Standard disclaimers apply. Thanks to Charlene for the quick beta. Apologies if the formatting is eaten. It seems like no matter what I do, killz it.
What're Partners For
The distant ticking of a clock was the first thing Mara became aware of. For some reason, it was a sound that always impressed itself upon her ears. She'd had a digital alarm clock growing up, and finally dad replaced the kitchen clock with a digital display after the eight or ninth time she "accidentally" broke it. As a child, the sound of the grandfather clock two floors below her bedroom at the manor drove her nuts after rough nights, when her senses were on fire. This was something like that. Only it threatened to break her skull open.
"Holy shit," she muttered, rubbing her eyes. Squinting, she saw a bright light, tunneling through darkness, and not much else. It took a few moments, but slowly, her eyes adjusted a little. The piercing brightness was daylight, creeping around thick motel windows. The rest of the room was pitch black to her just yet, save for the outline of a man sitting in the chair in the furthest corner.
She wasn't wearing a mask, which didn't bode well. She'd gone out last night to follow up on a Kobra lead, and she'd been fully masked and "accessorized." She couldn't feel her gloves or boots, nor did she sense them in the immediate vicinity. There was just her and none of her gadgets tucked under the crisp motel sheets like paper in an envelope.
There wasn't much of an assessment she could do after that—Kobra would have killed her, or chained her up. Stinky smoking motel room really wasn't the "style" of any "friends" she had that were capable of a rescue. Which really did narrow the possibilities.
"We really need to stop running into each other like this."
A leg shifted, sliding under the chair. "When you didn't come home, Matrix put in a call to your mother. Which I intercepted." The lamp in the corner clicked on, washing out the extreme contrast. Rubbing her eyes again, Mara didn't look up until her grandfather thrust a plastic glass of water and four aspirin at her. "I figured you were still about as anxious to be found as I was."
Sitting up slowly, Mara shakily took the cup, squeezing it just a little too hard, and spilling some down her arm. She felt like she'd had a house dropped on her. Times were when Jimmy would have a smartass remark for that. She kind of missed those days. "Dare I ask how long I've been out?"
Bruce folded his arms over his chest, the way he always did when he was about to give an 'important lesson.' The oversized analog watch on his wrist ticked away annoyingly. "About six hours. Well, six hours since I got you here. How long you were out before that, that's anyone's guess. I can't imagine it was long, though. With that much venom in your system, you'd have been dead before I got there, if it had been longer. Not that it matters. Keep yourself hydrated. The room's paid up until tomorrow. Checkout is at noon." Walking back to the chair, he picked up a black leather jacket.
"Aww, come on. That's no fair. This is the first time I've seen you in half a year."
He stopped with his hand on the deadbolt. "This was a rescue, not a social call."
Despite Hangover to the Tenth Power, Mara managed to sit up and sling her feet over the side of the bed. "While I appreciate you not letting me die thanks to my own stupidity and all… I think it's time to either put up, or shut up. Are you back, or are you a figment of our imagination? You can't be both. And… You were monitoring the lines… so I know you still care about the partnership. But partners don't just swoop in for the save, after everything's already gone to hell. They look out for each other so this stuff doesn't happen to begin with."
Bruce turned around, at least willing to indulge her in a conversation. "Incredibly well-rehearsed and succinct. I'll give you that much."
Mara knew he wasn't going to budge. There wasn't anything she could say that would change that. "Ok. Fine. Go and vanish again. I won't even track you down. Or let it slip that you're back in circulation."
"If," Bruce prompted.
"If you come home with me. I'm not asking for anything. Just coffee. You haven't met JB."
She saw him shift, almost imperceptibly. Yes, Bruce was still Bruce. "Family," and "babies" still made him extremely uncomfortable, and she enjoyed every minute of it.
She had him. Dick was always saying that he needed to "stand up" to her. He said it jokingly, of course, but Bruce knew the undercurrent. Dick hated that Bruce let Mara do any number of things that he'd never let Dick do as a child. Bruce had always assumed it was something petty like that. Dick had the biggest heart of anyone Bruce had ever known, the most open to anyone he encountered, but there were certain things that pushed certain buttons, and then he'd be as human as the next man.
Even after all this time, to death and back, Dick was still keeping him honest. He'd fallen right into that one with Mara, and she'd manipulated him as she'd done all of her life. It wasn't malicious, of course. She just knew she could walk him right into things, sometimes.
The sticker that he'd never managed to fully scrape off the steering wheel in the Car.
The infamous pony incident.
