"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.
He didn't see Lantern again for three weeks, which was just about the amount of time it took for the last of his murderous impulses to subside. It wasn't that he disliked the man. Jordan was incredibly good at his job, and in the field Bruce trusted him with his life. How could he dislike someone who was solidly competent and trustworthy, who had never let him down in any way, and who had devoted his life to bettering the universe?
Apparently, with ease.
"Hey Bats," Jordan called, trotting after him following a League meeting. "Hey, wait up. For fuck's sake, will you stop that? Are you actually speeding up?"
Bruce sighed, suddenly aware that he had, in fact, been walking faster. "What is it," he managed.
"Look, can I, uh. . . talk to you a second?"
Jordan grabbed his arm. "Stop walking, will you. Listen, I just need to — look, can we talk somewhere private for a minute?"
The man actually appeared nervous. Bruce was equal parts wary and intrigued. They were level with the third-floor observation lounge, and Bruce gestured him inside. He noticed that Jordan carefully slid shut the door behind them. "Okay," he began, "here's the thing."
And then he stopped, and began chewing on his lip while avoiding Bruce's gaze. "You're going to think this is hilarious," he said.
"I am almost sure that is not true."
"Yeah. Well. . . so you remember a few weeks ago, on Varrhenia?"
"Distinctly," Bruce said. "I remember that a ring that is supposed to be a universal translator, with access to all of the Guardians' knowledge about the observable universe, was conveniently useless right when it would have been most helpful to understand what was going on."
"Conveniently? What the hell does that mean? Because being locked in a dirt-floored hut with you for seventeen hours was what I had been secretly hoping for? Jesus Christ, it's like you don't even hear the shit that comes out of your egomaniacal mouth sometimes."
"You could have jeopardized the success of our entire mission," Bruce continued. "The Varrhenians are the key to peace in the Theta system, and one clumsy move could have alienated them and destroyed weeks of hard work."
"Yes, I am aware of that," Jordan said through gritted teeth, "but it's not exactly my fault if the ring doesn't give me all the information I need, or have you somehow confused me with—"
"An informational update," Bruce interrupted. "Right before we left, you said your ring needed an informational update. Why don't you do it now, I said, and you said it was too much of a hassle, and you would do it when we got back. How do you know the information needed to decipher liturgical Varrhenian wasn't part of that update? How can you wield a ring like that, possibly the most unbridled power in the universe, if you won't exercise some basic responsibility?"
Jordan looked like he was having an asthma attack. His breathing was audible, and his lips were white and compressed. "Basic responsibility," he repeated. "Un-fucking-believable."
"And that's another thing — you need to start restraining your language on the Watchtower, at least. It's unprofessional, and other members might find it offensive. The Watchtower is not your personal frat house."
Jordan had shut his eyes. "Please," he murmured. "Please don't make it harder for me not to kill you. Although admittedly, that would solve my little problem."
"What little problem?"
Jordan sighed, ran his hands through his hair. "Look," he said. "Just. . . listen to me, will you? The thing is, Oa now has diplomatic relations with Varrhenia."
"Yes," Bruce said.
"And the other thing is, we might not have shared all our experiences with the League, but I don't really have that luxury, with the Guardians. The ring provides them access to. . . well, more or less to everything I'm experiencing on a mission."
"All right," he said.
"So I can't get my paycheck," Jordan said. "The Guardians won't pay me, at the moment."
"Pay you," Bruce said with a frown. "I didn't know the Guardians gave you a paycheck. That seems a little mundane, for them."
"Says the billionaire. For fuck's—for heaven's sake, the Guardians have Lanterns working full-time in all sectors of the universe, and not everybody has their lunch brought to them on a silver tray, you privileged asshole."
"I just meant I was surprised that they realized the need for it. Awareness of the practical exigencies of life is not, from what little I know of them, one of their strengths."
"Yeah," Jordan sighed. "Well, you're not wrong about that one. The thing is this. Now that Oa has diplomatic relations with Varrhenia, any formal, legal action undertaken on one world is automatically binding on the other, if you see where I'm going with this."
"No," Bruce said.
"According to Oan law, I'm married. That little hocus-pocus dirt dance on Varrhenia, guess what, that was my wedding. That clear enough for you?"
"Interesting," Bruce said.
"Yes, it's goddamn fascinating. And now that I have a, a spouse—" Jordan appeared to momentarily choke on the word. "The thing is, according to Oan law half my paycheck goes to. . . that person. And not to put too fine a point on it, but I need my goddamn money."
"Excellent. So what I'm thinking is, you and I can just go to a world that has diplomatic relations with Oa, and get divorced. Problem solved, right?"
"How far away is the nearest Oan-linked world?"
Jordan was back to chewing his lip. "Not far," he said.
"It's just. . . you know, a couple of days by Javelin."
"A couple of days? I realize you may not have been paying attention in that meeting just now, but I am right in the middle of a very delicate investigation in Gotham. Even coming here for this meeting was more risk than I ought to have taken, and I need to be back within the hour. I don't have days to spend unraveling your bank account, Lantern."
"Okay, not a problem, I've already thought about this, okay? Just listen. I have a Plan B here."
"This ought to be interesting."
"I thought of a way you can do this fast without having to go off-world, all right, so just un-knot your kevlar underwear. All we have to do is get married on Earth, and then divorced. Obviously we can't just walk into a courthouse and get divorced, because we don't show up as married in any Earth records. So we just get married on Earth, and then like the next day we get divorced. Earth doesn't recognize us as married—"
"Which we're not, but Oa would recognize a divorce from our home planet as binding. See?"
"So let me be sure I understand. Your solution to our getting a divorce is, we get more married?"
"As step one. You're not understanding, that's step one."
"And what you're not understanding is, this is not remotely my problem in the first place."
"Not remotely your — what the hell? You were the one who was all, oh, we can't provoke them, we can't risk offending them. You would have had a fucking aneurysm if I had suggested we just blow off their little ceremony and head back to the Javelin!"
"And you were the one who chose not to update your ring, which might have given us the necessary information to find another alternative."
"Why do you keep making me want to kill you?" Jordan was practically shouting now, and he braced his hands on the wide windows of the observation lounge, obviously trying to get his breathing under control.
"Look," he said in a calmer voice. "Let's just. . . ignore all the talk of blame for the moment. Let's just say, I need a favor. As a team member. Setting aside all talk of who might be ultimately responsible for the situation, let's just say that mistakes were made, all right? Can you find it in your heart to do something to help out a fellow team member, is that remotely within the range of your emotional possibility?"
Bruce narrowed his eyes at him. "You're not exactly asking to borrow the keys to my car."
"I—I know. I do know that, I do. But the truth is. . . the truth is, I have certain. . . obligations I have to meet, and I can't do that until I can get my paycheck. Oans have very distinct ideas about marriage. If you're married, they insist on giving half your pay to your. . . partner. Ordinarily I wouldn't give a shit what my marital status is in the Oan database but in this situation. . . I need that money, Bruce. Please."
"Are you in some sort of trouble?"
Jordan rubbed at his forehead. "No, I am not in some sort of trouble. No one's breaking my kneecaps, I am not smoking the mary-jane, and I did not get my girlfriend pregnant, but thanks for asking, Fifties Dad."
"All right," Bruce said impatiently.
"All right what?"
"All right, I'll do it."
Jordan put his hand down. "You will?" He sounded genuinely surprised.
"Yes." He was as irritated by the surprise as he had been by the request. Did Jordan go out of his way to think the worst of him? Remotely within the range of his emotional possibility, what an irritating thing to say. Even when the man was trying to be ingratiating he landed on infuriating. Bruce sighed.
"Meet me in Gotham tomorrow morning at nine. I know a few judges, they can have this taken care of with as little risk of public exposure as possible. Gotham has a 48-hour waiting period before divorce, but we can file right after that. I'll have my lawyers take care of the whole thing."
"Thank you, Bruce. I won't forget this."
"Please see that you do." He swiped his hand across the doorpad and stalked out, and he took some pleasure from Jordan's aggrieved sigh. He pretended not to hear what the man was muttering under his breath.
At least the quick handshake in Judge Lopez's chambers was less time-consuming than being locked in a dirt-floored yurt all night, but that was about all it had going for it. Jordan had decided to make the whole thing even more excruciating by being as obviously embarrassed as possible, and by acting like a fourth-grader called into the principal's office. He shuffled his feet, he looked at the floor, and in general he acted like this was anything but a favor Bruce was doing him.
Worst of all, he had shown up in jeans and a flight jacket. "You're in a federal judge's private chambers," Bruce said to him, when Adriana had stepped outside to speak to her secretary. "Would it have been out of the question to show some respect?"
"What are you talking about, I washed my jeans," Jordan said.
Bruce looked steadily ahead and refused to make eye contact for the rest of their time in Adriana's chambers, even when it came to the vows. He gave a clipped "yes" in response to her questions, even when the question was "do you take Harold Jordan as your lawfully wedded husband?" Jordan's answer was even worse. "Do you take Bruce Wayne as your lawfully wedded husband?" she asked, and Jordan babbled out "Sure, yes, okay," and Bruce had to stare very hard at the oil painting on the wall behind the desk in order not to punch him in his idiotic mouth.
Adriana gave them both a curious glance — it must be the strangest wedding she had ever officiated, but she did owe him a favor. "Congratulations," she said with a polite smile, when she had pronounced them legally married.
"Thank you," Bruce said, and shook her hand. There was a painful pause when it was clear she was waiting for them to do something. Bruce grimaced, extending his hand to Jordan, who shook it brusquely. They still managed to avoid eye contact. Adriana's eyebrows lifted, but she said nothing.
"Oh, that wasn't suspicious," Jordan said, when they were out in the hall. "A peck on the cheek would have killed you?"
"Christ, you wanna slow down? You're walking like you're running from a bank heist. I don't want to tell you how to live your life, but it occurs to me you might have some commitment issues."
Bruce stopped at the elevators. "Forty-eight hours," he said. "My lawyer will be in touch with you. I'm assuming I'm expected to cover the filing fee?"
"Yeah, about that," Jordan said with a wince. "I'm running on half a paycheck here, remember? I'm good for it, I swear."
"Don't worry about it. Did you ever wonder why divorces are so expensive?" Jordan just looked at him, puzzled.
"Because they're worth it," Bruce said, punching the button for the ground floor.
It was another seventy-two hours before he heard from Jordan, in fact. He was in the Cave, working into the small hours, or had been several hours previously. The hours were becoming a bit larger now, and he would have to try to get some sleep. He ran one last set of calibrations and was just about to flick the screens off when an incoming signal stopped him. It was the League's secure channel, and he switched it on.
"Lantern," he said, in some surprise.
"Yeah, ah. . . hey there."
"I. . . yeah. Look, I didn't actually have a choice, all right? I got an emergency summons, and then when I got here things were a little crazy, and I swear this has been my first second of time to get in touch with you."
Bruce sighed. It wasn't actually the man's fault, but trust the Green Lantern to turn a simple plan into something needlessly complicated. Meanwhile, those divorce papers sat unopened in Jordan's mailbox. He rubbed at his eyes, wishing his cowl was pulled up. "And you'll be back when?"
"Another twenty-four hours, I promise. Thirty-six at most."
Bruce's jaw tightened. "With every hour that passes," he said, "the likelihood that some intrepid reporter is going to unearth Bruce Wayne's secret marriage increases. I have a benefit to attend Friday night, and this is not publicity I need. Do you understand me?"
"Do you understand that I'm trying, and that I'm not always in control of when I come and go?"
"And what exactly is the emergency?"
"Darleshan flu, for your information. The last time Darleshan flu hit here, a couple hundred years ago, three-fourths of the planet got wiped out, and the civil war spread to two neighboring systems. Things aren't that bad this time, but the Guardians weren't taking chances. We have to—" he glanced over his shoulder. "Yeah, hang on, be right there. Gonna have to go," Jordan said.
"Fine," Bruce said.
"This is not my fault. It's not like I planned this."
"Of course not. I know better than to accuse you of planning anything."
Jordan's sigh gusted the mic. "Thanks for reminding me what a shiny black dildo you are, Bats. Truly, always a pleasure." And the screen went blank.
Bruce closed his eyes and engaged in several minutes of intense meditation before he trusted himself to get up and turn off the screen.
It was not another twenty-four hours before he heard from Jordan, nor was it thirty-six. It was thirty-nine, and it wasn't an apologetic phone call or text. It was another secure-channel message.
"Unbelievable," Bruce said, when Jordan's face appeared on the screen. At least the man had the good grace to look mildly chagrined.
"Okay, the thing is—"
"You're still off-world."
"I am off-world. Yes. I just meant—okay, look. You are—you are really going to think this one is hilarious."
"You keep saying that, and I never do."
"The thing is, I'm in quarantine."
Bruce didn't trust himself to speak. "Now just hold on," Jordan was saying, his hands lifted like Bruce was about to charge through the screen at him. "Just calm down. It's not like I'm actually sick or anything."
"What a relief."
"It's just that a couple of us got exposed, on the last reconnaissance mission, and they're insisting on keeping us quarantined until the incubation period is over. Which is completely ridiculous, at least in my case, because there's absolutely no evidence that humans can even get Darleshan flu, but whatever, these are not exactly the sort of people you can argue with. So I'm stuck here for just a bit more, okay? But then I swear, I will be back Earthside just as—just as soon as I can possibly get there, I swear."
"How long is the quarantine?"
Jordan winced. "It's, ah. . . six weeks."
"Six weeks? Six Earth weeks?"
"This is not my fault! There was nothing I could do about this, okay? It's not like I wanted to be locked in some godforsaken cubicle for six weeks eating mashed toast and beans!"
"In six weeks," Bruce said, as calmly as he could manage, "it is not only probable, but almost certain, that a routine records search, of the sort paparazzi perform all the time, is going to turn up a report of my marriage. A report of my marriage to you."
"Is this about people thinking you're gay?"
Bruce shut his eyes and rested his forehead gently on his fingers. "No, wait, I have an idea," Jordan was saying.
"I'm afraid to ask."
"What about this, okay. Why don't you just go ahead and sign my name for me? I'm serious, you've got to have some examples of my signature on file, I bet you do for every member of the League. Just go ahead and sign for me, all right?"
"Forgery," Bruce said. "Your answer to the problem is, forgery."
