"Car 94, car 94," the buzzing tone crackled into Matt's car. He brought the receiver to his mouth. His partner looked on while the police car sped along the highway.
"Go ahead, Jack."
"We got a lead on the runaway juvenile leading up the Bayside Bridge of the city, but things are kind of thinning out now."
Mat frowned and glanced at his partner. "Right, let's go over the facts. Fifteen year old kid, black hair, five foot three. Richard Grayson just ran away from school today at 1:35 PM and was spotted on a red motorcycle leaving town. No sign of him entering Star City just yet, but-"
"Found him!" his partner yelled. The car swerved a second just before coming to a halt on the side of the highway. The cops got out and peered over the metal railing where the bay lay before their feet.
"What'd I tell, ya, Matt?" the first one said. "I said I found him."
Or rather, found it. The cops eased down the slippery pile of rocks and walked towards the edge of the sand where land just barely touched the lapping waters of the shores to Jump City. A red motorcycle lay on its side, halfway embedded in the sand like some injured sprawling animal. A trail of footprints led to the water and just stopped.
"Think the kid might have, ya know… tried to put a hole in it?" the first cop suggested.
Matt frowned and shook his head. "His folks said he was happy. I don't know why he'd try to drown himself."
There was silence between the cops. Crickets cheeped and cars zoomed by behind them.
"Wait, do you hear something?" Matt said. He put a finger to his lips and strained for silence.
Sure enough, faint sounds of water lapping accompanied the constant thrusting beat of some splashing could be heard coming from the bay. Matt shined his light across the water, his eyes nearly squinted shut to see what was up ahead. Something was swimming across the bay towards a tiny rock island that was lodged in the middle of the water.
Something? Or. . someone?
Dick hadn't even bothered to take off his shoes or jacket. He had just run to the beach and without a second thought, taken the perfect plunge into the water. At once the cold salty liquid stung in his eyes, but it was a small price to pay for what he wanted. Dick started the butterfly crawl slowly, and then accelerated his pace when he heard the sound of police cars coming. At once he had forced his aching legs and arms to continue kicking and tugging away without mercy at the water.
Black hair whipped around his head in the water and thoughts turned over and over in his mind.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he reached his destination. Dick pulled his body out of the water, crawling on his hands and knees. He dropped his tired body on the sticky sand bank and rested his head down, too tired to move on. Air never felt better in his lungs and land never felt so good being hugged under his body.
But he knew that his rest would be shortly enjoyed. Exhausted, Dick lifted up his face from the ground and wiped the sand off his wet cheek. He got to his knees and pushed down to propel himself up onto his feet. His sneakers made a sick squelching sound when he took two steps forward.
He tilted his head up. His stomach sank down into his toes. It just wasn't there!
Whatever he knew was supposed to be standing on that rock in the bay had been replaced by an ancient rundown lighthouse. Dick stared up at that awful looking rusty cylinder shaped building and shook his head.
"No," he said softly, his fingers curling into tight fists. He had come too far, worked too hard, and lost too much to turn back now. Dick ran to the lighthouse and ripped open the moss 0overed door.
Taking the rickety stairs two at a time, he forced his way up the rotating staircase until he had reached the top of the lighthouse. At last, he came to the small room where a cracked glass box stood in the center of the cobwebbed place. He glanced around, making sure not to tread on the other shards of broken glass, loose bricks, and bits of trash.
Dick sucked in a breath and did his best to force down the burning rage that was starting to rumble between his ribs. Why the hell couldn't he recall what things were supposed to be, what he remembered about that other life?
A scuffling made Dick take a step back. Two rats jumped out of a tin can and scurried away, making him stagger back to the wall.
"No," he repeated in a much more violent tone. "No, no NO!" Dick shouted this time. He grabbed a brick and hurled it against the wall. Immediately, part of the wall crumbled into pieces of stone, sending clouds of dust around Dick's feet.
