Anything But Normal
From the Shade's Journal...
Jack once told me of the first time he laid eyes on Sanderson Hawkins. It was at the funeral of Wesley Dodds, a man who had once been known as the Sandman, back in those glorious days when the Mystery Men kept the world safe from fellows like myself. Sand was giving the eulogy and when Jack looked at him, he saw his elder friend in the blond boy. Respectable, strong, innately moral--truly the boy had grown into the man's place.
Jack had loved Wesley Dodds as a hero. But he would come to love Sanderson Hawkins as a man.
In retrospect, it was all Black Canary's fault. When she heard news of Sand's impending birthday through the superhero grapevine, she decided that it would have to be celebrated - and not by halves.
Breakfast in bed - much to the embarrassment of the birthday boy, who wasn't used to his sleeping quarters being invaded in the early hours of the morning and therefore was not appropriately dressed for receiving company - was followed by a day of walking into rooms gaudily decorated with streamers and balloons. These events were followed up by a near-torching of the kitchen as Dinah and Courtney made a stab at cooking his favorite meal. It might have helped, Sand considered, if they had asked what that favorite meal was first. Given the opportunity, a well-crafted answer could have avoided much of the destruction. After all, delivery pizza never set off the smoke detectors.
Sand twitched and squeezed his pen more tightly as Dinah called from the doorway of his office. He glanced at the old clock that had been sitting on that same desk for probably sixty years. It told him that in just two more hours, his birthday would be blessedly over and he hoped the damage that could be racked up in that time could be limited. He'd managed to skirt through the entire day with gracious thanks and casual indifference, but one more brick to the head in regard to his birthday was going to make him crazy. It wasn't that he didn't like his birthday... but it was a very sobering reminder of his isolation in this world.
This was his teammates' way of being friendly, though, of trying to include him in their lives and he couldn't turn that away. He didn't actually know many of them - the new ones at least - and now he was the one from whom they were all taking orders.
"Hi, Black Canary," he said, using her codename in a weak attempt to forget that she now knew he owned boxer shorts decorated with Mickey Mouse.
"Hey, Mouseketeer!" Dinah stepped into the room, closing the door behind her, and approached Sand's desk.
"What's up?" he asked her, his false cheer deflating.
"We all think you've been overworking yourself a little," she started, "and we'd like to take you out for a night. There's this little bar; I know the owner, and I think you could use a break."
"Dinah," Sand began, without really knowing where he was going. "I appreciate the thought - "
"It's your birthday," Dinah pointed out firmly. "There's nothing wrong with a night of fun."
"I just don't think I'd have that much fun," Sand told her apologetically.
"I think you would," Dinah insisted. "I know that maybe the rest of the day has been a little crazy but we're only doing this because we care." She picked up a framed photo on his desk and glanced down at it. It was a photo of himself and Wesley, one Dian had taken just before they'd been trapped in Ragnorak. Sand got the message loud and clear. He was alone for the first time in years on his birthday and Dinah was trying her best to make up for it.
"I miss him, too," she said softly. "And I miss my mom and Uncle Al and Uncle Charles and all the others." Sand couldn't see Dinah's face as she looked down at the photo, but when she lifted her head, she was smiling. "C'mon! Everyone wants you to go out with us. They're waiting downstairs in the kitchen. I even called up Jack and Pieter Cross and they're both coming into town for this."
"You called - aw, Dinah." Sand ran a hand through his hair and glanced at his desk. "I've got a ton of paperwork I wanted to get rid of tonight. I'm really behind." I'm really over my head, he wanted to say, but didn't. It wasn't that running the JSA was overwhelming him, but it was such an effort to keep up with the challenge that it wore him out for anything else - and maybe he liked it that way.
"Sand, it's your birthday!" Dinah exclaimed. "If you're going to take any night off, this is it."
Sand smiled ruefully. "It's not quite the same when you're turning seventy," he told her, his voice tinged with irony.
"Seventy?" Dinah asked, a grin sliding over her pretty features. "Good grief, man. Maybe we should take you to a senior center instead of a watering hole."
Sand tried to hide a laugh and wound up snorting.
"So seriously, how many birthdays have you actually celebrated?" Dinah asked, handing him the picture. "How old would you be if we cut out all that...other stuff?" She spoke the last words with disdain, waving her hand as if shooing away those 45 years in the legendary "velvet cage."
