Disclaimer – Not my characters, not my world. All your base are belong to WB and DC.
A/N – Written for ShadowDiva, whose birthday was ... an entire month ago. Happy belated 30th, babs! Title comes from a throwaway line (that was still very funny) in Wendy Holden's first novel, Simply Divine.
© Scribbler, February 2006.
Speedy ducked to avoid the pastry, which exploded with a noise like a dog after a big bowl of wet grass. Fortunately the smell was better than canine flatulence, but it was little comfort.
It had seemed such a good idea at the time. The Tower's kitchen was state of the art – naturally, since Cyborg designed it. That guy didn't miss a trick. That is, unless you were dealing with a situation where cooking food just got so damn boring after the first ten minutes. The food processor was cool – lots of sharp shiny bits – and the cupboards were just the right height for you to reach into but not bang your head if you left the door open, but the oven was torture. Speedy had actually sat cross-legged in front of it, chin on his fists, just to make sure it wasn't turning off whenever he looked away.
In comparison, holding the pie above a combustive arrowhead had seemed logical.
How to Cook and Make it Look Good: A Guide for Dummies, the recipe book he'd scrounged from Ollie had meant actually making the pie was fun. He liked mixing up ingredients and punching the resultant slop into batter. He liked chopping the meat and vegetables to go in it. True, he'd spent a large portion of chopping time juggling with knives and firing them at targets on the far wall, but he'd eventually finished up with something you could look at and think: Yep, that's a pie.
Not so much anymore, though.
Speedy shook himself and stared at the mess. Who knew one pastry could have such a splatter radius? The kitchen and surrounding area looked like someone had loaded up a shotgun shell with gravy and fired the results in thick, random patterns.
He started to regret paying Mas y Menos and Aqualad to stay clear of the Tower for the night.
"Fuck. Fuckity fuckity."
See? This was why Ollie bought in professional staff when he had someone he wanted to entertain. "Leave it to the experts, boy," he'd always said. "Let them work while we play."
Except that it had been a long time since Speedy worked with Ollie, and even longer since he'd lived with him; and in time since then, Speedy had come across several mindsets so different than the one he'd been brought up in, he'd been forced to re-examine the way he looked at the world and, more importantly, the way he acted in that world.
One of those mindsets had yielded a subprogramme called 'romance'. Not the charming, oily sort of romance perpetuated by people like Ollie, chick flicks and Gotham billionaire Bruce Wayne, to pick random names out of the air, but the proper sort. The sort of romance that didn't rely on bunches of flowers, extravagant compliments and expensive jewellery, but did hinge on being sincere and 'making an effort'.
Hence the dinner. Hence the aforementioned payoff of his teammates for a little privacy. Hence the pie, and … yeah, hence the explosion.
Fuck. Why did 'making an effort' have to be so much effort?
One day Speedy was going to discover who invented Murphy's Law. And he was going to do it when he was bristling with trick arrows and pointy objects.
Right. So, no pie. He checked his watch, and then busied himself with spreading kitchen roll over the floor and work surfaces to soak up the worst of the mess. He spent a long moment scraping chunks from his hair in his reflection in the shiny fridge, but eventually – and painfully – gave it up as a bad job, promising to sort it out once he'd repaired dinner. He was usually fastidious about his appearance, but when dealing with concepts like 'sincerity', he'd learned that sacrificed had to be made – or at least sacrificial things had to be postponed until the sincerity part was over.
He wrenched open the upright freezer and gazed at its contents. In one drawer was a mini pizza in a box ripped at one corner. In another was a solitary floret of frozen broccoli. Otherwise, it was empty.
The fridge was more promising. He wondered for a second whether you could make omelette for two with just one egg that was only a few days out of date. Then he thought better of it. He also threw out a jar of elderly mayonnaise that had been there since they moved in over a year ago. That left him with a big chunk of cheese, practically the only thing Mas y Menos wouldn't eat to replenish their super-fast metabolisms because it smelled like old gym socks.