"What? No! Not fraud or anything like that. Just, you know, some creative handling of a difficult situation. I thought you would appreciate my flexibility here."
"I find it incredible to believe that you are a law enforcement officer in at least three different galaxies." This time he was the one who switched off the monitor, and he found it childishly satisfying.
He didn’t hear anything for three days, but when the ping came – the secure channel, and somehow there was a metallically abrasive quality to the ping that meant it could only be Jordan – when the ping came, it was predictably three in the morning. Bruce flipped the switch on the monitor but didn’t look up. “What is it,” he said.
“Happy to see you too,” Jordan said.
“You’re contacting me to let me know you’ve been released from quarantine, and you’re on your way back?”
“Yeah, right. These fuckers. I always thought quarantine would be a pretty sweet deal, you know? Like, you do nothing but lie around for weeks at a time, people bring you food, you got nothing to do. Kind of like a nursing home.”
“A nursing home sounds like a good time to you?”
“Along about sponge bath time, hell yes. So once, I went to visit my grandmother in a nursing home, it was fucking sweet. It was one of those fancy ones where everybody has a private room and their own orderly. I thought it looked like the best place ever to live.”
“Jordan. Is there something I can do for you?”
He heard the gust of the man’s sigh. “I don’t know. It’s just. . . is talking to me for a little bit completely out of the question?”
Bruce did look up at that. The surprise must have shown on his face. “Look,” Jordan said. “It’s just, it’s pretty fucking lonely here. I don’t even see anyone else. I’m locked in this tiny-ass box, and some asshole I don’t even see shoves my food in the metal feeding tray twice a day, it’s like fucking Supermax in here. I’m kind of crawling out of my skin.”
Bruce studied him: the blank metal wall behind him, the cot he was sitting on, and that was clearly the room’s only furniture. No windows visible. Jordan’s jaw looked tight, his eyes a bit red.
“That’s not quarantine,” Bruce said. “That’s solitary confinement. What the hell is going on?”
Jordan shrugged. “Hell if I know. I told you, these people are terrified of Darleshan flu. And they should be, that disease is scary as fuck and it screwed over their own planet and three or four others, the last time it came through here. But like I said, there’s no evidence humans can get it.”
“Have you contacted anyone on Oa?”
“Yeah, sent a message through my ring day before yesterday.”
“Have you heard back?”
“Yeah, I heard back right away. The Corps is always super about that. The answer was, pursuant to section forty-seven, subsection epsilon five, you will observe all restrictions related to public health and safety of any world on which you are stationed.”
“Not very helpful.”
“You think? Basically they don’t give a shit. But I am going out of my mind here.”
“I can try transmitting some novels.”
“Yeah, okay,” he said. “Hit me with whatever you’ve got. Oh, and not all of it has to be PG-13, if you know what I mean. You got any reading material on the more adult side, I’d be down with that too.”
“You want me to use secured sub-space transmissions to send you porn.”
“Not porn. I didn’t say porn. Just, you know. . . tasteful erotica. Preferably of the illustrated variety. Come on, I got nothing else to do here, you seriously telling me you wouldn’t be buffing the banana seven or eight times a day?”
“You’re breaking up,” Bruce said. “Good night.”
“Aw come on Bats, don’t be that way.”
“Use that communicator to dial the Watchtower. I have work to do.”
“Asshole. This is because I made a masturbation joke? Look, no matter what Alfred told you about your body or how dirty he made you feel, burping the worm is a perfectly healthy and natural part of—”
Bruce flipped the switch on the monitor and went back to his work. Burping the worm. He gave a snort of a laugh. The man was impossible. He rubbed at his eyes, beating back the weariness. He should take a break for a minute anyway. He opened his library files and quickly scanned them, looking for things he thought Jordan might like. Who on earth knew what the man read? His mind was probably a terrifying place to look inside. So he selected a few things, more or less at random, and then threw in Fifty Shades of Grey, just because if someone was going to call him an asshole, he might as well earn it. Something told him poorly written fanfiction was not so far off the man’s reading level anyway.
He didn’t think about Jordan again for another few days, but when the predictable ping came, he answered it on the first hail. “Yes,” he said tersely. He was absorbed in examining a sample in the spectron microscope.
“How do you do that?”
“How do I do what?”
“How do you know it’s me, without even looking up?”
“What makes you think I do?”
“Because there is no way you sound that irritated, every time you answer. I mean presumably somebody somewhere likes you, you can’t be a cock-knob one hundred percent of the time.”
“Don’t underestimate me,” he said, and Jordan laughed.
“Thanks for the books,” he said. “They were pretty good.”
“All of them.”
Bruce looked up from the microscope. “You read them all?”
“It totally fucks with your head, doesn’t it, that I’m not a complete idiot. Listen, asswipe, how many idiots do you know who graduated seventh in their class at the Academy?”
“I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe the sort of idiot who remembers what his class ranking was in college?”
“Oh what, like you don’t remember yours, tell me another. Come on, ‘fess up. You were Princeton, right? So what’s got you sore about it – did Winthrop Worthington Douchenozzle the Fourth beat you for valedictorian? Come on, you can tell me.”
“I truly have no idea what my class ranking was.”
“Truly. I do know it can’t have been very good, since I failed out.”
That shut the man up, and there was a gratifying silence for a second or two. “No way,” Jordan said. “Are you shitting me?”
“I am not, in fact, shitting you.”
“Princeton threw you out?”
“Mm hm. I didn’t give them much choice.”
“Because you were too busy building advanced weaponry in the basement of your frat house?”
“No, because I was too drunk.” He went back to the microscope, struck by a sudden thought. If he made an adjustment there. . . yes. That was it.
“Wait wait wait. Back up the bus. You drank yourself out of Princeton?”
“I did. Enjoying that mental image, are you?”
There was another silence. “No,” Jordan said, after a while. Bruce looked up. Jordan was just watching him.
“It was a long time ago,” Bruce said. He couldn’t remember why he had started telling Jordan those things. It was none of the man’s business. It certainly wasn’t something he went around sharing.
“So what happened?” Jordan’s over-large eyes were still watching him.
“What happened when?”
“After you failed out. Did you come back home?”
“I did, for a while.”
“Did Alfred scare you straight?”
“Yeah, not much chance of that, huh?” He could hear the slow grin in the man’s voice.
“Why are you so convinced you know my sexual orientation?”
“Why are you so convinced you don’t have one?”
Bruce glared at the screen, and reached for the monitor switch. “Wait wait wait,” Jordan said, and Bruce’s hand stopped at the edge of something in the man’s voice. “Come on, just—don’t do that, all right? I’m sorry. Just—don’t turn it off.”
Bruce said nothing, but he didn’t turn it off. He re-settled at the spectron microscope. “I promise not to talk about sex,” Jordan said.
“Please stop imagining I have a problem with sex.”
“Do you think Babette did?”
“You know, Babette. From the Dinesen story. What, you sent me books you hadn’t read?”
Bruce leaned back in his chair. “Babette’s Feast,” he said slowly, remembering. “It’s been a few years. You’d never read it before?”
“No. Funny thing, my high school library didn’t have a whole lot of twentieth-century Danish modernists. I’d never heard of him, actually.”
“Her,” Bruce said. “Dinesen was a pen name for Karen Blixen.”
“Oh. That makes sense. But you think I’m right, yeah? I mean, something weird is up with Babette. So she walks away from her career in Paris, from her whole life there, and she’s got all these friends and whatnot, but there’s never any mention of any kind of boyfriend or husband or anything like that, you know? I mean, I kept thinking there would be something, but there wasn’t. So I kinda thought she was gay.”
“It was made into a film,” Bruce said. “A few years back. I’ll see if I can send you the—hang on.” He held a hand to his communicator, listening.
“You need to go?”
“No, it should be fine. I’m just keeping tabs on something for Dick.”
“Oh yeah? How’s he doing?”
Bruce snorted, and he saw Jordan cock a brow at that. “Wasn’t meant to be a loaded question, Bats. Trouble with the fam? No judgments. Seriously, I ought to know about fucked-up families.”
“What makes you think that adjective applies to mine?”
“Oh, nothing. You’re right, it is one hundred percent completely normal to dress up like a giant bat and train all your kids as crime-fighting ninjas in bird costumes, I don’t know what I was thinking. Come on, everybody’s family is fucked up. Yours is just fucked up in the most interesting way I think I’ve ever seen.”
He considered flipping the off switch, but there was something in Jordan’s off-hand assumption that he found. . . unusual. Not many people looked at the strange assemblage of people in and out of the Manor and thought, family. But it seemed natural to Jordan. Maybe that ought to worry him. “I’m guessing your own was pretty interesting,” he said.
“Nope. Not in the least, actually. The most boring garden variety dysfunctional you can imagine. Tolstoy got that one wrong, anyway, about all unhappy families being different. Most of the ones I’ve seen are depressingly the same.”
“So your high school library had Karenina, anyway.”
“Nah, I stole that one from—”
Bruce held up a hand. The data coming in from his communicator was garbled, but what he could make out wasn’t good. “Have to go,” he said, and switched off the screen, reaching for his cowl in the same motion. Time to get to work.
“Take a look at this,” Bruce said, the next night. He had left the frequency open right about the time Jordan had been pinging him, and the minute the screen had flickered on, he had thrown up the schematic. “Can you make it out?”
“Huh,” Jordan said, squinting at it. “What the hell is it?”
“No idea. Is that enough information for your ring to scan?”
“Possibly? Hang on, let me take a look.” Bruce watched as Jordan clicked a keyboard, frowning. He watched as the sweep of green light washed over the monitor. He could just make out an array of strange symbols projected into the air next to Jordan. They meant nothing to him, but Lantern was reading them, nodding thoughtfully.
“Huh. Okay, yeah, this might help. Just some basic provenance stuff. I’ll translate and send you a summary, just give me a sec.”
“You know,” Jordan said, as he was typing, “I could do some more stuff too. If you wanted to send me something to look at, I mean. God knows I’ve got nothing else to do. Oh hey, thanks for the movie, by the way.”
“Did you like it?”
“Well, I will say solitary does have its advantages, because I didn’t have to worry about anyone being around to see me sob like a fucking baby. Although, seriously, I need a movie that is not about gourmet cooking. When I get out of here I am going to fly straight to Big Belly Burger and order five Belly-Busters, with nine Nutella milkshakes on the side. I’m about to start eating my blanket.”
He was still typing, and not looking into the camera, so Bruce took the opportunity to study him a bit more. The man was definitely looking thinner than he had, and there had never been an ounce of fat on Jordan’s body to begin with. Not a small man by any means, but something in the way he moved made you forget that, sometimes—a certain grace, a quicksilver quality, a litheness that belied the solid muscle of his frame. Always moving a shade too fast.
“You okay?” Jordan had caught him looking, and those too-large eyes were trained back on him.
“Yes,” he said, looking away.
“You get the translation?”
“I see it now. Interesting. I’ll forward this on to Dick. Or you could try reaching him directly – his tech at Bludhaven is almost the equal of this, he ought to be able to manage.”
“Yeah, about that. This is apparently a one-channel TV.”
“Wish I were. I’m guessing, since you were the first one I contacted when they threw me in here, that’s the channel it locked onto. One phone call kind of thing.”
“What the hell kind of planet is this?”
Jordan laughed, his same easy open grin. “Well it ain’t no Varrhenia, I’ll tell you that much. At least those people knew how to have fun.”
Jordan appeared to be taking the whole thing better than he himself would have. A week of solitary, and he knew he would have been well beyond joking. There was a certain toughness to Jordan that surprised him, every now and again. Well. Combat pilots weren’t known for cracking under pressure. “Your definition of fun and mine are vastly different,” he said.
“Yeah, in that I know how to occasionally have some. Seriously, what’s the most fun you’ve had in recent memory? Like, something you did just for fun? No wait, let me guess, work is all the fun you need. Well tell me another—I see those gossip rags with Bruce Wayne in them, you tap supermodel ass whenever you want to. Don’t tell me that’s not fun.”
“It’s not torture.”
Jordan laughed again. “I believe that. So here’s something I’ve always wondered about – like, you’re naked with someone, right?”
“You in general, or you in particular?”
“You you. You’re gettin’ freaky with someone, and let’s say the lights are on, and. . . how does that work, exactly? Because I mean, sure, you can get pretty banged up playing polo I guess, but how bad would you actually have to suck at polo to get some of those scars you’ve got? Do none of those supermodels and society babes ever start to wonder?”
“What would you know about my scars?”
Jordan raised his brow again. “Come on, I’ve seen you in the showers, there’s no way I’m not gonna look. Sorry to violate bro code there. Seriously, you’ve got nothing to worry about, believe me. There’s just no way you get scars like that any way but hand-to-hand, though, is all I’m saying. I hope you’re picking the dumb supermodels.”
“People see what they want to see,” he said.
Jordan was nodding, like he had said something profound. “That they do,” he said, after a few minutes. He was sitting back on his cot, and his head was leaning against the metal wall behind him. Bruce watched his eyes drift shut for a minute, then flicker awake.
“You’re not sleeping. You need to get some rest. Close this channel, and I’ll open it again in six hours.”
“Yeah. Okay. I just—I don’t have any real way of knowing when an hour is. I’m just. . . a little disoriented.”
His sudden flash of rage took him off guard. But that’s what it was – a quick surge of near-murderous rage, directed at whoever had decided torturing Hal Jordan was all in a day’s work. Because that was what they were doing, he had no question. And it made him wonder, put together with stray remarks Jordan had let fall over the years. Jordan was the Corps’ only human member so far, and once or twice he had said something about Oan-allied worlds seeing humans as, perhaps, not quite fully persons. “Get some rest,” Bruce said gruffly.
“Kay,” Lantern said, but he didn’t even close the channel; he let his head fall back against the wall and closed his eyes, and Bruce sat there and watched him sleep for a while, before he muted the screen.
After that, he kept the channel open all the time. He made note of when it was Jordan tended to hail him, and if those times happened to coincide with when he was working in the Cave, well, that was fine. He couldn’t go out of his way to be there. He certainly couldn’t be chained to a monitor just to keep the man entertained. And Jordan didn’t seem to have any trouble keeping busy when he wasn’t around, either. Once he had come back from patrol to find Alfred in his chair, and Lantern’s face looming in one of the monitors, and Alfred appeared to be telling a story from his days in the service, and Jordan was laughing like a loon. Alfred was actually leaning back in the chair, one leg propped on the other. Bruce had never seen Alfred lean back in anything that wasn’t a hospital bed.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” Bruce said peevishly, tossing his cowl aside.
