Waking, part 25

by Chicago

Disclaimers in "part 0"

Superman floated in the darkened monitor womb, staring at the monitor which showed one freeze-frame moment. Batman and the Martian Manhunter, caught in a last embrace, a final kiss... He scowled at his own line of thinking, but he understood what Nightwing meant, now, when he described it as a good-bye.

And the image was haunting him. He'd never seen them kiss before; in fact, he would be hard pressed to identify anything they had done in the past several months that would indicate the changed nature of their relationship. He knew they had been spending more time together, but that was in their other lives, away from the Watchtower.

They blended together easily on the screen, though. J'onn leaning down slightly to meet Bruce's upturned lips, one of Batman's gauntletted hands pulling the Martian's face closer. There was a hint of moisture visible in the corner of Bruce's eye - Superman had overlooked it before, but now his eyes were drawn to it. And J'onn's arm at Bruce's waist showed how tightly he was pulling Bruce to him, as if he didn't want to let go. He tried not to think about the information Robin had called in hours earlier - that they had reason to believe J'onn had gone to face the Martian gods, and that he had succeeded at cost to himself, and that Bruce had sent himself as a one-man rescue force. It made sense. It explained why J'onn's name had even prompted a hint of tears from Luthor during the grief spell that had hit the planet. Superman had not missed it, nor had he missed his teammates' struggle to share information without bringing J'onn up.

But Batman had gone for him, and Batman did not do hopeless missions. But have you ever seen Bruce in love before? a little voice nagged at him. He silenced it angrily, bringing back Batman's words of another time, when the missing person had been Lois: He'd watched Batman then, thinking clues, not victim, finding Lois. If J'onn could be found, Batman would find him and bring him home.

He forced himself to close the image on the monitor. Looking at it felt too much like mourning, and there was nothing to mourn yet. Even if Green Lantern had been unable to find a trace of either of them. And Oracle's technology had been no more helpful. And no one had yet decoded the exact coordinates where they had teleported. And with 12 hours separating them from the last wave of telepathically induced emotion, the earth seemed safely out of danger, likely because of Bruce and J'onn, but they still hadn't come back.

He almost wished something would happen on the planet below to give him something else to think about. But the monitors only showed peaceful scenes, and the feared attack of some supervillian on the weakened planet looked increasingly unlikely. He wanted to go home, to curl up with Lois, but someone had to watch the monitors, and the others were either helping planetside or catching up on much needed sleep.

He did a slow circuit of the monitor womb, taking time to focus on the scenes hanging on the walls rather than merely scanning them quickly for signs of danger. In daylight zones, people were gathering, spending time together, involved in various community activities. Where it was night, it was unusually quiet. Big city skylines were a touch darker than usual - no one was working late except essential service personnel, and they were on dictated schedules. In a way, he was glad for the Martian gods - if that was truly who was behind this whole situation. They had changed things, and it looked to be for the better.

A soft alert sounded, and he shot a startled glance down at the communications console. Then his eyes widened, and he was at the teleporter before the tubes stopped glowing. Tubes - two. He held a hopeful breath as he waited for the tube doors to open, releasing it only when J'onn and Batman stepped out. "Oh, thank god!" he exclaimed, unable to hide his relief.

Batman only grunted, and J'onn said, "Kal," softly in a tone that might have been a greeting or an admonishment. He moved closer to Batman, not quite touching him, but clearly wanting the nearness.

Superman stepped back, regarding them a moment. They looked awful. Batman's cowl was marred and battered looking, his cape frayed enough to reveal some of its layers of construction at the edges. His mouth looked puffily bruised, and Superman wondered what other damage lay beneath the armor. Or for that matter, beneath J'onn's apparently unmarked exterior. The Martian moved as if under a heavy weight, although he bore no sign of injury.

"Let's get this debrief over with," Batman suddenly growled, striding purposefully away from the teleporters.

