Chapter 1: Doomsday Sanction
A flashing signal on the dashboard. A forest fire spreading uncontrolled towards the oil fields of Alberta. Shifting winds. Assign a two-man squad, seal off fire's advance on two fronts. Check the active duty roster for elemental manipulators. Ice and Zatanna. Alert their communicators, send them into the field as soon as...
The faint beeping of a communicator went off behind him. Disconcerting, that he had not noticed until now the crowd that was assembling on the bridge of the Watchtower. Ice wasn't checking her communicator. She was standing next to Fire, their shoulders touching. Seeking out a familiar comfort? Her eyes, like the dozen or so people crowding the area despite the large size of the room, were glued to the monitors, tracking activity on the island, the missile, and the bullheaded man rising from his chair beside J'onn.
J'onn forced his focus back to the screens, the panels, the alerts. Another incident flared to life. A pirate crew had taken a civilian ship hostage halfway around the globe. Check Aquaman's last known location. Close enough. Assign and ping. If too far, Aquaman would delegate to his subjects, either to aquatic fauna or merfolk. Arthur had good judgment. Had to trust. Busy with other things.
A quick glance to the side. Captain Atom had responded to his communicator: En route.
"Captain Atom's on his way from California," J'onn announced.
"His top speed's under Mach 2. He'll never get there in time!"
J'onn conceded the point with a set jaw and watched the edge of the dark cape disappear out of the corner of his eye.
"Oh--! Hey! Clear the hangar! Now!" The Bat's brusque orders were clipped but came through the comms clearly.
"Initiating emergency drop in three, two, one," the station's artificial voice chirped cheerily. J'onn frowned and filed away the cheery voice as something to re-calibrate after his colleagues were safe from the impending missile. Or dead. Could go either way at this point. His frown deepened further as the Javelin dropped from the hangar into space.
The small sleek craft plummeted towards earth's surface with gut-wrenching speed. Even on the monitors, its progress was surprisingly expedient. Already warning lights were igniting on a panel to J'onn's left. He knew twin lights would be appearing in the cockpit of the small black meteorite.
"You're going too fast." He tried to keep his voice calm for the benefit of the others, but the note of concern his own ears heard felt painfully obvious.
"If I let the Earth's gravity accelerate me, I should reach intercept in two minutes."
"If you don't burn up on entry," J'onn retorted. Of all the times for Batman to be obstinate and determined, J'onn had to admit that a situation involving a kryptonite-laced missile headed towards a preoccupied Superman on an inhabited island was likely the best time for it, but damn it, this was still a long shot with devastatingly bleak odds. Time to increase them slightly, make better use of the team on location.
"Wonder Woman, can you hear me? There's a missile with a kryptonite warhead heading for your position."
"Say again?" came Diana's voice through a small burst of static, dripping with disbelief.
"Repeat, there is a kryptonite missile heading your way. Can you read me? Flash, get everyone as far away as you can." He knew that Diana would see to any spluttering protests the Flash might make. He moved to return their comm channel to standby, just in time for the commlink to flare back to life.
"I'm going back for Superman," Diana declared. J'onn could practically picture the sound of Bruce's molars cracking under the strain of that trademark clenched jaw as yet another of the Leaguers threw themselves in the way of that missile.
"But--" J'onn began to protest, then reconsidered. Better to increase the odds. "Do it now!" Diana was hard to hurt. She was fast. She was close by. If anyone could get Superman away from the missile in time, it would be her. The islanders however...
"The missile's armed with magnetic repulsors," came Batman's voice. Strained. A statement, never a question. The certainty of fact with a sliver of an opening in case there was a better plan, a better way. None of the people listening would hear their leader doubt himself, not ever. J'onn shifted in his seat and offered the solution that Batman was quasi-requesting. The artillery of the Javelin would never cut through that kind of tech. Its payload was too small. J'onn ran through a list of the resources Batman had with him in the Javelin. The only thing big enough to get through the magnetic shields was...
"The only way past that is with the Javelin itself. You could give the hull an opposing charge." Calm, collected, sound like you're in control of the situation, J'onn thought to himself. Don't let them know how precarious this is. Don't let them doubt.
"Understood." Only years of working alongside the Bat allowed him to hear the note of relief in that iron voice, even as J'onn could see the readout of Batman's vital signs report dangerously high heart rate and levels of adrenaline. Unsustainable levels. J'onn's own muscles clenched with worry as the numbers climbed steadily higher.
The panels were flashing with new situations cropping up around the globe; Captain Atom was requesting a situation update; and that sinister speeding bullet with Superman's name carved into it was still advancing on the small tropical island of San Baquero. Watching the Javelin pierce through the sky, J'onn felt his stomach drop inside him, twisting his organs until they restricted the expansion of his lungs, his chest growing tighter with each passing second.
Anxiety had a way of being especially brutal on the body of a shape shifter. And the damn idiot-Bat had chosen now to either black out from the absurd number of Gs his body was being forced through, or he had chosen the moment of impact to stop responding. Or maybe Batman hadn't been able to eject in time? A crack in J'onn's veneer of calm control appeared.
"Batman?" No answer. Rising panic, fight for air, hands gripped the console tighter for support. Fight to keep the urgency away from the voice; fail utterly. "Batman, come in."
The silence stretched. In the Watchtower, not a single Leaguer was breathing. The silence was absolute.
"Ugh," came the groan of a human male who was seemingly composed of an instinct to save others as a form of suicide. J'onn eased his muscles away from the deathgrip they had on his organs, allowing himself a small private smile. Batman's groans continued to sound quietly over the comm.
He switched Batman's channel to standby. A quick glance over his shoulder told him that no one had moved. His eyes swept over the instruments once more.
"Everyone standing here, congratulations: you've just signed up for overtime. Ice, stop gawking and get to that forest fire, five minutes ago. Green Arrow, a bank robbery in Star City is underway, use of synthetic androids is suspected. Perhaps take Red Tornado with you to account for your blind spots and insight into dealing with the androids. Fire, there is a building collapse in Brazil, it would appear that there are at least fifty people trapped under the rubble. Get going. Everyone else, get down to that island to help the evacuees. That's an order." He turned back to his instruments, ignoring the glares and protests.
As the assembled heroes shuffled out of the room, he casually added almost as an afterthought: "Black Canary, take a shuttle to pick up Batman. It is likely he will require medical attention. Dismissed." For half a second she didn't move, her head simply cocked to the side. As the last person cleared the room, she strode forward and squeezed his shoulder gently. She let it rest there for a moment, her mouth opening to say something, but no words came out. He ignored her and swept his hand across the screen, clearing the old alerts to make way for new ones. She withdrew her hand and left in search of an available shuttle.
In the stillness of the room that followed, he allowed his shoulders to sag in relief. The tightness in his chest wasn't dissipating. He allowed for a small change in his body, further towards a more fully human form. Tear ducts. An interesting human evolutionary trait. He felt a tear slip out, then two. The release was palpable. An interesting trick of genetics. He wiped them away quickly, reverting his physiology to his calm and carefully controlled exterior.
Others might think him callous and unfeeling, but he knew that these metahumans, these people with super strength, durability and a wide array of powers, they were in greatest need of having a rock to cling to. Someone who wouldn't change in a crisis so they could be free to deal with their own turmoil of emotions. He could do this for them, keep his emotions hidden until he had a private moment. He could be the outsider who kept things running. He could be apart from everyone for their own benefit, even as it caused small cracks in his heart.
He knew Bruce understood perfectly.
Chapter 2: Room With a View
"YOU DON'T GET TO JOKE!" Behind closed doors, the normally controlled voice rose swiftly with anger. An angry jab accompanied the words to drive their point home. "Not today! I just took a bullet for you!"
And then he winced, because half of his body was either bruised or broken, and the jab had jarred the tender muscles and damaged bones. Bandages were mostly for show when it came to broken ribs, and his collarbone was shattered, which also had no easy fix. Furious pointing would have to be off the table for the next little while.
Superman, for his part, looked appropriately chagrined.
"I'm sorry, Bruce. You're right," his eyes fell and took in the bandages and hospital bed. Bruce's jaw clenched tight and his eyes stared straight ahead, refusing to look at Clark or hear his platitudes. "But you don't have to worry about the Justice League. Trust me. You know me."
"Yeah, I do."
At first Clark smiled. Then the smile faltered as the silence stretched. He frowned as the meaning of the statement became vaguer and harder to pin down. He shuffled uncomfortably and then nudged Diana beside him. They reached a silent agreement and retreated from Bruce's recovery room, to slip away into their duties aboard the Watchtower.
Bruce's eyes were still fixed straight ahead, on the TV playing an advanced copy of Luthor's media campaign for the presidential nomination. His stomach boiled at the sight of it. The thought of that sick man in office...
"I do not think you need to distress yourself with this at present. Doctor's orders, I believe."
A hand reached out from the empty space beside his bed and clicked the remote off, plunging the room into a dim twilight. The only light came from the small glass windows above the door that admitted light from the corridor. Bruce could just make out the outlines as J'onn's form shifted into the visible spectrum. His eyes glowed with a soft light like dying embers.
"How dare you sneak into my room during a private discussion," Bruce seethed between clenched teeth.
J'onn waved his hand dismissively in the darkness, Bruce could see that much.
"Do we really need to pretend, Bruce?" J'onn's voice was steady, calm.
"That you did not know I was here the whole time."
This comment was met with silence.
"I have seen your personnel files. You have labeled yourself as the World's Greatest Detective. If I have to walk you through it, I will hack in to your database and transfer that label to my own file." J'onn chuckled softly as he could see the indignant reaction spread outward from Bruce's shoulders into the rest of his body as the validity of his title was brought into question. With hardly any hesitation, Bruce launched into a spite-filled recitation of the facts.
"One: not all staff are authorized to patch me up if I'm not wearing the cowl. Of those staff, most of the non-metahumans are too terrified to come near me. The ones who aren't are either not on duty or on vacation as of the last shift-change. Two: the metahumans who know my identity under the cowl are also too terrified to come near me. The metahumans who aren't too afraid to come near me know that it's still better not to do so. "Three: of the metahumans who know my identity, aren't afraid to come near me, and would likely accept being roped into the task of checking my basic vital signs and food delivery, there are very few who can also take the credit for having given me the solution that turned the Javelin into a literal missile magnet. Feelings of guilt may have been a factor. That same man can turn invisible and would likely suspect that entering invisible while I'm sleeping would have the least chance of waking me up and provoking my annoyance - he was wrong about that," Bruce growled under his breath.
"The appearance of the food right before Diana and Clark's unannounced intrusion meant that you didn't have time to leave. Passing by Clark would alert him to your presence. Passing through the walls would possibly affect the wiring of the instruments and cause a concern for foul play and send people on a goose chase, specifically Diana, who would jump at the chance to hunt down an invader. Your best bet was to stay still and let Clark be distracted by my emotional outburst," Bruce glared into the shadows where J'onn lurked. "Don't you DARE hack into my file, Martian."
J'onn bowed his head in concession, suppressing a smile. "Correct on all counts. However, my purpose in remaining behind has changed somewhat. I know the doctor ordered you to stay in this room and get some rest. I also suspect you hate the idea of staying in this room for one moment longer. Would you like to go somewhere with a better view?"
Bruce grunted as his eyebrow quirked upwards.
"The observation deck, perhaps," J'onn suggested.
Bruce's silence had veered into something remarkably similar to sulking. J'onn waited patiently. Several minutes passed, and then he held out a small data pad, the light from its small screen searing through the semi-darkness. Bruce looked up in mild surprise.
"You can control foot traffic in the tower, redirect them as needed, seal off whatever doors you'd like. I know you have a reputation you like to uphold, and being seen wheeled about in a hospital bed doesn't quite fit that image," J'onn explained.
Bruce grudgingly accepted the datapad. He stared at it for a few moments, then nodded his head, just once. He set about rearranging his blankets.
After several minutes of dedicated tapping on the pad, Bruce smiled triumphantly. "Observation deck is clear. And now for getting there." He gestured at J'onn to lay his hand on the bed rail. No sooner was contact made then Bruce tapped the button that activated the Watchtower's internal transporters, and the two men were relocated to a room with a better view.
The blue and green planet loomed below, spinning lazily against a backdrop of inky blackness pinpointed with stars.
A much, much better view.
Staring down at Earth while in orbit can be humbling.
If you're with someone else, it can also be a time for sharing.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
As the faint tingling sensation of the transporter wore off, J'onn stole a quick look around the room. The hospital bed, with its rails and crisp white linens, had been transported near the large plate viewing window that stretched from one corner of the wide, brightly lit room to the other. There were benches for stargazing to either side of the newly transported pair, and tables further back for when Watchtower staff had a lunch break or wanted a place to read a book with some atmosphere.
J'onn looked up at the glowing lights and frowned. Atmosphere.
He quietly stepped over to the closest control panel and turned down the lights. After a moment he simply turned them off. Atmosphere was important. Lights were a distraction. The room was now diffused with only the reflected light from the planet below, and J'onn felt himself relax as the soft blue light washed over him. He hoped that Bruce felt the same. A grunt of appreciation from the man signified that he did.
He approached the hospital bed once more, suddenly feeling conspicuous. He eyed the bench to the side of the bed and chose instead to return to his former post, his hand carefully resting on the railing again as though to keep himself from swaying. He was tired enough from the day's events that he could almost believe that pretense himself, but he knew better.
He noticed Bruce tracking him out of the corner of his eye. Habits. It was always the silly little habits that followed superheroes home. Even when Bruce was out of the Batsuit, he would still always be Batman.
"You can sit," Bruce rumbled companionably.
"I prefer to stand. Too much sitting behind the Watchdesk makes me feel cramped. It is good to stretch." He paused to take in the view of Earth. "The view from here tends to leave me awed enough that I feel the need to stand straighter. It is somewhat humbling."
"Yeah," said Bruce. The silence lingered between them once more before Bruce stirred slightly. "I've noticed you pull twice the amount of watch duty compared to any other League member. You don't need to pull so much weight, you know. You can take some time off. Coming from me that probably sounds hypocritical, but Clark is fond of reminding me how important it is, whether or not I listen."
"Nonsense, I am happy to do it," J'onn shrugged. Bruce shot him a skeptical look. J'onn shrugged again in response.
"But why?" J'onn blinked at the force of Bruce's question. A glance at the man showed his pale skin nearly glowing in the blue light, his expression earnest and intense. "You're one of the most powerful beings on this space station, maybe more powerful than Clark, and you choose to spend most of your time behind the Watchdesk. You could send yourself on more missions, or join a force like the Lanterns. You could do something of galactic importance with abilities like yours and instead you're here with us on the Watchtower looking after a bunch of pathetic humans and for the life of me, I can't fathom why." His brows were drawn together, a deep furrow creasing his forehead.
J'onn stared at the blue planet below. "Bruce" was more verbose than his Batman persona as a general rule, but Bruce admitting confusion was an altogether alien experience. It left him ill-prepared to answer. He searched for a way to explain.
"A rare few have vast resources and abilities like yours, yet you still choose to spend the majority of your time on a city that is overrun with criminals and madmen," J'onn shrugged a third time. "There is no justification for the lengths one will go to when it is a matter of protecting one's home."
Bruce quieted as he considered this, then settled on his next question. "But why Earth?"
A pained expression slowly ravaged J'onn's normally placid features as surprise appeared on Bruce's. The Martian stepped closer to the window, left hand sliding along the bedrail, right hand reaching out to the unheeding planet below.
"Forgive me, K'hym," J'onn murmured to himself. He buried his face into his outstretched hand, grief filling in the empty spaces around his words. When he lowered his hand and turned to face Bruce, there glimmered a faint wetness on his cheeks. "The anguish one might feel over losing one's parents in a violent tragedy is perhaps a similar feeling. You have hinted now and then that you have often felt responsible for their deaths, despite your youth and inexperience at the time. I feel the same way about the deaths of my people."
Bruce rested his head on his propped up pillows as if he felt the weight of those words settle on him. "But surely you can't actually bear the responsibility for a catastrophe like that? That's a preposterous burden to place on yourself. Again, ignore the part where me saying that makes me sound like a giant hypocrite."
"No," J'onn smiled sadly before turning back to the window. "But my brother can."
"What?" Bruce's head jerked back upright, startled.
"My brother devised the .... psychic virus, you could call it, that wiped out the Green Martians." J'onn's mouth was tight. "He was born unable to use our gift and grew hateful. He sought to wipe out our kind from the planet, and he succeeded in creating a virus that spread whenever those gifts were used, from mind to mind like... like wildfire." He pressed a hand to his eyes again and drew in several deep breaths.
"As a Manhunter, it was my job to protect the people. I tried to get them to hold back from using their gifts, but it would be the same as... telling people not to use their phones, I suppose. The habit was too strong, the need for connection to others too intrinsic to our way of life, and all succumbed. Their minds burned from the inside out. I could not save them." His grip on the bedrail tightened, his eyes distant, the green skin paled as it stretched over the knuckles of his hand. "Not even my wife or daughter."
Pain hung in the air like a dense, choking fog. It took J'onn a moment to gather his thoughts together in the present, to leave the memory of My'ria'h and K'hym in their gravea once more.
"It was shortly after they died that Saul accidentally brought me here, to Earth. The future. Centuries had passed, my people had long died out. My family was dead. My home planet was barren and wasted away. But here..." J'onn placed his palm against the window. His voice so soft it was nearly crooning. "This planet was bursting with life. It is a glistening blue gem in space. Its waters are terrifying. Its people are disconnected from one another. Humanity is rife with conflict but vying valiantly as a whole, and it is my honor to help protect it in its struggles. Your Earth is the sister planet to my Mars, as different as night from day but bound together all the same. It is my second chance. How can I bear to leave and fail it the way I failed my own people?"
Bruce floundered for an adequate response. This noble alien had endured so much, and humans were so petty. They didn't deserve to be thought of in the same sentence as J'onn J'onnz, let alone be protected by him. His mind grappled with the magnitude of tragedy J'onn had experienced, but he knew before trying that his mind would never fully grasp even a tenth of it. Bruce was painfully aware of the way his half of the conversation was pitifully failing; the familiar dull bitterness of disappointment in himself began to set in once more.
When it became clear that Bruce would require a great deal of time to process, J'onn reached into the folds of his cloak. He held out a crumpled paper bag towards Bruce.
"Would you care for an Oreo?" J'onn offered gently. "I find they help center my thinking when I begin to feel at a loss."
Bruce looked up into J'onn's green face with the expression of a man who has reached his absolute emotional limit and then been asked if he would like a cookie.
J'onn pulled an Oreo from the bag for himself, then proffered the bag again. "They are very good. Try one."
Bruce sighed. Aliens. He reached into the bag and took out a cookie.
For those unfamiliar with Martian Manhunter...
The cookies are canon.
I repeat: I did not make up the thing with the cookies as part of a weirdly timed bit of artistic license. J'onn is actually addicted to these things.
Superman enforces downtime in the League, and J'onn really, REALLY wants Bruce to touch his god damned elbow.
Brief violence/abuse warning.
"Get a move on, Martian Manstud. Your shift is over." Black Canary leaned against the Watchdesk and crossed her arms. J'onn raised an eyebrow in surprised consternation.
"But my shift is not scheduled to end for another thirty two minutes. You're early," he protested. His eyes were drawn to those impossibly long fish netted legs as she crossed one foot over the other. Distracting. He suspected it was intentional. The wink she delivered only served to confirm his suspicions.
"Then I guess your shift is ending thirty two minutes early," she gave his shoulder a playful shove, her laugh husky in her throat.
"You seem unusually eager to start your shift early, Ms. Lance. You have arrived late by no fewer than ten minutes for your last nine shifts behind the desk. When last we spoke of it, I believe you said you were a 'woman of action' who prefers to have 'a motor between her legs rather than a chair under her buttocks'." He regarded her with curiosity. "It seems highly suspect that you would change your habits so... suddenly."
Canary smirked. "The Big S decided it was time we had a discussion about my version of 'on-time', and he said if I didn't kick you out of the chair thirty minutes early, he'd find my..." She hemmed a bit. "..."motorcycle", and take its motor out of commission."
J'onn pursed his lips.
"And," she leaned closer, her perfect teeth exposed in a disarmingly sweet smile. "He said if you don't go take some time to relax, that I should keep screaming at you until you do."
"That-" he paused as she took an exaggeratedly deep breath. "Will not be necessary. The Watchdesk is yours." He swiped his palm over the panel, logged out of the computer systems and stood up. Canary grinned at him before flopping onto his vacated chair sideways with her long legs draped over the armrest, stiletto heels dangling in the air.
"Thanks, J'onnycakes," she blew him a kiss. A smile tugged at his lips, responding involuntarily to her playfulness.
"You will have to serenade me another time, Canary. And tell Superman that I love your singing voice." Her chuckle was still ringing in his ears as he stepped into the corridor. The hydraulic doors whooshed shut behind him. He stopped moving.
He didn't know where to go.
He could read over some mission reports to look for leads or analyze team strategies. Or he could browse the wiretaps of the corrupt politicians he had bugged; he liked to keep a thumb on the pulse of powerful cockroaches. Perhaps Shazam was around and willing to spar? That man always used unconventional tactics when fighting - it was very difficult to predict what he would do next. Or maybe he could get around to fiddling with the new containment suit he had been working on with Captain Atom....
Or maybe none of that would be considered relaxing and Superman would sic Canary on him as promised. Or truly threaten him seriously and have Plastic Man come twist his arm. He wrinkled his nose at the thought. Plastic Man was so... Unnatural. Even the molecules in the air around Plastic Man behaved unnaturally. It was off-putting.
He sighed and ran a hand over his smooth scalp. Today he had chosen to have tiny scales instead of conventional skin, giving it a texture similar to softened calfskin. It was good practice to control the fine shape shifting changes in his body; the bigger, drastic changes during combat situations became effortless if he maintained a varied shape shifting 'diet'. He smiled ruefully at the memory of the first time he'd made a water form without thinking to make it waterproof. He'd felt like jelly for days.
He looked both ways up and down the hall, indecisive. It wasn't until he saw The Question heading towards the mess hall that he chose to proceed in the opposite direction. He didn't enjoy conspiracy theories enough to listen to them in his forced free time. When in doubt, go with the familiar. His feet settled into the path towards the observation deck.
