Why Can't You Sit Like Normal People

October 12, 2017:

A conversation held on the ceiling.

The Mud Room - Titans Tower

A cavernous room covered in a malleable silicate compound. It looks kind of like cookie dough.

Characters

NPCs: None.

Mentions: Zatanna Zatara, The General, Batman, Clayface

Plot:

Mood Music: [*\# None.]


Fade In…

When Red Robin began retrofitting Titans Tower, it already had training facilities from the earlier incarnations of the team to use the structure: The gym needed to be updated, of course, with all sorts of interesting advancements in the field of exercise equipment - and especially exercise equipment for people who can bench press 747s - and similarly the original hologram-based simulation room needed to be brought in line with more current technology. Both of those things were easy, straightforward.

The other thing was more complicated.

The Mud Room, a prototype devised by the former Boy Wonder himself, is meant to provide the flexibility of the oldschool holographic simulation training along with something more visceral, more physically real, but without sacrificing safety the way you would with a room, say, full of quasi-murderous robots. It uses a vast amount of computing power to do this, to manipulate the mass of malleable silicate that covers it walls, ceiling and floors, changing shapes, consistencies, making it move and react in 'realistic' ways…

And, unfortunately, it's not quite ready for prime time.

"There, found the coupling that blew," Red Robin says, seemingly to nobody, from his position on the ceiling. Microscopic fibers in the soles of his boots, kneepads and other key points on his costume - very similar to the DARPA project called 'geckskin' - receive slight electrical signals from the rigging through the red and black suit, exploiting the Van der Waals effect to let the young man adhere to that distant surface, some twenty feet above the floor. The silicate has been cleared away from a patch of the ceiling, so he can open a panel, interfacing with his suit to track down the offending bit of technology. Already, he's fiddling with it, letting the fried fuse - about the size of a traffic cop's flashlight - drop towards the floor and pulling a new one from the large black pouch that dangles from his belt.

He seems… Not quite completely at home up there, like that, but certainly far more used to it than a normal person who's never spent days training in the shadowy 'rafters' of the Batcave.

"Probably gonna need to upgrade the electrical in here to something that can handle a higher load. And here I was thinking it was processing power that was gonna be the real hurdle…"

"Operational power draw is fifty percent over your expected load limit," the Tower's computer informs him, in its unfailingly chipper tone.

"Yeah, thanks, I noticed," the vigilante replies, privately wishing they had Cyborg or somebody around.

Adjusting to a new way of life takes time. Adjusting to a new way of life while keeping the people closest to you in the dark about it? Even more time. Fortunately, Peter Parker has had plenty of experience with both of these things.

He's still not entirely sure how, exactly, he should feel about the latter though.

Regardless — all this means that despite the culture shock of actually being in a team (for once!) after years of working on his own sending him reeling, Spider-Man has made himself comfortable with his new position within the Titans in record time. Not that certain events haven't conspired to make it more difficult than it rightly ought to have been; but while he's still (unsuccessfully) adjusting to new realities about future, soon-to-be teammates, he's more or less settled in to alternating his time between vigilante work, college work, family time, and Go Titans! facetime. To varying degrees of success.

'Varying degrees' meaning a lot more sleepless nights and a lot more caffeine and caffeine-like stimulants in his life. But, really. It's not -that- different from usual. Which, perhaps, is probably why he's at -least- comfortable enough by now —

"You know, I try super hard not to be sensitive about this sorta thing lately, but it's hard not to get the impression that my schtick's, like, totally getting appropriated here."

— to just sneak up on people without announcing himself.

Currently seated on the ceiling a fair distance from where Red Robin works, Spider-Man watches (upside-down) with a cocked head, hands comfortably settled in his lap as the other Titan toils. The webbed vigilante's arrival is a bit of a more recent thing, but to his credit, for as much as he might run his mouth? The web-slinger can be shockingly silent when he wants to be. Really.

Shut up.

