Wally bounced his knee up and down as he slumped on the couch and shoved popcorn into his mouth next to a grumpy Artemis.
It had been an uneventful day at the mountain–it had been an uneventful week–and Wally was itching to get back into the field. He'd noticed Robin growing restless as well. The acrobat was currently balancing upside down on the coffee table with one hand.
The team had recently discovered that when Robin had pent up energy, he did back flips off the couch and used their shoulders as a springboard. More often than not he would be found walking on his hands rather than his feet. Wally didn't mind, but he was pretty sure that it irritated Connor, but then, everything irritated Connor these days.
"Batman to Team."
Wally shot to his feet, the bowl of popcorn flying from his lap and sending its contents all over the room. He was the first one to the communications screen, and he was met with Batman's scowling face looking down at him. He shifted in discomfort. He should have waited for Robin.
Kaldur hurried to Wally's side, just getting back from a swim in the pool. "Batman," he said. "Have you a mission for us?"
Wally straightened. Batman did not sound happy–not that he ever sounded happy, more that he sounded distinctly unhappy. An unhappy Batman meant a serious mission, one that the Bat was uncomfortable sending them on. Wally hadn't really been keeping track, but based on the general tally in his head, those missions didn't tend to end well.
Connor and M'gann entered from the kitchen, the smell of burnt cupcakes clinging to their clothes. Artemis trudged in from the lounge with a glower, pulling a piece of stray popcorn out of her hair. Wally grinned.
"Where's Robin?" asked Batman, eyes narrowed to slits.
Wally motioned over his shoulder. "He's over–"
Wally jumped and swore.
Robin frowned when he caught sight of his mentor on the screen. "What's happened?"
"I just spoke with Gordon," said Batman. "You're needed in Gotham."
Robin tensed. "So why are you calling the team?"
Batman's voice lowered, and Wally fidgeted. "Because I'm off planet. I can't be there."
Robin shook his head. "I'm not taking the team to Gotham."
"Yes," said Batman, "you are."
"No," said Robin, his voice darker than Wally had ever heard it. "I'm not. They're not..." They're not ready. Gotham will eat them alive. "They're not familiar with Gotham."
"Gordon asked for you, Robin," said Batman. "I can't be there. It is time sensitive, otherwise you and I would go together."
"Batman, what's going on?" asked Robin, frustrated. "I've fought in Gotham without you, before."
"It isn't a fight. Joker is asking for you. Threatening to detonate a bomb if you don't show."
There was a sharp intake of breath from Robin. "Absolutely not. Batman, I'm not taking the team there, of all places."
"I don't understand," said Artemis slowly. "Take us where?"
"You are not the only one," said Kaldur. "Batman. It is my understanding that you have previously forbade us from entering Gotham. Why do these circumstances differ?"
"Because we won't be fighting crime," said Robin, crossing his arms. "We'll be sightseeing."
"The Joker is currently held in Arkham Asylum," said Batman.
"If he's locked up," said M'gann, "how can he detonate a bomb?"
"The Joker's threats are not to be taken lightly," said Batman.
"Why do all of us need to go?" asked Connor.
"Batman thinks I need a babysitter," said Robin, bitter.
"Robin," said Batman, "do not fight with me on this."
"They've never seen Gotham before," said Robin, his voice softer. "Arkham isn't exactly the best place to start."
"You are not going alone. I expect you to check in with me the moment you finish there."
Robin's tense body relaxed somewhat. "Okay," he said quietly.
"I'll be back on Earth soon. Batman out."
The screen went dark.
"Dude," said Wally, "are you gonna be all right?"
Robin turned away. "All of you, suit up. Aqualad, I would like to take point on this."
"I presumed as much," said Kaldur. "Gotham is your city. It would be foolish for you not to."
"Meet at the bioship in five," said Robin, walking away.
"Arkham Asylum, huh?" said Artemis, moving to Wally's side with a hand on her hip as she watched Robin retreat. "This should be fun."
"Fun is not the word I'd use," grumbled Wally.
"Batman seemed really worried," said M'gann.
"It's not like the Joker can attack while behind bars," said Connor.
"It's not a physical threat Batman's worried about," said Wally.
"You know something, Kid?" asked Kaldur, eager for some insight into their mission.
"Not much," said Wally, frowning. "Gotham's full of psychos, and the worst of the worst get thrown into Arkham. All of Robin's greatest enemies in one building… Robin's only been in there once. With Batman. He didn't really talk about it, but I could tell it shook him up."
"Then we must be there for Robin the best we can," said Kaldur, nodding to himself in confirmation.
Wally wrung his hands together.
"Spill it, Baywatch," said Artemis with a critical eye.
"It's nothing," said Wally. "It's just, some of those people in there have hurt Robin, bad. I get why Batman is so on edge."
The ride in the bioship to Arkham was a silent one. It was strange, Wally thought, flying over Gotham. The city was dark. It looked sick. It was nothing like Central City.
"Land there," said Robin.
M'gann swallowed and landed the camouflaged bioship in a big open space on the dead property of the asylum. They'd flown right over the wiry, black iron entrance gate that would have warded her off had she been on foot, the words 'Arkham Asylum' sending a shiver down her spine.
"Everyone, camouflage mode," said Robin.
"What? Why?" asked Wally.
"Best not to draw attention to yourself, KF," said Robin, pointedly looking at Wally's bright yellow and red suit.
"You're one to talk."
"Just do it."
Wally pressed his Flash insignia, turning his suit a dark gray and Miss Martian altered her clothes to black and red.
They moved to disembark but Robin blocked their way. "Don't talk to the prisoners. Don't listen to a word that comes out of their mouths. No matter what they say, you've got to stay whelmed. The only people you listen to in there are me and Commissioner Gordon." He turned away. "All of you are welcome to remain here if you wish."
"No way, Rob," said Wally, moving to his best friend's side. "We've got your back."
"We will stick together as a team," nodded Kaldur.
Robin swallowed thickly. "Let's go."
The stone, gothic building stretched above them in towers. The windows glowed a dull yellow, outlining the silhouette of the bars that covered them. The vines that snaked the walls were long since dead, leaving dark, wiry stems that looked like veins creeping over the stone. On top of the walls surrounding the compound perched search lights that, at night, tirelessly scanned the grounds. There was a ghost of mad laughter in the air that had the team knitting tightly together behind their youngest member.
They were buzzed through the front door easily enough. The security inside was astounding. Men in bullet proof vests and combat boots, each with their own private arsenal, manned each dimly lit hallway. Robin led them through multiple electronically locked and monitored iron gates that they were buzzed through by members of security who all clearly recognized Robin.