"Of course," Superman agreed, swinging into step beside him. "Shall I call-"

"No." J'onn's interruption caused both Superman and Batman to turn. "Just us. Please."

Batman nodded, reaching out to briefly brush J'onn's shoulder, and Superman was at a loss to interpret the look that passed between them.

"That's fine," Superman decreed. "Just us. Crash room?"

By way of answer, Batman turned and headed in that direction, J'onn trailing only a step behind. Superman again caught their stride, and they moved silently through the Watchtower to the small alcove sandwiched between the library and a couple of lesser conference rooms. As they reached the entrance, Batman paused. "Is there someone else here watching monitors?"

Superman shook his head and tapped his ear significantly. "Superhearing," he pointed out.

Batman stiffened. "We should-"

"Bruce." J'onn's voice was quiet, but it was enough. Batman hesitated, then nodded curtly and claimed one of the crash room couches. J'onn settled beside him.

Superman took the chair across from them, noting they were again almost touching. Their expressions were guarded, and he had a feeling there were things that had happened that were not going to be revealed in this debrief. He almost felt guilty for asking the question, "So, was it the Martian gods?"

Batman actually found J'onn's hand at that question, giving it a squeeze and continuing to hold it. "Did Barbara figure it out, or one of the boys?"

It wasn't meant as a dig, although it felt like one. Of course it would have to have been one of Batman's people who pieced it together. "From what Robin told me, it was Dick," Superman replied, "although they were all working on it."

Batman nodded to himself, then said, "Yes, it was the Martian gods." He didn't seem inclined to elaborate.

"And -?" Superman prompted.

"They were made to understand that humans aren't Martians. They won't bother Earth again."

"You're sure."

Batman's hand seemed to tighten around J'onn's. "Yes."

Another awkward silence reigned. "Umm," Superman began uncomfortably, "what happened? I mean, we know they were behind this, and that they're not doing whatever it was they were doing any more, but -" He trailed off, uncertain how to demand more answers.

"They woke up," J'onn said softly. "They didn't know our people were gone - they believed that they had forgotten our ways."

"So they reached out to humans, thinking they were lost Martians," Batman continued, and Superman was struck by how protective he seemed.

"That's a bit of a leap," Superman remarked. "No offense, J'onn."

J'onn inclined his head in acknowledgment.

"But not a surprising one," Batman put in, "given that Earth offered them the only sign of life they could recognize."

"J'onn?" Superman speculated, watching as his teammate hung his head and feeling immediately guilty for the question. He felt Batman's eyes hard on him, and he refused to engage in the staredown.

"Yes," J'onn admitted. "I drew their attention here."

"And were prepared to die for us," Batman pointed out, his tone challenging Superman to make something of it.

Superman changed his tack. "What woke them?"

It seemed the wrong question. J'onn's eyes jerked up to meet Batman's, and they shared another unfathomable look. J'onn opened his mouth as if to speak, but Batman cut him off.

"Fate? The alignment of the stars? It's not important." His tone was brusque, inviting no question.

"But if we're to defend-"

"They won't do it again," Batman said flatly, his expression closed.

"Batman is correct, Kal," J'onn added more gently. "They've returned to their slumber."

"So that's it? You just convinced them to go to sleep and leave well enough alone? I'm sorry, but you two look like hell. And the people down there-"

"Will eventually be back to normal. And if we do offer an explanation, what guarantee is there that they won't take some sort of retaliatory action?"

J'onn started at this as if it were an idea he had not considered, and Superman sat back, unable to argue against Batman's point. After a moment he asked, "So what do we tell them?"

Batman spoke in monotone, as if he'd rehearsed his answer. "An alien force, misunderstanding the nature of humans, sought to give us world peace. A Justice League strike team made contact with the aliens, neutralized the threat, and sent them back where they came from. The truth."

"After a fashion," Superman rebutted, unable to keep a hint of irritation from his voice. Again he felt a stab of guilt when J'onn raised his eyes to meet his.

