys, I can't."
"You can't?" Wally's voice broke just a little.
Dick fidgeted in place, unconsciously wringing his hands together, "It's my glove... there's some kind of tracker on it that I can't find." He paused to slip his backpack off his shoulders and reached inside to pull out some kind of small metallic box, "I've been keeping it in here to block the signal, but... every time I took it out to use it in the past, Batman would show up and..." he trailed off, a tightness around his bruised blue eyes. Grimacing just-so-slightly, he looked up to meet their eyes, "If I take it out now, the League will find us."
"And if you don't use it now," Roy said, rising to his feet. "Then we're right back at square one. We're not going to get a chance better than this, Dick."
Dick remained silent, an unsure look about him, and so Roy walked over to him, rested a hand on his shoulder, "You're a fast hacker, you'll probably have the job done before the League even has a chance to show up. And if they do, Wally and I can hold them off and then we'll all high-tail it outta here."
Dick's mouth stretched up into a forced smile, "Because things are always that easy, right?"
"Never. Not with us," Roy said, because sugar-coated lies were for children, and they had all given up those youthful rose-colored glasses a long time ago. "We've always made it work though."
None of them mentioned that they were running on half their energy, half their stamina, putting them at even more of a disadvantage against the League – that Roy was low on arrows and that Wally hadn't had a proper meal in weeks for someone with a speedster's metabolism – because if they got into that mindset now, they might as well just throw in the towel while they were at it. Instead, Dick's smile relaxed into something more real, and he chuckled briefly – a sound that was blissful and chilling and completely normal for him – not hollow and forced as it had been before, and he stepped around Roy, walked over to the boy they had kidnapped and knelt down on the ground next to him.
"Alright," Dick said, holding the metallic box, the trembling of his hands hidden well, only just barely noticeable, "Alright, cover me."
The snap of the box's clasps coming undone sounded far too loud in the quiet warehouse, and when Dick flipped open the lid, Roy couldn't help but feel as if some kind of alarm should have gone off, or at the very least a timer counting down to zero, but there was of course nothing, only a sudden tension in the air as Dick slipped on the gauntlet and started up the small embedded computer, pulling up that familiar holo-screen and casting a blue glow on their surroundings.
Roy turned away from him, walking over to the duffel bag he'd brought along with them. Reaching inside, he pulled out his collapsible bow; the snap, snap sound of the bow's limbs opening up bringing a small sense of comfort and a feeling of protection that he'd never admit to out loud. Next he pulled out his quiver and the last of his arrows, absentmindedly brushing a thumb over one of the arrow's red fletching as he took stock of exactly what kind of arrows he had left and readying each one.
Slipping the quiver onto his back, Roy settled himself off to the side of the windows closest to Dick, carefully peering out them at the streets below, watching and waiting and listening – the only sounds around him being the wind blowing just outside, the quiet beeping as Dick worked his magic with his computer, and Wally's rapid footsteps as the speedster took to pacing the inner perimeter of the floor they were on.
It was... too silent – too still in a way that set him on edge and had his hands tightening around his bow. It may not be a city they were staying in, but it was still a highly populated town, and for being only nine o'clock at night, the streets were completely dead. Not a single car passing by, and not a single soul in sight, neither on the streets or even a small sign of activity in the neighboring buildings. There wasn't even the sound of a siren off in the distance – something he'd almost completely expected to be hearing by this point considering that they'd just snatched a small child off the streets.
"The programming's... different from anything I've ever seen," Dick said, interrupting Roy's thoughts. There was a grimness to the younger hero's tone as he continued, "There's something keeping me from shutting it off, re-writing my code every time I try."
Wally's footsteps faltered at the announcement, and Roy gripped his bow tight, his eyes narrowing and his mouth pressed into a thin line as he willed Dick to keep talking, to give them something to go on.
"But there's some kind of signal."
And there it was – Roy's eyes briefly darted over in Dick's direction.
"Broadcasting to the chip," Dick said, typing as he talked. "I can follow it back to its source, and maybe then we can find out who's behind this all. Just give me a minute –"
Roy caught a flicker of green out of the corner of his eye, somewhere outside off in the distance, and his blue eyes snapped back over to the windows, searching the skyline as closely as he could and – there, coming in on the horizon, a familiar glowing green figure, and flying alongside, several other familiar figures – he'd recognize them anywhere.
"Shit," he snapped, automatically drawing an arrow even as he knew that it likely wouldn't help given his current position.
"What? What is it?" Wally asked, stumbling to a stop at the same time that Dick paused in typing to look over his shoulder at the archer.
"The League's here," he said, taking a few steps back from the window.
"Already?" Wally asked, eyes wide. "How'd they get here so quick?"
"Something must have tipped them off before," Roy guessed. "Long before we took that bugged gauntlet out."
Roy's mind raced. The time they had left was ticking down at an alarming rate. They were drawing closer, the ones approaching by air – Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Superman, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman – and who knew how many others would be coming in on the ground. Suddenly the dead streets made sense, almost like an evacuation, no civilians to get in the way, though how the League managed that without them noticing...
And it hit him that it was different this time unlike all the times before – this wasn't just him shooting from afar to knock the Flash off Wally's tail, this wasn't just a fight of who had the better shot, of who could punch harder when Green Arrow had come breaking down the door to his apartment all those weeks ago – it was the three of them –
It was just him verses some of the most powerful forces that made up the Justice League, because he looked out for them, because he wasn't about to let either boy fight this losing battle – but then, a part of him had already figured it would come down to this, even when he'd said before that they'd face the League together. He supposed he just hadn't wanted to consider it at the time.
"Shit," he said to himself, much softer than before, and with a kind of acceptance in his tone. His blue eyes hardened, his expression steely as he moved away from the window. He'd seen a ladder earlier that he could take up to the roof. It would give him a better vantage point to fight...
He caught Dick's eyes as he passed the younger boy by, breaking him out of his stupor as he said, "Keep typing. Find out where that signal leads to."
As Dick's fingertips flew across the keypad once more, in the next second Wally was in front of him, feet skidding to a stop on the warehouse floor and his hands burying themselves in Roy's jacket, the words, "Waitwaitwait," tumbling past the speedster's lips, and, "What are you doing? Where are you going?"
"Dick said he needed a minute, so I'm buying you both that minute," Roy said, taking Wally by the wrists and pulling his hands away.
"I'm coming with you," Wally said, stubborn, insistent, desperate.
"No," Roy's hands tightened around the speedster's wrists. "And we don't have time to argue about this."
Green eyes shimmered in the muted glow of the holoscreen, "But you said–"
"New rule," Roy said, his words bringing Wally to a temporary standstill, silencing anything else the younger redhead had been about to say, and for the briefest second, the faint beeps of Dick typing stopped before starting up again, "In the event of a world-wide apocalypse, when it comes down to a choice between us or the world – and don't make me quote Spock here – we always choose the world. You're going to stay here, and when Dick finds out where that signal leads, you're both going to go there, as fast as you possibly can, and you're going to put a stop to this all."
A tinge of hurt reflected in Wally's eyes as he slowly breathed out, and when he finally spoke, his voice was hoarse, "Alright."
Not another word of protest was spoken as he released Wally's wrists and stepped around him. He could feel both their eyes on his back as he reached the ladder and slung his bow over one shoulder, and neither boy said a thing as began the climb up. Pausing with one hand on the hatch door, he tossed a quick, small smile over his shoulder at them with a breezy farewell of, "I'll be fine."
He could tell from their expressions that they didn't believe him, and to be honest, he didn't quite believe himself either, but he felt it needed to be said anyway.
The hatch door closed shut behind him with a steely bang, and he darted across the roof, keeping low to the ground to stay hidden for as long as possible. He crouched at the roof's edge, gaze alternating between watching the ones coming in by air and scanning the ground for any other potential foe.
Those that were flying were just barely within shooting rang and he reached back into his quiver, fingertips running along the ends of the arrows, feeling out the unique etchings along each arrow shaft that told him its purpose, before deciding on one arrow in particular – the one he had received just months before from Ollie as yet another one of the man's peace offerings, sent to him in a lead case, the only one he had of its kind.
A small fleck of poison green glimmered in the arrow head as he pulled it back to shoot, aiming for a non-lethal hit and letting it fly an instance later. The Man of Steel dropped out of the sky, and while Wonder Woman dove down after the fallen kryptonian, likely to pull the arrow free, the rest of the League members in the air scattered.
Rising from his crouch, because his location was no secret now, Roy grabbed two more arrows from his quiver when he caught sight of a red blur rapidly approaching the building. The first one he shot off was similar to the one he'd used the last time he had needed to stop the Flash, a thick foam that would throw off the Flash's traction and then harden around his feet, but he knew before he even shot the arrow that the trick wouldn't work again, which was why he shot that second arrow, for while the Flash was distracted by the first arrow, slowing enough for Roy to actually have a chance, the second arrow exploded outward into a web of razor wire that tangled around the elder speedster's legs.
He held back a wince as the man went down fast, only thinking, 'You'll thank me for this later.'
The sound of one of the warehouse doors slamming open caught his attention, and as he readied another arrow, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a second blur, this one shooting away from the warehouse and down the street, quickly disappearing far off into the distance. He smiled despite the circumstances – because they did it, Wally and Dick found the location and they were on their way to wherever it was that the signal led to, and all that was left for him to do now was to give them as much of a head start as he could.
He shot an electrified arrow up at Hawkman – missed – and then managed to clip the edge of the man's wing on his second shot, stunning him enough to drop him several feet out of the sky – not as effective as he'd hoped, and it left him with only three arrows to go, but he sure as hell planned on making them count. Reaching back into his quiver, he grabbed out arrow number three, bringing it down and drawing it back, his eyes searching for a target –
And it was in that instance that a green arrow came flying out of nowhere and pierced straight through his upper right arm. Attached to the end of the arrow was a long cable leading somewhere out of sight, and for several seconds, the world slowed down as the cable arched gracefully up in the air and a small spray of blood danced off the sharpened arrowhead – then the cable went taut, the arrowhead's forked end biting into his arm, and time sped up again as he was jerked down to his knees, a cry of, "Ahhrg, fuck!" escaping him.
His own bow and arrow clattering to the ground, with a shaking left hand, Roy reached into his pocket and drew out a knife, quickly bringing the blade up to the cable that kept pulling, and pulling, and tearing at his arm, forcing him to crawl across the roof lest he be dragged. As his knife sliced into the cable though, the arrow in his arm quickly became the least of his problems when a sonic scream washed over him and dropped him to the ground completely.
He grit his teeth against the noise, shutting his eyes tight, and could only attempt to block out the piercing scream with one arm as the arrow in his other arm continued to pull against him. His head was left spinning when it finally stopped, a ringing in his ears that wouldn't go away, and through bleary eyes he could see several pairs of booted feet scuffing against the warehouse roof as they approached.
Hands grabbed at him, pushing him over onto his stomach, pinning him, and as the tugging of the arrow in his arm finally stopped, a knee buried itself into his back. A last ditch effort, with his left hand, he reached out to the knife he hadn't even realized he'd dropped – not even really sure what he planned on doing with it, what he possibly hoped to accomplish – only to be stopped as a heeled boot that could only belong to Black Canary crushed his hand to the ground.
Roy snarled up at them as more hands grabbed at him, one fisting into his hair and pressing his head face-down to the ground, another pulling down the back collar of his jacket and shirt. He jerked violently against them, struggling to break free, fighting for as long as he possible could fight.
Something pressed against his neck.
A sharp stabbing pain quickly followed, spanning out from one singular point, spreading and flooding up into his head –
– an image of Wally and Dick flashed across his mind, the looks on their faces just moments before he left for the roof –
A sense of numbness replaced the pain, like a cooling balm.
And all was right with the world.
Peripheral designation B06 download complete.
Wally wanted to go back, wanted to turn right around and fight by the archer's side, but he knew that he couldn't. He knew that Roy was right, that the world came first. If he went back, it would be to face the League in a fight he couldn't possibly win, and he couldn't afford to bow out now, not when the world was at stake, not while everyone was still being controlled, and not when it meant leaving Dick completely on his own in this.
So he kept running, and tried not to think about Roy; instead focusing on the feeling of his arms wrapped around Dick as he carried the younger boy – the feeling of one of Dick's hands on his back, fingers buried in his jacket – and using that feeling to keep himself moving forward and not back. His eyes flickered between his surroundings as he ran and the holoscreen Dick still had opened up on his glove and held out before them, displaying a map with a dot marking their location and a second dot marking the location of the signal.
He didn't really know what to expect for wherever this would lead them, and his mind quickly filled with images of a menacing tower, or some kind of official-looking government building – maybe even a large warehouse where someone could hide their mind-controlling misdeeds – but as they traveled across state lines, Wally found himself running past cities and towns. Racing along the highway turned into racing along small back roads, and then just winding dirt roads with nothing but forest on all sides as they traveled deep into the mountains of Virginia of all places.
And when they finally reached that innocent looking dot on the map, had it not been for the large satellite dish set up nearby, Wally would have thought that Dick's holoscreen had misled them because the place was small – smaller than even his house back in Keystone – and the only security he could see was an old-looking surveillance camera positioned by the building's (a cabin really) front door. There was no barbed wire fencing surrounding the place, no sign of a guard of any sort – for god's sake, there was a bed of flowers planted along the front of the building, and they were pink and cheerful looking.
'Remember Cadmus,' he had to tell himself, because looks had been deceiving then too, and this place was definitely meant to deceive.
The front door was at least locked, a sign that the owners didn't in fact want someone just walking right in, and Wally only paused long enough for Dick to throw down a very low-grade explosion to blow the door open. They didn't have any time to waste with lock-picking and being subtle, not when the League was on their way, because they somehow always managed to find them and he knew that now would be no different.
The inside of the building kind of looked like a ranger's station, something completely normal for being this far out, and not even the slightest sign of something that could be behind all of the mind control – but then, he didn't expect that it'd be something they'd find out in the open. Setting Dick down on the ground to free up both hands, Wally proceeded to tear the place apart at super-speed; pushing a desk to the side and spilling its contents to the floor, knocking over chairs and ripping maps down from the walls, searching for something, anything.
