Typical warnings--little bitta language. Futureverse to be named
later. Of course, i manipulate time and space to suit my own purposes
because its much more fun that way. Continuity? We dont need no
stinkin' continuity.

Like i said, if these stories start pissing you off, lemme know.

I down own them. Obviously. Please don't sue my ass.

Yes, another in the Mara series. This one comes after "Sinking Ships"

Down the New Path

****

"I have other stuff to do. I can't just drop everything and go
because YOU want--"

"We're going tonight, and that's final," my mother told me. I'd made
the mistake of calling her during lunch to check on a case. Now we
were getting into this.

"And I think the red dress I wore at Christmas is fine."

"Not for your grandfather's retirement party."

"Fine, then I'll wear pants." And to think I used to think calling my
mom and talking to her while I ate was a great alternative to sitting
in the cafeteria alone like a dork.

"You're not wearing pants, Martha Ann Grayson. You're going to come
home from school, you're going to get in my car, and we're going to
the mall, and we're going to get you a dress. And it's going to be a
beautiful dress, and you're going to wear the damned thing, or I'm
going to ground you for the rest of your God-forsaken existence.
Understood?"

"Fascist," I muttered. Aside from regular clothing arguments about
how I really should dress like a girl, mom and I had gotten along
lately. It figured that we were due.

"I'm a regular clothes Nazi."

"Gotta go. Teacher just spotted me with the phone." I hung up. My
English teacher stood right in front of me.

"Mara Grayson."

"Ms. Weitz."

"The cell phone, Ms. Grayson."

"You're kidding me."

"We have a no cell phone policy. And you, being an average student,
completely above notice, are in violation of that policy." She was
nailing me in school every chance she got. For anything and
everything. So much for gratitude for saving your life, lady.

I handed over the phone. "Thank you, young lady. We will return it
once we speak to one of your parents."

"Give my mom a call," I muttered. "That's who I was talking to."

"I will then. Perhaps SHE needs to be made aware of the cell phone
policy." She walked off.

I was too disgusted to finish my French fries. I tossed them into the
puddle of ketchup and watched them sink under. Just for the sake of
being completely gross I poured some of my chocolate milk into it and
stirred it around with my straw.

"Oh my God. No wonder you sit alone." It was Benny, dumb jock
extraordinaire.

"I sit alone because the intelligence quotient is higher at my table
than at yours."

I was pretty damned cheesed, so I left my tray on the table, got up
and went to the library. I could like do some homework or something,
if my mom was determined to screw up my whole night with going to the
mall. She knew I'd rather shop some place else, especially after the
whole Harvey thing, but nooooo. She wants to go to the mall.

Dresses were so highly overrated.

I couldn't concentrate on homework, so I checked my mail. Mara's mail
at any rate. Robin's was probably much more interesting, but not in a
public library.

E-mail from Cassandra Cain. Interesting. Subject line: "MAKE YOR
MOTHR LEEVE ME ALONE."

Short, sweet, to the point, and misspelled. That was Cassandra. I
opened it and laughed. "I don't want to go to the mall. What I have
from Christmas is just fine. HELP. –Cass"

I chuckled. At least she was making other people's lives miserable
too. I shot off a one-line reply and didn't bother signing it. "She
got to me too. Sorry." And I sent it.

Well, misery loved company.

The next e-mail was from Tim, complete with first ultrasound pictures
attached. They said they didn't want to know what the sex was, and
prefaced the e-mail begging us not to look too hard. I was hoping for
a girl. It was my goal to infiltrate and one day take over the Gotham
Boy's club.

I didn't have much else. Ten more e-mails of junk—two harassing e-
mails from seniors who wanted answers to their AP world history final
and an e-mail from my mom, a FORWARD of all things. It was a crazy
world.

Things had been going pretty well lately. The Justice League treated
me like I had the plague (which left me with mixed feelings of hurt
and relief), Young Justice didn't know me, I was regularly getting in
at a decent hour from Gotham every night, and my room was filling up
with model ships. Even my twip of a brother hadn't been getting on my
nerves a lot lately. Mostly because I just ignored him. He had Young
Justice, YJ had him, and all seemed to be well.

I opened mom's e-mail after I deleted all the stuff I had no
intention of reading. "This popped into your other account. Figured
you'd want it ASAP."

Mom read my e-mails? Great. She was a dangerous woman. So what the
hell was in this attachment, and did I want to read it in public?
Well, mom had pulled it. I guess I should read it now.

I opened it up, and little teddy bears danced across the screen,
singing that they loved me and they were sorry, could we still be
friends? I looked down at the bottom. It was just signed "LL." I
couldn't help it, I laughed. I hadn't really spoken to him since
before Christmas, and I missed him. My Lil' Lantern, as I had
nicknamed him. The nickname had caught on, and he even referred to
himself by it. My world had suddenly grown a little bit brighter, and
I realized how much I missed Young Justice. Not the things they put
me through—but Young Justice. But, uh… I couldn't go crawling back,
right? I'd resigned. I'd call Lantern tonight, see if we could hook
up. Just me and him. We didn't need any of those other Young Justice
crumb-bums.

After school, I went to my English teacher's classroom. "So. Did my
mom say I can have it back?" I asked smugly.

"Actually, she said she is coming to pick you up, and I can hand it
directly to her. She agrees entirely with the policy."

"You're making that up."

"Why would I lie?"

My mom was so mean. Dad could be psycho-parent, but mom was just
manipulative and mean. "You know, we don't have to play it like
this."

"You set down the law rather clearly, I thought."

But you don't have to go being a psycho-hose-beast about it. "Ok.
Yeah. My bad." Ok, lady, you win. But school lets out in a month, and
then we can forget we ever crossed ways, right?

Right. Just go with me on this.

* * *

"Well, what was I going to do, Mara? She walked me right into it."

"I'm so sure, mom." I HATED having this conversation in the car, with
Cassandra in the back, but, well, she brought it up. She is the one
who started off saying how I needed to keep my nose clean at school
and stop drawing attention to myself, if I wanted to keep up my night
life. I wanted to say—too late, this chick already KNOWS. And I'd had
to put the wrath of God into her. THAT is why she's treating me like
this. "And another thing—how LONG have you been reading my e-mails?"