Sand set the picture down on his desk, pausing for a minute to look at Wesley's toothy smile one more time and mentally add up the years to be sure his previous calculations were right. "Twenty-five," he admitted with a faint grimace. Too young to be in the position he currently occupied, too old to be someone's sidekick. Too young to feel so old.
"Oh yeah?" Dinah asked nonchalantly. "Me too."
That easy joke was the last push Sand needed. He laughed and stepped out from around the desk.
"I'll go change," he offered.
"See?" Dinah said, preceding him through the door. "I told you. We'll have fun."
"Why can't I go?" Courtney Whitmore demanded as Sand walked into the kitchen. "I'm a member of this team, too!"
"Because you're underage, squirt," Ted Grant told her cheerfully.
"So's Kendra, and no one's making her stay at home!"
Sand joined Dinah, Ted, and Al Rothstein in turning to look at Kendra Saunders, who was sitting at the kitchen table in jeans and a tank top, reading a book. She looked up in surprise.
"Kendra's got a fake ID," she retorted, shooting a pointed glare at Courtney. "And Kendra doesn't look like she escaped from the high school."
There was a beat of silence in which Sand realized he was going to have to say something leader-like or burn in hell for sure. With great trepidation at Kendra's reaction, he opened his mouth but was cut off.
"Are you wearing that?" Dinah asked, in that matter-of-fact female tone that implied that no, he most certainly was not going to wear that.
Sand looked down at his khaki slacks, long-sleeved blue shirt and red tie and wondered at how Kendra had been so easily let off the hook. "I was planning to," he answered, fully prepared to go back to his room and try again.
Dinah shook her head and grabbed his tie. She loosened the knot, yanked it over his head, and gave his hair a firm mussing. "Go put on a pair of jeans and that'll be good enough," she proclaimed. "Jack and Pieter are meeting us downtown. Are we missing anyone?" She gave a cursory look around. "Hold down the fort, Courtney. You're in charge."
Those words should have warned Sand about the kind of evening he was in for. But he didn't listen.
"The kid needs another beer!"
Sand rocked under Ted Grant's hearty slap to his back. Dinah had dragged them all to a homey little bar just over the bridge in Jersey where the two main attractions seemed to be country line dancing and the bartender who knew Dinah by name.
"I got this one," Jack Knight offered, pulling his wallet from his back jeans pocket and tossing a bill toward the bartender.
"Uh, I've probably had enough for now," Sand suggested.
"You've had one, and Jack drank half of it when he came in," Dinah reminded him.
Sand sighed and faced his next drink.
"What is this?" he asked doubtfully. The bartender had presented him with a massive mug, rather than the longnecked bottle Ted had placed in front of him earlier. The mug was filled with something dark and thick and topped with a generous dollop of foam that looked to be sentient.
"It's Guinness," Jack told him smugly. "It's a real beer."
It looked rather like pond sludge.
"You're going to make the boy sick, Jack," Dinah said disapprovingly. Sand noticed that she had her stool pulled so closely to Pieter Cross', she might as well be in his lap. Interesting, he thought with a suppressed smile, that he'd offered Pieter a place on the JSA three weeks ago but an invitation from Dinah got an immediate response.
"He'll get full before he gets drunk off that stuff," Al assured her, in reference to the Guinness.
With one last, rueful look at the mug, Sand lifted it to his lips and took a swig.
"It's like drinking bread," he choked out when he'd managed to swallow.
"That it is," Jack agreed with a broad grin, lifting his mug to bump it against Sand's. "That it is!"
Sand grinned weakly and ventured another sip. He was starting to feel warm and mellow. It was his birthday, he was with friends, and the atmosphere was definitely growing on him. Dinah's friend had saved the stools lining the bar for them. The happy bustle of people stopping by to have a drink and talk to their friends after work filled his ears. A band, set up on the small stage, was starting to play a country song he didn't know. He took a slightly larger drink of the Guinness and realized he was hunched up on his stool. He made a conscious effort to straighten up and look around. Jack was chatting with Kendra, who looked as friendly and animated as Sand had ever seen her. Al was eyeing a girl who was leaning on the bar next to him to order a drink. Dinah and Pieter were sitting knee to knee. Sand let his eyes linger for a brief moment on their intertwined hands and Pieter's chiseled jaw.
