Part 5: The Club
"Just there at the end of this block," John nodded, indicating their destination as they reached the curb.
Babs glanced up at him, mischief in her eyes. "Race ya!" she called, already propelling herself forward with strong strokes of her arms.
"Hey!" John cried, stumbling into a run. He caught up with her a few doors from the storefront club as she slowed, laughing.
"You're slow!" she taunted, knowing full well he had let her win.
"Another time, another place," he growled, but his smile belied his gruffness.
"J.J., she's making you work!" the amused bouncer called from his bar stool beside the entrance.
"Hey, Joe! She surprised me," John defended.
"Gotta watch out for those wily ones," Joe acknowledged, his eyes sparkling. "Hold on just a second there, Miss. Got ID?"
Babs spluttered for a moment, caught between indignation and a sense of flattery. Then she realized Joe was grinning at her.
"Gotcha!" he teased, standing and stepping into the open doorway. "But I do need you to hang on just a sec."
Babs watched curiously, puzzled as Joe pulled a tool out of his pocket, did something to the door hinges and then lifted the door from it's place.
"These old buildings just didn't account for the wheels," he explained as he shifted the door out to the sidewalk and leaned it next to his stool. "But you should have enough clearance now. Watch the knuckles."Babs shot a look at John, then smiled at Joe. "Thanks."
"Hey, we wouldn't want to keep a looker like you out of our place. You bring her to hear Alia?"
"She's singing tonight?" John asked.
"Like you don't know," Joe snorted. "Nothin' more romantic than a night of slow jazz." He winked at Babs.
"So this is where you take all the girls?" Babs asked.
John shook his head hopelessly. "You're gettin' me in trouble here, Joe."
"Someone's gotta. You kids have a good night."
Babs pushed herself up the little wood ramp that eased the ridge of the theshhold, manuevering carefully through the door. It was a tight squeeze, but once she navigated the entrance way, the club opened up invitingly. It was crowded, and a jazz quartet played fast and furious, finishing their set. They were accompanied by hand clapping and footstomping and shouts from the audience, encouraging solos. She hesitated until John pressed a hand to her shoulder and indicated she should follow him with a tilt of his head.
He led them unerringly to a free table, unobtrusively opening a path for her as he moved toward the stage. Once she was settled at the table, her unease with the crowd faded as she got caught up in the music and emotion around her. She scarcely noticed John slip away and return with two glasses and a couple bottles of mineral water.
The drummer was finishing his solo, his sticks flying with impossible speed, altering rhythms and syncopating the beats he'd already laid down. At some cue Babs did not catch, his fellow musicians seamlessly rejoined his joyous noise, weaving a magnificent tangle of song. The crowd cheered their appreciation of the drummer, caught up in the energy of the moment. There was no sheet music, just flying fingers and beads of sweat on the performers faces and the mix of bass and piano and sax and drum. When the men on the stage finally ended their music, Babs joined the raucous applause and looked over at John with shining eyes. "Wow!" she breathed.
John nodded, his own half-smile firmly in place. "Yeah. You've never seen live jazz before?" He seemed almost surprised.
"No," she acknowledged. "I've listened to recordings, but..."
"Not the same, I know. There's something magical about it."
"Yeah. It's just-wow. How-when did you-I mean, you didn't have jazz at home...?"
John chuckled. "No. Our music is-different. But this-the way it can reach you, bring you into an energy that is bigger than you are, all the feelings around you magnified through you-that's like home. The way it is-it was-always."
Babs looked into his face, expecting a sadness there that she did not find. Instead she could see warm memory in his eyes. "It sounds-beautiful," she remarked.
"So you came and you heard this and-"
"No. No, I didn't find jazz on my own." His eyes were dancing again, hinting at some private joke. "I owe this pleasure to a mutual friend."
"A mutual-someone in-"
Babs spluttered. "BRUCE? Bruce took you to a jazz club."
"Not Bruce," John denied, leaning in closer. "Batman."
Now Babs gaped at him. "No."
John leaned back, smiling smugly. "Yes."
"It was years ago, before he took Dick in. Before the JLA, shortly after he had begun his crusade. We had-connected-earlier."
John's expression took on a distant look, and Babs leaned her elbows onto the table, listening attentively.
"He had been on a case-one that really got to him, I think. He'd ended up at this jazz club in Old Gotham on the invitation of an old musician. Mind you-not Bruce Wayne."
She nodded, understanding. This was a Batman story.
"And they let him in and let him be and sit and listen once they realized he wasn't there to shake things down. And it-touched-him. And I think it touched a lonely place, because when I next saw him-"
John shook his head at the memory. "This sounds strange, I know, but he was almost *eager* to take me there. Like he had to share this with someone, like he'd been searching for someone who could go to this place that Bruce Wayne and his circle really couldn't. Someone who would understand."
They were silent for a moment.
"I don't really see that side of him," Babs confessed.
"It keeps getting more and more buried. He's let the hurt take away so much..." John seemed to shake himself. "More mineral water?"
Babs started, then laughed, looking at her untouched glass.
John offered an abashed smile. "Sorry, I didn't mean to-"
"Not at all," she reassured. "It's nice to listen to you."
"You're easy to talk to," he replied, his eyes steady on hers.
Before she could answer, a tall, black woman appeared at their table. "J.J.!" she exclaimed, holding her arms out.
"Alia!" John stood and embraced her warmly. "Barbara, this is Alia. Alia, Barbara."
Alia smiled brightly, holding a hand out to Barbara. "Nice to meet you. I was beginning to worry about J.J. here-comes alone too much. Shame if such a good man doesn't find a good partner."
John ducked his head, shooting Babs a shyly embarrassed smile.
