Chapter 1: Midnight

Okay, so I don't normally do novel-length author's notes like this, but this story is so specific to a particular event in the comics that I feel it needs a little explaining. Anyway, way back in the late 80's (I think) , there was a story in Captain America issues 367-370 where Magneto takes revenge on the Red Skull by burying him alive in an abandoned fallout shelter. Crossbones and a few of his other henchmen spend several issues frantically trying to find him, and when they finally do, he's so weak and in such despair, he only wants to go home to die. It takes a visit from Captain America to re-stoke his hatred and motivate him to go on.

When I read this story a few years ago, I quite enjoyed it. It was one of the few times I've ever seen Red Skull suffering and vulnerable, and Crossbones's frantic concern for his boss was almost sweet and touching. I've always been a fan of both villains, and it was very interesting that the story showed sides of them we don't normally get to see. I couldn't help but want to take the setup the comic gave us to its logical conclusion. Hey, I'm a sappy optimist…and I like to believe that even terrible people can have gooey caramel centers hidden deep inside.

Anyway, after seeing the wonderful Captain America movie, I was reminded that I still had this and a few other stories about Red Skull on floppy disks somewhere…and I decided to clean this one up and post it. Not sure if the others will see the light of day…they need much more work :P

Also, I do believe this is the only story I've ever written in first person…not sure what possessed me to do it. Ah well, it was a fun little experiment, even if I didn't really capture the voice of a New York thug :P

Okay, enough rambling!

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I stood guard in the darkened room, listening to the boss breathe. It was slow and even, the breath of sleep, but it was also weak and wispy, the breath of the dying. That wasn't an exaggeration, either. He had refused food and drink since we'd brought him here, and his already weakened body couldn't hold out much longer. He needed medical attention, but he didn't want it. He only wanted to see Captain America. And then to die. And we, as his most loyal followers, were unable to refuse.

Again and again, I wondered why I couldn't just go along with what Mother Night had wanted. To treat him anyway, restore his health, and hope that his will to live would return in time. He was too ill and traumatized to think rationally, was what she'd said. And it made sense, and since it did, what she suggested also made sense.

So why couldn't I make myself go along with it?

Maybe it was his eyes. Even as feeble and cloudy as they now were, they still had some sort of power over me. Those harsh, pale blue orbs had always commanded respect and loyalty, not just from me, but from all his followers. They held an assumption of inherent superiority, an expectation of swift obedience and a promise of even swifter retribution for failure. But now, their fire had gone out. They were empty. I didn't even see pain or fear in their icy depths. Just despair. He had given up.

Maybe that was why I couldn't do it. His eyes, for the first time I had ever seen, had lost their presence to command. He could only ask for what he wanted now, and hope it would be carried out. And to go against his wishes when he was in such a state was something I could only view as taking advantage of his weakness. I couldn't bring myself to do it.

I'd heard it said that I was loyal to the point of foolishness. No one had ever said such a thing to my face, of course, but that didn't mean it wasn't said, or that I wasn't aware of it. And maybe it was true. But he was the boss. There was no other person on the planet who commanded the respect he commanded, no other person who could generate the fear he could generate, no other person who embodied the lust for power and the ruthlessness to achieve it that I so admired. He was the ultimate badass, and it was my honor to be his right-hand man. I knew I could never throw all that away on being wishy-washy. I had pledged my loyalty to him, and that meant I would be loyal, even if it didn't get me the results I wanted.

I would find Captain America for him. And hopefully, that would have some effect. Snap him out of this stupor. Motivate him to go on, if only so he could crush that flag-wearing pansy like the bug he was. And if it didn't…

If it didn't, then I would respect his wishes. Even if those wishes were to die. I could do nothing less. He was the boss.

I closed my eyes and tried to fight off a rising wave of distress. What would happen then? To me…to all of us? Would his empire fragment? Would there be a power struggle between his high-ranking subordinates? Or would Synthia inherit it and prove she had her father's leadership skills and commanding presence, the ability to rule it all without turmoil?