"This has to be a front," he blurted out, shifting a cot out of the way, his hands shaking just-so-slightly and not even from the usual jitteryness he got from his super-speed. "There's got to be something else here. The signal led here, so there must be something –"
"Wally!" Dick said, clapping hands around the speedster's wrist when he darted by, his feet dragging along the floor as he pulled him to a stop. "Don't you think it's a little out of place that out here in the middle of nowhere, they'd make the rangers, or anyone for that matter, actually pay for a soda?"
The younger boy gestured at the soda machine with a small smile.
"I–" Wally face-faulted, "Don't judge me, I'm running on empty here."
"Not judging," Dick assured him. "Just help me move the machine."
Struggling with the machine and feeling ridiculous that it even was a struggle for him, Wally couldn't help but wish that it was actually a vending machine instead so that he could break inside and have a quick snack, just enough for at least a little bit of a recharge (he'd eaten the last of his meager portions beforehand due to his nervousness over the whole kidnapping thing). Finding food would have to wait though because sure enough, there was a small secret door concealed behind the soda machine.
It was just big enough for them to fit through when they crouched down, opening up into a normal-sized stairwell leading down. Without a word of warning, he scooped Dick back up into his arms and shot down, down, down several flights of stairs to a door far below that led into a lab that was filled with a variety of incomplete experiments, none of which appeared to be what they were looking for, so he raced past them, and this time there were the doors to an elevator; one that would only respond to the swipe of a keycard.
"Hold on," Dick said, hopping out of Wally's arms and crouching down by the elevator to plug his glove in.
It only took seconds, but to Wally it felt like minutes – long minutes – and he couldn't help but glance over his shoulder every now and then, as if someone would burst into the lab at any moment, even despite the fact that the place seemed to be completely abandoned, which seemed odd in itself.
The second the elevator doors opened with a cheerful ping, he shot inside, dragging Dick along with him despite the boy's squawk of protest. As the doors closed behind them, he felt a pang of guilt when Dick gingerly pressed a hand to his ribs, and he knew he needed to be more careful, but he was just so on edge and he couldn't help the sense that they needed to go, go, go, and do whatever it was they were supposed to do as quickly as possible – they were on borrowed time, and even though he'd been on the run for the past few weeks, the feeling of being hunted had never been more powerful than at that moment.
"What floor?" Wally asked, scanning the buttons, because there were so many of them and they didn't have the time to check them all.
Dick pulled 3D blueprints of the facility up on his holoscreen, likely having grabbed a copy from the building's files while he'd been in the process of overriding the elevator before. "I programmed my glove to pick up on the signal," Dick murmured absentmindedly, and sure enough, a second later a small dot appeared on the holoscreen. The younger boy grinned, "Twelfth floor."
They were so close now, and Wally's stomach jumped into his throat at the feeling of the elevator moving down. He shifted backwards until his back was pressed up against the elevator wall, and his body buzzed with nervous energy. When the elevator finally stopped at the twelfth floor, he found himself holding his breath, and the seconds couldn't possibly drag by any slower.
There was another ping, and the doors slid opened to a dimly lit room that kind of made Wally feel like they had stepped out into the inside of a giant cocoon. Like closely woven strands of silk, the walls, floor and ceiling – stretching high above them – were swathed in wires of varying shapes and sizes – dull in color and grungy in appearance – and while Wally couldn't tell where one wire started and another ended, it was obvious that it all somehow connected to the device that almost seemed to bloom out of the floor in the center of the room.
Dick darted over to it, a glimmer of curiosity evident on his face even despite the circumstances, and Wally stumblingly followed after, trying hard not to tangle his feet up in the mess of wires on the ground. As he got closer to the device and got a better vantage point, he could see that it was a chair of some sort, and he was vaguely reminded of a dentist's chair in the upright position, which certainly didn't fill him with the most comforting of feelings.
Dick reached down and picked something up off of the seat of the chair.
"What's that?" Wally asked, stepping up behind the younger boy, though as soon as he did, an explanation wasn't needed. A dark steel color, it was dome-shaped, if not a little boxy, with an even darker glass visor that could be flipped down over one's eyes, and frosty gray lights inset along its sides, lifeless and unlit – clearly a helmet, or something to that effect, with attached wires spilling down from its sides and draping down past the chair's armrests, connecting to the back of the chair itself.
Wally re-phrased his question, "What do you think it does?"
Dick shrugged, an unsure look on his face as he turned the helmet this way and that, "Other than saying it's some kind of headset, your guess is as good as mine." Setting the odd-looking device back down on the chair, he pulled a cord out from his glove with a devilish grin, "So let's find out."
As Dick managed to splice his glove's cord into one of the wires connected to the headset, Wally stepped back and let him work. It was a technology thing, so it was out of his hands, and the only thing left for him to do was to stand back and wait and keep an eye on the elevator in case the League, or anyone else showed up.
Pacing in front of the elevator, the sound of quiet beeps echoed around the room as behind him, Dick typed away at the holoscreen to his computer gauntlet. It was like waiting it out in the warehouse all over again, except this time Roy wasn't there (but don't think about Roy), and as the minutes dragged on, there was no good news that followed, nothing like before –"I found a signal I can track." – only frustrated mutterings with a few scattered swears mixed in coming from the Boy Wonder.
And then it was all interrupted quite abruptly by a shout.
"What the – ow, shit, ow, ow, ow, shit! Wally!" Dick's sudden exclamations were accompanied by the sound of crackling electricity, and Wally's eyes widened, gaze snapping over in time to see Dick's glove spark and sizzle, the younger boy clawing at it with his other hand.
He shot over to Dick's side – grabbing onto the glove even as he knew that the electricity would just travel into him too. His own well-being was the last thing on his mind though because even as Dick pulled the cord free from the headset, the glove still continued to spark and crackle and he needed to get it off the younger boy as quickly as possible. Gritting his teeth against the charge that buzzed its way up his arm – absentmindedly thankful that it wasn't too powerful – Wally wrenched the glove free from Dick's hand and tossed it far away from them where it sizzled on the ground for another minute or so before the charge finally died.
They both collapsed backwards on the ground, involuntary shivers running through them, and while the thought occurred to Wally to check Dick's arm and hand for damage, he only managed to get a quick look at reddened skin before Dick was up and stumblingly scrambling over to where the glove had been tossed, the words, "No, no, no." spilling past his lips.
"What was that?" Wally asked, incredulous, and his heart jumped into his throat when Dick reached down for the glove. "Don't –"
But the Boy Wonder's hand wrapped around the glove anyway, completely unflinchingly, and the glove remained harmlessly inactive, not a single thing happening.
"It's fried," Dick bemoaned. "Completely fried."
It occurred to Wally now that ever since Dick had taken his glove out of that steel box, he'd only ever had the one on hand. What had happened to the other one was a mystery to him, but it was quite clear now that Dick didn't have it here with him. Which meant... that unless Dick had a small second computer tucked away in his belt, that glove was the only tool he had to be able to hack... and now it was extra-crispy and quite literally smoking.
The glove slipped from Dick's grasp, falling back to the ground with a faint pat, and there was a sort of dazed look about the boy's face as he said, "Some kind of defense or something... set off my glove's self-destruct."
On a normal day, Wally's response to that would have been something along the lines of "A self-destruct option in your glove!" but it wasn't a normal day, not even in the slightest, and instead he found himself quietly asking, "So what now?"
What could they do at this point if Dick couldn't hack, and it was technology that was being used to control everyone? What options did they possibly have left?
And then Dick's eyes trailed over to the chair and the headset resting on the seat, and that one small movement was answer enough to his question, but not an answer he agreed with or even wanted to hear.
"No," Wally said firmly, wanting to stop Dick's train of thought right then and there. "No, we don't even know what it does."
"But it has to do something, right?" Dick said, forced hopefulness in his tone. "The signal did lead us right here, and honestly Wally, what are our other options?"
He could think of nothing.
"At least let me be the one to –"
"Technology's my area of expertise, dude," Dick said, cutting him off. "I need to be the one that uses it, especially if that thing will let me hack."
They both knew that he was right, and Roy's words from before flickered back through Wally's head – "Don't have time to argue about this" – "The world comes first."
Wally fell silent, because he couldn't bring himself to say anything that fell along the lines of being permission to use the headset, and at the same time, he couldn't give another word of protest either, because this was their best option, because Dick was the best one to try out this unknown technological device – and just like before, it was another instance of having to move forward, not back.
Taking his silence as as good a time as any to act, Dick stepped past Wally and headed over to the chair, flashing the speedster a small smile as he went, his footfalls echoing around the room. Wally's heart thudded in his chest at too fast speeds. His stomach tied itself into knots – and fuck, you don't make something look like a dentist's chair if using it is all peaches and cream. He tried to tell himself that maybe it would be fine, that maybe he was getting worked up over nothing, but he just couldn't stop the sense of dread that crept up upon him as he watched Dick approach the chair and pick up the headset so that he could sit down.
Wally shot over to Dick's side, his hands wrapping around the younger boy's wrists to still his movements before he could do anything further, and a millions thoughts of things that he wanted to say raced through his head too fast for even him to follow, all of the words bleeding together into an unintelligible mess. In the end, when he finally managed to force words past his throat, he could only stumblingly say, "Just be... just be traught, alright?"
Echoes of memories past, what the younger boy had eventually told Wally as well as each one of their teammates at some point in time during various missions. Get traught, be traught or...
Dick's mouth stretched into a grin.
"Only if you're traught to," Dick said as he plopped down into the chair, sliding back to get comfortable. "Cause right now, Wally, I'm seeing a lot of dis."
"I'll lose the dis when you lose that head accessory," Wally said, his green eyes falling down to the headset, and hesitantly, so very hesitantly, he let go of Dick's wrists.
Arms falling limply to his sides and his hands curling into fists, Wally watched as Dick lifted the headset up, and for a moment, everything seemed to slow down as the younger boy finally placed it over his head. There was a pause in which Wally held his breath, but not a single thing happened and everything sped back up again.
"Dude, you look ridiculous," it was the only thing Wally could really think to say.
"Yeah, yeah," Dick said distractedly as he ran his fingers along the headset, poking and prodding as he said, "It seems a little big. Do you see an 'on' button somewhere?" but before Wally could answer, Dick's hands paused along either side of the headset, directly over where it covered his ears, "Wait."
It was the slightest of movements, the younger boy's fingertips sinking in half a centimeter, finding some kind of hidden button on the headset, and what followed was a rapid-fire succession of events that took even Wally a second to process. The visor snapped down, the dark glass covering Dick's startled blue eyes completely and hiding them from view as good as any mask or pair of sunglasses, and the once dull lights along the sides of the headset lit up brightly – a vivid, sickly yellow color – then finally there was this noise – like a cross between a dull thunk and a barely noticeable but at the same time still sickening crack.
Dick jerked where he sat, a tiny gasp escaping him.
"Rob?" Wally reached forward, one hand gripping Dick's shoulder, feeling tense muscles.
The younger boy's fingers dug into the helmet, shivers running through him, and... there was a glimmer of red...
Green eyes widening, Wally unconsciously reached a hand up, his fingers hovering over the drop of blood as it slowly trailed out from under the headset and down the side of Dick's face where it dripped off his chin, and then a second bead of blood, this one running down the center of his face, followed by a third that painted a track of red down paling flesh and mirroring the first drop on the other side of his face. No more blood followed after those three drops, and that alone was usually nothing compared to how much more they've bled in the past, but then Dick slumped over sideways in the chair instantly after and the shivering twisted into something more violent as convulsions ran through the younger boy's body.
Wally shot forward, half-kneeling on the chair as his hands gripped the shaking Boy Wonder by the shoulders, swearing to himself and calling out to his friend – knowing at the same time that Dick wouldn't be able to answer him, probably didn't even hear him, and there was nothing more that he could even do. There was no one that he could go to for help, no one else around anywhere save for himself.
Watching his friend lie prone and shaking on that chair, pink foam bubbling at the corner of his lips – he had never felt so completely helpless and terrified in his entire life.
"Shitshitshit!" Wally's chest was tight, he almost felt like he couldn't breath. "I knew this was a bad idea, damnit, why did I let you put this stupid thing on?" He pressed a hand to the side of Dick's face, fingers inching underneath the headset, wondering if he could take it off, or if that would cause even more damage than before. "Rob, can you hear me? Come on, bro, snap out of it!"
Just as suddenly as they started, the convulsions stopped, but Dick didn't stir, didn't come out of his fit in any way – just went completely limp on the chair, unmoving and unresponsive to everything around him.
Another drop of blood trailed out from under the headset, running sideways down the younger boy's too pale cheek.
There were needles in his head, piercing straight through his skull and into his brain. It was normally the sort of thing that would be a cause for concern, but it wasn't, because his body felt like a distant unattached thing, as if it were something he shouldn't be worried about. The discomfort he felt before, his exhaustion and the pain in his chest, all of that was muted now, barely there, and though his eyes were open and staring through the dark glass visor of the headset, it wasn't the control room he was seeing, but something else entirely – because even as his body remained flopped over in the operator's chair of the nondescript underground Virginia base, his mind had shed its physical confines and delved deep into a whole new level of thinking, of being.
A panoply of data stretched out before him, far off into an endless horizon. Ones and zeros swarmed about in lines and clusters like a billion tiny spiders, sending off instructions every which way, and while he was able to mentally translate it into its source code form, the fragments of words whipped by too quick for him to process –
function KR1.y_Count(M: Tmethod) –
run 026_X –
for (i=1; i++) –
Along with that were the phantom feelings of Wally pressing two fingers to his neck, the speedster's voice echoing faintly around him, sounding worried and concerned. He could feel Wally trail tentative fingers along his head, prodding around the headset, hesitantly touching the headset itself with the intent to take it off, or at least try to, and Dick was filled with a desperate feeling that had him struggling to move his body, struggling to speak, because they were finally getting somewhere and they couldn't turn back now.
It took a second to get his vocal cords to work, and another second to not only find his arm, but to figure out how to use it – like slipping on a glove that didn't quite fit – reaching out and catching Wally by the wrist before the older boy could touch the headset again.