"Arrrrgggh!" he snarled, pulling at his hair and kicking at the old walls. "This isn't supposed to be this way! This can't be the truth!" he yelled.
"You're not well, Mr. Grayson," a cool voice replied behind him.
Richard lowered his hands and slowly turned around. Lo and behold, there was Robin leaning in the doorway casually. The same red tunic, same yellow lined cape, and same black mask that Dick recognized from the television news report.
Robin emerged from the shadows, a playful smirk on his face as he leered at Dick.
"You!" he shouted, pointing a finger in accusation. "You're the one who did this to me, didn't you?"
When Robin did nothing, Dick charged for him with a snarl. The Boy of Wonder bent over, causing Dick to trip and get knocked against a wall. Robin grabbed him by the lapels and delivered a powerful blow across the jaw. Dick forced himself to attack and lifted his foot in a side kick, knocking Robin down for the first time.
Robin wiped the spit off his mouth and stood up, laughing aloud.
"What's so funny?" Richard demanded, raising his balled up fists.
"You need help, Mr. Grayson," Robin smiled at him. "Professional help, in my opinion." From his utility belt, he withdrew a syringe. Dick recoiled at once, recognizing the menacing danger that lurked within that very tip of the fine sharp needle.
Slowly, he began to pace around the room. Robin followed his footsteps and the boys were circling each other, looking like two animals preparing for a tense fight.
"Please, Dick. Try to understand," Robin drawled out. "This isn't going to hurt at all, unless you refuse to cooperate."
"I don't need you to tell me what to do," Dick spat out. "I want answers from you. Now what's going on here?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about," the masked boy taunted.
"Yes you do. Somehow, I don't know how, but you're behind all of this," Dick said. He noticed a crowbar lying on the opposite side of the room and began slow easy steps towards it, not taking his eyes off of Robin.
"I knew something was off when I tried to read those books. And I know that this place is off as well. This is—or was—my home."
Robin threw back his head and gave a spiteful laugh. "A home? In this rotten old dump? Now I know you're delusional, Mr. Grayson. Why would you leave your beautiful home back in the city for a place like this?"
"Because-because," Dick sputtered, fumbling for an explanation. He stood up with blue eyes blazing at Robin.
"Because this is a dream," he said out loud. "And you've replaced my real life with a fake one!"
He dove for the crowbar and his fingers gripped around the metal. Robin had already seized Dick's arm and was about to plunge the needle into his skin. At that very moment, Dick swung the crowbar through the air and brought it down upon Robin's head.
There was a sickening cracking sound and Robin screamed in pain, dropping the syringe. The small tube of liquid fell to the ground and smashed, joining all the other broken glass pieces at their feet. Robin clutched his bleeding head between his hands.
"You little brat," he growled. Robin released his bloodied hands and ran towards Dick. Both boys crashed not each other, struggling for a grip on the crowbar.
Dick felt himself getting pushed back towards the open window. His feet were still slippery, scooting him closer and closer. If he wasn't careful, he'd fall out and go flying downward, into the ground.
A flash of lightning stuck across the sky, followed by a rumbling sound that could only mean thunder. Dick looked at Robin's masked face and dug into his own strength, forcing himself to push back.
A single spotlight snapped across Dick's face. He blinked from the harsh light and looked down with horror. Several police cars were at the base of the lighthouse. One had a megaphone to his mouth.
"Richard Grayson, we have the place surrounded. We don't want to hurt you, just come on down," he shouted out loud.
"Do you hear that, Dick?" Robin hissed to him. "That's your call. They're coming for you, not me." A fighting staff appeared in his right hand, knocking Dick off his feet again. He landed against the wall, but dove into the air and flipped over in a superb maneuver from long years ago of trapeze training.
"Shut up and fight," Dick snapped. The staff lashed back and forth, but he dodged the whipping metal much to Robin's disgust. Just as it seemed like he might get struck again, Dick grabbed the metal end and swung Robin across the room, knocking the costumed caper to the window.