The doors quietly slid open to reveal that the deck was empty. Humming an old Martian tune to himself, he quickly turned off the lights, descended the small flight of stairs and went to stand in front of the window. The slight curve to the window allowed it to fill his whole vision, star spangled space racing in to take up his peripherals. The observation deck was rotated more towards space this time, the view mostly filled with stars, Earth barely taking up a corner of it. He pressed his cheek against the glass and craned his neck for a better angle. He strained his eyes to make out the whirling patterns of the weather systems far below on the sliver of blue planet.
He had just made out the shape of Hurricane Rina spiraling across the Atlantic when a throat cleared behind him.
He whirled on the spot, cheeks flushing a dark green at being caught leaning into the glass like that.
Batman sat at one of the coffee tables, further back from the window, tucked against the raised platform in front of the door. Preoccupied, J'onn had walked straight passed him without noticing.
Batman tugged the cowl off of his head, letting it rest against his broad back. His chiseled jaw had a swath of stubble on it, accenting his features instead of obscuring them.
"Aren't you supposed to have super hearing?" Bruce's lips twitched. J'onn felt his embarrassment rush from his cheeks into his tongue, making it feel thick and sluggish. J'onn chose to shrug with one shoulder rather than respond while his tongue was inoperable. The smile threatening Bruce's face seemed to gain ground as J'onn looked sheepishly at Bruce's feet. Bruce swept a hand magnanimously to the seat beside him. "I assume you're here on Clark's forced relaxation time as well?"
"On threat of birdsong," J'onn quipped as his tongue shrank back to a usable size. He closed the distance between himself and the small coffee table. He settled into the seat across from Bruce, both men with their backs to the wall, the window to the universe in front of them. The table, designed for significantly smaller people, was dwarfed by the bulk of their tall, muscled forms. Their elbows nearly touched across its small surface. J'onn felt a small thrill race up his arm as his body reconfigured more nerve endings into his elbow on the off chance they should make contact. He sighed inwardly as he tried to reign in his body's automatic responses to Bruce's close proximity.
Bruce nodded grudgingly. "Clark threatened me with his laser vision, said he'd sever one wire at a time in the Batcave until I took a break."
"It is a good thing you gave in," J'onn chuckled. "If it is anywhere near as complex as the job we did when we set up the Watchtower, the Batcave would have alarms going off for each one. Could take days to repair."
"I didn't give in," Bruce grimaced. "Alfred kicked me out of the manor after the eighth alarm went off."
"If Gotham only knew." J'onn couldn't help but chuckle at the mental image of Batman being chased out of the Batcave with a rolled up newspaper.
His eyes were riveted as Bruce ran a hand through his dark hair, squished slightly flat from the weight of the cowl. As Bruce dropped his hand back to the table, his arm came perilously close to touching J'onn's. He shut his eyes quickly and searched for a distraction.
"Have your ribs healed?" J'onn tried out.
"Mostly," Bruce raised his arm and reached across his body to poke tenderly at his rib cage. He winced. "The bone is knitted but the muscles are still a bit inflamed. Nothing I can't handle." His arm dropped back down to the table, making J'onn's arm twitch in response. J'onn prayed Bruce didn't notice and cast out for the next obvious question.
"Are there any other lingering injuries? Concussion? Internal injury?"
Bruce frowned, drumming his fingers on the table, sending vibrations racing up J'onn's arm. "Had a concussion, seems gone now."
"Nothing too bad I hope." J'onn tried to stay calm as he ran through the symptoms of concussions and contrasted them against the recent interactions he'd had with Bruce. Lack of emotional filter seemed a likely candidate for Bruce's intensity the last time they were in this room together. He eyed Bruce carefully.
"No, not really," Bruce shrugged. "Roughed up a newbie in the hall for being disrespectful but that's about it. It's good for them to learn, too." He smirked. "I may be 'just' human, but even injured I can still put them in their place if they step out of line."
J'onn nodded and sank back against the wall. Dots connected as he thought back to the missing five minutes of security footage that Batman had dismissed as insignificant during the daily rundown meeting. He raised a sardonic eyebrow. "You certainly are remarkable. A lesson every Leaguer learns sooner or later," J'onn murmured quietly, desperately hoping their elbows would touch.
The incident, one week earlier.
Ice's eyes widened. She had never been within fifteen feet of Batman and now his face was an inch away from her own. Her back was pinned against the wall and trapped there by his solid body.
He slammed her against the wall again, his forearm pressed against her throat.
"If I ever-"
"Say such filth again-"
More pressure on her throat.
"I will personally remove you from the Justice League, and then I will make it my personal mission to tear your life apart until you have nothing left. I will unearth every secret you don't want told and I will tell it to everyone. And they will listen, because I am the god damn Batman."
"Tell me you understand."
Ice could hardly speak from fear. Batman's snarl was so wild that flecks of spittle were spraying onto her cheeks. His voice was so guttural, the transformation into a madman so complete that her knees were threatening to give out even as her toes scrabbled for purchase on the floor.
"What do you mean?" She struggled to speak past her half-crushed windpipe. "I never said-"
Batman held up a device and clicked a button. She could hear her own voice erupt forth surprisingly clearly from the small gadget. The words were from a conversation she'd had with Fire not even twenty minutes ago.
"... Such a fucking prick, who does he think he is? Fucking asshole, giving us all overtime so he can sit around and play with his dick while we bust our asses."
Ice's ears pricked with shame as her own voice continued speaking in tones dripping with disgust.
"If he thinks I'm going to sit around and smile nicely while his skitten fremmede gris fingers pull all of the fucking strings, he has another thing coming. Who even asked him here anyway? He gives me the fucking creeps every time he looks at me with those freaky red eyes. That muggen pikk probably just jerks off to our personnel photos-"
Batman clicked the button again and her voice cut off. The silence was almost worse. She couldn't see his eyes past the lenses on the cowl, but by the set of his jaw and the way his arm was shaking against her throat, she knew he was holding himself back from snapping her neck on the spot. She struggled to swallow.
"The Martian Manhunter is a god damn hero." His voice sounded like a pack of rabid dogs on fire, and Skaði, she would have bet her left kidney that this was the kind of thing Gotham criminals had nightmares about. "You should be so lucky as to have him even know your name, and that man has sacrificed everything so that he can have your back. He is the second most scary person alive and he is fighting on your side so you had better shut the fuck up up and keep your pathetic racist, xenophobic sniveling to yourself."
"I'm sorry," she choked out. "It won't happen again."
All of the pressure against her throat suddenly released and she fell to the floor gasping. His cape swirled to cover... bandages? Her head swam as blood rushed back into it. She must have been seeing things. She heard a noise rather similar to a growl, and looked up to see Batman's back as he stalked away down the corridor.
She couldn't help herself. She called after him in a croaking whisper, knowing what the answer would be.
"Who is the scariest?"
He paused mid-step and half-turned his face back towards her.
Somehow, the next time Black Canary came to relieve him early, he didn't question it. The same cheeky song and dance occurred. Her playful threats and suggestive statements met his dry humour as though similar lighthearted exchanges had been happening for years. Somehow, this was the new normal.
His feet couldn't carry him to the observation deck fast enough.
He wasn't sure if Batman would be there again. He doubted that Bruce would submit to Clark's threats again so soon. Bruce hadn't been in the observation deck after any of J'onn's last four shifts. But Canary hadn't relieved him early for any of those four shifts either. Perhaps this time...
This time the seat was empty. This time he thought he might be able to believe that their forced free time would never coincide again. This time he felt the way his heart tore a little, the way his chest ached.
Just like the other times, he sat down and waited for his disappointment to dissipate.
He was seated at the coffee table he had come to think of as 'theirs'. He hated the way it wasn't too small without Bruce next to him. Everything in this damned space station made it so easy, seemed almost designed, to make it preferable to be alone. It wasn't a table that invited company, because it was perfectly sized for him to be seated there by himself.
He was always by himself.
His hand that rested on the table gripped the edge tightly as the familiar suffocating feelings of isolation washed over him. The room's sole other occupant, a tech on break, looked around in confusion as the faint sound of crunching metal snickered forth. It wasn't until they dogeared their book and left the room that J'onn lifted his hand to check the damage he had wrought.
The impression of his hand had been left rather neatly in the metal surface of the table. He could trace the raised ridges that wrapped around the edge where the space between his fingers had been.
It unsettled him.
He was so careful to keep his powers in check on the Watchtower. He prided himself on his ability to refrain from invading the privacy of the other heroes and staff by turning down his super-hearing. He ignored the telltale vibrations of the molecules in the air that telegraphed everyone's movements so obviously to him. He never ventured into the minds of anyone else uninvited, even as it left him adrift in a sea of white noise. He never phased through walls for fear of making people uneasy or startled. The incident with his invisibility during Bruce's recovery had been rare in the extreme, and only because the man was so stubborn in receiving help.
He had never, ever broken something on the Watchtower with his superstrength before.
Time slipped away from him as he sat there, frowning internally while his face was implacable as ever on the outside.
J'onn rolled over before his alarm went off. Out of habit, he stared at the slowly changing numbers as they climbed higher. His long arms wrapped around a pillow rucked up underneath him. His lanky legs were tangled up in the cotton sheets, tugging them down so that his shoulders and chest were bare. The glow from the clock was faint, but provided him with more than enough light to see by; to his red eyes the room was lit as if by a small lamp. His ability to see in relative dark was another gift of his martian heritage, just one more thing that made him different from ninety nine percent of the people he protected. He gazed at the clock, waiting.
The clock itself was an odd thing; it had been a gift from the Justice League to celebrate the completion of the Watchtower. When J'onn had announced his intention to live on the Watchtower in a more or less full time capacity and oversee its day to day operations, Superman insisted that they gift him a token of their appreciation. Since the Justice League operated for the benefit of every country in the world, the team had joked with him that his clock shouldn't operate for the benefit of any one time zone either. This clock had all twenty four different time zones displayed, all harmoniously ticking in perfect synchronization. Each clock face had little abbreviations engraved right above each time, to denote which times belonged with which time zones.
Diana had clearly thought of the clock as a good-natured gag gift. Clark had thought it was heart-warming and metaphorical - The various heroes who joined their organization were likely to come from many different countries, and while the other founding members hailed mostly from the United States, it was a nice reminder that the Justice League was an international effort. Bruce had mentioned the quality of the craftsmanship and noted that it would always be accurate to the second. J'onn had shown one of his rare beaming smiles and thanked them.
It was when Bruce had stayed after the little party to show him all of the clock's features that he realized the man had been the one behind the gift all along. A small amount of digging showed that Bruce had been the one to suggest a clock; the one to conduct research into available clocks on the market; and was the one who subsequently decided that none of them would do for the Martian. A subsidiary of Wayne Enterprises had been tasked with creating this clock for J'onn. Further digging showed that the subsidiary was a cover, and it was the same one that Batman used when he was building new trinkets in the Batcave.
Bruce had built this clock. He had built it for J'onn. And then he had complimented his own craftsmanship, because of course he would. That was Batman for you.
And J'onn knew without having to ask that the true reason the clock showed all twenty four time zones was because J'onn didn't have a hometown on earth to identify with, hadn't chosen a new one since arriving from Mars. Bruce wouldn't assume that J'onn was tied to the States or to Argentina or Croatia or any of the other places he had spent time in. J'onn couldn't bring himself to put down roots. There was always somewhere he hadn't seen yet, so many things he hadn't experienced. The whole planet was his home. He hadn't settled down in any one place, and this clock was Bruce's way of showing that he noticed.
It was the best gift J'onn had ever received.
The electricity began to engage the alarm, so just as he did every day, J'onn reached out with his mind and turned it off before it could actually sound. Batman had rigged it to respond to subtle pressure from J'onn's telepathy. It really was quite impressive technology for a Terran, all things considered. Bruce had even mimicked Martian designs and etched the surface with markings copied from Martian artworks in a simple and streamlined way. It oozed elegance and class.
J'onn smiled to himself and cast off his sheets, walking to the floor length mirror at the foot of his bed. He regarded his tall green form pensively. His muscles were sinewy and defined. His shoulders were broad, but his hips were narrow and deceptively delicate looking. His neck was long and slim. His face was angular, with sharp cheekbones made even sharper by the way his glowing red eyes cast the hollows of his cheeks into deep shadow. His nose was little more than a slightly raised flat expanse with delicate slits for nostrils. His bald skull swooped back into a long crest. The knuckles of his spine sported a series of raised pseudo-spikes running from the crest of his head to the top of his pelvis, none being longer than two or three inches. The veins on his arms and legs were ropy, climbing his limbs like vines. He looked streamlined, sleek, athletic. He often missed seeing these familiar lines in the people around him, but the softer shapes of the humans were nice too, in their own way.
He shifted his features into the familiar compromise between martian and human. His crest melted and flowed into the smoother dome shape of a human skull. A small flattish nose rose up on his face. The talons of his three toes shortened and divided. He grew an extra finger on each of his hands. As he so often did, he wiggled his 'new' ring finger and chuckled at it. Such a useless finger, hardly any muscles to speak of. It was one of the amusing quirks of human evolution that he so enjoyed.
He slid his hand across his abdomen, enjoying the way his muscles rippled under his skin. His nerves shifted to follow his fingers as they traced the way his waist tapered and smoothed over his hip bones, intensifying the tickle into a sensation that tingled all the way into his toes. He traced light patterns on the sensitive skin in the hollow of his hips. He closed his eyes, letting himself drift in the sensation of it. He rumbled with a low note of satisfaction.
He was about to will the symbiote's accustomed blue cape into existence when he reconsidered. He checked the clock. He had time before his shift started.
He sat on the edge of the bed, let his organs reconfigure, and tipped his head back. He let his mind fill with thoughts of Bruce. His nerve endings sang with each touch and stroke.
Say what you will about the adaptability of the natural martian form, the human body was designed for release.
He dropped into his chair at the Watchdesk, relaxed. His ministrations had eased the disappointment of the day before, replacing it with an affable calm. At any rate, today was a new day. Perhaps he wouldn't go to the observation deck again, perhaps he would. That was for future-J'onn to worry about. Present J'onn had a day full of monitor duty between then and now.
Several hours into his shift, he was conducting a routine system scan when the chair next to him was filled. J'onn felt his heart skip a beat. Several beats, if he was being honest.
"Batman. You're up early." He thought back to his clock. "It is only 6am in Gotham, I believe."
"It is," came the gruff reply.
"And here I thought you were a night-owl," J'onn said amiably, clearing the results of the scan from his screen. The system was working perfectly, it seemed.
"Haven't slept yet," Bruce set down a coffee thermos on the console. J'onn quirked an eyebrow, waiting expectantly.
Batman spoke without turning around. "Tracking a new toxin that surfaced last night. It seems like a variant of the paralytic that the Joker uses, can't take the chance that Joker is marketing to a wider audience. This particular strain seems to have been modified with snake venom of a viper native to Bialya. The Watchtower has better range when it comes to tracking things outside of Gotham. If Queen Bee is working with Joker to make a new Joker Venom for her own purposes, it can't be good. The resources up here should be able to unearth some new leads."
J'onn tilted his head in acknowledgement. "Bialya has seen some activity along the border it shares with Modoran in the last several weeks. If the Joker is getting involved with Queen Bee, it is possible that a shipment of some kind could have gone in or out while there was a distraction elsewhere."
Batman nodded once. J'onn set to work, bringing up the relevant satellite images and data. He reached out his left arm to trigger a display screen on Batman's side of the wide console. His arm brushed a hard leather and kevlar sleeve, and that was the last clear thought he had before a wave of sensation lit up his arm like lightning.
It was as though a curtain had been lifted and all of his senses were rushing onto the stage all at once, clamoring for the spotlight. A visible shiver shot up J'onn's arm, accompanied by a quiet intake of breath that didn't come from J'onn.
J'onn quietly tracked down leads for the rest of his shift, then excused himself from the monitor room, leaving Batman to continue hunting down the source of the toxin on his own. He found himself at the door to the observation deck without consciously making the decision to go there.
He sat down heavily at the table, overwhelmed by the assault his senses were making on him. He was vaguely aware that his shameful hand print was still pressed into the tabletop. On another day, the fact it hadn't been replaced yet might have surprised him. Today, something wild was racing through his veins and he was being swept along helplessly in its current. He hadn't the faintest idea how long he had been sitting there, when the lights turned off. Some part of his brain registered it. Reflexively, he hid the imprint by sliding his hand back over it, settling into the grooves that perfectly housed his fingers.
He tried not to sense it, but he tracked the vibrating molecules in the air. He could feel the electricity in the walls thrum as the privacy lock sealed shut. His nostrils filled with the smell of leather and Kevlar. His ears drowned in the sound of Bruce's heart thumping lazily in his steadily approaching chest. He shut his eyes as adrenaline thudded through his own veins, making him dizzy.
Bruce sat down next to him, the table delightfully too small once more.
"Only stars today," Bruce observed.
"Yes," J'onn said, his eyes still closed.
"Yes," J'onn said, desperately trying to get his nine senses to stop noticing Bruce.
"Not so bad," Bruce offered after a silence that stretched over several minutes.
"True." J'onn considered that maybe if he stopped with this breathing nonsense, at least three of his senses would be stopped in their godforsaken tracks.
"They're beautiful, but they have a way of making you feel uneasy, don't they?" Bruce was rearranging his cape. Each movement sent a whuff of air that pushed more Bruceness J'onn's way. "So many galaxies and planets and people out there, with no way to tell if they mean Earth any harm until after they get here."
"Indeed," said J'onn. He could tell that Bruce was lifting his arm. He cursed his eyes silently for wrestling autonomy away from his willpower as they demanded to follow the progress of that Bruce-y appendage. He turned his head to watch with rapt attention as those callused hands carded through the mussed up hair. A sense of longing tugged at his gut to see his own green hands rake through those slightly sweat-curled chocolate locks. His fingers were slowly, incrementally lengthening as the image filled his mind, desperate to make it a reality.
"We got lucky with you Martians, I suppose."
J'onn's attention diverted from the hair to the face, suddenly guarded.
"Incorrect," J'onn shifted uncomfortably. His need to be honest with Bruce was best met by eking out these small confessions in lieu of the one big confession that gnawed away at his gut. "Every history book on Mars bore mention of our ancestors as conquerors. There was... an event, that separated the martians from their warlike nature. The texts were unclear, but this event coincided with my people's inability to tolerate fire. Philosophers on Mars often debated whether or not the two occurrences were linked."
"But after this event, your people were more peaceful?" Bruce looked genuinely interested. J'onn shifted, careful to keep his hand still and halt its traitorous unsanctioned physiological shifting.
"Yes and no. The Pale Ones... the White Martians, never quite got it out of their system, and turned their conquering efforts against the Green Martians. It washed over our history in waves. Periods of peace broken up by brutal and vicious conflicts." His gaze turned to the window, taking in the stars. "Not dissimilar to the wars on Earth, but perhaps more brutal because of our gifts."
"Strength and laser beams, you mean?" Bruce raised an eyebrow. "It might not be exactly the same, but Earth has been inventive in its own way when it comes to wars."
J'onn shook his head. "While you are not incorrect, I was referring to our mental gifts. Each time you enter the thoughts of another, you leave a small piece of yourself behind. When that person cries out in pain, those cries have a tendency to find their way back to anyone who has left a piece of themselves in that way."
"But didn't your people..." Bruce frowned.
"All the time," J'onn bowed his head. "It takes a special kind of hardness, ruthlessness, to knowingly inflict pain on someone whose mind you have visited. The Pale Ones heard and felt the screams, and it did not stop them."
Bruce's frown persisted. "What about when people die?"
J'onn look away.
"J'onn... You've connected with all of the minds on Earth at least twice. You've... Are you telling me... You've felt the death of anyone who died on Earth since then?"
J'onn pursed his lips. "Only slightly. Humans have a duller connection to the telepathic field, and so their..." He flexed his fingers idly as he searched for the words. "It is called the h'ronma'ki. The closest translation in your tongue would be a 'death-cry', and it is stronger the more times a mind is visited. Martians are-... were very long-lived, and we entered one other's minds constantly. When my people died out, I... Its potential is weaker with humans, but the connections strengthen each time..." He trailed off for a long moment with eyes sealed shut. "It is why I do not use such a tactic more frequently, as some other League members might wish."
Bruce leaned back in his chair and ran his hand through his hair once more. He rubbed his face, the calluses on his hands rasping over the stubble on his chin.
"Only slightly," Bruce repeated quietly. J'onn could hear the way Bruce's breathing had hitched in his chest. He forcefully shut out the sounds.
"I have long had a theory about the death cry," J'onn murmured. Now that someone else knew it was hard to stop sharing. "I have often noticed the similarities between our Martian names and your Terran ones."
Bruce clenched his jaw, a suspicious hint of impending realization creeping over his face.
"I think the anguish of my people as a whole was so great that their death cries carried to this planet and imprinted on your species, still so young in their development," J'onn continued softly. He avoided Bruce's eyes and stared intently at his lap instead. He wished he could enter Bruce's mind to hear his thoughts. but he refused to invade the man's privacy.
"J'onn..." Bruce whispered, trailing off.
"And what's more," J'onn was now a bystander in his own body, listening in horror as his mouth carried on in that same quiet murmur. "I think the plague bore my brother's name with it. You have a word in English that encapsulates everything my people felt or understood about him: 'Malefic'. His name was so close to this word that I cannot believe it to be a coincidence. It has become synonymous with the capacity for destruction in the language of your people."
Bruce leaned on his knees. "Why haven't you mentioned this before?" His voice was as soft as J'onn's had been.
J'onn ran his hand over his scalp in an echo of Bruce's earlier gesture, searching for the words.
"It took me some time to realize the connection, I suppose. And since discovering it, who would I tell?" He laced his disobedient fingers together in his lap. "Most people see me as an alien with green skin and leave it at that. Few... have ever shown interest in knowing more beyond that."
He glanced at Bruce to gauge his reaction. He froze. Bruce's eyes were on the impression his hand had left in the table, exposed when J'onn had moved his hands to his lap. J'onn held his breath.
Bruce slowly reached a hand out. His fingers carefully traced over the grooves in the once-smooth surface. J'onn's ears burned and he averted his gaze, ashamed.
The quiet unfurled between them, the stars stretched before them, and J'onn waited for the scolding that was sure to come. As Batman, Bruce was often expressing concern about the stronger members of the League, about what could happen if they lost control. He remembered the argument he had witnessed while Bruce lay in that hospital bed; Bruce had been arguing with Clark about the encounter with the Justice Lords and the dangers of unchecked power.
