Pairing Off

"Training time!" I called, banging my hands together for silence. "Morning session, we spar. One on one."

I looked around at the Titans, trying to act like all the best football coaches I'd ever had stuffed into one can. Kory and Gar nodded back, ready as usual. And the new kids?

Bart was gazing around the gym, tugging on the folds of his new yellow costume. Cassie and Conner were peeking at each other and blushing when their eyes met. Robin was listening, I knew—he was always listening. But that damn mask gave no sign of what he was thinking.

I raised my voice and went on. "You all see this red line?" I walked along the circle painted on the gym floor, ten yards across. "Inside this line is the sparring ring. I'm gonna call two names at random. Those two Titans go into the ring. I yell go, you try to push the other one out. There are bio-sensors in the ceiling. When they beep, they tell me who's out of the ring, and the match is over. If there's any disagreement, the sensors are law, and I am God."

"And I am dog," said Gar, popping into the form of a green St. Bernard. Someday I will kill him.

"We understand, Vic," said Cassie. Everyone else nodded, even Bart. Conner flexed his muscles.

"Sparring isn't about showing off," I warned. "It's about learning strengths, weaknesses, fighting styles—yours and your teammates'. So when you're not in the ring, you watch. At lunch we'll compare notes. You all got that? No questions?"

Robin raised his hand. "Can we try to keep away from each other's faces? If I get a fat lip, I have to make up a story to explain it, and I don't like that."

Dick had never made that sort of rule for the Titans. Back in football, anyone who asked for soft treatment would get ridden like an old mule. But this Robin's friends just nodded. "Sure, Tim," said Cassie.

I looked at Gar and Kory and shrugged. "All right. Keep away from faces. Try not to kill anyone. Otherwise, use everything you got."

The team spread out around the circle.

"First sparring pair!" I studied my wrist display. "Starfire and Robin."


Kory strode into the circle, determined as ever. Robin stepped into the opposite quadrant, bouncing a little on his toes.

I counted down: "Three, two, one, go."

Kory let loose two small starbolts. They hit the floor in front of Robin's boots. He jumped them easily. She kept blasting the gym floor, which had a layer of storontinite to absorb most of her bolts.

"She's trying not to hurt him," I muttered to Gar.

"Yup," he whispered back. "And when Kory tries something, she usually succeeds."

Robin moved across the circle, dodging, letting his cape catch a bolt as he spun.

"Come on, Tim!" Conner cheered. "Get right next to her!"

Cassie elbowed him in the side.


Kory was walking sideways along the edge of the ring, still shooting minor blasts. Nothing connected. Robin opened a compartment on his belt and tossed two pellets into the air.

One burst near Kory with a blinding blue light. The other pellet exploded like a firecracker. At the same time Robin crouched and threw something else. A black bolo wrapped itself around Kory's legs. She started falling to her right, nearly out of the ring.

Then with a sizzle she was flying back into the circle. SPLAM!—a starbolt smacked Robin in the chest. He flew back, landing three yards outside the circle and sliding another five to the padded wall. The sensors went off: Beepbeepbeepbeep.

"Robin!" Kory rocketed across the gym before anyone else could move.

Anyone else but Kid Flash, of course. He was already leaning over his buddy. "Tim! You okay?"

"Whoa," said Robin.

"Nobody touch him! I may have to intubate!"

"Bart, if I'm talking, I can breathe." Robin propped himself up on his elbows and looked around at us. "I'm just...winded."

"Sorry, Robin," said Kory. "I didn't want to hit you."

"I know. That's why I lasted so long." Robin pushed himself further into a sitting position. "No permanent damage."

"All right, everyone back around the ring!" I didn't let on how I'd worried, too. Kory's blast reminded everyone that Robin had no powers. He was just a smart kid with body armor. Time for him to take a break—he could get his licks in later. "Next pair: Beast Boy and Kid Flash."


At "go" plus half a second, Bart was across the circle. But Gar had turned into a mosquito or something else no one could see.

Bart ran around a couple of times, swinging his arms, and then—WUMP!—got caught in the trunk of a green elephant.

"Looking for someone, speedster?"

