(Explanation. Important—please read.)
This story is a companion to Cognitive Dissonance and they are being written simultaneously. They occur at the same time, with very different points of view (Bright Line is Robin's point of view; Cognitive Dissonance is Terra's). Neither story is necessary to comprehend the other, though they are best read together. This is an alternate universe which begins just after the episode "Titan Rising" and goes from there with major changes.
Additionally, I feel that I should caution readers of potentially disturbing content in both this story and its companion. Both contain moderate language, implied rape and a sexual relationship between an adult and a minor. Consider yourself warned.
Finally, a super special thank you to my beta readers. Remix17 and CidGregor, you are dear friends to me and I cannot thank you enough for your help with characterization and canon checks. And to Avea, I simply owe my firstborn, several times over. Thank you for absolutely everything, and most of all for being an amazing friend.
Shades of grey, wherever I go
The more I find out, the less that I know
Black and white is how it should be
But shades of grey are the colors I see
-Billy Joel, "Shades of Grey"
Chapter One: Free Variable
It was never a good sign when your computer started blinking.
Those articles weren't going to scan themselves, his desk was a horrible mess and he had somewhere to be. The "somewhere to be" part was about to take precedence over all the rest, or else they really would get worried. Though, all things being equal, he supposed he'd rather stay here and work. But he didn't want to deal with that blinking computer. It wouldn't be so bad if it was an error message. System meltdown, perhaps. That, he could deal with: working feverishly to save all of their information and get the security up before anyone even noticed. But not that blink. It wasn't for anything so wholesome as a virus attempting to shred their hard drive. No, it was the blink signaling an incoming communication.
He picked up the book he was consulting, holding it deliberately in front of the button. Then, he turned his chair around and pretended that blinking, red lights didn't exist. Then, he wondered if the psychological benefits of throwing the whole computer out the window would outweigh how mad Cyborg would get.
It was still blinking.
Really, some people needed to learn to just leave him alone while he was working. Though honestly, his friends were pretty good about that, for the most part. Even Beast Boy had given up on trying to get him to waste hours upon hours playing video games. Why he wanted to blow up fake people with fake weapons when he fought for his life on a weekly basis was beyond Robin. But thankfully, Beast Boy hadn't asked him in at least a month. He knew better. Unfortunately, Robin didn't have everyone quite so well trained. Namely, the person behind the blinking computer screen.
He put his face in his hands, sighing audibly. From a logical standpoint, a blinking light wasn't going to stop him from doing his work, sure. But knowing it was there was going to keep making him mad. And it was not about to go away, not till he answered. He'd probably keep calling all night.
He twisted around in his chair, slowly, as if taking just a little more time would make it seem like he wasn't giving in. Of all the inconsiderate, tactless, unpleasant people in the world, Robin had to get stuck with the worst of them all.
So much for peace and quiet.
"I was beginning to think you were dead."
"And wouldn't you like that," said Robin. He propped his elbow on the desk, leaned his cheek into his palm…and glared.
A heavy sigh and a pause. "Not nearly as much as you tell all of your friends, no. Though I'd venture to say that it's not a bad assumption, given the situations you've been finding yourselves in lately," said Bruce. He looked kind of tired, which was more than a little out of character. Sitting there in a black cotton t-shirt, he almost looked like somebody's father. An outside observer would never guess in a million years who he was, but of course Robin could see it. The rigidity of his muscles, how utterly alert he was. He could break your neck before you could blink.
Robin put his hand down and sat up straighter. "Why do you care? We've been handling everything fine, just fine. It's no big deal: just stupid kids' stuff."
"You are a kid, Richard."
"Don't call me that," said Robin.
"I'll call you whatever I want, Richard. And how about you take that ridiculous mask off?" It would have sounded harsh to anyone who didn't know Bruce, but he didn't mean it that way. Besides, his eyes looked amused.
"No," said Robin. Let him decide which statement he was referring to.
