"Team, report for training," Batman's monotone voice unexpectedly droned of the speakers of Mt. Justice.
Without question, the members of Young Justice migrated to the training room from their various locations: M'gann from the kitchen, Wally from the pantry, Superboy from the hangar, etc. Predictably, the same question crossed their minds as they gathered: "Why is Batman supervising training?"
That was Black Canary's job. Should they be afraid that Batman was taking this responsibility upon himself?
A minute later, the team had gathered, nervously shifting their feet as they eyed the Dark Knight dubiously. The only one missing was Robin. Had something happened in Gotham?
The Batman simply stared them down for a full minute. Kaldur felt like he was withering under the Bat's scrutiny; Wally thought he might pee his pants (errr… tights); Artemis was under the impression something horrible had transpired.
"Black Canary…" Batman began.
"Oh please tell us she's alright!" M'gann interrupted hysterically, "Is she in the hospital? Is she dead?" the Martian suddenly realized that she had interrupted the very dangerous man who was now glaring at her. "Sorry…" she squeaked out.
Batman continued, "Black Canary had an unexpected, personal engagement, and has asked me to arrange a training session for you. At this point the team has been together for five months. I believe it was time that all the members undergo an evaluation of their skills. Each individual will be tested to see how far they have come and what they can improve."
"Will you be the one testing us Batman?" Kaldur asked, forcing his voice to remain calm.
"No," Batman said without emotion, "He will."
The Dark Knight stepped to the side, his cape swishing around his feet as he did. Robin had seemingly materialized behind the bat; he certainly hadn't been there earlier. The youngest member of YJ smirked at the rest of the team, abstaining from his creepy cackle (for now).
"Why Robin?" Superboy bit out, glaring at the Dynamic Duo. Apparently he wasn't happy about dueling a non-meta human to prove he wasn't yet at his full potential.
"Because," Batman growled, "Robin is this team's analyst and strategist. It is part of his training to know the strengths and weaknesses of each of you. He has also been on this team the longest and therefore had the chance to observe you the most. He is the best person to do the evaluation; even better than me in some respects."
Kaldur saw the sense in this, "Understo-"
"You really think Rob can take us down?" Kid Flash rudely cut off Kaldur's affirmation. The young, hot-headed speedster was excited by the prospect of challenging his best friend. Wally was attempting to start an immature staring contest with the acrobat. Robin remained professional, calmly standing beside his mentor as he waited for the exercise to begin.
"Robin will duel each of you in one-on-one combat. Whatever the result, you will listen to his advice. If there are no further questions, I will leave you now."
Batman turned and strode to the Zeta Transporter without even waiting for 'further questions.'
The silence remained unbroken save for the computerized voice announcing "recognize Batman 02" echoing throughout the cavern.
"What's his problem?" Artemis grouched.
"He's… busy," Robin mumbled, casting a glance at the transporter before turning to face the team. "We might as well get started."
"Nervous?" Wally teased, speeding up to the Boy Wonder and poking him on the shoulder repeatedly.
"You wish, Kid Mouth." Robin coolly shot back.
"Okay then," Kid Flash grinned mischievously, "Me first."
"Don't forget," Robin warned wisely, "Pride comes before a fall."
"Whatever." Wally rolled his eyes at the younger teen.
The rest of the team cleared the floor as the computer booted up, lighting the circle on the floor. Within the boundary for the ring white light cast ominous shadows upon the faces of the competitors. The observers were transfixed as the speedster and the ninja assumed ready stances for a fight. Who would be victorious? The powerful or the 'powerless.'
"Begin." The word was barely out of Robin's mouth before KF was speeding around the ring, moving so fast he was nearly impossible to track with the naked eye. Only a few seconds later he deviated towards Robin, attempting to throw a punch in his face. The boy wonder moved at the last moment, fluidly ducking under the attack and spinning to kick the speedster in the back. Wally stumbled, spurred on by the extra, unexpected momentum but was able to regain his balance and continue. Again, he angled back towards the acrobat, this time aiming for a fist in the gut. Robin blocked the swing with one forearm and grabbed KF's wrist with his other hand, using the speedster's momentum to spin him in a half circle and send him reeling in another direction. Wally was just barely able to turn his tumble into a summersault and jump back to his feet, glaring at the shorter teenager for humiliating him. Robin merely smirked in return.
