Sorry for the wait. I actually had the bulk of this chapter (fifteen pages to be exact) but I became majorly, majorly stuck on some "filler" parts and the muse was just not helping at all. But I still managed to force it out. Cheers!
Many, many thanks to Lynn, Nikana, NME, totallystellar, wildred, Reluctant Dragon, and Iris. Your reviews all brought a huge grin to my face and actually made me wriggle in my seat a bit. (Clearly, I need to lay off on the sugar).
Disclaimer: Don't own Static Shock, Justice League, or Popsicles. Don't sue plzkthnx.
002: The Pain is for Me
"The wound is for you, but the pain is for me." – Charles IX
It hurt to be alive.
That was the only thing that was really registering in Virgil's mind lately. It hurt to live. Things just kept barraging through his brain, and he didn't even try to shut them out anymore. All the memories of Richie were so precious despite the pain they caused that he didn't dare push them away; he didn't want to chance losing them, too.
Two days. It was the second night since Richie had died, and at about five this morning Virgil had woken up screaming, his nightmares painting him the picture of raging flames consuming his partner, and no matter how hard Virgil fought to reach him, a green shield barred him from getting there.
Boys weren't supposed to cry. But then, heroes weren't supposed to kill, so what was one more rule broken? Last night, he'd slept in a sweatshirt that Richie had left at his house.
His father had tried to coax him out of his room today, but Virgil had mutely shaken his head, and Robert didn't fight it past that: he was grieving, too. Virgil had heard Sharon crying; sobbing, actually, and he hadn't known she'd cared that much.
Virgil had gotten a phone call from Sean Foley at about midnight last night, full of death threats and incoherent screaming and lots of words that might not have been politically correct even a hundred years ago. Virgil couldn't make himself angry; he couldn't even make himself hang up the phone. He'd let the words wash over him, guilt and agony threatening to drown him until Robert had plucked the receiver from his hand, politely gave his condolences and said a goodbye that he doubted Mr. Foley had heard at all, and hung up.
For the past four hours, he hadn't even moved, sitting on his bed with his back to the wall and his knees bent. His arms hugged himself, because he felt like he'd maybe fall apart if he didn't physically hold himself together.
Every second, he managed to think of something else that he and Richie would never do together again. Never play video games. Never go to the movies, never make stupid jokes during incomprehensible English class, never spend way more time than is strictly healthy discussing the virtues and failings of Plant Man, never pass out together on the couch after watching all three extended-edition Lords of the Rings movies back-to-back, never make fun of Sharon's cooking—
He wanted to scream, but he'd tried that already. Right after Mr. Foley's phone call, he'd flown out to the park in the middle of the night and had screamed and screamed and let loose all the voltage in his body, and to hell with the Lords' temporary curfew for Dakota. He'd blacked out half the city and scorched the park to a charred black field and melted all the swings and slides to lumps of twisted metal, and it hadn't nearly been enough. Nothing had let out all the agony trapped inside. It wasn't sadness, or even sorrow, because those were words you used to describe how you felt when your gerbil died. He was in agony, like someone had taken a white-hot fillet knife and was slowly, patiently, sadistically slicing his soul to ribbons.
A familiar stinging began behind his eyes again. Virgil took a deep, shuddering breath to steady himself, trying to hold back tears. He'd cried enough. He'd cried...
Never enough. A tiny whimper escaped his throat; the gaping wound Richie's absence had left was comparable to the loss of his mother. A precious person, lost.
Six years since his mother, and Virgil still hadn't healed. His mind couldn't even begin to grasp this new agony, the widening of the hole that had already been left in his heart. He couldn't even shut down.
Two days and two nights. Forty-eight long hours of running, hiding, one short hacking session with discoveries that had left him sickened and disturbed, and catching little spurts of sleep in between. The distance between the warehouse and Virgil's home was rather large, true, but it really shouldn't have taken two days to get there.
Then again, most people wouldn't have had to worry about one of the Justice Lords offing them if they were discovered to be alive. Frankly, Richie was nostalgic for the days when 'big bang' referred to what happened when some idiot screwed up in chemistry class.
At least the summer nights were warm.
Staying hidden during the day was infinitely harder than doing so at night. At night, as strange as it sounded, he was free to move about without much fear of being seen so long as he was quiet and stayed in the darkness. The Lords had placed a curfew on the whole of Dakota two weeks ago, with the notable exceptions to the rule being Static and Gear, and even they had a curfew of 2:00 am. The reason behind it, the Lords claimed, was that it was too dangerous for normal citizens to be out and about, and anyone roaming in the night would most likely be rogue Bang Babies – thus making it easier for the Lords to snatch them up, changing volatile Dakota into a safer place for all to live.
Bullshit. The curfew was all about control.
Richie flinched at the sight of Green Lantern in the sky, instinctively crouching down against the side of the house he was sneaking past despite the way that Backpack, attached to his chest to spare his back, dug into him when he bent. Though the Lord was a fair distance from him, it was hard to miss the glowing green that surrounded him.
