warning: graphic description of gore and vomiting.
This isn't the most gruesome scene that Dick has ever seen. Not the worst thing he's ever seen. Not really.
"Stay back," Robin says. "Can't contaminate the scene."
Kid Flash does not seem to need the warning. His feet are planted on their place, mouth slightly agape, as he intakes a sharp, gasping breath.
"KF?" Robin turns to look at his partner. Wally is shock still. Under the mask, his face a shade of alarmingly pale white and — and then Wally puts a hand briefly over his mouth.
And then he throws up violently to the ground.
Robin can't blame him. He can feel his own stomach churn violently in dismay.
He walks up to Wally — silently glad to have an excuse to avert his eyes from the bodies — puts one hand on Wally's back, rubbing small circles on it in what he hopes a soothing way. "Let it out," Robin says and he manages to moderate so his voice comes out steady and unaffected, but honestly, the stench— mixed with the sickening, iron-rust scent of clotting blood — is doing a lot of bad to his own nausea. Robin puts his other hand on his comm in his ear — they're too far apart, spreading on the field, M'gann's psychic link can't manage to cover the distance. "Robin to Aqualad."
Wally is coughing now, body wretching harshly. Robin's stomach moans its own protest.
"We found the hostages north-east from rendezvous point. Over."
"Are they comprimised. Over."
Kid Flash is heaving beside him, his back rising and falling with each shuddering breath. To Wally's credit, he doesn't make that much noise — very inconspicuous as he throws up his lunch and breakfast. Which, Robin thinks distantly, is a pretty admirable feat.
He takes a deep breath. "No survivors," Robin says. "Nine bodies. Over."
A brief silence. To Kaldur's credit, he doesn't pause that long. "Commence basic protocols. Rendezvous with the team in ten. Over."
"Will comply," his hand is still moving on Kid Flash's suit, a mechanical gesture, moving and moving. Partly for Wally, partly for himself. Something to ground himself to. "Robin out."
It isn't the most gruesome scene he's ever seen. It isn't. It really isn't. "KF," he says. "Can you stand?"
Wally's face is scrunched, as if in pain, mouth tight in a grimace, smeared with stomach fluid. He isn't quite on the ground. He has his hands on his knees, pivoting on it, hunching down. His face is facing the ground, and Dick can feel his body shivering in shock. "I'm sorry," Wally says, voice hoarse. "Rob. I can't — Jesus," he wrenches his eyes shut, refusing to look at the scene, the bodies, facing away from it. "I'm sorry," he says again.
Robin can't blame him.
For a moment, he wants to — he wants to go down. Hard. Break right there. Vomit his stomach out. Cry his eyes out. Wants to go home. Wants to run. Wants to find whoever did that and — and — drives his fists into their face until everything is broken. Until his fists are broken. Until they stop fucking breathing —
This isn't time for this.
"We'll rendezvous in ten," Robin says, willing his voice to sound as clear and confident as ever. Unbreakable. "I'll document the crime scene. You be on the lookout." He sounds distant, even to himself. Somewhat cold, untouchable. He wants to be untouchable at the moment. He wants to not — to not be able to feel anything, at the moment.
"And KF?" Robin hands him a UVGI from his utility belt. He nods to the mess on the floor. "Ten seconds would do."
"I know how long it t-takes to damage the DNA, j-jerk," KF says, taking it from his hand. Wally's hand is clammy. He is still pale. Deathly pale. Robin's stomach churns. Wally's eyes are closed again, and he looks like he's going to vomit for the second time.
He forces some gentleness into his words, some of himself. "Watch my back for me, buddy," he tells him, the corner of his lips tugging into a horribly fragile smile, and there it is — the crack in his voice. The crack in his act.
Wally opens his eyes, almost forcefully, and nods. He doesn't look at Dick's direction — at the bodies' direction. He turns and does what Dick's asked — eradicating all traces of his DNA, and watching his back.
Dick turns to the scene.
He can't look away. He wants to look away.
He can do it. It's easy. It's a performance. It's always a performance, he thinks, fingers typing on his wrist computer, setting up the camera. It's always a performance. He walks, and he looks. It's easy.
Dick has always been good at lying. Even to himself.
He has ten minutes.