"Really, Kid Clumsy," the bird mocked, "You'll never be able to take me down if you can't stay on your feet!"
Wally growled at his best friend. Without a second's delay he flashed towards Robin one last time, resorting to an all-out tackle. In the blink of an eye, Robin side-stepped Kid Flash's onslaught and casually stuck his foot out.
In one glorious flop, KF landed on the floor with a resounding smack. Robin's victory was reinforced by the computer's emotionless announcement: "Kid Flash. Status: Fail."
"And the first shall be last," Robin stated, offering his hand to the defeated speedster with a satisfied smile. Wally finally smiled back at Robin as he got to his feet again.
"Dude," he said excitedly, "That was so awesome. You gotta teach me how you did that. But… what's with the biblical innuendos?"
Rob shrugged nonchalantly, "Don't know. Just feeling the 'Wisdom of Solomon' today I guess. Anyway, about the fight:
"Number one: don't let your frustration get the best of you. You're smart Wally, think before you act. Use a little bit of rationality. Plan your offense instead of just doing whatever occurs to you. Number two: you need to work on your hand-to-hand combat. With your super speed, overcoming most trained martial artists should be an easy task."
"What about you? You just creamed me, no sweat!"
"I'm not most martial artists," Robin reminded him with a grin.
"So does this mean you'll help me with my 'karate' skills?" Wally was practically bouncing on his toes with childish excitement.
"Sure KF," if Robin's eyes had been visible the team would have seen him roll them, "I'll help you with your 'karate' skills."
He turned to the team, "Who would like to go next?"
"I would," Robin was surprised to hear M'gann pipe up. She wasn't usually over-eager about these kinds of things.
She smiled sheepishly, "I'd just like to get it over with."
"Okay." the Boy Wonder shrugged as the new pair took their positions at opposite ends of the circle, "Begin."
Unlike the first match, Robin began the fight aggressively. He flung a barrage of bird-a-rangs from each hand before dashing forward for close range combat. M'gann halted the flight of the projectiles with her mind but barely managed to dodge Robin's first strike by floating out of his reach. Realizing he wasn't going to be able to engage her by normal means, Robin backed up to the edge of the ring. Maintaining a constant visual on his opponent the boy took a preparatory breath for his next move. With a sudden burst of speed, the bird made a running start into a round off, followed by a back handspring, then into a back flip with enough height to become a kick aimed at Miss. Martian's head. Panicked at Robin's suddenly threatening altitude, M'gann impulsively suspended the boy in midair with her telekinesis. Without even hesitating, the Boy Wonder spun an explosive disk at the Martian. The disk beeped once before its pre-programmed pyrotechnics blossomed into a cloud of raging orange fire.
M'gann cried out in fear, dropping Robin in her lapse of focus, before camouflaging herself to hide as far away as possible. Distracted by the light and noise of the bomb, no one noticed Robin again until he was standing over the fallen Martian girl.
"What happened?" Superboy asked, completely confused by the sudden ceasefire.
"I was expecting M'gann to drop me after I scared her," the dark-haired teenager explained as he knelt beside his comrade, "With that in mind, I was able to land on my feet and use the smoke from the explosion to locate Martian camo. Even though she was 'invisible,' the smoke parted around her, and gave away her position. M'gann had her back to me so it was simple to unstimulate a pressure point before she even knew what hit her."
Robin's explanation accompanied his checking of Miss Martian's vitals. He briefly massaged a nerve on her neck and helped her to sit up. The poor girl blinked in shock as she slowly regained her senses.
"Are you all right?" the youngest member of the team asked a bit uncertainly, concern briefly flitted across his face.
"Yeah," M'gann answered, slightly shaky, "What did I do wrong?"
Robin smiled, "You didn't do anything wrong, per se, you just did things you can improve. Try not to overreact when you are surprised. Use the height you achieve by flying to remain constantly aware of the condition of the fight. And don't forget that cloaking is not equivalent to complete invisibility. Otherwise, good job."
"Thanks…" she said, somewhat hesitantly as Superboy helped her stand and walk to her place on the sidelines.
Before the boy could ask for another challenger Kaldur stepped forward, "I wish to fight you next, Robin."