He felt smaller than he had ever felt in his life, waiting to know if Bruce thought less of him now. His shoulders shrunk slightly as he braced himself for Bruce's censure. Bruce, the driving force of the Justice League. Bruce, the unpowered human. Bruce, his closest friend.
"It's remarkable," Bruce whispered. "That this is the only thing you've damaged, when you've been carrying this secret alone for so long."
J'onn swiveled his head in confusion.
"At least twice a year, I smash something in the Batcave," Bruce confessed, in that same hushed tone. "It is truly remarkable."
That word again. A spark of recognition stirred in him.
J'onn looked at where Bruce's hand still hovered over the tabletop. He hesitantly reached out and brushed the back of his knuckles across the back of that hand. His pulse roared in his ears as his throat constricted.
Bruce stared at where their hands touched, both men as still as statues.
J'onn swallowed. He had been mistaken, clearly. The use of the same word he'd used to describe Bruce had not been an invitation, subtle or otherwise. Foolish. He reluctantly began to withdraw his hand.
Bruce's hand twitched.
Never in all the years of working alongside Batman had J'onn ever known Bruce to twitch.
His eyes were riveted, fascinated, as Bruce's hand turned palm upwards, the back of his hand now pressed against the table. Fingers spread. Reaching.
J'onn's breath caught in his throat. He tore his gaze away from that outstretched hand and turned it towards Bruce's face, to find those piercing blue eyes watching him just intently in the dim starlight. He looked back down and carefully settled his long green fingers between Bruce's pale white ones. He could feel Bruce's gaze follow his own.
They stared at their hands for a while more, the stars outside forgotten.
"J'onn," came the whisper. "Was there a Martian version of my name?"
"B'ruzz," J'onn whispered back. "Your Martian name would be B'ruzz."
He waited for the dream to end.
He waited to wake up from what was clearly a flight of pheromone fueled fancy.
Bruce. Bruce was sitting next to him, had offered him his hand to hold, was now continuing to hold his hand.
There were some things even J'onn had a hard time believing were real.
If this were a dream, J'onn could take a quick peek into Bruce's mind to find out if Bruce was just as dumbstruck by this development as he was. If this were a dream, J'onn would find nothing but a swirl of his own thoughts, because even a very convincing dream couldn't recreate Bruce out of nothing. If it was a dream, it would be a very quick and harmless way to check if this was real...
But if it was real, and he let down the barriers between his mind and Bruce's that he had been cultivating for years, he would never be able to put them back up again. He was too far gone. He would be addicted to the little bits of Bruce that leaked through. If he peeked, Bruce would be angry about the violation of privacy, would probably never forgive him. If he peeked, it might turn out to be a dream after all, and then it would end.
J'onn sat very, very still, and waited.
Bruce pulled his hand away.
J'onn clenched his fist shut, trying to commit the fleeting impression that Bruce's hand had left behind to memory. The sound of the doors sliding shut suddenly struck him with a sense of claustrophobia. Bruce was gone without a word and he was alone.
His face slid back into the impassive mask he wore so regularly as he wrestled with this fresh new wound. For whatever reason, Bruce hadn't wanted him. He would learn to be okay with that. He had never expected Bruce to return his affections, and despite the smoldering afterburn his nerves felt in his fingers, nothing much had changed. The little ember of hope that he had hidden even from himself was gone now. That was all.
He drew an Oreo from the bag he kept hidden in his cloak and stared unseeing at the magnificence of the stars outside. He sank deeper into his thoughts as he pulled the cookie apart and scraped the icing off with his teeth.
He would be the backbone of the Justice League. He would continue to organize their superhuman efforts. He would defend the planet and its inhabitants. He would continue to love the people who would never love him back.
That was all.
The incident, moments earlier.
Bruce withdrew his hand and stood smoothly, masking the stiffness his joints felt. He strode calmly over to the control panel and released the security seal. He stepped confidently into the hall and headed off down the corridor.
That was when the trembling started in his hands.
He quickened his pace. The toe of his boot caught on the floor and he stumbled. The trembling crept further into his limbs. His eyes narrowed.
Batman doesn't stumble.
Belatedly he noticed that his cowl was pushed back off his head. He pulled it back up just in time for a cluster of technicians to round the corner. He did his best to imitate his normal lurking march, but it was admittedly difficult to do when it felt like he was breathing through a straw. The cowl felt restrictive and hot. He craned his neck to try and buy himself some extra breathing room, but to no avail.
His lurk was becoming more of a lurch now, if he was being honest with himself. His vision swirled and his sense of balance heaved way off center, so he steadied himself against the wall. He was running out of time, he wasn't going fast enough. His already quick pace became a clumsy light jog.
Were people looking?
He felt short of breath and dizzy to the point of nausea. He was seeing double. It took two tries to place his hand on the palm scanner.
"Authorization zero-two Batman, theta gamma gamma epsilon oh-seven-two," he panted as a wave of cold shivered across his body, followed immediately by a wave of stifling heat.
"Recognize: zero-two Batman, emergency override accepted. Destination: Batcave," chirped the computer. Its cheerful tones were jarring instead of soothing, making his chest feel even tighter as the zeta tubes charged with energy. Someday he would get around to tweaking the computer's voice to be less cheerful, someday when he wasn't fighting off delirium. His skin was crawling, prickling, and slick with sweat even before the tingling sensation of the transporter crept over his body.
There was a flash of light and then darkness as he found himself in the cool depths of the Batcave. He shivered uncontrollably, teeth chattering. He staggered to the shower at the back of the cave, scrabbling as best he could to get free of the Batsuit, leaving a trail of discarded armor on the floor.
As he slammed the handle of the shower to the 'on' position, the panic finally tore free of his body. He sank to the floor and curled against the wall, waiting for the spasms that shook him to subside, gasping for air.
Minutes later, he heard a voice calling for him.
"Bruce! Bruce, are you okay?"
Damn it. That trail of discarded armor was a trail of bread crumbs. No point in delaying the inevitable.
"I'm back here, Kent. I'm here." He rested his head against the wall in shame, still struggling to calm his body under the shower's scalding spray.
The next moment, Superman was crouched down in front of him, droplets of water tracing their way across his sculpted, noble features.
"I got the alert that you used your emergency code. I came as fast as I could. Are the boys okay?" Concern etched Clark's earnest face. Clark's gaze shifted as his heightened senses noted Bruce's racing pulse and strained breathing. No doubt the trembling of his traitor body had failed to escape Clark's keen notice.
"The boys are fine," Bruce grunted. Clark reached out to turn off the water, but Bruce whirled on him with a glare. "Back off, Kent. I'm fine."
Clark rocked back on his heels. "You know, we don't usually lie to each other."
Bruce pressed his lips together tightly. He busied himself with suppressing the tremors and carefully reached over his head to turn off the water.
"Care to talk about it?" Clark prompted. His voice sounded too rich for the small, dripping shower in this dark corner of the cave.
Bruce stared resolutely over Clark's head. His breath was slowly returning to him. The tremors were slowly dissipating under the force of his will, hardly more than a gentle flutter now. He'd hate to admit it out loud, but Clark's presence was helping him calm down. God, that man was irritating, even when he was being helpful.
"Your poor jaw muscles are going to snap if you keep that up."
Bruce raised a hand halfway to touch the clenched muscle in question, then caught himself and dropped his hand again. He shifted uncomfortably. He glared at the drain on the floor, noting the water slowly filtering through the grate. Slipping away from this humiliating situation. Abandoning him to the concern of his stupid, caring, Boy Scout best friend.
"Talk to me, Bruce. What's going on?"
"You know just as well as I do what a panic attack looks like, Kansas."
"True," Clark nodded slowly. "But I can't recall ever seeing you have one. What happened?" He seemed content to wait out Bruce's brooding silence. Bruce pursed his lips in distaste. He knew Clark would sit there passively, a beautiful alien statue, for as long as it took. Damn him. Bruce chose his words carefully.
"The Batman can't afford for Bruce Wayne to get caught up in intimate relationships. The occasional fling for the tabloids, sure. But not something... More. You know me. I've been very careful."
Clark nodded. "Last time you got too close to someone you crushed a gargoyle's head, or so Diana tells me. What makes this different?"
Bruce lapsed into brooding silence again. Clark sighed and sat down beside Bruce so that his back was to the wall. He gazed out at the cave, shifting the pressure of that penetrating, knowing gaze off of Bruce.
"Can we at least stop pretending this isn't about J'onn?"
Bruce snapped his head up, eyes squinting suspiciously.
"Oh come off it. You can erase security camera footage but you can't stop me from hearing you rough up some newbies because they said something xenophobic about him. You can use the expanded resources of the Watchtower to help an investigation, but you can also tell when someone checks the roster over twenty three times in a two day period to ensure the right person will be on shift when you do so. You can put a lock on a door to keep people out, but you've never turned on the privacy seal when you and I have been on the observation deck. I'm an investigative reporter, I'd like to think I can notice the signs when my best friend starts behaving strangely right around the time the system pings me about suspicious log activity." Clark rolled his eyes at Bruce's indignant snort. "So something happened with J'onn?"
"Yes," Bruce answered begrudgingly.
"Too much too soon?"
"... No. Yes... No."
Clark raised an eyebrow at that.
"Did he make a move?"
"If you make me pull teeth I'll do it, but the truth is coming out one way or another, Bruce. It would be better if you didn't make me think J'onn did something horrible in the meantime."
Bruce ran his hands through his wet hair and shivered. The thermal bodysuit he wore was insulated, but it was soaking wet and the cave was cold.
"We held hands. It scared me."
Another eyebrow quirk from Clark.
He continued, despite his voice feeling ragged and abused. "Batman isn't supposed to get close to anyone. I've lived by that for years. Taking in the boys, that was scary enough, but it was necessary. I could see that they would go down a dark road if I didn't help them out. I love my sons, but it wasn't so much a choice on my part. Not in the same way."
"... And it scared you because you think you have a choice with J'onn?"
"I thought I did," Bruce said simply. "I don't."
Clark whistled in surprise. Ugh, farm boys and their whistling. "Oh geez."
"How long have you known?"
"That I have no say in how I feel anymore?"
Bruce checked his watch. "Twenty three minutes."
Another long low whistle from Clark. Bruce rolled his eyes.
"Bit overwhelmed then, yeah?"
"Evidence would suggest."
An appreciative whistle this time from Clark, because it would seem he had a whistle for every occasion. Bruce turned to look at the Kryptonian, who was grinning from ear to ear. He grimaced.
"Shut up, Kent."
Dinah noticed it right away.
Well, she noticed it after about five minutes.
Welllll... She noticed it after about ten minutes of Oliver's tongue being down her throat.
Look the point is, she noticed it. Who cares if it was after twenty one minutes of some mind blowing oral from Olly?
It was during minute twenty two, right as she was climbing the slopes of what was promising to be an amazing orgasm, that she gripped the table in an effort to keep herself still. Olly's head was buried between her legs, and his delicious mouth was driving her positively wild. He pulled back sharply as she uttered the sound most dreaded by generous lovers:
"Fuck, I'm sorry, baby. Was I too rough?"
Dinah snorted. "Olly, honey, not even close." She pressed her injured finger to her mouth to distract herself from the sharp sting. She looked closer at the table for the source of the injury. "What the hell?"
Oliver followed her line of sight. "Jesus, is that a handprint?"
There were deep grooves wrapping around the edge of the metal table. When she'd gripped the table, Dinah had unwittingly pressed her finger at a bad angle against one of the raised ridges.
Dinah furrowed her brow. "Yeah. Shit. Looks like the metal got crushed. Squeezed? Fucking sharp. Ow."
"Maybe Supes got a beej from Diana, and he was holding on for dear life," Olly chuckled. Dinah cuffed him gently.
"Could have been Diana who did it while Clark went down on her," Dinah squeezed Oliver's hips with her knees meaningfully. He was still kneeling between her spread legs, his fingers edging tantalizingly back up her bared thighs.
"Nah, doll. Look at the size of that hand. Diana could absolutely crush a man's skull with her bare hands, but she'd have to have sausage fingers to leave a print like that. She's built way daintier than that, babe."
"Think about Diana's fingers often, Olly?" Dinah arched an eyebrow at him playfully.
"Only when you bring them up, as far as you can prove. Hey, feel free to imagine whichever super-stud you like left that handprint. They're all gorgeous anyway. But don't forget, I'm the only one between your knees." He grinned lasciviously and dropped his chin to suckle on her clit. "For now, anyway."
She laughed, her chest heaving as Olly bent back to his work, tongue darting impossibly fast. Dinah gasped as her body reminded her how close she had been to orgasm just moments prior.
"Fuck," she breathed. The curling feeling in her toes began to build up again. "Mmf. More."
As he slid a finger into her, she slid her hand into the craterous handprint on the tabletop, and let herself slip into the throes of ecstasy, fantasies of writhing musclebound men in tights with their tongues down each others' throats, hands in each others' pants, and her in the middle, dancing behind her eyelids.
After an incident, some time earlier.
Dinah often wondered if she had a sixth sense. Or maybe half of an extra sense. Five and a half senses. She liked that.
She'd mentioned it to Olly once, and he'd rambled on about how he saw the world as a series of angles after all of his training as an archer. Maybe her potentially-extra-sense was the result of her power and how she used it to relate to the rest of the world? Maybe it was her imagination? Who knew?
Her somewhat-extra-sense told her this: Most people were boring, flat, and stale. Some people, however, had a barely noticeable note that resonated with her. Often they were metahumans, or particularly passionate people, but there was something about them that made the air around them hum. She had come to learn that anyone who emitted this barely-noticeable note was almost guaranteed to never be boring. It had taken more than a few of her teen years and early twenties to learn that 'interesting' and 'good' were not synonymous.
And then there was J'onn.
J'onn Jonnz practically sang whole melodies with his presence, just beyond the range of her hearing. She wondered if it had something to do with the way his Martian powers allowed him to control every atom in his body, so that not a single bit of him was out of place. Perhaps it was an interaction between her half-sense and his telepathic nature. Or maybe it was that he was genuinely good and the universe rejoiced at his existence . Whatever he was, he was special, and she liked being around him because of it.
"I'm really worried about him, Clark."
"What do you mean?" Clark turned his clear blue eyes on her, brows knitted together in genuine concern.
"He's alone all the time. His family is... Well...you know. And he has this all consuming obsession with doing the right thing... He spends more time in front of the monitors than with actual people, and when he is around people he uses this persona that I think isn't really him at all. I can't help but wonder when he's going to die of heartbreak or loneliness. I know it's not easy for him to feel like he belongs, but he has to know that we all love him, right?"
Clark paused for a moment, beer raised halfway to his lips. "We're talking... about... J'onn, right?"
"Obviously we're talking about J'onn!" She exclaimed. She had been waiting for Oliver's shift on the monitor desk to finish when she'd run into Clark after a training session. They'd been sharing a drink or two and chatting when she had been reminded that Clark might know something of the loneliness J'onn felt, given that they had a last-of-their-race tragedy in common.
Clark drummed his beer bottle absentmindedly. "I thought maybe... Oh, never mind. The description didn't fit perfectly right at the end there anyway." His nonchalant shrug had a studied air to it. Dinah squinted suspiciously as her mind raced.
"You thought... Not Lantern, obviously, but ... Bruce?" She couldn't keep the shocked tone out of her voice. Clark's head snapped around so quickly she wondered if he'd used his super-speed. She berated herself for the slip.
"You're not supposed to-"
"Oliver let it slip one time during a very... Private moment, and he wasn't really in a position to say no to answering my questions after," Dinah hurried to supply, hands raised in supplication. A flush started creeping up her chest as she remembered exactly which position they'd been in when Olly had shared that particular detail. If she recalled correctly, it had required a great deal of flexibility and a small amount of anti-gravity. He'd been caught up in the moment and had said Bruce's name instead of 'Batman' when describing what gadgets from the Bat's utility belt could have bedroom applications. The bat was out of the bag and Dinah wasn't born yesterday. Olly had been at boarding school with exactly one Bruce in his life, and that one had been of the 'Wayne' variety.
At Clark's look of impending admonishment, she reiterated hastily. "Trust me, it isn't a situation that would repeat itself with anyone else. It was," she paused as she wondered for the thousandth time how much Superman knew about their sex life. "Very distinctly 'us'."
Clark's cheeks flushed as he avoided eye contact.
She'd always wondered if his bashfulness was Kryptonian-born or Kansas-raised. Part of her was entertained watching him squirm. The other part was fascinated, wondering just how much he had heard with his acute hearing, seen with his x-ray vision, or if he'd simply walked in on them accidentally. Well. Almost everyone had walked in on them at this point, to the extent that it was practically a rite of passage in the League. Dinah and Olly were not the greatest about locking doors on the Watchtower. Or making it back to one of the private quarters set aside for League members. The idea of Superman watching them was... Well, fuck, it was actually really hot. Olly's shift needed to end soon, or Dinah was going to go get a head start without him. Sitting next to Superman, knowing that he could probably hear her heart speeding up, knowing he was probably aware just how turned on she was...
She saw Clark's eyes dart to her chest for the briefest of moments. She grinned and picked her beer back up and settled against the couch cushions, legs tucked under her. "So Brucie is lonely too, huh?"
Clark scratched at his collar uncomfortably. "It's... I'm not sure I should talk about it." He plucked at the label on the bottle in his hands, chewing his lip as he considered. "Aw heck... I keep trying to convince him to take time off, but the man is a classic workaholic."
It was Dinah's turn to be thoughtful. "Speaking of... Say, do you remember a couple of weeks ago when Doomsday was kicking your ass inside a volcano and Batman flew the Javelin into a missile and there was a brief moment in time where we thought Bruce might have been trapped in that flaming wreck afterwards?"
"I'll admit to being preoccupied in a volcano, but my pa always taught me to never admit losing a fight in front of a pretty lady." He frowned as his brain caught up to the flaming wreck part of the scenario and overrode his instinct to charm. "But yes, I remember."
"J'onn was... Distressed."
"Makes sense. He worries about the safety of the team a lot, and the evacuation off of the island wasn't done yet. Civilians were still in harm's way. It was a distressing situation."
"No, I mean. He was distressed." Dinah proceeded to fill Clark in about her extra half-sense, and described the way the air around J'onn had built up with growing discordant notes, culminating in a crushing sense of wrongness in those few moments where Bruce had not answered over the comms. "I've been around him when other people get into scrapes like that. There is usually concern, sure, but not like this. This was more like... Like his soul was screaming." Dinah shivered at the memory.
Clark's frown deepened. "Do you think his judgment has been compromised?"
"No, no. Nothing like that. You know as well as I do that J'onn will always put the job first," Dinah drained her beer and set the bottle down gently. "But what you said makes me wonder... They are pretty similar in a lot of ways."
"Dinah, where are you going with this?"
"Well... Have you ever noticed anything... Between them?"
"What? That's-" Clark cut off mid-chuckle, a strange look on his face.
"I knew it!" Dinah edged a bit closer in her excitement. "Clark you had better tell me or I swear to god I will scream."
Clark rubbed at the stubble on his chin. "It was... It was hardly anything, really."
"Well I don't know about Bruce's side of things," he cautioned, "But after the crash, you remember how Bruce was in really rough shape?"
"Hard to forget, I'm the one who picked him up, remember?"
Clark nodded. "Diana and I stopped by to see him to try and cheer him up. It... did not... go well." Clark rubbed the back of his neck ruefully. "He was so angry with Waller, with Luthor, with me, that he didn't even notice that J'onn was in the room. Granted, the guy was invisible at the time, but normally Bruce picks up on things like that. I thought maybe J'onn wanted a moment alone with him, or maybe he was trying to exert a calming influence on Bruce and me being there was messing it up, but either way I figured it would be best if I backed out of the room and left him to it."
Dinah thought for a moment. "If I recall correctly, J'onn volunteered to keep an eye on Bruce, to make sure he took his meals and whatnot. An excuse to be close to him, d'you think?" She was happy to use the innocent conversational opening to lean closer to Clark. She and Olly had a bet on who would be the first of them to get Clark to break and ask for an invitation. Clark distractedly reached to set his beer down and somehow managed to knock the coaster to the floor. He busied himself with the retrieval of the Super Important Beer Coaster.
"I'm not saying that it means anything," Clark protested, when he saw the gleam in her eye as he straightened back up. "It was just... J'onn takes care of his friends, that's all."
"Right, and Bruce pushes away his," her cheeks glowed with at least two kinds of excitement. "They're both too stoic for their own good. They both need to open up a bit, so why not with each other?"
"Dinah, you can't just mess around with their private lives like that." Clark frowned.
"Well how about their work lives then?" She twisted one of her blond curls around her finger. Clark's eyes followed the mesmerizing movement. "You're always lecturing Bats about taking time off, you said so yourself, and we all know that J'onn has barely taken so much as a night to himself since the Watchtower came online."
"You can't just-"
"No, but you can!" She interrupted. "You are the biggest voice on the team, they have to listen to you!"
"It's really not like that," Clark fretted as his knee bounced nervously, his eyes drifting from his knees to Dinah's.
"How about this: do you think you could convince Bruce? You're close friends, right?"
Clark squinted suspiciously.
"Surely after all of these years, you've got some kind of leverage you could use against him to make him take some kind of break, right?"
"His version of 'a break' involves going out on the town with some bimbos, which for the real Bruce feels like work. I'm not so sure that counts as time off."
"So tell him he has to get off the planet then, if that's the only way to get him to stop being either Batman or 'Brucie Wayne the billionaire playboy'," she shrugged. "It's not as though he has a space station floating in orbit above the earth with a view that is positively to die for. Oh wait." She looked pointedly at Clark.
"Yeah, yeah," he rolled his eyes.
"Perfect. It's settled then. You convince Bruce, and I'll convince J'onn. Let's start small, get them to take half an hour to themselves or so."
"So your big scheme to get J'onn and Bruce in the same room together is to tell them what, 'the stars are beautiful this time of year'?"
"Something like that," she smiled, pleased with herself.
"And what if they don't meet up?"
"Then we will have convinced two workaholics to take a coffee break, and we should pat ourselves on the back for getting that far."
Clark groaned. "You're incorrigible."
Dinah grinned cheekily with her fingers laced under her chin. "Correct."
A small pinging alert sounded from his communicator. J'onn glanced at it and sighed wearily. He opened an audio channel only; It would be the first time they'd talked since Bruce had rejected him, and as juvenile as the fear was, he didn't trust his face not to betray him. He would use this call as a dry run, a test to see how in control of himself he really was.