“Oh certainly not, sir, Captain Jordan and I were just regaling each other with blatantly fabricated tales of our military prowess. Is there anything I can get for you, sir?”
“I’m fine. No need to get out of my chair.”
“Excellent. So as I was saying. We were pinned down outside of Raval Pindar, when suddenly we hear this utterly inexplicable—”
Bruce stalked off to the showers, and stood under the hot spray as long as possible – that is, until he felt himself starting to drift into sleep where he stood. Sometimes it was an effective way of fooling his body into sleep, to pummel it into submission in a shower, and then stumble a few steps to a cot. He slept better down in the Cave anyway.
I’ve seen you in the showers. That was what Lantern had said to him. He let the slow burn of that crawl inside his belly, and twist lower. Seriously, he had said. You’ve got nothing to worry about. There had been an appreciative smirk to his voice. Jordan had watched him in the showers. Jordan had seen him. Of course, Jordan was no more capable of controlling his sexual impulses than a Labrador could control peeing on the nearest available fire hydrant, but somehow it hadn’t occurred to him Jordan’s eye might ever fall on him – or would notice him as anything other than an irritant.
Jordan probably looked at everyone in the showers. He hadn’t meant anything by the offhand remark. Impossible, though, not to remember the man’s sly remarks about masturbation – seven or eight times a day, he had said – and unbidden he had a quick flash of Jordan, naked, arching on that cot, mouth open as he pleasured himself, hand moving fast and then faster—
He slammed his own hand on the shower lever and turned off the water, grabbing his towel and wrapping it firmly around himself. That would be just about enough of that.
“Okay, wait, how about this one.” Jordan was propped on his cot, the camera trained at a slightly different angle, and the screen tilted so he could read from it. “‘He smiles, then strides with renewed purpose out of the store, slinging the plastic bag over his shoulder, leaving me a quivering mass of raging female hormones.’ I mean, what the fuck does that even mean? For one thing, the primary sex hormone in anyone is testosterone, which is a male hormone. And a quivering mass, what the hell? Sounds about as sexually arousing as a bowl of lime jello.”
“Try about four degrees to the left,” Bruce said, squinting into the microscope and speaking into his communicator. “You see that?”
“I mean, I’m starting to think you didn’t even read this book before you sent it to me. Are you exercising no kind of quality control here? Oh no no wait, here’s an even better one, I remember. ‘My very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba.’ See, near as I can piece together this chick is talking about her vagina. Her actual and literal vagina. And it is fucking creepy as shit, because it sounds like she’s talking about an ancient cat statue she has shoved up inside her business, when she talks about her very small inner goddess. I mean is this even. . . people like this get book contracts?”
“Do you need to go?” Dick said in his ear. “It sounds like—“
“Ignore him. This can go on for hours. Did you try the four degree rotation?”
“Yeah, no luck. Hang on, let me re-calibrate.”
“Okay, now this is just sad,” Jordan resumed. “Listen to this one. ‘Now I know what all the fuss is about. Two orgasms - coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow.’ The fact that this chick just compared orgasms to laundry makes me want to go out and buy nine thousand vibrators and like, shove them in the hands of every person I see and say, please, for the love of God, use this, I swear to fucking God it is not like laundry. Also, seriously, she is blown away by two orgasms? She’s a woman, she should be able to clock four without breaking a sweat, what kind of shitty-ass lover is this guy?”
“Lantern,” Bruce said in exasperation.
“Need me to keep it down?”
“If you wouldn’t mind.” He concentrated for a few minutes on the microscope, but the silence was even more unnerving. He could feel Lantern watching him. He disconnected his communicator and tried to ignore everything around him to focus on the three square millimeters under his scope.
“I could just read quietly,” Jordan whispered after a few minutes.
“I have known you for how many years now? And in all that time I have never known you to do anything quietly.” He returned to his lens. There was silence from the screen. He raised his head. “You’re thinking about making a sex joke with that, aren’t you?”
Jordan’s grin filled the screen. “It’s like we’re finally getting to know each other.”
“God help me.”
“Hypocrite. You’re an atheist.”
“Then you haven’t been paying attention,” he said, adjusting his lens settings. “I may not be particularly devout, but I’m not an atheist.”
“Oh yeah? Well I am. You’re telling me, after seeing half the shit you’ve seen, you think there’s any kind of god who gives a wet rat’s ass about us?”
“I didn’t say that, necessarily. I am undecided on the question of a controlling intelligence in the universe, largely because of the shit I’ve seen, as you put it. But Buddhism doesn’t require belief in any particular higher power. It simply involves recognition of the continuum of all life, which is. . . comforting.”
“Huh,” Jordan said.
“Thank you for the thoughtful theological response.”
“I just meant, huh, I’m surprised you find that comforting. Most of the assholes I’ve known, I hate the thought that they get to keep going. And don’t give me that whole reincarnation as a salamander thing, because eventually they’ll work their way back up the food chain. There’s such a thing as no more chances, you know?”
Bruce shrugged. “People make mistakes.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right, I forget what a big softie you are about people making mistakes.”
“I only meant, even good people make mistakes that require fixing. Even your grandmother in that nursing home had things I’m sure she regretted, mistakes that needed to be righted, in this life or another.”
“Hah,” Jordan said. “My grandmother was an evil toad-spawn, and I met her exactly once in my life, when Amber was trying to bilk her for money. Believe me, no love lost there.”
“What about yours?”
“Yeah. You had one of those, right?”
Bruce rubbed at his eyes and sighed. “You’re tired,” Jordan said. “You can tell me tomorrow. This will give me more time to find exciting parts to read aloud in my new favorite book.”
“Jordan,” he growled.
“Yeah well, send me more books then, if you’ve got complaints about this one. Oh wait, one last one before you go. My personal favorite in the contest of 'things in a book that make me want to rip out all my hair and scream while puking myself.' Are you ready? It’s a good one.” He leaned into the monitor, and his voice went low and breathy. “’Argh! I cry as I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity.’” He made the argh as dramatic as possible, giving it a breathy long-drawn-out moan that made Bruce glad Damian was nowhere around.
“I mean seriously,” Jordan continued. “I think there ought to be a national campaign to find every person this author has ever had sex with, and fine them like a bazillion dollars. A weird pinching sensation?? So far this woman has compared sex to, A, sorting her laundry and B, getting her blood drawn by an incompetent lab tech. I fear for the reproductive future of the human race if I don’t get back to earth, like, immediately.”
“Good night, Lantern,” he said firmly, and muted the monitor.
Sleep generally happened for him either in eighteen-hour marathon stretches, or in fitful snatches as he stared in frustration at the ceiling. There didn’t seem to be an in-between. Sleep was a fanged harpy that crashed through his roof and seized him in her claws, never letting go, or (as on this night) she perched above him, idly toying with her prey. After a while he gave up and went back down to the Cave, figuring he could at least get some work done. Sometimes sleep came more easily there, and he would waken to a blanket covering him in his chair, and a tray of lukewarm herbal tea beside him. Alfred never brought coffee, on the nights when sleep had been elusive – either because Alfred still thought he knew best what Bruce should eat and when, or because Alfred was a sadist. Both were entirely possible.
The remark about Jordan’s grandmother was a curious one. If the man hadn’t had his tongue loosened by boredom, Bruce was fairly sure he would never have let it slip – his offhand mention of a woman named Amber was the giveaway there. Boredom, irregular sleep, who knew, but it was enough to pique Bruce’s curiosity. His background file on Jordan was, it occurred to him, woefully thin; this was as good a time as any to fill it out more. The file contained his service record, which was highly detailed, but nothing really before that, other than place of birth and the name of his high school. Now he was berating himself for not having gone digging before. It took only a little investigative work – and most of that in public records – to flesh out the fuller picture, and that picture was not an appealing one. He sat there staring at the ugly facts for quite some time. A better investigator would have gone looking sooner.
Hal’s Air Force pilot father was a true enough piece of the puzzle, but he had let himself be fooled by the relative normalcy and stability of a military father. Captain Jordan senior had never been legally married to Hal’s mother, and it soon became apparent that his ex-girlfriend may have had some trouble proving paternity. At any rate, there were no survivor benefits for Hal’s mother, the eponymous Amber. There were two other children, both boys, different fathers. After a certain point she became easy to track by court appearances, family services reports, and unemployment records. It was evident from the scant photographic record (she had had an ID badge at Walgreens for a few months, until she was evidently fired from that too) that drugs were a large part of that picture. Her brain was probably about as cratered as her bank account, and Bruce doubted she had been able to make rent for more than about half of Hal’s childhood.
He assembled all this information into several well-organized files, keyed to a few discreet search words. And then for some reason he just sat there, hands steepled, staring at the screen on which all this information was displayed. He briefly imagined Jordan’s reaction to his calm contemplation of this file – this bloodless record of what must have been anything but bloodless, for Jordan. He was willing to bet the outline of these facts was the tip of the iceberg.
He sat there and stared at it, and then in a few deft keystrokes, he backspaced everything he had assembled. Erase file? the computer asked, and he hit enter. Of course his files were secure, but that wasn’t really his worry. Something told him that if Jordan knew he had seen this, if Jordan knew that he knew, it would shame him. He would happily anger Jordan every day of the week and twice on Sundays, but shame him? No.
He stared at the now-blank screen, his hands still folded. Jordan wasn’t the one who should feel shame. The people who ought to feel shame were never the ones who did.
“So my thought was,” Clark said, “that I attend this party. I can be discreet, mill around some, and see if I can pick up on any conversations that might give us some leads on what is going on in Bialia. Whatever tech they’re devising, whatever deals they’ve struck, I think the League needs to be on top of it.”
“Agreed,” Bruce said. “But you have no business being at this party.”
“What? That’s ridiculous. I—“
“You may be the Planet’s finest investigative reporter, but that’s exactly why Bruce Wayne would never invite you to his house the night he’s throwing a gala for the Bialian ambassador. No.”
“Bruce. Come on. You think I’m going to be wearing my press credentials around my neck?”
“No, but security is going to be tight, and I’m going to have to submit a list of all guests to the embassy, along with their background checks. A reporter cannot be on that list. It’s not credible that Bruce Wayne would ever take that chance.”
“Bruce Wayne sure talks about himself in the third person a lot,” Jordan said from the screen, and Clark startled at the ping of the monitor, turned around. “Hey Clark, what’s up? What’s all this about a party?”
“Ignore him,” Bruce sighed.
“Hal?” Clark looked puzzled. “Are you—what are you doing?”
“Oh, that’s kind of a story. But I’ve got some time if you do. So what happened was—”
“He does not have time. Clark and I have League business to discuss,” Bruce said firmly.
“Oh right, I get it. This is more of that Star Chamber shit you guys pull. Better not let me hear what the grown-ups are talking about. Seriously, everyone knows that you and Clark and Diana have secret meetings you don’t want anyone else to know about.”
“No we don’t,” Clark said.
“We don’t?” Bruce said.
“Not that we—it isn’t like that,” Clark said lamely. “It’s not that we don’t want anyone else to know about them.”
“Yes it is,” Bruce said. “As I was saying about Bialia, there will be plenty of opportunity for you to surveille the ambassador’s entourage, but the party at the Manor is the absolute worst time to do it. For one thing, I have more than adequate surveillance already in place here. For another, there’s going to be a press mixer the following day, and it’s possible that—”
“Yeah, but,” Jordan interrupted, and Bruce ground his teeth. “No one’s going to be having conversations at a press mixer, is what Clark is saying. He needs to hear the conversations they’re having when they’re off guard, right Clark?”
“Well. . . yes,” Clark said, clearly still puzzled about Jordan’s presence on the screen. “I mean, that is what my point was.”
“So sneak Clark in as a cater waiter, or something. One of the household staff. Let him hold a tray of appetizers all night, who cares. Oh man, I bet the food at this party is going to be incredible. Could you send me a menu? Long story short, Clark, I’ve been in quarantine in the back ass of beyond for about six months now, and if I don’t get some actual food soon I am going to start shaping broccoli florets out of my toilet paper.”
“Six months? I don’t really understand what—”
“He means twenty-one days. I might have forgotten to mention that the Green Lantern has come more or less mentally unhinged after three weeks of his own company.”
“Oh,” Clark said, looking concerned. “Quarantine sounds serious. Are you all right?”
“He’s fine. The problem with the Bialian ambassador is that she may have been implanted with empathic tech. If that’s the case, our challenge increases considerably.”
“Well, the food’s shit,” Jordan was saying. “But other than that I’m just bored as hell. Oh, and here’s the kicker: I can only connect to the communications mainframe in the Batcave, so it’s the all Bruce all the time channel.”
“Good God,” Clark said.
“You’re telling me.”
“I’m standing right here,” Bruce said. “And if we could just agree to focus on. . .”
Clark was turning to look at him, clearly wondering why he had just trailed off in mid-sentence. “Bruce?”
But Bruce was looking at Hal, really looking at him for the first time today. He was leaning against the metal wall behind his cot, like he always did. His eyes met Bruce’s. His bloodshot eyes. Bruce watched the thin, almost unnoticeable streak of sweat work its slow way down the side of his face, near his hairline. Bruce’s chest was pounding. Hal said nothing, but his knowing eyes did not look away from Bruce’s.
“Actually,” Bruce said, turning to Clark. “Actually, I’m—I’m getting pretty tired. There’s plenty of time before the Bialian visit, we can arrange something. I’m going to try to get some rest.”
“You all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said, trying not to snap at him. “Just need to rest.”
“Sure,” Clark said sympathetically. “We can hash this out later. Lantern, take care of yourself. Hope to see you soon.”
“You got it,” Jordan said. “Take it easy out there.”
Bruce kept his eyes on Hal’s until Clark had made his way back up the stairs to the Manor. Another bead of sweat had started, at the top of his forehead now. “How long have you been sick,” Bruce said hoarsely.
“It’s just a cold,” Jordan said.
“You’re locked in a sealed holding cell with no pathogenic contact, and colds don’t have three-week incubation periods. How long have you been sick?”
“Day before yesterday. I wasn’t sure until today.”
