Someone--perhaps Flash--had wound tinsel around anything that would hold it, and a few things that wouldn't, on the lower deck of the Watchtower's main assembly hall. J'onn stood at his station above, noting the gaudy reflected glare that went up as a result every time someone below gave off a burst of energy. A crowd milled in the hall that day, Leaguers eager to conclude their official business before Christmas began. They were restless enough that the tinsel flashed often, almost as if signalling a message in a code incomprehensible to him.
One particular movement in the swarm of violently clashing colors and symbols still caught his eye. "Booster Gold!" he called as the yellow-suited figure edged towards the teleportation discs. "Have you submitted your report on the Oakanze encounter?"
Gold froze, then turned back to him with a hearty wave. "Yeah, J'onn! Sure!"
J'onn wondered briefly why he had bothered to phrase it as a question. "I don't have a record of it."
"Huh. Must've gotten lost in the system. I'll do it later--"
"It should be filed now. You're not scheduled to return to duty for three weeks."
"Oh, come on," Gold said, his voice rising to a high, nasal pitch. "Gimme a break, okay, big guy? Some of us actually have holidays to celebrate!"
J'onn stood silent for a moment. Then he said, "Very well. Go on."
He knew he should have added something to establish a new deadline, before Gold escaped, but instead he turned away. It was unfair to resent the remark; Gold's inference had, after all, been reasonable. The Leaguers were all celebrating the holiday, in one way or another, and the human staff of the complex as well. Even Batman had other plans. J'onn alone had volunteered for monitor duty. A year ago, he had had his own plans, but he had not needed to look very deeply into Superman's mind, preoccupied as it was with schemes for strengthening the League's influence, to see that a second invitation to Smallville would not be forthcoming. The easiest solution had been to put himself on the duty roster.
Below him, the Leaguers chattered like crickets. Their thoughts were waves on a tumultous sea; he let them beat against him passively. The League had fifty-six members now, and he could not even pick out the thoughts of the remaining old guard amid that mob. Perhaps he simply did not wish to. His telepathy had become more acute since he had torn out the mind of the Thanagarian lieutenant, but also more painful to use.
The flash-whizz of the teleporter was coming frequently now. He looked at the screen which registered the location of every Leaguer on the complex and watched the list grow shorter. Over the next half hour, the din slowly receded until only his name glowed on the monitor and the silence rang in his ears.
It was the first time in weeks that he been alone. At least, as the humans defined it.
J'onn had not actually expected Christmas Eve to be quiet--after all, it was a holiday celebrated by less than half of the population on a single planet--but it was. There were a few minor disturbances on Earth, but he thought it best to let the civil authorities handle them. He did not enjoy explaining the League's interventions to the increasingly skeptical Earth governments; it was Superman who had the zest for that. There were a handful more of interstellar incidents which the League might have responded to, but given how many Leaguers now were of Earth culture alone, he did not think it worth the trouble to summon them from their holidays to deal with the troubles of stray Rigellians or i32s.
The quiet left him a good deal of time to work on the personnel files, but he had little taste for the work that evening. He was not, by nature, an administrator, and he was not sure how handling the monitor-duty roster for seven people had burgeoned into the minding of an independent organization which employed over 200 sentient beings. When he realized that he had just completed the same tax form for their Swiss employees twice, he startled himself with a curse in his own language and gave up.
After a frugal meal, he prowled the towering halls restlessly. Much of the original Watchtower had been built to a smaller scale, but nothing they did was on a small scale now. He glanced out the windows at the other watchtowers of the complex, brooding over space. There was no passing their headquarters off as a mere Wayne Enterprises communications satellite any longer. His intelligence indicated that they would be joined soon, as every nation with the capacity scrambled to get armed stations into orbit--ostensibly a result of the Thanagarian invasion, but at least as much, he thought, in response to their own presence. They would have none of the hodgepodge of alien and metahuman technologies that constituted the League's offensive superiority, but conflicts were inevitable. And yet they would not, could not, leave, the Earth to its own defenses. The image that came to him then, of years of tedious vigil, felt sickeningly familiar. He sank abruptly through the floor to his station, set the security systems to maximum, and fled into space.
Mars's atmosphere was welcomingly warm after the chill of the brief journey. Relying on memory alone, without the bright tracery of cities over its crevasses to guide him, it took him a long while to orient himself. He finally spotted the mountain ridge he was seeking, however, and set his course for the highest peak.
The elements had beaten fiercely against the Point for centuries, but no war had touched it. His hope proved true: the once-vaulting, open architecture had collapsed in great chunks, yet here at least, as almost nowhere else on Mars, one could see traces of its lost civilization. The Point had been famous for the clarity of telepathic reception there. Despite the difficulty of access, it had become popular as a resort for two sorts of Martians in particular: artists at the peak of their powers, who often wished to immerse themselves in the mind of their people as they created, and invalids, especially those who suffered from maladies of the soul and could be comforted by the contact that came most easily there. The song-cycle he had composed while visiting seven hundred and thirteen years earlier had been his greatest success.