"You didn't get bit by a radioactive spider too, recently, did you? Because, like, that's gonna require a name change. And Spider-Man's already taken, so, uh, let's see…" Of course he knows how Red Robin's really up on the ceiling — or at least, knows well enough to have a general idea. But — "Spider-Bro? Spider-Lad? — Oh, I got it! Scarlet Spider! That way you can totally keep the whole red theme in your name!"

— but Spider-Man is always going to be Spider-Man.

Which might be why he's making provocative jazz hands as he makes his hard sell on the whole Scarlet Spider idea.

Eventually, though, those gloved hands flop back into his lap. Lenses whirr into a thoughtful squint as he watches Robin work. "What kinda electrical are we even using now? Maybe we can go all superconductive," he muses, scratching the side of his head as his tone falls towards something more serious and thoughtful. "This whole Mud Room thing is using a lot of umph though, huh?" A second passes in what must be truly deep, introspective silence —

"We're not gonna get some kinda Mud People uprising when this all goes operational, are we? 'Cause I read about rebellious lava people in a hollow earth book once and…"

— or that. He could be thinking about that.

"I mean. Similar core concept?"

When you're trained by the Batman, it is of course vitally important to learn to never be snuck up on. Being snuck up on can be lethal, especially with the sorts of people that prowl the deep, dark shadows of the world. With the element of surprise, Scarecrow could dose you with a sanity-shattering amount of his fear toxin. The Joker could 'put a smile on your face' with a knife. League assassins could do all sorts of other unpleasant things.

Another, just as vitally important, skill is to never let anyone know if you have been successfully snuck up on. Always appear in control of the situation. Never let them see you sweat.

And so:

"Actually, it was inspired by you," Red Robin says, as though somebody else suddenly just sitting on the ceiling with him was a perfectly normal, everyday occurrence. Privately, he's sort of impressed that Spider-Man is capable of being so stealthy, given his usual inability to not run his mouth. If the other Titans find it frustrating that Red Robin keeps sneaking up on them despite their own super-senses, just imagine how much they'll like it when the red and blue-clad chatterbox does it.

The vigilante hopes he's there to see that. It'd be pretty funny.

"There was a whole DARPA project trying to replicate your three-dimensional mobility through technological means, once some theorists realised how useful it could be. They haven't cracked the webbing thing yet, and most of the prototype 'web shooters' tend to pull the user's shoulder out of its socket," that was a problem that the Bat-Family had to overcome with their grapple guns too, of course, but they have the benefits of esoteric ninja training, "but the wall-crawling was comparatively easy. It's based on the way geckos and spiders do it, microscopic fibers creating weak proximity bonds between their molecules and the molecules of whatever they're sticking into through the Van der Waals effect. It's rigged through the neural impulse network in my suit, so I've been training myself to use it as second nature instead of having to actually think about it."

Though he's not entirely sure Lucius Fox would approve of the applications he's put the design to since he, er, 'borrowed' it.

The view behind the white lenses of Red Robin's domino mask cycles through a few variations, different overlays until he's watching a representation of the actual flow of electrical energy through the wiring - the actual junction he's working on is shut off, naturally - to keep an eye out for other irregularities.

This whole Mud Room thing is using a lot of umph though, huh?

"Yeah, it's—"

We're not gonna get some kinda Mud People uprising when this all goes operational, are we?

Slowly, he turns to look at Spider-Man, his expression remarkably flat for a man whose face is half covered and whose eyes can't be seen.

"It's actually based on a mud person," he explains anyway. "The silicate compound is an engineered version of the material that makes up the body of Basil Karlo, better known as Clayface. By running electrical current through it, and modulating that current, you can tell the silicate what to look like. Shape, hardness, density, color… The problem is that one, the computer is using a ton of power to tell every bit of the silicate what it's supposed to look like, and animating it… And then the room itself has to use more power to actually physically make every bit do that."

The weird part is that in its inactive state, it has roughly the feeling, color and consistency of cookie dough.

Well, the weird part aside from all the other weird parts.