Another sigh. "Fine. Enough teen drama for one day: excuse me for not indulging you further. How about we talk about something you like…"
"We could talk about ending this call. I'd like that," he interrupted. He reached for something--anything--on his desk, something to put in his hands. The only thing that wasn't a folder or a textbook was a set of Chinese stress balls that Raven had given him last month, as a joke ("Why yes, Robin, I am trying to tell you something."). He started tossing one of them from one hand to the other, the bells inside jangling slightly with each impact; it gave him something else to look at--though, of course, his reflexes were so good that he didn't really need to look.
"Cut the attitude, now," said Bruce, though he still didn't look outright angry. The left corner of his jaw got tighter when he was angry.
You're three thousand miles away, old man; I'd love to know what you're going to do about it. "Just…okay, sure, what do you want to talk about?"
"As I was saying, how about something you like, such as stopping-the-bad-guy?"
"You're one to talk," he muttered, leaning back in his chair and tossing the stress ball higher. The bright silver surface stood out in contrast against the rest of the room (he didn't like the light on--a computer screen was enough). It spun in an interesting way when he turned his wrist like this…
"I heard that," he said, raising an eyebrow. It would have been a fairly intimidating warning--five years ago. Bruce looked annoyed, though Robin wasn't sure if it was due to his words, the ball, or both. Probably all of the above. Bruce spent most of his time annoyed in general.
"Sorry." … Not. The little bells were kind of neat, too. He tried to make them sound as obnoxious as possible.
"Will you please stop doing that?" Bruce glared.
"Stop what?" Robin smirked and let the ball roll around in his hand, over his fingers. Well, this was fun, at least.
Bruce seemed to decide that the best way to deal with the noise was to ignore it. That was a pretty novel concept, because Robin wasn't used to being ignored. "So, want to tell me about this Slade person?"
Robin fumbled his catch. The silver ball ricocheted off his hand and landed on the floor behind him with a discordant clang. He turned and scooped it up then paused, eyes and jaw clenched, concentrating on breathing.
"I guess that's a 'no,' then? Richard?"
"Yeah, that's pretty much a 'no '," said Robin, reluctantly turning back to face him. Hand under the desk so Bruce couldn't see it, he squeezed the stress ball until his fingers went numb. "Look, I've got a lot of things to do and…"
Bruce leaned forward in his chair, eyes narrowing. "What could you possibly have to do?"
That look, it was just the worst. As if he were a lab rat that had been given some unknown chemical and Bruce was going to record how he reacted to it. That look reminded Robin of why they didn't live together anymore. "I really hope that was sarcasm. But seriously, I have to go. I'm supposed to make an appearance to give Terra her communicator--the usual leader stuff." They really were going to start wondering where he was. Not that he wasn't shamelessly using that fact as a pretext to get rid of Bruce. Didn't matter.
Robin shrugged. Oh, nobody, just a waif we found in the desert who's probably going to kill us all by dropping a boulder on our heads. "New girl. Really annoying. Hogs the bathroom like you wouldn't believe. I have got to go." He looked pointedly at his watch for good measure.
"Fair enough. Will you call me in two weeks? And actually call this time?"
"On the phone?" Robin had stood up already and was trying to think of things to do that would involve ignoring the computer.
"I'd have to say that I prefer the vidlink: helps me make sure that you still have all your limbs," said Bruce. The lab rat look was gone now, fortunately.
"Fine. Whatever. Vidlink, sure, gotta go."
"Well, I guess I'll…talk to you in two weeks." He shifted uncomfortably, seemed to want to say something else--and swallowed it. Another expression he hated to see on Bruce. It was just unnatural for the man to look that … helpless. He ignored it. "Take care of yourself, Richard. Sleep. Please."
"Sleep later. Talk to Terra now. Don't call me that." His finger hovered over the button, the one that would bring silence. Lovely, lovely silence.
