Disclaimer - As far as I know and my mother assures me, I am in no way Glen Murakami, Bruce Timm, Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, Len Wein, KidsWB, or anyone else with copyright over Teen Titan-verse and all its denizens. This is not meant as an infringement on their turf.
A/N – Like Xander in Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, Starfire has always struck me as the heart of the Titans. Not in the sappy, all-emotion-originates-here kind of way, but in a sort of den mother way. She can literally talk to anyone, and it's interesting to define her relationships with each of the other Titans on a personal basis. Especially when something big and emotionally disruptive as the Terra arc comes along.
Title comes from a song by the same name by Switchfoot.
R&R appreciated more than any reviewer realises. I am a review junkie. Feed my habit.
'Learning to Breathe' By Scribbler
Hello, good morning, how you been?
Yesterday left my head kicked in.
I never, never thought that
I would fall like that;
Never knew that I could hurt this bad
I'm learning to breathe
I'm learning to crawl
I'm finding that you and you alone can break my fall.
I'm living again, awake and alive
I'm dying to breathe in these abundant skies – 'Learning to Breathe' By Switchfoot.
Starfire stood in the kitchen. She stared at the countertop, ran her hand over it, picked up a chopping board and put it down. She yanked gently at the cutlery drawer, aware that apparatus here were not built to endure Tamaranean strength. Extracting a wooden spoon, she sifted until she found a potato masher that caught the light like broken glass.
When she opened the cupboard a bag of sugar fell out. She caught it, surveyed the strange symbols that passed for writing on this world, and placed it gently next to the spoon and masher. Opening the fridge, she reached for a pat of butter and stopped, hand brushing a small brown paper bag with the top rolled down. For a moment she paused, just looking at that bag. Then she shut the door and put the sugar and utensils away and floated quickly out of the kitchen.
Cyborg was in one of the subbasements – the one he'd converted from storage space to makeshift lab. Things were getting more permanent now, but spools of brightly coloured wires still criss-crossed the floor without being attached to anything.
The place was brightly lit, with a door that did not require a pass code. Perhaps he had forgotten to key one in, but odds were he wanted this room more open than the rest of the tower. Sort of like a beacon of hope deal.
Starfire approached from behind, not wishing to startle him. He was bent over a contraption that had started life as a microscope, but was now hooked to half a dozen view-screens and printers with needles that danced. It looked a very complicated, very delicate operation.
"Cyborg?" she enquired, hesitant.
He waved a hand at her, organic eye pressed against the top of the device. Starfire scuffed her feet and waited, recognising the sign for 'hang on a second'. He used it a lot these days.
Eventually Cyborg looked up. He seemed a little surprised to see her there, but the expression melted into a tired smile. Starfire wondered how long he had spent on his recharge pad last night. She had learned from Robin that dark rings around the eyes signified an Earthling not sleeping enough. Cyborg disproved this by never getting rings, but the cornflower blue of his circuitry seemed duller than usual.
"Hey, Star. You want something?"
"I..." she began, and then noticed what sat in the small dish at the bottom of the microscope. It was a small brown rock, roughly nine millimetres in diameter, quiet and unassuming. "I... simply wished to ensure that you are not in need of any nourishment."
"Food? Nah, I got a whole pile of NRG bars I brought down." He gestured to a bulging plastic bag in the corner. It seemed out of place amongst the high-tech machinery and beeping. "I'm cool."
Starfire nodded and left.
Raven's door was no different than any other door, but Starfire hesitated before knocking. She had been warned so many times not to disturb this place that to do so now seemed horribly inappropriate. If the Tower was the hub of the Titans' privacy, then this room was Raven's sanctum sanctorum, somewhere so personal that to pass it without hurrying was almost disrespectful.
There was no answer.
"Raven?" Starfire knocked a little louder.
The door opened.
She stepped tentatively over the threshold, looking around. The room was dark – darker than she remembered it being the last time she saw it. Which had been... She thought back. Probably when Cyborg and Beast Boy got sucked through Raven's meditation mirror. Then, she and Robin had passed the room to find the door torn down, the way open like a rotting wound. She remembered being worried at the strangeness of that sight, as if some great and terrible atrocity had been committed. Many doors got demolished around the tower – it was part of their lifestyle – but this door was special. It was an extension of the walls, solid and absolute, and only to be opened by Raven herself.
Starfire located her by the shift of matte black to dark blue above the bed. Raven floated in a lotus position, cape draping over the neatly turned down sheets and a book open in her lap. She stared at the pages, hood up, shadows playing hide and seek in the cusps of her face. She didn't acknowledge Starfire's presence, but neither did she appear to be reading what she was looking at.
"Raven, I wished to... talk to you about something."
Not a flicker.
Starfire pressed on. "I do not wish to interrupt you if you are busy, but I - "
Raven lifted her gaze, but not her chin, so that she was looking up at her with her head still lowered. She blinked once, slowly.
"Oh." Starfire backed out of the door. "I shall endeavour to return at a more suitable moment, then."
Raven said nothing, just lowered her eyes.
The door's motion sensor shut it a few seconds later.
There were only a few places Robin would be right now – many that he could be, but few that he would. Starfire had already been up to the roof and poked her head into the training area. The dumbbells were still where they had fallen through the far wall, and both the laser cannon and running machine lay on their sides. Nobody had seen much point to tidying up after the smashed android remains were removed.
She found him in the evidence room, sat at his desk with his back to the door. The chair was usually on the other side so he could see anyone who entered, but he had pulled it around and pushed the desk into the corner so it couldn't go anywhere else.
