Nobody was entirely surprised when Nightwing called them together for an impromptu training session with practically no notice. That wasn't unusual, although meeting in an empty warehouse was. Sure, without the Cave they only had a limited number of places to gather and train, and Bart trusted the Bat-kids when they said a building was secure, but it was... strange not to just use League facilities.
Bart and Jaime were the last to show up. The cold, fluorescent-lit warehouse around them felt too big, too sterile. There were a few unlabelled crates against a couple of the walls but it was mostly empty. Bart panned his gaze across the room. Conner, looking sullen. La'gaan looking troubled. Those two seemed to be avoiding each other. Cassie, practising kicks and punches on an imaginary target. Garfield alone on a crate in the corner, looking like he wanted to hide from everything. None of the Bats were there, Bart realised.
He took a deep breath and glanced at Jaime. "You sure you want to be here?"
Jaime didn't turn to look at him. He just nodded, once. "Yes."
"It wasn't too long ago that – "
"The Reach caught you too. You sure you want to be here?"
Bart didn't even see that as a question. What he wanted didn't matter; there was the mission and there was too much at stake not to give everything he could to complete it. "That's different."
"No it isn't. The better I am at being a hero, the less I need to depend on the Scarab. The worse I am, the more control it has. And I can't depend on the Scarab."
"Yeah. Yeah, okay."
Bart made sure his endearing, goofy little kid smile was in place, and they walked in.
"Alright, I think this is everybody we're going to get," Nightwing said, appearing from absolutely nowhere. "Now, we're here because just because we don't have state-of-the-art training facilities any more doesn't mean we shouldn't be training."
"Why aren't we using League facilities?" Cassie asked.
"Because the whole advantage of this Team is that we're not a part of the League. Good League backing is an advantage, but we shouldn't get too close unless we absolutely have to." He walked into the center of the room and everyone moved automatically to form a half-circle in front of him. "So. Sparring. Superboy, Lagoon Boy, you're up." Everybody stepped back to clear a circle of space for them.
Conner stood a little off-center in the cleared space, watching La'gaan. La'gaan saw his target and charged, inflating on the way.
It was probably too fast for anybody else to tell, but Bart had studied the old training records and he was pretty sure that the move Conner used to trip La'gaan out was the same one that Black Canary had used on him the first time they ever fought. La'gaan wasn't going down that easily though; with a bellow of frustration he twisted, sprang up from one palm and grabbed Conner's comparatively tiny form in his huge arms. He threw himself forward. Bart could see the intention; he meant to open his arms at the last second and bodyslam Conner, but Conner stopped trying to free himself and grabbed La'gaans wrists, holding La'gaans arms in place around him as a shield. Both of them grunted as La'gaan's elbows slammed straight into the floor. He loosened his grip in shock and pain, Conner rolled out and both were back on their feet, glaring at each other.
Nightwing put up a hand. "Enough."
"But we haven't – "
"Enough, Conner. Wonder Girl, Impulse, you're up."
Bart walked into the center of the room, grinning up at Cassie. She floated above his head, lasso at the ready.
"Hey Wonder Girl, looking nice today!"
By the time she'd responded, Bart was already running. He saw her register the movement, start to turn. He dodged around a motionless Nightwing, ran up the ridiculously high wall, moved across the ceiling to get into position before he fell. Cassie was just looking up and trying to move out of the way when he landed on top of her
"Whoop, haha, might've been a mistake," Bart quipped as she grabbed at his arm. It was somewhat of a stalemate. He didn't want to vibrate though her flesh, she didn't want to break his bones. He was too fast for her to get a good grip, she was too strong for him to have much effect. They struggled for an eternity of about five seconds before Cassie suddenly smiled and flew upwards, all the way to the ceiling in the middle of the room. No walls, no bars, nothing on which to gain purchase. Then she firmly gripped Bart's right arm, flipped upside down, and dangled him over the floor.
"Hitting me might be a bad idea right now," she pointed out unnecessarily.
"Aha. Okay then. You win."
Cassie set him gently down. Nightwing glanced between Gar and Jaime, and seemed to make a decision. "Okay, that's probably enough to prove my point."
"What point?" Conner asked.
"That you all rely very heavily on your superpowers." He glanced between them all and Bart could've sworn he looked uncertain. Nightwing never looked uncertain.
"We can spar without powers if you want," Conner said with a shrug.
