Disclaimer: Not even remotely mine. No money made, spent, or rolled in naked.
A/N: This is an odd fic. I wrote it in three stages, at three wildly different points in my life over a four year period. I started it just after I completed my teacher training, the summer before I was due to start my first full-time job. I carried on with it at the end of my first year of teaching, when I was going through lots of job interviews to get out of the place I was in. Finally, I finished it recently after an extreeeemly long interval. Right now I'm also at that point where I'm looking to switch jobs, but I'm also a lot more settled in my chosen career. Professional upheaval and self-improvement seem to be the major motivations for me where this fic is concerned, much like the main character herself. I cannot tell you how much I slaved over this fic throughout its three stages. Hopefully it shows and was worth the friggin' long wait.
Choices We Have Unmade
© Scribbler July 2007 – February 2010.
It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. ~ J.K. Rowling.
One day after entering HIVE Academy, Bumblebee's life centred around one thing: not going under.
She didn't have magic or innate firepower like the hottest, best students. All she had were her wings and her determination, and, after working with the school technician, a brand new weapon she christened her Stingers. She fought and studied and worked her way towards that goal and never lost sight of it until she broke the surface of what her teachers demanded. Then she waited until she stopped treading water and started to excel. Teachers liked excellence. That was why they liked Jinx, Mammoth and Gizmo and held them up as shining examples, and that was why those same teachers cast them aside when Stone arrived.
One day after Stone ripped the training area apart, Bumblebee's life centred around a new thing: being the best.
She made a plan that had steps how to achieve this. The treading water was the worst, because she wanted to succeed, but she chose to keep back in class, to watch and learn and not show what she was up to until it was too late for any of her classmates to stop her. HIVE didn't breed comradeship. There were loads of kids who'd stab her in the back if it meant a good word from the headmaster – even more who'd sting, poison, hack, scythe, electrocute, paralyse or puree her. She locked herself away in the library, pored over homework late into the night and went to the Sadie Hawkins dance alone because she was too busy to get a date. Jinx was old news. Her spot at the top was open. The competitor in Bumblebee wanted it, sometimes so bad her teeth hurt, and she made careful decisions on how to get it. Sometimes her temper got the better of her, but she always chose being the best over everything else.
One week after Stone turned into Cyborg, Bumblebee's life centred around two things: good versus evil and not getting suckered again. She thought that meant reaching the top of HIVE, but after she did that and it felt hollow she wasn't so sure. She kept her fierce little smile, never missed when she punched, but weighed her options.
Doubts formed when she graduated to field work and had to hurt those who couldn't fight back, or at least not at her level. Sometimes, when she considered disobeying orders, she felt a little tickle in the back of her head, and saw the Headmaster looking right at her. Her doubts grew, but she stuck it out. Nobody ever questioned her loyalty. She stayed at the top, despite Jinx's attempts to reclaim her former glory. Bumblebee had chosen to be the best and what she chose stayed chosen.
One day after stinging a lab security guard so hard he got a subdural haematoma, Bumblebee discovered an intruder in the ventilation system of HIVE's new headquarters. He was battered and bleeding, blood running from his nose and ears. She'd never seen what actively resisting the Headmaster's mental powers looked like before. Security alarms blared, and below the shaft she could hear her schoolmates looking for this intruder, but only her quick thinking and ability to shrink had led her straight to him.
Against all training she didn't kill him, something in his strange, white-on-black eyes freezing her hands open and empty. He spat at her that he was going to bring down HIVE and get them out of his ocean. He said he was a Teen Titan, and then coughed up a mouthful of bloody saliva. Bumblebee thought of Stone/Cyborg and made a decision.
"I want to help."
One week after throwing in her lot with the Titans and sinking HQ, she and Aqualad camped out on a beach in Los Angeles. Headmaster's (no, Brother Blood's) trail had gone cold and she and Aqualad were both chilly, tired and far from home. Her wings and feet competed as to which ached more, she stank of seawater and B.O., and the last thing she'd eaten was a vegetarian burrito shared from Taco Bell. Yet even in the face of all this, Bumblebee was glad she'd chosen to betray HIVE. The thing she'd worked so hard to achieve, thrown away, and she was … glad. Perhaps a bit relieved. The sensation slid through her like something oily and unpleasant.
Aqualad rolled his head her way. "You okay?"
"Yeah," she replied. "Just thinking."
He paused before saying, firmly, like it would help, "We'll get him."
"I know. I already decided."
He looked a little puzzled at that, but nodded. He turned back to look up at the night sky and after a while she did too. It was a clear night and the beach was miraculously free from drunks and couples looking for privacy. The weather wasn't bad; their cold came mostly from an unplanned dip that'd broken their chase when he had to save her from drowning. Her left shoulder ached from the incendiary that caught her a glancing blow before exploding.
"I'm glad it was you who found me after my fight with Blood. I don't think I would've made it out of there if it hadn't been for you."
"I'm glad you Titans decided to take a chance on me. I could've easily betrayed you." Just like she did her classmates. Just like she did her goals at HIVE. "You had no reason to trust me. Why did you?" It was a question she'd been asking herself since the beginning.
"The Titans are big on second chances."
She waited for the rest. There wasn't any. "That's it?"
"You need more? You're a Titan too, now. Don't worry; you pick it up as you go along."
Bumblebee blinked. She still referred to the Titans as 'you', but at his words realised it was wrong. She swallowed the vomity taste that always appeared when she thought about her future. "Yeah. I am a Titan now."
We, not they. The thought was still oily, slipping and sliding around her brain, but not as unpleasant. She was part of something bigger, but not in the way Blood had planned.
From that moment on her life centred around three things: bringing down Blood, proving she'd been worth the risk and being the best Titan she could be.
She worked hard to achieve these things, just as she'd worked hard to succeed at HIVE, but she learned that success on this side of the line was different. There were layers of success; once you peeled away one you found others. They were all part of the same thing, though, so when you thought you'd done good you turned around and found you'd fucked up something else.
She got information they needed to find Blood, but Aqualad had to hold her back because Titans didn't rough people up to get what they wanted. He stood between her and bystanders when her inbuilt impulse was to knock them out so they wouldn't see anything. Eventually she could carry a passenger and not think about 'accidentally' dropping him.
She read about Terra and the Jump City Exodus in old newspaper clippings. When she nearly bought it following Blood's trail to San Jose, Robin sent her some sealed files that told the real story. Not long after, Starfire privately contacted her communicator and related the story of their first encounter with Slade. Afterwards, Bumblebee promised herself she'd never let that happen to her. She'd been seduced by evil once already and had no taste for a second go around.
Cyborg never called her. A couple of times Beast Boy sent joke messages, which usually managed to cheer her up. The time she and Aqualad got separated and she was stranded without leads in Sacramento, and her comm. beeped to show Beast Boy wearing his underpants on his head … that made her smile. But Cyborg never called. She asked, once, but Beast Boy fumbled with his words and told her he was working on some project in the basement. She knew he was still sore at her and didn't ask again.
One day after that she reunited with Aqualad and they found a cache of munitions Blood was keeping. She used her stingers so much and so violently to get rid of them that she blacked out and Aqualad had to carry her to safety. She claimed it was from hunger and that night they celebrated at a restaurant on the credit card Robin had provided.
It took an embarrassingly long time for things to seem real. She was a Titan. Not a Titan junior, not a student at Teen Titan Academy, but an honest-to-God Titan.
When the comeback was good, it was knock-your-teeth-out brilliant, but being a Titan was hard. HIVE Academy students were one of three things: big time villains, small time crooks, or wannabes. Titans wore more hats than she could name. They were arbitrators, social workers, peacekeepers, babysitters and law enforcers. The hours were inhuman, and being one could be terrifying, bring, disgusting, exhausting and often seemed to make no sense at all.
And year after year, the original Titans held their city together like glue.
Being a Titan meant relearning what she knew, but first it meant unlearning everything that had put her at the top in HIVE. She was back to treading water, and sometimes not even that, but this time she had help. It made a huge difference. Aqualad kept her afloat at the beginning, and so did the other Titans in their tower far away. They fed her information and guided her on how to be one of them. She absorbed it like a sponge because what she chose stayed chosen, and she'd chosen between her old goals and her new ones.
But it was still hard. Unlike HIVE, being a Titan didn't come with a textbook. Everything she learned was on the job, and mistakes cost more than a detention. When Brother Blood went quiet for a long, long time, and Aqualad broached Robin's idea of forming an offshoot Titan team to wait for him on the East Coast, it was one of the things that irritated her most about her new teammates.
Mas y Menos were carefree and revelled in their powers. Heroing was a game to them. Speedy was more interested in looking good than being the best Titan he could be. They didn't seem to get that being a Titan wasn't just pocketing a communicator. It was about hard work and sacrifice. She tried to make them see this, but until Cyborg licked them into shape they wouldn't (couldn't? refused to?) learn.
She looked forward to and dreaded the day Cyborg came to their skeleton tower. She spoke to him once beforehand, to arrange arrival times and swap data on known Blood sightings (there were none). He was friendly, but the call was short and left her feeling like she still pissed him off in some way beyond just her personality. One hour after the call she'd decided to give him no reason to continue being that way when they finally met in person again.
She could've cheerfully strangled her teammates when they showed her up a second after Cyborg stepped through the door. She didn't miss the approving look in his eyes when he saw how she'd improved, and somehow it was worth more than any teacher's pat on the head.
One sunrise after Brother Blood was defeated, Bumblebee sank into a chair and surveyed her Tower. Because it was her tower – more than that, it was her Tower, because the Tower was hub of all Titan activity. The Tower was more than just a place to live, it was a symbol. It unified them, and turned them from bickering teenagers into a proper team. She'd learned that. After seeing it in action, she enjoyed the fact, too – even if the work was a bitch. Being part of a unit wasn't easier than working alone, but she'd found she liked knowing there was someone watching her back who wouldn't stab it.
One hour after being told she was Cyborg's successor as leader she was still gawping. Speedy sulked because he hadn't been picked, while Aqualad smiled tightly and congratulated her. He'd taught her so much over the months chasing Blood. They'd pulled each other's fat from the fire so many times she'd lost count. He was kind of her mentor, but more than that he'd turned into her best friend. She cornered Cyborg before he left and demanded to know what he was thinking.
"You're best for the job." He sounded genuinely puzzled. "You know how to get results and you're good at being a Titan."
"You kidding me? I'm a total noob at this. I used to work for the other side! You can't just … put me in charge straight off the bat!"
"You've been doing this for months. I don't count that as straight off the bat." He tilted his chin at her in that way that made the light catch his face-plate just so. She blinked and tried not to squint up at him. "Besides, don't you like being in charge?"
"Well … yeah." Being in charge was the top spot in the Titans. Her choice had been to be the best Titan she could possibly be. The one should've equated to the other. "But -"
"Then I don't get what the problem is."
She just looked at him. Hadn't he heard her? Other. Side. HIVE. Double agent.
They were words that bugged her a lot, and she dreaded how many times it would come out now he'd done this. Aqualad wouldn't, and she didn't think Mas y Menos would, but Speedy … she foresaw problems with Speedy. He was bull-headed and arrogant and thought he knew best. Plus he was pissed he wasn't leader. She didn't know Speedy all that well yet, but she knew his type. HIVE was filled with them. He was most likely to pull out that word (and others) in an argument. And he was most likely to make her orders into an argument.
One day later she was proved right.
"Where do you get off?" Speedy yelled, reaching for the raised voice and accusatory tone like a gunslinger in a saloon brawl. He looked like he wanted to fight, too, even though his bow and arrows were across the room.
"I'm you're leader, that means you gotta work with me and not against me!"
