“I have plans for you, little girl,” is the last thing she hears. “Don’t disappoint me.”
Weakness weighs heavy on her limbs. She’s lost track of her fingers and toes; they’ve somehow wandered off elsewhere. She struggles to lift her eyelids, to see more than blurry forms moving too fast, but even they are too far, too hard. Then, darkness.
She’s not breathing.
Even from here, where he sits panicked and paralyzed, Robin can see the absolute stillness of her. Somewhere, in the fight or his struggling transfer, he’d lost his mask. (It makes him feel naked, exposed.) He feels the bruises forming on his ribs, pressing up against his lungs. His throat constricts and burns—he can’t get enough air, she isn’t breathing and he can’t get enough air, wants to claw at his skin until he wakes up from this nightmare. She isn’t breathing, he can’t get enough air, and he’s going to have to get closer. He’s going to have to touch her, just so he can be absolutely sure. (He almost loses it right there.)
There's nothing but screaming static inside his mind; anything to keep from seeing what’s right in front of him. The concrete floor is freezing, seeping into his bones—he forces his stiff limbs to move though, crawls toward her slowly. His ankle twinges sharply when he puts his weight on it—good, he can focus on that, instead of—
(Breath through it, Grayson. You have to keep it together.)
Those few yards feel like miles.
He pulls off his glove with his teeth so he can feel for her pulse. Shaky fingers search her neck, fumbling, desperate; he bites down on the treacherous, fragile hope that rises in him unbidden.
There is nothing beneath his fingers. His mouth tastes like blood and despair.
That’s when she starts to scream.
Every nerve in her body is on fire, lighting up and screaming (or maybe that’s her that’s her that’s her). Her chest constricts, tighttighttight, and it feels as though her marrow is trying to crawl out of her bones. Her skin peels, her muscles tear, her eyes burst and her tongue splits and her teeth crack; there is nothing but pain, there has never been anything but pain. She has no name, no past, no future, only right here right now white hot agony pain—
He’d thought watching her die the first time had been heart-rending, but this is a whole new kind of anguish. It sounds as though someone is ripping her soul from her body. It sounds like she’s dying again.
No, please, not again.
Her eyes are wide, unseeing. Terrified. They look right through him, with no hint of recognition or awareness.
“Artemis,” he calls, to no avail. He’s afraid to touch her—what if that only hurts her more? (She’d started screaming, but no pulse had beat against his fingertips. His mind is still reeling.) Suddenly, her entire body arches off the floor, her back a contorted, exaggerated bow; her mouth remains open, though no sound comes out, the muscles of her throat working, tensed to sharp, hallow lines.
“Artemis!” He tries to hold her still. She thrashes against him, so he pins her with his whole weight. (How has he never noticed that he’s almost bigger than her now?) “Artemis,” he says again, touching her face, trying to get her attention. Her screams have quieted to a low, ragged keening. He keeps chanting her name, hoping desperately that it will call her back to awareness, back to him.
For a moment there is abrupt, blessed silence. Then: “Dick?” she croaks, and the relief that floods him makes his head spin. He can’t even fault her for using his real name.
“Hey, ‘Mis. So nice of you to join me.” Not his best delivery, but he thinks she’ll forgive him for it.
“Everything hurts...” She gasps, shuddering against him, and his heart breaks all over again. “Why does everything hurt, Dick?”
“You were attacked. That freak we were fighting attacked you, then dumped us here.” ‘Here’ being a cold, abandoned warehouse—the dumping ground of choice for criminals and low-lives. “He hurt you, ‘Mis.”
He’d done more than that. Robin still couldn’t find her pulse.
Very carefully, he climbs off her.
She rolls over onto her side immediately, curling in on herself and clutching her abdomen.
“Artemis, look at me.” He strokes her temple gently, and she opens he eyes just enough to do as he said. Her pupils are blown so wide that her eyes look eerily black.
“I’m so hungry, Robin,” she moans, and yeah, that’s kind of what he was afraid of.
“Don’t worry, ‘Mis, you’re going to be okay.” The way she looks at him then, like she believes him despite all evidence to the contrary—the trust in her expression just about takes his breath away. Then her face contorts.