They came to a dark room filled with monitors and computers, at which sat multiple security personnel with headsets.
"Commissioner," said Robin, relieved to see the man in the far corner.
The graying man turned, his eyes lighting up when he saw them. "Robin," he greeted in his gravelly voice. "And your team? Batman told me you would have company. Frankly, I'm glad that he... Well. Are you ready?"
"What was it exactly that the Joker told you?" asked Robin as Gordon led them through the next security checkpoint.
"Just that there was a bomb hidden somewhere in Gotham, and that he would trigger it if he didn't speak with you within twenty-four hours."
"But he's been searched," said Robin, frustrated. "There's nothing in that cell with him."
"There's not," said Gordon, "but there hadn't been anything in there last time, either." They stopped in front of a large, heavy, metal mechanical door. "Joker is in maximum security in the deepest sector of this building. You remember how to get there, I presume."
Robin nodded. "Stay here and monitor us. Notify Batman immediately if anything goes wrong."
"Do you want backup? I can spare some men."
"I have my team," said Robin. "I'll radio you with my comm if we need anything."
Gordon walked back to the security room where he could monitor the happenings of the entire building.
There was a loud clanking sound, and a hiss, and the door slowly started to move aside. Wally's hands were shaking.
"M'gann," said Robin, standing straight, "Link us up."
M'gann nodded and her eyes glowed briefly. 'Everyone here?'
'Yeah,' said Artemis, 'Why the mind link, Robin?'
'It's best they have as little reason to antagonize us as possible. Anything we say will only encourage them. Stay quiet, and stay traught.'
They stepped through the doorway, and the heavy metal door closed shut behind them with a cacophonous echo. They were in an empty hallway with another door of the same make ahead.
'What is this place?' asked M'gann. 'It's empty.'
'A precaution,' said Robin. 'This is the maximum security wing. These rooms are between each cell so the prisoners can't talk to each other.' He put his hand to the comm in his ear. "Gordon, open Bay Two door."
As the second door hissed open and slid slowly to the side, they heard quiet mutterings from the other side. They moved forward, and the door closed behind them.
There was a single cell on the right side of the hallway between them and the next door.
Garfield Lynns was horribly scarred and unsettling to look at without his Firefly suit, but his eyes still raged with the flames that the arsonist used to burn Gotham. The man was laying back on his cot of a bed, but when he saw them he was on his feet and at the large bulletproof glass that separated them from his cell in a second. A scratchy laugh escaped his throat, and he pressed his palms against the glass.
"Wonder Boy," he said, his voice scratchy, his eyes feeding on Robin. "You survived the fire."
Robin tightened his jaw and kept walking.
"Not so fast. Gotham will burn," said Firefly, following them from behind the glass. "And you will burn with her. I'll peel the charred flesh off your bones as you scream and blood leaks from your body. "
"Gordon," said Robin, his voice smooth, "Open door to Bay Three."
The heroes stood there as the door clicked and hissed.
Firefly slammed a fist against the glass and screamed with rage. M'gann let out a small cry as she jumped. Wally jerked sideways into Robin, who sent him a sharp look.
"You will burn, Wonder Boy, do you hear me?" Firefly was shouting, pounding against the glass. "You and the Batman!"
A scene flashed in all of their minds, suddenly, of Robin restrained, fire surrounding him, gasping and choking on smoke as his skin blistered–
Robin staggered and the door shut behind them. They were in the next security hallway. He spun around to look at the ghastly pale faces of his team members. Wally looked like he was going to throw up.
M'gann wiped her eyes. "I'm sorry. That was my fault. I–I accidentally projected his thoughts into the mind link. I swear I didn't mean to. He was just so loud. The things in his head..." she choked, turning into Connors chest.
"That was... unsettling," said Kaldur, looking at the door behind them.
"I'll say," muttered Artemis.
"I knew you guys shouldn't have come," Robin muttered, rubbing a weary hand over his face. "You're all going to be traumatized after this. What was Batman thinking?"
"Uh, that you shouldn't set foot in this place alone," said Wally. "Dude, who was that guy? Why would he...'"
Robin turned away. "That was Firefly. Arsonist of Gotham City. Last time he escaped Arkham, he got a hold of me and tried to... Well. You saw what he tried to do."
"I was fine. What you saw? That never happened. Batman came."
"Those pictures in his head," said Connor, his arm around M'gann, "That was..."
Robin faced them again and took a deep breath. "Look, guys, things are going to get much worse than that. Firefly is hardly one of the worst in Arkham. Get traught or go back."
"How are you so calm?" asked Artemis, hugging herself as she pictured Firefly's electric eyes.
"All par for the course," said Robin.
"But," she said, swallowing, "he's hell bent on burning you alive. What if–What happens if–"
"You can't make mistakes in Gotham," said Robin softly. "You make mistakes, you die." He turned away. "Gordon. Bay Four."
The door hissed and dragged itself open.
'Stick close,' said Robin into the mind link. They moved forward.
In the cell on the left was a balding potbellied man with a large nose and a monocle. He perked up as the heroes entered. "Well, ain't this a surprise," said Penguin. He approached the glass. "A visit from the Boy Blunder 'imself. I'm honored." He looked at the other heroes with narrowed eyes. "Who're these chickies? They look a little shaken. Whatsa matta, is old Arkham too much for ya? Too bloody for ya?" The Penguin's eyes caught Artemis' who stiffened. Penguin chuckled and moved towards her from behind the glass.
Robin swiftly stepped in front of Artemis with a glare.
"Aw, ain't that sweet," drawled the Penguin. "He wants to protect his girlfriend. Well, you ain't gotta worry, I ain't interested in her. I ain't seen you around, Blunder Boy. I can't stop thinking about the last time you and I had a nice chat. We should do it again sometime."
An image, sharper this time, more vivid, a memory, flashed through their heads–Robin, Penguin's white, gloved fist tangled in his hair, holding him up, the barrel of a gun shoved inside his stretched mouth as he stared into the eyes of the Penguin, gagging–
Robin took in a sharp breath at the unexpected image and the Penguin laughed.
Wally took Robin's arm and gently began pulling him towards the next door. 'Come on, Rob,' he said, pulling harder when Robin didn't move.
"I'll see you soon, Robin," said Penguin as they started moving again. "We're birds of a feather, you and I. Tell Batsy I said hi."
"Gordon, Bay Five door," said Robin, but his voice wasn't as strong as it had been.
The door hissed and moved to the side. It closed behind them.
"Rob," said Wally, turning to his pale friend.
"I'm sorry," said M'gann softly. "I can't control it when it takes me by surprise like that. It breaks right through my defenses."