The two walls the desk touched were crammed with thumbtacks and important-looking documents. Starfire thought she recognised one or two from Cyborg's lab.
"Hey, Star," Robin said before she could speak. Even without looking he knew who had come in.
"Robin, may I speak with you please?"
He put his pen down and swivelled in his seat. "What about?" Though she could not see his eyes behind his mask, she sensed he had adopted the dark rings that Cyborg could not. There was just a note to his voice that said it: I'm tired but I'm not going to show it.
She crossed the room and stood by his side, eyes tracing the littered desk. A newspaper was prominent, though one article had been cut out, and another ringed several times in red pen. There was a magnifying glass on top of it, over a picture of a burnt out building with fire trucks out front. At the bottom, just inside the frame, was a large chasm bisecting the asphalt.
"You okay, Star?"
"I am... unsure." She sighed and thought about picking up the picture, but her eyesight was superior to a human's, so there was little need.
When she paused Robin took it as his cue to nod. "I know what you mean," he said quietly.
Starfire looked at him, hopeful. "You do?"
He nodded again. Much with the nodding. Then he asked, "Have you been watching the monitors?"
"Uh, no, I have not." She didn't tell him what she'd been doing.
He got to his feet. She heard several vertebrae crack back into place. "I'd better go check, then." He seemed almost eager to get away from there, glad for something to do that wasn't confined to bits of paper and a room full of objects out of time.
For a moment Starfire was disappointed in his hurry to leave. The action signalled an end to their dialogue before it had properly begun. She started after Robin, stopping when he turned back to face her.
"Star, do you think I should've..." He fumbled, gestured with his hands.
"Yes?" she asked, tipping her head.
Robin dropped his arms to his sides. "Nothing," he said, and turned to go again. "I'm going upstairs. Coming?"
"I - no." She looked the other way down the corridor, towards the opposite staircase. "I think I shall go for a... walk."
Robin looked back at her for a second time, this time raising an eyebrow. "You're going flying."
"Yes, I am going flying."
"Thought so." He seemed about to say something else, something stapled onto the little insight that said just how well he knew her, but it changed to the more mundane, "Remember to take your communicator."
Starfire did not leave until she saw him safely enter the elevator.
She liked flying. It gave her a sense of freedom, of leaving her cares behind. Sometimes she wondered just how ground-bound creatures survived without the exhilaration of sticking their hands in cloudbanks and dodging buildings with inches to spare. How did they not drown in the troubles they were so thoroughly entrenched in?
She then supposed that this was why Earthlings had conceived such things as freefalling, hangliding and bungee jumping: things that were like flight, but not quite.
A flock of geese arrowed overhead. Starfire flew beneath them for a few minutes, until the leader honked angrily at her. The others struggled to keep formation, one at the back veering off course. She dropped away and let them carry on undisturbed.
A small figure was on the rocks at the base of the tower, to the left of where the Titan Ferry dock nestled. Starfire watched him for a second, circling, and then impulsively soared down in a wide arc, so that he could not help but see her.
He was watching the waves lap the shore when she landed. She knew he had seen her. He had tipped his head towards her. Yet now he chose not to look in her direction.
She advanced, hopping from rock to rock and stopping at a respectful distance. She felt like she ought to be asking permission to approach, and the feeling was an odd one, because she'd never had to ask him before.
He shifted. Water ran down the back of his costume. He was soaking wet, but the top of his head had dried somewhat in the sun. She deduced he had been sitting like that for a while.
"Would you like me to go away?"
He shook his head, repositioned his feet. "Nah, it's cool." Something glinted in his hand. His communicator. A man who ran a bar-restaurant on the other side of Jump City had handed it in to the police. Starfire recalled the jarring expression on the face of the officer who came to give it back – delighted and a little awed, as if he couldn't believe she was real when she answered the door and took it from him.
There was silence for a moment. Both she and Beast Boy looked out across the bay. Here, they had an unobstructed view of the wharf, moored boats gently nudging the jetty. The sunshine was glorious, lending the scene a postcard look – Ye Olde Quainte Marina.
Starfire opened her mouth, but Beast Boy beat her to it.
"I couldn't find it."
"What could you not find, friend?"
"Her barrette. I skimmed it out there the night she left the first time, and now I can't find it. Been looking all day. Pretty dumb, huh?" He flashed a grin that was only half what it should be. "So much for echo location."
"It's something that dolphins do. See, they kinda make this sound, and then that sound is bounced back to them off stuff, and they can 'see' what's around them by listening to it."
"Truly, Earth has some of the most marvellous creatures in the galaxy."
"Yeah." He toyed with the com-link. "Some more than others."
More silence. They seemed to be volleying them, and that made Starfire uncomfortable. There had never been any problem with Beast Boy and silence before. Quite the opposite, in fact. Raven often complained that she could not read with his chattering and noise – though, Starfire had noted more than once, very rarely did she follow up these complaints by leaving the room.
"Anything interesting going on?" he asked at last. "Any butt needs kicking? Any mysteries to solve? I can do a mean Scooby Doo, y'know."
Starfire didn't know what a 'Scooby Doo' was, but she replied, "I do not think there is anything of that nature to be addressed at this moment. Though Robin is observing the monitors to make sure."
"Maybe I'll go and take a look myself. Raptor eyes might come in handy. Catch details. And stuff."
He made no move to get up, and Starfire made no move to leave.
"Beast Boy, may I ask you a question?"
