Starfire was attempting to rebandage Patti's injured arm. Patti was five years old and tiny, with hair like black silk and a rosette mouth. She looked like a collector's doll, a total antithesis to three-year-old Alice's blonde curls and tanned skin. It was easy to imagine Alice at the park, or running around the yard playing kickball. Patti was bookish and smelled vaguely of lemons once she'd been washed. Terra was reminded of the library at her old school, where they used citrus-based cleaning solution to mop the floors.
School was okay to remember, but small things like the lemon smell were better. You could take that out of context and not worry about being sucked in.
She moved forward and gently pried Starfire's fingers away. "Here," she said softly, part of her not wanting to startle Star from whatever daydream she'd fallen into. Probably something involving green tights, masks and a boy who didn't bite worse than he barked. "Let me."
Starfire blinked. For a second the hard lines on her face smoothed out, and she was the old Star again – the one who had to be dissuaded that dirt was a good alternative to rabbit, and who thought nothing of hugging Raven enough to inflate her head with fury. "I … what?"
Carefully, Terra unwrapped the too-tight bandages and bound them again. Patti stared up at her with a thumb in her mouth, then clambered forward and thrust both arms out for a hug. Terra obliged, suffused with something like contentment as she inhaled lemons and warmth and little-girl-scent. Were there such things as comfort-smells? She liked to think so.
Starfire sat on her heels, bunching and unbunching her fists on her thighs. Alice was asleep in the corner, sprawled across two spare pillows and covered in a percale sheet identical to those on their own beds.
Terra reached out and laid a hand on Star's shoulder. "You okay?"
"I…" she started, and then turned in on herself. Her face slammed shut. "I am fine. I am simply unused to human infants."
Patti removed the thumb from her mouth. "Pretty," she announced, and made a grab for Terra's hair.
"Ah," Terra replied, catching her wrist. "A hair-puller, are you?"
Patti stared back at her with eyes that had probably seen too much. But she was five years old and hopefully couldn't understand a lot of it, which was the only consolation anybody could draw. The words 'formative years' were studiously avoided.
"Pretty," she said again. "Want it."
At that moment, Alice decided to wake up. She rubbed at her eyes and gazed around with the look of one startled from a good dream. Terra had almost forgotten what that felt like.
"Hey there, sunshine."
Alice looked back at her blankly. She had yet to say a word to anyone, whether because she was too shy, or because she'd had her words shocked right out of her. Speedy had found her in the middle of a battle zone, cowering under an upturned cardboard box. There had been two bodies nearby – one man and one woman, both blonde and both killed by Misshapens. It didn't seem too farfetched to think they were her parents. Only the little bracelet on her wrist had told them her name: Alice Harman.
"You hungry?" Terra tried.
Alice said nothing.
"She's always hungry," said Patti. "Why d'ya always ask?"
"Because one day she might answer."
Patti snorted, showing what she thought of that idea. "She's stupid," she declared, putting paid to any ideas about the two children being friends for each other. "I'm hungry, too."
"Well, BB should be here, soon."
Patti's face lit up. "Salad Head!"
As if on cue, the door to the 'crèche' opened and in walked an armful of food sachets. Beast Boy followed, heralding the room with a, "Howdy-hey-hey, small people." His face was obscured, but his grin filled the room.
"Salad Head! Salad Head!" Patti squealed, wrenching from Terra's arms and jumping up and down. "Do the monkey! Do the monkey!"
Beast Boy dumped the sachets in an available spot and was nearly bowled over when she slammed into his legs. "Wow, what a welcome." He returned the hug as best he could. "Hey there, kiddo."
"Do the monkey!"
"Why does everyone always want the monkey?" But he complied, 'ook-ook-ahh-ahh'ing Patti into paroxysms of giggles. The sound of a child's laughter was like a light Summer breeze, and even Starfire wavered against it.
Alice looked vaguely intrigued, crawling forward to brace her hands on the edge of the pillows and watch.
Terra smiled. Beast Boy was one of those weirdoes children took an instant liking to, and could usually tease a smile from Alice when she was in the mood.
Patti clapped her hands and bounced her head and looked thoroughly disappointed when he resumed human form – at least until he brought over a small bar of something calling itself 'banana-beef'.
"Who came up with these flavours?" he wondered aloud, as she tucked in. Within seconds, the vast majority of it was on her cheeks, forehead, chin, and some had even climbed into her hair. "Man, kiddo. You make me look tidy."
"You're cool, Salaff Heff," Patti replied, and cuddled his arm.
"Looks like I have competition." Terra went to tempt Alice with a bar of 'strawberry-sashimi'.
"If she proposes to me first, I'm taking it. Unless you can come up with a better ring. I'm thinking something gold, maybe 24-carat, with the nickname 'knuckleduster'."
"I'll give you knuckleduster, Salad Head." She paused. "Man, that made so much more sense in my head."
"You're stupid," Patti stated, and went back to her bar.
"Out of the mouths of babes…"
"Cheeky little beggar," Terra muttered, pulling Alice gently into her lap and breaking off a small piece of pinkish tablet. She placed it carefully into her mouth, pleased to note that she opened and accepted it willingly this time. At first she'd shown no interest in food. They'd had to almost pry her lips apart before she passed out. "Good girl."
"Human younglings are very … similar to Tamaranean," Starfire said haltingly. "And yet they are so very different."
"Would you like to feed her?" Terra offered, wondering how long she'd be able to say that without worrying about Star zoning out and accidentally crushing one of them.
Star bit her lip, honestly torn. Then she got to her feet and the barrier that snarled and wore a tattered red tunic was back. The naked emotion in her eyes was heartbreaking. "I will visit Cyborg and Mechanic before I embark upon patrol. Excuse me."