"Manhunter here, go ahead." A bit terse, perhaps, but good. This exchange would not be a personal one between Bruce and J'onn, but a professional one between their caped personas.
There was a brief pause. Perhaps Batman had expected someone else to be manning the desk today. J'onn felt a stab of something unidentifiable, the feeling of being an unfortunate encounter in someone else's day. He cut off the rush of blood before it could colour his cheeks.
"I'm following up on the new Joker toxin. Any word from your informants? I've pursued almost all of the leads I have already. Your Intel might turn up something new."
"I have heard from all but one source," J'onn answered determinedly. Long ago, he'd decided that throwing himself into his work was the key. As Bruce himself had said on many occasions, it was far more productive than wallowing in self pity. "The shipments are going from Biyalya to Gotham as we suspected, not the other way around. The snake venom is getting shipped to Joker so he can modify his toxin after its arrival, but he has not shipped any toxin back to Biyalya. This would suggest Queen Bee is not involved, and is instead a transaction happening with someone lower down on the totem pole."
"And that last source?" Batman's tone was clipped, J'onn noted. Brief and to the point like always. Efficient communication was best in situations like these, it left no room for the personal feelings that were completely inappropriate between colleagues.
"I will need to contact them personally; it will take some time to arrange, as they are in deep cover."
The sound of Batman typing came over the comm link. Another pause. "I appreciate the assistance on this case, gives me a bit more room to work with."
Did Batman feel guilty or pity about what had happened? It was the only reason J'onn could think of as to why Batman would offer an uncharacteristic word of thanks. Or did he think that J'onn would be such a wreck, so crushed, that he should be grateful for this brief contact? It was too much.
"Of course. Manhunter out." J'onn swiftly terminated the call. The indicator light for the comm channel winked out as it was closed on both ends.
He stared at the various readouts on the many screens in front of him and pinched the bridge of his nose with a sigh. He felt restless. He pulled up the monitor schedule and cleared his name from the roster for the next two weeks and allowed an automated program to reassign the duties to various members.
A quick scan of the station showed that Canary and Green Arrow were on board, on the observation deck. He rolled his eyes. They would get the alert regarding the change in schedules whenever they put their clothes back on, he assumed. He paced in front of the monitors to satisfy his growing need to keep moving.
By the time Oliver was fully dressed in his Green Arrow garb once more and began his ambling journey to the monitor room, J'onn had resorted to mentally chanting the Khonar Sum, a Martian mantra of inner harmony. In the original tongue, the Khonar Sum took three days to recite. It was a transcendent work of art among his people, celebrated for the peaceful effect it produced within everyone connected to the Great Mind at the time of recital.
A sobering thought nagged at J'onn: The Great Mind was gone now.
He was reciting a poem of harmony and togetherness to the void.
The feeling of irony and suffocation swelled with each syllable of the poem. The confines of the Watchtower, of his shape shifted body, grew tighter with each step Green Arrow took towards him at an agonizingly luxurious pace.
As the door slid open to admit Green Arrow, J'onn felt as though he was going to vibrate out of his skin. The very moment the computer registered his palm print and logged him out of the system, he was gone. He phased through the door and with a burst of super speed, he tore harmlessly straight through the walls of the Watchtower and erupted into space.
Elsewhere on the station, Dinah noticed that too.
Bruce leaned back in his chair and exhaled slowly. He'd frozen up for a moment at the start of the call, his planned speech forgotten at the sound of J'onn's rich basso voice, the disappointment of not getting to see his viridian face.
But then! Inspiration had struck. Reaching out to J'onn with the case they'd been working on together was perfect. It was his tentative way of letting J'onn know that Bruce wasn't running away from him, just that he needed a little more time. And while J'onn's skill as a fellow detective was undeniable, it was a convenient excuse to spend time with J'onn. It would be a chance to develop whatever was happening between them on terms that Bruce could recognize and work with.
Bruce allowed himself a small relieved smile. As backwards as he tended to be about these things, as overwhelming as this all felt, as absolutely terrified as he was, he could always count on J'onn's patience.
It was nice to be understood.
Bruce bounced on the balls of his feet, poised to hurl himself forwards. He lingered for a moment, then let gravity pull him forward as he launched into a series of warmup exercises - lunges, feints, tumbles, jabs - his expertly honed body flowing through them all with grace and ease. He luxuriated in the freedom he felt during armorless workouts. The little euphoric bursts of feigned flight and weightlessness were completely at odds with the heavy practicality of the Batsuit. He reveled in the unburdened movement; he relaxed his mind and lost himself to everything but the exertion of muscle and balance.
In moments like these he understood why Dick chose a uniform that was distinctly less armored than the Batsuit, trading it in for the far less restricting Nightwing costume. Of course, Bruce's workout exercises would end, and then he would don something that offered maximum protection when facing criminals who were fond of firing guns in his direction at the slightest provocation. Dick insisted it didn't matter if they fired at him - his lighter suit allowed him to dodge out of the way in time; a feat that could never be accomplished in the tank-like Batsuit. It was an argument they had frequently, but here, in this moment, Bruce was on Dick's side. Freedom of movement, the acrobatics, the mobility... There was a hint of catharsis to it.
He executed a reverse handspring that resolved into a back flip and smoothly dropped into a crouch to finish. Over the slight panting of his own breath, he heard the -click- -click- of Black Canary's heels crossing the Watchtower's training room floor. He straightened, sweat already beginning to trickle down the side of his face.
"Dinah," he acknowledged her crisply with a nod. She was in her usual getup; fishnet stockings and a form fitting leather jacket. Her long blond hair tumbled down her shoulders and coiled invitingly along the curve of her breasts. She moved with confidence and prepossessed ease, reminding Bruce of a leopard stalking prey.
Damn, Oliver was a lucky son of a bitch.
"Ready to spar?" He motioned further down the bench, where a water bottle and neatly folded towel awaited her. Dinah slipped out of her jacket, revealing a low cut bustier that accented her truly remarkable assets. Bruce steeled himself against the desire to stare.
"A better question is, are you?" Dinah dropped into a ready stance, her loosely coiled fists raised in front of her.
Bruce wiped his forehead with the towel once more and turned to drop it on the bench. "Yeah, yeah. Should be interesting, fighting you without the suit on." He paused as he remembered Clark's adamant statement that Dinah was not to be blamed for sussing out his identity. Clark had left out that Oliver had been the one to let it slip, but some things you just didn't need to say to the Batman. "Might actually be faster than you."
A foot slammed into his back, sending him towards the wall. He just barely managed to brace himself in time.
He hadn't even heard Canary shift her weight, let alone the tap of her heels cross the distance between them. She had moved in near perfect silence.
Upon reflection, he should have waited to say he was ready until he had turned around. She was starting the sparring session from a significant advantage. As long as she could keep him off balance, she would continue to have the upper hand.
He saw her followup attack out of the corner of his eye and pushed against the wall as he threw himself to the right. He was off balance, pinned down, and she wasn't letting up. He used his momentum to tuck and roll to put more distance between them. She lunged to keep the gap from widening.
He felt Dinah plant a hand on his shoulder as his roll finished. He was vaguely aware of her body vaulting through the air, and then suddenly he was getting cuffed upside the head from behind. As he turned to face her, she jabbed him twice in the side before he could get his guard up.
Right. She was fast. Fast and nimble. Fast, nimble, and highly trained. And a master of misdirection. The stockings, the cleavage, and the stilettos were all weapons that Canary used to make opponents underestimate her. The truth was, Canary in heels could outmaneuver just about anything that walked on two legs.
And she was clearly furious.
It was unsettling. He had rarely ever seen Canary when she was upset. She was known for being coy and aloof. The fury currently contorting her features was positively alien.
He had just registered her ire when he was subjected to a withering onslaught of punches, knees, and elbows. Canary was refusing to give him a moment's reprieve. He deflected and blocked as best he could, but more of her punches were getting through than he was returning. She always managed to dance out of the way or turn any slight error to her own advantage. Her attacks forced him to concede more and more ground.
He feinted left, ducked right and sent a few test jabs questing for an opening. He found none. She blocked his last jab, grabbed his wrist and managed to turn it into a throw, counterbalancing his weight with her own. Bruce staggered forward, looking to turn his momentum into an offensive maneuver. As he whirled to face her, he discovered her palm already striking at where his solar plexus was about to be. His breath whuffed out of his body. It whuffed out a second time barely moments later as Dinah kneed him in the groin, then roundhouse kicked him so hard that he crashed into the wall. He felt his shoulder pop out of its socket.
It had been a brutally one sided fight.
"Enough," he barked. He raised his good hand in a show of surrender. He slid against the wall until he was seated. The hot pain in his groin tugged at his organs. His breath hissed through clenched teeth as he cradled his dislocated shoulder. "Something on your mind?!"
Dinah was breathing heavily. With conscious effort she loosened her fist, though her fingers still convulsed as though she longed to wrap them around Bruce's throat. She closed her eyes and took a moment to calm herself.
"Yes. What. Did. You. Do?" Her voice was low and seething, each word sounding like its own separate dagger.
The pain was clouding his mind. That had to be why he was so confused.
"What are you talking about?" He asked evenly.
"What did you do?" Dinah raised her voice as it took on a tremulous quiver. She took a half step forward before she stopped herself.
"Canary, I sincerely have no idea what you're talking about."
Dinah's eyes widened with incredulity. "Are you fucking serious? J'onn left the tower, you fucking moron."
Bruce cleared his throat carefully. "J'onn is entitled to leave the Watchtower, same as anyone else affiliated with the Justice League." He felt a small pang in his chest. He had hoped to cross paths with J'onn. It had been his reason for training on the Watchtower today with Dinah instead of in the cave with Dick.
She snorted in disgust. "J'onn reassigned all of his monitor duty shifts for the next two weeks, then left in a hurry through the side of the station instead of teleporting somewhere. Sensor logs confirm it." She crossed her arms angrily. The nervous energy from her clenching hands seemed to transfer itself to her foot, which began tapping against the floor.
Bruce frowned. "It's possible something urgent came up. He has secret identities on each continent, each of whom have people important to them." He shrugged indifferently, masking the rising concern he felt. "Not everything he responds to is League business."
He didn't miss the twitch that spasmed across Canary's body, the telltale signs of a lunge suppressed.
"Bruce. He fucking did all of that within seconds of ending a transmission with you." She stabbed a finger towards his chest. Her nostrils flared as her eyes flashed dangerously. "Cut the crap, I will ask you again: what did you fucking say to J'onn?"
Bruce felt the tide of concern shift into a stab of panic. He thought back, his mind racing. "We discussed one of the cases we'd been working on together." His cheeks flushed as he thought about the more tender aspect of the call. He liked his privacy, and he was hardly inclined towards telling Dinah about his love life.
Dinah raked her hands through her hair and paced in a tight circle. "You... You fucking idiot." She strode two paces to Bruce's right and shoved the bench violently with her foot. "You fucking idiot!"
Bruce stilled the muscles in his face, willing the pain from his shoulder to diminish. "Dinah, do not presume that I will tolerate this abuse simply because you are aware of my identity," he warned. "He mentioned that one of his sources could only be reached by going undercover. Taking time off from the watchdesk makes perfect sense."
She whirled at him. "How do you not fucking get this? His soul was screaming!"
That startled Bruce. He started forward but stopped as he jostled his shoulder and pain shot through his arm.
"What do you mean, screaming?" Bruce couldn't recall a single time that J'onn had ever screamed, even when losing an arm on the battlefield and regrowing it at rapid speeds. The realization nagged at his mind.
"No not like-" she sighed in frustration. "Something about the way my power interacts with J'onn lets me be in tune with his moods. When he's upset I can feel it like a subsonic wave or something. I've only ever felt it when I've been standing near him before, like when you crashed the Javelin. Do you understand? I can feel it."
Bruce remained impassive as he filed this information away. He would add it to her file later. "Interesting, what's the range on th-"
"Bruce," she cut him off then took a deep breath. "I was on the other side of the Watchtower when he left, and I still felt it. I have never felt it like that before. That strongly. This is the most upset I have ever seen- felt him."
A crinkle formed in the center of Bruce's forehead.
"He launched himself into space within thirty seconds after hanging up with you, practically. We have no idea where he is or where he went. The scanners lost him as soon as he broke through the wall." She tensed. "Did you... reject him?"
"No!" Bruce was surprised at how forcefully the answer ripped its way from his lips. "The opposite!"
Dinah's mouth dropped open for a moment, then closed as her eyebrows descended angrily. "Bullshit."
Bruce wrestled momentarily with his preference for privacy, then gave in. "We're... starting something. But I'm not very good at... Relationships. Openness." He shot a glare at Dinah, who looked about to say something then thought the better of it.
He brooded for a moment, then continued. "I had a panic attack when I first realized what my feelings are." He raised his hand towards Dinah as she opened her mouth again. "Shut it. I know. I'd appreciate it if you didn't. I need time to ease into this."
"Did you tell J'onn about the panic attack?" The words tore out of her, hungry for answers. "Or did you just tell him you needed space?"
"I didn't need to. J'onn understands."
As Dinah massaged her temples, it occurred to Bruce for the first time that perhaps this was not quite true.
He tried again. "He's psychic, he picks up on the emotions of others. We've all seen him do it. How could he not know?"
Dinah looked ready to scream. She made a strangled noise, spun on her heel and grabbed her jacket as she stormed off towards the door.
"I can't take this. You're impossible." Her hand was shaking as she raised it to the palm-scanner. Bruce always locked the training room down if he was training without the cowl.
Bruce stood up, careful not to jostle his shoulder. He braced it against the wall, then with a practiced motion threw his weight against it. With a sickening sound, he heard the beleaguered joint pop back into its socket. The burst of pain sent a white aura into his vision for a brief moment and then it cleared. "Dinah, what-"
"Oh my god. Bruce." Dinah shot back towards him as the doors slid open. "You are the most uptight asshole about your privacy, and J'onn is practically glued together with manners. Do the fucking math."
As Bruce stood alone in the training room, his shoulder throbbing, he couldn't help but feel like he'd missed something important.
Batman climbed out of the Batmobile angrily. As he slammed the car door shut, a nearby flock of bats took flight, shrieking in dismay. He suppressed the urge to duck, which somehow only served to increase his ire.
Nothing! His search for the modified Joker venom had turned up absolutely nothing. The new concoction had simply disappeared. He had interrogated four clown-thugs just this evening and he was still coming up empty handed.
He swept through the cave, his cloak whipping and snapping behind him. He swiftly checked his communicator: No incoming alerts, no pings, no messages. With a frustrated growl, he tore off his cowl and hurled it at the Cave's supercomputer. It did nothing to release the built up tension he felt.
Six weeks! It had been six weeks since J'onn had gone missing. His search there had been just as disappointing as his search for the Joker venom, if not more so. His concern had built steadily for the first three weeks of J'onn's absence. Concern had turned into panic during weeks four and five. But for the last week, week six, he had felt nothing but impotent rage.
With a snarl he swept the contents of his workbench onto the floor. The clattering of tools skittering across the floor wasn't enough to satiate the rage in his chest. Perhaps a combat boot kicking over a bank of monitors? Not part of the main set, but a smaller subunit designed for very fine measurements. Very expensive. With grim satisfaction he heard the tinkling of broken glass as the delicate housings shattered against cold hard stone.
"Ahem." Bruce froze, no longer channeling the rage of The Bat. He was instantly contrite, ashamed, and somehow nine years old again. Alfred stood on the stairs leading to the manor, coughing politely into his hand. "Master Bruce, you have a guest waiting for you in the receiving room."
Bruce turned and stared incredulously. "Alfred, does our guest know what time it is?"
"Yes, Master Bruce, but I suppose Mr. Kent hardly needs worry about the hour, wouldn't you say?"
Bruce sighed. "Send him down, Alfred."
"Indeed, Master Bruce. When you are quite through," the older man didn't so much as glance towards the mess but somehow it felt like he was pointing out each tiny shard of glass to Bruce. "There is a cucumber sandwich and protein shake waiting by the main computer. Shall I wait up sir?"
"No Alfred, that will be all. Thank you."
The moment he heard the whir of the elevator that signaled Alfred's departure, Bruce felt a tiredness overtake him that he had been ignoring for weeks. The wind had gone out of his sails. He felt drained. Abandoned. Alone.
He stepped gingerly through the broken glass to his computer chair and slumped heavily into it. As he had done nearly every night for three weeks now, Bruce settled his left hand into the new armrest he had fashioned for the Batcave's solitary chair. It wasn't padded or ergonomic in any way. The mismatched armrest's glossy metal surface was always distinctly cold to the touch. Through his gloves, he could just barely feel the impression of another palm below his own.
He heard Clark's heavy footsteps on the stair. Say what you would about the ridiculousness of his secret identity, he fully committed to the 'clumsy oaf' bit. Clark approached the chair hesitantly.
"Busy night?" Clark ventured.
Bruce offered a reply in the form of a grunt.
"Still working on that Joker venom case?"
"No." Bruce took a sip of the shake Alfred had left him. His gut seemed to only churn more angrily as he considered taking a bite of the sandwich; he opted to leave it where it was. "There have been two civilian deaths, but Joker's whole crew is stonewalling."
"Could be there's nothing left to tell," Clark shrugged. Bruce was about to offer a sneering rebuttal when Clark tossed a folded newspaper onto the desk. It was open to an article on the third page.
'SMILES FOR SUPERMAN
A shipment of botulinum toxin, commonly known as the wrinkle-reducing 'botox' used in minor cosmetic procedures, was seized yesterday by government officials. The shipment of botox was largely replaced by what has now been confirmed to be a variant of Joker Venom, the chemical responsible for the garish rictus smiles of The Joker's victims. This particular strain was mixed with the venom of an unknown snake species, delaying the toxin's potency period. Once the delay-period has passed, the unknown snake venom appears to also cause an unusually painful and drawn out death, even compared to the usual symptoms that accompany a dose of Joker's toxin. An undisclosed source from within the factory notified police of the switched botox shipment. When law enforcement arrived at the factory where the fake botox was produced, all stores of the snake venom and formula had been destroyed. Several criminals known to be allied with The Joker were apprehended by Superman, awaiting arrest and ready to confess.
The Joker's operations are usually limited to within the boundaries of Gotham City. Despite production occurring outside of Gotham's borders, shipment of the toxin seems to have been solely headed towards the troubled city. As a precaution, however, the factory has been shut down temporarily pending an inspection to ensure that distribution of the fake botox was not more widespread. Metropolis police have issued a caution to the public against participating in botox injection procedures until...'
Bruce stopped reading.
"It's the early edition of tomorrow's paper." Clark leaned against the desk, as he tended to do when in reporter mode at the Daily Planet. "You didn't know?"
Bruce was silent.
"I thought maybe you sent this our way, since The Bat doesn't operate much on Superman's turf." Clark picked intently at something under his fingernail.
Bruce scanned the article again instead of answering.
"You said you were working this case with J'onn," Clark carried on quietly. "It seems you were right after all about J'onn going undercover, judging by how the real work was already done by the time I got there to wrap things up."
Bruce wordlessly flipped to another section of the paper. The obituaries. Might as well start trying to figure out which life J'onn had slipped into at the factory.
"...Have you heard from him?"
Bruce closed the paper and folded it neatly in silence. J'onn tended to pick up and continue the lives of people who had recently died. There was no telling if the identity he'd used at the factory had been an old one or a newer acquisition, but revealing that the death had occurred at all would give away the game. J'onn wasn't likely to waste an identity like that, Bruce rationalized. There would be no point in looking.
Clark hesitated, then laid his hand on the hard armor protecting Bruce's shoulder. "I'm sure he'll come home soon."
The cold, gravelly voice of The Bat leapt forth from Bruce's throat into the uncomfortable silence. "Get your hand off of me. Get out."
Clark put his hands in his pockets and shrugged. He turned to go.
Just as suddenly as The Bat had taken over his voice, it receded. The safety of its anger-driven armor dropped away, leaving Bruce feeling horribly, terribly exposed.
"What do I do?" The whispered words were so quiet that for a moment, Bruce wasn't sure if Clark had heard him.
It was Clark's turn to be silent for a long moment. Bruce turned his chair slowly to face his friend, his bare face showing naked fear. Clark's sympathetic blue eyes met Bruce's pleading ones. Clark took two steps forward and reached past Bruce, plucking up the abandoned sandwich. He took a large bite.
"Trust me as both an alien and your friend when I say this," Clark chewed for a moment, then took another bite and spoke through a full mouth, a sardonic smile threatening to crack across his face. "Do better at being human. You're really shitty at it."
Chapter 15: Interlude: The Robin-sons
Trigger warning: abusive parenting
"... which has been receiving payments from the Silias Corporation. So as you can see, Le Papilion des Fous has been a laundering operation for the Penguin for at least the last six months." Damien preened. "Not even you caught that one!
Barely perceptibly, Bruce frowned.
Damien huffed in disapproval. Banned from the cave? Homework? Maths?!?
Bruce was working on something he wanted to keep hidden from Damien, that was the only explanation that fit the facts.
He waited until after Alfred brought him his tea and waited for the butler's soft steps to recede down the carpeted hallway. He gave his open workbooks a look of contempt, then grabbed his toolkit and tiptoed to the door. He scarcely breathed as he inched the door open, casting furtive glances down the hall. He crept down the corridor, dropping to a crouch and checking around the corner using a small mirror to check that the coast was clear.
On previous excursions he had scaled the exterior of the house, thinking to avoid running into Alfred in the hall. His plans had been foiled upon reentry; the security system had sounded the moment he'd touched the ground level windows. He'd learned that despite his instincts to the contrary, progress towards the concealed entrance to the Batcave was best done inside the house, even with the risk of running into Alfred.
Several minutes of darting among the shadows later, the clock loomed before him.
The grandfather clock guarding the entrance to the cave had layers upon layers of security measures, but knowing which ones to deactivate and which ones weren't worth the bother for a jaunt like this, that was what made him worthy to work at his Father's side. Damien stuck his chin out with pride at the thought.
He worked quickly, keeping an ear out for the approach of the aging butler. Quick as a wink, he had the security panel open, with several taps and blocks in place. He wiggled the final wire free of its housing and watched with satisfaction as the clock slid silently to the side, revealing an empty shaft. He had disabled the protocol that summoned the rickety elevator. It was too noisy for a stealth infiltration.
He quickly absailed down the shaft instead, silently letting out more line from his grappling hook. Prior experience had taught him it took three full spools to traverse the shaft, and he opted to leave the ropes dangling as he descended so that his return ascent could (hopefully) go unnoticed.
