Waking, part 24
Disclaimers in "part 0"
Two tiers below and at some distance from them, a large well of souls sat silent, although his mind filled it with the great voice as he looked down upon it. Like a phantom limb to a human, he thought - a part removed but its removal unrecognized by the brain. Even the echoes of it that had soothed him in the months he had spent with Bruce were gone, and his heart knew he had heard it sing strongly in the recent past, had nearly joined it...
Bruce stirred, and he drifted closer to him, letting one hand brush an exposed cheek. Batman's mask was marred by white rivulets over his cheeks and nose and around his eyes. Salt, J'onn knew - from tears. He would put back the cowl for him, but that seemed like a violation somehow, and he resisted. The salt still pained him, though, triggering memories of how J'onn had hardened himself to Bruce's pleas, had done what he said he would not do and abandoned him.
He let you go, Son of Mars, a quiet voice interrupted his thoughts, and he looked down to see flame rising from the well of souls.
The god seemed to nod, rising nearer although maintaining a respectful distance. He was willing to accept losing you for your sake.
J'onn glanced down at the quiet face, wondering again what had transpired. He is noble, he projected.
Yes. I would not have believed it, but for you.
The other gods? J'onn asked.
Returned to their slumber, although they sleep more lightly than before. They will not threaten Earth again.
They didn't mean harm, J'onn defended.
No, H'ronmeer agreed.
But you do not join them?
And abandon you? Or him? No.
J'onn looked sharply at the flaming god. You care for him?
He is not our child, son of Mars, but his heart has learned our language. And he is the beginning of a new understanding, of a future to come.
You talk in riddles, J'onn objected. But I am glad not all of Mars is closed to me. There was a sadness in his tone.
Never, son of Mars. And when your wanderings are ended and your soul is too weary to go on, you will be welcomed home. Be sure of it so that you may face the times ahead.
Bruce shifted again, mumbling a little.
He will wake soon, H'ronmeer noted. And so I must leave you. Be well, son of Mars.
H'ronmeer disappeared, and Bruce began to toss in his sleep, his subconscious kicking up images of J'onn's broken body. J'onn broadened his telepathic link, reaching into Bruce's dream to animate his own corpse and ease him from the brink of nightmare. I'm here, he soothed.
"J'onn!" Bruce cried, sitting bolt upright in a panic.
J'onn drew in closer, wrapping his arms around him, urging Bruce to lean on his shoulder. "Shhh," he whispered. "It's okay. Everything's okay."
For a moment, Bruce resisted him, remaining rigidly upright. Then the tension in his body began to bleed away. He broke J'onn's hold to reach up to his mask and push back the cowl, and J'onn felt the urge that motivated it - to look at J'onn with his naked eyes, to assure himself that yes, J'onn lived.
J'onn released him, waiting patiently as those blue eyes turned to him, hollow with fear and tear-burned. They were not the eyes of Batman, nor of the Bruce Wayne he knew, but of the little boy he knew lurked deep beneath the surface of the hero.
J'onn wanted to comfort him, but instead he watched, meeting Bruce's eyes calmly. After a moment, the fear and desperation faded to be replaced by a cold fury. "Damn you," Bruce snarled, launching himself at J'onn with fists and grappling holds.
J'onn rolled with the assault, rising to a defensive stance. He let several of Bruce's blows land solidly, defending only enough that Bruce could not accuse him of refusing to fight.. Finally he flipped Bruce forward with enough force that it took two rolls for Batman to find his feet. "Enough, Bruce," he said.
Bruce paused, holding his ground and breathing raggedly. "You left me," he accused, and J'onn could feel the hurt and confusion in his mind.
"Yes," J'onn acknowledged, taking a slow step forward. "And you told me you would not allow me to close myself off from those I loved again."
Bruce watched warily as J'onn took another step forward, Bruce's hands reaching up for the cowl that still flopped down his back.
J'onn stopped, listening intently as the confused impressions in Bruce's mind began to sort themselves into rational memory. Bruce didn't draw his mask back on, but slowly, his face began to take on the hard lines of the Bat.
"Yes," he finally said. "And you did what you had to to save the world." His tone was coldly approving, and his mental energy was calculating. And somewhere beneath the stoic expression, Bruce was berating himself, embarrassed, hurt, and in an emotional tailspin.
J'onn took another step forward. "You brought me back, Bruce." He wanted to reach out with his mind, to speak telepathically where honesty was more certain and communication easier, but he sensed he would be rebuffed if he tried.
"The League does not abandon its own," Batman replied automatically, disowning deeper motives.
J'onn moved forward a little more, stopping at arm's length from Bruce. He studied the impassive expression on the man's face. He could sense the Bat readying for a battle of wits, preparing every argument at his disposal to protect Bruce Wayne, remembering that it was their love that had prompted the crisis in the first place. J'onn could counter that it was also their love that ended the crisis, but ... he didn't want to hear Batman - Bruce - say aloud how love had endangered the world. Star-crossed lovers, he mused, realizing with a start that the thought was Bruce's more than his own. He bowed his head and stepped back. "I am sorry."