Nine bodies. It won't be perfect, but it will have to do. Adjusting camera settings. The perpetrators made the job easy enough — the bodies are lined up, hands and feet bound, clean scene — camera set. Click — their hair touching the floor, unmoving, bodies hung upside down like butchered pigs, completely naked, not a single fucking thread on their ash-white skin — click, click, click — the blood trailing down their face, red and stark against it, the identical slash on each of their necks, throat cut open like a fish, red and gashing —
This isn't time for this.
Robin can compartmentalize.
Overview photos, mid-range photos, close-up photos. The principle of forensic photography: don't capture the obvious. Capture the scene. He's done this before. He's done this before. Click. He will do this again.
He's read the hostages' files — the hostages they were supposed to pick up, the mission they were supposed to do, the hostages who were supposed to still be alive — age range sixteen to twenty-nine, genders and race varied, no consistencies in socioeconomy background. Picked at random. Unlucky people in the wrong place at the wrong time. He remembers their faces, can recognize some of them even now in rigor mortis. Photos stapled on mission documents. Faces smiling up at him.
Dick raises the camera. Steady. Focus. Close-up photos are the easiest, as long he knows where to look. Click. Their cut up necks are smiling up at him.
Look closely. Look closely. Keep looking. Room temperature twenty-three degrees celcius. Click. Approximate length of time for blood to dry: sixty minutes. Bloodstain pattern — can't miss those —
Look. Work through it methodically. Analyze. Keep looking.
— identical. Killed on the spot, then. Cause of death — slash wound to the neck. Click. Five to six inches. Clean, no abrasion, linear. Professional work. Click. Click. Incision deeper on the left side — a single perpetrator? Possible. Left handed? No, depends on which way they held the knife, front or back, therefore, inconclusive — weapon used, unknown — some visible bruises, purple-red discoloration on several patches of the skin — time of death, unknown —
Click. Click. Click.
His hands are starting to shake. No — not yet. This isn't time for this. Not yet. He needs more, not enough. One minute. One more minute, and then — and then he'll go home, leave this god forsaken place, he'll go home, he'll see Bruce and Alfred and everything will be okay. Everything will be okay. Everything will be okay, he'll forget about this. Just another day. Nothing new. Nothing he's never seen before. Just another — another set of bodies. Another set of faces. Another list of names. This is hardly the most gruesome thing he has seen. He'll forget. He'll forget.
Click. Click. Click.
Dick has never been able to forget.
"Robin," Wally says behind him, calling him with something edged in his voice.
Robin takes a deep breath. Click.
"We're done," Robin says, trying to ignore how his fingers shake as they dance on the keyboard. He wants to be untouchable. He needs to be untouchable. Not to feel anything, not now. Not yet. So he turns, looks at Wally in the eye, as he pastes a smile on his face, swallows the bile rising in his throat, bitter in his mouth — "let's go. We've got two minutes," and he zips past Wally. His hands are — god, they won't stop trembling, Jesus, he can't stop trembling —
Robin flinches. Wally's hand catches his, his fingers cricling Dick's wrist, and despite Dick's reaction, they don't budge. A steady pressure on Dick's skin. It's grounding. It's an anchor.
God knows Dick needs one right now.
"What?" Dick says, his voice is a flimsy, paper-mache thing. His performance, breaking for a final act, for the curtain to close.
Not now. Not yet. He turns to look at Wally.
Wally — still looks sick to his stomach, his freckles stark against his pale skin, his mouth a bloodless line. But his eyes are valiantly steady, green and bright under the fluorescent light. Like his hold on Dick's wrist: an anchor. "I'll carry you," he says, and though his voice quivers a little, it's assuring. It sounds assuring. "It'd be faster."
A beat passes.
"Alright," Dick says, and Wally grips him tighter — and Dick is glad for it. Dick is glad he's not alone.
The ride to Mount Justice is fairly silent. Robin wishes to analyze this further, but — maybe later. They see Wally, probably, see how shaken up he was. Dick, personally, thinks Wally handled it pretty well, for someone who hasn't seen dead bodies as much as Dick has (which is not a fair comparison), that kind of reaction — in response to that kind of crime scene — is commendable, honestly.
