Raven remembered the way her last attempt at escape had ended, and took her time getting out of the hospital bed. The first step was to slowly sit up in bed, giving herself plenty of time to get used to the change in angle and to regain her strength. Next, she turned her body and swung her legs out onto the floor. She paused for a moment, tensing and relaxing her leg muscles so that they wouldn't cramp, before easing herself upright. She felt better than she had the last time she'd awakened- less weak and more aware, though her head felt surprisingly cold. All this time, Slade stood patiently by her bed, his face and posture showing that he had been ready to intervene if Raven collapsed again. The dark girl glared at him- after everything he had done to her and to her friends, the man had no right to act as though he were a friend. She tried to seize him with her powers- tried and failed, since she couldn't summon any of her telekinetic abilities. Her disquiet at this caused a light bulb above them to explode, confirming that her powers were still present, just beyond her conscious use.
"What..." Raven coughed, and cleared her throat. Evidently, the long period asleep had weakened her voice a bit. "What have you done to me, Slade?"
Slade merely shook his head. "Nothing harmful, I assure you. Your powers are currently being partially blocked, only to ensure that you at least hear me out. The effect will wear off in another hour or so, after which you can do as you like."
"Right." Raven said sarcastically. "I completely believe that."
The argument was interrupted by the door bursting open. Beastboy charged into the room, a huge smile on his face.
"Rae! You're awake! I heard the light break and I was like 'I know that kaboom! That… has… to be…" The changeling's voice trailed off as he got a good look at her. His jaw sagged open and he stared wide-eyed at her head. Puzzled, Raven moved a hand to her head to search for whatever had provoked this reaction.
Is there something wrong with my hair? It doesn't seem like that'd bother him this much. He's never shown that much interest in my… in my… my…
Raven's mind went briefly blank and her other hand flew up to her scalp.
Her bare scalp.
All of her head hair was gone. Feeling about frantically, she could feel a small scar near the back of her head, still fresh enough to be sore. Raven's empathic abilities (apparently unaffected by Slade's treatment) let her read Beastboy's reaction with more clarity: she detected shock, amazement, and… something else, something that disturbed her a bit.
"Excuse me." Slade said, with a surprising amount of hesitance in his voice. "Far be it from me to interrupt this reunion, but Raven and I really need to have a talk."
"It's fine." Raven said, turning away from the green boy. "I have nothing to say to that traitor anyway. Not after he used me- just like a certain dragon did."
Behind her, Beastboy's whole body seemed to sag at those words. His face went from shocked to devastated as he realized just how badly he'd hurt Raven- not physically, but emotionally. The dark girl had always had trust issues and his seeming betrayal had likely hurt her far more than he'd thought at the time. He couldn't kid himself- there was a real chance he'd destroyed their relationship.
Before the changeling could begin to apologize Slade placed a hand on his shoulder. "That's hardly fair, Raven. Garfield had a very good reason for what he did. And if you'll hear me out, I know that you'll agree."
Raven looked at Beastboy- he looked crushed, broken. Hardly the way he'd look if he'd honestly, knowingly betrayed her to an enemy. It was this that convinced her to at least hear them out- not because she thought she'd be convinced by Slade but because she wanted to understand what Beastboy thought he was doing. Turning back to Slade, she said "Make it good."
The older man led Raven out of the room and down the hall, Beastboy plodding along a few feet behind them like a whipped dog. Slade moved slowly, not pushing Raven too hard but letting her take her own pace. Eventually, they reached a well-appointed office, with dark wood panelling and a pair of leather chairs facing each other across a desk. The older man waved Raven to one seat as he turned back to Beastboy.
"Garfield, this is likely to be a rather personal experience for Raven. Under the circumstances, I think it would be best if you left us alone for this." Slade said, putting his hand on the changeling's shoulder. He leaned close and Raven had to strain her hearing to catch what he said next. "Don't feel bad, Garfield. Raven was speaking out of hurt before, and I'm confident that once she understands the situation she will be willing to forgive you. Women can be far more understanding than you'd think- and I speak from experience."
Beastboy managed a weak smile. "Dude, didn't you tell me your wife was the one who took your eye?"
Slade (amazingly) returned the smile, and patted the green boy on the back. "The fact that she only took one eye proves my point. Why don't you go check on the inventory from the museum? I promise I'll let you know as soon as we finish here."
