Waking, Epilogue One
Disclaimers in "part 0"
Batman moved slowly, turning to meet Dick's eyes. His cowl was battered and streaked with white, and his cape looked almost sandblasted.
"Are you all right?" Dick asked carefully. A fair question, he considered, sounding solicitous enough without being overly concerned. Of course he would need to know if there were injuries to be attended.
Batman looked at him a moment longer, then answered, "Physically, yes."
It took Dick half a second to process that he had modified his answer. It was almost an invitation, but he hesitated anyway before asking, "J'onn?"
"He had to go to his place in the Gobi," Batman answered, and Dick felt some of the tension leave his body.
"But he's okay?"
They stood silently regarding one another for a moment, then Dick asked, "Do you want to talk about it?"
It was a tentative offer, and he steeled himself for a curt no. But Batman instead put down his cowl, revealing the tired face of Bruce Wayne. "I don't know," he confessed. "I-"
"Master Bruce!" Alfred, tea tray in hand, hurried down the staircase. He set the tea tray down and rushed to Batman's side. Bruce did not resist as Alfred guided him down from the teleport platform. "Are you injured?" Alfred asked anxiously. "Do you need me to-"
"I'm all right, Alfred," Bruce reassured, pulling away from him to settle into his chair in front of the Batcomputer. "Just tired."
Alfred looked at him sharply. "And Master J'onn? Shall I expect him?" Dick gave Alfred credit for barreling through as if they had never entertained the option that J'onn - or Bruce - might not come back.
"Later," Bruce replied, and another bit of tension Dick hadn't realized he was feeling left Dick's body. "He doesn't want anyone to wait up."
"Hmph!" Alfred fussed, sounding appropriately affronted. "Well, given he's just come back from a mission, I might abide his wishes - provided you do. But he needs a firm reminder of who runs this household!"
Alfred's slightly overplayed indignation actually prompted a weary smile on Bruce's face, one which Dick echoed. Once again, Alfred was coming through with exactly what was needed.
"Now, Master Bruce, I must insist you eat something and let me bring you some more civilized attire. You, too, Master Dick. I presume you are staying the night?"
"Yes, Alfred," Dick answered dutifully, already plucking a sandwich from the tea tray. Bruce simply nodded.
"Very good. I will return shortly."
Without further ado, Alfred headed for the stairs. Dick munched on his sandwich, watching Bruce.
He sat for a long moment, and finally rose heavily from his chair. With careful, deliberate gestures, he unfastened his cape and cowl, pulling both around to study them.
"I think that one's seen better days," Dick noted gently.
"Yes," Bruce agreed. He stood regarding it a moment longer, and Dick waited quietly, leaning against the lab table that the tea tray sat on. "I think I'll retire this one."
Dick raised an eyebrow a bit, but stayed silent. Retire. Not discard. Not refurbish.
Bruce continued to examine the cape and cowl, brushing his fingers across their disfigured surface. He seemed to pull something from them, rubbing whatever it was experimentally between his thumb and fingers. "Yes," he said again, turning finally to drape the battered armor over the back of his chair. Then he slowly stripped off his gauntlets, letting them fall on the seat. He paused a moment longer before finally reaching for a sandwich. He took a bite and chewed it mechanically.
"Was it Mars?" Dick asked.
Bruce nodded, reaching his free hand down to his belt as he ate. Dick thought he was going to unclasp it, but instead he opened one of the pouches and held his hand palm up beside it. A small tentacled shape twined through his fingers and wound its way up his hand to his wrist.
The zo'ok, Dick realized suddenly, wondering if that was the explanation for how Bruce was able to teleport to an inhospitable planet so woefully underequipped.
As if in answer to his unvoiced wondering, Bruce said, "Poor little thing had its work cut out for it today." His tone was uncharacteristically regretful.
"I think we all did," Dick remarked, pouring glasses of juice for both himself and Bruce.
"Yes," Bruce agreed absently. He sat back down carefully on the edge of his chair, sliding back enough to be comfortable but not bothering to move the bits of his uniform so he could truly relax. He took a final bite of sandwich, then lifted his free hand palm up. The zo'ok flowed liquidly into his cupped palm, and he studied it.
Dick stepped forward to hand him a glass of juice, looking at the little creature as he did so. It pooled bluely in Bruce's hand, although for all its liquidity didn't seem likely to spill.
"Can you tell me about it?" Dick asked, his eyes rising to Bruce's face as he took a sip of his own juice.