Ah well, needs must when the devil drove. And if he wasn't driving tonight, then he was definitely being a backseat nag, whittling away at Speedy's evening.
The cupboards were most rewarding. The spaghetti was nestling next to a bag of flour full of weevils, but it was sealed and it wasn't like dried pasta could go off. So, pasta! That was simple to make, difficult to screw up, and fast enough that he could get in a shower before she got home and still have time to cook the –
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
"Aw, no." He glared at his waist, and the blinking communicator. "Not now."
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
It was the remote alarm from the computer, saying it had picked up on a job for the team. Except that the team wasn't in. It was just him and his plans, and neither of them liked being interrupted on this, his night off duty.
Speedy called for backup. "Yo, Aqualad."
The reply, when it came, was snappy. "What?"
"Got a mission for you."
"Swell. Peachy. Except I'm a little – ngg – busy right now."
Speedy frowned. "Something going down with you?"
"You might say that. Yaaaah!" There was a faint sploshing noise, and what sounded like metal pipes exploding. Speedy had heard the noise enough times to recognise it by now, though if they'd had the forethought to add visual to their com links, and the know-how to do it retrospectively, he wouldn't have had to.
"Look, I'm kind of in the middle of something, Speedy. Can't one of the others handle it?"
"In thought you were just checking out the harbour tonight. Everywhere's been so quiet lately - "
"Yeah, well, I wasn't planning on mutant kelp when I made those plans. Mrrf! I can handle this on my own, but I need my – hah! – full concentration to do that. Get back, you! Take some of this, and this, and this. Aqualad out."
Speedy terminated the link with an irritated grunt. He knew Mas y Menos were in Mexico, which did him a fat lot of good, and Bumblebee was still in transit from Jump City and not due back for another three hours. Things had been so slow lately, they'd figured the criminal population of Steel City had taken the hint and subdued its activities, making it easy for them to patrol one at a time, and allowing the others some well-deserved downtime.
Why tonight? he asked nobody. And nobody replied.
Sighing, he surveyed the shambolic kitchen, made a note to tackle that at some point when he got back – preferably before anyone else got back and ragged on him for it – and made for the weaponry store to replenish his quiver.
The doorframe was comfortingly solid. He leaned against it to catch his breath, trying not to take any notice of the duck-sized lump on his head, or the superficial but painful jagged cut on his upper thigh. He'd had worse. That didn't make the pain go away, but it forced him into the 'don't be a baby' mindframe Bumblebee had cultivated in him since Day One.
Of all the nights for the Steel City Laboratory to lose one of its illegal experiments, why tonight? It hadn't been a full team mission, but it had still been an awful lot for one Titan – especially one who preferred to stay at a distance and pick opponents off with arrows instead of getting up close and personal with a pile of walking mucus.
He sniffed his shirt. That smell was probably never going to come out, and he knew from experience that it was impossible to get snot out of enforced fibres. Mutant snot was probably ten times worse, too.
Still, he had just under two hours to go. Plenty of time to clean up and cook pasta. He could fill in the report tomorrow, before the police called around. The Steel City Police Dept. – SPD, or 'Spud', as he and Aqualad had taken to calling it – had come on in leaps and bounds after they got some meta help, but as good as that was, it meant a lot of paperwork for each evil villain they stopped, and even more for each rogue government funded agency they unearthed. Steel seemed to have more than its quota of those. A lab breakout was a five-page report, easy, and as for an illegal breakout...
Shunting the thoughts aside, Speedy pulled himself upright and made for the kitchen. He filled the kettle from the tap, put it on to boil, picked up the spaghetti packet and then thought better of it. Removing his bloodstained gloves, he scrubbed his hands under the cold tap until they were pale and the cuts stood out angrily, then took a handful of spaghetti strands and snapped them in half. At least he didn't have to read some dumb cookbook for this, he thought as he dumped the shortened strands into a large pan and limped away to his room to shower and change.
He didn't even get as far as the door.