Wally will definitely need another session with Black Canary. Dick makes a mental note to mention this. Later.
And — alright, the team probably see Dick too.
"I'm fine," Wally says, when M'gann asks for the third time, and he sounds as exhausted as Dick feels. The slight tremble in the timbre of his voice still persists. "Okay, not really. But — " Wally wipes a hand over his face, and then he freezes. "Shit. Shit — " he breathes, before he springs up from his chair and stumbles to the inside cabin. A loud vomitting noise then resonates to the air.
Robin stands, but Artemis gets to it first. "I'll get him," she says, with a pointed look at Dick that says you-stay-where-you-are-I-know-you-aren't-fine-either-Boy-Blunder and Dick is both mildly annoyed and astonished that they're already on that level where they can communicate with looks alone. He sits back down, however.
His legs are shaking.
"Me too," M'gann says. Like Artemis, she has a look of extreme concern on her face, as she stands up and leaves for the bathroom, where Wally is throwing his guts up.
Robin looks away to find both Kaldur and Conner staring at him.
"Do we look that bad," Robin says, already knowing the answer.
"Yes," Conner answers, matter-of-factly.
"You do," Kaldur confirms. "I've never seen Kid Flash look that distressed."
"Not even when he fell on his face when he attempted to moon-walk in front of M'gann," Conner says, his voice as flat as always.
Robin lets out a sharp bark of laugh. "Can't blame him," Robin says, and for a moment he's grinning — the moon-walking incident was absolutely hilarious — but then it wobbles, and falls down. He's tired, he's so goddamn tired and he's letting his guard down, he knows, smile slipping off his face like washed-down paint. He shoves a hand up his hair, pulling a little. The pressure on his scalp, the little pinpricks of pain, ground him somewhat. It's not that bad, he wants to say, but he immediately flinches as soon as the thought surfaces. Not that bad? Nine lives, throats slit open like — like —
He forces the bile to go down. Can't. The bathroom is occupied, anyway. "Sorry," he starts, when his throat isn't closing up anymore. He doesn't even know what he's apologizing for. "Sorry. I should — heck, I haven't even reported to you," Dick sighs indignantly.
"I was about to ask you to," Kaldur says, nodding, and Dick is glad that Kaldur holds him high enough to not refrain from asking Dick to do his damn job. "I understand if it's too much to handle at the moment — "
"No." Dick cuts, almost seethingly. "No. You're the team leader, I should've done this nine minutes ago, which is a remiss on my part. "
Kaldur frowns. "Robin — "
"Mission report," Robin says. "We were in and out smoothly — no guards alerted. Photos taken — forty-eight. Nine bodies." His voice is clear and distant, eyes looking hard ahead at the horizon. He is glad he isn't driving — M'gann puts the plane on autopilot — his hands haven't stopped shaking, even now. "All bodies are identified hostages." He's scanned their faces, confirmed their identities. "All nine bodies hung on the ceiling by their ankles. Hand and feet bound, low-cost manila rope.
"Cause of death: identical sharp force trauma on each victims. Fatal slash wound across the throat," he says, reciting from his memory, voice growing cold, inflectionless. Be methodical. Be clinical. Look. Always look. He can't afford to miss a thing, not in his line of job, not when there are lives on the line. Be untouchable. He's done it before. He can do it again. He will do it again.
Can't afford to let emotions affect his job.
"Approximate length of incision five to six inches. No abrasion, no tissue bridges, vascular structures appear to be cleanly divided. Immaculate, precise … impersonal. Suggests professional work. More specific probable mechanism of death: exsanguinations due to damage to carotid and jugular vessels in followed by asphyxia due to inhalation of blood — " Robin pauses. "Indeterminable … until further examination. Personal analysis. Irrelevant to report. "
He looks up, feeling like he just snapped out of a daydream. A feverish, blood-sticky daydream. He looks to find Kaldur staring at him intently now, eyes narrowed and intense — with something laced in it, something whirring and pained, an expression Dick can't really read. "You're tearing your hair out," Kaldur says, almost gently, and distantly Dick realizes tears are forming in his eyes from the stinging pain. He lets go of his head. His scalps throb in response.
He lets out an embarrassingly shaky breath. "Right," he says, faintly.