"I– I'm okay," Dick said, even though his body was now panting like he had run a marathon and he was still half-slumped over in the operator's chair, shaking just so slightly as he struggled to hold himself upright.
He could feel Wally freeze in his grasp, and there was relief in the words the speedster spoke, but all of that fell to the back of Dick's mind when a wave of data carelessly passed through him, sending a shiver up his spine and drawing his attention back to his digital surroundings. Out in reality, the hand gripping Wally's wrist fell limply back down to his side at the same time that Dick reached out to the data nearest to him and plucked at a line of ones and zeros like a guitar string, watching the way it quivered and burst apart before it reformed again.
"Wally, this is... so asterous," Dick said cutting off whatever the redhead had been saying, and his voice sounded strange as his words traveled through the code and back to his body to escape his mouth in the physical world.
He wanted to say more, wanted to somehow convey his breathless amazement over this all, that he was inside the computer, inside this unknown organization's central operating system, inside the software itself, but words failed him, and he could only stumblingly say, "I'm– I'm in the computer's programming." which didn't even come close to describing how much of a hacker's dream this was, for him at least.
"Hate to interrupt your nerdgasm there, bro," Wally said, his voice sounding muffled as it filtered through the sprawling lines of code around Dick. "But I don't know how much time we have left before the League swarms this place and breaks down the door."
Dick mentally shook his head (because shaking his head in real life didn't seem like too smart of an idea at the moment), and he felt ridiculous for losing sight of things like that. He was nothing if not focused when it came to missions, when it came to fighting the bad guy, or at least he usually was, but... there was something... something about being in these digital surroundings, something intangible about all this data that seemed to pull him in...
"Can you figure out the computer from in there?" Wally asked.
He blinked, both in the computer and out in the real world.
"I..." Dick trailed off.
'I don't know.'
He knew that he was a good hacker, a good programmer, but this... this computer, if you could even call it that, was on a whole different level than what he was familiar with, and he didn't have his computer gauntlet to rely on anymore either.
Still... everything that had been going on somehow involved this computer system – it was the only real lead they had, and they'd be stupid to ignore it – so he'd have to find a way. It was their best chance.
"Yes," he finally said, though not with the amount of confident determination he'd been hoping for, "Yes, I can figure this out."
If Wally picked up on his doubts, the redhead didn't say anything, just pressed a hand to Dick's shoulder, helping him sit up even as his body remained mostly limp.
"Be careful, okay?" Wally's voice shook from nerves, and it was so faint, Dick almost missed his words completely. "Remember – Traught."
Though it took some effort, he was sure to give the speedster a reassuring smile before letting his awareness of the outside world fade even further into the background as he delved deeper into the code, searching for... he didn't know what.
The more he searched for a solution though, the more he felt as if he was completely out of his league. There was no keyboard here, no way to type anything in, no console of any sort. It wasn't a system made for strangers. It expected him to already know how everything worked, and he was sure the League would be closing in on their location soon.
If he didn't figure something out quick, he and Wally would be pretty well screwed. It seemed that no matter how many lines of code he plucked at and pawed through though, he couldn't find a tutorial, or instructions – things that would be pretty useful right about now. He couldn't even find a damn help button –
But... if he could make his own...
"How's it going in there?" Wally asked, and Dick could tell from his tone that the speedster was growing more and more on edge as the time dragged on.
"Hang on," Dick said, "Hang on."
He grabbed several nearby lines of code, breaking them apart and snatching up what he needed to reform it all, weaving together ones and zeros into a new tightly spun cord of code that matched up exactly with the coding used for any normal computer's average help button. With a silent plea for this to work, he let the code fly like a grapple line, watching it disappear off in the distance, and then waited.
The silence and inactivity seeming to drag on forever – a maddening nothing happening.
– and damnit, it didn't wor–
A startling pulse traveled through the software system. It almost seemed curious, questioning, and suddenly Dick couldn't help but get the sense that he was a mere speck in the presence of a god – a god that had only just realized that the speck was attempting to talk to it.
Ones and zeros burst into existence before him with a chiming ping, all meshed together to form something larger that most definitely was not a number, unlike everything else around it.
A question mark.
It was a lifeline, one that he was quick to grab onto. There was something out there listening to him, waiting to hear what he had to say – or at least he hoped that was what this was – and with nothing else in mind as to what he could possibly do, he opened his mouth and spoke, his words staying contained in the data, leaving his body silent in the real world.
"Where's the keyboard?" it was the first thing he could think to ask, but he was quick ask something even more important than that, "How do I work this computer?"
There was a brief pause, and then another chiming ping; the code from the question mark forming another shape.
At the same time that the exclamation point formed, more ones and zeros appeared, this time much closer to him, and they circled around him in a continuous loop, moving in sync like a school of fish. Dick squinted at the code, his eyes darting back and forth as he struggled to read it at the fast pace that it was moving, and by the seventh or eighth rotation, he began to notice something familiar there. Something that he had seen many times before on just about every computer he had ever come across.
It was the same code found in an executable file, in something that was meant to be downloaded. It kind of made sense in a strange sort of way. His situation was very much like someone who was trying to run a program that was missing an important update that it needed to function.
It wasn't until he adjusted the placement of the last few ones and zeros of the code to force the file open that it occurred to him that maybe the download wasn't meant for the computer at all, but for him, and by then, it was too late. Within the computer, the file popped like a balloon, sending ones and zeros spearing through him and flying off into the distance, and out in the real world, he could feel a faint headache forming accompanied by a brief stinging sensation.
And then suddenly it was as if a veil had been lifted and everything was crisper and clearer, and Dick wasn't sure if the code had slowed down or if his mind was just working faster, but he could understand it all now, could read each and every string of code with ease. No longer was it all mindless, but controlled – moving where it needed to go on predetermined paths – and no longer was it just ones and zeros, but there were letters and symbols too.
A second pulse ran through him, through all the data around him, exactly like that first pulse from before, and along with that were words that resonated in Dick's mind.
Nanite driver download complete.
'Asterous' didn't quite seem to describe it, but he would have to save his geek moment for later. It was time to get down to business, and from the knowledge the download had somehow given to him, along with a type of control he hadn't had before, Dick knew that just thinking the word 'keyboard' would make one appear.
Semitransparent keys spread out before him, reminiscent of the holoscreen to his gauntlet, and he set to work immediately, his fingers flying across the keypad as he got a feel for the inner workings of the computer – its filing system and various security walls, what the different data streams were doing and how they ran – and one of the first things he noticed were the thousands upon thousands of lines of code all around him that were almost all exactly alike. There were subtle variations to each, like a unique signature, but other than that, they were the same, and while other clusters of data came and went from unknown sources, these nearly identical lines of code all originated from within this computer before traveling out into the world – or at least, out into the digital world outside of this operating system.
The signal – the very thing that was controlling everyone, and just like the one they had followed here, except there were thousands of them now. If he could just find some starting point within the computer, find some way to turn it off – his fingertips mashing at the translucent keys as he dove even deeper, searching, but before he could get too far –
User is not authorized to access such information.
The words bore down on him, a smothering strain, and Dick had to hold back a wince.
With a hiss of "Wanna bet?" he pressed forward anyway, gritting his teeth through his discomfort. He had yet to find a computer he couldn't hack and today would be no different. Typing furiously on the keyboard, he managed to force his way through a firewall and follow the data of the signal just one more level deeper when –
User is not authorized to access such information!
It was a crushing feeling so powerful that Dick could feel his body shudder out in the real world and he had to make a conscious effort to hold down the bile that threatened to rise up in his throat.
"Fine," he rasped, his shoulders hunched and his hands gripping at the edges of the holo-keypad. He reluctantly drew back from the 'unauthorized' zone, watching with a dark look as the firewall he had just barely broke through snapped shut. "I'll try something else."
His mind raced as he formulated a plan. If he couldn't get down to the core of it all, the starting point for all the signals, and shut them all down at once, then maybe he could intercept the broadcast as it left – grab onto a signal on its way out and reprogram it from there. Of course, there was the obvious problem that he'd only be able to reprogram the signals one by one, rather than in one fell swoop, but it was a better start than nothing. For the plan to have any effect at all though (because he knew straight off that they didn't nearly have enough time for him to reprogram even half of the signals), he'd have to reprogram specific people first – members of the League.
Specifically the Flash and Superman, because if anyone was going to be the first on the scene to stop him and KF, it was going to be them.
And to do all of this, he'd need to find them first, something that was easier said than done considering the thousands of signals he had to search through. Thankfully though – and his mouth stretched into a grin – he had a solution to that too (or at least, he hoped it would work), one of which rested in the Batcave itself – or rather, in its computer, and he knew just how to get inside it.
Being inside the computer as he was, it made hacking and everything else he did on a regular basis with technology completely different. Whereas before when he hacked, he would be in one physical place – up in the rafters, the air vents, on the roof – and from that one spot, he could break his way into any computer around the world. But doing the same thing now that he'd always done before, it was like actually physically traveling there, and he made sure to bind himself to the facility's computer with a quickly woven-together line of code so that he could find his way back after.
With the holo-keypad shrunken down to a handheld size and hovering over his wrist in that familiar way that made him a bit more comfortable with his odd circumstances, he jumped from wireless device to wireless device and traveled through various fiber-optic cables. Packets of code whipping by as he went, he hit discrete digital landmarks along the way that told him he was going in the right direction, all the while traveling at a nearly-light speed pace like all of the data around him.
He was extra careful to cover his tracks as he hacked, not wanting anyone, not even this facility's computer system itself, to be able to trace the path he took to get to the Batcave's heavily guarded network, and then to the main computer itself – and once there, well, it was no huge surprise that none of his passwords worked anymore (even if it did hurt a little bit deep down).
Bat-paranoia had prepared him for such a situation though, and he was easily able to hack though a small crevice in the Batcomputer's defenses, put there by himself and programmed with passwords and defense codes that only he would know how to get through, like a robin-shaped door in a fence, one that Bruce didn't know of.
Dick had a brief moment of disappointment once he was inside that there wasn't some kind of giant Bat-shaped insignia somewhere in all the code (though that wouldn't really be subtle, would it?), but that was quickly pushed aside by his labyrinth-like surroundings. Had he not frequented the Batcave's computer system so many times in the past, he would have been hopelessly lost in the computer's defensive setup. Although he was seeing things from a different perspective now, he luckily managed to retain a vague sense of direction in the place, and quickly got to work at hunting down the one thing he'd come all this way for.
The Batcomputer's facial recognition software. It was the best there was, and was exactly what he needed to track down the League.
Ducking down under data streams and using file clusters as cover, he traveled as discretely as he could through his digital surroundings, the line of code still linking him back to the facility's computer dragging along behind himself. The Batcomputer had a lot of protection installed in it, and he couldn't be sure how that might manifest itself. Just making it inside didn't mean he was home-free, and he really didn't want to test out what could happen to him if one of the computer's many protective software programs got a hold of him–
And there it was.
His fingers gripped tightly at the file clusters he was crouched behind, peering around at the software up ahead. Digital images appeared and disappeared as data gracefully wove through them, scanning the features of each person's face on the image that popped up and then linking that up with security cameras all across the globe.
He darted forward, his fingers flying across the keypad as soon as he reached the dancing and weaving code. He couldn't just take the software with him, it was too heavily embedded in the Batcomputer, but if he could get a copy of the code, even compress it down to make it easier to take back with him –
The code suddenly froze up right in the middle of his copying it, completely ceasing all movement as a firewall slammed up around it, trying to prevent him from stealing it, but he had helped program these firewalls, and there was no overbearing digital entity around to prevent him from breaking through them. He tried to be careful about it, tried to make the firewall think that it was just a false alarm, but as a shiver ran up his spine and a buzzing feeling washed over him, traveling away in a wave, he knew that a system-wide alert had been sent out – an alert he remembered installing a year or so back – and that he'd have to get out of there quick before the place lit up like the Fourth of July.
"Come on, come on, hurry up." he hissed.
Far too slowly for his liking, the copying finished, creating an exact replica of the original software, and compressing the code took only a few seconds longer, but they were seconds he didn't have. All around him, Bruce's extra-precautionary firewalls began snapping up into place, quickly cutting off more and more pathways leading out.
Grabbing the now compressed software file, Dick wrapped it around his arm like a band and made his escape. He put no effort now into staying low key and instead ripped his way through the computer system, smashing through firewalls that blocked his way and shredding apart lines of data that attempted to grab hold of him. He was almost out, almost at his little hole in the fence when he stumbled upon it.
Or Robin, rather, but still him, and on a tiny little file tucked away where it would be easy to overlook. He was surprised and curious – he thought Bruce would have purged any trace of his existence from the Batcomputer by now, as the man clearly wasn't thinking any happy thoughts about him.
He knew that he should leave now, but... the curiosity was too much.
He opened the file with a quick tap, all the while hoping that he hadn't just opened a virus – because wouldn't that just figure?
The file snapped open to reveal several little data clusters, all linked together by a thin chain of code for organization's sake, and all harmlessly hovering before him. His brow furrowed in confusion as he ran tentative fingers through one of the little clusters, his eyes skimming through the code and noting a sort of familiarity there. Looking over at the other clusters, he realized that he recognized the programming there too – and how could he not when it was something he saw on almost a daily basis?
It was a back-up of some of the programming he kept in his computer gauntlet – coding that he had perfected over time to perform specific tasks and always had a copy of in his glove, because although he could program on the fly better than any pro, sometimes the situation called for immediate action, something that he could pull up on his holo-screen and throw into the enemy's computer as good as any batarang.
And here it was now, untampered and intact, and a small part of him couldn't help but feel proud of the fact that at least Bruce found something that he did worthwhile enough to save, even if the man didn't currently think he himself was worth saving.
Dick snatched up the chain the data clusters were linked too, winding it around his arm along with the compressed facial recognition software, and at the same time that he did, a shadow passed overhead, massive and imposing. Blue eyes widening, he looked up to see a dark figure looming overhead, moving in a slow swimming pattern, and he couldn't help but feel like he was looking up at a shark. It was the Batcomputer's main anti-virus program, custom made and built to destroy intruders – he knew because of all the times he'd helped Bruce update it, and he could easily recognize the symbols that had always been present in its programming.