"Yeah, but soon you'll be looking for me." Bart vibrated his way out of the elephant's trunk and dodged away. Then he started throwing himself at Gar's left flank: WUMP! WUMP! WUMP!

Gar trumpeted a few laughs. He slowly sat down in the middle of the ring. "You don't have enough momentum to push me out, Kid."

"Momentum's mass times velocity, so I can make up in velocity what you've got in mass." Bart zipped to the far corner of the gym. "Here I com—"


"Kid Flash is out of the ring. Gar wins," I announced.

Gar turned into an all-green peacock and strutted off the mat. Conner and Cassie were laughing. Even Robin had a smile.

Bart stomped back to the ring with his lips in a pout. For some reason, his expression made me think he was picturing himself as a goat. "Gar didn't push me out! He—he—"

"Tricked you," Gar said, turning back into himself. "Don't sweat it, Kid. I used to make that sort of mistake."

"Two or three times a day," I added, winking at Kory.

"Well, I'm making it only once," Bart promised. "You all watch."

"We will. Next sparring pair—"

"Me!" said Bart. "Me me me me! I'm ready to go again!"

"Okay, Kid. I hear you." I poked buttons on the back of my hand. "Kid Flash and...Robin."


As I counted down, Robin pulled a cord from his belt and hitched one of his big black batarangs on one end. At "go" he started whirling it over his head in a wide circle, walking slowly across the mat.

"Can't catch me," Bart sang, dancing along the side of the ring.

"I'm coming closer," Robin answered.

Through my digital ear I heard Conner whisper, "Tim'll never catch Bart with a rope."

Cassie whispered back, "He's not trying to. He wants to make Bart forget about the line again."

Robin was now crouched on one knee at the center, whirling the batarang nearly to the edge of the circle.

Suddenly Bart became a blur. Robin's rope spun faster. It wrapped around his shoulders. "Aw, crud," he muttered.

Bart barreled into Robin's left shoulder. He landed on his right side and rolled over three times. Beepbeepbeepbeep.

"Kid Flash wins," I said.

"Yes!" shouted Bart. "Can't catch me the same way twice!"

Kory helped Robin untangle himself. I figured he didn't need people watching, so I snapped, "Fourth pair! Superboy and Beast Boy."



Gar flashed into a hippopotamus, taking up a quarter of the ring.

"Aw, too easy." Conner lumbered forward, arms flexed like a lineman.

But just as he reached Gar, the hippo disappeared. Conner blinked, looked around, then clapped a hand over his left ear. "Yow! Get out of there!"

Conner was staggering around the ring, pawing at his ear. Now we could hear the buzz of a wasp inside. And Gar as a wasp was even more annoying than an ordinary wasp.

"Don't you sting me! Don't you even try!" Conner yelled. "As soon as you come out, I'll use my TK to pound you—Hey!"

Conner took his hand off his ear. His face wrinkled as he concentrated. A small green bug shot straight away from his head.

The bug turned into a hummingbird that barely managed to stay within the ring. Gar flitted up and down. "All right, big guy, how'd you do that?"

Conner grinned, bobbing closer. "Turns out I can work my tactile telekinesis through my ears. Neat, huh?"

"Maybe you can use it to clean your ears, too," Gar grumbled, zigging and zagging out of Conner's reach.

He soared up in the air, but Superboy took off, too. Gar dove back down and hit the ground as a frog.

Conner dove down next to him, clamping his hands over the frog. "Gotcha!"

Gar's muffled voice teased, "I'm not just any frog, Superboy."

"Oh, yeah?" Conner was sliding his cupped hands toward the edge of the ring.

"Yeah. I'm a bullfrog." A green bull burst out of Conner's hands, knocking him back in surprise.

Gar pawed the ground and snorted. This is where we came in, I thought. Beast Boy's made himself into a big, heavy animal, but will turn into a tiny, fast animal as soon as Superboy charges.

But then Conner surprised me. He reached out one hand and stuck his thumb and index finger into the bull's nose.

"Stop thad!" Gar bellowed. Conner slowly pulled the bull's head to one side, and its hooves followed. "Whad are you doig?"