"It'll run as it is, but it's susceptible to blowouts. We've got the power, it's just a matter of the electrical in the room being able to handle it. Also if it makes you feel any better, the mud structures would fall apart if they left the room."

Or, they should, anyway.

"Man, you are just — cool as a cucumber."

One day he'll surprise Red Robin. He's sure of it. -Somehow-.

It's good to have challenging goals in life.

Still, it's only after Spider-Man makes this lament that the actual words the Gothamite greets him with sink in. There was a whole DARPA project trying to replicate your three-dimensional mobility through technological means…

Spider-Man listens. Those white lenses slowly thin down into tiny, incredulous slits. Slowly, he scratches the side of his head with one spandex-wrapped index finger.

"Uhhhhhhhhhhhh." An eloquent beginning, followed by a dramatic pause.

"That's, like, kinda flattering, I guess?

"… In the way that flattery can be creepy and stalkery and vaguely military industrial complexy?

"… … actually scratch that, that's just weird and harrowing, not flattering. I get those mixed up, like, -all- the time."

Really, he doesn't want to think of the kinds of applications DARPA might have for his spider-powers. And so, he distracts himself by instead focusing on the powers themselves, lifting one of his hands to stare at his open palm in quiet contemplation. "Yeah, that's a… yeah. Good way to try to do it, I guess. Y'know, I thought maybe this was something kinda similar, because spiders, y'know? But a few things don't really add up." His head tilts, and behind his mask, his lips crease in a frown.

"But, considering I should just be, like, dead, I guess sometimes science just gets all funky."

That's the best -part- of science.

Still, he falls silent to listen Red Robin's explanation afterward, only lifting his hands in a sort of 'it's a completely plausible concern!!' sort of warding gesture at that skillfully blank look the other Titan levels his way.

"I've heard of that guy. Wasn't he some kinda actor? I remember reading about him on twitter. Some horror stuff, or something? You guys have totally nutters bad guys, by the way." Spider-Man pauses, thinking back to epic struggle against the horrifying menace of the Big Wheel. "… though I guess I don't have any room to talk. Whatever! Ugh!"

After his laments are done, though, Spider-Man leans in to peer curiously at the spot Robin had been working on, lenses widening anew to get a better look. "So you need a more efficient way of running the current?" he wonders, rubbing at the back of his head. "Well, if you need any help, just ask. I've got no problems helping seed the events that will lead to our enslavement at the hands of the Mud Monsters so that the twist will be it was all man's fault all along." No.

He definitely does not believe that things will behave the way he should.

Absolutely nothing in his entire superheroing history has lent credence to that theory.

He falls silent for a moment, though, hands returning to his lap. Awkward quiet settles in as if the vigilante were trying to venture another subject, and thinking of the best way to go about it. The best, most tactical, diplomatic, empathetic way —

"Zeetoldmesomecrazymurderfaceguyisafteryouforvengeanceandyou'refeelingguiltyaboutit."

— or that. He could do it that way.

"So uh. … How about that? Need any help there? With that? That whole thing I said in a very sensitive way and don't feel like a horse's ass about? That thing?"

Good save, Spider-Man.

Though Red Robin can understand how it would be weird and harrowing, he finds it quite useful. As a person who lacks anything that might be traditionally considered a superpower, training and gadgets of course have to make up the difference… And many of those gadgets are designed to replicate things that others do. The geckskin, the Mud Room, modifications to his HUD that grant him all sorts of visual options that are typically the provenance of metahumans… And more traditionally, the co-opting of technologies devised by their more scientifically-minded villains. Scarecrow's fear toxin, in smaller doses, has all sort of uses. Mister Freeze's cryonic technology is incredibly useful.

"Don't really last long in Gotham if you aren't at least kind of nutters anyway," Red Robin notes, not at all disagreeing that there are some decidedly strange super-criminals in the City of Yesterday. But so far none of them have taken to wearing fishbowls on their heads, so that's a plus. "Probably don't last long as a supervillain anywhere if you aren't nutters. I mean, half these guys are geniuses who could make all the money they could ever want, could be beloved the world over for curing cancer or developing a machine that turns nuclear waste into kittens, but they're just… Cracked."

