The whoosh of the zeta-tube faded along with the announcement. The base should have been silent, and to most ears, it would have been, but Conner could pick up the distinct sound of a pencil scratching on paper. That was strange; nobody had been called in today, and since M'gann had found her own apartment with Gar, the living quarters should have been empty too.
It could be Wally or Artemis, Conner thought. He walked further inside, dropping his backpack on the couch and pausing to give Sphere a pat 'hello' as he passed her. Both of them had been known to drop in on occasion to study in peace, away from the other. But the sound was only a pencil on paper. There was none of the quiet munching on chips that was always present when Wally was studying. Neither was there the light scuffing of boots against the chair legs that Artemis probably didn't know she did when she was deep in thought.
He turned the corner into the kitchen. A small girl was sitting at the table, her legs dangling off the chair, black hair up in pigtails, a textbook on the table and her focus wholly on the notes in front of her.
Conner lingered for a moment, unsure how to deal with this development. The girl did not belong here. As far as he could tell, she was a civilian. It looked like she had just wandered in, dropped her pink backpack as carelessly as Conner had on the floor beside her, and made herself at home. Except that should be impossible.
"Um," said Conner, by way of greeting. "Hi?"
The girl glanced up briefly before returning to her book. "Hi."
Conner walked into the kitchen, still frowning at her in confusion. "Hi," he said again. Then, for lack of other ideas, "Who are you?"
She blinked up at him with big eyes. "I'm Milagro. Who're you?"
"I'm Conner." He stood at the other side of the table. "What are you doing here?"
"Homework," said Milagro. She scowled at her notebook. "I hate math."
"No, I mean what are you doing here?"
"Oh." She put her pencil down and looked back up at him. "Jaime had to go to work."
"Jaime brought you here?"
"We were supposed to go to the library," said Milagro, disapproval all over her voice. "But Jaime got a call from work so he sent me here instead. If I finish my math he's gonna take me out for ice cream later."
"Oh," said Conner. He pulled out the chair in front of him and sat down across from Milagro. "You took the zeta-tube?"
"Mhmm," Milagro said, putting her attention back on her homework. "Last time I was here, Nighting gave me an ID number."
Nighting? Conner repeated silently.
"Only I can't be a hero yet, 'cause I'm only eight."
"Nightwing started when he was eight," Conner said, emphasizing the W. "And I'm only six."
Milagro looked up again, frowning. "You don't look six," she said accusingly.
"I, uh, eat a lot of vegetables," Conner said with a smirk.
Milagro still looked skeptical, but she didn't argue. She instead fell deep in thought, and Conner suddenly wondered if he'd just caused a lot of trouble for Jaime when it came to keeping his little sister out of danger.
"So you want to be a hero, huh?"
Milagro nodded vehemently.
"You know how to fight?"
"Not yet," she said, as if it were obvious. "Mom's signing me up for karate lessons after school, though. And Robin taught me to do a backflip already. Wanna see?"
"Sure," Conner said with a shrug.
Milagro beamed at him before scrambling out of her chair. She braced herself, brow furrowed in concentration as she prepared, and then actually proceeded to pull off a farily well-exectued backwards handspring. It was far slower than any he'd ever seen Tim or Dick do, unbalanced and leaving her well open to attack, but a very impressive start for an untrained eight-year-old. She raised her arms in the air like a gymnast sticking a landing and Conner clapped accordingly.
"Good job," he said. "Robin taught you that?"
"Uh-huh," she said, coming back to her chair breathing heavily but grinning widely. "I fell on my butt a lot first, though. He had to show me real slow, but I've been practicing since then."
"Was that here, too?"
She shook her head. "Jaime has his work friends over a lot. I like it when they come. Look."
Milagro pulled something out from under her shirt and up over her head. She held it out for Conner to see: a beaded necklace with a colorful rock and a bright red feather.
"Bart gave me a piggy-back ride and we went to Machu Picchu," she explained. "We bought souvenirs. Jaime was soooo mad!" She giggled. "I think he's just jealous he couldn't keep up so he didn't get to come."
She looked back down at the table and started fiddling with her hands. "I never get to go anywhere with Jaime though. He thinks it's too dangerous."
Conner scratched the back of his head, not sure how to respond to that. Most of the places Jaime went as Blue Beetle were too dangerous for a little girl. "He's not doing it to be mean," he said. "He probably just… didn't think you wanted to come. I mean, he's never invited me over to his place either."
Milagro looked up and leaned over the table to hold his hand, empathy in her big brown eyes. "Is it because you're only six?" she asked. "Jaime always thinks he's too old to play with me and my friends any more."
"Um, yeah," Conner said, stifling a laugh. "That must be it."
"We're having another barbeque on Saturday," Milagro said firmly. "You can come as my friend, if you want."
"Good!" she said, grinning. "Do you want to color with me?"
"What about your homework?"
"I'm almost done," Milagro said, closing the books and pulling out some blank paper and colored pencils from her backpack. "It doesn't matter if I finish now, Jaime'll take me out for ice cream anyway. He always does."
She passed him some paper in a messy pile and dumped the pencils out in the middle of the table so they both could reach them. Milagro immediately selected a green pencil and sat back to begin scribbling madly on her paper.
Conner watched her for a moment before reaching forward to rifle through the paper himself. Some of them already had drawings on them.
"What are these?"
Milagro looked up at the drawings. "Those're my hero designs," she explained. "I haven't decided what kind of hero I'm gonna be so I tried a bunch of different ideas."
"See," she said, leaning over the table to dig out a piece of paper from the bottom of the pile with some blue figures on it, "This was my first one. This is Jaime, and this is me."
She pointed to a rather scribbly rendition of Jaime in his armor, and then to a smaller version that looked about the same, but with pigtails and a mask instead of full face armor.
"That was before he told me he can't share Khaji Da. So then I thought I'd get my own scarab–" she paused to dig out another paper, this one with a green design that still looked a lot like a feminine Blue Beetle, "–only Jaime says there's already a Green Beetle and I don't want to have a different color. Green's my favorite."
"Your backpack is pink," Conner pointed out. He rifled through a number of other doodles, all showing Milagro in some adaptation of another hero's costume.
"That's because I got it last year," she said with a sigh and a big roll of her eyes. "Mom won't buy me a new one because it still works. But pink is a girly color. There aren't any pink superheroes."
"There could be."
"Maybe. But I like green." She scribbled some more on her paper, green then black then orange, and held up her picture for him to see. "I was thinking of becoming a Green Lantern. Do you know how to get a ring?"
"I have no idea," Conner said honestly. It was a good picture, given how fast she'd drawn it. The costume design was one of the better ones. It would suit Milagro pretty well, he thought.
"Oh well," she sighed. "I'll ask Guy next time he comes over for dinner. He's the crazy one, but I like him. You should draw your costume."
Conner looked up at her and put down the designs. "I already have a costume."
"I've seen," Milagro said. She was radiating disapproval again. "A T-shirt is not a costume. You don't even have a mask. Or a cape."
"I don't like capes," Conner said.
"You should draw though," Milagro said firmly. "It's brainstorming. You don't have to actually wear any of them yet. I'll help you!"
She immediately discarded the Green Lantern design onto the floor and grabbed another piece of paper to scribble furiously with her black pencil.
Conner watched her for a while as she drew, switching colors seemingly at random and looking up every so often for reference. After a few minutes, he pulled the paper towards himself and straightened the stack.
He selected a blue pencil, and for a long time, the only sound in the base was the scratching of pencil on paper.