The down town apartment. Hadn't been meaning to give that up, and with one phone call, she had managed to get his permission to not only redecorate, but turn it into her own private little love nest with Jordan Rayner.
Jordan. The real reason why he was here. Things had recently… complicated themselves again.
Letting her talk him into things he didn't want to do (or let her do) was a life-long habit at this point. But he'd let himself give in just this one last time for a good cause. He needed to keep her occupied for the next day or so. His interference in her life at this exact moment was not entirely coincidence.
Standing at the still-draped window, he looked through the crack, watching the tractor trailers barrel past on the highway a few hundred yards off. Behind him, the shower ran. The effort to get the stench of chemicals and fire off of her skin was probably fruitless if her clothes still reeked of it. Oh well. It was a time-killer. He was never much of a talker, but lately he liked it even less.
And with her? Best avoided.
He'd helped her before—anonymously of course, like three months ago, when she'd been running in circles on a smuggling operation that involved the entire old eastern block. It was a situation he was aware of; even though it was no longer his problem, Gotham was still his interest, and so was anything ending up spuriously in the hands of men who should not have them. He knew she was on it, but when she stalled, he had to confess that he'd left a "complementary" local paper on the doorstep of her room. It wasn't the celebrity gossip paper in the lobby of the hotel; it was the English-language edition of the more serious business times, the cover plastered with a picture of a runway welcome ceremony and a story detailing the arrival of a handful of ambassadors from other block nations, and the impending "event" to be held that night.
She'd obviously put the pieces together as to who was playing with whom, because she'd gotten herself invited. There was a certain amount of anger and hostility towards the world in general still in her, he concluded, when he viewed the property damage a week later. Of course, none of the "involved" parties would ever likely face real justice, but the size and number of the explosions was just excessive.
Today had been his first actual physical save, but it wasn't a coincidence. There had been no intercepted call from Matrix. He'd been aware of her location the entire night and hadn't attempted to interfere until the second Kobra ship had arrived, and by then the entire affair was already too far out of his control to do much more than play clean-up.
That said, his presence had been fortuitous, regardless of the reason. Who knew what would have happened?
Perhaps best not thought of. Things had fallen into place far too conveniently as of late. There was someone, somewhere pulling strings. If he could control the situation before she was involved, physically or emotionally, it would be all the better.
And if it meant a truly awkward and uncomfortable afternoon spent in the presence of someone who, by all rights, shouldn't exist, he'd manage it.
Sipping the coffee, Bruce glanced around at the executive suite. She moved often enough to keep her mother from getting any ideas, but she was hardly living as… rough and tumble as he was. It was fine, of course. But… well, a coffee maker was an appreciated thing in his nomad existence. "It's good. I'm glad you've outgrown that fruity crap."
Mara put her cup down on the table beside him. "Hazlenut isn't a fruit." Or chocolate. Twenty ounces of espresso with a shot of chocolate was fuel for living, she'd tell Jordy. God, she missed him. She tried to keep busy, some would say too busy, but this self-imposed exile from Gotham would be more bearable with him.
"Dark roast, peach syrup," he reminded her.
She'd been seventeen and it had gotten a rise out of him. Well, not much of one, but when she had handed him the paper cup and he took a sip, his lips pursed together in that special, completely disapproving way, it gave her warm fuzzies inside. She couldn't believe that her father had never enjoyed the craft and art of irritating Bruce. It was so easy sometimes, really. What wasn't to like?
Taking another sip from the mug, she smiled. "That was purely for my enjoyment."
His lips did that little "displeased" thing. She missed Jordy to death, but knowing her grandfather was still hanging around was a comfort. Things could never go back to the way they were. But sometimes it was easier to pretend. "Ok. What's up?" She knew when he was about to drop a bomb on her.
"You should go back to Gotham."
She scowled. "You should go back to Gotham," she mocked. "YOU should go back to Gotham."
More silence. She relished it. Her father seemed to hate the quiet, and the sometimes long pauses in conversations. Unless he was lost in thought himself, he always tried to fill it. But Mara appreciated them in the right circumstances.
At least with her grandfather, their entire relationship seemed to take place in those long stretches of silence between the words. Sometimes it was filled with violence, sometimes just nothing. And that was ok. "Tim's doing Gotham and the JLA by himself just fine. Besides . . . I am doing stuff that needs to be done. It's stuff Tim doesn't have time to get to."
"I have it. There's no need for a duplication of effort." Mara drew breath to jump in with a snappy comeback, but he beat her to it. "And no, that doesn't mean we should partner."
