by dotfic (a.k.a. Constance Eilonwy)
Spoilers: through "Divided We Fall"
Disclaimer: Justice League and characters is the property of Warner Bros. animation/DC comics. They don't belong to me, I just like torturing...er...writing about them. Thanks as always to Missy for the beta read.
In the days afterward, as Flash recovered from the bruises and the shock to his body, they all praised him.
Always knew you had it in you, buddy, Lantern said.
If Flash responded with quiet thanks, instead of the expected preening, they noted it as only natural, given what he'd been through.
He's grown, they said.
In the weeks afterward, reporters came calling. Flash refused to talk to any of them.
He'd asked, and they all mutually agreed, not to discuss how Brainiac was defeated, but word got out anyway. Lois said the word on the street was that someone had snuck into the area and witnessed what happened from a good distance, and no, it wasn't her.
The papers speculated, lauded them all as heroes, but said that Flash had saved the world.
Notes (which Supergirl tore up) and flowers (which Supergirl ostentatiously put in the dumpster behind their temporary headquarters) arrived. Some were sent from women Flash used to date, some were from women he'd never met, and some were from men (which seemed to amuse almost everyone—including Supergirl—but embarrased Green Lantern.)
Aside from the repair of the original Watchtower and the move to the temporary headquarters that had once been a CIA campus, things went on much the same as they had before Brainiac took over Lex Luthor and the world almost ended.
J'onn noticed the problems first because he was a telepath.
Batman noticed because he just noticed things. He knew how to observe the smallest details. He didn't need the test to know something was wrong. It only confirmed instinct and observation.
The fact that he was worried had nothing to do with how closely he had been watching in the first place. He'd returned to the League after just a few days in Gotham because the situation there was well under control, and he felt the move to the temporary HQ might put the League off-balance. Someone had to keep an eye on things.
Or so he told himself.
From the beginning, Batman had taught Flash some basic martial arts. Those moves, in conjunction with his speed, made him more powerful. Ironically, this training did not make Flash as powerful as he turned out to be using only his own innate talents.
There were some who would say Batman was too secretive, that he kept things even from those he should trust the most, or from those who most needed to know. To himself, he admitted there was some truth to those accusations. It had cost him some bitter personal losses.
He'd given a lot of training sessions to kids who cared a lot more about his opinion than the Flash did.
For all his secretiveness, there was one thing he thought he always did right. Even if he hoarded the truth about so many things, he never lied to any of them about their ability to do their job right. If they faltered, if they needed improvement, if they were too slow, if they hadn't focused, if he thought they weren't ready, he told them.
It was this that kept them alive.
"So, how was that?" Flash stopped, breathing too hard, which is to say, not very hard at all. But his respiratory functions weren't at all like an ordinary human's.
"You're slowing down," Batman said flatly.
Flash backed up a step. "What are you talking about?"
"Your trips across the room. Each pass was slower."
"That's..." Flash made a limp attempt at a dismissive chuckle. "That's not possible."
In answer, Batman held out the small LCD screen for the clock computer. He pressed a button on the side and numbers came up.
Leaning forward, Flash peered at the small screen. He squinted. "So?"
"Those are your time intervals. There's an electronic strip on the tiles by the weights." Batman gestured with his free hand.
Nodding, Batman put the LCD screen away. "About an hour before we started your training session, I placed the strip on the floor. It's touch-sensitive. Every time your boot touched it, it sent a radio-signal to an atomic watch. A small computer logged the time intervals."
Flash's jaw dropped. He stared, looked like he was going to say something, then shut his mouth.
"It's not only this session. Your performance in the field has deteriorated."
"I'm not one of your string of sidekicks." Flash said coldly. "You want to lecture me on how to do what I do?"
"I'm trying to keep you alive."
The conversation had taken a familiar turn. How many times had he said that to someone who didn't understand why the criticism mattered so much?
"I know what I'm doing. And you little bat-computer is wrong. I'm fine."
"No, you're not."
"J'onn says you've been having nightmares."
There was a shocked silence at this. "He's been listening in on my brain?"
"No. J'onn said you were projecting so loud it's a wonder half the League didn't pick up on it."
Flash put a hand to his face, then lowered it. "This is crazy. J'onn picked up that I've just been a little bit freaked out after what happened, and he sent you, of all people, to shrink my head?" Now he did laugh. "This is ridiculous."
"Not that ridiculous."
There were things he could say, if he could say them out loud: that he knew something about trauma, that he was marking time with an atomic clock because he was scared.
