Robin held his position up high on the marble scaffold. Crouched like a gargoyle in the silent hiss of urban night, the Boy Wonder surveyed the long stretch of red asphalt that made up Fifth Street, running east to west in a crimson slice across Old Downtown Jump City under the flicker of amber streetlights. The roads had all been empty for the last hour and a half straight, a convenient calm before a methodically planned storm.
A gust of warm spring air, and Robin's bangs danced briefly then settled—contrasting him from the solid stone face of St. Faustina Chapel upon which he was perched. Years of roaming the rooftops of Gotham City had taught him the fine art of patience, the necessary habit of becoming one with the granite and concrete around him. Nestling himself deep within the bricklaid flesh of sin and cement, he could feel the dark metropolis' pulse, read its mind, anticipate its thoughts.
But this wasn't Gotham. This was an entirely different beast within which the bird huddled, with an entirely different pulse—one that Robin was still trying to read, and failing; which is what made him worry, worry as he crouched there in wait for the red vein of Jump City to spill its truth.
And right on time: Two headlights, four, eight, ten—a caravan. The Caravan. The target: a car, two SUVs, and two delivery trucks. Angling around a red-lit street corner, the glossy convoy of black bodies cruised liquidly down the otherwise empty length of Fifth Street. As their aluminum skins drew closer, increasing in obsidian detail, the quietest and calmest of chimes emanated from a timer fitted into the Boy Wonder's utility belt. Right on time—everything was right on time. But it didn't ease the worry in Robin's mind.
The sound of all five engines echoed against the marble steeples next to Robin on the Cathedral face. If this was Gotham City, he would have leapt down already—had sprung heroically into action. But it wasn't the caped crusader's call. It was:
"Everyone, maintain your position." Cyborg's voice crackled firmly from the communicator palmed in Robin's glove. It was full of confidence, leadership, hunger. It didn't sound worried. Not worried enough. "Wait for my signal. Move as we planned."
Robin exhaled through his nostrils. Masked eyes darted from wheel to wheel of the throttling black vehicles. They were nearly parallel to St Faustina, and he was occupying the point position. This was getting close, too close, but Robin didn't move. He had his cue; it hadn't sounded yet.
An April moon licked across the windshield of the car in the front of the caravan. Robin glanced up across the street—towards buildingtops that none of the drivers would ever think to look at. He spotted a green emerald glow, and a few rooftops away: a golden hue. Robin glanced back down towards the alleyways at ground level. He saw a green shadow, a violet hue, and the faintest glint of titanium metal, waiting, then suddenly bobbing:
"Wait for it... ..."
The Boy Wonder's heart skipped a beat, he gnashed his teeth. This was going on far too long. Either they would spring the trap or they wouldn't. There was no need for this pretense, this thick-as-leather inhale of coordinated nothingness. If this had been three months earlier, before the beginning of the Beginning, he could very well have single handedly bolted down and-
Robin lunged forward as if God Himself had kicked him in the rear. The communicator flew through the moonlight and magically landed in a yellow utility pouch—which a gloved hand snapped shut before twirling loose a metal stalk. The Boy Wonder's boots pivoted and, with a shift in his lithe weight, he proceeded to glide down the granite banister of St. Faustina's Cathedral. Metal treads sparked tiny fireflies against the steeples and gargoyles flying past the caped crusader as he finally reached the masonry's horizon and leapt out into the crimson womb of the street below, gliding like a yellow comet towards the front of the black convoy.
The car sailed towards the epicenter of Robin's vision, a victim and an ally of gravity all the same. In the throttling peripheral of Robin's vision, a green and yellow streak flanked him. But they were none of his concern. Nothing was ever his concern in free-fall. A dance of wind and death through his cape, and the Boy Wonder shrugged it off, twirling the stalk of metal in his hand until it extended into a brilliantly glinting bo-staff. A breathless few microseconds later, and Robin yanked that staff overhead , forming a downward fang, and he snarled forth his entire breath into the pulsating face of Fifth Street and Jump City beyond.
He came down onto the car like a bolt of lightning, landing with the staff first—impaling the car through its hood, and shattering the engine beneath into oblivion. The mechanical thunder was muted over by a second thunder: Robin's boots impaling the hood in two shattered places, forcing the car briefly to lift its two rear wheels up into the air.
And as the wheels came down, so did the wrath of Starfire. "Haa! Haa! Haaaugh!" With each tulmutous outburst, the Tamaranian warrioress let loose an accompanying burst of green wrath—a starbolt—which expertly pierced a subsequent tire, deflating the entire northern half of the convoy's transportation.
Meanwhile—flanking the alien, and a little slower on the draw—a golden spear glided through the air, and clinging to it: Stargirl. Blonde hair whipping through the night, she squinted one blue eye, pivoted the Cosmic Rod ninety degrees, and fired platinum volleys to accompany Starfire's—deflating the southern half of the vehicles' tires with no less precision.
A bouncing sensation—the car Robin was perched on settled from the impact. The two superheroines arched upwards for a second flyby as the caped crusader gritted his teeth and savagely wrenched his bo-staff from the guts of the sputtering hood. A door opened and a poor fool in a black suit reared his head out. "What in blazes-"
"Down." Robin simply slapped the man hard in the gut with the tip of his bo-staff. The man clutched his emptied chest, wheezed, and slumped harmlessly down on the street. He wasn't the only one in the car; three shadows stirred violently from beneath the tinted black windows. Robin snaked a hand down and was already grabbing the three appropriate birdarangs with adept fingers as he craned his neck towards the air. Where was...-?
"Hnnngh!" Cyborg descended from a super-powered jump. Bits of concrete shattered from the landing as the half-android being stood his rock-solid boots before the first truck of the convoy, which was screeching to an embarassing halt towards him on deflated tires. "End of the parade!" Clk-Clk-Clakka! His right arm snaked into a cylindrical blue cannon which he promptly aimed down the center of the huge transport. The nearby sphere of sound drowned out as a sonic wave billowed forth from the leader's former hand and utterly shattered the windshield from the inside out. The occupants within clutched their heads, wailing mutely as the vibrating tumult rattled them into unconsciousness.
The rest of the convoy—a truck and two SUVs—crunched into an awkward, zig-zagged stop. One SUV, the last of the caravan, swerved too late, clipping the rear of the second truck. The impact was too much for its inertia to handle, and it flipped forward—flying thirty breathless feet into the air, upside down.
Robin shouted, but his words were drowned out by Cyborg's sonic backfire. He blindly flung the birdarangs, pinning the car's three exiting passengers immediately to its aluminum body. They yanked and struggled as he pommel-horse'd over the sunroof and skidded to Cyborg's side, pointing a furious gloved hand at the airborne disaster.
Cyborg nodded, and replied into the settling air around them: "-see it too! Raven!"
"On it." A sorceress droned overhead, levitating calmly over the split-second fray. She lowered the blue hood over her head, exposing a ruby stone and calm violet eyes that swiftly glowed in a dark obsidian as she flung her other hand out in a meditative pose. "Azarath. Metreon. Zinthos."
The black SUV was encompassed by an even blacker energy in mid-air. It stopped just a few naked inches from slamming violently into a pawn shop, and instead lowered gently to the ground, not without being pivoted right-side-up through the expert telekinesis of the robed girl in blue.
Raven lowered herself to the sidewalk of Fifth Street just as the last two vehicles came to a screeching halt. She pivoted and looked boredly over her shoulder as two men in suits nearly tripped over each other while stumbling out of the other SUV.
"St-Stop! Whoever you are!" One of them squawked. He fumbled through his pocket for something, but only managed to get his hand stuck, of all things. "Freeze or we'll...Or we'll..."
Robin tilted his head to the side, his brow furrowed. Something was horribly wrong here. These men...
Just as the first man finally pulled a black object out of his pocket, there was a clak-a-clakking of hooves. He barely had a chance to glance over when he was greeted with two green rams horns football-tackling him at over forty miles per hour. "OOOF!" No second had the first suspect been flattened, that the green mammal in question suddenly squatted in the form of a twirling crocodile, tripping the other SUV driver to the asphalt with a scaley tail. "Unngh!"
With a cartoony bounce, Beast Boy hopped into the air—only to land in the form of a lithe elf. "See ya later, alligator! Hahahaha-" He clutched his sides, but then paused, ears deflating. "Er...wait...I did that wrong."