"Never let it be said that you were reasonable."
Bruce put his empty coffee cup on the table. "Stubborn."
Slogging down the rest of the coffee, she slammed her mug down like it was shots. "I learned it from watching you," she declared with giddy excitement. How many years had it been? It was still easy and it was still fun to annoy him. "Seriously, will I ever see you again if I go back to Gotham? Besides… I have my own reasons."
Pouring himself another cup, Bruce looked through the doorway, past the living area and towards the steps that lead to the bedrooms. "And that would be?"
Mara waited until he was done with the pot to snatch it up and pour herself another cup. "You already know."
"I'm not a mind reader." She scowled at him. The Irritation Game was only fun when it went one way. "Look. I'll go back when you go back."
Sitting back down, Bruce continued to look back towards the stairs. "Sometimes, stubbornness is discipline and resolve. Sometimes it's just petulant. Why aren't you going back?"
"God, you're not in charge of me any more. You can't force me to go home just because you're Batman and I'm not. God."
Bruce put down his mug, folding his hands in front of him. "Isn't that what this is about?"
She looked at him like he was crazy. This was different--they'd always had a slightly antagonistic relationship, but he'd always been in charge. Now they were on even footing, and he was being combative with her. "Look…this isn't like when I was ten, and you forced me to go home every night because mommy and daddy would miss me. I'm an adult."
"Then why are you acting so petulant?"
"Gotham isn't the same as it used to be. You're not there. Alfred isn't there. Jordy isn't. Sammy has his ring. That's a flying, flaming disaster waiting to happen, and I don't want to be in the middle of it. What's left? Dad trying to console me and mom trying to run my life. God. I swear, SHE made Jimmy nuts. Which is sad, because Jimmy was already mostly there already. I don't need her telling me what to do with him," she looked towards the stairs and the bedrooms.
She couldn't even help it at that point. The eye rolling was a reflex when it came to dealing with some people. "I don't need her constant interference. JB isn't like other kids, and he probably is never going to be. And I don't think he wants to be. Otherwise he'd come down from the ceiling. I don't need her harping on how I need to turn him into a conformist one year old instead of a floating howler monkey. I just don't need HER. This is tough enough figuring this out without her always being on me about SOMETHING, and I'm just too tired to deal it. I'm exhausted, emotionally, and every time I think about getting into another fight with her, I want to take a nap. Or run further away."
Her breath was fast and heaving by the time she was done. Gotham meant dealing with all of those people, which she was just too damned tired to deal with. "Why don't YOU want to go back? At least talk to dad or Clark, or someone. Say hey, I'm not as exceptionally dead as you thought I was? Like I said. I'll go back when you go back."
Bruce shook his head. "Dead people don't just waltz back into town and pick up where they left off."
"Dead people don't run their own private black ops wars either."
"You always were a little smart-shit." Well, that must have been on his mind of a long time. She'd never heard him use that particular expletive, much less in relationship to her. No, really, tell me how you really feel, Mara thought.
"You're mad because I'm right." Folding her arms over her chest, Mara gave a tight smile. The key was just not letting him pull the sadomasochistic emotional torture crap. If you just didn't let him start, it saved time for everybody.
Why was he staring at her, like she was the one in trouble? "Here's a helpful hint in dealing with your mother: get over it."
Her jaw didn't drop, exactly. It just kind of swung down, like the rusty door of a battered mailbox—hesitantly and with a grainy creak.
A tight smile pulled on his lips. Not the secret Batman smile, where his chin muscles clenched—a real one. Death had really unlaxed him. "You know, I always kept waiting for you to realize you were an adult. And I don't mean moving out the week of high school graduation and turning the apartment down town into your own little clubhouse. I mean realizing the sun doesn't rise and set based on your parents' approval."
Pod-person. That was the only explanation. "When have I ever cared about my parents' approval? Otherwise I'd be starting graduate school for something sensible and responsible right now, your company would now belong to Lex Luthor, and I would have NEVER been out there with you. EVER."
He pushed the cup away from him with a bit of finality. "Your father 'never cared' what I thought, either. We all know how that tuned out. You'll do what you feel is best. They'll do their best to undermine you. That's life. Go back to Gotham, Mara."
Getting up, poured herself the remainder of the coffee, then checked the time on her watch. "You know, I don't get you," she said much more calmly than she felt. "You left that . . . message thing. I don't know what it was. With the coffin. And you said you hoped I wouldn't stay in Gotham forever. Now you want me to go back."