He grabbed Robin by the shoulders and forced him down on the window ledge.
Robin tried to wrestle a way out but it was a losing battle. Adrenaline was pumping into Dick now, far too much for him to stop acting like a madman. He began to shake the Boy Wonder who was trying to get his hands around Dick's neck.
After what seemed like an eternity, Dick shaking hands came to Robin's face. Trembling fingers were barely an inch from that black mask. And finally, Dick's fingers pinched on the mask and ripped it off. What he saw made him give a scream of fright and jump back.
Robin had only one eye! Where his right eye should have been was just a blank space of pale-colored flesh. The left eye was black and beady like a hawk; it seemed to stare at Dick with a sinister power that he felt a shudder in his bones.
"Heh heh heh," Robin chuckled. He got up and lifted a hand into the air. Between his gloved fingers was a small compact. The compact landed on the ground and exploded into a bang. Dick found himself coughing painfully, eyes blinded by thick white smoke.
"HA HA HA!" the laughter continued through the smoke. Dick strained his tearing eyes and waved his hands to clear the fog. But he felt an icy knife twisting in his stomach at the newest surprise that night.
The laughter had gotten deeper and deeper. Now the sinister sound of amusement was not the gleeful laugh of a teenager, but the deep chuckling of a grown man.
Dick looked down to see a pair of heavy metal-tipped boots stepping towards him from the smoke. The outline of a new figure was becoming more visible. It was someone taller than his father and more muscular than Victor. Dick wanted to run away, but his body was paralyzed with fear and his feet seemed nailed to the floor.
At last the smoke cleared revealing a person who appeared to be more machine than man; a powerfully-built man encased in black uniform and steel guards. The one-eyed helmeted mask leered at Dick. And seeing the boy's horrified face, the man laughed again, his whole body shaking slightly from the clear amusement he had in Dick's terror.
The teen's voice had become a dry whisper of fear. "Who are you?"
"Come come, Richard. You must be exhausted from that journey," the man said in a mocking tone. "Or do you want to keep hurting yourself in a futile chase?"
"Hurt," Dick said blankly. He dug his nails into his palms, scraping into his mind to recollect something of that otherlife that he was so sure he had. Whoever this man was, Dick remembered one thing: that he was the enemy.
"Slade," he said at last. Once that puzzle piece had snapped into order, he felt other tiny pieces that were once floating around his mind slowly draw together, forming a new picture.
"You're the enemy," Dick said aloud, somewhat dazed from shock. "And you've build this dream world. So you must know everything about me right now."
"Not necessarily," Slade said smoothly. Hands locked behind his back, he began to pace around the room. The boy's body edged tensely, waiting for his adversary to strike back. But he didn't, at least not yet.
"The mechanical device that is operating on your mind right now doesn't require exterior knowledge to create illusions. Rather, it merely fabricates the story from your personal thoughts. I did nothing, young man. Your own desires created this reality that you exist in right now."
Dick felt sick inside. His own emotions had done this?
"NO!" he shouted. The man turned his head, shifting the eyeless black side to the orange side. Dick could feel Slade was smiling cruelly under his mask.
"You never want to admit your errors, do you?" he taunted. "But search your feelings; you know it's the truth. You wanted this world."
The boy's eyes grew wide from his words. He knew there may be only a solution by doing something he would have loathed to do otherwise and that was to plea to his enemy.
"Make it stop," Dick begged. "Tell me how to wake up."
Slade shook his head. "Impossible. This world was created within your own mind, within the boundaries of your own desires. You have done the impossible and there is no escape."
Dick had begun to back up towards the door but Slade held up a hand to command him to stop. At once, he stopped.
"There's no need to be scared. I'm not here to torment you anymore." The villain's voice had become surprisingly calm. "Don't you want to live happily ever after?"