I realized that, whatever the outcome…it didn't matter. Even if I had to pick a side, even if I got my hands on some of his empire myself, or even if Sin, the only woman I had ever come close to giving a damn about, took over and ruled with an iron fist, the passion would have gone out of it for me. I was in this for him. Because I admired him, and because I wanted to be a part of his work. Without him, it would all be hollow.

Yet, even knowing that, I still couldn't betray his wishes. Not even if it meant losing my purpose in life. Maybe I really was foolish in the extent of my loyalty.

A soft moan shook me out of my inner musings. I snapped my head up to see that he had shifted position on the bed slightly. As I looked at him, he moaned softly again. Was he awake? Or was he having a nightmare?

My boots whispered softly against the old carpet as I crossed the room. He moaned again as I reached his side, and my worry deepened. The last moan had sounded more like a whimper than anything else.

"Boss?" I whispered hesitantly, afraid of disturbing him if he was sleeping, afraid of embarrassing him if he wasn't. Maybe he didn't even know I was here.

"No…no…please no. Not again," came his voice, soft and frightened in the darkness. "Please…no…I can't take anymore. Not again. Not again. Why can't I escape?"

"Boss?" I said a bit more loudly, as I looked down upon his helpless form. He had wasted away to skin and bones during his confinement, as if the rest of his body was trying to match is gruesome face, and I felt almost menacing as I loomed over him. I had always dwarfed him physically, even when he was at the peak of health, but now, as he lay before me, shivering in the green robe we'd dressed him in, the robe that was now several sizes too big for him, I felt like a giant.

I quickly knelt beside the bed, hoping that would make my presence less threatening, although I still seemed to tower over him. "Hey…" I whispered, reaching out to touch his shoulder. I hesitated before doing so, still afraid of what his reaction would be to me disturbing him.

He whimpered again and cringed away from me, drawing his legs up against his body in a fetal position. "I want to leave this place," he moaned softly. "I want to get out. I want…I want…please, why won't you let me out? I'm s….s…sor…."

"Boss?" I said again, this time quite a bit louder, no longer caring if I ended up pissing him off. I couldn't take it any more. I hated seeing him humbled like this. I reached out and shook his shoulder. "Boss, wake up."

His eyes flew wide and he twisted to face in my direction. They were delirious…crazed…half mad. They seemed to see me, and yet, look through me at the same time.

"Get out, you phantom!" he snarled at me, and, if I hadn't been kneeling, I would have taken a step backwards. That commanding fire was back in his eyes, and for the first time since we'd rescued him, I found myself feeling afraid of him.

"I said get out!" he hissed at me. He reached out as if to seize my arm in a vicious grip, but could only grope blindly in the dark, and as a result, missed me and fell forward slightly. I reached out to help him sit upright, but he snarled at me and twisted himself so he was looking up at me on his own. "You lie to me!" he spat. "You keep appearing to me, but never helping me! You mock me! Leave me in PEACE!" That last part would have been a roar that echoed through the whole manor if he had been healthy, but instead only came out as a thin, strengthless shriek.

I cringed anyway, and looked toward the door. No sign of any light in the hallway. The others were asleep right now, but they wouldn't stay that way if he didn't quiet down. And I knew that having the others see him in the state he was in would be even more humiliating for him. It was bad enough that I was here to see it.

"Boss, you have to calm down," I told him softly. "There's no one here who's gonna hurt-"

"I want to get out of here," he moaned, his eyes meeting mine. The fire was gone from them again, leaving behind only despair. "Why won't you let me out?"

"Let you out?" I repeated back, not understanding what he meant.

"Out of the dark," he answered, his voice dropping to a whisper. "I keep thinking I've escaped…only to wake up back here. Why do you keep doing it to me? Please…please, just let me out. Let me out or leave me in peace."

My eyes widened. Did he think he was back underground? Was that it? Did he think that his entire rescue was just some sort of hallucination? One he'd had several times, from the sound of it. And now, he thought he had woken up right back where he started. Hopelessly entombed. Waiting for death. Alone in the dark.

I realized that the bedroom was quite close to being pitch black. The lights were out, and the only window was covered. I had been standing guard in there for several hours, so my eyes had adjusted. He had just woken up, and probably couldn't see a thing. No wonder he thought he was back in that deathtrap.

