The voice startled Elise out of her fascinated contemplation. She was following the tests on the experimental polymer avidly. The stuff was almost supernatural; it looked so delicate, but it was wickedly strong. So far its only downside was a tendency to warp drastically under heat. For applications where the environmental temperature was stable, though, it’d be amazing.
“Sorry, I was lost in thought,” she chuckled, turning to look at the man who’d approached and now offered his hand. A distinguished older gentleman, tall, dark-skinned, with iron-grey hair. She knew enough engineers to suspect he was one, based on the calluses on his fingers when she shook with him. That particular pattern came from holding a drafting pencil and using a mouse in computer-aided design.
“Getting lost in thought is never a bad thing,” he said with a charming smile. “Would you mind coming with me?”
“Sure,” Elise replied. He led her out of the lab and into the elevator, picking a subfloor that required him to insert his badge. Only then did Elise start to wonder what was going on. “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t get your name.”
“I didn’t give it to you,” he said with that same disarming expression. “Miss Thorne, Dr. Chisholm told me you had an interest in plant toxins, is that right?”
“It is.” Now she was cautious. Had she seen something she shouldn’t have? But they’d had her sign a mountain of non-disclosure agreements before she ever walked into the labs.
He nodded. “Good. You might be able to do us a favor, then. If I were to show you a sample of a suspected toxin, do you think you could narrow down the range of what it might be?”
“Of course. But I’m sure you have experts with far more experience than I do.” Elise scowled a bit, her brow furrowing. Maybe this was some kind of test…?
“We do, but you happen to be the closest person, and there’s a bit of urgency.” The elevator stopped then, and he stepped out, Elise following behind him.
This was another lab, smaller than the ones above, and even more secure. The mysterious man brought Elise to a workstation where a wealth of data was up on the screen. She forgot everything else except the problem in front of her. And it was all the information she could’ve wished for: gas spectrometer readouts, chemical composition of various elements, molecular weights … Elise dove in.
But something was weird. She swiveled around in her chair, frowning. “Okay, this is probably some kind of tropane alkaloid, very similar to drugs derived from plants like datura, jimsonweed, deadly nightshade—most of the Solanaceae family has at least some toxicity. Yet the data is nothing I’ve ever seen or heard of before. Are you developing a new synthetic anticholergenic drug? Or is this a toxin secreted by a plant species new to science?”
“Neither,” said a harsh voice from the corner, and Elise startled. The workstation was well-lit, but the rest of the lab wasn’t, and she hadn’t known anyone was lurking in the shadows.
“Well, what is it then?” she asked.
Her answer was another question. “How would you treat someone exposed to toxic levels of the compound?”
That wasn’t actually in her field of study, but Elise had researched it anyway. What was the point of knowing all about what a poison could do to your body if you didn’t know how to fight it? “Depends on how badly they were affected. Cholergenic drugs could reverse it, but there’s a risk of cardiac side effects, and the symptoms will completely reverse if given enough time. I’d say get the patient on life support, get some activated charcoal into the gut if it was ingested.”
“The route of exposure is absorption via mucous membranes,” the shadowy figure said.
“Huh. That’s even weirder. People usually swallow, smoke, or snort stuff like this.” Elise shrugged, still considering the problem. “Charcoal’s out, then. Maybe hit them with naloxone and thiamine to try and reverse some effects. It can cause psychosis, agitation, and hallucinations, so if they need chemical sedation, Ativan’s usually the drug of choice. Gotta watch out for central nervous system depression, though. And keep monitoring vitals, because this is new and you need to stay on top of it. But all anticholergenics are completely reversible, so it’s really just a matter of holding out past the CNS side effects, and keeping the patient from panicking and hurting themselves.”
She could see the barest sketch of a nod from the shadows, and then the man who’d led her down said, “Good. Very good. Thank you, Miss Thorne. We can head back upstairs now.” He turned to go.
Elise didn’t stand up. “Wait. This is new to science. I mean, I’ve been seeing stuff every day that blows my little sophomore mind, but you can’t just show me a completely new tropane alkaloid, expect me to analyze it, and not give me anything else! Where did it come from?”
That was when the man in the shadows stepped forward, and Elise’s jaw dropped as he came into view. “It came from someone known as Poison Ivy,” Batman said calmly.
