Oversung Hero, part 10
Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"
Stephanie nodded absently as she followed Sand through an "employees only" door on the museum level, trying hard to keep focused on his explanation of emergency protocols and failing miserably. The blond man had decided to give her a thorough tour of the JSA brownstone, bringing her attention to every alert system built into the structure at its physical location rather than at the monitor that she would man.
It was a good idea, Stephanie conceded, made even better by the infinite store of JSA knowledge that Sanderson Hawkins seemed to have at his fingertips. There was a story for every doorway, respectful pauses to be paid at various sites throughout the building, and they had barely gotten through the public spaces. So Stephanie did want to pay attention now that someone was finally not just telling her rules, but explaining them, but her mind kept flashing back to her last words to Batman.
/If you need my help, you can reach me through the JSA./
It had been a cocky thing to say, a harsh rejection of his overture to bring her more fully into the family. Not that he didn't deserve being told off, the manipulative bastard. But still, she wasn't entirely sure the JSA would keep her, and she knew they wouldn't if she couldn't keep her mind on what Sand was saying.
"...17 different ground floor exits. It ends up looking like an airplane cabin when it..."
Tim said that telling Batman off was a family tradition, and ditching him to join a team was a popular form of rebellion, which had faintly annoyed her. A part of her was too well aware that she had not rebelled at all; that her "internship" with the JSA was just another of Batman's grand schemes. She could imagine him sitting in his Cave, tweaking threads and ideas until his puppets did what he wanted.
"...listening to me, Steph? Spoiler?"
Stephanie stopped short, shocked from her thoughts by the use of her code name. "I-"
Sand looked at her face and chuckled. "Black Canary must have told you we did our homework. When Bruce Wayne contacted Dinah about 'Stephanie Brown who did something heroic,' Dinah said she had all she could do not to laugh. You've worked with BC before, I take it?"
Stephanie blinked incredulously. Sand was honestly talking as if he didn't realize that Batman-
"Don't worry," he said reassuringly, "we won't let on to Mr. Wayne about your superhero life. And it never hurts to let a billionaire think he owes you one." Sand winked.
"But-" Stephanie closed her mouth. Sand didn't know Batman was Bruce Wayne. What was it Tim had said about Bruce telling her being a gesture of trust, an invitation to the family? Somehow Stephanie had wanted to believe that she was the last to know, but here was this well-respected member of the Justice Society, chatting away without a clue.
Sand was watching her face with kindly interest. "You've been a million miles away, haven't you?"
Stephanie dropped her eyes shame-facedly.
"Hey, don't worry about it," Sand forgave, catching Stephanie's elbow and guiding her toward an open lounge. "I love giving this tour, so recapping what you missed will be an added bonus. Want some hot cider?'
"Uh, sure," Steph agreed in bewilderment, sinking down onto one of the couches in the small lounge.
"It's powdered," Sand apologized as he plugged in an electric tea kettle, "but it's still pretty good." He reached into a cupboard and pulled down two mugs and a box of powdered cider mix.
"You're on the first floor, by the way, the furry lounge." He gestured toward a far corner of the room, and Stephanie noticed an overstuffed chair upholstered in obviously fake pink fur. "We have no idea where Jack found it or why he brought it here, or why he had it at all, come to think of it, but we decided it could live here." Sand shuddered. "Usually Jack has better taste."
Stephanie bit her lip against a giggle. She knew Jack Knight was Starman, and that he was no longer with the JSA. What she had gathered from some of the side comments of other JSAers was that there was some sort of relationship between Sand and Jack beyond "just friends." But it wasn't her business, and she didn't want to give offense.
"Is it called the furry lounge on the emergency floor plans?" Stephanie asked, just to show she hadn't been completely out of touch with Sand's tour.
He grinned. "In fact, it is. I don't know if you tried to tell any of us that trouble was brewing in room 107c that we'd ever find it."
"Heh. Yeah, I know that feeling," Stephanie acknowledged, remembering an incident when Batman had asked her the street address of the Clocktower to make a point. The memory brought back the sour tang of Batman's involvement in everything that had happened in the last couple of weeks, and her thoughts once more entangled her.
The whistle of the tea kettle brought her back to the moment, and she watched Sand dump the contents of a cider packet into each mug and add water. A moment later he was handing her a mug which she accepted with a "thank you."
He settled down on the other couch and sipped at his cider. "So I'm going to offer some guesses," he began, barely glancing at her. "Is it school, something here, boy trouble, or Batman?"
"What?" Stephanie asked, startled.
"Maybe it's all of the above?"
Sand offered her a smile that managed to be sympathetic without being condescending. "It's pretty clear something is worrying you. And maybe teenagers have changed a lot since my day, but I know what it would take to distract me as much as you are today when I was young."
"School, the JSA, boys and Batman?"
Sand laughed. "Well, Sandman instead of Batman, but yeah."
"Wesley Dodds," Sand identified, but the name meant nothing to Stephanie. What did make sense was the oddly distant expression on Sand's face. "He was my mentor, back when I was a sidekick." He took a swallow of cider.
"You were a sidekick?" Steph found that somehow hard to believe.
Sand grinned. "The original issue. Long before Batman was even born."
"Wait. But you're -"
"Is this the part where I lament the fact that kids today don't read their history?"
