Paper Hearts, part 23

by Chicago

Disclaimers in "part 0"



The tiniest corner of J'onn's brain was acutely aware of Bruce's heavy bathrobe still muffling his frame as he pretended to rest in the darkened bedroom of the penthouse. It reminded him to maintain the fiction of being Bruce while the rest of his energy split itself between the tasks of monitoring communication among the Bat team, soothing Bruce's tangled emotions, and scanning desperately for the faintest flutter of consciousness from Dick Grayson.

There had been far too few of them, and the intervals between them were growing longer.

He'd touched the minds of dying men before.

It was a supreme act of will to maintain measured calm, to keep hope alive for the search. Hiding the uneasily familiar tang of Dick's fractured moments of awareness, his own futile efforts to catch those moments before they faded in order to help Bruce's son command his body to keep living - it was one thing to do that for Barbara and Tim.

For Bruce, who knew J'onn's mind so intimately? Who, more than the others, needed Dick to be alive in order to keep his head clear enough to actually save him if he could be saved? Hiding the recurrent brush of increasingly oxygen-starved thought processes, the half unconscious steeling of J'onn's psyche against the anticipated wrenching cry of a soul letting go... Hiding those things from Bruce was an agony of its own.

"Oracle" Batman was asking, "anything in Torque's history that would suggest a link to any particular warehouse?"

There was clear frustration in Barbara's mental tone as she answered, undercut by an anxiety that curled around J'onn's own. He tried to reach out to her and felt her consciousness suddenly distracted.

Barbara? he inquired.

Batgirl's calling, she sent back, her orders to the other woman to stay in Gotham bleeding back over the link even as Robin's confirmation of her report came in.

Deal with that, he directed, attenuating her connection to the Bludhaven conversation. I'll inform you of anything that develops.

Uh huh, she answered, too distracted for more. The Martian trick of keeping two or three completely different conversations going simultaneously was not something humans handled well. They could hop deftly between situations, but to be speaking three thoughts at once? Or answering them? Better for everyone if Oracle was focused where she was most needed.

Batman was describing his game plan, now trying to address Oracle...

Oracle had to leave for a moment, J'onn cut in smoothly

He could feel Bruce almost freeze, his mind playing dozens of scenarios of new disaster in Gotham. Situation? Batman asked.

We'll handle it, J'onn stated, reminding Bruce that he had a competent team, that his attention belonged on the task at hand.

The message was half delivered when a sudden flare of mental activity stabbed at him, recognizable as Dick's only because J'onn had been so attuned to the young man's patterns. A desperate longing for...

He saw him, J'onn realized, barking out, Robin, stop.

He felt Tim's obedience as the scrap of consciousness faded, again defying his efforts to catch at Nightwing's fleetingly focused mind.

But he had him. If he could just- J'onn? Batman, uncertain, suppressing his urgency.

Who had Dick thought he'd seen? Process of elimination. Batman, are you on rooftop yet?

Just going up now.

Okay, so it wasn't Batman's shadow that had briefly eclipsed the stars.

You wait too.

J'onn- Almost pleading, distracting J'onn with a desire to ease the frayed nerves. Now was not the time.

Bruce, he reproached, isolating the exact way Dick's thought had conveyed itself.

He needed more input. Robin, he ordered, mentally backtrack your route. Recreate exactly what you just did as best you can remember.

Tim sounded uncertain. I just-

Do it, Robin. No Bruce in that tone - he was utterly retreating into the Bat.

And Robin obeyed, somehow finding enough mental discipline to allow himself to lose himself in the memory of two short jumpline swings, letting his mind's eye remember what he had noted but not consciously remarked. J'onn set his own memory of Dick's fuzzily conscious moment against Tim's flight, triangulating where their observations would be overlapping snapshots of the same moment from different angles.

There, he identified, allowing his sense of relief to color his mental tone. That small boat house.

Boat house? Tim seemed confused, and J'onn carefully caught hold of his memory, directing him to look, to see what he had seen before but not registered.

The shock of Robin's recognition was followed instantly by motion, and J'onn could feel that Batman, also, was on the move, undoubtedly following Robin's tracking signal. J'onn lost himself for a moment in offering explanations, in exercising a bit of mental coercion to get Robin to listen to Batman, in forcing them all to proceed carefully.

J'onn? Barbara suddenly intruded over the link, just as Alfred's voice came accompanied a soft knock at the door. "Master Bruce?"

We're finding him, he offered to Barbara, feeling her back respectfully from his obvious focus. A quick report that they had caught Scarecrow's accomplice filtered through to him as he sat up in the bed.

"Yes, Alfred?"

The gentleman's gentleman entered, leaving the door slightly ajar. A flash from Robin's mind revealed Nightwing's situation - unconscious, hanging from the ceiling. J'onn almost felt guilty for not keeping Alfred in the loop for the last 20 minutes, but what would be gained by giving him one more worry about which he could do nothing. "Master Bruce, the police believe they have apprehended the villain behind these attacks."

The attacks on Bruce Wayne, J'onn reminded himself, as he answered in Brucie tones. "Thank god. I've been wracking my brain to figure out what crazy-"

"They say it is the Mad Hatter," Alfred explained as if this were genuinely news.

"The Mad Hatter?" J'onn forced himself to continue as he _felt_ the cold press of steel against Robin's temple.

I've got them in sight, Batman was saying, just as J'onn reached out to scan the mind of the holder of the gun.

"Isn't he in Arkham? And why would he want to get me?" The words left his mouth as his mind prompted Batman to wait just a second longer and a chilling knowledge conveyed itself from the man who called himself Torque. He knew Nightwing was Dick Grayson.

"I don't have all the details," Alfred was saying, "but they are certain that he is behind this. They want to keep a pair of officers here in case-"

Torque was calling out to his associate, unaware by doing so he was bringing a new mind into J'onn's sphere. "Must they? If they've really caught him-"

An almost martyr-like delight screamed from Torque's accomplice, someone who thought of himself as 'Nite-wing.' The certainty that Robin had come to cut Nightwing down, would have, if not caught by Torque, set off the booby-trap...

"They say he works by mind control, that he might still have agents at large," Alfred was explaining patiently. "They are exercising understandable caution."

J'onn. Batman was practically begging to be allowed to swoop down on Torque, fighting against the fear that at any moment he would pull the trigger.

"I don't like feeling like a prisoner," J'onn complained, trying to pull the details of Torque and Nite-wing's plans from their thoughts of ransom and explosions, nudging Torque to think of Robin as hostage rather than victim, asking Batman to allow him a moment more.

"I could ask them to station themselves outside the penthouse," Alfred was suggesting, his eyes anxiously scanning J'onn's face.

"I guess that would be okay," J'onn replied, but his mind was projecting something different. I have to go. I'll maintain the illusion that Bruce is sleeping, but they need me.

Deep worry creased Alfred's face, but he kept his tone even and reassuring. "I will tell them that. You rest."

Go, J'onn signaled Batman, conveying in lump the details of the booby-trap he had gleaned from Nite-wing's mind, along with the urgency of freeing Dick before his failing lungs gave up altogether.

"Okay, Alfred," J'onn agreed, lying back down. He didn't even wait until Alfred was out the door to phase invisibly through the penthouse walls, speeding toward Bludhaven.



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