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
"Oh fuck off." He snapped his communicator open, skim-read the problem, and keyed in another signature. "Aqualad - "
"Still … busy … ngg …"
"Rather not – raaaaah! – if it's all the same – ngg – to you."
"Wise ass," Speedy muttered as he reattached the com to his belt, glanced dolefully at the kettle, and walked out.
"No more," he gasped, staggering along the corridor. "No more. The city can burn. I am not going out again."
To make sure of this, he hurled his communicator onto the couch. Then, for good measure, he piled all the cushions they had on top of it. It was irresponsible, but he wasn't sure how much good he could do if he was called out anyway. That last run-in with Madame Pooch had left him with bite wounds on his lower left arm and a very sore backside from his less than graceful landing after she pushed him off a JCB.
He was aching, he was tired, and he still hadn't cooked anything edible, let alone prettied the place up from his last efforts.
"At least this proves there is a God," he muttered, as much to fill the silence and interrupt his own raspy breathing as anything else. "And He hates me."
He had half an hour. Half an hour in which to clean up the kitchen, fix some food that was actually edible, clean up himself, and set things up so they looked, if not nice, then at least like he had made an effort. He knew from experience that sometimes you could put a truckload of effort into something and get only a teaspoon of return. Not that he was complaining when the teaspoon was full of honey, but still …
Bad thought. Food first. He'd get a goddamn meal on the table if it killed him.
He boiled the kettle again. The pasta would only take a few minutes to cook, so he set about washing his newly marred hands – wrapping one thumb in a band-aid to staunch the bleeding – and opened a can of – he checked the label – Kwik E Mart's finest peeled plum tomatoes in their own juice. Grating the gym sock cheese – which didn't smell so bad now that he thought of it, although maybe that was desperation trying to convince him things would be okay – he dumped handfuls in with the tomatoes in a pan and put the whole thing on a low simmer. For good measure he added some of the olive oil sitting on the countertop, thinking it would thin the concoction out and prevent what could easily be a gluey slop.
There. That looked vaguely … sauce-like. Didn't it?
There was no time to dwell on it. Giving it a quick stir, he transferred his attention to the pasta. It bubbled nicely after a few minutes of doing apparently nothing, and he complimented his skills as he stirred each saucepan with a different hand.
"And Bumblebee says I'm no good at multitasking," he muttered proudly. The pasta was softening, just as it should, and the sauce actually smelled like sauce. Quite good sauce, too. The night outside promising to be clear and cool without being chilly, just as the weatherman had pledged, and, thanks to years of a intensive beauty regime, he still had a good few minutes to have a wash and a brush up that looked like so much more before -
BROOP. BROOP. BROOP.
He ignored the muffled com signal. Aqualad had to be finished with that kelp crisis by now. If not, Speedy reasoned, he would probably arrive at the scene around the same time as Mas y Menos got in from Mexico anyway, and be far less help. Why should he always be the one sacrificing his nights off to play the hero?
BROOP. BROOP. BROOP.
"Not listening. La la la. Not listening to you," Speedy sing-songed, in his mind already going through the best ways to make himself look presentable without spending hours in front of the mirror. Not that he always needed hours – sometimes you couldn't improve on perfection – but it was good to be thorough.
BROOP. BROOP. BROO-CLICK.
"Guys?" Bumblebee's voice was barely audible under the cushions, but recognisable. "You there? Look, there's some real heinous traffic on the freeway, so I was just callin' to let y'all know. And to yell at Mas y Menos for turnin' off their coms. They didn't fry 'em again, did they?"
"Shit!" Dropping the spoons, Speedy backed away from the hob to dash for his communicator.
It was at this point that he learned the meaning behind the valuable life lessons 'clean up after yourself' and 'don't leave until later what you can do now'. Like homing missiles, his boots found a slick of gravy previously missed by the paper towels. Having tasted such delicacy, they decided to go in search of more. Unfortunately, they chose to go in different directions, taking Speedy's legs with them.
