down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
— Edna St. Vincent Millay
"Can't save me, hero." Red X has fallen.
It starts out as routinely as any other Red X encounter – that is to say, nothing particularly routine about it at all, save for the involvement of xenothium. Red X had managed to separate Robin from the rest of the Titans again, and now the two were racing through the massive corporate building's labyrinth-like basement. Robin chases Red X, and Red X chases the blinking signal that tells him the xenothium is getting closer.
"Gotta wonder, kid," Red X calls out, his voice filled with the adrenaline rush of the chase. "What kind of corporation deals in xenothium? You sure you want to help these guys out?"
Robin growls, dodging a handful of red shuriken that are thrown his way. He retaliates with a smoke bomb, but Red X simply uses his grapnel to hook a metal beam in the ceiling and pulls himself out of range.
It's harder to be the chaser. In order to dodge, Robin has to move back.
"Better they have it than you, Red X," he snarls, launching himself upward using his own grapnel to latch onto another beam. They continue the chase at ceiling-level, a good twenty feet above the floor.
The footsteps of the security are far away; they've been keeping good pace, but Robin and Red X outdistance them with every move they make.
Red X dodges around a corner, dropping down, and Robin follows. But suddenly, Red X is gone. Robin pauses in the hallway, casting his senses about for the thief.
His instincts scream at him, and Robin drops to the floor and rolls, dodging a punch and its following kick. Red X always did favour attacking from behind.
Robin arches back and leans on his arms, swinging himself into a handstand, his feet barely missing Red X's chin. Up and over, and the bo-staff is in his hand and swiping out almost before his feet touch the floor again.
It strikes Red X on the hip, but at the cost of an open palm to the left shoulder. Not a particularly painful blow; meant to drive him back and off-balance. It works, and Red X is running again, albeit with a satisfying way of favouring one side.
Robin's noticed, too, that Red X has been using his suit's special abilities only as much as he has to.
"You must be running even lower than I thought, X!" he yells out, taunting, and almost gets his mouth covered with a sticky x for his trouble. Robin grins, adrenaline pumping. Oh yeah. Running very low.
When Red X finally stops the chase, they are in a huge, steel room. Other than the single door they came through, there is no other exit. Lights flare on at their entrance, revealing the room is full of crates. Most are plain, save for a small, isolated pile in the furthest corner from them. Fragile is stamped on their sides.
Three guesses what's in those, Robin thinks dryly, and the last two don't count. He launches himself at Red X, who has skidded to a halt. But now that he's located the xenothium he so desperately needs, Red X clearly feels free to use his weaponry to its full extent.
Barely giving himself time to think, Robin twists and arches to avoid the explosive shruiken thrown his way, retaliating with a couple of freeze discs and a flash bomb for good measure. Once again, Red X grapnels himself up to the support beams of the ceiling and races for the xenothium crates.
He's about fifty feet from them when Robin, having followed him to the top, hits him with a net. Red X tears through it in a moment with his spinning X blades, being far too smart to flail around in it like an idiot the way most villains seem to, but it slows him down enough for Robin to reach him.
Already off-balance from the net, Red X nearly tumbles off the beam at the first hit Robin lands (a sharp kick to the chest) but uses his own sticky x's to grab onto a nearby beam and pull himself back up, swinging up and around to retaliate with a kick of his own that sends Robin skidding backward and feeling grateful that the metal is so thick up here.
Regaining their balance, they both fall back into fighting stance, neither willing to make the first move.
"Give it up, Red X," Robin growls, his ire rising when Red X snorts.
"Kid, you sound like a comic book hero. That line never works."
The closing footsteps of the security guards—who by now Robin knows are not normal security guards, as the police haven't shown up and normal security guards don't carry sniper rifles—make them both glance down.
"Just regular security," Red X snarks, looking back up at Robin even as the armed men filter into the room. He obviously knows about the snipers as well.
"This place will be well questioned after I've brought you in, Red X," Robin snaps. "No need to worry about public safety."
Though he can't see it, Robin knows Red X is grinning under the mask. It annoys him to no end.
"Shall we dance, kid?"
They both move at the same time, and for long moments Robin is caught up in the grace of the movements; both his and Red X's. A sweeping foot followed up by a swift, straight punch; perfectly aimed shuriken, dodged only due to Robin's own extensive training.
