Disclaimer: I don't work for DC.
Mento stomped aboard the ship, pinching the bridge of his nose in anger and frustration. As the rest of the Doom Patrol followed behind him, he snuck a glance toward the newest and youngest teammate. Beast Boy trudged next to Elasti-Girl, ears dropping, eyes concentrated on the floor. The woman had a comforting arm around his shoulders as she steered him toward the back of the ship.
The child froze at the sound of his leader's harsh voice. "Yes, sir?"
Wordlessly, he obeyed, sending a desperate look at Elasti-Girl. A pained expression crossing her face, she turned to Mento, who slightly shook his head. The child could not hide behind her, not this time.
"Do you know why I'm angry with you?"
"I disobeyed," he mumbled.
"Speak louder," he insisted.
"I disobeyed," he repeated, his voice breaking on the last syllable. "I'm sorry, Mento, sir, please—"
"Sorry isn't good enough! You cannot ignore me when I give you orders!"
"Aw, c'mon, he's new at this," Robotman interjected.
"And it's not like he's not trying," Negative Man added.
"That isn't the point." Roughly grabbing Beast-Boy by the chin, he forced eye contact. "When I give you an order, you follow it. Without question, without hesitance. You want to stay on this team? You do as I say. I will not tolerate insubordination. Do you understand?"
Mouth opening and closing rapidly, the boy finally offered, "N-no, sir."
"No?" he boomed, fingers inadvertently tightening.
"I-I-I-I d-don't know what insubordination means," he whimpered, a shudder rippling through his small body.
"Let him go, Steve." Elasti-Girl, unable to tolerate this any longer, approached the two. When the leader retracted his hand, she knelt to the child's height and gently explained, "Insubordination means disobedience. What Mento is trying to say is that you have to listen better."
Nodding furiously, he promised, "I'll always listen, sir! I promise!"
"Good." Cradling him in her arms, she faced the stoned-faced man. "See, Steve? Everything's settled."
With that, she carried the eight-year-old to her seat, where he happily situated himself in her lap for the ride home. Ignoring the smirk Robotman was sending him, Mento flew the ship back to headquarters, concentrating on his piloting rather than the scene that had just played out. As soon as they landed, Beast Boy was on his feet and racing for the exit, but before Mento could scold him, Elasti-Girl followed him, a smile on her face. "Go upstairs and bathe, Garfield," she told him, pushing the door open. "Then I'll be up to read you a story."
"Can I have a snack?" he questioned, leaping down.
"Maybe. I'll have to think about it." The rest of the conversation faded as they entered the base.
Scowling, Mento stood, even more displeased.
"Aw, our poor leader is sad that the string bean gets to spend more time with his woman than he does," Robotman teased.
"It's not that," he retorted hotly. "She babies him too much."
"He's eight," Negative Man pointed out.
"He's a hero-in-training," the telekinetic corrected. "And he should be treated as such."
The others shared a look. "Steve, tell me you're not going to say anything stupid to Rita," Robotman pleaded.
"Why would you think that?"
"Because you say whatever you think," Negative Man said, "no matter how bad it sounds."
Rolling his eyes, he countered, "I know how to speak to people, Larry."
The mummy snorted, muttering, "Sure," before he, too, left for base. Robotman was right behind him, but not before he advised, "If you're going to talk to her, try to be sensitive, okay?"
"Sensitive?" the hero grumbled to himself, trailing behind his teammates. "I'm always sensitive."
Accepting the sheer falseness of that sentence, he prepared himself for the conversation. He would need to choose his words very, very carefully.
When he saw Rita emerge from the boy's room, he called her name. Glancing down, she descended the steps, inquiring, "What's up, Steve?"
"We need to talk," he told her, gesturing to his office.
"What about?" she asked warily.
"Are you still annoyed over what happened?"
Sensitive. You have to be sensitive.
"He's young. He's going to make mistakes."
Don't make her angry. No, more importantly, don't upset her.
"It's only the second time in the field; he's only been practicing his powers for a few weeks now. You can't expect him to be perfect."
Diplomatic. Be diplomatic—
"He's not your son."
So much for diplomacy.
Rita stared at him, eyes wide, but if it was from shock or pain, he couldn't quite decipher. "What?"
"He's not your son," he repeated, opting for a straight-forward approach because he was past the point of no return. "And you can't treat him like he is. He's just a teammate."
"Just a teammate?" she repeated. "He is a child, Steve. A child who lost his family when he was only six. A child who needs to be loved."
"We're heroes, Rita. He's a hero—at least, becoming one. We cannot afford to form close connections."
"You're a hypocrite," she spat, crossing her arms over her chest. "We have a close connection."
"That's different," he objected. "When we're in the midst of battle, we're nothing more than teammates. The relationship you have with him, you don't do that. You put him first above everything. And you coddling him won't be beneficial."
"He needs me," she growled, her dark brown eyes flashing with anger. "He needs a family!"
"What if you die?" He didn't want it to come to this, but he saw that he had no choice. "He's already lost his parents once—you think he can go through that again?"
"I'm not going to die," she protested.
"You might—we all might! We face that possibility every time we face a villain. You know that."
"We can't base our actions on what might happen," she insisted, her voice softer now. "So I am not going to just treat Garfield like he's an adult perfectly capable of taking care of himself when he's not. He deserves to be loved, Steve."
"It's not in his best interests. He has to come to terms with the real world."
"You don't think he already knows how painful the real world is? He watched his parents die ; he was used by those creeps to commit crimes and beaten if he refused. He knows, Steve. What he doesn't know is that there's good, too. That he can still be loved, that he can still be cared about." Pushing past him, she concluded, "I'm doing what's best for him."
"What's best for him? Don't you mean what's best for you?"
Regret flooded him the instant the words left his mouth. Rita froze, hand on the doorknob. "What?"
"You want to play mom," he said simply, struggling to find a way to say this without sounding like a complete and total jerk. "And I get that, Rita, I swear I do. But you can't play this game with Garfield, not when so much is at stake. You're not his mother."
"Thanks for pointing that out, Steve," she sneered, but he heard the tears in her voice.
"Please, Rita, listen—"
"No!" She whipped around. "I've always wanted children. But when I got these powers, when I joined this team, I knew I couldn't have them. It was too dangerous to bring them into this kind of life. But that doesn't stop the pain. To see women with their babies, playing with their kids? It kills me inside because no matter how much I want that to be me, I know it can't." A tear broke free, tracing its way down her cheek, and he fought the urge to wipe it away. "And then Garfield came. And maybe he's a hero, but that doesn't make him any less of a child. So don't you dare tell me what I'm doing it wrong. Because he needs me and I need him."
It was too late. She was out of the room, storming up the stairs.
With a sigh, he sat down heavily at his desk and leaned his head on his hand, wishing he hadn't said anything at all.