"I told you, I'm fine." Flash began to pace, which wasn't unusual for Flash, who never really stood still, except fidgety, restless, and easily bored looked quite different from this.
Batman remembered Superman mentioning that Flash was claustrophobic, and paced in small spaces, but the movements didn't seem like that, either.
This was more like he was trying to escape himself.
Batman knew a lot about that.
"I'm fine," Flash repeated.
There wasn't anything else to say.
The next day he found Green Lantern underneath a computer table.
"What do you want?" Lantern irritably pushed himself out of the crawlspace. "Damn computers. Always going out for no good reason. Can't trust them."
"Shouldn't you call one of the technicians?"
"Nah." Lantern got to his feet, brushing his hands off on his uniform. "I was right here. Thought I could fix it myself."
"We need to talk."
"About Flash, right?" Green Lantern sat in a chair.
Batman remained standing. "You noticed?"
"Of course I noticed. He's my best friend. I saw what almost happened to him in Metropolis a few days ago." Lantern frowned. "I've noticed it on other missions as well lately, but not as bad as Metropolis. Ever since he defeated Luthor, he's been afraid to go too fast."
"You want to take him off active duty?"
"I'd rather not. He needs to confront his problem. If we take him off active duty he won't have to."
"So you wanna just push him until he falls apart?" Lantern folded his arms. "Brilliant plan."
"You need to get through to him," Batman said. "He's a danger to himself and to others."
Lantern turned back to the computer. "Of course. Always thinking of the team, right?" His tone wasn't bitter, it was more wry resignation.
Batman let him think what he wanted to think.
"What is it with you people? Hover, hover, nag, nag...first it's J'onn asking if he can analyze my dreams, and then Batman with his atomic watch, and now you..."
"Just here as a friend. I'll listen if you feel like talking."
"Well, I don't. Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm okay," Flash said, a little too abruptly.
"Batman says you're not."
"Since when is Batman the leading expert on feelings?"
"It has nothing to do with feelings—"
"He noticed a few things in your performance lately and..."
"What, now I'm just not up to snuff? How much better can I do?"
"It's not that." Green Lantern paused. "You did a great job taking down Brainiac..."
"I did what needed to be done. It wasn't fun."
"No one's saying it was."
"Look, I don't want to talk about this. I just...don't."
"Maybe you need to. If you don't want to talk to me or to J'onn, then what about Kara?"
"We haven't spoken lately."
"We had a fight. Because I woke up screaming last time I stayed over at her apartment and she wanted to talk about it and I didn't."
"Oh, man, you gotta fix that." Green Lantern sighed. "You didn't say anything mean to her, did you?"
"Of course not. I did yell at her, though."
"Yeah. I suck. I'll apologize, send her flowers."
"Damn straight. Better throw in some Godiva."
"So you woke up screaming. What was the nightmare about?"
"Maybe if you..."
"I said I don't remember."
"Easy, easy. If you can't remember, you can't remember."
There was a silence, then Green Lantern said:
"Talk to me. The hell, you think I'm going to judge you because you're upset by what happened? I was a marine. You think I never wake up screaming?"
"No, of course not, I know..."
"Like you said, you did what needed to be done. It's gonna be hard to deal with. Doesn't make you weak. Doesn't make you crazy. Got it?"
"Maybe if you told me—"
"I really don't want to talk about it."
"Sure. No problem. We'll talk about something else."
In the privacy of his room at temporary HQ, Batman pulled the tiny receiver from his ear canal and switched off the listening device.
There was no crow's nest. But there was a roof and an antennae tower that also had a platform large enough for two to sit. Elongated Man jokingly called it Mini Watchtower and the nickname caught on.
It was an easy guess that he would find her up there. She sat with one knee drawn up, the other leg dangling down, her arm wrapped around the metal railing. It was close to sunset, and the sky at the horizon was about the same color as her hair.
She startled when he spoke. He'd made the climb without a sound. He was actually surprised she didn't feel the vibrations his movements would make in the tower.
"Oh, it's you," she said, lowering her mace. "You really shouldn't sneak up on people like that." There was dry amusement in her voice. He hadn't actually frightened her. She didn't frighten easily.
Even though she scooted over a few inches to make room for him he remained standing, his shadow falling across her.
"You need to talk to Flash."
Shayera frowned, her eyes on the horizon. A stray breeze toyed with her red hair.
"He's not doing well, is he." It wasn't a question.
"Lantern tried to talk to him but didn't get anywhere. I thought you might have better luck."