Sweat trickles down the back of Robin's neck, and he blinks to keep the sweat from his forehead from dripping down past his mask. He hates to admit it, but he always looks forward to trading blows with Red X. Sometimes, he wishes they could just be sparring partners instead of enemies. He's sure they would both benefit from the experience.
So caught up in the thrill of the fight, it's a moment before Robin comprehends the sound of footsteps ringing out again, echoing in the huge room; the security is on the move.
They're retreating, Robin realizes suddenly. Red X seems to notice at the same time, and they both break away from each other to see why.
The massive steel door is sliding shut. "Hey!" Robin yells, because they'll be trapping him in here, too. Already the lights are going off, one by one.
He hears a noise beside him from Red X: surprise. Distracted, he glances over, and his own breath catches. The red dot of a sniper's scope is aimed squarely on Red X's chest, centred perfectly on his heart.
"No, don't!" Robin yells to the marksman, and Red X leaps off the beam and toward the dubious cover of boxes below him. The scope follows him down, and when the gunshot goes off, Robin himself jerks as though he was the one hit.
Red X flies through the air in a graceful swirl of red and black, twisting skillfully toward the ground, and Robin can almost believe that the bullet missed him.
But then Red X slams into hard concrete floor, leaving a trail of dark, wet red behind him as he slides to a motionless halt, and Robin can't convince himself anymore.
The steel door slides shut, and the darkness is complete.
When Red X comes to, his head is resting in the kid's lap, and his face is cradled in Robin's gauntleted hands. It would be sickeningly romantic if Red X wasn't in so much pain.
"Kid," he says with considerable effort, "I'm really not one for pillow talk."
Predictably, Robin doesn't rise to the bait due to Red being badly hurt. What with being an a hero, he is afflicted with an overly large amount of conscience which, Red assumes, makes up for his own lack of one. Balance and Earthly harmony and all that.
"You're hurt, Red X."
"Really," Red X replies, his voice laced with mock incredulity. "You're one hell of a detective, bird."
"Tell me where." Robin's own voice is authoritative and calming at the same time. He sounds like a hospital nurse.
"You can't help me."
"X, tell me." The hands have left his face and are roaming down his chest and sides now with practiced motions, searching for wounds. Red grits his teeth.
"I'm no prude, kid, but I usually like a drink first at the very least."
He can't help the sharp intake of breath and the way his body clenches as Robin's fingers find the bullet hole. Just one; the bullet entered through his body on the left side, just above his hip, and is still lodged there.
The gauntlets leave the wound, and suddenly there are bare fingers touching there, gently probing in a way that makes Red want to scream.
"It's a gunshot wound," he snarls, his voice raw from the pain. "Not Playdoh. Quit poking."
"Is anything broken?" Bare palms close over the wound, applying pressure, and Red does make a broken noise of pain.
"No," he grits out, hissing between his teeth to keep any more sounds in. He's proud of himself, actually; even with a bullet in the gut, he managed to twist himself in such a way that when he hit, he likely wouldn't break anything upon initial impact. His body is aching like hell, though, even without the hole in him.
"Good." One of the hands disappears, and X hears the click of the utility belt opening. A moment later, the second hand leaves him and soft cloth is pressed there instead, slowing the loss of blood.
With effort, Red breathes around the pain.
"What's your angle, hero?"
Robin tenses a little in surprise, and Red X wants to laugh. As if he didn't know.
"What do you mean?"
"What are you getting out of this? What's the point?" Can't be just Robin's do-gooder nature; that thing on their bikes, that was reflex. Instinct. This isn't the same. Robin isn't killing Red X by just leaving him here; he isn't under any obligation to save him.
"Not everything has a price, X," Robin says quietly.
"Nothing's free, unless you steal it." Red thinks about the equipment it takes to be a successful thief, and the years of trial and error and training. "And not even then."
"That isn't true."
X snorts. "Prove it."
The hands shift ever so slightly to cover more surface area. "I am."
That's enough of a surprise to keep Red from answering right away. When he does, he says, "No, you aren't. Even if you think you are. You want to see me in jail."
Robin actually chuckles at that, a little ruefully. "We both know that won't hold you. Not for long."