"Not if it's some stupid storybook!" Dick snapped at him. "Or if you're the one put it there!"
His adversary laughed, low rumbling laugh that made the hairs on Dick neck start to rise.
"But it's a perfect story, a most excellent one. Just look at what you have." Slade drew out a remote and pushed a button. The cracked glass panes instantly smoothed into clear panels where Dick could see moving images of his life playing out before him.
"You have a family," the masked man began. The panels showed Mary Grayson holding a potted plant while her husband's arms were clasped around his waist in a loving embrace.
"You have friends."
Panels shifted like playing cards. Gar was teasing Raven, grinning white pearly teeth at her. Tara was giggling and holding on to his arm. Vic was flashing a victory sign, looking right at Richard with a bold confidant star. They all looked so happy that Dick felt a deep ache inside, wanting to touch the panel and join them.
"And of course, you have love."
Kory's radiant face was lighting up inside of the panel, the most enchanting smile on her lips and eyes half=closed in a dreamy look. Her hair was dancing with a life of its own, the soft red sliding against her tanned skin.
"Dick, please stay with me," she whispered from the panel. Her hand extended out to him, coaxing him forward.
He couldn't resist at all, his feet took a step forward and his hand reached out to her.
"You have someone who needs you. Don't let it slip away," Slade's voice coaxed from behind him.
"Come to me, Dick," Kory pleaded. "Come to me."
"I'm coming," he repeated quietly. His hand was almost touching her, he could feel her fingers intertwining with his own, pulling him back into that wonderful sun-bathed dream…
A girl with red hair was being hauled off the T-shaped building. He jumped off the roof and reached out for her leg. But he missed! He watched her being sucked up onto the spaceship and felt his body about to plunge into the water. Lighting reflexes forced him to fire the grappling hook, which stuck to the underside of the ship. Arms gripped the metal plates as he hung on for dear life, refusing to give up.
Dick's arm snapped back as if he had just touched a flaming surface. "No!" he screamed, clutching his head as the memories poured forth, streaming into his brain. The names burned there into his mind, strong and clear and bright, and he knew her name. Starfire, of course! How on earth could he forgive himself for even trying to forget her name?
He forced his head up and glared at Slade. "I won't live in lies, no matter how great you make them!" Dick yelled.
The man glared at Richard and clasped his hands together. "Is that so?" he demanded.
Slade parted his hands and hot thick flames burst from his palms, swirling around the room until Dick was encased in a ring of fire. He whirled around in a frantic search for an exit but could only see the villain and the licking flames encompass the room.
"Is this what you want to remember?" the masked man hissed, needling Richard in his injured memories. Through the flames Dick could see different memories taking shapes and forms. But these were painful ones from the dark crevices of his mind.
The circus cord had snapped. His mother and father fell to the ground and remained cold and silent forever. He was a mere child, slumped on the floor of the circus ring, unable to do anything but weep in his newfound loneliness.
Bruce Wayne's cheerful face was replaced with the harsh cold mouth of Batman. His entire body was cloaked in black and the bitterness of death had turned him frosty and threatening, No matter how hard Dick would try to cheer him up, he would always remain brooding and ruthless.
Raven was snarling, fighting to resist the demons that were lurking inside of her. Victor's body was shackled into metal, a head wired with bits of technology sank heavily in depression. Tara had become a trembling girl with horrible powers. She was floating on top of a crater wearing a metallic suit of armor and smiling cruelly as she hurled rocks at terrified people.
"You have to rescue her time and time again," the man drawled out with a shake of his head. "The alien girl, if you recall, was so naïve and petty. She was always an annoying. You had to rescue Kory time and time again, but what did she ever do for you-"
"Her name is STARFIRE!" Dick called out."Don't you ever call her by any other name."
"Temper temper, young man," he taunted the boy. "You should really be careful."