Despite the obvious teasing in Sand's tone, Stephanie blushed crimson. "I'm sorry. I-"
"Oh, don't apologize. I think most of the hero community wants to forget what happened to me. Not that I blame them, mind you, but - well, it's hard to justify anyone having sidekicks when you go back to see what happened to the lot of us in my day."
"What happened to you?" Stephanie took a sip of her cider, watching Sand's face.
"Oh, I got turned into a sand monster and kept in a cage for a few decades."
"What?" Steph spluttered.
"The jury's still out on whether I was one of the lucky ones. I didn't end up dead or brainwashed or in some weird soul sharing arrangement. I got a new start."
"A new start," Steph repeated thoughtfully.
"So," Sand continued brightly, "is it school or something here or -"
Stephanie smiled in spite of herself. "I choose E. But minus the boy trouble because really, he's one of the few right things right now. And actually, the only problem with school is that I'm having trouble getting down to work because I'm thinking about all this other stuff."
"Ah, all of the above," Sand said thoughtfully. "Minus school and boy means something here and Batman. Well, I can probably do something about the something here, but if there was really anything to be done about Batman, someone would have done it by now. Although I'm told I'm a good listener."
Stephanie shifted uneasily. "Don't you have to show me more protocols and stuff?"
"Eh, they'll still be there after we talk. But we didn't take on an intern just to show you how to do things."
"You didn't?" Steph blurted.
"Well, if we did that, we'd have to make you an employee, and we generally pay them better. And we don't make them fight Wildcat."
"He told you about that," Stephanie said flatly to hide her anger.
Sand only smiled. "Lesson number one, superheroes are incurable gossips. And before you get more upset, Wildcat told me because he was worried you thought we were judging you and he didn't think he'd reassured you well enough."
"Lesson number two, a team works either because its members care about one another or they're paid to have the same goals. Or the members are fanatics, but fanatics are usually more proactive than the superhero community. We took you on, Stephanie, and it wasn't in order to see you fail."
Stephanie looked down at her half finished cider. "Yeah, well, I've already done that."
"Here? Hardly. In fact, you've done pretty well considering you're having to deal with two intensely territorial teenagers."
Stephanie snorted. "You can say that again. I mean," she caught herself, her eyes darting to Sand's face to assess the damage she had just done. "Courtney and Jakeem are-"
"Are pretty high on themselves as established JSA members with impressive track records for their tender years. You take away Jakeem's genie or Courtney's belt and rod, and neither one of them would last three seconds against Wildcat. Which means when your arm is finally healed and we can really start training you, you'll have an edge over them that they are both well aware of."
"You say so," Steph replied skeptically.
"Hey, teenagers haven't changed that much since my day. You done with that?"
Stephanie nodded, and he took her mug and his back to the sink. "So I'm guessing that since you haven't been here long enough to fail at anything, your cryptic remark must have to do with Batman."
"I was never his sidekick, you know," Stephanie suddenly stated, surprised at her own hostility.
"Yeah, I got that much from Oracle." Sand raised his voice a little to be heard over the running water.
"You asked Oracle about me?"
"Reference check. I told you we didn't pick you lightly." Sand shut off the water and left the mugs dripping in the dish drainer by the sink. "Her reference put you over the top, by the way."
"What did she say?" Stephanie asked, not sure she wanted to know but desperately curious.
Sand returned to the couch and sat down. "She said you remind you of her at your age."
"What? But- but -" Steph stopped, asking herself but what? She had no idea what Oracle was like when she was younger, couldn't even imagine her younger.
"That's what she said," Sand said with a shrug. "She also said that Batman was doing a lousy job with you and that given your drive and motivations, someone should be taking your training more seriously."
Steph stared, surprised that Oracle would say someone should take her training seriously. After all, wasn't it Oracle who had interfered with her plan to work with Black Canary? "Why are you telling me this?"
"Like I said, I was a sidekick once upon a time. And I remember it as full of dizzying extremes. There were days when I thought I was everything anyone could want from a kid, and there were other days when I was convinced I was single-handedly bringing the world crashing down around my head and wondered how I soon it would be before Wesley made me hang up my costume and sent me from his home. Neither option was true, of course, but I didn't understand that until later. And I can't speak for Batman, but the only reason I've really seen for someone turning away a sidekick or junior partner is out of fear that something bad will happen to them. And really, that is always a possibility. But once you've had a taste of this life..."
"It's hard not to want it," Stephanie finished.
"Exactly. And if you're going to want it, I'd rather know you're trained to handle anything it can throw at you."
"Like emergency protocols?"
Sand grinned. "Like emergency protocols. And why they're there and what they can and can't do and enough information that if something occurs to you to make them better then you know who to propose your ideas to."
"Oh, I could never-"
"Of course you could. And probably will." Sand stood and offered Stephanie a hand. "It's part of being on a team."
Stephanie accepted Sand's hand and let him pull her to her feet. Their hands remained clasped for a moment in a handshake, and Sand smiled at her. "Right?" he asked.
"Right," Steph agreed, striving for more conviction than she felt and realizing with surprise that as she said it, it felt true.
Sand seemed to read the confusion on her face, because his smile got a little broader as he released her hand. "You'll get used to it," he promised. "Now, shall we try that tour again?"
"Yeah," Steph replied, following Sand from the lounge with a weird sense of renewed confidence and a sudden realization of what it meant to be mentored.