"When you start speaking in sentence fragments, I know it's time to leave you alone…"
Bye, Bruce. Robin kind of liked having control of the situation for once.
"Where have you been?"
He shrugged. "Just taking care of some stuff."
Cyborg rolled his eyes. "Some 'stuff' that's more important than welcoming Terra?" He looked down at Robin with a patronizing smile.
"Since I'm here, I guess Terra's more important, right?"
"Well, get out of the doorway already: she's coming," hissed Beast Boy with poorly-suppressed excitement.
He nodded and took a few steps into the room and suddenly couldn't see anything as the automatic door slid shut behind him. It wouldn't take him long to get used to it, of course--and anyway, he knew how to fight in the dark, if it came to that. It was almost easier, in some ways, because usually your opponent would be much slower, and if you were prepared…
A sliver of light filtered through from the hallway, and got larger and larger as the door opened again--revealing Terra and Raven. Of course, Raven was completely serious about it, as if she genuinely had no idea what was going on; that's why they had given her the job of leading Terra up here (Beast Boy had wanted to do it but he'd been immediately outvoted). She stepped across the threshold of the doorway and indicated that Terra should follow her.
I should have heard them coming--why didn't I hear them coming?
"Umm…where are we?" Terra squinted into the darkness, her posture awkward and hesitant.
In an easy, fluid motion, Raven flipped the light switch by the door. "Your room," she said. She smiled gravely as if this was a fact taught to four year olds on their first day of preschool, and Terra was clearly an idiot for not already figuring it out.
That was their cue to yell out, "Surprise!" As loudly as humanly possible. Robin didn't really do yelling (if he had to raise his voice he'd rather it be to shout orders) but, in this case, it went along with the whole leader thing. So he did it anyway.
Terra balked at the clamor, appropriately stunned. For a split second, she looked frightened (her eyes twitched a bit, in a highly unpleasant way, and the muscles in her shoulders got tense). Then, it was over and she was back to being amazed. It was honestly kind of cute, he had to admit. Terra was so little, almost delicate, to the point where you felt like you had to be so careful with her. She was like some really expensive doll.
Interestingly, she also held the same captivating power as a really expensive doll: at least, for most of the team. Robin knew better. Getting distracted by the shiny new toy was exactly what he wanted them to do. And Robin had no intention of being anybody's fool.
Not again. Never again.
Terra found something to say at that point. "You guys did all this…for me?" Her eyes darted from one piece of furniture to another, unbelieving, hardly daring to hope.
Well, it had taken a bit of work. Though, honestly, the hardest thing about the project was keeping Beast Boy from telling her about it. It had been his idea, of course. A hushed conversation while Terra was in the shower, with him passionately declaring that she shouldn't have to sleep on the couch or in a spare room. He was transparently, obviously obsessed with her. Personally, Robin didn't understand it. He wasn't in the business of giving in to such ridiculous (and potentially dangerous) emotions.
"Yeah, since you helped save our home and all--we thought you deserved your own room," said Beast Boy. He tried to look cool, failed miserably, and wasn't quite aware that he had failed miserably. Somebody really needed to tell him how stupid he looked standing so close to her and blushing like that...but if Terra cared in the least, she didn't show it.
Robin chose that moment to put Beast Boy out of his misery. "You also deserve one of these," he said.
Terra reached for the communicator, her face clouded with some unidentifiable emotion. Experimentally, she held it in her palm, as if a complete stranger had handed her a dead fish and told her it was very important. Huge, blue eyes finally looked up at Robin--and kept staring. "So, I'm…"
"A Teen Titan," said Robin. "Glad to have you on the team." He extended his hand to her.
Terra officially had the weakest handshake in existence. Which wasn't any great surprise, really. But moreover, she had this unsettling, imperceptible little tremor that seemed to originate somewhere between her fingers. Her hands were really small. There were too many bones.
