The tour of Slade's base was interesting, to say the least. Raven was surprised to see that the former mercenary had set up his base inside (and beneath) a small, three story apartment building near the university campus. The small team of henchmen and henchwomen all went about in ordinary clothes, looking for all the world like a group of slightly-older-than-normal college students. The above-ground portion of the base was mainly used for living quarters for the henchmen and storage of non-critical documents. Raven had to admit, she was surprised by how… ordinary things were there. She saw two people making pasta in a shared kitchen, another napping on a couch in the hallway. It was a very strange experience for her. Somehow she never pictured hired goons as having a life outside of assisting supervillains.
What surprised her even more was how Beastboy already seemed to know everybody- whenever they encountered someone, the changeling was quick to greet them by name and stopped a few times to chat with people, making them smile when he did. Raven had to suppress a smile of her own at that- it was classic Gar, unable to rest unless everyone was as happy as he was.
There was one moment of disappointment, however, when Raven asked to see what the place looked like from the outside, and Beastboy told her that wasn't permitted. She was simply too recognizable, both as a heroine and as a gray girl with violet hair. Although she wasn't yet allowed to go outside, Beastboy assured her that Slade and his scientists were working to reproduce Cyborg's holo-rings. Then, he told her shyly, he'd be happy to take her out on the town, if she still wanted him to. Raven assured him that she did, and the tour moved below ground.
Raven was astonished at the sheer size of the underground installation Slade had created so close to the center of Jump City. It was three stories deep, and each floor was about the size of a subway station. It was here that Slade stored the items that were too valuable or vulnerable to risk- the loot from his various crimes, his small Sladebot production facility (a far cry from the massive plant the Joker had destroyed), offices, labs, and living quarters for himself and the Titans. Beastboy proudly showed Raven to his own suite which had a bedroom, moderate living room, bathroom and kitchenette. While the rooms were nice enough, Raven couldn't help but notice that they seemed strangely Spartan. No posters adorned the walls, there were no photographs on any of the tables… even the floor was unusually clean, with none of Beastboy's usual collection of dirty clothes, used plates and comics. Raven didn't say anything at the time, since it was clear that Beastboy was extremely proud of his new room, but she made a mental note of it- if her room was going to be anything like this, she would need to acquire at least SOME decorations.
The last stop on their tour was on the very bottom floor- the training room. Raven was no expert in either physical conditioning or technology, but it seemed to her that this chamber far surpassed the Titans training room. One half of the room was taken up by a massive obstacle course, which featured such hazards as whirling blades, automated laser cannons and jets of flame. Across the room from that, was a complete set of weights and exercise machines as well as a variety of punching bags, training dummies, weapons racks, and speed bags. In the center of the room was an empty space, with a large white octagon painted on the floor. Inside of this octagon stood Slade, still without his mask, practicing with some kind of sword.
Raven had seen Robin practice with his bo staff many times, and had seen Nightwing training with his escrima sticks while in Gotham. She had supposed that they were the most impressive weapon users she would ever see- both of them mixed speed, skill, and strength to produce an amazingly effective fighting style. But what she saw on display now put both heroes to shame. Slade's blade work transcended the merely effective, beyond mere skill, becoming something breathtakingly beautiful. The light danced across the darting sword, flashing and glinting as the former mercenary moved through an imagined duel. His foot work was constantly shifting, yet flawlessly rhythmic- reminding the empath far more of a dancer than a fighter. What made the whole thing even more impressive was that Slade seemed to be unaware of their presence, lost in his exercise. He wasn't trying to show off for them, this was simply the way he trained at all times.
Beastboy brought her out of her reverie with a gentle nudge in the shoulder. "Been staring for a while there, Rae. Should I be jealous?" He quipped with a smile "Just kiddin' ya- I know he's impressive when he gets like this."
At the sound of their voices Slade spun around and sheathed his sword in a scabbard at his back. "I wasn't aware I had an audience." He said, using a nearby towel to wipe off his face. "I assumed you two would still be… (ahem) touring?"
"Yeah, well…" Beastboy said, rubbing the back of his head. "Tour went kinda faster than I expected- not a whole lot of stuff to see here, y'know? Figured I'd come do some training."