They were silent. Bruce tracked the slightly accelerated rise and fall of Jordan’s chest. Fever probably somewhere between 101.5 and 102. He had been an idiot. Jordan had been masking.
“I need you to send me everything you know about Darleshan flu,” Bruce said. “I’ll cross-reference that with what information Clark has at the Fortress. Did Krypton ever come in contact with it? I’ll need to know about the course of the disease before we can—“
“Bruce,” Jordan said. “Enough. I know everything there is to know about the course of this disease. I’ve seen it before.”
Jordan gave a small rueful smile, and said nothing. He shook his head.
“Give me information, dammit! I can’t help if you don’t share what you know. I’ll call Clark back here and get him on his way to you immediately. If you can give me exact co-ordinates, he should be there in another day. He shouldn’t have any trouble ripping that quarantine facility apart to get to you, and we can have you back on the Watchtower and under treatment in—“
“Bruce!” Jordan was sitting all the way up now, his face large in the screen. The red rims of his eyes, the clamminess of his skin, it was all hyper-visible now. Talking to Clark, he had been deliberately angling himself to obscure all that. “Bruce, listen to me. You cannot send Clark here. Are you listening to me? I don’t know what the fuck this disease does to Kryptonians, but I sure as hell know what it does to everyone else I’ve seen with it. You cannot put Clark anywhere near me. Are you listening to me? Don’t you dare, don’t you fucking dare do that.”
He resettled against the wall, breathing harder now. “Don’t you dare put Clark in that kind of danger,” he said, and he closed his eyes.
“A special suit,” Bruce said. “I could engineer a suit, like a hazmat suit but more durable for light-speed travel. It could protect Clark while—”
“No!” Jordan’s face was white now. “Goddammit, I knew, I fucking knew I should have—Bruce, listen to me, I am a fucking neutron bomb, all right? You cannot bring this anywhere near Earth, I will not let you do that. Do you understand it wiped out three-fourths of an entire planet? Are you willing to bet it wouldn’t do the same or worse on Earth? If there is even the smallest fraction of a chance, we have to—we cannot take the risk that—Bruce, please listen.”
Bruce was silent, head bowed. Everything Jordan was saying was absolutely correct. In his head he ran through the stats he knew. Spanish flu pandemic, 1918 to 1920, one hundred million dead. Five percent of the world’s population, in a world vastly less interconnected than their own. An equally powerful pathogen today would kill at five, six, twenty times that rate. “A containment facility on the Watchtower,” he began.
“Listen up, asshole. You see this ring on my finger? You see it? It does whatever the hell I want it to, in the blink of an eye. You send Clark out here to get me, you know what I do? I slice my own head off before he gets within twenty feet of me, is what I do. You wanna test my resolve, motherfucker?”
There wasn’t anything in him that doubted the man would do it. It was what he himself would do. “I will not let you take this disease anywhere near Earth,” Jordan said hoarsely. He tipped his head back against the wall, shut his eyes. Bruce watched the pulse thrumming in Jordan’s neck. Heartrate accelerated, respiration shallow.
He waited in silence. He went to another monitor and began pulling up all the information he had to hand on Darleshan flu, which was next to nothing. A few scattered references here and there; surely Clark’s files would have more, surely he could access some of the ring’s information. He began compiling what he had, typing in furious silence, cross-referencing to anything he could. Surely it had gone by other names on other worlds. If he could track the virus’s interstellar path, find its origin point. . .
“It takes a while,” Jordan said, and Bruce looked up. Jordan’s eyes were open, and he was back to studying Bruce. “To run its course, I mean. It takes a while. It can take a couple of weeks.”
Run its course. Jordan’s matter-of-factness was chilling, but again, it was what he himself would have done. How he would have dealt with it. “I was just going to ask,” Jordan said, “if I could keep the channel open. Not all the time. I’m not afraid to kick it. I’d just. . . rather not do it alone, is all.”
There was something in his chest, his throat, that wouldn’t let him speak. He knew he was standing there scowling at Jordan. But Jordan seemed unfazed as ever by the scowl. “You won’t have to do any of it alone,” Bruce managed. “Just don’t close this channel. We’ll figure something out.”
Jordan gave a slow smile. “Hey, guess what,” he said. “Looks like I solved our little problem after all. No need for that divorce after all.”
“Jordan,” he managed.
“I think this will make you legally liable for my car payment though. Probably your plan all along, you cold-blooded bastard. How else were you gonna get your hands on an ’04 Hyundai?”
“My dreams have come true.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot. Listen, I’m gonna have to close my eyes for a bit, things are getting kind of swimmy. I’ll catch you later, okay?”
“See you around, Bats.” And the monitor went blue-screen. The harsh light washed the Cave, washed Bruce standing there staring at the empty screen. He stared at it for only a second, and then bent his head back to the keyboard and his second set of data on Darleshan flu. Time to get to work.
Emended to add: The Fifty Shades quotes are from this article, since I admittedly haven’t read the book.
If he had just done some of this research work before, he might have had enough time to come up with an answer. But it had never really occurred to him Jordan might be in serious danger. Part of him had continued to think of the whole quarantine as a plot specifically invented in order to irritate him. He knew enough psychology to know how often he brushed the line of textbook narcissism.
Nothing he discovered about Darleshan flu was good news.
Of course, there were no records of humans with the virus, so it was impossible to say for sure, but some of the worlds who had come in contact with it had populations with physiologies approximately similar to human. Enough so he could see. This was not a virus that killed you quickly; this was a virus that ate you alive, slowly.
He watched the flickering blue of the empty monitor, willing it to come alive. Come on Hal, damn you. But the hours ticked by, and nothing. He rested when he needed to on the cot beside his monitor station, afraid to go too far away in case Jordan pinged again. That ended up being a good decision, because he was deep under when he heard the first ping, and he quickly sat up, kicking off the blanket Alfred had pulled over him. “Lantern,” he said, stumbling up. “I’m here. I have something for you to try. Can you—”
“Oh hell, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up. Go back to sleep, I’ll catch you later.”
“No,” he said hoarsely, reaching for the keyboard. “Wait. I’ve been doing some research, and I think there are some things that can be done to slow the virus’s progression while I work on potential treatment. Just hang on.” He reached for the coffee Alfred had left beside him – still warm enough to be drinkable – and his eyes came into focus, along with Jordan’s face. He wasn’t so much pale as ashen, which shouldn’t have been possible in someone so tan.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Oh, you know, I’ve been better.”
“Comes and goes. Mostly comes. Getting a little dizzy. Luckily my room’s not very big.”
“Have you had any contact with anyone? Have you let them know you’re symptomatic? What is the course of treatment they use?”
Jordan gave a weak smile. “Course of treatment? Pretty sure there’s not one of those. They lock you in a box for six weeks, and they open the door at the end of it to see if you’re alive, is how I’d summarize the course of treatment so far.”
“Has there been any change in your food and drink?”
“Oh.” He saw Jordan turn his head and glance at something. “Yeah. Forgot about that. Guess I ought to try to get some of that down me.”
“Is there any possibility that if you don’t remove your food tray, they might open the door to check on you? Or at least, open a viewing window?”
“No idea. I couldn’t swear to you this room isn’t full of viewing windows, actually. They’ve probably been monitoring me. They probably know I’m sick.”
It was what he had suspected, what he hadn’t wanted to be true. There was no plan to treat Jordan, and there never had been. There would be no medicine forthcoming; probably they would save any of that for their own people. “The Corps,” Bruce said. “You’ve got to notify them that you’re not receiving treatment. This has to be breaching any number of treaty agreements. If you can get word to them—”
“I tried that.”
“What do you mean, you tried it? Do you mean your ring isn’t working, or do you mean they haven’t responded?”
“I mean, I got the same answer I did before.”
Bruce was silent. The Corps was condemning him to die. And for what? For the sake of preserving the rules under which they were allowed to operate on various worlds? Because at the end of the day he was only one Green Lantern? Or because at the end of the day, he was only a human?
Jordan’s head was tipping back, his eyes sliding shut. Respiration much shallower. “Jordan,” he said loudly. “Wake up. When did you last drink something?”
Jordan licked his lips. They were swollen, cracked. The fever was clearly out of control. “Don’t remember,” he said. “I was trying. They do give me water. It’s just, it’s all the way across the room, and that got. . . difficult to navigate in the night. Or whenever it was. I don’t know.”
“I need you to focus. We need to get as much water in you as possible. Right now it’s your only medicine, and you need all of it. Can you get to the water?”
“Yeah, give me a sec.”
He watched Jordan struggle to stand. He hadn’t seen him standing in weeks. He was thin as a rail. If they had kept him better fed, he might have had a chance. Bruce fought the skitter of panic in his chest. He had had weeks to figure this out, and he had ignored it, and now Jordan would die because of him.
He watched as Jordan braced himself on the wall and drank down the glass of water. He watched him weave his way back to the bed. “M’kay,” Jordan mumbled, falling onto it. He was no longer visible on the screen. “Gonna sleep now.”
“Leave the monitor on.”
“Okay,” Clark said in his comm, “I’ve sent you everything I’ve got. Have you looked at it?”
“I have,” Bruce said grimly.
“I couldn’t find any records of Darleshan flu making it to Krypton, but they clearly knew about it. It appears to interact with Kryptonian physiology much as it does with any others. However—”
“However we don’t know about a Kryptonian whose physiology has been affected by a yellow sun,” Bruce finished. “Yes, I’ve thought about that. But it’s not just the risk to you we have to consider. And if Jordan is conscious when you try to retrieve him, he will resist you.”
“Damn right,” came the weak reply from the monitor.
“Oh okay, I’ll just be lying over here dying while Mommy and Daddy have grown-up talk. You and your secret meetings.” Jordan’s voice was slurred, and he wasn’t on camera – all Bruce could see was blank wall. “Hey, did you know there’s quite the betting pool about whether those secret meetings you guys have with Diana end in group sex?”
“They do,” Clark said. “Group sex for two of us, anyway.”
He could hear a rattle of a laugh from Jordan. “Aw poor Bats,” he said. “Always third-wheeling it.”
“Don’t encourage him,” Bruce said to Clark. “Send that last file again, it’s not translating. I need you to get to the Watchtower and log in there. Cross-reference with any of Lantern’s files there.”
“You need my log-in?” said Jordan’s voice.
“No, I have that.”
“Of course you do. What the ever-living fuck was I thinking.”
“Please try to get some rest.”
“Mm. Well since you said please.” His voice was slurring again.
“Okay, I’ll be in touch in a bit,” Clark said. “And you might take your own advice, about that rest.” He heard the click of Clark’s communicator shutting off before he could reply.
And then, nothing.
For three days there was no communication from Jordan. After three weeks of being hailed at roughly six-hour intervals, the line went dead. He wasn’t even sure if Jordan had intended to do it; maybe he had accidentally hit his monitor, maybe it had malfunctioned. Maybe he had been cut off on purpose. But for whatever reason, Bruce had looked up and suddenly the screen was blue.
For three days, he waited. He tried everything imaginable to open a line back up, but no available tech in the Cave or the Watchtower or anywhere on Earth was going to be able to lock onto that signal. Whatever hailing technology that planet was using, it wasn’t anything he could replicate here. But he still spent three days trying, three increasingly frantic days. Three days of beating back the obvious answer, which was that there was no one on the other end. Jordan had said that Darleshan flu took a long time to run its course, but on the other hand there were no available human comparanda; maybe it went faster in humans. Jordan’s fever could have spiked dangerously, unmanageably high, locked by himself in that metal box – minimal water, minimal food, no medicine of any kind. They had locked him up to die. It had been many years since Bruce had indulged in the sort of graphic revenge fantasies that had fueled much of his earlier years, but he gave in to them now. If Hal Jordan died, whoever was responsible would pay a terrible price, he would see to that. He would lock them in a metal box and laugh while they suffered. He would watch them writhe in agony, and he would feel only glee.
He did not keep himself from killing because he was not a killer. He kept himself from killing because he was a killer, and he knew it.
On the third day, Jordan pinged him. He lunged for the keyboard. “Keep this channel open,” he said, before anything else. “Hal? Can you hear me? Keep it open, do not close this again!”
“I’m sorry,” Jordan said, but it didn’t sound like his voice. It was strained, tight. “I thought I could – I was trying to do the right thing.”
“What the hell were you thinking? This is our only way of communicating, I can’t figure out a solution if you. . .”
Jordan wasn’t looking at the camera. Jordan’s eyes were skittering off, to left, to right. “Hal,” he said. “Hal, what’s—”
“I need. . . water. I can’t. . . find the water. And then I spilled it. I couldn’t. . . see.”
He stood. He had Jordan on the wide screen. “Couldn’t see,” he said. “What can’t you see?”
He just stood there, watching him. Watching the quick, frantic dart of those eyes. Those eyes desperately searching for light, and finding none. “When?” Bruce said, and he knew he sounded angry.
“I don’t. . . I don’t know. I give up on time, I don’t know, please stop asking me.” He rubbed a hand across his face. Bruce’s chest had a sharp sword in it, something he couldn’t breathe around, couldn’t talk around. “It happens sometimes,” Jordan was saying. “I saw it before. A couple of people. Right before the end, they. . . lost their sight. I’m actually. . . I’m better. It feels like the fever isn’t as bad. But I’m. . . really dizzy. I can’t find the water.”
“Listen to my voice,” Bruce said. “The water is behind you. It’s on the tray near the door. I’m going to guide you to it.”
“I can’t. I’m just. . . I’m too tired. I need to just—”
“Listen to me!” he yelled. “Goddammit Jordan, you listen to me. You will get up right now and go get that water, you pathetically self-pitying narcissistic overgrown juvenile. Get your cowardly ass up right now.”
There was a shadow of a smile on Jordan’s face. “You really don’t deal well with loss, do you?”
“Get up!” he barked, and Jordan did. And fell. Bruce heard the thunk of his body hitting the ground, saw him crumple. He held his breath. Jordan’s head reappeared. He was half-draped across his cot. “Okay,” he panted. “Took a bit of a wrong turn there.”
“Try again,” Bruce said. “On your feet. Give yourself time to adjust. Just concentrate on standing.”
“Okay,” Jordan said. His hands were shaking. His body was shaking. But he stood. He was facing the wall.
“Good. Now I want you to slide your left foot out, just about one pace. Don’t lift, slide. It will help with the dizziness.”
“I. . . okay.”
