The transporter deposited J'onn in the backyard of his home. Not the false yet sumptuous house in his mind, but the quiet little dwelling Ming had owned for ten years and had welcomed him into as his own.
He pulled out his key and slid it into the lock. There was a single light on in the kitchen. "Hello?"
"There you are," she said, from the hallway. "I thought you'd call if you were late. Up saving the world again?" A smile played at her lips.
"A different one," he said, and even as he reached her, his mind stretched out, embracing her lovely, enrapturing thoughts. J'onn shared with her quickly everything that had transpired, and she accepted the strangeness, as she had accepted all his strangeness, without question and with amazement.
Then there was no time for questions, for she was in his arms, and his mouth had found hers, and he was home.
Clark arrived back at the office very late, and the only ones around were the overnight staff. He couldn't even get in a story about where he'd been and drop it into the morning edition this time. He sat down at his desk anyway, looking around at the refurbished Planet office as he did. They'd rebuilt on the same site, and put up a plaque with the names of those who'd died in the collapse, and they'd moved on.
There was an email in his inbox from Perry sent at five with no subject and just the words: "SEE ME." Lois had sent a reminder that they were supposed to be working on the Hernandez piece, but since Clark couldn't be bothered to call or leave his cell on, she was handling the assignment herself and he could read all about it in the morning under her byline.
His Lois would never walk in his shadow. She would however finagle him out of a juicy story anytime she had the chance, and he wouldn't love her half so much any other way.
He went home.
His own apartment felt like a stranger's. He'd gotten used to sleeping on the cot in the back of the Devil's office. But the kitchenette was his, and as soon as he had a couple of hamburgers broiling in the oven, it started to smell like home again.
Ma had left a message on his machine. She'd been calling four and five times a week ever since Kara left, just to talk. Clark called her back while he ate dinner, partially because he knew she would enjoy scolding him for talking with his mouth full, partially because he missed her too. He thought about telling his folks about the events of the past ... Day? Week? He'd just talked to them yesterday as they reckoned things, listened as Pa had told him how the new baby goats were doing.
When Ma ran out of things to tell him, he sent his love to her and Pa, and hung up.
Nothing on television, no one he wanted to talk to, nothing coming down the wire that the League wouldn't let him know about immediately. Just a quiet night at home to remind himself who he really was.
The stationery Ma had given him for his birthday was in his desk. Acid-free paper, to last longer, and he knew how to hermetically seal a container to keep oxygen out. He'd have to find a place to keep it safe, somewhere it wouldn't be disturbed but could be retrieved safely when the time was right. But he thought he could arrange that, too.
At his kitchen table, he put pen to paper: "Dear Kara,"
He paused in thought, and then continued. "I miss you. It's been three months since you left. Every day, I keep thinking you're going to walk through the door. Every day, I'm wrong.
"I don't know if this letter will ever reach you, or if it, like me, will have crumbled to dust. But I have faith it will find you, just as I have faith that you will be happy in this new life you've chosen. I just wanted to tell you some things I never had, no, that I never took the opportunity to tell you while you were still here with me.
"I want you to know how proud I am of you."
The door chimed. Shayera stopped brushing her hair and said, "Come in!"
The hydraulics slid open, and John stood outside. "Hey."
Shayera set her hairbrush down. "Hey."
"I wasn't sure you'd still be awake."
"I was hoping to be passed out somewhere else by now, but I couldn't get anyone to go to a bar with me and I hate drinking alone. What are you doing up?"
"I just got off shift." He was still standing in the hallway. "Figured I'd work the end of it anyway."
"I've got watch in the morning."
"If I'm keeping you up, I can go."
"Don't," she said, too fast. "Don't stand there. Come inside already."
He stepped into her room. He hadn't been in here since she'd come back to the League, and he didn't look comfortable standing beside the door, but he was on this side of it and that was what mattered. "I told Mari about our little adventures in fiction. She doesn't remember any of it."
"Well, she was dead."
"Yeah. She was pretty upset about that part. I think maybe you weren't entirely wrong after all."
"She wants some time to think. And talk to her therapist. She was already on the phone with him when I went to stand watch."
"I'll have to ask her for his number. I keep getting told I should see someone."
"Oh no, I'm not letting that idiot tell both of you to drop me for someone better."
She smiled. "Now there's a thought. We both give you your walking papers, and then go find guys with less baggage. We could double date. Then you could find another rebound girlfriend, and Mari and I could bond over how much we hate her while we eat ice cream together."
"I think she and I are going to call it quits."
"I'll have rocky road, and Mari'll have cookie dough." She stopped when her brain caught up with her ears. "What?"
