Paper Hearts, part 2
Disclaimers in "part 0"
Bruce smiled slightly and extinguished the flame. I'd rather you be captivated by me, he returned. Besides, I doubt Chez Ambrose stocks Chocos.
Alana arched an eyebrow. "I believe that counts as a romantic gesture," she remarked aloud.
"You asked for a romantic evening," Bruce replied, taking her hand. He would have as happily spent this night at the Manor, or - more in keeping with his usual habits - ignored Valentine's Day altogether, but J'onn had expressed a certain wistfulness for the human holiday, one he never had occasion to celebrate. And if J'onn desired a traditional Valentine's Day? Who was Bruce to deny him the rare request? He raised Alana's hand to his lips. "You look lovely this evening."
He heard Sasha shift behind him, the sound registering her disapproval. Dick had speculated that Sasha was a tad jealous of "Alana" and all the other women Bruce had been dating, while J'onn had picked up a glimmer of pity for Alana from Bruce's bodyguard. "She thinks you're cheating on me," J'onn had told him, mirth in his eyes.
Regardless of what Sasha thought, however, J'onn - Alana - did look beautiful. Zo'ok adorned her thin form with a classic "little black dress" which managed to be tasteful while still showing a fair amount of leg. There was a hint of curl in Alana's normally stick straight brown hair and an impression of minimal make up on her face that made Bruce admire J'onn all the more. Every detail of Alana's person spoke to J'onn's skill at fully living an identity, keeping completely in character to the way the slightly retiring Alana would handle a rare public outing with her beau. She was even beaming perfectly at Bruce now in response to his compliment.
"Would Monsier and Madamoiselle care for drinks? Or perhaps a bottle of wine?"
Bruce glanced up at the waiter who had arrived unobtrusively and stood patiently at ready. Then he looked to Alana. "Wine?"
She hesitated. "Red?"
Bruce nodded and turned to the waiter. "And I think we should sample the escargot," he ordered, eliciting a little giggle from Alana.
"Very well, Monsieur Wayne."
"Doesn't he want to know what kind of wine you want?"
"He already knows," Bruce dismissed, knowing this chatter was for Sasha's benefit.
Alana grinned. "Of course. Y'know, I've never eaten snails before."
"So it will be a night of first times. No, no, you don't need to light it." This last was directed at a busboy, clearly under directions from their waiter to set things right at the secluded Wayne table.
The young man hesitated, apparently discomfitted at the notion of the waiter returning to find the candle left unlit. "You're sure?"
"I'll tell Laurent," Bruce assured him generously, giving Alana a sly glance of pure "Brucie" origin. He even knew the waiter's name, the look conveyed with an almost preening quality.
Alana bit back a smile, clearly appreciating the act which J'onn had seen once before in another restaurant in another guise.
Later, Bruce would curse himself for his moment of inattention, although a part of him knew that he could not have responded quickly enough to prevent the busboy from grabbing Alana and pressing the little pistol to her ribs. Even Sasha, in a mode of complete watchfulness, was startled by the sudden action, although her own gun was drawn within a split second. Her lips curled to shout an order, but the word died unspoken as the busboy hissed, "Say anything, and she's dead." He ground his .22 into Alana's side to emphasize the point.
Bruce quickly scanned the area. He had deliberately chosen a table in one of Chez Ambrose's "les coins romantiques" - designed to maximally shield lovers from the rest of the restaurant. No one could see what was going on behind the ornamental screen and potted plants. Unfortunately, there was also no way to disarm or disable the man while still ensuring he would not shoot. And while J'onn J'onzz would be unharmed by a bullet, this was not a J'onn J'onzz moment. Nor was it a Batman moment. It was Bruce Wayne and Alana Jones - and the spectre of a secret identity that must be protected.
He met Alana's eyes, noting the quiet calm in them that did not match the fear on her face. He focused on her as he asked, "What do you want?"
A short, quiet laugh came from the busboy. "From you?" he snorted. "Nothing. Nothing save your death."
And suddenly the barrel of the gun was pointed at his forehead and Sasha was yelling "STOP!" and Alana was rising and blocking his view of the bullet resting in its chamber and there was a sound of detonation muffled by flesh, echoed by screams and the sudden appearance of Laurent and the subduing of the sobbing and baffled busboy.
These facts entered Bruce's consciousness only as confused impressions, a backdrop to the slow fall of Alana's body onto the table.
Sasha, hovering, breaking the silence of the waiting room to the trauma ward, mercifully empty save for them. The GCPD was doing a good job of keeping the media hordes at bay.
"I just - I had him, but - I couldn't pull the trigger."
Highly trained telepaths can do that little override on your instincts, he didn't say. J'onn must have sensed something, realized the busboy was not acting under his own power. Not that that excuse was keeping the man out of police custody, but it had saved his life.