“Keep talking to me,” she grinds out through clenched teeth, gripping onto his hand like a lifeline.
His mouth goes on autopilot, and he prays he hadn’t lied to her.
The pain hasn’t lessened, per se, but rather shifted focus. Now, it feels like her stomach is wrapping itself in knots; her insides ache with a terrible hollowness, sending pangs rippling through her body that leave her trembling. Her throat burns, her mouth feels fuzzy and dry, and her teeth positively throb.
She tries to concentrate on Robin instead, his worried face and strained voice. She can see him quite clearly—it’s strange to see him without the mask, but at the same time his blueblue eyes are something familiar to hang onto—though she’s having trouble hearing him over the strange, rhythmic pounding that’s gradually drowning out everything else.
“Do you hear that?” she asks, and can barely hear herself. Is it in her own head?
Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump.
What is that?
Robin cocks his head, listening. “Hear what?”
She realizes it’s coming from him.
Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump.
The sound is hypnotic, tantalizing. It blocks out even the pain in her body, throbbing to the beat of it. Without quite choosing to do so, she finds herself crouched in front of Dick, leaning in closecloseclose. He smells wonderful—hot and fresh and brimming with vitality. The rhythm jumps suddenly in tempo, in time with the pulse thumping on his neck, just under his skin, that draws her eyes like gravity.
Oh. She’s been hearing his heartbeat.
He touches her arm, and she drags her eyes away from his lovely gleaming throat to look at his face. His lips shape words she can’t hear—not over the pounding of his blood—so she continues up to look him in the eyes; something throbs behind her own eyes, a moment of vertigo, and he goes still, pupils dilating rapidly. His hand falls back to his side, and he kneels before her, as though just waiting for her next move.
She looks again to his neck, and his head tilts back ever so invitingly. She leans forward again, brushing her nose against where his collar meets skin. He shivers, but doesn’t try to move away. He smells so sweet, sweeter than anything she’s ever known; curious, she takes a taste.
The pain is only a distant memory at this point, but still her teeth achewith alien need. She opens her jaw, hoping to ease the pressure, only to catch an unexpected edge on his skin. It’s only a tiny cut, but the smell of his blood is an electric shock to her system; her whole body surges forward, hunting for the source, and she goes to sink her teeth into Dick’s—
Through a sheer burst of will, she flings herself to the other side of the room.
He does not know at first where he is—but then it all comes flooding back. The fight. Watching that bastard kill Artemis. Watching her come back to life. Her screams. Her eyes…
But where is she now?
It’s difficult to see in the dark, but he follows the sound of ragged breathing to where she’s huddled in the corner. She’s staring at him with a mixture of horror and panic, but as soon as they make eye contact she slaps her hands over her face.
“What the fuck was that?” she hisses, but it sounds more terrified than angry. Which is kind of funny, considering that he was the one that just got put in a trance.
So, not really funny at all.
“I…think you’re a vampire.” He winces as he says it—but they’ve all seen some weird stuff, right? Why couldn’t vampires be one of them? Still, that’s enough to make her drop her hands.
“What the fuck? Are you shitting me, bird brain?”
He shifts uncomfortably, and maybe not just from the distraught, disbelieving look on her face. He raises a hand to his neck, covering the stinging cut. “Ah, no. Completely serious. I think the freak-of-the-week we fought was a vampire, and I think he. Turned you—um. Into a vampire.”
“What the actual fuck. That was Harm! He wasn’t a drinking blood the last time I fought him.” Dick glances at her sharply—he remembers that report. Then Artemis seems to collapse into herself. She huffs. “Why am I even surprised? This is me we’re talking about. Last time it was ghosts, so why not vampires? It makes total sense that the next chapter in my life would include some freakish, blood-sucking action. I am literally a monster.” She starts giggling, a harsh, unkind noise, but that quickly devolves into ragged, choked gasps.
The number of times he’s seen Artemis cry can be counted on one hand. He moves towards her slowly, desperate for some way to make this better, then more quickly as she falls forward and moans in actual pain.
“No!” she shouts, throwing her hand up to ward him off, then gasps. “Stay away from me!” She leans over, pressing her face to the floor as though trying to disappear. Tears continue to stream down her cheeks. “I’ll hurt you,” she whimpers.