Red considers that, then decides to change the subject. "How long was I out?"
"Not long. Maybe a few seconds. I tried to get some light, but nothing works. Matches will catch fire, but you can't see the flame. I've read about a tech that swallows light; they must be using it. Helpful to keep people where you want them."
Ah. That explains the continuing darkness.
"I can hold my own hurts, kid. Go look for a way out, would you?" The faster he gets the hell out of here, the faster he can get away from Robin. It's hard to escape a bunch of heroes when you're passing out from pain and blood loss. Bad enough that any hospital will bring in the police. But Robin's right; jail is easier to escape than the Titans.
Slowly, Robin lowers him completely to the floor and rises. Red X can hear the echo of boots against the concrete floor as Robin walks away from him, and with a wince he presses down on the makeshift bandage.
"Red X?" The hero's voice reverberates around the empty room as he calls out.
"What?" X answers, annoyed.
"Talk to me while I'm looking. I don't care about what; just keep talking. You have to keep yourself awake."
In the utter blackness, X blinks in surprise.
"I think you've got a bleeding heart, kiddo. You should get that checked out."
"Yes, talking. Just like that." Red X can almost feel Robin's smirk through the darkness.
Out of spite, he begins to tell Robin about his heists.
At first, when Red X begins to tell Robin about all the heists he's done (save for the suit and the belt – no matter what Robin says, Red X won't reveal how he got in the tower twice) Robin is angry. Impressed against his will, yes – Red X is extremely talented – but angry.
Grateful, though, too. Because the anger helps him focus on things other than the sticky blood coating his hands, on things other than the thief who is currently in the process of slowly dying on a cold, hard floor.
On things other than the way Robin isn't finding an exit.
"Keep talking, X," Robin says shortly. "You're just adding to the list of things I can charge you for."
Red X chuckles, and keeps talking. But Robin's voice is short because he's stressed, not angry, and Red's own voice is getting weaker.
He's circled the room twice, and racked his memories for the brief glances he stole of the place before the lights went out, and from it all he's forced to draw one conclusion: there is no other exit.
The doors, no matter what he does to them, refuse to budge.
He knows that the signal on his communicator is giving out his location to the other Titans. Every time he tries to contact them, he only receives buzzing static; the interference of six-foot-thick steel walls, no doubt. But the emergency signal, he knows from experience, won't be affected by that.
He slowly makes his way back to Red X in silence, following the sound of the other's voice.
Even though he can hear Robin coming back over to where he's lying on the floor, Red X doesn't stop talking until he feels Robin's groping fingers find his shoulder. He doesn't want to be stepped on, after all.
"No exit?" he asks after a moment, though he knows the answer.
"No." Robin's voice is tense.
"Come on, hero, aren't you good for anything?"
He's surprised again when Robin doesn't reply; he simply shifts X's head back onto his lap and presses his hand to the wound again.
"That's sweet, kid, but like I said, I'm not much for cuddling."
"Don't you ever shut up?" Robin mutters, and there's the sound of rustling cloth. A moment later, Robin's cape is laid over Red's body.
"Thought you wanted me to keep talking," Red X returns, though he's confused by the continuing kindness. It probably makes Robin feel better to do something when he's trapped, even if it's helping a villain.
Not that it's really helping. He's starting to feel a little cold, even with the cape warming him. It must be self-heating, just like his own beneath him.
"Do me a favour, kid. When I die—"
"You're not going to die, X." Robin's voice is surprised and, strangely, almost a little hurt.
"It's rude to interrupt." He almost grins when Robin doesn't reply. "When I die, don't take off the mask. I know that you could identify me in a second with all the tech you have access to. Don't take fingerprints, don't take off the mask. Bury me in it."
"X, no. That isn't—it's not right." Red rolls his eyes, annoyance rising sharply in his chest. "I swear I won't take fingerprints or look up your face on any databases. I swear it on my soul. But I can't—not in the mask."
"You'll look me up. Maybe not right away, but in a year. Or two. Or maybe even ten, when curiosity gets the better of your honour." Robin makes a protesting noise, but X expends the effort to actually wave a hand. "You would. Don't deny it."