"I don't read your e-mails. I have a program set to scan for incoming
messages from certain IP addresses. I saw it was from Little Lantern,
so I forwarded it, in it's entirety to you. Without opening."

"How did you know it wasn't compromising?"

"I have a program to scan for that too," she said with a grin. "I'm
not the enemy here, Mara. I thought I was doing something nice."

"The e-mail, or taking my teacher's side in this."

"You can't have the cell phone back until you learn how to be
responsible enough not to draw attention to yourself. I THOUGHT you'd
be smart enough to NOT call from a crowded cafeteria."

I folded my arms over my chest and seethed. We always got on each
others nerves when we had to go clothes shopping. This was another in
a long line of times when things would go wrong. Maybe Cassandra
would be able to take the focus on just how much my mother and I
hated doing this. Well, Cass hated it too, so I didn't see how.
Chances were, instead of just mom and I fighting, this would turn
into a three-way argument.

"Got pictures from Tim," Cassandra said finally. "Cute kid."

I gave half a laugh. "As long as he doesn't look like his dad, the
kid'll be fine."

We all sat in blown-away silence. Tim was going to be a father. Wow.
That made me feel old. I remembered when I was a kid, and he was in
college, and still Robin… and then I was Robin… it seems like
yesterday I put that costume on for the first time. I remember Tim
patting me on the head, saying I would kill the bad guys with
cuteness. Then I'd kicked him in the shin. I'd had a hard time with
Tim getting married the first time around. I cried at the wedding.
Not because I'd been so happy, but because I was losing my playmate.
He had, after all, lived with us after the great fall-out with his
dad, through his two-year burn-out, all the way up till he got
married.

I sighed. "Guess that makes you an aunt or something, huh Cass?"

"Um hum," she muttered. Why were we getting collectively depressed
over this? "Not staying at the mall unless I get ice-cream," she said
softly.

"Me too," I followed. But, well, what was the point in jerking mom
around? We were out of steam and our heart wasn't really in it.
Grandpy was retiring, Tim was becoming a dad, Spoiler was out of
commission for a while… things were changing.

"Both of you behave, and we'll get ice cream." Mom sighed. "I can't
believe I'm doing this. I'm bribing two of my most capable operatives
with ice cream." She pushed up her glasses on her nose.

Wow. Mom thought I was capable? Interesting.

* * *

"So. Uh. This Akins guy," I whispered to Cassandra while mom pulled
dresses for us to try on. "Whatdaya think?"

"Good guy," she commented. "Too quiet though. I worry about quiet
ones." What was she talking about? She WAS one of the quiet ones.

I nodded. That was more than I'd gotten out of anyone in months on
the subject.

"Hey! What about this one!" I cried out, holding up a black leather
dress.

"Nice try, Small Fry. Now do me a favor and pick something else
before I'm moved to murder." Wow. She was alliterating and stuff. She
must be pretty worked up. Well, of course she's worked up, it's her
dad retiring, AND this changes our game entirely. Ok. She was allowed
to be stressed too.

"New tactic, Cass," I whispered. "Let's get a dress and get the hell
out of here. I think mom's seriously stressing."

She nodded, then grabbed something off the rack. "I wear this," she
said, holding up a black silk dress. She threw it over her shoulder
and pulled out a shimmering mint-green dress. "You wear this."

My eyes got wide. "You're kidding me, right? Is there a reason why
I'd WANT to draw attention to myself like that?"

"You're the one who said to get a dress and get out."

"You're insane."

Her lips spread like a cat who'd just caught a mouse. I snatched the
dress from her and ducked into the dressing room. I tore off my shirt
and put the dress on. It fit, alright. Even with my jeans on. Why did
it have to be green? Maybe I could die it black before tomorrow
night. Maybe the Justice League would recall Batman and me and we
could go to some other planet for the battle of the century and I'd
be spared this whole event. Maybe I'd just go and shut up and behave
myself for once in my life.

"Ok, it fits," I declared. "Lets go," I said, stepping out of the
dressing room.

"You don't even want to try on what I picked out?" Mom had about
twelve dresses on her lap. She finally looked up from them to
me. "Wow. Nice. Try it without the jeans." I couldn't believe she was
approving of this madness.

I huffed, went into the dressing room and pealed off the jeans, then
came out. "Wow. Now you just look like a tomboy wearing a dress.
Stand up straight."

Geeze. Who was she, my Bat? Sit up straight, Robin. Don't carry
yourself like you're a vagrant, Robin…

I stood up straight. "Better?"

"Perfect." She looked from me to Cassandra. "It's spring. You don't
have to wear black." Mom had been trying to break her of the black
thing for years. It was hopeless.

Cassandra went on about how black went with everything, and finally
my mother conceded. There were some battles you'd just never win.

"Well, all my hard work for nothing." Mom let the girl at the counter
take the dresses from her, we paid for our purchases, and then we
headed for the ice-cream vendor in the food court. "Thank you for
making that not as painful as it could be," mom admitted as I carried
her milk shake and my cone to our table. Cassandra was still as the
cash register. They were getting permission from the manager to make
a cone with five scoops of ice-cream. My family was so weird.

My cell phone rang in mom's purse.

"Sorry," mom said. "The kid's grounded from the cell phone."

I rushed up to her. "Who is it?"

She ended the call and turned the power off. "You don't need to
know."

"MOM!" I was going to die. I couldn't believe she was doing this to
me.

"It's your grandfather. He wants us to wrap up this little shopping
fiesta so you two can get back to work."

Praise God. Saved by Grandpa Bruce.

"Too bad you both still need shoes." She was suddenly enjoying
torturing us, I could tell.

I slapped the table. "You are SO mean to me."

"I have shoes from Christmas," Cassandra added. "Black shoes, black
dress."