More car doors. More footsteps. Everyone turned to see the last truck with its doors open and three men in black running—panicked—far, far away from the scene of the ambush. They moved with no grace and no destination—just a flight of pure horror. Watching, Robin felt his insides freeze all the more. Something is very, very wrong here...
"Starfire! Stargirl!" Cyborg nevertheless shouted into a communicator built into his blinking metal wrist. "We've got runners!"
The golden and emerald streaks surged overhead while Beast Boy jumped, cheering: "Woo yeah! Flight of the Valkyries! I love it!"
"Don't you ever keep quiet?" Raven droned.
"Don't you ever kiss my butt?"
"Hrmmm..." Raven rolled her eyes and lazily flung a wrist in time to slam shut the doors of the second SUV before its frightened occupants could peel themselves out.
Half a block ahead—the three runners had barely skirted the edge of an intersection, out of sight, when a series of golden and green flashes centered upon them. Three screams later, the men were being yanked back—two from the Tamaranian's strong wrists and one from the golden beam of Stargirl's Cosmic Rod. They were tossed in a meaty heap in the center of the wrecked caravan. "Ooof!" "Ugh!" "Augh!"
"They did not put up any resistance in the least." Starfire uttered, suddenly breathless. She cupped her hands together and looked worriedly the leader's way. "Cyborg, do you also feel that something is amiss-?"
But the half-android was already marching over to the nearest of the SUVs. Raven lowered the black telekinetic field in time for the metal man to rip the passenger door off—snarling-and yank out the first figure he could find. He lifted him effortlessly into the red-lit air beneath a street lamp and snarled:
"Alright! Give it up! We know what you're delivering to the Western District!"
"I...I-I don't know what you're talking about!" A middle-aged man in a white collar business suit sputtered and dangled helplessly in the teenager's titanium grip. "Wh-Who are you people? What do you want?"
"Maybe you haven't been reading the news, punk!" Cyborg sneered straight in the fellow's gasping face. "My name is Cyborg. This here's my team. We're here in Jump City to keep scum like you from polluting the streets with dangerous radioactive trash! Nao talk!" He shoved the man down so that he landed hard with his back to the vehicle. "Who're you delivering to?"
"I-I don't understand!" The man trembled, holding an arm up defensively. "D-Do you want money?"
Stargirl blinked under her mask. She looked nervously at Raven, Starfire, then Cyborg. "This isn't right. He's not like the others we arrested at the Shipyards last week."
"It's an act!" Cyborg leered over the man. "Don't screw with us, little man! Everyone on the street knows that there's been a power vacuum ever since that alien ship landed in the Bay! Including you! People who sell dangerous technology that they know nothing about make me sick! I won't be letting you scum infect my home town anymore! So quit the game!"
Across the way, Robin was dilligently handcuffing at least a dozen of the caravan's occupants—too dazed by the calculated ambush to fight back...too weak. As Cyborg's interrogation boomed in the background, the Boy Wonder crept over to the first SUV. He crouched and handcuffed the moaning man with the rams-horn-shaped bruise in his chest. Beside him lay the black object that he had tried so pathetically to pull out of his pocket. Robin cautiously picked it up and held it before his squinting eyemask. "A taser...?" The caped crusader murmured. He glanced at the other man besides the SUV. A similar device dripped out of his limp pocket. Neither of the men had guns. None of these men had guns. Robin briefly glanced towards the other superheroes, then liquidly stood back up before pivoting about and gently opening the side door of SUV...poking his masked head in...
"TALK!" Cyborg shouted, lifting the man up again and slapping him hard against the side of one of the delivery trucks. "Who're you with? The Neon Hand? The Dead Men? The Central Gang?"
"Wh-What?" The man twitched, his eyes wide, incredulous. "Y-You got it all wrong?"
"Have I?" Cyborg snarled. He glanced aside at Starfire. The girl nodded back and floated over towards the rear of the truck. Cyborg joined her, dragging the gasping man all the way. "Then maybe you can explain to me the radiation signature! Or the fact that we overheard Katarou's former gang members exchanging information with the Dead Men and plotting a delivery on this very route! Or, for that matter-" He pointed at Starfire. The Tamaranian charged a starbolt in her palm, and burned the locks off the truck's rear with a single wave. CL-CLANK! The doors flew open. Cyborg yanked the man to look inside. "-can you explain why you're driving a truck full of highly unstable, illegally smuggled, Gordanian-" He stopped, blinked...both red and brown eyes. "-video cameras?"
A hollow, muted breath. All of the superheroes gazed inside to grace the heart-stopping sight of several stacks of audio-visual equipment. Cameras. Lighting rigs. Lamps. Coiled electrical wires. Video editing stations. Microphone stands. A whole mountain full of anything and everything—but smuggled extraterrestrial technology.
"..." Cyborg stared, his face blank in a sudden bewildered helplessness. The man dangled from his grip like a used napkin—slightly calmer—but no less quiet.
"X'hal..." Starfire cupped the sides of her face with her hands.
Stargirl bit her lip, her braces showing. She glanced over at Beast Boy—and in a sudden blue-eyed hope, jumped: "Ch-Check the other truck!"
The emerald elf nodded, spun, scampered across the street in the form of a gazelle, and stopped at the rear of the other truck, ripping its doors open with gorilla-thick hands. Crkkk! He jumped up, perched in the bed, and peered his elfish head in. Stargirl, Starfire, and Raven floated mutely towards it. Cyborg trailed last, merely dragging the limp man by the hand like a toddler being taken to the bathroom. When the half-android glanced inside, his jaw made like it was about to drop straight through the earth and end up in Beijing.
The sight told the tale: More cameras. More microphones. More hopelessly harmless recording equipment. The Titans had ambushed and attacked the most innocent caravan since the Pope came to Jump City, and even still this took the cake.
"I...I don't get it..." Cyborg finally dropped the yelping man and stumbled on limp metal boots towards the empty vehicle. He grasped his smoothe head with two rattling palms of metal. "I just don't get it..."
"OKAY!" Beast Boy snarled and jumped down before the breathless man. "Which of your men has the ray gun that zapped the Gordanian weapons and turned them into a bunch of harmless electrical junk!"
THWACK! Raven slapped the wincing elf upside the head before turning to gaze at Cyborg. "I've just briefly scanned this man and a few of the others with my soul self." She gently shook her head. "These can't possibly be the people we are looking for."
"But all the evidence pointed to this scene! This night!" Stargirl murmured, clutching nervously to her Cosmic Rod. "What about the radiation signals and the illicit transmissions we picked up?"
"Clues are clues." Raven droned. "Substance is not guaranteed. We made a mistake."
"But how could we make a mistake?" Starfire exclaimed loudly, her bright green eyes starting to burn with a frustrated anger. "We are supposed to be heroes! We performed a very careful examination of the evidence! To be in error at the behest of these individuals would be a sheer act of irresponsiblity!"
"Indeed." Raven simply nodded.
Starfire was taken back. She blinked.
"Cyborg. Over here."
Cyborg looked over. Everyone looked over. The young superheroes marched over like a pensive ooze of molasses. Robin glanced their way as he finished helping a middle-aged asian businessman out of the SUV. The man sputtered a flood of Japanese, strung confusedly between an air of anger and a lapse of confusion. He trembled with high blood pressure and made a futile attempt to re-button his expensive cuffs and re-attach the long sleeves that had been forcibly torn from his suit when the SUV had come to a violent stop.
"Aw Hell." Cyborg said, instantly recognizing the man.
"I...I do not understand..." Starfire murmured.
"It's Mr. Kobayashi." Stargirl whispered.
"Which Kobayashi?" Beast Boy blinked.
"What do you mean which Kobayashi?" The blonde hissed back at him. "Kobayashi Tower? JCN Broadcasting? Only the biggest and fastest growing organization in Jump City today!"
"Not to mention..." Robin very calmly, very sullenly added: "...a newcoming candidate for the coming mayoral election a few months from nao."
Kobayashi angrily yanked his arm loose from the Boy Wonder's helping hand, fumed, and spat authoritatively towards the SUV. Another man stumbled out while the multi-billionaire stood and murmured to the surrounding air in venomous Japanese.
"Okay, somebody's gotta fill us in." Beast Boy scratched the back of his head. "None of us speak Naruto."