He paused on a beam as the metal frame of the elevator shaft descended into the open area of the cave. He felt carefully for the outcrop of rock that he knew would let him edge to the right and get him a better view of what Bruce was working on. The light of an arc welder was evident, but Bruce didn't often work on equipment requiring such a bulky tool. Not unless he was doing repairs or modifications to the Batmobile.
Damien frowned. The Batmobile's platform was free from the clutter that signified any such work.
He edged further along the ledge, fingers reaching for the deep crevice that would allow him to crane his neck and see around the bulk of Bruce's shoulder.
It was... A chair?
He wrinkled his nose in confusion.
It was THE chair.
His brows descended into the trademark Wayne scowl. Bruce was doing modifications to THE chair, and Damien wasn't supposed to see? Damn him, that was so... so... Ugh! He settled for rolling his eyes; searching for something to punch would give his position away.
He stared intently at Bruce, a frown on his face that unknowingly echoed the one he couldn't see below.
"No patrols?!" Damien couldn't believe his ears. "Are you serious?"
"When you learn to respect the boundaries I set for you, then I can trust that you won't go rogue the moment my back is turned." The words were peppery and harsh.
"But I saw you do it too!" He stabbed his finger in triumph as the blankness flitted across Bruce's face, only to be replaced a moment later by a scowl.
"I have much more experience with restraint, Damien. I know how far is too far, and you don't. You don't. Not yet. You still have Raz's teaching driving you to cross those lines!" Bruce tugged off the cape and cowl, tossing it roughly onto the mannequin in preparation for repairs. He began undoing the clasps on his belt.
"I do not! I only stabbed him a little, it's not like it was really going to hurt him!" Damien ripped off his mask and crumpled it in his fist. The sneer on his face communicated all the contempt he felt for the criminal they were discussing. "He'll be fine, unfortunately."
"Damn it, Damien! It's MY reputation on the line! You don't get to decide what lines we go near, cross, or are worth changing entirely!" Bruce's voice thundered with the tones of the Bat. His hands clenched around the utility belt, shaking visibly with anger.
Damien quailed, then redoubled the force of his returning glare. "I will NOT be sidelined because you're too busy being distracted to watch your back, old man! I stabbed him because he had the drop on you!"
The rage won out. With a mighty heave, Bruce threw the belt down at the ground. Several of the pouches burst, their contents of smoke grenades and ball bearings spilling across the floor. "This is MY operation, and you WILL respect it, or you WILL NOT be a part of it, is that understood?! For Fuck's sake, you can't -"
"Master Bruce, I think that's quite enough activity for one evening." Bruce whirled on Alfred, poised with a needle and thread. Alfred whose presence had been quite forgotten. Alfred whose eyes were gleaming quite dangerously just now. "Master Damien has a test tomorrow that he must be well rested for. Wash up, I will be right up with some tea, young master." Alfred's quiet voice brooked no argument. The fuming young boy stomped off towards the elevator.
Alfred waited silently as Bruce angrily removed the last layer of his suit, baring the ragged cuts that had been the result of tonight's patrol.
He worked in silence, swiftly knitting the damaged flesh together in tight, efficient stitches.
He washed his hands in the continued silence he had imposed on the proceedings.
It wasn't until he was climbing the stairs to the elevator that Alfred broke the silence and uttered the three scathing words that brought the building shame crashing down on Bruce's head, issued forth with disappointment, disdain, and chastisement.
"Really, Master Bruce?"
"Bruce is fucked up."
Dick looked at Tim and saw that the younger boy was nodding solemnly in agreement.
"None of us ever had it what I would call 'easy', but I was kind of hoping that Bruce would have learned by now that just because we've been mostly turning out alright," Dick felt a tingle on the back of his neck, like someone was glaring at him from the shadowy branches above. "...doesn't mean he doesn't need to learn to handle things better."
"Can Damien stay with you in the Haven?" Tim asked quietly. "Bruce isfucked up right now, and the kid keeps stumbling into every single button that Bruce has. Hasn't learned to fade away into the background yet when Bruce gets like this. Might be too 'Wayne' to ever really learn it."
Dick wrinkled his nose in response. "Might get tricky with the shifts I've been pulling at the precinct. If I suddenly stop showing up or ask for time off, it'll draw attention to us, maybe even to 'the Family'. The alternative is leaving him unsupervised and I don't think that's wise, given that... you know."
"He was raised by terrorists, is currently in the custody of a violent vigilante, and has trouble telling the two apart. Yeah, I'm aware," Tim grimaced. "I've been spending less time at the manor, but it's pretty obvious that that much hasn't changed."
The sons of Bruce Wayne sat in silence as they tried to come up with an alternate plan.
"Alfred is pretty mad," Tim said slowly. "Enough that I think he might need a break from watching Bruce self destruct..."
"You think he'd spring for a trip or something? He's a hell of a babysitter, but I don't think Damien will have much trouble in losing him if the mood strikes, which it always does."
"Maybe." Tim peered upwards at the deep recess of shadow above Dick. "Someone could watch him. We could take turns. Alfred does the day to day stuff, someone escorts him on Robin outings by night. If he's getting to go out on patrol regularly, he's less likely to act out."
"Tim, he's not a dog. You can't just 'solve' Damien Wayne like that. Besides, he's just as likely to slip away during the day. Who will watch him when Alfred turns his back?" Dick plucked at the blades of grass by his feet. He followed Tim's gaze up into the tree branches, then he turned back to look at his younger counterpart incredulously. "You're not serious."
Silence returned once more as they held their breaths.
"...Jason?" Dick put forth tentatively. "You're not, like, the best influence on the kid either, but you know what it's like to have Bruce coming down on you that hard. Can you watch the runt?
The shadows once again felt like they were glaring down at him.
"You wouldn't have to partner up with the kid, just keep him safe. From a distance. Or scout ahead and soften up any criminals before he gets there, or better yet, just lure him away entirely. You're the best person I know at making chasing people after ghosts..." Dick trailed off uncomfortably.
A leaf shook loose and floated down, spiraling in the light afternoon breeze, accompanied by what definitely sounded like a long string of cusses muttered in low, angry tones.
"I'm taking that as a yes. Damien needs this. Tim, you'll work out the details with Alfred? Tell him that staying in the 'Haven is an option, but wherever he chooses it should be in a city that Jason can get to easily."
A whole handful of leaves fluttered out of the tree this time, with a definitely audible, animal-themed invective.
"Oh come off it, Jason. Alfred already knows you're not dead. If he hasn't told Bruce where you are by now, he never will. It might be the difference between Alfred agreeing to this or not."
The branches rustled this time, as if someone was shifting their weight, preparing to leap into a neighbouring tree.
"I'll be discreet, I promise." Tim's voice was quiet, but firm. He nodded in satisfaction when the answer came.
"Fuck you guys. Fuck Bruce. I'll do it, but fuck you. You fucking owe me."
"Then it's settled," Dick clapped his hands together and rose smoothly to his feet. "Thanks, Jason."
"Sincerely, Dick: fuck you the most."
J'onn breathed in deeply, pulling the scent of his quarters to him. Clean and warm like sunbaked desert sand. After weeks spent deep undercover, it was a bit of a relief to smell the absence of human sweat, feces, urine, and fear.
He let his skeleton shift and become serpentine as he slithered his way under the sheets of the neatly made bed. He thrashed and writhed until the blankets formed a suffocating nest around him.
The blankets pressed in around his form felt like a comforting cocoon. After weeks spent without his familiar creature comforts, surrounded by the loud hustle and bustle of noisy human thoughts, this coziness was exactly what his soul needed before returning to the silence of self restraint.
The magnificent clock on his bedside was about to sound. J'onn could tell by the way the surge of electricity made his skin prickle. He let it go off, for perhaps the first time since he had received it.
He had been expecting a blaring klaxon, something to ensure he awoke efficiently and quickly. Bruce would not be the kind of person to dally around with all of that 'groggy' business when designing the alarm, surely.
The sound that came out of the clock was not a klaxon.
It was the sound of a quiet cafe, somewhere in France judging by the lilting accents he could barely make out.
J'onn rolled over and faced the clock, letting the sounds of muffled conversation roll over him. He reached out a hand instead of his mind to shut off the clock, then set the alarm to go off in another minute.
This time the clock came alive with the sound of a Chinese marketplace, the counterpoint of Mandarin and Cantonese playing off of each other like a chaotic ballet of speech.
Again he reset the alarm.
Russian drinking song in a bar.
The boisterous sounds of a Carnivale parade.
Again. Again, again, again.
The watery sounds of an Atlantean lullaby, quiet and eerie as it caught on an underwater current. A bazaar with vendors haggling at breakneck speed over the price of spices and carpets. The creaking of an old fishing boat with sailors in the middle of hauling in a catch. A game of football being played by a group of youths chattering away in Swahili.
Every time the alarm went off, it brought him the sounds of Earth's people. The sounds of togetherness and community.
The soft humming of a man's baritone, with the sound of scribbling and shifting of papers in the background. The tune was faint, but J'onn knew it instantly. Blue Moon. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra or Mel Tormé... It didn't usually matter who sang it. But this...
J'onn let the alarm keep playing as he lay nestled amongst the sheets, humming along softly to the barely audible strains of his new favourite song.
The humming came to an end, and the alarm clicked off.
J'onn was loath to stir from his blanket nest. His heart hurt.
Superman had pinged him discreetly the day before to confirm that he would be returning to active duty, to which he had reluctantly agreed. He had several hours yet until his shift started at the watchdesk. Several hours in which to be utterly bewildered.
He was positive that the song choice was not coincidental. It was a song about finding love within your grasp.
He was equally as positive that Bruce had rejected his overtures for any kind of relationship beyond 'colleague'.
He wondered if he had been meant to hear the various 'alarms' within the clock months ago as Bruce's own attempt to express interest. Bruce would have thought it safe to assume J'onn had heard and ... it was possible that Bruce perceived that he had been rejected by John's lack of reaction, and had overcome his feelings for J'onn by the time J'onn had made his move.
J'onn hugged the blankets tighter to himself.
If the miscommunication regarding the clock, its alarms, and whether J'onn had heard them was indeed what had happened, Bruce's reluctance to hold his hand and his subsequent abrupt departure made perfect sense. The initial surprise might have brought memories of those feelings to the surface, but after several minutes, Bruce had remembered himself and disentangled his hand as swiftly and politely as he could.
J'onn felt his eyes start to burn. If he was in a more human form, he might cry, but in his Martian skin it was more likely that he would bore into his pillows with lasers. He shut his eyes tight and tried to suppress the turmoil inside him.
On the other hand... What if Bruce, being the nosey detective that he was, had some kind of system that let him see when a particular alarm sound had been used? He would see that J'onn had not listened to... any of them. Would he think the clock wasn't being used at all?
...Leading back to the perceived rejection.
J'onn burrowed his head into the pillows in frustration.
What if Bruce uploaded new alarms all the time? From what J'onn could tell, there were no duplicates, so the idea was plausible. It would be easy enough for Bruce to add more sounds all the time, in which case it would be impossible to tell when he had actually uploaded it...
J'onn felt his head start to spin. These types of thoughts were only dredging up the pain he had been running from while he was undercover. This simply would not do. He shifted forms quickly and moved towards the door. He was still settling into the public shape of J'onn Jonnz when the doors slid open, such was his haste to leave his quarters.
Several hours to kill, and a restless body to try and sedate until then. Perhaps the library? No. He would hardly be able to focus on the page without burning holes into it. Equipment room? He had none to maintain, and working on anything as delicate as his teammates' equipment would be unwise in his current mental state. A short jaunt to the planet's surface or to the moon seemed unwise, given how hard it already was to return to work. Gaining that distance would only make it harder.
Aimless walking? Sparring?
He was just debating between the two when he realized that his chosen path would take him past the observation deck. He sighed and decided to poke his head in, on the miniscule off chance that Bruce was there. Habits were hard to break, especially when he couldn't shake the feeling that talking to Bruce would set everything straight.
He descended the small flight of steps and turned to the small table that was at the root of his heartache -
- and found it empty.
Not just empty, but blank. Unblemished. Unscarred, unbroken. The table with his handprint had been replaced.
He felt a burden lift from his shoulders even as his heart grew heavier. That answered that: Bruce had moved on.
J'onn nodded to himself absently as he felt his body sink further into his Martian trueform; it was a lot harder to feel the thudding sensation of heartache if your body lacked a centralized heart. His skin became scaly - tough like flint this time, not calfskin. He allowed his heavy brow to protrude further and the bones of his face to become more prominent. These changes made it easier to mask any emotions that might catch him off guard as he moved through his duties around the tower. His co-workers needed to believe him a rock, especially after all of his recent time away from them.
He walked back out of the observation deck, looking for all the world like his heart wasn't breaking, even though that was a lie.
Bruce stared at the pulsing dot. It lay nestled at the center of a holographic rendering of the Watchtower's blueprints. There were many other dots, each signifying the communicators that every Justice League member wore, but this one was J'onn.
J'onn was home.
He had been staring at the dot for hours and it still didn't feel real. He had keyed up the security footage from the monitor room, but looking at J'onn's beautiful face had been too much after going so long without it. The pulsing dot had been his compromise.
Bruce ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. The manor above him felt so empty without Alfred keeping a quiet vigil over it, though he couldn't blame the man for hustling Damien away to Bludhaven. He'd had far too much uninterrupted brooding time as a result and now he felt himself terrified at the prospect of seeing J'onn again. Especially now that he was aware of how badly he had botched things.
After several more seconds of knee-bouncing anxiety, he slid his phone out of his pocket and dialed Clark.
"Walk me through it again," he demanded gruffly, his voice thick with emotion.
"Bruce?" came the sleepy reply. "It's three in the morning. I've got an early flight to catch. Do we have to do this now?"
"He's only got another three hours left on his shift, I need to get this right. I'll only get one shot at this."
There was some muttered swearing from Clark's end of the conversation. "It's really simple. You walk up to him, tell him that you fucked up, that you were wrong to make the assumptions you did, and that you're sorry. That will be difficult for you, given your track record... maybe even impossible, frankly. But you need to be the one to take that step, since you're the one who acted like a giant dense-headed tool."
"I don't know if I can do that."
Clark groaned. "Oh my God, Bruce. You're the only adult I know who can't admit when he was in the wrong. Even Hal is better at this than you are."
Bruce felt himself bristling. "Hal Jordan is not-"
"-the reason why you're calling, I know. We'll fix that relationship too someday, maybe. Look, this thing with J'onn, you can't just slap a billionaire solution on it; no amount of money will make it okay. Bringing flowers might help though."
"I'd say flowers and jewellery, but that's only from my experience with Lois. It only got me so far, but it's the gesture of sacrifice that counts. Money isn't ever a sacrifice for you, so you'll need to go a different route."
"Bruce, I'm far too sleepy to be the verbose one right now. Go say you're sorry and tell me tomorrow how it went. Goodnight."
The line went dead.
Bruce sat back in his chair and resigned himself to tracing the outline of J'onn's handprint on the armrest. He considered going out on patrol, but he knew that he would be too distracted to get anything effective done, plus there was always the likelihood that something would come up that would keep him in the field longer than anticipated. It was too big a risk to take.
On the other hand, waiting was torture.
He brought up the security footage again and took in the details of J'onn's serene face. It was more foreign than usual, the alien traits played up. It was beautiful.
With an extra burst of effort, he shoved himself away from the console. Sitting around simply wouldn't do. He spun on his heel and marched quickly to the transporter.
He convinced himself for as long as he could that the tingling sensation in his fingers was an after effect from the transporter, but as the hallways stretched before him and the tingling sensation grew stronger instead of weaker, that explanation seemed less likely. It was when the cowl started to feel suffocating again that he recognized the first whispers of panic.
He swore inwardly. There was a Tower technician at the end of the hall who might become alarmed if Batman suddenly started sprinting towards him, plus there were other considerations. He pulled his cape tighter around him and gritted his teeth as he forced himself to keep his stride even. He settled for glowering at the tech when he passed. The man quailed under the force of it, filling Bruce with a fleeting sense of satisfaction.
The doors of his destination slid open silently before him, revealing the monitor room and its many, many screens, consoles, and the last scion of Mars.
J'onn's head was half turned, observing him out of the corner of his eye. Bruce took a nervous step into the room and stood hesitantly while the doors slid shut behind him. Alone with J'onn Jonnz. He suppressed the urge to run forward and... he didn't know exactly what, but he knew it involved touching J'onn.
"Greetings Batman," J'onn offered after a moment had passed.
Bruce felt his voice seize up in his throat. He nodded numbly, cursing his body for betraying him at this crucial moment. He flexed his fingers, hoping that increased bloodflow would get the tingling sensation to stop. One problem at a time.
J'onn raised an eyebrow at Bruce's silence. "You may sit, though nothing much is happening on the monitors at present." He gestured at the various seats around the room, but Bruce only nodded and remained where he was, clenching and unclenching his fingers.
"Suit yourself." J'onn shrugged and turned back to his screens.
Bruce felt a bark of laughter escape from the tangled mess of his vocal chords. It was an odd, strangled thing, barely recognizable for what it was. He felt his face flush with heat as J'onn turned to stare at him.
"What," the Martian enunciated slowly, "Was that?"
Bruce took a deep breath as his fingers fumbled with the clasp at his throat. "Irony, I suppose." When the clasp popped free he tugged off the cowl and let the whole ensemble fall to the floor. J'onn tilted his head, though his face remained unreadable.
Bruce Wayne was in the monitor room.
Not Batman in the batsuit, not Brucie in a business suit, but Bruce Wayne in a cableknit sweater, slacks, and loafers. His hair was a bit mussed up from the cowl, and his face was flushed an uncharacteristic pink. It was the most exposed Bruce Wayne had ever been.
While struggling to find the words he had come to say, Bruce carded his fingers through his hair, trying to tame it once more.
"You were gone," he began unsteadily.
J'onn nodded slowly at this factual assertion.
"Working on my case, I think?"
J'onn gave a half shrug.
"I was... disappointed." Bruce was studying J'onn's face for any hint of reaction, but any telltale emotions that may have existed in those glowing red eyes where hidden under that heavy brow. He forged on. "I wanted to work the case... together... but then you were gone."
"My apologies if I did not handle the case how you would have preferred." J'onn's intonation was dry and clipped.
"No, that's not..." Bruce shut his eyes as Clark's advice came drifting up out of his memory. When offering an apology, it is considered ill form to tell the other party that they were wrong. "You handled the case beautifully from start to finish. That's not what I'm.. I wanted to work alongside you... and I missed out."
J'onn's stare was hard, unwavering. Indecipherable.
"I... missed you," Bruce tried again. J'onn had stopped moving, which made Bruce overly conscious of his own movements. His chest probably looked like it was heaving, and his hands were awkward and clumsy. What did he normally do with his hands? For that matter, why did his legs feel like jelly? He poured his will into his knees, forbidding them from buckling.
"You were the one who left."
J'onn's quiet assertion stabbed Bruce right through the viscera of his heart.
"I... it took... some things were explained to me," No, no, no. It was all starting to unravel. His hands started to shake. "I thought you knew. That you were listening. Feeling."
J'onn was silent.
"I had a panic attack." Bruce felt his flush renew itself as he made the humiliating confession.
J'onn was silent for a moment as he considered, then nodded. "Because I'm an alien," he said, resigned.
"No!" Bruce started to take a step forward, then stopped himself. "Because having... any kind of connection is... I'm not good at..." He took a deep breath. "I'm not good at the human stuff, is what Clark tells me. That includes having feelings of any kind. Or assuming that someone I do have feelings for knows how I feel even if I've never said I have them in the first place. I assumed that you'd been using your abilities to read my thoughts and emotions and it wasn't until after you left... it was made clear to me that... you... hadn't."
J'onn was either stunned into silence or uncaring, but Bruce decided to proceed to the hardest part of his endeavor here, regardless.
"I'm sorry, J'onn." The shaking was making him weave unsteadily on his feet now, and his shirt clung to the sweat that was springing up across his skin. His heart was hammering in his ears and his eyes prickled painfully, but he refused to tear them away from the silent green statue in front of him.
J'onn was staring down at his hands where they lay motionless on his lap. His red eyes were cloaked in shadows. His face was a stony mask. Bruce couldn't tell one way or the other how J'onn was reacting. He felt an anguish rising up from his belly that he had been ignoring for weeks. Had J'onn's feelings changed?
"If you could... say something..." Bruce struggled to get the words past the stranglehold his anxiety had on his windpipe. "If it's too little too late, I understand. It's just... I had to..."
J'onn slowly stood from his chair. He turned to the console and entered several key strokes then turned to face Bruce again, somewhat ponderously. He took a slow step forward, and then another. With each step, it seemed to Bruce as though J'onn's face was changing. The hardened scales softened, the heavy brow receded, those high cheekbones settled back into his face, and the emotions that had been hidden beneath rose to the surface. The face J'onn wore when he stopped in front of Bruce was torn between sadness and relief.
A green hand stretched forward to trace the shape of Bruce's jaw with a touch as light as the summer breeze. J'onn's words were murmured gently and reassuringly:
"For you, it would never be too late."
J'onn's finger was crackling with sensation. It was taking in so much sensory data as to be almost painful. The stubble on Bruce's face, the tiny beads of sweat on his skin, even the size of his pores - his body was racing to take in as much of Bruce as possible.
His breath stuttered as the wave of information hit him. He made to pull his hand away, but Bruce's hand was suddenly there, holding it fast.
Bruce pressed J'onn's hand to his cheek and held it there, trembling slightly as he fought to control his breathing. J'onn closed his eyes as the next flood crashed against his senses. Out of his nine senses, six were currently going haywire. They did not quiet down any when Bruce pressed J'onn's hand to his lips, crushing a soft slow kiss on the skin there.
J'onn felt his heart skip a beat as he opened his eyes to see Bruce's face so close to his own, looking up at him. Batman had so much iron will and presence, he often forgot that Bruce was almost a foot shorter than him. The sight of those crisp blue eyes tugged at his heart. Instead of hidden behind opaque lenses, they were locked on his own.
Bruce. Here without armor of any kind. Dressed in clothing that wasn't meant to conceal vulnerability. Trembling from the anxiety that had once driven them apart. Cherishing the way J'onn's hand felt against his face. Waiting for J'onn.
J'onn felt his heart melting, getting pulled into those blue eyes. He felt about to burst.
