30/30 - Jazz
by Chicago (with help from StarStorm)
Disclaimers and other information in "Opening Credits"
"Yes, J'onn?" he asked, not taking his eyes from the warehouse below.
"Company?" the Martian asked quietly. Hesitantly? Hard to read sometimes.
Batman tucked his binoculars into his belt and shot out a jumpline.
Not Martian Manhunter, Batman noted. The Bronze Wraith. Unusual for him to pull an identity out of retirement.
Batman slipped through a loading dock door into an old factory, picking the lock in five seconds. Starlite lenses gathered ambient light, freed him from the need for a flashlight. He moved ninja quiet, softer than a breeze and purposefully swift. He could neither see nor hear the ghostly shadow of his lover trailing after him, but he knew he was there.
Batman's fingers planted tracers unobtrusively on various pieces of equipment, moving unerringly to those he wished to follow. The master detective at work, no activity in his city allowed to go unmonitored. Uncontrolled.
He exited through an alley fire escape and made his way back to the rooftops. Standard patrol for the next several blocks, then a stake out of the Pour House if all was quiet.
Which, as it happened, it was.
The Bat settled outside the sometime contact point for out of town thugs looking for work, watching from the roof across the way.
The Bronze Wraith settled in his "dead spot," behind and to Batman's left, the traditional weak point of a samurai's defense. The place of a student or apprentice to be a bodily shield more than out of harm's way. A submissive position.
Batman ignored him, staring fixedly at the Pour House entrance.
Time passed. He listened as Oracle and Batgirl coordinated against a serial mugger and brought him down. He heard Nightwing call in to report he would be staying in the 'Haven. He noted that Robin had run an abbreviated patrol, heading in early with an explanation of homework overload and college applications.
No one suspicious had entered or left the Pour House.
It was only 10:39.
Behind him, there was a rustle of fabric, a conscious warning. A second later he felt J'onn's hand on his shoulder.
He stiffened a little.
J'onn gave a careful squeeze. "Only two more nights," he said softly.
"Enough is enough," Batman growled, his voice quiet and low in his throat.
J'onn's hand tightened a little more, and Batman felt dry Martian flesh against his skin, the contact flooding him with awareness of J'onn's sense of regret and apology, of something - fearful? - in his lover.
The unclear emotion had almost a taste, and Batman felt himself rolling it in his mouth, trying to understand the occasionally unfathomable Martian. Their last date had been... unsettling. Intense. Not entirely unwanted and more troubling for that Bruce had wanted it in the moment. He had not considered that J'onn might also be disturbed by it.
The hand at his shoulder slowly withdrew, leaving behind a memory of the contact like an ache. They needed to finish out the 30 dates, Batman realized - at the very least move past what they had faced in themselves and each other last night.
He closed his eyes and gathered himself for a moment before turning to face J'onn, still wearing the aspect of the Bronze Wraith. He gazed at him for a moment, their impassive expressions hiding a maelstrom of emotions on both sides, he was certain. "Where?" he asked finally.
One acknowledging nod from the Bronze Wraith, and then they were off across the rooftops again, this time with J'onn in the lead.
He realized their destination as they entered the Rosehill neighborhood, half-startled to discover they were following a route that they had traveled before - 16 years ago. He wondered for a moment whether the choice was deliberate, or if J'onn knew only this round about approach to the place they were headed. He suspected the latter, and he realized that had been the last time he had seen the Bronze Wraith.
Batman had been young then, just starting his mission. He rarely considered how bare bones his operation had been then, before Dick had joined his crusade. Only the ignorance of youth had seen him through those early years, an unconsciousness of what could not be done had allowed him to defy the impossible. He knew no other responsibility, throwing himself at the streets night after night, setting patterns that would define him in time.
He had been terribly lonely.
Then he had had a romantic attachment to his loneliness, understanding it as part of his mission. He cultivated cool distances between himself and others, embracing his isolation so completely that he had been oblivious to how it was informing his decisions. He knew now how that loneliness had invited Dick Grayson into his life when he himself had been younger than Dick was now. He understood now that that loneliness was what an old jazz musician had seen in him when he invited him to the club he and J'onn were returning to.
If the same circumstances arose now, would he do what he had done then, he wondered? He had accepted the invitation in the persona to which it had been offered - as Batman. The club patrons had closed ranks when he appeared, until a word from the old man dissolved their opposition, if not their distrust. He was brought in, seated at a dark table...