Robin made a face at the elf to keep quiet as the second man finally stood up, brushed himself off, craned his neck to take an ear-ful of Kobayashi's ramblings, and then cleared his throat. "Uh...erhm..." The paid translator managed in perfect English: "The most distinguished Kobayashi-san wishes to know why you young men and women have attacked and disgraced his transportation of expensive property to JCN Broadcasting Headquarters."
"Hoo boy, here we go." Raven throated.
"Oh lord..." Stargirl rested an epic palm over her masked face.
Robin glanced from the translator to Cyborg.
The half-android gulped. He stepped forward: "You mean to tell me that you picked this moment—in the middle of the night—to transport a bunch of recording equipment to a news station?"
The translator turned to Kobayashi and flittered forth the would-be-hero's words in fast Japanese. Kobayashi let loose what sounded like a seagull cry in consternation, rolled up his sleeves, and shook a fist while growling a diatribe back at the teenagers. The translator turned back. "Is this not the United States of America? A place of free enterprise? Is it a crime for someone to conduct his business at any hours—or all hours?" Kobayashi squawked some more; the translator was swift, calm, to deliver: "What terrible crime has been committed that would excuse this unwarranted and terribly violent attack on my innocent workmen?"
"We...Uh...Erhm...We, uhh..." Cyborg sweatdropped furiously. He glanced over at a wilting Starfire, a hidden Stargirl, a bored Raven, an blinking Beast Boy, and finally a silent Robin. Robin shared Cyborg's glance for a few more professional seconds before giving an unprofessional shrug. Cyborg exhaled through his nostrils and faced Kobayashi once more. "We seem to have made an error in judgment."
The translator spoke to Kobayashi. Kobayashi took a deep breath and spat out more words—paused momentarily—then glanced at the translator with a curious breath. The translator uttered aloud 'Damned' for clarification. Kobayashi once more spat at Cyborg, shaking a finger. Finally, finished, the translator broadcasted: "You most certainly have made a damned error, Mister Stone. I do not know exactly what you and your hired goons were trying to accomplish, but rest assured that this will result in a deleterious relationship between Kobayashi and Stone Industries in the future."
"'Goons'?" Raven raised an eyebrow.
"'Deleterious'?" Beast Boy raised his.
Kobayashi grumbled, and the translator added: "The first vehicle in our entourage is equipped with a panic signal. The police will have been alerted about this situation already, and I will leave the issue currently in their expert hands."
"Nao just wait a second!" Beast Boy frowned.
"Garfield..." Cyborg groaned, rubbing his forehead.
"Nuh uh!" The elf stomped over in front of Kobayashi, spun about, and squawked at Cyborg. "There's something wickedly smelly going on here! We had every reason to believe that this caravan was an exchange of evil alien stuff from one of Jump City's gangs to another! Didn't we? I mean—for fluff's sake! There was the audio clip we recorded from that abandoned warehouse! And then there was the...uh...radio waves from these very cars-"
"Radiation signal." Robin corrected. "But none of that matters, Beast Boy. Good intentions or not, we've made a horrible mistake here."
"Heh—Maybe you and Cyborg has!" The elf spun towards him and scoffed. "The rest of us were just following orders!"
"We still must answer for what has happened..." Starfire sadly murmured.
"Not without getting a second chance to explain ourselves, we won't!"
"Explain what?" Stargirl groaned. "The damage is done."
"I'm telling you, this is some crazy set up!" Beast Boy cackled.
Kobayashi tapped the elf's shoulder and angrily sputtered a dozen words-
Beast Boy spun. "Shut up! This doesn't concern you!"
"Tell them, Cyborg! Tell them about all the time we spent setting up this night and checking and re-checking the evidence-"
"The only evidence..." Robin stepped over and placed his hand on Beast Boy's shoulder. "...is the harm and trauma we just inflicted on Mr. Kobayashi and his men. When and if we come out of this unscathed, then we can go about picking up the pieces."
Beast Boy looked at him, scared. "Wh-What do you mean 'if' we come out of this unscathed?" He gulped.
Robin lifted his eyemask'd head towards the night sky. A faraway flicker of red and blue lights, joined by a cadence of distant sirens, prophecied the coming legal storm.
Cyborg glanced around at the bruised and injured men slowly stirring back to their feet. He sighed long, sighed hard. "Kobayashi is right. This is no longer in our hands. We've done enough."
"B-But...we're superheroes-" Beast Boy began.
Cyborg snapped: "Being superheroes means knowing when to humble yourself! Nao not another peep out of your liver-green lips or I'll do to you what I did to the truck! Got it?"
"Yeep!" Beast Boy shriveled and hid behind Robin's cape. "G-Got it! No need to get all death metal on me, dude!"
"..." Cyborg fumed. He slowly, calmly turned around. But after four or five gentle paces, he snorted and furiously kicked the base of a streetlamp—CLANK!-denting it. "Dammit to Hell! How could I be so stupid? Shit!" He grasped the back of his head with both metal hands, as if already surrendering to the oncoming police sirens, growing louder.
"..." Robin stared at him. Then he glanced over at the others.
Raven was slowly, silently levitating about and unlocking the Boy Wonder's various handcuffs with gentle waves of telekinesis. She was neither sad nor happy, neither shameful nor proud. Not even the largest rock on earth could ripple the waters in the center of her expression. Stargirl squatted her rear down on the street curb. She contracted the Cosmic Rod, stuck the shrunk device into the centermost compartment of her belt, and slumped her chin against a pair of gloved hands...sighing long and hard. Starfire simply hovered ten feet in the air, pensively hugging herself. Any trace of a warrioress' fury was gone, as she levitated—strung halfway between earth and the heavens, lost. Finally, Beast Boy...quiet at last...was stumbling amidst the broken bits of glass, aluminum, and rubber that lined the halted caravan. He kicked at a few specks of debris, grumbled to himself, and tried to make sense of the catastrophe.
As Robin stared—he was alone. They were all alone, strung up in their own separate places, imprisoned by the collapse of a chaotic and unpredictable night. The sirens grew louder, the lights brighter, and in the urban kaleidoscope Robin could see all the clearer all that there wasn't anything to see.
"This isn't a team..." He murmured to himself, collapsed his bo-staff, and strung it along his side. An exhaling breath, and he sunk both arms protectively within the dark recesses of his cape.
It was a train wreck.
He turned lazily towards the tall body of St Faustina's Cathedral. It gazed back down at its dismembered gargoyle, wanting for a prayer.
Commissioner Erin Kneehouse was a stocky cinderblock of a woman whose body stopped growing after reaching five feet, insteading exploring every other direction—and all of it muscle. Her splotch of flaxen blonde hair rarely saw the light of day, instead choosing on a nightly basis to cut jagged edges into every shadow of the streets and alleyways outward from the Jump City Police Department. It was, in fact, within the smoke-hazed recesses of that very Department's sixth story building—under the warbling shadow of a ricketily spinning ceiling fan—that she nao stood, granite shoulders heaving in the preparation of the gamma ray burst to follow.
"Three and a half months ago, when you and your team first 'assembled' for whatever stupid reason—And the six of you managed to heroically sink a two million ton alien space ship into Jump City Bay—I was amazed, yes, amazed at myself for not calling in the national guard and bringing each of your pimply little heads in through the City Hall doors on a gigantic golden platter right there and then. But the people spoke out—some of them, the bleeding hearts at least—and someone with enough voice and enough propaganda had the moronic gusto to say that such a blatant act of stupidity on your part was actually a way of saving this City. So, like an idiot, I listened, I stood back, and I gave Stone Industries the leeway to try and see if whatever insanity that works in Gotham and Metropolis could somehow have a snowflake's chance in Hell of working here."
She spun—More like the Earth turned and Commissioner Kneehouse remained icily resolute upon the frictious fulcrum of it. When Cyborg's half of the office swiveled to align with the woman's burning gaze, he was met with a gnarled face—like a two hundred year old tree of pallid dogwood snarling at its frozen victim as it fell over with a cataclysmic boom:
"But nao that I hear that you and your little band of underaged Justice Lugs violently and mercilessly attacked Kensuke Kobayashi—the multi billion dollar philanthropist and only single decent human being among all of Jump City's financial conglomerates—I realize I should never have wanted your heads on a platter! I should have demanded your hearts in a goddam doggie bag!"