"You are NOT escaping," I begged her. "Come on, don't leave me here…"

My mother scowled at both of us. "You're getting shoes. Neither of
you are going to screw this up tomorrow night. It may have to kill
you both, but you're going to behave. You, Mara Grayson are going to
turn on that pretty little smile of yours and play the game you play
for Bruce. Cassandra—NO disappearing."

"Mom, we're not going to try to screw this up on purpose." Chances
are, it'd just turn out that way. This was, after all, us.

Her eyes softened a little. "I know you won't TRY to mess it up. I
just… your grandfather deserves this."

"I know," I whispered.

Maybe that's why I'd been a jerk about this. I didn't want him to
go. "Man. Who am I going to bug after this? You know?" Especially
since he really, really let me bug the crap out of him. Who did I
call at three in the morning when I needed positive affirmation of my
own sanity or worth? Who's office could you hide out in when you were
in trouble, or really hot in the summer, or really cold in the
winter…? I sniffed, getting teary-eyed. Basically, I'd miss seeing
him all the time. And what if this new guy turned out to be a real
jerk?

"Alright, alright." I said, wiping my eyes. I must be PMSing or
something. Great. "Can we do this shoe thing and get out of here?"

I ended up, after much hemming and hawing, getting a pair of shoes
the same color as the dress. I was going to kill Cassandra for this.
Mint chocolate chip ice-cream green! Everyone in the whole world was
going to notice I was there. Didn't I just get in trouble with mom
for being noticed at school? What was Cassandra's deal anyways?
Maybe I'd done something to her, and I just didn't' know it, and this
was some kind of painful payback for whatever it was.

As we headed back to the car, I cataloged my list of atrocities in my
head. Last weekend I hadn't taken down some guys fast enough and got
a lecture from the Bat for showing off. That was really it. I hadn't
worked with Cassandra in a while. Actually, I only ever ended up
working with her on accident, never by design. So, what had I done?

Maybe it wasn't me. Maybe she was color blind.

* * *

I was laying on my bed, on my stomach, next to the bags containing my
dress and shoes, talking to Jordy, my Little Lantern. The previous
night when we'd gotten home from shopping, I'd talked to him for an
hour, and even made myself late for patrol. I decided to call right
after school tonight, so we could talk longer.

"He really said that? Wow."

"Yeah. Then he went stalking off to his room. And everyone was just
like… don't go after him!" But Yellow Hurricane was already busting
off down the hall before we could blink, and opens the door… and
Superboy screamed at her so loud he was hoarse when he was done.

I laughed. "Interesting. This is just further evidence for my theory
of male PMS."

"You're gross, you know that? Anyways… You know how we have to report
everything to the JLA now. So… Nighthawk is jumping on the line to
tattle Superboy out to the watchtower, and guess who's on duty?"

I couldn't hold the laugh in. "Lemme guess, he's big, he's blue, and
he's faster than a speeding bullet?"

We both broke into peals of laughter.

"Next thing we know, Superman's busting down Kon's door, giving him a
big ol' lecture on behaving himself now that he's in charge." Yeah, I
hadn't seen that one coming. Kon in charge of YJ. "Kon's like… I'm
not really in charge, I'm just your puppet prince—ROBIN didn't have
to clear EVERYTHING with you."

Oh the bliss and satisfaction of revenge. Kon was doing it to himself
at that point.

"Oh man. Tell me what Superman said next!"

My door opened. "It's time to get ready to go," my mom informed me.

"Is that Oracle?" LL asked.

"Uh. Yeah. I'm being hailed. Gots ta go. Love you lots. Keep those
mooks in line."

"Sure! Bye bye!"

I hung up. Most folks still didn't know how all of us Bat folks were
related. As much as I loved LL, he still didn't know much more than
Jimmy and I being raised together—it was kind of hard to miss, we
fought like it. Arch-nemesis number one was Penguin. Arch-nemesis
number two was Jimmy, followed closely behind by Superboy.

I knew a heck of a lot more about my friends than they knew about me,
but I didn't flaunt it the way Tim liked to. Our relationship had
been cool because as far as they knew, I didn't know anything about
them either. Of course, that had all gone down the tubes several
months ago, hadn't it?

"Hey mom," I asked as I started pulling out clothes. "Can you get me
security footage from Happy Harbor from this morning?"

"I CAN do anything. Whether I will or not is another story entirely,"
she called back.

I unzipped the dress. "Well, there was a knock-down drag out. I just
wanna see Kon getting what's coming to him."

"Those security cameras aren't for former Young Justice members to go
spying on their team-mates' weakest moments."

I made a face. "FINE. I'll ask Uncle Clark. He'll tell me." Of
course, I hadn't spoken to him in a month, so God alone knew where we
stood with each other.

"If he tells you, that's fine," mom said, suddenly in my door
way. "But you are NOT going to see any of that footage."

My mom was so mean.

"Uh, uh." She wagged a finger at me. "Hair and make-up first. Then
you put on the dress. I'm not going to have you get anything on it."
She really could turn this into an ordeal. Then the next most
terrible part occurred—she decided I couldn't be trusted to do my own
hair or makeup, so she was going to do it for me.

It took her half an hour to curl my hair with this tiny curling iron,
during which time I was not permitted to look in a mirror. It took
her ten minutes to do the makeup. Then she just sort of looked at me
for a few minutes, being all weird and motherly, then started going
through my things looking for earrings and such. "NOTHING in those
two holes at the top of your ear. Do you hear me?" she asked. I
nodded. I'd pierced the top of my ear in a moment of teenage
rebellion, and mom brought it up every chance she got.

Mom had picked out gold jewelry with white stones. Everything was
small and understated. Because you know, they're not going to be
looking at the jewelry, they're going to be looking at the dress.

Finally, FINALLY, she left me to get dressed. I was ever so careful
putting the nylons on. They weren't as durable as the kinda tights I
was used to wearing. I was careful putting on the silk dress that
came to my knees. I made sure I could sit and have it cover the scar
on my thigh. I unbuckled the shoes and put them on. Then I just stood
there, looking down at myself. Please, God, don't let me be the only
one wearing pastel.

My next thought was: how to get Cassandra back for this?

