The Signs of Air and Water (1/3)
a Justice League Unlimited story
by Merlin Missy
All characters and situations are the property of DC, Warner Bros., and/or Milestone. No infringement on their work is intended or should be inferred.
Summary: It's not a relationship. Except it probably is. Warhawk/Aquagirl futurefic.
Notes: Spoilers up through "Epilogue," some speculation regarding the culmination of the current JLU season. Set primarily in the "Batman Beyond" timeframe, but based almost solely on "The Call," because I am lame. Continuity notes: not a direct sequel to anything else, does draw upon my general pool of Stuff That Happened, no prior reading material required. (Although really, Nancy Brown's "The Arrangement" and TheCryingWillow's "The Engagement" are so very much the literary parents of this story, 'cause we keep singing the same song.)
And yes, this is most self-indulgent thing I've allowed myself to write in, oh, at least a week.
When her breath has come back to her and her heart is no longer racing, she slides from atop him to snuggle against his side. The familiar odors of his sweat and his deodorizer permeate the thin blanket she's pulled up to her chin. She has never felt so safe, not since she was a tiny girl playing with the hairs in her father's golden beard.
"This isn't going to last," she says quietly.
He stiffens, the arm he has wrapped around her suddenly like stone. "Merina ... "
"You know why."
"Triton'll have kids soon." Rex rolls over, slithers down his bed just enough so that his face is next to hers. He looks very silly, and very dear, and Merina wants to take his strong chin in her hands and kiss him tenderly until they both fall asleep. She hopes she can, later, after she's made him understand.
"He doesn't yet. And when he does, it's still my duty to marry well and produce an heir or three."
"Thank you," she said. "What I wanted more than anything tonight was for you to spit on ten thousand years of my people's traditions."
"Sorry." His face is contrite in the dim light. She knows he doesn't mean it, that he is direct, and clear, and kind, and she knows she wouldn't like him half so much were he any other way. Even if he does exasperate her sometimes. That's what best friends are like.
Merina rolls onto her back, looks up at the ceiling. "Do you want to continue this?"
"You're going to have to give me a few minutes."
"Not that." She glances at him. "Well, maybe that. I've got duty in two hours, though. I mean us."
He closes his eyes. "Thought you just said there isn't an 'us.'"
"No. I said we can't last. At some point, I'm going to have to return to Atlantis and marry someone, and I need you to understand that isn't going to change. We can have this now." She rolls her whole body to face him, slipping her hand under the blanket and onto his hip, where she rakes her fingernails lightly. She smiles as he shivers.
She has rules in mind, and she knows he will agree to them as she places moist kisses at his collarbone and licks up his neck. "This isn't love," she tells him, her breath against his ear. Merina hasn't believed in love since she was five, and she has no intention of starting now.
They try to remain discreet. They don't arrive at the Tower together. They don't leave together.
On rare occasions, he travels to Miami, just another muscled guy in dark glasses who frequents her nice apartment overlooking the ocean. Royalty and League status buy her some perks: a good place to live, nods of understanding when she's in and out at odd hours. But they also purchase the bottom-feeding reporters who lurk at the front gate, collecting vids and offering currency for names. So Merina wraps her green-blonde hair into a messy bun, puts on a ratty grey sweater and jeans, dons a pair of glasses, and then she is practically invisible as she comes to his apartment in Detroit.
Sometimes they talk about moving closer. She likes the warmth, though, loves the life in her chosen city. He was raised in his own, has inherited the role of protector here. Neither is going to budge.
Also, he teaches.
Rex has a doctorate in metallurgy, but his expertise is in extraterrestrial alloys, so he never writes the Ph.D. on his resume, and he teaches shop at the local high school. He's on probation, having had to run from too many classes without explanation to save the world. He hasn't had a raise in years. His apartment is neat, if small, and she keeps clothes and a toothbrush there, and she comes in by the back way when she can.
It's a little like dating, but mostly it's like keeping a delicious secret. She believes the others are starting to suspect something. There's a knowing look in Static's eyes, a more exasperated one in Superman's. Kai is too young to understand, or maybe he's better at disguising his own observations. Barda just smiles at her. Merina was half-expecting girl talk, but Barda isn't that kind.
In battles, they are just as determined as ever. They watch each other, but they watch everyone else at the same time, because that's what they do in their family. That's what they have to do.