Cyborg took a deep breath. He waited the half second it took for his titanium body to lean back, pause, then rock forward from the sonic intensity of the commissioner's shrieking mouth. Once upright, he muttered: "We made an error in judgment, in spite of all our evidence-"
"You're sure as Hell right you made an error in judgment!" Kneehouse fumed and stomped around the office, making the woodwork flanking the walls and desk rattle along with the ceiling fan above. "When a police officer makes an error in judgment like this, I have him or her thrown off the force! That's because, as Commissioner of this City's one trusted protection agency, I'm personally responsible for everything that I or any of my subordinates do! Tell me, Mister Stone—Do you possess that same integrity?" She marched over and sneered up at him. "Or is there supposed to be some divine, essentialist bullshit about being a 'superhero' that makes you immune to being accountable for your actions?"
He avoided her gaze, instead staring straight ahead like some fresh marine recruit. He took a deep breath and finally replied: "I take full responsibility for what has happened tonight to Mr. Kobayashi and his entourage."
"And where does that leave me, huh, Mr. Stone?" She stomped over and leaned against a permanent butt-shaped dent in the front of her desk, folding her arms in an obstinate stance just as archaic as the perforation currently bracing her. "What answer do I give the public when they ask about the Jump City Police Department and its support for these 'knights in shining armor' holed up in Phaser Labs, pretending to be here to save the City from supposed scum and villainy?" Before Cyborg could respond, she held up a meaty finger and spat further: "And believe you me, you'll be lucky as Hell if after this fiasco you even get to think of turning that private island of your father's into a future place of operations for Stone Industries! I have a good mind to transform that Tower into the gallows for everyone on your team before the night is through!"
Cyborg's metal and flesh lips tightened. He tried to hide his frustration, instead returning with: "If you must know, none of the people accosted tonight suffered any serious injuries-"
"No serious injuries?.!" Kneehouse cackled. "Mister Stone, we're talking about delivery men, stock market agents, and office clerks!" She picked up a self-explanatory clipboard from the desktop and slapped it with a granite palm. "One man has two cracked ribs from that child-actor with the Legolas ears! Another man has a lacerated kidney from Batman's former sidepunk! And let's not even get into the half-dozen men reportedly suffering hallucinations from being encased in that blue witch's life-sucking energy field—that's a couple years of therapy pay at the least!" She slammed the clipboard back down and folded her arms once more. "And just who is paying for all of this, 'Cyborg'? Stone Industries?"
"Oh, I'm sure you and Ms. Drew have it ALL planned out!" She tossed her arms and started pacing once more, thunderously. "You and your superbuddies make a few goof-ups here or there...No problem! You pay off the angry families, ask that they look the other way for the sake of the bigger picture of the supposed benefits of corporately institutionalized vigilantism, and expect the people in my police force—those with real jobs—be unnecessarily slowed down by the issue of avoiding mistakes!"
Cyborg finally caught her gaze in a brazened frown. "We are not avoiding anything, Commissioner."
"I've already paged Drew. We'll be communicating deeply with Kobayashi Incorporated within the next twenty four hours in an attempt to resolve this."
"Oh, that'll be rich!" Kneehouse let loose a throaty chuckle, like a dying bullfrog. "If you think you're capable of paying the damage done to Kobayashi of all people, you MUST think yourself as superheroic! I may not need to ask for your hearts in doggie bags after all!"
"We don't know how this could have happened," Cyborg said, avoiding her gaze, murmuring to the dusty walls and the nightlit windows as if he was only holding the conversation with himself. "We went over every contingency—every failsafe in the event of a mistake in information. Nothing hinted that we were wrong about the entourage until the very last second-"
"Did you ever think of politely asking the convoy to pull over and tell you what they were up to in the middle of the night? That's how my people do it. I know we don't have alien girls who can burn holes through semi trucks from long range, but I don't see why the same procedure can't work for you."
Cyborg replied: "We had every reason to believe that we would be dealing with an armed group of gang members representing an unforseen merger between the elusive Neon Hand and Dead Men."
"And just what let you in on this eventuality?"
Cyborg gestured toward the air about the ceiling fan. "We were there! We had two of us hidden at a secret conference between the two gangs in an abandoned Warehouse in the Northern District, just on the corner of Eighteenth and Charleston!"
"Hell, no!" Cyborg barked. "We couldn't waste any time! They were having that meeting one night only—five days ago! We only had about four hours' warning from an anonymous tip Robin got. I did a sonic scan of the area—confirmed a meeting was taking place, and then sent Raven and Stargirl in to observe and record the meeting. We got an entire audio clip from the conference—all confirming that a caravan of half a dozen vehicles or so would be transporting smuggled Gordanian technology pilfered from the Bay over the course of the last three months! I can even share this audio recording with you-"
"One single conversation isn't enough to base an entire sting operation on." Kneehouse frowned. "It could have been staged in pageantry-"
"AND-" Cyborg pointed. "I worked in close partnership with Dr. Ray of Phaser Labs for two days straight. We measured the radiation signature leaked from samples of Gordanian technology in our position. We scanned the City, found a match—an odds of nearly two million to one—and zeroed it in on the time and place announced to be the route of transport! In the meantime, Robin interrogated two gang members from South Central—and found corresponding testimony that led to the same conclusion! A shipment of alien goods was being delivered through Old Downtown! We knew the location, we knew the direction, we knew the time—The only thing we didn't know was the recipient! If we had found that out, we could have uprooted the secret of the Jump City Underworld once and for all!"
"Mr. Stone, the Underworld does not exist!"
"It does! Can't you see the evidence-?"
"The only evidence I see is that I should have written a big flaming 'N-O' on the temporary commissioning of your team here in my city!" Kneehouse growled. "You had yourself a handful of data—but it led you to a dead end, your end—if I had my way!" She walked around to the opposite side of the desk and leaned against it. "But I'm afraid it's not that easy for me. By the time Kobayashi's complaints pierces the deaf ears of Jump City bureacracy, the red tape will have been too slow to stop you from attacking a preschool next, or a senior citizen home—All in this pathetic attempt to find your illusionary Underworld!"
"Commissioner..." Cyborg sighed. "You're being unfair."
"And you're being paranoid!" She barked back, standing straight up—like a rook about to knock over a petulant bishop. "All your work with Dr. Ray at Phaser Labs should have taught you a thing or two about the scientific method! Instead of working with a null hypothesis, you and your team made up a result in your head and experimented in a passionately stupid attempt to prove it! You made up this Underworld—and in the hope to prove its existence, you and your team members mercilessly throttled Jump City's most important businessman and his fellow innocents! Such is the cost of thinking with your heart and not with your head, Mr. Stone, even if you've only got half of one."
"Don't insult me, Commissioner." Cyborg muttered back, an icy monotone. "I don't come here insulting you."
"Mr. Stone..." She narrowed her eyes. "I'm no James Gordon. And I'm certainly no Dan Turpin or Maggie Sawyer. I'm not blinded by either madness or light. I see you—I see what you're trying to do—and I see how you are failing." She slid the chair out and oozily sat down in it, and in a suddenly calm voice spoke louder than in all her previous shoutings: "The fact that you and your team are here in this City, trying to pull this superhero nonsense off—It is an insult, Mr. Stone. You are the insult to every officer who respects his or her job. And, after tonight, god help you if you're not an insult to every good-natured citizen who dwells within this City, trying to make an honest living."
"First and Final, Mr. Stone..." She held a finger up. "God help me, but I'm giving you your first and final warning here. If I had my way, you and your team wouldn't have walked away from Kobayashi's entourage without irons on." She folded her granite hands together. "But such is not within my power. Not yet. But until the City does something about it—I may not be able to stop your team, but I sure as Hell can arrest it. Bear that in mind."
"..." Cyborg took a deep breath. He turned. He touched the door handle, opened—but stopped for a brief second. "..." He turned about and faced her once more. "Funny thing about people like Commissioner Gordon and Commissioner Sawyer..."
"Yeah?" She blinked.
"They became household names because they were willing to listen."
"..." She stared. "Why are you still here?"
"Hrmm...Askin' myself the same dayum thang." Cyborg exited, shutting the sound of her snorting breath behind him.
On the other side of the door, Cyborg stood before the great misty lengths of the Jump City Police Department. A curtain of cacophonous keyboard strokes, murmurs, ripping paper, and fax machines fell within a single breath. There was an undeniable plethora of heads turned to face the 'superhero'.