Robin doesn't. Red's glad for that much honesty, at least, and returns it with a tiny piece of his own. "You'd look into my background, too. And, kid... There are things in my life you wouldn't understand. Things I wouldn't want you to know unless I was alive to beat some sense into you about them."
"I wouldn't pity you."
"Yeah, you would, hero."
Robin is silent; he has no answer to that.
"Deal?" X asks painfully. He doesn't like asking for favours when they should be just given—come on, it's his dying wish, shouldn't that be an automatic do-what-the-dead-guy-wants card?—but he has to know.
"There has to be someone, X. Someone who'll wonder—"
Red cuts him off by laughing, the sound oddly rough and gurgling from his throat. "Kid, nobody's been waiting for me to come home for a long time."
"We would," Robin says softly. I would, Red knows Robin's thinking but not saying.
"Standards must be dropping if you're hiring dead guys," Red quips; he can't help himself. Like Mercutio in his dying moments, he just can't leave this mortal coil without a bad joke.
Again, Robin is silent. Annoyed but patient. X blows out a pained breath.
"I know you would, kiddo. But I wouldn't wait for you."
"You'd learn." Robin's voice is both confident and sad; hopeful and torn. Red rolls his eyes beneath the mask and tries to ignore the way his breathing is becoming more and more laboured as time drags on.
"You're too good."
"You saved my life," Robin insists. As if by virtue of an invitation to the side of good, a map to the pathway of saving his own soul, Red will magically be healed. Really, he's almost touched. "There's good in you, X."
"'Course there is." It's a struggle to keep talking, which is a big flag that tells him he needs to keep talking more than ever. He's also still feeling cold. Damn. "That's why I'm a thief and not a murderer. That's why I use knockout gas, not a poison agent. But there isn't enough conscience to raise me any higher than that. And I like it that way."
"You liked playing hero with me, too."
"Not that much. It was a thrill; an adrenaline rush." He just wants to sleep. "I'm in it for the kicks, kid. Not the good. Being good is boring; being bad is way more fun."
"Don't go, X." Is Robin's voice cracking?
"You're trying to change the subject," Red accuses playfully, but it takes effort. "Besides, leaving is sort of difficult for me right now, don't you think? Can't even stand."
"Don't go to sleep," Robin clarifies. His body is tenser than it was before.
"Ah," he answers drowsily. "That's a bit harder, kid. Don't know if I can do that for you."
"Not for me, X." Frustration born from helplessness and fear. Really, Red is touched, even if it's most likely just Robin's hero complex coming into play. "For you."
"Can't save me, hero."
"Still gonna try," and for the first time, Robin sounds what X imagines his age is. "Red... are you afraid?"
What a question. "Not if you wouldn't be, kid."
It's the closest he'll come to saying yes. And he knows that Robin knows it. Part of him is vaguely disgusted with the way Robin seems to curl tighter around him, almost protectively, as if trying to keep him safe. The other part is grateful.
Nobody wants to die alone.
For a moment, in his hazy thoughts, Red X wonders what it would be like to have someone to come home to. Someone who would worry if he was six hours late. Someone who would miss him if he was gone.
He thinks he might have the last one, even if only for a moment.
"Robin," he murmurs; he's so tired. "Thanks." If there's a later, he'll kick himself for being sentimental. Stupid deathbed impulses.
"Stay with me, X." Authoritative and calming. Nurse Robin is back on duty.
"Don't take orders well, kid. You know that." Slurring his words now. Huh. That's not good.
"You're going to make it, Red." Robin's voice seems far away. "You're going to be a huge pain in the neck, and you're going to break into buildings and steal from decent, hardworking people, and you're—"
"Please," X whispers; he can't make his voice any stronger than that, but Robin stops immediately to listen. "Stop with the chick flick script."
Robin is quiet again for a long time. X struggles to keep himself awake, but he can't quite work up the same amount of energy he had before. He thinks it's because he's accepted it now. He knows it's over.
The fear is lessening now, too. That in itself is vaguely frightening, ironically enough.
"Red?" Robin whispers.
"Yeah?" So quiet. Both of them.
"It's a deal. About... about the mask." His voice is shaky. Red X wishes it wasn't. He also almost wishes Robin hadn't agreed, because it means Robin knows it, too. Knows it's over.
