“Dick never had to deal with a registration database,” Tim Drake said, irritation clear in his voice. “Really, when did putting ‘ridiculously sexy’ under ‘other powers’ become a meme? You’d think we were all in middle school.”
“Tim, some people do have a sense of humor,” Cassie Sandsmark said, looking over Tim’s shoulder at Jason. Both of them tried not to grin; Tim had a point, even if his perfectionist tendencies were a source of amusement to his friends. When Dick had been the head of the Teen Titans, they’d always had an adult mentor whose job it was to take care of the boring official stuff. But with the first generation of Titans now more or less integrated into the League itself, and the second generation about to leave their teen years, they were a self-supporting organization. They were also no longer the Teen Titans; just the Titans these days, an auxiliary of the Justice League of America.
Now Tim was officially in charge, and among other things it was his job to make sure everyone was properly registered in the database of the main computer system in Titans Tower. And while he did have a sense of humor, for Tim some things were beyond joking. When he was operating in Red Robin mode, he was as serious as the Bat himself. And with everything going down in Gotham right now, some new masked criminal taking the gang world by storm and Batman stonewalling all attempts at outside assistance, Tim was sterner than ever.
Lucky for him, while the organizational chart might show him as official and absolute leader of the group, in actual practice the Titans were run by their own trinity: Jason and Cassie were as much in charge as Tim was. It helped that the three of them were best friends. Unlike the League, who had all met as adults and who’d had to learn to trust in one another, the Titans had met much younger, and their working partnerships were even stronger. Whereas most of the members of the League tended to think in terms of individuals or families, the Titans tended to group themselves into teams with a variety of backgrounds and powers. It wasn’t perfect, and there were still family rivalries—you couldn’t have Bats and Arrows on the same team without a Wonder or a Super to stop them from head-butting each other—but it was an excellent level of teamwork nonetheless.
“You know, if you just leave it like that, eventually they’ll get embarrassed enough to change it,” Jason said. He was often the conciliatory one in their set; he preferred to lead by example and remain mostly hands-off in terms of rules and enforcement. Tim, raised under Batman’s rigid discipline, preferred a clear set of guidelines and punished infractions with Bruce’s brutal fairness.
“And then Oracle will conduct a random sweep of our database, because she’s just as much a control freak as Tim is, and we’ll get yelled at,” Cassie pointed out. She was a born mediator, capable of being as serious as Tim or as mellow as Jason, and choosing her position to suit the situation. Only Cassie could convince Jason to give someone a well-deserved dressing-down and talk Tim into letting mistakes—especially his own—slide.
“Fine,” Jason said with a sigh. “Let’s split the database in thirds and go through them individually. It’s probably a good idea to audit this stuff periodically, anyway.”
The main computer bank could function as three terminals, which was how they went about combing through the system. After ten minutes, even Jason was growing annoyed with the amount of silliness he kept finding. “After this, one of us keys everything in,” he muttered.
“I told you they weren’t capable of being professional,” Tim shot back. “Look what—”
His sentence was cut off by Right Said Fred blaring from Cassie’s monitor. Wonder Girl leaned back in her chair, laughing so hard tears started to run from the corners of her eyes. “What the hell is that?” Tim snapped.
Still snickering, Cassie managed to say, “I think we found the source of the problem.” She pointed at the screen, where Dick Grayson’s profile shot had been replaced by a photo shot from the back and cropped above the waist and below the knees.
Tim glared at the screen, and saw that the line for ‘Main Powers’ now read ‘Bat Ass’. “I hate him,” Tim growled.
“The song must be embedded in the image,” Jason said. “Cassie, if you delete it….”
“Gotcha,” she said. As soon as the image disappeared, the music vanished too. “Now what are we going to do for a picture of Nightwing?”
“Here,” Tim said, typing quickly. A moment later the photo was replaced by a drawing known all over the internet as ‘troll face’. Under it in all caps was the message ‘U MAD BRO?’ While Cassie and Jason chuckled at the joke, Tim added ‘Marsha Brady’ to the line for aliases.
“Think we figured out who was behind all this?” Jason asked, still laughing. Unlike most of the Bats, Dick had a sense of humor and would laugh when he found out about the prank.
Tim shook his head. “Dick messed around with his own info, but he doesn’t have the hacking skills to change everyone else’s profile.”
“Babs,” Cassie said with surety. “There’s no system she can’t breach, and ours isn’t meant to be secure from Watchtower. I think we should just be happy she and Dick got along for long enough to mess with us.”
“Oracle wouldn’t stoop to a juvenile prank like this,” Tim said.
“Hmm. Depends on who was egging her on.” Cassie raised one eyebrow at him. “She might do it just to see how good our security is, and how long it would take before we noticed.” She might also have done it to see how Tim would react, and gauge his level of obsessive focus.