There were things he knew that made him believe this but he wouldn't say them out loud: Flash looked up to her as an unattainable object, like a big sister but more exciting. The two of them had a bond, maybe because they were the youngest of the founding group. She was the one who found Flash in the Speed Force and started pulling him back first.
The air had been acrid and smelled of bitter smoke. In those seconds of shock he hadn't been sure if it was smoke he was smelling or the garbage in a back alley and he hadn't been sure if he was standing or on his knees, until he'd heard Shayera cry out. Before his mind had reached clawlike to seize the idea "gone," he'd had his hand around Diana's wrist and they were all pulling Flash back out into the world.
"Have you?" she asked.
He had forgotten where he was until she spoke.
Her query confused him, put him off balance. "What?"
"Talked to him. Have you?"
Before she could say anything else, he made himself gone.
Flash paced the rooftop, moving from the access door to the base of Mini Watchtower and back again.
In the distance, the lights of the town mirrored the scattering of stars in the night sky. It was a cold night. Shayera folded her bare arms, hugging herself against the chill.
"Flash, we're all worried about you." She rubbed her arms. Through the night-vision binoculars, Batman could see that she was shivering slightly. She seemed to gather her wings closer to her body.
"Why? I'm fine!"
"Yes. You keep saying that."
"But I am."
"You're having bad nightmares every night. Even with that mask covering your face I can see how exhausted you are. When's the last time you had more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep?"
"I don't believe this! I thought were done with the hovering and the henpecking."
"I'm not hovering and I'm not henpecking." She put her hand on his arm. "I'm just here to listen."
"Leave me alone! For God's sake, just leave me alone!"
Flash banged open the roof access door. Shayera flinched. The heavy door slammed shut with finality behind him.
With a gutteral sound that was more battlecry than scream of frustration, Shayera kicked the closed door hard enough to leave a dent.
Crouched at his perch in the shadows on the other side of the complex's rooftops, Batman lowered his binoculars.
They were meta, more than (or not even) human. His own distrust of super powers was not only born of instinct and imagination, his ability to envision scenarios, but of experience.
What had happened only confirmed his beliefs. Flash's own powers nearly consumed him. Their powers could consume any one of them, any day. They were all living on the edge.
The most meta of them all stood with arms folded across the "S" on his chest, nodding thoughtfully.
Batman began to feel uneasy, as if he'd said too much. Superman was too good of a listener.
"...necessary. You must persuade him to voluntarily take a leave of absence," Batman finished.
"It seems like a good idea, letting him make the decision. It would be pretty harsh to order him to stand down."
"He can't continue working in the field the way he is now."
"No. I've been trying to keep an eye on him, though."
"It's not enough. You didn't see what happened in Metropolis."
A shadow crossed Superman's face. "I should have. What if he'd been standing just an inch more to the right?"
"You can't be everywhere at once. You can't do your job if you're constantly watching him."
"That's true." One of his eyebrows went up. "Good thing you noticed, though."
"I'm trained to notice things."
"Has J'onn gotten anywhere?"
"No. Flash has been hiding from him."
"Pretty hard to do, hiding from J'onn."
"By the way, when's the last time you went home or took some downtime?"
Batman waved a hand dismissively. "Don't need it."
"Of course not."
He tried to hear any trace of irony in Superman's voice, found none.
"Don't worry." Superman added. "I'll talk to Flash."
"I'm not worried."
As soon as he said it, he wished he hadn't.
Superman was far too good a listener.
Among other features, the complex had green lawns with concrete walkways and tall old trees. The day was cool but sunny.
Those two, of all the League, were most suited to sunlight.
"So what did you bring me out here for?" Flash idly tugged on a low-hanging tree branch, snagging off a few leaves.
"Oh, nothing that important." Superman shrugged. "I just heard you were a bit down and thought maybe getting outside for fresh air and exercise would help."
Flash tilted his head skeptically, as if trying to read something more to the words. "Uh...oooookay."
"I'll race you," Superman said heartily, as if he were home on the farm.
"You have got to me kidding me." Flash angrily tossed the leaves aside. It was meant to be a vehement gesture, but as leaves are light objects, it lacked the effect he was going for. He turned and faced Superman, the line of his jaw furious. "Who put you up to it?"
"No one, I just thought..."
"You're a lousy liar. It was John, wasn't it?"
"It doesn't matter. It doesn't change that everyone is worried about you. John, Shayera, me. Everyone."
"You could all have saved yourselves a lot of trouble and just run a group intervention, all at once. It would have been a lot more convenient than coming to me one by one!" Flash shouted, gesturing emphatically at the nearby buildings.