The Dark Knight's protégé said nothing as he watched Aqualad calmly take a ready stance and he assumed his own.
"Begin." The single word was uttered without emotion.
No activity resulted from the command. The two boys merely circled each other, observing and waiting patiently for the first move. The team looked on with interest. Robin was the only one who could challenge Aqualad's authority as team leader; since Santa Prisca it had been accepted that Kaldur was only the temporary leader. Robin was free to offer his input or bend the plan if he felt the situation required it during missions. Robin had even led a few missions himself. Would this turn out to be some sort of alpha male duel?
Two minutes passed before the two engaged simultaneously, beginning with basic martial arts that increased in ferocity. The rest of the team watched in awe as Robin and Aqualad moved in synch, neither of them landing a blow as they switched to eskrima sticks versus water-bearers. The only miniscule difference seemed to be that while Kaldur focused on strong, offensive swings, Robin used lithe movements to dodge and return very few of his own light punches. As the time passed, the Atlantean's unfruitful efforts forced him speed up his tempo. Sweat began to run down his face as the battle dragged on. Noticing that the Boy Wonder was barely breathing hard only served to further incite the older teenager as he pushed himself harder. The duel came to an abrupt end when Kaldur's footwork became sloppy due to his exhaustion; he overstepped a maneuver and Robin immediately exploited it. The younger dropped down on his hands to swing his legs around and sweep Kaldur's feet out from under him.
"Aqualad. Status: fail."
"That was a good fight, Robin," Kaldur conceded as he caught his breath, "Do you have any advice for me?"
Robin held out a hand for the Atlanean.
"Condition your endurance. Don't allow your aquatic abilities to be a drawback for you on land. Secondly, be willing to change your strategy. It would have been more effective to engage me differently when you realized that your attacks were unsuccessful."
Aqualad nodded humbly, "Valuable advice Robin. I shall take this into consideration in my training. You are very astute."
"Thanks Kaldur," Robin said with a small smile.
Aqualad had barely moved out of the circle when the Boy Wonder suddenly called out, "Artemis! You're next."
Puzzled by the order and suspicious of Robin's motives for calling her out, the blonde archer moved into the ring. She kept her eyes fixed on the smaller teen, wondering what his tactic would be. By watching the others she had seen that Robin exploited each member's weakness. She knew very well that her forte was long-range weaponry; Robin would undoubtedly focus on close-range, physical combat. She would be ready.
"Begin," the bird said with a knowing smirk that sent chills down Artemis's spine.
As predicted, Robin jumped directly into a hand-to-hand fight; Artemis didn't even bother to draw her bow, instead focusing on her knowledge of martial arts, courtesy of daddy dearest. Robin offered her a wide grin as Artemis was forced to take the defensive. His moves were precise and quick, Artemis could tell that his skills were on par with the more dangerous members of her family. Yet the boy seemed to be teasing her, not taking every opening or bothering to finish her off (which, no doubt, he could). The duel continued, but everyone could see it was a one-sided battle; Robin was toying with her.
"What are you waiting for?" She finally growled in frustration.
Robin ducked out of sight and less than a second later she felt cold steel press into her wrists. A pair of handcuffs clicked into place, stunning the room into silence.
Artemis regained her snark about five seconds later. She spun around to glare at the bird, snarling, "What was that for?"
She was practically simmering with anger, but trepidation wormed its way into her thoughts. It was just a coincidence; he didn't know; he couldn't know about her. He wouldn't trust her if he knew her secret. No one would.
Hands shackled behind her back, she felt vulnerable and weak as Robin ignored her question and began his commentary:
"Congratulations Artemis," his complement felt empty to Artemis, "You did an excellent job anticipating my strategy. You acknowledge your weakness, that's good. Devote yourself to improving. Never be indecisive; do your part; and trust your teammates to do theirs."
Silence pervaded the cave as Robin's combat boots padded across the lighted floor to stand behind the blonde archer. Discreetly, as he unlocked the cuffs his quiet voice reached her ears: "We're family, regardless…"
With that, he was gone. Feeling numb Artemis walked out of the ring, trying to rally her shattered confidence. What did Robin know?
"Superboy, you're the only one left." The youngest team member elected their resident Kryptonian. Last but not least.
