The Signs of Air and Water (3/3)
a Justice League Unlimited story
by Merlin Missy
He's ducked out for five years in a row, but once again, Rex's turn has rolled around to chaperone the Senior Prom. He has to get his suit cleaned, and going through the pockets, he finds Maxine's card.
On a whim, he calls her. She tells him she's busy, but takes his number to call him back. He hangs up, considers throwing away the card, then drops it by the phone instead while he runs out to the cleaner's. When he gets back, there's a message on his machine. He calls her back. They talk for two hours.
She calls him the next night, and this call is only for half an hour, but he feels good when they finally say goodbye. The night after that is prom. It's just as bad as he expected. When he gets home, there's another message on his machine, and his night gets a little better as he listens to her talk about her day. It's late, but he calls back anyway, waking her up.
They talk on the phone until almost dawn.
She agrees to meet him for drinks, and suggests a chic place in Blüdhaven. He spends a little more time than is probably healthy picking out his outfit, settling on a dark mock turtleneck and black slacks. Maxine is already there when he arrives, and she's a perfect professional from her tailored suit to the shoes on her feet. She smiles when she sees him, lighting up the whole room.
Drinks turn into dinner, which turns into a stroll around Blüdhaven at hours that would worry any couple who isn't them.
He's relaxed around Maxine. She knows jokes he hasn't heard, and stories about the same people he knows. She's met his family but she's one of the Bats, and she gets that family is just where you start out, not who you are. She's got a great smile, and she's smart, and he doesn't have to hide the fact that he is, too.
They patrol together a few times, first in her city, then in his. He's used to working alone, or else with a large group. Partner work requires different tactics, different attention. He's less the vigilante type than she. Still, the thud of skulls cracking together is universal, and while she can glide through the air in her suit, his jetpack can zoom past her and reach a perp before she's got a batarang out.
He kisses her at the end of their third date, a gentle press rather than a hungry burn. She kisses him the next night after they stop an armed robbery, and he's surprised. He doesn't push her away, but he doesn't respond either.
Two weeks after their first date, he calls her and she tells him she has to call him back later. Later turns into the following day, a timespan which drives him to distraction and almost costs him a finger on the laser-lathe he oh so cleverly is showing his students.
"Are we on for tomorrow?" he asks, when she finally calls.
"I've got plans," she says. He knows those words and that tone.
"Why?" he asks dully.
She's got no room in her life for bullshit. It's why he likes her. "Because I think we're getting serious."
"And you're scared."
"No. I think we'd be great together. We already are great together. I like you. It wouldn't be hard to fall in love with you." Her voice catches.
"I like you, too," he says. He isn't going to try to mumble his way through saying any phrase that contains the word "love."
"I know you do. But if we get together, I want to know I'm the one you're thinking about."
"You are. You would be. Max … "
"Call me in a few months. Call me in a year. I'll be here when you're over her."
He wants to say something, wants to tell her they can work on it, that he's ready.
"Goodbye, Rex," she says, and the line goes dead. He hangs up the phone. Then he gets the armor ready and goes to the Tower. He wants to practice, wants to be around the rest of the freak show he calls his friends. He wants to call his father.
His mother picks up instead. He doesn't know what to say to her that won't sound like he's still a little kid, whining about a toy he wants. Dad would understand. Dad dated someone new after Mom broke his heart. Aunt Mari is still an emeritus member of the JLU, which means she can call whenever she wants to check up on her own son now that the baby is older and Micron's back from his leave. Rex is polite to her, and she is the same to him, and he and Micron try not to talk about how close they came to being brothers.
He doesn't think his mother is going to get it.
Mom waits for him to speak, nudging him with questions: how's he eating, how's work, how are the rest of their friends. He asks about her health, and she talks for too long about his father's cholesterol level. He wants to tell her everything and wait for her to make it better, but he can't find the words, so he tells her he loves her and ends the transmission.
With her duties, and a touch of cowardice she didn't previously know she possessed, Merina hasn't seen his face, even masked, in over two years. She can't hide her startled expression when he answers, and she doesn't try to hide her smile. He returns it, but guardedly. She can disguise the pain that brings, and she does.
It's a status report, nothing more, but she longs for stories of her friends. He tells her Barda has a new beau, finally, and to everyone's surprise, so does Kai. He doesn't say so, but she can tell he's agitated about Kai's boyfriend. Gear's first grandchild is due any day. Bruce keeps getting older and grouchier. Everyone else is the same.
"How've you been?" she asks him.