"I am... troubled at - "
"Did you see that?" He jumped to his feet, pointing. "I thought I saw something pink. Did you see something pink? With wings, like a little butterfly?"
"I - "
Without another word, he changed into a sea lion and dived into the bay.
The wind kicked idly at Starfire's hair.
Jump City was jumping. Every weekday morning the population doubled, as more than a million commuters flooded in from the suburbs, and then halved each evening when they scurried home. The time this happened was called 'rush hour' – though it was really three hours and nobody rushed anywhere.
Starfire glided above the line of unmoving traffic, following the progress of one street until it fused into the next. Her course was aimless, no destination set. She just wended here and there, sometimes alighting on rooftops, but most of the time in motion. The ambient solar energy of this planet aided her capacity for flight considerably, so it was no strain on her reserves to stay aloft for many hours without pause.
A small boy sat clutching a comic book in the backseat of a blue Sedan. His parents argued in the front, caught as they were in this molasses of cars. When he looked out of the window and spotted her his eyes nearly fell out of his head. He waved furiously.
Starfire waved back and carried on.
There was a woman crossing the road at the next intersection. A pudgy grey dog strained at its leash, and she shrieked when it tugged it right out of her grasp. Starfire plucked the creature up before it could run under the wheels of a pickup and deposited it back on the sidewalk. It snapped at her hands, and then at its owner, who plied her with thanks and apologies for the inconvenience. Starfire nodded and went on her way.
Life went on. It chugged and churned and rolled from one day to the next, never ceasing, never acknowledging that things could change on a whim. One day the people were all gone, the next they were back, picking up the pieces and slotting themselves into the niches they'd left as if nothing had ever interrupted them.
On one level it was quite remarkable, this facility to adapt and absorb obstacles into the daily machine; but on others it was sad. These people would only read of what had happened to let them back into their homes. They would not know the reality behind the words of a newspaper article or CNN exposé. They would not know the baking heat of rising lava, the stench of sulphur, or the helplessness of leaving someone behind.
Starfire perched on the side of a large church, next to a stone gargoyle with a grumpy expression. She stayed there for over an hour, watching the hustle and bustle of the metropolis the Titans had chosen to make their home. Then she stood up, stretched, and flew towards the forest outside the city, possessed of a sudden need for quiet that did not involve awkwardness and other people.
She saw the cloud in her peripheral vision as she navigated her way over a lumpy building she would later realise was the local museum and art gallery. A second later she recognised that it was not a cloud at all, but a plume of dark grey smoke. She followed it with her eyes to a distant area, her body following the direction without any conscious thought. It seemed that heroics had infiltrated her bloodstream since she adopted this little blue-green spheroid, and she could no more ignore a potential crisis than she could stop breathing.
Something was on fire at the bottom of the hill. She crested it and took in the scene at a glance: three red trucks, many firemen, two of whom were restraining a pair of adults from running into the flames that belched from a duplex with a garden of blackened grass. The man and woman fought them, bags of groceries spilled around their feet.
There was only one reason why adults would be stupid enough to run into without any protection.
She saw more detail as she powered towards the conflagration. There weren't enough firemen, and those that were there didn't have enough hoses, or enough water pressure to do anything significant except stopping the fire from spreading. Of the two adults, the woman was crying, and both were calling names over the shoulders of those who pushed them back.
A crowd of curious and horrified onlookers had gathered. To city-folk, a fire was an interesting sideshow, something to chat about over lunch and lament at on the news. They were held at bay by a combination of respect for the emergency workers and fear for their own safety.
Starfire landed next to the anguished couple. She wasted no time, asking without preamble, "How many are inside?"
All assembled looked at her with something akin to shock. One of the firemen glanced around, she assumed for the rest of her teammates.
"My babies," the woman sobbed. "My babies, I need to get to them..."
"I will save them," Starfire promised, "but you must tell me what I need to know."
"Three," said the man. "Our two sons and the au pair. Please, you've got to get them out of there."
"I... upstairs, I think. Marie was supposed to be putting the boys down for their nap. We only went out for a minute - "
She didn't hear the rest, since she was already airborne. The crowd watched in awe as she circled around and picked a spot that would not make matters worse if she used it as an entrance. She had learned much of human architecture in her tenure on Earth, and knew that introducing oxygen to a sealed burning room was as good as throwing a canister of gasoline onto it. Then she crossed her arms in front of her face and shot straight into a small part of Hell.
Smoke obscured her vision first of all. The air was thick with it, along with the acrid smell of burnt plastic. Starfire coughed and took a moment to orientate herself. She felt a sudden overwhelming urge to escape, to fly away. She was Tamaranean, but she could still fear something as basic as burning to death.
"Is anyone here?" she called loudly. Nobody answered, but she persisted. "Hello? I am here to rescue you. Please inform me of your location."
A faint scream propelled her along the burning hallway. "We're here! Help! Mon Dieu... please, help us!"
The door to the bedroom was open, which was good; but there was a wall of flame blocking her path, which was bad. Beyond it, Starfire could see the form of a person huddled under a blanket, using it to protect them from the blaze. A child was crying.
Making a snap decision, Starfire shot through the fire in the doorway, barely singeing her hair. Though her skin was tougher than diamonds, her hair was of a much less durable composition. Once, she had lost it all when a flask of acid broke over her head. It had taken three whole months to grow back properly, during which Beast Boy had exhausted all his money on photographic films.
Once through, Starfire hovered. She shouted at the huddle, "I am here. Come quickly."
