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Apart, not Alone

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J'onn surveyed the room as he sipped his tea.

Terrans were so... utterly human. It was laughable.

Arthur and Wally were having a drinking contest. It was not going well. One drank like a fish, and the other metabolized the alcohol too quickly for it to build up enough in his system. Both had reached a tableau, as far as their livers were concerned, and it was likely that their contest would only end once all of the beer was gone or until they switched to- ah. Right on cue.

Dinah and Olly returned from their supply run, looking a little tousled but bearing the promised bottles of potent liquor that Olly's old roommate from boarding school kept sending him. Olly swore that the proof was so high that it would make most mere mortals go blind.

Had Aquaman or Flash seen the number of bets that were being placed on the outcome of this drinking contest, there would have been a good chance that either one would gladly cheat his way to victory. It was why J'onn had been bribed with Oreos by the bettors to do a cursory scan of the dueling duo's minds to see if one of them had gotten wind of the betting pool.

They hadn't, J'onn was happy to say. He twisted the top off an Oreo. Not until J'onn planted the knowledge in their minds during that sweep. Now each thought they had the upper hand, and had doubled down on the competitive boasting and general drinking-based mistake-making.

J'onn scraped the icing off with his teeth.

Diana had accepted an arm wrestling challenge from Hal, and that was proving to be quite amusing. Hal was just barely hanging in there, despite the fact that he was cheating mightily. Hal had cashed in a few personal favors in order to convince The Atom to apply a super-hardening gel to the sleeve of Hal's long sleeved shirt. It was rigged to respond to a certain frequency, causing it to either stiffen or relax to let his arm move freely. There was a frequency emitter in Hal's pocket. He'd used the gel to affix his arm in the starting position of the arm wrestle in an attempt at denying Diana a victory, even if he couldn't beat her in an outright strength contest.

J'onn and Canary had been, before she'd ducked out with Green Arrow to retrieve the bottles of booze from their quarters, taking turns humming that frequency in short staccato bursts to soften and re-harden the gel, leaving Hal in the uncomfortable position of both visibly losing and being unable to lose completely, since J'onn had done some sneaky shapeshifting to remove the transmitter from of Hal's pocket. The gel wouldn't soften enough to let Hal's arm hit the table without it. It now lay on the corner of the kitchenette counter, in Hal's line of sight. Hal's arm was now at an angle such that Diana was making progress all on her own, making incremental but noticeable progress, even against the hardened gel. She'd noticed Hal's distressed face twenty minutes ago and had correctly surmised he was cheating. She was quite enjoying beating him in spite of it.

J'onn flipped one half of the naked Oreo into his mouth.

Clark, who had been leaning on the counter and chatting with Bruce, perked up with interest as the lovebirds re-entered the League's high-ranking-members-only lounge. He disengaged himself with affable charm from his conversation with Bruce, and drifted over to help Dinah and Olly with their alcoholic cargo and coats. J'onn observed the lingering shoulder squeeze that Olly gave Clark. The slow slide of Canary's hand against the small of Clark's back as she hugged him in greeting. The way Clark was watching only their mouths as the couple joked back and forth, faces glowing from their recent jaunt.

《It's going to be Dinah,》 Bruce thought pointedly.

《Perhaps.》 J'onn could feel Bruce's amusement tickling its way back to him. 《If you could see their pheromones like I can, you would think someone had gone overboard with a smoke machine at a concert. Oliver is still a strong contender and could very well be the one to break him.》

《Show me?》

J'onn tuned his mental focus to show the swirling miasma of colours that billowed around the three gathered by the entrance and sent the general impression to Bruce's mind. He was rewarded with the snort of a suppressed laugh from Bruce.

《Remind me, why haven't those three fucked already?》

《Dinah may have mentioned to me that they want Clark to ask for an invitation to their bedroom. They're enjoying themselves immensely in the meantime, as you can see. It is all part of the game.》

《Does Clark even have a clue that that option is on the table? He's Kansas-raised, and I'm not sure he knows that threesomes can happen in real life.》

《Hmm. Buying into the mild mannered persona after all, are we?》 J'onn chuckled at the derision that thought prompted from Bruce. 《Do not forget, Clark's senses are exceptionally keen. Kryptonians are not known for their... 'midwestern upbringing', shall we say? He naturally has a far greater appetite than he typically allows himself to indulge. But here, with those two... Consider that man practically drunk if Dinah and Olly have recently snuck off somewhere and returned 'all aglow'.》

Bruce shot J'onn a quizzical look and pointed at his nose questioningly. J'onn half nodded, half shrugged, then scratched his ear. A moment later he rubbed at his eye as though trying to remove an eyelash. Bruce's shoulders shook in silent laughter, even as he shook his head in disbelief.