New images appeared in the fires. And he saw himself arguing with his friends. They kept insisting that he was overworking himself. They shook their heads when he ran around, fighting as hard as he could to keep chaos from erupting again. And when he threatened them if they didn't help, his very own friends would knock him unconscious and tie him up.
"Now, you have two options," Slade said very calmly and coldly as he walked up to Dick and gripped him tightly by the arm. The fingers curled up tightly into the boy's arms, nearly cutting off his circulation.
"You can accept your desires and dreams and I will leave you alone. Just imagine how that would feel, Robin. A life without me torturing you, haunting you, or giving you nightmares and bruised limbs."
His breath had been stolen away. The thought of living without those terrible frustrations would lift a weight off his chest for eternity. It was something his mind blissfully wanted to savor just as much as the happy dreams he had been experiencing until now.
"Isn't that what you wanted?" he asked in a very decisive tone.
The pounding sound of footsteps was being heard from below. Dick heard muffled shouts coming from under his feet accompanied by breaking doors. He realized that the police were coming from him.
Slade released his grip on Dick and stepped back. He folded his arms across his chest.
"Or do you want to spend the rest of your dream in Arkham Asylum?" he threatened.
Dick didn't answer. Beads of sweat were popping out on his forehead, stinging his eyes with salty water from the intense heat.
"Stop fighting it," Slade ordered him. "There's no way out."
The boy gazed at the room that was consuming itself in the flames, then at Slade, then back at the single window glowing blue sky against the red fire.
"You're wrong," Dick declared. He leaped over the circle of fire, raced to the window, and threw it open. Fresh air poured over his face, fanning away the sweat. He managed to get both feet on the ledge and stand up on the thin strip of metal.
"There is a way out and I'm going to take it."
"Not so fast, Robin," Slade threatened sharply. "This isn't just any ordinary dream. What it it's real? What if everyone else is real?"
Dick glanced down. Nothing but ten stories of air separated his skull from the ground. The shock alone would kill him even if he didn't collapse onto one of the squad cars. The wind whipped around his shivering body and through his damp clothes impatiently. It seemed to be coaching him to follow his instincts.
"What if you are wrong?" Slade thundered at him.
"Then at least I'll know one thing," Richard said from the window.
He turned back to see Slade, face to face. Blazing blue eyes locked with his black sphere.
"No more nightmares." Dick's knees bent down just before he took a deep breath and jumped off out of the window.
He heard Slade shout something from behind him, but it was swallowed up in the wind that whistled around Dick and screamed in his ears. Sand, air, stars, buildings, and grass were all rotating around his face in a giant whirling ball of colors and sensations.
He waited for his body to hit the ground, but it was taking longer than he thought, as if time had slowed down. Everything was getting darker and colder by the minute. He felt his head give a sharp tug in the opposite direction. He felt his body thrash around like it was being ripped by six different directions.
He shut his eyes and screamed as loud as he could muster.
Robin opened his eyes and gasped for breath. He had a splitting headache. Perspiration was gathering around his face but kept off his eyes because his mask was still in place.
Hot white lights snapped overhead, making him squint from the glare. He raised a fist to brush his face, but such an action appeared impossible. He twisted his head to see his arms shackled to a metal table with iron clamps.
At once he noticed the irritating buzzing sound in his ear and shook his head. Something that was metal and circular in shape was fit over his head. Several wires had been taped to his skull and face,
He began to struggle against the bonds without much success.
Flicking a finger, a tiny metal rod protruded from Robin's gloved index finger. He began to pick the lock on the metal cuff slowly. Finally, it snapped open.
He knocked the metal helmet off his head, ripping off the tiny wires and setting the rest of his body free. Rest was short-lived when he realized his surroundings.
He had just been clamped down onto an operation table. Several of Slade's ninja droids were positioned around the room and had only started moving once he got off the table.
Robin had little time to react. He jumped back over the metal bed and tipped it forward, causing droids to crash into each other. Robin gasped quickly, pressing a hand to his chest to calm his raggedly beating heart. His knees were knocking against each other loudly. If he didn't get something to drink, he knew he'd pass out from dehydration.
