The throbbing black haze gave way to a single light bulb swinging overhead.
Rose groaned and leaned forward, letting her chin drop to her chest. There wasn't a square inch of her that didn't hurt. But when she tried to rub her face, her hands refused to move. She felt something cold clamped around her wrists and heard a metallic clank coming from the chair beneath her.
Sifting through the pain in her head, Rose tried to remember exactly what she had been doing before she blacked out. She had been looking for her father. Or at least, she thought she had. Vague memories of a sporting goods store, rope and pitons, climbing chalk, electric lanterns, and other equipment flashed in her head. She remembered the what of it all, but had trouble focusing on the why of it all.
The smell of cleanser filled her nose. As her vision adjusted to the light, she saw shelves packed with spray bottles and buckets lining the tight walls around her. An old mop stood guard over her in the corner next to the door, its spongy head watching her dispassionately.
She craned her neck, examining the door. "Um, hello? Where the hell am I?" she called. The sound of her own voice sent spikes of pain into her temples. Wincing, she added, "If this is some kind of sex thing, you're way off base on my kink."
The door clattered open, slamming her with a wall of blinding light. She hissed and squinted at the black shape that filled the doorway.
"You're probably wondering why we brought you here," the silhouette said.
She groaned. "Are you kidding me with that line? You sound like a B-movie." She gagged on her next breath, and then added, "What the hell smells like cheap cologne and wet dog?"
As the figure crossed his arms, Rose adjusted again to the light. She watched Beast Boy's angry expression take shape as his outline became clear. "How about you answer a few questions for me first," he said, his tone clearly informing Rose that he wasn't making a request.
Rose laughed, and instantly regretted it as another spike of pain shot through her skull. "I'm not answering dick until I get a bottle of aspirin and some beer to wash it down," she said. She glanced back down at the handcuffs holding her to the folding metal chair. "Why did you Titan pukes kidnap me anyway?"
"I'm asking the questions here!" Beast Boy snapped. "And we didn't kidnap you…exactly. We're detaining you in this holding cell until you—"
"Will you puh-lease cut the tough guy routine?" Rose said, and winced at the noise. "I think it's literally killing me. Christ, I need a smoke. Do me a favor and check my pock…"
When Rose looked down to the jacket pocket where her cigarettes lived, she found instead a harness of strange black armor strapped to her chest. As she shifted, she felt ceramic plates in her leggings and saw steel-toed combat boots on her feet.
"What the hell?" she exclaimed. "Did…did you little shitheads dress me up like Grant while I was unconscious? I swear to God, this better not be some kind of weird rape kink, or I will—"
"Shut up!" Beast Boy shouted, silencing her with the headache that followed the volume of his voice. "No one here is going to rape you. God!"
"Ow! Balls!" Rose groaned, twisting her head to one side. "Okay, already. But if you walk around in spandex all day and tie women to chairs, don't get snippy when someone gets the wrong idea."
"Now who do you work for? What did you do with Robin?" demanded Beast Boy.
Waves of platinum hair rippled behind her as she shook the pained haze from her head. "Robin?" she echoed.
He braced himself against the doorframe and leaned in, putting his face inches from hers. "Robin," he said again. "Skinny guy with the mask and the kung fu grip. Where. Is. He."
Rose gritted her teeth, summoning a rush of adrenal defiance. "Go play in traffic, dog boy. I don't know shit about your little friend, and even if I did, I wouldn't tell you. I wake up who-knows-where, wearing some dead asshole's clothes, locked to a chair, feeling like shit, and you want to play Twenty Questions? How about I tell you to eat my ass twenty times? Because we're done here. Now let me go already!"
He watched her with all of his senses. She stank of sweat, blood, and grime. Her eye never wavered. Her heartbeat was fast but steady. Beast Boy's eyes narrowed as he realized that she was telling the truth, or at least whatever truth she knew.
More calmly this time, he asked, "What do you remember?"
"About what? What happened before I woke up in the Buffalo Bill Hotel?" As Rose tried to remember, her whole head came ablaze with terrible pain. She winced, clutching her eyes shut against the agony. As she did, she felt a soft patch of fabric pressing at her left cheek and brow.
She froze. Staying perfectly still, Rose looked around the tiny room with her eyes. The pounding headache had kept her from realizing that she couldn't see nearly as much of it as she should have. As her eyes crossed, she only saw one side of her nose. Her left eye was completely dark.
And then she remembered.
"Son of a bitch…" she whispered.
Beast Boy perked. "What?"
It was Beast Boy's turn to wince as Rose exploded, "SON OF A BITCH!" She threw herself against her restraints so hard that she nearly toppled her chair. Her hair cascaded in silver waves, filling the air above her. Thrashing and howling, she sobbed, "Slade!" over and over.
Beast Boy lunged forward, grabbing her shoulders. Only his leverage, and the fact that he was nearly half a foot taller than her, allowed him to push all four legs of her chair back onto the floor. Even then, he couldn't believe how strong she was. "Whoa, whoa!" he cried. "What do you remember?"
"Slade!" she howled. Tears glistened on her cheeks, coming from her remaining eye and from underneath the black eye patch. "I can't believe he…he took my eye! He took my freaking eye! I spent so long looking for him. I found him, and he…with a syringe, and…and he…"
Ice trickled through Beast Boy's veins as her voice crumbled. He hadn't thought of Slade Wilson in a long time, and was in no hurry to start again. That dangerous psychopath had met his end in his own invasion courtesy of Red Robin. The Titan's super-powered alter-ego had finished Slade personally and left him to die underground.
Except they had never found the body.
"It's not possible. Slade's dead," Beast Boy said. He wasn't sure if he was trying to reassure her or himself.
Her sobs had collapsed into panting breaths that hissed between her teeth. "He's gonna be," Rose promised him in a quavering voice. "That asshole took my eye, and I'm gonna repay the favor."
The look of absolute hatred on her face made Beast Boy's stomach churn. Still holding her by the shoulders, he said, "Let's focus on Robin. Do you remember attacking him?"
"I…no." She shut her eye. "…yes. There was a fire. Then we were in an alley. The bitch in the tin can sucker-punched me. Then…"
"Did you see what happened to him? Do you know where they would have taken him?" he asked.
She shook her head and groaned. "No. It's all just a blur. Now let me out of here."