How much he didn't know then, twenty-two years old, self-proclaimed guardian of Gotham! His world travels had been in search of training, not culture. He had been harsh on himself when his discipline had wavered - in Prague and in Rio de Janeiro - and had returned to his labors with ascetic rigidity.
He had never listened to jazz.
That night had been startling, eye opening, and it had belonged to the Bat rather than to Bruce Wayne. The walk of the bass, the wail of the trumpet, the reedy call of the clarinet - all found an answering beat in the heart of the Batman, who knew the night as the music did. He had surprised Alfred the next day by installing a stereo system in the Cave, letting saxophone and syncopated drum beats form the backdrop to his training, to his research.
But it wasn't the same.
He was drawn back to the club every so often, usually listening from the roof, on rare occasion going in. The music haunted him, spoke to his soul in a way little else had. He found himself yearning to share it, and the loneliness had flared then into an ache.
The newly formed Justice League visited Gotham around that time, and loneliness became a virtue as a territorial instinct rose in him. They were brash and flashy and on some level he had resented their easy powers and fledgling camaraderie. He had been relieved when then finished their publicity junket and moved on, freeing him from the need to teach them who owned Gotham's streets in a fight he wasn't sure he was ready for.
Only one of them hadn't left.
The Bronze Wraith was waiting for him now on the rooftop across from the club. He landed lightly beside him. "This isn't new," Batman pointed out quietly.
"One of Nightwing's suggestions," J'onn answered. "Go someplace you went before you were dating."
Of course, Batman thought, the idea would occur to Dick, even outside the context of Kal's challenge. Dick's relationship with Barbara was about rediscovery.
He remembered that long ago night, finding the Bronze Wraith on his rooftops.
/"This is my city,"/ he had said, echoing the first words he had ever said to J'onn, some six months earlier.
/"I know,"/ J'onn had answered. /"The League will not interfere."/
/"So why are you here?"/ Batman had challenged, angered that the League had been there at all, had attracted a battle earlier in the day.
The Bronze Wraith - J'onn - had looked at him then, mutely, the eyes behind his mask speaking to Batman's loneliness, echoing it.
Batman had no good explanation for why the trust he had withheld on their first meeting flowed so easily in that moment. He had already learned to distrust his gut reactions when confronting people unknown to him; villains like Poison Ivy had demonstrated all too well how instinct could be made to betray. But the haunted loneliness in J'onn's eyes had not been directed, had not sought to find a companion in Bruce Wayne. It had recognized something in Batman, and Batman in his turn had felt kinship with it. /"Come,"/ he had said then, and he repeated the command now.
He dropped off the rooftop and approached the entrance to the club, knowing the Bronze Wraith was only a step behind.
The old musician who had made that first invitation was long dead, but Batman had been back over the years. Occasionally the night would draw him back to the club where no one questioned his arrival, where the same table seemed always to be free. The doorman was not a man Batman had seen before, but he seemed undisturbed to find the shadow of the Bat looming over him. "He with you?" he asked, nodding past Batman to the Bronze Wraith.
Another nod. "No cover," he said. "Go on in."
They did, and the dark, candleless table in the corner was waiting.
The band was playing Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood," the piano evoking rainy evenings as the bass roamed familiar city streets. Glasses of water appeared on the table in front of them, but beyond that they were let alone.
The saxophonist began to weave mellow tones through the smoky air.
Under the table, J'onn's knee just touched the side of Batman's thigh.
They were silent, just as they had been all those years ago.
There had been a difference, though. Batman remembered his own sense of pride and ... excitement ... in showing this corner of his world to someone new, someone whom he believed would understand.
And J'onn - his awe had been palpable, as had been his yearning. Batman had been pleased that he had gauged correctly, and also scared, although he hadn't admitted to himself until now. He had not been prepared to see how his own loneliness was a pale shadow in the face of what J'onn felt. From within the darkness of his own loss, he had not entertained how someone else's loss could be greater. The jazz had unlocked something in J'onn just as it had in Batman, and that unlocking had revealed how very deep and wide the chasm between them must be.
It had not occurred to Bruce how startling, how daunting it must have been for J'onn, to release some of that hurt into the music. He had not known then how much control the Martian normally exerted over his feelings.
He knew now, and he knew that the ensuing years had closed the chasm between them. The world had taught Batman about those deeper losses - the loss of a child, the loss of teammates, the loss of love. But it had also taught J'onn to open himself to his adopted home, to trust again, to reach out.
He reached out now, the Bronze Wraith's hand finding Batman's under the table, twining fingers together.
The band began a Coltrane song.
The jazz still evoked the lonely.
But now, Batman recognized, it also evoked the love.