"I'd have to agree," Babs answered, meeting John's smile fleetingly and exchanging a significant smile with Alia.
"Girlfriend, you got taste. I gotta go sing, now, J.J., but you be good, y'hear? No messin' around over here during my set."
Now John laughed. "Yes, ma'am," he replied sharply, returning to his seat. "I-um-I come here a lot," he confessed.
"I gathered. So tell me, John Jones, how does a man with your busy life come to be a regular at so many Denver haunts?"
"Hey, you gotta keep your identity credible."
"Didn't you used to be a Congresswoman?"
Babs colored. "Well, but-" She took a swallow of mineral water.
"You don't have to see people every single day or really all that terribly often to connect, Barbara. You just have to be willing to risk a little of yourself."
His tone was not preachy, and although Babs knew she had bristled at such comments before, she found herself listening to him. The whirlwind of bonhomie which he had drawn her into-it spoke louder than his quiet words.
Her thoughts were interrupted as Alia stepped to the microphone. "Good evening," she said. "I've just discovered we've got some lovers in our audience tonight-" She looked in the direction of Babs and John, drawing cheers and a couple cat calls from the audience. She waited until they settled before continuing- "so we'll definitely be hearing a love song or two. But I don't want to slow it down too fast after that marvellous set by The Arctic Cool-" The crowd erupted again. "-so Alfie-" She nodded toward a man with a standing bass " -let's start with 'How High the Moon.'"
Alfie launched into the opening bars, filling the time as the audience again settled down to listen. Then Alia opened her mouth and began to sing.
Babs looked at John. "Wow," she said for what felt like the tenth time that night.
"Alfie's her brother. The two of them have been doing this since they were in high school. Only here. And only because they love it. She's a social worker during the day, and he teaches high school now. And this is their other life."
Babs nodded, returning her gaze to the stage, awed at the music.
True to her word, Alia worked through several more upbeat standards before kicking down into more sultry torchsongs. The crowd mellowed with her, relaxing easily into the smooth vocals and the soothing bass.
"Okay," Alia finally spoke again as the final bars of 'As Time Goes By' faded into silence. "One more before the break."
At a protest from the crowd, she smiled.
"Now, I'll be back, but you gotta let me rest the pipes," she chided. "But it's gettin' near the witching hour here, folks, and you know what that means."
Clearly they did, for a cheer erupted from the audience, drowning out the opening measures from Alfie's bass. Then Alia's voice slid out among them:
It begins to tell 'round midnight, 'round midnight
I do pretty well 'til after sundown
Suppertime I'm feeling sad
But it really gets bad 'round midnight...
Babs felt her breath catch. She reached almost involuntarily for John's hand and was startled at how tightly he gripped hers. She looked at him as the next stanza washed over them:
Memories always start 'round midnight, 'round midnight
Haven't got the heart to stand those mem'ries
When my heart is still with you
And ole midnight knows it, too.
He was crying. He had leaned back, so his face was in the shadows, but she could tell. She tightened her grip on his hand, suddenly conscious of how much he had given her in the past two days, and how little she had done in return. His voice spoke in her mind. "Don't. It is enough, having you here..."
She shifted her chair nearer him awkwardly, unwilling to relinquish his hand. He sensed her intent and pulled closer to her, letting her rest her cheek on his shoulder. Their fingers twined as their forearms rested together on the armrest of her chair and Alia began the final verse.
Let our love take wing some midnight, 'round midnight
Let the angels sing for your returning
Let our love be safe and sound
When old midnight comes around
The bass walked to its final notes, and a collective sigh seemed to escape the audience. Alia and Alfie left the stage in silence, faint smiles haunting both their faces, and a low hum of conversation gradually returned.
Babs watched as John brought his other hand-the one she was not holding-to his eyes. "Your family?" she asked gently.
He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry-it is not a time-"
"No. Stop." She lifted her head and used her free hand to turn his face to look at hers. His cheek was still tear damp beneath her fingers. "You loved them so deeply."
"M'yria'h-it is hard to explain how it is to love in Martian. We were-one. She completed me. And when our child-when K'hym fell victim to the plague... she cried for her mother, and M'yria'h could not keep her mind closed to her. How could she? How did I? I-"
Babs brought her other hand, loosened from John's, to cradle John's face, bring his forehead down to rest against hers. She closed her eyes, and they sat for a moment. She wanted to reach out to him, to ease his pain, but there were no words...
She felt his hand on her cheek, and she raised her face, gently brushing at one of his tears with one of her thumbs, meeting his gaze with a weak smile. She leaned forward to brush her lips across his eyelids-soft, comforting kisses. His face lifted, bringing his lips to hers-
At the electricity of the kiss, she started back, causing him to do the same. "I-"
She shook her head, her lips curved into a sad smile. "It's not bad. It's just-" She took his hand and kissed his palm before bringing it up to her cheek. "J'onn-I think if I start kissing you now, I might never stop."
He blinked, and she did her best to open her thoughts to him, to show him what she could not articulate, knowing he would not pry without invitation but not certain how to make that invitation. And somehow he understood, for she felt the gentle touch in her mind, then watched the confusion on his features soften.
He wrapped an arm around her and she settled into him with a sigh.
"Stay a while longer?" he asked.
She nodded. "A little. Then I should be getting back." She glanced up toward his face. "My dad will start to think I got a life," she joked.
John let out a little snort of amusement and tightened his embrace for a moment. "You do have a life, Barbara," he murmured, "a very beautiful life."
From the bar, Alia glimpsed the couple at the table and smiled. She offered a toast to the bartender, who refilled her glass. She took another look at where Babs and John sat leaning into one another. "Never let it be said I can't work magic."