Beast Boy hesitated. He still couldn't smell the cocktail of sweat and adrenaline he had come to associate with lies. She was scared, maybe, and definitely furious, but not lying.
Then again, she hadn't remembered being captured until a few moments ago. With time, she could remember something that might lead them to Robin. She was the only lead they had left.
He backed out of the doorway. "You're not going anywhere until we find Robin. So if I were you, I'd focus on remembering where he might be. Until then, you can stay in this holding cell."
Her eye lit with fury. "Are you joking? You're going to leave me in a broom closet?" she demanded.
"Yes! And it's inescapable," Beast Boy snapped as he slammed the door. "So don't even try!" he added loudly.
Her muffled shouting followed him down the corridor. "When I get out of here, I'm gonna make you turn into a chicken! Then I'm gonna make you into a pig! And then I'm gonna have green eggs and ham, you son of a bitch! Let me go!"
When he reached Ops' doors, he stopped for a moment. His forehead rested against the wall as he sighed. The cold metal leached the heat out of his face, numbing the frustration still clenched in his features.
With another deep breath, he pushed the leaves of the door aside, and saw Tek waiting for him. She nearly tackled him as he entered Ops.
"Well? What did she say? What happened to Robin?" asked Tek.
"She doesn't know," Beast Boy said. "Her memory is swiss cheese right now. Maybe with a little more time, she'll remember something else."
The bags under Tek's eyes deepened as she rubbed her face. "Are you kidding me? We've kept her strapped to a bed or a chair for over a day now waiting for her to detox on whatever whack-a-doo junk she was on, and she doesn't know anything?"
Tek groaned, and then stopped. "Wait. You said 'else.' Does she remember anything?"
Beast Boy hesitated, and then admitted, "She said some crazy stuff about finding Slade. She thinks he was the one that gave her the new pirate chic look she's sporting."
The color drained from Tek's face. "Slade?" she stammered in a small voice. "You don't seriously think she's telling the truth, do you? He's dead."
After a moment's pause, Beast Boy said, "Until Señor Cyclops shows up and starts kicking my perfect green ass all over the map, I say we don't take the word of the junkie villain locked in our broom closet." He ran a hand through his hair. A breath whistled out his nose. Then he said, "So what do we do now?"
"You're asking me?" Tek blurted. "I ran out of ideas the fifth time I called the police. Lieutenant Smith won't answer my calls, and the precinct's main line told me to stop calling. Can't you go all bloodhound and sniff him out?"
Beast Boy grimaced at the winter rain blanketing the city. Ops' windows were one expansive landscape of gray, drab misery. "This weather washes out any scent in seconds. I couldn't track someone further than fifty yards if I'm lucky. I could maybe hear him if the rest of the city was nice enough to stay dead quiet for about an hour…"
She bit her lip. Her hand found the communicator hooked to her belt. "We should really call—"
"No," Beast Boy said immediately, jabbing a finger at Tek. He gestured to his own tall, lanky frame, and said, "As someone who's body has completely gone off the reservation before—twice—take my word for it. Vic just needs some time to himself."
"We're not calling him," he told her.
Her fingers tightened around the device's yellow casing. She bit her lip again to keep herself from admitting that she had already tried to call Cyberion four times while he was gone. He hadn't answered, just like all the other calls she had made. It had been two months since Cyberion had last contacted them.
Tek wanted to say that she understood his need for time. She wanted to be understanding while he adapted to his new body. But all she really wanted was to hear Cyberion tell her that everything would be okay. She wanted him to be home again.
Beast Boy's stern expression dropped. "I get it, Allie. I miss him too. But even if he picked up this time, do you really think he could help? Vic could be anywhere in the world right now. We gotta do this one on our own."
Tek pressed her hand to the cold glass, staring out at the city beyond. "So what's the alternative? Do we patrol the city hoping to just randomly find Robin?"
Neither of the two could answer her question. They stood silently, watching the city across the bay. The distant metropolis had never looked so imposingly big.
Bushido cleared his throat behind them. They turned, surprised. Neither of them had heard the swordsman enter. "Is everything all right?" he asked.
"We're about as screwed as we were a few hours ago," Beast Boy said. He frowned, and added, "What the hell are you wearing?"
Bushido looked down at his pristine white silk robes. The material shimmered even in the dreary light. "I…It is not important. Was the interrogation…?"
"No," Beast Boy said flatly. "So ditch the PJs and grab your poncho. We're gonna start searching for Robin ourselves."
Bushido hesitated. His hand drifted near the hilt at his waist. Then he nodded, and said, "Of course. Robin must be our primary concern."
The glass fogged around Tek's hand. The words they had fought to keep from speaking aloud for over a day now burst from her lips. "So what do we do if we can't find him? What happens then?" she asked.
Beast Boy said, "Robin's smarter than all of us put together. If we can't find them, then I bet he'll find us."
Robin crouched in the corner of the hotel rooftop, leaning heavily against the cement lip that circled the edge. The wet rasp of his breath grated against the constant thrum of the rain. His breath left him in steaming clouds, each heave tearing at the stitch in his side.
His cheek pooled against the cold surface, his patchy stubble scraping the mottled cement. He closed his eyes and tried not to think about how long it had been since he had eaten or slept. His legs throbbed. His head pounded.
The dumpster two alleys back had bought him a few minutes of relative peace. An overwhelming stench clung to his body, reminding him of how close a call it had been. Groaning, he pulled a rotting banana peel out of his collar and tossed it aside, trying not to gag.
Sloppy, he chided himself. Batman would never let you hear the end this. No backup communicator, no backup plans, and no escape route. You practically served yourself up to this Immortus clown on a silver platter.
Robin sagged at the memory of his days of being lectured in the Batcave. This fight for justice he had invited himself into had seemed so much simpler when he had been a sidekick. Back then, he would jump and quip and follow orders. There were days—like today—when he missed being under Batman's thumb. Life had been more frustrating, but it had been a great deal easier, too.
The void in his stomach growled at him. He patted his half-empty belt. Bird-themed protein bars, he thought, making a note for future equipment development.
The stairwell door across the rooftop slammed open. Robin managed to roll onto his backside to see Immortus emerging from the open door. The gray-templed man opened an umbrella and stepped out onto the roof.