He slipped. He fell. He skidded along the floor on his front until his journey was abruptly ended by the fridge, which greeted his head with open arms – inasmuch as a fridge has open arms. Either way, it was quite helpful about stopping him in the fastest manner possible.
Speedy saw stars. He heard Bumblebee apologising from very far away, had time enough to think, Why? You didn't trip me up. Then the stars scattered and he thought nothing much at all.
Wake up, Sleeping … do you really think you could be considered a beauty right now?
Speedy's brain poked him into woozy consciousness.
I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but you look like death warmed up. Or like the thing death would have warmed up if you looked at all appetising. Seriously.
Oh, hi there. Back among the living, are we? No, don't worry about me. I'm your id. I put in an appearance every now then – usually when you don't want me to, or when things have gone spectacularly pear-shaped. And since I'm here now, guess what that means?
There was a funny smell working its way up his nostrils. It was kind of floury, with a hint of carbon, like when he left bread in the toaster for too long and it came out … burned.
Speedy's brain performed a few calculations of its own volition.
Yep. That's right, you messed up again.
Shaking his head free of annoying inner voices, Speedy scrambled to his feet and wobbled there, surveying the fruits of his labours and trying not to pass out again from the pain in his skull.
Both pans were a mess. He couldn't have been out too long, since neither had boiled dry, but the sauce had transformed from aromatic red viscosity to lumpy black sludge. Likewise, the pasta had expanded and managed to stick itself to the bottom of the saucepan in a gummy mass. The meal – the second meal he's attempted tonight – was ruined. And he had … how long?
Still groggy, he checked his watch, realised he wasn't wearing one, and unearthed his communicator instead. Every movement seemed to rattle his brain, and every rattle made his teeth set on edge. Honestly, why couldn't life be like the movies, where you could get thrown against a corrugated iron wall and jump back up, fighting fit again, in under 2.4 seconds? He'd faced supervillains, mechanical monsters, walking genetic disaster areas and things that looked they belonged in the primordial soup. He'd taken more hits than he could count in any one fight, and here he was, reduced to unsteadiness by a freaking fridge.
The chronometer said he had negative fifteen minutes to arrival, but a swift glance around – plus the lack of ringing in his ears – said that nobody but himself was home yet.
Which wasn't to say nobody would be getting home real soon.
The kitchen was a complete and utter bombsite, the meal a non-starter. There was precious little food in the Tower, and Speedy knew from experience that in situations like these, take-out just didn't cut it. Besides which, even if it had been a good idea, there was no time to order some in anyway.
Which left him with no option except defeat, and the prospect of a lonely evening in the tub to soak away his many varied aches and pains – one of which would surely be tinatus as soon as the others caught wind of this.
Or … maybe not.
He thought for a second about what preparations he'd made before he even started cooking. He thought about the stash of candy Mas y Menos kept in their room, for when the rest of the Tower had run out of quick sugar boosts and they needed to replenish their hyper-fast metabolisms for a mission. Those were easily replaceable, and if the bread bin yielded the required treasure …
Yes! It did!
Speedy tore through the doors and up the stairs, forgoing the elevator to reach the bedrooms faster.
"And to think Bumblebee said a lock-pick arrow was self-indulgent."
The evening may not be a total loss yet.
Bumblebee was not used to a silent Tower. Usually, when she wasn't having to prise macho, pig-headed boys off each other for infighting, she was either yelling at someone, being yelled at, or listening to Speedy play heavy metal far too loud in his room. He said it 'cleared his head'. She usually replied that she'd clear out his head with a Stinger if he didn't turn it down.
A silent Tower was odd and more than a little unnerving.
Like every super-team leader everywhere, her first thoughts were that something awful had happened while she'd been gone. She wasn't so self-indulgent as to think Titans East couldn't cope without her around 24/7 – not these days, anyway – but a tiny, secret part of her liked to think she was important enough that they would at least have the decency to flounder a little in her absence. She kept that part locked up tight, but it worked itself free now and again, like a small fist unclenching in her gut.