“Now turn your body to the left. The water is at one o’clock, about eleven paces from you.”
He watched Jordan struggle across. He was weaving heavily, and Bruce was afraid he was going to fall again. “Extend your right hand,” Bruce said. “You should be able to feel the wall now.”
“The water is to your right. Slide your hand down the wall, carefully. Now move it about eight inches to the right. Can you feel the tray?”
“The water is on the northeast corner of the tray. Move your hand slowly so you don’t knock it over. When you get there, lift it and drink all of it. All of it, right now. Do you understand?”
“I. . . yes.”
He watched Jordan drain the water. His hands were shaking. He had never seen Jordan’s hands shake. He willed that water to make it to his mouth, held his breath. The cup slipped from Jordan’s fingers and rolled to the floor, but he had drained it first. Jordan was leaning against the wall now, fingers digging into it like they were looking for a handhold. “Hal,” Bruce said softly. “You did great. You have to get back to the bed now.”
“I know. I’m just. . . resting.”
“You need to get your head on a level with your heart.”
“Oh I think that’s going to happen one way or the other.”
“If you feel like you’re going to pass out, slide down to the floor. You want to avoid a head injury if you can.”
“Yeah, ‘cause that would be bad.” Jordan went ahead and slid slowly down the wall. Bruce could only see the top part of his head, nothing below his eyes, which were closed anyway.
“Hey Bruce,” he said after a while. “Wanna hear something funny?”
“I really really really do not like the dark.”
Bruce was quiet at that. He thought of some of the things he had seen in the file he had subsequently erased, and why it might be that Hal Jordan did not like the dark. And now he was locked in it, and would likely die in it. “Want to hear something even funnier?” Bruce said.
“I don’t like the dark either.”
Hal turned his head in the rough direction of where the screen might be. “That’s. . . not funny at all, actually.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Hal turned his head the other direction. “I’m a little less dizzy now. I think the water helped.”
“Want to try to make it back to the bed?”
“Nah, I think I’ll stay here a bit. Thanks for helping me out.”
“Don’t thank me for doing what I’ve done too little of.”
“Bruce. There was nothing you could have done. Nothing you can do now. Just. . . stay on the line with me, all right?”
“I will. I’m not going anywhere.”
“This seems like a good time to apologize for maybe occasionally having been a complete dick to you.”
Bruce gave a short laugh. “On the other hand,” Jordan continued. “There’s something to be said for sticking with a winning formula.”
“There is indeed.”
“I was probably just mad that you’re hot, anyway. Seriously, that first fight, remember it? Against Darkseid? You took off your cowl, and I was like fucking shit but he’s hot. And then all I could think was goddammit, now I have to be attracted to the douchebag for the next however many years.” Jordan had turned his head back Bruce’s direction, but his eyes were closed, his head resting against the wall.
Bruce found nothing to say to that. His throat was dry, his chest tight. For the first time he was glad Jordan couldn’t see him. “That surprises you,” Jordan said.
“Well, I get attracted to a lot of people, don’t take it too personally.”
“Unless you wanted to, that is.”
“I. . . just to be clear. Are you flirting with me? On your deathbed and six thousand light-years from earth?”
Jordan laughed, and it was almost close to Jordan’s laugh – open and easy, white teeth flashing. It made it possible for a moment to forget the terrible thinness of his face, the shadow of beard, the grayness of his color. “Apparently so,” he said. “I am the king of great timing, huh.”
“To be fair,” Bruce pointed out, “better timing would not improve your chances.”
Jordan laughed again, but broke off coughing in the middle. The sound of the cough was evil and wet. His lungs had fluid. “Hal,” he said. “Don’t close the channel again. Do you promise me?”
Jordan’s coughing subsided, but it took him a minute to get his breath. He subsided back against the wall. “Gonna have to turn it off at some point,” he said. “This disease. . . it’s not something you want to see, at the end.”
“You are what I want to see.”
Jordan was silent at that. It was hard to tell what expression was on his face, at this distance and angle. Most of his face was hidden anyway. “Yeah,” he finally said. “Okay. I wouldn’t mind seeing you either, if I could. Hey, is it weird if I ask what you’re wearing?”
“I’m. . . not in the suit. Jeans and a shirt.”
“Jeans, really. Now I am sorry I’m blind. What kind of shirt?”
“White. Long sleeve. Sort of a. . . I don’t know, maybe a jersey. Some buttons at the front.”
“Are your sleeves down, or rolled up?”
“Wow. That is quite the mental image. Hey listen, I just thought of something. After I die, the Corps will know pretty much right way, because my ring will go back to them. But you’ll be in their records as my survivor, and they’ll send my death benefits to you.”
“The Corps has death benefits?”
“Yeah, pretty good ones. They’ll find a way to get the money to you. But there are some people I need you to send it on to, okay? I’ll have to tell you the address since I can’t write it down.”
“I know the address,” Bruce said.
“What the hell do you mean, you know the address.”
“I did some digging.”
Jordan was struggling to sit up more. Bruce could see more of his face now. “You. . . what the. . . fuck you, Bruce. My life is none of your business.”
“Well it certainly saves time now. And it does explain why you needed your salary so desperately, when so large a percentage of it never even goes into your bank account.”
Jordan had turned his face away from the screen, and there wasn’t much Bruce could see. His mouth was half-open, like he was still struggling for air after that coughing fit. It might be the slow suffocation of the fluid in his lungs that got him; Jordan was tough, and had been in top physical condition before he got infected. There would be no easy way out of his body, for him.
He wondered if Jordan could still use the ring to end it before things got too bad. He wondered if he was contemplating it now, locked in the unending dark. “I take back my apology,” Jordan said weakly. “When I apologized for being a dick to you.”
“That was predictable.”
“Stay out of my life, Bats.”
He said nothing to that. Jordan was seized by another coughing fit. This time he hunched over and spat something on the floor of his cell. When he raised his head he was even paler. “If it makes you feel better,” Bruce said, “I could tell you about—”
“It doesn’t,” Jordan said. “It doesn’t make me feel better. And if this is going to be you playing extra-special share time with me about something in your life, which I did not ask about, in order to make me feel better about your total fucking violation of my privacy, then you can just—” He was wracked by a third coughing spell. It was a long time before Bruce saw the top of his head again.
Jordan wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “I guess it doesn’t actually matter anymore,” he said, when he had breath again. “Come to think of it.”
“It does matter,” Bruce said. “I apologize.”
Jordan’s head swiveled to him, his blank bloodshot eyes looking somewhere to the left of him. “Well now I know I’m dying.”
He watched Jordan struggle painfully to his feet, stumble a few steps, then fall onto the cot. His T shirt was stained with sweat. He needed to be bathed with cool cloths, laid between clean sheets, an IV of fluids and every known antiviral stuck in every available vein. And instead, this was what he got. Hal Jordan deserved better than this. He deserved better than he had gotten from the world for most of his life, and certainly for his death.
“If you’re going to actually apologize, I guess I can maybe take back my apology retraction. Although,” he paused and swallowed. “It does occur to me maybe you want to make some apologies to me, for having been a total cuntwipe to me for most of the time you’ve known me. You know, since I’m on my death bed and everything.”
Bruce sat in silence, lost in thought. He was aware Jordan was talking just to talk, just to fill the unbearable quiet pressing in on him. The possibilities were racing in his head – send Clark, contact the Corps, mobilize the League, maybe find a way to render Hal unconscious before Clark arrived so he couldn’t resist. He could not sit here and watch Hal Jordan die in a box halfway across the universe.
“Bruce? Bruce, are you there? Where—are you there?”
“Sorry,” he said. “Sorry. I’m here.”
“Oh. Okay. I thought—I thought you were gone.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Want to play a game?”
“What kind of game?”
“The kind of game where we pretend it’s like six months ago, and none of this has happened.”
“Sounds like an excellent game.”
“Yeah, it does,” Jordan said. “And let’s play it’s after a League meeting. One of the ones where we didn’t end up yelling at each other.”
“I have never yelled at you. I’m not your fourth-grade gym teacher, Jordan.”
“Okay, fine, pick whatever word you like. Let’s say you didn’t end up growling at me, is that better? Whatever, not the point. But let’s say that we’re talking after the meeting, just shooting the shit.”
“About what?” Bruce said skeptically.
“About. . . I don’t know, anything. You suck at this game, did you never play pretend when you were little? Or did you save it all for dress-up when you got older?”
“Oh for the love of—we’re all playing dress-up, more or less. All of us in the League. The only difference is, you got to design what you’re wearing, and I didn’t, which is why what you’re wearing looks a thousand times cooler. Fucking capes, man. Why did I never think to negotiate a cape? Think the Corps would have gone for it? On the other hand, it would tend to obscure my best feature. I’m sure you agree with me there.”
The man was rambling, blank eyes fever-bright again. “Tell me what you wanted to pretend,” Bruce said.
“I forget. It’s stupid anyway.”
“I just wanted to pretend that things between us were different. That’s all. That we could have found a way to make them different. You ever think that? Of course you don’t. Well, these are the things you think about, when your brain tissue starts to swell.”
Bruce tried to think of something to say to that, but found nothing. And a quiet companionship wouldn’t work, if Jordan couldn’t see him. “I dodged your question,” he finally said.
“Oh yeah? Which one?”
“About what happened after I came back from failing out of Princeton.”
“Okay, I’m listening. What did you do?”
“Opened my veins in a downstairs bathtub.”
Jordan was quiet. “Yeah,” he said after a while. “Okay. I can see that. What stopped you?”
“Nothing. Alfred found me, but he wouldn’t have if he had stuck to his schedule that day. He came back to the house. I had been considerate, and chosen one of the bathrooms that was easiest to clean. At the time it seemed perfectly logical.”
“You didn’t think about what you were doing to him?”
“No,” Bruce said. “But then, I lack your instinct for that. For all that you talk a good game, you find it easy to care about people, in a way that I don’t. To think first about how your actions might affect them. That does not come as easily to me. I do it, but it’s not instinctual.”
“You still have the scars?”
“That one of the reasons you like long sleeves?”
“’Cause I bet you did a righteous job of it. You didn’t fuck around.”
“I did not.”
“You ever tell anyone? I mean, other than Alfred and the nine thousand doctors I’m sure he hauled your ass to?”
“No. People in the League assume they’re combat scars, I would imagine. Like I said, people see what they want to see.”
“Yeah. Not my favorite metaphor right now.”
“I have to sleep now. I think. Maybe I’m just passing out.”
“Do you have a pillow?”
“Yeah. Generous of them, huh.”
“Sit up and wedge it behind your back, against the wall. Try to sleep like that. It will help with the fluid accumulation in your lungs.”
“Okay. Am I – like that?”
“That’s it, just like that.”
“I was going to make up something nice to say. To Barry. Oliver. Will you. . . I don’t know, I can’t think. You’ll make it nice.”
He tried not to stand there in silence. Tried to open his mouth and tell Jordan he was being unreasonable, that he would be fine. That he wasn’t dying. But no one deserved to hear lies, and especially not at the end. He himself would have wanted the truth. “Of course,” he said. “I’ll write something down. I’ll use small words, so they’ll think you wrote it.”
He watched the slow brush of a smile against those thin cracked lips, mostly hidden by beard. “Such an asshole,” he whispered. “I would tell you to make up something for yourself too, but you’re a pretty good detective, I bet you know what I want to say anyway.”
Vicious claws raked his throat. He would speak, but there would be blood running down his neck. “You need to know,” he managed. “The room isn’t dark. There’s plenty of light. You’re not in the dark, I promise.”
“I’m. . . glad,” he said, and his voice was so faint Bruce was unsure if maybe he had said something more, and he just hadn’t heard it. And then his eyes flickered open again, staring and blank.
“Thank you,” he said. “For staying on the line. I think I’m strong enough to do this now.” His hand reached for something below the screen Bruce couldn’t see.
“Hal, what are you—”
“Jordan out,” he said, and the screen went dead black.
“NOOO!” Bruce bellowed, but it was too late, like everything he had done he was too late, too late. He stood trembling in the bluescreen wash of the monitor, staring frozen at the nothingness.
Before they even began, he knew they were done.
He mobilized the League within the hour, and Clark locked on Hal’s last known signal, or what they could piece together from his communications with Bruce. Clark was the only one who could move at the speed they needed, but Bruce launched the Javelin as well, and Diana and Barry went with him, and Oliver stayed on the Watchtower to continue monitoring any and all interstellar frequencies, to keep sending as many distress signals as possible to what they presumed to be the general direction of Oa – repeated signals that were never answered, never acknowledged.
Clark pored over all of Hal’s communications with Bruce, and together they searched for any clue as to location, but what they discovered was even worse than Bruce had feared. The planet that Hal should be on simply wasn’t there. There was a blank spot in space where the planet ought to exist.
“This is shielding technology we’ve just never seen before,” Clark said. “If this is the origin of the signal—”
“It is,” Bruce said tersely.
“But there might be a possibility you’re mistaken, that a signal traveling over that distance could—”
“I’m not mistaken.”
“Then how the hell do we penetrate technology we have no understanding of?”
“I can—I can come up with a way, I can think of something—”
“Keeping the Javelin here could be read as a hostile act that might raw unwanted attention,” Diana pointed out.
“Maybe unwanted attention is exactly what we want!” Barry said. “Maybe if we just park here we could get these assholes’ attention.”
“Or maybe we’re wrong, and there’s nothing here, and we’re parked in empty space instead of searching for Hal,” Clark pointed out.
“My calculations are not mistaken,” Bruce said. “We have to keep looking. There’s a whole series of calibrations I haven’t tried, and we can try traveling to the nearest Oan-linked world – we know Hal was able to communicate with the Corps from here, we have proof of that, we could try to find Oa if I could isolate the signal pattern that—”
“Bruce,” Clark said, and he hated the gentle tone of Clark’s voice, the eminent reasonableness of his face, so he ignored it. He went to work, and sleep became a memory. After six days he brought the Javelin back to the Watchtower, a three-day journey, and he re-stocked and began another series of calculations from the databanks of the Watchtower. They were all working frantically, and they were all ignoring the way the hours, the days ticked by.
But before they began, he had known it would be no good. Jordan out, Hal had said, and he had known too, that was why he had said it. The taste of failure was flat and sour in Bruce’s mouth, and he woke up to the taste and went to sleep with it, he breathed it and ate it and wore it and shat it. His failure, from first to last. He had failed Hal Jordan, who had never – bitter, bitter to acknowledge this now – failed him, in word or deed.