Robin let out a loose breath. "It's all right, M'gann. Just... maybe you should take me out of the mind link."
Something cold settled in Wally's gut. "No," he said, hating the idea of alienating Robin like that.
"I agree with Kid Flash," said Kaldur slowly. "Now, more than ever, we need to be aware of each other's states of mind."
"I need to be unflappable," said Robin. "I can't show weakness in front of these people. But I can't help it if I keep getting these images thrown at me in my head."
"But, the gun," said Artemis, unnerved.
"Not the first time that's happened," said Robin, his voice bitter. "Gordon, Bay Six door."
As the door began to hiss, Wally held up a hand in protest. "Wait, Rob, I think we all just need some time to–"
"I don't want to spend any more time in Arkham than I need to, KF," Robin muttered. "Let's just get through this quickly."
It was Professor Hugo Strange, ex-head psychiatrist of Arkham Asylum, the man that Bruce Wayne had once called 'the most dangerous man in the world.'
Robin stiffened. Strange knew Batman's secret identity, and by extension, his own.
The man's eyes found Robin through his coke-bottle glasses. Thick, bushy eyebrows went up as Strange shifted on his cot to face them. Robin hadn't moved, and he could feel the team growing restless behind him. Wally put a hand on his shoulder from behind, and Robin managed a step forward.
"Well," drawled Strange, looking Robin up and down, "If it isn't my favorite acrobat."
Strange, in his discomforting, craze of an obsession over Batman, had kept Richard and Bruce's identities to himself. Batman must have known that with Strange in Arkham, Dick Grayson being revealed to the team was a very real possibility. Batman had put a lot at risk, letting the team come with Robin to Arkham. More than Robin had initially realized.
"You're not looking so good, Robin," said Strange, leaning back against the wall. "We've talked about this. You keep your feelings bottled up like you do, it's gonna weigh you down."
Robin grit his teeth and stiffly moved forward.
"You should talk to someone. Talk to your parents."
Robin stopped dead.
Strange was at the glass in an instant, advancing on the show of weakness like a beast on a hunt. "What's wrong, Robin? Not on speaking terms anymore?"
Strange knew very well what had happened to his parents, the bastard.
'Robin?' asked a concerned M'gann in the mind link.
Wally looked panicked. 'Rob, don't listen to him. It's like you said, just stay traught, right?'
Robin could feel the rest of the team's confusion through the link. Wally was the only one who understood.
'Just keep moving,' said Wally.
Robin trudged forward.
Artemis grit her teeth. She'd known about Arkham's villains. What she hadn't known was how each of them seemingly had a personal vendetta against her friend. She knew that Batman and Robin fought the crazies, but the villains were hardly giving the rest of the team a second glance. They entered the room, and eyes immediately zeroed in on the youngest hero–the hero that Firefly wanted to burn and that Penguin had held closer than point blank, and that this bald man in front of her had put in a state of unease with just a few well placed words. As she looked at the tense shoulders lined by the black cape in front of her, she had to accept that the words had somehow hit a vulnerable point in the Boy Wonder. Artemis hadn't thought that Robin had vulnerable points. She pulled her arms tighter around herself and averted her eyes from the man whose lips were now stretched in a grin as he watched Robin walk away.
"Gordon," said Robin, and to Artemis' horror, his voice cracked. "Door to Bay Seven."
"Until next time, Robin," Strange called out as the door hissed shut behind them.
Once they were in the safety of the next security room, Wally took Robin by the shoulders and looked at him with a furrowed brow. "You okay?"
Connor frowned. "Why are you upset?"
Robin shook his head and shrugged Kid Flash off, annoyed that he'd let Strange get to him. It just wasn't everyday that a villain threw his parents' deaths at his face like that. "I was caught off guard. That's all."
M'gann hesitated. "Was it... Was it what he said about your parents?"
Robin flinched, and Aqualad stepped forward to intervene. "Remember that Batman has forbade Robin from speaking of his identity with us, Miss M."
M'gann wilted. "Oh," she said, "Right."
"So he doesn't trust us?" asked Conner. "Why would Batman trust us to protect you in the field, but not with your identity? I don't get it. I thought he was different–" from Superman.
"He trusts you," said Robin quietly.
"Well, he sure has a funny way of showing it," said Conner.
"If he didn't trust you, I wouldn't be on the team," said Robin. "He trusted you to come with me to Arkham. Even Superman has never been here."
Conner stared. "What?"
"No powers in Gotham," said Robin, reciting Batman's number one rule. "Welcome to Gotham, Superboy."
"But if he trusts us," said M'gann, "why can't we know who you are?"
Robin turned to her and sent her a sad smile. "I'd tell you if I could, M'gann, really. But there's a lot riding on this one secret. The entire League could be at risk."
"How do you figure that?" asked Artemis.
"It is all right, Robin," said Kaldur, "We understand."
Robin nodded, but Wally knew that they didn't understand at all. Robin knew the identities of most of the league's senior members, along with security protocols to the Watchtower, being one of the core programmers. But that wasn't even what worried Wally the most. He knew that if Robin's identity were to get out on the streets, his best friend would never be safe again.
"Gordon, door to Bay Eight."
"What Bay is Joker in?" asked Wally as the door hissed and began to open, hating every second in the asylum.
Wally deflated. "Damn."
They entered the next room
Without his Scarecrow mask, Jonathan Crane looked like an ill college professor with his stringy dark hair, angular jaw, and half-rimmed glasses. He sat on the floor in the corner of his cell, staring with his head tilted without blinking.
The team walked towards the next door.
"Not even going to say hello?" Crane's voice was silk and sane. He seemed civil. Out of place. Like he didn't belong in an asylum. "I knew Batman was the dark and silent type, but you, Robin? You usually don't hesitate with your quips."
Robin hated psychologists. Bad experiences. Hugo Strange, Jonathan Crane, Harleen Quinzel–If Robin ever needed actual therapy, he was screwed. Sure, there was Dinah, but Robin didn't think he could ever trust a psychologist. Even after that training exercise mishap, Robin had found himself holding back.
"You brought your friends," said Crane. "Makes sense. Batman doesn't want you in Arkham alone. Smart. There's not a soul here that doesn't wish they could hear you scream. We all want you dead, Boy Wonder, don't get me wrong. But if any of us get our hands on you, don't expect to die quickly."
Robin's eyes were ice.
"But you already know this, don't you?" said Crane, picking at a hang nail. "You are, after all, not unintelligent. I'd imagine, after what Joker and Two Face have done to you, this is something you could hardly forget, even if you wished to."