Reinforcing curfew, Richie acknowledged bitterly, rising from the half-crouch and sprinting as silently as he could across the lawn and into the adjacent driveway.
Creeping along the next lawn, he stopped beneath a second-floor window and glanced around himself, searching for onlookers.
"Backpack," he whispered, regretting the lack of his helmet, which would have allowed communication without speech. "Scan the house. Where are the people?"
Backpack's answer was swift, the little robot flipping open its screen to show the readings: two people downstairs in the living room, one upstairs in Virgil's room. Backpack also noted that Virgil's window was open.
Apparently, even dead men can be lucky.
At Richie's terse instruction, Backpack twisted its top two arms around, stretching them to latch onto the windowsill. The other two gripped Richie's waist firmly, and Backpack began to haul its creator up.
Richie bit his lip against the pain shooting through him, grabbing the ledge with both hands the second it came within range.
Having come very close to shutting out the world around him, Virgil almost didn't hear the faint clicking noises. His first thought was that he was going insane. His second thought was that the same being that was stabbing at his heart was now clearly torturing him further with too-familiar clicking noises that he'd only heard Backpack ever make. But Backpack had been lost in the rubble of the old warehouse along with its master.
First one metal claw, then another, stretched up over the windowsill and pulled their burden up high enough for it—him—to grab onto the sill with his hands.
"V," said the soft voice associated with those hands, "promise me you won't scream or freak out or make any noise above a whisper. And that you won't kill me."
Not a problem, considering Virgil couldn't speak.
Rather awkwardly, the teen clambering into Virgil's room via his window pulled up one knee to rest on the sill and allowed himself to rather ungracefully stumble into the room.
"Jeez, bro, I know you're probably in shock, but you could have helped me in at least." Backpack silently lowered itself to the floor and scuttled across the carpeting, into Virgil's closet.
Richie sighed; he was dressed in black sweatpants and a black t-shirt, and Virgil recognized them as clothing from one of the many caches of cheap, thrift-store clothing and medical supplies they had stashed all over the city.
"You're brilliant and utterly original, V, you know that?" He glanced out the open window, as if looking for something, then stepped out of view of anyone who might be looking in. "Before you bother asking how I survived the whole 'building going boom' thing, let me tell you: long story short, Hotstreak saved my ass by making sure I wasn't turned into instant barbecue. Clearly not as stupid as he seems, considering he managed to put two and two together and figure out that it was me the Lords were after—and apparently decided that hey, if they're trying to take me out, I must be a threat somehow. And he decided he wanted to keep alive someone who can scare the Lords."
Virgil stared at him for a moment, uncomprehending, then said, "I love you." Richie sighed and rolled his eyes.
"Yeah, I figured that. Took you long enough. Did you hear anything I just said?"
"That's cold, bro," but Virgil stood, took Richie's face in his hands and pressed their foreheads together, closing his eyes and just reveling in the contact. Alive. Unreal. He maybe had thirty seconds, he figured, before his brain caught on and had an aneurysm.
"'Course I love you." Virgil opened his eyes in time to see Richie grin. "Came back from the dead, just for you." At the word 'dead', Virgil shivered lightly, his face going ashen.
"Oh, god." Virgil's hands slipped down to Richie's neck, his thumbs keeping Richie's face tipped toward him, as if looking away would cause him to vanish. "Oh, god."
"Don't force me to make a stupid joke about it being just me, not god." Despite the teasing air, there was worry in Richie's tone. "Don't freak on me, Virg."
Virgil took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to steady himself. "I just can't... the building exploded, Rich, and you were inside it." The pain washed through him again; stupid, but it was like a reflex. "You... I thought I'd lost... I couldn't help you, man; I couldn't get to you, I couldn't save you, I couldn't—"
"Hotstreak saved you?"
"Yeah. Tackled me, kept the heat at bay, and then promptly informed me that I'd better get the hell away and not tell a soul or he'd toast me himself." For a moment, there was a flash of regret in Richie's expression. "He stayed to fight; I have no freaking clue why, because he knew he wouldn't win. He's either a popsicle or road kill now."
"Popsicle," Virgil affirmed quietly, making a mental note to thank Hotstreak, should they ever get him out of the cryogenic chambers. Asshole or not, he'd saved Richie's life for whatever reason. Virgil sighed. "I thought you were dead, man. Why didn't you contact me?"
"Dude, the Shock Vox is toast, and anyway, I was not risking the chance that someone was tapping your phone lines or listening in on our frequency. And do you have any idea how hard it is to keep out of sight of everyone in the city when Lantern's patrolling the streets at night to reinforce the curfew, there're Bang Babies hanging out in all the abandoned buildings, and the Nightbreed are in the sewers? I'm sorry, man, but I couldn't risk anyone finding out that Gear or Richie Foley is still alive." Richie frowned lightly, worry and guilt clear in his eyes. "I'm sorry that you thought I was dead, but it was either that or risking really ending up dead, and there was too much chance of that actually happening already. I got here as fast as I could. I'm so sorry, V, I... are you okay?"
