Sebast hitched his bag over one shoulder as he walked out of the restaurant, and rode the subway still in his work uniform: black long-sleeved shirt, black dress pants, a subdued and tasteful tie. Add a blazer and he would’ve looked like a young professional, a paralegal perhaps. But anyone standing within three feet would’ve gotten a whiff that said otherwise: the smoke from the grill, and the hundreds of delectable scents that perfumed the restaurant.
The owners understood the temptation, and the staff were allowed to have any orders that got sent back, plus anything that couldn’t be saved until the next day. A smart waiter would make nice with the cooks on the line and get tidbits here and there, especially if he pitched in to clean—and shamed the other waiters into helping out, too.
Sebast, who was a very smart waiter and who had a weakness for Italian food, had gained five pounds already. The way the tips were rolling in, though, maybe he could afford a gym membership. Ladies liked him best of all, the way he could flatter without being creepy, and he’d fight any other waiter in the place to seat a four-top of women in their forties. Most of them tipped well, and so far he’d only gotten his ass smacked once.
It was a damn good job, in its own way. He’d floundered the first week, trying to keep everything straight in his head, but once Sebast found the rhythm he was fine and was quickly becoming a favorite of the regulars. They liked his personality. The rest of the staff liked him, too. Especially since the one time Amy had a table of asshole college guys sneak out without paying. Company policy was that half the bill came out of her paycheck, but Sebast had shamed the rest of them into chipping in to pay for the meal. Plus a tip. Amy had been so overwhelmed she’d started crying, which had ended up with the entire wait-staff telling her how much she was appreciated.
Sebast felt good about that—even though it was five hours on his feet dealing with customers, the bane of service –kind. And if he ever thought to bitch about it, all he had to do was talk to Kala.
He arrived at the rental house where they were supposed to practice later tonight, and found Kala lying sprawled full-length on the living room floor. “Hey, guys, I like the new rug,” Sebast called out, and Kala raised one arm wearily to flip him off. “It really matches the attitude of the place.”
“Bite me, Chupi,” Kala muttered.
Sitting down beside her head, Sebast reached into his bag and brought out a small box. “I brought you cannoli, mi Kala.”
That perked her up, though she seemed not to have the energy to eat. Sebast tenderly fed the cannoli to her, only dabbing her nose with the cream filling once. “Rough shift?” he asked.
Kala chewed, swallowed, and sighed. “The shift wasn’t so bad. The cleanup after—and dealing with the public on my lunch—that was complete ass. Why the hell did I decide to take a job in a mall during the holiday lead-up?”
Sebast shrugged, absently rumpling her hair. “It pays, mi amor. And you get a 20 percent discount. At Sephos, remember. So you can keep us both in eyeliner for the rest of the year.”
“And all the sweet little old ladies are afraid to come to me because they think I’ll put them in royal purple eyeshadow and bronze eyeliner like mine,” Kala sighed. “My regulars know better—hell, my regulars know I could use those colors subtly enough on them that it’d look good—but the new ones are a little nervous.”
“It’s better than Bed ‘n’ Bath. You’ll never have to fold a towel again. Or deal with some moron bringing you coupons from a competitor that’s been out of business for three years, and your manager gives it to them because he’s a spineless little pendejo.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Kala groaned, throwing her arm over her eyes.
“Oh, and you never have to clean out the men’s room again,” Sebast added, teasing now.
She hit him for that, her hazel eyes narrowed. “What is wrong with you guys, anyway? How freaking hard is it to just not pee on the floor?!”
“Ay! Stop it!” Sebast laughed, batting her hand away. At least she was laughing; he hated to see his girl exhausted at the end of the day. “Mira, I don’t have that problem. Most guys think it’s longer than it is. For me, well—”
He was cut off by a yelp as Kala groaned and punched his shoulder. “We are not having yet another discussion of your enormous magical equipment, Sebast. I know you think it’s the best thing in the whole world, but trust me. It’s really not that big a deal.”