I went down stairs, trying to negotiate the stairs in my heals. It
was much easier being a chick as Robin—everything she wore was
comfortable and punk. But as myself? Sometimes I deeply regretted
being Mara Grayson. Dinah had the right idea—be Black Canary all the
time. It took the pressure off.

My dad was rambling on about what he'd gotten grandpa while he stood
in the living room with the ironing board opened. There was enough
room in the laundry room for it, but I guess there was something on
TV. He took his shirt off and began ironing it. He heard me coming
down the steps. "Can you believe your mother won't let me wear this?
It's a wrinkle free shirt, for crying out--" he looked up at
me. "Holy frigging crap."

"See, mom, I told you I shoulda wore the dress from Christmas!"

"No. No. you look… Wow."

I ran over to a mirror, practically falling over my shoes. What the
hell was my dad talking about? What had my mother and Cassandra done
to me. When I looked in the mirror, there was someone I didn't
know. "I… I'm going back up stairs and I'm putting something else
on."

"Don't." my dad was looking me in the eye. I almost flinched.

"I gotta." This was… scary.

"Mara, don't you dare. Get your coat, then get in the car," mom
ordered.

"I can't go like this."

"Can and will. Get in the car." I didn't move. "Get in the car."

I nodded then put on my good coat and went outside. I couldn't
believe this. I didn't look like me at all.. All I could see was from
my shoulders up, the strange cut and fit of the dress near my chest,
and the hair… the curls wisping back through my short hair… the
makeup…

Jimmy was playing with his hair in the side mirror when I got out
side. "Can someone tell me why dad isn't wearing a shirt, but we're
outside freezing our butts off?"

"Mom thinks that if we're outside that means we can't get undressed.
Or something." Why was he looking me over like that. "You're someone
who NEEDS to get undressed. And wear a potato sack or something,
you'll look better."

I bit my lips. Dontsayanythingdontsayanything…

And don't run back inside and try to change.

What the hell were they thinking, letting me buy this? What the hell
was I thinking, not protesting more?

After a few deep breaths I could continue without killing him. "If
you move, I can open the car door."

"Naw. I kinda like it right here," Jimmy informed me, messing with
his hair more.

"Incase you haven't noticed," I said calmly. "My legs are hanging out
here. And it's cold. Can we please get in the car?"

"Nope," he said smugly.

Jimmy, so help me God…

"Ok," I said indifferently. He was NOT going to win. Besides—I'd been
cold before. Hell, a few months ago, I'd spent four hours in my
underwear in the Yukon. I could stand a Gotham winter in a skirt.

Dad came out the door, putting his coat on as he walked. Mom
followed, locking the door behind her.

"I thought we told you kids to get in the car?"

"Mara wouldn't open it!"

I sniffed the cold dry air. There was something seriously wrong with
the fact they ALWAYS believed him, and not me. "Jimmy's right. I
wanted HIM to freeze to death." I looked envyingly to his pants.

"Well," dad said. "Get in NOW." As Jimmy got in, dad watched me.
There was some unidentified look in his eye—not quite like he was
going to ground me, but like… maybe he wanted to. His lips were set
together. I wished he'd say something instead of staring at me like
that. Like I wasn't self-conscious enough already.

Mom got herself in. Dad just waited, holding onto the door. It'd stay
open on it's own, obviously, but dad always had to feel like he was
doing something. Or Alfred had really beaten the manners into him.

"You're going to behave yourself tonight, Champ?" dad asked as we
pulled away. It was going to be a long drive to Gotham, I could tell.

"Sure dad. I'll be good," my brother said with that stupid innocence
of his. "What time're we coming home?"

"Probably too late for you to come out with me."

"Bummer."

"So, uh… it being Friday and all… can I stay in Gotham this weekend?"

"If your grandfather doesn't have a problem with that," dad
said. "Hey, Champ. Maybe mom'll let you come out on patrol with me.
Once around the city, THEN to bed?"

Jimmy grabbed the back of dad's chair and pulled himself up to look
at mom. "Pleaaaase? I haven't been out all week…"

"Sure."

They gave in to those puppy eyes too soon. If I'd have asked at his
age to go on a once-around with grandpa, I'd be told that a once-
around with grandpa was never just once, we'd be out all night, so
NO.

Mom pulled down sun visor and looked in the mirror at me. "And no
sneaking off, missy."

"Moi?" but she had me. Since I obviously couldn't hide in the shadows
wearing bright green, sneaking off had seemed like a good
alternative. I sighed. "Look, mom. This is for Grampy. I will behave."

"Ok. And… you look beautiful, honey."

Ok, where'd that come from? I didn't like the way either of my
parents were acting.

The ride in was quiet, mostly. I guess we were all thinking about how
things were going to change. There seemed to be something else going
on though, because dad kept looking in the rear view mirror at me.
WHAT? I wanted to ask. STOP IT. But I was being the model of self-
restraint, remember.

The party was being held at "The Great Hall" which was really just an
old church converted to a hall. It was expensive as hell to rent. The
architecture was something nice to look at, at any rate—and it ought
to be, for what it must have cost whoever put this together. As soon
as I got there, I rushed up to Grampy, not bothering to take care of
my coat or anything.

"Grampy!" I hugged him and kissed his cheek. I was the same height as
my dad now, and so it wasn't a struggle to grab hold of him before he
could do anything about it. "I gotcha something!" I produced a box
wrapped in purple paper and an orange ribbon. Why purple and orange?
Well, it was there, I was there… no real cultural significance. "Open
it! Open it!" I wanted to see the face he made when he saw it.

"Alright, alright!" He looked up to the two detectives he was talking
to. One was that new guy, Sam Lloyd. The blondie who was good-looking
but had a sick fascination with Robin. The other was Lance Geneva. He
was an all-around good guy who regretted ever setting foot in Gotham
city cause of his nutso ex-wife but was making the best of it for his
kids. I admired him. "You see what I have to put up with here."
Grandpa gave me a quick squeeze. "These two keep me on my toes. Her
brother's probably already over at the food table."