The entire room was alight, the curtains little more than charred remains. Two cribs stood against the far wall. They were both empty.
The blanket moved. A head came into view: tousled blonde hair framing sharp, almond-shaped blue eyes.
For a second Starfire was not there. She could not smell the hem of her skirt beginning to burn, but jets of sulphur; and the heat bleaching her skin was not fire, but white-hot magma spewing from the earth. The window was made of coloured glass, and if she looked out she would see hard-packed earth and bedrock.
"Help," said the face with the blue eyes, and the illusion broke. The voice that came out of that mouth was husky and heavily accented – nothing like the voice she remembered. "S'il vous plait! Please, you must hurry. I-I kept them away from the smoke, but they are so small..."
Starfire saw the other two sets of eyes beneath the blanket, each staring at her with nothing less than total terror. The smaller of the two toddlers was tearstained, but the other was strangely silent, as if he had accepted his fate to die here.
No. I will not allow that.
Darting forward, Starfire scooped the blanketed bundle into her arms. Despite the three figures, she lifted them easily, taking only a moment to make sure she would drop no-one. "Please, you must keep your faces covered and hold onto each other firmly. There will be a moment of discomfort while we make our escape."
"S'il vous plait, allez-y," the girl begged. "Hurry!"
"Certainly," Starfire replied, and burst through the window. Broken glass bounced off her skin but did not cut her. The bundle screamed, mumbling something in an Earth language she didn't know.
Behind them, the room exploded into flames with the fresh oxygen, but Starfire's speed was such that they were far away before they could be touched. She was careful not to fly too fast, knowing the negative effects of G-force on frail human bodies, and pulled up two streets away. Then she touched down on the sidewalk and pulled away the burning blanket, stamping on it to put out the flames.
The blonde girl and her charges were sooty, but unhurt. They stared at Starfire, and said nothing as she once again gathered them up and carried them at a much gentler pace back to the firemen and distressed couple.
The woman fell on the toddlers and hugged them so tight that Starfire had to wonder if she would crush them. Really, it was strange the violence committed in the name of love.
The firemen who had been restraining her came forward to help the stunned blonde girl, who was unsteady on her feet and gawping at nothing.
The man who had spoken to Starfire grabbed her hand and pumped it up and down. "Thank you," he enthused. "Oh shit, thank you. Thank you so much."
The crowd was cheering. Someone whistled. Someone else shouted, "Yay, Teen Titans!"
Starfire looked around, not returning the furious handshake but not pushing the man away. The bystanders obviously wanted to surge forward, but they stayed back, still cautious of the inferno the house had become.
She turned back to the man. His eyes were bright with unshed tears behind his glasses.
"I... I don't know what else to say," he admitted. "But you have no idea how grateful we are. I – oh God. Oh shit. We almost lost our boys. Marie, too. They nearly... oh God." He rubbed he head with his free hand. "We only just got back into town yesterday after – y'know. Been staying with Edna's sister in Calliope City. Maybe we should've stayed, huh? Jump's just not a safe place anymore. First that Slade freak, now this. I... just, thank you. For both times. Thank you for making it safe for us to come back, and thank you so much for saving Marie and our boys."
Starfire stared at him. Her gaze never wavered. It was quite unnerving, actually. She didn't smile, didn't show any of her typical joy at a successful rescue. She just stared, like a Blorkhaal waiting in its trench for prey to pass by.
Then her gaze shifted across to where the girl – Marie – was sitting on the ground wrapped in yet another blanket the firemen had provided. She looked very small and very frightened.
Now that she had time to see it, Starfire realised that she was not really so familiar-looking after all. Her blonde hair was curly, with a tendency to fall in springy little ringlets around her face, and beneath the soot there was a dusting of freckles across her nose.
"I am... pleased your offspring are unhurt," said Starfire. "If you will excuse me." She rose into the air.
"C'est une aubaine," the girl mumbled, over and over again. "C'est une aubaine..."
The crowd cried out as Starfire left. A man at the back jumped up and down and shouted, "Starfire! David Cantoma, Zee News. Please, Miss Starfire, if you'll just answer a few questions about – Miss Starfire, wait!" He chased after her, though she quickly ascended out of his reach, if not out of earshot. "What's all this about the statue found in the City Catacombs being a monument to your former teammate, Terra? Does this signify anything about the Titans' allegiances, since she aligned with the established criminal Slade? Would you care to comment on her publicised defection? What happened to Slade? Miss Starfire? Miss Starfire!"
She did not stop until she had reached the very edge of the city. Then she banked a hard left, following the line of blocky grey buildings. One or two heads poked out of windows when she passed. Someone snapped a photograph. She flirted with crossing the boundary and seeking solace in the trees – which were growing back nicely after Thunder and Lightning's antics last year – even going so far as to hover above a nice, sturdy fir.
A squirrel peered at her from its dray. When it became apparent that she was not going to land, it hopped onto a branch and chittered something. Starfire went closer, but it shrieked and vanished, not appreciating that a nest of twigs and moss would be little defence against someone who could accidentally mash a Buick on her morning stroll.
Eventually she doubled back on herself.
Crouching on the flat rooftop of a nearby apartment block, Starfire watched the clean-up crew go into action after the fire was successfully contained. The couple, their sons and the blonde girl were escorted away in squad cars after they had been checked over by paramedics. Starfire watched the last with special interest, but did not move from her perch.