But he's grateful. Weakly, he nudges Robin's thigh with his head; he's too weak to speak any further.
Robin's hand finds his own. He almost can't feel it through the numbness spreading through him. Red wants to crack a joke, but beyond not speaking, he can't think.
"I'm right here," Robin murmurs.
Soft and soothing, and sad in a way Red can barely comprehend. He closes his eyes, and the black at the edges of his mind swallow him up.
After he assures Red X that he won't be going anywhere, Robin begins to speak. He talks about the Titans; talks about the things they do that annoy him, but he loves them for it anyway. He talks about Batman. But mostly, he talks about himself.
He doesn't say his name, or what he looks like, but he talks about what happened to his family, about how a man took him in when he thought he had nothing left. He talks about his training, and how scared he was his first night out on the city.
He talks about all the mistakes he's made, and his regrets. He talks about the suit itself – the Red X suit. He talks about how it's his biggest mistake of them all; about how angry he was to have it shoved in his face again. He talks about how angry he is with Red X himself – not even so much for wearing the suit anymore as for having so much talent and skill yet not using it properly.
None of it matters; he knows that Red X lost consciousness hours ago. But he still holds Red's gloved hand in his own bloodied, bare one and keeps Red's head resting on Robin's knees. His other hand is still pressed to the blood-soaked cloth that covers the bullet wound.
He can't bring himself to search for a pulse. He doesn't want to know for sure that there isn't one.
There's an odd glow at the very edge of his consciousness. His first instinct is to avoid it; if that's the light, he doesn't want to go. You can't steal anything in hell, and if it's heaven (heh, yeah right) then it'll be boring. Purgatory's just fine until he figures out what he's going to do.
Then he realizes that the glow is black, odd as that is. How can blackness glow, especially within blackness? But it does, apparently. Something about it touches upon a faraway memory.
There's a name within that memory, too. R-something. A bird.
Robin, he thinks, though he knows it's wrong. But Robin is connected to that memory.
Well, that's much more interesting than purgatory.
He leaps for it.
"Can't we just peek? Come on, just one little peek—"
"Aw, c'mon, Cy! Robin isn't gonna know!"
"Dude, he said no."
Red X's eyes flicker open, though no other part of him so much as twitches. He's perfected that ability; it comes in handy when enemies think he's down and out. Keeps them from gassing him or smacking him upside the head again.
He feels sluggish and achy, though the pain is distant. He recognizes the effect of waning painkillers.
"You know Robin totally wasn't in his right mind when he said that. Cyyyyy!" It's only through a great effort that Red X keeps from flinching at the drawn-out whine. "What if he's been taken over by an evil Red X mind control device? We need to know! Robin is in danger!"
"Shut it, Beast Boy. Robin said no mask removal."
Red X nearly gives himself away at that bit of information. His mask! Despite his breathing not changing, however, he's given away when his heart rate speeds up and the monitor beeps in reaction. Damnit.
"Hey, he's awake!"
Well, no point to not moving now. His hand flies up to his face, though the movement takes a lot of strength out of him. Red nearly groans with relief as he feels the presence of his cowl, though it's been pulled up over his nose – making way for the tubes in his nostrils. Very uncomfortable and rather undignified, really.
With a jolt, he realizes that he's still wearing gloves. The material of his suit was torn off at the wrists so that it could cover his hands without impeding any medical operations.
Ignoring the clamouring of the green teenager beside his bed – hospital bed, he notes – he checks himself over. His shirt is gone, and there are a number of things inserted into his arms. His side is patched up, too – there are bandages covering it, and most likely stitches under those.
Though his belt is gone, he's still wearing his pants, and they're not torn at all. Well, one less thing to fix.
"Robin says we shouldn't take your mask off or even run fingerprint scans." The robot man, Cyborg. With difficulty, Red X turns his head to look. "I'd like to know why."
"Ask him yourself," Red X rasps. He just wants to go back to sleep, especially now that he's more or less certain that his mask won't be removed. Not while he's unconscious, anyway.
Cyborg says something in reply, but the darkness is rushing up again. At least Red X doesn't fear it this time.
