Even in spring, Gotham is cold and dark.
During the day, Robin finds it bearable. While the streets are grimy and unpleasant, the sun washes the city with life. It makes his steps lighter, his breathing easier. It's only during night that the oppressive chill feels inescapable. Under the inky darkness, the city becomes colder and sharper, all harsh lines and bottomless recesses.
However, some nights are particularly exhausting. During those nights, pollution slathers the sky like thick wet tar and it sink dense and viscous into his soul. Without the moon or stars, the world feels endlessly dark. The feeling follows him home, clinging to his skin and bones even after he peels his costume off. Those nights, he wakes up shivering.
Tonight is one of those nights.
For the rest of patrol, Robin vaults across buildings and dives off rooftops. Closes his eyes, savors the rush of air. If he concentrates hard enough on the thrilling hum in his veins, the damp grey of Gotham seeps away and melts into the bright, flashy colors of Hayley's circus.
The lemon yellows and electric blues, the goldfish reds and acid greens – they burst and bloom across his vision, flooding his senses and washing away the city's darkness with a disconnection that dissipates his worries. In the air, he isn't a sidekick or an orphan, isn't Robin or Dick Grayson – he's just a boy, dissolving into the sky. For a few seconds, Robin feels free, really free, and it shakes off Gotham's chill.
For a moment, he feels invincible. For a moment, he flies.
However, gravity's pull is inescapable. The minute he lands on cold concrete, the world shudders back into grimy darkness. Almost immediately, the weight of missions, of double lives, of doing what's right versus doing what's necessary, press back down on him. Still, Robin grits his teeth and shoulders it. It's only gravity that he cannot bear. For all the things he carries, only gravity is truly inescapable.
But this time, gravity is too much. The air feels crushingly hot, his costume suffocating, and somewhere deep inside, something thin and taut snaps. He's not fast enough, not strong enough -
(Can't fly, can't fly, oh why can't he fly?)
- and suddenly, he doesn't feel weightless anymore.
When Robin bites down a grimace and hurls himself back into the air, there's no electrifying exhilaration this time. Instead, all he feels is the full weight of the city bearing down on him, stifling and smothering.
(The ground has never felt more like death.)
M'gann is the first to notice.
It starts off as a faint buzz, tingly and anxious against the back of her mind. Stress, she recognizes instantly, but that's not what bothers her. In a hero's life, stress is constant, whether in downtime or during battle. Being a teenager isn't easy and being a superhero doesn't make it easier. What surprises M'gann is that it comes from Robin.
Even without reading peoples' minds, she can still sense their emotions; strong ones filter through her mind like sunlight through water and weaker ones flash dimly like fireflies in the dark. Although Robin has always been a little more guarded than the others, he usually radiates bright mischievousness. But this …. this is too different. It reminds her of nights when their missions go wrong, when something cold and vaporous trails after in his wake. There's something terrifyingly intense in its chill and M'gann shivers thinking about it.
But while that usually fades with time, this one stays.
Days pass and the humming grows louder. It rolls off of him in shadow and steam, saturates the air around him with sadness. Permeates her skin like a cool fog, suffuses her mind with quiet frustration. It sets M'gann on edge, all fluttery nerves and worried agitation.
That's why she finds herself in the kitchen, humming under her breath as she pulls a tray out of the oven. Cooking, she heard, helps eases worries and she supposes it works well enough; while she was busy mixing ingredients and flipping through cookbooks, she almost forgot the constant hum of anxiety.
"Done," she sings as she floats the tray out of the over. While they're still a little burnt around the edges, it's a vast improvement from her first batch. M'gann beams. She bets that her teammates would eat these.
"Now, where are they?"
For once, there's almost no one on the base. Kaldur has been called back to Atlantis for his duties to his king, Artemis left to eat dinner with her family, and Wally reluctantly leaves when he realized he still had homework to finish. Still, Superboy and Robin are good enough company. She finds Superboy in the living room, staring blankly at the staticky TV screen. When he tells her thanks with a small smile, cookie crumbs flecking the corner of his mouth, her ears blush bright red and she almost trips in the air while flying away.