A thoughtful pause, as Red Robin makes sure the new fuse is secure in its slot, carefully checking the junction for any burn marks. The last thing he needs is to accidentally cause an electrical fire.

"But I mean, we're dressed in funny costumes sitting on the ceiling of a room covered in mud, so…"

The offer of help is another reminder that he's not the only genius engineer on the team - between himself, Spider-Man, Iso and Fairchild they're pretty well set-up there - as well as another reminder that he doesn't have to do everything himself. The latter, if he put a voice to it in his mind, would of course sound like a certain gothic magician, whose it turns out is also responsible for the very hurried thing Spider-Man tells him next.

It would be hypocritical of him, he knows, to get mad at Zatanna for meddling. He meddles all the time, after all (because of a deeply rooted if not always consciously expressed conviction that everything would be better if everyone just acknowledged that he was right and did what he thought they should) and one could argue that meddling is sort of the main thing superheroes do.

It would be doubly hypocritical, especially after what he pulled in the process of securing Spider-Man's agreement that they should help Spider-Woman.

But he can't help feeling a spark of exasperation.

Well, everyone's a hypocrite.

"You remember the night I offered you a spot in the Titans? I was questioning that Eastern European mobster? That's who I was trying to get intel on. The General, Ulysses Hadrian Armstrong. He's been laying low since Zatanna and I ran afoul of him in Gotham… Probably trying to figure out how to deal with somebody who can do real magic. As far as I can tell, he's working behind the scenes with different outfits, but he attacked the Odessa Mob at the Gotham docks, dressed… Uh, like me. Or, well, it was his costume first. It's complicated."

"Whatever he's up to, it's about more than just me and him. The General being out to get me doesn't matter… It him being out to get everyone else that's the problem."

But I mean, we're dressed in funny costumes sitting on the ceiling of a room covered in mud, so…

"Yeeeah, about that. Can we talk? Because. Uh. All this? Super gross. Like, guh-roooooooss levels of gross. This stuff feels like wading through cookie dough. And like after having fantasized about having a pool of cookie dough to swim in when I was a wee Spider-Baby, I have to say, I'm officially disillusioned and hope it does not always feel this disgusting please tell me this stuff is not going to always be this disgusting it'd be like a special form of torture, how do you -deal- with villains who feel like damp dough that's overstayed its welcome outside the fridge??"

And with that stream of consciousness rant delivered, Spider-Man just eloquently palms his face and sighs out, long and suffering. "If there -is- a Mud Uprising, or Mudrising I'm calling it now, don't take credit for the name, because it's totally gonna happen," he begins, as succinctly as ever, "I'm personally blaming you for what may end up being the grossest experience of my entire like."

He squints, looking down at the mud splattered around him.

"Seriously. I feels -moist-. And I don't, like — throw that word around lightly."

He certainly does not.

The rambling, in its own way, is as much a natural part of Peter at this point when the mask comes on as it is a method of buffering potentially awkward or otherwise stressful situations. Is this one stressful, as he strings together those rushed sequence of words? Well, maybe not quite, though it has every potential to be. Is it awkward?

Wellllllllllllllllllll.

"Yeah. That guy. The name really subtly and tastefully drives home the whole 'General' theme. Like if Thor renamed himself Estwing Maxcraft Armand Hammer." Maybe a little.

He listens, though, propping his hand against the surface of the ceiling, the white lenses of his eyes tilting up (down) towards the floor beneath them as a frown creases his lips behind the mask. 'Him being out to get everyone else that's the problem.'

"… Yeeah. So… I'm not gonna disagree, and — maybe I don't have any room to talk, but — that's not true. It matters. It matters to a lot of people. And yeah, we gotta stop him," he puts a slight emphasis on that 'we' there, "before he hurts other people, for sure. Without a doubt. But… it -does- matter. You're part of the everyone else, too. You've got, like… people, a lot of people, who would be a whole lot lesser for it if something happened to you."