"You're done here. That's all. It's time for you to go back."
He could talk around something like nobody's business. "What're you not telling me?"
"If I could tell you what I'm not telling you, then I wouldn't have to not tell you."
Instead of telling him that he sucked, she decided to make a quick retreat to the baby's room. He should have been awake from his nap already, but he also lived on Planet JB. It was like having a cat. The cat wasn't your pet, you were its human. If he felt like sleeping all day and being awake all night, they'd pretty much just be at his mercy until he stopped with the howler monkey bit at like ten the next day. Sometimes, she believed that Matrix turned off his auditory sensors when Jay got like that. Lucky bastard.
And yes, of course, he was awake when she went in there. Matrix was supposed to bring him out when he woke up, however, he'd attached himself to the light fixture and was giggling himself hoarse, every time Matrix tugged on his leash or told him to let go.
The worst part? The light was still on.
She'd have worried about him burning himself, but that stupid bubble of protective green light prevented him from acquiring a healthy fear for most things. Which might make him the world's greatest Lantern some day, but would kill him in about five minutes if long-distance relationship with his father's ring ever faltered. "Jay… why are you giving us a hard time?"
The boy stopped giggling long enough to get the brass tip of the glass fixture in his mouth. Maybe she could get him one of those spherical cage thingies. "Jay, come on. We have company." Because a kid three weeks shy of his first birthday knew or cared what that meant. "Right."
"I see why you need a leash." Her grandfather was standing in the doorway, observing the madness.
"Want a partner? I'll sell him to you for a box of Ju Ju's. As far as I know he's indestructible, doesn't actually consume food but somehow manages to produce waste and possesses a screech of meta-human proportions."
Bruce took the fuzzy monkey tail from Matrix. "Indestructible?" Tugging hard, the boy came dislodged from the light fixture with a cry of surprise, and then bounced off the carpet like a balloon. Bruce put a hand on his head and held him there. He looked the boy in the eye and said with dead seriousness, "we don't like it up there. You want to stay down here, now."
He took his hand off of the child's head. To Mara's amazement, the baby stayed put. "So that's your secret? Child-hypnotism?"
Bruce shrugged. "Your father thought it was intimidation. You're large. He's small. Just tell him how it is. Use your authority."
JB continued to inspect his nose, intermittently slapping himself in the cheek when he missed his nostril. Mara tried to think back to her own childhood, and why she'd listened to him, and couldn't come up with a better reason other than it having been fun. It was why Sammy would stand on her head for long stretches—because you told her it was difficult. Conclusion: kids were nuts.
"Alright, Jay. Did you hear Grim and Grumpy? No more ceiling." Yeah right. Like anyone was ever going to listen to her, the way they did him. They never really did, and it had made things so difficult. Well, they still didn't. Hence the not going back to Gotham.
He seemed to read her mind. "So I can expect you'll get out of my hair and stop involving yourself in my operations?"
She made a face. "Uh…. A whole bunch of no."
"Mara, it's time to go back. You've had your time away." He sounded so serious. "But it's time to go home."
You really did look at the past through rose-colored glasses, Mara realized. She'd forgotten about how absolutely aggravating he could be sometimes. "Why're you being so pushy about it? Do you know something I don't know? So what aren't you telling me?"
"Mara, just go home. Kids need stability. Not this constant traveling."
Folding her arms over her chest, Mara made a final stand. "Why? So mom can be on my ass all the time, and dad can keep trying (and failing) to fix everything? God. Give me one BETTER reason."
Bruce walked past her and the baby, ignoring Matrix' presence completely, and went to the window. "Jim isn't going to be around forever, you know."
"Damn it. I hate you." Not only was he being a total bastard about this, he was right. She traded e-mail with her other grandfather regularly, but it wasn't a substitute for actually being there. And he wasn't getting any younger. He'd had one knee replaced last year and the other seemed to be going south on him. He was from good stock, but he was in his mid 80's, and that was already a long life, comparatively.
Bruce gave a tight smile, arms clasped behind his back. "It was a pleasure, as always, Matrix." He looked down to the baby picking his own nose. "This will sound entirely counter to the way I raised you, but treat him the way you would a normal child."
Mara threw up her hands in disgust. "Like my parents tried to raise me?"
That smile did not waver for a moment. "You will figure it out." He nodded. "Thank you for the coffee. Lets NOT do this again." Turning sharply, he exited.
Picking up the baby, Mara snorted as she watched Bruce march down the hall. "Ass."