"Well what if I don't recognise you as my leader? What if I just think you're some uppity HIVE bad girl playing at being good? What if I think you don't deserve to be the boss of me?"
And there it was, laid bare over something as stupid as the way he'd laid some floor tiles. Bumblebee narrowed her eyes at him. When she spoke again it was in a soft voice.
"If you don't like being a part of this team as it stands, then I suggest you take a serious look at what you wanted from it in the first place. For me, being part of Titans East was about defeating Brother Blood. Now he's outta the picture it's about Steel City. We're here to take care of this mouldering cesspit, because it's our mouldering cesspit and we became responsible for it when we decided to make our home here. You can't deal with that? Fine, but remember this: Cyborg picked me to do this job, and I'm sure as hell not gonna betray the trust he placed in me by running away with my tail between my legs just because Cyborg picked me to do this job, and I'm sure as hell not gonna betray the trust he placed in me by running away with my tail between my legs just because you got a chip on your shoulder the size of Atlantic City. I sacrificed a lot to be a Titan. I made a lot of enemies because I decided to pick truth and justice over the bad shit HIVE and all the bad guys like 'em get up to. But I chose to do this anyway. How about you, Sassafras? What did you sacrifice to do this job?"
She was perversely satisfied when he didn't have a clever comeback.
One day after that argument Bumblebee's life centred around three things: her mission, her city, and being the best leader she could be.
One week after making these decisions she added another: not murdering Speedy in his bed for being such an annoying asshole.
She worked her booty off to make sure her team succeeded. Eventually the tightness left Aqualad's smile, and Mas y Menos channelled their madcap energy into what counted. Together they halved Steel's crime rate inside a month, and the SCPD, initially suspicious of having superpowerful teens on their doorstep, became a lot more receptive. The seamy underbelly of an already seamy city took notice of them and tried to close ranks, but by that time they'd already got a foothold. By the end of the month it was clear to everyone (including themselves): Titans East were here to stay.
Bumblebee still struggled with Speedy, though.
He stuck around, so being a Titan evidently meant more to him than just photo shoots, glory and getting girls. Photographers recoiled at the very idea of crossing Steel's septic borders, and the kind of girls he met while cleaning up this city were the kind you only transported to the hospital or the rehab centre. He didn't make too many waves, and his arguments were so petty they faded to a hum, like a fly you're too tired to swat.
It seemed natural that she start carrying him around when they went anywhere as a whole team. Mas y Menos needed nobody else to get where they were going, and as long as they was water around (easy in a bayside city) Aqualad could provide his own transportation. It was only Speedy who was stranded. It wasn't like he could just take a bus while out on patrol, so while he preferred to get around via grappling hooks and zip wires, when speed was necessary Bumblebee grabbed his hands and hoisted him into the air. It was like some cruel joke, but they tied him with a motorbike like Robin's R-Cycle. It was a total disaster, as Speedy zipped around like a pinball in a machine and totalled the bike in the first hour of ownership.
"I'll hoof it," he snapped when quizzed. "Or Bumblebitch can give me a lift." His voice lifted in disdain, which she took exception to.
She didn't like the situation any more than he did, but him disparaging her was enough of an insult to make her snap back, "Call me Bumblebitch again, Sassafras, and you'll get yourself kneecaps that bend both ways."
Beyond that, the first month was such hard slog that Bumblebee was too exhausted to worry about what he thought of her. Her goals were set, her decisions made, and her choices stayed chosen so she threw herself into them.
That didn't mean she couldn't see when he sneered, or hear when he sniped. He was like the snarky kid in the back row and made faces while the teacher's back was turned. He never gave anything less than his all when they were out on patrol, or facing down the newest threat, but there was always an undercurrent of … something. Some indefinable feeling against her and this place and the way things had turned out for him. She got a sense that he'd broken ties of his own to be a Titan. She started to wonder what his life had been like before he agreed to join as more than a reserve member, but the work consumed her and enveloped the impulse. The idea to check out his background was pushed to the back burner over washing gunk from her hands and hair every night and trying to forget the haunted eyes of Steel's underdogs.
"You know, I never thought I'd say this, but I'm actually starting to like this city," Aqualad said one evening when they were all splayed out, too bone-weary to move.
"Apart from the criminals," Speedy replied. "And the crackheads. And the dopers. And the h-" It was impossible to tell under the mask, but he might have caught her eye as he said this. "Ladies of the night."
"Yeah, apart from them."
"Oh, sure, apart from them this city's a peach." He sighed deeply. "It's okay. I wouldn't set it on fire and say someone else did it."
Bumblebee didn't smile with her mouth. That required too much effort. Still, she called that a victory.
One month after Cyborg left she reassessed her goals. That was the day Speedy nearly died saving her life.
Like the floor tiles, it was such a stupid, little thing. No superpowered villain, but a gang brawl outside a club on the lower east side. Speedy went because he was closest and the squad cars were late, but it stood between her and the Tower so she called n to make sure things were okay.
Speedy was terrible at close range, his trick arrows worth diddly squat with no room to draw a bow. She sighed when she arrived and saw him, throwing punches and yelling because someone had given him a shiner and run off with his quiver, either not noticing or not caring that at least five mugs had flick-knives. He wasn't all talk, but in his personal pie chart recklessness was a big ol' piece of pie.
She waded in to take care of things and save his scrawny butt, and then suddenly everything was a smear of colour as she was knocked to the ground. Air whooshed from her lungs and her immediate thought was of her gossamer wings. Then she realised Speedy was bleeding on top of her, and above them some kid trembled around a gun that had broken his trigger finger with the kickback.
"Idiot!" she kept thundering.
She forgot a lot of the rest, but remembered the kid dropping the gun and crying like she was shouting at him.
"Don't let this idiot die, y'hear?" she ordered the paramedics.
"We'll try our best, ma'am," the guy in green replied. He was at least twice her age and girth, but deferred to her – probably because of the pile of cuffed and unconscious mugs being manoeuvred into police vehicles behind her. There were scrapes on her knuckles, blood on her clothes (less than half of it her own), her hair was mussed and she had a shallow cut across her belly, but none of it dulled the fierceness in her eyes.
"Speedy, if you die, I'll fly up to the pearly gates to beat the shit out of you for pulling something so dumb!"
"Uh, m-ma'am? Does he have any … any powers, or special physical attributes we should know about? In case they need to operate?"
The notion floored her. It was the first time one of her team had ended up in the hospital for more than cursory stitches. "No," she said faintly. "He's human. Just … he's just an ordinary human."
Being a Titan was about hard work, knowing what was right and what was wrong, and sacrifice. She'd learned that. She'd lived that, or so she thought. This was another layer, like the layers of success – everything about being a Titan was complicated. Get one thing right and you'd fucked up something else. She'd sacrificed a lot to be a Titan, but now she faced the prospect of sacrifice as a Titan, and it hurt more than she would've thought possible. Learning something and living it were two very different things.
She sat in the hospital, screwing up tissues and downing coffee after mocha after espresso until word came that Speedy was going to survive. Aqualad stayed until he couldn't keep his eyes open, and she ordered Mas y Menos to go home with him. They all argued, but she was firm. If Speedy was going to make it then their top priority was themselves.
Then she waited until Speedy was conscious enough to remember what she said and asked to see him. The nurses seemed as intimidated as the paramedics, and checked with everybody they could think of so they wouldn't have to stay talking to this wild-eyed black girl, but eventually she was allowed up.
He was wearing his mask. Hospital scrubs, and hooked up to a dozen machines, but his mask was in place and his hair had been combed. She almost laughed, but chose not to.
Instead she walked right up his bed, leaned in close so he couldn't ignore her and hissed, "If you ever, ever do anything that screwy again, I'll personally see to it you sing soprano for the rest of your natural life. Are we clear?"
His voice was nasal because of the tube up his nose, but his words were clear enough. "Bumblebitch. Is that the thanks I get for taking your bullet?"
"I said thank you for that at the scene."
"Didn't. Juss called me 'n idiot." His voice slurred, the only indication he was fading in and out of sleep since she couldn't see his eyes. "A lot."
"Okay: thank you for saving my life. Don't you dare do it like that again."
"Bumblebitch," Speedy mumbled. There was a snigger mixed in with it, as well as a yawn. One of his IVs read 'morphine'. "Knew I liked you for a … for a rsss … reasssssson." This time he did yawn. "Not just … mmf … not just … yurrr …" His head nodded onto his chest. She turned to leave but froze as he finished: "Yurr fine asssss…"
She was floored again. Teammates sacrificed their lives for each other. Titans sacrificed their lives for each other. Being a Titan meant so much to her that she'd barely given any thought to the idea that maybe he'd done it for reasons beyond that.
One day after Speedy got out of hospital, he was champing at the bit to get back on active duty. "I feel like a fraud, just sitting doing surveillance."
"You're recovering from a chest wound, dude," Aqualad reminded him. It was only at his insistence Bumblebee hadn't manacled Speedy to the chair to make him say put. "You're supposed to take it easy."
"But we have a computer to do this."
"Computers make mistakes," Bumblebee snapped, short with him because he didn't seem to remember what he'd said to her and she wasn't sure how she felt about that. Cyborg never saw her as more than classmate, teammate, ally – and she'd still developed a sort-of crush on him. It faded when she grasped he didn't harbour similar feelings, and the swiftness of its decline said a lot for how much of it had been idolisation. Once upon a time she'd come damn close to crushing on Headmaster (no, Brother Blood), which was all kinds of freaky and she really couldn't think about that right now. Or, y'know, ever.
She focused instead on what was important: her mission, her city, and being the best leader she could be.
Good leaders took care of their team.
"You," she said, jabbing a finger in Speedy's face, "are staying put until you are back in top form. Anything less than top form and you are benched, Sassafras. B-E-N-C-H-E-D."
"Hey, look, Bumblebitch can spell. B-U-M-B-L-E-B-I-yowch!"
She withdrew her fist while he rubbed the top of his head. "This ain't no spelling bee, idiot."
"I'm recovering from a serious injury. You're not supposed to hit me!"
"Don't give me no reason to and I won't. Now, are you gonna stay on surveillance duty, or do you wanna file old police reports? Because that's your other option."
He glared at her, mask contorting over his brows. It scrunched up, but at no point did it separate from his skin. She wondered whether glue like that was strong enough to stick him to his seat while they were out.
"Okay, okay, I'll do the freaking surveillance duty. But under protest."
She didn't dignify that with a response. Arguing with him right now made her feel weird and vaguely disgusting, like she'd been rolling in honey and then blasted with feathers and sand. Nothing came off when she rubbed at it, and she kind of didn't want it to, but the discomfort and knowledge of what others would think was insufferable.
Like most lives, there isn't much of a story to tell in-between extraordinary events. This is especially so when people are trying to beat up their emotions with a mallet and stuff what's left into a box on the highest shelf of their brains.
Bumblebee did notice she was keeping her back to Speedy less and wondered why. She'd always been proud of her body. HIVE boys liked to look at her in her mission clothes, though she'd picked them for functionality. Tight duds gave opponents less purchase in a fight, same as tied-back hair. She added heels and took out a couple of inches around her midriff because she was still sixteen years old and she liked boys to look-not-touch. So she turned away from him again, but was conscious when she did so that a mask obscured so much of a person's eyes.
One week after this she accidentally overheard Speedy talking to Aqualad in the surveillance room.
"Does Bumblebitch have the hots for me?"
She nearly choked outside the door, and stuffed her knuckles into her mouth as Aqualad replied in an equally astonished voice, "What!? Why would you think that?"
"She keeps wiggling her ass in my face and looking at me funny, like she expects me to jump her bones any minute. At first it was flattering, but it's getting really … y'know …"
"No, I don't."