Three shapes in trench coats and hats followed him. The coats moved with unnerving symmetry to spread across the roof. Their boots tread the tar paper in perfect unison until they had blocked off any possible escape route Robin could take. Then they stopped and stood perfectly still.
"You, young sir," Immortus said, "are quite a tenacious fellow. I've known veteran warriors with twice your experience who would have given up by now."
"So glad I could impress you," Robin wheezed.
Immortus waggled his finger. "I didn't say I was impressed. I've known many men who could have eluded me entirely at this point. The fact that you aren't yet dead is not entirely of your own merit."
Robin rested his head on the concrete rim and laughed. "I'd wondered," he said. "You had the perfect lure in place. You had your fake Ravager lead me into that alley. One decent sniper could have ended it right there."
The implacable man's polished Italian shoes stopped mere yards from where Robin sat. "I wanted to know you," Immortus admitted.
Slowly, Robin climbed the side of the short rim. He managed to seat himself atop the lip. Leaning on his knees, he said, "You've never heard of Facebook?"
"Oh, I've studied everything about you," said Immortus. "Every video. Every report. Every profile. Every secondhand account. But these echoes pale in comparison to the real man. You only truly meet someone when you face him with a drawn sword."
"Wish I could say it was nice to meet you," Robin grunted.
He turned his attention to the statuesque henchmen lining the roof behind Immortus. Their collars were upturned, and they wore scarves across their faces wrapped nearly to the short brims of their hats. But with careful attention, he caught a glimpse of red reflection in the tiny gap of their disguise.
"Nice robots," he added, nodding to the motionless coats.
Immortus smiled. "Perceptible as well. Very good. They were provided to us from a mutual acquaintance, I believe. Doctor Techmann." Gesturing to the coats, Immortus added, "These were among the first of the production models he made for us before you and your colorful gang dealt with him."
Robin felt the rain trace cold lines around his grin. "Rumors of his death have been somewhat exaggerated," he said. "You can try asking him yourself. I understand S.T.A.R. Labs keeps most of him in a fifty-five-gallon drum in their Biohazard Ward in case he ever wakes up."
The corner of Immortus's mouth quirked. "Yes, I recall the incident. You're very pleased with that kill, aren't you?"
As Immortus smiled, Robin's face hardened, losing its false mirth. "I don't kill. Techmann ran out his own battery. But I'm not losing any sleep over him," Robin growled. "And if I had anything to do with taking down that dangerous lunatic, I count it as a win."
Immortus gave him an appreciative nod. "Sadly, it will count as your final costumed success. You're easily in the top fifty young warriors I've ever met. In another ten years you would have been something truly amazing," Immortus said. With a somber expression, he added, "But sadly, our game was always meant to come to this end."
Open air teased Robin's fingertips as he felt around the edge of the building beside him. "Is that so?" he asked idly.
Immortus nodded. "I invented the concept of tactics," he said. "Everything you've learned about the art of war from your pointy-eared mentor originated with me. I know anything and everything you could possibly conceive of, child."
Robin quirked his head, looking the general from his expensive shoes to his salt and pepper hair. "Even if I bought the idea that you're some kind of low-rent Vandal Savage—which I don't, by the way—I can think of at least one thing I know that you don't."
"Oh?" Amusement wrought Immortus's face.
Robin rocked backwards, bracing himself on his hands. His mouth twitched. "This hotel we're on top of? Liep Heights? It's been cited by the city at least four times in the last year alone for the same minor infraction."
Immortus's brows knit in confusion.
"They never remember to take their flags down when it rains."
Tilting backwards, Robin toppled over the edge of the rooftop. The last thing he saw over the lip of the rim was Immortus giving him a bemused smirk while the trench coats behind him leapt forward.
Then the world whirled around Robin. He plummeted among the raindrops, the wind ripping at his face. His empty stomach flipped in free-fall as the street rushed up to catch him. But he blocked out the torrent of sensations and focused on the fluttering California state flag strung over the entrance of the hotel.
As the red and white fabric loomed beneath him, he reached out and snagged its edge. His gloves wrapped into the flag in desperation. He didn't have time to brace himself before his grip yanked against gravity.
Agony exploded up the length of his arms. His teeth crashed together to bite back a scream. The sound of ripping fabric filled his ears, and then he slammed into the gray masonry of the building, and felt a rib give. He bounced and tumbled over the street, watching the dreary cityscape swirl into a beige palette. Then something slammed into his back, and the world went blissfully dark.
When his eyes opened again, he heard a car horn blaring underneath him. It took an unbelievable amount of effort to turn his head so he could see the crushed yellow hood of the taxi cab that had caught him in the street. When he drew a breath, it sent a rush of fire through his chest. His extremities throbbed with a more general ache.
People were beginning to gather around the hood, making Robin think that he hadn't been unconscious for more than a few seconds. The driver of the unfortunate cab climbed out, seeing Robin clearly now that the spider-webbed windshield wasn't in the way. Robin let his head loll back against the hood. He coughed, and instantly regretted it, as the pain nearly made him black out again.
Then, underneath the low, growing din of the murmuring crowd, Robin heard a metallic growl. His blood ran cold at the sound. His heart thundered with a rush of fresh adrenaline. Fighting the pain in every muscle, he struggled to reach his utility belt.
The cabby had started to reach for Robin, but pulled back as the Teen Wonder's hand crawled across his own body. "Hey, Robin, man…you look really messed up. Are you okay?" he asked, not knowing what else to say to a costumed hero planted in his car.
Robin heard the growl sharpen into a snarl.
"Move!" he bellowed, and threw his legs up over his head, rolling out of the cratered taxi hood.
The crowd scrambled back from Robin in a chorus of panicked cries as the metal dog landed where Robin had lain. The dog's jaws buried into the metal and tore away a twisted chunk, which it spat as its narrow optic on the flipping Teen Wonder. Then the dog crouched and leapt, rocking the cab on its shocks in pursuit.
Cars screeched in both directions, their bumpers and hoods narrowly missing Robin as he ran across the street. He skimmed the hood of a hydroplaning coupe that slammed into the pickup truck parked at the traffic light. Specks of glass peppered the back of his neck as the vehicles came together in a clash of rending metal.
As his feet plunged back onto the flooded street, he cradled the last two explosive discs from his utility belt. He looked back to see the robot dog sailing over the crumpled accordion of the coupe's hood. As the dog's claws and teeth careened toward his chest, Robin loosed the discs and caught the dog right below its neck.
