A/N: So, this chapter is woefully brief for a reason. It was actually the lead in to a much, much larger and far more important chapter in this piece. Actually, it was the single most important chapter in the whole story-the namesake, even. BUT it would have been so very long (ridiculously so) and I'm having difficulty getting into the meat of the chapter without making this section a transitional point. So, here it is. I will say, however, that something of serious significance does happen in this post, but the bulk of the good stuff will be in the next update.
This one has not seen a beta, as per usual, so if you see anything in dire need of help, do let me know. We're wrapping this one up soon too, kids. Three chapters left (would have been two with the possibility of an epilogue), and that's pretty much all she wrote. At least for this story.
That said, I hope you all read and enjoy. You have no idea how much I appreciate all of the feedback and support I've gotten on this one. I am truly grateful! Thanks so much!
Chapter Eight: Wide Open
"A man's face is his autobiography." - Oscar Wilde
Raven hit the ground with a broken, shuddering cry, face down and bloody in the dust as her body wound itself to flesh and bone, and she gasped, desperate and fumbling for precious air as she clutched his solidified form to her breast like a lifeline. And she swallowed past the desert in her throat, shivering with the knowledge that rattled around inside her head. She could hear it, the terrifying cacophony of his screams ricocheted in her mind like a stray bullet, and for a moment the Titan could only clench her eyes tightly and will the nightmare away.
But willing and wishing wasn't going to help either of them right now, and Raven knew it.
Dipping into a well of strength she knew to be running dry, the dark witch shifted and brought the circle of her arms to wrap around his torso a little tighter as she sat up. Raven pretended not to hear the sickening gurgle from somewhere deep in his throat as she did. There would be time to think on it later, in the still and quietude; now, she had to get him some place with at least a little more light.
Easing to her knees slowly, Raven lifted his body upward, grunting with exertion when she tried to stand, struggling under his greater bulk. The thief hung as dead weight, head lolling to the side like a rag doll as she drew him tight against her and pulled him along, feet dragging across the sand.
A strangled whimper echoed in the empty air, and Raven felt tears welling up in her eyes. "I'm sorry," she whispered, voice cracking. "We're almost there." She just needed to get where she could actually see something. Maybe then, she could do something. Maybe then, she could help.
Her back met the wall where the hazy blue glow danced in slips and tangles along the stone, and the ground was just a little brighter, and the Titan slumped, wiping her brow free of sweat and dirt as she laid him to the earth as one would a glass figurine and heaved an exhausted sigh.
She'd known what they were up against from the beginning—understood in a way that no other could. But for the first time Raven wondered, really and truly wondered, if they could take anymore—if they would survive this world.
Looking at him now, as he was, she didn't think so.
Raven drew a trembling breath, sliding down the rough stone to collapse upon her knees at his side. He shivered through what was left of his uniform, muscles locking in a tight spasm that drew forth an agonizing whine from deep in his gullet.
The dark witch tripped on a sob as she allowed herself to take in the sight of him for the first time, the knot swelling in her throat to the point she thought she'd not be able to breathe. "Oh God," she breathed, choking on the air in her lungs like a poison. "X…"
Red-X looked like absolute death. The ragged remains of the titanium-thread uniform hung in strips and tattered cords from his legs and torso like a burial shroud; his abdomen was a bleeding mess, oozing streams of his life as oil, thick and dark.
She reached forward with unsteady fingers, plucking back a hanging flap of his shredded gear to reveal the deep, angry grooves in his skin, the permanent mar of the serpent's fangs. The sorceress let loose the breath she did not know she held in an exaggerated sigh. Raven knew enough of wounds to know that, thankfully, the beast hadn't hit anything vital. Still, something was amiss…
The Titan traced lightly along the swelling dark of his injuries, stretching her fingers to settle her palm in the tangible air above the ravaged flesh and feeling the heat radiate from his skin like sunlight through a magnifying glass. Her stomach twisted; while his vital organs had been spared, Raven knew something far worse was spreading within, threading the fibers of a sinister web in his veins.
She felt the chill settle into her spine at the thought of it; the awful shriek that echoed in his chest as the snake coiled back to strike him like a thunder—
Raven abruptly shook the memory from her mind. The Titan didn't think she could bear it, the vision of him crumbling before her from her place in the sand, knowing he had taken the blow in her stead. Again.
"Why did you do that?" she asked, the ache breaking behind her voice in a sob. "Idiot," she hiccupped, wiping the heat from her eyes furiously. "You're so stupid, X…you're so damned stupid…"
It was too much. It was all just too damned much for her bruised psyche to handle, and for once, Raven made no attempt to resurrect the dam that had burst in her heart. She cried, and she cried hard, lacing her fingers through the matted muss of her hair and hanging her head as she wept openly.
Her emotional barriers had been so very raw. The stress of their situation had only been compounded by the fact that she'd not been able to meditate. It was no wonder the Titan had felt like she was going to lose it. She was certain the only thing keeping the screaming pulse of her unstable power from slipping through the cracks had been the previous years of discipline and the innate knowledge that any slip could mean the utter destruction of all she knew.