"Unnerving. She's like some asexual being half the time, all work and no play for anyone, and the rest of the time…"
One morning later she'd called in a favour. Raven arrived to heal his scrawny butt and get him back on the street and out of her hair, but declined to rest and stay the night when Bumblebee made the invitation.
Raven looked far more tired than Bumblebee had ever seen her, like all the energy had been sucked out of her. She kept her hood up the entire visit, letting it fall back only once, and then by accident as she drained a bottle of mineral water. It revealed dark circles around her eyes and a tightness of expression Bumblebee traditionally associated with abuse victims – the edges of Raven's mouth were hard, likewise the skin around her eyes. As for the eyes themselves, they were nothing less than haunted, but reverted to grim when she yanked her hood back up.
"No, I can't stay."
"You sure? Looks like that healing done took it all outta you. You're welcome to use one of the spare rooms and go home in the morning -"
"No," Raven said, a little sharper than necessary. "I need to go home."
"They can't spare you for one night?" Bumblebee wasn't especially close to Raven, but she respected her and reached out to touch her arm in a gesture of friendship and solidarity. "You okay, girl? Is something wrong?"
For a moment she thought Raven was going to confide something in her, something she couldn't say to her own teammates, but then her eyes were back to snapping chips of amethyst and she replied, "I need to go home and scrub out my brain with carbolic soap after mind-linking with that boy."
Bumblebee frowned. "Why? Did you see something nasty in his head?"
She'd asked for an explanation, once, as to how Raven's healing worked when the other girl healed Bumblebee's own busted leg. She couldn't explain what she'd been told if asked, but understood that it involved getting into the recipient's brain to stimulate the pain receptors and the body's natural healing process. Raven told her she could therefore see a person's surface thoughts, though she tried to stay away from that area – but some people 'thought very loud'.
Raven just looked at her with something like pity, and suddenly Bumblebee really didn't want to know what she'd seen.
One day later she learned it would be Raven's birthday that Friday. She sent a card and made everyone sign it, and ordered a cake shaped like a communicator to be delivered by one of Jump's best bakeries.
One week after Raven left things were almost back to normal at East Titan Tower. Speedy took orders and grumbled, Aqualad was Bumblebee's staunchest supporter, and Mas y Menos continued to act like hyperactivity incarnate.
Bumblebee made the decision to act on feelings that had been stewing for a while and finally named Aqualad as her second in command. Speedy glowered, but congratulated the other boy, and Mas y Menos ran around Steel blowing their stipend gathering stuff for a party. Bumblebee wasn't sure how borrowing a seal and a miniature elephant from the carnival fitted into this, but after they and the bewildered chorus line had been returned it was actually a nice shindig.
"That means you're in charge if I snuff it," she told Aqualad, readjusting the cone hat to sit between her hair buns.
He frowned at her. "Don't talk like that."
"What? It's true. If I can't be leader no more, it falls to you to carry on in my place. Or if I'm hospitalised, or turned evil by an ancient artefact, or zapped into the distant past, or get my mind switched with a bad guy, or -"
"Okay, okay, I get the picture." He paused with his soda halfway to his mouth. "You know, I'm not sure which is freakier – that you thought up those things, or that each and every one of them is a real possibility."
She smiled grimly.
"Our lives are so weird."
"So who wants to be normal? Normal is boring."
"I wish you wouldn't do that, though."
"Talk so lightly about dying."
She shrugged. They had classes back in HIVE about what to do if a member of your cell died while on a mission. Cells changed weekly, unless they worked especially well the way Jinx, Gizmo and Mammoth did. Bumblebee had seen the deaths of two fellow cell-mates – one gunned down by cops, the other impaled on a length of glass when he misjudged entrance through a museum skylight. She'd thought she'd care more, but at the time Brother Blood had been training everything out of his students except ruthlessness and blind loyalty. She'd been much more affected when Speedy jumped in front of a gun for her, and the wellspring of emotions that unleashed, so different than what she'd felt twice before. The idea of her own death … she still saw it in textbook terms. If she died, she died, and she had to make provisions for afterwards.
Someone tugged on her pants leg. She looked down to see Mas gazing up at her with puppy dog eyes. Late night study with a Spanish dictionary and Mexican soap operas still didn't help her understand what he said.
Menos tugged at her other leg with a similar expression, but he was no easier to understand. He mimed crying while his brother melodramatically clutched his chest and keeled over. Menos fell to his knees, beating his own chest with small fists and shouting recriminations at the ceiling. They both looked so ridiculous in their cone hats and trailing party popper streamers, but finished by staring at her with matching expressions of reproof.
She raised her eyebrows.
"I think they're saying they'd miss you if you died." Speedy leaned on the kitchen counter, plastic cup of soda in hand.
Mas y Menos nodded so fast they wee a blur. "Si! Si!"
"We all would." The words belonged in Aqualad's mouth, but it was still Speedy talking. "So, y'know," he shrugged, "don't do it anytime soon."
She stared quizzically at him for a second, then transferred her gaze to Aqualad, who nodded agreement. She dropped to her knees to lightly punch Menos on the shoulder. "I'll try my best, so long as y'all do likewise. You'd be hella difficult to replace when I only just got done housetraining you."
While this declaration of affection – or if not affection, then attachment – was both flattering and uplifting, for some time afterwards Bumblebee carried with her a sense that all was not as it should be. Yet she couldn't put her finger on what exactly troubled her. The feeling was too vague, too imprecise to give a name to. Since they were getting the job done and no huge arguments sprang up, she chose not to push it; but each time she entered or left a room, threw muddy boots at Speedy, collapsed exhausted on her bed, or fitted her wing-protectors before stepping into the shower, she got the sense that something was wrong with the pattern of her life.
Aqualad came to her suddenly one day to ask for compassionate leave.
"Sure, but why? If'n you don't mind me asking."
He looked agonizingly out the window and she could perfectly picture him wringing his hands like some old biddy. In so many ways Aqualad was so old-fashioned. He was definitely the most formal among them, even when he got into a screaming match with Speedy. He never cursed, never reached for insults or threats of violence the way she did, though he was far more powerful than her. The human body was mostly water. One thought and he could wrench all of it out through the skin, but she'd never once felt nervous about being with him because of that. He was too moral, too … noble to do anything like that.
Now the cool millpond of his personality was bubbling at the edges. "It's … it's my father," he said. She got the feeling each word cost him. "He's … very sick. I just got word that he's … asked for me." Aqualad focussed on her. "We're kind of estranged."
This shocked her. She wanted to ask, "Estranged over what?" but he provided the answer in an uncharacteristic rush, like an emptying washbasin.
"I've never told anyone this before, not even Robin or Beast Boy. There was never any need, since I'd proved myself in the field long before Titans East was formed or Brother Blood reared his ugly head. But I know I can trust you, and I guess as leader you deserve to know. Plus, you're my friend. One of the best I've ever had, on land or in Atlantis. You see, I'm … my mom and father weren't married. And weren't ever likely to be. When I arrived it was … difficult for my father to acknowledge my existence. He and my mom were from different worlds – not literally, but he was from a totally different social class than her and having me around would have made life really difficult for him. Now he's sick, and he's asking for me, and I'm not sure whether I want to go or not, but I feel like I have to. For her sake."
Bumblebee fought to process this. She wasn't sure she fully understood, since there were aspects to Atlantean life that escaped her, but one thing was clear. She punched Aqualad lightly in the shoulder; a light, friendly, I'm-here-for-you tap. "You do what you gotta do, Waterboy. You know you got the support of everybody here no matter what happens."
"Thanks, Bee." He clasped her wrist. She let him, though the contact went on a little too long. "That means a lot to me."
After he was gone she reassessed what she knew of her teammates, and her relationship with her own past and family. There was truth in the adage 'you can't go home again' once you'd defied your parents and enrolled in a school for supervillains. Never mind that she was a Titan now, her previous decisions had burned those bridges. It was painful to think about, so instead she concentrated on Speedy and Mas y Menos. Mas y Menos were easy, since she'd met their scientist mom and pop when they came to test the boys' speed and run all kinds of other tests to ensure their health. Speedy, on the other hand …
"Yo, Bumblebitch. What's up with Aqualad? I was on the roof doing target practice and I saw him dive off the rocks and swim away like a school of piranha were after him." Speedy strolled in, looking sweaty and mildly curious.
"He's gone away for a few days. Family stuff."
"Yeah? Weird." Speedy rested his bow on the floor and his chin on the bow it was rare he stayed to make conversation with her. Usually they had a quick-fire question and answer session, or a brief exchange, but the longest they talked to each other were mission briefs and arguments.
Bumblebee was mildly surprised he didn't just take off with his answer, but today he seemed chatty.
"I never thought of him as having a family. He was always just kind of … there. Like he just appeared one day the way he is now."
It was a fair description of her own feelings, but she didn't tell Speedy that. "Well he didn't, and I gotta go rejig today's patrol rota to make up for that."
"Do you ever think of things outside the job? Just once, I'd like to have a conversation with you that doesn't involve orders, or patrolling, or … anything Titan-y."
Bumblebee just looked at him like he was cracked. She wasn't sure which disturbed her more: that he thought there were more important things than being a Titan, or that he wanted a real conversation with her. For a second she flashed back to his hospital bedside, but shook the memory away. "I do talk about non-Titan stuff."
He smirked at her. "Oh yeah? When?"
"Yesterday. I talked about the type of pizza we were gonna order." Why was she suddenly so flustered? She wanted to smack him just to make the feeling go away.
"For about eight seconds, and even then Aqualad had to drag you away from the gym to do it. You exercise too much, as well. You barely have any flab on you, but you work on those machines more than anybody. What time did you start this morning, eight?"
"Six thirty. And maybe I do it because I wanna make sure I'm in top physical conditions so I don't end up a yellow and black smudge on the pavement."
He gestured with one hand. "There you go, talking about Titan stuff again. There's more to life than making sure the people of Steel City live theirs."
Bumblebee just stared at him. She did enjoy life beyond just Titan things. It was just … she enjoyed being a Titan more. The trappings of normal teenage life seemed boring in comparison. She'd never felt gypped about the Sadie Hawkins Dance. "I gotta go."
"You're running away from an unpleasant truth, Bumblebitch."
"Go flush your head, Sassafras. I've got work to do, and so do you." She wasn't running away, she wasn't: not from him, and not from some 'unpleasant truth'. She just had more important stuff to do than listen to him try to be clever. And her cheeks were flaming because it was hot in here.
She threw open a window to prove her point, and paused in front of it. Far below the bay crashed against the rocks of the cliff. There was no sign of Aqualad. Salt spray made everything smell and taste like the sea, and she inhaled deeply. Then, on impulse, she set her foot against the bottom of the frame and pushed herself into the empty air.
Flying was a rush after being cooped up too long. She'd almost forgotten what it felt like to open her wings and take off without a specific destination in mind – to fly just because she could and the sky was empty and inviting. She zigged and zagged in and out of cloud banks, dipping her hands, turning loops and eventually yelling with the sheer joy of having access to a world most people would never experience. She stayed away from Steel, instead flying out over the open ocean to where she could see a pod of dolphins leaping with that selfsame joy.
She returned to the Tower hours later, exhausted but elated. She stank of seawater and B.O. and there was seaweed in her hair, she didn't care.
The window was still open and she climbed through, but was shocked to find Speedy leaning against the wall. He'd cleaned himself up, changed his suit, combed and lacquered his hair, but still wore that insufferable smirk.
"So you are human after all."
