I swear, every time I think this story's dead for good, someone (Cypher) convinces me to come back to it. If anyone is still reading this, please enjoy.
Carmen's beady eyes were practically dancing, and a small, secretive smile was playing around the corners of his muzzle. Sharon glared at him suspiciously, but relaxed her stance.
"This isn't the time to be actin' the fool here, Carmen," she said. Her tone was mild, but there was an underlying thread of steel to the words. Clearly, whatever the world, Sharon Hawkins brooked no nonsense. Carmen ducked his head sheepishly, but the odd little smile refused to leave his face. Sharon rolled her eyes heavenwards. "You and Hotstreak haven't been trying to make moonshine again, have you?"
Carmen barked out a huff of laughter. "Nah, Tech's got a great batch brewing out by the water pumps. Seriously, you just have to come and see this." The smile stretched into a full-blown grin, and Virgil could practically feel excitement rolling off the other bang baby in waves. Carmen turned away from them, curling himself into a ball as he went and bouncing back towards the main area of the base.
Virgil shared a glance with Sharon, raising a single eyebrow in question. Sharon shrugged in response. "Better follow him," she muttered. "God, I hate it when he gets like this…and what do you mean, Tech has moonshine brewing by the water pumps?!" Her voice rose in a shout on the last, and she took off after Carmen at a jog. Virgil shook his head bemusedly before he followed. The main part of the base was oddly deserted as he hurried back towards the war room, shelters standing silent and the main thoroughfare utterly empty. As he finally caught up to Sharon and Carmen, he realized why.
He heard them before he saw them.
Sharon and Carmen were standing at the outer edge of the main gathering area of the base. Slowing to a halt behind them, Virgil became aware of a dull sound filling the cavern-like ceilings of the old subway station, the murmuring of what had to be over a hundred voices. The noise rose and fell in waves, washing over the entire area. Virgil's eyes widened in shock as he peeked over Carmen's shoulder.
Every single one of the refugees was grouped in front of the war room. Every. Single. One. Virgil hadn't seen more than a few dozen of the people living in the underground base, had actually talked to even fewer. He hadn't realized how many people lived here. A group of about fifteen children stood to one side, loosely bunched around a few older adults and several refugees who were obviously ill or injured. Other than those, though, every other able-bodied man, woman, and a few teenagers were dressed from head to toe in the sort of body armor that Sharon sported, and armed to the teeth.
Sharon's jaw had dropped in amazement, and beside him, Virgil could feel Carmen practically vibrating with excitement. Silently, Virgil edged closer to Sharon. Across the way, he could see Hotstreak and Adam leaning in the doorway of the war room, watching the crowd with mirrored expressions of astonishment.
Sharon finally shook herself out of her shock, striding forward and placing her hands on her hips. "What's going on here?" she demanded loudly, her voice carrying over the crowd. Her words cut through the noise of the throng like a thunderclap and the noise almost instantly ceased, dozens of people snapping their attention to her. Sharon met Adam's gaze over the heads of the refugees, but he simply shrugged, still looking gob-smacked.
"Carmen?" Virgil whispered uneasily, but the other bang baby just shook his head, still grinning like a fool.
One of the refugees, a tall man Virgil vaguely thought he recognized from the party that had been with Sharon the first day he and Richie had arrived in this world, stepped forward, shouldering a semi-automatic rifle with frightening ease. He wore his dark blonde hair in a military-style buzz cut, and his ice blue eyes zeroed in on Virgil with an intensity that was almost palpable. Sharon tilted her head slightly.
"Derek?" she asked, and Virgil didn't miss the tightness in her voice.
The man, Derek apparently, merely shrugged. He turned his head, glancing behind him to the other refugees, and a rueful smirk twisted his lips. "We've been talking," he said, jerking his head to indicate pretty much everyone assembled in the area.
"And raiding the weapons lockers," Sharon replied flatly.
"And raiding the weapons lockers," Derek agreed. "Thing is…we know you and Adam are planning an attack on Static's place tonight." Derek's eyes darted over Virgil again, an unreadable expression in them. "That you're going after this one's friend…the other Foley." Sharon's eyebrows inched towards her hairline, and she shot an accusing glare at Carmen. Derek, however, shook his head, readjusting his grip on his weapon. "He didn't tell anyone, Sharon…it was pretty obvious when you, Adam, and Hotstreak locked yourselves in the war room for three hours right after you got back. We know you're going in." The man paused, squaring his shoulders. "And we're going with you."
There were murmurs of agreement from those that were close enough to here Derek's words, and a few raised rifles and shotguns in the air in a sort of salute. Virgil felt a thrill of shock race through him. Carmen reached over and squeezed his shoulder, and he turned astonished eyes on the other bang baby. Sharon rocked back on her heels, her mouth actually falling open in surprise for a moment. She recovered quickly, though, and shook her head.
"Derek…Derek, whoa, you can't. I mean, I was gonna ask for volunteers, but we can't ask you all to risk yourselves. This…this is too much."