“Maybe we should let her know we’re on to her?” Jason said thoughtfully. With that he brought up her profile, and scrolling down to the section for ‘Skills’, added a phrase to the middle: ‘pestering the junior league’.
That got a few snickers, even restoring Tim’s good humor. “While we’re at it, let’s back up the database just in case she decides to wipe all of our data,” he said. “I can live without the ‘you should be prepared for anything’ lecture.”
“So, your name is Raven?” Kala said, skepticism dripping from her voice.
“Yes,” the bass voice rumbled. The drummer standing in front of her was easily six foot five, and probably didn’t weigh much more than she did. The mesh shirt he wore allowed pale ribs to show through, but unlike every other drummer she’d interviewed, no tattoos adorned his skin. His head, however, was shaved except for one circular patch of hair high on his skull, which had been grown out longer than her own hair, bleached, and dyed a bright, unnatural blue. As far as looks went, he wasn’t unattractive, but the studiously-cultivated sneer of disdain that many Goth kids affected wasn’t doing him any favors.
Sebast, lounging beside her, cut Kala a look. The search for a drummer had led him to coin Vélez’ Theorem of Logarithmic Weirdness: musicians were weirder than the general population, Goth musicians were weirder than other genres, and drummers of any genre were weirder than guitarists or bassists or keyboardists. Therefore Goth drummers were outright freaks. The expression in his green eyes seemed to suggest that this one was even stranger than most—though not their last candidate, who had brought his wisdom teeth in a jar of alcohol to the interview.
Kala looked up at the young man and said flatly, “Fun fact: if you yell ‘Raven, you’ve won the door prize of ten thousand dollars!’ at a Goth concert, half the crowd will die in the stampede. So no, I don’t believe your name is Raven. Try again.”
“I believe in the individual’s right to express themselves through their name,” he told her.
“Yeah, and I believe in having your accurate legal name on contracts and tax forms,” Kala shot back. “Let me see your ID.”
“If you’ll let me see yours, ‘Kala’,” he retorted.
“Fine by me.” She reached into her purse for her wallet, and exchanged it for the drummer’s. One look at his license, however, showed her why he’d changed his name. “Nedrick? Wow.”
“Hey, your name really is Kala,” he said, handing her back her license. “Yeah, I don’t really go by my real name. Ever.”
Sebast looked at Kala. This one had the best jam session with the band of any of the applicants, and the fewest strange personal habits. She arched an eyebrow at him, and he shrugged. “Unfortunately you don’t look like a Raven. Guys named Raven are always douchebags. So welcome to the band, Ned.”
“No one ever heard of a drummer named Ned,” he muttered darkly.
“Then you’re unique,” Morgan piped up, stepping into the back of the van where the rest were sitting, trying to avoid the swampy heat. “New Orleans Ned, the legendary bayou percussionist. We can swing that.”
Ned folded his tall frame to sit on the running board of the van. “I guess. What kind of deal are we talking, here?”
Kala ran down the standard contract she and Sebast had hammered out, with some help from a lawyer who owed her mom a few favors. The whole time she was discussing clauses with Ned, Sebast was looking over her shoulder at Morgan, giving him his best Latino smolder. Finally, Morgan had had enough. “Quit it already, Sebast. Even if I swung that way, it’s too goddamned hot. Ned, how the hell do you survive in this?”
Ned just laughed, a more genuine laugh than the studied chuckle they’d heard before. A touch of southern accent surfaced in his words as well. “This is only spring, Yankee. Wait ‘til July, August, when the temperature’s pushing a hundred and ten and the humidity’s ninety-eight percent. You can fry an egg on the sidewalk, then. People cut their lawns at six-thirty in the morning, ‘cause doing it at noon is asking for a heart attack.”
“Note to self: never tour the South in summer,” Kala said. The heat didn’t bother her so much, but the humidity did make her feel like she was breathing through a wet towel.
“It’s no worse than Ponce in the summer, mami,” Sebast chuckled. “That’s why all the Latin people sleep in the middle of the day. We’re not stupid enough to go out in the heat and die.”
“All right, that’s about it,” Kala said, passing Ned the papers and holding out a pen. “Sign on the dotted line at the bottom of each page, and we’re good to go.”
“What I want to know,” Morgan said as Ned signed, “is when you’re going to hire a guitarist.”
“Oh, darling, how would we ever find one better than you?” Sebast purred.
“You’d better look harder. I won’t always be here,” Morgan insisted.
Sebast leaned toward him, as if about to place one finger over his lips—but not actually touching him. “Shh, don’t talk. I know you’re afraid of commitment, but so am I. It’s gonna be okay, papi.”