"Boss, you aren't trapped anymore," I told him softly, placing a comforting hand on his back. Even through the heavy cloth of his robe, I could feel every single one of his ribs and the bumpy curve of his spine. "You're in your own room. We rescued you. You're home." I glanced at the far wall. There was a floor lamp over there. What better way to convince him he was safe in his own bed than by turning on the light and revealing it to him? I started to get up.

"No," he cried, reaching for me. His grip was too weak to hold my arm, but his nails dug into my flesh, scratching me, from the feel of it. "Don't go! Please, I didn't mean it! Don't leave me alone! I know…I know…" his voice trailed off into a whimper. "I know you won't come back."

"Okay, okay," I said hastily, kneeling beside the bed once more. "I won't leave you, Boss. That's a promise." I slipped one arm around him loosely, supporting him and helping to keep him steady. "It's gonna be okay," I told him softly. "I know you don't believe me, but you're safe at home and no one is gonna put you back in that place. I won't let 'em. Okay?" I tightened my arm around him slightly, wanting him to feel safe. If he felt safe, he would calm down, and maybe he would go back to sleep. Or at least let me get up and turn on the light. "Shhhhhh, Boss," I whispered. "It's all right. I'm here, okay?"

He reached out for me again, and this time found me. His hand closed around my arm and he pulled himself forward against my chest, buying his grotesque face in the crook of my neck. I froze as I felt him cling to me, his breath tickling warmly against my throat. I opened my mouth to say something, but could only close it uselessly again when nothing came out. I trembled a bit as he leaned heavily against me, his body shuddering rhythmically.

Is he…? No, no, it can't be. I refused to believe it. There were certain absolutes in this world, things I could believe in wholeheartedly, and this went against one of them. Water did not flow uphill. The sun did not rise at midnight. And the Red Skull did not cry. Period.

"Let's get you back in bed," I said uncomfortably, unable to bear the spectacle anymore. I felt moisture on my neck, but surely that was just condensation from his breath. Or maybe sweat, or…anything else but-

"Don't leave me," he whimpered against me. "I don't want to be alone in the dark. I can't bear it."

"I said I wouldn't," I reassured him, sliding my arm underneath him so I could lift him slightly and pull the blankets down. I set him back down on the purple silk sheets and reached down to take off his green slippers. I put them under the bed, and then gently helped him to lie down on the mattress. I slid the pillow beneath his head, then reached down to pull the blankets up over him.

"No!" As soon as I'd let go of him, he cried out. And it stopped me in my tracks. "Don't go!"

"I'm not gonna," I told him again. "I'm gonna stay right here. But Boss, you have to get some sleep."

"No," he whimpered. "You'll be gone when I wake up. I know it. You always are. I hate you."

"C'mon now," I said gently. "You hate everybody. Tell me something I don't know." I tried to force a laugh, but it stuck in my throat. There wasn't anything funny about any of this.

He shuddered beneath me, and turned his head away from me. I moment later I heard a sniffle.

No! This time there was no mistaking what he was doing. He was crying. I saw no tears on his face (perhaps dehydration had taken its toll), but he was sobbing without them, his face contorted into an expression of absolute misery.

"No, c'mon, Boss, don't do that!" I protested, beginning to panic. Maybe the Red Skull could cry…after all, as much as I admired him, I knew he was only a man. And all men have secret moments, moments of pain, moments of vulnerability. But even if he, too, had such moments, a lowly henchman like me shouldn't be there to witness them. Such moments weren't for my eyes to see.

I knelt there uselessly, not knowing what to do. I wanted to run away, to leave him alone with his suffering so I wouldn't have to watch it. So I wouldn't have to humiliate him by seeing it. But if I left, I left him in the dark, alone with his pain, his terror. Surely, that was just as cruel as staring at him while he was at his most vulnerable, wasn't it?

And anyway, I had promised I wouldn't leave him. So I had to stay. Even if it wasn't my place to see this, or to comfort him, I had to do it. Because if I didn't, then who would? He had no one else. Except for maybe Mother Night, judging by how he had a habit of leaving clothes in her room. But it had always been clear to me that he held her in contempt. His opinion of women was lower than dirt. No, he wouldn't want her to see him like this. It had to be me.