“Oh but it is,” he laughed, and Kala rolled her eyes in disgust.
That was when the front door opened, and Dustin came in. Sebast could tell it was him by the sound of him hanging up his work coveralls, and the way he wiped his feet more carefully than Robb or Ned. Grinning devilishly, Sebast looked over and called out, “Dustin! I wrestled her to the floor already, come on and take advantage while you can!”
Kala sat up to swat at him, growling imprecations in English and Spanish, but she had gotten up so he counted it a win. Dustin looked at them both quizzically, and when Kala finished by using Sebast’s shoulder to lever herself to her feet, he came over to hug her. “Do I even wanna know half of what you just said?” he asked.
Kissing him, she smiled and said, “Of course not.”
“That’s my girl,” Sebast laughed.
It wasn’t an assignment. Not really, anyway, though it had been assigned to both Lois and Clark—and Jimmy, too. He probably wouldn’t have gotten drafted to this if he hadn’t snickered at the looks on their faces when Perry announced it, though.
All four of them were at the Annual Newspaper Publishers’ Association Convention in Fort Lauderdale, the location chosen more for the pleasant weather than any major relevance to the newspaper industry. Well, pleasant if you liked sun and sand and surf. Lois scoffed at all of it, and made sure everyone knew how displeased she was. Everyone. Already three out-of-state newspapermen had approached Jimmy and asked him if she was always like that.
He’d said yes with a happy grin, confusing them all. Honestly, this trip felt like the good old days. Lois and Clark had one room, Jimmy and Perry shared the other, and they had most meals together. Breakfasts, when no one was fully caffeinated, were especially amusing. Lois eyeing the waffle maker in the hotel lobby distrustfully, Clark somehow managing to trip over a chair leg and bump into the tea canister without actually knocking anything over, and Perry indulging in all the bacon and sausage and eggs that Loueen wouldn’t let him eat at home.
Jimmy came downstairs on the second morning of their week-long trip to find the others embroiled in an argument. He took one look at Lois’ blazing eyes, Clark’s crossed arms, and Perry’s glower, and decided to slink away and get some vending machine snacks instead. Eating junk food in the room was better than dealing with this. The usual affectionate complaining was one thing, but that looked like a real fight, and he wanted no part of it.
“Olsen!” Perry barked, and the photographer reluctantly turned back to the group of them. His closest friends, really. The Chief grinned fiercely. “C’mere, Olsen, let’s have an unbiased opinion.”
“Uh, Chief, if it’s anything to do with the paper I’m totally biased,” Jimmy said, trying to find a way out of whatever this was.
“Not in this case,” Lois snapped. “Fine, Chief. Have it your way. Look, Jimmy, this is the deal….”
To Jimmy’s shock—and Lois’ too—Perry cut her off. “Shut it, Lane, you won a Pulitzer for an editorial. I’m not letting you sway him from the word go.”
“I gave the damn thing back!” Lois snapped, incensed. Jimmy flinched; winning the Pulitzer Prize for Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman was still a sore point with Lois. By the way Clark’s mouth turned down, he was still hearing about it all these years later. No one ever said that Lois was anything less than tenacious.
Perry snorted brusquely. “Whatever, Lane. All right. Olsen, there’s a breaking news story back home. These two—who are administrators, I remind you—want to run back to Metropolis and take care of it themselves.”
“At our own expense,” Clark added quickly.
“Well…” Jimmy began, and trailed off. “What’s the story about?”
“International politics,” Clark replied.
In the same instant, Lois said, “Financial fraud and racketeering.”
The two glared at each other, and Jimmy groaned. Not again. He never would’ve guessed that so many stories could be claimed by the same two departments. “So what’s the problem, Chief?”
“The problem is I’m not letting these two go haring off on their own,” Perry growled, glaring at them both. “Their dime or my dime, I told them to come down here and they’re damn well gonna stay here. So I need your help keeping an eye on them. Kent might stick around if you tell him to, but Lane’ll jump the fence in a heartbeat and go running for home.”