"I don't think you can. Garfield, maybe, but you were born strong and Bart was born fast. I'm not sure if you can properly hold back. And it's gotten to the point where we can't assume that you'll always have powers. That's how Kaldur got us... with these." Nightwing reached into a crate and pulled out a thick, electronic, very familiar collar. Bart caught himself before he gasped, goofy kid persona, goofy kid persona, but someone was standing in front of him with an inhibitor collar and the Blue Beetle was right behind him...
It took almost a full quarter of a second to get a hold of himself, to fight down the urge to go into superspeed and get away. Not that anybody would've noticed if he had've let his fear show – everyone was staring at Nightwing.
"They took you out too," Conner said, sounding offended.
"Yeah, electricity will do that. But let's focus on one thing at a time here. You're all great with your powers, but you should be great without them as well."
"We can fight without powers just fine," Cassie sniffed.
"I don't think you ever have. I'm sure you could take down a civilian without them, but could you take down a supervillain?"
La'gaan spoke up. "I'm not really sure how you expect us to train without..." he trailed off, eyes locked on the collar still sitting open in Nightwing's hand.
"No." Bart hadn't meant to speak, but he wasn't surprised by the force in his own voice. Those collars... weren't easy to get off. He'd spent far too long in one, too long locked in slow-motion with electric shock a small mistake or bored guard away, too long unable to run or dodge or move away from the heavy hands and guns of enforcers. And then he was out, out and free and even though he was on a crazy dangerous mission he was safer and freer than he'd been before because Jaime wasn't that Beetle yet and there was nothing around his neck, and then they'd collared him again... and he'd been unable to stop them, he'd had to joke and goof through the whole thing as if he didn't know exactly what happened when the collar locked closed, as if he wasn't already familiar with what that took from him, and he'd been electrocuted again but he was free and Jaime still wasn't on mode... and he was walking around like the collar hadn't mattered, because even though he'd given Jaime the short version of the story, he hadn't really tried to make him understand, he hadn't said much at all to the others; he was the goofy kid. He didn't want questions.
Pretending to be unfamiliar with the collar, acting like it didn't matter... that had been harder than getting it off in the first place. Because he knew the whole time just how hard it hard been to get off, and just what it meant.
Fortunately, he wasn't alone in his disagreement. "Absolutely not," Conner said.
"This is why we're out here and not in a League facility, isn't it?" Cassie said. "You know the Justice League would never approve of this."
Nightwing narrowed his eyes. "The League doesn't matter. Our ability to do our jobs matters."
"No way am I putting one of those on," Cassie said firmly.
"Not in a million years." Gar.
"I'm up for it."
Bart turned to stare at the Blue Beetle. Jaime. He was already putting the armour away as he stepped forward.
"Blue..." Bart began.
"The Reach want to control the Scarab. I can't rely on it. And so long as I can keep it from hacking those things, I can be sure I'm not relying on it." He reached out one hand.
"Oh. Okay then." Nightwing reached back into the crate and took out another collar, which he handed over. "I've disabled the shock mechanism of course, and it won't lock all the way either; you should be able to pull it off yourself when you want." Jaime nodded and closed the collar around his neck. Bart heard it power up.
No shock. No lock. Just a... a temporary barrier, a totally voluntary barrier. Bart bit his lip.
"I can tell when I'm using magic, but if it'll make you feel any better, Chum." La'gaan held a hand out.
"I'm in," Conner said instantly.
Bart looked at Garfield. Garfield, who had been put through the same stuff as Bart at the hands of the Reach, at least in this time period. But he'd only been in the collar for a short while, he'd never been shocked with it (although he had been shocked later), he hadn't been born with his powers, he hadn't dealt with the future reach, he didn't understand...
Gar met his gaze for a moment, shrugged, then headed over to Nightwing.
None of them knew what they were asking. But Bart didn't want to walk away. It would look suspicious not to play along. He'd spent ages perfecting the smile that declared that nothing hurt him. He had to back it up.
So he stepped forward, took the heavy, hated ring from the outstretched hand of his leader, and for the first time ever, reached up to snap it closed around his own neck. That little power-up whine. He hated that whine. He went to pull it open again; the metal resisted a little and he nearly panicked, but with a firm tug it powered down and opened up. Not a trap. Not a prison. Just a handicap for the arena. That didn't make him feel any better about clicking it closed again.