The Boy of Steel was thinking along the same lines as the rest of the team as he observed the lean acrobat doubtfully: Conner was indestructible, how was a midget like Robin going to take him down?
"Don't underestimate me," Robin said, reading the look on his face, "Begin."
Slowly, but with building speed, Superboy advanced on the bird, employing the techniques Black Canary had been teaching him. He knew combat was one of Robin's strengths; this way, the boy would be less likely to get injured in the sparring match.
Except, Robin didn't react like Conner had originally planned he would. The bird didn't even bother to engage.
Instead, he fell into a backbend to avoid the first punch; only Kaldur noticed him stick something to the floor before he sprung to the side off his hands. Superboy continued after the black-haired boy, but the rest of the fight followed the same pattern as the first exchange: Superboy would attack, only to be effortlessly evaded by Robin. The team watched an amazing display of acrobatic maneuvers, almost as if the Boy Wonder wasn't in a fight, but a performance. Conner never even came close as Robin literally went in circles around him. The team was unsure what the strategist was planning; were his movements random or by design?
So far, Superboy had done a pretty good job of keeping his cool, but when Robin back-flipped out of his range again with a cackle, he understandably lost it. With a roar of rage, the boy of steel barreled across the sparring circle. Robin smirked, as if he had been expecting this; right when Superboy crossed the center of the ring the bird tugged the wire he had been trailing. The titanium thread wrapped around Conner's ankles, his momentum causing him to pitch forward, falling face-first on the ground. Less than a second later, Robin handspringed onto the clone's back where he crouched victoriously.
"I win," Robin said smugly.
"No you didn't," Connor defended himself, "You only knocked me down, "In two seconds I could get loose and be back in the fight."
"Not so," the bird corrected, "I have a means to take you out, and I only need one second to use it. You may be indestructible, but you are not invulnerable." He got up off of Superboy's back and continued:
"You are definitely improving under Black Canary's tutelage, though, I'll give you that. But you need to remember to employ your other powers in a fight. If I had used a smoke bomb, that would have prompted you to use your supervision and superhearing and you would have noticed the wire, but since I did not, you didn't bother. Be creative with the powers you have and you won't need to be as powerful as Superman to fight smart. Also, don't let your fight take you places you don't want to go; a battle can be used as a lure; don't fall into a trap."
Superboy snapped the bonds around his ankles and angrily rose to his feet.
"So what!" he demanded, "Do you just sit around all day thinking of ways to take each of us down? You pry into all of our secrets just find out how to beat us?"
Robin frowned at the accusations, but remained calm.
"I am prepared to face whatever situation might befall this team. That includes the possibility that one of you may turn oppose us against your will. It is not unwise to be ready for anything. Even you all should have at least an idea of how to take me out if the circumstance called for it."
Superboy laughed humorlessly then sneered, "You think that the rest of us versus you wouldn't be enough?"
"Don't be so sure," Robin said, his eyes narrowing, "Regardless, we are a team, and as a team we should understand each other's strengths and weaknesses. It will make us better. The fewer secrets we have between us, the more meshed and fine-tuned we will be."
The team was stunned silent; they had never heard their youngest member talk so candidly nor so seriously, when not on a mission. Nobody knew what to say.
"You're right though, Superboy," Robin conceded, suddenly smirking devilishly once more, "It is unbalanced: because I know everyone's secrets."
With one last laugh echoing throughout the cave the bird disappeared, leaving his stunned team still staring at the spot where he had last stood.
The team had been spending the weekend at the cave again; there had been no missions, though they were technically 'on call' for duty. Artemis knew it was late at night (or early morning), but she had been unable to sleep: something that happened when she was pondering too much. She quietly opened the door of her honorary, Mt. Justice bedroom; thinking that some time sitting up and a hot drink would help her sleep she crept down the corridors to the kitchen.
She hadn't quite made it when her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she noticed a blue glow issuing from her destination. As stealthy as possible, she made her way down the wall and peeked around the corner.
Robin was sitting at a high stool behind the counter, typing away on one of his many laptops. His back was to her, but all the same he called out: "Hey Artemis."
She dropped the pretense of sneaking and walked up to lean on the counter space next to the Boy Wonder.