Jimmy had to suppress a chortle at the looks on Lois’ and Clark’s faces. They looked exactly like their own twins, caught in planning some mischief, turning sullen at the realization that they’d been headed off.
Lois hadn’t given up yet. “Chief, come on. That’s a bigger story than anything going on down here. It’s just schmoozing and talking numbers. I have marketing for one and accounting for the other. I’m a reporter, dammit.”
“You’re an assistant editor now, Lane, and you have been for over ten years,” Perry began.
She cut in with a furious, “Why do you always bring that up? You know damn well I never wanted to be one! You suckered me into taking it to get me home from Paris, and then you kept me there by having that damned heart attack! If I had my way I’d still be a beat reporter, but you convinced me you needed my help running the show!”
Perry continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “And if you didn’t train your reporters to pick up the slack, that’s your fault and you can’t always go running back to do it for them. Krista and Philip are good kids, they’ve got good backup from the old guard, it’ll be fine. Lane, you gotta let go eventually.”
“The hell I do. I was born a reporter and I’ll die one,” she groused, and Jimmy saw the admiring look Clark turned on her. It made him grin, too. Even after a long marriage and kids who had just turned twenty, they were still ridiculously in love.
“You’re stepping up to Editor-in-Chief someday, Lane. I’m not gonna live forever.” Perry spoke with perfect equanimity, but Lois turned away, looking as shaken as she always did. No one could ever say she was pushing for the position.
Jimmy decided to step in before they could start that argument. “C’mon, Chief, you’re gonna live forever just to spite the competition,” he said.
“Yeah, I still might,” Perry laughed. “Someone has a good head on his shoulders. So you’re gonna help me look after these wild reporters, right?”
Unfortunately, if he followed Perry’s orders he would be stuck between his boss and his friends. Lois was already looking at him calculatingly. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” he said warily.
“Why not, Olsen?” Perry barked.
“Well, um, they’re both kind of my bosses, too. Conflict of interest. If I listen to you or listen to them, either way I’m in trouble,” Jimmy pointed out.
Perry gave him a disbelieving look. “Whatever happened to your guts, Olsen? You ran right in and took the photos of that Cyborg guy. Close enough to see his acne scars. You mean to tell me you’re scared of the nicest guy in Metropolis and a five-foot-five woman who couldn’t weigh a hundred and twenty with her shoes on?”
Jimmy took one look at Lois—who was glaring at him—and blurted out, “Of course!”
Life had a way of interfering, and this lunch was the first time Jason and Cassie had seen one another in over a week. If he were honest with himself, time with her was always too scarce. It felt like they saw each other in uniform more often than not, debriefings at Titans Tower and on saves together. A meal or a movie together out of uniform was the best they could do, most times. A night together—which Jason definitely looked forward to—was so rare he practically considered such lucky events on par with national holidays.
At the moment, he was holding Cassie’s hand, their fingers entwined beside the nearly-empty plates, and the two of them just looked at each other. Jason thought he finally understood the phrase ‘feast your eyes’. Cassie was certainly a treat for all the senses, but visually she was absolutely arresting and utterly fulfilling.
She smiled, and Jason smiled back, his heart lifting. They’d reached the point where they didn’t need to talk. A look, a touch, spoke volumes. And besides, if they talked it would just be about his classes or hers, his family or her mom, topics they were both up to date on anyway. It wasn’t like they could discuss Titans business in a civilian restaurant.
As if thinking of them had been a jinx, both of their cell phones chirruped simultaneously. “Are you kidding me?” Cassie grumbled.
Jason glanced at his phone and saw a text from Bob’s Pizza Palace. Code for Titans business, and the message was simple. Need you to come in and cover a shift. “Awww, man,” he groaned, already reaching for his wallet. He added up the cost of both entrees and two drinks in his head and plucked out enough cash to cover the bill, and then some.