"Yeah." Flash stopped yelling. "Look, hey, I appreciate you trying. At least you didn't lecture me. You just challenged me to a friendly race so you could see for yourself that the Flash has lost his mojo. Not too subtle, big guy."
"If you want to talk, I'm here."
"I know. I appreciate it, really. But why is it so hard for you guys to understand, I'm fine? And everyone coming around trying to get me to admit otherwise is just pissing me off. I'm going to go now, and eat something with a lot of sugar and carbs in it. Don't follow me."
He sped across the green lawn as a blurred red streak. Debris fluttered in his wake.
Superman let out a long breath. "Well, that went well," he muttered. Then he reached down and plucked up the hem of his cape, removed something from the edge, and brought his hand up near his face.
"By the way," he said loudly, "it's not polite to eavesdrop." He pinched his thumb and forefinger together.
There were computer printouts all over the worktable, a cross-referencing of dates, places, incidents, and more information up on the 22" flat-panel monitor.
"Diana." He didn't look up from his work.
She sat down in the other computer chair, resting her hand flat on the surface of the worktable, the gold bracelet about her wrist vivid against the gray. "How long have you been at this?"
"Did you even stop to eat?"
Hitting a key, he didn't answer. As the monitor pulled up a new data file, he could feel her studying him. When he took a peek at her out of the corner of his eye, she was watching his gloved hands on the keyboard.
"Bruce, I'm worried about Flash. I just saw him."
Now he looked up. There was a frown crease between her eyes, below the gold band across her forehead. She tapped one graceful finger on the worktable, as if she didn't know she was doing it. "He refused to talk. All he said was 'et tu', Wonder Woman?' Then he ran away from me."
He heard the hurt in her voice and put the papers down.
"Not that I can blame him," she said, turning her chair so she faced him. "What with you sending everybody to talk to him." Her lips twitched.
"I didn't ask you to talk to him." To his own ears, that sounded defensive.
"No. You didn't."
She leaned closer, and he caught her scent. Not perfume, something cleaner that couldn't possibly have been bought in a store.
He suddenly remembered the feel of rubble in his hands, the time they thought they'd lost her. There had been bad dreams for several nights after that, even though she had been okay. Not that bad dreams were unusual with him.
"No one asked me to come here and talk to you, either. But I'm worried about you." She said it quietly, evenly, without drama. Her hand moved on the tabletop, and for a moment he thought she was going to touch him, and he realized he wouldn't mind.
The hard finality of his tone made her draw away slightly, not as if she were startled, or frightened, or even hurt. More as if she were trying to avoid spooking him.
The care she took with him was unnerving. She understood him far better than he liked being understood, and he wasn't sure how that had happened, how she had learned so much.
"You've been taking more than the usual number of missions, not to mention the time you've logged on investigative work. Even you have physical limits. You have to admit that. Besides, don't you have an entire city that needs your attention?"
He almost said to her, I'm needed here more right now. But he didn't say it aloud.
"Very well. I'm human. I have limits. But I'm well within them. I'm fine."
"If you say 'I'm fine' to me once more I'm going to know for sure you're not." The hand resting on the tabletop curled into a fist. "Talk to me, Bruce. Please."
For a second he hovered on the edge, the words already forming in his mind.
There were so many things he wanted to tell her, if he could say them out loud: about his parents, about what he'd lost since and what he was afraid of losing, about the darkness that was always at his heels. He wanted to explain to her why this meant he couldn't ever afford to let himself love her, even for a moment, no matter how easy it would be for him to do just that.
For a second he almost let himself go off that edge.
"I'm sorry," she said, rising, her fingers brushing his shoulder. "I didn't mean to push. I was just worried."
She paused. He couldn't see the expression on her face as he briefly caught her hand.
There was a mission, so he stayed the next night at the HQ. Some of the others had moved some personal items into their rooms from the Watchtower. He never kept anything in his beyond the basics, including a spare batsuit and a few other items stashed behind a hidden panel he constructed himself.
No clutter, everything kept out of sight. No paintings or other decorations, or even a favorite chair from home.
They returned late, and he'd intended to stay up and work, or maybe just wander the halls, but J'onn gave him a particular look and suggested dryly that perhaps in order to function he needed sleep. The look and the tone was alarmingly like Alfred. He obeyed J'onn, because there were only certain times when Alfred had that tone of voice and that particular look.
A few hours later he awoke, tearing himself from bad dreams, his body drenched in sweat. He stared at the ceiling, willed his mind to calm, his heart to stop racing.