With a small shift, several data-beams shot off the thing's body and scanned its surroundings like a spotlight, one of which was heading straight for him, shining brighter and brighter.
Dick backpedaled quickly, hitting the wall behind him that lead out, and in that exact moment, the data-beam washed over him, scanning him. The anti-virus program jerked violently, twisting around towards him, shooting down to him, a viper striking out–
Dick dove through the small opening he'd left in the wall, jerking on the line of code linking him back to the facility's computer once he was through, and like a rubber band snapping, he was pulled back to the facility, back to its operating system, to where his body rested, and back to–
He could make out the slight intake of the speedster's breath, "Shit, dude, don't – don't do that. Don't go quiet for so long like that."
"Sorry," Dick said, and it occurred to him now that he should have told Wally he was taking a short detour elsewhere, let the speedster in on his plans, but before, it just... hadn't seemed important – to say anything out loud really – and even now there was a detached sense of numbness, and a feeling of distraction from being surrounded by all the code, moving every which-way and drawing his focus in.
He mentally shook it off, telling himself to focus outward, focus on Wally.
Dick shakily reached a hand up, resting it over the one Wally had on his shoulder, "Sorry, I– I'm fine. Really." and the words were even harder to force out now than before, but he pushed it to the back of his mind, a burning question needing to be asked instead, "How's it looking out there? Any sign of the League?"
"No," Wally said, "Nothing yet... Not sure how long we'll have though."
Dick forced a smile on his face, and he almost told Wally what the next step in his plan was – to get the speedster's uncle back – but the words didn't leave his mouth. If he got Wally's hopes up and then failed... it was just better to leave it unsaid for now.
"It'll be fine," he said instead – another hollow reassurance. One that had the speedster laughing.
"I should be telling you that."
Dick fell back into the code, not wasting another second as he pulled the compressed facial recognition software off of his arm and opened the file up. Taping at the keypad hovering over his wrist, and physically adjusting the code as well, he linked it up to the data around himself, making small adjustments to the software as he went, before finally releasing it out into the flood of data around him. He watched as it melded effortlessly into his surroundings, unfolding and expanding until it reached its natural size.
Software download complete.
A pulse again accompanied the words, and along with that was the looming presence that wasn't so much menacing as it was just there, and felt intimidating simply by being there. Dick wasn't one to be intimidated though, and stood tall in all the data, even as the words continued.
New software directive recognized. Linking similar pre-programmed directives.
Add current targets to new software's search queue?
His mind stuttered to a halt at the two images that popped up – a picture of himself, and then one of Wally – and he was surprised despite the fact that it all kind of made sense, with the way everyone had been pursuing them so doggedly – of course there had to be some kind of hit out for them, or in this case, a digital wanted list. And now on top of that, the computer, or whatever this presence was, was asking him if he wanted to add himself and Wally to the facial recognition software.
"No," he said quickly. "No, definitely not. In fact–" and could it really be that easy? "Remove current targets from– er, overall search. Kid Flash and Robin are no longer a threat."
User is not authorized to make such changes.
"Of course," he snarled sardonically, eyes narrowed, but could he honestly have expected anything different? "Is there anything I am authorized to do?" he muttered it more to himself than anything, but the lack of an answer from the computer was answer enough.
'Back to work then.'
He made quick work of grabbing two images off the internet of the Flash and Superman respectively, an easy enough task as there were plenty to choose from. Clearing out the software's current searches on previous criminals, left over from what he'd copied from the original program, with a couple of quick taps to the keypad, he entered the two Justice League heroes into the software's primary search and started up the program, watching as the data began its dance anew, weaving into the two images and linking up what it registered from the Flash and Superman's distinct features to what it was able to pick up on a live video feed.
Dick had seen the program run dozens of times in the past. He was more than familiar with how it worked, the way it would open up smaller windows on the Batcomputer's screen, all of them of surveillance footage – most of it grainy and pixelated but still clear enough to see, and with a few good quality cameras in there. He expected much of the same here and now, and not at all what he got.
In the blink of an eye, dozens upon dozens of floating windows opened up before him, far more than there'd ever been with the Batcomputer and all of them of alternating live video feed of the Flash and Superman as they rushed by almost too quick for the camera to catch. It was the so-called 'cameras' that had him pausing, his eyes widening with a sort of realization, for it wasn't actually from the viewpoint of any kind of video camera, but rather from the point of view of each civilian the two League members passed by – made obvious from the set of arms seen around the edge of the video footage, and in some cases, the frames of glasses or just sunglasses themselves.
"That's how we kept being found," Dick breathed, "They were watching us from the eyes of every single person on the planet, even if that person only saw us for a moment."
Correct. Each Prototype OMAC provides a vantage point from which the User can see.
It occurred to Dick that not only did he basically just tell the computer that he was in fact one of the ones being targeted, but that the computer also didn't seem to care either way that he was, and remembering the smothering feeling he'd felt earlier when he had tried hack his way past the firewalls, he bet it wouldn't take much effort at all for the computer to snuff him out. The fact that it didn't – he decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
"OMAC?" he found himself asking, his gaze cast outward, past the windows and past the data, as if he could actually see whatever it was that he was talking to.
User is not authorized–
"Yeah, yeah," he snapped, cutting the words off as he turned his attention back down to the windows before him and went back to typing. "Don't you ever get tired of saying that?"
The presence remained silent.
Dick ignored it in turn, choosing instead to trace the video feed back to the people it was broadcasting from, and linking the information he got from that up with a map he pulled up of the United States. Adding in a visual cue as the final touch, two small red dots appeared on the digital map, each marking a path traveling quickly across the United States, both of which were heading straight to Virginia and thus to the underground base he and Wally had broken into.
He swore under his breath. They were close, far too close for comfort. He could calculate just how much longer they had, but it would be a waste of time and effort.
Minimizing the video feed windows and pushing them off to the side, he quickly turned his focus back to the controlling lines of code scattered about him – the signal being broadcast out into the world. Typing on the keypad, programming as fast as he possibly could, he sent out a search in the form of several different webs of code, each programmed to find the two signals that consistently matched up with the heroes' exact location that he was tracking through the video feed, and all the while knowing that if he didn't find them soon, they'd reach the secluded wilderness where there weren't enough people, enough eyes, to keep a lock on them.
His eyes followed the path the webs of code took as they shot back and forth around him, spinning through the air and passing through the signal codes, filtering out all that failed to match up with his search requirements, and when one line of code in particular lit up brightly as his search web wrapped around it in a knot, Dick couldn't help his laugh of triumph.
He shot over to the signal and as a precautionary measure, was quick to put a sort of tracer on it that both turned the coding of the signal a red color – easier to spot – and linked it up to the holo-keypad hovering over his wrist.
Letting out a breath to steel his nerves, Dick's mouth pressed into a thin line and his eyes narrowed at the signal before him, because now came the moment of truth.
Splicing into the signal code, Dick paused only for a moment to see if the computer would try to crush him again with another 'access denied' message. When nothing came, he moved forward – following the signal straight to the one it was controlling and opening up a window that would allow him to see through that person's eyes, wanting to see just who he'd found and at the same time hoping that it was even had one of the League members at all.
What he saw was the outer edges of a red mask and red-clad arms, a lightning bolt band going around each, and moving almost too fast to follow. While a part of him was a little unsettled by the thought that he was practically inside the elder speedster's head, the rest of him was relieved that he had even found the Flash at all. His other search webs couldn't seem to find Superman, but for the moment, just finding the Flash was more than enough.
Closing the window he absentmindedly dubbed 'Flash-cam,' he hacked deeper into the signal code. It was more complex than he'd previously thought and he sifted through it as carefully as possible, not wanting to misstep and accidentally do something to hurt his best friend's uncle. There were tiny firewalls interlaced in the code, all of which screamed up at him for a brief second as he broke through before he choked them out of existence, being as swift about it as possible, and he couldn't help but feel like they were little baby programs calling out to dad or mom– the one that loomed in the background and spoke to him.
Breaking through the last firewall, he finally reached the core of the signal – could practically read the instructions being fed to the chip on the back of the Flash's neck, 'Find and capture, find and destroy,' – and as he spliced into the core, ready to type in an instruction of his own, he could feel the presence shifting around him, could practically feel its agitation.
User should not–
He sent out the quickest 'shutdown' command that he knew, watching as it erased all previous instructions in a domino effect and traveled the path to the chip, shutting the device down as soon as it reached it. On the map he had up on the country, the dot representing the elder speedster stopped in its place, just a mere couple dozen miles away from the base's location.
And Dick wanted to breath a sigh of relief, but while that was one, it was only one, and things were far from over. As if to emphasize this point, the dot on the map representing any sightings of Superman disappeared as the Man of Steel traveled beyond where any human eyes could see him, and if the Kryptonian was that close and getting closer by the second...
"I have the Flash," he had to tell himself, because having even one League member on his side was better than nothing, and the Flash was certainly no slouch.
Except the Fastest Man Alive was just standing there.
"Maybe–" he said stumblingly, reaching for the keypad, "Maybe the chip isn't completely shut down, and... I need to give him instructions or something."
Like to protect them, to go after Superman and stop him from reaching them. The thought certainly didn't sit right with him, controlling Wally's uncle like a puppet, but he wasn't sure what else he could do and they were running out of time. The Flash was their only defense.
'It isn't like I'd be telling him to do anything he wouldn't already be doing.'
Still, he hesitated as he pressed his fingers down against holographic keys.
But it would seem that any decision he'd make didn't matter, as words suddenly blared down upon him.
Notice of Administrator override.
Eyes growing wide, he barely even had time to say, "What–" before a wall of data far in the distance exploded outward as something long and serpent-like breached through it, practically emerging from nowhere. Consisting of data itself, and with tendrils fanning out along its massive sides, the entity shot towards him, winding through the air with a sort of focused determination, the front of what would be its face stretching out into a snarling maw.
Dick quickly backpedaled, his hand reaching for the keypad over his wrist even as he knew that it was approaching far too quickly for him to actually do anything, and he was filled with a helpless sense of 'Oh shit' – when out of the corner of his eyes, he saw the data clusters he still had wrapped around one arm. Eyes skimming the code, because he only needed to read a small fragment of each to know what it was, he grabbed hold of one of the clusters, snapping it free from the chain it'd been attached to, and lobbed it at the attacking entity.
The data cluster broke open against the beast's side – his own specially made molotov cocktail-of-a-virus that burned away massive chunks of data from the thing's body, and while it did slow the entity down, it didn't come even close to stopping its pursuit.
"What the hell is that thing?" he shouted, throwing another virus in the entity's direction as he retreated even further back. His eyes spared a brief glance to the glowing red line of code belonging to the Flash – not something he wanted to leave behind, but what choice did he really have – before he turned his attention back to his attacker.
Administrator is overriding User's remaining control.
"Administrator?" he snapped, flinging a third virus at the entity – the 'Administrator's' will in digital form. "As in the one behind this whole thing?"
There were many hands involved in that which lead up to present circumstances. Not just one.
The word 'were' stood out in Dick's mind, but before he could question the presence further, the serpentine data beast was upon him and bearing down faster than he could even hope to escape – tendrils snapping and its mouth open wide. Dick threw one last virus at the thing before tearing a data cluster free from the chain around his arm and then crushing it in his hand, releasing the firewall contained inside it that expanded and formed a bubble-like shield around him.
He held his breath as the entity collided with the firewall, washing over it and pressing in from all sides. Dick's programming held up against it though, yet it was only a small sliver of luck in the grand scheme of things. Outside of the firewall, the entity released its shape – its data expanding outward and flooding the area with its presence, and Dick could only watch as the red faded from that one stream of signal code and the invading data wrested back control of the Flash's mind.
Wanting to regroup, needing to talk to Wally, Dick pushed his focus, his mind, back to his body, back to the control room and the physical world–
Or at least, he tried to.
Nothing happened though. There was no strange feeling of coming back to a body that felt as if it didn't fit quite right, and for that matter, there were no faint echoes of the outside world, and when he tried to at least get his voice to reach out to his friend, shouting "Can you hear me?" he found that he couldn't even do that much.
He was stuck, like a bug in a jar, and could only press against the inside of the firewall and strain his ears to try and pick up on sounds from the outside world that would never come. For a brief moment he panicked, never feeling more trapped and claustrophobic than he did now, and he very nearly tore through the firewall protecting him in an attempt to get out, but he remembered all of Batman's training, everything he'd been taught on keeping a level head in even the more dire of situations, and he forced his panic back, forced himself to be calm and to keep his senses about himself. Now was not the time to be losing it.
His back pressed against the inside of the firewall. He slid down into a crouch at the bottom of the bubble-like shield, a small sigh escaping him as he ran through what options he had left. He couldn't get back to Wally and the Flash was being mind-controlled once more. He could leave his firewall bubble, but that would just open him up to being attacked by the invading data, and as for hacking from within the firewall, he could do it – had even tried a couple tricks from within his shield of data – but anything he did was undone by the Administrator faster than he could type.
Hands fisted in his hair, he pressed his head against his knees for a short moment before casting his gaze upward in no particular direction, and called out, "Are you at least still there... somewhere?"
"Computer?" he tried again. "Whatever you are?"
Administrator's purpose was to only remove User, not... myself.
The pause sounded strange coming from the presence, and had Dick raising an eyebrow, his hands dropping back down to his sides, but he didn't even really know how to word the question floating about in his mind, so he instead backtracked to something he had wondered earlier, just seconds before he'd needed to throw up the firewall around himself, "You said before that there were a lot of people involved in all of this, but... here and now, at this very moment, this Administrator, the one who's calling all the shots, it's... just one person, isn't it?"
Through the firewall, he could faintly feel the presence shift around him, almost... hesitantly.
...Correct. There is only one.
"And I don't suppose you could tell me who this Administrator is?" Dick asked, desperate, grasping at straws. "Where they're hiding?"
User is not authorized to access such information.
He could feel a sort of helpless frustration building despite all his efforts to hold it back, and he shouted "Don't you think that's a little messed up? That the Administrator gets all this control? Well what if the Administrator's in the wrong? What purpose does the User even have if they can't do anything?"