Robin is less easy to find. It takes her ten more minutes to find him, but when she finally does, he's a twisting and flipping blur of motion in the training room. There's beautiful, subtle grace in which he moves and it makes her breath catch. However, there's something that feels so wrong that she stills. M'gann studies him for a moment and immediately knows; although his back flips and handsprings are unbelievably precise, there's something dark and heavy in his movements, as if gravity is dragging him back down to earth.
This is not the Robin she knows. The Robin she knows flies.
"Hey Miss M," he greets playfully as he finishes another of series of flips in the air. When he finally lands, her heart aches soft and sad.
"You were amazing!" she exclaims, voice bright with sincerity. At her words, Robin smirks and there's a small burst of pride. It feels like warm sunshine against her skin and M'gann can't help beaming back.
"Thanks," he replies just as the cookies catch his eye. "You made cookies for me? Aww, you didn't have to. What's the occasion?"
Although his voice is light and teasing, M'gann's heart sinks a little at his words. Her gaze darts to the floor when she finally speaks.
"I … I'm worried about you," she stammers. After a beat, she nervously glances back up. " … You haven't been like yourself. Are you sure you're doing okay?"
For a second, Robin stills. There's a strange tension in his shoulders, a slight line of rigidity, almost as if he would snap in half any second. Half a beat later, it rolls off with the slight twitch of back, but his posture still seems a little more off, a little more rigid.
"I'm fine," he answers easily, but there's a strange undercurrent to his voice that says otherwise. "Just not really feeling the aster right now."
M'gann doesn't believe it, not for a second. Although a part of her nervously insists that she should just leave it, another part, the one that's fiercely protective of her friends, rears up.
"No, you're lying! You're … you're not happy. I can tell," she cries before stopping abruptly. It's more than just unhappiness, but she doesn't know how to put his tired tenseness to words. How can she explain the way his sadness and anxiety clouds thick and deafening in the air to someone who's never felt them?
Something must have shown in her face because Robin sighs, leaning lightly against the wall.
"It's … it's not that big of a deal, " he replies, "I'm just having a bad week. Really."
"Robin," she says softly, "If you need someone to talk to, I'm here."
The tip of his mouth curls up and flattens into a thin line.
"Thanks," he says quietly. "It's just that sometimes everything feels terrible, and there's no way getting it out. That's what's the trouble. It's usually not a problem, because usually I-"
(weightless distance, smooth as silk, and brighter than light – it bathes the air in a wash of diaphanous elation)
(-and then darkness, tar-thick and concrete cold, clogs her mind and she coughs to clear the tarnish from her throat)
"I don't know. It's not really working it out, because the feeling is always there, but it's learning how to stand it that's difficult," he sighs, voice heavy as if soaking wet. Against the dark wall, his face looks drawn and pale, translucent like the moon. Almost like death, M'gann thinks and a chill creeps up her spine. She rubs her arm nervously.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" she asks. If her voice is a little higher and louder with desperation, Robin has the grace to act like he hasn't noticed.
"Not really," Robin answers with a wane smile. When her face falls, it shifts to something more light-hearted and teasing. "Well, you could make me some more of these cookies. They're delicious."
"Oh, of course! I didn't make another batch, but I have a few more recipes I'd like to try out. I mean, they're not anything special but I've been meaning to try some new ones out and oh, I think you'll really like this one!"
M'gann is babbling now, but she can't stop. Although she recognizes his deflection, she's grateful that she can at least do something. It makes her feel less out of depth, less useless. It isn't until Robin gives her small, grateful smile that she feels a little more at ease.
"All right," he grins, "Let's go."
When she flies towards the door, something flickers in air around him, quick and indiscernible. Although it lasts only for a moment, the weight of its pressure and darkness startles her into flinching back for a second. She's never felt such an intense burst emotion from him before. Even though it lasted only for a second, M'gann could have sworn it was felt almost like envy.
In the end, Robin has to leave. With a loud sigh, he grumbles about homework and patrol and how he needs to leave if he doesn't want to be on the end of another one Batman's lectures. M'gann follows him to the entrance, floating after him uncertainly and wringing her hands.