Fire and force blossomed above the street, blowing the dog and his quarry in two opposite directions. Robin tried to roll back onto his feet, but his fractured ribs howled in protest. He slammed into the side of a minivan instead, making a clamshell of the flimsy door.
The soccer mom inside the van was screaming at him as Robin staggered to his feet. He braced himself against the van and searched through the dissipating wisps of fire and smoke. He saw the crowd around the cab dispersing, clawing at each other to get away from the distress. The sound of sirens crawled forward at a great distance, trying to fight their way through gridlock to arrive too late to the scene.
When the van accelerated out from under his palm, Robin staggered backward onto the sidewalk, pushing into the second crowd that had gathered to watch the fight from a safer distance. They surged away from them as though he were carrying a plague. He ignored them and collapsed against the nearest wall, his head leaning against his arm as he sucked desperate, greedy breaths.
As the sound of the sirens grew closer, he considered staying and waiting for the police. It went against everything he had ever been taught. But as the edges of his vision began to go dark, he wondered if maybe it wouldn't be worth the risk. Just this once.
Then, amidst the bustle of the street, Robin heard metal paws scraping against pavement.
Sucking in a pained gasp to chase the darkness from his eyes, Robin lurched into the nearest alleyway and began to run.
Bushido's calloused, perfectly groomed fingertips drummed against the hilt of his sword. He closed his eyes against the sheets of rain that hammered him and his green pterodactyl steed. They flew just below the cloud line, where the rain fell sideways in icy blasts. Beast Boy shivered underneath him, but Bushido hardly noticed.
The hilt felt electric in his grasp. In the months following Trigon's destruction, the sword had spoken nary a whisper. Now it sang. It bellowed a name without using words. It sang in a deafening chorus of the last person he ever would have expected.
I could live a thousand years and never begin to understand your scheming, he thought at the hilt.
A flash of red light tore Bushido from his thoughts. He looked up as his pterodactyl mount banked steeply to the left to avoid the path of a flare burning its way into the sky.
Above them, Tek wheeled her arms, her thrusters flaring to stop her in midair. As Beast Boy eased his turn into a wide circle, the armored girl watched the red light arc high until it disappeared into the clouds. She looked down and saw at once where the flare had been launched from. Motioning to Beast Boy, who cawed in reply, Tek began to descend.
Red and blue lights glowed against the squat office buildings on either side of the street. The squad car parked at the curb slowed traffic in either direction with rubbernecks. When the Titans flew down from the clouds, the slow traffic practically stopped.
The grizzled man leaned against the hood of the squad car scowled at Tek as she touched down on the sidewalk. His scowl deepened at the chain of car horns that accompanied the pterodactyl landing atop his car, where it became a lanky green teenager with another teen perched on his shoulders.
Tek dropped to her feet as her armor retracted into its luminous portal at her back. The rain soaked her skin suit and plastered her hair to her scalp in a matter of seconds. "Lieutenant Smith! You got my messages!" she exclaimed.
Beast Boy lurched off of the roof of Smith's car. Bushido left his shoulders in midair to land lightly next to the shapeshifter, hardly kicking up a splash from the deep puddles in the sidewalk. "Also, there's this thing called a 'phone.' It's better for getting people's attention than shooting fire at them while they're flying," he groused.
Smith, head of Jump City's Special Crimes Unit and possessor of at least one ulcer he claimed was the Titans' doing, knit his bushy white brows together. He set his flare gun on the hood of his car and said, "I needed to get your attention."
Beast Boy pulled his communicator and flipped it open with a theatrical gesture. "Full bars," he said, pointing to the device's screen.
Smith's frown spread to engulf the rest of his face. The expression made him look twice as old. "I needed to get your attention," he said with forced calm, "without leaving some uncomfortable numbers in my call history."
Beast Boy and Tek exchanged confused looks. But Bushido kept his gaze levelly on the old policeman. "You did not signal us to land in order to deliver good news," he said.
Tek's hands flew to her mouth. "Have you found Robin? Is he hurt?" she asked through her fingers.
The lieutenant's face softened at her panicked tone. He straightened his weather-beaten fedora, sending a small waterfall cascading onto his jacket, and said, "I don't think I know anything more than you do. In the past thirty-six hours we've gotten over a dozen sightings. The first time, a couple of uniforms wound up in the hospital when something flattened their car."
Lifting an eyebrow, Bushido said, "Robin attacked the officers?"
"We don't think so," said Smith. "Eyewitnesses at every sighting have mentioned some kind of thing chasing him. Sometimes it's a dog. Other times it's some kind of red-eyed demon. Sometimes it's a bunch of mobsters in trench coats." He tugged his own coat tighter across his shoulders in a discomfited gesture.
"He's being chased!" Beast Boy said. Then he frowned and echoed himself. "He's being chased?"
"It's been two days," Tek exclaimed. "How can no one know where he is after two days? Why haven't you found him or caught whoever's chasing him?"
"You ever try to grab smoke from half a town away?" Smith asked. "Every time we catch wind of the kid or whatever's after him, he's long gone, and so is whatever's chasing him. All we've got are a few scared witnesses after the fact."
Bushido began to argue, "But with multiple sightings—"
Smith held up his hand. "In at least six different boroughs. No rhyme or reason, no pattern." He sighed, and added, "I've never been to Gotham, but I'm betting their capes stay in the game by knowing how to keep out of sight. If your Boy Wonder earned his stripes there, we might not be able to find him until he wants to be found, or until it's too late."
Beast Boy's head fell in disappointment. Then he nodded, and said, "Okay. I'll go to the last place Robin was seen and see if I can't maybe sniff out something in this mess." His outline blurred and shrank into the shape of a bloodhound.
"And I can still scout from the air," Tek said. "Maybe if something happens I can get there in time. My suit can really book when I don't have to worry about traffic."
Bushido drew the hood of his rain slicker over his head. "Robin is not the only one versed in stealth. Perhaps with some coordination from your men, Lieutenant, I may find Robin by anticipating his path."
They waited for a long moment as Smith considered their plans. The rain drummed against the flashing squad car. The sound was deafening in the old cop's silence.
Then Smith looked down and said, "Go home."
They stared at him, agape. The words stunned Beast Boy back into his human form, his jaw dropped and eyes wide.
