"What exactly is he saying?" Bruce was regarding the befeathered man with suspicion.
"It's a dialect of Varrhenian," Hal said. "I dunno. I think maybe it's—" He broke off as the ancient little man began shaking something up and down, waving it around them. Bruce considered easing a sensor out of his belt, just to make sure they weren't being pelted with organ-frying radiation, but there was no way to do it discreetly. A single wrong move could jeopardize relations with these extraordinarily touchy people. Of course, there was a decent argument to be made that inviting Hal Jordan on this diplomatic mission had been that single wrong move, but who else came equipped with a universal translator?
Jordan was currently twisting his ring like he might be trying to get a clearer signal, holding it up and squinting thoughtfully. "Stop," Bruce muttered. "They might interpret that as hostile, you idiot."
"Ah, shut your piehole. I gotta say, these particular dudes do not look very warlike. In fact, they look kinda. . ." He tilted his head to study the circle of small beaming aliens surrounding them. And Bruce had to agree: the Varrhenian negotiators they had been dealing with for the last three days were nothing like these Varrhenians, most of whom were dressed in brilliant paints and feathers and were watching them with slightly out-of-focus, blissful smiles.
"Stoned," Bruce said.
"Yeah, I was thinking they might be a little baked. It's probably like a shaman thing, you know? The ceremonial end of our negotiations, a little celebration."
"Either that, or this is where we get led to the top of the volcano and pitched in."
"Nah, I'm good, I think they just want virgins for that. Oh wait, you're toast, aren't you?" The feathered man, whose paint was more wildly extravagant than the others, shook his rattle over the top of Jordan's head — or as near to the top as he could reach. He began a long earnest soliloquy while waving the rattle in sweeping circles.
"What's he saying?" Bruce murmured. "Can your ring translate?"
"Y-yeah, pretty much. Enough of it. I mean, it's a Varrhenian dialect for sure. Probably their religious language. He's, ah, wishing us long life and happiness and. . . many children? Something like that."
"Inshakh v'liz," Bruce said gravely, by way of thanks. He had picked up some of the basics over the last few days, and he assumed they would be forgiven for using the vernacular. Besides, this group did not seem easily offended. The little shaman was obviously moved by Bruce's clumsy Varrhenian, and grasped his hand. They were a reptilian, non-mammalian species, and the old man's skin had the same slick cool feel as a snake's, but no less pleasant for that. Now his head was bobbing up and down in some kind of agreement. He was gesturing toward a small hut, and the rest of the circle was speaking now too, gesturing at them and at the hut.
"He says we should go in there to complete the ceremony," Hal said.
"Can your ring locate any sign of danger?"
"Just thatched leaves and more dirt. How can any one place have so much dirt? Someone please explain to me how a civilization that looks like it's about two weeks out of the rain forest developed interstellar space travel."
"Their lore says the technology was a gift from the gods," Bruce said, yielding to the gentle shoves of the shaman, and making his way toward the hut. The rest of the Varrhenians were pressing closer now, and some of them appeared to be streaking his cloak with clods of painted dirt as well. It would probably be considered a breach of good manners to snatch it away from them.
Jordan was shoved in behind him, and the hut's leather flap closed behind the two of them. Outside, the shaman had raised his voice and was shouting some kind of prayer or incantation. The others had begun a sort of ululation that rose and fell as punctuation to the shaman's prayers. The interior of the hut was dark and stuffy.
"Oh," Jordan said. He had a strange look on his face.
"Well. . . nothing. I mean. . . it's not a big deal. It's just, I think I figured out what they're saying, exactly."
Jordan winced. "We're going to laugh about this, years from now."
"Lantern," he growled. "Tell me what is going on here."
"They, ah. . . well, this is a kind of. . . a sort of. . . a . . . ceremony type thing."
"Thank you for the trenchant analysis. What are we expected to do here, and to what degree will our failure to meet expectations result in a diplomatic disaster?"
"Yeah. Good question, actually. See the thing is, this ceremony, from what they're saying, it appears to be. . . I mean, I could be wrong, like I said I may not be getting all of what they're saying, but I think it's meant to be a—well, some form of a—at least, related to some kind of a. . ."
"For God's sake," Bruce snapped.
"A wedding," Jordan said. Bruce stared at him. Jordan's wince had become a grimace.
"A wedding," Bruce repeated.
"It's. . . I think it's their way of thanking us?"
"A wedding," Bruce said again.