And in the third week of their search, he stood staring at the endless scroll of starmaps and signal calculations on his screen at the Watchtower, and in a sudden flash of clarity he saw the hollow futility of it for what it was: a sad attempt to make his own failure less real. In silence he walked to the monitor, and switched it off. He stood there in the dark, and let himself feel what it must have cost Jordan, with his last ounce of strength, to turn off the signal on his end. To face an agonizing death alone, and with honor. Unflinching to the end.
“Forgive me,” he said, into the dark.
He didn’t hurl anything, and he didn’t yell or scream. He stood there in the dark, and then he walked silently to the zeta platform that would take him back to Earth, and back at home he fell on his bed, and he slept for seventeen hours – his first real sleep since Hal had disconnected the signal. He woke to the same taste of failure, and knew that it would be with him for the rest of his life. Lurking in the back of his throat, resting at the base of his tongue. Every word he spoke would be weighted with this failure, from here on out. He knew the taste, recognized it. It had been in the back of his mouth since he had failed Jason in Sarajevo. It was an old friend. But he had gotten Jason back, past all hope and reckoning. He would not be getting Hal Jordan back.
They held a memorial service for Hal, on the Watchtower. It was solemn and dignified and probably very moving; he couldn’t tell. Bruce stood there unmoving and unspeaking, staring straight ahead, and he listened to Oliver as he broke down in loud harsh sobs, and he heard the tight desperate clench of Barry’s voice, and he saw all their grief, but it was like it was happening outside of him, far away from him. Inside him was only emptiness. He had no right to mourn, no right to grieve like these good brave people. Diana took her mantle and covered her head with it in the age-old gesture of grief, and Clark’s beautiful face looked beautifully shattered, and his words in the eulogy were grave and respectful. None of it felt real. Only his failure was real.
The night of the memorial service, afterward, he went back to the Cave and tried to return to work – normal work, or as normal as his work got. Or at least, he told himself that was what he was going to do. He sat at his console, where he had been sitting the first time Hal had pinged him.
He tapped the keys that would call up the recorded feed. In silence he hit play.
He sat there and watched all of it, over again, from the beginning. It was some thirteen hours of feed. All of their conversations, from all Hal’s time in quarantine. For some of it Bruce killed the audio – he had the words memorized anyway – and just watched. He watched in silence, images of Hal flickering on the screen the only bright thing in the darkness of the Cave. His laugh, his easy grin, the cock of his brow. His stare into the camera, the occasional leer.
After a while he became aware that Clark was standing in the shadows of the Cave, and maybe had been for some time. He heard Clark’s step, and felt the firm comforting hand on his shoulder. “You did everything you could,” said Clark’s beautifully resonant voice, and Bruce pushed the hand off his shoulder.
“Don’t ever say that to me again,” he said, and rose, turning off the feed.
“Bruce,” Clark said, but Bruce was headed up the stairs, ignoring him. There were some things he couldn’t explain, even to Clark.
And in the sixth week, there came the phone call in the middle of the night that he hadn’t known he was waiting for.
Bruce pushed through the hospital doors, and the blood pounding in his ears and his chest made it impossible to hear anything, understand anything. “What’s going on?” he snapped. “Where is he? What’s happening?”
They were all talking at once, Oliver louder than any of them, a strange agitated knot of people in the corner of an ER waiting room at three in the goddamned morning, and there was a woman in a surgical mask who was trying to make herself heard. “If you’ll just calm down,” she said to Oliver, for what was clearly the fortieth time.
“Please tell us what’s happening,” Clark pleaded.
“I’m trying,” she said. “But there’s a limit to what medical information I can give to non-family members—”
“Come the fuck on!” Oliver shouted. “You can’t be serious! I am his best friend, and I’m telling you—”
“I’m his husband,” Bruce said, his voice cutting across the shouting. Oliver was staring at him.
"Do what now?" he said.
Every head had swiveled to Bruce. They all froze, and he ignored them, looking only at the doctor. “You will take me to my husband immediately, or this hospital will be shutting its doors within the month after the multi-million dollar lawsuit I will bring against every employee within the sound of my voice, do you understand me?”
“What the—” Oliver said.
“Of course,” the doctor said briskly. “There’s limited visitation in the ER, but you can take one other visitor with you, if you’d like. If you’ll follow me we can—”
“Clark, with me,” he said, and “Of fucking course he picks him,” Oliver said loudly, but what didn’t Oliver do loudly, and Bruce didn’t care, couldn’t care about any of it. He saw only the doctor’s face and the antiseptic hallway, and he walked quickly after her without looking to see if Clark was behind him, and the pounding in his chest was getting stronger, faster.
“What’s his condition,” Bruce said, and his voice was harsh, angry. Did his voice always sound like that? There were people brushing past him in the hallway, and he had to trot to keep up with her, because she was slight but faster-moving than you might think, and he was trying to hear what she was saying.
“He was unconscious when he was brought in,” she was saying, “but his condition has improved substantially, and his priority stabilization—”
She was saying words, and then more words, but he didn’t hear any of them, not a goddamn thing, because they had rounded a corner and there across the room was Hal. It was Hal. Really and truly Hal. He was sitting, sitting on the corner of a cot in the crowded ER, and he was pale and he looked thirty pounds underweight and his arm was in a sling and his hair was over-long and his cheekbones shadowed with recently shaved stubble, but he glanced across the room and saw Bruce there – really saw him, with his eyes, and there was a small quirk of smile on his face when he saw Bruce.
“Hey,” he said weakly, and that was the moment when Bruce saw nothing and no one else in the room, when everything fell away.
He strode across the crowded room in three steps, and he never knew who he pushed out of the way or stepped over or shoved aside to get there, and the coat on his arm had been thrown on a chair and somehow Hal was in his arms, and all he heard was his own voice saying "I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, sorry sorry I’m sorry," and Hal’s voice whispering "hey no hey it’s all right, I’m here, it’s all right now, hey." His arms were wrapped around Hal, whose good arm was just as tightly around him. Hal’s hair smelled of hospital antiseptic and something else, something distinctly and only Hal. Was there a reason they hadn’t done this before? It seemed like there was, but he couldn’t think what it was now. This was the only thing that made sense.
Dimly he was aware that Clark was drawing the curtain around them and standing guard outside it, but for long minutes he was aware of nothing else but the feel of Hal – warm, solid, alive, really and profoundly alive – in his arms. He breathed in with every breath that Hal drew. “Okay but breathing is still a thing I gotta do,” Hal said faintly, and Bruce managed a laugh and released him, fractionally. He skimmed his hands over Hal’s hair, his cheeks, his jaw, examining him almost frantically, searching for he didn’t know what.
“Hey,” Hal said, grabbing his hands. “It’s me, okay? I’m here. I made it. I’m sure I look like hell, but I swear to you I’m fine.”
“How?” he managed, and Hal gave that weary smile again.
“Not really sure,” he said. “I was unconscious for a lot of it. I think I just got lucky, is all. When they opened the room, I was still alive. So they threw me on the next transport back to my system, and pitched me overboard. Kind of literally, which is how I ended up here, I think – I’m not really recovered enough yet to use the ring well, and I think I might have passed out on re-entry. The ring probably broke my fall a bit, but it wasn’t what you would call a soft landing.”
And then Bruce noticed that the arm in the sling had a cast on it, which he had completely not seen before, and Hal gave another short laugh. “It’s just broken,” he said. “Believe me, that is the least bad thing that has happened to me recently. You know what? I never broke anything when I was a kid, and I was always so damn jealous of all those kids who got to have everybody sign their cast. You think the League will sign my cast for me? I mean, how awesome would that be? I could sell that fucker on eBay for a cool million.”
Hal was saying words, but Bruce couldn’t manage to listen to them, not really. He only saw Hal, and the smile on his face and the light in his tired eyes, and the sound of the voice that was really his. He kept studying his eyes; he was brushing his fingers over Hal’s eyes, and didn’t realize he was doing it until Hal grabbed his hands again.
“I think they’re keeping me overnight for observation,” Hal said. “You’ll stay, yeah?”
Bruce folded him in his arms again, but tried to leave room for breathing this time. Hal rested his forehead against Bruce’s. Bruce found nothing to say to Hal’s question, because what was there left to say? “I forgot to tell you,” he whispered at last. “There’s a sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“You are fucking kidding me,” Hal murmured into his shoulder.
“It’s part one of a trilogy.”
“Jesus Christ. I take it back, it’s time for the radioactive xenovirus to wipe out this entire planet.”
“Welcome to Earth,” Bruce said, and the slight whuff of Hal’s laugh was the sweetest thing he had ever felt against his body, and the most joyful.
“Oh yeah, completely shielded, you were right about that part,” Hal said, around a mouthful of Big Belly Burger. Arrayed on the table beside his hospital bed were numerous paper sacks: five orders of Belly-Burster burgers, and four milkshakes. Bruce had been unsure what his preferred flavor was, so he had ended up ordering Nutella, S’mores, Oreo, and raspberry white chocolate chip. He had arrived weighed down with sacks of food, and though he had been a little worried Hal might feel too nauseated to eat, he need not have worried about that: Hal had caught sight of the sacks, and his face had split in a wide grin. “All fucking right, come to papa,” he said with relish, kicking back the blanket.
Bruce watched him eat in bemused fascination, as he plowed steadily through burger number one, then burger number two, and only began to slow down in the middle of burger number three. If the man could eat like that for the next month, he might put back on some of the weight he had lost, but he was painfully, starkly thin. “Anyway,” Hal continued, shoving some stray lettuce back into his mouth. “Yeah, that planetary shielding technology is some next-level shit, and fuck if I know a way around it. What’s kind of hilarious is how much money they poured into that, to protect themselves from the next interplanetary war, instead of into like, I don’t know, a cure for Darleshan flu maybe? So it’s not just our planet and the whole military-industrial complex bullshit, which may or may not be some comfort.”
“Now you sound like Ollie,” Bruce said, and Hal laughed.
“Yeah, speaking of, what the hell is up with him? He left me the strangest voicemail, I couldn’t understand what the hell he was talking about. He’s sounds pretty upset at me about something, and I think maybe he was drunk? Rambling on at me about how I never tell him anything, why do I always have to keep secrets, why wouldn’t I trust him enough to talk to him? I mean, sorry for being a little preoccupied while I was fucking dying, man.” He took another contemplative bite of his burger, and smeared the secret sauce off with the back of his hand.
“Not to mention Barry. He was completely incomprehensible, something about being honest with him, and maybe my life choices? I don’t remember that much of the ER, so who knows that the hell I did. Evidently something.”
“Ah,” Bruce said. “Well. That. . . does not actually have anything to do with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I very possibly might have announced to the entire League that you and I are married.”
Hal froze mid-bite. “You. . . what?”
Bruce winced. “It was the only way to be allowed to see you, last night. And I. . . might not have been thinking very clearly.”
Hal slowly set his burger down. He blinked a few times, and then he started to laugh – a slow, rich warm laugh that crinkled the corners of his eyes. He leaned his head back against the pillow and gave himself to it. “No no wait,” he said. “Please paint this picture for me. I just want to see Oliver’s face, for the rest of my life.”
“It wasn’t that dramatic,” Bruce said.
“Oh right,” Hal said, “because when do you ever do anything dramatically, I don’t know what I was worried about. Oh my Jesus Christ, oh please fuck me,” he said weakly, still laughing so hard Bruce was beginning to be worried for him.
“I can clear this up with the League immediately,” Bruce said, but Hal waved his arm at him.
“Oh don’t you fucking dare,” he said. “We are going to milk this but good. I’m gonna go get myself registered at one of those wedding stores, where people have to give you presents and shit? I am getting a new Xbox out of this, at the very least. This is the best thing to ever happen to me.”
“That is not really a traditional wedding present,” Bruce pointed out.
“Well, ours is not really a traditional marriage.” Hal was pulling the Nutella milkshake toward him and diving in with a spoon. “God, I love everything about this planet,” he said, closing his eyes as he savored. “So listen, about that whole little situation, I swear just as soon as I am up and out of this bed I will take care of it. I realize that like nine-tenths of you is wondering if I just faked my almost-death exclusively in order to dick you over.”
“That isn’t at all what I think,” Bruce said, and Hal set down his milkshake.
“I know,” he said. “Hey. You’re kind of a long way away over there.”
And it was true: Bruce had positioned himself so he was leaning on the ventilation console by the window, arms crossed, halfway across the room from Hal. He had not left Hal’s side last night, not once. He had stayed with him in the ER, and then when they had finally found a room for him, Bruce had traveled upstairs with him, holding his hand in the gurney the whole way. Visiting hours were over on the floor, but no one had dared turn him away. Hal had been exhausted by the time they had gotten him in bed in his room, but he had still been desultorily awake, his eyes flicking open every now and again to rest on Bruce sitting beside him, and at some point in the night their hands had found each other again, and they had stayed like that, Bruce’s head finally collapsing onto the bed beside him for a few hours’ fitful sleep. At dawn he had slipped away to shower and change and bring Hal some actual food, and now. . . now, in the light of day, he found himself unsure of what had seemed obvious, before. Perhaps the rules before had been different, and now they were themselves again.
Visiting hours for non-family would begin in just another half an hour. There was only a small window of time left in which he could be alone with Hal. And then Oliver and Barry and everyone else would flood in, and he himself would have no more claim on him.
“There is. . . another possibility to consider,” Bruce said carefully, weighing his words. “If we were to. . . leave things as they are, legally speaking, then if you were ever in another situation similar to the one you were in last night, things might be easier. It can be helpful, is my point. Obviously we can make financial arrangements about your paycheck, with no difficulty.”
Hal wasn’t saying anything, just studying him. It had never occurred to him that Lantern’s gaze was unsettling, but it was. “There’s something else,” Bruce continued. “You’ve been part-time at Ferris for a while now. Your insurance is not very good. That arm is going to need extensive physical therapy, none of which is covered by their policy. Staying on my insurance is going to be your best bet for now. Delaying a divorce makes good financial sense.”
Hal stuck the spoon back in his milkshake and wiped his mouth. He went back to studying Bruce. “Does it now,” he said.
“I just think it’s worth thinking about.”