Her trip to Jump City had lasted only the weekend, and had been purely business. Sure, she'd gone out on a few missions with Cyborg and his crew; and sure, she may have played a few games of Zombie Goo Monsters, just to prove she could mop the floor with all challengers. However, the main priority had been business – the fruits of which she carried tucked under her arm in the form of a new batch of state-of-the-art microchips for their computer, courtesy of Cyborg.
Still, one weekend or not, super-types had a habit of attracting trouble when they least needed it. She was confident her boys could manage without her for a while – and didn't it feel weird to call them her boys? – but still, empty Tower equalled some potential Very Bad Things.
When Titans East was first formed, she would have given the lot of them about five minutes before they fell to pieces without Cyborg's help. For that reason, she always felt like she owed him something, even though he assured he she didn't. He had helped lick the team into shape, and then handed the reins over to her, trusting that she wouldn't screw up all he'd done. He'd had the kind of faith in her that she'd sought incessantly since she became a turncoat and answered Aqualad's calls for her to be a mole with a resounding "Yes."
Bumblebee wasn't a fool. She knew that everyone had nursed their doubts when Cyborg named her team leader. Once a double agent, always a double agent, right? They knew she hadn't always been a 'goodie'. They knew she'd originally joined HIVE to train in the fine art of villainy, and changed sides when she realised she couldn't bring herself to do what was needed for that. She'd never made any secret of it.
She'd worked hard to prove them wrong, pushing Titans East to be the best they could be – and then some. Hours upon hours of training, strategising, thinking and rethinking their faults, flaws and strengths and how to best combat and utilise them. Protecting Steel City had been a component, sure, but it wasn't what drove her – not completely. If she was being honest, a lot of that was down to her wanting to prove she was worth something, that she wasn't just a turncoat, and to shake off the bad smell of her past mistakes with HIVE.
It had worked better than she could've hoped, her efforts rendering Speedy, Aqualad, Mas y Menos and herself into a coherent whole. They'd made a real impression as Titans East, even without Cyborg. Speedy had called it a crusade more than once, and always looked at her when he said it.
She supposed her earnestness with the whole thing had made her a little standoffish, a little unapproachable, but that was a payable price. She was finally a Somebody. She was finally worth something.
Which meant that when she came home to an empty Tower when she wasn't expecting to, her senses immediately pricked in protectiveness. Titans East was her baby, and its boys were her boys. They weren't just a team, they were her team, and if anybody tried to mess with them, they'd have her to deal with. And she wouldn't be merciful.
No, no, wrong attitude. Good guys were always merciful.
Still, if someone had hurt her boys …
Stop jumping to conclusions, she told herself. They're boys. They're probably pranking you.
"Hey, guys, if this is some sort of trick, I'm not laughing. And there'd better not being anything prank-shaped waitin' for me, or I'm gonna Sting you so hard you won't be able to sit down for a week." She approached the kitchen door. "Guys?" It slid open. "G-"
The kitchen looked as though every country in the world with nuclear capabilities had used it as a testing ground.
"What … the hell … ?" Bumblebee's eyes widened.
Two options immediately ran through her mind: either the boys had been attacked while they were cooking, or they'd been cooking and somehow turned it into the equivalent of an enemy attack, then run away when they realised she'd be back before they had time to clean up. Both portended Very Bad Things – especially if it turned out to be the second option and she got hold of them.
She whipped out her communicator and set it to a wide signal. "Titans East, report."
Something bleeped on the couch, underneath a pile of cushions. Speedy's communicator was dirt-spattered, but workable and worrying in its abandonment.
"Aqualad here. Everything okay, Bumblebee?"
She sighed with relief. He sounded fine, at least. "No, everything ain't fine. What the hell happened to the Tower's kitchen, and where the hell are y'all?"
"Uh-oh? What uh-oh?"
"Don't give me that, bucko. You can't just fling some 'uh-oh' down the line when I'm lookin' at World War Twelve and expect me not to want more info. Spill. Now."