He introduced me as if for the first time. I grinned and waved, then
begged Grampy to open it again. "Before mom and dad see!"

"Aren't you all done-up. I don't think I've ever seen you wear make-
up before" He said. Now he was just messing with me. Open it! Of
course he'd seen me with make-up on. But usually Robin wore black
lipstick. I guess looking like a GIRL and not a GOTH was a new look
for me.

"Mom made me. Come on… I'm not above begging."

"Take your coat off, stay a while."

The two detectives laughed. "I'd watch for that," Geneva said. "He
told me that ten years ago, and look, I'm still here."

I sighed and took the coat off, tossing it on a chair. "Now can you
open it?" I pleaded.

All three of them were staring at me.

"What?"

Grampy snapped out of his little mental vacation, and started
opening.

It had taken me a week to find a plain cardboard box to fit it in.
That particular size was so hard to find. He unwrapped, saw that
there was still more packaging and lifted the lid of the cardboard
box.

"Least I didn't make you put it together!" I said proudly.

He looked at the ship in the bottle.

"Did you do this?" he asked.

I nodded. "I figured you'd get a kick out of it." I'd built it, then
mounted it. Never let it be said I couldn't do stuff with my hands.

He turned to the two detectives. "Look at this one. I give her one
model set a few months ago, the snap together kind, and she's already
building ships in bottles. Has your father seen this?" he asked me.

I shrugged. "Naw. He and mom got pegged at the door by Grandpa Bruce.
They may not escape with their lives."

I knew this was his last chance to really say goodbye to a lot of
people, so I decided to make myself scarce. "I'm going to make sure
the scamp doesn't get into any trouble."

I gave him another quick hug then took off. Those two guys were still
looking at me. As soon as I found a way to get Cassandra, she was
dead.

The squirt was behaving himself, so I hung back. I was curious to see
how he'd do in public with his new `love me, I'm cute' image that he
was pushing on people. I hung near the potted plants, overhearing
bits and pieces of conversation, filing them away for later use.

The little creep was stuffing his face and saying hello so sweetly to
EVERYONE. Even Bullock, who had the people skills of a shoehorn, was
talking to him nicely.

"There you are! It was so nice meeting you before. And I didn't have
a chance to really introduce myself." It was that Sam guy again. He
held out his hand, and I shook it, not knowing really WHAT to
do. "We're all awfully fond of your grandfather, and we're going to
miss him."

"Thanks, I'm sure he appreciates that," I said. Well, what else DO
you say in that sort of situation? After the incident with my English
teacher, I was incredibly paranoid of coming in contact with people
who existed in both of my worlds.

"I'm sort of new to here, and to Gotham. I don't think I've ever met
you before."

Ohkay. Appropriate response? "I live in Bludhaven." Seems fair
enough.

"Well, I'm hoping just because your grandfather is retiring that
doesn't mean we will stop seeing you in Gotham. A face like yours
lights up this place."

My mind was completely devoid of anything to say in response to that.
Grandpa's training never covered statements that blow your mind away.

"Lloyd, leave the girl alone." Thank you Harvey Bullock. I love you,
even if you are gross and a pig. "She's jail bait, and her dad's a
cop. Now go stroke Akins' ego before one of us busts a cap in your
ass."

"I was just… Well, Mara. It was very nice meeting you."

And he was off and running.

"Thank you," I whispered.

"He's a good guy. He just has a wandering eye."

Eww. His eye was wandering at me?

"Don't look so shocked, kid." That was all Harvey said. He left it at
that, and walked off. Probably back to spend more quality time with
my brother at the food table.

Ok, surveillance on my brother was officially canned. I started
looking for my dad. HE'D save me from lecherous old men.

I could save myself, of course, but not in any way that was tactful.
It would be better if I just got someone with really wide shoulders
to keep me isolated. I looked… dad was STILL talking to grandpa.
Whatever it was better be good, and it better involve me.

"Hi, guys," I said, coming up next to them.

Grandpa Bruce took one look at me and suddenly his face went stony.

"Everything cool over here?"

"Why don't you go see if your brother is behaving?" dad asked.

I looked from him to grandpa. Something was going on here. It was
blatantly obvious. "Can I stick around here?" I asked anxiously.

I'd learned a long time ago, even if you knew something was happening
with the adults, they would reveal nothing until they were good and
ready. It was frustrating, but that's how it was. Still… I'd really
like to hang around someone who'd deflect `wandering eyes'.

They were both looking at me strangely. Men were obviously from some
other planet, I had just discovered. "Dad… I really wanna just hang
around here."

"Go find Cassandra. She showed up right before us, then vanished."

Now they were REALLY stretching on ways to get rid of me. I'd better
find Cass quick. She'll protect me.

She'll protect me? Man, I was sounding like a regular damsel in
distress. Well, Robin could take care of herself, but Mara couldn't.
Another one of those problems with the secret identity crap. Where
was Dinah when you needed her? She was like a million billion years
old, but she still had the guys hitting on her. I could use her for
cover.

I was blowing this out of proportion. One guy hits on me, and I'm up
in arms.

"Mom said no hiding," I said to Cassandra, when I found her hiding
next to a buttress.

"She's not the boss of me."

"Is too. She's the boss of us all." Mom could probably rule the world
if she wanted. If she wanted us to just not hide, then we'd have to
obey. "How did Timmy get out of this?"

She shrugged. "Doesn't know him in real life."

I sighed. "I think this party is stupid. I wish we'd have had
something… you know. Just the family." Impossible, but well, that's
what I wish. "Can I tell you something?" I told her about my creepy
encounter that Bullock was kind enough to break up.

"See? Green dress was a good thing."

I slapped her arm. From across the room, mom scowled. "No, it's NOT a
good thing. And I don't see you wearing pastel."

"I don't wear pastel."

"You know, my entire family is insane, and you are of no exception."
I turned my back on her. This is what counted as bonding time where I
came from.

"We're not insane, we're…" out of the corner of my eye, I saw her
shrug. "Ok. We're insane."

"Thank you. Finally an admission of guilt."