"J'onn gave it to me," Bruce explained absently, letting his thumb stroke across its smooth surface. At the touch, the zo'ok shifted shape, becoming more like a tightly furled flower bud. "This is its natural form."
"A flower?" This hadn't really been what Dick had been asking about, but it felt important to let Bruce talk.
"Yes. Symbiotic." The zo'ok stretched itself, again entwining Bruce's fingers. A faint hint of a smile crossed Bruce's face, and Dick marveled at it.
"With humans, too?" Dick wondered.
"Not perfectly. It feeds on thought patterns, emotional well-being - or as near as I can figure. J'onn doesn't really know - the bond is so seamless between Martians and zo'ok."
Bruce had the half-distracted air of someone returning to a favorite puzzle, and Dick found himself impressed by the appropriateness of this gift. An infinitely useful creature that seemed to require well-being to bond with humans and which was imperfectly understood? It spoke to how well J'onn knew Bruce that he would entrust this little bit of Mars to him. "So J'onn has one, too?"
Bruce glanced up at this question. "His clothes," he explained. "I have to remind him to dust his wardrobe in Denver and make a show of doing laundry once in a while, since zo'ok is all he ever wears. Well, mostly, anyway." There was fondness in Bruce's voice.
"Well, that explains a lot," Dick remarked, finishing his juice in a long swallow. There was a sound on the stairs, and the zo'ok zipped up Bruce's sleeve faster than thought. "Shy?" Dick asked.
Bruce shook his head. "Just - defensive. It already knows you."
"All right, sirs, fresh pajamas and slippers for you both." Alfred glanced at the tea tray with approval as he set the stack of clothing down on the lab table. "Shall I bring more sandwiches?"
"No, Alfred," Bruce replied, rising to his feet and claiming his pajamas. "I'm going to hit the shower. Dick, make sure Superman has called Oracle."
"On it," Dick answered, crossing to the computer and opening a comlink as Bruce disappeared into the locker room. He noticed Alfred moving to deal with the discarded armor on the chair behind him and stopped him. "Just wait on that a second, Alfred," he directed as Oracle's mask came on screen.
"Oracle," the electronic voice identified.
"Hey, Babs, it's me," Dick said, immediately prompting the screen to shift to Barbara Gordon's face. "Bruce just asked -"
"So he is back then," Barbara interrupted. "Superman broadcast that they'd returned on the JLA hotline, but-"
"Yeah, he's back."
"I haven't seen him yet, but Bruce says he's okay."
Barbara gave a relieved sigh. "Not that I doubted Superman, but-"
"I know," Dick said softly.
"Do we know what happened?"
Dick shook his head, aware that Alfred was also listening acutely. "No. And I don't think we should press."
"Understood. You'll get some sleep?"
"You, too, Alfred," Barbara added.
"The sentiment goes both ways, Miss Barbara."
She smiled ruefully. "Yeah, I suppose it should. But do call if you need me."
"I will," Dick promised. Then, because he felt he needed to say it, "I love you."
"I love you, too," Barbara answered. "Oracle out."
The screen winked out, and Dick stared at it for a moment before shaking himself and meeting Alfred's gaze. "I think we should leave that," he said, nodding toward the battered cape under Alfred's hand.
Alfred studied Dick's face, then acquiesced. "Very good, Master Dick." A beat, then, "He didn't talk about it?"
Dick pursed his lips, thinking. "I don't think he knows how," he decided. "Or at least, not how to start. But they're both back."
Alfred stroked the cape on the back of the chair. "Yes."
There was a rustle from the direction of the locker room, and Bruce emerged, a robe over his pajamas.
"That was quick," Dick remarked.
Bruce shrugged. "Just not feeling the need for a long shower."
There seemed to be something more underlying the explanation, but Dick let it pass, scooping up his own pajamas. "Well, I am," he declared. "So if you've already crashed before I get done, have a good sleep."
He moved toward the locker room, but Bruce caught his arm as he passed. "Dick."
He froze uncertainly.
"Superman told me you did a good job up there."
A grateful smile blossomed on Dick's face, and he ducked his head a bit. "I had a good teacher."
"No," Bruce contradicted. "You're a good leader."
Dick found himself blinking against unexpected tears, too tired to really understand his emotion. He managed - just - to keep his composure. "Thanks." He met Bruce's eyes, noting they were unguarded and impossibly weary. "Bruce?"
"I'm glad you're back. Both of you."
Pleased surprise radiated back at him. "Me, too," Bruce replied. "Me, too."
Dick gave his arm a little squeeze and then slipped by him toward the longed-for shower and sleep.