He swept his free arm around Bruce's shoulders and pulled him in close. He buried his face into Bruce's tousled black hair as Bruce tucked his own face against J'onn's chest, J'onn's hand still pressed against his lips. He felt Bruce's other hand snake around his waist and felt the gentle tug that brought their hips closer together.
Breathing in the smell of Bruce, hearing his pulse bound through his body, the warmth of his flesh pressed in close against his own... this was heaven.
He could die happy here, like this.
"J'onn," he felt rather than heard the quiet rumble of Bruce's voice against his chest. "You have to breathe."
It had been some minutes since he had last drawn in air, it was true. He had stilled every cell in his body in the hopes that if he didn't move, then nothing about this moment would end.
"You don't know that," he murmured back. He could survive the depths of space without air, and tended to use the human mechanics of breathing to set his compatriots at ease. At present, his body was currently in complete metabolic stasis, and even he was unsure how long he could survive like that.
"Please don't make me test that theory," Bruce muttered. J'onn felt Bruce's hand clutch tighter at his back.
Reluctantly, he started up all of his cells again.
Another rumble from Bruce. J'onn could guess what the question was about.
"I turned the cameras off before I crossed the room. We can loop the footage from before you entered to overwrite the tapes later, if you wish." He tentatively ran his fingers up to the nape of Bruce's neck and was rewarded with a shiver from the man's body. Instinctively, he let his body morph slightly to more closely follow the contours of Bruce's muscles. He felt a rumble of contentedness from Bruce.
When Bruce pulled his head away from J'onn's chest, J'onn felt a pang of sorrow.
"What is it?" He asked with gentle concern. Those clear blue eyes were searching his face again.
"Why didn't your abilities pick up on..." Bruce shrugged one shoulder in reference to himself.
J'onn felt the smile creep onto his face as he watched Bruce struggle to communicate with actual words. One did not often witness Bruce Wayne struggling to be eloquent. Batman was an economical speaker at best, while the public persona of 'Brucie' was a smooth talking powerhouse businessman. Bruce talking about feelings was something new altogether.
He gently brushed a knuckle across Bruce's cheek as he pondered his reply. "Among colleagues I do not actively try to pry. A person does not like to find out that their private thoughts have been found out by another."
"But you still pick up on people's emotions all the time. I've seen it happen when you're around Fire," Bruce insisted.
"Beatrice is a good example of someone who holds nothing back. She lets her emotions broadcast freely. She is very... undisciplined, and so I cannot help but 'read' her." He smiled gently at Bruce. "Others spend a great deal of time schooling themselves to keep a mask on their feelings so as not to interfere with their work... such discipline makes it much easier for me to maintain boundaries."
Bruce was quiet for a moment. "And now?"
J'onn continued to trace the contours of Bruce's cheek, marvelling at how a non shapeshifter could manage to be so beautiful.
"Touching you... has made me aware of a great deal more," J'onn cocked his head as he listened to the electricity humming throughout Bruce's body. "But I will not cross the mental boundary unless you want me to."
"Why not?" Bruce seemed genuinely incredulous at the idea of turning down further intel.
"Being inside your mind, sharing experiences, sensations, thoughts with you?" J'onn leaned in closer, his lips brushing the skin of Bruce's cheek. "I am not certain I could bear to ever stop. Seems to me the kind of thing you ask permission for."
"Just when I think I can't... appreciate you any more," Bruce said as he braced his forehead against J'onn's neck. "How am I supposed to resist something like that?"
"I continue to be hopeful that you won't."
A screen began flashing on one of the consoles. Even as both men turned to look, three more monitors flared to life. A screen displaying a transparent 3D rendering of the globe showed the alerts coming in from multiple countries. J'onn gave Bruce's shoulders a rueful squeeze, then stepped quickly back to his seat at the monitor desk.
J'onn pulled up the maps and checked. "No."
"Good." Bruce threw himself into one of the other seats at the console, fingers already flying across the keyboard. "Wasn't ready to leave."
"Star City. Midway City. Keystone, Hub, Fawcett, and Coast cities," J'onn enunciated clearly, carefully checking that he had not missed any of the blips that had flared to life even while he was speaking. "Metropolis. All blacked out on the map. Blackouts are rolling outwards from each epicenter into the surrounding towns and countrysides."
For each city that had a hero calling it their home, he hit the flashing button that would bring them racing for the briefing room. If they were currently off duty at home, their feet would already be on the ground, potentially in the midst of things, already capable of feeding back intel.
He turned to Bruce, whose bare face had already lapsed into a deep contemplative frown.
"Gotham is-" J'onn began.
"Suspiciously absent," Bruce finished. "The major cities all across the country, each one with some kind of emergency. Except mine."
"Ploy to draw out the heroes?" J'onn theorized as his fingers flew across the screens and keyboards arrayed around him. He grew an extra set of arms and a second set of eyes on stalks so that he could better keep pace with the flood of information.
"Quite likely, yes."
"And Batman's city was left out because..."
"Batman is notoriously concerned with Gotham above all else. The paranoia that something is about to strike his city would keep him on alert or draw him home from abroad anyway," Bruce spoke of his alter ego in the third person, drawing a moment's glance from J'onn. "Whoever orchestrated this may also count on the various local villains to capitalize on the opportunity anyway, making it a needless expenditure of resources."
J'onn was sure that if Bruce's hands were not occupied with pulling up background data on the cities that had been hit, they would be drumming an anxious rhythm against the console. Whoever had predicted Batman's behaviour certainly knew who they were dealing with.
"Bludhaven is also unaffected as of yet," J'onn stated.
Bruce nodded. "The whole team has been trained by Batman, it stands to reason that they would exhibit similar reactions to crises elsewhere. Again, not far off the mark. Damien is in Bludhaven with Dick and Alfred, They should be fine to handle whatever comes up with Alfred running local ops. I'll call Tim and Cassandra, get them on duty, get Oracle into the loop if she isn't already." He sighed. "This is why I built a team, right? So I wouldn't have to go racing home if I'm needed elsewhere?"
His question sounded rhetorical, except for the brief upward lilt at the end. J'onn got the distinct impression that Bruce was asking for permission not to race home.
"It was a prudent decision, at the core of why the League was formed, too." J'onn made sure that his tone lacked even a shred of doubt. Bruce's head needed to remain in the game, at the desk. Bruce nodded and seemed to calm visibly.
J'onn frowned at the row of comm channel lights. They were all still dark.
"Still no word from anyone on the ground," J'onn frowned as he sent out a querying ping to the communicators of all League members. Only half came back with any kind of response, and most of those were on the space station. "Communications are affected by a dampening field perhaps?"
"Not as such," Bruce completed his frenzied keystrokes then brought up several readouts onto the screen. "These are the last reports sent from Star and Midway powerstations. Steady output from the generators, then a sudden spike in both places, then nothing. Looks like coordinated power surges overloaded the systems."
"EMPs. Someone wants to delay response time or hide their true activities."
"My thoughts exactly," Bruce nodded. A small distracted part of J'onn's brain was intrigued to notice that 'Bruce' used body language as part of his communication. Batman was, by contrast, a granite statue whose sole aim in life was conservation of movement. J'onn shushed this part of his mind fruitlessly. "Anything else we can include in the initial debrief?"
"Not until I'm done going through the rest of the energy logs to see if there were any deviations," Bruce shook his head. "We have no idea what the source could be or what services are affected."
J'onn nodded. "Did you want to be present for the debrief? It could boost morale to see Batman at the helm for a fiasco on this scale."
A momentary flash of indignation shot across Bruce's features. "It should boost morale to see the Martian Manhunter running the show. What the fuck is wrong with -" he cut himself off, took a deep breath and continued more calmly. "With all of the times you've been behind the desk during a thousand different crises, you'd think that people would realize what invaluable skills you bring to the table."
"People may think of me as a gifted coordinator, but my entire persona is not crafted around striking fear into the hearts of my enemies," J'onn offered soothingly. "Leaguers like to know that for every scary opponent we face, we can match them with an Icon of Terror of our own. It is the exact reason that we could use Batman playing General while we are against an as of yet Unknown Enemy. With few exceptions, Leaguers are all delightfully human in this regard, and such gestures regularly boost efficiency and productivity by a significant margin."
Bruce chafed visibly, but relented. He scooped his cape off the floor and draped it around his shoulders, tugging it forward to conceal his civilian clothes. With a nod at J'onn he pulled up the cowl.
"Let's debrief," Batman growled.
J'onn allowed himself a thrum of appreciation before he rose and followed the Batman to the briefing room. All of the heroes on duty were crammed in around the far end of the table, the head of which was left respectfully vacant. Batman claimed the seat at the end, which left J'onn with the seat at his right.
"Quiet." Bruce growled at the noisome murmurs of those assembled. Instantly a hush fell over the room. He waited a moment before continuing, then turned slightly towards J'onn, a sign that he should begin.
"Something or someone is hitting major cities across the country. We do not know how, we do not know why. We do not yet know what is even happening on the ground, despite the fact that many of our off-duty capes are theoretically at ground zero. This is where we stand." He held up a green skinned hand as murmurs began, silencing them once more.
Batman spoke. "As far as we can tell, each city has been hit with an EMP pulse, or a series of EMP pulses, overloading power grids and knocking out communications. Even to the handheld, League-issued devices. Generators across the cities haven't kicked in yet either. We have effectively been returned to the Dark Ages, people."
J'onn nodded and took back over. "It is the perfect recipe for pandemonium. If your home city has been affected, assume that that is where you will be headed shortly. We need eyes on the ground, and heads in the game. If your city has been unaffected thus far, you will be assigned to supplement the hero presence in another city for the time being."
"We don't yet know if the blackouts were a one time occurrence or if they will be a continuing aspect as we work through this problem," Batman picked up smoothly. "Be prepared to lose communications as soon as you enter each blackout zone, or that any tech you bring with you may stop working at any time. Martian Manhunter and I will coordinate from the Watchtower, keep tracks of things via satellite, if all else fails."
"To aid with communications, I will set up a telepathic network, but given the number of us who will be linked in at once, please keep the chatter to a minimum. I will do my best to act as a switchboard and direct thoughts appropriately as well as help you keep your private thoughts private, but consider that the line between all of you will effectively be 'open'. Anything said with intent to be shared will be shared amongst all."
Batman stared resolutely down the center of the table towards the gathered heroes. "The coordination involved in this attack makes it seem likely that it is trying to stretch our resources thin. Do not abuse the resources that we do have. For now, continental Europe and Asia remain unaffected, but we can't assume that this will remain the case. Be prepared to redeploy." He rose. "Get out there. Get eyes on this thing."
J'onn remained seated until the last of the assembled heroes left the room.
"You are displeased," J'onn guessed.
Batman jutted his jaw stubbornly as he brought up the holographic projection of the globe that floated over the center of the table.
"Batman..." J'onn began, then restarted. "Bruce. I am not blind or stupid. You do not like that I am establishing the telepathic link. It is a service I have provided before, and is perfectly reasonable to do in this situation. Why do you take issue with this?"
Batman squinted behind his lenses as he zoomed in on a glowing spot on the map.
"Bruce. Stop hiding behind Batman and tell me. Why do you take issue with my actions?"
The muscles in Bruce's jaw clenched visibly.
Hesitantly, Bruce reached up and tugged the cowl back, revealing mussed up hair and downcast eyes. When he spoke, the growl in his voice broke. "We're in a dangerous line of work, and we're sending people into unknown danger. People you're connected to, have connected with before. Logistically, it makes sense for you to provide the link but..." he looked away. "The h'ronma'ki... people are going to die."
J'onn took a moment to mentally link Wonder Woman with a contingent of heroes out of Hub City, then returned his focus to his conversation with Bruce. "How good then, that this time, should such a thing come to pass, I will not be alone."
Bruce looked up, somewhat startled.
"If people die, it will be a mere handful compared to an entire species. I will not be wandering an empty, barren planet. I will have people around me, who can help me shoulder the burden or console me when I despair." He hesitated. "I have you."
Bruce looked pained, as though the distance between them was unbearable. His hand seemed to twitch, as if it could close the gap, but Bruce remained where he was. J'onn felt that same pull, but likewise remained apart. Duty called, after all.
"Now. Shall I bring you into the link?"
Bruce pulled the cowl back up, then nodded once sharply.
J'onn offered a small smile, then brought Batman into the fold.
Bruce felt a small tingle in his mind. It felt like he'd breathed in a mote of light and it had nestled in the folds of his grey matter. He could visualize the way that this small point of awareness connected him to the dozens of heroes who had been present at the meeting. It had been some time since he had been directly linked in to the network of minds that J'onn could create, and it had never been this crowded before.
As he let the waves of other people's thoughts wash over him, he couldn't help but feel like a small part of a greater whole. None of the thoughts battered at his consciousness, but they were available to be noticed if he wished to do so. He wondered if this was even remotely anything like what the Great Mind of Mars had been. How many voices had floated in and out of the minds of Martians as they went about their daily lives? No secrets, not in a place as free flowing as a communal telepathic link.
No lies. No security. No privacy.
Bruce felt the tightness constrict his chest. The familiar feeling was back, and it began to choke out his breathing. He reached out to steady himself and found not the hard unyielding surface of the briefing room table, but the firm, sculpted forearm of a Martian. J'onn stood patiently in front of Bruce, providing a physical anchor as Bruce's mind spun dizzyingly.
His mind felt a small tugging, a careful extrication of his tangled thoughts from the jumble of the others. He had the sense that he was being plucked up and set down elsewhere. The noisome thoughts of the others vanished.
He suddenly felt aware of being very, very alone.
He had hated the background clamor of the others the moment he had felt it, but now the silence in his mind was distressing. He frowned, perturbed. He had only been connected to them for seconds before their connection had been severed, yet it had shaken him profoundly. What had J'onn gone through when his entire planet had vanished from the Great Mind after a lifetime of exposure?
A calming presence in his mind was accompanied by shades of green swirling through the eddies of his thoughts. He sighed, looking gratefully at J'onn.
Not so alone.
Bruce eased his grip on the Martian's forearm. "You'll act as a relay then?"
《Of course.》The thought tickled inside of Bruce's skull. J'onn gathered Bruce's hands, gave a gentle squeeze, then returned his hands to the keyboards at the console. Bruce could feel the way J'onn's mind was being pulled in several directions as he monitored the communication of the other League Members while simultaneously accruing and organizing more data on the crisis happening on the planet far below them.
《Outages everywhere. Cities in disarray. Hospitals losing patients at an alarming rate as life support machines fail. Operating theaters are especially problematic. Light and equipment failure cannot be corrected without disrupting sterile environment. Many deaths expected as a result,》J'onn reported.
《Forcefield generator capes might help? Keep bacteria at bay while outside power or light sources are brought in?》 Bruce suggested. He was pleasantly surprised at how quickly he could communicate the thought when he didn't have to rely on his tongue. He was able to relay his ideas half through words and half through an unspoken feeling of intent. He could feel the way J'onn did a sort of mental turn to pass it on to the heroes who could bring those sorts of skills to bear. 《It won't save everyone, but it will help here and there, maybe.》
Bruce turned his attention back to combing through the data from the power plants. Same thing, again and again. Power surge, failure. Power surge, blackout. Power surge...
His mind locked on with razor focus, sending a burst of that feeling Jonn's way. 《Keystone City. Who did we send?》
J'onn's attention was like a whip through his mind. Precise. Crackling with vital force. He felt the way J'onn was peering through his memories just as quickly as Bruce was forming them, effectively seeing through his eyes. The force of J'onn's concentrated presence lasted for no longer than a second, maybe two, and then it abated as J'onn retreated to a less intrusive mental distance.
Bruce felt breathless from the rush J'onn's presence had brought. In the few times he'd been involved in a mental link with the Martian during missions, it had never felt like that. He had a growing awareness of just how gentle J'onn was with the minds of his friends.
"Sorry," J'onn murmured aloud.
"No, that was..." Bruce's instinct to reassure trailed off as he floundered for the right words. He turned back to his work instead. He'd find the words later, or maybe never.
"We sent the Flash," J'onn returned to the previous thread of conversation. "Perhaps it is for the best; no one else can cover ground as quickly as he can. All that's left is to explore the anomaly you uncovered as best we can."
"And coordinate the others." Bruce looked at Jonn's green forehead meaningfully. He didn't expect Jonn's short clipped laughter in response. Bruce quirked an eyebrow, bemused. "What?"
"I had an unexpected thought about how while I manage the others, you will do your best to manage me. An unwieldy task for one who shies from the mental presence of a telepath, would you not agree?"
The good humor was so at odds with their current circumstance, Bruce felt a small tug at the corner of his mouth. Had it been anyone else in the League, he would have snapped sharply about wasting time, using his imposing aura to enforce a solemn and efficient silence. Even as J'onn offered an explanation for his laughter, Bruce could see a hint of something far away in his eyes, as the Martian pivoted mentally between several groups of superheroes and crises, multitasking with a careless ease.
"It's not that," Bruce protested. "Any foreign sensation takes time to get used to. It's not native to me." And maybe the reason he had been so overwhelmed this time had something to do with his recent, likely still ongoing panic attack. He chose not to mention that part aloud.
"Other humans do not seem to mind so much," J'onn quipped as he grew yet another set of arms, simply to stretch while his other limbs continued flying across the consoles. He folded them back into himself as soon as the moment of langour was sated.
"I just need practice," Bruce insisted. He was paging through some technical reports on the power plant in Keystone City when he felt a bubble of mental laughter from J'onn, a proverbial tickle across his mind. Teasing. A promise of intent to 'practice'.
"Stop that," he murmured. "I can't multitask like you can with... that going on yet."
《Yet.》 The tone of Jonn's thought was pleased and hopeful, before it withdrew to leave Bruce alone with his thoughts once more.
A light on the communications board blinked on. Bruce's hand snapped out to activate it.
"Vixen here, looks like there's no chance of getting electronics back online. Had to time this betw-" and the transmission cut out.
《Ugh. Between blackouts. Only had a couple of seconds as the wave worked its way over the city again. Tried to stay ahead of it, but that's not going to be an option. Met a wave of blackouts coming back the other way. We're dead in the water, tech-wise, 》Vixen's thought finished inside Bruce's skull. Bruce nodded in acknowledgement to J'onn, and was aware of Vixen's thoughts being separated from his own once more.
J'onn raised an eyebrow as Bruce checked sensor logs of all the comm devices in Vixen's area.
"Rolling EMPs confirmed. Let the teams know that until the sources of the EMPs are found, none of this is going to get better," Bruce grimaced. He tried and failed not to think of the mounting dead as life support services continued to he unavailable. He grit his teeth. "Whatever bastard set this up..."
Bruce looked up to see a hard expression on J'onn's face. "Deaths already, I take it?" He asked quietly.
Bruce shot a quick look at his screens, mentally bookmarking his place, then laid a hand on J'onn's shoulder. He felt one of J'onn's four arms slide around his waist and pull him close while the other three busily continued their work. He was just debating planting a consoling kiss on J'onn's shoulder when his mind was suddenly snapped up and placed into the middle of an ongoing conversation.
《It's Grundy.》 Came the thought-voice of the Flash. 《SHIT. He's... Augh! It's Grundy!》
《What do you mean, Flash?》 J'onn's voice was authoritarian, efficient.
《Grundy! He's absorbing it all!》
《Absorbing what, electricity?》Bruce asked, with a sinking feeling.
《No you don't get what... EVERYTHING. Every kind of energy we've thrown at him so far. Shit. Even my kinetic energy. I can't get close to him at more than a light jog. I thought Grundy was just supposed to do.. UNNFHh fuck fuck FUCK that was close. Isn't he just supposed to be about magic or something?》
Bruce felt a twinge of despair. He had known this sort of day was coming. 《With the right blend of magic, just about any horror imaginable is possible. Is he mobile?》
《He's not looking to boogie anywhere so far, mostly taking swats at me.》
《Keep that up while we figure something out. Try and keep a safe distance if you can. We'll direct backup your way. Anything you try, whether it works or fails, relay it back to J'onn.》
《Aye aye, Batman.》
Again Bruce felt that feeling of being plucked up and set down, the quietness returning to his mind. He felt drained.
"Grundy's never shown any signs of altering himself in any meaningful way. So someone turned Grundy into an energy... black hole?"
"It would seem that way. Or perhaps he has found some new purpose that has expanded his abilities."
They lapsed into ponderous silence. Bruce hesitated before asking the next, most obvious thought.
"Do you think that the Nth mace..."
"I suspect whoever resurrected Grundy this time may have planned for Shayera's mace."
Bruce sighed. "Alright. Let's get the short list of magic users willing or capable of doing something like this." After a pause he added: "or the sufficiently technologically advanced..."
"... who are indistinguishable from magic," J'onn finished.
"Shit." Bruce sighed.
And then she screamed again. And again and again and again. Her throat was raw, but the fate of this city was at stake.
J'onn whispered into her mind, gently. 《Progress?》
《Slow. Batman's catch was a good one, but these things are encased in several layers of... everything. Have to use a brute force approach to even get at them.》She sighed and rubbed her throat despairingly.
《But not so much brute force that the supports down there collapse.》
Dinah groaned at J'onn. 《You don't need to remind me. I have a vested interested in not being buried alive.》
Batman's determined sifting through data had revealed that more than one EMP device was housed in each city. The pulses were staggered, so that as one of the devices expended their charge, at least two more were ready to go for the next moment that the power grid attempted to assert itself.
Locating the devices themselves had required careful triangulation work, and even that wasn't as specific as Dinah would like. Whoever had planted the devices in this city had hidden them during sewer construction, tossing the devices into disused side tunnels, which had then been filled with concrete. Concrete mixed with several lead alloys and debris to foil x-ray vision or metal detection. Scans for electronic components had turned up... Dinah glanced down at her feet to see the littered remains of old cell phones and broken televisions... everything. Someone had wanted to delay the search crews.
Somewhere in this anonymous block of concrete, an EMP device lay beeping.
She screamed with her power again to destabilize the concrete, then hit the loosened rubble with a crowbar. She coughed as the cement dust rose around her. She could feel the way the fine dust was lining her nose, congealing in her throat, but she couldn't delay her mission in the hopes that backup would get here. Other League members were dealing with other hidden devices, each one bringing their own powers to bear. People were dying in hospitals as equipment continued to fail, were trapped in car accidents waiting for search and rescue teams to coordinate and find them, were panicking as calls to loved ones failed to be an option.
She'd worry about the concrete in her lungs later.