He let go as quickly as he could without making Terra think it was something she did…
The others took this as their cue to attack Terra, in varying degrees of glee. To her credit, she seemed to be getting used to it: the inevitable consequences of that spontaneous excitement that she generated wherever she went (probably without realizing it). She certainly was infectious, that was for sure. Even Robin liked her. Sort of. And yet, still, something--something important…
"Congratulations, Terra," said Raven from behind, keeping her usual safe distance. She paused, thoughtfully, as if she was engaged in a debate (and from the little that Robin knew about the way her mind worked, she probably was, literally). Then she smiled, one of her rare, genuine ones, and at least Robin didn't have to worry about the two of them trying to kill each other anymore. "You earned it."
Terra smiled. Not one of the smiles she reserved for Beast Boy, or even one that she'd toss out to just anybody. It was careful, cautious. Calculated? No, he didn't think so. Strike that: definitely not calculated. She wasn't smart enough for that.
It was something, though. He suddenly felt a hazy sensation in his temple, and from across the room Raven gave him a pointed look. Great, again with the empathy. Whatever uncertainty he had just picked up, she was in on it, now.
Fortunately, Cyborg saw fit to break up a potentially awkward moment by offering waffles. That was fine with him. He supposed he hadn't eaten in awhile and he was in no mood for Raven-questions that he had no intention of answering.
"Can they be non-dairy waffles?" Beast Boy, of course.
"I'm thinking somewhere between 'no way,' and 'not in this lifetime'," said Cyborg.
And cue Fight Number Sixteen of the day. If they all kept things going at this rate, they might break twenty by the end of the night. Especially if Raven decided to insult Terra. That would be interesting. Though, Robin sincerely hoped that they were both finished insulting each other: it gave him a headache, and he was not taking sides. Besides, Starfire didn't like it, which would be one more member of the team upset.
They were already halfway out the door, with Cyborg and Beast Boy yelling at each other and Starfire trying to get them to stop and Raven looking some combination of bored and annoyed.
A high-pitched, bubbly voice. "Sounds good! I'll catch up in a minute, okay?" Terra grinned and waved cheerfully.
Robin wasn't sure if anyone else had heard that, but he nodded and left Terra alone in her room because he was the leader and that was what he was supposed to do. Maybe she was just overwhelmed. That made a lot of sense, if he could just get himself to be objective about it. He had no reason to draw any other conclusion--no concrete reason, anyway.
Something poked him between the shoulder blades. "Hey, you."
Robin turned around, immediately face to face with the vague outline of Raven's face beneath her cloak. "What?" He could have phrased that better. Alright, maybe it was even a little rude, but he didn't feel like being probed tonight.
"Whatever you were doing before you went to Terra's room, I'm going to find out," said Raven, calmly and seriously.
Great. Robin walked a bit faster to catch up with Starfire. She needed a fellow mediator in the Beast Boy versus Cyborg battle, anyway.
But something within him didn't want to leave Terra alone in her room. Quiet and insistent, a nagging little doubt: that vague intuition of something's wrong. He was absolutely no stranger to it, though he'd been laughed at enough times to have learned that it was best kept to himself. It wasn't even a concrete thought, he supposed, because Terra had never done anything explicitly off-base: at least, never in front of him. (Well, of course: she's probably not that stupid.) Usually, nothing ever came of his suspicions--on occasion, it even turned out to be somewhat funny--but he had been taught the hard way not to ignore them. The last time he ignored something like this--
Well. He wasn't going to do it again, in any case.
It was settled, then: Robin had to do something, and waffle-eating wasn't anywhere on the list.
"But friends, surely you might devise some sort of…negotiation, that would allow you both to enjoy the eating-of-waffles in your preferred method?" Poor Starfire. She flitted from one friend to the other, more than a little disconcerted, periodically tapping them when they continued to ignore her.
She noticed him and grinned broadly. "Ah! Friend Robin! I am having difficulty, you see…"
"It's okay, Starfire. Really. They're being immature--just let them embarrass themselves."