Virgil laughed softly, more out of delayed shock than anything else.
"What do you think? I wanted to die, bro. I wouldn't have killed myself or something stupid like that, but I just wanted to die." Virgil felt the now-familiar prickling behind his eyes, and he blinked rapidly. "But not before I killed them, I swear." The fading pain abruptly gave way to fury, and his voice rose. "They—"
"Shh!" Richie pulled out of Virgil's grip, shaking his head. "I told you: I don't want anyone to know I'm alive. You're the only one who knows. You're the only one who's going to know."
Virgil stared at him. "Richie, are you insane? I mean, I know the Lords can't know, or the general public or anything, but my dad's been almost as messed up over this as me, and even Sharon's been crying! And your parents—!"
"Be quiet!" Richie snapped, keeping his own voice low. "V, you've gotta trust me! I have a—"
There was a soft, tentative knocking on the door. Both Richie and Virgil whirled toward the sound, and panic spread across Richie's face. He grabbed Virgil by the shoulders, startling Virgil into facing him.
"V, they can't know," he whispered frantically, his fingers clenching hard. "Not even your dad, he can't... Virg, please."
"Virgil?" Robert's voice was soft. "There's someone here who'd like to talk to you."
"Lantern," Richie hissed, and Virgil recalled the green streak he'd seen patrolling the night sky barely an hour before. Without even thinking about it, he grabbed Richie around the waist, ignoring the soft, pained gasp and all but threw him into the closet, thankful for Richie's near-silent landing due to all the clothing piled on the floor as Virgil shut the door as quietly as possible.
"There are so many jokes I could make right now," Richie murmured through the closet door.
"Shut up," Virgil hissed, and Richie whispered a short warning of "Be nice!" as Virgil moved quickly away from the closet to collapse onto his bed, hunched over with his head in his hands.
His door opened fractionally. "Virgil?" Sure enough, it was John Stewart's deep voice.
"Come in," Virgil said hoarsely, knowing his eyes were still puffy enough, his face in general still enough of a mess to pass as utter anguish: he looked the part. Now all he had to do was act the part.
And Richie's life depended on how well he did it. He'd lost Richie once already; he was not going to lose him again.
Be nice, Richie had said. In essence: act normal, act distraught and in pain and brokenhearted, but do not point fingers.
Virgil lifted his head, finding John standing a few feet in front of him with nothing but sympathy on his face. He barely managed to stop his hands from curling into fists around the bedsheets.
"Virgil," John said quietly, folding his hands at his waist, "I would have brought J'onn if I could have, but he's on a mission right now. He'll be back in a few days, if you'd like to speak with him instead of me."
"No," Virgil answered; he pitched his voice soft and a bit trembly. "No, that's... I'd rather just talk to you, if that's okay."
Thank God J'onn was away. Richie would have been dead by now if the Martian had come along.
"Of course it's okay. I came because I know what it's like to lose a best friend, Virgil, and I thought I might be able to help you through this." John sat down beside Virgil on the bed, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. Virgil choked down the bile that rose in his throat at the touch, and firmly restrained himself from physically attacking the man who'd trapped Richie inside an exploding building. Trapped him there and left him to die.
If you know what it's like, how could you do that to us?
Virgil wasn't really sure how he got through the next half-hour. He purposefully allowed himself to be distant, withdrawn, and he'd even managed to squeeze out a few tears by brutally recalling the moment of Richie's "death" to his mind.
He was vaguely aware of John touching his shoulder again, lightly, then telling him that he could contact the Lords at any time...
And to consider the offer of joining them. To be able to help make certain that no one else would have to suffer Gear's fate; that no more best friends would ever have to suffer the agony of being left helpless and alone to grieve.
Only the knowledge that Richie would be discovered kept Virgil from attempting to outright kill the man. As it was, Virgil watched the Lantern leave in silence, his hands shaking with the effort of keeping his power reigned. Even so, his bedside lamp brightened momentarily.
A minute or so later, Robert entered the room. Virgil's eyes flicked up to his father, hating that he couldn't ease Robert's pain – Richie had been as much of a son as Virgil to him in so many ways. But Richie had said that he couldn't know, and... and that meant Richie had a plan of some kind. He trusted his partner.
"Pops, I just... I want to be alone for a little bit, okay?"
Robert nodded, sorrow and sympathy and pain filling his eyes. "Of course, son. I'll... I'll be downstairs with Sharon, if you need me."
Virgil dropped his head, closing his eyes. Robert left the room, closing the door behind him, the latch clicking softly. After waiting a minute, listening for Robert's footsteps going down the stairs, Virgil got up and pulled open the closet door. Richie was sitting on the floor, his shirt off and bunched behind his back, pressed between Richie and the wall. There were also bandages wrapped around his stomach and halfway up his chest. With a sudden twinge of fear, Virgil recalled the pained gasp when he'd grabbed Richie and shoved him in.