"Well that may be overstating it," Jordan said quickly. "The term sounded more like 'ritual mating,' when they said it. What are you doing?"
"Looking for a place to be ill."
"Yeah, very mature. Think we could re-schedule your homophobic freak-out till we're back on the Javelin? In the meantime, no big, we just chill in here for a while, and then we go out and shake everybody's hands, and the deal is done, all right?"
"So you've suddenly become an expert on Varrhenian liturgy."
"Oh, stick a bong in it." Jordan eased himself onto the dirt floor and stretched his long legs out. "I don't know about you, but I could use a nap anyway. Hey, think we should make some noise or something?"
"Make some noise," Bruce said. He could feel a small gurgle of nausea in the back of his throat.
"Yeah, you know — when the yurt's a-rockin, don't come knockin, that sort of thing." He stretched out full length and folded his arms behind his head. "And wipe that look off your jaw. Speaking of which, has it never occurred to you how dumb it is to wear your cowl on a diplomatic mission in deep space? Like what's the concern here, that one of these dudes wearing banana-leaf underwear is going to call up the Gotham Gazette and sell an exclusive on Batman's identity?"
"Says the man who wears a mask," Bruce muttered. There came a point in any conversation with Jordan when he could no longer resist being goaded into being just as childish as Jordan himself. It was one of the reasons he disliked the man so profoundly — he made dignity so very hard to hold onto. Just don't let him get to you, Clark was always saying.
Bruce peered around the corner of the hut's entrance flap, trying to see if the crowd was dissipating at all. Their cries, if anything, sounded more excited, and from the sight of the wood being dragged to the center of the circle, clearly this was about to turn into a bonfire — maybe even an all night event, possibly summoning friends and relations in surrounding villages. "I don't think we're getting out of here gracefully any time soon," he observed.
"Maybe we'd get out of here sooner if you'd show some verbal enthusiasm," Jordan said. "Come on, what could it hurt? And I bet they don't know shit about human physiology. For all they know, it takes humans like six minutes to mate. I bet it takes you about four," he said, rolling over and propping on his elbow, grinning at Bruce. "That's always the way with you repressed types."
Idly he fantasized scooping handfuls of dirt from the earthen floor and shoving them into Jordan's mouth. That ought to make some noise, all right. "Oh, come on," Jordan was saying. "Relax a little. We chill in here for an hour or so, we rub some dirt on ourselves, put our clothes on inside out, and come out high-fiving everybody. No harm, no foul, and this is the part we'll leave out of our report to the League."
"Well, at least we're agreed on that."
"Unless you want to go for a shade more authenticity, and trade a bro-job. NSA, obviously," Jordan said, and his grin had become something definitely scarier.
"A bro-job," Bruce said. "I don't think I want to know."
"Right, because you're straight. Tell me another. The League ought to have a queer support group, except guess what, nine-tenths of the League would have to show up. Okay, except for Shazam, maybe. Sometimes I worry about that guy, he's got the emotional depth of your average middle schooler. Hey, have you ever gone to any support group meetings, for anything in your life? Like when you were young, did Alfred sign you up for Homicidal Toddlers and the Household Staff Who Enable Them?"
Just don't let him get to you, just don't let him get to you. That was what Clark was always telling him. The problem with not letting Jordan get to you was that Jordan seemed completely unbothered by dignified silence, and after a while it stopped feeling like dignity and more like petulance, which was exactly what he was trying to avoid in the first place. He tightened his fists in the gauntlets. "Why don't you concentrate on whatever it is they're saying out there," he said, through gritted teeth.
"You don't want me to do that."
"And why is that?"
"Well granted I can only translate like every fifth word, but pretty much they're singing about sex acts out there. Really inventive ones, too. I gotta be honest, I think they've severely overestimated your flexibility."
"For God's sake," Bruce sighed again. He gave up and let himself slide to the floor, leaning against the wall of the hut. It wasn't the sturdiest structure in the world, and it swayed a little against his weight. He noted the enthusiastic rise in the ululations outside.
"I'm serious that I'm gonna nap though. Say what you like about these Varrhenians, they can talk your damn ear off. I'm fucking exhausted. Wake me if you re-consider that bro-job, okay?"
Bruce closed his eyes and tried to shut out the sounds outside, and the sound of Jordan's steady breathing. After a few minutes he opened his eyes and yes, incredibly, the man was asleep. The urge to poke him with something sharp was almost overwhelming.
He began arranging the careful wording of their report in his head.