Beastboy sent Raven a long, piteous look. The empath forced herself to look away, reminding herself of how Beastboy had drugged her and handed her over to Slade. Crestfallen, Beastboy only nodded and left the room. Slade closed the door, and moved to take the other seat.
"Well? Shall we get started?" Raven said, her voice thick with sarcasm. "Do you want to start with the 'Become my apprentice and we'll rule the world' routine, or the 'It is your destiny to join me' bit?"
"Neither" Slade replied, unperturbed by his the hostility his 'guest' was displaying. "Raven, let me ask you a question: Why does the city still trust the Titans?"
Raven snorted. "That's how you're going to do this? All right, I'll play along. Because we earned their trust by protecting the city for all these years. Because we've put our lives on the line time and again for them. Because we've shown we DESERVE their trust."
"Have you?" Slade countered. "When Starfire first arrived on this planet she tore up the city and brought alien soldiers chasing after her. Robin put the city in danger by agreeing to join me. Terra nearly DESTROYED the city. You, yourself, opened the gates of hell and nearly brought about the end of the world."
"Most of that was YOUR fault." Raven pointed out. "You blackmailed Robin into joining you, you told Terra to attack the city, and you were the one who caused the prophecy about me to come true. While it's true the chaos surrounding Starfire's arrival wasn't your fault, there was a perfectly valid reason for it."
"Do you really think any of that should matter?" Slade said, his tone almost patronizing. "The general public doesn't know any of that, and even most members of the city government aren't aware of all of it. The Justice League, a team of established and experienced superheroes, was the subject of intense suspicion and official scrutiny solely on the basis of what they MIGHT be able to do. Yet, at no time has there been a public inquiry into how the Titans are run, nor has a single official or public servant ever come out against the team. I don't think there's even been more than a handful of newspaper editorials which have painted the Titans in a negative light, no matter what you do. You are five superhuman teenagers living completely unsupervised, and no one even bats an eye. Don't you find that the slightest bit odd?"
Raven hesitated. It WAS a bit strange when he put it that way… "Is this where I ask what the truth really is?" Raven said, a slight tremor of anger finding its way into her voice. "Because I'm not interested in whatever fairy tale you want to tell me. You're a super villain who's spent the last few years trying to destroy us. Before that, you were just another high-end mercenary, DEATHSTROKE. So, logically, this must be a trick."
"If you've studied my past" Slade replied "then you'd know that I've never taken a job that struck against the United States. That's because I still consider myself a patriot, of sorts- loyal not to the government of this country, but to the principals it stands for. Those principals do not include child soldiers. What's been done to you is a gross violation of those principals, one which no true American can allow to stand. I haven't been trying to destroy you, child, I've been trying to help you."
"Help us. Right." Raven droned sarcastically. "What, pray tell, is this threat that you had to save us from?"
In response, Slade opened a drawer on the desk and withdrew a large file folder. "Take a look for yourself." Raven reached out and picked up the file, flipping through the pages to get a general sense of what was there. As she did so, Slade carried on speaking. "As you can see, a cabal within the city government started discussing the Titans almost as soon as the team was formed. This group is composed of some of the top people in the city, but never the elected officials. The people at the top can change with every election, but the people just underneath them are permanent fixtures. Take a look at the very first document in that file."
Raven did so. It seemed to be a letter from one of the captains of the JCPD to one of the city's legal team. It was an enquiry about the laws regarding the arrest and trial of aliens- both extraterrestrial and extra-dimensional. Raven was hurt, but hardly shocked- this letter was dated shortly after Starfire arrived on Earth, and her initial rampage through Jump City. A response followed, stating that the city was considering "all options, including nonconventional ones, to guarantee the safety and security of the city".
Raven continued to flip through the file, not really reading but scanning each document in turn. Several pages were damaged or seemed to be extracts from larger documents, but all of them proposed different methods of controlling the Teen Titans. One was a diagram of a prototype shock collar, which would have been used to keep the Titans from disobeying orders. Another proposed introducing an addictive substance into the Titans water supply and using that to keep the young heroes under control. As she came to the end of the file she heaved a deep and sorrowful sigh. It wasn't pleasant to learn that the people you've risked your life to protect have been thinking about enslaving you.
"Done with that one? I apologize for its lack of completeness- many of the components were taken during Plasmus' recent assault on the municipal archives. Sadly, some key files were damaged in the confusion- in fact my agent was lucky to escape with her life. But here, let's move on to this." Slade said, and tossed her another folder- thinner than the first one. "Those were the theories- crazy ideas that were quickly shot down. This, this is what they finally decided upon."