Connor's hands clenched into fists. The team had fought Cadmus, the Reds, Blockbuster, Cheshire, Wotan–so many villains–but they'd never given Connor pause. Some had powers. Some didn't. Connor fought them alongside his team to stop their plans for domination. But these Gotham villains had Superboy raging with discomfort. They were different. They weren't rational, they were obsessed. Sadistic. They had no clear objective other than to wreak havoc. They didn't want money. They didn't want power. They wanted chaos, and pain.
"Gordon, Bay Nine," said Robin.
Crane smirked. "You stand tall and you act strong, Boy Wonder, but you forget. I've seen you at your worst. You can't fool me."
"Shut up," snapped Connor as the giant door in front of them hissed open, hating that look on Robin's face, like this man's words were getting to him.
"Superboy," admonished Robin.
Crane chuckled."Batman was a fool to let these children come here. They're not like us, Robin. Gotham is not for the weak."
The six of them stepped through the door and it latched shut behind them. They were quiet for a minute, getting their thoughts straight, stopping their hands from shaking.
"Who was that?" asked M'gann, her soft voice quiet.
"Scarecrow," said Robin.
"I don't know who that is," grumbled Connor.
"A real psycho," said Kid Flash.
"Specializes in chemical warfare," explained Robin. "He mixes toxins as powerful hallucinogens and uses them to incapacitate his victims."
"Have you ever been–?" asked Connor.
Robin nodded. "More than once. You learn to work through it."
"What does it do?" asked M'gann.
Robin hesitated. "He calls it Fear Gas. It's pretty self explanatory. Makes you see your worst fears by triggering the release of cortisol and adrenaline into the brain which also speeds up the heart. It's physical as much as it is mental. Some go mad from exposure."
Kaldur furrowed his brow. As an Atlantean, he was immune to most toxins, and resistant to others, so the idea of chemical warfare was unfamiliar to him, but the mere idea that Robin had been repeatedly exposed to a toxin that could cause madness from fear left him distinctly uncomfortable. "Batman allows you to fight such a dangerous man?"
Robin shook his head. "Don't start, Kal. Batman doesn't allow me to do anything. I'm his partner, not his sidekick."
Partner. Not sidekick.
That was something the reset of the team had been slow–reluctant?–to grasp. Technically, the rest of them had been sidekicks, despite how much Roy liked to protest to that term. Robin had never been a sidekick. Though, supposedly, Superboy had never really been anything before the team. Kaldur had come to accept that this was why Batman and Robin worked so well together. They stood on even ground when they were the Dynamic Duo. Batman treated Robin as his equal, as his partner, and Robin lived up to that respect. As much as they hated to admit it, and avoided admitting it for a long time, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Speedy–they were all sidekicks. But Robin never had been.
"Gordon, open door to Bay Ten."
The door hissed and slid slowly to the side, and their noses were assaulted with the musky smell of decaying vegetation and mud.
There was a deep, gravelly rumble of a hiss. They stepped into the next room, and the door shut behind them.
"I thought I caught your scent."
Killer Croc's cell was drastically different from the previous few. It was bigger, with a deep pool of water near the back. It was a swamp. The creature itself towered above them. In addition to the bullet proof glass, there were thick iron bars that kept the scaly, misshapen man from being able to even touch the glass.
Large, yellow eyes found Robin as the beast of a man approached the bars. He lifted his giant ham of a fist and pounded one of the thick, metal rods. The metal groaned under the pressure. For the first time that night, Wally feared for his life. He tugged Robin's sleeve forward, ready to leave that creature behind.
"Killer Croc want to tear little bird." There was a flash of teeth, and KF felt sick to his stomach. The creature was easily twice Robin's height, and had the muscular mass of Bane when he was juiced up. How did Robin fight such a monster without getting shredded to pieces? He didn't think even Superboy would stand a chance against that thing.
Robin must have felt his discomfort, or perhaps he was feeling his own, because he moved quickly. Wally was grateful.
The fist slammed into the metal bar again, the resulting groan sending Wally's heart into his throat.
"Gordon, Bay Eleven."
The door hissed open, and they hurried through it, leaving the persistent banging behind them.
Wally fought to catch his breath, wondering when exactly it was that he had lost it.
"How do you fight that?" asked Artemis, sounding just as shaken.
"From afar," said Robin. "Killer Croc is one of Gotham's villains that I try not to antagonize in close quarters."
"One hit from him, your entire chest is crushed," said Wally, eyes wide.
Robin winced. "I could have done without that mental image, KF."
"Are we close to being done yet?" asked Artemis. She was quite ready to leave Arkham behind her. Though, when she thought about turning around and walking back through all of those rooms again, she was tempted to believe that they might be better off if they just stayed in one of those empty little security hallways forever.
"No," said Robin. "Gordon, door to Bay Twelve."
The door hissed open and shut behind them.
Pigtails. White face. A stretching smile. "Long time no see, Puddin. Mista Jay is gonna be so happy you came ta visit. I'll bet he's waitin' for ya, right now."
Robin paused. Harley Quinn was psychotic, but she also usually knew what the Joker was up to.
"Harley," Robin greeted.
Wally elbowed him with wide eyes. "Dude."
'Chill, KF. I just want to ask her a question.'
Harley sauntered up to the glass and leaned her forehead against it with an eerie grin that matched her partner's.
"Watcha' need, Wonder Boy?"
Robin approached her, stopping a few inches from the glass. "What's Joker's game?"
Harley's lips stretched wider. "You always were my favorite opponent o' his. Batsy's just too uptight."
Harley huffed and pulled her head away from the glass. "All right, already. Party pooper. No games this time, Wonder Boy. Puddin' says he just wants to talk."
"To me," said Robin slowly. "Not Batman?"
"That ol' stick in the mud? We just saw B-Man the other day. We see him all the time. We don't see you as much no more. We miss ya, Robby. Jay just wants ta talk. He promised nobody would get blown up if ya came for a visit. My puddin' always keeps his promises."
A cold feeling settled in his gut. The last time he and Joker had talked, he'd been beaten half to hell. Joker was in a cell, now, though. He wouldn't have a crowbar hiding in his sleeve, and even if he did, he would be behind bullet proof glass. Robin didn't doubt for a second that Joker would follow through with his bomb threat if Robin didn't show. Joker had never been one to cry wolf.
"Goodbye, Harley," said Robin, turning away.
"Later, Wonder Boy. Say hi to Mista Jay and Red for me, will ya?"
The door shut behind them.
Wally shivered. "She gives me the creeps."
"Yeah," said Robin, his mind on the Joker.