Derek's eyes hardened, and another low murmur went through the crowd. "No," he said, his voice low. The sound of it carried, anyway, and the murmuring died down. "No, it's not enough. It's not anywhere near enough, but it's what we have…and it's what you've got. You've kept us organized down here, Sharon, kept us going—but Foley…our Foley-" Derek's voice faltered a moment, before he sighed. "Richie kept us safe. Those bastards would've found us years ago if it weren't for him. He saved my life a hundred times over, saved my little girl's life…saved all our lives."
There was a wave of assent from the crowd at Derek's intense words. "We weren't there—none of us was there when Richie needed us. And I know we didn't know him the way you did…we weren't all friends with him the way you were, but we owe him. Now—now we've got a chance to take Static down forever, to take back our city, to give the Justice League some breathing room. And we've got the chance to pay Foley back in some way for what he did for us. So no, Sharon, it's not enough…but Foley deserved a damn army and we're the best you've got." Derek subsided, and a ragged cheer burst forth from the refugees. Sharon swallowed heavily, her good eye glassy with tears, as Derek's mouth quirked upwards into a wicked smile. "Besides," the man continued, "Hotstreak's gonna need all the backup he can get."
"Hey! Fuck you, Mahoney!" Hotstreak hollered out from the doorway of the war room, flipping Derek the bird as the assemblage broke into laughter and good-natured catcalls.
Sharon joined in the laughter, turning and throwing her arm around Virgil's shoulders. Her face was positively glowing, her expression one of laughter and hope. Virgil had no way of knowing, but he had the feeling that it had been a long time since this world's version of his sister had looked like that.
"All right, then!" Sharon shouted, her voice echoing in the old subway station. "Form up into your patrol groups and make sure everyone has what they need. Patrol leaders report to the cafeteria in fifteen minutes…we head out in two hours!"
Virgil closed his eyes a moment, just breathing, and prayed to God, his mama, and anyone else who might be listening that somehow, Richie would know he was coming for him.
Richie wasn't sure how long it had been since Deimos had left him. It might have been a few hours; it might have been a few days for all he knew. He drifted in and out of consciousness, huddled on the bed and trying with all his might to pretend he was somewhere else when he did swim back to wakefulness. His own bed in his own house…the science lab at school…the lumpy couch he had dragged into their gas station-slash-secret base.
His mind shuddered away from the pain coursing through his battered body in his brief moments of awareness. Instead he focused on Virgil. The house that he secretly considered more a home than his own. The warmth and closeness of Virgil's family that—for all he knew his parents loved him dearly—his own seemed to lack. He held the memories close, wrapping himself in them like a warm, soft blanket.
Eventually, though, the fog in his head receded. The pain and nausea rolling through him abated slightly…not so much that he dared think about moving off the bed. But enough that he thought maybe Deimos was correct about him not having a skull fracture. He groaned softly, reaching up with one hand to gingerly rub at his eyes beneath the glasses he had left on while he tottered between sleep and unconsciousness. He winced as his fingers brushed against the swollen, bruised flesh around his right eye, knowing without having to see that he had a spectacular black eye.
He took a deep breath, silently bracing himself, and then slowly pulled himself into a sitting position. The motion sent the now-familiar jolt of pain rocketing through his head, but the accompanying dizziness was a little easier to ride out this time, and though his stomach roiled threateningly, the spike of nausea dissipated without him heaving his guts out again. Richie groaned again as he drew his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around the top of them, resting his forehead on top of his bent arms. His movements were as slow as an old man's, and there was some part of him that was honestly surprised not to hear his bones grinding together like broken glass under his skin.
He sat like that for several, long minutes, not even sure what he was waiting for, or trying to work up the strength to do. Gradually, though, he became conscious of a prickling sensation on the back of his neck, a feeling that he wasn't alone. He grit his teeth, pressing his face more firmly against his forearms.
"No, no, please no…I can't…I can't take any more." He licked his lips, flinching slightly when his tongue hit the scabbed, crusted blood on a split at the corner of his mouth, and looked up.
Static was sitting in an armchair in front of the large bank of windows in the room, just staring at him.
The day was starting to fade outside, twilight creeping up on the horizon and casting long shadows through the glass. The sunset behind him cast Static into deep shadow in the chair, only the gleam of his eyes readily visible from the angle Richie was sitting at. Richie tried to steel himself, reaching desperately inside for any scrap of strength left to face whatever Static had planned.
For what felt like hours, they simply stared at each other. Static was silent, unmoving save for the soft rise and fall of his breath. Richie held his gaze steadily, though inside he was quaking at the thought of Static flying into another rage at him.
"Please. Please, please, please." He had no idea what he was pleading for…mercy? Rescue? Relief? He felt as though he had been flayed open to the core of his being, drained dry and bereft of any reserves he had.
At last, Static broke their staring content, rising from the chair in a fluid, graceful motion. The other youth took a few steps towards the bed, but stopped short several feet away. It was enough to bring him out of the shadows and allow Richie to see more than his eyes. Static crossed his arms over his chest, regarding Richie with a mild, reasonable look on his face. It was somehow more terrifying than any other expression this version of Virgil had presented him with.