He felt Batman's mask slip, surprised at this move.
"If you would like to return to the Watchtower alone, I will follow later." He looked up, forcing his face to smile a little. "It was perhaps too much for us to hope for."
"No," Batman growled, and now he stepped forward.
"It's okay, Bruce," he assured, managing to keep his voice steady. "It was - sweet. A thing to be remembered fondly. I cannot ask more of you than that."
"J'onn-" Batman put a hand to J'onn's arm, but he seemed at a loss for words. At length, he let his hand fall.
"You see? We must go on - as teammates - for the world depends upon us. But that is all. I understand that, why it must be so." He reached a hand to Bruce's cheek. "You are a rare soul, Bruce Wayne. I feel honored to have known you so well." He wanted to kiss him, but knew if he did, he would lose his resolve. Instead he turned and walked back toward the bed of moss where Bruce had slept, settling on the ground to wait for Batman to leave. As he waited, he slowly, gently, began to withdraw from Bruce's mind.
Batman stared at him. J'onn felt his eyes, but refused to meet them. He sensed it when Batman finally drew up his cowl, covering his face. He caught Batman's motion to his belt out of the corner of his eye, and he steeled himself for the teleporter beam to take him away, intending to sever his telepathic link to Bruce entirely in that moment.
But Batman didn't 'port out. Instead he stood there, poised to leave, his eyes fixed on J'onn. And beneath the will of the Bat, Bruce Wayne unexpectedly grabbed at the departing link between them.
J'onn looked up with a frown. "Bruce-" He would make this harder than it was already, and if it had to be, J'onn wanted it over with. He wanted his solitude, to make his peace with it.
But Bruce would not relinquish his grip, holding the link between them tightly enough that J'onn could not sever it without causing him pain. That he would not do. They were both hurt enough.
J'onn glanced at Batman and saw that his hand had left his belt, that he stood still, regarding J'onn from behind the lenses in his mask, his expression unreadable. And then, quietly, Bruce Wayne's voice traveled along the tenuous link between them: Don't leave me.
J'onn rose uncertainly to his feet, turning to face Batman. Bruce?
Batman's hands went again to his mask, again pushed back the salt-streaked cowl, revealing troubled eyes. "Please," he whispered.
"Bruce?" he asked again. "You don't have to - I know this is a risk you don't want, that you could lose me. And I understand. I do. Better to leave on your own terms than to have what you love ripped away. It hurts too much."
"No," Bruce disagreed. "I won't do this again. I won't deny myself love out of fear. I've done that too much."
A single tear escaped one blue eye, and J'onn could no longer stay distant. He crossed the space between them swiftly, wrapping his arms around Bruce in a desperate embrace. He kissed away the tear and stroked his fingers through Bruce's hair as Bruce clung to him, his mind projecting a steady mantra: I love you I love you I love... J'onn let those words roll over his consciousness, returning the sentiment as he met Bruce's lips with his own.
Their lovemaking had a desperate, almost violent, quality as they rolled together in the gathering temple. Bruce bit and clawed, hands and mouth scrambling over Martian flesh as if to mark it, to leave no inch of it unclaimed. J'onn for his part plunged more of himself than he had ever dared into Bruce's willing body, stretched thin through capillaries and beaten by his heart, fired along nerves and expelled from lungs to meet again the hungry mouth and roaming hands in more solid form. Stones bruised their flesh and at one point they fell heavily - painfully - upon the discarded Batsuit, but the bruises were only proof, testaments to a more scarring battle that only they could understand. The tensions of their bodies somehow made what they had gone through real, and when release came, it seemed to take with it the taint of near-loss.
They collapsed, spent, into the springy moss, still entwined, almost more one body than two. They cradled each other face to face, withdrawing from each other slowly, reluctantly, and with many gentle kisses. Finally Bruce lay cushioned against J'onn's shoulder, his leg across J'onn's hips as J'onn rested back, his eyes on the ceiling. He almost missed it when Bruce gestured toward the well of souls.
"They are gone?" he asked, and there was genuine sadness in his tone.
"No," J'onn said. "Just quieted. Waiting for their time."
"But you can't hear it anymore. The great voice."
"No, I can't," J'onn replied.
Bruce buried his face in J'onn's neck, kissing him. "J'onn, I'm so sorry." His mind projected genuine grief for J'onn's loss with a hint of self-chastisement for his own selfishness.
"It's okay," J'onn reassured, kissing his forehead. "I will miss it, but you are teaching me to hear other voices."
He felt Bruce smile against his neck. "Hey," he grumbled teasingly, "don't go and start hearing voices on me. We've got enough personality issues in this family."
J'onn laughed and pulled Bruce more tightly to him, relishing the humor that for a rare, unguarded moment, flowed easily. They would have to go home, soon, he knew - and marveled for a moment that he meant Earth when he thought of home.
Of course you think that, Bruce whispered in his thoughts. That's where I am.
Yes, J'onn agreed, it is.