“Yeah,” Hal said. “Okay, listen. The thing is—”
“I realize practical considerations are not your strength, but this—”
“You wanna shut up a minute? Practical considerations not my strength, Jesus Christ listen to you. Look, I got a fifty-pound weight strapped to my arm and I don’t really feel like moving, is there no way you would consider coming a little closer?”
“Sorry,” Bruce said, and came to sit in the chair beside the bed.
“How about a little closer than that?”
Bruce maneuvered himself so he was sitting, gingerly, on the side of the bed. “This makes me nervous,” he said.
“Because I am between you and the food.”
“Such an asshole,” Hal sighed. “Look. I talk a lot of shit, and I know it, all right? But this is not me talking shit. Do you remember. . . do you remember some of the stuff we talked about, before? When I was. . . in quarantine?”
“Yes,” Bruce said.
“You said—” Hal laughed a little. “You accused me of flirting with you, six thousand light years from Earth and on my death bed.”
“I said I was the king of bad timing.”
“Yes,” Bruce said again. He was staring at his folded hands.
“And you said that better timing wouldn’t really improve my chances.”
“I know what I said.”
“It’s just. . . I know I can be an asshole, but I’m not the asshole who can’t take no for an answer. So this is me asking if that’s really your answer, for real, and if you say yes it is, I’ll never bring it up again, I swear to you. We’ll never talk about it again.”
Bruce’s hands were knotted fists. “I can’t not ask,” Hal said, his voice gone quiet. “I can’t not try. Bruce. If—if being my friend is all that you can give me, then that is what we’ll be, and I will be honored till the day I die to be your friend. Is that what we are, Bruce? Because this is your call.”
Bruce was silent. He waited for Hal to say something else, but it was clear he wasn’t going to. Bruce watched a drop of moisture slide down the side of one of the milkshakes, weaving its way down the Styrofoam. “Yes,” he said. There was silence next to him.
“Okay,” Hal said.
“And,” Bruce said.
“Could we leave it at and, do you think? For now, at any rate?”
“Bruce.” Hal’s voice was low and intent. “If you give me an ‘and,’ I will put all the money in my pockets on that ‘and.’ I will put all the money in your pockets on it. Just give me a foot in the fucking door, that’s all I’m asking.”
Bruce was still studying his hands. It wasn’t that he was unaware how stiff and awkward he was, sitting here on the edge of the bed, staring at his hands like an idiot. “Some of. . . your assumptions about me,” he said. “About me and intimacy. They weren’t entirely incorrect. There are certain things I am. . . not excellent at.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Hal said softly.
Bruce raised his head and met the warm brown eyes that were startlingly close to his. Hal’s shoulder was leaning into his, and the pressure steadied him somehow. “I failed you once,” Bruce said. “I won’t fail you again.”
“Bruce. You didn’t fail me, you giant sack of emotional disorders. Not being able to magically fix an impossible situation is not called failing. That’s called being human.”
“I’m not excellent at that, either.”
Hal gave another slow smile at that, and Bruce felt a small lift in his chest. “Look out,” Hal said, “I’m about to make my smooth move.”
He leaned closer, but Bruce leaned in before he could close the distance, and brushed his lips against Hal’s. He could smell Big Belly secret sauce and Nutella, and a warm indefinable something, and then Hal’s lips were moving against his – a bit chapped, and firm, and oh God so good. He wasn’t aware he was the one who had opened his mouth and pushed his tongue against Hal’s until it had happened, but he had needed to be closer, taste more. Hal’s hand was on the back of his neck, and his fingers were firm too. Bruce’s brain rocketed ahead, and saw Hal naked underneath him, saw their naked bodies rocking together, Hal’s head bent back while he gasped, Bruce would make him cry out with such pleasure, he would make him groan and writhe and moan Bruce’s name.
Bruce pulled back fractionally and shut his eyes. “You okay?” Hal whispered.
“Slowing it down?”
“Okay but Bruce?”
“I need. . . I need you not to. I just. . . don’t, okay?”
Bruce opened his eyes, and saw the last ten weeks in Hal’s eyes – the terrible aloneness, the sensory deprivation, the scour of isolation. They had locked him in a box at the edge of the universe and left him to die. Bruce gripped his neck and pulled him in again, and this time he did not hold back, he put all his hunger and arousal into Hal’s mouth for Hal to taste, all his darkest and most urgent fantasies.
“Yeah,” Hal groaned, when he came up for air, and then their mouths were back together, tongues sliding and pushing and Christ but he wanted to fuck him. He would fuck him until they both bled come.
Bruce pulled away again, and this time he slid effortlessly to the floor. “What are you—” Hal said, but then he stopped talking, because Bruce was on his knees and pushing that hospital gown up to bare skin.
“Jesus,” Hal said, that same tight sound as before.
So of all the strange turns his life had taken, without doubt the strangest was sucking off Hal Jordan in his hospital bed, kneeling right there on the floor, in a room with a door that didn’t even have a lock on it. He couldn’t have said why he did it. He would never have told Hal it was the first time he had done it. All his other sexual encounters with other men had been purely selfish; they had been about leaning back and getting his cock sucked by some lovely lean-shouldered thing whose name he might not possibly know, or pushing his cock with long slow strokes into an impossibly warm and flexible body. It had not occurred to him to want another man’s pleasure. And so this took him aback, his fierce desire to see Hal’s pleasure, to give him pleasure. Because it was important that it be his mouth giving him the pleasure.
He sucked him slowly and with intent. “Bruce,” Hal gasped, digging fingers into his shoulder. “Fuck.”
Hal’s cock was as warm and firm as the rest of him, and a bit thicker than Bruce had reckoned. It made a very satisfying mouthful, though he had no real basis of comparison, and of course he couldn’t fit him all in, so he got imaginative with his tongue, as much as he was able. Once or twice he relaxed his throat and took him all the way back, and that was when Hal stopped clutching at his shoulder and just tipped back against the bed, lying flat.
“God—fuck—Bruce, I’m gonna come,” he whispered. Bruce brushed his thumb against those soft heavy balls, pressing them lightly, working them a little, and he had begun to concentrate on that so was a little taken off guard when he felt the shaking of Hal’s thighs and the sudden bitter flood of come in his mouth. Hal made the most delicious noise imaginable – a sort of low keen, but there was no noise behind it, just a strangle of pure pleasure as he spilled come into Bruce’s mouth, grinding up into Bruce’s mouth.
“Oh God,” he whimpered softly, and then he went limp, and Bruce could hear his breathing.
He rose and carefully replaced the gown, tucking it around him, and then sat back down beside Hal, who pulled himself upright and regarded him gravely.
“Well that took a turn,” he said.
“I said I wasn’t excellent at this, not that I was horrible at it.”
Hal’s smile was bleary and sated. “That was kind of exactly what I needed,” he murmured.
Hal pulled him in for more kissing, which surprised Bruce a little, but it didn’t seem to bother Hal. Hal’s good hand was brushing his cheek while they kissed. Hal’s mouth seemed as hungry for him as he was for Hal. He didn’t know how long they sat there kissing. They were sitting side by side, more or less annealed together, and Hal’s hand was sliding to Bruce’s waist. “Let’s not press our luck,” Bruce said softly.
“Mm,” Hal said. “I feel like you need to be reminded who you’re ‘anding’ with here. Pressing my luck is what I do. I don’t mean to brag but it’s kind of like a trademark.”
Bruce kissed that smart mouth some more, and their kisses were slower and messier now. Longer, too. The low steady thrum in his groin was exquisite.
Hal’s hand kept sliding to his crotch. “I’m thinking there might be a little something I can do for you,” he whispered.
“Ah,” Bruce said. “Well. The truth is, I’m something of a fan of. . . delayed gratification.”
“There’s an argument to be made that we’ve delayed quite a few years already.” Hal’s mouth was doing an equally deft slide to his neck.
“Yes,” Bruce said. “But certain things are easier for you than they are for me. Is that. . . all right?”
Hal sat back, removing his hand from Bruce’s waist. He lifted Bruce’s hand and brushed his lips against the knuckles, just a gentle back and forth. He spread Bruce’s hand and held the hand to his cheek, tight and warm. He put his face back against Bruce’s, nuzzling at the side of his neck, his ear. “Your pace,” he said quietly. “You call the shots here, okay?”
Bruce nodded, and they were kissing again, his hand tangling in all that gloriously over-long hair. And then the hospital door banged open, and they sprang apart on the bed like guilty middle schoolers. “Good morning Mr. Jordan, time for your morning labs!” the nurse announced cheerily, setting down her tray of vials and syringes, and checking his chart. “My name is Kimberley, and I’ll be your nurse for this shift, okay?”
“Sounds great,” Hal said, with a noticeably appreciative glance at Kimberley’s trim backside as she was writing on the whiteboard.
“How have you been feeling?”
“Much better now that you’re here,” he said with a big smile, and Bruce rolled his eyes. Hal’s hand found his on the bed and closed on it, tightly. Interestingly, he did not release the hand when Kimberley turned around. Funny how easy it was to read him now; funny how he knew exactly what Hal was saying, even with no words spoken. Relax, he was saying. I’m right here. I’m always gonna flirt, and I’m always gonna look, but it will never mean anything.
“I’ll need your arm in just a minute,” Kimberley said, smiling back. “Time for your friendly neighborhood vampire to get her daily gallon of blood. But it says on your chart you might be released by the end of the day, so that’s good news, right?”
“The best,” Hal said. He released Bruce’s hand so he could extend his good arm to her, and she tied the tourniquet, with only a small glance at Bruce. “This is my husband,” Hal said.
“Oh God,” Bruce sighed.
“I mean, for now he is, anyway. We’ll see, moving forward, how things go. A-plus so far, though.”
“Oh. Nice to meet you,” she said to Bruce, who gave her a taut smile.
“We’re also dating,” Hal added, in a confidential whisper.
“Oh! Ah, okay,” she said brightly.
“He’s on quite a bit of Percodan,” Bruce said.
“Okay,” she said again. It was clear her sunny smile never wavered, no matter what it was confronted with. “I’ll be back to check on you at my next rounds, all right, Mr. Jordan? In the meantime you just buzz me if you need anything.” She flashed him one more radiant smile, and was out the door.
“You complete idiot,” Bruce said. “Come here.” He gripped the back of Hal’s neck and pulled him in, and they were kissing again, and he could feel Hal’s smile against his mouth. Or possibly it was his own.
Chapter 9: Epilogue
There was a rhythmic insistent shaking of the bed, like the earth’s crust had begun to shift and dissolve. Earthquake, possibly. Bruce burrowed back under the nearest available pillow and decided to wait it out.
“Nope,” said the cheerful voice. “Not today, asshole. Today’s the day. Come on, up and at ‘em.”
Bruce expressed his opinion that perhaps it would be a good idea if they decided to sleep a few more hours, and politely requested that the curtains be closed again. Or he might have just growled angrily. “Oh no you don’t,” Jordan said, still with that nauseatingly cheerful tone. “You don’t wanna be late for our big day. Come on, get that gorgeous ass up.” He plucked back the covers and smacked Bruce right on the ass, which was of course his mistake – fast as a cat, Bruce had grabbed his wrist and had him pinned on his back in the wide bed, and had crawled on top of him.
“Oh so that’s how it is, huh,” Hal said. “What’re you gonna do with me now, I wonder.”
“Whatever I want,” Bruce murmured, starting with the hollow at the base of his neck. “Mmm,” he sighed, feeling the long lean body relax beneath him. Hal already had underwear on, which was rude. Bruce stretched and rubbed his morning wood against Hal’s bulge, pressing into that wondrously warm body.
“Now you’re just trying to distract me,” Hal said, but his voice was softer.
“How am I doing?”
“Babe. Seriously. We gotta move a little faster than this.”
“That’s not what you said last night,” Hal said with a grin, and Bruce gave a long-suffering sigh. Hal’s lame “last night” jokes were a stock-in-trade, and he rarely missed an opportunity to make one, preferably within Alfred’s hearing, or even worse, one of the boys. Jason had been known to high-five him.
“You’re eleven,” Bruce said. But he pressed into Hal a bit more firmly, rubbing back and forth. His cock was beginning to ache a bit, but not unpleasantly.
“Bruce. I get what you’re doing here, but it’s time for those dreaded six words.”
“Bring me coffee right goddamn now?”
“I jacked off in the shower.”
Bruce raised his head. “You did what?”
“Hey, I’ve been up for a really long time, and every time I poked at you, you growled at me! Literally and actually growled, I should point out.”
“I have no memory of that.”
“Yeah well, I believe it.” But Hal was smiling, and his hands, temporarily released from bondage, were stroking Bruce’s sides.
Bruce squinted at him. “Why were you up so early?”
“Carol called. Wanted to see if I could log an extra flight this morning, some problem with one of the new pilots she’s hired. So I said I could and got all ready, and then she texted back, said conditions are too shit to fly right now. So then I couldn’t go back to sleep. Just as well, I’m probably too sore to sit in a cockpit today anyway.”
Bruce smirked. “And why would that be, Captain Jordan?”
“Because some asshole with an erectile disorder doesn’t know how to let other people get some sleep, apparently.”
“I have no memory of that either.”
“Yeah well, you wouldn’t.” While they had been talking, Hal’s hand had worked its way in between them and had just been quietly thumbing Bruce’s stiffened cock. As with so much between them, there were always two things happening: there were their words, and then there were the deeper things beneath the words. Bruce let his head rest in the hollow of Hal’s shoulder.
“Feel good, baby?” Hal whispered, and Bruce nodded, his eyes closed. Hal’s hand worked and stroked him to a quiet orgasm, and when he came his fingers curled into the mattress and his mouth opened, but he made no sound. Hal never sped up or got rough; he just kept up a slow, steady, never increasing pace, almost idly, until Bruce found himself unable to take it anymore, and he would spill over Hal’s hand in quiet wracking spasms.
Sometimes Hal would ask things of him, when he knew he was close. Stay quiet. Don’t make a sound. Things that drove him wild, things that made his balls ache to remember. Don’t move, okay? Just don’t. . . move. Denial, delay, restraint. Denial again. Endless edging. He had thought for so long he was broken, warped in some fundamental way because those were the things he needed. But Hal treated it all like he was perfectly normal, treated him like he was perfectly normal. More than normal: like he was perfect. As though all of his quirks and oddities, all his kinks and needs, everything that had made him flinch from human contact for so many years—as though all of that were wonderful, were arousing even. Outside of bed, of course, Hal’s tongue was as sharp and irreverent as ever. But in bed, Bruce was constantly being broken open by the man’s tenderness, his care, his patience.