"What?" Tek said, bursting.
Smith rubbed his face, trying to harden his expression without much success. He sighed, and said, "Look, kids, I need you to go home and let us handle this. We'll find your friend and stop whatever's tearing apart the town."
"But…but we can help!" Tek insisted. "We always help! That's what we do!"
"Is that a fact?" Smith snapped, his tone becoming impatient. "Look at the last three years. This town gets invaded by robots, and you're at the heart of it. We get a whole crew of little monsters with powers and masks calling themselves the 'Teen Tyrants,' and all they seem to want to do is take a swing at you. The whole town—the whole world!—goes dark for half a day, and it's because of you. And you still haven't explained that little escapade, have you?"
White fangs glinted as Beast Boy's lips curled. His body shifted slightly, his weight tensing onto the balls of his feet. "It wasn't like that," he growled.
The shapeshifter's body language made Smith's hand drift a little closer to the holster at his hip. He didn't reach for the gun yet, but the thought was still there. "Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't. But it still happened. People got hurt, and that's enough."
"But we're the good guys," said Tek.
Smith softened a little at the desperation in Tek's tone. "Let me put this another way. Every cop in this city has been given orders to send you kids packing. Word's come in from the top: if you so much as jaywalk, you can expect anything with a badge to make your life a living hell. If I hadn't pulled you out of the air when I did, you'd probably be staring down a couple of helicopters and an arrest order right now."
Tek's mouth flapped wordlessly. Finally, she managed to whimper, "B-But we're the good guys!"
"This is bullshit!" Beast Boy snapped. "After everything we've done—"
"Hey!" Smith barked, startling the teen back into silence. "I hate to burst your 'Center of the Universe' bubble, but this new policy isn't just about you. Jump City has a higher instance of metahuman crime than any other city in the nation. We beat Metropolis two years running, for Christ's sake! If we don't do something to lock down the meta situation, we won't be on the map come Christmastime."
Bushido spoke up in a calm, soft voice. "Our apologies, Lieutenant. We were unaware of our being a 'situation.' "
Smith met the cool observation with a glare. "It's a new policy against costumed metahuman activity. That's a hell of a lot better than the witch hunt some of the higher ups are calling for." After a moment's hesitation, he squared his shoulders, adding, "And frankly, the policy's long overdue."
Eyes closed, Beast Boy clenched his fists tightly at his sides until they shook. His skin squirmed for a moment, as if it couldn't decide if it wanted to be something other than human, perhaps something with bigger teeth. But then his skin settled and his eyes opened again.
"We're not just gonna leave our friend out there," he said.
Smith met Beast Boy's inhuman eyes with a steady, unwavering gaze. "Saving people is my job," he said. "Go home and be kids. We'll find Robin."
Beast Boy tried to hold the man's gaze with a challenging look, but Smith simply ignored him. The old officer took his flare gun from the hood and got into his car. When the Titans remained standing in front of his bumper, he rolled down his window and motioned them toward him.
As they gathered around the window, hoping he'd changed his mind, they found instead his outstretched hand with a twenty-dollar bill in it. "And take a cab, okay?" Smith said. "No metal. No dinosaur. …at least not until you reach the bay."
Numbly, Tek took the bill. She watched Smith's car grumble back into traffic, its lights flicking off. The sight of the car grew hot and blurry as it turned the corner. Blinking hard, she looked back at Beast Boy and Bushido, and asked, "So what do we do now?"
Beast Boy slapped the bill out of her hand, startling her. She shrank back as he kicked the bill into the overflowing gutter. "We find Robin!" Beast Boy snarled. "And if the cops have a problem with it, we—"
Bushido rested his hand on Beast Boy's shoulder. The swordsman placed himself between the other two Titans, staring placidly through Beast Boy's furious scowl. Beast Boy stood nearly a foot taller than Bushido, and the corded muscle in the shapeshifter's neck spoke of dangerous things.
But Bushido didn't waver. He didn't move a muscle. He didn't blink until Beast Boy's eyes dropped in sullen defeat.
"We will continue to seek our wayward friend," Bushido said. Bending, he retrieved the sodden bill and brushed it clean. "And we will do so as ordinary people would, by walking on the ground and asking questions. But first we will find something hot to drink, and we will purchase a rain slicker for Tek."
Objection welled in Beast Boy's lips. Then he saw Tek's shivering, and met her wide, frightened eyes. He swallowed his argument and said, "Right. Let's do that."
As they turned to leave, Tek couldn't help but stare at the thick rush hour traffic choking the streets. She saw building after building rising up in the distant blocks. There were a hundred places she could think to hide in the city. Who knew how many more Robin could find? And without her suit, she didn't know if she could keep from freezing to death, let alone find a single person who didn't want to be found in such a vast place.
"Titans, go," she mumbled, her lips already numb.
Robin's knees splashed through fetid water and struck hard concrete. He yelped, plunging his hands into the muck to keep from collapsing onto his face. tired as he was, the prospect of drowning in a sewer kept him upright. He staggered to his feet and slogged deeper into the tunnel.
A circle of dim light from the open manhole behind him cast a gray film down a dozen yards of the tunnel. Everything beyond the edge of the light was an inky black mystery. When he tried to draw a large breath to steady himself, the stench made him gag. Thick slime gushed between his gloved fingers as he caught himself against the wall. He heaved and gasped, swallowing against the wall of bile fighting its way up his throat.
Memories began rushing back to him. He remembered nights spent in steam tunnels during those months when his father hadn't been around to pay rent. On those nights, only a stolen, threadbare blanket and the warm stench of the tunnels kept him alive. The oppressive sense of déjà vu closed in around him while he fought to breathe.
When he heard the splash behind him, he moved on instinct. His hand had already found the last of his birdarangs in his utility belt. He had three left, and then two, as he watched one of the precious weapons bounce uselessly off the metal dog's chassis. He had one cryo disc left, and fifty yards of liquid cable with no grapple hook to go with it. The rest of the belt's pouches were empty.
"Go ahead and eat me," Robin sneered as he reached for the last disc. "I'll just gunk up the servos in your mouth, you stupid robot. Then who's the winner?"
The dog crouched low, its stainless steel belly dipping into the slurry as it stalked toward Robin. Its sweeping red optic cast the tunnel in a hellish glow. Its growl reverberated, coming from every direction at once. Robin steeled himself to throw the disc the instant he saw the dog pounce. He just hoped his leaden arm was up to the task.