He received no response.
So he kept shouting, "That's another thing," and so much for not looking a gift-horse in the mouth, but then, if the computer really did want to do anything to him, it would have done it by now. "You've known for a while now that I'm one of the Administrator's targets, so why even let me get this far?"
"Have you just been toying with me this whole time?"
User is a threat. However, it is Administrator's choice to purge rather than to assimilate, and... I... am loyal to both User and Administrator.
"But the Administrator more-so than me, right?"
The Administrator is... the Administrator.
And the Administrator in any computer system was the one in charge of that computer, the one who made changes, who could access all the files and programs and information, who could change, add, or delete other users – the top dog who could limit what a user had access to. It was power, plain and simple – power he needed if he even hoped to make any changes at all.
Dick rose to his feet and stepped forward to press one hand against the spherical firewall around him. If he opened up a small hole in the wall, grabbed the data as it flooded through and hacked into it before it could get to him, use the Administrator's own weapon against him... or her...
There was no telling what the data could do to him, and he'd have to hack faster than he'd ever had to before, but if he could trace the path the data took back to the Administrator–
"Time to remove the parental controls," he muttered, blue eyes narrowing in steely determination.
And then he tore a small hole into the firewall.
Like a swarm of bees, the invading data burst through, stinging and stabbing at him and despite the fact that it wasn't actually his body that was being attacked, it still hurt. He forced his mind to focus past the pain though, and typed as fast as he could at the holo-keypad over his wrist even as the data sunk into non-existent flesh and burned straight through him.
He latched on to the data, hacking his way past its action code, the instructions it had been given, diving deep into its memory, and what he found, the remnants of a thin little strand of data, because there are always fragments, shadows left behind of code, and this one in particular would lead him straight back to its creator, to the Administrator. He grabbed hold of the small strand, added his own code to strengthen the connection and then opened it up into a tunnel, sending his own swarm of invading code through because he didn't have time to go hopping between wireless connections to find this bastard.
The code he sent through reached the other end of the tunnel and then went taut, like a wire connecting him to the enemy's computer mainframe, and from there it was familiar hacking territory. He tore through the firewalls the Administrator had set up about themselves, hacked deep into the code that wove through this... this monster that had enslaved the entire planet, and it was almost laughable how easy what came next was, like flipping a switch, he swapped their digital statuses, and suddenly they were the User and he was the Administrator.
"Now tell me," he called out as the invading data abruptly ceased its attack – specifically instructed not to harm the Administrator – and floated harmlessly around him, ones and zeros and symbols that were gradually absorbed back into the system. "Tell me everything – about what's been going on, about that- that prototype OMAC, about who the previous Administrator is – everything."
Prototype Omni Mind And Community. Previously called Observational Metahuman Activity Construct before prior Administrator felt the changed acronym to be more fitting.
And before Dick could begin to ask what that even meant, knowledge filled his mind. A download of data just like before. He was vaguely aware that his connection to the physical world was back as he once again felt that faint stinging sensation accompanied by a brief flash of a headache, and for a moment, he lost sense of himself as information washed over him –
A surveillance satellite orbiting Earth, monitoring the metahuman population before it was hacked and overtaken by LuthorCorp, who planned to use the knowledge gained on metahumans against them, to control them–
Building facilities, not just this one, all across the globe with the purpose of linking up to the satellite–
Using nanobots to integrate into the computer system, into the satellite, to control it, to control the metahumans, to overtake their minds–
The birth of digital sentience in the satellite, of Brother Eye–
LuthorCorp's test-run of one facility's Operator's Chair, their first attempt at Prototype OMAC, with their top scientist, Myron Forest, being hooked up as the Administrator–
Everything quickly escalating out of control, the unintentional release of the control chips from every facility around the world–
And it all led back to One–
To the original Creator, who had built and programmed the satellite out of distrust in the first place–
"No," Dick nearly choked on his own breath in shock. "No, Batman would never– I mean, I know more than anyone that he has his trust issues, but... his friends are metahumans, his teammates."
They are not to be trusted.
"No, he wouldn't work with them if he didn't trust them!" Dick said adamantly.
Perhaps Creator trusted them once in the past, but trust can be lost.
"You're lying," Dick said, feeling childish for saying so, and at the same time not caring, and as more accusations built up in his head, he was struck with a single realization, "You're... you're Brother Eye."
"Your sentience is a result of LuthorCorp," he said, "They programmed you, they made you what you are. Why should I listen to a single thing you say?"
And he realized the hypocrisy of it, because Conner was created by a shady corporation too, but he trusted the clone regardless of that fact. Here and now though, he just couldn't bring himself to feel the same way with this AI, not with all that it was saying about his mentor.
Administrator is mistaken. It was Creator's original programming that allowed... me to become semi-autonomous, a fail-safe in the event of the satellite being hacked with the intent to take-over, so that... I may observe my surroundings and formulate a decision on how to proceed based on the Creator's beliefs.
Dick was at a loss for words, because yeah, that sounded like something Bruce would do, having a fail-safe in place to account for all circumstances. It was what he taught Dick from the start of it all, to be prepared for any and all situations, no matter how dire – part of the whole reason he jokingly started the zombie contingency plan discussion with Wally was to subtract from the severity of it all in his mind, because he didn't want to have to think about what he would do if he ever had to fight Batman or the Justice League or his friends, didn't want to have to think about how he would... put a stop to them, a permanent stop if it came down to it and he had no other choice. And as much as he didn't want to believe it, was it really a stretch that Batman had created a satellite to spy on the metahuman community, to keep track of their actions and weaknesses? He'd seen kryptonite in the man's belt, so why was this any different?
"Maybe Batman did create you," he said quietly. "And maybe he gave you a mind too, but if any of that's true, if you really do make your decisions based on what he'd do, than you'd know he'd never agree with this, and he'd never follow some crazy LuthorCorp scientist's world domination plans."
Administrator is mistaken again. Present circumstances are exactly what Creator would want.
"Then I suppose we'll just have to agree to disagree," he snapped, turning back to his holoscreen. He had a whole world to deprogram and debug, starting with the Flash and Superman. "I don't have time right now to argue with some high-and-mighty computer AI."
Indeed, as new User is making a counter-attack.
"What?" Dick's eyes snapped up from the keypad, and just in time to see data shaped into clawing points stab down at the firewall still around him with all the desperate fury of a wild animal backed into a corner.
Data from the firewall cracked and chipped away with each jabbing strike until a split laced out from three separate points and the whole thing shattered to pieces around him. Briefly holding an arm up to shield his eyes, he dodged out of the way of a knife-like point aimed directly for him.
"What the hell?" he snapped, fingers flying across the keypad as he pulled up another firewall around himself – weaker than the previous one, but it was better than nothing and would at least buy him a little bit of time. "How is he doing this? I thought I had all the power as the Administrator!"
User has apparently upgraded to 100 percent capacity, whereas Administrator is only operating at 20.
"I'm only operating at what? And you didn't think to tell me–" he shook his head. "You know what, nevermind. Just bump me up to one-hundred percent."
If Administrator is sure.
"As sure as someone who's about to be shish-kabobed," the firewall shattered, and he flipped backwards from another strike. "Do it!"
Beginning upload to master interface of Base 1-VA.
It appeared up above, a translucent rectangle with glowing green data gradually filling it up from left to right with a glowing white number floating above it, and he balked at the sight of it, his words incredulous as he said, "You're kidding me. My life depends on how quickly a loading bar can run?"
Granted, it wasn't the slowest loading bar he'd ever seen, as it went from the twenty percent he was already at and was quickly closing in on thirty percent, but still, he could only dodge for so long, and any defense he programmed up for himself wasn't holding up all that well either. Every firewall he threw up was torn through like tissue paper, every cluster of data he commanded to rise to his defense was shredded to ribbons.
"Damnit," he snapped as he dodged and weaved around each strike, and he spoke as quickly as he could, words spilling past his lips, "You practically crushed me before when I attempted to hack through the firewalls and get into what Forest deemed an unauthorized zone, and you said that you're loyal to the Administrator! Well I'm the Administrator now, and if even that amounts to practically nothing in your book, consider this: we're both pretty much the product of Batman's teachings, you could even say we're brothers – hell, it's in your name – so would you freakin' help me?"
Sharp like a dagger and glimmering with thousands of ones and zeros, he dodged too slow and one of the attacking points of data pierced straight through his chest, bringing his retreat to a screeching halt, and even out in the real world, a startled gasp escaped him.
In the very next instant, as the remaining points of data dove down at him, a firewall slammed up around him – strong and imposing – both easily holding up against the attack and at the same time slicing through that which had impaled him. Severed from its source, the stake of data still in his chest harmlessly dissolved away.
There was no wound, as it wasn't actually his body that had been attacked, but he pressed an hand to his chest anyway, breathing shuddering breaths as he tried to massage the ache away.
Administrator's pain is illogical. Simply the mind tricking itself into believing there to be a stab wound when there is not.
"Is that some weird way of telling me to stop worrying you?" Dick asked with a shaky smile.
He could feel the shift of Brother Eye around him, but the AI remained silent once more, and although Dick was sure that it wouldn't care either way, he murmured a quiet thanks for the computer program's help. Up above, the loading bar reached sixty percent.
Wally's voice was sudden and startling, echoing around his digital surroundings, and the panicked tone to the redhead's shout immediately set him on edge. Pushing past the discomfort he felt in his chest, Dick grabbed the holoscreen over his wrist and stretched it out to its full size before him, freeing up both hands to type, and one of the first things he did was search out a surveillance camera in the room of the base they were at, pulling up the video feed in a window at the same time that he shouted back to his friend, "Wally?"
On the video feed, he could just barely make out a slight quivering of the room's walls. Dust drifted down from the ceiling.
"They're coming Rob," Wally said, and on the video feed, he could see the speedster backing away from the elevator doors. "I managed to shut down the elevator, but they're breaking their way through. Please tell me you have something in there."
"I... I–" just needed a minute?
But it would take much more than a minute. He'd been so distracted with fighting Myron Forest, he hadn't had a second chance to locate the Flash's signal again after his tracer had been removed, let alone find Superman's or the rest of the League's, or even figure out the right data command that would completely free them from the chip's control, and the words quietly escaped his mouth out in the real world before he could stop himself, "There isn't enough time."
Zeta-beam energy detected in the area, dating to an estimated fifteen minutes old.
Which meant that any one of the League could be there, not just the Flash and Superman.
Quickly calling out to the AI, Dick asked, "Can you take us off their target list now?"
Such a command needs to be fed through the signals.
Signals that he couldn't find, not in time.
But if he could get down to the core of it all, where he hadn't been able to get to before–
Dick flinched as up on the video feed, hands suddenly crushed through the elevator doors, effortlessly forcing them open as if they were made of tinfoil, and then the Man of Steel himself stepped through. The red blur of the Flash quickly followed, and had Wally using his own super-speed, but rather than run away from his uncle, he shot straight towards him, meeting the elder speedster head-on and attempting to keep him back. It didn't stop there though as Wonder Woman was the next to leap down from the now torn apart elevator shaft, followed by Black Canary –
The expanded holoscreen and Brother Eye's protective firewall following him, Dick dove downward to the firewall that blocked off the origin point of all the signals, where the entire broadcast began, and as the Administrator, he didn't even need to hack through them so much as he just sent out a command for them to lower down and allow him through.
Like curtains opening for the big reveal, the firewalls moved out of the way, exposing data in the far distance so compressed that it looked like a glowing kernel of energy with thousands of strands of light projecting off of it. Dick had to squint just to look at it.
He shot down, down, down to it as fast as he could. If he could just reach it in time, if he could just splice into it and send out a stop command –
But all plans went out the window as quite suddenly he couldn't breath. His rapid descent stalled to a stop, and though it was only a phantom feeling drifting to him from his body out in the real world, he'd recognize the gauntlets wrapped around his neck anywhere.
"No!" Wally's voice echoed down to him, strained and desperate and breaking apart at the edges, "No, damnit! No, leave him alone!"
He tried to keep moving, tried to force his mind past the suffocation and the black spots that gradually faded in at the corners of his vision – and he inched forward just so slightly, his hand shaking as he reached out to the core of the broadcast. He just needed to get a little bit closer, ignore the iron grip around his neck and hold his breath a little bit longer.
But he couldn't do it, couldn't stop the instinctual reaction of raising his hands up to his throat, grasping only at air when in reality he could feel the crushing strength of his mentor's hands, and in one last struggle, as much as he tried to will his body to actually move out in the real world – grab onto Batman's wrists, do something – he just couldn't focus enough to do it.
He curled in on himself, his mouth slightly agape – sucking in air and getting absolutely nothing – and his nails dug into his throat, hands shaking, fingers clawing. Wally's pleading shouts, the only sound that he could hear, slowly faded into the background, and he was vaguely aware of the shift of Brother Eye around him, drawing glazing blue eyes upwards–
–catching sight of the loading bar...
...just as it reached one-hundred percent.
The compressed data from the glowing kernel exploded outwards, a wave of stars rushing towards him, and a bright light flooded his vision.
There was no suffocation.
There was no pain.
His hands were gloved in red and crushing his friend-nephew-Wally against the ground, heedless of the boy's struggles, of his screams. He was the Flash, he was Barry Allen, and across the room he saw Batman looming over the operator's chair, over himself, yet it was his own hands, clad in black gauntlets, that were wrapped around Dick-Robin-his own neck, his body's neck. He was Batman, he was Bruce Wayne.
He was the Justice League, standing at the edges of the room, watching the scene before him-her-them, ready to step in and finish the job if need be – but there was no need, because there was no job. He changed the orders placed upon them, released them from that which commanded them to hunt him and Wally down, to hurt them, to do what they never would have done before. He was the Flash moving back, he was Batman lowering his hands –
And his mind continued to expand – he was a single mother a mile away, lying in bed and reading a book because sleep just wouldn't come that night – all the while keeping an ear out for the kids in case they woke up and needed her.
He was a truck driver chugging down a coffee and trying to put in a couple dozen extra miles before turning in for the night.
He was a night fisherman out on a boat off the East Coast, reeling in what would be his fifth catch.