He reaches for her anyway. “Artemis, it’s okay.” She tries to push him off, to keep him away, but she can’t fight both him and the pain in her body. He murmurs soothingly to her, wiping her face dry with the edge of his cape. Past the point of caring, she lets herself be pulled onto his lap, and hesitantly, her arms wrap around his waist. He strokes her hair softly; his whole body aches to do something more substantial.
Of course, he realizes slowly, he can.
He makes a decision.
Gently, he pulls her up so that her face is cradled in the crook of his neck. Her reaction is immediate and violent—she recoils from him sharply, almost faster than his eyes can follow. The horrified betrayal on her face twists his heart.
“What part of ‘I’ll hurt you’ do you not understand, dipshit?” Her voice climbs octaves, a high desperation threaded with wretched longing.
“Artemis, you need blood, right? That’s how the whole vampirism thing works.” He cans see the tremors wracking her body, her breaths coming in short, jagged gasps. It hurts to watch—he can’t imagine what it must feel like.
She shakes her head, a firm denial of his words, of the sideways reality they’ve found themselves in. “I can’t. I won’t.”
“You have to.” If she won’t listen to reason, then he’ll force her hand. He fumbles are his collar, wrestling his shirt open. She gapes at him, but her eyes zero in on his throat again. She swallows, hard.
“Stop it,” she says, but it’s short on her usual conviction.
“You have to,” he insists. “Look, I’m offering it willingly okay? You’re not forcing me. I’m not being influenced. I want you to. Artemis, you’re hurting, and this will help. Let me help you.” Her mouth opens, though she seemed to have nothing to say; all it does is bare her unnaturally long canines. Her eyes searched his, disbelieving. “Please,” he tries.
“I can’t.” She sounds defeated though, broken, and he hates himself for doing that to her. Even as she says it, she starts crawling on hands and knees toward him, predatory—suddenly he can’t think of a time he’s ever felt this exposed, and it has only a little to do with the shirt falling off his shoulders.
“You can, and you will.” Holding her eyes carefully, he tilts his head back. An invitation.
One she can’t refuse.
Again, that startling speed, and her face is buried in his neck. He tenses belatedly, but she doesn’t bite—only sniffs him like some savory treat, nose brushing softly against his pulse point. Her hands rest lightly on his exposed chest, almost not there at all. Oh.
“Artemis,” he sighs, leaning toward her.
She bites down.
It’s euphoric. Blood coats her throat, thick and heady and bright. She sucks harder, losing herself in sensation. Dick trembles against her, and that too courses through her. He brings his hands up to clutch her elbows, surrendering to her; power floods her veins, filling her to the brim, burning like the sun, like nothing she’s ever experienced.
He moans lowly, and it brings her back to herself for a moment; Artemis releases his neck abruptly, still high from his blood but now tinged with concern for him.
“Dick?” she checks, running her hands up and down his arms. He falls forward into her, and she catches him, worry increasing.
“’m okay,” he replies, voice muffled by her shoulder. He makes no move to pull away, and if anything seems to burrow closer.
“I’m sorry,” she blurts, ashamed. Look what she’s done to him—he’s so weak he can’t even support himself.
“Don’t worry about it.” He’s panting, hot breath fanning across her clavicle. Without thought, she begins stroking his hair, much as he had done earlier for her. “You did what you had to do. And—” his breath hitches, hoarse, “it didn’t hurt as much as you would think.”
She closes her eyes, fisting her hand in his soft hair and leaning forward to rest her face in the juncture of his neck. The scent of his blood, still welling at the puncture marks she’d left, teases her nose.
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs again, and, on a whim, begins licking at the wound. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she chants, grasping for a way to make amends. They stay like that for a time, wrapped up in each other.
She didn’t kill him—at the very least, she can hold onto that.
“Artemis,” he sighs, lips brushing her ear and making it tingle. She raises her head to look at him, but something else catches her eye “What?” he asks at her expression.
“Your neck—there’s no bite. It’s completely healed.” She traces the spot with her fingers, but the skin remains unbroken. It’s like she never bit him at all. Goosebumps follow her fingertips, and she watches, oddly fascinated.