"Please," J'onn whispered.

Superman thought of Wally, ready to run into the Speed Force. Of Kyle, fighting exhaustion and grief to find a way to shield the planet. Of Diana, begging a boon of her sisters that would cost them in the eyes of their culture. Of Lois, tearfully telling him to go. Somehow he knew that whatever they had suffered, J'onn had sacrificed something more. He acquiesced. "At least you can tell me?" he pleaded.

A look of uncertainty flitted across Batman's face, and J'onn once again lowered his eyes. And suddenly, Superman didn't want to know.

He cleared his throat to break the new silence, rising to his feet. "Things are under control here," he stated. "Why don't you two take some recovery time? I will let the rest of the League know of your safe return."

J'onn nodded gratefully and also rose, subtly cupping Batman's elbow to urge him to do the same. "Thank you, Kal," J'onn acknowledged, his voice stronger than it had been since his return. "Perhaps you will see us off?"

Superman nodded, leading the way toward the teleporters. He arrived well ahead of the other two, but hesitated before setting any coordinates. When Batman and J'onn finally caught up, he asked, "The Cave? I know Nightwing is waiting for you."

This earned a weary nod from Batman, who seemed curiously deflated now that the debriefing was over. But J'onn hesitated. "Bruce," he said softly.

Batman turned to face him, his mouth hardening. "Bruce," J'onn said again, putting his hands on the other man's shoulders, "I need to go to the Gobi, just for a bit." He leaned his head forward to rest his forehead against Batman's. His next words were so quiet that Superman felt he was eavesdropping to hear them. "I'll still be with you." His posture suggested he added more telepathically.

Finally, Batman stepped back. "I'll be waiting," he promised, his voice slightly broken. But when he spoke to Superman, he was firmly in control. "'Port me down to the Cave. I'll turn my signaler on in case you need me."

I won't, Superman thought to himself, but he nodded anyway as he set the coordinates. "Tell Nightwing he did you proud."

A faint flush of - pride? - crossed Batman's face as he stepped into the tube. "I will," he stated, and then he was gone.

J'onn was smiling faintly when Superman turned to him. "He needed to hear that," J'onn commented.

"So does Nightwing," Superman replied.

J'onn's smile faded. "He knows. Don't be too hard on him, Kal."

"He's difficult," Superman defended himself, not really sure why he felt so aggrieved.

J'onn sighed and looked to the now vacant tube, his eyes seeming to recreate Bruce's presence there. He seemed to reach some decision, but he did not change his gaze. Instead he said, "I died today, Kal."

Superman took in a gasp of air. "Nearly died," he corrected.

"No," J'onn said sadly. "Did die. My soul was with my people."

"Oh, J'onn."

Now J'onn did look over at him, one corner of his mouth turned up in a sad kind of smile. "It took Batman to see there was another way. His mind and -" he laid one of his hands across his chest - "his heart."

Clark felt a lump growing in his throat as he read the sincerity on J'onn's face. He thought again of Lois, and then of Bruce - not Batman, but Bruce - facing the loss of yet another person who'd been allowed beneath the Bat's defenses.

"The rest of the League doesn't need to know."

"No," Clark agreed hoarsely, watching as J'onn ascended onto the teleport platform and stepped into the waiting tube. "Where am I sending you?" he asked.

"The coordinates are in your mind. I'll make my way from there."

Clark looked down at the console and found it was true, he knew how to program the equipment. He swiftly typed in the code, but hesitated over the send command. "We're still here for you, J'onn. Both of you."

"We know," J'onn answered. "Thank you, Kal."

Clark entered the final order and watched as J'onn dematerialized. "Thank you," he whispered, uncertain if he'd been heard. He stayed by the teleporter for a moment, digesting what he'd been told. Then he returned to the monitor womb to create a sound glitch in the system, and to watch a planet briefly at peace spin its way into a new day.

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