"I'm all right. How's Nerdy?"
"Cerdian," she says crossly, then sees his grin. "He's well," comes out automatically, and then she remembers who it is on the other end of the line. "He's gone back to his estate. He doesn't really like Atlantis proper." Cerdian doesn't like a lot of things, and while he is kind to her, Merina knows she is on that list.
There had been someone else for him as well when she informed him they were to be married, and the idiot never said until after the wedding. Now she has a husband who dwells an ocean away from her and who has a mistress he'd prefer to make his wife, and she has a niece to groom for the throne, and she has a kingdom perpetually angry with the surface world, and she has to work all day every day simply to keep things from spinning out of control.
She doesn't tell him these things in a play for sympathy. She tells him because she knows he cares, and because these are the things she can tell him. Some things can't be spoken over a monitor, even via a secured line, and some things she can't say at all. She won't tell him that Cerdian returns to the palace at regular intervals to perform the one duty a consort to the royal line actually needs to fulfill.
When they finally break the transmission, she stares at the empty screen for a long time, wondering if he's doing the same.
The ambassador from Atlantis is kind of a dork, but most of his interactions are with the World Assembly, so they only have to put up with him during the occasional summit or visit. He always makes a half-sneer whenever he comes to the Metro Tower, the one that says it isn't half so fine as the palace. Superman has long since stopped trying to explain that it's not a palace, it's a headquarters.
Rex suspects the guy is brighter than he's acting. However, he doesn't care. When Virgil "accidentally" shakes his hand with a charge still activated, sending the ambassador across the room, he's not the only one who has to hide his chuckle with a cough.
Virgil helps him up, smirking in the way only someone with a beard can get away with properly, and apologizes. The ambassador dusts himself off, accepts the apology, and offers greetings from Queen Erissa and Princess Merina. Atlantis will be making a full return to its position within the Assembly. At some point, Atlantis will also be sending one of her warriors with a petition for membership into the League. Had both proclamations, stated with enough pomposity to fill half the hot air balloons in New Mexico, not been made every single time the ambassador met with the League, Rex would be more impressed.
The ambassador continues, that, although they have not inquired regarding the matter, the princess was safely delivered of her son three weeks before, and at his naming ceremony, his mother gave him her own father's name.
Rex hasn't been in a room with her in three years, but he spoke with her last week and she never said a word. There isn't enough air in the room right now, not to breathe, not to think.
After His Pompousness leaves, Superman takes him aside and informs Rex he isn't going to go on patrol tonight, in Metropolis, Detroit, or anywhere else. It's not exactly an order, but it's Superman, and Rex nods obediently. He's got a bad headache and he's tired, and if he finds himself in a fight with a big bad or even a pickpocket, there's going to be bloodshed.
The ambassador invites them to the ceremony for Queen Erissa's full ascension to her throne. Kai attends with Micron and Superman, while Rex finds other things to do that don't involve the ocean.
He's in the workshop, tweaking the armor, trying not to think about anything but the polished metal under his hands.
"Hey," she says. It's like a lightning bolt straight into his guts.
"Hey," he replies, turning around casually. The effect is spoiled when he brushes against his tools, sending everything clattering to the floor. She bends down to help him gather them.
She's changed. She'd already reached her full growth before she left, but there's a firmness to her shoulders and a tight look on her face that weren't part of her before. He thinks her hips might be a touch wider, too, but he's not nearly stupid enough to comment.
"You look good," he says instead, putting the last of the tools back on the table.
"You came back with Superman and everybody?"
She nods. "We got in an hour ago. Arthur's napping in my old quarters."
"How long are you staying?" he asks, keeping his face to the suit.
"A while. Two, maybe three decades." He freezes. She continues: "Erissa considers me an advisor, but it's her kingdom now. She has to be the one who rules it, not her surface-tainted aunt."
"There isn't a person in Atlantis who doesn't think I've spent too much time above. If I'd set foot on the shore while I was ruling, there would have been civil war. And now I'm no longer acting as the Queen and I can go where I please." Her hand is on his forearm, one of the few places his flesh shows through when he's in costume. They both notice this at the same time, but she doesn't move her hand.
He watches her for a long moment. "You're married," he tells her at last, and gently removes her hand.
"My people don't allow divorce. And my husband has already had one child by his mistress since Arthur was born."
"I'm not going to be a part of this. I don't want to be your safety date, and I really don't want to fall in love with someone who's married to someone else."
"You're not my safety, you idiot." He can't see tears, but he hears them in her voice. "You're my standard. You're the one that everyone else in my life has to measure up to."