Morgan just gave Kala a long-suffering look, and she smiled back at him. Before she could comment, Ned asked, “Does he do that to everybody?”
“No, just the pretty metro boys,” Sebast shot back. “You’re safe unless you eat a dozen cheeseburgers and pick a hair color that doesn’t glow in the dark.”
Ned just shook his head and finished signing. “Well, here we go. For better or for worse.”
“For better,” Sebast cut in. “Trust me, mano, this band is going somewhere.” Kala only grinned, and her best friend returned the look. If determination counted for anything, they were going to strike it rich someday.
“Ames! Where the hell are you!” Lois shouted into the phone.
“Uh, Forty-fifth and Main…” the hapless reporter answered.
“You’re supposed to be on Sixty-Eighth and McNeill! Get moving, Ames, speeding tickets are part of the job!” Lois flung the phone down and swore a few times, pausing only to glare across Perry’s office and into Clark’s.
He was talking to that young brunette who’d just gotten promoted from intern to reporter. Lois narrowed her eyes; if Krista Rhodes had worked for City, she would’ve been Lois’ favorite. She was intense, dedicated, and had a true reporter’s insatiable curiosity. Since she worked in International, and worse, she listened to Clark when he sent her out after what was rightfully a City story, Lois loathed the sight of her.
Her own up-and-coming star of the City department, Phillip Murray, was currently running down a story. Sure, it had begun in the Qurac embassy, but the meat of the story was the corruption right here in Metropolis. So it was City’s story, and Smallville had better give up this crazy idea he had of stealing it.
Perry referred to the ensuing squabble as Lois and Clark ‘fighting like two cats in a sack’. He also smiled like it was his idea, and Lois shot him a vicious look too. This was her story, her department would land it, and her protégé’s name would be on the byline. Everyone else just needed to get the hell out of her way.
Speaking of which, she needed to check up on him. Lois dialed Phillip’s cell, and he answered in distracted tones. “Phil, how goes it?”
“Pretty good, boss. I’ve got a lead on the buyer. At this rate we might even find the drugs and the state secrets before the cops do.”
Lois smiled broadly. “Attaboy. Just keep your eyes peeled. I don’t want any other reporters scooping us. Especially not from my own paper.”
Murray barely stifled a cough—or a chuckle, Lois couldn’t really tell. “I will, boss. Don’t worry.”
Lois broke the connection before she could growl at him. Don’t worry. Yeah, right, with that sneaky underhanded devil over there in International, and his pet reporter too—
—said pet reporter who was suddenly no longer visible in the bullpen—
—Lois cursed under her breath and snatched up her phone, calling Ames back. “Forget about the stolen jewels for now. I’ll have someone else follow up. I want you to head back here and try to spot a tan Honda Civic somewhere between the Planet and Embassy Row.”
“A tan Honda Civic? Isn’t that Rhodes’ car?” Ames asked, confused.
Lois smiled evilly. “Yes, it is. And she’s trying to scoop City’s story, so I want you all over that car like white on rice, got it? Do whatever you have to do to keep her from snatching our story.”
Leaning back in her desk chair, Lois smiled devilishly at her husband across two offices. So he’d tried to sneak his star reporter past her, had he? There was no fooling a Lane, and he ought to know it by now.
She had no idea that Perry was watching them both, and keeping an eye on the internal company instant-messaging service. The betting was running heavily toward Lois and Clark ending up in the supply room together by lunchtime.
The setting sun turned the stream to gold, and the shadows of the trees stretched from one bank to the other. Martha hadn’t had any luck with midges, in spite of how many of them were dancing above the water, so she tied a ‘watermelon’ fly on her line. Bright pink and green, it looked like nothing in nature, but Ben had a theory that some flies just made the fish mad enough to hit them.
Sure enough, she connected on her second cast into the quiet water below an old snag. “Got a good-sized one on the line,” she called over her shoulder to Ben.
“Good. One more and we’ll have dinner in the pan,” he called back.
She played the fish delicately, letting the elasticity of the rod do the work for her, and reflected on the past few years. The days of traveling across states for good fishing were done, but there were streams and ponds enough on their land to keep them entertained. Instead of towing the camper to Montana and Idaho and once, even to Washington, they just brought their personal Hilton, as Ben called it, to the back forty. They still got to wake up streamside and fish for breakfast mere feet from their door, and they could do it all less than five miles from the house. These days, that was a perfect vacation. Though they were both active and healthy, neither of them were getting any younger.
At last, Martha netted the smallmouth bass and brought it to the bank for a quick dispatch. She handed it over to Ben for cleaning while she put away her tackle, and then breaded his earlier catch and got the frying pan heated up on the coals of their campfire. Four beagles watched the procedure avidly, certain that a filet or two would come their way. “You’re delusional, kids,” Martha told them, setting four tails wagging hopefully.