"Mari thinks she's going to die if she stays with me. Sometimes I think the same thing. I don't want to let her go. I really don't. But I don't want to watch her die again, either."
I held you while you died and it killed me. "I understand."
"You know," he said, a wisp of a smile on his face, "everyone thought you were dead a few days ago. Wally and Diana came over to tell me."
"I remember. You already knew I was fine."
"Mostly I knew. There was this moment when I thought I'd gotten home too late and you'd died right there from your injuries. And I was afraid. The other deaths weren't real. I knew we'd fix them somehow. But yours would have been too real."
"Yeah. And Bruce is more than enough vengeance-filled psychotic for our whole team, so I really don't want to go down that road." He'd come closer, bit by bit as he talked, and now he was just a few feet away. She could reach out and touch him almost. "So when you start talking about how you 'deserve' to die, and let's not even get into who you think ought to kill you, it really pisses me off. I'm not going to kill you, I'm not going to let anyone kill you, and if you manage to get yourself killed anyway, I know damned well I won't survive it. So drop the morbid thoughts, and if we ever have to throw you back on suicide watch again, I will personally come in here and kick your ass. Got it?"
He glared at her sternly, and she couldn't help it. She started laughing. Sure enough, as soon as she did, he cracked another smile.
"Idiot," she said affectionately, and the smile grew wider. "Hey, do you want to go to the canteen and get some coffee?"
He made a face. "The late night coffee up here is terrible." Her heart fell a little. Then John said, "There's an all-night diner in Central City that Wally swears carries the best coffee on the planet. We could go. Maybe talk a little."
Now it was her turn to make a face. "In public? People will see us, even at this hour."
"I know." His eyes were kind as he held out his hand.
The coffee was in fact not very good at all, and the other late-night customers did stare at them, but by their fourth cups, neither cared.
"How's Tim?" was the first thing Dick asked as he slid into the booth.
Bruce thought of the dark circles under the boy's eyes, the way Tim woke up screaming, the irrational laughter that burst from him sometimes. But he also thought of Tim's appetite growing better, the first calm, genuine smile in weeks, the way he talked with more confidence to Leslie, or asked Bruce to be careful when he left to patrol.
"He's doing well. Very well."
"Good. I'd hate to think you called me here at three a.m. for no good reason." Dick flipped open a menu with bad grace.
He tried not to think of eyes staring sightlessly upward. "Dick?"
"Yeah?" Dick glanced at him across the top of the menu.
"How are you?"
Dick's eyes went back down to the breakfast choices. "Oh, I'm good. Y'know. The usual." There was a shoulder shrug. "Had some trouble with a drug ring, busted them up, bruised a rib, nothing enough to slow me down, bought the new Playstation, it helps to blow off steam. You should try it sometime," he added, and Bruce knew he was smirking even though the menu hid the bottom part of his face. "Hey," Dick said. "Isn't Barbara joining us?"
It was hard to tell if Dick's tone was just a little too casual or not, but Bruce decided there were some places he didn't have the right to examine. "Yes. She's late." He glanced at his watch. Ten minutes late and the way his throat went a little dry surprised him and yet didn't. Nothing had happened to her, not a car accident on the way there, not illness. She was just late. He closed his eyes to block out the vision of her in a hospital bed with the sunlight falling stark on her pale face.
The door of the diner jangled open and Bruce opened his eyes. Barbara ran in, out of breath, her red hair pulled back in a ponytail that had probably been neater when she'd left her apartment.
"Sorry I'm late. Move over," she said to Dick, her shoulder bumping his to get him to shift in the booth.
"Hi, Babs." Dick slid over closer to the window. "Busy evening?"
"Nothing I couldn't handle. What's the problem?"
"No problem," Bruce said. "Just breakfast."
She glared at him, took a deep breath, let it out, and picked up another menu. "Hm. Waffles sound good."
The waitress came to take their order, and she was no one Bruce knew, although at least two waitresses in the diner knew him by name or least by face, enough to smile at him. She must have started there in the last few months.
She smiled anyway, with an extra wattage for Dick, who pretended he hadn't noticed, then looked at Barbara and away quickly, as if wondering if she had.
But Barbara was looking at the menu. "Waffles. With chocolate ice cream."
"Ew," said Dick. "For breakfast?"
"This from the man who thinks that corn chips are dinner?"
"I'll have the pancakes," said Bruce. "With bacon. And orange juice only if it's fresh squeezed."
"Pancakes? You, Bruce?" Dick put his menu down. "I thought you hated the syrup, too sweet."
"I have a taste for them today."