She sniffed, peering out from the glassy sheen of her lashes, heavy and wet with tears, to look at him once more. Her relationship with Red-X was fraught with tension at the best of times, and while she knew their tentative truce was built on mutual need, Raven had begun to question whether or not that was the truth.
He was supposed to be her enemy. He wasn't supposed to carry her when she'd fallen. He wasn't supposed to pull her from the raging river of the dead. He wasn't supposed to push her from harm's way.
But he had, and it was more than forced camaraderie. Even without the ability to use her powers, Raven could not shut off the nature of empathy. The thief was rather adept at keeping most of his feelings in check around her—better than most, really. But she'd felt this, and she'd felt it as strongly as though the emotion had been her own. Red-X had helped her because he wanted to.
Perhaps it was what had angered her so when he'd snapped at her in the sanctuary. The thief had twisted her head around in so many ways, had left her confused and tender as he worked to shift the role he'd previously filled in her mind. And then, he'd turned on her, which should not have surprised her and didn't really.
Except that it did. And what's more … it hurt. Unthinkable. Ridiculous, even. But apparently not impossible because it hurt, nonetheless. Raven felt his fury, his pure hatred for what she was as keenly as she'd ever known anything before. The thief had lashed out, not with the intention of showing her the shadowland in which they dwelled, though that was certainly the pretense, but for no other reason than to inflict pain, though she doubted that even he realized it.
And she had let him, which had only fueled the fire of her anger and self-loathing. The childish ass had her so knotted up inside she could hardly think.
But just when Raven thought she had figured him out, he'd go and do something to make her question everything all over again. Like saving her life—like giving himself for her.
She sniffled, her gasping sobs easing to a quiet slip and hitch of breath. The Titan had to get it together and she knew it; she could blow apart inside when they made it home.
Raven yelped out loud when she felt the trembling grip around her wrist, nerves seizing so hard when she jumped that she thought her heart would stop. The thief drew a sharp whistling breath at the movement, an inadvertent moan creeping up from his throat at once.
"Shh," she soothed, wiping her eyes quickly as she leaned down to hover above him. "Don't move, X. Just rest. You just need to rest."
He squeezed her wrist slightly, and Raven felt her chest swell and burn when Red-X tugged weakly, pulling her fingers up from the ground to lace with his own, guiding her slowly to the latch that held the cracked plate of the skull mask in place.
Her fingertips dangled, frozen in the empty air, and the dark one swallowed hard. "X," she breathed, hesitant. She knew what he was thinking, and Raven supposed she could understand. No one wanted to die without a face. "You're not going to die," she assured him. "I won't let you, do you hear me?"
He pressed her palm closer in response, guiding her grip to curl around the edges before letting his hand fall away, a silent gesture to proceed.
Raven steeled herself, fighting past the knowledge that she was about to break the sacred, unwritten code between them. Still, she closed her eyes as she popped the latch and pulled the last of their physical barriers away, his rapid, shallow breathing bouncing around in her ears as sound hits the walls of a cavern.
She did not open them again until his fingers found hers once more, tangling together to give the comfort that neither of them had. She sighed with an unsteady breath, focusing her gaze through the dark to settle upon his features in open curiosity.
She suddenly understood why he had taken the suit. Now that she'd seen his face, Raven knew she would never be able to erase the image from her mind.
Red-X was unlike any other creature she'd ever seen. He was handsome, but not remarkably so, though his features were striking and distinct in a way she couldn't fully explain. His skin was a smooth, soft olive – nearly Mediterranean in appearance, though the thin planes of his nose and the set of his jaw spoke of a more French descent than Greek. The platinum shine of his hair glowed in stark definition within the gloom, so pale it appeared as snow in the subtle luminescence of the cavern.
But his eyes…so very unusual, like two pits of burning coal, dark and terrible, beautiful and deep, like sparkling cut onyx set into the frame of his face in deliberate mayhem. Abruptly she turned away, unable to look into that black prism.
"S'okay," he wheezed, speech made awkward by the swelling of his bottom lip. "I wouldn't want to look, either."
Raven made no reply, exhaling through her nose as she set to work, a determined line to her jaw. She took the tatters of his cape made more pliable by abuse and began to fashion something akin to bandages, deliberately avoiding his gaze.
If he noticed, he didn't say.
Sometimes, things just happen.
Of all the lessons Robin had endured in the shadow of the bat, this was the one on which he'd never managed to get a solid grip. Most of the time, things happened because someone or something willed it to be so. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, after all, and Robin found that Newton's law applied virtually everywhere.
Except for those things—awful things—that sometimes happened for no reason at all; which they did and with far greater frequency than he would have preferred if given a choice in the matter. It was both unfair and cruel, and while he'd seen it happen to the undeserving time and again throughout much of his young life, Robin had yet to understand or, more importantly, accept the fact.
It was, perhaps, for this reason Raphael Martinez was being loaded into the back of a Jump City EMS transport, blood oozing from his ears like deep, red tar and crying like a little girl.
