Together, John and Shayera brought Wally home to his apartment in Central City. Though he chattered at them during the flight, by the time they sat him down at his kitchen table it was clear he was on his last ounce of strength. He listed in his chair, his lashes fluttering madly as he struggled to keep his eyes open; the sight would have been comical, thought John, if they hadn't almost lost him.
They made him eat everything they could throw together in a hurry: half a pepperoni pizza warmed up in the microwave, a bowl of some kind of sugar-frosted cereal, a tuna sandwich. He wolfed it all down with a ghost of his usual gusto, offered them both a beleaguered smile, and then, before his eyes had even closed fully, gracelessly slumped forward, asleep.
Even so, he continued to move. He twitched as John and Shayera hauled him to his feet and carried him down the short hallway to his bedroom, his head jerking up every few seconds, as if he were coming suddenly and violently awake, though his eyes remained closed. It made getting him out of his tattered uniform and into bed difficult, and more than once John was tempted to use his ring to hold him steady, but they managed without. Even when he was tucked in and breathing into his pillow, Wally refused to hold still, his feet kicking weakly under the thick pile of blankets.
Shayera looked at John worriedly. "You sure we shouldn't bring him to the Watchtower?"
"What Cadmus left of it, you mean?" John said dryly, his gaze moving from her face to Wally's pale profile. "I think he's better off here. He'll be all right." He'd better be. "I'll stay with him for a while, just in case. You go on ahead."
"Go where?" she asked.
He didn't answer her because he didn't know. He waited, and after about a minute she bent and gave Wally's forehead a quick kiss. Then she left. John didn't hear the front door, so he just assumed she'd opened and closed it gently - as if anything short of a sonic boom was likely to wake Wally, despite how restless he seemed.
Once he was sure they were alone, John hooked Wally's desk chair with his ankle and dragged it over to the bed. He sat down, rested his hands on his knees, and prepared to wait. But it soon became obvious that Wally wasn't about to stop fidgeting, and John began to wonder if Shayera hadn't had the right idea; the Watchtower might be a mess, but J'onn and Dr. Fate had mental powers that might be useful in this situation. Promising himself that he would call for one of them if things got any worse, he leaned forward and touched Wally's shoulder. God, he could feel him vibrating even through the blankets.
"You pushed yourself too hard," John said in a tone that was half-fond, half-admonishing. "Time to slow down. It's all right: we won." As he spoke, he rubbed slow, soothing circles into Wally's shoulder. The bruises on his arms, John noticed, had already gone from purple to brown. Well, that was a good sign, anyway. "Come on, now. Relax. Even you have to have an off switch."
But he hadn't found it yet, evidently. As John watched with growing concern, Wally's hand moved fretfully, clutching at folds in the sheets while his lower half twisted this way and that. He was breathing in short, shallow puffs, and his brow creased, giving him a look of deep concentration … or pain.
Damn, thought John. But he wanted to try one more thing before he called for help. "Move over," he said gruffly as he shifted from the chair to the edge of the bed, swinging his legs up and curling onto his side. Carefully, he took Wally by the shoulders and turned him so that they were facing each other. He tucked Wally's head under his chin, wrapped his arms and legs around him, and held him close. "Okay," he murmured against the disordered red hair. A few strands caught on his lips and he brushed them away awkwardly with the back of his hand. "Okay, I've got you now. Just slow down."
The shudder that rippled through Wally was enough to rattle John's teeth, but he held on, muttering, "I'm not going anywhere, and neither are you. If the Speed Force wants you back, it's gotta get through me." Fierce words - uttered more for his own benefit than for Wally's - but not empty ones; he'd seen with his own eyes what the loss of the Flash could do to the Justice League. But even if he'd never visited that parallel world…
Lying there with nothing to do but watch the shadows as they lengthened and listen to Wally's still too rapid breathing, John had time to think.
The heart of the team. He'd actually called himself that a couple of times since the incident with the Justice Lords. His flippancy pissed John off, but he wasn't entirely wrong. Wally still went to see those kids at the orphanage every Christmas, still found time to help his elderly neighbors mow their lawns, and track down missing pets. He even checked in on the villains he managed to capture, to see how they were holding up in prison or wherever they'd been sent. Of course, when you could move at eight thousand miles a second, maybe finding time for the little things wasn't all that hard. Though John suspected that Wally would have tried to find the time anyway.