"She looked so young," said M'gann. "How'd she get tangled up with someone like the Joker?"
"She was his psychiatrist," said Robin, shrugging. "Fell in love with him, broke him out of Arkham. A total disaster, heavy on the dis."
"She worked here?" asked Artemis, shocked.
"She was new," said Robin. "Gordon, door to Bay Thirteen."
Wally stiffened. "Unlucky number thirteen."
"Don't start," Robin groaned.
"Who's in there?" asked Wally.
"Riddle me this," breathed Robin as they stepped forward.
"The Riddler?" Wally hissed.
Edward Nigma, sitting with his back against the wall, looked up as the door shut behind them. He straightened and leaned forward with interest. "Well, well. I certainly wasn't expecting company this fine evening. But you aren't here for me, are you? Who managed to get you here without the B-Man, Robbie? My money's on Jay. That old clown always did have a way with you bats." The Riddler's eyes caught sight of Robin's team, and he perked up even more. "But what's this? You've brought friends." He scrambled to his feet and approached the glass, stopping in front of Wally. "You're the Flash's sidekick, right? Well, riddle me this, Speedy Gonzales. What walks on four legs, then two legs, then three legs?"
Wally frowned. That was a common riddle. "Man," he said slowly, uncertainly.
Robin groaned into the link. 'Dude, shut up.'
But the damage had been done. The Riddler's smile widened, and he got a wild look in his eyes. "Wrongo, Kid! The correct answer is a baby."
Wally furrowed his brow and frowned.
"A baby crawls on all fours," said Riddler, his voice manic. "Then, cut off its arms, it's only got its two legs. Stake it through the heart with the sharpened handle of a pitchfork and stick the prongs in the ground, and it's got three."
Wally's mouth gave a slight drop in his horror. Robin led his friend back and away from the glass to head to the next door.
The Riddler laughed. "Hey, Robbie," he said, chest heaving, "what exactly did the clown say to get you in here? I may have to try it sometime. You wouldn't believe how boring this place gets. You knew the answer to my riddle, I'm sure."
Robin clenched his teeth. "Gordon. Bay Fourteen."
"You've always been able to figure out my riddles. Got away with a lot less once you became B-Man's partner. We have the same sense of humor, you and I. While it is... insufferable, I find myself unwillingly intrigued."
The door locked shut behind them.
"What kind of a sick riddle was that?" asked Wally.
"What did you expect, a 'why did the chicken cross the road?'" asked Robin. There was a haunted look creeping onto his friends' faces and he hated it. He shouldn't have let them come. Batman was wrong. "I told you not to engage them."
"You talked to Quinn," said Artemis.
"But I knew what I was doing," said Robin, his voice harsh. "I know how to deal with the people here. You guys don't."
"He's the Riddler," said Wally, almost in hysterics. "The guy drives a green car with question marks on his license plates. I thought, how bad could he be?"
"If we go by that logic, Joker must be a happy, clumsy clown," snapped Robin.
"Robin," said Artemis, "Lay off."
"I'm sorry, okay?" said Wally, hurt.
Robin took a deep breath and rubbed his hands over his face. "I know. I know. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have–You just need to take this seriously."
"This is so not what I expected when Batman said he had a mission for us," Wally groaned.
Robin slumped. "Yeah. Sorry, KF."
"I do not believe any one of us could have foreseen what Batman's mission call would entail," said Kaldur. "Frankly, I find it unsettling imagining Robin in a fight with any one of these villains."
Connor nodded his head with a jerk.
"I usually have Batman with me," said Robin, shrugging off the concern.
"Usually," Artemis muttered.
"All those times we went on missions without you," said M'gann, "because you were off with Batman. All this time... you've been fighting this."
"Not all at once," said Robin. "Usually its only one crazy at a time. Sometimes two."
"Usually," said Artemis.
"The good thing about Gotham villains is that they don't usually work well with others."
"Yeah, and what about the exceptions?" asked Artemis.
"Come on, Arty," said Robin. "Your lack of confidence in my abilities is starting to hurt."
"That's not what I–" Artemis took a deep breath. "Of course I'm confident in what you can do. But these monsters you fight..."
Robin shot her a cocky grin that didn't quite reach his eyes. "I'm not dead yet." He marched to the next door and instructed Gordon to open Bay Fifteen.
"A feat that we are all grateful for, my friend," said Kaldur softly.
Wally let out a long breath as he lingered behind with the others. "It really puts it all into perspective, doesn't it? He's been doing this longer than any of us."
Connor started. He hadn't known that. "How long?" he asked.
"Five years," said Wally quietly.
M'gann's eyes widened. "Five? But he's–He's not even–How old is Robin?"
"What?" Artemis hissed. "Are you kidding me? He's only–But that means–"
"He officially became Robin when he was nine," said Wally. "He was thirteen when you met him."
"What the hell was Batman thinking?" asked Artemis.
"It was Rob's decision," said Wally.
"What did Robin's parents think about it?" asked M'gann.
Wally didn't answer.
M'gann clapped a hand over her mouth. "Do they even know? Hasn't Robin told them?"
"Guys," Robin called, annoyed, standing in the open doorway.
Wally sped to his best friend's side, eager to get away from M'gann's compromising questions. He skidded to a stop when he saw who was in the next room.
The rest of the team caught up, and the door closed behind them.
Poison Ivy stood with a hand on her curved hip, her red hair in dark contrast with her green tinged skin. She was intoxicating to look at. Kaldur found himself averting his eyes, but Wally found no such strength.
Robin stared. She stared back.
"Harley sends her regards," said Robin.
Ivy blinked. A smile curled her green lips. "Thanks for the message, Wonder Boy." Her voice was low, sultrous.
She sighed. "Move along. You're here for the psychotic creep, not me. I'd rather not be an animal in a zoo for you and your pesky friends."
Robin hesitated. "You know why we're here."
A thin eyebrow was raised. "People talk."
Ivy couldn't have seen much of 'people' recently. "Guards?" Robin asked.
"Does it matter?" she asked, sounding bored.
It didn't. She'd escaped Arkham multiple times by seducing the guards, Robin would bet it worked just as well to get information. They moved forward.
"Oh, and Robin," Ivy called. "Whatever Harley asked you to say to the clown? Keep it to yourself."
The door shut behind them.
Connor blinked. "She was..."
Wally nodded dumbly. "Yeah."
"That was almost pleasant," said Artemis.
"She didn't threaten Robin with bodily harm," said M'gann.
"A welcome change," said Kaldur.
