Paper Hearts, part 20

by Chicago

Disclaimers in "part 0"

It felt like she wasn't breathing. She knew she must be, but her body could only process the irrefutable absence on her monitor. No signal. Gone.

Barbara. A tone of gentle command in her skull. She squeezed her eyes closed.


He could read it from her thoughts, and she felt immeasurably grateful to not have to say it again. She just let her mental anguish pound into him, and he patiently accepted it, silently there.

Only for a moment. Watch Robin, he warned. I'll get Bruce.

Her eyes flew open. Tim. On the scene. And... moving.

She snapped open a channel. "Robin, what are you doing?"

"Habeas corpus," he answered grimly. "He's not gone."

"Robin, the police-"

"They've got their own problems right now. I can get in-" The yellow of his tracking dot showed him already on the building adjacent to the West Exeter.

"Robin, stop. The structural damage-"

Too late. He was already to the site. "Dammit, Robin!" she cursed. "I'm not going to -"

"You won't lose me. And we didn't lose Dick. I can't..." he trailed off, his voice breaking.

"Robin, get out of there. At least wait for Batman," she pleaded.

He didn't seem to hear her. Instead he breathed, "Oh, god..."

"Robin? What? What is it?"

She could feel him steeling himself. "Gauntlet. Half of one anyway. Hold on."

She blinked against tears. "Robin, don't-"

"I have to check."

She knew what he was doing. God help her, she knew. Knew from explosion sites she'd worked herself about finding shoes with feet still in them. About bits of flesh that the brain stubbornly insisted on imagining on the whole body they'd once composed. "Oh, Robin..." she breathed, willing him to walk away, to let the doubt remain. Her mind's eye saw him so clearly, picking through the rubble, staggering for balance as unstable concrete shifted beneath his feet...

"It's empty," he said.

Her heart seemed to flutter. "What?"

"No fingers, no blood." He sounded close to sobbing with relief. "Empty."

"Empty," she repeated. "Empty." She stared wonderingly at the screen. Habeas corpus. No body meant...


It's empty! she crowed, feeling giddily dizzy. She shook herself and leaned forward.

"Robin, that's enough. Get out of there."

"I have to find-"

Tell him I'm scanning, J'onn ordered.

"Negative. Let J'onn pick up his trail. Get away from there before something gives and has us looking for your body."

"J'onn?" he asked, his tracking dot showing he was swinging back across the street.

"He's scanning for him. Just hold tight." She turned her attention back to the Martian. Anything?

Nothing surface, he replied tersely.

She nodded, practically holding her breath. On her tracking monitor, she could see Batman's grey dot traveling at running speed toward one of his underground hideouts. Robin remained still near the West Exeter. Canary's signal beamed steadily from near the Monarch where she had abandoned it before following Batman. Batgirl showed steady progress through the sewers away from Arkham. All in silence. As if everything were waiting on J'onn's effort. Please, she prayed, please...

A sudden sense of relieved sigh blew through her mind. I picked up a flutter. Not much, but he's alive somewhere.

Barbara's eyes closed as her body slumped. Thank god. Thank god.

"I'm going back-" Robin began, but he was halted by a cold order, not on the comlink, but over telepathic link.

Hold, Robin.


I've linked you, J'onn explained, his tone distracted.

J'onn, what can you give us? Batman, sounding purely calculating. A hint of anger bubbled in Barbara. Didn't he worry?

She felt guilty for the uncharitable thought as a long silence followed his query. There was no sense of patience from Batman - only of unhappy waiting. Finally J'onn spoke: He's in and out of consciousness, and I can't get a clear sense of place. Somewhere isolated, though.

Read his captors, Batman ordered.

Bruce- J'onn began.

Dammit, J'onn, this isn't about ethics! I need to -

Bruce. A firmer thought, chill enough to silence Batman and interrupt the sudden stab of anxiety that Barbara felt at Batman's flash of temper. It is a question of distance and knowledge. I know Dick's mind enough to understand how he sees and to pick him out of a crowd. A crowd in this case of several million. I can tell that there is less dream and thought density around his location, but he is not actively in anyone's thoughts at the moment.

Barbara nodded to herself at the logic of J'onn's argument and let her eyes drift back to the tracking monitor. Batman, now clearly on some motorized vehicle, and Robin-

Robin, she snapped. Where are you going?

The docks, he replied. J'onn said isolated - that's either the heart of downtown or the docks. And the docks are closer.


Forget it, Batman. You won't be here quick enough. I have to find him. The determination in his tone was inarguable, although Barbara could sense the Bat readying to-

Bruce, he can save time on the search, J'onn forestalled, calmly reasonable.

A flash of surprise emanated from Robin, not caught in time to avoid broadcast. Barbara wondered if he realized that when he said, Exactly.

This looks to be a new hostage scenario, though, J'onn continued, and I think Torque has demonstrated that his negotiation tactics are best handled with strong backup on hand. Oracle, what's the team status?

Damn he was smooth. She consulted her screen, the need to supply data checking her worry for the moment. Batman, at your current speed I calculate ETA at the Bludhaven docks in eighteen minutes. The soonest I can have Batgirl there is 50 minutes. J'onn, you're still in protective custody?

Yes, he replied, just as Batman projected, He's staying put.

Barbara ignored this last, continuing, Canary is - A soft ping sounded, startling her. She glanced at a monitor. -in my elevator.

We can't all leave Gotham, Batman pointed out. Scarecrow's accomplice is still at large. Huntress is still out of town, and getting Azrael down from Ossaville -

Take too long, Barbara finished for him.

Robin, Batman began as the elevator pinged in Barbara's apartment, continue your search. Signal me the moment you find him, but do not engage. I repeat-

Understood, Robin interrupted.

Oracle, keep Black Canary and Batgirl in Gotham on standby.

The door to Barbara's workroom opened, and Dinah entered. "Hold on a sec," Barbara told her, keeping her mind open to J'onn's link.

I'll continue to monitor, J'onn added, but I suggest switching back to electronic communication.

Barbara engaged a blanket com signal. "I concur," she voiced, making her projected thought match her words. "I'll coordinate from here."

"Good," Batman's voice rolled through the speakers. "Robin?"

"I'm at the docks now, casing warehouses."

"I'll be there in 15," Batman stated. "Batman out."

Barbara muted her microphone and turned to Dinah.

"J'onn said to call you," she said quietly, her eyes scanning Barbara's face. "Leslie didn't need me, so I figured I'd just come."

The friendly concern on Dinah's face was almost more than Barbara could bear. A lump grew in her throat, and she couldn't find her voice.

She didn't need to. Dinah read her emotion almost instantly, rapidly crossing the distance between them and bending to awkwardly hug Barbara. "Nightwing?" she asked.

Barbara could only nod mutely and hopelessly fight her tears.

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