Kala and the band—plus Dustin—were still house-hunting. The first fifteen places they’d seen all had major issues. Terrible acoustics in one case, a completely stripped interior in another, structural problems in a third, the one incident where the place was clearly being lived in by squatters, and in one memorable house, Kala had opened a closet door to the consternation of five baby raccoons living inside. Yeah, no, not interested in anything that comes with furry roommates, adorable as hell or not, she thought with a chuckle.
This was the sixteenth house, and from the outside it looked like a dump. Peeling paint and an overgrown yard, but it did have a two-car garage. “Oh man, I bet there’s rats,” Robb groaned.
“Can I just wait outside?” Sebast pleaded. “I’m allergic to dirt.”
“Then I’m surprised you’re still alive. You have the dirtiest mind in the whole band,” Morgan shot back, and Sebast glowered.
“Quit bitching,” Kala said, standing on tiptoe. The realtor had said the spare key was on top of the front door frame … there. She unlocked the door and pushed it open. A very loud, very drawn-out screech accompanied the action. “Haunted as shit,” Ned muttered, but they all stepped inside.
Vaulted ceilings, for one. A damn chandelier—older than crap, but it was still a chandelier. And yeah, the place needed a cleaning, Kala could see that already. Dust kittens in the corners, faded paint on the walls, but … it had promise.
“How many bedrooms is this?” Dustin asked.
“Three, and two full baths,” Kala replied absently. They’d looked at one two-bedroom with the idea of converting the living room to an extra bedroom, but that only had one bathroom. She moved deeper into the house, finding the kitchen appliances were all avocado—but they were there. And looked like they’d been maintained.
The band spread out, exploring. The house was short on closet space, and it had a wonky hallway that was dark as hell by virtue of having no windows, but it could work. And the price for this one was right, landing in the middle of what they projected they could afford. Income-wise, they looked to be all right for the near future, what with pooled savings and the money Kala was able to use from her trust fund. Robb and Ned were already putting in applications at the mall, just in time for the seasonal ramp-up, and Dustin had done an interview.
“And now for the kicker,” Kala said, going back to the kitchen and opening the side door that led into the garage. It was dimmer in there, and she fumbled for the light switch for a moment, giving the guys time to catch up.
“Holy crap,” Sebast said, when the overhead fluorescents came on.
Kala blinked in surprise. There were lots of electrical outlets, handy for plugging in amps and microphones and other equipment. And the area was definitely spacious enough for their needs. Walking forward, Kala clapped her hands briskly, hearing an echo but none of the awful reverb the one place had had. “I think we found our practice space,” she said. “Can you guys live with the rest?”
“I dunno, it’s kinda … run down,” Robb said.
“So we paint it,” Dustin said. “This is a rent-to-own deal, right? Keep it for two years and we get equity. I bet they’ll let us paint it as long as we do a decent job. We can patch those holes in the one bedroom, too. I know how to do that.”
“Are you really just the handiest guy on the planet?” Ned asked.
Dustin laughed. “Guys. I’ve never lived in an apartment. My family’s been in the same house for three generations. Kala’s family has had the Kent farmhouse forever, practically. People like us learn how to fix things. It’s cheaper than paying someone else to do it, and the skills come in handy.”
“For the record, I know how to hang an interior door,” Kala said loftily, and when they all looked at her, she grinned. “I threw Jason through one once. And that’s why Mom stopped sending us to karate class.”
“Yeah, ‘cause you’re already a violent bitch. You don’t need extra training,” Sebast quipped.
Dustin’s head snapped around at that. He was still adjusting. ‘Bitch’ and ‘diva’ were among the affectionate nicknames Kala and Sebast called each other. Only she was ‘blanquita’, and only he got called a slut, but most of the other trash talk was equally applied. Dustin normally wouldn’t have let anyone use any of those terms about Kala without answering to him. Sebast was a special case, though.
“All right, decision time,” Kala said, smoothing over the moment. “Do we go to the realtor on this one and start the paperwork?”