He was much darker than Charles, Sand mused, returning to his drink. Strong Nordic features and dark hair. He was incredibly self-assured, too. Almost arrogant. Not his Doc at all, Sand thought with a pang.
He took another long sip of his drink and decided not to study the rest of his friends. Everyone he'd come with - except for Ted of course - was a reminder of someone else dead and buried. The old days were too long gone.
"Hey." Ted Grant's rough voice pushed at his thoughts. "You okay there, kid?"
"Fine," Sand answered. He lifted his mug and drained it. He grimaced as he swallowed the dregs of the draft and looked up. He felt like he should do something - order another, get up and talk to someone.... Something.
"My turn!" Dinah crowed, hopping up to wave at the bartender.
"No, mine," Pieter insisted, blocking her arm and interposing himself between Dinah and the bar. He laid a friendly hand on Sand's shoulder as he waved the bartender over and spoke in his ear for a moment. The other man nodded and grabbed a squat tumbler from the rack over his head.
The hand resting on Sand's shoulder was large and strong and gave a hearty, comforting squeeze as it drifted away. It wasn't meant as a come-on - it was a slight gesture and Pieter's obvious infatuation with Dinah was a pretty good indication of where his preferences lay - but Sand couldn't help but react. It had been a long time since anyone, particularly anyone as attractive as Pieter, had touched him in any way, let alone gently. More specifically, it had been a long time since a lover had touched him and he couldn't help but make comparisons.
Sand was distracted from his contemplation of Pieter's friendly squeeze by Jack slinging an arm around his shoulders and tugging him off his stool.
"Hey," Jack muttered in his ear. "Ten bucks says I can get that girl's phone number before you." He nodded across the room at a pretty brunette standing just a little apart from a group of her friends.
Sand shook his head and pulled away. "No way." He lifted the drink the bartender had left for him and tossed down a mouthful. He blinked as his eyes watered from the Scotch burning its way down his throat. "Oh. Ah." He coughed irritably.
Dinah reached out and patted him on the back. "You're a doctor," she scolded Pieter. "'Beer before liquor, never been sicker' mean anything to you?"
Pieter blinked. "There's one I haven't heard," he mused, mouthing it slowly to himself. "It's a very high quality single-malt."
Sand coughed again, not from the drink.
"All he needs are a few of my sober pills," Pieter suggested, pulling a small bottle from his inner jacket pocket.
"Great, now you're drugging him," Dinah teased, punching Pieter in the arm. "Leave that poor boy alone and pay me a little more attention."
"Oh, well, if you insist...."
Sand turned away as they giggled together, heads almost touching, and found himself facing Jack once more.
"About that girl," Jack started.
"Not interested," Sand told him shortly.
Jack started to say something else but was cut off when Kendra pushed in front of him, latching onto Sand's arm.
"C'mon," she urged, dragging him bodily from the stool. "Let's dance."
Sand stumbled to his feet, abandoning his drink, and let himself be dragged away, despite the concrete knowledge that he was about to make a fool of himself.
Sand wanted nothing more than to escape from the dance floor, the band, and Kendra. He tripped over his own feet again and cursed.
"Nuts!" He glanced and Kendra and blushed. "Sorry."
"For what? Tripping?" Kendra asked flirtatiously, putting her hands on his shoulders to steady him.
"No, just--" He looked up and Kendra's face very close to his.
"Just...what?" She tilted her head and leaned closer.
Sand's mouth went dry. He wondered if she was going to kiss him. He wondered if she expected him to kiss her.
"Kendra, I - "
Before he had to finish his sentence, the music changed from the raucous dance tune to something twangy and slow. Kendra stepped closer, tucking her head into his shoulder and wrapping her arms around his neck. He took a deep breath, feeling relieved to have dodged that bullet. Dancing he could survive, kissing would only lead to later problems and difficult explanations. He folded his arms across Kendra's back and followed her gentle swaying. He'd still prefer a good swing band to this crap, but at least he wasn't dancing to anything called the "Boot Scoot Boogie". Yes, this he could live with.