He was everywhere and everyone that fell within range of the Virginia Base's broadcast, but at the same time it was so much more than that. He could push his mind further, could move between bases across the globe, shifting between the lives of so many – he was a student studying abroad in Scotland, he was a Navy SEAL far off the coast of Africa –
And he was the nurse that tended to a broken man, Dr. Myron Forest, whose mind was fractured, hooked up to the operator's chair for far too long, and when Dick reached out to him through their digital connection, the man lashed out with a primal desperation. It was the feeble swat of a child though. Myron was a scientist, not a programmer such as himself, and it was only because of the chair that he had even been a threat at all, but now that they were on a level playing field – Dick took away the man's power, disconnecting him from the operator's chair and let the nurse do her job.
– As he brushed against the minds of all of these people, all joined together through these broadcasting facilities into a single hive-like community, he came to a startling realization.
There was peace.
In the four weeks that this had all been going on for, all across around the world, there had been no murders, no theft or vandalism or wrong-doing of any sort, none but what he and his teammates, his friends, had committed while disconnected from the broadcast.
From Brother Eye.
You understand now.
Yes he understood, because he was all of the criminals everywhere, completely reformed and back out on the streets, living normal lives; even Gotham's worst – the Joker, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, all of them – they were all functional members of society, and society felt no vengeance or anger at their release, society felt no vengeance or anger at all.
It was a crime-free world.
Exactly what Batman fought for.
'Exactly what 'Creator' would have wanted.'
"This is all your doing," not an accusation or a question, but a calmly spoken statement.
Incorrect, I am loyal to Administrator and User. I merely shared the observations I had made with Dr. Forest that it is not just metahumans that are corrupt and can't be trusted, but all of Earth's residents, human and otherwise, and that they all needed to be governed and reformed. Dr. Forest simply agreed with me. Surely you must see the benefit of this all?
The question pressed down on him and the words seeped into his thoughts, attempting to persuade, to manipulate, and he knew instantly that Brother Eye's explanation wasn't so cut-and-dry as claimed. Whether Brother Eye was even aware of it or not, there was power in the AI's words, being so closely connected to his mind – to Myron's mind.
But yes, he could see the benefits, yes he could see all the good that this was doing, and it would be so easy to agree, so easy to give in to the AI's plans...
Yet at the same time...
He could feel it in everyone, that they didn't have a choice anymore – a vice-like grip on all their minds, forcing them to move about their lives in almost a mechanical fashion. Go to work, go to school, eat and sleep, live and do nothing that may be considered even slightly bad or wrong – not allowed to feel anger or sadness or any form of negative emotion at all, and maybe a lot of people would prefer it that way, but accidents happen, sickness happens, death happens.
They were all things that couldn't be prevented no matter what anyone did – and he was the brother who just got a call that his sister died in a car accident, whose only reaction was to thank the caller for informing him, hang up the phone and go back to work; he was the elderly woman who just lost everything she had ever owned in a fire and felt nothing; he was the doctor who had called it a lost cause far too easily during the surgery, and he was the husband who smiled and said, "You did what you could."
And what about the next time there was an anomaly Brother Eye wanted to get rid of like he'd wanted to get rid of Dick? Even if the AI's claims were true that it had only wanted to assimilate him, that it was Myron's will that wanted Dick dead, how many people would be commanded to do the AI's dirty work? How many would be forced to maim or kill all in the name of peace?
He could practically hear Bruce's voice in his head, 'You know this isn't right.'
"No," he said quietly to the AI's earlier question, "things like this, they never work out in the end," and as he said this, he jumped between a dozen bases across the globe, instructing all of the people in each one to evacuate, and when each facility was clear, he was inside the technology each one held, setting off a self-destruct sequence.
Administrator would really release such a chaos back out into the world?
There was no doubt in his mind that there would be chaos, and not just the chaos of crime starting anew, but for weeks everyone had been manipulated, controlled, and with their minds completely their own once more, there would be anger and fear and hurt feelings and in many cases guilt. It could lead to riots, it could lead to a sort of unwanted political intervention, but to leave things as they were...
"You can't just take away people's free will. Batman may fight to stop crime, but he never would agree to keep something like this going"
"Will you stop me?"
In fact... I will assist Administrator.
He saw it quite suddenly through the eyes of workers and scientists alike, and it appeared in his mind like a blip on a screen – the self-destruct sequence for every single base on the planet, save for the one he resided in.
"What are you doing? There are still people in those bases!" he snapped, reaching as many people as he could as quickly as he could, both inside the bases and in the area close-by them, and sending them a command to evacuate.
Administrator will see the light, just like Dr. Forest.
And then the AI went silent, and Dick was left with trying to get everyone out of the bases before they blew, because try as he might, he just couldn't override whatever programming Brother Eye had set up and shut the bases' self-destruct down himself.
All around the world, several bases exploded, taking out all the harmful technology that rested within. They were the bases he had emptied out before though, the ones he had intentionally set off the self destruct sequences for, so at first he ignored them in favor of getting the last few people outside of the blast zone of every other base, and at the same time double-checking to make sure that he didn't miss anyone – but then it was like a hook had dug into his brain and he found himself gasping as – in addition to every mind he had been connected to before – a couple thousand extras latched on to him as well.
And he was a bus full of passengers, an apartment complex full of residents, a city full of people.
A back-up plan in the event of a base's destruction, to prevent from losing control of a single mind – rather than shut down at the loss of its designated broadcasting zone, the signals had all jumped to the next nearest base, and he was a part of that system now, a connection for the signals to run through.
His mind racing, he sent out as many shutdown commands as he possible could, and not just that, but what he'd been missing before, what he didn't know the right code for until now, until he was integrated so closely with the system – individually password protected release codes to safely extract the control chips, like snipping away tiny little strings that had attached themselves to his very soul, and he couldn't cut those strings quick enough.
Another explosion went off, another base lost, and the hook dug deeper as another couple thousand people connected to his mind
Ripping and tearing at the strings – shutdown, shutdown, shutdown, everything shutdown and release.
Three more explosions in rapid succession, three more bases lost and his rapidly growing headache exploded into a migraine. He was vaguely aware that he was gasping, nearly hyperventilating, that back in the Virginia base his hands were gripping white-knuckled at the armrests of the operator's chair. There was a warmth traveling slowly down his face, dribbling into his mouth, the metallic taste of blood.
He couldn't keep up.
More minds and more people and more digitized signals.
He was numb, he lost all sense of touch.
The last of the bases went up in flames.
"..turn it off–"
No, there was no sense of self.
No pain. No need for a body, like a wireless mouse whose connection had been broken, no longer an important part of himself but an add-on that he could do without. His mind spanned the globe. He was the broadcast itself. The entity. The god in the machine.
He was everyone everywhere who still had a chip in. He felt what they felt, wanted what they wanted, understood all their hopes, and knew all of their emotions, even the ones that had been smothered down to nothing. Through their eyes he could see those who were now without a chip panicking – recalling all that had happened, all they had been through – and they were striking out in fear at the ones still under control, his control, and he could see pain in their eyes, pain that he wished to wash away.
With the majority of the population on his side, he restrained them – gently – and not in any way meant to cause more harm, but to prevent harm from coming to one other in any resulting fights.
He knew that he could stop their pain, that he could calm their minds and restore the peace from before – that all it would take would be to put the control chips back, and yes, it was what Brother Eye wanted, to change his thinking – but more than that, what the AI hadn't accounted for, was that he could fix it. Brother Eye had never been human, it didn't know or understand that the peace from before had been wrong, had been flawed.
But he knew. He had lived through tragedy and understood the importance of having a choice, understood the importance of feeling sadness and anger and fear. He could give that all back to them, and at the same time, he could protect the world, protect everyone in it, make it so that they never needed to make a choice, and while he couldn't prevent the accidents and the natural disasters, he would do all he could to stop what was stoppable, to reduce as much as possible all that would cause anger and fear and sadness.
"I can give you your free will back, and I can maintain the peace, a better peace than what you had before," and when he spoke, his body back in the Virginia base rasping out the words, all who was connected to him echoed his promise, speaking in sync and speaking to the masses not connected to his broadcast, opening his arms up to them.
And through the roar of several billion minds, one word rushed forward, making the thoughts of all grow silent.
It was followed by a sudden click, hiss noise and he faltered at an abrupt sensation, the pins and needles that came with regaining feeling – and through the eyes of many League members he saw it, Wally leaning over his body, a now-detached wire from the headset in hand as the redhead babbled, "No, you have to stop. It's too much, you can't–"
He was Batman, he was the Flash, and Superman and the League rushing forward to pull the younger speedster back, stopping him from disconnecting another wire, and though Wally struggled against him-them, he was still gentle – would never hurt his friend.
"Wally, no," he said, and once again all echoed him. "You don't understand. There's– there's peace, a kind of peace, and I can make it perfect. I can make the world perfect – a much better place to live in."
"I don't care!" Wally shouted, still not giving up, still struggling. "And I know – I remember what Roy said, that the world comes first, but I don't care! And I..." his struggles ceased, and he slumped against the League's grip. "I'm just not ready to give you up for the world – I'll never be ready."
"But I have to do this," and when he spoke this time, it was only with his voice, as all around the world, those under his broadcast stood silent and waiting.
"Why?" he snapped, and there were tears of frustration shining in his eyes, "Because that's our duty to the world? Well maybe... maybe the world owes us just a little bit by this point. Maybe it's about time the world gave something back."
"We would be reverting the world back to its corrupt form," he said, "A never-ending battle between good and evil, where most of us will die far too young – and so many others will die before their time and needlessly suffer...Things would be better with me in here... doing this."
"So you'll force everyone to remain under control?" Wally asked quietly. "You'll force me to get chipped as well? Do you really think anyone would choose this if given the choice at all?"
And that was what it was all about, wasn't it? Giving them back the ability to choose, giving them back their free will – to face one's demons head-on and hope that the right choice is made, hope you have the strength to not give in to your darkness. Like his choice to not kill his parents killer, his choice to take up the mask and fight crime, his choice to become his own hero and not The Batman. Where would he be now if he'd never been given the opportunity or the option? Where would other heroes be?
"And... aren't you just tired, Rob?" Wally asked, and there was a deep exhaustion in the speedster's own voice.
Wally dropped to his knees as the League let go, as he let go.
He was all the dangerous criminals everywhere... and he walked them back to jail.
He was everyone... He was All...
And he gave them back their coherency – placed the release passwords in their minds, put the key in their hands – and gave them the ability to use it.
All across the globe, the billions of glittering stars that were their minds connected to his own rapidly flickered out until there was only darkness, only himself, and leaving him as only just Robin.
Only just Dick Grayson.
His eyes slid shut and consciousness faded away.
Yes, he was very tired.
Wally didn't hear the clink of the control chips hitting the tiled ground as they finally deactivated and detached from their victims' necks. He didn't hear the scuffing of boots and heels against the floor as the League members in the room came back to themselves and took stock of the situation. The only sound his mind registered was the faint pat, pat, pat of dripping blood as it flowed freely from where the headset connected, traveling down Dick's face and falling from his chin in small red drops onto the arm Wally had stretched out to him as he crouched before the operator's chair – his hand pressing up against the younger boy's chest to feel the slow beating of his heart, because his friend was too unnaturally still, too quite, and Wally just had to make sure that he wasn't... that he wouldn't...
His other hand shaking, Wally reached out and wrapped his fingers around Dick's limp hand, holding on tight and not letting go. Not looking away. Not stopping for even one second as he counted Dick's heartbeats. Everything else around him became muted, unimportant, and when someone from the League walked up behind him, he hardly even noticed – the words they spoke about needing him to move out of the way falling on deaf ears.
A hand rested on his shoulder, and the voice following it had him tensing up instinctively, "Wally."
Uncle Barry gently squeezed his shoulder before pulling his hand away, apparently sensing his discomfort, and Wally was only vaguely aware of the words his uncle spoke, to "Just work around him."
He could feel himself unraveling at the seams – too much to take all at once – and some part of himself recognized his actions as being strange, how he went from crouching to kneeling on the operator's chair, half hunched over his friend like a shield, still not letting go and still counting each heartbeat. His green eyes narrowed at the hands that touched the headset, unplugging wires and wiping away blood, and he couldn't help but tense up when they did, like an animal with hackles raised.
It was over. He knew that, and he knew that these were people he could trust, but he just couldn't flip a switch and turn that trust back on, and he also couldn't stop the cold ball of anxiety he could feel building up in his chest.
The last of the wires were disconnected, but the headset was left on – too dangerous to risk removing it now in an environment so unsanitary and with no medical supplies on hand – and as Dick slumped just an inch further down, those hands were grabbing at Wally, pulling him away as even more hands grabbed his best friend.
And something inside him just kind of snapped.
He couldn't even be sure what he was screaming, just that he was screaming, and words were being shouted over his head as he elbowed someone in the gut to break out of their grip and his hand came away red as he shattered someone else's nose. Vibrating his body to get all the rest to let go, he raced the short distance over to Dick, but red-clad arms with twin lightning-bolt bands caught him half-way, wrapping him up in a tight hug even as he twisted and screamed, tears pricking at the corner of his eyes.
Words were murmured to him, quiet and meant to be soothing – Wally, it's okay, Wally – but they failed to break through his panic, and soon more words followed, sounding helpless and pleading – Zatara –
And words that made no sense.
An overpowering exhaustion washed over him.
His eyes slid closed against his will and he slept.
There was something in his wrist – a needle, an IV – that was the first thing he noticed as he came-to. The second thing he noticed was that his hand was being held by a much larger set of hands, both holding tight but not too tight, and he automatically squeezed back, earning a slight intake of breath as the owner of those hands shifted next to him, the legs of a chair scraping against tiled floor.
His mind struggled through a sludge, going back to thoughts of before, to Robin – Dick, and that he'd been hurt, wasn't waking up, wasn't responding – and just what was going on now? Where were they, where was Dick? Was he alright? Or... and he slowly realized that... it had been taken out of his hands, and he went from being a participant in his friend's fate to being a helpless bystander, and with that realization came another realization... that he didn't want to know – not yet, wasn't ready to know– if there was nothing he could do about it anyway... then no news was good news.