"Screw you, Sassafras." Not the most inspired response, but he'd caught her unawares. She was dishevelled and looked nothing like a responsible leader. Plus she couldn't get over the feeling that he'd been lying in wait, specifically to get one over on her, to prove she wasn't up to the job of leader, just like he'd claimed in the beginning: a turncoat bad girl playing at being good.
She hadn't done the patrol rota, either, and hurried to the briefing room to get started before Mas y Menos wanted to know their district for the evening. She was so flummoxed, it never even occurred to her to question her gut reaction and wonder why Speedy was there.
One morning she went down for coffee to find Aqualad already at the kitchen counter. He wasn't big on caffeine, but looked up at her from a mug of instant with a wan expression. "They wouldn't let me see him. He was a lot better by the time I got there and it was considered inappropriate."
Bumblebee wasn't sure how to respond to that. She tried punching him on the shoulder again, but this time it didn't cut the mustard, so she did something totally alien to her. She wrapped an arm around Aqualad's shoulders and pulled his head sideways onto her own shoulder.
He didn't fight it, and they sat that way for a long while – longer than she was really comfortable with, but she sensed the hurt in him and wanted more than anything to kick it into touch. Aqualad had been with her far longer than anyone else. He'd taken a chance on her and stuck with her through her learning curve, even when she eclipsed him in rank.
But this was the next in a long line of things she couldn't fix with her fists or her Stingers, so instead she let the simple act of physical contact tell Aqualad he had friends who would stand by him, even if his family wouldn't.
One week after that they got a visitor.
Black Canary was everything a superherione should be – smart, confident, and able to kick a guy's nuts into his throat. Having a superpower that could level buildings and reduce criminals to bloody-eared heaps helped, but it wasn't any of that which made the most lasting impression on Bumblebee. It was the way she strode into the Tower like she owned it, and the way Speedy absolutely froze when he saw her.
"Hey, kid. Just thought I'd drop by and see how you're holding up."
"I'm fine," he replied in a voice Bumblebee had never heard from him before – hard, cold and unforgiving. He sounded like he hated the woman.
Evidently Aqualad had never heard it, either, because he looked uneasily at Bumblebee. Even Mas y Menos slowed up a little when Speedy's frostiness didn't relent. They exchanged perturbed glances, speaking in rapid Spanish and waving their arms as they tossed aside ideas for what might be wrong with their teammate. When Speedy walked stiff-legged from the room after Black Canary's introductions they chased him. Throughout the following conversation Bumblebee saw them running back and forth carrying snacks, bow resin, magazines, and even a bowl of hot water and some shampoo.
"I see he's still sore," Black Canary observed, shaking her head. Her mane of hair had no dark roots, but she had nothing in common with the traditional blonde stereotype.
"About?" Bumblebee asked carefully.
She'd heard of Black Canary before – there were a few paragraphs devoted to her in the HIVE textbook. All she really knew, though, was her power and her biggest weakness: take her voice and she was just another street brawler in a bad Halloween costume. Her connection to Speedy was straight out of left field.
"You know he used to work with Green Arrow, right?"
She hadn't. Robin recruited Speedy and Speedy himself had locked the files on his background. The fact he'd come through Robin's stringent checks was good enough for Bumblebee, and she'd assumed he had his own reasons for not wanting all and sundry to know his history. Hell, if her past hadn't already been common knowledge, she might've done the same.
"Ah," Black Canary said, reading hers and Aqualad's expressions. "You didn't. But you have heard of Green Arrow, right?"
"Yeah." He got an entire chapter along with Power Girl and some no-hoper called Vigilante. "And I'm guessing he and Speedy used to work together."
"Good guess." Black Canary had a slow, easy smile. Her personality seemed warm and affable, but the way she carried herself told even the casual observer this was not a woman to piss off unless you were wearing kneecap protectors.
Her outfit was a mix of eighties fashion and post-war pinup girl that clashed horribly, but was made attractive by the body underneath. Black Canary had real tits and an actual ass, and didn't try to strap them down or cover them up. Instead she displayed them proudly, and bumblebee could tell having breasts did nothing to inhibit this woman's right hook.
Bumblebee liked her instantly, but was still on her guard. She'd become protective of her team; if this woman's mere presence sparked such a reaction in one of them, Bumblebee's instinctive impulse was to close ranks against her. Bumblebee almost laughed at the contrast to when they first formed Titans East and would've sold each other out for a ready-made team like the original Titans.
"He and Speedy used to be tight." Black Canary held up her index and middle finger, crossed at the knuckle. "They were like this. Everything Speedy knows, he learned from Green Arrow. That guy was practically a father to him – raised him from the age of seven and indoctrinated him into the life of the vigilante."
"I'm sensing you didn't approve of the last part." Aqualad echoed Bumblebee's thoughts.
Black Canary shrugged. "I'm old school: I think kids should be kids and not play at beating up bad guys instead of going to Homecoming."
Bumblebee bristled, and felt Aqualad do so too at her side. "If you came here to break up our team -"
"No, sugar lump, I didn't. Actually, I came because Green Arrow asked me to check up on his old protégé, and I figured it wouldn't hurt to take a look at the rest of you too. Unless I'm encroaching?" She raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow. "Am I?"
Bumblebee matched it, though she wished she'd remembered to pluck her eyebrows this morning. Living with so much testosterone, some days it was a miracle she remembered to shave her legs and put on deodorant. "That depends. Do you want the grand tour, the deluxe, or the boot-toe special exit?"
Black Canary laughed. "You've got spunk, girlie. I like that. It's about time someone licked that boy's ego into shape, and way past time a woman led one of these mini super-teams, if they're going to exist despite my protests." She gave another easy smile, but this time it didn't strike the same chord in Bumblebee.
"Why didn't Green Arrow come himself, if he and Speedy are so tight?"
"Used to be. They had a, ah, disagreement. About me, as it happens. Green Arrow and I had teamed up a number of times, both in and out of costume. It was inevitable that eventually he'd ask me to join him on a permanent basis. Speedy saw it slightly differently. He thought I was his replacement – wouldn't listen when we tried to tell him otherwise."
"Two is company, but three's a crowd," Aqualad provided.
Several things slotted into place in Bumblebee's mind. "Exactly when was that?"
Black Canary told her with a knowing smirk.
"The time he joined Titans East." Bumblebee nodded. Being kidnapped by the Master of Games, meeting Robin and becoming an honorary Titan must have given Speedy the out he needed from his messy personal life. If Titans East hadn't formed, he may even have asked to become part of the original Titans. She couldn't imagine Speedy not asking if the motivation was great enough; he was no shrinking violet.
"He never told you any of this, huh?" Black Canary sighed. "To hear him tell it, he was thrown out to make room for the bloodsucking girlfriend. Ask Green Arrow, and Speedy walked out on their partnership because he's a spoilt kid who can't take orders. Me? I think they're both bull-headed idiots who refuse to see things the way they really are because they've each had their pride wounded."
Slot. Snap. Click. "Hm," was all Bumblebee said.
Later, when the grand tour was concluded and Aqualad had gone to see what had happened to their teammates, Bumblebee stood on the roof with Black Canary. They stared out across the expanse of Steel City visible in the dying sun. It looked better than it had months earlier, but in places still resembled the spume of a dying mollusc. Still, Bumblebee was perversely proud of this horrible place. She never would've chosen to live here, but it had sort of developed its own charm as she ploughed through the nastiness to find the long-forgotten softness underneath.
"Do we meet with your approval?"
"Would it matter if you didn't?"
Bumblebee didn't hesitate. "Probably not."
This smile showed teeth. "Good thing you pass the test. You run a tight ship here, sugar lump. I've read some reports about Titans East, but I find it's better to see things in person before making judgements. Plus you've got Speedy pretty well trained. He was polite to me when I arrived, and I haven't had a trick arrow trained between my shoulder-blades the whole time I've been here."
"So do you reckon there's a reunion on the horizon between Speedy and Green Arrow?"
"Ideally? Yeah, sure. Realistically? I doubt it. Not until something earth-shattering knocks their heads together and they see what idiots they've been."
Bumblebee thought about this and what she knew of Speedy's character. "I don't think we're due for an apocalypse anytime soon." She shook her head. "I can't believe that nimrod never mentioned any of this."
"Might've been nice to know where he was coming from. It wouldn't have made him any less a jerk, but at least I – we would've understood his jerkiness."
"He's really got you, hasn't he?" Black Canary said suddenly.
"It's a special trick of the Arrow clan. They get into your head, make you think you want them, and by the time you figure out you never wanted them in the first place, you've fallen for them for real."
Bumblebee was aghast. "Wait a second; I never said nothing about -"
"You didn't have to. It's pretty easy to tell in the way you've been talking about him as you showed me around, and the way you watched him earlier when he looked about ready to blow a gasket. He and his mentor don't provoke a lovey-dovey response. Most of the time you want to poke their eyes out with one of their arrows, but they can occasionally be sweet, and they'd lay down their own lives to protect someone they care about. When you start doing the same you know you've got it bad. Have you done that yet? Has he done that yet?"
Bumblebee remained tight-lipped, her brow creased in a frown.
"He has!" Black Canary squealed in a way no adult was supposed to after they shed teenage hormones for taxes and a mortgage. "You like him."
"No way! He's the most irritating guy I've ever met – and I wet to school with Gizmo!"
"Uh-huh, sure." Black Canary's eyes were half-lidded; her smile not a little wicked. "Don't worry, sweetie, it happens to the best of us."
The visit was short-lived after that, but Black Canary didn't seem to mind being courteously thrown out. In fact, she seemed to find the whole thing very amusing.
After she was gone, Speedy appeared on the balcony just as Bumblebee was flying up to it.
"Is she g-?"
"Don't even talk to me." Bumblebee started to march past him, then paused, turned on her heel and whapped him on the head. "And that is for not telling anyone … anything."
He held the top of his skull like he expected it to unscrew, glaring at her. "I see Black Canary couldn't keep her mouth shut, as usual." He spat this with such venom that Bumblebee was momentarily taken aback. Even in their most heated arguments he'd never injected that much bitterness into his words.
She recovered quickly. "Is it a bad thing she spilled the beans?"
"I don't want anybody making a big deal of it."
"Well I think you're an idiot for letting it go on so long."
"Screw you, Bumblebitch."
She held herself back from whacking him right over the railing. He could always provoke the quickest, worst reaction from her – and she always gave in to her impulses with him. It was like all her self-control vanished when confronted with that mask and red hair, and his voice lit the touch-paper of her temper without ever checking the size of the gunpowder keg on the other end.
Black Canary's words floated through her brain. She snorted, whirled on her heel without another word and didn't speak to Speedy again until an emergency call came in the following afternoon.
One day after that, events began that nearly destroyed the entire of Titans East.
It was fun, looking after Jump City. Bumblebee couldn't help but feel a thrill that the Titans would trust them with their city – and again when she learned Cyborg had personally requested them for the job. If there had been any lingering doubt about his faith in her, it was dispelled by this.
"I can see why the Titans love this city so much." She kicked her heels against the edge of the Ferris Wheel car.
The carnival was in town anyway, but they'd thrown an extra special celebration at the victories of Titans East over Control Freak's weird challenges. She and Aqualad were bundled into a car by a horde of giggling fans, though she had noticed with some alarm that one of them wore a tee shirt emblazoned with 'Bee and AL 4-ever!' She and Aqualad chuckled over people's overactive imaginations, since they'd never thought of each other as more than friends – but elected to stay on the Ferris Wheel when the first tee shirt was joined by three more and a couple of placards.
She folded her arms on the edge of the car and leaned her head on them. "Do you think Steel will ever be anything like this?"
"Full of rabid fangirls?"
She punched him gently. "No, I mean so calm and peaceful. Where you can go to the fair and not worry about people shooting up in the House of Mirrors, or shooting out the candyfloss booth with an AK-47."