"Winning," said Conner. He drew the bull's head and shoulders over the edge of the circle. Beepbeepbeepbeep.

Conner took his fingers out of Gar's nose and shook them dry.

"Where'd you learn that trick, Kon?" asked Bart.

"Kansas." Conner looked around sheepishly. "That's how you lead stubborn cows around. Honest."

"Todally disgustig!" Gar yelled, tossing his horns and snorting. "Eved worse thad wadig through your earwax." He turned into a green squirrel and sneezed several times.

Conner was still holding his hand out away from his body. "Hey, Vic. Can I go out to the sink?"

"Please do," I said. "Next pair, get ready. It's…Wonder Girl and Robin."


Conner hurried back, drying his hands on his jeans.

"Three, two, one, go."

This time Robin stayed near the edge of the ring. He danced sideways, flicking little batarangs at Cassie. She dodged one, then knocked three away with her wrist gauntlets. The fifth she caught and bent it in two.

"Show off," Robin teased. "You'll have to do more than that." I figured he wanted Cassie to charge so he could jiu-jitsu her out of the ring.

Unfortunately for him, Cassie figured that, too. She moved forward, slow and low.

Robin dodged right, then left. He grabbed for Cassie's lasso. She clamped her right arm down on his left. With the heel of his right hand, Robin socked Cassie in the forehead.

She didn't let go. "Hey, pretty boy, what'd you say about not hitting in the face?"

"Sorry." Robin was still wriggling, trying to get free.

Before he could, Wonder Girl finally took off. She rose just a couple of yards, but fast enough that when she let go of Robin's arm he made a pretty arc through the air.


Robin took the landing on his shoulders and back-somersaulted once. His cape flopped over his head. From underneath we heard: "I said I was sorry."

Cassie came back down. "You okay, Tim?"

"Yeah. That one didn't hurt as much as the others."

"But you still got owned!"

"Shut up, Kon," said Robin and Wonder Girl together.

From behind me Kory murmured, "Dick would have landed on his feet."

"Um-hm," I agreed. "Let's keep going! Next pair: Starfire and Kid Flash."


At "go," Kory rose in the air. For three seconds Bart just stared, mouth open. Then she threw down her first starbolt.

"Yipes!" Bart began running around the ring. Not fast enough to raise a whirlwind—just running.

Kory spread her hands and sent a curtain of star energy across the ring.

Bart ran into it and bounced back. "Ow! Ow ow ow!"

Kory slowly moved her cordon of energy across the circle toward Bart. He started to vibrate. The starbolts came closer. He was just a yellow blur. The starbolts—

"Youch!" Bart jumped back, eyes wide. He was now stuck in a little sliver of the ring. He stared around. Kory's blasts kept coming.

Then Bart disappeared.

Kory gasped. She stopped firing and swooped close to the floor where Bart had just stood.

"BOO!" Bart reappeared behind her.

"X'hal!" Kory spun around. Beepbeepbeepbeep.

"Kory, you flew out of the circle," I said.

"X'hal," she repeated, and landed on her feet with a thump.

Kid Flash grinned and raised his arms.

"All right, dude!" Conner held up his hand for a high five.

"Bart," said Robin. He spoke quietly, but something in the bottom of his voice made everyone in the room stiffen.

Kid Flash glared, as if he were picturing an anvil falling on Robin's head. Then he sighed and turned back. "Starfire, I left the circle before you did. I ran around to the other side of the gym so fast that the sensors didn't spot me."

Cassie glared at Robin, hands on her hips. "All right, detective-boy. If Bart was too fast for the sensors, how did you see—"

"Footprints." Robin pointed across the room. Sure enough, when I amped the contrast in the image from my scanner eye, I could see a track of big flat footprints arcing across three walls.

"So that's how you got through my blast cordon," said Kory.

"Yeah," Bart admitted. "I couldn't vibrate through, so I ran around."

"Good to know you can do that," I said. "But Kory wins that round."

"No, Vic," Kory told me. "We agreed we could use all our powers. If Kid Flash has the speed to fool the sensors, he should win."

"Really? All right!" Bart went back to Conner to finish the high five.