She waited for a long time. She did not know how long exactly, but when the last people left and the skeletal house stood empty, evening was drawing in. The remains of the day stained the lower sky red. Little solid clouds coloured like lemon, butter and apricot floated higher up, against a background of navy blue. It was very pretty. Earth had some of the prettiest sunsets she'd ever seen – mainly because Sol, the system it inhabited, had only one Primary Star, or sun, as they were more commonly known. Most planets Starfire had visited had anything up to seven suns, but hardly any had fewer than two or three.
She stayed on that flat rooftop even after the sun had set fire to the sea, and stars bobbed to the surface of the sky like buoys. The house stared at her, all scorched supports and yellow tape. It seemed inordinately sad, this little patch of burn in an area of picket fences and brightly painted front doors; like it didn't belong. It needed fixing, but anybody could guess at how long that would take, or even whether it was possible at all. Some things could not be fixed. They were too badly damaged. And some things were better broken.
For some unknown reason, Starfire wanted to go and stand in the house, but she refrained. It was not hers, after all.
When the distant church chimed the hour she rose stiffly and made to leave.
"I was wondering when you'd go."
She startled at the voice. Her fists glowed green when she whipped round. "Who is here?"
The body didn't so much detach from the shadows as ooze from them. First a foot, then the edge of a cape, and then a mask with unfathomable eyelets.
Starfire had only met Batman once, when the Justice League descended on the Jump City museum in search of a priceless Egyptian artefact. They had not really been forthcoming for why they wanted it, though presumably it was to foil some nefarious scheme or other. Starfire remembered the watchful dark blotch at the back of the group, and how Robin's shoulders did not lose their tension until after he obliterated a training sim the next day. Other than that, Robin's mentor was a nebulous mass of rumour and half-told story that she had digested to form an image of someone more Dark than Knight.
Part of that image was that he never left Gothem City unless the apocalypse was imminent, so having him stand behind her now was distinctly disturbing. The area took on a cold air. The shadows looked that extra bit darker.
Still, a guest was a guest. Starfire made an effort. "Um, my most wholehearted greetings to you, Batman." She started to make the traditional Tamaranean sign of greeting, caught herself, and changed it to an awkward sort of bow that was more of a bob with crossed legs. "Is the Justice League in attendance of our city for some reason?"
Batman didn't answer; didn't move. He just stared at her.
She began to feel a little uneasy – a formidable feat, given her natural disposition. Her petite frame had enough power to take out the average pro football team inside of ten seconds or so. She thought nothing of waltzing down dark alleys on the 'bad' side of town, confident she could surmount any trouble she came across. Still, this man made her feel small, made her feel weak. She knew him be pure human, with no superpowers – a highly publicised fact – but there was something about him, something quiet and unpretentious and effectual as a station wagon to the head.
When he stepped forward, she actually flinched.
The starbolt lingered in her hand, because Batman also exuded a very palpable danger – much more so than when he was part of a group.
The Justice League was rather scornful of the Teen Titans and their small-time operation. The Titans were tolerated, maybe even endured because they might someday be needed to pad out the League's ranks. Even so, the Leaguers could never be mistaken for anything but heroes. Their essences were good and, for them most part, pure.
Batman... Batman was the darkness needed to highlight that good. Starfire knew of his vow to never take a life, no matter what the situation, but this did not temper the feeling that surrounded him; that fragile soap bubble of threat.
"There isn't much more you can do here," he said at last. He was looking at the burned out house.
"I..." she said, not sure if he expected an answer.
"There are other crimes taking place tonight. You should go see to them."
"I will. I simply wish to..." What? What did she wish to do? What was so important that she couldn't go and do the job City Hall had commissioned the Titans to do?
Batman's voice was low. "You don't get second chances if you miss things. A few seconds can make all the difference. While you're standing here watching a building that's not going anywhere tonight, someone else's life could be changing. You could be instrumental in the nature of that change."
That was most Starfire had ever heard him say – the most she knew him to have said to anyone. Robin was always reticent about Batman, but the other Titans had met him before. They all emphasised how little he said, and how significant those few sentences were. Batman was not a man who used words just to hear the sound of his own voice. To him, they were a means to an end – a way of communicating knowledge and nothing more. He wasn't an especial fan of superpowers, but if telepathy got those thoughts across faster than words, there was every chance he'd take it. When he spoke, he spoke to be heard.
Starfire looked out across the city. It was littered with light and life. "Change is not always a favourable occurrence," she said softly. She did not inherently feel that she could trust Batman, but there had to be something to the stories if everyone she did trust viewed him with respect.
"Who said it was?" Batman shifted his cape around his ankles. There was no preamble, no carefully-worded opening. "I hear you lost a teammate," he said shortly.
"I – yes. Is this the motivation for your presence? Did you wish to exchange dialogue with Robin on the matter?"
"Robin isn't my problem anymore." There was more to that than he was willing to say, but the soap bubble pulsed.
"But then why - "
"You're not a native of Earth, Starfire." It felt odd to hear him say her name, like he had discovered some important secret of her life and was willing to use it against her. "You don't understand a lot of the customs here."
"You mean your customs."
"The customs here." His eyelets narrowed. There was more irritation to that tiny movement than words could hope to capture accurately.
Starfire looked at him for a long moment. "Are you offering me counsel in these customs?" The idea was vaguely ridiculous, but she could think of no other reason for him to be here, talking to her, instead of off fighting the good fight, or whatever else it was he did.