The theatre is dark, but he finds her easily in the back row. It's a John Wayne centennial festival in Hub City. His choice; he likes the movies, always has. Even as he sits next to her, he scans the seats to note only a handful of people in the audience. None sit further back than the midpoint of the theatre.
She's wearing a pale-colored blouse and miniskirt, her choice. She looks bored, and she fidgets with the popcorn until his hand slides up her skirt between her thighs. Tonight features three movies, with an intermission between each. By the middle of the first one, Rex is fighting back the sounds of pleasure, and also a massive case of giggles, because he's had this film memorized since he was eight and he keeps wanting to recite along.
She spends the second movie in his lap. It's Angel and the Badman, and this time he can't help mouthing the dialogue with the actors on the screen, until she finds better things for him to do with his lips. They leave during the intermission before the third film begins, back to his place where there will be no more distractions.
Over dinner, which he prepared after two days of planning he'll never admit to, she tells him Batman has asked her out. He surprises himself by not shredding the roll in his hands to little bits, and instead asks her mildly what she said.
Merina shrugs and takes a bite of her salad. "I told him I didn't know."
"You know what the Bats are like. Buncha nutjobs."
"He's all right. And this might give me a chance to get to know what he's like without the mask."
"You sound like you've already made up your mind."
"I have. I wasn't asking your permission. I was letting you know."
And suddenly it's awkward, like he's been afraid it was going to be from the beginning. Now they can't talk work, because one of them will mention the Big Bad Bat again, or worse, they'll both try not to mention him.
It's part of their agreement, as tenuous as it is. They're both free to date anyone else. She's told him she won't marry him, can't marry him, and she says she wants them both to enjoy whatever passes for their lives. She says she wants him to date, to find someone, to get married, because she knows that at some point, she will, too. But this is the first time she's said she's going to see someone else, and he tries not to be jealous.
She makes an excuse to leave after about twenty minutes, and he's kind of glad. He hasn't had a chance to bring out the dessert he made, a warm apple crumble from his great-grandma's recipe. After she's gone, he takes it from the oven and puts it directly into the refrigerator. He'll leave it in the staff room at work.
They thwart an alien invasion.
Vandal Savage starts trouble in India.
He has to grade final exams.
It's a standard month, and Rex is proud of himself for not having spent the entire time thinking about killing Batman. He's not directly avoiding Merina, not even directly avoiding Batman. He does take a bit more pleasure than he should when Batgirl calls the Metro Tower looking for her partner, and he transfers the call directly over, knowing Bats is in what the rest of them refer to as the fish tank.
After a throwdown with Blight, Micron, Barda, Rex and Merina regroup at the Tower for a debriefing. Merina corners him in the training room.
"Are you all right?" she demands.
"What? I'm fine," he says, putting the suit through its end-of-battle paces, ensuring nothing was damaged that he cannot repair.
"I thought you were grazed by a laser blast."
"Good." She stands there, watching him.
"What's done?" The servomotors in his knee joints are starting to creak. He'll need to spend some time examining them. He already has ideas for improvements; they've been wearing out every four months or so, and he thinks he can double the joint life with the right alterations to the design.
"I'm not seeing him anymore."
He doesn't let himself look at her. "That's too bad."
"There's a girl he's been seeing. Actually, there may be a few."
"I don't think so. She's nice, though. You'd like her."
"I like you."
He didn't mean to say it, but the words are out between them now. It could be worse. She has told him flat out that if he ever tries to use the word "love" that she'll never speak to him again.
"Anyway," she says, and there's a touch of a smile as she says it, "I thought you should know."
It takes another month, because he is angry with her, and he doesn't want to be angry with her, especially since he has known this is how it would be from the beginning. One evening, she knocks at his door, and she has a greasy bag full of pad thai and spicy noodles, and he invites her inside.
He doesn't ask if she slept with Batman. He doesn't think she did, not from the way they act around each other, and he doesn't want to know either way. Questions lead to complications, and the best thing about their arrangement is the simplicity: they want, they need, they have.
Triton's lovely young bride has given birth to a second daughter, and Merina has come for the naming. Her court garb, spun of green sea-silk, fits oddly against her skin, so long accustomed to the clothing of the surface-dwellers. She makes an effort not to pluck at it, shift it to fit in ways underwater fabrics do not.