"Dude, you only won 'cause she let you."

"So? At least I didn't have to stick my fingers inside her."

Cassie elbowed Bart in the shoulder.


"I'm calling that a draw," I said. "Next pair. Robin and Beast Boy."


Gar pranced into the far side of the ring as a gazelle, then turned into a wolverine. Robin pulled out his bo staff with two sharp snaps.

"Go," I said.

Gar disappeared. He was doing the mosquito trick again. No, this time he was a green gypsy moth—out of reach but easy to see.

Robin swung his staff through the air, but under his cape I saw his right hand reach for his belt. He came out with some sort of spray.

Same instant, Gar turned into a green grizzly bear. WHOMP.

"Eep." Robin was squashed under the bear's haunches. His spray was stuck somewhere under his body. His staff rolled away. I knew Gar had landed most of his weight on his own legs, but I still wouldn't want to be underneath him.

"You breathing, Rob-man?" Gar asked.

"Yeah," said Robin, muffled.

"Then we're going to take a little trip to the edge of the ring, all right?"

"Do I have to?"

Gar put one huge paw on Robin's neck and shoved him along the floor. "Oh, yes, you have to."

"Man, this is embarrassing," Conner whispered.

"Sssh," Cassie told him.

But we were all thinking the same as Conner. I'd figured Robin would pull out some trick and win at least one match by now. What must the kid be feeling? Besides half the weight of a grizzly bear, of course.

Keeping his bulk inside the circle, Gar shoved Robin over the red line with one big paw, then another, until—Beepbeepbeepbeep. Still a bear, Gar peered at the creases in Robin's cape and growled, "Footprints."

"I get it," Robin muttered, crawling away. He began massaging himself in the sore places. It looked like there were a lot of them.

I quickly announced the next pair: "Wonder Girl and Starfire."


Both ladies stepped to the edge of the circle. Gar and Conner were looking a bit too excited about this match. Kid Flash was bouncing around the same as always. Robin hadn't even gotten up. He was just sitting, elbows on his knees, eyes invisible behind that mask.

"Three, two, one, Go."

Kory and Cassie flew straight at each other. They grappled in midair. They twisted and flung each other off. Then they closed again, rising higher.

"Wow," said Gar. "You're taping this, right, Vic? The Titans could make a lot selling the video."

"Hey," Conner growled. "You're talking about my girlfriend."

"Don't worry—you'd get a free copy."

Kory started blasting starbolts. Cassie parried them with those wristbands. The deflected bolts hit the ceiling, walls, floor.

"Yipes!" yelled Bart, dodging two blasts.

Gar turned into little green shrew and jumped onto my shoulder. "Deflectors up, Captain!"

"Don't use your old TV lines on me, greenie." I was already generating a small force field. The gym could absorb most of Kory's runaway starbolts, but there were still plenty bouncing around.

Kory was now flying above Cassie, firing down. Her blasts were landing in a cone in and around the ring.

Robin hadn't moved except to wrap his cape around himself. Conner jumped in front of him, knocking a starbolt away. "Yow! Damn!" He shook his hands.

"Thanks," said Robin, still not moving.

Kory stopped blasting and flew straight down at Cassie, driving her to the floor. WHOMP!

"Jeez," said Conner.

Kory somersaulted, carrying Cassie with her, and tossed her out of the ring. Beepbeepbeepbeep.

The ladies got to their feet, Cassie shaking her head clear. Bart stopped zipping back and forth. Gar whispered, "Did they kill each other? Is it safe to look?"

"Good match," Kory declared. "I won only because I have a longer reach."

"And I never figured out how to use my lasso," added Cassie.

The two of them started talking about how they might go at each other again. All us boys just looked at each other.

"Next time," said Gar, "let's watch from outside the gym."

"Good thinking," I said. "Last match before lunch, people! Superboy..."

Conner strode forward, flexing his arms.

"...and Robin."


"Aw, no way," said Conner.

Robin slowly got to his feet.

"How is this fair?" called Bart. "Tim's the only guy with no powers!"

"We're all part of this team," Robin said.

"Tim, we just don't want you to get hurt," Cassie explained.