"It's nothing," Richie said immediately, noting the look of worry that crossed Virgil's face, and that denial just proved that it was something. Something bad.
"Like hell. What happened?" Virgil offered a hand, and Richie took it, pulling himself up, and Virgil immediately noticed a dried brownish stain on the bandages around the back. Despite his protests, Virgil turned the other around and gently began unwrapping the bandages. As the wound was revealed, Virgil hissed in sympathy at the long gash on Richie's back.
"When Hotstreak tackled me, I landed on some twisted metal—ripped my back up pretty good." He winced as Virgil lightly ran his finger just around the wound; it was barely scabbed over, and even that pitiful defense had been broken in some places, most likely from Virgil manhandling him.
"This needs stitches, Rich."
Richie immediately snorted, turning in Virgil's grip and taking a small step back. "No kidding, but what am I supposed to do? Waltz into a hospital and ask them to treat a dead guy? Who, since he clearly isn't dead, will be the second the Lords find that out? I've got a better chance of surviving if I let it get infected and then refuse to take antibiotics." Richie's face hardened in a way Virgil had never seen before—Richie'd come close to that expression a few times, like when the whole thing with Mr. Foley had gone down, but this was different, somehow. Not teenage anger, but mature anger. Anger with a purpose in mind.
"There was another bomb in that building, V, and there was no way the Lords wouldn't have known it was there." Richie plucked the fresh roll of bandages Virgil had dug out for him from his friend's hands and began redressing the injury. "They meant to kill me and everyone else in that warehouse, and they didn't want you to know they were responsible. It's amazing where a dead man can go, Virg, what he can find out—no one's looking for you, and no one sees you coming. They arranged that machine you were fighting; it would never have killed you. You weren't in any real danger."
"It drained my charge; they wanted me drained," Virgil said in bitter realization. "They wanted to make sure I couldn't help you, even if I did manage to get there before they..." He rubbed at his face, pained by the words. "Before they killed you."
Richie nodded, looking far more calm than he actually was. "In simple terms, they wanted us to be split up. In detailed terms, they wanted me dead, and they want you on their side because of my death so they never have to worry about you trying to screw them over. As far as they're concerned, they're halfway there."
"So what's the brain blast, Neutron?"
Richie shook his head, smirking faintly.
"They were scared, Virg. Not of me, not of you—they were scared of us. And we're going to prove that they're right to be."
John touched his earpiece in response to Batman's voice. "Here." Having just left Virgil's house, he was now back to doing his rounds over Dakota, looking for any errant Bang Babies. If they didn't start showing themselves voluntarily, the Lords were going to have to take more direct action. So far, the Lords had only been showing up to snatch the volatile ones, but Bang Babies as a whole were too much of a potential problem to let any of them remain unleashed.
"How is he?" Batman's voice was, as always, calm and aloof. Green Lantern sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"I hated doing that," he said quietly. He knew this line was secure; Batman had made sure of it, and no one hacked a line when Batman had secured it. No one could... not anymore, anyway. "Just a kid. I keep thinking that maybe with time, we could have convinced him."
"I didn't ask how you are," Batman said pointedly.
"He's completely distraught. I spoke to his father for a bit before going up to his room; according to him, Static slept in one of Gear's sweatshirts last night and woke up screaming for him."
"He also blacked out half the city and turned the biggest park in Dakota into a charred field."
"Hell of a light show," Lantern agreed. "I didn't think... I don't think any of us thought he had that much power. Or ever would."
"That wasn't his full strength. He was still drained from his battle earlier."
Lantern let out a low whistle. "He wasn't half that strong a year ago. Where'd the jump come from? It couldn't all be from emotional trauma, and it would have had to have happened within the last few months. We would have noticed, otherwise."
"He's growing up," was all Batman would say. Knowing that pressing for details would be useless, Lantern frowned.
"Would Gear's power have done the same?"
There was silence on the other end, until Batman said, "It doesn't matter. Did Static seem unstable at all?"
"His best friend just died. He took out a park and half the electricity in the city in one shot. What do you think?"
"I think we'd better make certain he never finds out why Gear died."
Despite himself, Lantern felt chilled.
"Green Lantern out."
"By the way, V," Richie began, plopping himself down on the bed beside his partner, "before I get into my plan"—god, that made it sound like he had a clue what he was doing, and he just didn't—"what the hell were you doing to cause that blackout? For something that big, you'd've had to be in the middle of all the buildings. I was around that area, and I didn't spot you—although it was hard to miss what you were doing. That must have been a hell of a fight."
The sudden look on Virgil's face worried Richie: stunned and a little frightened. "Why would I have had to be in the middle of the buildings?"
"V..." Richie said slowly, "don't tell me you didn't notice that your power output was at least triple that of your usual nova blast."