Under the violet-red sky, he finally stops. When he turns to face her, his features are blurred with dark fire and shadows. For a moment, under that lychee-red light, he looks too tired and too young, too raw and too vulnerable. A terrible and deep misery floods her and she isn't sure if it's hers or his or a blurring of both. Then, he turns his head and the feeling washes away.
"Are you sure you'll be all right?" M'gann asks softly.
"I will," he reassures her, but the tired, thin smile on his face says otherwise, "Just not right now."
She tries to smile back, but it comes out hesitant and unsure.
When he walks away, his cape flutters behind him, shadowy and wraith-like. She watches him until he becomes a small pinprick against the sunset, an indigo sky stained with red.
"No, you won't," she sighs. Her hand clenches at her side.
It's two am in the morning and M'gann still can't sleep.
When she closes her eyes, all she can see is Robin, thin and taut, vibrating like an overstretched string. Everything from the grim press of his lips to the jerky twitch of his hands betrays his tension. But most of all, the heavy darkness has thickened around him in the past week. Even from all the way across the base, she can still feel its suffocating pressure.
M'gann wants nothing more than to swoop him into her arms and ask straight to his mind, Tell me what's bothering you and I can make it go away, you know! She wants to wrap his thoughts in support and sympathy like a thick, wool blanket until the darkness drained away, until Robin laughed again. If he were from her planet, she would do so. But this is Earth and he is human and everything is upside-down and wrong.
Reading peoples' minds are an invasion to their privacy here. I can't betray their trust, she thinks forcefully to herself. Knife-edged anxiety creeps up her spine and M'gann shudders. Robin wouldn't understand.
(Robin, her teammate, who flits through shadows and plummets off buildings with a daredevil's grace. Robin, her friend, whose trilling laughter and sly smiles bubble through her mind like the stinging tingle of carbonation against teeth. Robin, who is just Robin, someone infinitely clever and surprisingly fragile underneath all those sharp smirks and guarded grins. But now, Robin is too different, all smothered and frayed and wrong and M'gann would do anything to fix it.)
She presses her eyes shut and desperately wonders what Megan Wheeler would do. If this was an episode Hello, Megan!, Megan would drag Robin into watching crappy romcoms until both of them, laughing and crying all over sticky popcorn and half-melted ice cream, would talk away his sorrow. But this isn't the kind of problem that is solved in less than 30 minutes because Robin is a tightly wound ball of strained nerves who would never cry during Good Luck Chuck and probably only watched stupid movies with Wally anyways. But most of all, Megan is human and M'gann is alien and that makes all the difference.
And that's what matters! And that's how I can help him! M'gann realizes excitedly and bolts straight up from bed.
She can't cheer him up with cookies and crappy movie marathons. Nor will she won't peek into his mind, not even the smallest glimpse, without his permission. But she is M'gann M'orzz, a powerful telepath, and the least she can do is soothe his dreams. Although darkness will still dodge his footsteps during the day, at least they won't prey on him at night.
"You can do it," M'gann whispers fiercely to herself and floats out of her bed and into the hallway.
It takes seconds to find him (living room, second couch, no doubt after a hectic bout of gaming and movies with Wally) and under two minutes to get there (three turns right and two hallways down). Even so, it feels like hours before she gets there.
When she finds him, Robin is curled up tightly, cocooned in a fortress of blankets. Under the flickering glow of the TV, he looks small, so incredibly small under the spills of staticky light; the glow cut across the room, forming panes of ice over his face. Something deep within her, dry and hallow like the dusty yellow sands of her home, tugs at her mind and everything stills.
For a second, M'gann hesitates. But then she remembers the tired tension in his shoulders and the soft, wane smile and she extends her reach tentatively, brushing against his mind, gentle and soft.