"Hey!" Beast Boy fended off Patti, as she attempted to grind banana-beef into his scalp. "Gerroff! Terra, help! I'm being assaulted by partially hydrogenated food products."
Terra sniggered and avoided thoughts about what a good father he'd make in another world.
"I know that your powers of retention are as wet as a warthog's backside; but thick as you are, pay attention. My words are a matter of pride. It's clear from your vacant expressions; the lights are not all on upstairs. But we're talking … um … we're talking …"
"Gah!" Terra jumped nearly three feet in the air and turned on the balls of her feet. Her hands lowered when she saw who was behind her. "Mechanic. Don't sneak up on a girl like that."
He gave her one of those rueful grins that crinkled his eyes. When she bent to pick up her notebook, he peered at it. "S'pretty. Diary?" There was something hungry about the way he asked.
Terra shook her head. "No." She tried to ignore the way his face fell – not a lot, but a vague shift in expression that didn't sit right, like he wanted her to be venting herself on paper. The reasons for that were too numerous, too convoluted, and too suspicious to think about. So she didn't. Instead she held the book up, like a school kid showing a proud parent the gold star on a test. "I'm trying to remember song lyrics."
"Oh. What to?" He didn't ask why.
"Movies. Disney stuff." She flipped through the scrawly pages. There was no need to hide them; it wasn't like she was keeping anything personal in there. "You know any Disney songs?"
"When you wish upon a star, makes no dif'rence who you are," Mechanic warbled tunelessly. "Anything your heart desires will come … to … you." His grin showed shockingly crooked teeth, canted at odd angles like buildings after an earthquake. There were bits of green stuck between them, too, giving the impression of uprooted shrubbery. His mouth was a study in dental devastation.
Still, Terra smiled back. "Jiminy Cricket. Louis Armstrong. Cool."
"The Boss was never too fond of ol' Louis. Nope. Said he squeaked too much. But I was partial to a bit of the ol' trumpet. Yes I was. Nameen?" He made motions of what she assumed was playing a trumpet. Or maybe choking a small animal.
The notepaper crackled in her fingers. She'd always wondered that paper could sound so different when you'd written on it. A new notebook made swishy noises, and you had to lick your fingers to separate the pages. A used notebook felt like dead skin, all hard and puckered, as if by writing on it you'd removed the potential contained within it. Without that potential, it was just so much dead wood.
She frowned. Jeez. Overthink, much?
The notebook snapped shut.
Mechanic's stance was hesitant. The alcove she'd chosen wasn't too far from the crèche, but far enough not to feel like she was spying on Raven and Speedy while they watched the kids. Speedy was no problem, but she barely knew if she trusted Raven around metahumans. Defenceless babies …
"You goin' someplace?" Again, that hungry note crept into Mechanic's voice. It wasn't prominent, but it was there.
Terra thought that should disturb her more than it did. Mechanic was a lonely man, but lonely men were still men. There were times she could almost forget that, times she could lose herself in his friendliness and honesty – but then she'd catch him watching one of them, eyes not just looking but looking into them. He could bore holes in you when he got that stare. It reminded her of rogue wolves, cut out of their packs but still circling around the edges, not taking the hint until the alpha male bared his teeth and spiked his hackles.
And yet she liked him. Maybe it was wrong. Maybe she should have just pushed him away and refused to deal with his crap, but she couldn't. They were in this together – all of them. And besides, there was hope for him now. Sometimes he had flashes of sparkling lucidity, devoid of the stop-start discourse markers that otherwise peppered his speech. The more he was exposed to company, to kindness, the better he got. There was something visible to the improvements in him. However selfish it was, Terra needed to see that. She needed confirmation things – people – could get better.
On the cover of her notebook was an intricate knot of blue biro, doodled on more than one occasion. It covered most of the card, twisting this way and that, ducking in and out of its own loops and circling around like a snake eating its own tail. It was complex and, though she hadn't intended it, rather pretty.
"Wow." Mechanic whistled. "You do that?"
"Hm? This thing? Yeah. Why, you want one?"
His eyes were round and perhaps a little overbright. "Could I?"
"Sure. I'll drop it off with you sometime. But for now, I need to find BB and get the 411 on his patrol."
She almost didn't see the slump of lustre in Mechanic's eyes.
She held the young man's face tenderly in her hands, feeling the roughness of his afternoon stubble, the slight rubbery quality of his cheeks. She wondered how he'd got away with only stubble instead of a full beard. Shaving equipment wasn't exactly easy to come by, or keep hold of. Razors could be traded for lots of food.
Terra put the face back down on the street where she'd found it, and silently vowed to destroy whatever creature had torn it from some unsuspecting victim. There was no body nearby, nothing else to bury. It took less than ten minutes after finding a suitable patch of dirt.
"Find anything?" Cyborg stepped carefully around the side of a building. His feet sounded like the stilts she'd made out of tin cans when she was eight.
"You could say that," she said quietly. Then, louder, "You?"
"Slim pickings around this area. It's too close to where city hall used to be. Think we should go find BB and Star?"
"Well, Raven ain't been in contact yet, so we're supposed to return to base." Cyborg's trips outside were still short. Mostly it was self-imposed. He ventured into sunlight like it would burn him, and all but epitomised the phrase 'gentle giant'. Terra was glad they hadn't been in any fights, yet. She didn't know how he'd cope.
"Can't we …?"
"Terra, I'd rather … I need to get back."
She bit her lip. "You sure?" If he was having problems with his operating systems he would have said so. She didn't want to push him, but …
There was no hesitation. "I'm sure."
"Right. Right, okay. We'll head back."
"Thanks." He didn't need to say it. She would have preferred he didn't say it. But he'd said it, and it forced her to smile unconvincingly and wave her hand like she didn't mind going back empty-handed.
To Be Continued ...