Title: Step Into the Dark
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Characters: Robin, Slade, and a few brief glimpses of the other Titans.
Setting: During "Apprentice, Part 2", in between the two thefts by Robin that are shown in canon.
Summary: As Slade's apprentice, Robin receives the one order he fears most.
Disclaimer: They belong to DC Comics and Cartoon Network. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: This fic fills the prompt extortion at Hurt/Comfort Bingo. Because Slade's forcing Robin to be his apprentice is pretty much the most fascinating bit of fictional extortion ever—and there's so much wonderfully angsty, twisted-psychology meat to work with in the dynamic between these two awesome characters. To be clear about the timing of events, the idea here is that Slade sent Robin on (at least) one other heist, in between his theft of the thermal blaster and his forced battle with the other Titans.
Breaking into Com-Alpha Laboratories was all too easy.
Whoever their security firm was, they weren't very good—not by the standards Robin had grown accustomed to now, in his second role as a thief. A few cut wires, a few small and silent electromagnetic pulse charges, and the entire system was blind to his very presence.
This time, he took extra care in making sure he disabled the alarms without triggering them. After his first compulsory theft for Slade, and that terrible moment when his friends had glimpsed him on the opposite side of the law, the last thing he wanted was to alert them to his activities. He didn't want them to see him again like this… to see him as their enemy.
Even so, he knew it was inevitable, sooner or later. Slade would see to that.
In addition to those less-than-impressive automated security systems, there was a guard outside the facility's most top-secret lab. He was the hireling of some average third-party contractor, middle-aged and slightly paunchy, yawning at his desk opposite the lab's sealed door… and he never saw Robin coming. A firm tap to the back of his neck in just the right place put him decisively in dreamland.
Robin quickly hacked the door's access code, and as it slid open, he dragged the guard inside. If he had calculated his blow correctly, the man would be unconscious more than long enough for his purposes; but if not, he wanted him someplace safely out of the way. …Someplace where he couldn't reach any outside communications, or trigger an alarm that would bring the Titans here before Robin was long gone.
The lab itself was also much more unremarkable than those he had unlawfully entered before: cluttered counters and unlocked filing cabinets, a row of desktop computers humming in standby mode, all lit with a soft red light during the overnight hours. Yet while the space was cramped, it was not disorganized, so that finding the device Slade had sent him to acquire took only a matter of seconds. He slipped it into a pouch on his belt, and moved swiftly for the door.
His night's task was nearly done. Perhaps this time, he would be able to avoid facing the Titans after all. Only moments now, one short dash to the rooftop, and he would vanish before anyone else ever knew he had been here…
Slade's voice in his earpiece cut through his grimly optimistic thoughts like a spear of ice. "Stop, Robin. You aren't finished yet."
Biting back a growl of frustration, Robin skidded to a halt. "What now?"
"I have one more order for you to carry out before you leave that room. Something to prove to your former friends that you truly do belong to me now." In Slade's brief pause, Robin could practically feel him savoring the anticipation of his next words, and an instinctive dread filled the boy. Whatever was to follow, he knew from the mastermind's slithering undertone of pleasure that it would be something monstrous.
"I want you to kill that guard."
A deep gasp shuddered out of Robin. His heart plunged, and he physically had to lean one gloved hand on a countertop to steady himself.
"I can't do that… You know I can't! I could never—!"
"That never is in the past, Robin—and your past is gone forever. All you are now is what I make of you. …Or have you already forgotten the price of disobedience?"
The image of the controller in Slade's hand flashed through Robin's mind. The button that would deliver sudden death to the other Titans—his friends, his very life now—as they were torn apart from within by the nanoscopic probes that swarmed in their blood.
"No," he breathed, in a wretchedly small voice, slumping back against the counter's edge as he stared down at the unconscious guard. "But this… Why should you even ask me for this? He's no threat at all. There's no reason to hurt him!"
"My command is the only reason you need."
Very slowly, Robin slid to his knees beside the guard. He wanted to be sick… but somehow, instead, he found himself reaching out, laying one hand lightly on the center of the man's chest.