Robin scoffed. "She can be worse than a lot of the villains here put together with the right motivation." There were only three things that motivated Ivy: Nature, her only friend Harley, and her rivalry with Batman. The team didn't need to know about the time she'd nearly killed Robin with a plant toxin just to piss Batman off.
"We're only a few cells away from Joker, now," said Robin. "Gordon, Bay Sixteen."
Robin froze in the doorway of the next cell. It was Slade Wilson. Deathstroke the Terminator. The man that hated Robin more than he hated Batman. Most of the villains in Arkham were Batman's villains, and Robin's by proxy. Deathstroke was one of Robin's villains. Slade was the reason that Robin had been to Arkham once before. Robin had caught him, and Batman had respectfully designated him to be the one to take the villain to the Asylum. It had been a rare circumstance–Robin doubted that he could take the assassin down again.
Robin found it discomforting, looking into Slade's one good eye. He was usually only faced with the black and gold mask. "Slade," said Robin.
"Robin," said Slade. The man was certainly holding a grudge. The hate in his voice was palpable, and Wally was instantly on red alert. This was not a place to linger.
'Uh, Rob,' said Wally, 'What ever happened to the whole 'do not engage' thing?'
"I'll be honest," said Slade, "I didn't expect to see you so soon. I'd fully intended our next meeting to end with my hands around your throat."
The team all tensed, but Robin didn't react.
"Or a sword in your spine. Whichever you prefer."
"I'm flattered you're giving me the option," said Robin.
'Time to go, Rob' said Wally, uneasy.
'I believe we should listen to Kid Flash, Robin,' said Kaldur.
"Your death will be swift," said Slade. "After I break every bone in your body."
"That is enough," said Kaldur, stepping forward.
Slade smirked. "Hide behind your friends, Robin. Perhaps, when I do get out of here and find you, I will let them watch."
Teeth bared, Robin advanced toward the glass with a growl. Wally grabbed Robin's cape and pulled him back.
"You won't go anywhere near them," said Robin.
'Get him out of here,' Artemis insisted.
Wally kept pulling Robin towards the door.
'Open the door,' said Connor.
'Robin, open the door,' said M'gann.
"Gordon," said Robin, glaring daggers at Slade, "Bay Seventeen."
They pulled Robin through the doorway and it shut behind them.
"Dude," said Wally, shoving Robin's shoulder. "What the hell?"
Robin's whole body was tense. The walk through Arkham was getting to him.
Wally tried to calm him down. "Batman sent us with you for a reason, Rob. You can't let these guys get to you. Stay traught, remember?"
"I am traught," Robin snapped.
Wally winced and shook his head. "You're not. Maybe we should stay here for a minute. Let you calm down."
"I'm all for that," said Artemis.
"I think we could all do with a rest," said Kaldur.
Seeing his friends' weary faces, Robin relaxed slightly. "Fine."
Wally let out a sigh of relief.
"I don't understand," said Connor, angry. "We're not even fighting. Why is this so–"
"Stressful?" finished M'gann.
"I know, I'd much rather be off fighting somewhere," said Artemis. "This is insane."
"Nice choice of words," said Wally.
"It's conflict without relief," said Robin. "We're full of all the adrenaline for a fight, but we don't have the usual outlet."
Wally kicked the wall. "I guess you never really appreciate what a release it is to just punch the bad guy in the face."
"But why am I tired?" asked Connor.
"Stress does that to you," grumbled Robin, running a hand through his hair.
"I don't like it."
Robin blinked. Then he threw his head back and barked out a laugh.
M'gann leaned towards Wally and muttered, "Is he okay?"
Wally smiled softly. "Yeah."
"You have a strange sense of humor, Boy Wonder," said Artemis, shaking her head.
"So I've been told."
The tense atmosphere returned at the reminder of the Riddler's parting words.
"You're not like him," said Wally suddenly. Robin met his gaze. "The Riddler."
Robin snorted. "Thanks for clarifying."
"I mean it."
"I know," said Robin. "And I know I'm not."
"Robin," came Gordon's voice from the boy's comm. "Is everything all right?"
Robin brought a hand to his ear. "Everything's fine, Commish. We're ready for Bay Eighteen."
The next room held Bane. The man who broke Batman's back. Robin didn't think he would ever stop being afraid of him.
The muscled man was sitting on his cot. His beady eyes instantly found Robin. He did not speak. The team moved forward. Those cold eyes tracked their every move. Every step they took closer to the next door, the tension in their bodies rose. They waited for him to move, speak, something.
"Gordon, Bay Nineteen."
The door hissed open, and Wally let out a breath. It appeared as though Bane would not–
"Wait, niños," came Bane's deep gravelly voice. "Tell the bat. Next time, I break el pájaro."
Robin stiffened. Bane's deep chuckle still rang in their ears when the door closed behind them.
"What did he say?" asked Connor.
"Nothing," said Robin, taking a shaking step forward. "We need to keep going."
"Who knows Spanish?" asked Wally, eyes narrowed. Robin knew Spanish, but he obviously wasn't sharing.
"There's only one more cell between here and the Joker," said Robin.
"What? Really?" asked Wally.
"Finally," said Artemis, stretching her back. "It's about time. I feel like we've been here for hours."
"Who's the other prisoner?" asked M'gann.
Robin sent a discreet look to his best friend before averting his eyes. "Two Face."
Wally went ashen. "What?"
"You heard me," said Robin.
"I know," said Robin. "Gordon. Bay Twenty."
Two Face was at the glass waiting for them. "The Bat's secret weapon," he said, looking Robin up and down. Greed pooled in his eyes. Every time he saw the brat, his very bones ached to finish what he'd started.
M'gann cried out and an image flashed through their minds of a much younger Robin, staring forward defiantly with his hands tied behind his back.
Robin pressed his lips into a firm line and shot M'gann a look, but the Martian quickly lost control again, Two Face's hungry thoughts overpowering her.
Another image, tinted with rage–Robin being beat to hell with fists and knees and boots–blood–a baseball bat being raised–
M'gann gasped as Two Face's memories were pushed aside by the strength of Robin's–blows raining down upon him–defenseless–he had to buy time for Batman to escape–the baseball bat came down–
Robin stumbled backwards, his breaths deep, his eyes wide.
Two Face looked shocked, too, and Robin realized that M'gann had projected not just into the minds of the team, but Two Face's as well.
Wally was at his friend's side, steadying him with frantic hands.
Two Face took a deep breath through his nose, as if he were breathing clean air for the first time in years. His eyes burned with desire and madness.
Connor stepped in front of Robin, blocking him from the view of Two Face. "Go," he said.