I could see people starting to sit down. "I guess we gotta go do this
thing," I said. Then I caught sight of that Akins guy talking to
someone. "Unless… you wanna do a little recon before we embark on
speech-giving madness."

Her eyes followed mine to Akins.

"You know you want to, Cass. You know you want to find out what his
deal is, before we're under fire."

She frowned and looked up at the ceiling, then followed me.

"…I'd really rather not talk about how I plan on running things. This
isn't my night after all."

No no no no no. Talk about how you're going to run things! Before I
have a panic attack.

"Besides, I really don't think we're that different. We have the same
vision." Ewwww. Vision. Usually that was a word you heard at Grandpa
Bruce's meetings (ok, so I'd listened in on a few of those, too).

Cassandra and I looked at each other as the men started migrating to
the tables. That had been a waste of time. Maybe I'd pay him a visit
later this week. Well, Robin I meant. If he didn't try to arrest me,
then all was well, right?

I knew the Bat would be strictly against that method of seeing where
we stood… so, uh, I'd just have to make sure he didn't find out till
it was all over. Like I said… just because your family knew
everything didn't mean you stopped trying to pull fast ones. It just
meant that you chose your battles.

"What I wouldn't give for a bug…" I muttered as we migrated to our
table.

Cassandra grinned. "Frequency Oh-four. Mayor's table is Oh-five."

I loved this woman. Discreetly I found my ear piece in the little
green purse mom was forcing me to take. There was a reason Robin had
a belt. This purse thing was for the birds. Other birds.

"What're you two ladies doing?" Bullock asked.

"Not a thing," I said evenly. "Why don't you sit down? I'm sure
dad'll come over soon."

"Naw, honey. I stepped on your dad's toes a few weeks ago on a case.
I don't think he'll like seeing me here."

"Aww… come on…" I pulled out a chair for him. "We love you!" I smiled
sweetly. I'd been acquainted with him outside the job for years now,
and as far as Mara was concerned, Bullock was a yucky old uncle.
Mostly yucky. "You can tell me all about this Akins guy."

"Aint much to tell, good guy, good cop. Plans on making some
changes." He shrugged. "Not saying yet what they are."

"Well, when the hockey play-offs start, I'm coming over your house
with ice-cream and chips… and you're going to tell me all about it."
The things I committed myself to for my job.

"Just bring yourself over, curly-cue, and I'll worry about the chips.
We can bust down on the Knights and watch them get their asses—butts
kicked." It was kind of creepy how he'd be all affectionate to Mara,
then give Robin such a hard time. We also happened to be the only two
people in Gotham City who were not Knights fans.

"I can't come over if you don't kiss and make-up with my dad." I
batted my eyes. Lets see how that worked. If I was going to be stuck
playing the part of a girl—well, I could see how effective it was.

He shook his head. "We'll see." He waved goodbye and took himself
off. "Ok, so THAT didn't exactly bear the fruits I thought it would."
I tuned into the first frequency Cassandra had mentioned, but it was
just chit chat. The Mayors table… now that was full of wholesomy
goodness.

"Cass, Oh-Five," I whispered.

"We had to push out the entire board," the chairman of Arkham said.

"It was a shame. We finally had that girl doing good work." That was
the Mayor's voice. I never did like that guy.

"She's easily influenced. We just had to put her on the right track…"

The men laughed. Messed up stuff. "Things'll be even easier now on
our… other projects. I have a few doctors in mind."

"Feel like working this gig with me?" I asked Cassandra.

"You mean working with me?" She was hanging out with Tim too much.
She was getting his ego.

"Whatever."

All I knew was, I wanted to work this without the Bat. I had a
feeling that whatever this was, it was all tied to what had happened
between Two Face and the Joker. That made it my deal. Harvey was my
personal project—and unfortunately, he was off limits to me, so that
made him my SECRET personal project.

"You ladies look like you're conspiring," dad said as he sat down.

"Top secret girl stuff," I declared. Had he just lumped me in
the `lady' category?

He sat down with a strange type of smile on his face. "Bullock wants
to kiss and make up so I can watch the hockey play-offs over his
house."

"Fat chance."

Wow, sounded like there was a juicy, gossipy story behind that one.
Wondered if Grampy would be willing to fess up and give me some good
dirt. Unfortunately, folks knew I couldn't keep it to myself when it
was something particularly evil.

I looked over to the Mayor's table. They were talking about the
doctors they were planning on `bringing on' who shared
their `vision'. Yeeks. Twice in fifteen minutes.

Dad was talking to me, and I was trying to pay attention. It sounded
like they didn't want Akins in on this. They wanted to make the Bat
unnecessary.

"Huh? Oh yeah. I already gave him my present. Where's Grandpa? Dinah
coming?" it seemed safer to make HIM talk for a little while.

"Dinah's tied up, as usual. Not literally for a change." Dad had a
sense of humor that embarrassed even ME. "Bruce is… well, who knows.
Schmoozing. That's what he does."

"Well, he hasn't even said HI all evening."

"Never says hi to me," Casssandra said smartly.

Mom arrived at the table. "Where's your brother?"

"You either get Cassandra or Jimmy. You don't get both."

"If you want something done right…" she began the search for the
twip. Which was a short search, he was joined at the hip to the food
table.

My friends at table number one didn't hint at anything else that was
particularly enlightening. There were the stupid reporters, and the
stupid camera men, and the stupid photographers… and I realized…
Uncle Clark had the perfect job—he always wanted to be in everyone
else's business.

I knew I wasn't the only one who was simply enduring this evening for
Grampy's sake. And I wasn't even getting any useful dirt any more.
Give Grampy his watch, and lets get the hell outta here. I got a
patrol to run, public offices to bug…

Even after it was all over, we ended up hanging around another hour.
It seemed like every single one of us had a game we were playing. I
was trying to get introduced to the mayor's table, dad was talking to
some of the older detectives, mom was talking to Grandpa…

"We were ditched, Cass," I whispered, looking for Grandpa Bruce. "No,
I was ditched." He was my partner, after all. He hadn't spoken to me
all night, he just kept looking at me weirdly.