What had happened that made him so weak and drained out?
There wasn't time for an explanation. He hurled down a smoke bomb to stall the droids just before running out of the room and down a corridor. Robin skid to a halt, searching for an exit. If this was a familiar scenario, he'd have to take stairs or an elevator to find a way out.
Without further distractions, Robin switched corridors and came to a ladder. His eye fell on a small stream of water trickling out of a pipe in the wall. He fell before it with cupped hands and gathered the water in his palms. Sipping carefully, the water flowed into his parched mouth and down his dry throat, quenching the thirst. It gave him enough strength to climb up the ladder and pry open the manhole that had been clamped shut.
Robin climbed through the round hole, hoisted himself up, and prepared to seal off the exit.
"Sleep well, Robin?"
The manhole landed back down with a loud BANG noise clumsily.
Slade was standing there in the doorway, one hand behind his back and the other toying with one of his metallic explosives.
Robin, on any other occasion, would have been willing to charge at Slade in a snarl of righteous fury, armed with his staff and with anger in his eyes. But now, he just stared at his enemy, too exhausted to fight but with enough gumption to question.
"Why did you do that to me?" he demanded flatly.
Slade cocked his head to the side sharply.
"You have a great deal of nerve to ask me that," he said in a tone of disgust. It was a far cry from his usual malevolent amusement that he used to toy with Robin.
"I was willing to give you whatever life you desired, so long as you would submit to me."
"It's always been about me, hasn't it?" Robin asked.
"Always," Slade repeated. "I wanted you to serve me and you rebelled. I sent a small girl to destroy your team and you defeated her. My implanted toxins could have scared you to death but you resisted the effect."
"Now I know that victory would not be a complete triumph if it came so easily. I wanted you to be tested in your convictions again. A battle of the mind is superior to a battle of the body."
"Looks like you lost," Robin breathed out.
"Perhaps," Slade said. "But only the battle. The war goes on."
He pressed a button and the exit door slide open. Robin was astonished as Slade stepped aside, allowing Robin a possible way out of the laboratory. The Boy Wonder raised an eyebrow in suspicion.
"You're worn out because your body has been draining itself of physical needs while you've been asleep. There's no purpose in fighting you now, at least. Another day, Robin. Another day we'll meet and face in combat."
Hesitantly, Robin stepped forward. He could have held back and tried to fight but he knew that in Slade's own twisted "code of honor" there remained a shred of respect for Robin. If he meant his word, he'd keep it for the Titan's leader. And never would he allow Robin to die unless it was on his own terms. That alone was insurance for Robin's ability to get out of the place alive.
Robin stopped quickly, avoiding Slade's glare as he looked down at the boy from the doorway. "Why? Why this way?" Robin dared to ask.
"I wanted to test your resistance, young man, but my assumptions were incorrect. I underestimated your willpower," Slade said."You willingly chose an imperfect reality over ecstasy."
Robin slowly walked past his enemy and to the door. They stood back to back against each other.
"Am I that much of a nuisance to you?"
"You are either the most foolish boy or the shrewdest young man I have ever known," came the voice from behind Robin. "And perhaps both in the end."
Robin had to bite his tongue from saying anything else. He reprimanded himself for even the thought that Slade would get a shred of gratitude for that which could have been an insult—or a compliment.
He ran out of the lab and out into the cool night air of Jump City as fast as his legs could take him.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
Although weak from the constant fasting, Robin found himself more animated then ever when he got back to the Tower and began banging on the door madly. "Open up! Open up!" he shouted, rapping his fist on the metal doors quickly. "I'm back!"
Damnit, what had happened to his communicator?
There was no mistaking the perky voice of Beast Boy from behind the door.