"I can't - "
"That's an order." She didn't like pulling rank outside missions – mainly because it rarely did any good – but she was just pissed off enough to try it. There was a nauseating smell like burnt grease clinging to the air, the hob was filthy, there were pieces of carrot dangling from the ceiling fan and – was that a dent in the fridge door?
Aqualad sighed. "Mas and Menos are in Mexico. Family visit, I think. They cleared it with me as second in command, and I said yes because we've been so slow lately and I was due for patrol tonight anyway." Something about the way he said it made Bumblebee not quite believe him, but Aqualad had never been anything but truthful with her, so she let it slide for the moment. "As for the kitchen … um…"
"Ah-hem." Her foot urgently needed to tap, but she halted the impulse. "I ain't gettin' any younger over here."
"Look, is Speedy there?"
"Speedy? This his doin'? I might've known." She rolled her eyes. Of course. It was obvious, really. Wherever there was a disaster radius, at the epicentre you would invariably find Speedy, tousled and embarking on yet another charm offensive to try and get himself out of trouble.
"I didn't say that," Aqualad started, but she cut him off.
"Didn't need to. Don't worry, I'll find the lil' hangdog. He's probably … hello."
"Found somethin'. Could be nothin'. Just a note with Speedy's handwritin' on it."
"What's it say?"
"'What happens when you ride the elevator right to the top?'"
"Is that it?"
She turned the scrap of paper over. It was sticky where it had rested on the worktop. "Yup. What's that guy up to now? It ain't enough he's gotta try and destroy our home, now he's gotta try out as Kid Riddler too?"
"Maybe … there's more to it than just a prank gone wrong?" Aqualad tried.
"Yeah. An' maybe I'll squash him so flat he'll have t'reach up to tie his shoelaces." Exasperation sharpening her accent, Bumblebee looked around at the devastation and couldn't help but curl her lip in disgust. "I'll go see what he's up to. You may hear my screamin' from wherever it is you're at."
"Hm." The noise seemed invested with an emotion she couldn't quite place. It sounded almost like a noise Speedy would make.
"Where are you at, anyways?"
"I just finished something at the docks. One minor store robbery earlier. We may have to do some clean-up at Lab Tech tomorrow, though. I think there's something screwy going on there."
"Will do. You want me to call it tonight?"
"Nah, I'll do it. I'm going past the police station, so I may as well call in. You just have to help me with the paperwork tomorrow."
"You're too kind, dawg."
"Anyhow, now I'm heading downtown, but it all seems pretty quiet."
"You say 'too quiet' an' you're just askin' for trouble."
"Wouldn't dream of it. Aqualad out."
"Yeah. Bumblebee out."
She snapped the com shut, performed a few mental calculations, and forwent the elevator in favour of finding an open window and bating her wings. She left it open to dispel some of the smell – though she wasn't sure it would ever come out of her clothes. She'd lost countless uniforms to slime attacks, sewer trolling and the general fighting that came with being a superhero in a city like Steel, but this was the first time cookery had played a role.
She approached the rooftop with caution. Like the Tower in Jump City, theirs was flat and home to such extravagances as the lines and net of a volleyball-come-tennis court and the push-off points for several training exercises – most of which involved diving off the building and definitely shouldn't have been performed by adulating fans, though a couple of the more zealous had tried. There were no suspicious noises she could discern, but still, she flew so that she reached the summit on the opposite side to that of the elevator exit.
I'll tell ya what happens when you ride the elevator all the way to the top, she thought, unclipping her Stingers – just in case this was something to do with their enemies and Speedy now had 'hostage' to add to his résumé. You get a mighty unlucky archer pickin' his teeth outta the –
She crested the safety wall and did a swift double-take.
"What in the name of all craptitude is goin' on here?"
Speedy jumped away from the table and turned to look at her. His expression under his mask swung from startled to alarmed, took a detour through embarrassed, and finally drew to a shuddering halt in the yard of practised charm with an edge of loss of face.