When we finally got our party together, I looked at myself in the
shining brass panel in the foyer. It was like looking into some
warped universe… I looked like a lady. No. I was a lady. The dress
showed just the barest hint of cleavage (when in the world had I
gotten breasts?), and hung off of my gently curving collar bones like
some sort of magical garment. The purse that hung off my shoulder
didn't even feel awkward any more, not after negotiating it the
entire evening. And my legs… apparently they were something to be
proud of. The heals of my shoes curved up and blended with the curve
of my calves, and suddenly I felt very strange. Heady. Dizzy, even.

I could put away sneakers and sweat shirts forever, and be ok with
that.

* * *

Out in the field, things were defiantly strange. We were obviously
getting a late start, so when I was finally free and flying, I begged
for Redwing to catch me up.

"Same old, actually. Pretty quiet, all things considered," he told
me. "I gotta know—what'd you do to the Bat? He came out here all dark
and brooding. He told me how he wasn't be disturbed." Haha. He's
already disturbed, I thought to myself.

"Why does it have be something I did? It's the end of an era, for
heavens sakes. We should ALL be depressed." I looked around the roof
tops, hoping for a glimps of my `silent' partner. "Besides, he's been
acting goofy all night. While I'm thinking about it, how's Steph?"

He grinned. "Did you see the pictures?"

"I nodded. "What an adorable little--"

He scowled.

"Just kidding. Didn't look. She doing alright? Seriously?"

"Yeah, totally. This whole thing is… I don't know. Awesome. Big."

I was afraid he was going to say overwhelming. We didn't need him to
have another burn-out melt-down on us. "Glad to hear everything's
under control. I heard from good old "Uncle Harvey" that Akins has
some changes in store."

"Man. You're not watching the hockey play-offs with him, are you?"

"Naw, I'm hoping the feud between him and dad will last till the end
of the season."

"Good. That's just creapy. How's YJ treating you? Or not."

I sighed deeply with satisfaction. "I'm pleased to say: they are NOT.
I did get an e-mail yesterday from Jordy. So, I'm talking to him,
getting all the gossip." Ok, so I was a gossip monger. What do you
want?

"Sounds good. Sorry things didn't work out. We just… really used to
have such a good team. We were annoying little brats, but we were a
good team."

"They're a good team. They're just MORE annoying than anything else
you've ever encountered."

He grinned, I guess he was remembering `old times.' Wasn't he too
young for old times? I didn't know. We sat in silence, staring out
at the roof tops.

I wanted to tell him about the board at Arkham, but it was my case. I
didn't like keeping secrets (in my house they were always more
trouble than they were worth), but it really did seem like the only
course of action. If I involved others, I'd have to explain how I
knew what happened to the Joker, and how I knew Harley's strings were
being pulled by the board of trustees. It was a can of worms I
wouldn't open, not only for my own sake, but for Harvey. There would
be some things that it broke Rene Montoya's heart to know. Harvey
didn't need that either.

"Well. Cassandra had stuff to do on her own. And I guess you're
turning in soon. Guess it's just Girl Wonder on her own tonight." I
sighed.

"I thought you liked more freedom."

"I don't like it when the Bat shuts me out."

"He just… does that sometimes."

"It's something different this time. He didn't get all goofy until
tonight."

"I'll give you a buck if you can figure out what it is."

I tilted my head. "That stuff's worth more than a buck these days."
It'd been the first time anyone'd mentioned that in years. When I was
about five or so, I could work him over and get him to spill at least
enough of it to give the adults a clue as to what was wrong.

"Well, thanks. I better go. The night isn't getting any younger."

I took off for my own particular tour of the city. Not much was
happening. It was probably too cold for most baddies to be doing
their stuff outdoors. Even a patrol of in-door haunts didn't turn up
much.

Finally I rang my mother. "Oracle?"

"What can I do you for?"

"Position on Batman, if you'd be so kind."

"Aint got one, kid."

"You're making that up."

"He turned off his positioning device."

I landed on police headquarters and stopped. "I guess we're talking
major angst, huh?"

"I don't know. He didn't say anything other than he didn't want to be
disturbed. That could range anywhere from a night out with Dinah to
personal Bat stuff."

"Ooy. The second he comes back on, even the faintest blip, can you
let me know? And tell him I say it's really hard to watch his back if
he goes invisible." Dinah wasn't in town—again, so that sort of
narrowed the possibilities. But still. He shouldn't go running off.

Oh man. I was sounding like my mother. "Anyways—I'm gonna call it a
short night if I can't catch up with him. I'll see you in a few
hours. Keep the world under control, ok?"

I could practically hear her rolling her eyes. "Stay warm, Robin."

"I got the cape with the hood. I'm good. Robin out."

Of course, the easiest way to stay warm was to keep moving. You only
froze when you stopped because your sweat would start to freeze… ok,
I'm getting off my butt and moving now.

Before I left, I took a peek into Grampy's office. It was empty.
There were no pictures on the walls, the desk was clean… it was
suddenly more real to me than it had ever been. I let myself into the
empty office and looked around with a sigh. Deep down, I felt as
though I needed to stand here, to imprint the realness of it all on
my mind. Another part of me wanted to bug the office. Of course, if
the Bat found out, I'd be facing some serious `Time Out' time.

But those Arkham guys? They were fair game. I didn't relish the
thought of breaking into Arkham, even if it was their administrative
center. Still, it was something that needed to be done, and I
promised mom I'd be home in a few hours. I could be in and out in an
hour or two—depending on what I found. If they were dumb, and left a
paper trail, I could have this whole thing resolved tonight, and no
one'd have to know my involvement in the whole Harvey/Joker thing.

As I high-tailed it to the other end of town, I pondered the change
in the game—namely my sudden aloneness. Grampy was gone, Bats had
gone all weird (for what length of time—no one knew). The only person
I could probably really rely on right now was Batgirl. How intensely
weird was THAT?

Especially when I could only really rely on her because she'd heard
the Arkham thing. Once again, we'd fallen into working together. As
soon as I got a hold of that Bat of mine, we were having a long talk.