"Yeah, it's me, Beast Boy!" he shouted. The doors parted with a SWOOSH and lo and behold, the green-skinned changeling was standing in front of Robin with his pointy ears, wide black eyes, and molar peeping out of his mouth which was hanging open in shock.
"Dude! Where the heck have you been?"
Robin would've collapsed at his feet had Beast Boy not gotten him by the elbow and helped Robin into a chair.
"Robin! Talk to me!" Beast Boy was still panicking and waving an arm in front of his face. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said with a shaky laugh. "I'm just glad to be back, that's all."
"Robin's come back?"
He turned around just in time to see Raven's black shadow form in the wall. A second later, the gothic girl had materialized through the metal wall and was standing next to him. Her usual calm expression was replaced with shock and concern.
"Robin, what on earth happened to you?" Raven demanded. "What happened to you? You're pale as a ghost, and you're shaking all over."
"ROB!" Cyborg leapt over the banister on the staircase and landed on the ground with a loud crashing sound, thanks to the heavy armor on his body. Ignoring the commotion, he grabbed Robin's arm and lightly rubbed the top of his head with his metallic knuckles.
"Man, we have been worried sick about you," he chided his friend. "Titan's East has been ringing up the whole other side of the coast for you." Cyborg held Robin back at arm's length and studied his face.
"You gotta eat something," he decided out loud. "Two sloppy joes for starters."
Robin was laughing unstoppably hard at this point. Oh, home never felt this good before. True, there were no serene little flower beds, but that didn't matter. This is where he belonged. This is where pizza parties, training practices, and battle triumphs were all real for the taking.
"Robin!" A musical feminine voice chimed out his name in a high ringing tone. Starfire had already been soaring through the tower like a purple and orange comet. She crashed into Robin, nearly knocking them both to the ground.
"Easy, Star," Cyborg reminded her. "Rob needs some break time."
But Robin had accepted her embrace in return and found himself holding onto Starfire like an anchor of relief. He ran a gloved hand through her soft red hair and recognized the lingering scent of strawberries from her favorite shampoo. Her body felt warm but trembling.
"Starfire," he said, releasing his grip on her. "Are you all right?"
Emerald eyes that were formerly moist were now trickling over with tears. She nodded and sniffed, bringing a hand to her face.
"I, I have missed you so much," she said, wiping away a tear that just rolled down her rosy cheek like a shining pearl. "And I am glad that you are back with us, safe and alive."
Robin noticed a beaded blue bracelet on her slim wrist. "What's that?"
"This?" Starfire managed a small smile and touched the bracelet. "Strength beads. We wear them on Tameran when others are gone or missing, to ask for hope and valor to return them safely."
"Prayer beads," Raven suggested out loud.
Cyborg clapped his hands and rubbed them together.
"Come on, ya'll. We gotta put some meat and muscle back into our leader."
Robin allowed Starfire to support him as he took shaking steps up the stairs and into the main control room. Cyborg and Beast Boy were already squabbling in the kitchen.
"You can't just jar cow guts into a starving man," Beast Boy argued. "Give him some organic protein bars instead."
"What? No way!" Cyborg shot back at him. "He needs some of my patented spaghetti-with-three-meat sauce."
"Perhaps Robin, you may want me to make you some Tameranean pudding?" Starfire suggested.
"Time out," Raven snapped sharply, making a gesture with her hands. Her remark made everyone seal their lips for silence. "Robin's been gone for almost a week now and his stomach can't just settle on just anything."
Raven waved an index finger, causing a fork to coat itself with black energy just before floating onto the table along with a kettle of hot water. Within moments she had a cup of herbal tea ready for him, which Robin accepted gratefully.
"Almost a week?" Robin looked up from the fragrant tea he was sipping carefully. "I've been gone that long?"
"Yeah, we've been going bonkers all this time," Beast Boy said.
"Robin," he heard Starfire say gravely. She took one of his own gloved hands into her own and a pained expression came across her face when she saw how pale and haggard Robin looked.