"C'mon, it's gonna be okay," I whispered, leaning over his helpless, shuddering form. I slipped my arms back around him, cradling him against me as I leaned over him. "I'm not gonna leave you. I'll stay here, just like this, all night if you want me to. Or I'll stand over you and guard you, or I'll…I'll…act out War and Peace with shadow puppets on the wall…or I'll hang from the ceiling by my feet and tell knock-knock jokes. Anything you want. Just don't cry, Boss."

He buried his face back in my shirt and clung to me while I held him close, trying to calm him down. His sobs had a wild, ragged edge to them, as if crying were something he hadn't had much practice with. They were muffled against my chest as well, and this, combined with the otherwise deathly silence of the room, gave them a lonely, almost ghostly sound.

I tightened my arms around him, not knowing what to do. I wasn't cut out for this kind of thing. I didn't know how to make this better. I didn't know how to comfort anyone, least of all someone as twisted and messed up as he was. It wasn't something I'd had any practice with, or had even ever given much thought to. I never thought it would be a skill I would need. I was as unused to this as he was to tears.

How I hated that mutie for doing this to him! How dare he take a powerful, dangerous, and regal creature like the boss and reduce him to a sniveling wreck? If that fucking piece of mutant trash ever tried anything like that again, I swore I would personally turn him inside out. No freaky powers would save him. I'd tear him to pieces and stick his fucking head on the wrought iron fence outside. And consider it to be too good for that posturing, sanctimonious piece of shit!

The boss gave a soft cry of both confusion and pain, and I started as I realized that I had been squeezing him too hard. I'd let my temper get the better of me while thinking about that mutant piece of shit and had forgotten that I was still holding him. Immediately, I loosened my grip.

"Shit, I'm sorry Boss," I said hastily, cursing myself. In his weakened state, he was very fragile, and I was lucky I hadn't seriously hurt him. "I'm so sorry. Oh man, that was stupid. I'm sorry, Boss. You okay?"

He didn't answer. He remained clinging to me, although he was no longer crying. Quickly, I slid a hand over his upper body, trying to see if anything felt broken. I didn't feel anything out of place, and breathed a sigh of relief. Against my chest, the boss gave a quivering sigh of his own, and I tightened my arms around him once more, careful not to hurt him this time.

I don't know how long we sat there like that. Probably not as long as it felt like. My legs were beginning to fall asleep from kneeling for so long, and my back felt stiff from being unnaturally hunched over. And the position the boss had twisted into-half sitting up, half lying in my arms, didn't look very comfortable either. I began to wish I could put him down. Not just to because of the physical discomfort, either. I still felt stupid playing this role, and uncomfortable seeing him playing his.

"You should at least be lying down," I murmured in his ear. He didn't respond, except to tighten his grip on me. As I pretty much expected. I sighed, trying to work through this dilemma. Only it wasn't a dilemma, when I got right down to it. Because I knew what I needed to do. And that only made it worse, because it was something I really, really didn't want to do.

But…

I sighed. There was no use going over it again. I was hopelessly ensnared by my loyalty, and that loyalty was going to keep my playing my part in this twisted little play until the final curtain call.

I slowly eased myself up from a kneeling position, wobbling a bit as I tried to steady my numb legs and hang onto the boss at the same time. He gave a soft sound of protest, but I ignored him this time, getting halfway to my feet. Then, still managing to hang onto him, I eased myself onto the mattress. The bed creaked as I sat down beside him.

"I gotta let you go for just a minute," I told him gently. "But I'll let you hang onto me, so you don't have to be afraid I'll….disappear, or whatever, okay?"

He made another incoherent protest as I set him down, and I quickly took one of his hands. Reaching behind me, I found the ties for my mask. They were long and dangling, and easy for him to hold onto. I slipped them into his hand and felt it weakly close around them. "There," I told him. "You hold onto that, so I don't get away."