"I'm fine." He stepped into the circle.

She turned to me. "Vic, don't—"

"Let's do it," Robin snapped.

Cassie turned to Conner. "Kon?"

"I won't hurt him," Conner promised.

I glanced at Kory to know how she felt. She nodded. I looked at Gar. He shrugged. "All right," I said; "Three, two, one, go."

Robin walked forward, reaching into a compartment in the left rear of his belt. "I don't want to hurt you, either, Kon," he said.

Conner's eyebrows wrinkled. "What are you talking about?"

Still walking forward, Robin held up a closed fist and rattled it. "You remember this box? Back away now, and I won't open it."

Conner's mouth dropped open.

"I don't want to use it," Robin insisted.

"You didn't!" In a second Conner was across the mat, his right hand wrapped around Robin's left, his left arm shoving Robin's head toward the floor. "You didn't bring that poison here!"

"Don't...crush...the box," Robin gasped.

"I can't believe you're carrying this around!" Conner was roaring right into Robin's ear. "What happened to being a friend? What happened to not being like Batman? You're crazy, man! You're sick crazy!"

"Kon!" shouted Cassie. "You're breaking his hand!"

"I'm just holding it shut!"

Robin had stopped trying to wriggle loose. His face was twisted in pain.

"You're making him cry!" Bart called. He ran into the ring and yanked on Conner's T-shirt. "Game over! Game over!"

"He brought his friggin' kryptonite in here!" Conner yelled.

Damn. I charged into the ring and blew my whistle. Actually, I let off a short blast of ultrasonic to grab Conner's attention. "Let go of him!" I ordered. "Superboy, you go over to the door, and be ready to leave if you have to. Robin, you still with us? Can you open your hand?"

Slowly the kid rolled over. His left hand unfolded. Inside were shards of clear plastic, white pellets, and powder. Isn't kryptonite green?

Gar popped into the shape of a basset hound and waddled closer. "Hmmf," he said. "Wintergreen."

We all looked at each other.

"Tim lied," said Cassie.

"Why would he do that?" Kory demanded.

"A bluff!" Gar barked.

"Yeah." Robin sat up slowly, cradling his left hand in his right. "I thought it would work better."

Conner zoomed back over from the door. "So you came after me—me—with a box of mints?"

Robin looked up with a pained smile. "To be fair, Kon, those were very strong mints."


Lunch break. As soon as we got to the kitchen, I grabbed an ice pack from the freezer and a dish towel from the cupboard. Kory started to ladle out the stew we had cooking in the crock pot. Gar slithered out of any work as an anaconda; nobody wants lunch from a snake.

All the new kids were crowding around Robin. It was as if he'd won some big contest instead of losing every match. "You're crazy!" Conner yelled at him, kneading his shoulders. "You! Are crazy!"

"But minty fresssh," said Gar.

I pushed through the crowd. "Ice pack."

Robin carefully tugged off his left glove.

I taped the cold pack wrapped in the towel to the back of his hand. "That stays on twenty minutes. Keep it elevated."

"Thanks. I know."

Cassie pointed Robin to one of the stools around the island. "You sit. We'll bring you lunch."

Robin climbed stiffly onto the stool. "Can I have a cold Zesti?"

"I'll get it!" said Bart. He zipped around the island to the fridge, then back, opening the soda can on the way. Spritttz!

Robin flicked spray off his cheek. "I didn't want it open, Bart. I just wanted to hold a can, for the cold."

"Oh. So can I have this one?"

Robin looked at Bart and sighed. "Yes. Cassie?"

"Got it." She slid another can across the counter.

Eventually everyone got bowls of stew and sat around the island. Bart and Conner argued about which of them would have beaten the other. Kory and Gar and I told Cassie about some amazing things we'd seen Donna do with her lasso. Talking about Donna felt good, and felt bad, and slowly killed the conversation.

Robin started to unwind the tape from his left hand. I checked my internal clock: twenty minutes exactly. He opened and closed his fingers, wincing.

"You still got achy parts, Tim?" Bart asked. "I read thirty-seven books on acupuncture! I can run over to the city for some needles—"

"No, Bart." Under his mask, I guessed, Robin was rolling his eyes.