Then a shrill voice called from behind him. "Watch your eyes!"
Robin didn't have time to turn at the warning before a small object flew over his shoulder. Obeying the voice, Robin threw his arm over his eyes and crouched just as the dog leapt.
He felt a sudden heat, and saw blinding light seeping into the edge of his vision even through his arm. A canine yelp filled the tunnel, followed by a splash, and then the sound of something thrashing in the water.
Something grabbed Robin's other hand, dragging it out of his utility belt and pulling him backwards. "Come on!" the voice said.
Robin's vision trickled back to him while he stumbled in tow. As they lurched around a corner, he saw a flash of purple, and heard fabric fluttering in front of his nose. Then they passed beyond the feeble reach of the light from the manhole cover and plunged into utter blackness.
The pitch black didn't seem to slow the pace of Robin's rescuer. Robin felt himself pulled forward another ten yards before he was jerked around another corner. He caught sight of the red optic rounding the last corner in pursuit, and heard the dog's clanking footsteps splashing through the filth.
Without warning, the grip on Robin's arm flung him into a wall. He felt cold slime against the back of his neck. Then he heard a dull thump, followed by a terrific crash of metal on concrete that deafened him.
As Robin cupped his ears, a soft light began to glow next to him. He saw a spillway gate closing off the tunnel they had just left. It had been the sound of the gate falling into place that had nearly split his eardrums. Even through the ringing in his ears, he could still hear sounds of metal claws scrambling against the thick, rusting door.
The boot that had kicked the spillway door's lever dropped back into the muck. Its owner aimed her flashlight toward Robin, blinding him again. "Are you okay?" she asked.
He hissed and pushed the flashlight down. As his eyes readjusted, he began to take stock of his rescuer.
She was shorter than him by half a head, and jarringly skinny for someone so strong. Her black leggings and black patchwork leotard clung to the protruding ribs and athletic curves of a girl who did more running than eating. An oversized purple cloak hung across her shoulders, its hood drawn up around a full face mask. Upon closer examination, he saw that the cloak was little more than a blanket that had been clumsily stitched and pinned into shape. A shoulder bag hung by her hip, strung across her chest and half-concealed by the folds of the cloak.
Blank white lenses stared at him from the blank nylon that covered her face. "Are you okay?" she repeated. "You look awful."
Robin felt awful. But he straightened and drew his cape around him, trying to appear like he wasn't about to pass out. "I'm fine," he said in his best Gotham Growl. "Who are you?"
Even though her face was hidden, her smile was palpable in her voice. "Someone who doesn't like to see grouches get eaten by robot dogs. And you're welcome, by the way."
They both jumped at a sharp ringing sound from the other side of the door. The thick metal didn't bow, but it rattled violently in its housing. Another blow struck, and another, and another.
Cupping her hands to her shrouded mouth, the girl shouted, "I think we should get moving before poochy decides to circle around."
She aimed her flashlight and started to lead Robin through the slurry. After a few minutes of walking, the sounds of pounding metal became a distant whisper. Soon the noise faded entirely into the ringing of Robin's ears.
"Do you know where we're going?" Robin asked after their fifth sudden turn.
She laughed. "I will when we get there," she said.
He blinked. Just by sight alone, he didn't know what to make of this stranger. She looked like she might belong to his crowd, but her dumpster chic threw the whole notion on its ear.
"Who are you?" he asked again.
The grin returned to her voice as she turned her blank white lenses back at him. "I'm a Spoiler," she said.
Tek gripped the steaming mug to keep her hands from shaking. The thin parka crinkled around her, drizzling water into the plastic seat of their booth. Cold radiated from the window next to them, making her wish they had found a seat somewhere else. The rain drumming against the glass helped to drown out the sound of her own chattering teeth.
The all-night diner clattered with a sizeable clientele. There were the usual insomniacs, night owls, creepers, and teenagers. Many more ordinary pedestrians had found a booth or table to escape the relentless winter rain. A few harried waitresses circled the diner, obviously tired as they hauled platters to and from the kitchen.
An uneasy weight pressed Tek between her shoulder blades. She kept glancing over her shoulder, craning her neck to search the rest of the diner for the source of her discomfort. She didn't notice it at first. Only after the fourth or fifth glance did she catch sight of it out of the corner of her eye.
"Everybody's not-staring at us," she murmured.
The comment drew Beast Boy out of his sullen reverie. He looked up from the table, frowning. "Huh?"
"The people in here. They're not-staring at us," Tek insisted.
Beast Boy swiveled his head, looking around the diner. "Uh, sure. Two teenagers in spandex and one in an anime bathrobe probably isn't so weird on this side of midnight. No reason people would be staring at us. Remember the lovely conversation we had with that transvestite Pope of Discord in Southtown?"
"S/he had quite striking eyes," Bushido agreed. "But Tek is correct."
"It's not that they're staring," Tek said. "They're 'not-staring.' See?"
Beast Boy looked again, and understood. Whenever he caught someone's head turned his way, that person suddenly found something else to look at. He could smell guilt, and fear, and anger, and weariness, all wafting underneath the greasy smell of food. After two or three near misses, Beast Boy aimed his glare back at the tabletop. "Well, why not? We're practically criminals now," he grumbled.
Bushido sipped at the water in front of him. He made a face and put it down. "We have always been criminals," he said matter-of-factly.
Fangs glinted behind Beast Boy's curling lip. His fingertips raked the tabletop, the gloves keeping his claws from leaving deep furrows in the surface. "Bushido, I really don't think now is the time for one of your wordy, smarmy, psychoanalytical speeches. So don't."
"I wasn't going to," Bushido said.
"You were," Beast Boy snapped. "So don't."
Bushido considered another sip of water, and then thought better of it, and pushed the glass away. The swordsman folded his arms, his fingers drumming against the sleeve of his keikogi.
Sullenly, Tek said, "Do you think Lieutenant Smith thinks we're criminals?"
"That two-timing old sourpuss can kiss the ass of the biggest animal I can think of," Beast Boy said. "After everything we've done for this city, he won't lift a finger to help us. All he cares about is keeping a shine on that badge of his."
"I sincerely doubt the choice was Smith's. He leads a single department under the prevue of the police commissioner," Bushido retorted calmly. "And he himself told us that his orders came from a higher power."