The tricky thing about dreams is that they're amorphous and vaporous. There are glimpses of memories, trickles of ambitions and tragedies, facets of personality kept deeply locked away during the day that seep through at night. M'gann has seen many dreams, both terrible and glorious, but nothing like this. The inescapable hum of darkness is frenzied static here, buzzing and thrumming a thousand voices at once, and his dreams feel like heavy fog, weighed down by melancholy longing and a thousand sorrows. Envy prickles around the shadowy corners. It itches uncomfortably between her shoulder blades.
M'gann concentrates, squeezes her eyes and gently sweeps warm calmness over the smoky haze of dreams. Gradually, the frantic hiss of anxiety lowers into a soft hum. For a second, she thinks she can hear murmuring laughter under all the static. The world feels lighter, brighter.
Good, she thinks with relief, Just a little more.
M'gann conjures up a deep well of happiness and gently blankets his mind. For a second, as the fog slowly drifts back, she thinks yes, I did it, I really did it! but then there's a sudden shock of bright light with colors blossoming and blooming against her vision, goldfish red and clover green and M'gann reels in surprise. The vividness of the elation is almost dizzying. But amid all the layers of sensation and color, there's bright, rapturous feeling that hums against her skin. It almost feels like –
(the sensation of indecipherable weightless distance, the heavy and dark feeling of longing and envy, the deep and dangerous pull of gravity)
Her eyes snap open with realization and she barely stifles back a startled oh.
(The Robin she knows flies.)
Hello Megan, she thinks, slapping the palm of her hand against her temple, He wants the sky.
Happy Harbor has always felt like spring.
With its sloping green hills and flower dotted fields, the city seems worlds away from Gotham. Robin sometimes finds it hard to believe that they're only miles apart. But even with the sunshine in his face, he's disconnected from the soft earth beneath him. His body may be in Happy Harbor, but his soul is still in Gotham.
To his right, there's a small shift of wind. He tilts his head up.
"Hey Miss M, what's up?"
There's a flutter of fabric as M'gann floats down to him. For a heartbeat, an ugly rush of jealousy fills his heart but he ruthlessly squashes it back down.
"Hi, Robin!" M'gann greets cheerily, "What are you doing up this early?"
"Had trouble sleeping," he responds a little ruefully, "I came out to think."
"Robin," she starts, but then stops. She hesitates for a brief second, but then her eyes light up. Grabbing his arms, she pulls him into the air.
"M'gann, what are you doing?" he yelps as she scoops him up. M'gann just smiles brightly as she soars into the sky.
"Helping you fly!" she exclaims.
"What?" Robin sputters as she takes him higher, higher, higher.
From their height, he can see a canvas of dense green forests and the aquamarine sea. Buildings glitter gem-like against the rolling hills and thin threads of grey roads wind across the landscape. The wind whistles past his ear. She flies on and he holds on tight, savoring the cool rush of wind and altitude. All the way up here, everything seems infinitesimally small as he soars above clouds and superhero responsibilities, beyond Gotham and gravity. In the sky, there's nothing but cool air and the glowing warmth of the sun.
And just like that, he dissolves.
The colors and the light flood against the darkness. Tension slips off his shoulders. For the first time in weeks, he feels empty and light, as weightless as the puffs of dandelion seeds blowing through the wind. The relief is dizzying.
"You knew," he says after a few minutes of floating over the city, "How did you know?" M'gann fidgets a little and smiles apologetically. Her hair flutters around her temples, ruffled by the breeze.
"When I saw you move, I knew. The pull of gravity," she says and sighs, "I thought that if I could help you fly, you could escape it for a while and that maybe you could be happy again."
"It'll come back again eventually," he replies quietly, almost as if he was talking to himself.
"All right," M'gann says after a heartbeat. She meets his eyes with her soft, earthy gaze. "But remember you have friends too. If you ever need help, we're here for you. You don't have to carry all your burdens by yourself."
"Thanks," Robin says. His voice is thin and quiet in its aching sincerity.
After a moment, she asks gently, "Want to go higher?"
His mouth quirks upwards into a playful grin.
"Do you even need to ask?" he asks and she laughs. It bubbles warm against his back.
She floats them higher into the powdery sky and he closes his eyes. For the first time in weeks, Robin breathes.