Ben handed over her bass, which was given the same simple treatment as his bluegill, and then they sat down to a meal of fish, potatoes wrapped in foil and baked in the coals, and salad vegetables picked that morning in their garden. “No five-star restaurant in the country has it this good,” Ben pronounced, and Martha smiled.
As if on cue, Martha’s cell phone rang. Laughing, she answered it. “This is Martha Hubbard.”
“Hi, Grandma,” Kala’s cheerful voice said. “I hope I’m not interrupting dinner.”
“Well, darling, you are, but if you don’t mind me listening with my mouth full, we’ll be all right.” That got a giggle that hadn’t changed since Kala was six, and Martha leaned back in her camp chair while her granddaughter filled her in on the news.
“…and Jason is still moping after Elise. They’re supposed to be taking time off for college, and he’s got her picture in his wallet. It’d be pathetic if it wasn’t so cute. So how’re you and Grandpa Ben?”
“Oh, we’re doing tolerably well,” Martha told her. “Camping by the brook tonight, and having fresh-caught fish for dinner. With a beagle between my feet trying to tell me he hasn’t eaten in weeks, poor thing.”
Kala laughed. “They’re all like that, aren’t they? Hey, the band is going to play Amarillo in two weeks, and I thought Sebast and I would swing up through Kansas on the way home. Mind if we stop by?”
“Not at all, darling! We’d love to have you both. Maybe I can pack you up a beagle to go. I hear all celebrities are carrying dogs these days.” Ben mock-scowled at her and the dogs inched closer, eyeing her plate.
“Now that would set a trend. Only problem is, the beagles like to try and sing along whenever I hit a high note.” They teased back and forth a little longer, and eventually Martha passed the phone to Ben so she could finish her dinner.
When she dreamed of grandchildren, Martha had imagined a boy like Jason, or perhaps a girl like Kristin. Kala was something else entirely, such a sweet and loving little girl who’d grown into such a polished and pretty young woman. Even if she did tend to hide her beauty under a pound and a half of makeup. Martha didn’t even bother to worry about Kala’s sense of fashion, since she might as well have lived in another world. After all, most Smallville residents bought their clothes from one of several catalogs: Sears, Land’s End, L.L. Bean, and Cabela’s all featured prominently.
Then again, she’d given up on worrying about Kala’s appearance during the girl’s late teens, when her hair had been a different jelly-bean color every time Martha saw her. She’d never forget the day Kala had walked in the door with bright purple hair, streaked with pink. Martha had been startled into saying, ‘Your hair looks like an Easter egg!’ and Kala had laughed and hugged her. It had actually been charming, once she got used to it, though the town gossips bemoaned the fact that other girls started streaking their hair funny colors once Kala paraded it around town. Silas Lang had even briefly carried something called Manic Panic in the Smallville General Store.
Oh yes, Kala marched to the beat of her own drummer, but what else could anyone expect of the daughter of That Eastern Gal, as Lois was still known? Jason fit in better, spending his vacations in Smallville camping, fishing, gardening, and tinkering with old cars beside his best friend Dustin. The younger Carmichael boy was setting up to take over his father’s garage, while his big brother Wade had moved on to stock car racing, to no one’s surprise. At least Wade had finally married, to a dark-haired girl from somewhere back east, which also surprised no one in town.
On the whole, Martha considered herself extremely lucky. In her life she’d had the love of not one, but two wonderful men, a son who adored her, and a daughter-in-law and grandchildren who ensured that her life would be boring. Thanks to the way Lois and Clark had finally gotten together, Martha had also ended up part of two other families: the Whites, which allowed her to claim Lana as an in-law of sorts, and the Lanes, where she’d met one of her best friends in Ella.
She still missed Ella Lane, the sly humor masquerading beneath queenly dignity, the open-hearted love for Clark and the grandkids, and the shared frustration with their children’s stubbornness. But Martha knew that any separation was only temporary, just as she’d come to realize her parting from Jonathan was. Decades might seem long in this life, and filled with moments of fear and grief even as they uplifted by times of joy and wonder. Still, she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was something more, something greater. She had proof.
Random chance hadn’t sent Clark into her path; Martha would never believe that. He was the answer to her prayers, and because of him her life had been a long, strange, amazing journey full of marvels. And his arrival was still rippling through the world. Mere feet from her, her second husband was talking to her granddaughter, another child who by the laws of chance shouldn’t even exist, and shouldn’t have managed to grow up sane and happy with the things that had happened to her in her childhood.
As Ben chuckled at something Kala said, Martha basked in contentment. She couldn’t ask for more from her life.
Although, as a rough tongue lapped at her hand, she could wish for fewer beagles begging and howling and every other mad thing they did!