Beast Boy groaned and rolled his eyes. "Mayor Winters? You'd think he would wise up and get with the program like the last mayor." He collapsed onto the table with a sigh. "I miss the old mayor…What's-His-Face."
"The last mayor was a woman," Bushido said.
"With hair like that? Not a chance," said Beast Boy.
"Guys!" Tek interjected sharply. When their eyes fell to her, Tek's voice fell into a tremulous murmur. "Guys, what are we going to do? We've been pounding the pavement for hours, and we still can't find Robin. And without help from the police, we'll never figure out where these trouble spots keep cropping up fast enough to catch up to him. He's alone out there. He needs us."
A moment of guilty silence passed between the two boys. Then Bushido laced his fingers together, resting his chin on his knuckles, and said, "We know, Tek. We aren't giving up. We just…"
He was struggling to finish the thought when a throat cleared next to them. Looking up, they saw their waitress standing next to the table. She clutched a paper pad in front of her, her body tightening as if she were trying to hide behind it. "Um…are you ready to order?" she asked.
"We already did," Beast Boy said, and tapped Tek's steaming mug.
"I don't need a reheat," Tek said quickly, and smiled. "But I'll let you know. Thanks."
The girl, no more than sixteen, brushed her hair back over her ear in a nervous gesture. Though she tried to hide it, she was obviously looking back at the man behind the counter. The greasy, sweat-stained, portly, balding lump of a human being glared back at her.
Before any of the Titans could ask her, she stammered, "It's a really busy night tonight. I'm afraid if…if you aren't going to order any food, I'm going to have to ask you to leave. We'll need the booth."
Beast Boy blinked. "But we bought the coffee," he said.
Tek blushed and gripped the cup. She tried to disappear into the hood of her plastic poncho as she added, "And we don't have any more money."
Risking another glance over her shoulder, the waitress fiddled with her pad, and said, "I'm sorry, but...but, um…" She couldn't even bring herself to look up from her shoes. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice hardly a whisper.
Bushido caught sight of the portly man beginning to circle the counter. He saw the outrage gathering in Beast Boy's expression. Reaching across the table, Bushido grasped the shapeshifter's wrist. He graced the waitress with his calmest, sweetest smile, and said, "Of course. We understand. Could we please get a to-go cup for my friend's drink?"
Grateful for an excuse to leave, the waitress sped back to the counter. Beast Boy started to protest, but the pressure on his wrist made him stop. He glanced at Bushido, whose head shook almost imperceptibly. The three Titans had extracted themselves from their booth by the time the waitress returned with a Styrofoam cup and transferred Tek's coffee.
"Come on," Beast Boy said. "We should get going anyway. We've still got a lot of ground left to cover."
As they started toward the door, a loud guffaw called at them from across the diner. Beast Boy looked back to see a pair of enormous men squeezed into another booth. Plates laden with lumpy, oozing mounds of roast beef, soggy toast, mashed potatoes molded by an ice cream scoop, and a generous heap of canned corn sat untouched on the table between them.
The waitress that had helped the Titans recoiled from the men's table, looking scared to be caught in the matter again. That left the man who had laughed to stare unopposed at Beast Boy. "Hey, if you kids are gonna traipse all over the city again, do us all a favor and stay away from Third Street, huh?"
"What?" Beast Boy said, his voice hardening.
The other man at the booth nodded. "Hell, yeah. We just finished with that mess last week. Put the last pavement in myself. Be a shame if we had to start all over again."
After a moment of confused staring, Beast Boy spotted the pair of hardhats sitting on the table next to the men's dinners. He saw their black-stained jumpsuits, their thick builds, and understood.
Third Street had been the home of their previous base, the now-mothballed Titans Compound. It had suffered a number of attacks, including the last one, which had torn apart much of the street itself. These were obviously the men, two among probably many, who were responsible for putting it back together.
"Hey," Beast Boy said, "here's a thought. Next time some psycho scientist made of nanites attacks the city, hows about you punch him in his blobby face, and I'll scrape the pavement back together. Sound good?"
"The way I hear it, that monster wasn't attacking the city," the second man said. "It was after you freaks."
Tek thrust her cup at the men so violently that she nearly sprayed coffee across half the diner. Only the plastic lid saved them all from scalding. "Don't call him a freak!" she snapped, her face twisting in anger.
The first man turned back to his friend as if he hadn't heard Tek. "Yeah," he said, nodding. "That was right around the time everybody lost that day. Everybody got turned into statues. That right?"
"Only not everybody got turned back," the second man said, and shot a meaningful look at the Titans. "Buddy of mine was driving his car. Blacks out, like everybody else. They found the car wrapped around a tree outside of his house with a bunch of gravel in the front seat."
The catlike pupils of Beast Boy's eyes shrank into dangerous slivers. His gloves tore open, the fingertips exploding into long, cruel claws. Sharp fangs emerged from his lips as he took a step toward the two construction workers. "Don't you ever—!" he began to snarl.
The two men were halfway out of their seat when Bushido stopped Beast Boy with an arm across his chest. The swordsman held Beast Boy back, trembling with the effort, but his face remained placid. He managed a half-bow to the startled men as he said, "Excellent advice. Thank you, and please enjoy your meals."
Before the confused men could offer any kind of rebuttal, Bushido ushered the other Titans out of the diner. He marched Beast Boy around the corner of the building, where they took shelter from the rain under the diner's awning.
"What the hell was that?" Beast Boy demanded.
"That," Bushido said, fixing Beast Boy with a somber look, "was a long time coming."
The long claws protruding from Beast Boy's gloves rose, brandished at the implacable swordsman as Beast Boy snapped, "And what were you doing, bowing and scraping to those…those…?"
"People?" Bushido suggested.
"Where do they get off talking to us like that? We've worked our asses off to keep them safe! We have bled for them!" Beast Boy said.
Bushido cocked his head. "And in turn, they owe you what? Respect? Deference?"
The calm question broke Beast Boy. He swung at Bushido with a clumsy haymaker. His skin buzzed, aching to take the shape of a dozen different predators that could rip the arrogant swordsman apart.
Bushido used only a single hand to grasp and twist Beast Boy, turning his swing into a clumsy step that threw the shapeshifter against the diner's brick wall. As Beast Boy started to bounce, Bushido caught him with a hand to the chest, holding him against the side of the building.