Aqualad tipped his head back to stare at the clouds crossing the moon. "Someday," he said firmly, and then fell silent, contemplating his own thoughts.
They'd reached the apex of the Wheel, and ground to a halt as yet more teenage girls climbed on to get closer to their latest crush. Both Aqualad and Speedy had gained what seemed like a legion of fans since coming here, which was flattering until you got to the kind who championed them the way those girls championed herself and Aqualad. That was probably one of the reasons they'd split off from Speedy and Mas y Menos, and kept a large distance between them, though it wasn't denting the fangirls' fervour any.
Bumblebee looked down and spotted her teammates at the shooting gallery. Speedy nailed every shot and won a giant yellow stuffed animal, which he gave to Mas. Menos already had a matching one in purple. He and his brother proceeded to make the two teddies belly bounce each other in a parody of sumo wrestling. Speedy watched them, his posture more relaxed than it had been in weeks – since Black Canary visited, in fact.
Yes, Bumblebee thought, a break from Steel City was exactly what they'd needed. She just hoped Thunder and Lightning weren't wrecking the place in their absence. Steel looked like it needed a bomb to clean out the garbage and start over, but it actually needed subtlety and a lot of sensitivity.
She leaned back, tilting her own head to look at the sky and marvelling that she was chilling out at the carnival while the other Titans were hundreds of miles away, perhaps fighting for their lives against unimaginable evil. Sudden guilt suffused her, but she scraped it away from her skin like peeling sunburn. If Cyborg and the others needed them, they'd call. They knew they could count on Titans East in a crisis.
She shifted her gaze downwards again, and was surprised to find Speedy looking up at them. It was hard to tell with his mask, but it seemed like he was staring straight at her.
The back of her neck prickled and all the hairs on her arms stood on end. She shook her head, poking Aqualad with a gruff, "Jeez, are they ever gonna get this thing moving again?"
"Huh?" He blinked at her. "Oh. Yeah. I guess."
It wasn't true, she told herself. Black Canary wasn't right.
One month later, when the Brotherhood of Evil tried to take her team from her, she revised her opinion.
Bumblebee stood over her opponents, exhausted and battered, but uppermost in her mind was her team. She'd cracked at least two ribs in the tussle, her entire left side was numb, and there was a ragged slash in her side that was bleeding all over her shirt. Yet all she could think of was Aqualad, Mas y Menos and Speedy. Her team. Her boys.
She wasn't stupid. Robin's garbled message, the loss of radio, this aerial attack – coming on the tail end of months of trouble, all of it added up to a concerted attempt by Braniac's goons to wipe out the Titans, once and for all.
Well, screw that. She'd worked too hard, and sacrificed too much to become a Titan. No way was she letting go of that without a fight. Furthermore, she'd taken an oath when she became leader: to protect her team, and keep them safe even if it destroyed her. A proper leader was willing to do anything to protect those under her care, and she'd chosen to be the best damn Titan and leader she could.
And what she chose stayed chosen.
"I want my team back," she said when Starfire found her. They flew away together, Starfire leading and explaining what happened next, but Bumblebee's only response through the pain spreading from her side and chest remained, "I want my team back."
She awoke to learn she'd fainted mid-flight, and that Starfire had carried her the rest of the way. Raven, looking both softer and grimmer than they last time they met, leaned over Bumblebee with hands still on her stomach.
"You had internal bleeding."
"Can I fight?" Bumblebee groggily demanded.
"I wouldn't advise it, but," Raven inhaled between her teeth, looking up and behind her to where Starfire stood, tall and grim as an Amazon warrior, "you may not get a choice."
They had no idea who had been captured and who had evaded the Brotherhood's clutches, since Robin cut contact for everyone when he realised Braniac had been piggybacking on their comm. signal for God knew how long. Raven reached out to feel for the minds of others, but was recovering from her own wounds and needed to divert a lot of energy to healing herself.
Over the past few months, the Teen Titans had evolved from one major and one spin-off team, to a sprawling network of active and reserve members all over the world. At first Bumblebee had been put out, as if by throwing membership around like confetti her own efforts had been somehow devalued. She worked so hard to be a Titan. Some of the new members were barely more than wannabes.
Yet as she gradually came to understand the insidious nature of the Brotherhood, and how deeply their evil claws had dug, she also came to understand the need for all these new members. The Brotherhood was worse than HIVE, worse than Brother Blood, and he had always occupied the top spot for Evil in her mind. Blood wanted to eradicate his students' humanity and turn them into mindless robots devoted to him and whatever whim took him. The Brotherhood just wanted to eradicate.
Now that sprawling network had been shattered, its members scattered, floating free from each other and the unifying nature of what it meant to be a Titan. The effort Robin and the other original Titans had put into their plans was worthless, the hopes they'd placed on the new recruits misplaced.
And amongst those, mixed up with the rest, were her team.
A chill went through her like she'd been stabbed through the back with an icicle.
Starfire talked about attacking with all they had left, of whether there was enough time to look for others who'd escaped and join forces for a combined attack, but somehow Bumblebee knew in her bones that her team had fallen.
She couldn't explain it, couldn't even enlighten herself as to how she knew, but she did know and it made the bottom fall out of her stomach. One by one, her teammates – her friends – had been captured by the enemy. She had to think they were captured, because thinking otherwise was too much to handle right now. Aqualad, Mas, Menos, even Speedy. At that moment she would gladly have picked up after him and let him insult her without retaliating if it meant he and the rest of her boys were safe and well and with her.
More than teammates, more than the components of her unit, or the kids she led, or even just her friends – Aqualad, Mas y Menos and Speedy had become so much more than that in the time they'd spent together. They were like extensions of herself. She couldn't speak Spanish, Fish, or Arrogant Asshole, but the connection they'd forged flared to life now they were under threat and it needed no words. It had sparked before, in hospital waiting rooms, street corners and the Tower when one of them was missing or injured or just hurting. Now it felt like someone had set all her nerve endings on fire. Those boys were hers, she would be damned if anyone thought they could take them away from her.
Bumblebee struggled to her feet, vaguely aware Starfire was still talking. "I want, ngh, my team back." She sucked in a breath, fighting back the wave of dizziness that followed. "Just tell me how to do it and where to go, and use small words because I'm not sure I won't pass out again before you finish. But make sure whatever plan you come up with, I get to kick a lot of heads in."
When they broke into the Brotherhood's stronghold and hurtled into a bigger fight than Bumblebee had ever seen before – even bigger than the fight against Brother Blood and his cybermen – her thoughts were still of her boys.
She cracked heads and stomped on bad guys and Stung her way across the room, eyes blazing. She'd seen the shelves of frozen bodies and recognised at least three of them, and it filled her veins with molten fury that pushed strategy aside for knuckle-meet-cheekbone primal satisfaction. Rage rose within her like a column of fire, blotting out common sense and self-control.
Operating on a surplus of adrenaline and a shortage of rationality, she ignored her body's protests and swung again and again.
Someone wrenched a Stinger from her grip, so she drove the other deep into his gut. She bounced off, but came back again and laid him out with a solid right hook to the temple. Someone else grabbed her leg and she kicked out, grinding hipbone beneath her heel. When he didn't let go she shrank to the size of her namesake and almost Stung off the end of his finger, then resized and laid him flat while he was shrieking like a prom queen with punch on her dress. What felt like an iron pipe hit her in the head but she wheeled around and slapped the tartar off the teeth of the bitch brandishing it.
Bumblebee yelped when something serrated slashed her thigh, but pain was dulled by sheer ferocity. Her newly healed but still tender insides screamed in protest, but she continued to twist and scrunch and stretch them out as she gave herself over to her rage. She felt like as long as her knuckles found flesh and bone to smash against she'd continue to swing them. Half these assholes she didn't even recognise, but they were there, and they were attacking her, and God help them, because she was in serous need of some venting in the form of good, old fashion beat-the-shit-out-of-the-bad-guys.
She lost herself for a while in the melee – vaguely aware of hands grabbing hers in an instinctive grip, the familiar heft of carrying someone under their armpits, and flying after Beast Boy and Robin to strafe their enemies with small explosives and where the heck did those things come from? But everything was so smeary and chaotic that details barely registered. It was scary, she reflected later, how much control she was capable of losing when pushed too far.
And then suddenly everything went quiet. The punch she'd just thrown had no follow up, and she stared around at the assembled superheroes standing over their fallen enemies. Her breathing was irregular, pain radiated from a dozen different places, but she recognised several of those superheroes – um, what the hell was Jinx still doing upright? And why was Kid Flash hugging her? – and they were running towards her and she just sort of … sagged against the nearest one.
"Hey, Bumblebitch, wakey wakey." Speedy smirked down at her. He hadn't been running over, so must've been practically next to her already. "Newsflash: we won! That calls for celebration, not sleep."
"M'boys," she mumbled.
Abruptly she realised her cheek was squashed against his chest, and his arms were around her, holding her up. She was very aware of his heartbeat and the ways his lungs inflated and deflated, and she flushed so hard the roots of her hair ached. She was tired, beaten and bloody, and he was warm and solid and alive and some part of her never wanted to move from this spot.
Of course, the rest of her shrieked at it, but the situation resolved itself when Mas y Menos zoomed up to them, twittering proudly about how well they'd done, and Aqualad was there too, and Bumblebee was so happy to have them back that nothing else mattered half so much.
"Hey guys, look," Beast Boy said from the dais above. Everyone looked, because he was an original Titan and commanded respect. He tossed what was left of Braniac into a jet of what looked like pressurised hydrogen. "Brain freeze."
As one, the assembled Titans groaned. Beast Boy's respect levels took a major nose-dive.
So did Bumblebee. Her knees gave way and she sagged again, but this time rushing darkness reached up to close over her head like water. She was vaguely aware of her Stinger slipping from her fingers and someone shouting her name, but what felt like a blanket wrapped firmly around her senses.
The next thing she knew, she was in a narrow bed in one of the spare rooms at Titans Tower and her head was throbbing. So were her hands. And her leg. And … lots and lots of other places. She had the kind of headache hat came with trying to fit approximately twelve feet of brainpower into an eight inch skull.
"You are awake!" Starfire's face appeared over her. "I am grateful to see it! You did, as you say, give us quite a scare. You were quite badly hurt in the fight. Raven has healed some of your wounds, especially the ones to your head and internal organs, but there were others with serious injuries, also, so she has not finished working on you yet."
Bumblebee nodded and tried to sit up. The clanging made her flop down again. Not doing that until the little birdies had stopped flying around her head. "My team, are they –"
"Everyone was recovered safely." Starfire's beam was so wide Bumblebee didn't even have to ask who she'd been looking for amongst the Brotherhood's captives. Starfire had a way of making you feel like the world wasn't as crappy as you thought, and might even be nice in places if you have a pint glass of mustard and a bag of sprinkles to go on top.
She found herself returning the smile. "Good. I need those boys around to make me feel pretty."
Starfire blinked. "You … do not feel pretty without them present? Why not? Do they pay you many compliments?"
"No, I was being sar- never mind. Thanks for bringing me in here. Did everybody else go home already? Did I miss the victory party?"
"Oh, I did not bring you here. One of your own team carried you all the way from the Brotherhood's lair and would not put you down until we reached our destination."
Bumblebee's throat seemed to close like someone with a nut allergy after a peanut butter, almond paste and crushed hazelnut sandwich. "Um, which – who?"
Starfire's beam was nearly as wide again. "Speedy," she said proudly, like he was her son and she was his proud mother or something. One redhead mollycoddling another. Would Speedy have her green eyes, or would they be some other colour? Purple, perhaps? Aquamarine? Freaking cerise?