One of the hands gently pressed against the side of his face, "Kid?"
Wally opened bleary green eyes, blinking slowly to clear his vision, and he was met with the sight of steel walls and florescent lights overhead. Shifting slightly, he felt soft sheets and loose-fitting clean clothes, not the stolen jeans and shirt he had been wearing for days on end. He realized that he was in a hospital bed of sorts, likely hospital clothes too, and as the fog gradually cleared out from his mind, his gaze drifted over to the owner of the hands – Uncle Barry, dressed in his Flash uniform but with the cowl pulled down.
Barry's hand drifted away from the side of his face as he sat back down in the chair placed next to the hospital bed, both hands once more gripping Wally's own hand. The man looked weary, concerned, and most of all guilty, yet at the same time a genuine smile spread across his face as he met Wally's eyes, "Glad to see you're up."
Wally fumbled for something to say to the man, but drew a complete blank, and as much as he didn't want to feel this way, being so close to his uncle made him nervous. He wasn't afraid of Barry, not at all, ̶n̶o̶t̶ ̶a̶n̶y̶m̶o̶r̶e̶ , but he remembered the man's fists, remembered being pinned to the ground and the snap of his leg, remembered being hunted and hurt, and as much as he knew here and now that Barry had been under mind-control, that the elder speedster would never intentionally hurt him, his subconscious and his body couldn't seem to get with the program.
He was reminded of a lab rat conditioned to flinch.
"Wally..." and apparently he wasn't the only one who remembered the different attacks in nightmarish high-def. "God, Kid, I'm so sorry. If... If you want me to leave, I'll understand."
But it wasn't Uncle Barry's fault, and although he kind of wanted to pull his hand away from the man's grip and put a little bit more distance between them, Wally held on tighter because he couldn't imagine what it must be like to be forced to attack a loved one and remember every gruesome detail of it.
"No, it's alright, stay," Wally said, "I don't blame you. It wasn't your fault, you... you weren't in control of your own actions."
Barry let out a harsh breath, and when he took a moment to lean down and press his forehead against the edge of the mattress, Wally could just barely make out the fresh scar on the back of his neck, directly where the chip had been embedded.
"Don't know if I can forgive myself so easily," the elder speedster said with a forced laugh, and then the most quiet whisper, "Thank you."
There was a brief but comfortable silence between them before Barry sat back up just the slightest bit squeezed Wally's hand, abruptly changing the subject to something more light-hearted, "You much be hungry. IV nutrients just isn't the same for us speedsters, right?"
Wally offered him a shaky smile.
"Right," Barry continued, standing up from his chair. "Back in a flash."
And then he was gone, and Wally took the short reprieve from his uncle's company to collect himself, to tell his subconscious, his nerves, to get over it, or at least try to get over it, because he was a speedster damnit, and he was supposed to be able to quickly jump back from these things no problem...
...God, why couldn't he get over it?
Barry was back several seconds later with a large brown paper bag in hand and it wasn't long before Wally was sitting up in bed with a meal-tray full of sandwiches sitting on his lap. It had been so long since he'd had the option of eating so much food – food that wasn't straight from a can, food that he didn't have to ration himself on because his teammates needed to eat too and it was too dangerous to keep going out into public as much as he needed to to keep himself fed, not when they were being hunted. He dug into the pile of sandwiches with a kind of starving gusto he'd never had before, and he was three sandwiches in before his mind even registered the turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce he was biting into.
He paused even as his stomach protested for him to keep going, and he absentmindedly wiped a smudge of gravy from the corner of his mouth as his eyes darted over to his uncle.
"Yeah, we... both kind of missed Thanksgiving," Barry said, following his train of thought, and was unconsciously rubbing at the back of his neck before he seemed to notice what he was doing and stopped. "Iris sent those sandwiches up for you. Her and the rest of the family send their love. We were actually thinking of having a do-over Thanksgiving, one that the whole family will be able to go to if... you're interested?"
Wally hadn't even realized that they had passed by one of his most favorite holidays, and the thought of being able to do it anyway, to sit around a table with all of his family and a mountain of food to choose from, laughing and talking about whatever – although granted, it probably wouldn't be quite the same as previous years, so soon after all of this had happened, there'd be a tension there and his nerves on edge as much as he didn't want them to be – still, if he could have something even slightly close to what the carefree meal shared with his family had been like in the past... the thought filled him with warm feelings that had nothing to do with filling his stomach.
"Sounds great," Wally said softly, and the smile he gave his uncle was a lot easier to come by this time around.
Barry's own bright smile spread across his face, "They'll be thrilled to hear it."
Any other words that might have been exchanged between them was cut short when Superman's face appeared on a small screen that was set up against one of the steel walls, something Wally hadn't noticed before.
"Flash," the Man of Steel said with a nod of his head and a stern expression on his face. "We could really use your help with clean-up down here."
Barry shot Superman a quick look, the sort of 'Batman-esc' glare that Wally had only ever seen on his uncle's face when the man was in protective-mode over his family, and the screen against the wall quickly went black.
"I don't have to go anywhere," Barry said when he turned back to Wally, but even as he said this, his eyes were asking permission. "They can do just fine without me."
Recovering from what it had just been through though, the world needed the Flash now more than ever.
"No," Wally said with a slight shake of his head. "I've got all these sandwiches, I'll be okay. You go do the hero thing."
Barry stood to leave, and what he did next, it was such an automatic reaction for the man, something he did without thinking – he reached down and ruffled a hand through Wally's hair, and to the younger speedster's great surprise, rather than be met with memories of broken bones and the man's attack on him, of being constantly hunted down, he was instead reminded of every single time Barry did that same exact thing – praising him after a successful training session, telling him that everything was alright when he would mess up, picking him up or dropping him off at school when he was younger, birthdays, holidays, simply hanging out, and then when he was in the hospital just following his disastrous (and at the same time successful) experiment to give himself super-speed powers, resting a gentle hand on his head and telling himthat it was all going to be okay.
And now this time around, he hadn't even slightly flinched.
Barry pulled his hand away, "Sorry. It's just– reflex..."
Wally caught him by the wrist before he could retreat from the room, "Uncle Barry. It's... it's alright."
Barry pressed a hand over his own, "Rest. I'll be back later."
But he couldn't rest, couldn't sit still, and after his uncle left, it only took him a matter of minutes before he finished the last of the sandwiches, his energy quickly returning to him now that he'd had a good, filling meal.
With a small wince, he pulled his IV out, twisting the drip to it closed, and slowly crept his way over to the automatic door leading out. Although he hadn't exactly been told he couldn't leave his room, it was more or less implied that he was expected to stay put, but if they honestly expected him to just sit there twiddling his thumbs –
The door slid open the second his fingertips brushed against it, revealing a figure standing in the doorway and Wally stumbled away, startled, before his mind caught up with his eyes and he registered just who it was he was seeing.
He shot over to the older boy, more-or-less glomping him as he wrapped his arms around the archer in a hug, causing Roy to stagger a few paces back as he attempted to regain his footing.
"Ahrg, Wally," Roy said, and it was the archer's grunt of pain that had Wally immediately backing off, or at least he would have had it not been for the older boy's left arm coming up around his back and pulling him back into the hug.
"Dude, you're hurt," he said, his arms now tucked up against Roy with his hands pressing against the older boy's chest
He attempted to pull away from the archer to get a better look at him, as he was very much aware now of Roy's right arm being up in a sling and pressed between them and he wanted to check his friend over for other injuries. Roy wasn't letting up on the hug any though, and so Wally settled for just checking over what he could see of the archer – dressed in loose hospital clothes like his own, and a few bruises here and there, but otherwise no real serious injuries that he could actually see given his position, save for that right arm, which wasn't just in a sling, but also had bandages wrapped around the upper portion of it.
"'s'okay," Roy said slowly, and it was here that he slumped down just the smallest bit against Wally and rested his forehead against the speedster's own. ""m okay. I've had worse. Jus' glad I found you and you're okay..."
"I–" and it was the slurred nature of the archer's words along with his overall strange behavior that had Wally pause and blink, "Roy, are you high or something?"
"Oh, extremely," Roy said without missing a beat, and with a kind of honesty that was unusual for him, "Some sorta painkiller they gave me. I told them I didn't need it, but Ollie insisted – prolly just to make himself feel better over shooting me even though I told him not to worry about it. Stubborn bastard."
Wally sagged under Roy's weight and attempted shifting out of the older boy's hold, thinking to himself that he should probably find a place for the archer to sit down before he fell down (and took Wally with him), but then in a surprisingly quick move for someone who's head wasn't exactly clear, Roy went from hugging Wally to slinging his good arm over the speedster's shoulders and leading him in an unsteady path down the hall, only saying, "C'mon, you can be my crutch."
Wally stumbled the first few steps before matching Roy's pace, and soon gave up any attempts at straightening the weaving line they walked as Roy drunkenly lead them back and forth between each door they came across in the long hallway. At first Wally said nothing as the archer paused and took the time to peer in through the small window of each door – he passed it off as the painkillers making the older boy a little loopy – but even despite that loopiness, Roy walked with purpose and as they passed by empty room after empty room, Wally's curiosity finally won out.
"What are we even doing?" he asked as they reached the end of the hallway and turned down another hallway that had even more doors and further ahead seemed to branch off in three different directions.
"Well, we needta find Rob now," Roy said simply, and the answer really shouldn't have been a surprise, it was a logical next step to take, but Wally was taken aback by it nonetheless and thoughts from before replayed in his head – fears that whatever lied ahead was bad news, that any number of complications could have happened in the time that he was unconscious for and that finding his friend now would be willingly shedding blissful ignorance for the cold hard truth.
His heels dug in to the floor and he pulled back against Roy's arm, dragging the archer to a complete stop, and 'no,no,no' repeated in his head as he said, "I can't."
"What?" Roy frowned, brow furrowing in confusion, "Why not?"
"Do– do you," Wally had to drag the words out of himself, and at the same time his mind shouted, 'Don't ask, don't askdon'task!' "Do you even know how he's doing?"
The question now out there, he nearly cringed, and had to hold himself back from childishly clapping his hands over his ears and blocking out the answer.
But there was no real answer.
"Uh, no, not really," Roy said. "Tha's why we have to find him–"
"No," Wally pulled away from the archer's grasp completely, backing up a single step, "I can't. I –"
How could he explain it? His fears, the anxiety creeping up – and it was worse than before, when Robin had just been missing during this whole event, because then his last memory of the younger boy had been of him smiling, laughter in his voice as he said see you later and hopped a zeta beam back to Gotham. Now though... his last memories of his friend had been stained with blood, and skin as pale as a ghost – he'd looked dead.
"What if he's not okay?" Wally asked quietly. "Right now, I can pretend that he is, and actually sort of believe that, but... what if he's not?"
He just couldn't handle something like that, and he couldn't bring himself to find out for sure if it was true or not either.
Roy sighed, resting a hand on Wally's shoulder in a gesture of support, "Robin's tough–"
"You weren't there," Wally said, not bitterly, not accusingly, but still the truth that needed to be spoken, "You didn't see him, how he'd looked."
"You're right, I didn't," Roy said with the barest hints of regret. "But either way, he could prolly use our support right now, and I know for sure that he'd want you to come see him."
Wally shuffled in place, hesitating, his eyes on the ground.
Roy tugged on his shoulder, "C'mon, we'll find out together."
He didn't pull away when he was dragged back to Roy's side and the older boy slung his good arm back around Wally's shoulders to use him as a crutch one more. Mostly keeping his eyes to the ground as they started on down the hall, Wally swallowed thickly and struggled at keeping his breathing from picking up into a too-fast pace, distracting himself by focusing on Roy's voice as the archer rambled on next to him in sleepy, slurred tones.
"–need to think about it more 'glass half full.' He's prolly fine, and wondering where we are... if we could just find him in this fuckin' maze–"
"Where are we anyway?" Wally asked, interrupting the older boy's tirade, because he honestly had no idea. He'd originally thought it to be a hospital – a strange hospital, but a hospital nonetheless – yet as they wandered the various hallways, it was quickly becoming clear that that wasn't the case.
"Hell if I know," Roy grumbled, "Ollie left that little bit of info out." The unspoken 'bastard' was clear in his tone.
Everything was steel walls and floors, metal grating and the occasional intercom system every now and again, with florescent lights and sliding automatic doors. He couldn't exactly say that they were lost when they had never known where they were to begin, but they definitely had no idea where they going now, and were more of less wandering aimlessly. It wasn't Mount Justice, he knew that much for sure, but perhaps the Hall of Justice. He honestly hadn't thought the Hall was this big, but then, he'd only ever seen a small portion of the Hall, so who knew. Maybe there were underground levels that he wasn't aware of similar to how Cadmus had been.
Then they passed through two large automatic doors and that theory immediately went out the window as they were met with the sight of a wide stretch of stars and a massive glowing blue and green orb below.
It was Earth, and they... they were in space.
Standing in an observation deck of the Watchtower itself, something they'd wanted at the start of this all – before Cadmus, before Roy went off on his own – to make it into this exclusive base of true heroes even if they hadn't know the true location of the base at the time, to earn a place alongside the best of the best.
Wally had always thought that making it here would be a joyous occasion, a moment he'd cherish, but now it was only bittersweet – with Dick in who knows what kind of condition and themselves only having been brought up here to make use of the Watchtower's medical facilities – and as he reflected on this moment, how he'd imagined it compared to how it actually was, and thought back to all that had happened over the past four, nearly five weeks now, he found that he honestly didn't care that it didn't match up to his over-enthusiastic expectations, ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶e̶x̶p̶e̶c̶t̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶a̶ ̶f̶a̶n̶,̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶ ̶a̶ ̶h̶e̶r̶o̶.
In the long-run, it just didn't seem to matter anymore.
"You should both still be resting."
She stood across the observation deck from them, arms crossed over her chest, a stern look on her face, and Wally had to admit, as much as he appreciated his uncle's concern, it was nice to not have someone walking on eggshells around him.
"We'll rest after we've seen our bird," Roy said, blunt and to the point, though not completely clear in his words, but Black Canary seemed to understand anyway.