He manages a laugh, a brief, almost wry thing, as he shakes his head. "I mean — look who's talking, right? I feel like a hypocrite. But — that's what we're here for, right? To point out the times when someone's doing dumb things we wouldn't notice ourselves doing because we're too — I dunno — up our own butts to see it in ourselves, or… whatever. That's what a team's for, isn't it?"

A second passes. And Spider-Man clears his throat, awkwardly. "Err, but you probably know all that you've been at this way longer than me so ANYWAY the point is — I wanna help. Let me know how I can help. And — I'll y'know, help with watching out for you, too, because that totally does matter, like, 100% it matters. So, tell me how I can help. And we'll kick this General guy's ass and call him mean names like Horatio Fredendall MacArthur. Burn!"

Fingergun. Winkyface. Secret hope -someone- will get that joke.

"… Uh. Anyway. Yeah. Just. Let me know. I'm all in." Silence lingers, for a moment, before he ventures. "He's after you, though, right? Does he know…?" Spider-Man, here, eloquently points at his face, around where Robin's own mask would start. Saying without saying the obvious.

'Who you really are.'

"Well… It's only like this when it's not active," Red Robin explains, perhaps missing the point. Possibly on purpose. "It can be made to feel like anything. Metal, human skin… That's the idea, anyway. Making scenarios for people to practice teamwork with… Search and rescue, or having to fight a whole gaggle of ninjas… It can't really replicate, you know, flashy superpowers, but strength, toughness, agility… We could make a you, for example. Of course, then when the Mudrising comes we'd be facing an army of Mud Spider-Men…"

There is, in truth, a kind of arrogance to the way Red Robin takes everything onto his own shoulders. There is that heroic spirit of self-sacrifice to it, sure, but the simple truth is that he genuinely believes he's better equipped to handle horrible things than other people are. Better a maniac be trying to kill him than anyone else, because he can take it. He can figure out the solution, the way to stop said maniac.

But it's difficult to deny what Spider-Man says: That part of the whole point of a team is to cover for each other's blind spots.

Despite himself, Red Robin lets out a faint chuff of amusement at the webslinger's suggestion that they make fun of the General by calling him by the names of less celebrated military commanders, the former Boy Wonder giving a light shake of his head.

"Fredendall? That's a deep cut," he remarks. Just not such an obscure reference that he didn't get it. Admittedly, a reference has to be pretty obscure for him to miss it entirely.

Does he know…?

An important question, and a delicate one. For the costumed types who work to maintain a secret identity, the thought of a villain who truly hates them knowing who they really were was one of the greatest nightmares. Everyone's life had innocents in it, after all. The loss of anonymity was a threat far more than to one individual. And what would a villain who'd thrived in Gotham's underworld do with that sort of information? Especially a villain who'd been thriving in Gotham's underworld since before puberty?

"No," he assures Spider-Man. "He's tried to figure it out. He was… Hunting down people who might be me. People who fit the criteria he figured would be necessary to have been Robin when I was. The deaths were all staged to look like accidents or suicides, but the pattern was there if you looked for it. So either he got distracted from that project after Zatanna and I found him, or…" Or it was just bait to draw Red Robin out.

He's not sure which possibility is worse.

"Ugh. No. Just — ugh. If I ever have to face an army of Spider-clones, I'm just gonna leave the planet. I'll leave the like, whole solar system if it ends up being -mud- clones."

Oh poor, woefully optimistic Peter.

That offer he makes after, despite all his rambling and jokes, is one that is painfully sincere — it's just that way of his. "Right? That just means it's gonna really sting when he hears it," insists the webslinger with a firm, wise nod of his head. Knowing just the wrong thing to say to the right people — it's a gift, and a curse.

But it's that follow up that Spider-Man is truly waiting for. The question that really matters. The question that cost -him- more than he cares to admit to… well, anyone. Does he know? Because the second they do — the second they glean a hint…

… it's like a shark sensing blood in the water, how quickly everything can go terribly, horribly awry.