Jim looked over his glasses at Mara, entirely unimpressed as she finished her story. "Uhh huh." Stepping aside, he let her and "the nanny" into the apartment. Closing the door behind them, he hobbled with his cane back to his position in front of the television. There was something calming and soothing and regular about day time game shows. "Sit down and get the kid out of that ridiculous thing. Then you can tell me what you're really doing in Gotham."
Mara took the baby carrier off of her back and unstrapped the additional "anti-flotational" restraints. JB ignored all of them, he was so fascinated with the newly discovered car keys, and the sound they made against his sad and lonely four front teeth. "I don't know why you're so suspicious. You always act so suspicious…"
Jim turned the volume down on the television set. "I believe the words you used last time when talking about returning were "hell and high water."
Debating whether she'd incite the howler monkey scream if she took the keys off of the baby, Mara decided to leave them and put the baby into her grandfather's lap. "Isn't it possible I just had a change of mind? Maybe I'm growing as a person or something, you don't know. "
Pushing up his glasses, Jim looked at Matrix critically. For his part, the android shrugged, making it apparent he had no intention of getting in the middle.
The keys instantly dropped out of the baby's hand, and he began reaching for his great-grandfather's moustache.
Jim let the child tug on it for a minute, and then untangled his little fingers. "Your excuses and your insults are too long when you're lying. Always have been." He looked down at the baby, bouncing the child on his good knee. "Oh yes, your mother always thought she was so smart. Betcha Bruce told her to come home, huh? Bruce said I missed her, the dirty old bastard. Same shit he used to pull when she was little."
Mara's mouth opened, she wasn't sure whether it was to tell him not to swear in front of the little parrot, or to ask how the hell he knew?
One of her grandfather's arthritic fingers pointed right at her. "I knew he wouldn't stay dead. Me, I'm ready for a nap. Him? Nah." JB began reaching over the arm of the chair for the keys, making those special "about to scream" moans. "Woke up after my last stroke, and guess who was in the hospital room? That's how I knew I wasn't dead. He's probably the last person I'd want showing me the way to the pearly gates."
Mara had to smile. There were some things that she had missed. His candor was one of them. Yes, she'd been trying to escape the day-to-day melodrama of being involved personally or professionally with her family, but there were things she was missing out on as well.
Her grandfather looked tired as all hell. His skin was grey, he was bent over and all but creaked when he walked, but he was still quite a wry old guy. He was still the same guy she enjoyed going to movies with as a kid. There were no sacred duties with him, no weird chains of command or parental relationships. There were the people who were annoying him, the people acting like asses and the people trying to scare him to death, and he'd refer to everyone around him as being in one of those three categories. There was beauty in that sort of simplicity.
Mara sat down on the brown couch. The fabric was stiff and the act of her sitting caused the release of sweet tobacco fumes. Someone was smoking his pipe again. Of course, at his age, it wasn't like it would kill him any quicker or slower than anything else killing him. "Yeah. I don't think I remembered him as being quite such an ass."
Jim let out a genuine laugh that denigrated into coughing. "That's maturity and age catching up with you."
She decided to take that as a complement.
"And what's going on with this fine young fellow?" The old man untangled the baby's hand from his facial hair yet again. "Is he walking yet?"
Bruce frowned at the intel report. "Well, there's nothing that can be done about it now. What's done is done. However, we'd better undo this as quickly as possible, before this thing turns up on the radar. Otherwise your career in a costume will be decidedly short-lived."
Sammy tugged on her ponytail. "I was just gunna blame it on Darkseid. I blame all kinds of things on him."
The child had, quite possibly, the most skewed view of the universe that he'd ever seen. "No. We're going to solve this problem now. I'll work on capturing the creature before it reveals it's presence to anyone else. YOU work on finding the last 'firefly.' NOBODY finds out about this. Not your parents, not Supergirl. And definitely not Mara." If they succeeded, then it wouldn't matter what had transpired in the interim. But if things didn't go well… Well, there was no point in scraping opened old wounds.
She floated up in the air. "Can I go now?"
Bruce growled. "You're dismissed. And remember…"
There was something petulant and very "Dick Grayson" about the way she rolled her eyes. Perhaps it was the age group. As she spoke, she started floating away. "Yeah, I know, I know. Don't tell anybody anything. I don't have any problems at all. And I never asked Old Fat Batman for help with anything, because Old Fat Batman isn't alive at all."
"I am NOT--" He sighed. It was the age group. He just let her go. "Good luck, Green Lantern."
TO BE CONTINUED….