Virgil raised an eyebrow. "Well, excuse me for being just a bit too distracted to notice exactly how much power I was using." Richie ignored that, continuing,
"Considering your usual range of power, draining half the city like that should have been nearly impossible, even if you'd been in the centre of all of that."
At this, Virgil hesitated. "I was in the middle of the park. I... it's not really a park anymore. It's all a bit... charred."
There was a long pause.
"I wasn't fighting anyone," Virgil continued, suddenly very interested in the comforter. "I was... I thought you were dead, man. I couldn't keep it in."
"Well, then," Richie said finally, looking to be a weird mix of excited and slightly disturbed. "This definitely offsets my calculations in regard to what extent your power will mature."
"You know, you could at least be flattered."
"I wonder if you'd have a bigger power jump if I died again," Richie mused, the faraway look in his eyes indicating that he was probably seriously considering it.
"No!" The horrified look on Virgil's face softened the expression on Richie's.
"Come on, bro, you know I wouldn't do that to you on purpose." Richie sighed, folding his hands together and pressing them to his forehead as if he were praying. "Which... is actually pretty ironic. V, I'm gonna ask you something that I have no right to ask of you."
"Rich, man." The nervousness in Virgil's voice was plain. "When it comes to us, you've always got the right. You know that."
"No. No." Richie couldn't make himself look Virgil in the eye. He felt utterly sick with guilt and self-revulsion, but somehow his words came out mostly steady and more or less calm. "Virg, I'm going to ask you to give up your life. I'm going to ask you to live with and pretend to admire people you probably want to kill. I'm going to ask things of you that I have no right to ask for any reason, and I'm going to ask you to do it all for me." His mouth was dry. "I'm going to ask you to help me... help me take down the Justice Lords."
Though his voice shook, Virgil didn't hesitate. "'Ask, and ye shall receive.'"
Richie explained, then said, "You should hate me."
Virgil managed a very sickly grin that mostly made him look like he wanted to throw up. Which was fine, considering Richie was pretty sure that really was how he actually felt.
"If this means that I've got to miss some issues of Plant Man, I just might."
It was a mark of their friendship that Richie didn't have to say something so trite as 'thank you'. Instead, he leaned against Virgil's chest for support and trembled violently, until he had to stop before he shook himself apart.
Although Virgil hadn't relished the idea of more life-threatening sneaking about, Richie stayed in the Gas Station that night, despite the risk of one of the Lords dropping in; there was really nowhere else to go. Virgil didn't bother asking what Richie was doing there, since when Virgil showed up in the late morning, it was obvious that the couch hadn't been slept on. Virgil suspected he really didn't want to know what Richie was doing. He also suspected he was going to find out anyway.
There was no way for him to describe how utterly terrified he was of this entire situation. Trying to kick the crap out of the most powerful beings of the universe was a bit of terrifying task, although he was pretty sure Richie would be able to calculate his exact level of fear right down to the final decimal point, and somehow, that was comforting.
The first thing Richie said to him upon his entry to the Gas Station, however, was not comforting in the least.
"Virg, I'm going to have to do brain surgery on you."
Virgil's first reaction was "Um, no." Then, "Wait, come again?" And finally, "I'm sticking with my first response: no, definitely no, with a side order of 'are you insane?'"
And Richie, sitting so calmly in his computer chair, responded, in order, "Yes; I said 'brain surgery'; and don't make me hit you with a zap trap and then knock you out with a blunt object, because it's going to get done."
"You didn't answer my 'are you insane?' question."
"That's because you wouldn't like the answer." Richie held up a zap trap in one hand and something about the size of a fingernail between his thumb and index finger in the other hand. "Don't make me use this." He brandished the zap trap, despite them both knowing that Virgil could easily deflect it. It wasn't the trap he was worried about.
A chill went through Virgil when he realized that the other thing was a computer chip.
"Oh. Oh, hell no." Richie scowled, though his eyes were sympathetic.
"What'd you think, V, I was going to send you off to the Watchtower with a note pinned to your cape saying 'Dear Justice Lords: please don't read Static's mind, as it makes him a bit jumpy. He's not hiding any big, Earth-shattering secrets, so don't worry! Love, Gear. PS – I'm still dead, seriously, so please don't come and kill me again'."
"Dude, sarcasm is my forte." Virgil frowned. "So this mind-chip thingy is going to keep telepaths out? Hey, back off with that thing!" He held up his hands and backed away as Richie took a step closer.
"V, I've got enough metal on me, not to mention there's more than enough around me, that you could chuck me through a brick wall before I got close enough to so much as poke you with this. There's no need to act like someone with Logizomechanophobia."
"There's no need to make up words, either, but that's not stopping you."
"It works, V."
Virgil raised an eyebrow. "Does it?"
"You want to put a chip in my brain that only works in theory? It might fry my brain the second you activate it!" Virgil paused, then his face lit up. "Hey, I'll probably fry its circuits without it even having a chance to work anyway! So you can't put it in." Firm nod.
"Do you really think I wouldn't have compensated for that?" Richie asked patiently.