He faced them all back. "...What's the matter?" He muttered, then a cackle: "None of you ever seen a robot before?"
Righteously so, the noise and clamor of midnight office work resumed. Officers trudged back and forth, switching shifts. Detectives stopped mingling together and went back to their respective desks. Computer clerks resumed their report-makings.
Cyborg sniffed. He trudged stiffly towards the nearby stairwell. As he did so, he glanced instinctively towards his right—and found a pair of bleary blue eyes, familiar eyes, framed over a similarly familiar face of grizzled standards, marking a mostly unshaven middle-aged man with thinning hair and even more thinning breath. The detective stood within the crooked doorway of his office and took a long, torturous puff out of a cancer stick.
"..." Cyborg eventually glanced away from the man, his head hung by a weight of invisible shame and confusion. He trudged on and through the stairway door.
"...hrmm..." The detective took one last puff and flicked his cigarette butt into the stalks of a potted, plastic plant. "Frickin' refrigerator, what've you got yourself into nao...?" He exhaled smoke from his nostrils like a bored imp, limped into his office, and closed the door hard—the name 'Decker' rattling in a loose placard off the woodwork.
The door closed behind him, Cyborg groaned and trudged depressingly down the echoing stairwell of the Jump City Police Department.
"So how did you take it?"
"AACK! JEEZUS CRISPIES, dawg!" Cyborg held a hand over his titanium encased heart and swiveled about.
"..." Robin stood silently in the shadows of the stairwell a few steps above the half-android.
"Didn't I tell you how much I hate it when you do that?" Cyborg stammered. He brushed smooth the hairs on his head that he didn't have and leaned on a nearby railing for support. "I don't care how much you wanna play 'Smoke Wins' in Gotham, but—" Victor Stone paused, blinked, then squinted his one human eye incredulously at the Boy Wonder. "What do you mean 'How did I take it'?"
Robin calmly lipped: "I assume the Commissioner was her normal ill-tempered, unreasonable, obstinate self."
"And so were her vocal chords." Cyborg pantomimed an eardig. "She didn't even let me get a word in, dawg! It was just like that time with the gas station explosion, or that one time when the Neon Hand member broke his leg and made pretend that Raven drop-kicked him. Raven—Drop kicking him! HAH!"
"She's never liked us from the get-go."
"Kneehouse. It makes it easier for her to take anyone's side but ours."
"Yeah, well, everyone's got a bias, man. It just sucks when it's someone you're supposed to depend on for support." Cyborg paced about the stairwell.
"But can you really blame her?" Robin swiveled slowly to keep facing him. "What just happened tonight is our fault. Both you and I know that."
"I can understand it being our fault!" Cyborg gestured confused shadow-puppets before the flickering lights of the stairwell above them. "What I can't understand is what we did wrong in the first place! I've never been wrong about detecting trace radiation! And neither has Dr. Ray!"
"Nothing's perfect, Cyborg. Not even machines."
"The ironic thing is that you're nao accounting for both halves of me..." Cyborg briefly chuckled. A beat. He spun about and glanced at Robin with an eye of momentary suspicion. "You sure that the two men you were interrogating had it on the ball about the Gordanian technology being smuggled tonight?"
Robin shrugged. "Just about as sure as they were that I was dangling them upside down twelve stories above the city streets when I interrogated them."
Cyborg shrugged. "Man, you do realize that people will say anything under pressure?"
Robin's eyemask narrowed. "I hadn't asked them a single question yet. They told me under their own volition."
"..." Cyborg slowly turned about, rubbing the human half of his head in thought. "Still, though, they-"
"-could have been feeding me false information. As a setup." Robin nodded. "I had thought of it."
"Did you do anything about it?"
"I trailed them."
"After the interrogation." Robin clarified. "I followed them from the rooftop where I had dragged them. It was the reason I was the last to arrive at Faustina and Fifth Street.. Both men immediately grabbed a truck from a Rent-A-Car and fled Town."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I assume exactly what it always meant back in Gotham. They ratted out on their gang. They'd be dead if they stayed here."
"Not enough for us to stand on. I know." Robin unfurled his hands from beneath his cape and cracked a few knuckles while thinking aloud: "I was overconfident. I didn't think twice about the evidence I had gathered—or that you had gathered, for that matter."
"Come to think of it, I didn't have any second thoughts at all..." Robin said. His lips trailed off, his head tilted to the side. "...that is, until it was too late."
Cyborg glanced over at him swiftly. "What do you mean?"
"When we first caught sight of the entourage—When we assumed it was the gang members making the delivery—Something felt wrong."
"Wrong in what way?"
"It all felt too easy." Robin said. "I had expected something to go amiss before the first car ran parallel to our ambush position. Either the caravan should have stopped, should have picked a detour, or-"
"My first time doing an ambush of this sort, several years ago—We had to call it off. One of the Riddler's trucks came to a stop, and the entire convoy doubled back to the shipyards. We tried chasing them down, but it was too late. They had gotten lost in the woodwork. It took Batman two days in a row infiltrating warehouses before he found the vehicles and we could finally get the drop on the madman's operation."
"What went wrong?" Cyborg asked.
Robin replied: "Nightwing had been spotted. Riddler paid local gangs to have roof-watchers lining the buildings of Gotham along the delivery route. They weren't henchmen or hired guns—Just normal citizens from the streets of Gotham, desperate and impoverished enough to be the eyes and ears of a psychopath for a night, if it meant a bite to eat. I'm guessing Nightwing had been too accustomed to working Bludhaven city beats at that period of time. He had forgotten the rhythm of things, and we lost ourselves a painless opportunity to turn the Riddler in early."
"But this isn't Gotham or Bludhaven..." Cyborg said.
"Yes. I'm well aware of that."
"Perhaps the gangs here don't quite have that same level of know-how, dawg."
"Still...People know that we're trying to play an active role in this City. If they don't know how to thwart our operations yet—They will soon. I've been expecting this—But saw none of it tonight. That's when I started to feel..." Robin tensed slightly under his cape. "...worried." He finished. Then: "When we attacked the caravan in the streets, that's when I started to realize—my concerns were on the ball. I should have foreseen it."
"Yeah, well..." Cyborg chuckled and waved limply at the Boy Wonder. "Not everyone's Batman."
"I'm complimented. Thanks." Robin matter of factly replied.
"...Huh..." Cyborg blinked. "I had kinda figured that would piss you off or something."
"And why would you want to do that?" Robin's eyemask briefly glinted.
"I dunno! Tch—It's cuz I'm just so frustrated, man!" Cyborg stumbled thumpingly about the stairwell. "You're not the only one to have gotten the whole run-around Ego City tonight!"
"I'm afraid I don't read you."
"That test that Dr. Ray and I ran—The one that detected the radiation signature—It was flawless!"
"Don't give me none of that neutral opinion attitude crap!" Cyborg pointed jabbingly at Robin's chest. "You sound just like Raven!"
"I don't know Raven well enough to make a sound description of her attitude."
"There you go again, dawg!" Cyborg chuckled incredulously and continued pacing about the stairwell. "Well, ever since I became leader of this ragtag group of ragtags, I've observed plenty of sound descriptions! If Raven was here, she'd just go 'Boys and their toys will go out and break things' or some other smug crap like that!" He turned and pointed at Robin. "There's a thing about science—Something that's kept me alive when for all that's good and holy I should be dead! Science may not be perfect, but it is most damnably probable! And there's only one in two million chance—a chance in hell, I might add—that Kobayashi's entourage would be emitting the exact same radiation signature that we were looking for, the one that corresponds to Gordanian technology!"
"Was the same signature there after the ambush?"
"Pft—You were there, man!" Cyborg gestured with both hands. "I did a scan immediately when the cops arrived! It was still there!" He turned about, hands at his side, then waved again. "It w-was faint, but it was still th-there!"
"..." Robin glanced aside at the walls. "All previous radiation samples taken from Gordanian tech has remained prevalent for far longer than that..."