Starfire's classic, righteous expression suggested that she was in no mood to let a fight ruin her evening, but she sighed and stopped poking them. "Sometimes, I wonder how we are capable of engaging in hostilities over such trivial things," she said, a bit sadly.
Robin nodded. "You're absolutely right. We should rename ourselves 'The Toddler Titans'."
She didn't get it, but that was okay. A long time ago, they had reached an understanding that the very nature of her situation meant they were both going to confuse each other. Sometimes an explanation was in order but it often took so long that the joke wasn't really funny anymore. Starfire always took it completely in stride, though, and he tried to do the same, though Robin did not like being confused. But some people were just so friendly that you ended up doing things you wouldn't normally do--reflexively.
As they turned the corner, Robin went one way and everybody else went the other. He didn't get very far, however, because one step in the wrong direction earned him a genuinely confused look from Starfire, and not one of her 'This-is-Something-from-Earth-that-I-Don't-Understand' looks. "Robin? Where are you going?"
Okay. Proper word choice is key. "Oh, I'm just going to the gym for a while, I think."
Her green eyes were immediately, absolutely hurt. That killed him, right there. Seeing Starfire upset was like experiencing physical pain. "Do you…not wish to dine with us?"
"Oh, no, that's not it at all," he answered soothingly. "It's just not good for me to eat if I haven't exercised first. Really bad for my stomach, seriously." He was counting on Starfire not having much knowledge of human biology.
"That is most regrettable," said Starfire, nodding in understanding. "Perhaps you will join us later, yes?"
Robin nodded, hoping his smile was as friendly as he needed it to be. "Absolutely. I wouldn't miss it. Thanks for understanding, Star." He hurried down the hall and around the corner before she could smile at him again. That smile killed him, it just killed him. He hated lying to her. Lying to someone who trusted you that implicitly was just…wrong.
When he'd waited a reasonable amount of time, he turned around and headed in the other direction, past the corridor that led to the kitchen.
He'd already run eight miles this morning, anyway.
The main computer room was dark, the eerie glow emitted from the huge screens…but not enough to actually light the room. Robin quietly closed the door behind him--and locked it. An unidentifiable and unwelcome emotion washed around somewhere in the back of his mind as he started typing.
He didn't know what to think about tiny, adorable Terra--yet. For now, she was wholeheartedly receiving the benefit of the doubt, because in the first place Robin wouldn't have allowed her on the team if he hadn't been reasonably sure of her integrity…and in the second place, it was his job to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Or, at least, it was his job to make people think they were getting the benefit of the doubt.
Personally, Robin was taking no chances. It wasn't really distrust that led him to change all the security, but he definitely felt better after he had programmed all the main computers not to recognize Terra's access codes. She could get into her laptop, check email, play games, and that kind of thing--but if she tried to get into anything classified, she would be stopped, and he would know about it.
Not that Robin really thought that she was smart enough to find the security system anyway--or to know what to do with it once she found it. That was one of the things that still didn't fit and compelled him to believe that he had drawn the wrong conclusion. It made no sense for Terra to get into their computer. If she were going to do something, she'd destroy them all in a giant mudslide, maybe. Or put rubber cement in Raven's shampoo.
Either way, he felt better after he did it. Sure, he was paranoid, but paranoia kept you alive. Not like this was the first time he had locked one of the team out of the computer. They never figured it out. And he was better safe than sorry.
The whole thing hadn't really taken that long: he supposed that he could conceivably head back to the kitchen and make up some story about the gym equipment being broken, or something. It would be nice to talk to Starfire.
No. He didn't deserve to talk to Starfire. He couldn't talk to her. She was so child-like, so innocent. He couldn't stand the thought of destroying that, and after-- He couldn't talk to her. And Raven would immediately know something was up and demand to know what. Besides. The stress was good: it kept him wary. Kept him from making stupid mistakes. From--
Robin went to the gym.