Because his eyes were flat. Hard. Cold. Devoid of any kind of emotion or life. It was like looking into the eyes of a shark and Richie was suddenly keenly aware of just how helpless he really was.
"I was wonderin' when you'd wake up," Static said at length. His voice, like his expression, was curiously calm. If Richie hadn't known better, it would've even sounded full of concern. Richie didn't answer. If Static was irritated at Richie's stony silence, he gave no sign. He sidled a little closer to the bed, blithely ignoring the way Richie tensed further with every step he took. "How you feeling?"
At that, Richie couldn't hold back a ragged, broken laugh that was more than half a sob. Static looked taken aback at the sound, actually taking a half-step backwards. He recovered quickly, though, and moved closer still to the bed.
"Hey," Static whispered softly. He shuffled closer, and Richie forced himself to maintain eye contact, unwilling to let Static out of his sight no matter how much he wanted to look away. "Hey," Static repeated. "I'm sorry…I didn't mean for things to get that out of hand. I just got a little mad."
Another hysterical little bubble of laughter rose in Richie's throat as he wondered how many conversations between his alternate self and this monster had started with just those after-school-special words before Static had killed this world's Richie Foley. He bit it back stubbornly and forced himself to remain still as Static closed the last few feet between them, coming to stand beside the bed at Richie's shoulder.
The sudden touch was not unexpected, but Richie couldn't suppress a shiver of pure revulsion as Static lightly ran the back of one knuckle down the side of his face, ghosting over the cuts and bruises in a sick parody of gentleness. He fisted his hands more tightly in the sheets. If all he could do was deny Static the satisfaction of seeing his reactions, then fine…he would cling to that with all his might. To his surprise, Static backed off after a few seconds and moved to sit at the foot of the bed. The other youth drew his legs up, mirroring Richie's position, and rested his elbows on his bent knees, regarding Richie with near laser-like focus.
"I just got mad," Static said finally, sounding for all the world like a petulant child. "You gotta stop making me so mad. I'm just tryin' to protect you, Rich. I just want you safe here…with me." His voice lowered and he tilted his head, so that he was looking up at Richie from under his lashes. Richie felt his breath hitch again at the look in Static's eyes. He swallowed thickly as the other boy slowly uncoiled himself, stretching out and moving towards Richie inch by torturous inch. Predatory. His every move was predatory and Richie felt like nothing so much as a mouse caught between a cat's claws. Nothing. He had nothing left to fight with.
He let his gaze drop, staring blankly at his hands lying limp in his lap. He focused on the bruises blooming black and ugly on his wrists, on the places where the skin had split and bled. Evidently taking Richie's silence as encouragement, Static slid closer. Richie couldn't even find it in him to flinch, his still spinning head and aching body absolutely run down beyond the dregs of his reserves. He couldn't fight. He couldn't run. He couldn't do a damn thing to stop whatever new, sick game Static wanted to play.
But he would be damned if he let Static see him afraid.
His skin prickled unpleasantly as Static drew up until he was kneeling right next to him, the shadow of his body blocking out any dying light from the window. Richie exhaled softly and traced the angle of light on the floor with his eyes, calculating the density of the glass and the chemical formulas of the three most likely treatments that had been used to tint the windows. Static's hand hovered over his, and he blinked. He pulled the schematics of the TynaCorp building out of the tired, fogged recesses of his mind. What would be the force necessary to break through the bullet-proof glass in the executive offices on the third floor?
"Can't we just start over?" Static said softly.
The fifth floor, now. And the tenth. How large would an explosion have to be to break all the windows at once, and what angle would the force have to be directed at? Static's fingers stroked delicately over the back of his hand, an almost ticklish sensation, and he couldn't take it. He couldn't take it, he couldn't feel it. He would not let this man see him afraid.
How much of an explosion could he create with a zap trap, using only the supplies available in his lab?
He could make twenty different explosives with the chemicals he kept at the gas station. Thirty if he brought some things from home. How could they combine?
Harsh fingers dug into the flesh of his jaw, tilting his face upwards forcibly. The pressure it would take to crack his jaw…what was it? How many nerve endings would feel the pain?
He blinked again, and felt the familiar, tingling rush of his thoughts firing, gave himself over to it in a way he usually tried to avoid because it made V nervous. How many different chemical solvents could he combine using the materials in his lab? How many could he combine before they became too toxic? The formulas exploded in his head and he followed them gratefully, tumbled headlong into the kind of thought process that blotted out everything else—food, sleep, hot, cold.
Monsters sitting on the bed that wore his best friend's face.
"Richie!" A hard, stinging slap across his face rocked his head to one side, and he couldn't help the little whimper that burst from his throat. Hands seized his shoulders and shoved him down. He didn't resist…just tried to hold on to the numbers and symbols and possibilities dancing in his head. Tried to hold onto them as hot breath ghosted over his cheek, as fingers twisted cruelly in his hair. It didn't matter. It didn't. It didn't, it didn't, it didn't. He closed his eyes and held onto the numbers.
And then, abruptly, the weight over him was gone.