22 Minutes

by Chicago

Disclaimers: Characters belong to DC Comics, borrowed without permission, but only for fun and not for profit.

Canon notes: Joseph Wilson (Jerhico) died in The New Titans #83-34. Events in such canon monstrosities as "Graduation Day" have not happened in the JV (so the Titans are still the Titans from the Dick Grayson/Wally West generation).

Continuity note: Mid-summer of year 2 of the J'onnverse.

Rating: R

It happened so fast...

And coming from me, that's saying something.

My name is Wally West, and I am the fastest man on Earth. And what happened down there today? I already know I'll have nightmares, because when I closed my eyes to sleep an hour ago I was screaming myself awake within fifteen minutes. Linda's still trying to calm Barry Jr. back to sleep while I sit here staring at my coffee and trying not to shake.

I've been on missions that went south before. Way south. Dead stares from the broken bodies of teammates south. They fuck with your head, obviously. I think all of us old Titans still have the ghost of Joey Wilson haunting our darkest dreams. There's all the what ifs, shoulda-coulda-wouldas. They don't bring anyone back.

They don't bring the civilians back, either. Especially civilians who explode in Batman's hands because they almost spill a secret...

But I'm getting ahead of myself, and I don't want to go there.

I didn't want to go there to begin with - or am I projecting backwards? I am, because I know when the call came, I didn't hesitate. Didn't even think, really, it was that obvious that I was the most logical person to leave the battle raging over San Francisco.

Okay, Kyle would've been more logical, but he had been supporting the Golden Gate Bridge and at least four skyscrapers and didn't dare break his concentration even to wipe the android entrails off his costume. That Skyrocket chick from the Power Company had all she could do to keep him from getting blown out of the sky as he single-handedly saved tens of thousands of lives that otherwise would have been collateral damage.

So yeah, I can't even say I had a particularly bad feeling in my gut when J'onn's call came - civilian rescue needed immediately. I wish to god I could say I did.

I yelled I was going over the telepathic link even as Jesse was asking for directions to get there. "I'm closer," I sent to her, already halfway to the oil derrick that Batman had identified as the central strike point of this alien assault.

Jesse made no protest; she is a consummate professional in that respect. I imagine she caught my words and turned back to the defense of Sydney before anyone noticed she had traveled half a mile toward the northern Pacific rim.

In truth, it would've been a crapshoot as to who was nearer, and maybe she...

No, that thinking will get me nowhere.

You can't second guess a battle; it won't bring back the dead.

Even if I hadn't known where J'onn and Batman were, it would have been obvious enough when I got to the general area. The sea, so calm elsewhere, was whipped into a raging fury for a mile around the oil derrick, water spouts and waves crashing counter to one another in a way that seemed to defy physics threatened to push me off course. Me, moving faster than sound.

I was drenched and squinting hopelessly by the time I reached the derrick, fighting visibility that was less than ten feet during the worst gusts and never got better than a hundred feet at the outside. Civilians! I heard J'onn bark in my head, and that is the only way I would've heard him. His thought was accompanied by a general sense of direction, and I trusted him to be my eyes as I sped forward.

There were a half a dozen hunkered down in the derrick office, eyes wide in the dark. I zipped in with classic superhero confidence. "All right, one at a time. We're getting you folks out of here. You."

I didn't give then time to think about it, just scooped up a burly workman and zipped with him to the nearest settled island, dropping his shivering form in the local hospital and turning without explanation to go fetch the next guy. I would have them all to safety before anyone on staff could think to form a question anyway, and explanations, if necessary, could come then.

By the fourth trip I still had not seen J'onn or Batman, but then lightning flashed and in the space between seconds I saw J'onn. His body was stretched through the rigging of the oil derrick, wrapped around the central pipe and disappearing into the ocean below. What happened? I asked, securing the next workman.

Civilians, Flash! J'onn barked back.

I learned later that the Russians had sent a covert team to disable the alien bomb, some of their best operatives. But the crude telepathic shielding they had developed could not hold so close to the center of the aliens' operation, and, enraged, the aliens had triggered the counter-explosives the special ops team members were carrying on their persons. J'onn was using his body to do what Lantern could do with his ring: supporting the derrick and holding gallons of crude from pumping into the ocean.

I rescued the final workman from the derrick office and returned again to the battered structure, sensing I was still needed.

One more, J'onn's voice gritted in my mind, and I wove through the wreckage to find Batman holding a man at arms length, yelling at him over the roar of the ocean.

I couldn't hear his words; the wind ripped them away before they could reach me. I could see that the man was crying, that Batman had lashed them both to an I-beam, and I knew better than to question.