Her people stare at her curiously. Her father made friends and allies among the surface-dwellers, spent time among them, but his first and only home was Atlantis, her people his first priority. Merina lives above the sea and she considers all the people of the Earth her priority. She's the reckless daughter, both ambassador and prodigal, and no one quite knows what to make of her, save to bow before her as is her due.
The baby is named Estella, after some long-departed great-grandmother Merina doesn't remember. Even as he cuddles his daughter and breathes her name into her, Triton's face is determined, and Merina knows he still wants a son.
Triton is not their father, and after twenty years their people also don't quite know what to make of him.
After the formalities are complete, and the mother and baby allowed back to their bedchamber to nurse and to rest, Merina takes her brother's arm and they stroll the palace grounds. It's nice, being here with him. Triton is many years older than she, and has in some ways been as a second father to her. Their father is listed as Missing in Action in the League files, but Atlantis and his children have long accepted that he is dead. The sea creatures noted his passing as surely as the sky notes darkness without the sun. The League knows it as well, but there have been too many occasions where the lack of a body turned out to be for a good reason, Superman being the most famous case, and Rex's parents being very deliberately the least famous. When she asks Triton's advice, part of her always wonders how different her father's response would have been. She was five when they lost him, old enough to remember him, young enough to idolize him still. Their mother severed most ties with the surface world after that, a trend which Triton continued, and one day when she was fifteen, Merina looked out on her kingdom, then filled a sack with clothing and Spanish coins, and swam to the shore.
Sometimes she doesn't know what to make of herself, either..
They chat about the baby and her older sister, about the kingdom, about her friends above. He watches her face as she talks and she knows she is being observed, although not why.
"So everyone is well," he says finally.
"I have been looking for a suitable husband for you."
She doesn't break her stride. "Good luck."
"If you could give me an estimation of when you plan on returning, I could make arrangements."
"Don't hold your breath."
"Sorry. Surface talk. It means, don't expect to see me living down here soon."
"Of course. 'Rina ... " Tri looks uncomfortable. Sometimes he can be a pompous jerk, but mostly, he's her big brother. "You need to stop."
"I'm just walking, Tri."
She halts abruptly. "Who have you been talking to?"
"Old family friends. Merina, you have to be careful."
"I'm not stupid, Triton. I know what my duty is."
"So why aren't you doing it? You need to be married. You need to be having children. Atlantean children."
She pulls her hand away from his. "You have an heir now. You don't need me."
"You know that's not true."
"I'm doing good work up there. We save the world. I don't want to give that up. Not yet."
"And you don't want to give him up."
"I've already explained everything to him." She realizes as she says it that she's confirming what Triton wants to know, but it's too late now. "He's fine with it."
"I'm sure he is. What man wouldn't want a whore at his beck and call?"
She strikes him, hard, not with an open-palmed slap like some schoolgirl, but with her entire mass behind the punch, and it sends him back. There's blood on his mouth as he composes himself.
"You need to control your temper," he says.
"You need to watch your tongue."
"I worry about you. And yes, I worry about our family. The rumors get back to me, what our people think about you. They don't trust you. They think you've been contaminated by too much contact with the surface dwellers."
"I'm acting as a liaison between our people and theirs, just as Father did. He understood that the sea and the land are one."
"Father lived here. The people saw him here."
"I'm not going to be Queen. Why do they care where I live?"
"Because you are my sister, and everyone knows I love you as both sister and daughter. They're afraid you'll turn my head away from Atlantis and to the surface. If they found out about your lover, I don't know what they'd do."
"They won't find out unless you tell them."
"Or unless you come home one day with an air-breathing bastard child." His voice drops. "A child you can't assure me won't have wings."
"I can assure you," she says back quietly. "Cross-species genetics. There won't be children. He can't." She swallows. It's not a subject she's ever discussed with Rex, not really, but she's as familiar with his medical records as she is with her own.
The tension in his stance relaxes. "If you're certain."
"I am. And you should trust me more."
"I want to. Give me something to trust."
She sighs. She isn't going to get out of this without yielding some token. "I'll meet the men you're considering marrying me off to."
"If you don't like them, just say the word."
Merina has already decided she won't like them, but she allows herself to be presented, makes herself smile, shakes hands and listens, bored, to genealogies, and she thinks that returning to the world of air and sunlight cannot come soon enough.