“Oh.” He brings up his own hand to feel for himself. “It doesn’t hurt at all either.”
Her eyes flick up to him, a question sitting hesitant on her tongue. “Was it bad?”
“Not…really. It was like…” He flounders for words. How strange, to see him tongue-tied. “I mean, it hurt at first, sure, with the biting and all, but then it was like…I could feel you pulling me out, everything rushing in the wrong direction, but you were filling my up too. With fire, only not so much with the roasting, just everything tingling and buzzing, so maybe more like electricity, and just…you, everywhere.” He runs out of steam, slumping back against her so she can’t see his face at all; his hands cling to her shirt. It feels like tempting fate, his warmth pressing into her, his scent filling her nose even as traces of his blood slide over her tongue, but the urgency of before is all but gone, and she’s never been one to mindlessly follow the path laid out for her anyway.
Artemis shifts, stretching her legs to either side of him. Without complaint, she holds him to her and lets him regain his strength.
“Saving him for later, girl?” The voice slides out of the darkness like poison gas, dark and slick and sickeningly familiar. It jolts Artemis from her half-asleep daze, and Robin stirs against her blearily. Her arms tighten around him and she bears her teeth reflexively in the direction that it came from—she recognizes that voice.
Harm emerges three feet to the right of her gaze, smirking. A low growl emerges from deep in her belly.
“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t try to take him from you. Provided you behave, of course.” He walks toward them, loose-limbed and casual, but his eyes scream vicious intent.
“You can go to hell, you blood-sucking bastard.” He stops a few feet from them, tilting his head and narrowing his eyes as though she were a particularly interesting puzzle. She can hear Robin’s heartbeat speed up, hot breaths puffing against her throat; Artemis holds Harm’s gaze. His smile widens, stretching crookedly across one overly-prominent fang.
“Tut tut, little girl—you’re just like me now. Can’t exactly claim the moral high ground, can you?” He moves, fast, like he’s reaching towards them, and quicker than thought she’s carried them back ten feet. He keeps right on smiling. “Oh, excellent; you’re progressing nicely.”
“Fuck you,” she snarls, shielding Dick behind her.
“Only if you ask nicely,” he replies with a sly grin, standing nose to nose with her before she can blink. He snatches Robin from her arms before she can react and appears again back where he’d started, as though he hadn’t moved at all. Dick struggles against his hold, but there’s no give; he might as well be fighting stone.
“Let him go or I’ll—”
“You’ll what? What do you think you can possibly do before I snap his puny neck?” He grasps Robin’s throat to emphasize his point, squeezing lightly; the boy claws at them futilely, while Artemis looks on, too terrified to move. Harm doesn’t take his eyes off her.
She makes a decision.
“I’ll go with you if you promise not to hurt him.”
“Artemis, no.” Dick struggles harder against his captor’s hands, face twisted with naked panic (not for himself but for her), as ineffectual as when she had been held. As when she had been killed. She keeps her eyes hard—that won’t happen to him. She won’t let anyone else be hurt, not if she can prevent it.
“What makes you think you have a choice?”
“But this way, I’ll go willingly.” That seems to catch his attention, so she presses on. “Promise me you won’t hurt him, or my family or friends, and I will go with you without a fight.” Harm stops squeezing, tilting his head in an exaggerated fashion as he considers her.
“Very well,” he replies, shrugging casually as though it did not make one bit of difference to him. He drops Robin though, and that’s all that matters.
Well, not all.
“Say it,” she growls. He raises an eyebrow pointedly. “Please,” she amends grudgingly.
His smirk is catlike, satisfied and smug—like he’s won. “I swear I will not harm this boy, nor your friends or family, if you come with me now, willingly.”
She walks to him; Robin reaches out and catches her leg, his face pleading.
“See you soon, Boy Wonder,” she says, forcing a smile; her face feels like it will split in half with the effort.
This is the only way I can protect you, she doesn’t say, and tell them I’m sorry sticks in her throat like poison.
She walks away, and she (almost) doesn’t look back.
She walks away, and he can do nothing.
“Of course,” Harm explains to her later with savage delight, “I never said anything about not making you hurt them.”