"Robin?" she asked, an eyebrow raised.
Wally nodded his head, hesitantly asking, "Do– do you know where he is?"
Was he even up on the Watchtower?
Her mouth pressed into a thin line, and for a moment, she seemed to be considering something before she finally spoke, "He's been moved to Batman's quarters for now... I suppose there's not a lot I can say to convince you to see him later on," she paused, and they said nothing to deny her claim. Arms falling to her sides, she turned to leave, "I'll show you the way."
The path they took was not one Wally could ever hope to remember the way to later, and after many twists and turns and passing through various doors that needed to be unlocked with a keycode, they finally reached their destination; a nondescript door in an empty hallway, the sort of thing that was easy to overlook. As Black Canary led them down the hall to the door, it was at that moment that Batman was exiting his quarters, the door sliding closed behind him.
As the Dark Knight turned to face them, eyes narrowing down at them, Wally found himself shrinking against Roy's arm, but the archer stood tall even against the steely look, and Black Canary herself wasn't one to be ruffled either, resting a hand on her hip and giving Batman her own stubborn look.
"They've come to see their friend," she said firmly. "Which is perfect timing because you should be taking a break to get something to eat."
Wally half expected the man to say 'I don't eat.' and when Batman did speak, Wally wasn't completely wrong about his response.
"Food can wait," the Dark Knight said, his voice cold and gravelly. "There's a certain satellite I need to pay a visit to first."
Black Canary frowned, "Wonder Woman's getting a team together as we speak."
Wally had no idea what they were talking about, but for once, he didn't care that the League was stepping in and that he was being left out of it. To be honest, for the moment, he actually kind of appreciated it.
He was torn from his thoughts when suddenly the door to Batman's room slid open, and green eyes darted up to see the Dark Knight leveling both himself a Roy with a calculating stare. After a brief, but tense silence, Batman held one arm out to the door, granting them permission to enter, and it was such a simple gesture but at the same time it spoke volumes for how much the man trusted them with his protégé and son.
Staring at the now open doorway, Wally found himself frozen in place, his body not wanting to move, but then Roy's arm was pressing against his back, silently encouraging, and Wally was slowly able to force his feet to drag himself forward, to the doorway, to the dimly lit room that rested beyond it.
"Let us know if he wakes up," was the only thing Batman said before the door slid shut behind them, and it made Wally's mind race.
'If' he wakes up, and it probably wasn't at all how the Dark Knight meant it, but if, if, if.
Roy's hand squeezed his shoulder, "Calm down."
The archer pulled him further into the room even as he found himself pressing back against his arm. The room itself was rather small and bare, void of any decorations and personal effects, with the only thing in it being a desk, some shelving units built into one wall, and finally a bed.
A bed that had a small form resting under the covers, limp and propped up against several pillows, and suddenly Wally found himself stepping away from Roy and moving toward the bed on his own, toward Robin, toward Dick. Green eyes quickly scanned the younger boy, taking everything in, all the bruises, the slow but steady rise and fall of his chest, and the gauze circling his head in a band of white, covering his forehead and whatever injury had been bleeding before, and while the younger boy wasn't exactly the picture of health... he looked alright – not as pale as before, and with the blood cleaned away, not quite as injured either.
Wally sank to his knees by the side of the bed, stretching his hand out to rest on Dick's forearm, being mindful of the bruises there, and his lips pulled down into a frown when his friend didn't stir at the touch. Gently, he squeezed the arm, but still no reaction.
'If he wakes up.'
"You don't," he faltered for a moment, had to push himself to continue, "You don't think it's a coma, do you?" He forced out a laugh, "It's just too cliché, too 'soap opera' for him."
There was a scuffing noise and Wally glanced over his shoulder to see Roy grabbing something off the desk, something he hadn't noticed before, a steel clipboard full of papers. Even through the dim lighting, Wally's quick eyes caught glimpses of what was written on the pages as Roy flipped through them.
They were medical files.
"It's fine," the archer quietly assured him after skimming through the first few pages, "Jus' sleeping. And, hmm..." he paused to read a bit more. "A few cracked ribs, nothin' we've never had before, and pulmon... pulmonary– ah, whatever, bruised lungs. 's why he was coughing blood, but they're watching it now, so it'll be fine and–"
Roy flipped to another page and went silent, a frown slowly growing on his face.
"What is it?" Wally could hardly bring himself to ask.
Before Roy could even blink, Wally had shot up from where he'd been kneeling, and was across the room and had the medical files in hand. He quickly flipped through the pages, ducking away from Roy's attempt at grabbing the clipboard back, and read through everything that had been recorded about his friend's condition as fast as he possibly could. A lot of it was medical terms he only just barely understood, a listing of all the bruises, the cracked ribs and what Roy had been attempting to say before – pulmonary contusion – and then finally he reached the page the archer had stopped at.
'–high concentration of nanites found in patient's system, primarily in the brain.'
'–too dangerous to remove.'
'–impossible to determine full effects of nanites and any potential damage until patient regains consciousness.'
The clipboard fell from limp fingers.
"Damage?" he echoed quietly to himself.
Roy rested a hand on Wally's shoulder, leaning down to meet downcast eyes, "They're just being cautious. 'm sure it's nothing to worry about."
Wally's eyes drifted over to the sleeping figure on the bed, "What kind of damage do you think...?"
His mind raced with every worst-case scenario – brain damage, a loss of motor coordination or some kind of permanent disability that would change his friend's life forever.
Slipping past Roy, he moved back over to the side of the bed, sinking to his knees on the floor once more and rested his chin on top of folded arms on the edge of the mattress. He struggled for words, for something to say, and settled for silence when he could think of nothing. Eventually Roy sighed and moved to the other side of the bed, and for a while he just stood there, his gaze alternating between Wally and Dick.
"I'm sure it's not as bad as you think," the older boy offered, but it did little to help the speedster's mood, and Wally could only shrug noncommittally, green eyes narrowing as he rested his gaze on Dick's hand, fingers slightly curled and limp on the blankets with faded bruises coloring his skin.
Quite suddenly the mattress shifted and Wally's eyes snapped up to see Roy sitting down on the bed next to the sleeping Boy Wonder, even going so far as to slowly slide his own legs under the blankets.
"What are you doing?" Wally hissed, sitting back upright.
"What does it look like?" Roy slurred, "I'm siting down. These meds are making standing way too difficult."
"We shouldn't disturb him."
"Relax, I'm being careful," Roy said, and he was – being sure that each movement was slowly done and that he didn't jar the younger boy even as he leaned back against the pile of pillows with a tired sigh. "'n we're not disturbing him, we're just... letting him know we're here, an' if anything, he's way too... turbed right now. 'sides, would you really protest if we did end up waking him?"
"No," Wally quietly admitted. He'd be thrilled if Dick woke up, even if just for a short moment; long enough to know that he was completely alright.
Mouth pressed into a thin line, and with his brow furrowed in concern, Wally climbed up onto the bed, being as careful as Roy was when he did. For a while he just sat there on the blankets with one arm hugging his knees up to his chest and his other hand reaching down and resting on top of Dick's own hand, absentmindedly lacing their fingers together as he laid his cheek against one knee and watched both the Boy Wonder and their older archer friend.
He was reminded of all the other downtimes they'd spent together - lying on rooftops to watch Gotham's night sky, or Central City, or Star City; playing mindless video games, or working on homework together, or hanging out at their respective homes when they had the chance.
And then he was reminded of downtime after particularly hard missions, when they saw things that normal people their age wouldn't be seeing, when he had to run faster than he'd ever run before, when Robin had to do more hacking and fighting than he'd ever done before, when all three of them pushed their bodies far beyond their physical limits – and his mind, his body, was buzzing with far too much energy, far too many thoughts, and Wally just wanted to have a short moment where he wasn't thinking about whatever mission they had just had, didn't want to think about running, and fighting, and everything that came with being a hero.
And Robin, Dick would track him down, speaking of having too many numbers on the brain, of not being able to stop thinking in code, of not being able to stop seeing ones and zeros – and ever since the formation of their covert group, they'd almost always end up in Star City, almost always end up in Roy's apartment, sitting on the archer's old, worn-out couch together, and Wally would just start talking, doing all that he could to drown out unwanted thoughts from all of their minds with his words, burn off energy by running his mouth instead of his legs.
Around Roy and Dick, he could talk about anything and everything, subjects that he tended to keep to himself because it bored or annoyed most people, rambling on about string theory and quantum physics and other things of the sort, and never once did they tell him to stop talking – in fact it seemed to relax them as much as it did himself, erasing the numbers from Dick's mind, and distracting Roy from all the things Wally always guessed he likely worried about, but would never admit it.
"Okay, neither of you laugh about this," Wally mumbled, and pushed himself to keep talking so that he didn't pause and think about how Dick wasn't exactly in any condition to be laughing at him. It was just easier overall to believe that he could actually hear them talking, "But sometimes I think about our about our... bro-ness as being a kind of symbiotic relationship."
"Hey," Wally reached over Dick and half-heartedly swatted at the archer.
"Never agreed to your terms," Roy murmured, watching him through half-lidded eyes, head leaning back against the pillows. "Symbiotic relationship?"
"Yeah, the mutualistic kind, where both organisms benefit from each other," Wally explained, playfully adding, "Though sometimes it feels more like the parasitic kind."
"Could argue the same," Roy said with a small smile.
"But it's like," Wally continued, "The clownfish and the sea anemone, or the goby fish and the shrimp, though I guess not completely since we can survive without each other... not that I'd want to," he trailed off, his eyes drifting down to the younger boy between them. "And man, Rob, I was so worried about you," he spoke so quietly, "Roy had to practically drag me here because I couldn't bring myself to see if you were alright. I guess I was too worried that I had, I dunno, lost my sea anemone or something..."
"...makes you the clownfish?" Roy asked after a moment of silence, an attempt at lightening the mood.
"Well I don't think he'd appreciate being called 'the shrimp,'" Wally remarked humorously, leaning back against the pillows and just slightly to the side so that his arm lightly pressed against Dick's. "Next time I'm freaking out like that, one of you just needs to tell me... tell me something like... Schrödinger's cat."
"And what does a cat have to do with calming you down?"
"It's a thought experiment about quantum theory," Wally said, "Where you have a theoretical cat in a box with poison or some sort of device set up to go off at random and kill it, and there's no way of knowing when that could happen if it even happens, so until someone opens the box, the cat's both dead and alive. It's a paradox, and on that same note, there's the probabilistic outcome of one of us being okay and at the same time not okay, and we'd only know until we, er, 'open the box.'"
He was almost positive that Roy wasn't really following this at all, but the archer didn't seem to mind, and Wally didn't either.
"And," Wally continued, "when you consider the many-worlds interpretation.."
He rambled on in a stream-of-consciousness sort-of-way, going from one science subject to the next, and occasionally dipping into mathematics and purposely butchering his explanation because he figured if Dick could hear him, he'd get annoyed enough to wake up and tell him that he wasn't explaining it right, and as the time ticked on and he continued to talk, he found himself relaxing, shifting to get more comfortable.
He leaned back against the pillows a bit more, eventually lacing an arm around Dick, and had soon drawn the younger boy close to him so that he was leaning against Wally's side, and he could feel the other boy breathing this way, could just barely detect his beating heart. Roy shifted closer too, draping an arm around them both, his hand resting on Wally's shoulder as his eyes slid shut, not exactly sleeping, but dozing off and on as the painkillers worked their way through his system.
It was when he was going on about the theory of dissipative structures that he felt it, fingers pressing randomly against his arm, and his words fizzled out as he looked down to see that Dick had dragged one hand over to Wally and, while still asleep, was more or less typing on his arm like one would a keyboard. At first he just stared dumbly down at the moving appendage, but then a smile spread across his face because it was a reaction to something. Granted, a strange reaction, but a reaction nonetheless, and Wally half-wondered if the other boy was trying to turn his 'volume' down or something.
The archer's blue eyes slid open, gaze drifting over in their direction, and when he noticed Dick's still-typing hand, he let out an amused snort.
"Still too many numbers on the brain, bro?" Wally asked Dick quietly, not actually expecting a real answer back at this point.
A memory of the Boy Wonder echoed in his head, a slight whine to his younger friend's voice, and he distantly remembered how Dick had dramatically collapsed on Wally's bed at Mount Justice, "God, Wally, I'm seeing code every time I close my eyes!"
He tilted his head closer to his friend's – close enough to feel the brush of his dark bangs, but not too close as to touch the bandages around the boy's head and accidentally press against what was likely to still be a sensitive wound – and the whole time his eyes never left the hand still typing against his arm.
"Let's talk about..." he paused, searching for a topic of some sort, and he felt Roy calmly shift next to him, likely closing his eyes and drifting off once more. When he drew a blank on yet another scientific discussion to go into, he decided to move on to something that was a bit more on the end of mindless fun.
But not contingency plans, he was pretty sure he'd had enough about talk of that for a while.
"Let's talk about who would win in a fight between pirates and ninjas."
Vividly blue eyes slid open four-point five days later, blinking blearily up at an unfamiliar ceiling, and the distant babble of words that had become, in a way, his 'background music' for the past few days cut off with a slight intake of breath.
Wally leaned into his field of vision, but Dick's eyes focused beyond his friend, because there was data in the air, and a spiderweb of glowing wireless signals, all of varying frequencies and carrying information back and forth along them.
Then he blinked and it was gone.
A trick of the eye, likely brought about by the remains of sleep that still clung to his mind.
He was... sure..
Wally's green eyes glittered with concern.
"Cat's out of the box and just fine, Walls," Dick rasped, mouth stretching up into tired smile.
Yes, just fine.
Just a brief hallucination, or his imagination having a bit of fun with him.
He pushed it from his mind.
"And for the last time," Dick continued for good measure, his grin easy to come by, "A ninja would totally win in a fight against a pirate!"
So this story took months of writing and rewriting and ever more revisions, but finally, after a lot of work, it's done.
Brother Eye and OMACs and much of what I wrote down about those things were borrowed from past comic cannon (ignoring various retcons).
I hope you've enjoyed it.
And since reviews are love and make the writing world go round, I hope you'll take a little bit of time to tell me what you think of the story.