Kaldur put his arm around a groaning M'gann who was clutching at her head, struggling to keep more images from overtaking her power. A flash of a memory slipped through–Two Face's or Robin's she wasn't sure–a cruel hand tangled in Robin's black hair, holding the nearly unconscious boy up, blood pouring from his nose as he gasped and struggled for breath–
"You've gotta tell Gordon to open the door, Rob," urged Wally, the panic just audible in his voice. "C'mon, Bud, snap out of it."
Robin pressed his comm. "Bay Twenty-One."
The door hissed open.
"Robin. What happened? Do you need backup? I didn't see anything on the monitor. What did Dent do? Robin?"
Robin swatted at his ear as if there were a mosquito. Wally caught his hand and moved them into the next hall. The door shut.
"Damn-it," said Wally.
"I'm sorry," said M'gann, "I'm so sorry, Robin, I'm sorry–"
Robin didn't even try for a smile. He put a hand to his ear. "Stop shouting, Gordon. I'm fine."
Wally rounded on the Martian. "Can't you get a hold of your powers?"
"Wally!" cried Artemis.
"She didn't mean to," said Connor, hugging M'gann.
"Rob already had to live through that once," Wally continued, undeterred, harsh.
"That is enough, Kid," admonished Kaldur, even as he looked Robin over.
"We shouldn't have had to see that," said Wally, and his voice cracked. "We shouldn't... My best friend was... "
"KF," said Robin, placing an unsteady hand on the speedster's shoulder, "that happened years ago. Look at me. KF, look at me. Do I look like Two Face just took a bat to my head?"
Wally flinched violently.
"Sorry," said Robin, wincing. "That was... in poor taste. I'm okay, Walls."
Wally looked at the floor.
Robin turned to the Martian. "M'gann," he said, reluctant. "This thing that keeps happening–"
"I'm sorry," M'gann said again, sniffling. "I swear I'll get it under control."
Robin let out a weary sigh. "Joker's mind is a lot stronger than Two Face's. And a lot scarier. Maybe you should stay in here."
"What?" asked M'gann. "Robin, I want to–"
"Maybe you should all stay in here."
A strangled noise came from Wally's throat. "No freaking way," he said, looking incredulously at his best friend. "You're kidding, right?"
"I would not feel comfortable leaving you alone in a room with the Joker," said Kaldur.
"He won't be able to do anything," said Robin.
"That's not the point," said Artemis.
Connor narrowed his eyes. "Batman wanted us with you."
"Screw Batman, I want us with you," said Wally. "After what happened with Two Face–"
"That wouldn't have happened if it weren't for M'gann," said Robin. "I would have been fine."
"We're coming, Robin," said Wally through gritted teeth.
"No, you're not." The team flinched. They never liked it when Robin got angry.
Kaldur stepped forward. "Robin. I agreed with your taking point because I believed you would be rational. We will not let you enter that room alone."
"What happened with the mind link cannot happen with Joker," said Robin. "And you can't just drop me out of it. Joker's mind could drive you all mad."
"Isn't there an off switch on that thing?" asked Wally.
M'gann frowned. "I could try to barricade my mind from attack, like J'onn has been teaching me. But we won't be able to communicate through the link."
Wally looked at Robin pointedly. "There you go."
"Barricading her mind is something M'gann has yet failed to do," argued Robin.
"Against another telepath," admitted M'gann. "But the Joker is human."
"Debatable," said Robin.
"We're coming," Wally growled.
"That we are," nodded Kaldur.
Robin groaned and put his face in his hands. "This is stupid."
"We've got your back," said Artemis.
Connor tilted his head up."You're not going in alone."
"We wish to be of help to you, Robin," said M'gann.
Robin let out a sigh of defeat. "Gordon," he said, pressing his comm, "Bay Twenty-Two."
"My men are on standby, Robin. Be careful."
"Will do, Commish."
The door hissed and slowly opened.
High, sick laughter assaulted their ears. Robin winced and the team hesitated in the doorway.
They stepped inside. The door shut behind them.
M'gann gasped and Wally's breathing hitched. Countless dead robin's were pinned to the white walls of Joker's cell, their wings torn and their bodies mutilated. How Joker had gotten them in his cell, Robin didn't know. Feathers were discarded on the floor and blood stained the walls.
The man himself approached the glass with a smile too big for his face. Those wide, mad eyes and blood red lips–the unkempt green hair, the pasty white face–that fanatical laughter ringing in Robin's ears–It all made him lightheaded.
"Welcome, Birdy and Brats," Joker lilted, grinning, his arms open wide, "to my humble abode. Recently renovated. What do you think of the aesthetic? Personally, I think it could use a little more red, but be honest, Wonder Brat, I want your opinion. I did all of this for you, after all."
His team looked horrified. Wally wanted to puke.
"What do you want?" asked Robin.
Joker pouted. "Oh, now don't be like that, Robin. I feel like I haven't seen you in ages. You've been off running around with this team of yours leaving me all alone with grumpy old Bats. He's way more fun when you're around. The man can't take a joke."
"Where's the bomb?" asked Robin.
Joker laughed. "As if I'd tell you. I'll keep my word, Boy Blunder: nobody dies as long as you stay for a while."
"To chat. Catch up."
Robin narrowed his eyes. "Okay. Talk."
"Aren't you going to introduce me to your friends?" asked Joker, eyeing the rest of the team. "They don't look happy. I get the feeling that they don't like me very much." His eyes found Wally who looked very much like he wanted to punch something. "Flash Boy. You're Robbie's best pal. It's about time we met, officially. I'm the one who likes to beat your friend with a crowbar."
Wally clenched his jaw.
"Robin must have mentioned me," said Joker, looking disappointed. "We've had so many good times together. I know all about you, of course. You're one of the brats that stole my bird away from Gotham."
"Joker," hissed Robin.
Joker raised his brow. "So sensitive. Fine. We'll talk about something else." He examined Wally again, his grin growing. "Oh, this one really doesn't like me. What, don't appreciate the decor? I don't care. It's for Robin, anyway, not you. Or maybe it was the comment about the crowbar. Did that upset you, Flash Boy? That's right. Robin gets his own, personal crowbar, reserved for exclusive use on the Bat's bird. Sometimes I wonder if Two Face didn't have the right idea–with the baseball bat–the blood makes the crowbar all slippery. But blood doesn't wash out of wood. Oh, the decisions and sacrifices I've had to make."
M'gann's face was pale past the point of living. Artemis looked sick. Superboy was shaking with fury while Aqualad looked physically pained.
That's right, thought Robin, the four of them hadn't known about Robin's history with Joker like Wally had. This had to be about the worst way to find out.