As we'd discovered a few months ago, all of Harley's paperwork both
as an employee and patient had disappeared, and tonight's rooting
around hadn't produced anything on that front. I'd noticed a real
lack of physical records.

I'd have to hack into their systems. The question was, how to do that
and not alert my mother? Geeze I had my work cut out for me on this
one.

"Nightwing's looking for you."

I didn't hear Batgirl come in, but I wasn't surprised she was
there. "Yeah, well, I'm on an open channel."

"Batman wants you to stay in Bludhaven."

"And they send you to deliver the message?"

"This is just here-say."

"You were spying on them?"

"Well… yes." Like spying on them was the most natural thing in the
world. Too bad she'd already admitted to being crazy. I wanted to
elicit another confession.

"Can we pretend you didn't overhear it, and I'll continue going about
my business?"

"What're you doing?"

"I think Arkham wants to… thin it's population. Instead of
curing `em, they're knocking off the major players. You heard them.
They sounded like they set Quinn on Harvey. Now here's the tricky
part: proof."

"Oh." Her arms folded across her chest.

"What's Batman's deal?" I asked. "He's been getting especially goofy
towards me lately." I sighed replacing the files I'd just scanned.
Maybe I could go through this stuff tonight after I got home and hit
the sack. There wasn't a whole lot.

"No deal."

"Ri-ight." Maybe she was in league with them. The adults were tricky—
you never knew. I swore to myself then that I wouldn't play these
games when I was an adult. I'd be honest with people and cool about
everything. "Anywho. Think we can nail them on keeping incomplete
records?" I looked at the stuff in my hand. "Never mind. They'd just
rebuild the administration, and then we'd have an even HARDER time
with this."

"Why the big deal? Batman can--"'

I frowned. "No Batman. No Nightwing, no Oracle. No nothing. It's you
and me. Or just me. No one else."

"You're temperamental."

"Ha. Ha." I looked around. "I'm ready to go."

We parted ways once we were above. I had told mom I was going back
home, but I had a new strategy. "Oracle," I called. "Something's come
up. I'll be home whenever I get there. I'll call."

Fortunately, she was too busy dealing with some other cape and tights
job to really pay attention to argue with me. It was Friday, it
shouldn't be a big deal, but you never know, you know? My family was
great at making rules, they were also great at changing them mid-
game.

When I was done with Batgirl, I went left the administrative building
and went straight for the wing where they kept the bad of the bad.

"Harvey," I asked gently, slipping into the hall outside of his cell.

"Can't you damned birds leave me alone?"

"I just came to see how you are, Harvey. And I'd much rather talk to
Harvey than Two Face, if that's ok."

Nothing. Did I really think I'd get a response?

"Ok, Harvey. I just wanted to make sure you were all right. And
they're treating you ok."

Still nothing.

Without anything else to say, I left.

I waited in that damned cave all damned night, reading over all the
things I'd liberated from Arkham. The incompleteness of the files was
starting to tell me a little story. The same guys had been on duty
when Zsaz was beaten to death by another prisoner as when Harvey had
made his escape. These guys were going though an awful lot of work to
make sure the patients in question died apparently by chance. I think
they were hoping Harley would OD Harvey, or his subsequent psychotic
episode would force authorities to kill him. Maybe even in a hostage
stand off. The people in charge of this little operation were
creative, I'd give them that. These guys had officially gotten on my
list. I HAD to get enough to prompt a formal investigation.

It was six and I was half-dozing off when the car finally pulled
in. "Nice of you to show up," I grumbled. "What's the deal?
Reassigning me to Bludhaven?"

"Your father can use some help there."

"My father has the twip. He doesn't need me."

"He's involved in a case…"

I scowled, putting my hands on my hips. Usually I crossed them over
my chest when I was ready to kill someone, but lately it seemed
awkward to do so. "Like I believe he needs me there. I get reassigned
to Bludhaven when I've screwed up. Tell me what I've done."

"Nothing."

"Then why am I being sent away?"

"You act like I'm shipping you off to boarding school."

I laughed then. I actually laughed at the absurdity of the
situation. "I'm acting like my partner is trying to get rid of me.
Something happened tonight, didn't it? You've been avoiding me all
night."

His bottom lip twitched.

"I'm not going," I told him defiantly.

"You'll do what I tell you to do."

"Nope."

"Robin…"

"Stuff it, Grandpa." Usually, Batman was Batman, Grandpa Bruce, and I
tried not to mix the two up, but this had started with my grandfather
and he was ending it with Batman. That was a very unkosher way to
deal with things, as far as I was concerned. "Something's going on,
and I want to know what it is."

"Does it matter?" Unfortunately, it was ALL Bat I was dealing with
right now.

"It being my life and all… well, YEAH." I shook my head. "You know,
it figures. Jordy and I are finally talking again, it figures that
the one person who has been SANE through all this has to go off the
deep end." I bit both of my cheeks and looked at him for a
minute. "Ok. I'll make you a deal. You give me a good reason why I
should go, and I'll go."

The echoes of my plea died away, and it was very quiet in the cave
suddenly.

"Well, how's about this. I'll go upstairs and get some sleep, and
I'll let you think up a good excuse, and I'm not leaving until I have
something WORTHY of me going back to Bludhaven for. Something WORTH
me subjecting myself to my father and my brother's idiotic male
bonding for."

I took my files off the table and went up stairs. I would not stand
down. I wouldn't, for his sake or mine. I was fairly certain whatever
he gave me tomorrow would be not good enough, or would be entirely
concocted. Well, I'd been stubborn enough against Young Justice, the
Justice League and my father. I was probably about due to stand up to
the Bat. Things had gotten better in those other areas. So if I stood
my ground, I'd either win, or be fired.

Let's hope it wasn't fired.

When I came up into the house, Alfred, who should have been in bed,
started following me like a Smart Bomb.

"Well, Alfred," I said as I started climbing the steps to my bedroom,
still in costume. "I'm taking control of my life. By force if
necessary."

I'd started down this path—whether intentionally, or not, and I'd
have to follow through—whether I wanted to, or not.