"Where on earth have you been?" she asked softly, touching his cool skin and brushing a delicate thumb across his cheek. A longing look crossed Robin's face and he gazed off, as if in a trance for a moment.
"In dreams," he said quietly, drinking the rest of his beverage. "In dreams."
It took almost an hour to tell the entire story. Four wide eyed Titans were sitting on the couch, listening to Robin with fascination tell them about his alternative life and the risks that came in facing his inner demons.
"So all this time, Slade was able to trap you with this dream-enhancer machine?" Starfire asked.
"Yes, and I hate to admit it, but it was a great dream," Robin said. "It was just the kind of life I would have wanted if things hadn't been the way they are now."
"But life isn't perfect," Raven insisted. "We must accept the obstacles that come our way with courage and hope."
"I know, I know," Robin sighed longingly. "But all of you guys were in it, and you were all just as happy as I was. Everyone was normal,don't you get it? No weird powers or mutant abilities or anything." He looked down at the floor for a moment.
"Rob, everyone's got a challenge in life," Cyborg said. "It's like the start of a game. Everyone's got a part to play. And if it means dealin' with hard things like this," he said, curling up a metal hand. "Then that's just the strategy that we've got to play."
"Yeah, and you're the team captain," Beast Boy added.
Robin looked up at all of his friends with a grateful smile. "Thanks guys. It wasn't until I realized something that made me see what it was worth breaking out for."
"What was it?" Raven questioned him.
"The only way I could have created that world was from my own reality," Robin said slowly. "My subconscious reflected from my real conscience. And if seeing my friends in school meant I had friends here, I couldn't just leave you guys and forget about them. I had to wake up and come back."
A loud beeping sound followed by a crackle of static interrupted the talking. The Titan's main control screen was flashing colors. Within a few seconds, the image and voice of Speedy was on the screen.
"Well, its nice to see someoneis gonna relax tonight," he said sarcastically.
"Hey, Speedster," Cyborg called from the couch. "You told Bee to wrap things up now that Robin's home?"
"Yeah, and it's a good thing too," he said. "She's been running us up and down the highway for the past three nights and I've been all over Star City just to make sure." The Agile Archer smothered a yawn, covering his hand with a fist. Robin noticed the bags under Speedy's eyes that seeped out from behind his mask.
"Glad to have ya back, Robin," he added. "It's about time, too. I told Bee not to get overly worked up."
"Overworked about what?" asked Robin.
"Not like I'm trying to play this down at all, don't get me wrong," Speedy insisted. "I was also getting the creeps while you were missing. But I knew you'd come back one way or another. You never give up on the team, Robin."
"Thanks, Speedy. It means a lot to me."
"Anytime, Wonder Boy," he saluted with amusement. "Now go get some sleep before we all start snoring when the next bad guy comes into town."
The screen clicked off.
Everyone else had gone to sleep but Robin was still wide awake. After all, he had just spent quite a lot of time sleeping. Nevertheless, he lay on his back on the bed and stared at the ceiling with his hands locked behind his back.
What if I had never woken up? Slade would have won, but that's not all. I could have just stayed like that and died in my dreams, never able to help the Titans.
An uneasy shiver ran down his spine and he rolled over.
Starfire must have been sick with worry while I was gone.
Robin reached over on his dresser and picked up a framed picture. His green-gloved fingers lightly traced over the letters at the bottom of the photograph that read The Flying Graysons.He was about eight years old and posed between his parents in the pictures. They were all wearing their circus leotards and waving for the picture.
He set the picture back on the nighsttand, stretched his hands above his head, and relaxed his tense muscles. Tomorrow would be a better day. He knew because he would make it real and make it happen. In memory of the past, in gratitude of the present, and in the promise of the future, he would make this a better place for everyone.
"Good night, Mom," he said to the photograph. "Good night, Dad. I love you both."
Robin reached over and turned out the light.
We love you too, little Robin.