"Alright," Nightwing said when everyone was collared up, "let's try another round of sparring. You all know hand-to-hand combat. Same pairs as before. Beast Boy, Blue Beetle, you're together. Let's go."
Bart wanted to watch Jaime and Gar fight, since he was pretty sure neither of them had much hand-to-hand training at all. But he needed to keep an eye on Cassie. The weight around his neck had already become familiar once again by the time they were circling each other.
She came steadily toward him, like a guard looking for a fight. He flinched back, shoulders hunched, not really managing to overcome his ingrained "I'm boring sport and not looking for trouble" response. Don't look away, don't meet the eyes, don't back away too obviously, don't walk towards them, hope they move on.
Cassie punched. Bart stepped swiftly to the side and turned his head, taking the fist to the very edge of one cheek, and fell back. It looked like a clean punch but resulted in practically no damage.
What am I doing? I'm not supposed to lose! Bart broke his fall with one hand and lashed out at her knee with his right foot. Cassie jumped back, giving him room to get to his feet once more. He made no sound but darted towards her, hitting with quick little jabs, a short, quiet, confined scuffle designed to be over before any authority figures noticed. But Cassie wasn't playing by those rules; she leapt back and went for a spin-kick. Bart blocked the kick with his forearm, ignoring the way it jarred. Minor bruise, not important. Due to the careful placement of his arm, though, Cassie had a harder time ignoring it.
"Argh!" She didn't, to her credit, immediately grab her toes, but she definitely favoured her other foot. Nobody was easier to beat than people who were used to being invulnerable.
Bart was barely even aware that he was in combat mode. Take 'em down quick, move on, don't draw attention. Not drawing attention was important when stuck in slow motion. A punch to her ribs, which she dodged and returned. He moved so that he only caught the edge of her arm, kept moving closer. She kept backing away. They traded kicks. She tried to grapple him. Slowly, he backed her toward the corner.
There! A pause, a little jump... she was trying to fly. She'd forgotten she couldn't. She'd forgotten what the collar meant. For that one moment, her stance was ridiculously vulnerable. Bart tripped her with an arm and a leg.
"Wow! Good fight."
"You too." Bart remembered to smile as he helped her up.
The others finished up their fights, and they traded partners.
Bart couldn't match Garfield's agility, but he wasn't very used to fighting in his own body. Bart had him down in less than five seconds. He felt a little guilty doing it, but Gar needed to learn.
Conner had had a lot more training. He reminded Bart of one of the bigger kids who liked to throw his weight around. Bart had mostly tried to stay out of his way; he had had more important things to do than scuffle with random bullies. But Conner was stronger than Cassie and he was used to his strength; no matter how much training he'd had with martial arts designed to take down bigger guys, he didn't know how to regulate his punches under the collar, he didn't understand how much he could lift or how far he could jump. He was still a fair bit stronger than Bart, but that was immaterial; his strength was his failing, that was where the collar would get him, and that's what Bart needed to exploit. Bart slipped out of a grapple (Conner relied too much on strength and not enough on leverage) and blocked the follow-up punch, grinning, with both palms. Minor bruises. Immaterial. Conner looked startled. Bart kicked out before he could recover and he jumped back, but not far enough; Bart's kick brushed his hip, caught him off-balance. A quick trip decided the battle.
La'gaan was harder. He'd trained for his powers and he knew how to move and act without them. He'd done a lot of powered-down combat training. Bart wasn't sure he could beat him straight-up, and he didn't think he could use the collar as a weapon against him. They traded a couple of kicks, La'gaan got Bart in a grapple and threw him, Bart rolled to his feet. Gravity might have more meaning in slow motion but so much experience making lightning-fast decisions in a slow world had taught him how he could and couldn't interact with his environment. He'd taken worse falls. La'gaan had grown up underwater.
"Come on, you're quicker than this," La'gaan said.
Well, that was transparent, but if he couldn't use La'gaan's collar as a weapon...
"Of course I am. Come catch me!" Bart turned and ran, straight for the wall. He sprinted at the top speed he could make in the collar, didn't look back. La'gaan, he knew, was right on his heels. Waiting for him to try to run up the wall and trip him when he inevitably fell. Bart leapt at the last moment, springboarded off the wall, and flipped back over La'gaan's head. He tripped him as he spun to face him.