"How did you come up with these things so fast?" Virgil asked suspiciously, anxious for any way to keep the topic away from the whole 'cutting open of the superhero's head' thing.
"I've been working on them for awhile; I actually had the chip itself completed, but making it electricity-proof as well was what gave me a lot of trouble. The way I originally built it, it wouldn't short out if, say, you zapped me, because it would be just a quick shot and I built it to be resistant. Unfortunately, the resistance only goes so far, so I had to find a way to keep it consistently protected against your electrical field's constant buffering."
"Oh." Virgil let the implications of that sink in. "Hang on—did you know they were gonna try and off you?" he demanded furiously, glaring at his best friend.
"Of course not!" Richie snapped. "Don't be an idiot." He set the zap trap and the chip down on his workbench, sighing. "But... I guess I figured that having some kind of defense would be a good idea, if you wanted it. But I never thought..." He trailed off, and Virgil nodded solemnly.
"Yeah, bro. Me neither."
"Even in the off chance that it doesn't work, it being in your brain won't hurt you," Richie said after a moment, trying to keep the conversation on track. "That's not theory; that's fact, so you don't have to worry about that."
Virgil eyed the chip suspiciously. "And how would you know that?"
"Well..." Richie squirmed uncomfortably, his eyes sliding to the floor. "Remember that head wound I got about a month ago? I told you it was from when Talon threw me into the side of the building? It, um. Wasn't."
Virgil gaped at him.
"Come on, V," Richie said soothingly, trying to defuse the situation. "You know I'd never experiment on you. Not when it comes to your brain, anyway."
"You couldn't have bought a rat and tested on it! How the hell did you perform brain surgery on yourself!"
"Backpack did it, not me. I programmed in the procedure, though."
"I would have bought the rat for you. I would have zapped the stupid thing into unconsciousness myself and cut it open for you and watched you put the chip in, and I would have nursed it back to health and let you call it Snugglemuffin if you wanted to, and I would even have promised not to make any stupid jokes about Snugglemuffin's name. Not for the first day, at least. Why couldn't you have tested the thing on Snugglemuffin!"
"V, don't freak out."
"I'm not freaking out. There's no need to, because you've managed to avoid certain death twice so far. Clearly you're immortal, and therefore I should be allowed to throw you in front of a moving train to prove that fact, but mostly just so I can make myself feel better." Virgil collapsed on the couch, glaring up at his friend.
"The chances of me dying were only—"
"I don't care," Virgil snapped bitterly. "You lied to me, Richie. You lied to me about putting the chip in. Hell, you didn't even tell me about the chips. You didn't tell me about the fact that you thought the Lords were slimy bastards."
Richie was quiet a moment, then said softly, "I had no proof, only gut feeling. There was no evidence to support my hypothesis. They are—were—your heroes. Would you have believed me?"
"Shit, man." Virgil stared up at his friend, bewildered and extremely hurt. "Not all of us think like a genius scientist, you know. Like I care whether or not you can draw me fifty diagrams and write me up a ten-page report on why you think the Lords are megalomaniacs. You're my best friend. I love you. Why wouldn't I believe you? Why wouldn't you trust me."
"I did!" Richie protested immediately, carefully sitting down opposite his partner. "I do. Of course I do. But... V, it's hard to believe someone when you think they're crazy, you know?"
"I already know you're crazy." The hurt eased a bit.
"And I didn't want to worry you," Richie finished lamely, removing his glasses and rubbing at his eyes tiredly.
"Okay, you were already dangerously close to it when you said 'I didn't want you to think I'm crazy', but now you're into full-blown Token Retarded Movie Wife mode."
Virgil dived off the couch just in time, although his left ankle was still ensnared in the zap trap.
"Where did you have that thing stashed?" he asked, reaching up to hit the release catch.
"Under the couch cushion, just in case you ever got overly annoying." Although smirking, Richie was tense, ready to vault over the back of the couch in case Virgil decided to throw it back. But Virgil just floated it over to workbench and set it down there, flopping himself back onto the cushions.
Richie relaxed. He really shouldn't have, considering how Virgil knew very well, as much as anyone ever possibly could, how his mind worked, but even super geniuses make mistakes.
A second zap trap caught Richie square in the chest, its 'arms' binding him awkwardly to the couch.
Virgil grinned widely at him. "I knew there'd be another one on this side."
Richie grimaced, holding himself as still as possible. "V. Back. Ow."
"What? ...Oh, jeez, Rich!" Virgil immediately leaped forward, hitting the release catch and letting the trap bounce harmlessly to the floor. "I'm sorry!"
"S'okay." Richie sat up, wincing. "It's already healing pretty well." Richie had developed a salve not too long ago that nearly tripled the speed of the body's healing process. Of course, due to the pricey components of it and their serious lack of funding... well, they only used it when they really needed it. Making more than the small batch they already had would put a serious dent in their savings.