"Um … Bumblebee. You're … uh, surprise?"
For a second she couldn't think of anything to say, so she hovered and didn't say anything. The table was from one of the spare rooms, and had not only been lugged up here, but also been covered in a white tablecloth she'd never seen before. Their lifestyle wasn't really conducive to afternoon tea and mealtime decoration. Mostly, meals consisted of elbowing each other out of the way for the last slice of pizza, or staggering into the kitchen with a concave belly because nobody had thought to buy groceries. There was no place in that for candles or a small slender vase with a single flower in it.
"What … is this?" she asked, finally alighting when Speedy's smile had frozen in place.
"Well," he looked around, "it was supposed to be dinner, but if that's my note tucked into your belt, I guess you've seen what happened to that idea."
"You made all that mess cookin' one meal?"
"But third time's the charmer, eh?" His smile was brittler this time, less genuine, more like those he fired off at girls who swooned at him in the street. His hair was mussed, there was a smear of something brown on his left temple, and his uniform looked like a casualty in a cafeteria full of ASBOs and endless ammunition. He looked, in short, completely unlike himself apart from his mask.
Bumblebee felt a sudden tight sensation grip her stomach and twist. "What's that smell?" she asked, trying to ignore it in favour of getting her head around the situation – if not the reasons behind it, which were surfacing in her mind like sunrise slowly dappling through the branches of a tree.
Speedy at once looked ashamed, but quickly covered it with suaveness. He thought himself very debonair, she knew, though he was absolutely hopeless at keeping his emotions off his face. Even with the mask it was obvious to see what he was thinking, whereas with someone like Robin the mask could be a barrier between him and the entire rest of the world. Having spent the weekend in Robin's company, it was disconcerting to have to reprogramme her brain for someone who wore the mask differently.
"Why zat, cherie, is zee 'ouse specialty." Speedy presented a steaming sandwich toaster, which was dripping something onto the meticulous tablecloth. "Shit," he hissed, throwing open the lid and prising what looked like lumpy fresh roadkill onto one of the two plates. "Uh, oui. Bon appetit."
"And that'd be …?"
More remorse, followed by more covering up. "Toasted chocolate bar sandwiches."
Bumblebee blinked. "Sounds real … appetisin'. Look, Speedy - "
Her stomach twisted again. Stop that, she warned it. "You've obviously been to a lot of trouble over this – a lot of trouble judgin' by the kitchen – but I gotta ask … why?"
"It isn't obvious?"
"I'm thinkin' yeah, but I got a history of missin' the obvious. Work with me here. Have you gone to all this trouble, destroyin' our kitchen - "
"That's totally fixable, by the way."
"That's as may be, but settin' this," she gestured at the table, "all this up, sacrificin' food to the gods of bad caterin' – did you do all that so's you could present me with this set-up when I got home?"
"See? You don't always miss the obvious."
"Right. Next question. Why?"
"Do I have to answer that?"
"Yeah. Consider it an order."
"But I always blow off your orders if they're stupid."
"Okay, okay." He sighed and poked at the rapidly cooling sandwich with a finger. "But I warn you, it sounds dumb if you have to spell it out. Kind of ruins the whole romantic mood I was going for."
The tight feeling turned into a wash of something corrosive that ate a hole where her stomach should've been.
Ah. So that was it, then.
She wasn't a stranger to the ways Speedy liked to show his affection, but displays were usually few and far between, and a lot of them were centred around incidents where one of them had been kidnapped, injured, or nearly killed. Both tending towards callous and unsympathetic most of the time, there was something about near-death experiences that drove them to meet their lower emotions head-on – occasionally holding a big stick with a nail in the end. They'd never really come out and said it, and heaven knew they weren't as obvious as, say, Robin and Starfire, but it was there, buried deep.