"That's your dad," he replies, more harshly than he intends.
"I used to think that, too. Then I started having to rule my damned kingdom, and I was so mad at him, and at Triton too, for dying and leaving me that mess. And Neptune help me, every day, I'd find myself thinking, 'Dad, you son of a bitch. If you were half the man Rex is, you'd have found a way to stay alive.'"
"Right," he says, turning away again.
"You don't have to believe me," she says. "You don't have to do anything. I just wanted you to know that I was back."
"Why did you come back?"
"Because this is where I belong." She doesn't say which "where" she means: on the surface, in the Watchtower, with him. He thinks maybe she means all three.
He sighs. If she stays, he's going to be drawn back into her. Her life, her world, her rules. Just like before.
"You brought Arthur?"
"He's my son. He goes where I go."
"Nerdian can't be thrilled about that."
"Cerdian hasn't tried to see him since he was born. He can come to the shore if he wants to see him now." She takes his hand again. "Come on. Come see what I made."
She leads him back to her quarters. A little boy, blond down on his head, slumbers deeply in her bed. He looks so much like his mother it hurts.
"Cute kid," he whispers.
"I'm fond of him," she whispers back, and shuts the door.
In the corridor, they stand silently, watching each other. The spell is finally broken when Cassandra walks by and spies her. She talks too loudly when she hugs Merina and welcomes her back, and Arthur wakes up crying. His mother comforts him, and Rex watches as the toddler drifts back to sleep.
Rex hasn't thought about children, at least not in relation to himself. Thanks to his heritage, he knows he can never father a child of his own. It occurs to him, not for the first time, that Merina knows that, too.
Merina's old quarters become Arthur's room. She wants to return to Miami, but Arthur is safer here at the Tower, and there's always someone around to keep an eye on him while she's off saving the world again. She moves into Rex's quarters, which is just as well as his room is next door to hers, and he doesn't live at the Tower anyway.
Everyone assumes they're sleeping together again, but they're not, and they haven't. One evening Kai agrees to watch Arthur all night, so Merina goes to Rex's apartment with a stop-off at the Thai restaurant first. She buys his favorites and her own, brings them to his place. He's not home, but she still has his key. She brings the food in, carefully storing it away in the refrigerator for later.
Then she takes off her clothes, hangs them up neatly in his closet, and slips between his sheets.
When he discovers her there, he stands in the doorway and stares.
"We're not doing this again. I can't. I can't follow the rules any more."
"Rules change. No more seeing other people. No more hiding. But we're still not getting married."
"Merina." He sits on the edge of his bed. "I don't know if I can survive being in love with you."
"Then I'll be in love for both of us," she says primly, and she trails kisses across his jaw and into his mouth. When he doesn't move, she thinks she's gone too far at last, that she has broken the final thin thread holding their friendship together.
And then he grabs her arms, and presses her hungrily back onto the pillows, and it is as if they have never been parted at all.
Someone new has moved to Miami. He wears a mask and stays on the land, and he seems to be in the vigilante camp more than the crusading superhero camp. The League keeps an eye on him, and Merina decides that the Metropolis seaport is a reasonable base of operations. Detroit keeps its hero.
Arthur begins kindergarten at the same school Rex attended. It's pricey, but Atlantean gold buys them a freedom from too many questions just as Wayne Enterprises cashier's cheques bought that same lack of inquiry when Rex was small. Merina, under the name "Marie Seaborn," receives regular reports from Arthur's teacher.
"A beautiful boy," she says. "Very smart. Regularly leads the other children in the class. Kind. Excellent swimmer. Needs to work on tying his shoes." The school counselor speaks to all the children at least once per term, but she has no concerns. Her report says he has told her about his family, that he has a man he refers to as his father, and a man he calls "Dad." He seems to be as well-adjusted about this fact as any other child she has encountered from what the counselor mistakenly believes to be a broken home rather than a fixed one.
In the first grade, Arthur starts taking a notebook to school. In the margins, he draws detailed pictures of seashells and atomic structures and finches. He only gets angry during class once, when the teacher reads them a story about a magic ring, and he insists that's not how they work at all because his grandad said so and his uncle showed him and lies are bad. That earns him a note home. Merina explains that, yes, lies are bad but sometimes they can't always share the whole truth. She asks him to apologize. He does, eventually.
On the first day of second grade, the teacher goes around the room asking the students what they want to do when they grow up. Arthur tells her that he wants to fly.