Bumblebee pushed the thought aside, as well as a whole bunch of others. Her head already hurt without filling it with other junk.
But with Starfire standing there, no longer an Amazon Warrior but a giggling schoolgirl trading secrets about boys and very obviously matchmaking in her head now the crisis was over … oh God.
Bumblebee was almost sure there were more words than that after she came round, but instead Starfire was suddenly gone and she was alone in a darkened room with someone was knocking on a door that wasn't hers like she had a right to give them permission to enter. Sure, she'd been in charge of this Tower while the owners were away, but that was just house-sitting. They were back now, and that made her … what? Redundant? Surplus to requirements?
What was it about head injuries that set the bad thoughts rolling and cut the wires to their brakes?
She'd expected Aqualad, or maybe Robin. She'd hoped it was either of them, or Mas y Menos. Someone she could deal with while also contending with a headache the size of Beijing.
Of course, because of that, it wasn't.
"Cyborg!" She struggled to sit up again, ignoring the light-headedness it induced. "Hey!"
"How you feeling?"
He smiled in a way that told her he was trying to disguise the thought that, actually, she looked like crap. Dog crap. The kind that'd been sitting on the pavement for a week, then been taken home and warmed up in the microwave, put in a bed and passed off as a beaten up teen superheroine.
Stupid head injuries.
"I brought aspirin."
"I love you and want to have your babies." She grabbed the box and glass of water he held out, popping two capsules and knocking them back in the same movement. "The Brotherhood?"
"Nothing but a bad memory. We're looking to recon their base, get the data to shut down their long running operations and siphon it to the authorities so they can properly contain them if they thaw, but eventually we hope to fill in the whole place with concrete."
"Hallelujah!" She raised a hand and smiled. "Now maybe things can get back to normal."
"Should be a lot easier now most of the supervillain community is on ice. Literally."
"Please, no more bad puns."
He looked at her with his good eye. It was an 'And What Exactly Passes for Normal in Your Life These Days?' look, remarkably similar to Starfire's delighted sparkle. Man, was there a conspiracy going on? The big threat of the past year was suddenly gone so everyone needed something to fill the void and her personal life was it?
"Sparky, you look at me like that and I might wanna find a new place to stick your batteries. An uncomfortable place."
"Look at you like what? What look?"
"A cat who's eaten the canary look. Only smugger."
"I look like I'm about to hawk up a mouthful of damp feathers?"
"Oh, ha ha, a comedian. You know what I'm talking about."
"I didn't say anything."
"You know. Jersey Girl out there already gave me that look once today, and," she took a breath – Cyborg liked the truth and she could let a bit go if it meant he dropped this pronto – "and I've seen it in the mirror a couple of times. I don't like it. Doesn't suit. Wipe it off."
Cyborg frowned. "Why do you do that?"
"Give everybody nicknames. It's like you can't be bothered to learn their real names."
"That's not it, I just … it's habit, that's all. Nothing big or clever or oh hell you're psychoanalysing me while I'm laid up and can't get away." She whapped his arm. "Stop it."
"It's like you're … afraid to get close to people."
Big fat insight, right there. And no way in hell was she going to let him know that.
"I know that it ticks you off. That's a good enough reason." Her grin was slightly hollow, but only slightly, and if she was lucky he wouldn't realise. "Sparky."
He frowned again, but smiled at the same time and ruffled her hair. That was when she realised one of her buns had come undone and half the hair from it was scorched right up the left side. Frizz city with a side order of nasty charred bits that had broken off and stayed behind on her pillow. Man, she must look dreadful with this and the torn clothing and bloodstains. Still, if you could say you came through a major free-for-all between Good and Evil with only a bad hair day, you were damn lucky.
Cyborg said, "You know, your team kicked up a real racket when you fainted."
"I did not faint! Fainting's for girls. I passed out."
"I hate to break this to you, Bumblebee, but you kind of are a girl. And from what I could see, you're a girl whose team loves her enough to threaten Robin and Raven with bodily harm if they didn't fix you. That's as well as forcing Kid Flash to spirit Jinx to safety when she made some crack about you being a wuss."
"'Fraid so. Well, one of them did, at least. The others tried to pacify him, but to be honest they didn't try very hard. And if you ask me," Cyborg leaned forward conspiratorially, and the logical part of Bumblebee's brain wanted to know what he was doing here talking to her when he probably needed to debrief and repower and hadn't even seen his Tower or city in so long. "If you ask me, they couldn't get a better leader than you, and I'd have been disappointed in them if they hadn't kicked up a racket for you."
She shrugged around the swell of pride in her chest. She felt herself being sucked towards an old, familiar pattern of hero worship for Cyborg and hastily pulled herself back. You couldn't hero worship a guy who left gunk from his experiments in the drains and didn't tell you he was leaving miniature robots wandering the halls before he went away. Still, the glow she got from his words was more because it was him and there was a lot of history to give this moment extra zest.
She sipped water, partly to moisten her dry mouth, and partly to hide the satisfaction written all over her face.
"I think Speedy might be in love with you."
One perfect spit-take later, she was painfully aware this wasn't the most attractive thing she'd ever done. "Sorry!"
"It's okay." A small buffer popped out of his left index finger and made the offending area shine.
"I just thought you said Speedy's in love with me."
She stared at him. Then she looked at the box of aspirin. "Are you sure these are on the up-and-up?"
"You heard me right, Bumblebee, and I know this isn't news to you."
The wellspring of apprehension inside her tightened into alarm. "Funny, because I didn't know I was supposed to already know it."
He fixed her with a look that verged on irritated.
She dropped her gaze.
"Robin and Starfire are good together. So were Beast Boy and Terra."
"Yeah, until she went postal and tried to barbeque him and half the city."
"Okay, bad example. But Star and Robin, they're solid. Dating within the team can work. I mean," he gestured expansively, "who else would be able to put up with our kind of lifestyle?"
"Except they're not really dating, are they? They're tiptoeing around each other, pretending they're not in an official relationship when everyone knows how they really feel about each other."
"I can't believe I'm having this conversation."
"Believe it. Everybody else has been able to see this for a long time."
"See what? I hate the guy. I can work with him, but a relationship? Dating? So not in the master plan I had for my life." She felt the skin crawl along the nape of her neck. The horror of the plain fact she was talking about this,and with Cyborg of all people … it pressed against the backs of her eyes and clogged her throat. She looked down and realised she'd gripped the aspirin box so tight it'd crumpled and half the tablets popped onto the bed.
This was too real, too disconcerting, too dangerous. Speedy? A few thoughts she'd been sitting on for months waved at her and she hastily sat on them again, but they'd morphed into pink elephants and stubbornly refused to go away or let her ignore them anymore.
When Cyborg spoke again it was in a soft voice she'd heard him use only a handful of times. "Ever since I met you, Bumblebee, you've been this force of nature trying to be the best, whether than was the best spy, the best bloodhound, or the best leader. You work so hard to be the best that you're kind of intimidating. And scary." He held up his hands. "Sorry, but you are. You set the bar so high for yourself and expect the same level of commitment from everyone else, and then you get pissy if it doesn't happen. You want fast results and blame yourself if they don't come fast enough, then run yourself into the ground to make them come faster. The first time I went back to Steel City after handing the reins to you, I felt like such a spare part, I couldn't wait to get out of there. You're good at what you do, but …" He motioned helplessly.
Her anger was coiling, ready to strike. It was only because this was Cyborg that she held herself in check – that and he, Cyborg, had just paid her the most bittersweet compliment she'd ever received.
"You gotta learn to ease back a bit. Being the best Titan you can be doesn't mean only being a Titan. You can be a Titan and other things as well." He exhaled. "This is really difficult to put into words, and I'm running out of time before Robin wants me back upstairs to stop our guests messing up his alphabetised CD collection, but I guess what I'm trying to say is … I want you to take your emotional life off hold. See what's around the corner. It's okay to mess up sometimes."
Her mouth open and shut but no words came out. Finally she snapped her jaw up and narrowed her eyes at him. "So is this what you've been talking about while on Brotherhood stakeouts? Or was this just while gossiping to Aqualad on the communicator?"
"Don't be like that. He never volunteered anything about you except how much he respects you. I had to ask a lot of questions and be really sneaky before I suspected the rumours were true."
"What rumours? That I'm a perfectionist bitch with no life outside my job? That I intimidate people?"
"No, that Speedy fell for you but refuses, for some strange reason, to talk to you about it."
There was something wrong with this picture. Black Canary said it happened the opposite way – the Arrow clan made you fall for them by not talking about it. They got girls to do the chasing by convincing them had feelings that weren't really there. So what the heck was Cyborg talking about? Wrong, wrong, wrong –
"My guess is he thinks the same thing I do: that you'd turn him down flat because a relationship with a teammate would mess up this little world you've spent so much time building up. It'd change team dynamics and you can't deal with that."
"Sparky," Bumblebee pinched the spot between her eyes and counted to ten, "I'm making a real effort not to slap your face onto the back of your neck right now. But I do suggest you stop talking. Immediately."
"Hey, this is hard for me too! I'm no good at this romantic insight thing. If I had my way, one of the girls would be doing this, but they I insisted I was the best one to talk to you."
Because they were far more perceptive than Bumblebee, despite her also being a girl and so supposedly good at noticing things like this – especially when they were happening to her! But she hadn't ... or, if she had, then she'd promptly stuffed them into the jumbled sock drawer of her mind and shoved it closed. Maybe she could've been a bit more honest with herself when she started noticing how he ate his pancakes without wanting to whap him for ugly eating noises –
Bad thought! Bad thought!
"Are you telling me you don't have any feelings for the guy? Because if you are, then we can pretend that part of this conversation never happened, but I still want you to remember the part about pulling back and lightening up about the All Titan All the Time thing."
Okay, examining her actual emotions. For real. She could do that. Just take them out and … oh God, she was really doing this. The lockbox lid seemed to creak in her ears as she shook out the collection of memories attached to Speedy and checked them for creases.
"He's … he's an asshole," she said lamely, not convincing anyone. "He makes my life hell." Nope, still no conviction. Damn. Her own voice had turned against her. "I don't even like him. I just tolerate him because he's a good Titan. He's rude and arrogant and argumentative. He hates to obey the rules, he's told me to my face he doesn't respect me, and he …" She made the mistake of looking up and catching Cyborg's eye. "He … he … Oh God …" An image of him looking up at her on the Ferris Wheel popped into her head. She covered her face with her hands. "I don't even like the guy!"
Cyborg awkwardly patted the bed and, apparently thinking his job was done, rose to leave.
"Oh no you don't, Sparky! You don't get to open a can of worms like that on me and walk away. You gotta help me fix this."
"Convince him to like some other girl."
"I can't do that!"
"Tough. You gotta."
"Just talk to him. If you honestly don't like him, tell him. But I think we both know you'd be lying if you told him that."
More anger spiked within her, peppery and flecked with red. "Don't assume you know anything about me and my feelings, Sparky."
"I know enough to know you deserve to be happy, and I know from seeing Star and Robin, and from personal experience, that being with someone who cares for you and caring for them in return is one big happy."
"I am happy. We beat the bad guys today!"
But Cyborg just shook his head and went to the door.
"You and Speedy are both proof that all men are assholes."
"You're welcome. Raven should be along in a second. Once you're fixed up you may as well come upstairs. I have a feeling pancakes and waffles are going to happen soon. You did keep the waffle mix stocked up, didn't you?"
She reached for her Stinger, found it gone, and hurled her pillow at him.
Ten minutes later there was a knock on the door. Thinking it was Raven, Bumblebee grunted irritably. Then she remembered this wasn't, actually, her Tower and added more politely, "C'mon in, Rae-girl. No need to stand on ceremony on my account."