Raven's jaw dropped and she whirled around to stare at the green boy. "You… wanted to train? Without anyone forcing you? When you've been given free time?" Clapping a hand to his forehead, Raven grimaced. "You don't have a fever… Did you hit your head earlier?"
Still smiling, Beastboy pushed her hand away. "C'mon, Rae. You know how serious things are- our best friends are being mind-controlled by some faceless bean-counters. I gotta get serious if we wanna save 'em, even if that does mean training when I wanna veg out." And it means I get to show off a bit in front of my girl he thought to himself.
"Well, if that's what you want." Slade said with a shrug, and a small grin. "Move into the training circle and we'll begin. Raven, do you feel up to some light exercise as well?"
"Actually, I've more or less recovered completely. I used the time we were walking around the base to heal my body, using techniques I learned in Azerath. Normally, I'd have preferred to let my body heal itself naturally, but Beastboy's right- this isn't the time to slack off." Raven replied. "Also, that is an octagon."
"Yes, well, Training Octagon just sounds silly, doesn't it?" Slade said, with a touch of (could it be?) good humor in his voice. "Garfield, why don't you do some warm ups while I see what Raven can do on the obstacle course."
"You got it" the changeling said, beginning to stretch his arms behind his back. "Good luck, Rae"
Moving to Slade's side, Raven took in the whole of the obstacle course and gulped. It wasn't that the hazards were more dangerous than the one at Titans Tower- but there were more of them, and the most dangerous ones were set at the end, meaning she would have to face them tired. Slade reached into a pocket to withdraw a stopwatch. Turning to Raven, he favored her with a smile.
"I'm quite proud of this obstacle course, you know. I designed it myself to be able to test the participant to their physical limits, while also having variable settings to ensure that 'very difficult' never becomes impossible. Right now, I have it on a medium setting due to your recent recovery." Slade held up the stopwatch before continuing. "I hope you don't mind if I time you this first run? I want to know how quick you are before I begin planning your training. Start whenever you're ready, and make your way to the other side as fast as possible."
Raven took a moment to study the course. It wasn't the individual hazards that gave her pause- over the years, Robin's various training programs had incorporated all kinds of dangers and obstacles. But never had she faced a course that had so MANY dangerous elements- that was important, since every obstacle she overcame would tire her, making the next challenges even harder. For a moment, she considered backing down and saying she wasn't ready just yet. But her pride wouldn't let her- she refused to look like some kind of fainting blossom, especially in front of her boyfriend. Taking a deep breath, Raven jogged into the course.
The first obstacle was a series of electrified floor plates, which flipped on and off in a clear pattern. Raven took a second to be sure she had the rhythm down right, then began hopping from one plate to another, careful to avoid any of the electrified ones. Once past that, the empath was faced with a long stretch of whirling blades- some were set at knee height, others at head- or waist- height. They were not set in any sort of pattern, however, which made this a test of reflexes. Raven raced ahead, leaping over or ducking under the blades as she reached them. Although she was no acrobat or gymnast, years of crime fighting had honed her reflexes to an incredible degree, allowing her to pass that section with no more than a few cuts and scrapes. This was followed by a set of crushing metal panels, which slammed together every few seconds- allowing Raven to dart between them as they pulled apart.
Raven took a moment to catch her breath, and to survey the next challenge- a bank of automated laser turrets, staggered down a length of the course. Each turret was set at a slightly different height with a bit of space between them, much like the spinning blades from earlier. Clearly, this obstacle was designed to force the challenger to jump, dodge and duck at lightning speed to avoid being shot while giving a bit of time between blasts to allow them to decide which maneuver to use for the next turret.
The problem was that, by this point, Raven wasn't sure if she could do that- the spinning blades had taxed her already tired muscles greatly, and the cuts she'd received had only weakened her further. She considered taking some time to rest and heal herself, but remembered Slade's stopwatch- he'd said that he'd be using her performance here to construct her training program. If she was going to be ready to rescue her friends, she needed to train hard. If she rested now, the program would wind up being easier than it should be, so she decided to press on. Fortunately, Slade had not said anything about not using her powers…
With a thought, Raven encased herself in a black glowing forcefield and dashed through the gauntlet. Laser blasts splashed harmlessly against her psychic shield, eliciting no more than a mild twinge with each impact- apparently, Slade had set the lasers to a very low level, so as not to risk her health. Once she was through that, there followed a section of swinging pendulums. Each blade moved at a slightly different speed, so Raven had to move carefully- dashing through one, then pausing until it was safe to proceed. Start-and-stop running being more wearing than a straight dash, Raven was gasping for breath by the time she reached the last obstacle- the flame jets.