He shifted on his feet from his place in the shadows and watched, jaw set like stone and fists clenched in barely contained fury. Nothing. Martinez had given him absolutely nothing but 'sometimes, things just happen.' Robin snorted, spitting the irony like a poison as EMTs folded the gurney into itself and guided gurgling thief through the open doors. Funny how just a couple of weeks ago, he might have felt sorry for the son of a bitch.
"Did you get anything?"
He did not turn to meet the disappointed gaze behind him. Robin had enough of it festering inside all on his own.
"What are you doing here, Cy?" he asked, weary and aching to the core.
"JCPD called," he answered quietly, stepping up beside the smaller Titan though he kept his gaze firmly fixed to the scene before them. "Wanted us to keep an eye out for some loony stalking the slums. Apparently, he tortured Pinky Masterson straight into Arkham. You wouldn't know anything about that now, would ya?"
Robin grunted incoherently and turned away, retreating further into the alley.
"Look man," Cyborg called after him, though Robin did not stop. The cybernetic Titan turned to follow, quickening his pace to catch up. "That ain't what we do," he ground out harshly and grabbed a fistful of Robin's jacket at the shoulder and spinning him roughly. He jabbed one finger into the blue fabric of his shirt at the chest for emphasis. "You taught me that! Don't you turn your back on it, now."
Robin's eyes narrowed into malicious slits beneath the protection of his sunglasses, and his tone dropped into a soft and deadly warning.
"Get your hands off me, Cyborg."
The older Titan exhaled sharply and untwisted his fist from Robin's shirt, pushing the titan leader back as he did. "Whatever, man," he said, disgusted. "That ain't the way she'd want it to go down, and you and I both know it. Bet she'd be real proud, Rob."
Robin went completely still at that and swallowed hard, the embarrassed flush creeping up his neck like a steamroller. "I…"
"Bash in all the heads you want, man," Cyborg threw over his shoulder as he stomped into the night, "but I won't cover for you again—to anybody."
She sat back with a long, gusty sigh, swiping her forearm across her heated brow as she took a moment to look at her handiwork. He still looked like absolute hell, of course, but the Titan had managed to stop the bleeding with some measure of success, cleaning the areas around his marred flesh and ridding his skin of the metallic stench and stick of blood. He lay bandaged with the ragged remains of their clothing – both his cape and hers – still and quiet as the emptiness creeping into her chest.
Raven felt a chill creep along her spine at the belabored gurgling sound in his breathing and turned her gaze away once more, wringing her hands absently in her lap. Not for the first time, she wondered just where they would go from here. The sorceress felt reasonably assured the thief wouldn't bleed to death at this point, and while his physical wounds were no doubt painful – excruciatingly so – they would likely heal given time.
It was time they did not have. Raven swallowed past the vise in her throat. She could feel the sickness seeping down into the darkness beneath his skin, into the hollow places he kept closed and quiet within. His aura was already shifting, dulled by the venom taking root inside, and she knew –Raven knew – it was only a matter of time before it consumed him. She could heal him once they were in their home world; that was the easy part. But getting him there, as he was now…
"H-how?" he croaked and Raven jerked in surprise, flushing when she met his eyes, glassy though intent upon her. She hadn't realized he was awake.
"How what?" she whispered, confused.
His gaze traveled down the length of her arms to rest on hands that suddenly felt awkward, nudging her fingertips weakly with his pinky, and Raven colored slightly, knowing now to what he referred.
"I … I don't really know," she admitted quietly, looking away. "It just sort of … happened." Raven was fairly certain that sounded just as lame as it did in her head. Didn't make it any less true, though, she thought, recalling the way her hands had exploded with some sort of strange kinetic energy just before … just before …
"You s-saved me," he managed, picking up where she'd left off in her mind. Her recollection was dim at best, and Raven shuddered at the memory, the pulse and flare she'd felt thrumming through her chest, adrenaline roaring in her ears as the creature screamed…
"No," she replied, brow furrowed in thought as she mulled it over. "At least, I don't think so. Not exactly." She met his gaze and shrugged helplessly, the current of unanswered questions sparking between them.
Silence began to thread its fingers through the air, and Raven sagged back against the stone wall, exhaustion settling into her bones like lead. What she wouldn't give for her own bed right now.
"Th-Thanks," he murmured, causing Raven to snap her attention to him once more. She studied him curiously for a moment, noting the way the smooth contours of his face had drawn up into a painful grimace as he fought against the dark haze edging into his vision to maintain consciousness. But he was drifting into fitful slumber before the words had fully left him, and Raven felt the tension in her shoulders ease just a little when the tight line of his body suddenly released.
The dark witch exhaled heavily as she watched him through the glimmering depths of her eyes, exhausted and feeling guilty and strangely inadequate. Raven swallowed hard, breath coiling up in her throat yet again, though she was far too tired to try and understand the reasons. She let her head fall back again, speaking so softly she herself could barely hear the words.
"I think, perhaps, I should be the one thanking you."