The last time it surfaced had been when Bumblebee attempted to sacrifice herself to allow her team to escape from yet another dangerous situation, this one cooked up by Captain Acid and the Snake Army. Speedy had gone against a direct order and come back for her, carrying her out on his shoulder when the paralysing poison racing through her veins made her incapable of walking, much less flying. He'd got her all the way to the hospital and then collapsed from a combination of exhaustion and blood-loss.
She'd been so mad at him for that. When she was eventually able to talk again, she'd bawled him out and then sat staring at the wall next to her bed while she tried to figure out why everything from the neck down was thrilled he'd rescued her like some freaking damsel in distress.
Now, she cleared her throat. "Ah." She paused, wondered if the pause had gone on too long, berated herself for even caring about that sort of thing, and then cleared her throat again to fill the silence. "Right."
"Do I still have to spell it out?"
"No, no, I think I get it now." She looked at him – really looked at him – and … narrowed her eyes at the way he was listing a little to one side like he sometimes did after he was tempted into hand-to-hand combat. "Is that a lump on your head?"
He gingerly touched the spot. "Uh … yeah?"
So the occasion hadn't missed out the requisite injuries clause after all. Their track record remained unbroken – though it did make her wonder what would happen if the two of them actually ever did start dating.
She sighed and marched over. "C'mere, flyboy. Siddown."
"But dinner - "
"Can wait until I've checked you out."
"You mean you haven't been checking me out already?"
"Speedy." Her voice held a warning note.
He sat. "I'm fine. Seriously. I just, uh … can't think of a manly reason to explain this that wouldn't sound like a complete lie."
"Uh-huh." She parted his hair to get a better look, trying not to touch the raised and reddened scalp beneath. "Dang, boy, what'd you do? Headbutt the freakin' fridge?"
"Heh, funny you should mention that – ow! Hey, careful with the merchandise!"
"I could say the same to you. You know how much that refrigerator cost?"
"Yeah, the same amount as the spare parts Cyborg used to build it."
"If you weren't already courtin' a concussion, I'd smack you for sayin' that."
"Who knew a head injury could be so useful? So, are we going to eat this slop or what?"
"Last of the true romantics, ain't ya?" Bumblebee stepped away from him and went through the same battery of tests and checks she always did when one of her team took a knock to the noggin out in the field. Speedy went along with them with mounting bad grace, folding his arms at the end and looking pointedly at the congealing sandwich.
"Typical. I work and I slave over a hot oven, and what thanks do I get? Do you realise how much energy it took to think of this after my previous disasters?"
She tugged self-consciously at the hem of her top, then stopped when she realised what she was doing. A body language expert would have pegged her as nervous, but she was already scoffing at the diagnosis. Her, nervous? And because of Speedy? If it'd been Kid Flash up here with flowers and food, then she might've forgiven herself – or perhaps even Hotspot. She'd met him a couple of times, and he struck her as arrogant and rude, but when he wasn't doing an impression of a giant nightlight he was pretty cute.
Insofar as she rated people as 'cute' or 'charismatic'. Which wasn't often. Oh no. No, no, no, no.
He was looking at her again, and once more he'd forgotten to disguise his expression. He was tense as a taut bowstring and watching for her reaction the same way he watched enemies to gauge if they were going to try and escape or run at him with mangling on their minds.
Wordlessly, she pulled out a chair and sat down. "Shall we dine?" she asked in an affected English accent.
The smile he gave was honest, and a lot prettier for it.
Except that Speedy wasn't pretty. Nope. No siree. He was conceited and a jerk and the one who'd made her life so very difficult since they formed Titans East. She forced herself to remember cherry bombs down the toilets, dirty boots left outside her door and going down to the laundry room to find him helping corrupt Mas y Menos into ogling her panties as they went around and around in the dryer.
But he did have a very pretty mouth.
She shook her head. "This don't mean I like you or nothin'. I'd just feel guilty if I didn't indulge you a little after you went to so much … obvious trouble."
"Meh." He shrugged, ran a hand rakishly through his hair and followed it up with a theatrical wince. "I can wait, babe."
"Don't call me babe, flyboy, or I'll nail your tongue to the table."