"What difference does it make?" Cyborg barked. A beat, and he rolled his eyes back and groaned: "Okay—So maybe...just maybe Kobayashi's entourage was infected somehow—Like, if they happened to drive within close proximity of the gangmembers' delivery that we were looking for. And then, like, somehow they all saw Kobayashi's caravan, got a little snickerish with themselves, and said: 'Oh hey, look at that, a group of vehicles going down the exact same path that we were planning to go and looking very conspicuously like our own transportation—let's double back and do this delivery another night even though we'll be gunned in the head if we don't do it tonight! Why not! Just to screw with Cyborg's HALF-A-HEAD'!"
The android sighed, a huge slumping of his shoulders, and then he chuckled.
Robin raised an eyebrow above his mask. "What?"
"Heh heh heh..." Cyborg shook his head. "Commissioner Kneehouse, that's WHAT. Heh—Can't believe the balls on her to tell me, straight to my face, that I have 'half a head'. Heheheh...stupid, stuck up overmuscled-"
"At least she said that you thought with your heart." Robin said with a shrug. "Sometimes, for tough cookies like her, that's a sideways compliment, even though it's framed within an insult."
"Yeah, well, she sure does know when to-" Cyborg stopped dead in his tongue's tracks. He blinked over at Robin. "Were you listening in on the two of us the whole time?"
Robin's hand brushed with a pocket in his utility belt, closing it. "What would give you that idea?"
"Heh...Never fails." Cyborg shook his head. "Always trying to one-up me."
"I just want to keep up with every detail, Cyborg." Robin said with a slight smirk. "You know that I would never do anything to undermine you. Besides...I don't want on my shoulders what you've got on yours."
He nodded, slowly. "I know you don't, Robin. I know you don't."
A bit of silence. The flickering light above them buzzed a deep bass echo through the concrete stairwell. A moth fluttered about it, creating a schizophrenic slideshow against the wall.
"Robin, for real, dawg..." Cyborg looked up at him. "Does...Do we...I mean..."
"..." Robin waited.
Cyborg gulped, then smiled for courage. "Does this whole thing we're doing have any hope?"
"What thing are you talking about?"
"This team. This thing I'm trying to start—What we've all been trying to start ever since...yanno...we all came back together, after three putrid months of aimlessness. We came back together—And look at what we did, and then compare it to what we're doing nao—And I'm starting to wonder, man, is this team going to make it? Do we have a chance?"
"I only see two of us here."
"That ain't fair, man!" Cyborg groaned. "I speak for the whole team! You and I are the only ones here because we can share that sort of confidence!"
"But there's still only two of us here." Robin reemphasized. "If you want to know hao the team is doing, then ask all of us—together—when we're in a group."
"Nnnngh...I don't see what the point is in asking you, man..." Cyborg stands up, shrugging his shoulders. "If you just keep evading like that. Hell, perhaps it answers my question. If I can't have your support, then whose can I have?"
"You know that you have my support, Victor." Robin said. His brow furrowed in an attempt to emote sincerity through his mask. It only could go so far. "This team is all I have. This City means more to me than you can guess."
"But then you've got Gotham City to fall back on, right?" Cyborg said, but it wasn't accusatory. The young android looked genuinely sad. "None of us even know your name, dawg."
Cyborg rubbed his head and leaned over, gesturing as he murmured just above a bare whisper. "A few weeks ago, you told me something—something that I can never, ever forget, Robin. You told me that you do not fear death."
"I believe I did." The Boy Wonder nodded.
"Well, don't you think that there are fates worse than death?" Cyborg asked. He stared. "I mean, you see the two of us here, huddled like rats in the stairwell of the Police Departmet, too dayum ashamed of ourselves to show our faces, too lowly to even leap to the next rooftop and chimney-jog our way back to HQ—yanno-like superheroes should be entitled to. And don't you think it looks familiar? Like six waterlogged, pathetic kids watching an alien ship sink into the Bay? Heroes out of pure circumstance?"
"If I recall, it wasn't circumstance." Robin remarked. A gulp, and the next breath came out of him coldly: "It was sacrifice."
Silence. The stairwell felt colder, deathlier.
Cyborg eventually nodded. "Yeah, well, ever since that night in February, when shit hit the fan, and the UFO hit the ocean—we've been running circles, man. Dayum annoying, pathetic circles. And try as we might, we just can't seem to cut it. I mean, we've got the right stuff, just not the same luck. If a Gordanian armada doesn't drown us, or three months of soul searching doesn't split us up—I'm dayum sure Commissioner Kneehouse and trollish hardcases like her are gonna bury us. But I ain't settling for that. The god forsaken circle of light isn't gonna spit in my face. Not if I have anything to do with it."
Cyborg marched firmly down the steps. Robin towered over him, looking down.
"Don't be so grim, Cyborg."
"Yeah yeah—I'm the leader. I should be more optimistic, instill hope in our confused and thinning numbers—blah blah blah. Write me some Cliffnotes while you're at it, Boy Wonder." Cyborg waved back without looking.
Robin spoke as the echoing android marched out of view below. "Don't forget, no matter what people may say about us, we've saved this City before. Shortcomings are shortcomings—I'm sure we can achieve the same success again. It's never too late to begin again."
The footsteps stopped, echoes too. "Is it, Robin?" He crept backwards till just his head was in sight again. Cyborg smirked back up at the caped crusader. "What was it you said—Sacrifice saved us? And not circumstance?"
"We had then what what we have nao. A full deck of cards—a Royal Flush, even. Only difference nao—heh—is that we ain't got the same wildcard."
"See ya back at the Bunker, dawg. I know you wanna go brood on rooftops and stuff. Say hi to the moon for me." And Cyborg was gone.
Robin stood alone, always alone. But as Cyborg's words dwindled in his head, he found his gloved hand lingering at his utility belt—mostly the seventh pocket from the center. But he did not open it. Not there.
He did nothing.
Eight Rooms—Nine, if you count the large hallway/gathering room that connected them—They clustered together in a four-acre large subterranean labyrinth, festering just three bare stories beneath the streets and sidewalks of Jump City, a part of Phaser Labs, which was—to the surface dweller's eye—a three story scientific laboratory/institute for learning, squeezed rather claustrophobically between the darklit side streets of Jump City's Western District below and the roaring overpass of the Metropolitan Interstate above.
The whole place felt like one giant pressure cooker. Between the echoes of the Interstate traffic roaring through the concrete overpass and the cacophonous urbanity beneath, it was a miracle that any research could be done with any semblance of quiet. It was a joke among many Jump City citizens that Phaser Labs was the ghetto version of its much more affluent and smartly constructed counterpart—STAR Labs—which was located deeper into Downtown, where it was less cluttered and—most certainly—less dirty. Graffiti lined the walls of buildings adjacent to Phaser Labs, bars fitted the windows, and on a few random street corners one could find homeless people and shifty-eyed loiterers huddled about burning garbage cans, with nothing to eat and nothing to say. This was Central District Gang territory—a home for miscreants who sought to induct from the young and desperate. Dogs barked in cliché fashion every other minute, and it was obvious that the managers of Phaser Labs took into great account the depth of all this atmosphere—in that they erected a concrete barrier around the ground level facility with a thick metal gate at its front. In the end, Phaser Labs looked like a granite money safe smothered by a concrete interstate ribcage. It resembled a prison more than a place of scientific experimentation. Perhaps, it could have served as both.
How ironically fitting, then, that this would be the location for the Bunker.
The Bunker...where currently, deep underground...
...Beast Boy fwomped down onto a sofa in the gathering room, looking over a thick book constructed out of mysterious red leather. Across from him, a blonde girl sat in the dim underground light, demasked—but still clad in the blue two-piece uniform with silver stars. Far off, in a lone hover besides the automatic doors to the upstairs laboratories, a robed sorceress levitated with a book in her hand. In an even further corner, flanked by one of the polynumerous concrete reinforcement pillars, an amber-skinned alien with green eyes stood, hugging herself, gazing off into solitary thought.
"There's gotta be a way to read this thing..." The green elf murmured to himself. He tilted and twisted the red book around in his hand as he squirmed in the sofa. "...Zoey gave this to me. She could have kept it to herself after Razzar gave us both the evil eye—She could have made a fortune with somebody. But, she gave it to me. Guess I should try to make do with it." He squinted his eyes and twirled the book around again. "I wonder if I have it upside or not-?"
"Do you always make so much noise when reading?"
"It's how I make do until they drop a television or an Xbox down here..." He smirked. "Whichever lands first."