"Okay. I'll have what he's having," said Dick, and handed the waitress the menu, bestowing a grin on her that had her flipping her hair and checking herself out in the reflective side of a napkin holder at the counter.
This time, Barbara caught it and rolled her eyes. "So what's the occasion?" She asked.
"What do you mean?"
"You aren't in the habit of asking us out. It's not my birthday, or Dick's."
"I can't ask you both out to breakfast?"
Dick put his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his fists. "At 3 am? And no active cases? It's suspicious, Bruce."
"Yeah. You trained us. Question everything. Always an ulterior motive behind the simplest of acts."
They both fixed him with the stares they used to intimidate criminals and he felt surrounded. He resisted the urge to pull at his shirt collar, to loosen his tie.
"You caught me," he said, and put his hands out. "I confess."
The book had found the weaknesses in all of them, and the plot twists had turned out to be of their own making. His own worst fears had been the final clue, and his reluctance to tell it had almost --- no, actually had --- gotten them all killed.
"Well?" Dick said impatiently, like a twelve-year-old. "This has something to do with what happened to the League, doesn't it?"
"Word travels fast," Bruce said, keeping his voice neutral.
"I heard about it from Black Canary who heard about it from Courtney who heard it from Zatanna," Barbara said breezily. "Bunch of gossips."
"What do you know about it?"
Plates clattered back in the kitchen and something sizzled. The early morning conversation at the other tables was a murmured, comfortable background. Cars honked, traffic muttered by, someone's cell phone went off. The TV set over the coffee urns chattered the late-night newsfeed from CNN.
He kept one ear on that, in case there was a fire, a murder, or some other disaster, but mostly he let the sounds of home wash over him.
"That you all got pulled into some kind of a book," Dick said. "Hey, I hear the gossip too. Roy told me."
Bruce thought of Roy's body, cooling on a slab a few feet away from Dick's.
"And it was some kind of magic. Bad sorcery." Barbara took a sip of her ice water.
"Something like that," Bruce said.
"You're not going to tell us more, are you?" Dick said, resigned.
"Suit yourself." Another shrug. Bruce knew the shrug was genuine; he could tell by now when Dick was covering a hurt, and there wasn't any sign of that. Barbara, however, sniffed, and adjusted her ponytail, not as comfortable with it as Dick was.
"At least you weren't turned into a girl this time," Dick said. "No offense," he added towards Babs, who glared at him.
"I wanted to see the two of you. Just ... like this." Then he added, low so only they could hear, "Without masks." Alive.
Barbara looked confused, Dick a touch smug, but the waitress arrived with their food, and Bruce quickly discovered that bites of pancake perfectly disguised his relieved smile.
Wally hit "pause" on the remote as someone else entered the rec room. On the big LCD screen, the black-and-white movie he'd been watching froze.
"Diana?" He turned lazily in his comfy chair, careful not to upset the bowl of popcorn.
"I thought you'd be asleep."
"It's movie time somewhere down there. Anyway, we were just dead. I don't really feel like sleeping."
"I know what you mean." She sat down in the chair next to his. She was in uniform. So was Wally, and boy, he never thought he'd be so excited to see his stretchy red spandex pajamas again. They were much more comfortable than a suit.
He looked up at the screen, where Myrna Loy was captured in a moment of gazing with fond annoyance at a grinning William Powell. "What are you watching?"
"The Thin Man," Wally said. Knowing he was treading on thin ice, he said, "I thought you had plans with Bruce."
"He said he was busy." And that was the end of that conversation, Wally figured as Diana looked back at the television. He pressed Play, and they watched in silence for a while.
"I don't see why Nora puts up with him," Diana said suddenly.
"Well, he's smart and he's charming, and ... " Wally stopped. "She solves some of the crimes too, you know. Anyway, she loves him, I guess." He hadn't ever given in-depth thought to the complex relationships of imaginary people before, and he wasn't ready to start now. "Do you want to watch something else?"
"No. This is fine." She was lying, but he figured that since they both knew she was lying, it didn't really count.
Or maybe it wasn't a lie after all. As the plot thickened, Diana started stealing his popcorn, and when the movie finally ended, she surprised him by asking about the sequels, and surprised him even further by a desire to watch them. As she went off to dig them up from the Watchtower's library, Wally took the empty bowl back to the canteen.
They were going to need a lot more popcorn.
A/N: In case anyone was confused about Dick's comment at the end, please feel free to check out our previous story, "The Fuzzy End of the Lollipop." Also, if you have finished reading this, you have spent a couple hours of your life reading our little novel. Congratulations and we hope you enjoyed the experience as much as we did. This is dedicated to our beta readers and the people on LJ and JLA Unlimited who were so kind when we posted it last month. :)