The door slid back. "Don't worry. I won't."
For a brief moment Bumblebee was flummoxed – honestly, truly flummoxed, the way girly-girls in romance novels get flummoxed. She'd never been flummoxed before, and didn't know how she was supposed to react, so instead she wormed her brain out from under the flabby emotion and slotted it back into its old friend: anger. "You."
"Cyborg said you were awake. I thought I'd come see how you are."
She was going to kill Cyborg. Slowly and painfully, with much use of sparkplugs and lemon juicers. "I'm fine."
Speedy shrugged. "I thought you might be. You're tough."
Was that a compliment or an observation? Damn Cyborg and him putting ideas into her head! She was still holding the mangled aspirin box and she could swear she heard a tablet inside crunch into dust in her grip. "Thanks."
Speedy looked at her oddly, like he hadn't been expecting that reply. "You sure you're okay?"
"I said I'm fine, didn't I?" She flipped back the covers, Raven be damned, and got up. She needed to be on the same level as him, not looking up from a sickbed. So it was doubly embarrassing when she stumbled and he caught her – again. She was doing a lot of that lately.
"You are so not okay. Didn't Raven come to see you yet?"
"No. Where are the others?" She pushed herself upright and changed the subject.
"Still upstairs. I was already on my way down when I met Cyborg. Starfire had a monopoly on Aqualad and Mas y Menos, though. Not one of them could get away from her."
So she was going to kill Starfire, too. Okay, okay, but how did you exact revenge on someone who could fly into a supernova and only come out singed? "Hm." Bumblebee stretched and made for the door. "Let's go rescue them, then."
"Whoa, you're not going anywhere until Raven's seen you."
"She already did."
He scowled at her. "Why do you always have to be such a hard-ass bitch?"
Bumblebee checked. Nope, no zing of pleasure from being insulted. A good sign. "The same reason you're a loud-mouthed jerk with his head so far up his own ass he could play tonsil hockey with himself."
"Jeez, I don't know why I even bothered to worry about y-" He cut himself off and levelled a look at her that would melt chrome.
Danger, Will Robinson, uncharted territory ahead. "Um," Bumblebee said, still staring at the door, "thanks. Jersey Girl – uh, Starfire told me you carried me back from the Brotherhood's base."
He shrugged. "Only because Aqualad busted his arm."
Not true. She saw Aqualad at the end before she passed out, and his arm was nowhere near broken. "No it wasn't," she said softly. Then she headed for the door.
The corridor beyond was cooler than the room, and she realised she was sweating from being cooped up. She dreaded to think how much frizzier her hair had gone as a result. So she didn't think about it, instead marching off to where she knew was the girls' bathroom. You didn't spend time house-sitting Titans Tower with a load of boys without learning the female safe havens.
She didn't stop. "What?"
He didn't answer.
She rounded on him, irritated. Another good sign. This was a dynamic she understood and could deal with. "What?"
Speedy stood in the middle of the hall, just staring at her. It was unnerving, the same way it'd been on the Ferris wheel. She refused to let him bully her with that look again, making her think stupid, girly thoughts like some … some fangirl. Black Canary talked a crock of bull, had always talked a crock of bull, and would always talk a crock of –
Oh hell, he was stomping towards her like she'd really pissed him off. Which wouldn't usually be a bad thing, except the edges of her vision were a little frayed and her thigh muscles were getting a little trembly from holding her up.
She didn't say anything more. Neither did he. She couldn't tell what was going on in his head, but she was doing some interior knuckle-cracking. There was dead silence, but the lack of sound only emphasised what wasn't being said.
"You're such an idiot."
"What?" She blinked, perplexed. It wasn't the worst thing he'd ever called her, but there was an odd note in his voice this time. It sounded like he meant it in the most fundamental way possible – not just his thoughts and mouth alone, but his skin, bone and internal organs were behind those words.
"You. You can barely stand up, but you're acting like you're still queen of this castle just because I said to stay in bed. You have a rotten attitude, Bumblebitch. Any time you can piss me off, you do, and you don't even disguise it. You have no respect for me. But this time you're playing games with your own health. I know Raven's here, but she's been healing everyone, so there's no point in taking risks when she's already running low on power."
"I'm not -"
"Shut up. Aqualad should be saying this, because you'd listen to him. But he's not, and I am, so for once you're going to listen to me. You're going to get back into that bed and wait for Raven even if I have to pick you up and dump you in it myself."
She narrowed her eyes and slid into a combat stance. "You think you could take me, Sassafras?"
"Put a sock in it. Maybe Cyborg is willing to go tippy-toes around your ego, but I'm not."
"Myego!?" Incredulity made her voice shrill. "My ego!?"
"Is there an echo in here?" He folded his arms. "Move. Now."
She couldn't help it. All her hackles were on end. Her neck felt like a cactus. "Make me," she growled, furious with him for what he was saying. She didn't have an ego and she didn't have a rotten attitude. Since when was trying to be a good Titan a bad attitude?
He moved faster than she could track, which probably said something about her injuries, but she ignored that thought. She expected a frontal assault, but he feinted and swept her legs out from under her. Before she hit the floor he scooped her up and into a fireman's lift across his shoulders.
"Hey! Put me down!"
He didn't reply, instead marching back the way they'd come.
She bounced right back out of the bed the moment she touched the mattress, ignoring the weird tingle in her belly where his skull had pressed against her. If he weren't so fastidious about his appearance, she'd put it down to fleas. Perhaps she was just allergic to his hair gel. "How dare you-"
He shoved her backwards. "Stay. Good Bumblebitch."
She teetered at the edge of the bed and brought her fists up. "I once told Cyborg there ain't a man alive who can tell me what to do."
"Will you get over yourself for once?"
"Drop dead. I don't even know why I bothered saving your ass."
He smirked. "Because it's a nice ass?"
"And you said I'm the one with the ego. I shoulda left you frozen."
"But you didn't, so now you get to reap the rewards."
Bumblebee shadowboxed three quick jabs. Sharp pain radiated from her kidneys, but she did a passable job of disguising it, keeping her attention fixed on Speedy. She had the oddest notion that if she looked away, even for a second, he might cease to be there and she'd wake up to find this all a dream. There would be no Brotherhood of Evil, no Titans East, and she'd just be just Karen Beecher, teenager. It was dumb, but so was being able to fly on gossamer wings when you weighed more than an insect.
Speedy just raised an eyebrow. "Puh-lease. Don't tell me I've got to baby-sit you until Raven comes down. Some Titan."
Bumblebee lashed out with a shoulder-high kick. Then she dropped into a crouch, palms flat on the floor, and snapped her heel out. "I'm a good Titan!"
Speedy caught her foot in his hands and grunted with the strain of holding her back. Injuries or no injuries, it was a struggle for him to twist her off balance. Her butt hit the floor and she punted her other foot into his chest. All the air whooshed satisfyingly from his lungs. Unfortunately he stumbled forwards, propelling the foot he held awkwardly to one side. Bumblebee's knee wrenched. She yelped in pain and instinctively drew back her leg. Speedy, still holding onto it, was dragged towards her. He lost his footing entirely and fell on top of her.
It was a very compromising position.
For what seemed like a long moment they froze. Or … maybe they didn't freeze. Maybe time just froze around them, so the details of the moment could properly crystallise in her memory.
When Speedy lifted his face from her chest his cheeks were pink, but he was scowling. "Stupid," he said in a (seriously?) somewhat strangled voice. Whether he meant her or himself was impossible to tell. He propped himself with a hand either side of her head and glared down at her. "Did I hurt you?"
She matched his glare. "No, but one kick in the right place and I could really hurt you right now."
The pinkness faded a little, but the scowl remained. "You cried out just now. Where's it hurt?"
"Nowhere," she snapped, even though her knee did twinge a bit. She'd had worse, though, and resolved to keep up the antagonism so he would just leave her the hell alone. Screw Cyborg and his theories. What she needed right now was to get as far away from Speedy as possible. Only then would she be able to regroup and reassess what she did next.
Which was why Speedy suddenly leaning in and planting one on her was really not helpful.
He drew back, looking as stunned as she felt. "Oh, God…"
"Huh?" Okay, so, not the best response ever, but all her brain felt up to. Romance novels described kisses like a fruit and candy counter – peaches, strawberries, mint, chocolate. The aftertaste of Speedy's kiss was soda and dirt, because soap only made you look clean when you'd survived a collapsing evil headquarters.
"I really didn't mean to do that." Any possible romance died with that statement.
She pushed him off. "Then why the hell did you?"
Speedy rocked back onto his heels, scrubbing a hand through his hair and mussing it up. The effect was a lot less than rakish. Robin had no worries about competition in the spiky hair department. "I don't know," Speedy admitted. "I just … I don't know. It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"'Seemed like a good idea at the time'?" Bumblebee repeated. She didn't sit up. Her mind was working sixteen to the dozen, but her mouth was replaying the kiss in excruciating detail.
She knew her own limits in everything. That didn't mean she stuck to them, but she knew what they were, how far she could push herself before she broke. She knew where Karen Beecher ended and Bumblebee began, because for a long time now it had been mostly Bumblebee and only a little bit of Karen. Karen's problems were different than Bumblebee's; less … serious, especially after she left HIVE and moved to Steel. Who cared if you had a zit, or period pains, or a hormonal crying jag when one misstep could let the bad guy vaporise the city? So Bumblebee was up front, fighting the good fight, while Karen lay in the corner, forgotten, just waiting to be put in a box on a high shelf.
The moment Speedy covered her mouth with his own, Karen stirred. Now Bumblebee was experiencing a conflict of emotions only briefly hinted at when Cyborg first told her how Speedy felt. Then, it was just speculation. This was confirmation.
It was scarier than any goo monster or pickled brain.
So she did the only thing she could think of – the thing that had gotten her through countless problems in the past. She got angry and went on the offensive. "'It seemed like a good idea at the time'? Do you know how insulting that is?"
"I'm sorry." He sounded it too. Sad that it wasn't good enough.
She sat up and cuffed him so hard he fell into a sitting position. Her wings buzzed as she took to the air and pushed her face and jabbing index finger into his. "Sorry? Sorry? I am your teammate – your team leader. I ain't a civilian, especially one of those girls you can flirt with across a police barrier and then forget about ten seconds later. There may not be any strict no-kissing policy to being a Titan, but trying it on with your team leader just because she's a girl is a definite no-no."
Speedy's temper flared in response to hers, like one match passing the flame to another. "It wasn't just because you're a girl!"
"So you'd still have done it if I were a guy? I never knew you swung that way."
"That's not it, I just – oh, what's the point? You're too much of a stuck-up bitch to listen anyway."
"I'm listening, Sassafras. I always listen, but right now you can rest assured, you got my full attention." She folded her arms, still hovering above him. Her feet floated dangerously above his crotch. "I'm waiting for an apology."
He shifted sideways and boggled at her. "An apology?"
"Sure. I understand that surviving a huge trauma like being cryogenically frozen, then thrown headfirst into a life-or-death battle against a giant rogue's gallery can do funny things to a person. Sometimes when you realise you're still alive, you want to sing out loud, or dance, or do other dumb things you'd never think to do otherwise. That doesn't make every single one okay. You want to dance? Fine. You want to do musical theatre? Fine. You want to play tonsil hockey with me? Not fine. Get your celebratory jollies someplace else. I hear Jinx is open to romance from sleaze-balls and cheesy chat-up lines nowadays."
The eyelets of his mask had widened with every word. He choked out a laugh and shook his head, then dropped his face towards his lap and rubbed the back of his neck. "You really don't have a clue, do you?"