It made him a little jealous sometimes. Not that John wanted super speed, but he did wish that he had more time for things. He hadn't been back to his old neighborhood in weeks, and he had a feeling he was neglecting Mari.
John worried sometimes that the League was too caught up in the idea of a greater good, with abstract concepts like justice - hey, it was right there in the title - and freedom. Sometimes it seemed like they spent more time fighting off alien invasions than they did righting simple human wrongs. And maybe that was perfectly fine. Maybe that was the whole point of the League: they could do what ordinary people couldn't. (Which, of course, was what frightened Amanda Waller and the rest of Cadmus…) But it bothered him sometimes, and he knew that it bothered Wally.
The heart of the team. Sure, kid. Whatever you say.
It should have felt strange, being back in this bed, with this familiar warm weight pressed against him - and it did, but it also felt right, like the fulfillment of a debt or a promise. Not that he wouldn't have done it anyway, John supposed, looking down thoughtfully at the freckled shoulders, and feeling a wry smile tug at his lips. It was Wally, after all, who had held him together in the aftermath of Shayera's betrayal and the Thanagarian invasion. Hyperactive, juvenile, smartass Wally West. He'd been quiet and still when John had needed peace. And when he'd needed a distraction, Wally had been that too.
What else could John do now but try to hold him together in return?
His presence seemed to be helping; at any rate, the next tremor was noticeably less violent than the one before. With a relieved sigh, John let his head fall back against the pillow and his eyes close, though he kept his limbs locked tight around Wally's, fingers combing slowly through his hair. "That's it. Just sleep. Heal. I'm right here."
He could imagine Shayera or Mari - God, that was something he was going to have to figure out, and the sooner the better - poking her head in and observing in that dry tone of voice that came so easily to both of them, "You're very fond of him, aren't you?"
If asked, John would have answered without hesitation, "I love him like a brother." The truth was a lot more complicated, but that was as close as he was willing to tread just then.
So much to figure out.
First things first, though.
The minutes went by slowly. At first, John marked their passage, which was easy to do when Wally was breathing at about twice the normal resting rate. But as Wally began to relax, John began to drift. He never quite dropped off to sleep, but he wavered on the brink for a good long while, and his thoughts took on a mazy, dreamlike quality. He saw Mari and Shayera; each wanted something from him, though they wouldn't say what. He could guess well enough, though. In that twilight state, he even knew which choice was the right one. It was so clear. But then he saw a baby with light brown skin and stubby gray wings, and he realized he didn't know a damn thing.
When John opened his eyes again, the room was dark. Wally was sprawled half on top of him, his breath slow and regular, his limbs heavy and - thankfully - still. His features were relaxed, except for a corner of his lips, which curled upward in the slightest of smiles. John gave his shoulder an experimental poke.
Nothing. Not even the slightest twitch. He was truly out cold.
John knew he should be thinking about getting up soon. Despite all he'd scarfed down earlier, Wally would no doubt wake up ravenous; if John cooked up a few pounds of pasta, he could have a bite or two before taking off, and leave the rest for Wally. He ought to check in with the rest of the League, make sure everything was really all right. Then there was Mari. Even assuming someone had thought to tell her where he'd be, she was probably anxious to hear from him.
All right, Stewart. Up and at 'em.
But he didn't move. He was tired too, and this was oddly peaceful. As long as he lay here, he could put off making painful decisions.
"Hey, what're friends for?" Wally had said with a shrug, the one time John had tried to talk to him about that earlier night. "It was nothing. Don't worry about."
It was nothing.
So, maybe this was nothing too: this lying together in the dark, arms and legs in a tangle. If it was nothing, then it wasn't real, and if it wasn't real … John didn't have to worry about a damn thing. In the darkness, that even made sense. John knew that it would stop making sense the moment he rolled Wally off him and got up … so he told himself he'd get up soon, but not just yet. Resting his cheek against Wally's forehead - against the spot Shayera had kissed - he closed his eyes again.
Just a little longer, he thought.
The world could wait just a little longer.