Fighting Jaime was...
Bart knew that Jaime didn't have very much combat experience without his suit. In theory, tripping him should take a matter of seconds. But he also knew that he could deactivate the collar and turn into Blue Beetle at any second. This was the Beetle, Bart couldn't fight the Beetle, that's how you died.
It was just an exercise. Bart could take the collar off whenever he wanted. Jaime wouldn't deactivate his own collar, he'd volunteered for this. Bart wished he could get the part of him that was freaking out to understand that.
Jaime advanced, grinning. Grinning! Put his arms up in a defensive position. "Come on, hermano, what are you waiting for?"
What was he... like nothing had ever happened, like the weight on his neck...
"Nothing." Bart charged. He moved with Blue Beetle as he tried clumsily to dodge, and in a move that lacked the quiet elegance of anything he'd learned in training with the Team, socked him as hard as he could in the gut. As Beetle doubled over, winded, Bart's other fist hit him in the collarbone. He went down. Good, he was defenseless. Bart went to kick him.
Jaime writhed helplessly on the ground, looking up at him in shock and confusion.
"Blue." Bart ripped the collar off his own neck before crouching next to his friend. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..." he pulled Jaime's collar off and cast it aside.
"I guess I need more training," Jaime gasped. Still winded.
"Are you alright?"
"Nothing that won't heal. Just gimme a minute."
The others were still fighting by the time Jaime armoured up and got to his feet. Nightwing waited patiently for the other fights to finish up.
"Alright," he said as everyone pulled their collars off, "do you see what I mean about getting too used to powers?"
"Yeah," Conner said begrudgingly, "but I'm still not sure how useful this is. How often are we actually going to need to fight without our powers?"
"Now that our enemies know how easy it is to take some of you down without them? Probably a lot." He started gathering collars. "Now, I'm not going to try to force any of you into anything. Cassie was right; I haven't mentioned this to the League because I don't think they'd approve. I don't even think the rest of the Team would. But if you guys are willing, I think we need to work powerless activity into our training regimen. Not just fighting, but movement, escapology... even surveillance. Our enemies all think your strength lies in your powers, same as they think my strength is in my belt. That makes anything you learn without powers an advantage, a secret weapon. Please, think about it."
As everyone started to disperse, Nightwing took Bart aside. "I've never seen you fight like that," he said.
Bart grinned. "I bet you've never seen me fight at all. I'm too fast for ya."
"True enough. But to be honest I expected your loss of speed to hamper you more. And you're normally a lot more... flashy. Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Fine. Totally crash. It's hard to be flashy without speed."
"But easy, apparently, to take out... well, everyone. Do you have some kind of future martial arts training you didn't tell us about?"
"Aha, no. I guess the others just need more practise than I do." Bart shrugged. "I always adapt fast, it's my thing. Wouldn't be able to make it in the past otherwise."
Nightwing watched him doubtfully for a moment. Bart didn't let his cheery smile falter. "Right. Well, good work today."
"Heh, thanks man. I gotta run. This was really crash, let's all punch each other again sometime." Bart got out of there before he had to face any more tricky questions.
Bart ran for a bit, just to reassure himself that he could. He still wasn't sure whether it had been smart or stupid to give it his all at the time. He didn't want to draw attention to himself. He should be good at not drawing attention by now. It was the past that was messing him up, too many things going on, too many charades to play. He hadn't even thought about it at the time. He'd just known that he wanted to get everything over with, get out, and he'd used every weapon he had. Didn't think about how it would look. Stupid.
And Nightwing wanted him to do it again. Screw that. He knew how to live in a collar. He didn't need practise.
But the others did. They definitely did. And if they were going to survive, they needed to know that you could survive collared. They needed to know how to fight and move and protect themselves, how to escape and run. They needed to know how to live when you were scared and trapped.
And they had nobody to teach them. Nightwing had no powers, but he'd never lost powers. He wouldn't understand that Conner would mistime his jumps and Cassie would misjudge the danger of heights, not until it happened. He was a great leader, but Bart knew that the Team needed a goofy, near-invisible kid to be there with an oddly lucky catch or a coincidentally useful quip every now and then.
Somehow, when he'd started the Mission, it had felt a lot more like an escape. He hadn't expected to put up with this ever again. With a sigh, he activated his communicator. "Nightwing. It's Impulse. I'm... I'm on board."