She could be forgiven for drawing few conclusions on Batman's modus operandi. She was relatively new to Earth, and learning the personal practices of senior champions ranked lower on her list than, say, learning the differences between mustard and radioactive waste when setting up a Ranch Salad. She could not know of the many tiny things that influenced his life; thing that may have sent him into the heart of Jump, where he could have accidentally stumbled on her this evening while in the midst of something quite different. Butterfly Effect simply didn't feature in her train of thought.
In answer, Batman looked at her. Starfire didn't think Robin's mask had ever been quite so impassive.
"Um... I - "
"Grief wears many different masks. Nobody's expected to follow a carefully drawn out diagram."
"I..." She bit her lip, sighed, shifted her weight to the balls of her feet. Unconsciously, she had assumed a defensive posture. "I understand this. Many Earthian traditions are strange to me. On... on my home planet of Tameran, people seldom reach the great years of this world. It is considered glorious to meet one's end in battle. Here... I believe there was once a similar idea. But it is no longer so widely held, correct?"
"Death isn't as celebrated as it once was. There's too much of it. People have become immune to the news of other people dying. It bounces off them. The justly punished, the martyrs, and the just plain unlucky ones who were in the wrong place at the wrong time – they're just nameless faces on the news and sides of milk cartons. Die on the street? Too bad. Die for an ideal? Stupid."
He sounded so vehement, so bitter, that Starfire had to pause for a second. "I shall relate news of your presence to the other Titans," she said at last, tacitly excusing herself.
"Terra didn't die in glory, did she?"
That stopped her in her tracks. "She – I... I do not know," Starfire was forced to confess. She stalled for a moment, then gave in to instinct. Even so, her words came out like a bagful of Scrabble tiles. "I do not know if she is even properly deceased."
Batman turned his head ever so slightly. "There's a fine line between life and death. But there is a line."
"Which Terra may have crossed. But..." Starfire's hands rose of their own accord. The starbolt had already died, but a streetlamp below gave them enough light to see by. "She is... she is currently composed of the substance known here as 'gran-eet-ee'."
She felt herself flush. She had only read the word on one of Cyborg's documents, and pronounced it accordingly. Honestly, Earth languages had the most curious phonetics. "Yes. Granite."
Batman's response bewildered her. "I know," he said.
"Pardon myself, but how - "
"I have my ways. Just accept that I know. And that I also know the circumstances under which she came to be that way."
"Oh." Starfire couldn't think what to say to that. So instead she asked, "Is it possible for humans to... be alive in such a manner?"
"Not usually, no."
"Oh." Her voice held a sad note.
"But then, it's not really usual for humans to rearrange their DNA into animals' every few seconds, either. Or fly. Or be half robot. Or run fast enough to walk on water."
Starfire's expression edged around outright uncertainty. "Forgive me. This is the action known as... comfort?"
"These are facts," said Batman. "The human race has an uncanny ability to adapt and survive. Don't underestimate it."
"I... shall endeavour not to. But if you please, does this information mean that there is a chance Terra will someday be returned to us in a non-granite form?"
Batman didn't answer. It was an eloquent silence.
"Do you want her back?"
"Of course! She is my friend. She is a Teen Titan!"
"She also levelled half the city, tried to kill you and your team, and allied herself with your most influential enemy."
Starfire shook her head. "These things are no longer correct. Terra is a Teen Titan. She aided us and fought Slade at..." She stumbled. "At the cost of her own well-being. She is noble, and... and she is my friend, whatever she might have done in the past. I can assure you, she had reasons to join with Slade, but they are unimportant now."
"All of them have their reasons," Batman said quietly. "Turncoats more than most."
"It does not matter. Slade is gone. He cannot influence Terra anymore – nor us."
"How can you know?"
"I - " Starfire thought of Robin's many charts and printouts. She thought of his maps, with their inexplicable scrawl and rings of red pen. "I do not have to explain myself to you."
"You don't sound very sure of yourself."
Her feet left the ground. "I do not wish to articulate on this matter further. There is a message you would like me to verbally communicate to my teammates, perhaps?"
Batman looked at her like she was a half-dissected frog in a dish. Starfire had the feeling she was being tested for something. "No," he said at last, "but I have one for you. Mourn."
"I don't like being repetitive."
Starfire performed a few mental calculations. "But you said she would come back! You said she would return to us!"
"And if she doesn't?"
"I..." Starfire wavered, and in her flux she sank to the concrete of the rooftop, all the joy needed for flight sucked out of her. She rested her hands in her lap, felt the deceptively smooth fabric of her skirt beneath her fingertips. "I do not know how to mourn," she said softly.
"By Earth standards, or by your own?" Batman's voice was no less stern, but the soap bubble had pulsed inward, as if eating itself. For a split second he seemed almost like a real person, and not the Dark Knight.
Starfire shook her head. "The other Titans, they act so strangely. It is as if they have had their Rej'ana removed. I... I worry for them. Is that mourning?"
"Mourning doesn't have to be dismal. Mourning is remembering." Batman paused for a second. "Rej'ana?"
"Their... reason for being, I think is the most precise translation," Starfire replied, not commenting on the quality of his accent. "And I remember many things much of the time. It does not improve my temperament."
"Who said mourning was supposed to make you feel better?"
Her face turned quizzical. "But then, what is the point of it? Surely it simply brings more pain than is necessary?" She dropped her eyes. "The Titans have been through much pain. I do not wish to increase that with my own, for they will undoubtedly worry if they think I am distressed."
"Maybe that's the point."
"To distress them with my distress? Respect for you is due, Batman, but to me, that appears to be a very bad point indeed."
Another man might have shrugged. Batman simply drew out a grappler and shot it at a building. He tugged the line taut and stepped away from her, obviously preparing to leave.