Slade slid his chair over to sit beside Raven. The empath shuddered at the closeness of the man who'd done so much to her friends but let it slide. She had other things to worry about. She looked down at the page Slade was indicating. To her surprise, it didn't describe a new drug, or device, or blackmail strategy. Instead, it was a photograph of a stout African-American woman in her mid- to late forties. Based on the background of the photo, she was arriving at Jump City airport. Raven wracked her brain, trying to place this woman among the various figures in the city's government, but was unable to do so. She looked at Slade with a questioning expression on her face.
"That is Amanda Waller" Slade said, tapping the photograph. "Former presidential advisor for Metahuman affairs. Former head of the Suicide Squad program. Former head of CADMUS. This is the woman responsible for the government's ill-fated campaign against the Justice League. She has made a career out of controlling metahumans and vigilantes. Would it interest you to know that, in the first year of the Titans existence, she made no less than three trips in and out of Jump City? Or that, during this time, she never met with a single politician or elected official, despite her own importance and political history?"
"So, why did she come here?" Raven said, a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"I believe that she was brought to Jump City as a kind of consultant. Her career has been built on the isolation and control of dangerously powerful individuals- it would make sense that she be brought in when the cabal could not find a solution on their own." Slade said "I admit that I have no evidence for this- there are no records regarding what she did or who she met during her time in Jump City. But given what you saw in the first folder, I think you'll agree it's unlikely she came for the Jump City Jellybean Jamboree."
"All right" Raven said, fighting to maintain her scepticism. "Let's assume all your so-called evidence is valid. What exactly was their final plan? Furthermore, if this is all some principled stand against tyranny, why didn't you take this stuff to the press? Or to us?"
Slade shot the dark girl a rueful smile. "If I had come to Robin and the rest of you with this story, even with all the evidence you've seen so far, you would have dismissed me as some kind of nut. Or worse, you would have learned of my past and assume that I was trying to trap you."
"Why shouldn't I assume that now?" Raven shot back.
"Raven, look around you. I HAVE you now. If I'd wanted to do something to you, why would I have waited until you were awake to act?" Slade said, a touch patronizingly she thought. As she mulled that over, the mercenary reached back into the desk and pulled out a small box. "As to your earlier question, well… look inside."
Raven opened the box, not sure what to expect. Inside were two tiny metallic objects, crusted with what appeared to be dried blood and some kind of greyish meat. She up-ended the box and let the two items rattle onto the desk. Slade jabbed a finger at them.
"These were removed from both your and Beastboy's brains." He said, his voice rich with disgust. "While I'm no neurologist, I know enough about cybernetics to tell you that these implants were designed to alter the way your brain functions. By shunting bioelectricity to specific parts of your brain, they were able to influence your thoughts and feelings. It would explain why none of you ever questioned the city's trust in you, and why you remained so committed to it."
Raven stared blankly at the implants on the desk, fighting desperately to keep her emotions under control. Every fibre of her being rebelled against what she was being told, and she searched desperately for some way to deny it. "All of this evidence could be faked, Slade" She said at last, a twinge of pride blossoming in her chest at just how neutral she kept her voice. "Documents can be written by anyone, photographs can be shopped, and those things there could be anything."
"I see. I want you to know that I take no pleasure in this." Slade sighed as he rose from his chair. Moving to a far wall, he switched on a screen affixed to the wood panelling. He pressed a button underneath the screen, and an image of Raven shone out.
From somewhere off-screen, a voice spoke. A voice Raven almost recognized…
"This is Jerome McGruder, collecting the report of Raven for the month of April. Raven, tell me everything of importance that occurred this month."
Raven gave a start. Two things about that statement frightened her. First and foremost, Raven had absolutely no memory of this. Thanks to Azarathian training, Raven's memory was exceptional- even now, months later, she could recall where she had been for most days in April, and this meeting did not feature in her recollections. Secondly, Jerome McGruder was the head of the city safety commission- a powerful man in the municipal government.
On the screen, Raven blinked once before speaking, though her gaze never wavered from the camera.
"Little of importance occurred in the last month." Her voice was flat and cold- not her usual restrained monotone. This was more like the speech of a machine than a human being. "Robin continues to work on assembling the Titans North, while investigating the strange crimes that have been committed lately. I have helped by consulting on the plans for the new teams base. We are attempting to incorporate mystical wards directly into the structure. The other Titans continue with their normal duties- training, patrolling, and intervening when necessary."