Dinah grimly pressed on past the point where her throat was bleeding, past where her arms were leaden with exhaustion, and her legs were threatening to buckle beneath her. When the small device was finally shaken loose from the debris, the air was so thick with dust that she almost didn't see it. She picked it up and staggered back down the tunnel with the heavy box. It hummed against her chest.
She faltered when she finally hit fresh air. Breathing hurt. The sturdy device fell from her hands and clattered to the pavement. Its solid housing still had some cement clinging to it. There were no obvious entry points or blinking lights, but the sleek, compact design left no room for doubt - this was what she had been looking for.
《J'onn? This thing was fine being buried in concrete and smashed with rubble as I dug it out. I don't exactly have super strength. Ideas?》
《Perhaps a sustained shriek would damage its internals?》
《I screamed the whole time I was digging it out. How would that make a difference? I think the housing is resistant, unless I crank my power to a dangerous level and collapse this whole street to get past it.》
《You pose an interesting point. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the devices were buried in cement. It might be that they require the cool environment that the cement provides. Sensitive electronics often malfunction in warmer weather. An application of intense heat might prove effective.》
Dinah looked around. Not far from her, a small cluster of onlookers had gathered. She was far from her hometown of Gotham, and the sight of her long, be-stockinged legs was drawing more than the usual amount of stares, even if she was coated in a thick patina of cement dust. The crowd was divided evenly between worried people hoping she was a superhero who could help, and people who were relishing a visual distraction from their troubles.
But where there was a crowd...
"Hey," Dinah called as she strode toward them. "Anyone here smoke?" Her voice was hoarse, but it carried to the clustered onlookers. For a moment she was worried she had happened upon the only crowd of people who paid attention to the surgeon general's warnings on cigarette packages. Then she spotted the lit cigarette dangling from the lips of a greasy looking, sallow faced man. She looked at him pointedly. He raised his hand slowly. Others soon followed suit.
"I need your lighters, matches, whatever you've got." She extended a hand towards the sallow man. He glowered for a moment then fished out a clear lighter, mostly empty of lighter fluid. "Good. Anyone else?"
There was a sudden rush of people realizing they could assist a superhero and momentarily erase their feelings of helplessness. Her hands were soon full of an assortment of lighters and matchbooks. She smiled gratefully then returned with her cargo to the small humming box and deposited the pile on the ground.
One by one, she placed the lighters on the box, then crushed them beneath the heel of her steel tipped stiletto. Bless these shoes, they were occasionally good for something. A small puddle of butane grew amid the shards of ruined plastic. The people watching were growing antsy, displeased with the destruction of their possessions and with how slow the work was. Dinah flipped open matchbooks and slid open matchboxes. She kept the emptiest one for herself, but ensured the rest got doused in the butane as best she could.
"Here goes nothing," she mused, then struck three matches from the pack in her hand and dropped them onto the messy pile she had created. It ignited in a bright flare, the stiff paper of the matchbooks quickly being consumed by the small blaze. When it died down enough so that she could look at it again, the exterior of the box was glowing just slightly. Enough to give her an in?
She stabbed down into the flames with her crowbar, now retrieved from where she had dropped it. The casing bent, then with a slight whuff, parted. The remaining dregs of lighter fluid and matchbooks pooled into the gap, bringing the flames into the inner workings of the device. In another 30 seconds, the molten slag of the EMP device was already cooling. Dinah exhaled the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding.
《Got it. Last one in this city, I think?》
《There is one more, but it is presently being dealt with.》
《Hope they get it before the next blackout cycle starts, hm?》
《Indeed. There are many lives dependent upon the power returning to working order.》
Dinah thought she could detect a pained note in J'onn's thoughts. She made up her mind in a flash.
《I'm tapping out. There isn't anything else I can do here. Systems will be back on soon and to be frank, I'm beat. You probably need a break or company, right? You've been at this for a couple days now. I'll head back to the Tower and we can sit down for a cup of tea and cookies, okay?》
The thought cut itself short in what Dinah deemed to be a highly suspicious manner.
《Batman could probably use a break forced upon him too.》
《I'm already on my way.》
《There's really no stopping me, J'onn. Now, where is the nearest pad?》
A resigned sigh made itself felt over the telepathic link.
《Two streets over, broken phone booth. No cord. Punch in your code three times, then press pound.》
《I miss retinal scanners,》 Dinah groaned.
《They were problematic for the discreet teleport pads in the field. Too many swollen eye sockets and detached retinas.》
《Damn brutes, ruining it for the rest of us. Oh well. See you soon.》
All she felt inside her head was the sense of being begrudgingly nodded at. She shrugged and started walking, crowbar in tow.
"You need sleep."
Bruce's spine was no longer ramrod straight, J'onn noticed. The cowl was pushed back, and J'onn could see that the stubble on his chin was hedging remarkably close to becoming an actual beard. The bags under Bruce's eyes were overshadowed by the bloodshot streaks of red that lanced through the whites of his eyes.
It was either the end of the third day or the beginning of the fourth. Bruce had not slept. J'onn did not require sleep. His mind was invigorated from the sensation of having so many minds plugged into a mental connection for so many days. He rarely needed genuine sleep; his cursory nightly meditation could be foregone in situations such as these, relying on the connection of minds to sustain him.
J'onn approached quietly and rested a hand on the data pad that Bruce was about to reach for. Bruce's reactionary glare was somewhat undercut by the bleariness in his gaze.
"Black Canary is on her way here. It would not do to have her see you in this exhausted state."
"I'm fine," Bruce growled.
"Your eyes are so red that you look positively Martian. That is not, by definition, fine."
"Looks fine on you."
"Martian," J'onn pointed at himself. Then he pointed at Bruce. "Terran."
Bruce looked away. J'onn felt lost for a moment, then lightly brushed against Bruce's mind to pick up the trail of his thoughts.
"Ah. Shayera's mace. It continues to trouble you."
"It's still missing. Grundy is down there destroying a city while we're up here searching for a stick and the bird that hits things with it."
J'onn allowed the faintest tug of a smile to twitch at his lips.
"You need sleep," he repeated. "I will take over the search for Shayera while you rest."
They had a brief contest of wills, which ended when the system logged Black Canary as having entered the Watchtower. Bruce sighed and rose wearily, pulling up the cowl in a long-practiced gesture. He exited the room as J'onn settled himself in front of the vast array of information that Bruce had so carefully constructed. They had foregone the physical contact that would have delayed the parting, in favour of continuous exchanges via the mindlink.
It was a short while later that Dinah entered the situation room. J'onn half turned from the console to greet her. She had showered and changed since teleporting up. Her hair still hung in damp strands over her shoulders, and her stilettos had been replaced with a more comfortable pair of dainty combat flats. She carried two thermoses, one with jasmine tea for him and (it only took him a moment to place the smell of the other) a peach tea with honey and lemon in it for herself.
He watched as she frowned and clearly struggled to remember which thermos was which before he gently reached over and plucked the jasmine tea from her hand.
"Cheater," she grumbled. " You shouldn't use your super senses for these kinds of things."
"On the contrary. There is a higher degree of probability that you do not use your regular senses as much as you ought." He hid a small smile as he turned back to the console. He held up a finger as she started to protest, then gestured to where her hairline dipped towards her temple. "Missed a spot."
She whipped out her phone's camera in mirror mode and examined the smudge of concrete dust she had missed. "Aw hell. I feel like I'm never going to get it all."
"Perhaps if you opened your eyes when you looked for it..." he smiled warmly as she chucked him gently on the arm.
"Bloody hell, what is all this?" Dinah sat down in the seat next to him and peered at the information cascading across the screens in front of J'onn.
"Everyone. Everything we were able to track down regarding the power failures, the funds required to recover in each city, the rising death tolls, the secondary mini-crises, and of course, all the information we have ever acquired about Solomon Grundy."
"Mini-crises? ... nevermind, I can figure that one out. At least one of the city's hit had a nuclear reactor. Captain Atom was helping with that one that was starting to lose containment, from what I heard. Where's ol' Bird Face, and why can't the Grand Traitor be prevailed upon to help us this time?"
J'onn felt pained at hearing Dinah so casually abuse Shayera, but allowed that humans were liable to take her former double agent status more personally than he, and with far less inclination towards forgiveness. He stayed silent for a moment or two before responding.
"She was staying with Doctor Fate, but we have been thus far unable to contact either of them. Fate does not usually ignore us unless he is attending to something grave, or is prevented from doing so by some spell at work. Zatanna has said that she will open up a connection to his pocket dimension for me, but she was injured while providing a distraction for Green Lantern as he retreated from one of Grundy's attacks. She has been recovering in the infirmary, but escaping with her life quite exhausted her magic stores for the time being."
"That's... rough. How are things in Keystone?"
"Not good. The blackouts there were not from EMP devices, but from Grundy absorbing the energy, hence the drop in power instead of a surge like elsewhere, as you can see by this handy visual aid in the corner of that screen there."
"Absorbing, not just resilient? But why isn't he continually absorbing energy then?"
"He is, actually. In his immediate vicinity, anything above a certain power threshold is absorbed by Grundy, making him more difficult to deal with than usual. Flash cannot move above a normal run, Fire reverts to her human form, John's lantern constructs dissolve, and so on."
"Oh my god," Dinah raised a hand to her mouth in dawning horror. "How do we even fight that? No powers, magic hasn't really ever been good, he's immune to basically every physical attack to start with..."
"Flash observed some kind of external device that someone seems to have grafted onto Grundy's skeleton. It would seem that whenever the city's power grid attempts to reassert itself, the device flashes, and then all power sources, magical or electrical, suffer as the energy is literally ripped from them and redirected into Grundy's flesh. Flash says that the colours are very pretty whenever this happens."
"Forgive my lack of battlefield coordination, but how is knowing about the device on his back helpful if we can't hit him with anything?"
J'onn shrugged. "It gives us something to aim for while we try to find Shayera."
"This seems..." she snapped her fingers several times as she tried to recall a very particular bit of information. "What's another word for hopeless?"
"I believe your phone has a dictionary resource equipped with a thesaurus if you are greatly inclined to pursue this topic of discussion."
She snorted and returned to sipping her tea.
J'onn found it easy to converse with Dinah, her presence was comforting, comiserating and understanding. Some in their business had gallows humour bordering on the obscene. Dinah tended to be more upbeat yet remained pleasantly grounded, even while offering grim quips. Her humour seemed to match his more often than not, and she seemed to pick up on his expressions and shifts in mood more easily than most. Her company was refreshing in a way he did not often encounter when talking with other Leaguers.
His banter with Dinah took place even while he steered Captain Atom to another nuclear site hitting a critical point, and The Atom towards the current Grundy battlefield. He harboured hopes that Atom might get close enough to see how the device on Grundy's spine was constructed, or at least provide some very good theories on how to interrupt its functions. He checked in with the relief teams who were fresh off of a six hour sleep, and alerted heroes who were tired or injured that they could start extracting themselves from the fight. He checked with Wonder Woman, to see if she needed a break. She didn't. He sent some moral support to Superman, who had been literally putting out fires all day. He checked in on Bruce, to make sure his exhausted mind was settling down to sleep, and to brush a mental kiss against his thoughts if he wasn't, and...
He froze. Just for a moment.
And then he resumed smiling at Dinah, and checking on the team, and paging through the known ways that he might attract the attention of Dr. Fate, and all of things that needed his attention because there were lives at stake and they couldn't afford him being distracted by...
He couldn't look directly at what he had heard. It was too...
Humans weren't accustomed to sharing their thoughts. They didn't know...
J'onn had heard the private, half formed thoughts of pre-sleep. The thoughts that Bruce had been thinking to himself as his mind wandered. Those drifting, rambling thoughts that people suppressed or kept in check during the day. Bruce didn't know...
J'onn had done it without thinking, as he had used to do on Mars with his mate. It had been careless. The pain he felt now was his own fault. Because Bruce was a Terran. Because Bruce had never been involved with a telepath before. Because Bruce didn't know that J'onn was listening.
Dinah put her cup down and cocked her head in concern.
"J'onn, what just happened?"
"Ah... it was a... personal matter. Not the time for it. There is a crisis that requires our attention." Even as he spoke, he subtly shifted his physiology. It was partially unintentional. He wanted nothing more than to crawl under a rock and retreat into himself. He could settle for a hardened exterior and a face that betrayed none of the pain he was feeling.
Dinah pursed her lips.
He offered Dinah a small, apologetic smile.
"I am perhaps more tired than I thought, that is all." The lie came smoothly to his lips. He stood and turned his back on Dinah with a pang of guilt, pretending to be absorbed by a screen on the far end of the console. "It is time for you to go, I think."
She rose slowly from her seat, and halted, clearly jarred by the sudden change in J'onn's demeanour. She chewed her lip uncertainly. With a long step, she closed the distance between them. He felt her arms encircle his midsection in an awkward but fierce hug, her face buried into the cape that hung down his back. He felt himself go rigid in the grip of the unanticipated embrace.
"If you ever want to talk," her voice was muffled by the fabric. "Just fucking find me, okay?"
She ended the hug just as abruptly as she had begun it, then quietly picked up her tea and left.
J'onn turned and stared ponderously at the doors after they had closed behind her, Bruce's overheard thoughts echoing inside of his head.
《...Can't tell if I'm distracted. Can't afford it. Am I missing something because of... wonder if he could... should find out if he can block my memories temporarily. Keep feelings for downtime. Should be on the ground... Am I missing a piece that being there would help me see? If I'm putting him ahead of the mission... disaster. Shouldn't risk it. Remember to ask. Memories need to go in a box for later...》
Bruce drifted slowly awake, shedding the confines of anxiety tinged slumber. He stretched as he took in the spartan quarters he maintained on the Watchtower. The small room was bare of any ornamentation, save for two costume stands currently draped in his Batman regalia and a small set of drawers. He knew that the top drawer held a training ghi, the bottom one contained two sets of looser fitting training clothes. The middle drawer he habitually left empty, though it currently contained a cable knit sweater, a pair of slacks, and a pair of worn loafers.
He hated to admit it, but four hours of sleep had been just what he needed, even if his body still felt as though it were stretched taut as a wire.
He mentally cast about for the faint touch of J'onn's mind but couldn't detect the Martian's psychic presence lurking anywhere nearby. He was surprised once more to find that the absence distressed him.
He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and rolled to a sitting position, his feet hitting the floor. The floor had a built in heating system, so it was soothingly warm. He wiggled his toes against it for a moment, appreciating whoever had suggested the heating system. He suspected it was himself and took the appropriate amount of time to congratulate himself accordingly.
With a heave, he rose to his feet and moved to the small bathroom attached to his quarters with a light step. Once commited to being awake, he tended to embrace it fully. He sped through his shower and the rest of his daily ablutions. He was glad thaf the steam from the shower had fogged up the mirror, sparing him the sight of his scarred and aging body.
He hated acknowledging his mortality. It bothered him, more than he would ever admit aloud, that many of the Justice League's membership were rendered invulnerable to the effects of time as a side effect of their powers. They stayed young and invincible, while he aged and broke. He hurried from the bathroom, eager to don the costume that served as a barrier against frailty, a symbol that was a bulwark against time itself.
He paused, towel wrapped around his waist, in front of the two costume stands. One held a complete Batsuit; it was his habit to always have a spare on hand in the Watchtower, in case a mission damaged his suit. The other stand held just a cape and cowl, the one he had brought up just before the crisis hit. He chided himself for planning ahead so poorly, but in the end, it had been worth it.
His mind wandered as he went through the rote actions of donning the skintight body suit that the rest of his armour slotted onto. His thoughts drifted over the topics he had been considering as he fell asleep, playing back to himself the ideas he had come up with: A new approach to fighting Grundy that he could suggest to whoever was on the ground now; More considerations in regards to what Grundy was an obvious distraction away from; Things that he could try with some of the tools he had down in the Batcave...
Bruce frowned. Something about that last thought held a note of concern and he wasn't sure why.
As he clicked the last piece of armour into place, he again reached out with his mind. Damn his lack of innate telepathic abilities. J'onn must still expect him to be asleep and wasn't looking for him yet.
He heaved a sigh and let the persona of The Bat settle into his bones. He swept out the door and down the corridor, prowling down the hallways, stalking the path back to the War Room. He knew it was silly to adhere to pretenses in moments like these, but he found that after so many years of perfecting his dual life, the weight of the cape was all it took to trigger an automatic change in behaviour. He wasn't about to undo all his work just because no one worth scaring was watching.
His cloak flared satisfyingly as he rounded the corner. The room was much as he left it, though more information filled the screens than before. J'onn had grown four extra arms and two extra eyes to accommodate the extra tasks that came with manning the room alone. J'onn gave Bruce a brief nod, then launched into an update.
"All EMP devices have been destroyed. Casualties have fallen within estimated bounds. Currently patching through emergency services where I can while ground teams restore cell towers and transformers. Grundy is still being kept at bay by delay and containment tactics. No one has engaged him directly while you were asleep. He seems content to mindlessly destroy whatever is in front of him, with no particular aims or discernable goals. I fear that much of Keystone City will be lost. Evacuations of outlying areas have been our priority."
Bruce was mildly surprised that J'onn had spoken aloud. It would have been much quicker to convey via the mindlink.
"How is Zatana?" He asked. "Is she ready to try contacting Dr. Fate?"
"Just about. Allow me to finish routing these last few calls and we can meet her in the training room."
Bruce resisted the urge to nod and moved to a console, scrolling through some of the newly acquired data. He winced at the death toll counters, noting that the numbers fell within estimates that were calculated to involve faulty equipment or shoddy worksmanship. There were more deaths than necessary because some politician somewhere had decided that precautions designed to save lives were a waste of budget money. He clenched his jaw in anger at how the pattern was repeated over and over again in city after city.
J'onn's extra appendages folded into his body as he turned to Bruce. "I am ready. Various teams Earthside have taken over the vital tasks. Let us go."
Bruce fell into step beside the tall green Martian, their strides matched despite their height difference. The high collar of J'onn's blue cloak hid much of his profile from Bruce. The face he had begun to learn to read seemed closed off and distant today, and he couldn't fathom why.
"It would have been quicker to have her meet us in the monitor room," Bruce commented, noting how the continued silence from J'onn's mind was disconcerting.
"Perhaps, though if some malicious force is at work, protecting the monitor room by opening a channel elsewhere seems a wise measure, meager as it may be," J'onn replied stiffly. He paused before adding, "The walk also gives me an opportunity I would not otherwise take during a crisis to speak with you about personal matters."
Bruce was silent as they entered the lift. He waited, his arm grazing J'onn's as they stood side by side in the enclosed space.
"Go on," he ventured cautiously, when J'onn seemed to be waiting for permission to continue.
"There were certain rules of etiquette among my people, certain requests that were never made, because of the nature of our abilities. Certain things were never asked, because it was deemed too cruel, too painful to carry out."
Bruce turned his head towards J'onn, even though he knew his opaque lenses concealed the confusion that he felt.
"You are not familiar with such boundaries, because you do not have these abilities yourself. Even though you have spent years honing your body and training your mind, you are not disciplined in knowing which questions you must never ask of me, which thoughts you must never allow yourself to even think. Your resourceful nature demands that you consider every option. It is what makes you formidable, but it has resulted in a very painful situation for me. I needed to discuss this with you before I heard the request out loud from your lips and felt my heart break within my chest. This could not be put off."
Alarm lanced through Bruce's body.
"J'onn, what on Earth-"
The Martian raised a hand to cut him off as they stepped out of the lift.
"Over the last several days we fell into the habit of speaking mind to mind while in the monitor room. It caused me to be forgetful of your customary privacy..." J'onn slowed his steps as he faltered.
"And?" Bruce felt fear grip his throat even as he fought back indignation. He had expressed a desire to keep the link between them open. What could have happened to make J'onn feel as though he had violated Bruce's privacy despite that?
"As you fell asleep, you forgot that I might be listening," J'onn confessed in a tone so obviously miserable that Bruce felt an ache deep inside of himself.
He racked his brains for what thought might have crossed Martian ethical boundaries, but the anxiety was causing his memories to blur and become indistinct.
He was about to open his mouth to reply, when he found that they had reached the training room door. He felt torn. The mission came first, but his heart was racing and his partner was hurting, and he just wanted it all to go away so they could focus on the crisis at hand...
With a sudden burst of clarity, he knew which thought J'onn had heard.
"J'onn, I..." Bruce's hand twitched, but remained at his side.
"Bruce, you must never ask that of me. We can discuss why later, but if you ask me to rearrange your mind so that you do not recall your feelings for me, I will not be able to bear it." J'onn turned a hard look on Bruce. "I would rather be set on fire."
And then J'onn was moving through the doorway, and Batman automatically followed after.
As he led the way into the training room, J'onn felt the subtle shift of Bruce's attitude from concerned lover into the brusque personality of The Bat.
Zatanna was waiting in the middle of the sparring area, talking conversationally with Black Canary. He noted that both women wore high heels and fishnet stockings on legs that seemed to stretch on forever, but the similarities ended there. Zatanna's raven locks swept down her back and were kept tidily in place with a rakish tophat, whereas Canary's bareheaded blonde curls were allowed to roam freely across her shoulders. Canary stood with a confidence that came from the certainty of being able to dominate people physically in close quarters, while Zatanna's stance seemed to suggest an ability to evade and stay forever out of reach. Canary's revealing bustier and distracting décolletage were meant to draw the eye, while Zatanna's high collared shirt and fitted coattails were meant to deceive and beguile. They led the beholder to believe that Zatanna was a mere magician who relied on conventional tricks and gadgetry, that there was a limit to the fantastical effects that she could produce.
In truth, Zatanna was a powerful magic user who hid in plain sight. Her magic wand was a cheap prop, and her stage shows always awed and amazed using a blend of the usual paraphernalia and her natural talents, without giving away the game. She used very real, very potent magic, but her audiences were none the wiser, and the deception allowed her a certain measure of freedom in her civilian life that few other League members could match.
She smiled disarmingly at the pair as soon as they entered, straightening her bowtie reflexively. J'onn noticed the way her eyes flitted to Batman several times, lingering on his body for the briefest of moments. He understood; Batman had that effect on people.
"I was just saying to Canary here that I haven't tried contacting Nabu yet, since I wanted to save energy," Zatanna said. J'onn could tell by the way she was gingerly moving her left arm that she was still sporting some injuries from her brush with Grundy.
"Will you have difficulty establishing a connection to another dimension? Perhaps you require an item to attune your focus?" J'onn asked.