Her name is Judy, and she teaches music, and she likes apple crumble. He notices her the way he notices all the other women at the school: pretty or not, young or not, single or not. He's finally off probation, in part by a convenient appearance by Superman at just the right time; it helps to have friends in high places, even if some do like to reminisce at length about hanging out with Rex's parents back in the good old days before everything went to hell. At some point, in some conversation, Superman is going to say "They just don't make apocalypses like they used to," and Rex is going to have to leave the room and hit something. He's sure of it.
Being off probation doesn't mean he can do what he wants around school. He's careful to be on time, pick up whatever slack he can for the other teachers. When Mr. Freedman was out after he slipped a disc in his back, to the surprise of the rest of the staff, Rex set a project for his shop students and took over four of the teacherless math classes for the whole six weeks. Now the rest of the staff looks at him differently, and he kind of likes it.
Judy looked at him differently before the math thing, and that makes her special. So does the fact that she meets all his young, single and pretty qualifiers, and at the same time, she still likes him. At the end of year picnic, they start chatting about potato salad and end up talking about all sorts of subjects. She tells him that her dad was white, and while he obviously can't tell her everything about his family, he can talk about some things with her, how people make assumptions and picking which arguments to have and which to let go, and it's nice.
Judy doesn't comment about how small his apartment is, because hers isn't any bigger. She brings over records after she finds out he owns an actual turntable, and they spend hours just listening to the ticks and pops coming through with the rest. She says digital recordings are wonderful for quality, but they kill part of the music's soul. There's a richness to the sounds, she tells him, and she lays her head on his chest as they sit in his darkened living room.
He hasn't slept with Judy, but when he's been seeing her for more than two months, he knows he will, and he tells Merina over the phone. He'd tell her in person if he could, but it's hurricane season, and while she says she can handle things, she's constantly busy in her own city. Her voice is warm on the line, and she tells him to have a good time.
He wasn't asking permission, except that he was, and she's granted it to him. He's always gotten that their relationship isn't quite the norm, but he's starting to realize it's a lot more fucked up than he's allowed himself to ponder.
Judy asks about the scars, the big ones on his back and the smaller ones all over. He's managed to deflect her questioning before this, helped along by a current lack of both big disasters and minor crime waves taking his time and attention mysteriously away. He opens his mouth to tell her, and instead a lie pops out: the old story about the dog, skiing accidents. She doesn't push.
They make sure not to arrive at school at the same time. The rumor mill there is astonishingly active without help, although, this might be something he wants to help, since the biggest rumor he's overheard about himself says he's gay. It's the food he brings, and the women they don't see him with, and the weird hours he keeps. Rex lets Judy set the pace and the tone, lets her decide if she wants to hold hands in the hallways, or kiss in the stairwells. He likes not having to plan out a date based on thousands of miles of travel, or scheduled around watches at the Metro Tower.
He doesn't tell Judy his secret.
He kisses her, he touches her, he moves inside of her in his bed and in hers, but he shies away from talk of family, and he doesn't tell her why he has to leave suddenly at odd times. He's afraid to ask her what she thinks is going on, what she thinks he's hiding.
League work starts heating up. Kobra is causing trouble, and he's on the run between one job and the other. His place is a mess, but that's fine since he almost never gets a chance to sleep there anymore. He naps at the Watchtower and tries not to fall asleep during class.
He's been seeing Judy for eight months when he comes home on a rare evening free to discover she's cleaned his apartment for him. She sits in his living room, everything straightened and dusted and polished, and there are three small outfits on the couch, and a toothbrush.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" she asks.
"Old girlfriend." He doesn't say "Ex."
"So you won't mind if I throw them away."
"I'll give them back to her," he says, and he realizes he's caught.
"You still see her?"
"Sometimes." Almost every day, lately.
"Tell me about her."
"Just like you can't tell me about where it is you've been going lately." He stays silent. "Rex, what are you into? Because I can handle it. Drugs? You don't look like a splicer. You can tell me."
And he thinks maybe he can. He can tell Judy, and bring her into his world. Tell her his other name. Tell her about his mother, and about his father, and about living in the shadows of two legends and having to pretend to be someone he isn't. He could put that weight on her, the burden of those secrets.
But he likes her too much for that.
"Judes, I can't. Sorry."
"All right," she says, and she stands, getting her purse. "Call me when you're ready to be honest."
He stares at the closed door for a long time, then he puts Merina's things back where they belong.