"Good to know you're not a zombie," Virgil remarked, and Richie pulled a face at the randomness of the comment.
"I'm dead. Not unde—oh." Richie looked as though he'd just been hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat. "Oh man. I just realized... my funeral. When is it?" A slight hesitation, then softly, "How're my parents? My mom?" It was the first time he'd really acknowledged the fact that he was, as far as the world was concerned, dead.
"Don't know. But your dad... He... gave me a call. Lords told him everything. Wasn't calling me to say thanks for trying to save you, I can tell you that much." Virgil smiled wryly, and Richie looked sick and miserable.
"Don't tell me, man; I don't wanna hear it. God, this is such a huge fucking mess." He sighed. "Don't go to my funeral, V."
"I have to!" Virgil protested, shocked. "Do you have any idea how suspicious that would look?"
"Not very, if you explain about my dad. I don't want to end up attending your funeral, V. Bullet through the skull makes for an unattractive open casket, you know?"
"I still have to go," Virgil argued. "He's not gonna shoot me at your funeral, Rich."
"My dad may not be the best guy in the world, but he did—does—love me. Even if he was an opinionated, bigoted ass most of the time. As far as he's concerned, you're responsible for my death, right?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
"You thought I was dead, and you knew the Lords were responsible."
"Do I have to spell it out for you, Virg?" Richie said tiredly, waving his hand in the air vaguely. "You wanted to pretty much kill the Lords, right? He's my father. What do you think he wants to do to you, first chance he gets? He does own a gun; 'right to bear arms' and all that."
"Well, he knows that I'm Static now, right? The second he shows up, I'll take the gun away," Virgil answered, wriggling his sparking fingers. His face didn't betray the nervousness he felt at the idea of someone waving a gun around, but Richie could read him like a book. Unconsciously, Richie rubbed at his leg.
"He knows who I am!" Virgil interrupted, jerking forward.
"God, you're slow today—yes, did that just dawn on you now? Don't worry about it; the Lords will swear him to secrecy under penalty of death or something."
"Nononononono," Virgil near-wailed, realization hitting him like a ton of bricks. "They're gonna find out who I am! Oh, shit. We're never going to be able to cover this up. Gear dies, and Richie Foley magically disappears and is pronounced dead without even a search party? Virgil Hawkins' grieving looks more like really bad acting, and Static isn't taking out his rage on Bang Babies? Not to mention, how freaking often do a white guy and a black guy team up?"
"Hey, I'm pretty fly for a white guy."
"I hate that song," Virgil moaned, burying his face in his hands. "Why aren't you panicking?"
"I'm dead," Richie reminded him. "Dead guys don't panic about people finding out their secret identities. What are people going to do, spray paint profanity on my gravestone? Oh no! They might trample my flowers!" Richie snorted. "There isn't even a body for them to defile."
"I'm still alive! They'll harass my family—"
"The Justice Lords won't allow it, once you join them. They've already caught most Bang Babies, and what normal person is going to mess with a guy who can smack them upside the head with lightning?"
"—I'll get crazy stalkers slash murders slash ninja assassins coming after me—"
"You'll be spending a lot of time in the Watchtower; Batman will scare away the nasty ninja assassins."
"—oh god, school is going to be unbearable—"
"Considering playing Evil Overkiddy is a full-time job, I'm sure the Lords will arrange some kind of learning program for you so you don't have to go."
"Stop being rational!" Virgil exploded, and when Richie opened his mouth to say something, Virgil nearly hissed at him. "NO! Stop telling me not to freak out! I DEMAND THE RIGHT TO FREAK OUT FOR A MOMENT! First, the Justice Lords kill my best friend. Then my best friend comes back from the dead. Then it hits me, hey, I'm in love with my best friend, but since he's currently a fugitive from the most powerful beings on the planet, if not the universe, and I'm currently an accessory for not turning him in, we can't do anything about it." Virgil took a deep breath, glaring at Richie as if to say, I'm not done yet, then continued his tirade.
"And then my best friend tells me this absolutely batshit crazy plan that involves me joining forces with the very people who tried to kill him. And then my asshole best friend wants to do brain surgery on me and put a computer chip in my head. And then he tells me that it's not that big a deal since he got his freaking ROBOT to do the surgery on him first without even telling me. Then I have to go to his funeral and face his gun-toting homicidal racist father and try not to get killed. Finally, as if all that's not enough, I realize that the whole world is going to figure out my secret identity sometime within the next week or so! Fuck the right to freak out, I demand the right to tranquilizers and a strait jacket! And if you tell me to calm down, I am going to zap you into unconsciousness and you are going to DESERVE it!"
Richie stared at him, startled, then said wryly, "Do you hate me yet?"
"Yes. Yes, I do," Virgil snapped, and the fact that they both knew it was a total lie only served to aggravate him further. Richie sighed, tilting his head back to stare at the ceiling. Silence reigned for a few minutes, until finally Virgil broke it with a plaintive, "I'm a bad actor."
