After, part 4
Disclaimers in "part 0"
He looks happy, and I bask in that.
When at length dinner ends, Alfred encourages us toward the north parlor for dessert, and we make a halting procession, all following Bruce. There is amicable chatter and a certain ease in the air that seems almost studied, as if to mask a certain anticipation.
Although it is late evening, the setting solstice sun streams warmly into the parlor, making it cozily inviting. A marzapan cake sits on a low central table, surrounded by fresh strawberries. I note champagne chilling on the sideboard, where crystal flutes and porcelain plates are also laid out. I glance at Bruce. "Not patrolling tonight?"
He shakes his head with a faint smile - and a hint of nervousness? "Azrael and Huntress are covering tonight," he explains.
"Yep," Dick adds, settling into a leather easy chair with a contented sigh. "We get to be lazy tonight."
"Speak for yourself," Barbara retorts, wheeling her chair in beside him.
Dick snorts. "C'mon, Babs, 'fess up. You've got the Watchtower covering Oracle."
She swats at him playfully. "Don't give away my secrets, Former Boy Wonder."
"I'd listen to her, Dick," Tim advises, flopping onto the sofa. "'Hell hath no fury...'"
"Don't go there," Barbara growls at him, but he only smiles laconically at her.
"So shall I cut the cake?" I ask, moving toward the sideboard.
Bruce catches my hand. "Not yet," he says. "Let's wait for Alfred." He steers me into a wingback chair, but remains standing himself, hovering slightly behind me.
"Need digestion time anyway," Cassandra points out sensibly, sitting herself properly into another chair. Her ladylike posture seems to catch Tim's attention, because he straightens slightly from his sprawl. Barbara nudges Dick, but he seems uninspired by Tim's example, remaining in a lounging pose.
At least he does until Alfred enters. The older man's appearance pulls him up in the chair and makes him attentive to - Bruce. In fact, Alfred's gaze turns all eyes toward the master of Wayne Manor, and me.
I hear Bruce shift behind me with uncharacteristic awkwardness. Then his hand touches my shoulder and I look up at him.
"J'onn," he says quietly, "I enjoy your Alana form, but as it's just family here now..."
I read what he is asking easily and shift into the more familiar Martian Manhunter form. It feels a bit odd in this place where I am accustomed to appearing disguised, or else it is the strangeness I am reading from Bruce which is adding to the tension already in the air.
For a long moment it seems as if no one will break the silence, but then Alfred speaks. "Master Bruce," he prompts.
Bruce ducks his head a little, then surprises me by lowering himself to one knee before me. I blink at him. "Bruce?"
He meets my eyes, studying my face. "J'onn," he begins, and I sense the others leaning forward attentively. I realize they have no more clue than I what might be coming, and they are curious and intrigued.
"J'onn," he starts again, "this last several months..."
He trails off, as if he is uncertain how to speak to me. I smile reassuringly and take his hand. "You don't need to say anything," I tell him. "Let's just have some dessert."
He shakes his head, a hint of a scowl crossing his features for a split second. "No," he disagrees, "I have something I want to say."
I nod and wait patiently as he gathers his thoughts.
"Before Mars," he tries again, and I can hear so many unspoken thoughts behind that phrase. Mars, where we almost lost one another forever. Mars, which changed our relationship in ways that were inarticulable. But it is clear he is going to try to articulate it anyway.
"Before Mars, I - we -"
I am not used to seeing him so fumbling. I squeeze his hand, this time mentally letting him know he need say nothing.
"J'onn, when you gave me Ace - I didn't really understand." His free hand touches his belt, and I realize that the strap of leather is really the little zo'ok. "I was touched, mesmerized by so thoughtful a gift, but it didn't really sink in what you were trusting me with. A last piece of Mars..."
He trails off, and the silence around us feels breathless.
"It was a kind of commitment, wasn't it?" he asks.
I hesitate for the barest instant before I nod. My heart can be no more bare to him now than it had been when he had doggedly followed me to Mars, had argued against the Martian gods for my soul.
"I... you know I have issues with trust - no, not trust. With love."
There is a quiet snort of commentary from Dick, quickly silenced by Barbara's elbow to his ribs. Bruce does not appear to notice.
"I... I love you, J'onn."
"I know," I answer quietly, knowing how hard such a confession is for him, touched deeply that he would make it here, in front of his family.
He shakes his head a little. "It's..." He sighs and reaches into his pants pocket, withdrawing something. "On Earth - well, here, at any rate - you already know we have the institution of marriage."
I nod, encouraging him with my eyes.
He turns the object in his hand, not yet revealing it to view. "I know if I wanted, you would consider a wedding. Alfred could deck out the Manor, and you would have zo'ok fashion an incomparable dress for Alana or Jasmina or Aurora or whoever, and you would wear my mother's pearls..."
"You have other plans for those pearls," I remind him gently. We have not spoken of it, but I know he intends to give them to Dick - for Barbara or whomever he chooses to wed.
"I know," he acknowledges quietly. "And I wouldn't want that anyway. Because I didn't fall in love with Alana or any of your other forms. I fell in love with you."
"Bruce." I want to hold him, take him in my arms, but he remains stubbornly at my feet, gazing firmly up at me.
"On Mars... I realized..."
He stops and wordlessly lifts his free hand, opening it to reveal what he has removed from his pocket. It is a plain band of platinum, inscribed on its inner surface with symbols I had not realized he knew. I hear a gasped "oh" from Barbara, but my eyes remain on Bruce's face.
He shifts slightly. "It is sized to your trueform," he offers awkwardly. "You wouldn't have to wear it though. I just wanted..."
His eyes are pleading with me, his heart raw with risk. I reach out to close my hand over his, the ring resting cushioned between our palms, trying to convey how much I understand what he is doing, what he is offering...
The Martian language comes rustily to my tongue, but it is the only response that seems right in the moment. "/Half of my whole,/" I say to him, knowing he understands.
His expression floods with an inexpressible joy, so unfathomable from him that I almost want to weep as he finishes the phrase, haltingly, aloud, in barely recognizable but nonetheless heartfelt Martian, "/Whole of my half./"
I feel I might melt as I draw him up to me, leaning forward in my chair so I can pull him tightly to me. I clench the ring tightly in my fist as I hold him, burying my face into the crook of his neck, eyes closed as I ride the swell of emotion that takes me, joins me to him.
There is a sudden pop of a champagne cork, and I hear applause around us. Bruce pulls back from me, his eyes shining with a strange light, and urges me to my feet. Dick is slapping me on the shoulder and grinning. "About time, Bruce," he kids, then he gives me a tight embrace that tells me how right this is.
Over his shoulder, I see Tim handing a champagne flute to Bruce, and when Dick releases me, Tim hands me one as well. "Dude," he remarks, "does this mean we have to call you J'onn Wayne?"
Laughter swells through the room, and I join in, laughing harder when I see Cassandra's puzzled look at Tim's joke. Even Bruce is grinning broadly, and when we all have champagne, we drink a toast to love. The cake is cut, and at Barbara's urging I smash a bit into Bruce's face, then kiss away the cream and cake that smears his features. I see how Alfred quietly beams at us, and accept the kiss that Barbara places on my cheek. I watch Cassandra grow slightly tipsy on the unaccustomed alcohol, grinning loopily at both of us as if we have somehow made the world right for her. I let Bruce slide the ring he has given me over the fourth finger on my left hand, thinning the digit to accommodate the metal then letting my flesh wrap around it, assuring him I will always wear it, if not always visibly. He just smiles... and smiles... and for one blissful evening, I forget for whole stretches that I am the last of my kind.