Kendra's hand started rubbing the back of his neck as they swayed with the music. Sand swallowed uncomfortably and took a deep breath, this time catching the scent of Kendra's shampoo as he inhaled. It smelled good, sweet, and he relaxed a little as Kendra nestled closer to him. There were other couples on the floor and they seemed to be staying in their own space for this song. That was fine with him, as he'd had quite enough of the itinerant line dancing for one night. Just as he started to become comfortable with the situation, Kendra's hand moved to his shoulder, skimming over the muscle, her nails catching in his shirt. Sand's breath caught in his throat. He wasn't that drunk! Not so drunk that he should be getting hard whenever anyone, particularly a teenage girl, touched him. At least he was only at half-mast; he was still at least partly gay, he told himself. Kendra lifted her head from his chest and tilted it back, probably he thought, to look up at him. He ducked his head so she couldn't see his face and looked across the room at the bar, where Jack and Dinah were conversing and watching the dance floor - and probably him. That, he decided, could lead to nothing but trouble. He felt Kendra's hand rubbing its way sensuously down his back and let out an audible breath as she pressed on a recalcitrant knot in his lower back that no number of hot baths had been able to relax.
"You're a little stiff there," she murmured, rubbing her hips against him, indicating that she knew his back wasn't the only part of his body that was stiff. "Let's see if we can't...loosen you up." She continued to press and massage at Sand's back and he was letting her, amazingly enough, until he opened his eyes and looked across the room to see that Dinah was alone.
Uh-oh, he thought, squeezing his eyes closed. And then thought, uh-oh again when he realized Kendra's hands had left his back. And then Sand's eyes flew open.
"She...grabbed me," Sand hissed to Dinah, who was leaning on the bar next to him, listening sympathetically.
"It happens," Dinah told him, nodding. "You do have a cute ass."
"Dinah!" Sand drank some more beer to hide his blush. "You looked?"
"Sand, you wear skintight green spandex. Of course I looked. And you should be grateful she didn't make a play for the package." Dinah nodded sagely.
"It's a silica-based material," Sand grumbled, ignoring the comment about his "package".
"That hardly makes a difference."
"I guess not." Sand sighed and took another draw from his beer. "Where did everyone else go?"
"Al left with some girl, Ted's playing darts over there, and Jack's dancing with Kendra."
"I owe him big time," Sand said with a sigh.
"Buy him a beer or something," Dinah suggested. "All he did was cut in when you looked desperate."
"Yeah." Sand played with the label on his bottle. "Where's Pieter?"
"He's around," Dinah confirmed with a careless wave of her hand. "Are you doing ok? Do you want to leave?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," he answered, drinking a little more to do something with his hands. "Just not used to this, I guess."
Dinah put a hand on his shoulder, much like Kendra had, but it felt different. Her touch was gentle and undemanding, reminding him of Aunt Dian's calming touch when he argued with Wesley. "Jack's worried about you, you know," she said quietly.
"He is?" Sand asked in surprise, looking back up at her. "What for? I'm fine."
Dinah rubbed his shoulder gently and Sand couldn't help but feel like she was picking her words carefully - something unusual for Dinah. Was there something going on he didn't know about?
"I don't know why," she said finally. "But he's got his hackles up. He's keeping an eye on you."
Sand turned his head to look at Jack dancing casually with Kendra and laughing with her. He certainly didn't look like a man with his hackles raised for any reason. "He looks like he's having a good time," he said. "I think he wanted to have a girl to dance with."
Dinah's fingers stilled on his shoulder. "What makes you say that?" she asked neutrally.
"He wanted to make some bet earlier," Sand said, returning to his sprawl against the bar. "'Bout getting some girl's phone number."
Dinah's fingers began moving again in careful circles and she leaned over to press a kiss to Sand's temple.
"What was that for?" he asked in surprise.
"Honey," Dinah said hesitantly, smoothing her fingers over the place she kissed, "we just want you to be happy. No matter what, okay?"
Sand went very still and he folded his hands around his bottle. "You know," he said quietly, not taking his eyes from the partially shredded label.
"I don't know anything you don't tell me," she said, squeezing his shoulder.
"Dinah - "
"Last call!" the bartender hollered, automatically setting a new beer in front of Dinah.
Sand sent his empty bottle sliding across the bar and stood up, brushing the creases from his jeans.