Courtney Whitmore grumbled. She plinked away at a calculator and scribbled a bit more on notebook paper as she tried to shirk off his noisy essence from across the desk. "Look at Raven over there—She isn't making any noise!"
"Don't drag me into this..." Raven murmured.
"Drag you into what?"
"Exactly." Raven flipped a page.
Stargirl sighed. "I'm never going to get this done."
"And what's so astronomically important that you must have this underground place reduced to a tomb?" Beast Boy toothily grinned. "Emphasis on the 'ass'."
"For your information..." Courtney glared over. "Some of us actually have an education—in addition to the whole superhero thing. I've gotta do this trigonometry exercise, then read four whole chapters of Great Expectations."
"Don't bother. The butler did it." Beast Boy uttered. "With a calculator, laced with cyanide."
"..." Courtney squinted at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"I was talking about the trigonometry assignment. I have no idea what the heck happens in Great Expectations."
"Rrrrrgh...I should go do this in my room. Alone." Courtney moaned.
"Why the big hurry?" Beast Boy gestured from the sofa. "I mean, the first second you walked in here, you just took your mask off and sat down to your homework. No pomp, no dainty circumstance. Don't girls have a 'homework outfit' that they're always caught wearing when people randomly film them for yogurt commercials?"
"I don't have any time! I gotta do this homework overnight and mail it to Blue Valley High. The outfit stays on."
"I swear! That's gotta be how Wonder Woman goes to the bathroom!"
Courtney stomped the calculator squarely in the middle of her notebook and glared daggers at the elf. "Will you just...just...cl-clam it?.!"
"What's so funny?" Courtney fumed.
He pointed, grinning wide. "People with braces should never try to be angry."
"It looks like a sea of pez trying to break out of prison."
"Fine. You know what?" Courtney smiled bitterly and reached for an mp3 player on an adjacent table. "I'm drowning this all out just so I can drown myself in work."
"Hey! No need to be Ophelia Squared!" Beast Boy flipped his red book open to a random bunch of pages and pointed within. "Help me decipher this thing! See? It's got runes and stuff!" He squinted at it. "No pictures, though, unless that 'character' is Elmer Fudd throwing up into a soup can."
"Good night, Garfield." Courtney stuck a tongue out and slipped the earphones on, muffled noises squirming into her cranium. "I'll bug you back in the morning."
"Heheh...She said 'bug'," the namely Garfield chuckled to himself. "If this was England, I could sue her for trying to come onto a minor...Or for trying to fix her teeth. Whatever." He flipped the book around some more. "Where're the chapters in this thing?"
"Congratulations..." Raven's voice lilted over the musically distracted homeworker's head. "You've managed to single-handedly drive off the only normal person here."
"Nuts to you. If she heard that, she'd probably give you a fist full of veiled, virginal insults through retainer wire. Watch your back..."
"She has a point, though..." Raven droned, flipping a page with her telekinesis as she hovered, hovered, not even looking his way. "...your annoyance is legendary."
"Yeah, well, it looks like I'm not the only person who can chit-chat and read at the same time."
"Give me a phone call the first moment that statement makes any sense."
"Don't mind me, I'm just trying to delve into the biography of Erno Rubik here..." He twirled the book around one last time before tossing it with a defeated sigh towards the foot of the sofa. "Dammit, Zoey...Razzar..." He cackled. "What's the use in giving me a book that makes about as much sense as a dolphin car magazine?"
"Is it a thick book?"
"To me, a postinote is like reading James Joyce."
"Then I'm sure you can find a hole in yourself to put it away." She flipped a page, boredly. "Preferably the one that makes the most noise."
He grinned. "Then you'd only have half a chance of stopping this conversation."
"Hah. That's a good one," she sarcastically murmured.
"You know, for a female Merlin, you really are a male Morgan la Fay."
"I...am not...a magician." Page flip.
"Sure you are. And I bet there's a rabbit waiting at the bottom of a really deep oil reservoir, waiting for you to pull it out of a hat."
"If I didn't know better, we were both living in that hole right nao. Some of us even eat and sleep in it. Others of us—which shall remain nameless—fester and make jokes to cover their patheticness."
"Hey! That's unfair!" Beast Boy planted his hands on his hips in a pout. "I am not nameless."
"Predictable down to the T." Page flip.
"You can have my T, girl, but not my A." Garfield chuckled to himself. He leaned back and smiled towards the low, concrete ceiling. "Ohhhhh I am just too good."
"Before I came to this world, I had thought I'd familiarized myself with all unevolved forms of demons and imps. Little did I know that I would find the embodiment of all the drooling, mindless minions of Limbo rolled up into one green-haired ignoramus."
"If I understood half the words in that last statement, then I might pretend to be insulted."
"About the best you can do, regardless." Page flip.
"Ohhhh...heheheh..." Beast Boy chuckled. "Girl, you are good! You are really, really good at this."
"Do you mean that?"
He frowned bitterly. "Yes."
"Hrm..." Page flip.
"Swear to God..." He muttered to himself as he laid back on the sofa with his eyes closed. "...if she's smiling right nao, I'll yank out her forehead stone and sell it on eBay marked as 'Priceless Satan Turd'."
"Not too far from the truth, actually..."
"Shut up, Merlin le Funk."
The sound of automatic doors opening, then closing—And then a series of hard metal footsteps stomped into the local surroundings.
Beast Boy opened his eyes and craned his neck in time to see a certain titanium leader's limping form. Nevertheless, he beamed.
"Hey, Cy! Welcome home to the Angst Cave!"
"Now's not a good time, Garfield..."
"Since when is it not? Cheer up!" He held a high-five up. "Gimme some skin, man—Er...whoops...eheheheh...Y-Yanno what I mean."
"..." The android glared up at him. He lifted a creaking arm up and gave the elf a cold, lifeless, palm-to-palm slap.
"Eheheheh..." Beast Boy sweatdropped. "I'd ask for 'down low' too, but I kinda wanna walk straight in the morning."
"Come on, Cy!" He hopped up to his feet and waved. "Stop and chat! What's up?"
"What do you think is up?" Cyborg barked, shaking the room. Some of Courtney's notebook paper furled over her writing hand and she scrambled to set it straight. "We bombed out—a historical bombing-out in the annals of superheroes bombing-out—just mere hours ago, I mind you, and what do I come home to?" He gestures about a room. "A catatonic alien, a purple-haired bookworm, a dental experiment doing homework, and an elf on ritalin who sees a robot and think he's Google with legs so he can plug just any stupid bunch of words in! Well, I'm done being insulted for the day—so I don't need anymore from a little grasstain like you! So if you don't mind, I'm going to the laboratory so I can spend the last scant hours of the night trying to salvage what's left of this team and see if I can maintain our financial state from the last three weeks of screwing things up! Like, what else is new?.!"
He stomped off as Beast Boy blinked-
Page flip. "My hair is blue, not violet."
"Nuts to you!" Cyborg stopped to bark at her. "Hell, if I decided one day to dunk my head in the toilet and suddenly become half as untouchable and frozen as you, do you think I'd hesitate for a moment? Stop pretending like what's happened to this team doesn't have a single damn effect on you!"
"Who says it doesn't?" Raven remarked. "I've already meditated an hour ago."
"Celestial books on tape might get you one step closer to Nirvana—but it sure as hell doesn't change what night this happened—I-I mean what happened night this—I mean-"
"What is it nao?"
"For your information, Raven, I just lost my train of thought!" Cyborg planted his hands on his hips. "I just spend twenty minutes being yelled at by a police commissioner with a body of a locomotive and a yellow caped crusader who probably wants to lay himself in front of one! So, farewell and adieu—Which in your elusive emospeak means 'stay the hell off my back'! I'm going off to work. Good night!" Cyborg turned—and ran smack dab into a concrete support strut. CLANGG! "UNNGH!"
Starfire suddenly spun and gasped. "Cyborg!"
"Owie..." Beast Boy winced.
"Nnnngh—SonuvaEinstein'sAnorexicCat that HURTS!" Cyborg reeled. "H-Heh! Half-a-head my ass, that brick-boobed bimbo!"
"Heheh...I don't know whom he's insulting, but I wanna join in!" Beast Boy chuckled.
Starfire hovered over to the leader's side. "Are you damaged, Victor?"
"Nah...N-No, Kory..." Cyborg patted her shoulder, stepped a few paces, and punched an identical concrete pylon. SMACK! "Though that would be better luck than all I've had tonight."