"Don't sass me, Sassa -"
"My name," he gritted, suddenly quiet with barely concealed fury, "Is Speedy. Not Sassafras. Not Burgundy Boy. Not Arrow-Head, or Green Junior, or Ginger Nut. Speedy."
"Shut up. This isn't just about you. I genuinely didn't mean to kiss you, but you don't have to react like I'm some dog turd to be scraped off your shoe. Didn't it cross your mind for one second that I might have kissed you for no other reason than because – Shock! Horror! – I just wanted to?"
It hadn't. Crossed her mind, that was. 'Cross' was too mild a word. The thought had actually run in circles, zigzagging this way and that, screaming and crashing into the walls of her skull and bouncing off again. She wanted to say no, but the words tasted so sour that she hesitated, and Speedy pounced on the pause.
"You have. So why the hostility?" He shook his head again. "I was right."
"Right about what?"
"The first thing you thought about was how inappropriate it was for me to kiss my team leader. You really are just a Titan with no person underneath. Everything is about the team to you, with no room for personal feelings or relationships outside that … that little box."
"Team dynamics become messy when romantic relationships get involved -"
"There's more to life than just being a freaking Titan!"
"Maybe for you." The words were out before she could stop them.
"Uh…" Stumped for what to say next (moral high ground shifting under her like an agitated tectonic plate), her eyes sought the door and she flew towards it.
Too bad for her Speedy still had his arrows.
He couldn't reach her to stop her leaving while she was on the wing, but an arrow thunked into the control panel, which fizzed and smoked. When Bumblebee attained the door it remained resolutely shut.
She rounded on him. "What the heck did you do that for?"
"Why the heck are you running away?"
"I'm not running away -"
"Yes you are. Or … flying away. Whatever." For a second he looked confused, but shook it off. "But you're not going anywhere until we've finished talking."
"We're done talking. You did something stupid because you survived a great trauma. You apologised – kind of. I forgive you. Case closed."
"Like hell." He walked towards her and took a deep breath. "I like you, Bumblebee. And not just as a friend. I don't kiss my friends."
"I hope not. Aqualad may wear tights, but he's not into guys."
"Be serious. Do you know how long it's taken me to be able to say that?"
"Longer than two minutes?"
"Try a lot longer."
She folded her own arms. They weren't getting out of here until someone came to open the door or she battered it down. Her injuries forbade the second option – though the way this conversation was going, she was willing to risk it.
Speedy ran a hand through his hair, frazzled more than a slice of bacon left in the frying pan for a fortnight because it'd been too nervous to jump out in case it landed in the fire. "I … oh, shit."
"I know that."
He glared at her. "Is your opinion of me really that low?"
It wasn't, actually. The realisation was one that habitually lurked around the recesses of her brain, but now charged to the fore: You actually respect this guy! He's an idiot, and a slob, and an arrogant asshole, but you respect him anyway. You'd trust him with your life. You'd trust him not to screw up if you weren't around. You don't do that for everyone, not even all those qualified Titans upstairs. DING-DING-DING-DING! Are we getting the clue yet?
"No," she sighed. Suddenly all the fight went out of her, like someone had turned off her anger at the mains. One sharp tug of an internal power cable and her wings refused to hold her up anymore. She landed and contemplated slumping, but fought the impulse. Not yet. She still had her dignity.
Even if, apparently, she didn't have her heart.
Fuck with fucking fuck FUCK.
Fuck fuck fuckity fuck.
"You are hurt badly, aren't you? Damn it, I knew you were lying. Was it me? Did I hurt you when I landed on you?"
Just … fuck. Because while Bumblebee had been busy thinking about team dynamics, excelling at her dreams and sticking to her decisions, Karen had gone and undermined everything by falling for the big lughead.
Maybe she should just give up now and become bipolar.
You're such a moron. On the Moron Scale, there's not even a unit invented to measure the massive amount of moron-ness you possess.
Speedy was talking again, probably words, but she was so absorbed in her own mini-meltdown she couldn't register them.
Next thing she knew, he'd scooped her up in his arms and was carrying her to the bed. Her mind, inebriated with shock and dawning realisation, conjured several linked scenarios that made her heart leap, her stomach flip-flop and her brain turn into a gibbering puddle of panic.
"All right. Jeez." He dumped her unceremoniously on the bed. "Ah shit, no, you're not supposed to be that rough when someone's injured, are you? Damn. Uh, how do you feel?"
She pushed hair from her eyes and glared at him. Like I just realised I'm in love with you and want to cut off my wings and hurl myself off the top of the freaking Tower. She narrowed her eyes in outright fury and bared her teeth at him. "Fine. Go away."
"Moron." Pot, meet kettle.
Speedy frowned. He knelt beside the bed, lower down than level with her head, and reached for her injured leg. She reacted by pulling it away, wincing, and folding her arms as he inspected the knee by prodding like he actually knew what he was doing and not just making random 'aha' and 'ummm' noises.
She took the opportunity to study him. Red hair. Robin-esque mask (though God help anyone who described it that way). Stupid red bodysuit, very tight across the pectorals and butt (And where the hell did that thought come from, Miss Moron?) and still with the dinky yellow boots that'd look better on her than him. Quiver of arrows. Bow propped at the end of the bed now. Bare hands. No gloves. Just … Speedy. He didn't look any different. Nevertheless, it felt like she was looking at a whole different person wearing his skin.
"You keep saying that," he said gruffly. "But I know you're probably in agony and not saying anything, because that the kind of stupid half-assed way you take care of yourself –"
"That's not what I meant."
Speedy froze. He actually froze. The fingers jabbing her kneecap put frost on her pant leg. Well, practically. "So what did you mean?"
Moron. You're being a moron. Moooorooon. Hey, are you even listening to me? Pay attention. I'm your self-control, telling you you're being a moron and – "It's okay. That you like me. That way." You're not listening to me! Hey, idiot girl! Moron with the mouth! Quit talking! Quit being moronic with that moron mouth of yours –
"That's not the impression I got."
"First impressions suck. Otherwise the first impression I made on the Titans would've been Evil Minion, to be held against me forever more."
Instead, she just got labelled a turncoat and dedicated her life to proving she was more than that. Or … maybe the label was all in her head, but it was all much of a much at the moment, with Speedy looking at her like that and … oh God, she was screwed. Completely and utterly screwed. In. The. Head.
She sucked in a breath. Held it. Let it out slowly.
Nope. Didn't help.
Shut up, brain.
"I'm not saying …" She spiralled a hand. "Actually, I'm not sure what I'm saying. I ain't saying nuthin'."
"Right now you sound like you're saying maybe … you feel the same way?"
"I feel like I'm in a crappily written episode of a crappy daytime soap opera. Days of Our Titans, maybe? The Young and the Superheroic?"
"All My Titans?"
"General Hospital: Titans Tower Edition?"
She stopped. "Yes?" Her tone was anything but fierce. It was a shadow of her usual fierceness. Where had all her fierceness gone? She was suffering a fierceness deficit here!
She was also babbling. And to herself, in her own head, where nobody else could even hear her. So not a good sign.
Speedy's attention was fixed on her. She refused to squirm, thanking the stars her stomach wasn't on show, since it refused to listen to her refusal and went ahead with squirming anyway. Stupid internal organ.
"Are you telling me," Speedy said slowly, "that you'd be willing to give it a chance? To give me a chance as more than just your teammate?" He sounded hesitant. When had he ever sounded hesitant before? Had he ever? The degree of power this gave her over the situation – over him – was shocking. Speedy was showing her a side of himself she'd seen only rarely, and then only slivers of it. Who knew the arrogant, conceited, vain know-it-all could be vulnerable? That he was acting this way because of her left her gawping like a dead fish.
"Yes or no, Bee."
"Can I phone a friend? Ask the audience? Go fifty-fifty?" She swallowed hard at his expression. "Okay, okay, okay." Screw up your courage, girl. You screwed up everything else already, so why not?
Maybe it'll even be worth it.
This tiniest of thoughts was the last push she needed. Funny how, when you were standing on a precipice, a little nudge could send you over the edge just as well as a gigantic shove.
"Yes. I am willing to give you a chance to be more than just my teammate."
Speedy's face did one of those shifts she'd come to know so well – sliding into a grin that would put the Cheshire Cat to shame. Usually she'd say it was his ego-coming-home-to-roost look, but not this time. The corners of his mouth weren't so stiff. It seemed altogether more genuine.
Still looking only at his mouth, she leaned forward and kissed him. She felt his surprise in the way he jumped, but he didn't pull away. She broke off after only a few seconds.
"Better than a spit-shake for dealing the deal. Right?"
"Definitely." Speedy frowned. "The deal?"
"Think of it as you being on probation. You screw up, mess me around, try to pull anything or take me for a mug, and I kick your skinny white ass to the kerb faster than a sixty-a-day smoker getting rid of a cigarette butt while lighting up the next lil' cancer stick."
His frown deepened. Bumblebee immediately regretted her words – or at least the brusqueness of them. He wasn't angry, though. He was offended. Who knew that was possible? It made her feel even worse, which was a nasty surprise. What were you supposed to say when someone sliced open their heart in front of you and gave you a guided tour of their vulnerabilities?
"Sorry," she muttered.
His face cleared. "It's okay. You're new at this, after all."
"Hey, I've had boyfriends before!"
"So I'm your boyfriend now?"
She blinked. "Probationary … significant other," she eventually settled on.
"Oh yeah. That doesn't sound too cold and clinical."
"And what's your suggestion?"
"Your arm-candy. Sorry, probationary arm-candy."
"Ugh. And you thought my idea sucked."
Speedy pressed the knuckles of both hands against his temples and rubbed in small circles. "Typical. We can't even get through figuring out what to call each other without fighting."
"You knew that about me when you started this. About us. About the way we work. The way we are around each other. That ain't gonna change just because we try mixing romance and junk in there too."
Speedy didn't say anything for a long moment. He was plainly weighing his options, as if he hadn't considered this before.
A brief spasm of panic went through Bumblebee, followed by surprise and confusion. The relationship wasn't even five minutes old and she was already getting clingy? Ugh, ugh and triple ugh. Now she had to find a fresh balance between being the strongest version of herself she could be and not falling into the pitfalls of dating.
Dating. Scary word. Scary like 'relationship'. Scarier than 'danger'. Scarier than 'supervillain', or 'emergency situation', or 'red alert'.
Scarier than 'Brother Blood'?
In its own way, yes.
She tried to swallow the lump in her throat, but it didn't go until Speedy spoke again.
"I don't think I'd want it to. That wouldn't be the girl I fell for. You're you, and I'm me, and we'll just have to find a way to work with that." He shrugged. "Or we should write our own obituaries now for when we kill each other, to make sure the newspapers print only the good stuff."
"I can work with that."
It wasn't the most starry-eyed way of beginning a romance. There weren't any hearts and flowers, but there was a lot of honesty, and for them, that was worth a whole lot more. Balance was key, and you can't ever make life's seesaw lay straight if you don't preserve the equilibrium of good and bad in it. Bumblebee was getting used to balancing the different aspects of her life, her personality, her identity, her past and her future. She could handle this too.
After all, she was the best there was at whatever she turned her hand to, right?
One year after becoming leader of Titans East, Bumblebee's life centred around three things: her team, her city, and a know-it-all, arrogant, compassionate and surprisingly tender idiot called Speedy. She knew that, from this point on, she would make whatever sacrifices were necessary to ensure she didn't have to choose between these things, and that she would protect each of them until the last breath left in her lungs.
Bring it on, world. She was Bumblebee. She was Karen. She was whoever she damn well wanted to be. She was best at whatever she believed she was best at, and she was ready to kick the ass of whoever tried to tell her different.
In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt.