Waking, part 17

by Chicago

Disclaimers in "part 0"



The hard knot in Nightwing's gut tightened as he rushed down to the teleporters. I always wanted my own ulcer, he thought, the hard irony distracting him from the thickness in his throat. It was hard to separate the real anxiety he felt for Bruce from the strange sensation of grief that had befallen the entire planet, and he had time for neither. He worried he was just deferring a breakdown for when this mission was over, mostly because worrying about it gave him something to think about when there was no other demand to prevent him from collapsing into a heap in Barbara's arms, which is what he wanted to do.

He stepped into the teleport tube and nodded to Green Lantern, signaling his readiness to go. Kyle had impressed him a great deal over the past 24 hours, not the least of which for the way he managed to handle the heartache that only he and Plasticman of the remaining JLAers could feel. Nightwing wondered if his teammates could even fathom the strength of will it took not to burst into weeping at the conference table as they pussyfooted around what appeared to be part of the source of the grief.

J'onn.

He let himself think it as the teleporter took hold, knowing he would have to confront it in the Cave.

The knot in his gut was even tighter as he stepped out into the dim light of the Cave. Alfred stood waiting, his expression a model of "stiff upper lip" thinking. Dick took a moment to reach out for the older man and hug him tightly. They clung to one another for a moment, fighting the tears that, once released, would be difficult to stop. Then Dick stepped back and asked, "What happened?"

Alfred followed him as he started toward the computer. "He was resting here - asleep I thought after the fever broke. And then, when -" He paused. "I worried for Dr. Thompkins upstairs alone, so I left him for only a few moments."

"It's okay, Alfred." Nightwing's tone was more Bat than comforting, but he needed the Bat right now. "You know how he is."

"Yes." There was an attempt at drollery in the comment, a stretch to make this business as usual.

Nightwing settled into the computer chair, noting Alfred's half begun attempt to trace a teleporter signal. "So he teleported out. Did he take anything?"

Alfred shook his head. "He suited up, but all inventory is accounted for save for the suit he was wearing and his belt."

Nightwing furrowed his brow. "And he didn't teleport anything down before he left?"

"No."

"Dammit, Bruce," Dick muttered. "What are you thinking?"

"You have an idea where he might have gone?"

" Had an idea, Alfred. I figured he went to Mars."

For a second, he could see Alfred's composure crack, and then it was back. "Master Dick, without a space suit, would that not be-"

"Suicide? Yes. Unless he's got something else up his sleeve. Which he must, since Bruce isn't one to teleport himself into a near-vacuum."

"Is there nowhere else he was likely to go?"

Nightwing stared at the scrambled teleporter signal on the screen for a long moment. Was there? The Watchtower, but he hadn't appeared there. J'onn's home in the Gobi? His fingers flew across the keys, accessing WayneTech and JLA satellites to pull an advanced infrared scan and to read the various bandwidths of Batman's equipment. Nothing. Not that Bruce couldn't hide from such surveillance, but to what end? No, Dick knew in his heart of hearts where Bruce had gone, and he could only pray it wasn't a fool's errand.

"Master Dick?"

Nightwing sighed and swiveled the chair away from the monitor to face Alfred. Just that move was enough to prompt the older man to sink into the other available chair, his face worried.

"He went to Mars, Alfred. I don't know how he's managing the atmosphere - unless there's air pockets in those old Martian homes."

"After J'onn." Alfred's voice broke a little on the name, and he swallowed hard as he struggled to control his features.

Dick nodded, peeling off his mask and scrubbing tired eyes. "Alfred," he began, "we figured something out up there, something we haven't told the League."

"Go on."

"When we started tracing things back, when we realized that whatever's behind this has been going on for quite a while-" Dick pulled his hand away from his eyes and wrapped his fist around the teardrop that had managed to cling to his fingers. Not now, he reminded himself firmly.

He cleared his throat. "We know that this all started before Aquaman and Poseidonis were rescued. We tracked back all the little trends - isolated variables that seemed to belong to the phenomenon, and we think they know when they started."

Alfred stared at him, a sense of dread recognition dawning in his eyes.

"I don't even know if they realized it, although I imagine J'onn figured it out."

"It's about Bruce and J'onn, isn't it?" Alfred's hands were white knuckled in his lap.

Dick took a steadying breath. "That's what it looks like. Like this all started about the time they got together."

"Coincidence," Alfred dismissed, although it was clear he didn't believe his own words.

"I've been trying to make myself believe that," Dick said, no longer able to look at Alfred's face. He stared off into the dark of the cave. "And I've also been trying to figure out why J'onn would completely sever ties with Bruce. Why he would abandon him."

"Abandon-?" Alfred echoed, his voice choked.

"He said good-bye, Alfred. The way you just don't say good-bye to Bruce, made him accept it. Or tried to. And then he left. And none of us could remember his voice or his face anymore." He would've urged Alfred to try, but he knew the barely dammed sorrow in the old man would break then, and if Alfred began to cry... he forcefully closed his mind to the image.

"He went to Mars. Because every link leads back there. And it's the one place where Bruce couldn't watch his back, and Bruce knew it.

"Alfred," he continued, no longer able to keep the tears from his cheeks, because he knew beyond a doubt where his grief was coming from. "I think J'onn's dead."



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