"I see." McGruder said, his tone contemplative. "And aside from work? Has Garfield's absence affected the team's social activities?"
"Cyborg and Robin continue their prank war" Screen-Raven droned. "Robin has been taking Starfire to various museums and galleries to broaden her education."
"Excellent. If the alien learns to respect our culture, she'll be less likely to act against us" McGruder mused. "Continue."
"Batgirl continues to form connections to the rest of the team. She has told me that this is as close as she has ever gotten to anyone outside of the Gotham vigilantes." Screen-Raven droned, still not blinking as she stared at the camera. "I have been visiting Garfield at the hospital. His recovery proceeds well."
"Have the two of you been sexually intimate?" McGruder asked.
"No. I do not feel ready for that step yet." Screen-Raven replied, her voice still cold and distant. "Garfield respects my feelings."
"I see. Interesting." The councillor mused. "I would have thought his bestial instincts made that level of self-restraint impossible. Very well. Raven, return to your room in Titans Tower. Forget that you left it to come here- instead, you spent the afternoon meditating. I will be interviewing Robin tomorrow morning- neither you nor any of the others are to question his absence during that time. Is this understood?"
"Understood." Screen-Raven said before teleporting away. With her gone, the video shut off.
The real Raven sat in stunned silence. It was all true. Everything Slade had said was true. Her mind
reeled under the weight of this revelation. Slade moved to her side and tapped her shoulder.
"Raven, I understand that you're somewhat shocked at what you've learned. Would it be all right if I called Garfield in here?" Slade asked. "He's likely convinced himself that you hate him. I think it would be best if you dispelled that idea- best for him and best for you."
"I have a few more questions before you do." Raven replied, her voice betraying just how shaken she felt. Despite that, she was too disciplined to allow her disorientation to affect her decisions. "If you really had our best interests in mind, why attack us?"
"I wasn't trying to attack the Titans. I was trying to CONVERT the Titans, as a way to force the cabal's hand." Slade answered "My goal was always to shake the group's faith in its control devices. If I could turn one of the Titans away, or turn the team against itself, it would show them that their control was not as firm as they thought. The devices never granted rigid control- which is why I was able to turn Robin, however briefly. I believe that what you saw on that screen was the result of hypnotic conditioning or drug treatment- both of which can be broken. If I could shake their faith, I could scare them into making a mistake- one that would allow me to expose them. Trust me, if I'd wanted the Titans dead, then you would be dead."
"I…see." Raven said. "What about your alliance with my father? How do you explain that? Hardly the act of a patriot is it? More like someone hungry for power"
"I've always been a mercenary, it's true, but I cherish my independence. The idea of giving myself over to a demonic overlord was hardly an appealing one." For the first time since she'd woken up, Slade's confident and assured face slipped. He suddenly appeared frightened, and hurt. "You know your father better than anyone. Why would he look for a volunteer, when his magic allows him to simply FORCE someone to obey him? With the time of the prophecy nearing, he had enough power to meddle with my mind- to turn me into little more than a puppet. You of all people know he's capable of that. It took a long time to get over that feeling, much longer than it took me to recover from my physical wounds."
Raven had been scrutinizing Slade as he answered this question, and was forced to conclude that he was telling the truth. Certainly, it rang true with what she knew of both Slade and Trigon- the former was known for his independence, while the latter did not take no for an answer. Which likely meant the rest of what he said was true, as well. Raven heaved a sigh.
"I believe you." Raven said "And I forgive you for your part in what happened on my birthday. Call Garfield in, it seems we've got some talking to do."
Beastboy was in the storage room, putting away the loot from the museum heist. Slade had explained to him early on that he planned to return everything he stole, as soon as he was certain his task was complete. Of course, Beastboy had scoffed at that- scoffed, that is, until he'd been shown the storage vault. The massive chamber was packed with pilfered goods, all meticulously organized and labelled. He'd spent an hour going through it, and was forced to conclude that, indeed, almost everything Slade had stolen was there. Each piece boasted a carefully written label which detailed who it had been taken from, when it had been taken, and an estimate of its approximate value. Today, Beastboy was carefully arranging the stolen statues from the museum in their correct place in the vault- or at least, that was what he was supposed to be doing.