"I think -" She paused, taking a deep breath and holding it for a moment before blowing it out with a sigh. "I think it might be best if I leave your employ."
Quit? Bruce puzzled over this for a brief moment. Of course. Her failure to pull the trigger made her question her ability to do her job.
"Bruce, if I can't protect you-" She trailed off, sensing he had no interest in discussing the matter.
Sasha stationed herself against a nearby wall.
Bruce felt he should tell her to sit down, but he knew she would refuse. He couldn't tell her that he already knew Alana was fine any more than he could insist that the paramedics leave her be when the ambulance arrived at Chez Ambrose.
J'onn had to stay Alana for as long as they were in the public eye.
He had no choice but to bleed into the snowy white table linens that Bruce pressed against the hole in Alana's back.
A doctor emerged into the waiting area. Bruce waited expectantly.
"Your - friend - is a very lucky woman," the doctor - K. Barlov by the nametag - announced. "From the angle of the shot, I would have thought there was no way that the bullet could have avoided hitting either her heart or her aorta, but it's the damnedest thing - the bullet passed between them without so much as nicking either of them. There's no damage to her lungs or spine, and I'll be damned if I know why, but the bullet stopped just short breaking her sternum. We were able to extract it with just a small incision beneath her left breast. Her body's still suffered a major trauma, but -" He shook his head. "It's pretty incredible."
Bruce nodded. "Can I see her?"
Barlov hedged. "We've just transferred her to recovery. I'll have one of the nurses know when you can go in."
"Thank you, doctor." Bruce turned his stare back out to the parking lot of the hospital and the press hordes just beyond, trying to decide how quickly he could demand Alana's release to a private facility. Alfred was ready to roll at a moment's notice, and the sooner they got J'onn out of -
Weak, but J'onn.
You should have let it phase through you. Gruffer than necessary, Bruce regretted almost instantly.
And let it hit you?
Dodged? You're not bulletproof, Bruce.
Neither are you! Bruce retorted hotly, remembering the faint taste of pain in J'onn's mental touch as Alana's body lay across the table. A body that would pass medical scrutiny was also one which felt exactly as a true human's would.
Bruce. There was reprimand in J'onn's tone.
Bruce deliberately unballed the fists clenched at his sides. How are you feeling? he asked carefully.
He could feel J'onn's mental nod of approval. Rather sheepish, he confessed. I should not have allowed-
Don't, Bruce interrupted, feeling guilty now for the way J'onn had shored him up at Chez Ambrose, focusing his energy on reminding Bruce that things were not as they appeared. Even when "Alana" had gone in for surgery, he had kept something of a link going - joking that he had to keep his consciousness in Alana's big toe to escape detection by the EEG - until Bruce had begged him to save his strength.
Very well, J'onn allowed, provided you stop beating yourself up about it.
I- Bruce began, then stopped. J'onn had a point. They had both acted as best they could in the situation, preventing any civilian casualties. And there was a larger question to address, as J'onn was pointing out.
Any sense of who was behind this?
It had to be Hatter, Bruce answered grimly. The mind control - the busboy claims he doesn't even remember obtaining the gun, let alone carrying it to work.
And why Bruce Wayne was targeted?
Might have been opportunity. He'd just started his shift. No reason to know I'd be there, or that this busboy would have our table.
But might as easily become vendetta, since you got away, J'onn warned.
It still doesn't make sense, though, Bruce mused. What does he stand to gain? And you're distracting me.
There was a sigh in J'onn's voice. I'm fine, Bruce. Will it make you feel better to know I've drawn the nerves away from the damage? That the injury now is only as dramatic as need be to pass visual inspection?
I don't want you injured at all.
This drew a soft mental caress. I know. But it's temporary. There was a little extra emphasis on the word temporary, a pointed reminder.
Bruce sighed, drawing Sasha's gaze. Her eyes were troubled, guilt clearly warring with concern. One more issue to deal with, he remembered. Again there was an approving touch from J'onn, laced with reassurance. I'm glad she's here, J'onn stated. If you have become a target-
The surge of worry that accompanied the thought made Bruce feel suddenly selfish, ashamed that he had not realized that J'onn would be as concerned for him - with more reason - as he was for J'onn. If so, there won't be another attempt tonight, he reassured. And- his thoughts slipped into more Bat-like tones - Hatter has just earned my undivided attention.
There was a forced chuckle from J'onn. Lucky him. But be careful.
Bruce offered a mental grunt in reply and crossed to take a seat beside the still standing Sasha. "Be ready," he said to her softly. "Once we get Alana moved, we'll have a lot of work to do."
Something like gratitude flared in her eyes. "Whatever you say, boss."