"You are a very perplexing individual," Starfire said bluntly, not seeing any point in dressing it up. "Was your wish in coming here simply to confuse me? You say that my friend may be returned to me, but tell me that I should mourn her passing also. You dispense advice, but it is advice that would needlessly damage those important to me. Perhaps you find some kind of sport in my sorrow. Correct?"
Batman froze. "I've never found pleasure in grief," he whispered, with all the emotion of a cactus. "But if you're going to live on this planet, then you need to know how it works. And human workings are rarely ever straightforward and uncomplicated. Life is about purpose. This incident and all that went with it has shaken the purpose you... pubescents set out for yourselves. Now you have to deal with it and move on. Learn something. You'll - " He stopped. Starfire waited for the next words, but he swung off the roof and glided away.
She could have chased after him. She could have summoned a joyous memory, plucked him right out of the air and demanded he explain himself better.
But she didn't.
When it flew overhead, the small aircraft was darker than the spaces between the stars.
When Starfire opened the door with her pass code, she found a metal breastplate blocking her path. Cyborg looked especially formidable in the half light, half shadow that came with standing in a doorway to outside at night.
She patted her belt. "Oops?" The coyness to her voice was false. She was tired.
He surveyed her for a second more, and for that second it was easy to forget that she was virtually indestructible while he was a permanently recovering cripple.
She caught sight of her reflection in his armour. Her bangs were ragged, glistening with broken glass, her skin was stained with soot, and somehow a feather had lodged in her hair. She plucked it out and twirled it between her thumb and forefinger. "There was a fire," she explained. "I performed a successful liberation of three people."
"If you'd taken your communicator, I'd already know this."
"Apologies, friend Cyborg. I will try not to make this mistake again."
His expression softened. "Yeah, well. You're okay now, and that's the main thing." He stepped aside and she went in. "There's some leftover Chop Suey in the refrigerator, if you want it."
She found Beast Boy coming out of the main chamber, a glass of something orange in his hand. His expression lit up with relief when he saw her, but it was only genuine for a second.
At least he was dry this time.
"Beast Boy." Starfire caught his shoulder.
"Huh?" He looked surprised at the contact, as if he'd forgotten what it was to be touched. There hadn't been much hugging around here recently. "What's up, Star?"
"I..." She stopped, scrubbed at the back of her neck with one hand, and then leaned forward to press her lips against his forehead. "I simply wish for you to know that I am here, and that I remember."
Gingerly, he touched the spot she had pecked, like he expected a horde of Tamaranean war-hounds to come charging around the corner at any moment. "Uh, remember what?"
"That human workings are not straightforward and uncomplicated."
"Uh... right." He raised his glass. "Here's to human complexity, eh? Though I'm not sure I should be toasting the human condition with orange soda. Maybe root beer, but not orange soda."
Starfire smiled and released his shoulder. She liked to think that he understood what she meant, but it was difficult to tell with Beast Boy. He was so used to taking on different roles, different bodies and instincts, nobody really knew the person under the character. He was... complicated. More so than even he acknowledged, though she thought Terra had seen it. Maybe she even touched it, somehow.
There was a pain in her heart, but it was a good pain.
Starfire ate from the takeout box with a fork, and then took it upon herself to empty the trash. Garbage water dripped onto her boots. It smelled of newspaper ink and old banana skins.
When she returned, she walked around in bare feet, fetching the bucket from the cupboard and mopping furiously with some product that smelled like lemons. It took fifteen minutes before the handle succumbed and broke in two.
"Hey, Robin, don't burn the candle at both ends, man."
Robin looked at his crackling communicator before picking it up. "I'm busy." Then he turned it off. If there was a real emergency, the upper frequency would kick in and they'd get through anyway.
Now Starfire was back safely, though, he chose not to think about emergencies.
The cracked half of Slade's mask gleamed in the poor light of the desk lamp. The hole for the eye painted pictures with the shadows.
Robin stared at it for a moment, then put down his pen and got up to lift it off the wall. It felt heavy in his hands. Hesitantly, he lifted it up to his face. It was too long, the hole almost on his temple. He couldn't see a thing through it.
He set it back on its hook again. It felt lighter now.
The communicator droned. Exasperated, Robin swept it up. "Listen, Cy, just - "
"Go to the monitor room," said a baritone that was familiar despite the static.
Robin blinked several times in rapid succession. Under normal circumstances he might have questioned such an order, maybe even chafed against it. As it was, he jogged up the three flights of stairs because it was quicker than waiting for the elevator.
He never even questioned how that signal had got through.
The printer on the far wall was working. He picked up the loose-leaf sheets and studied them for a few minutes. Then the corners of his mouth quirked, just slightly. "Knew it," he whispered with something akin to glee, but not quite. "I knew it!" He lifted the yellow communicator to his mouth again. "Thanks."
"Thank me by dropping it."
"Drop it, Robin. Bury it and salt the ground."
"But - "
"Think closer to home." Then the line went dead.
Robin glared at the com link for a full two minutes.
He turned. Starfire was in the doorway. Her feet were bare, her gloves missing, and her clothes were smeared with black filth.
Her face, on the other hand, looked better than he remembered seeing it in a long time. She looked happier, more relaxed. There was a certain undercurrent of pain, but it was negligible. And it was only seeing her that way that made him realise how haggard and withdrawn she had been lately.