Elise could only stare. And then she started to get angry. This gorgeous lab, the careful hint from Dr. Chisholm … the whole damn thing was a setup. “Dammit, if this is another one of Oracle’s cute little tests, I’m done. I told her I’m not interested in working for you!”
“You don’t work for me. You’re an intern with Wayne Enterprises. I just needed your help,” Batman said. “I wasn’t aware of any plans by Oracle to recruit you. She doesn’t always keep me informed. Lucius said he’d heard good things about you, and we needed a human analysis of the compound quickly. Computers aren’t always completely reliable with unknowns.” The barest hint of a smile below the mask.
Lucius … oh, God, now she knew why the man who’d brought her down here was familiar! That was Lucius Fox, CEO of the entire company. Elise turned to look at him in disbelief, and he just shrugged slightly. “Wayne Enterprises has a … solid working relationship with Batman specifically, and the JLA generally. It brings a lot of challenges to the job, let me tell you. Your field of study is going to be extremely useful, and your demonstrated ability to think on your feet, even more so. If you were interested in working with us, we’d be glad to have you.”
“I…” Elise trailed off, confused. This morning she would’ve said a job offer from Wayne Enterprises was the answer to her dreams. But when it included the fact that she’d be working with heroes….
She gave an irritated sigh. Apparently fate or destiny or whatever had plans for her, and it was hopeless to fight. Especially not when the work she’d be doing was exactly what she wanted to do. “Oh, the hell with it. Sign me up.”
“Well, if they’re hunting us, we must be close,” Rose quipped. She was sitting on the end of the bed, taking stock. Her uniform had mostly protected her, but there would be bruises under the material. It had to be light enough to let her move freely and wield those swords.
“Yeah,” Jay chuckled. His armor was heavier, and he’d felt at least one bullet hit the vest. Once upon a time that would’ve spooked him, but Jay knew now that no one managed to get through this life without accumulating some scars and near-misses. Some nearer than others.
Emptying his pockets onto the room’s single scarred table, he noted that it was time to restock some of his toys. Add that to replacing some armor. Still, the night’s work was worth the toll on equipment. They had busted a shipping point for Red Coin, and drawn some serious fire that had left them both pressed despite their abilities. Luckily Jay had a bolthole here in San Francisco.
Unluckily, it was just one room, and a small one at that. One of each, pretty much: door, window, chair, table, and bed. It had its own tiny bathroom, just a commode and a sink with a cracked mirror above it. So he and Rose were now in much closer company than he expected on such short acquaintance, but the hell with it. Wouldn’t be the first time Jay had slept sitting up in a chair.
The important thing was that it was paid up two years in advance, never checked on, and had the basic comforts taken care of. Oh, and he’d stashed ammo and a few minor gadgets, as well as a first-aid kit, in between the wall joists. Which, considering that he could suddenly smell the iron tang of blood, was a good thing.
Jay turned, casual, and saw that Rose had shrugged out of the top half of her costume. She wore a tank top underneath, and on one bicep was an angry red line. So she’d been grazed by a bullet. Rose had her own first aid kit and was already taking care of it without paying more than cursory attention to Jay.
He couldn’t help a grimace; once upon a time he’d had several old scars just like that, plus plenty more from knives and clubs and broken bottles. More wounds that he could remember, though the important ones he’d never forget. Jay’s hand had automatically drifted to his own bicep, the first big scar he’d gotten as Robin—a bullet graze just like the one Rose was disinfecting right now. He’d come damn close, too eager to take down the bad guy to check every possible angle of fire, and Batman had given him one hell of a dressing-down for it.
Only later, when Alfred changed the bandage, had the butler quietly remarked on how badly frightened Bruce had been. Jay had understood then that the scolding had come from Bruce’s fear of losing another child. It was only later, when he’d stopped fitting so neatly into Golden Boy’s mold, that he became a soldier instead of a son.
Bitter thoughts, and Jay thrust them aside. His scars were gone, stolen by the Lazarus Pit, so there was a jolting disconnect every time a memory made him touch one and he felt smooth skin instead. Unblemished, unbroken, as if he’d never faced more trauma than the average civilian. It was enough to make a guy take more risks than he should….