There were four jets of flame, roaring out of either side of the track. Two were set at shoulder height, the other two at just below waist height. Raven had to stop for a moment to figure out how to get by, her mind fogged with fatigue. It came to her at last that she was meant to dive between the flames- indeed, there was even enough space for her to take a running start. Once again, she considered whether she could manage it at this point and was forced to conclude that no, she could not. Her body was too tired to manage a leap that precise, and her mind wasn't up to making the calculations necessary. Furthermore, she realized she wasn't sure she could manage to shield herself from the fire- unlike the laser cannons, they would be hot enough to kill and her mental focus wasn't what it should have been at the moment. That left her with one option, but it was technically cheating. She took a deep breath, summoned her soul-self…
…and teleported to the other side of the barrier. She sank to her knees and drew in a deep, shuddering breath. Slade, who had walked around the course to meet her on the other side, clicked his stop watch and shook his head in disapproval.
"Far too long." He said, and now his voice sounded more like the Slade she knew: Cold, superior, and emotionless. "Furthermore, you failed the test entirely."
"W-What?" Raven gasped, shocked. "How can I have failed? I reached the other side, so by definition I passed the course. My time may have been too long…"
"That was not the point." Slade interrupted her. He turned to Beastboy who was jogging around the room. "Garfield, I want you to go through the course. Make it to the other side as quickly as possible- show Raven how it's done."
"Gotcha!" the changeling called, and raced over to the start of the obstacle course. Once there, he called back to them "All right, here I go!"
No sooner were the words out of his mouth then the green boy changed into a green eagle. Taking wing, he flew swiftly over all the obstacles before landing in front of Raven and changing back. With a cheeky grin, he leaned forward. "What? No kiss for the winner?"
Raven rolled her eyes and gently pushed him back. "But he didn't run the course or face the obstacles…" Suddenly, she facepalmed. "…And it just occurred to me that you never said I needed to do that either. Just to get to the other side as fast as possible."
Slade nodded. "That's exactly right. Raven, this was never about testing your physical abilities- even if you are well enough to run the course, I don't believe for a minute that you've healed enough to give you best performance. More than that, you aren't a physical fighter, but rely on your powers in battle AS YOU SHOULD. This was about seeing how MENTALLY quick you are; more specifically, how good you are at unconventional thinking. In that light, your result can't be anything other than a failure- you took my instructions literally, and the test, at face value without considering any other interpretations."
"I see" Raven sighed. "Well, I suppose that will teach me to think more carefully."
"Dudes, as much as I love hearing Raven admit she didn't think something through" Beastboy interjected with a wink to the dark girl "I'm starvin'. Whattaya say we continue this over supper? I'll do my training later tonight."
"A fine idea" Slade agreed "Let's shower off, change clothes, and meet in the dining room in ten minutes?"
The meal was a simple one- pasta with cream sauce, salad and bread. As they ate, Slade and Beastboy engaged in what seemed to be a long-running debate on which part of Africa was best for safari. Slade maintained that the savannah regions were the ideal place to truly experience the wildlife of the continent, and to get a picture of the rich cultures that dwelt there. Beastboy's opinion was that the rainforest, with its lush flora and fauna, provided a richer experience.
"I'm sorry Garfield, there's simply no comparison" Slade said, gesturing with his fork. "The sunrise over the grasslands is, without a doubt, the most beautiful sight to be seen in Africa. The huge orb of the sun rising from the endless horizon, turning everything the eye can see a beautiful reddish-gold…"
"I'll agree that that's beautiful" Beastboy countered. "But, c'mon, dude! Morning in the jungle- the air is full of the scent of flowers and growth, brightly colored birds and bugs darting this way and that, the air is warm but not yet muggy. The diurnal animals are just waking up, while the nocturnal ones are bedding down… it's perfect! Plus, how can all that plant-life not… grow on you?"