"What are you doing up?" she asked. She glanced at the computer screen, but didn't even bother to read it after noticing the impossibly small print of police reports, underworld intel, and computer codes.
"Bat insomnia," the bird said with a half-grimace, half-smile. "Couldn't sleep if I wanted to. This is still daytime to me."
Artemis glanced at the digital clock on the kitchen stove: 3:30 AM. Sheesh, when did this kid's 'day' get over? Robin looked pale and washed-out in the weak illumination of his laptop. She couldn't read his face well enough to see if he was tired; that and he was still wearing his mask and uniform.
"Want some hot chocolate?" she offered as Robin continued to type away at the keyboard.
"That sounds great!" the younger teen answered enthusiastically.
She turned on the lights and busied herself with the task of making hot chocolate for a few minutes: heating the water, mixing the powder, and adding the marshmallows. Robin didn't say anything as he continued to work, but when she set a mug down in front of him he actually closed the computer and accepted the steaming drink. Artemis sat on the stool beside him which suddenly reminded her of their last training session.
"So what's bothering you?" the boy asked, his attention fixed on the blonde archer.
"What?" Artemis was momentarily caught off guard by the question.
A smile tugged at the side of Robin's mouth; "You're up in the middle of the night. Something is bothering you. So what is it?"
"The fact that you're a know-it-all, that's what." Artemis's reply was slightly on the more hurtful side of teasing, especially since he was just trying to be nice.
Robin grinned, "True, but I'm just trying to care."
Artemis knew that so she answered, albeit indirectly, "I was thinking and I couldn't fall asleep, so I got up to have hot coco with a nocturnal bird."
Artemis tried to scowl at him, but his dorky grin disengaged her attack. She found herself smiling as well.
"What were you doing?" she asked, gesturing at the computer and steering the topic away from her personal life.
"Hm…" Robin said through a sip of his drink, "Oh, just some research. I'm looking for any kind of link between recent criminal activities, Batman always has me working on at least one Gotham crime case, and I have a pet project of my own. I keep busy enough."
His mention of Gotham crime made Artemis uncomfortable again. Had his way of ending their fight in the training session been intentional or accidental? She had to know, and this late night had made her tired enough to drop her guard.
"How much do you know?" Robin seemed to catch the true meaning of her question.
"Everything," was his ambiguous answer.
Robin met her eyes; the masked and the unmasked.
He was the first to look away, "I'm a hypocrite," he said quietly.
Now she was interested, Robin never talked about himself (so it was true that boys were more talkative at night).
"What do you mean by that?" she asked, taking a drink of her hot chocolate while she waited for him to answer.
Robin looked thoughtful for a while before he responded, "What Superboy said today (excuse me, yesterday), it made me think. I told everyone they needed to come clean about their secrets, that it would strengthen the team. And it will. But I can't. It's not really fair that I know everyone else's secrets, yet no one can know mine."
Artemis wasn't sure what to say. It did sound hypocritical, but then again, it was Batman who was enforcing that secret, not Robin. The teenager made it sound like he would tell if he could. That alone made him seen more genuine and trustworthy.
"Sometimes it makes me feel really alone," he mumbled, looking intently at his drink.
Inspiration hit Artemis like an epiphany. She lightly put a hand on her shoulder so the younger boy would look at her.
"Despite what Superboy said, Robin, the team trusts you, completely. We know you wouldn't use the information you have to hurt us. You are who you are to us; we accept you for who you are. You support our team and its mission with your skills, and that includes intel. Besides, no one could fake being as happy and cheerful as you are all the time."
Granted, that speech was totally unlike her, but the smile it elicited was totally worth it. It just didn't seem right that Robin was sad. The world would be a darker place without a grinning bird.
"Thanks Artemis," Robin said gratefully. He had finished his hot chocolate and now got up to put it in the sink. He grabbed his laptop off the counter on his way out, "Sleep well,"
"You going to bed?" she called out.
"Down to the practice room," his answer faded away.
Artemis rolled her eyes as she finished her drink, amazed at how Robin could be so constantly energetic. Now that all her dark thoughts had been pushed to the side by the team's most cheerful member, she felt she could sleep. Trust was something she struggled with, but she felt like she had found a family that she could finally be willing to trust.