The hospital staff where I had dropped the other workmen explained to me later that they had found microprocessors planted in the workmen's bodies, and STAR Labs wasted no time in discovering that the aliens had used that technology to control the derrick crew. They had used these poor civilians to bury a bomb deep in the earth that would trigger a tectonic event of cataclysmic proportions, then buried that information in their minds to hide it from telepathic probes.

They also had devised a fail-safe.

Batman had isolated the crew foreman, dragged him out into the storm, was using the aliens' own fury and J'onn's telepathic shielding as a cover as he coaxed details about the trigger mechanism to the surface of the foreman's mind. But I didn't know that then.

All I knew is I was clinging to an oil derrick in a raging storm, waiting for instructions, when the foreman's head exploded.

I learned today that skull fragments are effective shrapnel, and a violent enough explosion will cause even a seemingly secure I-beam to plunge into a boiling sea.

"BATMAN!" I screamed, rushing forward in a hopeless cause. My fingers just missed his cape as he disappeared from view, and before I could plunge in after him, J'onn was stopping me.

QUICKLY! he ordered, downloading directly into my brain the last thoughts of the foreman.

I moved like a highspeed puppet under J'onn's mental direction, finding and ripping open a hidden panel on the derrick platform and pulling wires and pushing buttons and watching with some part of my mind that had gone numb as a timer clicked down toward zero.

It stopped at two.

Abruptly I felt raw rage slam into me, and I bounced painfully against steel before I felt a tendril of J'onn anchor me against the central structure. I had to fight for air between crashing waves, and when I reached out to the telepathic link, I found only static.

They had broken J'onn's shielding.

The derrick creaked and groaned under the buffeting of the waves, and I can only imagine the strain on J'onn's body. I clung to him, to the derrick, and I could sense him struggling to do the same under a massive telepathic assault. Strategy had given way to howling anger on the part of the disembodied aliens, and later the others told me that that had turned the tide of the battle against their android army.

Turning the tide is not ending it, though, and it felt like a dozen lifetimes that I was pounded by the sea, and when it relented a little, I imagined I must be dying. Peace comes with death, right?

But I wasn't dying; the metal around me had ceased its screaming, although the sea continued to boil. I could finally see the length of the derrick platform, even through my salt-stung eyes. I could see a familiar hooked hand reaching up and pulling behind it two bodies.

I shouted and raced across the platform; neither hell nor high water was going to keep me from Aquaman and the limp body in his arms. J'onn made no effort to stop me, but at that point I didn't think to wonder at that. I was too busy snatching Batman's body from Aquaman, giving it a little shake and half screaming, "Batman! Batman!"

I stared in horror as something dark that clung to Batman's nose and mouth suddenly scuttled, bug-like, off to one side and disappeared into the cowl. Batman's lips were grey. He was cold. He wasn't breathing.

"Flash," Aquaman said over the crashing of the still violent waves, resting his hand on my shoulder and turning me back toward whence I had come.

J'onn's face and hands were stretched out toward me, toward Batman, beseeching, unable to stretch any further.

I wasted no time, racing through the stinging spray to hand off the corpse of my teammate.

J'onn took him from me with alacrity, pressing his cheek to Batman's nose and mouth for a second before turning his face to blow air into his lungs. I wanted to stop him, not let him make this futile effort. I wasn't sure how long Batman had been under the water, but it had been too long.

J'onn turned Batman's body after that first effort at breath, and water poured from Batman's mouth and nose.

Drowned.

I wanted to scream. Batman was one of the people who wasn't allowed to die. It was a rule. An immutable truth of the universe.

I watched numbly as J'onn plunged a hand into Batman's chest.

I swayed a little, unable to turn away, and I felt Aquaman's steadying hand on my shoulder. It had been there a while, I realized, anchoring me against the surf that was still occasionally swirling around my ankles. I wanted to run, to vomit, to scream - do anything - but I was riveted by J'onn's desperate breaths into Bruce's lungs, by his arm, disappearing into Batman's chest in what had to be a hopeless effort to make his heart beat again. I could see J'onn's bicep rippling as his hidden hand clenched and released, clenched and released...

He still held the derrick up, still contained the crude oil in its shaft, his body stretched as thin as it could go. His lover was lying dead in his arms and he wasn't giving up. Not on his duty, not on Batman.

I felt a buzz at my waist and started in confusion before I remembered my comlink. We had shut them off during the battle because the androids were picking up all our frequencies, but now I could hear Superman's voice cutting through crackling static. "Flash, report! I cannot reach Batman or J'onn. What is your status? I repeat, Flash, what is your status? Did your mission succeed?"