"Really, I know all about—"

"No, Bart! I've read about the Lamaze technique, but that doesn't mean I'm ready to have a baby."

Bart shrugged and went back to the crock pot for thirds. But Cassie stared across the island at Robin. "In the history of the modern world," she declared, "no guy has ever read about the Lamaze technique unless he had to. What's the story, Tim?"

Robin's cheeks turned a little pink. "No story," he said quietly.

But now of course we were all staring at him.

"Dude," said Conner. "Are you a daddy?"

"No! I...had a friend who...needed help."

"What sort of help?" asked Bart, looking from one person to the next.

"What sort of friend?" Cassie demanded.

"Just a friend."

Kory stood behind Robin's chair, staring everyone down with those shiny green eyes. "An older man left Tim's girlfriend pregnant," she said. "She decided to have the baby and give it up for adoption, and Tim was her Lamaze coach."

Robin buried his face in his right elbow. "So much for privacy."

"Nightwing told me a year ago," Kory added. "He's proud of what you did." She went to put her dishes in the machine.

Robin raised his head again. Looked like he was trying not to smile.

"Yeah, Tim," said Conner. "You're a good guy."

"We always knew," agreed Cassie.

"Wait a minute!" said Bart. "Is L-A-M-A-Z-E pronounced, 'la-mahs'? Grife, Tim, you helped your girlfriend have a baby? A baby!"

Robin put his head back down on the table.

"Another lesson," said Gar, shaking his head slowly, "in the danger of kids learning the facts of life in a library, instead of on the streets."


I gave the group an hour after lunch before our next exercise session. That's what my mother always told me. Five minutes before the hour was up, I put away my circuit board and solder and went to find Robin.

He was upstairs, poking at his laptop.

"How's the hand?"

"A little swollen. Not too bad."

"Uh-huh." To my eyes, the kid's knuckles looked more than a little swollen. I tried to read his face and got nowhere—that mask again. "If you want to sit out the sparring this afternoon—"


"It'll be okay if you—"


Robin had snapped shut his laptop and stood up.

I crossed my arms and looked down at him. "Can you even get your glove back on?"

"I got it covered."

I followed Robin to Cassie's room, where she was reading some paperback with a black spine. "How you feeling, Tim?" she asked.

"Fine. Can I borrow your hand lotion?"

"Sure." Cassie rolled off her bed and opened her travel bag. She dug out a pink plastic tube. "Take what you need."

"Thanks." He started to smear goop on his left hand. I guess that's what "covered" meant—covered with something slippery so he could squeeze his glove on.

"Training gym, two minutes," I told them, and headed downstairs. I pulled Bart and Conner from the videogame terminal, Gar from making faces at the soap operas.

Kory had flown in from her garden without needing a reminder. "How's Tim?" she whispered to me.

I glanced at the kid. "He's wearing both gloves."

She blinked. "What does that mean?"

"That he's just as determined as you." I stepped forward and banged my hands together. "All right, people! This afternoon we spar in teams of two."

"All right! Level two!" said Bart, pulling his mask up.

"All teams go into the ring and try to push the others out. The last team with someone inside the ring wins, and gets their choice of exercise equipment this afternoon."

The real prize was bragging rights, of course. Heroes and athletes don't need a big incentive to compete.

"This round is all about fighting alongside someone else. Think about what you saw this morning. You want a team with a Titan whose strengths and style make a good match for you. A Titan you work well with."

Everyone nodded.

"The guys who won the most matches this morning get their choice of teammates. So first...Superboy?"


Their powers were a lot alike, I thought—maybe not the best choice. But of course, they were a couple now. "All right. Starfire?"

"Beast Boy."

Gar popped into the shape of a kangaroo and hopped over to her. "At last, my dear, we are together."

"Control yourself," Kory told him.

"Last one: Kid Flash?"

"Ooh, I read about this—I need a strong guy!" He ran around the circle and came back to his spot, pouting. "Can't I have Cassie?"

"No," said Conner.

"No," I said.

"Then I, Cyborg!"