I immediately wished I hadn't said it like that. The way I had chosen for him maintain contact with me made it seem like he was holding onto me with a leash. In a way, it was almost comical, but I wasn't laughing. No, what I felt was closer to terror.

Trying to ignore what I was feeling, I looked down at my boots. They were still dirty from our excursion into the cemetery earlier. I certainly couldn't leave them on. I leaned down to remove them, and felt the mask ties begin to slip out of the boss's grip.

I froze and let him get a tighter grasp. Still, I knew I had to hurry. His hold on them was tenuous, and if he lost it, he would probably get upset again. I had to be fast, but I also had to be careful not to accidentally pull them from his hands. Not a good combination.

Moving in slow motion, I struggled a bit, but finally managed to ease the boots off. I tossed them away, then undid the ammo holders around my thighs. The ones around my wrists followed, and finally, I undid my belt, with its pouches full of bullets and the holster containing my gun.

I tossed the belt to join the rest of my discarded stuff a few feet from the bed. As I looked at the pile of leather and cloth, I was reminded again of the tie that Mother Night said he'd left in her room. That didn't help.

I tried to put it from my mind and turned back to him. The mask ties slipped from his hand, but it didn't matter anymore. I slipped my arms back around him and picked him up, like I might pick up a little kid. Gently, I gathered him into my arms, cradling him against my chest. Still trying not to think about what I was doing, I swung my legs up onto the bed and slipped them under the covers. Slowly, I eased myself down onto the mattress, until I was lying down with the boss still nestled in my arms. With my eyes closed out of sheer embarrassment, I reached down blindly, found the blankets, and pulled them up over us, covering both of us up to our necks. It hid most of the sight I couldn't bear to see, but I could still feel him there in my arms.

I was holding a deadly viper, one that might strike at any time, without warning. I was holding a delicate porcelain sculpture, one that might break at the slightest wrong movement. I hardly dared to breathe.

He stirred against me slightly and garbled something that I couldn't make out. Maybe it was just gibberish. Or maybe it was German. I was certainly no expert. German had always sounded like someone hacking up a load of phlegm to me. I finally let out the breath I'd been holding and clumsily caressed him with one trembling hand. I realized I was shaking as much as he was.

No…I was shaking more, actually. He seemed to have calmed down considerably. He lay in my arms, one hand wrapped loosely around my neck, the other on my chest. His fist was closed around a handful of my shirt. He let out a soft breath in what sounded like a sigh.

"That's it," I whispered to him, rubbing his back gently. "Just go to sleep, Boss. Everything's gonna be okay. I promise."

He murmured something unintelligible again and his grip on my shirt tightened a bit as he nestled closer. I wondered if anyone had ever held him like this, even as a baby. I knew a little about his past, and what I knew led me to believe no one had. Was I the first person to ever comfort him this way? Somehow, I felt almost honored that the task fell to someone like me, even as uncomfortable as it made me. It was a duty I'd certainly never anticipated, but one that was probably more important than any of the others I'd performed for him. One that required far more guts…and far more trust. Perhaps this honor would comfort me and help to make the rest of it easier to bear.

Because I knew that, if he ever recovered from all this, he was going to make me pay for what I was doing. By undertaking this important duty, I had likely signed my own death warrant. But I knew this. I had accepted it. He was the boss, and I was his most loyal man. And he needed me. I could do nothing else but obey.

His breathing had evened out, and I felt certain that he had gone back to sleep. And my own eyelids were staring to feel pretty heavy too. As long as I was stuck like this, I supposed it didn't hurt if I got a little sleep as well. After all, there was no need to stay awake. The boss was as safe as he could possibly be, and with him being so close to me, I would wake up immediately if he stirred. And hopefully, if he did stir, my presence there would remind him that he was safe and not trapped back underground. He was with me, and I would protect him.

I tightened my arms around him and nestled him closer to me, close enough to feel his breath on my neck, close enough to feel his heart beating against my chest, and I closed my eyes…

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By the way, I have no idea why Cap didn't show up for his visit with Red Skull in this version of events. Maybe the person who reported the lights on at Skull House to Cap's hotline in the original story was on a bathroom break in this universe :P