《You think you know your best friend, and then pow, you learn he's a bit of an all-five-senses sort of voyeur.》

《Only a bit,》 J'onn agreed. He took a sip of tea before crunching on the second half of his cookie.

"Done," Bruce announced aloud, his back still turned to the room.

Diana slammed Hal's hand to the table almost immediately. Victoriously, she stood up and jabbed a finger at him. "And to think if your plan had worked, you would have told people you had thwarted me."

Hal gaped in disbelief through the tears of desperation on his cheeks. His arm was still rigid, which prevented him from maneuvering it off of the table's surface. In turn, this caused him to need to contort awkwardly to accommodate the new position.

"You knew?"

he shrieked.

"Wonder Woman always knows," Diana tossed her hair over her shoulder impetuously. J'onn surreptitiously reached over and tapped the button on the frequency emitter, and Hal sagged with relief as his sleeve finally lost rigidity. "Wonder Woman also savours victory, and Bruce wasn't done with his preparations yet."

Hal looked so very at a loss. J'onn slurped at his tea contentedly before setting it down. He turned to give Bruce a hand with carrying the tray, since Bruce's splint made it awkward at best. He carried it out to one of the lounge's small tables - it wasn't as small as the tables on the observation deck, but the window wasn't as big either. The blue planet outside was the same size though.

"Now, Dinah, this is your first time being able to attend one of these, since you only recently learned the prerequisite information," he gestured at Bruce, who had shucked his cloak and wore only the Batsuit, no cowl. "We learned not long after forming the Justice League that the Earth will keep spinning, and new crises will occur whether or not we are ready for them, victory celebrations be damned. It can feel like a thankless job, and there is no good way to celebrate an anniversary when too much heartbreak can happen in the span of a year. Instead, we take a moment after each too-narrowly diverted distastrous incident to recognize amongst ourselves the work we have done, the sacrifices made, the work still left to do."

Diana leaned over and gave Dinah the shorter version. "Bruce makes each of us a special drink according to what he thinks our tastes are, and then we make a toast."

Dinah looked incredulous. "What's that got to do with knowing about Bruce's identity?"

Olly shook his head as if embarrassed. "You get that he's mega loaded, right?"

"Aren't you loaded too...?" Dinah looked around for confirmation that she wasn't losing it.

"If I may?" Clark cleared his throat before attempting to explain what Olly was driving at. "Bruce is the most well-traveled of all of us here, except maybe myself or J'onn?" Clark lilted his question up at the end. J'onn only shrugged by way of reply. "Hal logs a lot of lightyears, sure, but the Lantern Corps doesn't call him out on interstellar missions to get him acquainted with the ins and out of Oan culture. I mostly fly around the world as a crisis response sort of thing, or doing some quick sight-seeing, or... you get the idea. I don't spend a lot of time anywhere. Anyway, Bruce is a total epicurean, and he's basically got an encyclopedic knowledge of every edible thing he's encountered and remembers to maintain the connections he would need to get it."

"And he's cocky," Hal interjected. Dinah just looked more confused. Wally took over the explanation.

"He makes something different for each of us, right? He's not allowed to make the same thing twice. If he fails to make us something we like, we get a week to ourselves on one of his private islands."

"Which I then have to sell once you've been there," Bruce quipped in a deadpan. "Because otherwise you might spoil my privacy and show up uninvited."

"Just ONCE!" Hal said, exasperatedly. "That happened ONE time."

Bruce rolled his eyes as the group enjoyed a good chuckle.

"You know, Bruce lets me use his islands whenever I want," Aquaman smirked at Hal. Hal held out his hands in mock disbelief.

"And thank goodness you never want to visit. Best friend I ever had." A wry smile tugged at Bruce's mouth, as he doffed an invisible hat to the merman. He doled out the drinks on the tray. "Same rules as usual."