At that last remark, he'd turned to grin at Raven. He expected her to roll her eyes at the pun, or make some crack about his 'sense of so-called humor'. Instead she smiled widely and chuckled. Beastboy felt his jaw drop, but quickly pulled himself together. There was something wrong here… "Hey, Raven?" He said "What did one snowman say to the other? Hey do you smell carrots?"
The empath snickered and grinned even wider. Beastboy leaned back in his chair, puzzled by this. After a few moments of silence, Slade spoke again.
"Well, Raven, I see that you found the clothing Garfield and I had made for you?" He said, pausig to take a last bite of salad. "My apologies if it isn't quite so good as your usual outfits, but we had to make do with normal materials. We also had to guess at your sizes, a process your boyfriend found extremely embarrassing."
"Yeah, the clothes are fine, if a little scratchy. My normal clothing is made from Azerathian silk" Raven said, reluctantly dragging her gaze away from the contemplative changeling. "I have some more back at the Tower, with the rest of my things. Which reminds me there are some items in my room that I really do need…"
"Say no more." The older man interrupted, putting up one hand. Putting his cutlery aside next to his empty plate, he rose from the table. "Garfield already told me about your requirements. You won't be without your things for long, I assure you. For now, why don't you and Garfield get reacquainted? I'm going to resume my own training."
When Slade left, Raven turned back to Beastboy, whose face showed extreme concentration. That gave Raven pause; normally, the changeling only got that expression when things were really dangerous- or when trying to do long division. Reaching out, she gently tapped him on one shoulder to get his attention, intending to ask him what was wrong. However, before she could speak, Beastboy beat her to it.
"Raven, why did you pretend to laugh at my jokes?" He said quietly and without looking at her.
"What?" the empath sputtered. "I didn't! I thought you were being funny, for once!"
"Raven, c'mon- those jokes were super-lame. I've told you dozens of WAY better gags than those, without so much as a smile from you." Beastboy retorted. "Plus, I know when you think stuff's funny. Even if you don't laugh or smile, your eyes get this cute kinda twinkle in them and your mouth twitches- like you're forcing yourself not to smile. None of that happened just now, so I know you didn't really think it was funny. So why did you fake it?"
Raven considered lying- she wasn't proud of it, but it occurred to her that it might make her boyfriend happier. But she decided against that- Beastboy might not be educated, but he wasn't stupid either and sooner or later he'd find out the truth. She sighed before mumbling "I wanted to be a better girlfriend for you."
"Uh…." Beastboy was slack-jawed at that. "Say what, Rae?"
"I'm serious." Raven said, her face reddening. "I had a lot of time to think while you were… while you were away. I thought back on all the times you tried to make me smile, to make me laugh, and all you ever got was insults and sarcasm. I never told you how much it meant to me that your kept trying, even when your jokes were awful. So I decided that I would be better- that I would show you how much you mean to me, and not insult you anymore."
"Rae, Rae, Rae…" Beastboy said, shaking his head and scooting his chair over to her side. "I wanted to make you smile because I wanted you to be happy- fake smiles and fake laughs don't cut it. The insults and sarcasm? That's part of who we are- it's our thing!"
"Our…thing?" Raven repeated uncertainly.
"Yeah! Starfire and Robin have that whole lovey-dovey, smoochy-woochy, mwah-mwah-mwah thing going on, and we got our thing! I tell you dumb jokes and you make fun of me for it!"
"And you're…okay with that?" The empath said, unsure she believed this was happening. The green boy was describing what seemed like an abusive relationship (at least to her) but he seemed totally thrilled with it.
"Of course I am! I mean, it's not like you mean any of the stuff you call me right?" Beastboy said "They're just your way of joking around, and they're really funny sometimes. I like puns, you like insult humor and we share what we like. What's wrong with that?"
"Huh. I… I honestly never thought about it like that." Raven said, scratching her chin in thought. "So, you want me to mock you?"
"Just so long as you don't do it around strangers who might take it serious, I'll take real snark over fake smiles any day of the week" Beastboy confirmed.
"Deal." Raven said, a small-but-genuine smile on her face.
A little pause, a little character time. Soon the action will begin again.
Also I finally saw Titans Go! It's different, but not bad. I like the humor (and the BB-Rae stuff).