"All right, Kid. Every team goes into a different quadrant. The clock is ticking down from thirty. Use that time to decide your tactics."

Bart was bouncing around me. "Okay, okay! You put on your sound-blaster thingie, and I can come around from—Hey! Nobody chose Tim!"

Robin was standing on one side of the ring by himself.

"Can we have Tim on our team?" Bart asked.

"You can choose Robin instead of me."

"Oh." Bart bit his lip. "Sorry, Tim!"

"It's fine," Robin growled.

"You're still a big part of the Titans," Cassie assured him. "Like, for detective work, and computers, and..."

"And if I have a baby," Conner said.

Cassie slapped his shoulder.

"Ow. But that one was worth it." He grinned.

Robin frowned back.

"Thank you so much, Superboy," said Gar, "for a picture that will stick in our brains forever like a wad of dry, sandy bubble gum."

"Ten seconds!" I snapped. The pairs started conferring more intently. I decided to keep one eye on Robin to make sure he didn't get hurt any worse. This was going to be a free-for-all.


The computer voice droned: "Three, two, one, go."

Kon and Kory blasted off from opposite sides of the circle and met in the middle. They bobbed in midair overhead, smashing at each other.

Gar burst into the shape of a giant octopus, wrapping two arms around me and two around Bart. He swept the rest of the circle, found Cassie, and wrapped her up, too.

Gar had told me he thought an octopus might be soft enough to hold Kid Flash, absorbing his vibrations so he couldn't get free. It seemed to be working so far. And Gar was holding me too tight to deploy my taser shocker right away. Only Cassie was wrestling herself free.

I checked Robin. He'd stayed outside the ring for an extra second—to judge the situation, I guessed. Now he was running up one of Gar's arms. At the high point he launched himself sideways at Kory and Kon and smacked them with his staff.

They spun out of the circle, still grappling.



Robin landed on the mat. Cassie grabbed his cape, turned, and pulled. Rrrrrrip!

Damn, had she pulled his head off? No, he'd unfastened the Velcro. Pulling less weight than she'd expected, Cassie pitched forward. Robin back-somersaulted, planted his boots on her behind, and shoved. Beepbeepbeepbeep.

Robin sprang back onto his feet. Gar spotted his threat and reached out with three arms. Instead of dodging, Robin ran closer to the octopus's body, right hand going for his belt.

Spizzzzz. "YeeeoOOOW!" The octopus was gone. Gar was a small green armadillo, writhing around on the mat. "Pepper spray! Damn you, Boy Wonder!"

Robin booted the armadillo away, soccer-style. Beepbeepbeepbeep.

I snapped on my ultrasonic boomer. Bart was back on his feet, blinking, shocked to see the circle so empty. He spotted Robin.

Robin pulled a pink tube from inside his left glove. As Bart charged, he dodged right and squirted a pink smear across the mat.

One of Bart's big feet hit the puddle of hand lotion. Arms flailing, he slid across the floor and—SPRIKSH!—into me. Mass times velocity equals momentum, and I toppled backwards.



We all stared into the ring. Robin turned slowly, making one last check. He sank to his knees, then collapsed backwards. "I call dibs on the hot tub."


I found Robin in the shower room, up to his shoulders in the churning water. His head lay back on the rim, eyes closed. It was the first time I'd seen him in the Tower without his mask. He looked even younger, smaller. Dick was built like a quarterback. This Robin was a soccer player.

An iPod plugged into a pair of speakers was playing an audiobook: "I am well, I am perfectly well!" Raskolnikov declared positively and irritably. He raised himself on the sofa and looked at them with glittering eyes, but sank back on to the pillow at once...

Without moving, Tim said, "You can turn that off, Vic."

I hit the pause button. "Sounds like Crime and Punishment. Detective training?"

"AP English." He opened his eyes—blue, of course. "What's up?"

"I want to be sure you're cool with this morning's training session."

"Cool about the sparring matches? Or cool about how you weren't really picking names at random?"

I grunted. "How'd you figure that one out?"

"I worked on the probabilities after lunch. But I wasn't sure until just now."

I shook my head. "I'm glad you're on this team, Tim. I'd hate to have to go up against you."