Which might be why the relief is so strangely palpable in the way his shoulders sag reflexively when Red Robin answers him with that single, reassuring response. "Good," mutters the arachnid, rubbing the back of his head. "… I mean, not good if he's, like… killing people to try to find out, or…" Or lure Robin out, he similarly can't find his way towards saying. "… y'know, whatever, but… just means we have to figure this out ASAP." He's stopped, now. It could be a good thing.

It could also be a terribly, terribly bad thing.

Spider-Man, of course, has learned the hard way to be the type to hope for the former and prepare for the latter.

"I don't super get the impression he's the, like, licking his wounds type of guy from what you and Zee have said," he remarks after a while, scratching the side of his masked head. "More the type to load up a new master plan all Pinky and the Brain style or maybe sinisterly remark how all of this has been going according to his grand designs or adapting to hit you like ten times harder until he makes you ever regret being born or I'm probably not helping, am I? I'll shut up, shutting up now."

Still. He -is- trying to make a point, in all that. Which is — "But having some extra eyes and ears couldn't hurt, right? Gotham's not my beat - I mean, last time I was there, Batdad threatened to put me in time out with his angry old man voice - sorry - but that's kinda to our advantage, right? He might not expect me, like he wasn't expecting Zatanna. SO!"

And with this, Spider-Man extends his right hand out to Red Robin. In offering of the most grave and sacred of ceremonies: the upside-down secret handshake.

"You keep me in the loop on this thing, and I'll do what I can to help — and any information I find, I'll send right to you and you can totally decide what to do from there. Your call. Deal?"

Because - and this may be shocking -

Spider-Man is starting to get the faintest impression Red Robin might have some very mild control issues.

Naturally, Red Robin wouldn't put it past the General to be happy with either result - either he kills Red Robin in his civilian guise, or he lures the vigilante into what will surely be a lethal confrontation. Ulysses was a cunning planner, resourceful. Arrogant, definitely… But it fit with his psychological profile to be content with the idea that he'd beaten Red Robin by outsmarting him as much as he would from winning a direct struggle.

The typical worry most people with a secret identity would have about that identity being uncovered, Red Robin doesn't share. Virtually anyone who might be a 'weak point' in his life has been culled away, one way or another. His family taken from him by violence, his civilian friends almost entirely left behind.

But still, the secret wasn't his alone. Uncovering it would put something bigger than himself in danger. He'd lost sight of that when he let Zatanna know who he really was, all those months ago on that cold rooftop. A moment of terrible weakness.

Silently, the currently upside-down vigilante watches Spider-Man as he rambles a bit, expressing thoughts that Red Robin had gone over himself. No, there was no way Ulysses was simply licking his wounds and stewing in hate. He'd be coming up with something else. Bigger. Worse. Moving pieces into place. But with the Titans, Red Robin had access to different resources. To individuals which, hopefully, the General couldn't figure out ways around. But he had to plan for the possibility that he could figure out ways around them. That Ulysses would have something up his sleeve.

There's only a brief moment of hesitation, the former Boy Wonder's natural inclination to do everything himself trying to hold him back, before he extends his own right hand for the inverted secret handshake.

"Deal," he says, finally. "And since you're being helpful, I won't tell Batman what you said about his angry old man voice."

Really, Spider-Man could see this going any way. Red Robin might not accept that deal and at least tell him straight up. Or he could accept it on its face and then not follow through, which is still a possibility that he'll have to live with. Or…

… Or, Red Robin could take that hand, shake it, and the webbed vigilante could accept at face value that his fellow Titan is being honest with him.

And, as Spider-Man's hand clasps with Red Robin's in that brief exchange, he commits himself wholly to that option.

Really, there's all sorts of things he could say in that moment. Al sorts of things he's thinking of, and things he needs to cover about just who this Ulysses guy really is and what all Red Robin knows about him. But for right now —

And since you're being helpful, I won't tell Batman what you said about his angry old man voice.

"Ohthankgod."

— for right now, that'll do just fine.

Just another reason to count his blessings before everything goes to hell yet again.

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