In the bathroom mirror, he stared at his face—his true face, the one almost no one ever got to see--as water dripped off his chin and the water ran in the sink.
Then he put on his costume and his cowl because that felt enclosed, safer.
The corridor was empty, stretching what seemed like an endless distance, the floor shining under the fluorescent lights. It didn't have quite the same feel as the Watchtower corridors did. For one thing, the walls had no windows full of stars.
It was long enough, though. The length of the building complex, a good eighth of a mile.
He should be able to run that in less than a second.
Less than a second.
Less than a heartbeat of time.
The distance beckoned with the silence. He braced his hand against the white painted cinderblock wall, unleashed energy almost palpable in the air around him.
Go as fast as you can. Just go.
All the breath rushed out of him. Turning, he rested his forehead against the wall as if he might sink into it.
"It's not that simple."
Flash spun around. "Oh. It's you. Don't sneak up on a guy like that." His voice shook a little.
"Did Green Lantern talk to you about Metropolis?"
Flash frowned. "No. It was just a routine mission. Big monster. Claws. Teeth. Lots of people running and screaming. It was like Mothra vs. Godzilla."
"A chunk of cement flooring broke off the construction site while we were battling the creature. It almost hit you."
"But...I didn't...but I was moving so fast."
"Not fast enough."
One of the fluorescent lights overhead fluttered and buzzed.
After a long silence, Flash said desperately, "Are you sure? Maybe it just looked like a close call. We have close calls all the time. What makes this different?"
"I'm sure. Would you like me to show you the time readouts from our workout session again?"
"It almost hit me?"
Batman held up his thumb and index finger half an inch apart.
"Crap," Flash whispered. His fingers touching the wall trembled.
He waited while Flash struggled with his breath. Batman was good at waiting.
"I thought that maybe if I could do it just once," Flash said. "That if I could run this corridor in point oh-one-eight seconds I wouldn't be afraid anymore.
"That it would go back to the way it was? It doesn't work like that."
"It doesn't matter." Flash gave a small bitter laugh. "Because I can't do it."
"It's not just being afraid I'll slip back in there and not want to come out. It's that I won't be able to control whether, or when, I go in there. I might just slip away without realizing it. That's what the dreams were, mostly. I wouldn't even be going that fast, and suddenly poof. Bye bye Flash." It sounded like he were pushing every word out with great effort. "And it's not just the Speed Force. It's all of it, right before that. I didn't know if you were all dead or alive under all that rubble, and I knew the world as we knew it might end, and it might just be me who had to fix it and I didn't know what I was doing or how I would stop him, I just reacted and started running." He shuddered.
"I'm recommending to J'onn that you be taken off active duty for the time being."
"No! C'mon! You can't. I have to keep moving. If you ground me it'll just be worse. My whole body needs to keep running, only now when I run I remember what it felt like to feel my own body fading. I can't run anymore and it's making me crazy."
There were things Batman could say, if he could say them out loud: that he had one greatest fear and this wasn't about group efficiency.
"I miss it so much. The speed. The way it feels." Still leaning against the wall, Flash smiled slightly. "Light and sound sort of blurs together. It's hard to explain. It's like I'm in my own separate place, even without the Speed Force. It's not the power that feels good. It's knowing what you can do with that power, that anything's possible. I can stop bad things from happening. If it's the kind of thing I can stop, I know I can be there fast enough. If I can still go fast enough."
He moved away from the wall and came to stand in the dead center of the corridor, again staring down its length. "What am I gonna do?"
"Will you help me? Like the training session on Tuesday?"
There were things he could tell Flash, if he could say them out loud: that it wouldn't ever stop haunting him but it would get better in time.
"Hey, Bats, what I said the other day during the training session. About sidekicks. I didn't mean it."
"Yes, you did. But it's forgotten."
"I thought you said if he were taken off active duty he'd never be forced to confront the problem."
"Then what changed your mind?"
"I'd rather not discuss it."
Green Lantern stared into the depths of his coffee cup. Then he pushed back his chair with a loud scrape. "You'd like me to believe you pulled him off active duty because he was a danger to other members of the team and reduced its effectiveness, wouldn't you?"
"Pointy-eared freak." Green Lantern spooned more sugar into his coffee.
Batman didn't answer, just shoveled more scrambled eggs into his mouth.
Green Lantern finished his coffee. "You aren't fooling anyone, you know that, right?"
Instinct, telepathy, observation, compassion.
Yes. I know.
But he'd never say it out loud.