I touched a set of controls that would activate my throat mic, wondering what to say. That he couldn't reach Batman because he was dead? That J'onn was too busy trying to prevent ecological disaster and force a miracle to think about anything else? I said only as much as I needed. "The bomb has been neutralized."

"Thank god! The android armies are retreating and-"

Whatever else he said was lost to me as beyond the oil derrick, I saw a flaming figure rise out of the sea. I stared, bracing myself for an attack, but Aquaman's hand tightened on my shoulder. I looked back at him questioningly, and he shook his head.

The figure continued to rise, and the sea began to calm.

J'onn continued his ineffectual attempts at resuscitation.

"Flash? Flash?!" Superman's voice called.

I touched my throat mic again. "Flash out." I severed the connection.

The flames loomed, imposing a silence as they moved closer, and through that silence a sudden gasp reached me. I dropped my eyes to where J'onn still held Batman, and his hand was no longer in Batman's chest. Instead his arms twined around Batman's body, curling it toward his face, and I wondered if he finally realized it was over.

I turned my face away finally, toward Aquaman's comforting grip, and out of the corner of my eye I saw arms of flame reach out, around-

"NOOOO!" I screamed, but Aquaman still held me back as the flames wrapped around the central derrick structure, around Bruce and J'onn.

"LET ME GO!" I cried, struggling angrily but unable to compete with Aquaman's strength. Frustrated, I began to vibrate.

"Flash, stop," Aquaman ordered quietly, leaning close to my ear. "Stop and watch."

I obeyed, suddenly mesmerized by the flame.

It wasn't particularly hot, despite the fact it was blazing a few feet from us. There were no telltale gouts of flame from the places where J'onn's body must've failed by now, releasing the surging oil into the air. There wasn't even a crackling sound...

Just silence.

And as I looked up, two fiery eyes seemed to stare down at me and a maw opened in the flames, bellowing out a sound that rippled over the ocean and forced me to bring my hands over my ears.

Then it was gone.

"What the-" I gasped, blinking against the dark spots in front of my eyes.

"H'ronmeer," Aquaman breathed with a hint of awe.

I started to turn to him, to ask what the hell he thought he knew about Martian gods and why he was playing when he knew J'onn put them to bed a year ago, but my vision started to clear.

The oil derrick was standing, whole, uncompromised.

J'onn J'onzz, his body back to its normal form, knelt on the deck with his arms still wrapped around Batman, trembling. A soft wind was playing in my hair, and I could hear the gentle splashing of the waves against the derrick pilings.

Aquaman had released my shoulder.

I walked forward slowly, intending to talk to J'onn, to try to soothe him. Even my motion felt muffled in the sudden calm, stifled. As I got closer, I could hear him talking, babbling almost, as he rocked Batman's body in his arms. It was gibberish, a mix of Martian and English. I made out a phrase or two, words: "...okay... have you... breathe... over..."

I was shaking as I got closer, knowing I was going to be saying those same words as I tried to make J'onn understand. And other thoughts were crowding in on me. How was I going to explain to Nightwing that I let his father die? I could still see my fingertips just missing in their grab. And a part of me imagined trying to live without Linda, how I would feel in J'onn's place.

J'onn was pushing back the cowl, leaning in to press kisses to Batman's - Bruce's - face between mumbled pleas and desperate assurances. He didn't respond as I touched his shoulder, and I bowed my head as I struggled to find my voice, find any words...

I heard before I saw - heard the rattle of labored breathing, lost under J'onn's rapid fire monologue. My downcast eyes rested on sodden armor, and after a shocked moment, I recognized that the yellow emblem on the chest was moving in time to that desperate sound. Batman's back was arched as if trying to make more space for air in his lungs, and J'onn supported him, coaxing, encouraging.

My eyes traveled to Batman's face, noting the bruises rising there, finally meeting wide, staring eyes of infant blue...

They tell me I passed out then, caught by Aquaman who I had not realized had stayed a step behind me. Seconds later, Superman was on the scene, worried that he had been unable to raise any of us on the comlink (Aquaman's had been damaged in the battle).

I came to in the Watchtower medbay, every muscle aching and my throat raspy and sore. Kyle Rayner sat beside me, and he smiled when he saw I was conscious. "Welcome back," he said softly. "Saved the world again, there, Twinkletoes." He helped me sit up, supporting me as I was racked by coughs. "Easy," he cautioned. "You took in some water."

Had I? I must've; I could feel the congestion in my chest. "Batman?" I asked when the spasm passed.

"Doc Mid-nite's looking at him now," Kyle explained, his eyes regarding me with a weird mix of sympathy and awe. They still didn't know at that point exactly what had happened; Aquaman could not tell them about what he had not seen, and of the rest of us...