“I’m down,” Ned said.
“Me too,” Dustin said.
“Why not?” Robb shrugged.
Morgan and Sebast both paused. Ned had moved away toward something on the wall; a sticker carelessly plastered by the door. “Hey guys? You ever hear of a band called the Flying Foxes?”
“Holy crap,” Kala said. “My very first non-school-sponsored public singing was to open for them! And I got to sing with them later on. We covered My Chemical Romance. Is that really a Flying Foxes bumper sticker?”
“If it is, I’m sold,” Sebast said, peering around Ned. “It is!”
“I’m in,” Kala said.
“I’ll take it as a sign,” Morgan said.
“Then come on, let’s get the ball rolling,” Kala said. At long last, it actually looked like things were coming together.
Donna was right, the photos she’d taken did worry him. Dick worried about her a lot more than she even realized. When she’d first started dating Terry Long—practically the moment she stopped being his student—he’d worried. Not because Terry was older, or because he’d been her college professor, or because Donna had met him during the tumultuous time after her powers vanished and she’d quit the Titans. No, what bothered Dick about the man was that Terry knew Donna had been Wonder Girl, and he seemed to … well, to pretty much not care.
That was different than the way Dick felt about her. He knew perfectly well who she was, and her superhero identity wasn’t the most important thing about her. The most important thing about her, in his book, was the little grin she gave only to him, the one that said, ‘We just get each other’. All the shared troubles and triumphs behind that small smile, all the late-night talks and the mid-afternoon chats. All the secrets shared and promises kept, all the times they’d been there for each other. All of that, in one little grin. That was the most important thing about Donna: she was his best friend. Even without her powers, even when she wasn’t a Titan anymore, he still called her more often than he called his girlfriends—about whom Donna teased him relentlessly.
Still, Terry obviously did care about Donna, and she was happy with him, that expansive kind of happy that made Dick’s worries seem trivial. Donna had always been the sweetheart of the team, the girl all the guys stared after. Some girls might’ve liked that, but Donna confided to Dick that it exasperated her. “I feel like they’re all looking through a soft-focus filter and none of them really see me,” she’d complained. “It’s ridiculous. I mean, a form-fitting uniform drives them all speechless. Except you.”
He’d laughed. “Where I come from, Don, spandex and spangles are basically the work uniform. It’s no big deal.”
“Sometimes I forget you’re the circus boy who ran off to the city,” Donna had replied with that grin, and Dick had hugged her. His friendship with her had always been comfortable, not like the rest of the guys. Roy and Garth had practically tripped over themselves around Donna, unless they were all involved in a serious fight that took precedence over adolescent infatuation.
Dick had asked her once, in the early stages of the relationship, why she’d chosen Terry Long. Donna had actually blushed. “Well … I spend enough time with boys. I, um, wanted to know what it’d be like, you know, dating a man. An actual pays-his-own-bills, knows-what-he-wants-and-knows-how-to-get-i
The last had made Dick laugh, and by the time the wedding was announced, he was glad to walk her down the aisle. Donna had been radiant in white, and she’d given him that smile as he handed her to Terry. The older man had obviously been delighted, and their kiss at the altar made older women sigh and kids roll their eyes.
Within the first year of the marriage had come Robert, and Donna’s life seemed complete. She finally had the normal life she’d wanted. No more capes and code names, no more super-villains, no more saving the world before she could even drive a car, no more worrying about how she was going to survive a fight when her biggest worry should’ve been what to wear to prom. Donna had had a husband, a son, a career doing something she loved, a house, and a life that was safe and sane.
Dick had stayed in touch throughout that era. He actually liked hearing about Robert’s adventures in teething, and listening to Donna debating the relative merits of oatmeal flakes versus bread crumbs in meatloaf. Through her, he had a measure of normalcy in his own life, at least for a while.