"Would you like to continue," Kaldur says, almost warily, eyes searching for something on Dick's face. Something on his face is familiar. Something about that indecipherable emotion — Dick's seen it before, somewhere.
"I — Yes," Dick says. "Yes." Takes a deep breath. Then another. "Victims. Victims are removed from their clothing. No post-mortem injuries. The bodies are undergoing rigor mortis. Some livor mortis visible, not very pronounced. Estimated time of death … hard to pin down. Somewhere between six to twelve hours — can't be sure until autopsy. Judging from the bloodstains, possibly killed on the spot. No post-mortem injuries on sight. Several battle signs visible.
"Murder weapon unknown. Machetes a possibility." he adds, almost an afterthought. The guards he's seen are each holding a machete. "End of report."
Hearing no response, he looks up.
He finds Kaldur still staring intently to his face, with that emotion that Robin can't pin on at the moment — and Superboy behind him. And Artemis, M'gann, and Wally, who looks like he is going to vomit all over the floor again. They are all staring at him, with the same amount of intensity Kaldur has.
"Oh, Jesus," Robin says, horrified and exhausted. How long have they been standing there — and more importantlly, how much has Wally heard? Great. He's probably traumatized Wally for life now. Wally's totally going to need those Canary therapy sessions. Dick should probably pay for those. "Wally — you shouldn't have heard that, I'm sorry — "
"Rob," Wally says, his voice even hoarser, now, rough on the edges. "Shut up," he finishes weakly, and something on Wally's face — something — an expression Robin can't pin down. Can't read. The expression that Kaldur wears right now, the one they all wear right now, staring down at Dick.
He can. He's always been good at reading people, but it doesn't make sense that they're all looking at him with something like horror and awe and fear, something like sadness.
"That's all I have," Dick says, trailing, unsure. "I'll have, I'll have the written report ready by tomorrow —"
"Shut up, Rob," Wally says, a little exasperatedly. "Seriously."
Dick stares. For a minute, he doesn't get it. They are looking at him, with those faces. And he suddenly recognizes that look, realizes why it looks so familiar. It's the look he sees on Alfred's face, often. The look that he sees on Bruce's when he looks at Dick.
And then it clicks.
Something strangled wrenches out of Dick's throat, something like a sobbed out laugh. "Look," Dick says. It's not that bad. Nine lives. Hung by their ankles. Butchered pigs. Fishes cut open. "Look, okay," he starts again, paper-mache voice. Be impersonal. Untouchable. Impersonalism is professionalism.
"Stop coddling me, please," he says, finally, pinching the bridge of his nose, and his voice is just pure exhaustion now. His eyes are straining uncomfortably against the domino mask, itching to be free. "Hell, Conner is the baby one here."
"We aren't coddling you, dumbass," Artemis says, almost snarkily, except not really. Something in her voice. The same thing he hears in Wally's, he sees on Kaldur's face.
"I've been doing this — "
"Since you were nine," M'gann cuts, her voice soft and gentle and it — it startles Dick. "We know, Robin. We know."
"You know we do not mean to undermine you," Kaldur says. He puts a hand on Dick's shoulder — it covers almost the whole of it. Dick's shoulder looks comically small under Kaldur's hand. Kaldur glances at that, something somber in his face as he does so — and then at Dick. "We are aware that you are more experienced than any of us."
That was — not the most gruesome thing Dick's seen. Hardly the worst thing that Dick's ever seen. Not really.
"Then why?" Dick asks with a bitter laugh, and it's ugly and short — and if he's honest — on the verge of crumbling apart.
The rest of the team exchange a look with each other — and Dick can read that also, that look. That's the level this team is on, now, the level where they can communicate with each other with just a look. It makes Dick feel mildly annoyed. It makes Dick feel — relieved. Content.
Wally shakes his head, smiling a little in that mournful way, eyes scrunching like he's in pain and he says, "that's exactly why, dumbass."
"Robin," Kaldur says again, his voice calming and soothing just like how it's always been. "You and Wally did good. We'd like you to rest now, if you please."
His grip tightens a little. It's grounding. An anchor. Something Dick can hold on to. Dick is glad for it.
Dick is glad he's not alone.
"Okay," he says.