Bruce brushed a hand across Hal’s hair. “You sure about this?” he murmured.
“Yeah,” Hal said. “I’m sure. Let’s do it.”
And that was how they found themselves back in the private chambers of Judge Adriana Lopez, standing in front of her desk, and the same oil painting, and even the same secretary assisting her. Jordan was dressed as inappropriately as ever, but somehow it was a little less irritating today. “Irreconcilable differences?” she said, reading the document before her.
“Yes,” Bruce said. “Of the most intractable sort.”
Hal’s hand brushed against his, and Bruce found his smile hard to restrain. He inclined his head to Hal. “Intractable means impossible to fix,” he murmured.
“Such an asshole,” Hal said.
“I should have added a clause about the constant obscenity. Please try to keep your mouth shut.”
“That’s not what you said last night.”
Bruce shut his eyes and hoped that when he opened them he would find that Hal had not just made a “last night” joke in a federal judge’s private chambers.
“All right,” Adriana said, looking from one to the other of them with a deeply puzzled expression. “I see. Of course everything is in order in your documentation. I simply need each of you to affirm in the presence of the court your desire to divorce by mutual consent, and we will be done here. Harold Jordan, do you affirm that everything in these documents is true and accurate to the best of your knowledge, and do you of your own free will affirm your desire to end your legal union with Bruce Wayne?”
“I do,” he said.
“Bruce Wayne, do you for your part affirm that everything in these documents is true and accurate to the best of your knowledge, and do you of your own free will affirm your desire to end your legal union with Harold Jordan?”
Somehow Hal’s hand had slipped into his, and Hal had turned to face him. He returned the pressure of Hal’s hand. “I do,” he said, gone suddenly hoarse.
“Then according to the laws of the state of New York, this court pronounces your union dissolved, and consents to grant you divorce under Statute Seventeen of state law A Zero Three Point—”
Bruce didn’t hear the rest, because Hal’s eyes had met his. It didn’t bear thinking about, how near he had come to losing him, how near they had come to losing each other. And in the end, it was nothing he had done – no competency on his part, no eleventh-hour rescue, nothing but sheer dumb luck, and the extraordinary resilience of Hal’s immune system. They had gotten lucky, was all it was, and he didn’t believe in luck. Well, he was learning to believe in a lot of things he hadn’t, just a few months ago. Hal squeezed his hand tighter, before he let it go. And then he leaned in and brushed a kiss against Bruce’s lips.
“Seven,” Adriana trailed off.
“Thank you,” Bruce said gravely to Adriana, extending his hand. “I appreciate your taking the time to do this.”
“Of course,” she said. She shook his hand warmly, with only one more puzzled glance at the two of them. “I’m always happy to help a friend, particularly with, ah, momentous. . . occasions. I’m assuming you’re still up for the foursome at the charity pro-am next week?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “Looking forward to it. Anything to avoid being in Wallace Newbery’s foursome again.”
She laughed. “Ours is a friendship born in adversity. If we can survive four hours of Wallace on the back nine, I feel sure we can survive anything.”
“Onward to victory then,” he said with a smile.
Outside Adriana’s chambers, back in the crowded hallway of the Gotham federal courthouse, Bruce stopped for a minute to watch the comings and goings of security guards and lawyers and litigants and aimless people wearing that half-confused, half-belligerent look that he associated with courthouses. The last time he had stood in this particular hallway had been when he had made his court appearance for Dick’s wardship, all those years ago. He hadn’t recognized the hallway, at first. “You okay?” Hal said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s get something to eat.”
“I hear that. Let’s have a little celebration. You’re buying, though. I’m feeling pretty broke all of a sudden, compared to this morning anyway.”
“There’s a diner not too far from here, with some excellent pie.”
“Pie sounds good, as long as it comes with a side of scrambled eggs, French toast, and bacon.”
“I hear good things about their hash browns.”
“Yeah it’s weird, I’ve never really gotten behind the whole ‘potatoes are a breakfast food’ movement. I understand their goals, and I’m not unsympathetic, but when it comes right down to it those are just not my people. How’re you gonna mix potatoes with your eggs? You need grits for that, come on.”
Bruce listened to him chatter as they walked, and he restrained himself from saying I don’t care what the hell you mix with your eggs, as long as you keep putting food in your mouth. It was a bit of a sore subject though; not two nights ago Hal had put down his fork and said, “You wanna stop that?”
“Stop watching me eat like you’re weighing every mouthful. Cut it out.”
“That wasn’t what I was doing. I was just wondering if you might like to try some more of Alfred’s soup.”
“Bruce. My eating is fine. My weight will come back up. Fucking relax, you make it hard to digest anything looking at how tightly clenched you are. That cannot be good for your colon.”
“I think it might be worth another consultation with Leslie about—”
And at that Hal had pushed his plate aside and gotten up from the table, throwing his napkin to the floor. He had stalked out of the dining room. Bruce had rubbed at his forehead. Hal had indeed asked him to stop. Twice, in fact. But he had not been able to. Not been able to throttle the choking fear that came over him sometimes, because Hal believed he was completely and utterly fine, no more problems, but Bruce saw it all the time – saw the way his jeans settled too low on his hipbones now, saw too that he got tired sooner than he had before and tried to mask it. At first he had thought it was just the arm, and that when the arm was completely healed and all his physical therapy done, Hal would be better. Now he knew it was more than just the arm. Whatever that evil virus had done to him, it wouldn’t be undone in the course of a few weeks, or a few months. Possibly ever.
So today, Bruce made no comment about the mountains of food Hal ordered, because even encouraging comments earned him steely glares. He watched Hal eat in silence, and pretended to poke at his own slice of rhubarb pie.
"So speaking of your newfound poverty," Bruce said. Hal's spoon paused contemplatively over his grits.
"Yeah, seriously," Hal said. "That hardly seems fair, does it. For a while there, I was a goddamn billionaire, and how do I spend most of it? Locked in solitary pissing into a metal bucket. It's like one of those 'Million Dollars But' reality shows.
“It wasn’t my idea that you stop being a billionaire,” Bruce pointed out, but Hal was choosing to ignore it. Another sore subject.
“At any rate,” Bruce resumed. “There is the little matter of your divorce settlement.”
“My divorce settlement? How you figure that? Thought I signed an ironclad pre-nup. Hey, reach around behind you and grab me some of that boysenberry syrup. Our table just has maple.”
“You did,” Bruce said, hooking a finger in the offensively sticky pitcher on the table behind them. “But news of my quickie marriage and divorce is bound to leak to the press at some point, and it would look particularly bad for me if I had stiffed you in the settlement. Looking generous is a certain part of the brand.”
Hal was plowing unconcernedly into his French toast, so things seemed to be going well so far. Bruce slid an envelope toward him on the table, and Hal froze. Noticeably less well. That hadn’t taken long.
“What the hell is that,” Hal said, in a voice whose ability to chill the surrounding area Dr. Freeze might have envied.
“It’s a check. It’s not a very large one, but it makes me look a little less monstrous, if and when our little indiscretion gets out. Use it however you will. Although I have one or two suggestions about what you might do with it.”
“I have one or two suggestions about what you might do with it, too.”
“Hal. Listen to me. I know exactly what percentage of your paycheck gets eaten up every month by trying to meet financial obligations that are straining you, that are impossible. Let this money be the basis of an account that they can draw on, let this be the seed money for college scholarships, or for anything else they might need.”
Hal was drumming his fingers on the table. “You understand how angry I am right now, yes?” His voice had gone very quiet. That too was a thing Bruce had learned: most of the times Hal’s anger was a fiery technicolor explosion, a fire that spent itself as soon as it had erupted. You might get blasted in the initial inferno, but you would survive. What you had to watch for was the other times, the long slow underground burn that would crumble the earth at your feet and sink you in magma.
Bruce leaned in, matched his voice to Hal’s. “Fine, you want my cards on the table here? I’m happy to do that. I don’t know what kind of word you want to use for what we are to each other, but I’m pretty sure that whatever word it is, it has something to do with family. And this is what family does for family.”
“So apparently I just got adopted along with all the other orphans? Listen up asshole, I am not another baby Robin who needs to be taken under your emotionally compromised wing, all right? You got that?”
“Being family doesn’t make you some object of pity.”
“And you and I are not family, or have you forgotten what we just did in that courthouse?”
That was a shaft meant to strike home, and it did. Bruce struggled to maintain his composure. “That,” he said, “was never my idea. That was what you wanted.”
Hal sighed, sat back, spread his hands on the table. The white envelope rested on the table between them like a poisonous snake. “Besides,” Bruce said, sensing his opening. “I happen to have a very clear memory of what happened in the courthouse. You appear to be the one who has forgotten.”
Hal’s eyes flicked to his. Game, set, match. Their divorce was like everything else between the two of them: one thing on the surface, but the opposite underneath. He had spoken vows in Adriana’s chambers, and his “I do” had meant something. Hal’s had too. He was taking a risk by pressing on that now. Things worked better between them when the unspoken was allowed to remain that way. But this was important.
Hal turned his head and studied the flow of passersby out the window, the ebb and flow of commuters and pedestrians on a busy Gotham morning. “Well, that’s interesting,” he said.
“That being in love with you does not stop me from still occasionally wanting to kill you.”
Bruce took a swallow of his bitter coffee. It was the first time those words had been spoken between them. Hal’s courage was the factor he was always neglecting to take into consideration. “Same,” he said, knowing Hal would hear both resonances, and Hal’s mouth twisted in a smile.
Hal pulled open the envelope with a sigh and peered at the check inside. He winced. “Not a very large one?” he said. “This is what you call not a very large check? This?”
“In my world, no, it’s not.”
“Yeah well, your world sucks.”
“My world makes possible a lot of what it is we do. It makes the Watchtower possible. It makes the League possible.”
“Right. But you’re still aware that it sucks.”
Bruce swallowed some more of his coffee. “Yes,” he said.
They sat in silence, and after a bit Hal resumed eating. He finished eating, and the waitress brought the check, and Hal snatched at it as Bruce was reaching for it. “Not today, Satan,” was all he said. He slapped his debit card into the tray, and the waitress took it.
“So this will be a gift that keeps on giving,” Bruce said.
“Add it to the list,” Hal said.
Out on the street, Hal paused as they were about to cross Central Avenue. Bruce thought at first he was looking around because he was unsure which direction they were walking in, but then Hal had grabbed his wrist. He was pulling him against the flow of foot traffic, and into a side alley next to the diner. He pinned Bruce’s shoulders against the dirty brick of the wall, threw him with a surprising amount of force. Underweight or not, there was no denying the man’s combat instincts were spot on, which was more of a turn-on than maybe it should have been.
“I have something to say,” Hal said.
“Apparently I’m listening.”
“You don’t get why I wanted this divorce, do you?”
Bruce hesitated. “I do,” he said.
“Yeah, but do you really?”
“It’s an uncomfortable place to start a relationship from, I do get that.”
“What the fuck do I care about uncomfortable. You want to know why I wanted this divorce? Because I’m playing the long game here. You got that?”
“The long game,” Bruce repeated.
“Yeah, that’s right. I’m playing to win. And the next time we do this, it’s gonna be done right. We’re going to do it right. We’re going to do it because we mean it. We’re going to do it for real. I don’t want to go in the back door.”
Bruce arched a brow. “That’s not what you said last night.”
Hal reared back and stared at him, his eyes wide. He stared at Bruce in shock. He glanced at the rusted metal dumpster to the left, strode over to it and kicked it ferociously—once, then again. “Goddammit!” He shouted. “God motherfucking piss-shitting dammit!” Then he stalked back over to Bruce and shook a finger in his face.
“Goddammit,” he said. “I am the smart-ass in this relationship, do you hear me? It’s me! Me!”
Bruce smirked at him. “Sorry,” he said.
“Not to mention, that was a very serious moment there! And you just—you just—I was being vulnerable, and, and, and—”
The finger was pointed back in his face. “You just keep pushing it, mister. You just keep on.”
“And you are gonna get seriously laid, that’s what. Look out.” Hal’s mouth was on his, and they were kissing in a filthy alley, groping each other like teenagers. Bruce couldn’t stop kissing him, couldn’t touch enough of his skin, couldn’t reach enough of it. He slid his hand underneath Hal’s jacket, around his shirt, gripping the firm muscles beneath. He used that grip to flip them so Hal was the one whose back was against the wall, and he was the one pinning him, pressing into him.
“Such a little dom,” Hal sighed.
“Oh you’ll know when I am.”
Bruce laughed into the kiss. He kissed him some more, and them some more after that. They were likely going to be arrested in this alley. There was boysenberry syrup on his lips. “Why do you always taste like food,” he mused.
“Because I’m always eating?”
“Come home with me, I’ll give you something else to eat.”
“Giving that new smart mouth of yours a work out, I see?” Hal’s lips brushed his jaw. “Gotta get on flight deck, babe. Some of us work for a living.”
Bruce sighed and bent his head, and Hal tipped his forehead against his. He stood back and released Hal from the wall, and together they ambled wordlessly back out onto the street. Their hands were still laced together, though. They headed north, back into the narrow canyons of the buildings, and they didn’t say anything for a couple of blocks, until they were almost at the garage where Bruce had parked. Bruce was lost in his own thoughts.
“Oh hey,” Hal said. “Don’t forget about tonight.”
“Dinner at Ollie and Dinah’s. Remember?”
Bruce groaned, and released Hal’s hand to rummage for his keys. “Stop groaning,” Hal said. “You remember, don’t pretend you don’t. Listen, I’m gonna just lift off from here and head out. It’s looking like a long day for me, but I’ll be back by seven so we can head over together. And listen—if you get a chance, I left my other flight jacket at the dry cleaner near your office, you know the one? If you felt like picking it up for me before tonight—”
“Jordan, I am not your wife, pick up your own damn dry cleaning.”
There was a burst of warm green light, and Hal was hovering beside him at the car. Bruce sighed—the upper level parking deck was deserted, but Hal was less than careful at the best of times, and those elevator doors could open at any moment. “Sure you are,” Hal murmured against his lips, stealing one last kiss before blazing off in a green streak, straight up and into the sky.