Then had come the time when he’d gone off on assignment with Koriand’r, and he’d been out of contact with almost everyone for months. When he got back, things had changed. There were new faces among the Titans, and Donna was acting distant—a first in their friendship. Dick was a little distracted by his planned wedding to Kori, and the fact that he managed to royally screw things up with Babs. Again.
By the time he’d gotten things right with Donna again, it had been too late.
Dick sighed and brought his attention back from the past, pushing a stray lock of hair out of Donna’s face. “So are you gonna show me the second set, or not?” he asked.
She looked away, and he tilted her head back to face him. At that, Donna rolled her eyes. “All right, but no lectures, okay?”
“When have I ever lectured you?” Dick teased, making a wounded face, and Donna swatted his shoulder lightly. He had been the Titans’ team leader; lecturing his teammates was part of his job description.
She led him, without further word, to the darkroom and turned on the light as soon as she opened the door. Dick wrinkled his nose at the chemical smell of developer and stop bath and fixer, a pungent reek he’d never thought he would miss until Donna set photography aside. He stepped into the room, moving past the equipment to get to the photos hung up to dry.
The very first one he saw stopped him in his tracks. The same child’s tricycle he’d seen in the last series, framed within one of the fallen leaves. Dick remembered how to create this effect; Donna had made a photo for him once using the same technique. Back then, she had first exposed the paper with the image of the two of them, and then she’d had him put his hand down over the most important part: their laughing faces. Turning the overhead light on had essentially burned everything not under his hand to perfect blackness, leaving the image framed by the shape of his hand.
In that first photo, a few areas of the leaf were missing, leaving black spots in the middle of the image, and the fragile fringes of the leaf left the edges blurred. An eerie effect, for sure, that fit with the melancholic theme of everything Dick had seen so far.
He moved on down the line, inspecting each. Richard Grayson was no art critic, so he judged art on whether it spoke to him—and what it said. These photos seemed to whisper to his soul of the beauty and fragility of life, and the profound loneliness of loss. Another image: an abandoned house superimposed over the photo of the sky, seeming to hover in a sea of clouds. And next, the same two images as the last, but this one with the sky superimposed over the house. In that version, the house looked ghostly, and the two birds from the sky shot seemed to soar right through it as if it were no more substantial than a mirage or vision.
Dick looked over his shoulder, and Donna said simply, “The first one’s too surreal. The second one is more of where I was aiming.” That didn’t surprise him, considering the events of the last year.
Walking slowly among the hanging photographs, some still damp, Dick encountered more of the shots he’d seen before, combined in novel and interesting ways. He remembered the process well enough, Donna gathering raw material in the form of negatives, and then combining them in different ways, using different techniques, to say what she wanted to say. Rarely did a single image perfectly express what was in her heart, although a few did. Dick bit his lip, thinking of the tricycle.
Behind him, glancing over her own work, Donna said, “I was playing with this idea of juxtaposing natural and unnatural images. Something about the timeless cyclic nature of, well, nature, and the impermanence of things built. You know?”
“I get you,” Dick murmured. Here was an ordinary street scene, cars parked in front of a row of shops, made surreal by the fact that the sky above had been replaced by ranks of trees growing closely together. The forced-perspective of the scene made the trees seem gargantuan, monstrous. “This wasn’t what you were after, either,” Dick said, nodding to the image.
“I’m glad you get it,” Donna said softly. “I can’t really explain it in words. If I could, I’d be a writer instead of a photographer.”
To that he had no reply. Dick had found a stark image—the lichens from the first series, with a shadowy form rising from within the dark stone. He could almost make it out, and the glimpses he got made his stomach churn. Donna didn’t elaborate about that one, but he could hear her shifting her weight from one foot to the other anxiously.
He’d almost reached the end of the line. After a few more misfires that wandered into surrealism or simply hadn’t been defined enough to see, he came to the final photo, the one Donna had been working on when he’d arrived.
Dick sucked in a breath as the impact of the photo struck him. Now he understood why Donna was so nervous. What she’d been trying to say through the others was shouted here.