He drew his knife and carefully levered out the panel of plaster that hid his stash. Plenty of ammunition, packed safely away, plus the fifth of scotch that was also hidden there. Hey, it could work as disinfectant, anesthetic, and sleep-aid, so it had to be considered first aid, right? “You hit anyplace else?” he asked, not looking over his shoulder.
“One of ‘em tried to hamstring me, but the boots handled it,” Rose said. Jay heard the rip of paper packaging, and when he turned back she was placing sterile gauze over the wound.
“Anesthetic?” Jay asked, holding the scotch up by the neck and giving the bottle a swirl. He dropped into the only chair, and immediately regretted it as the wood creaked under his weight.
“Sure,” Rose said, holding her hand out. “Got shot glasses around somewhere?”
From where he was sitting, he only had to lean a bit to hand it over. The room would’ve been claustrophobically small to most people. Jay had lived in worse. “Nope, not that fancy. Don’t worry about drinking from the bottle. It’s hundred-proof, it’ll kill the germs.”
That made Rose laugh, a surprisingly un-sarcastic laugh. She took a swig, and passed the bottle back. “Thanks. So, what’s next?”
Jay had just about finished getting out of his own armor, leaving him in pants and a white t-shirt. He leaned back in the chair and sighed, the adrenaline from the fight draining away. “Lay low for a bit, then see how much further we can track this thing upstream. You yanked the shipping documents, right?”
“Of course.” She flipped a handful of folded pages at him, which Jay glanced over. Nothing obvious, but he wasn’t at his sharpest right then. Maybe something would jump out at him later. Rose leaned forward, propping her elbows on her knees, and regarded him thoughtfully. “Laying low means staying here, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. Shouldn’t be too difficult, for a few days. Security’s tight, way tighter than the management here thinks. We can get food delivered. And I’ve slept worse places than this chair.” Jay shrugged one shoulder, taking a hit of the scotch, and then looked at the top page again. Steel shipping containers, the kind that traveled all over the world on freight ships and semi trucks. Anonymous, easy to conceal, even when the cargo was alive. A bitch to track, too.
“Then I guess we’d better get the obvious question out of the way,” Rose said.
“Mm-hmm,” Jay muttered, only halfway paying attention. Which port had the damn things really come out of?
He trusted Rose, to a point. She had no motive to hurt him and a pretty strong one to stay on his good side. So any noise coming from her direction that didn’t sound like a weapon being drawn could be safely ignored. And that was how she took him completely by surprise.
Jay had been leaning back in the chair, studying the documents, and Rose just plucked them out of his hands. He looked up to ask why, and realized she’d ditched the rest of the uniform, leaving her in just the eye patch, the tank top, and a black thong. No time to question that, either, because she straddled his lap in a very matter-of-fact way, her arms laced around his neck. And then she kissed him.
His arms automatically went around her despite the surprise; the chair really wasn’t stable with both of them in it. It was like his mind had slipped gears and Jay was coasting along in neutral, noting impressions. Rose was warm and slender in his arms, her long white hair curtaining them both. Her mouth tasted like scotch and adrenaline, and she smelled like blood, sweat, smoke, and the oil she used on her swords—a weirdly appealing combination, to him anyway. There was no artifice in her kiss, just a sort of questioning, her teeth nipping at his lip. Almost like it was a dare.
It had been months since London, and Talia, and Jay couldn’t help comparing the two for a moment. Most of the time, Talia kissed like it was a martial art she’d mastered. Not playful and pushy and just a bit hesitant the way Rose was kissing him, as if she was both challenging him and setting herself up to pretend it had been nothing important if he backed off.
His brain decided to kick back into gear then. No way was he gonna push her away. Beautiful, deadly, royally fucked-up but still refusing to just roll over and play by the rules, or give up and play dead? Hell yeah, that was right up his alley. Jay pulled her tight against him and nipped at her lower lip. When Rose broke the kiss to gasp, he grinned at her. “The obvious question, huh?”
The smile she returned was almost feral. “A guy, a girl, and a bed, locked in together for two or three days? Might as well find out now rather than watch you make an ass of yourself trying to flirt—or watch you sleep in a chair because you’re too fucking noble to make a move.” And with that, Rose pulled the tank top off and dropped it to the floor. Well, she couldn’t have been any clearer, and Jay admired that.
He didn’t even mind when they broke the chair.