"You fooled Lantern last night," Richie reminded him, not looking away from the ceiling.
"That's because I was in shock. I was still waiting for the fact that you're alive to sink in." Virgil sighed, although it came out as more of a faint hiss. "I'm still mad at you."
"Yeah, I know." Finally, Richie lifted his head as a gentle current brought the chip to float in front of his face. He grabbed it out of the air, and let the tiny thing rest in his upturned palm. He held it out to Virgil; an offering.
"They're gonna notice that my head's been cut open, Rich. Even with the salve. And Lantern knows that I didn't get hurt earlier."
Richie gave a faint smile, his hand closing around the chip as he stood. "We can use the fake skin."
"Don't a team of doctors in a sterilized room with proper training and proper tools usually perform these operations? And they're not permanently sticking anything inside the brain, either," Virgil said moodily, and Richie couldn't blame him for his tone.
"Hey, I'm not exactly jumping for joy about opening up your head, V. I don't want confirmation that nothing's actually in there." He dodged away as Virgil swatted half-heartedly at him.
"I don't want to do this," Virgil sighed, also standing up. "Let the record show that I am seriously opposed to doing this."
"You're not doing anything," Richie reminded him, clearing away various electronics from the one desktop in the room large enough for Virgil to lay on. "At least if I screw up, you get to be brain-dead. Me, I get to deal with the never-ending guilt of turning my best friend into a vegetable for the rest of my life. Which will probably be about... two days, give or take. Depending on how fast the Lords decide to investigate your disappearance."
"Please don't talk to me about screwing up. The only reason I'm agreeing to this is because I don't actually believe you're going to do it." Virgil yelped, covering his eyes as Richie brandished the chip. "Don't show me that! If you want me to avoid punching you in the face and then running for my life, then don't show me that and let me live in my happy delusion where you're not serious."
"Lalalalalalalalaaa!" Virgil responded enthusiastically, shoving his fingers in his ears. Richie bit back a slightly hysterical laugh and obediently put the chip in his pocket, out of sight, then pointed at the cleared desk.
"On the table."
"It's a desk. A filthy grimy greasy desk. God, I hate you so much." Virgil climbed on anyway, grimacing as he laid back on the surface.
"It won't take too long," Richie said soothingly, to which Virgil immediately responded, somewhat panicky, "Don't rush!"
Richie crossed the room, digging in a drawer for the oxygen mask and knock-out gas. Really, not the best way to do things, but it would work.
When he turned back around, Virgil had sat up again, and was staring at his feet.
"You okay, V?" Richie asked as he came back over. He laid his hand on Virgil's shoulder and squeezed gently.
"Nope. Not at all." Virgil stared at him, irked. "What the hell kind of question is that?"
"A stupid one," Richie admitted, lightly shoving at the shoulder in his grip. Virgil grudgingly allowed himself to be pushed back down, and pointedly didn't look at the things—mostly sharp things—Richie was setting on the table beside him.
"If I ask you how you're going to get through my skull and hook this thing up, will you tell me the truth?"
Richie considered this for a moment. "Yes."
"Oh, okay," Virgil said calmly. When it looked like Richie was going to tell him, he snapped out, "I didn't ask 'cause I don't want to know."
"Later. I have brain surgery to do." The look Virgil gave him was somewhere between surprise, terror, and a healthy dose of anger.
"You comfy, V?"
"Great!" Richie exclaimed, falsely cheerful as his nerves were stretched to nearly the breaking point, and brandished the oxygen mask. "Nap time!"
Virgil hand snapped up, stopping the mask's descent.
"Rich. I'm sorry." Virgil took a deep breath, releasing the mask, then closed his eyes in resignation. "Sorry for snapping at you. This is insane and dangerous and stupid and probably fatal and I have every right to be pissed off, but... If this goes wrong I don't want... the last thing... I don't want to die mad at you."
"Wouldn't matter, V. I'd be following you soon anyway." Richie's expression softened, though. "Don't think like that. You'll be fine."
"Just do it."
Richie gently placed the mask over Virgil's mouth and nose. "Either way, man... See you on the other side." Virgil gave him a thumbs up. Knock-out gas began to flow, and the dosage, Richie knew, would knock Virgil unconscious for more than enough time for the chip insertion.
Virgil's hand fell limp, his body relaxing completely.
Richie ran through the entire procedure mentally, then did it again, and again, until all he was thinking about was the cold, hard medical facts and not the fact that it was his beloved best friend lying unconscious on the desktop.
It was all that kept his hands from shaking as he pulled on rubber gloves and picked up a sterilized knife.
All right, since a lot of (okay, two) people are asking:
Q: Why didn't Backpack perform the surgery on Virgil, too?
A: Well, Richie knows how, and he has human sentience. If something goes wrong, or something is different, he can react accordingly; something a robot can't do to the same extent. Not to mention I think Virgil would feel better knowing that a human he trusts is doing the operation instead of a robot, even if said robot already got it right once.
Or at least, that's my logic.