"Do as you're told, Robin," Slade pressed. "Surely, this one man is far more insignificant than the lives you're trying to protect."
Robin bristled. "No life is insignificant. This man has people who care about him. He could have a family that depends on him—"
"Too bad." The short sigh that crackled through the earpiece was tinged with dangerous impatience. "I promise you that in time, you're going to understand just how cheap human life really is… but for the moment, you need only ask yourself whether sparing one life is worth the loss of four. It's a simple equation, Robin. Now make your choice—and quickly."
Robin swallowed hard. He watched, in a sort of mesmerized horror, as his trembling hand crept a little closer to the guard's neck—almost as if it was not his own hand at all.
Except that it was.
"Please," he whispered, with a surge of bitter self-hatred at hearing himself ask—plead—for anything from Slade. "I've done everything else you say, but this is the one thing I can't do… The one thing I'm not capable—!"
"Oh, but I know you are. I know you're exceedingly capable of this. I also know that deep down, you realize it as well as I do… and now, I'm going to make you prove it to yourself."
Tears stung Robin's hidden eyes. He wanted more than anything in the world to wrench his hand back, to simply turn and run; yet his fingers somehow continued to slide upward, settling on the guard's throat with a perverse gentleness.
Slade was correct in at least part of it. Robin knew several methods: swift, terrible, shockingly simple moves his true teacher had taught him, the ultimate last resort of self-defense that he had mercifully never needed. In his very different life with the Titans, where delivering a fatal strike seemed that much more unthinkable in even their fiercest battles, he had almost consciously tried to forget that knowledge… but it still had not left him, after all.
One life—or four lives. Even when the factor of who those lives were, of what they meant to him, was stripped from this insidious "equation"… could there possibly be any argument that saving the larger number was not the greater good?
…Or would sacrificing an innocent life for the Titans be nothing but a futile delay of the inevitable, with Slade holding their lives so firmly in his hands? Could Robin commit this unspeakable deed, make a monster of himself forever, when he knew the odds were all but certain that Slade would eventually just push the button anyway?
The choice was unbearable—and impossible.
For a brief moment, Robin's gaze fell to his left arm, and the stolen thermal blaster Slade had seen fit to equip him with. He thought of using it to end this, to surrender his own life in place of either choice he was offered… but without him as a living pawn to be controlled, Slade would have no reason not to rid himself of the other Titans immediately.
"My patience is wearing thin, Robin. Allow me to give you an incentive to hasten your judgment. …You now have ten seconds to exchange that man's life for the lives of the Titans."
The ultimatum struck Robin's soul like a sledgehammer. He closed his eyes, and the brimming tears escaped under the edge of his mask.
"I…" he began, in a trembling voice; but the rest of his answer would remain forever unspoken.
At that moment, the door burst inward, to reveal the Titans framed in the doorway.
In spite of the shame of being found in the act of another crime, Robin had never been more relieved to see them—because the implosion of the door forced him to recoil instinctively from his kneeling position over the guard. Now, with starbolts and sonic cannons aimed at him, he could no longer have carried out Slade's murderous command if he wanted to.
His gladness was clearly far from mutual. At the sight of him, the Titans' faces became filled with horrified recognition and dismay. For them, seeing him as Slade's apprentice for a second time could hardly be less shocking than the first.
In the heartbeat's interval of their standoff, his name fell softly from Starfire's lips, quivering with grief… and then, Robin gave himself fully to his desperate impulse to escape.
A smoke bomb sprang from his grasp and burst on the floor before the Titans could react. As he rushed forward in the concealing haze, familiar hands reached out blindly to seize him, but he slipped through them. The blue pulse of Cyborg's sonic cannon burned the air, only to miss him by several feet. He plunged through the now-doorless doorway and was gone, vanishing into an elevator shaft he had already scouted earlier. A grappling hook, forged in the shape of the jagged letter S that was Slade's insignia, carried him up the remaining few floors to the roof.