The tapestries that had once fluttered in the fierce winds had all rotted away. Those same winds had scoured the pattern-inlaid floors until only the faintest indentations remained. He seated himself on a fallen pillar, a chunk of stone simply too massive to have been worn away by the weather and time, and cleared his mind to listen. He knew there was no one living who might speak to him, but, like most of his kind, he accepted the possibility of ghosts and visions, and he hoped to catch some echo of the voices that had once rung through the resort. He was prepared to wait. He had nothing better to do.
Shadows were purpling over the rocks when the sound woke him from his reverie. It was a distant child's laughter, disturbingly familiar.
"K'hym?" he said, glancing around.
"Where's my daddy?" the little girl's voice asked.
He straightened, pulse pounding. "K'hym, it's me."
"I have to go find my daddy. Bye!"
He felt something like a wind rush past him and stretched out a hand. "Wait--"
He stared at his hand. He had forgotten to shift back to his natural form. She had been too young to recognize him in his soft and rounded Earth guise.
Only an echo, he told himself, as the layers of pretense melted away from his fingers, leaving crystalline purity. She had once been lost, and the memory lingered on. They could not have truly spoken, any more than they could have in Morgana's illusion.
He stiffened against the rock, letting the color fade out of him til they matched in shade. He would remain there, a relic guarding other relics, as he had been meant to be. He would dream away the time until there was a reason to stir again--
A harsh chirp startled him upright again. He was not immediately sure whether it was from a dream or reality. Then it sounded again, and he placed it: security alert at the Watchtower.
For a moment he held the tiny device at the tips of his long fingers. The tiny, flashing diamond was all that bound him to Earth's civilization. He could crush it in an instant and be free. The League would never find him.
The crystal chirped again, insistently. He returned it to his ear and rose into the sky.
J'onn plunged through the ceiling of the main hall, intending to make a rapid reconnaissance and then fall back if necessary until help could arrive. He arrested his flight, however, at the sight of the solitary figure staring out into space, and settled lightly to the floor behind him. Batman must have been careless indeed in his entry, to trigger the security alarms.
"J'onn," he said quietly, and, relieved, J'onn braced himself for the entirely warranted criticism that should follow. In the glow of the Watchtower lights, his behavior seemed embarrassingly irresponsible. But Batman said nothing. His shoulders were drawn in, his head bowed. Gingerly, J'onn touched the surface of his mind and drew back at once; it glowed dark with confused emotional intensity, far more than he could hope to decode without pain.
"I thought you were with Diana." They had been discreet, but he could not help picking up flashes, and they had left the same location with him for emergency contact when they had departed separately for the holiday.
This was probably one of the times when a human would have been offended by Batman's tone and given up. J'onn understood, somewhat dimly, that it bristled with warning. But he did not have the will to walk away from one of their original number this evening. He might as well enjoy the privileges of being alien as well as the disabilities.
"But…?" he prompted.
Batman finally touched the glass with a gloved hand. "She thinks she understands, but she doesn't." He was silent for another long moment. "She's never lost anyone."
J'onn knew what he meant without having to glance into his memories.. Diana saw life as a battle; if one faced it with enough boldness and strength, one might always emerge victorious. She had yet to taste real defeat. She would be drawn to Batman's undeniable strength, but she could not understand the ghosts that stood between him and the full pursuit of all the prizes of life.
He nonetheless felt the impulse to tell Batman to take what pleasure the world might give him while he could. As fragmented and difficult as their love might be, it would still be something vital and real, and the chance would be gone soon enough. He knew, though, that to say anything which suggested too close an understanding of his mind would drive Batman away. He could only encourage the confession by pretending that it was not happening.
So J'onn stood silent, looking down at Earth with him. After a while, Batman said, "The suit…the League…they weren't supposed to lead to these kinds of complications." His hand closed into a fist on the glass. "None of it was meant to be like this."
His mind radiated images beyond Diana now, and J'onn could not prevent them from sweeping over him. A man who turned his head to grin at him, revealing half a ruined face. Another dark-haired woman, slapping him with barely-restrained tears. A tall and straight young man with laughing eyes, leaping away into the night.
"I have always said," J'onn said slowly, "that I watched over the Others instead of destroying them because I would not kill, and, perhaps, because I did not want to be wholly alone. But there was more to it than that."
"Oh?" Batman's eyes were weary, but J'onn knew that he was never able to resist the lure of new information.
"The Others were parasites. They absorbed my people's abilities, as you saw when the League fought them. But they also absorbed their psyches. They carried about within them, twisted and distorted, the images of those I loved. I could see the remnants in their minds as clearly as you can see me. My family, my fellow-Martians…they were all dead, and yet they lingered on in that horrible form. I did not have the will to destroy them. I do not think I would ever have had the will to leave them. They were all I had."
Batman digested this with unsurprising ease. "Things had to change for us."
"It doesn't really matter what our feelings about it may be."
He was right. There was no going back.
"No. It doesn't."
The complex encircled them, tangible proof of their power and success. The chronometer chimed midnight, then jangled some celebratory Earth melody.
"Merry Christmas, J'onn."
"Merry Christmas, Batman."