In actuality, Beastboy found himself mentally replaying his brief conversation with Raven over and over again. The look of betrayal, of HATE, on her face was like a knife in his heart. This sensation was only made worse by the knowledge that every bit of it was deserved. He'd abused her trust in him, used her feelings to create a moment of vulnerability to be exploited. Even if his cause had been good, there was no excuse for that kind of manipulation. He was no better than Melchior.
His moping was interrupted by a chiming sound coming from his pocket. Reaching within, the shapeshifter pulled out his new communicator. It was a red disc, with a jagged yellow S in the center. He still hadn't decided whether or not 'Slade-munnicator' was a good nickname for it or not, but he was glad to see it worked. Tapping the S to open the link, he raised it to his mouth.
"Um, yeah? I'm not finished the sorting yet, if that's what you want boss." He said, a tad hesitantly. Despite everything, it still felt weird to call Slade 'boss', but it was slightly less weird than calling him by name.
"I wasn't, particularly." Came the reply. "Garfield, Raven would like to speak to you. Could-"
Whatever Slade intended to say went unheard, as Beastboy dashed out of the vault so fast he left his communicator behind. Racing through the halls, the green boy made it to what Slade referred to as his office in less than two minutes.
"You- You wanted to… to see me, Raven?" He gasped out, winded by his headlong dash.
"Yes. Um. Slade, this will be rather personal. Would you mind…?" Raven asked.
"Of course." The mercenary replied, rising from his chair and heading for the door. "Dinner will be served in an hour or so. Gar, if you could escort Raven to the dining room when the time comes? Perhaps even give her a tour of our little set-up?"
"Sure thing, boss" the changeling said, his eyes never leaving the empath. Slade merely chuckled (a bizarre sound in its own right) and left the room, leaving the two heroes alone.
"So…" Raven began, then paused. She realized she really didn't know how to put this.
"So, I'm guessing Slade gave you 'The Talk'?" Beastboy said, rubbing the back of his head nervously. "Wait- not 'The Talk', 'cuz I'm guessin' you got that when you were twelve or so. I mean, he explained what's going on?"
"Yes, he did." Raven said, and forced herself to continue. "Gar, I said some truly awful things to you before…"
"Wait! Don't apologize!" Beastboy cried, holding up a hand to stop her. "I was wrong- I should have found another way to bring you here. I-I just wanted to see you so badly…"
Raven pulled the green boy into a fierce hug, cutting off his protests. "I wanted to see you, too, Gar. I've missed you so much. I forgive you." Releasing her boyfriend, the empath took a few deep breaths to calm her emotions before speaking again. "But before we go any further, there's something we have to discuss. It has to do with… with my hair situation."
The effect on Beastboy was instantaneous. His eyes became shifty, sliding around the room in a desperate attempt to avoid her gaze. His fingers began to twitch and fidget, while sweat broke out on his forehead. "I… I guess they had to shave your head before they could remove the chip. Don't worry, it'll grow back just like mine did."
"That's not what I mean, Gar. Slade's medication surpressed my conscious abilities, but not my empathy. I know what you feel when you look at me." Raven said, allowing herself a smirk "When were you going to tell me you found bald girls attractive?"
Beastboy hung his head in embarrassment. "I didn't know until just now." He said quietly. "The first thing I thought when I saw you was how hot it made you look."
Raven felt moved to pity and leaned forward to give the changeling a peck on the cheek. "Don't worry about it- we all have our little kinks. Before you ask, no I'm not telling you mine just now." Straightening back up, she ran a hand over her bare scalp. It felt…odd. Her hand was warmer than the air in the room, and caused a not-unpleasant tingling sensation as it trailed across her skull. "But I hope you enjoyed it while you could, because I don't like how it looks."
Sitting down cross legged on the floor, Raven closed her eyes. She entered a trance state, and began to assert conscious control over her body's unconscious functions. Specifically, she sped up the growth rate of her hair. In seconds, new hair began to sprout on her scalp. Within minutes, her hair was back to it's usual length. Opening her eyes, Raven mentally reached out to her boyfriend. Beastboy was a bit disappointed, but still radiated happiness- happiness at being forgiven, and happiness at having her back. She permitted herself a small smile and took his gloved hand in her own.
"Now, how about that tour?"
It always bugged me how much the Titans got away with. No matter how they acted, or who turned to evil, there were never any external consequences to their actions. No police lectures, no mention of negative press, no CADMUS. I mean, I know the tone was supposed to be different from JLU, but still.
Then I thought 'What if there's a REASON the authorities don't question the Titan's loyalties?'. Hence, this.