From the edge of the rooftop, it was an easy jump to the next building, and then the next one farther on. Robin leaped across half a dozen such gaps like a cat, pausing only then to look back, as he crouched in the darkened shelter of a stairwell.
He saw the Titans emerge onto the helipad that crowned the pinnacle of Com-Alpha Labs. At a gesture from Cyborg, they split up, fanning out in an attempt to hunt down their erstwhile leader.
"You failed to follow my order, Robin." Slade's voice in his ear was a masterpiece of deathly quiet menace.
"But I couldn't—"
"Only because you hesitated for too long. Perhaps I should accept your failure as your choice by default, and eliminate the Titans."
Robin took a long, deep breath, fixing his gaze on Starfire in the distance. She had begun to skim over the surrounding rooftops, searching; but her direction would only take her farther away from him. Once more he heard her call out his name, faint and mournful.
"…You're not going to do that, Slade. Not yet."
"Oh?" Slade's tone assumed a faint trace of something that almost sounded like amusement. "And why wouldn't I?"
"Because if you kill my friends, you won't have anything left to hold over me." The captive apprentice clenched his leather-gloved fists. "You can only control me now—but that isn't enough for you. What you want is to turn me. To keep leading me by small steps into the dark, until I can never find my way out of it again. But anything you could try to make that happen will take you a lot more time than this, and until then… you can't afford to lose the one power you have that's enough to stop me from killing you."
There was naked, ruthless ugliness in the words, a flat darkness in his voice that he scarcely recognized. Robin shuddered with revulsion, and was no longer sure whether that feeling was for Slade, or for himself.
Silence stretched over the comlink for a long moment. Robin neither moved nor breathed, never taking his gaze from the distant figures of the searching Titans. Deep down, he was terrified that at any moment, he would see them collapse and writhe in agony as the nanoscopic probes claimed their lives.
Slade's short, clipped order came at last. "Return to me."
It felt almost as if Robin's heart could only then start to beat again. His perilous gamble was a small victory—but it was a victory. Because the Titans were still alive, and so was the innocent guard back there in the lab.
For now, that was all he could ask for.
Shaking just a little, he pushed away from the wall of the stairwell and began to move, but Slade's voice halted him again.
"I warn you that you've only delayed the inevitable, Robin. Rest assured that you will face this test again—and in time, you will kill for me. And bear this in mind: the longer you resist crossing that line, the more you'll endanger your former friends."
"What?" Robin whispered, his heart once again skipping a beat.
"It's simple. As long as the Titans have the slightest doubt of whose side you're on, they'll keep hesitating to fight you, trying to reach out to you… and you'll be tempted to disobey me, even at the risk of their lives. Only when you fully prove that you're mine—when you commit an act they can never forgive, and they no longer question that you are their enemy—only then will you save them from the danger of their own faith in you."
Something turned cold in Robin's soul. A shiver slipped down his spine, and he squeezed his eyes shut, desperately wishing that he could just wake up from this nightmare.
"And one more thing: I congratulate you on learning to feel such hate. You don't want to believe it now, but when I'm finished forging that hate into your real strength, it will become the force that brings you to my side forever. You see, my boy, you're already much closer to the dark than you can bear to admit… even to yourself."
Viciously Robin tore out the earpiece and crushed it under his heel. For a long moment he stood shaking, his hands pressed over his brow, as fresh tears slipped down beneath his mask.
When he finally swallowed and breathed and looked back over his shoulder, he could see that the Titans had regrouped on the roof of the lab. Even from the distance at which he stood, the dejection and confusion in their body language was clear to him. In spite of apparent pleas from Starfire, Cyborg shook his head; and Robin's heart clenched painfully as he watched his friends walk away.
He wondered if what they were searching for was still a lost and wayward comrade, or only a nemesis. Even if he could somehow find a way out of this darkness… he wondered what he would already have become.
Scrubbing the side of his glove across his damp cheeks, the unwilling apprentice turned away, and disappeared into the night.
© 2014 Jordanna Morgan