Beast Boy glared. His chest worked like a bellows, his eyes burning with hate. "They're acting like they're the only ones who ever lost anything!" he screamed.
The cool look on Bushido's face never wavered. He stared down Beast Boy, keeping him at bay with a light but firm hand. Slowly but surely, Beast Boy's heaving breaths slowed into something closer to normal. His claws retracted to their normal length, peering from the ruined tips of his gloves.
Then, in a slow, even voice, Bushido said, "Yes. They are. They do not see what we endure because we cannot let them. They do not know of our pain because we can never show them. We bleed so they do not. We lose so they do not. And when we fail, when the cost becomes theirs again, they hate us for it. Because that is the life we choose. That is the life you chose."
Beast Boy stared at him. His slitted pupils relaxed as his eyes fell to the puddles seeping into his boots. "Yeah, well…it sucks sometimes," he said.
"In my previous vocation, I stayed in five-star hotels. I ate the finest meals crafted by the master chefs of kings, ministers, and diplomats. I answered to no one but myself and those individuals possessing the ludicrous wealth necessary to hire me." Bushido's face didn't so much as twitch as he said, "Now I eat prepackaged meals and defecate in a camping toilet. So you don't need to tell me how much our current situation sucks."
The comment earned a chuckle and a smile from Beast Boy, which Bushido mirrored. "Come on," Beast Boy said, "you gotta admit that a giant T is way cooler than any stupid hotel."
"It does possess a certain novelty," Bushido admitted with an impish gleam in his eyes.
Beast Boy rubbed his face. He looked out at the smeary gray that comprised the cityscape. "Let's try for a couple more hours," he said. "After that, we should get back to the Tower to make sure Rose Wilson didn't starve to death, or blow it up, or something. Right, Tek?"
He and Bushido looked back and found Tek hunched over in the rain, standing by the dumpsters outside the awning. She jumped at the mention of her name. "Huh? Yeah, I'm coming," she said, pulling her hood tighter around her face.
As Tek followed them out of the alley, she slid her open communicator back out of her pocket. The back of her hand crossed her cheek, coming back warm and wet before the rain soaked it in cold. She silently hoped the boys would blame the rain for the wet sheen on her cheeks.
The communicator's screen blinked at her with the words CALL FAILED in huge, obnoxious lettering. She thumbed the redial button.
Please, Vic, she thought. Where are you? We need you!
The jewelry store's front window exploded in a flash of pink light. People ran screaming from the shower of glass. Cars swerved into one another, screeching and honking, filling the street with a cacophony of rending metal.
Jinx stepped over the empty sill, her shoes crunching through the shattered remains of the window. She hefted the heavy bag higher on her shoulder and surveyed the chaos spreading before her. A toothy grin split her face as she breathed it in.
"Sometimes you have to get back to basics," she said to herself. Pink hex crackled in her free hand. She looked over her shoulder, back into the wrecked innards of the jewelry store. "Hey, brick butt! Hurry up or I'll mash you into mortar!"
Her partner trundled through the window frame. His shoulder caught the edge, cracking the wood as if it were brittle plaster. He was naked from the waist up, wearing rough canvas pants and thick boots. His skin was a dusky gray color, his eyes, featureless and white.
"Just picking up your slack," he said, and hoisted two enormous duffel bags in one hand.
"You go for the quantity, Stone," she sneered at him. Reaching into her corset, she plucked one of the special picks she had tucked against the inside of the purple leather. The flawless gem glittered atop a setting of pure white gold as she turned it for him to see. "I go for quality."
Stone waggled his smooth, featureless eyebrows. "I already knew that," he said in a sultry voice.
She rolled her eyes and nudged him. "Shut up," she snorted. Then she rubbed her elbow, wincing.
He started to chuckle when a flicker of movement caught his eyes and drew them up. He lunged in front of Jinx. "Look out!" he cried.
By the time he had started to speak, a pair of steel arrowheads sank into his chest. The emerald fletching of the arrows quivered as thin fractures spread from the wounds. He scowled, looking back along the arrows' flight to the rooftop across the street. There, he saw a green shape poised to take another shot.
"Looks like Star City's long johns just showed up," Stone said, and yanked the arrows out of his chest. The wounds crackled with the sound of gravel being poured down a chute. In seconds, the gray flesh filled in, leaving no mark that the arrows had ever pierced him.
Jinx gestured to one side, aiming her palm at a fire hydrant outside the neighboring store. Her eyes flashed with power, and the hydrant exploded into a burst of steam. The street around them disappeared in a sweltering haze as Jinx directed the steam into the air with a wave of her hand.
Squinting hard, Stone saw the shape on the rooftop begin to drop down. "That won't stop him for long."
She slapped his backside and said, "So move! Unless you want to be just another frozen rock up in the Slab." Then she took off running, her cackle fading into the steam.
Stone started after her when something flashed in his vision. The words INCOMING CALL filled his eyes, much larger than they usually were. He heard the chorus of the Rembrandts' I'll Be There For You, and saw Tek's name in the corner of his heads-up display.
Ignore call, he thought.
Instead of stopping, the chorus continued. Another voice spoke calmly over the ringtone. This is the fifth call Tek has placed today, Cyberion, said the Sarah Sim. Are you certain you wish to ignore the call?
He gritted his teeth. I'm a little busy here, Sarah. Allie will have to wait, he subvocalized.
Sarah continued, Additionally, this will be the twenty-seventh call from Tek you have ignored in the previous month.
You've been tracking all of my calls? he thought at her, irritated.
She subvocalized calmly and cheerily, as she always did. Even so, he had come to know his onboard AI well enough to know that she was chastising him. Your continued rebuffing of your friends' attempts at contact is indicative of a progression in your recent isolationist tendencies. As these tendencies represent a potential hazard to your continued mental and emotional wellbeing, my ethical subroutines dictate that I monitor these interactions.
So you're worried about me, he thought at her.
Her soundless voice never wavered. I am seeking to correct potentially self-destructive behaviors.
His jaw set. I'm working. Ignore. Call.
The Rembrandts fell silent. The HUD disappeared from his vision. He chased after Jinx's cackle, hefting his bags of stolen jewelry, and added his laughter to hers as more arrows whizzed over his head.
To Be Continued