Zatanna smiled sadly and shook her head. "I believe I have all the attunement I'll need to fuel the spell." Black Canary reached out and touched the young woman's back lightly. J'onn was surprised by the gesture of comfort; had he missed something? It was strange to see such supplications offered between superheroes while they were in costume. He longed to brush Canary's mind with a tendril of questioning, but he did not want to breach her mental privacy for something as banal as his own curiosity.
The young magician raised her arms with small wince, took a deep breath to steady herself, then enunciated in tones laced with otherworldly echoes: "Uban htiw kaeps su tel!"
Crackles of power leapt from her finger tips and coalesced into a swirling mass in front of her. The center seemed to ripple and deepen, as if a hole was being poked in the very fabric of reality. In moments, the swirling around the edges slowed, and the expanse across the center smoothed. An image of a sitting room appeared, richly appointed in deep hues of purple and mahogany. A man in a golden helmet sat lapsed in deep thought. When the image reached its clearest point, his head turned towards the magical window.
"Hi dad," Zatanna smiled weakly. Her left hand dipped and wavered before she gave up and dropped it to her side, choosing to leave only one hand raised for the maintenance of the spell.
"It is Nabu and not your father to whom you speak, child," Dr. Fate stated firmly. "The wording of your spell must have made it clear, even to you." The rich tones of the sorcerer sounded as though he were in the room with them. Canary moved surreptitiously closer and laced her fingers through Zatanna's, who clenched her hand tightly in response.
"Fate, why haven't you answered our calls?" Batman spoke harshly, overriding whatever sensitive scene was unfolding between the two magic users. "We've been dealing with -"
"I am aware, Batman," The authoritative tone cut him off. J'onn could see by the way Batman's jaw clenched that he was not taking it well. Nabu, as a timeless continuing consciousness dwelling in a host body, tended not to think much of the feelings of mortals. He was undoubtedly powerful, but lacked the empathy required to allow for other egos in the room, and Batman's ego tended to elbow others roughly when bumped. The sorceror continued: "There is a spell across your plane that prevents me from acting upon it. It is thin, but specifically designed to keep me from being able to open a gateway of any kind."
J'onn felt alarm at this. "Is Shayera still with you?"
Fate nodded and raised his hand. A glimmer of light shot from it, and moments later, the winged form of the disgraced Thanagarian entered the picture. Her steps forward were hesitant, and she clutched one arm with shoulders slumped in a gesture of defeat that plucked at J'onn's heartstrings.
"What do you want?" Came her voice, a flat monotone laced with despair.
"It's Grundy. He's back, and something has been done to -" Batman was again cut off.
"No." She looked away.
"People are dying. We can't stop him." The anger in Batman's gruff voice was clear.
"Neither can I," she said quietly.
"You have your mace. We don't. It's the only thing that can stop him." When this didn't produce the desired effect, Batman jabbed an accusatory finger towards the projected image. "You owe us this!"
Shayera buried her face in her hands. When next her voice came, it was in a broken whisper. "I can't keep killing Grundy."
Batman was about to say something more when J'onn caught his eye and gave a slight shake of his head. He stepped forward and very gently said, "You do not have to be the one to do it."
Shayera looked up, then. Her face was gaunt and haunted.
"She wouldn't be able to anyways," Fate spoke up. "My pocket dimension is effectively cut off; I'm afraid that Zatanna does not have the power to open the necessary gateway to permit Shayera's departure without my assistance, and the barrier spell ensures that I cannot provide any such aid."
J'onn felt a tremor of despair. Their last source of hope was denied them.
Canary's brow furrowed. "Isn't it harder to open a portal for living things than it is for objects?"
"Yes," said Zatanna and Fate simultaneously.
"So... what about the mace? Is there a way for Zatanna to open a portal to that, or does the barrier spell prevent that too?"
Nabu was silent, before answering thoughtfully. "It could work. Zatanna, do you feel that you could arrange a connection to a portal you can see? It would bypass the limitations of the spell staying my hand."
"Y...yes," Zatanna stammered. "But I think I'd only be able to keep it open for a little bit. Energy isn't at full strength right now."
Nabu turned to the crestfallen form of Shayera. "It is your decision, Shayera. Do they have permission to use your mace?"
She nodded numbly and then shuffled out of sight, feathered wings drooping. J'onn's heart went out to her. She needed time to find her own way, but he had long hoped that when she did, she would find herself back with the League. Only time would tell.
"Zatanna, you will want to not touch the mace to the sides of the portal. It would be disastrous," Fate said calmly.
He rose and made a gesture with one hand very clearly for Zatanna's benefit, then repeated it while pointing to a spot in full sight of the trans-dimensional window. Space seemed to blacken and tear as a hole was punched through the reality of Fate's pocket dimension. A brilliant light shone forth as the hole widened. Fate seemed to stare intently into the hole, a finger raised to indicate that Zatanna should wait. He dropped it when he deemed something unknown to J'onn to be proficient. "Now."
Zatanna bit her lip.
"Zatanna?" Fate turned to face her again, irritation creeping into his deep voice.
"Tell... let dad know I love him?" Her voice was meek. Rather than wait for an unfavorable response to her question, she repeated the gesture with her left hand that Fate had made earlier and cried out her spell. "Latrop wodniw ym nihtiw ees nac i latrop rellams eht otni hcaer lliw dnah ym!"
The air around Zatanna's left hand shimmered as she plunged it forward, disappearing through a hazy patch of air in front of her. A hiss of pain escaped between her teeth as her injured arm strained against the weight of something unseen in her hand.
J'onn's eyes darted to the view of Dr. Fate's parlour. A flash of light emanated from the tear in reality, and then the whole view disappeared with a sudden snap. With alarm, he turned to check that Zatanna was okay, that the disastrous consequence that Fate had hinted at had not come to pass.
Zatanna was sagged against Black Canary, Shayera's mace clutched loosely in her left hand. It began to slip from her weakened grip. Before it hit the floor, Canary grabbed it and heaved it towards Batman. He caught it and weighed it experimentally.
Knowing that Batman had already mentally moved on, J'onn murmured his thanks to Zatanna and nodded thankfully at Black Canary. Her wisdom in being present for the endeavor was painfully evident, and he was mildly ashamed for not having thought to invite her himself.
Canary slung Zatanna's arm around her shoulders and supported the younger woman's weight with an arm around her waist.
"You did good, Z." Canary murmured. "Let's get you back to your bed so you can rest up, okay?"
"Yeah... okay," Zatanna sighed wearily, her body slouched with exhaustion. The pair moved towards the door. Canary shot an exasperated look at Batman, then exited the room.
Batman was paying no heed to the emotional scene that had just unfolded before him. Typical. But also necessary. Grundy had been wreaking havoc for days. He needed to be stopped, and now they had the tool to do it. He swung the mace through the air to get accustomed to the heft of the unfamiliar weapon, then began to move through a series of combat maneuvers to get a feel for how it limited his movements.
J'onn could feel the way the Nth metal moved through the air, could taste the strangeness of it as the mace arced around Batman with a weight and density that seemed at odds with its size.
"Ready?" He asked.
Batman finished his aerial leap with a downward swing of the mace, then stood straight.
"Yep. Stick to the plan."
"And you are absolutely sure you want to be the one to bring him down? Your suit will not be affected by the energy sink?"
"I am, and it won't. Or rather, it will, but I doubt I'll need comms or infrared in the 5 minutes I'll be fighting him."
He paused, and then pulled back his cowl. The softer eyes of Bruce, not The Bat, openly searched J'onn's face.
"I crossed a line earlier, I get that. And... and I want to talk it through with you. I do. I want to have the time for it, but right now we can't get distracted, need to stay focused. Is knowing that we will talk about it enough to have you back up here for the mission?" He tapped his forehead meaningfully.
J'onn's heart raced. He wanted to touch Bruce's cheek, feel his skin, tangle his fingers in that mussed up hair. He wanted to hold Bruce close. The nerves in his arms were screaming at him to let them enfold that beautiful man in a hug so tight that they could never be separated.
But there was no time for that. The job came first, for both of them. He had been in the same room as Bruce for days and had barely touched him. They had spent how much time before that in close proximity but not together? He wasn't sure he was ready to launch the man he cared for at Grundy without so much as a...
The answer to that aching need was simple, really.
He pulled Bruce forward and planted a soft kiss on Bruce's lips, opening the link between their minds once more in the same instant. He felt an answering echo of need and want, a desperate desire for more time.
He broke off the kiss before he could lose himself completely and straightened to his full height, brushing a knuckle against the cheek of the man whose beautiful face was looking up at him, flooded with a mixture of relief and longing.
《Back to work,》 J'onn whispered into Bruce's mind.
Even as his knuckle finished the path it was tracing across Bruce's cheekbone, J'onn saw the change of expression as Bruce shifted personas. That soft, open face hardened, the beautiful blue eyes became ice. J'onn dropped his hand and watched as the cowl was settled back into place.
《Back to work.》 Batman agreed.
Since I did something a little different with characters who may be unfamiliar, just going to cover a couple things:
It's canon that Dr. Fate cannot act against or interrupt any magic spell currently in motion. His consciousness resides in his golden helmet, though he requires a host body to be able to wield his magic (and therefore prefers to be hosted by a magic user).
I adapted the story of Dr. Fate, Zatara, and Zatanna from an episode of Young Justice.
Nabu/Dr. Fate agreed to possess Zatara, Zatanna's dad, as a compromise for giving up Zatanna's body. There is a lot of sorrow in that particular storyline, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to touch on it.
Technically, the timeline of YJ doesn't quite mesh with JLU. Zatanna is a teen in YJ but in JLU she is much older, closer to Bruce's age, and it's hinted at that they dated briefly. In this story I picture her to be in her early to mid twenties, while Bruce is somewhere in his 30s, and that possible-fling never happened (though Zatanna would totally hit that).
It's amazing what you can do with fanfic, hm?
Bruce gripped J'onn's wrists tighter. He couldn't readjust his grip without risking a fall to the ground far below, but the unfamiliar weight of the Nth mace clipped to his belt was tugging at him disconcertingly.
《Need to shift. Feel like I'm slipping.》
J'onn didn't look down in response to the thought, but Bruce could feel the answering grip on his own wrists tighten. He was keenly aware of the way J'onn's fingers grew longer and inch their way down Bruce's gauntleted forearms, like vines creeping with peculiar intelligence. The remarkable strength of J'onns green flesh soon had him securely gripped all the way up to the elbows.
《Shift as needed, we are almost in position. I will not drop you.》
《Strictly speaking, if you don't drop me, you're fired.》
《I will not drop you, yet,》J'onn amended.
Bruce smiled grimly as he peered downwards.
《He can't turn off gravity, right?》
《Not in a meaningful way, no.》
《The field around Grundy only strips away the exceptional external forces. Magic cannot contain him; transformations are reverted; Flash cannot use the speedforce; and so on. Bullets still hit him, but then, bullets have never concerned him greatly. As for your vector of approach: Batman plummeting unaided from above will have nothing exceptional to halt in its tracks, but the kinetic force of your landing has the potential to be rerouted and dissipated into the surrounding environs.》
Bruce considered a retort but checked the inpulse. He thought of the mace at his hip. 《What odds do you place on the Nth metal cutting through that field the way we think it will?》
《Good ones,》 came the terse reply.
《Are you just saying that so you'll feel better about dropping me?》
《Perhaps. I would prefer not to agree to a plan involving my partner plummeting to the ground from two hundred feet up, but it is the best plan we have.》
《Speaking of,》 Bruce mused. He trained his eyes on the ground. 《Shouldn't I have been dropped by now?》
《Just waiting for the distraction team... ah yes, there they go.》
There was a flash of light far below, and a moment later Bruce felt a blast of air buffet against his dangling body.
Being ferried about by fliers was always a strange experience. His mind rebelled at the idea that someone floating in the air could be relied on as any kind of anchor point. He could feel the way they were rocked by the wind, the same as he was. Being this far off the ground only exaggerated that sense of unease, that awareness of how he was putting his faith in thermals instead of his grappling hook.
He had never considered that hovering in place was infinitely worse than flying.
He was dangling. There was no elegant or threatening way to dangle. There was no sense of movement, other than the way his cape kept threatening to tangle around his feet instead of streaming behind him. He felt the way his body had become a heavy, slow swinging pendulum with each gust. He longed to press the hidden button that would snap his cape into the rigid wing shape that would allow him to glide effortlessly, a modicum of control and dignity restored to him.
But the timing needed to be just right.
He needed to use the wings to angle his downward journey. If Grundy sent out the EMP pulse as Bruce was falling, the cape would lose its shape, and he might fall to his death, or at the very least, a lengthy hospital stay.
So he dangled and waited.
He did not have to wait long.
The flash of energy was all wrong. It crackled with all the colours of the spectrum. Purples and reds intertwined with the silvery blue of lightning, streaked with lines of inky black. A sickly green hue was left in its wake as all of the energy in the area was ripped out of everything and funneled towards Grundy, who roared incoherently with rage. For a brief moment, all of the heroes were staggered. The strange light seemed to crackle over Grundy's skin, and then disappeared.
《That was...》 J'onn sounded shocked, even through the link.
《Intense.》 Bruce agreed, stunned. He rallied quickly. 《It's time.》
The grip on his wrists and elbows vanished, and for a moment he felt weightless. His stomach did a brief somersault, then settled. He curled his legs, leaned forward so he could reorient and control his dive, then straightened.
The wind that whipped past him as he shot towards the earth threatened to tear the breath out of his lungs. He'd done bigger dives before, but that didn't stop the flood of adrenaline that surged through his veins. Good. He would need that.
Grundy had been corralled. Buildings had been felled somewhat strategically, penning him in. As was so often the case, people, even undead ones like Grundy, failed to look directly up. Positioning had been key, as had been waiting out that energy pulse. The tired defending heroes now set up a containment perimeter, moving into position only so they could support Batman in case something went wrong with the plan.
Batman unhooked the mace from his belt, looped its strap around his wrist, and let the weight of it lead his dive. His target hadn't noticed him and was just starting a series of jumps to ascend out of the rubble crater. There was a moment as he crossed the threshold of Grundy's nullification aura where Bruce thought he felt something clutch at the mace, pulling him faster towards the zombie. Only a moment, until the humming of the mace's handle made him realize that the mace was absorbing the malign magic with hunger. It was encouraging his speed because it was greedy for the fuel that kept Grundy alive.
With a burst of clarity, he understood the terrible power that Shayera had been carrying on her hip all these years. The mace was exceptionally adept at disrupting and destroying magic because that was what the metal wanted to do. It was alive, in a sense. It was alive just enough to be murderous.
On the ground, Grundy heard the crackling of the mace as it ate through the aura surrounding him and snapped his head toward the sound. He snarled and crouched in preparation to leap away, to move out of Batman's path, or maybe to meet Batman's descent with a powerful counter-strike of his own. Grundy's muscles were swollen, as though he'd taken Bane Venom, to the point that his skin was tearing just a tad faster than his regeneration could keep up with. The energy that was being siphoned into his body was also leaking out of the cracks, giving him a haunting otherworldly presence. Bruce, somewhere in the back of his mind, was spooked.
Grundy bellowed. A gout of plasma accompanied the sound as though he were a dragon spitting fire.
Bruce grit his teeth.
With effort, he pulled out of the steep dive by flaring his cape momentarily, swooping as he raised the mace over his head in a two handed grip. Grundy's fist came swinging towards him, clutching a large chunk of concrete as though it were a roll of quarters to reinforce his punch. Bruce braced himself. There would be no dodging the reckless swing but, instinct told him, his attack with the mace would still land so long as he didn't flinch. He let his momentum resume its course. He brought the mace crashing down into Grundy's shoulder, and was in turn walloped by a fist travelling at roughly the speed of a maglev train.
The next split second did not go the way Bruce had thought it would go.
The sound of the mace hitting Grundy did not sound like the thud of a weapon hitting flesh and bone. No, that was more of a dull thumping sound. This was something more brutal. The flesh was bubbling, boiling away as the Nth metal carved through the magic that kept Grundy alive. The blow aimed at the dead man's shoulder plunged through him, only losing momentum as it crunched through his hip. It was like a hot knife through butter... that Bruce and his wrist were still attached to, even as his body took a blow that was meant to knock him back at least forty feet. Bruce had mentally prepared to be knocked back forty feet, maybe thirty-five if he got his feet under him in time. Instead, he was little more than a ragdoll in a black cape, whipped around the mountainous reverent at a breakneck speed. His new trajectory caused the carved swath through Grundy's body to end with a horrific crunch of bone as the mace wrenched free of his rib cage, leaving his chest cavity open and exposed, blood and magics spilling out as Bruce sprawled several feet away.
The armor that reinforced his wrist had kept it from breaking, probably. It had not protected his wrist from being dislocated, if he judged his pain levels correctly. His nerves and tendons felt snapped and torn, sending explosions of blinding pain rocketing up his arm. He hoped it was just his stupid, fallible human body being over-dramatic.
He felt a note of concern from J'onn and dismissed it. There was a response, but he couldn't focus on that right now. Injuries could be dealt with later.
He tucked and rolled, grunting quietly as the weight of the mace tugged on his injured wrist. He fumbled with the wrist strap and switch the weighty weapon to his left hand. He knew from experience that gripping a melee weapon was just as likely to leave him doubled over with pain as it would his attacker. Or, a regular attacker anyway. Grundy was a tough son of a bitch who barely seemed to feel anything, and that was on a good day. He readied himself for the inevitable follow-up attack from the zombie, then froze.
Grundy had simply crumpled under the blow.
A smell like scorched earth after a lightning strike mixed with formaldehyde and death met Bruce's nose. His stomach churned. He couldn't process this.
《That is what I was concerned about, Batman.》
Grundy was screaming. There was no rage, only pain. Pain as the mace had hit him, and pain as the magic that powered him started to knit his flesh back together.
《His whole existence is pain.》J'onn's thoughts, quiet and grief-stricken, whispered into his mind. 《He died long ago, but he keeps getting brought back and twisted to purposes that are not his own.》
Grundy was starting to thrash as more of his muscles reattached themselves. Slowly. So slowly.
Bruce was aware that his eyes were closed. The screams were so loud. Pure, undiluted suffering. The mace in his hand seemed to be pulling forwards, aching to strike another blow. Twitching in its readiness.
《Destroy the device, Batman.》J'onn's thoughts were still gentle, subdued, reminding him of what needed to be done.
Bruce opened his eyes and looked at the place where Grundy lay, back arched in rigid agony, tendrils of sinister magic rapidly closing wounds that would soon no longer be crippling. Magic that spread outward from a contraption on his spine. He had to take a couple steps around Grundy's hulking form to get a better view of it, but from the thoughts shared between the heroes and J'onn, he already knew roughly what to expect.
It looked like an elegant golden spider, carved with runes and laced with circuitry. It was fashioned as a spiny exoskeleton, except that the edge of each vertebrae plunged deep into Grundy's flesh. At the base of Grundy's neck, a gemstone pulsed with all of the colours that had exploded across the battlefield moments before. Something about the blend of magic and technology reminded him of the New Gods, only... it wasn't seamless. The tech didn't quite mesh with what was clearly an ancient artifact.
The New Gods didn't abide old things, but he knew of several beings who did.
Bruce extended his arm, putting the mace near the gem. The mace had an almost magnetic attraction towards it, hungrily lunging forward and making contact with the gem. It was barely a tap, but the resulting shockwave knocked him off his feet. He was again sent sprawling among the debris.
The silence in the wake of Grundy's screams was sickening.
Batman got back up to his feet and cautiously approached Grundy's prone form, mace at the ready.
Grundy was breathing hard in long, ragged gasps. The holes in his flesh weren't closing like they had been. His ashy skin had a sickly grey pallor, made worse by the rapidly leaking ichor that spilled from his side. Bones were visible, obscenely white and exposed. The sinews and tendons that had moments ago held a monstrous strength were laid bare and withering rapidly. With a strangely feeble flail of his uninjured arm, Grundy clutched spasmodically towards Batman, his eyes fixed on the mace.
"Where... Birdnose?" Grundy asked. His voice was a broken wheeze as ichor gurgled in his throat. "That Birdnose stick. Give back!" A failed swipe with his over-sized hands sent his body back into spasms of pain.
Bruce felt a sense of surprise at this. A being of constant resurrection, very little remained constant about Solomon Grundy aside from his durability, strength, and destructive rage. Sometimes he was clever, and other times he was more of a brute, but there were precious few other traits ones could even attempt to ascribe to Grundy. But possessiveness? Over Shayera? Bruce looked up to where J'onn was floating silently overhead and made a decision.
"She's fine," he said, experimentally. "Birdnose is safe. She's resting. She asked me to come here on her behalf."
Grundy relaxed visibly and settled back onto the ground. His prodigious head nodded in what Bruce interpreted as understanding.
"Is Friday," the cadaverous giant wheezed. A hacking cough saw more spurts of ichor leave his body through his ragged wounds. His fists, now palsied, had an unnatural curl to them as the muscles regained the rigor mortis his body shed with each resurrection.
"It's Monday, actually."
Grundy rocked his head slowly from side to side, the rapidly atrophying muscles lacking even the strength to lift his head anymore. He closed his eyes.
"Is almost Saturday." The dying dead-man's tongue sounded thick in his mouth, as though he couldn't curl his tongue enough to properly form consonants anymore. "Saturday... is good."
With a sickening rattle, Grundy heaved out a sigh and was still. The malevolent magic that fueled his existence had ebbed away completely now. It had lost its foothold the moment that the mace had disrupted the magic contained in the gem. Bruce could see where the shards of crystalline material lay beneath Grundy's rapidly decaying body.
《It's over, J'onn.》
The Martian descended and touched ground in sombre silence. Bruce didn't turn.
《Are you alright?》 J'onn asked quietly.
The mace's humming was making his fingers feel numb. Bruce let the mace drop to the ground.
《Does he always remember the poem?》 Bruce couldn't keep the pang of regret out of the thought. 《I never...》
Bruce let the thought trail off.
"It doesn't matter," he said aloud.
He bent down to pick up the device that was no longer attached to Grundy's spine, fingering it thoughtfully.
"On that," J'onn murmured. "We disagree."
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Grew worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
That was the end,
Of Solomon Grundy.
UPDATE: The last chapter got some fairly heavy editing to make sure it was set up for where I plan to take this story next, as did chapter 11; as such, they are chapters you will want to go back and re-read before proceeding.
(Also hi, it's nice to be back)
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.》
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.
"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.
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.