J'onn explained for Dinah. "If you try to guess an ingredient in your drink and you are incorrect, you get stuck with publicity stunt appearances, one event for each incorrect guess. And to answer the question, yes, that is the real reason Hal Jordan makes an appearance at so many of those events."

"What keeps him honest?" Dinah asked, gesturing towards Bruce. "He could just say that we've got the ingredients wrong."

"Me," J'onn said. "He procures the ingredients ahead of time so that they are on hand when needed, and I double check them as he adds them to the little storage locker we have set aside for this purpose."

"But what about-" Dinah's mouth closed as J'onn gave a barely susceptible shake of his head.

J'onn picked up the last glass on the table and raised it for a toast. "Here is to another one."

"Another one!" the group chorused.

As the assembled members each started to explore the concoctions in their cups, J'onn and Bruce bid their adieus. These nights were for the team to recharge, each according to their own needs, before diving headlong into helping fix what had been broken, before the next incident hit. He hoped they would get lucky, and that their night would be able to go uninterrupted.

As he walked beside Bruce, he reached his thoughts back to the room he had just left.

《I know what you were going to ask, about why I don't have to guess my ingredients. Me doing more publicity stunts was having the opposite effect of what we wanted. I appear in my Martian form only when several members of the League attend something together. I'm less intimidating to humans that way.》

《Says who?》Dinah replied, indignant.

《The humans.》

***

Bruce sat down heavily on the edge of his bed, hands shaking. He'd kept the haunted look off of his face while with the others, but he had sorely needed to get away, needed to stop playing the Batman version of 'Brucie' for his team. J'onn followed him into his room only after confirming he was welcome via the mindlink.

Shayera's mace still leaned against the wall in the corner of his room.

J'onn followed Bruce's line of sight, then tugged on the symbiote that formed his cape. The red straps slid back from where they crisscrossed on his chest and he slid it from around his shoulders. He used it to carefully conceal the mace and obscure its shape.

When he turned around again, Bruce still hadn't moved. J'onn extended a hand towards the beautiful, troubled man, and offered simply, "Shower before bed?"

Bruce nodded dumbly and took J'onn's hand.

J'onn led the way into the small en-suite bathroom. He started the shower running, then tenderly helped Bruce remove the remaining armor from his suit, then peel off the bodysuit that Bruce had been wearing for too many days in a row now. He nudged Bruce towards the shower, trusting that he'd be able to manage the task alone.

《For now,》 came the small, wry thought from Bruce's mind.

With a private smile, J'onn scooped up the various Bat-things and assembled them on the armor stand. He knew Bruce would want to check that it was all present and accounted for before sleep, and he figured that if the suit was already hung up and tidy, it would help speed along the process.

Barely a minute passed before Bruce reappeared in the doorway. J'onn straightened up to his full height, moving to step aside so that Bruce could access the Batsuit. Bruce moved to match him though, and threw his arms around J'onn as he tucked his head against J'onn's broad chest.

"Bruce-?" he didn't have a chance to finish the question before they were tipping down onto the bed, landing in a heavy pile of long limbs. He laughed for a moment, until he realized that Bruce was still damp, as if he'd not bothered to towel off in the slightest, and that he was shaking.

In a heartbeat, his arms were around Bruce, cradling the smaller man against himself. He pulled the blanket out from under them and arranged it more comfortably over and around them. Tuning back into the mindlink, he found that Bruce's thoughts were babbling feverishly about murder weapons and nursery rhymes. He couldn't detect a fever, but Bruce had been exhausted and running on not enough sleep even before the strike on Grundy, and now it seemed to all be catching up with him at once. Bruce's mind kept cycling back over the sounds and smells he'd heard while on the ground, the horrifying feelings that had swept over him as he'd faced the situation not as Batman, with all of the mental training in place, but with his vulnerable Bruce-self exposed.

That sensitive, mewling, newly-revealed Bruce-self.

J'onn murmured aloud lines of Martian poetry that he'd long ago committed to heart, about feeling the pain of all living things and bringing what kindnesses to bear that you can, to make up for it. He whispered the Martian words out loud with his mouth, and the English translation into Bruce's mind, until long after Bruce fell asleep.

J'onn waited for the nightmares that he knew were going to visit Bruce.

He didn't have to wait long.