"You must not exert your temper upon the scant pillars maintaing the structural integrity of this place!" The Tamaranian stammered. "Is it not our only home?"
"For some of us, maybe..." He glanced into the shadows. "And for how long...?" Silence. He shook his head in the ennui, sighed, and trudged off towards the lab on the far side of the Bunker. "See ya in the morning. Bright and Early. I gotta meet up with some of my people."
"Fare yourself well, Victor..." Starfire remarked, staring after him pensively. The automatic doors to his lab opened and closed, and he was gone. They were all...gone...
"..." Beast Boy glanced at the doors, at Starfire standing isolated and vulnerable, at Courtney engulfed and distracted, then at Raven distant and uninvolved. "Yeesh..." He slumped back down into the sofa. "Is it just me, or has every boy in the Bunker turned into a Simon Cowell and every girl into a Rosie O'Donnell?"
Courtney suddenly mumbled. "I think you've gotten the genders switched."
"Snkkkkkt—Hehehehehe!" Beast Boy reeled at that, clutching his tummy. "Hahahahaha! Ah yeah...Yeah—H-Hey!" He blinked at her, then squinted. "I thought you were listening to music!"
Courtney briefly lifted one earphone. "Willie Nelson. I can talk over it."
"Ah. So what stick do you suppose went up Cyborg's butt—And is it USB compatible?"
"What do you think? He's doing his best to keep this team together. This is his City. He's gotta play representative..."
"Yeah...well..." The green elf scratched behind one pointed ear.
"...AND financier...AND technological supplier...AND public relations communicator-"
"B-But he ELECTED himself to do all that crud!" Beast Boy waved his arms for emphasis. "Heck, if the spotlight was on me, I'd just say 'nah thanks, give me bad guy butts to whip and doughnuts in the morning' and I'd be just fine and dandy with that!"
Courtney giggled slightly and gave him a sly look. "Don't you think that—as a young man—Cyborg takes pride in being able to do what he does?"
"And don't you think that you being a young woman trying to presume for a young man that you are most certainly out of your league to be in someone else's league?" Beast Boy blinked. Something sizzled inside him and he slumped down to his chair, moaning. "Ugh...I think I just broke my brain..."
"I've always thought Cyborg was trying to do too much—But you know how he is."
"I thought I did before he went all Defcon 1 on me."
"Well, you asked for it." Courtney stuck a tongue out. "But what I mean is—He's really trying to do too much. He's holding our team, leading it, and advertising it all at once."
"Well, it kinda sort of is his project, don't you think?"
"That's not how I understood it." Raven spoke up.
"Who asked you? Go back to Vampires, Roses, and Maxipads."
Page flip. "This team started because we all needed a place to be. We needed each other."
Beast Boy glanced at her wyrdly. "Is this the same Raven who was here a few minutes ago or did ECW have a reunion?"
"I mean it." She glanced over for once. Her blue eyes still. Serious. "We all went our separate ways. And for three months, we floundered."
"Speak for yourself." Beast Boy smirked and nudged the red book with his toe. "I was kicking ass."
"And I was trying to save my own." Courtney also added, scribbling.
"But when we all came back—after going separate ways—We found something, right here, waiting for us."
"Yeah...Heh...We did. Didn't we?" Beast Boy smirked. He turned over to look at Courtney. "Don't you think so?"
"I'll answer you after Hank Williams..." She smiled and rocked to the music as she finished her trigonometry.
"Unngh...Someone drown the Opry already..." The elf groaned, then half-yawned...
"We did not all come back..."
Beast Boy's yawn was cut short. He swiveled about. "What was that, Kory?"
She bit her lip. "Not all of us had the luxury of rediscovering him or herself. There have been many things that have transpired—many of them joyous. But it is foolish to think that we are anywhere near the same as what we once were..."
Beast Boy twirled and kicked off the rear of the sofa. He landed and padded up to her. "Don't sound so gloomy, Kory. I hate it when you sound gloomy. It's like five million kittens being beaten at Guatanamo."
"Do not attempt to distract me with metaphor, Garfield." She briefly frowned down at him. "You know exactly what I mean. Three of your Earth months ago, we were more than we are nao. Does it seem of any surprise that this team is going through so much tribulation in...maintaining itself as a team?"
"H-Hey...Come on..." Beast Boy smirked. "That ain't always true! Three years ago, Negative Man left the Doom Patrol. He said it was for personal reasons and it was permanent—and everyone on my team accepted it. And you know what? Without him, we kicked just as much butt—Even more! We did away with General Immortus twice—in one month! We made record time saving entire European countries! You see, Kory, a team is what it makes it! Even if it loses members!"
She looked at him with sad, melting eyes. "And what of us? Cyborg is attending to workaholicism as an excuse for the male brooding. You and Raven pick at each other like two Vegan Scavenger Beetles. Robin ventures alone into the Jump City night like he is not one of us. And Courtney is encumbered with the trials of 'normal' Terran life." She leaned forward, looking emphatic. "Just what are we making this team to be as of this moment, Garfield?"
The elf bit his lip. A few bulbs of sweat. For the queerest of half-minutes, he was speechless.
It was obviously a half-minute too much. Koriand'r took a deep breath, nodded sullenly, and hovered up off her feet. "I see. If you do not have an answer, I will attempt to formulate one—for all of us. As Cyborg has stated, I will see you in the morning."
"Kory, come on, don't-"
But she flew off, taking the passageway that led down a long corridor which opened up to a remote Jump City landfill that concealed the Bunker's emergency exit for the superheroes.
"Phweeee..." Beast Boy scratched his neck and looked Raven's way. "I don't suppose you have a word to say about all this."
Nothing but a page flip.
He ran a hand over his eyes and sighed. "Well, I do..." He picked the red book off the sofa and trudged liquidly off towards his room in the Bunker. "But I promised Rita I'd wait until I was eighteen..."
Robin perched, alone, on the edge of a weathered twelve-story apartment building. Tattered, scantily lit neon advertisements strobed weakly beneath him, filling the surrounding air with an intermittent, crimson glow. Beyond him, the silverish skyline of Jump City lay like a cemetery slab beneath the twinkling stars. Glowing Japanese and Chinese characters flickered towards the North—nearer to Downtown. Towards the South, a brilliant Bay shimmered with the wavefronts dancing under the night's sky. Biting the horizon—skeletonous and half built, like a partially dismantled crucifix—was Stone Tower, a monument in the making. Scanning along bayside, skirting the distant landmark of the Georgeton Suspension Bridge—Robin's eyemask eventually settled on another porous monolith, the partially built skyscraper that marked the center of Downtown: Kobayashi Tower.
Jump City was a young metropolis. And with each passing day, it felt like something new was being built—or starting again. Circles upon circles, a place with little history making even littler histories within the navel of its own being.
It would be an exciting place to be, to run, to jump, to fly—To not be afraid to begin again. But Robin's heart remained steady, serene, unlit. He had his cue. It hadn't sounded yet.
After the longest of pauses, he reached a gloved hand to his utility belt—once more the seventh pocket from the center. He snapped the pouch open and reached fingers in...slowly removing them. And when he did...
Shades. Dark shades. They fitted loosely in his palm—Made for a head slightly smaller than his. They were speckled with bits of dust and debris, scuffed and cracked in a few places—the sign of having been through hell and back...
...or perhaps in the other direction.
Robin turned them over in his grasp, eyeing them with no less confusion than he had on so many a week previous...or month previous...
Three months. And so many losses, and so many victories...
A wyrd sensation, unnamed, as Robin's mind limped back an hour or two, and he heard once more Cyborg's passive words under a cadence of descending footsteps: "We had then what what we have nao. A full deck of cards. Only difference nao is that we ain't got the same wildcard."
Robin's mental footsteps sunk too—Into the glossy surface of the dark shades, until they suddenly blinded him with an enormous golden beam. Robin squinted. He looked up—Looked East, over the Atlantic.
It was six in the morning. The Sun was just beginning to rise. Soon, the day would begin. Morning, noon, and night. Opportunities and endings. Patterns and spheres. Full circle.
He didn't know why, but it was enough to afford him a smile.
"Heh. Sky's the limit."
The Boy Wonder pocketed the dirty shades away with a snap, pulled out a grappling hook, stood up to the edge...