She held out a plastic sandwich box. "I discovered these at the rear of the white-box-that-keeps-things-cold. Would you care to enjoy them with me?" Inside the box was a small pile of chocolate chip cookies dusted with icing sugar.
It took a second, but he smiled and nodded and then raised an almost mellow eyebrow like he always did around her, but couldn't remember doing recently. "What, no Sad Pudding?"
She looked at the box in her hands. "Pleasant sugary foodstuffs seemed more... appropriate."
"Hey, don't get philosophical about it. Cookies are fine as a midnight snack."
"But it is not the midway portion of the night," she pointed out, to which he shrugged.
"One-twenty-five snack, then."
She laughed at that. And Robin wondered when he'd last heard her laugh. Probably before...
He looked at the printout in his hand. Neatly typed data squatted in even rows across the page, full of police jargon and secret codes that he could crack in his sleep. There was a picture at the bottom of a man with an eye patch and two scarves wrapped around the lower and upper halves of his face.
Decisively, Robin laid it face-down on the table and walked with Starfire out of the room.
Starfire raised a fist to knock on Raven's door. It hovered in mid-air, and then dropped. Her lips puckered, expelling air.
She stared at the expanse of grey metal a moment longer before padding away, feet sticking to the cold floor.
Poison Ivy had often wondered whether stiletto heels were really appropriate footwear for a crime spree. Sure, they – mostly – struck fear into the hearts of men with their vaguely dominatrix connotations, but it was far easier to run from cops in sneakers.
Harley Quinn had no such problem. Her costume involved flat soles built into the fabric of her cat-suit. She ran backwards, the bazooka balancing on her shoulder no hindrance whatsoever, and a high cackle spurting from her mouth.
"Dumb clucks," she giggled at police that could no longer hear. "Bak-aaaak-bak-bak-bak."
"Harl, for God's sake, look where you're going," Ivy snapped, vaulting a line of trash cans and wondering how her life got reduced to this.
Harley spun on her heel, leaped gracefully, and landed with a soft grunt. She was still smiling as she drew closer to her partner in crime. "You worry too much, Red. So we made a bit of a boo-boo. A miscalculation. So what?"
"So, I'd really prefer not to get tranquilised and spend the night back in Arkham when I've barely been out a week." A stray cat ran in front of them, yowling. Ivy cursed it in several different languages.
"Place ain't so bad."
"Yes it is."
"Puddin's at Arkham."
Ivy rolled her eyes. "You didn't join the debating squad at college, did you?"
"No. Why?" The question turned into a shriek as a thin, elliptical shape whizzed past Harley's fingers. It was a perfect shot, designed to make her lose her grip on the heavy bazooka. Even though she scrabbled for it, the weapon flew from her grasp, wrapped up in a grapple line that whisked it high into the air.
The blowback from the Batplane didn't really come into force until it crested the building in front of them. A disc of white light found them with little problem, wavering only when the dangling bazooka passed the bulb.
Ivy growled and set her feet. "I really hate that Bat."
Harley grinned and reached for another firearm from her belt, much good as it would do her against carbondium plating. "Guess nuthin' lasts forever, huh Red?"
Beast Boy didn't open the door straight away. He took his time in shifting back to human, then muzzed across the floor, rubbing his head sleepily. He hadn't bothered to change into his pyjamas. He figured he'd just have to put his uniform back on in the morning, so what was the point?
No answer, but he thought he could hear footsteps. Frowning, he fumbled for the keypad and opened the door.
"Dude, not funny," he told the empty corridor. "It's four in the morning and my warm fuzzy turned back into a pumpkin at midnight." He turned to go back inside, and then stopped. His gaze snagged on something at the bottom of his doorframe like a prickly burr against his retina.
He picked the wad of tissue up. It was damp, but not so much that he couldn't tell the black squiggle across it was writing – though peering at it gave no clue as to what it said. He would later discover that he'd been trying to read Brolguu, a kind of ceremonial Tamaranean script, and that it said only one word: remember.
Careful not to tear the paper in case the writing was important, Beast Boy unravelled the bundle.
A small barrette with a butterfly on the corner fell into his hand. It smelled heavily of salt, and there were still beads of water between the teeth.
He stared at it for a long moment. Then, wordlessly, he walked down the corridor and knocked at the furthest door. It opened quickly, indicating how close the occupant had been to the keypad.
"Beast Boy." Starfire's smile curved only half her mouth, as if she didn't know whether to be pleased or disappointed at seeing him there.
Beast Boy cleared his throat. The teeth of the barrette pressed against his fingers, making grooves in his skin. "Star, can I... can I talk to you, please?"
"Of course. What about?"
He brought out the barrette and showed it to her. She nodded and stepped aside, gesturing him in, but he lingered a moment longer in the hall.
"Do you... do you think she'll ever come back? And be her again, I mean. The real her, like she was at... the end."
"I believe the human term is 'keeping the faith'. We will keep our promise to help her as best we can. That is all we can do."
"That a yes?"
In answer, Starfire tapped the barrette in his hand. "I understand that humans grow much attached to certain possessions that have 'value of the sentiment'."
Beast Boy blinked. His fingers closed around the tiny object. "Yeah. Attached. Good word."
"Would you be enamoured of some small sweet disks embedded with chocolate fragments? I have three in my possession, and I am told they are a good foodstuff to make discussion over."
"Uh," he looked up at her, saw that her smile had stretched into the other side of her mouth. The place on his forehead tingled like warm pinpricks. "Yeah. Sure. Cookies sound... they sound good."
Starfire gestured him inside with a gentle touch, and shut the door.