Joker returned his attention to Robin. "How is Dent, anyway? And Sardine Breath? The deal was to chat, Robin. You'd better start having some input or I might just lose my temper."
Robin growled. "Dent and Penguin are as they should be. Miserable and alone, locked away, just like you."
Joker's smile dropped from his face. "That wasn't very nice, Robin."
A tense silence, then Joker laughed. "What did I say? Way more fun than Batsy. I told Two Face that killing you was a bit rushed. I've had loads of opportunities to kill you. Sometimes, I think to myself, I should just get it over with. Life would be so much easier if you were dead. But, the problem is, see, you're too much fun to kill off. And, if I killed you, I wouldn't get to hear my favorite song ever again, and that would just be tragic." He turned to Wally and smirked. "After all, screams are music to my ears."
"Will you scream for me, Robin?" asked Joker. "I'm sorry I can't supply you with much motivation from here–they confiscated my crowbar. And my knives. Plus, there's this glass," he said, tapping the bullet proof glass with an annoyed roll of his eyes. "Otherwise, I wouldn't bother asking. We both know I don't really need my toys to make music, after all."
Robin had the sudden childish urge to call Batman. He pushed it down.
"No? Well, worth a shot. Get it? Ha! A shot! You know I've never been a big fan of guns, Robin. They're too quick."
"What is the point of this?" asked Robin.
"Temper, temper, little bird," tutted Joker with a shake of his head. "I thought I'd taught you manners. The last lesson seems to have worn off. Tell you what, next time I visit, we can have another lesson. Free of charge."
"There won't be a next time," said Connor.
Joker whistled. "Who knew Supes had a protective streak? I suppose it only makes sense, you being the clone of Superman. Superman and Batman were always close. Is this a parallel? Not quite. I think Flash Boy has Superman's place at the side of this bat. Sorry, Supes, you've been replaced."
"That's enough," said Robin.
"Who's Blondie?" asked Joker. "She doesn't look happy. Neither does Green Bean. Such grumpy friends, Robin. I don't approve. They all have to go."
Robin stiffened. "You won't touch them."
"What do you know? Robbie has a protective streak, too, and not just for Batman. It's fine. You've called my bluff, Boy Wonder. I don't care about your team. I don't go around randomly killing people, that would be insane. I only kill people when it's funny."
"Everything all right in there, Robin?"
Without taking his eyes off the Joker, Robin brought a hand to his ear. "We're good, Gordon. He says he just wants to talk."
Joker's eyes lit up. "Is that the Commish? Oh, I bet he hates this. He always did have a soft spot for you, Birdy. You should have seen his face when I made my demands. He wasn't having it. And yet, here you are. He made the smart choice. He saved lives."
"How would you detonate the bomb?"
"You're asking the wrong questions, Boy Wonder."
A chill went up Robin's spine. He was missing something.
"What should we talk about next?" asked Joker, clapping his hands together in glee. "How's school?"
Wally glanced at him as Robin mentally reevaluated the situation. "What's up, Rob?"
"Something's not right."
"Nothing's right about his place," muttered Artemis.
Robin thought back. Harley had known Joker had called him, but they had probably planned it together before they even arrived in Arkham. Ivy had known, but probably from the guards' loose tongues.
Robin's eyes widened and his heart sped up. "The birds," he said.
Joker cackled. "Right you are, Boy-o!"
"The detonator is inside one of the birds," said Robin, frantically scanning the walls. His heart sank. He brought a hand to his ear. "Gordon, you have to open Joker's cell."
"What? Robin, are you insane?"
"It was part of his deal," said Robin, eyes lingering on each bird as he searched. "The bomb wouldn't go off if I came to Arkham, right? He knew I would shut it down."
"Tic toc, Robin," said Joker.
"Now, Gordon! My team can handle Joker. If I don't get in there, people are going to die." Robin turned to his team. "Miss M," he said, "Be ready to use your powers to hold Joker in a body bind. I don't want him able to touch anything. KF, you and I need to search the birds with delicate precision to find the detonator. Artemis and Superboy, back up M'gann. Do not take your eyes off him. Kaldur, here's my comm. Keep in contact with Gordon and monitor the situation."
The bullet proof glass wall began to hiss and lower into the ground. Joker just stood to the side, grinning.
M'gann restrained Joker, lifting him into the air with her powers before the wall was even fully lowered. Robin and KF made steady progress–KF's much faster than Robin's–as they examined the dead birds.
"Joker is restrained and immobile," Kaldur informed Gordon. Robin didn't doubt that the man had already sent a squadron of backup.
"Tell Gordon to contact Batman," Robin ordered while examining a particularly bloated and bloody bird.
Kaldur did so and nodded. "The commissioner says that he already did, Robin."
Robin let out a small breath of relief. With Batman off planet, there was no way he would get there in time to help, but it made him feel better just knowing that the man was on his way.
"Rob, I found it."
Robin hurried to Wally's side and gently pushed him out of the way. Bomb's were Robin's forte, not KF's. Feeling the body of the bird, there was the distinct outline of an object inside it. Robin unpinned the bird from the wall and flipped it over–it's underside was slit open and stretched taut around a black, rectangular device. Robin ignored Wally's scrunched nose and Artemis' gagging as he stretched the skin apart so he could fit his fingers inside the bird to grasp the object.
The fingers of his gloves stained red, Robin carefully extracted the device. He set the empty bird on the ground–Joker had removed the bird's innards to make room for the detonator–it was just skin and feathers now. Hollow.
The silence was heavy as Robin examined the device. He quickly found a back panel and pried it open before connecting his glove into the mechanics. The familiar blue screen lit up in front of him, and his fingers dashed across the board. If he was right, Robin was sure that the detonator was timed. He had to shut it down before–
"Got it," said Robin.
A collective sigh of relief.
"And there's the trigger," said Joker.
The deactivation of the bomb had triggered a cloaked surface program. The pins in the birds began whining as they leaked air from each of the robins' stomachs. Joker had pumped them with gas. Their stomachs were small and couldn't hold much, but the sheer number of birds made up for it. Robin felt himself get lightheaded. Wally stumbled sideways into the wall. M'gann lost control with a groan and Joker dropped to the ground with a smile.
The clown hummed a happy tune as he placed a mask on his face and watched the members of the team drop one by one.
Robin fell to his hands and knees, gasping. KF cried an unintelligible warning as he saw Joker approach his best friend. Wally tried to crawl forward to help–
The Joker kicked sharply into Robin's chest. He was thrown sideways into a roll as he fought for consciousness.
"Rob," rasped Wally as darkness creeped upon his vision.
High, sick, laughter. It rang in their ears as the knock out gas took full effect.