The time Red X spends in the hospital goes by rather quickly – too quickly for Robin's tastes. Calling in a few favours, he's managed to keep anyone from asking too many questions. The police don't even know about it – Commissioner Gordon, after much pleading, acquiesced to interfere in Jump City's system on Robin's behalf.
As the weeks go on, Red X is awake more often than not. He's also recovering remarkably quickly, which is probably a nod to the healthy way he keeps himself. Robin heals rapidly for the same reason. It doesn't hurt that Raven looks in on X often, either. Robin asks her to, but she doesn't seem to mind overly much. Red X is sarcastic, but he's not out-and-out rude or disgusting. And if there's anything Raven enjoys, it's sarcasm.
Robin himself spends a lot of time in Red X's room. They have to keep an eye on him anyway, so Robin takes over as much of the duty as he can while still leaving himself time to eat, sleep, and hunt down criminals.
Mostly, they argue. Or not argue so much as verbally spar with each other, their physical ability to do so temporarily gone.
Besides, people who get along most of time aren't really arguing. They trade quips, but they trade training ideas, as well. Robin has to be careful not to be too specific about the things he tells Red X – he doesn't want the thief to get to know his moves too well, but it feels incredibly good to be able to talk to someone about martial arts.
Batman is all well and good, but Batman trained him. Robin's moves are a mix of acrobatics and Batman's knowledge – there isn't anything he can really teach the big, bad Bat. And Slade... Slade is just out of the question.
The other Titans don't understand; not really. They agree with him on the big things, like justice and honour and the protection of the innocent. But they can fall off of buildings without a scratch, they can be thrown through concrete walls without sustaining more than a slight bruise, and most of them can fly.
Robin has a bo-staff, a cape, and a grappling hook. And his own skills and brains.
Red X gets that.
So they talk; they verbally spar; and sometimes, they're silent. It's not companionable; whenever either of them tries to do something constructive, such as read (Red X) or upgrade their tracking system (Robin) the other will interrupt them immediately, just to be aggravating.
But there's no malice.
It gets so Robin enjoys the time he spends in Red's room. Almost. And he almost believes that Red doesn't mind, either. Almost.
Still, he isn't surprised when, in the middle of the night, Beast Boy yelps loudly and smoke from a makeshift smoke bomb pours from the hospital room. When it clears, Red X is gone.
Robin looks for him, of course – duty and justice and all that.
But not too hard.
Surprisingly, he's not actually casing this building in order to steal anything. Well, he is, but that won't be for a long time. He'll make notes of the building's basic security and come re-case it later, when he isn't so incapacitated.
Really, he's only here because he knows that sooner or later, someone's going to call in the Titans.
No tricks this time, or surprise attacks; Robin climbs up the fire escape to the roof of the building X is perched on.
"Back on the job, Red?" Robin's tone is mildly surprised, but not at all shocked.
"Just waiting for you, actually," Red replies easily, not because he wants to be honest but because he knows that doing so will throw Robin off-guard. And it does. Robin recovers quickly, though, and frowns.
Red X rolls his shoulders, stretching stiff muscles and trying not to wince. Going so long without training was rough on him, the injuries he still sustains notwithstanding.
"Figured you ought to know I'm still alive. Need to keep on your toes, kid."
Robin's mouth actually twitches at that.
"You know, X," Robin says casually, "I seem to remember you telling me that there were things in your life you didn't want me knowing." He pauses for a significant moment, then continues, "Unless, of course, you were alive to explain them."
"I said, alive to beat some sense into you about them. I think." Red touches his head. "It's all a little fuzzy."
"Sentiment's the same, Red. And you look alive to me." Red X actually laughs at that.
"If you catch me, kid, maybe I'll tell you." Red X smirks, knowing that despite the mask Robin will sense it. "But you won't catch me." At that, he jumps off the side of the building, attaching his grapnel to the edge at the last second; he can drop himself to the ground, but he's not quite up to swinging across rooftops yet.
He lands carefully, but it's still more difficult than it's ever been. His movements are slow, stiff, and slightly painful. He'll be out of action for quite some time, but not forever. He'll heal.
Despite his handicap, Robin doesn't catch him.
Not this time, anyway.
Maybe he'll give that invitation a second thought. Someone to come home to.
Red X snorts to himself, shaking his head, and skillfully navigates the streets of Jump City.