Mid-nite ordered bedrest for Batman, and the rest of the League realized how bad it really was when Batman made no protest. The good doctor prescribed an aggressive antibiotic therapy against the threat of pneumonia, presenting me with a similar scrip, albeit less dramatic. My body was already healing itself, of course, but near drowning was near drowning.

They summoned Dr. Occult to look at J'onn, who had lapsed into total silence when they had taken Bruce from him. He only stared blankly at the rest of us, staying where we put him or docilely obeying instructions, so long as no one tried to urge him from the medbay. He and Dr. Occult had sat together in silence for over an hour, and finally, Occult sighed and led him to Bruce's bedside. He carefully put Bruce's hand in J'onn's, settled J'onn in a chair, and told the rest of us to let him be; he would heal in time. Nightwing had told me once that J'onn and Bruce had formed some sort of a soul bond, and I had seen on occasion where they had obviously felt one another's pain in a much more literal sense than the rest of us could appreciate.

And when push came to shove? When it was a choice between saving his lover or the world? The others could not realize that J'onn had made a choice, and I was not going to be the one to enlighten them. My debriefing was unsatisfying, I know, but how could I explain all we had been through in what had turned out to be only 22 minutes? The world was saved, and I couldn't tell them what had finally driven the alien presence away after we defused the bomb. And it was gone; they had established that while I was unconscious and wanted to know how they could engineer a defense against the invaders into the rebuilding.

They finally let it go after Aquaman stubbornly asserted that sometimes a miracle shouldn't be questioned too closely, which would have started a fight had Batman heard it, but for the others? Wonder Woman and Superman and Green Lantern left to rejoin the clean up crews, leaving Plasticman on monitor and Aquaman with me. Dr. Mid-nite had refused to clear me for work, and I think they were worried for my psychological state.

With reason.

At least Aquaman had been there for part of it. He let me sit, making conversation in a way I'll have to thank him for later, telling me how he and J'onn and Diana had had a series of friendly arguments about theology over the years, testing fine points of their own cultures against the teachings and examples of their gods. That had been how Aquaman had recognized H'ronmeer, although he was uncertain if we had seen a god or a projection of J'onn's mind in his heightened emotional state.

I listened blankly, hearing the words, storing them, but not processing them as he spoke. I nodded from time to time, and he watched me with a kind of scrutiny that was worthy of Batman. Finally, thoughts began to gel in my brain, and I raised my head to look at him. "I want to go home," I said.

He nodded and led me back to the medbay, where Dr. Mid-nite was treating other heroes injured in the battle. Mid-nite barely paused to give his approval, his attention focused on setting the arm of a girl I thought I recognized from San Francisco but couldn't name to save my life.

I felt a certain relief at his dismissal, and accepted Aquaman's offer to run the teleporter for me. But first I wanted to make a stop.

I crossed to the quiet corner of the medbay where they had installed Batman and J'onn, slipping behind the privacy screen. Neither of them acknowledged me. Bruce had an oxygen feed into his nose, and a livid bruise colored his cheekbone. I could see a neat row of stitched under his chin along the jawbone, and I wondered for a moment how I had not noticed the injury before. But of course, without a heartbeat, a man did not bleed.

I took some small comfort in the fact that he was conscious, his eyes fixed on J'onn and his fingers gently stroking over J'onn's hand. I imagined they were talking telepathically, or hoped they were. None of the rest of us had felt even a flutter of telepathy from J'onn since the aliens had mounted their assault on the derrick.

I watched them for a long moment, then turned quietly to leave. I was at the screen when I heard Bruce say, "Flash."

I hesitated and looked back, but he still wasn't looking at me. He sensed my attention though, because he said, "Good work."

I nodded in acknowledgment. "Get better," I said roughly, and then escaped.

Good work. Was it? I stare at my coffee now, knowing the right answer, that the greater good must always come first. Like I said, I've been on missions that have gone south before, and it's never easy. And this one really didn't go south as far as it could have.

I know without being told that Mid-nite must have pulled bone shrapnel from that cut on Batman's jaw.

There is a touch to my shoulder, and I start to see Linda looking down at me with worry and love. "He's finally asleep," she says.

It takes me a split second to realize she means Barry. I relax a little. "Good. I'm sorry-"

She pulls a chair close to me and settles in it, moving the cold coffee away from my hands. "It was really bad this time, wasn't it?" She already knows it was bad, but I haven't been able to tell her any of it yet.

"Yeah," I admit, staring at my now empty hands.

She takes them in hers, drawing them to her and making me turn. She gazes at me steadily, and there is no judgment. Only love, and concern, and I reach for her and pull her close.

"Just hold me," I whisper.

And she does.

end