“What do they need both of us for?” Cassie wondered aloud, already getting up and grabbing her bag.
Jason shrugged, caught the waitress’ eye, and made sure she saw the money put under a glass to keep it safe. “Gotta run, sorry,” he called, knowing the woman would look less disappointed once she realized there was a hefty tip included.
“I’ll give you a lift,” Cassie said, and Jason winced. It made great sense, but he still wasn’t comfortable with flying. At least Cassie was a saner ‘pilot’ than Kala.
It only took ten minutes for both of them to change and head in to Titans Tower, where the fight was already underway. “Another freaking grudge match,” Cassie growled, and Jason felt his shoulders tense at the glimpse of gold and blue. Deathstroke. Just the person he didn’t want to see.
The mercenary had been known to fight on their side against certain threats, but in the end he was loyal to himself first, and to whomever was paying him second. The concept of overall loyalty to a team or a side was foreign to Slade Wilson. He was a formidable opponent, possessing enhanced strength and reflexes that put him almost on par with meta-humans, plus the mind of a brilliant strategist and a healing factor that made it hard to keep him down.
And as if that wasn’t enough, he was also Rose Wilson’s father. She’d completely renounced him and returned to the Titans, but Cassie still didn’t fully trust her. Jason and Tim were the only ones who knew just how much Cassie worried about having Rose on the team. She’d been a live wire the first time she ran with the Titans, and after her father had shown up to claim her and injected her with the same super-serum used on him, she’d been briefly psychotic. Rose had even gouged out her own eye in an attempt to win Slade’s approval.
It was Nightwing who had brought her back into the fold, with a little help from Jason’s own dad. Deathstroke had made one fatal mistake with his daughter’s training—well, besides believing that Nightwing would ever turn his back on the hero community. He had given her a false eye carved from kryptonite and sent her and Nightwing after Superman.
That thought still churned Jason’s stomach to remember it. He didn’t run into too much kryptonite. The sudden wave of muscle weakness, the blurred vision, the ringing in his ears, all of those were things he could sense at a reasonable distance and avoid. That Dad had had to face it, and that he’d suffered it without retaliation in the confrontation to spare the civilian bystanders, was just another reason why Jason had a huge legacy to live up to.
Rose had turned away, stunned by that level of altruism. Jason thought that Mom was right, they represented hope—the hope that Rose could change, that she could break free of her father’s conditioning and chose to side with the good guys. And later, when Dick told her that kryptonite was carcinogenic to humans, she’d ripped out the false eye and renounced her father for endangering her life so carelessly. She’d finally seen that Slade cared for nothing more than himself.
The adjustment to being a hero wasn’t going smoothly for Rose. She had interpersonal issues with damn near everyone, and that eye-patch was intimidating to quite a lot of them. She knew it, too, mouthing off and being pushy, which led to a whole lot of fighting, usually with Cassie.
And now she was crossing swords—literally—with her father. “I’m not here for you, Rose,” Slade growled. “Out of my way. Now!”
She sneered, white hair flying, and slashed at him again. Rose really was a girl with something to prove, but Jason couldn’t follow that line of thought further because Slade hadn’t come alone. He let himself get lost in the fight, thinking only of action and reaction, strike and parry.
Somewhere behind him he heard Rose yelling at Cassie. “Back off, Wondy, he’s mine!”
“Shut up, Ravager!” came the terse reply, and then Slade laughing. Jason had had enough of the man, and grabbed one of his allies—no one he knew, but Tim would have a file later—and threw the man at Deathstroke.
That broke the rhythm of the fight long enough for the rest of the Titans to swing in and turn the tide. Slade got away in the end, but not all of his allies did. Jason was more concerned with what was going on inside the team than with them, though.
“If you hadn’t gotten in my way I’d’ve had him!” Rose shouted.
“Dammit, Rose, we’re a team! We’re supposed to fight together!” Cassie yelled right back.
“Yeah well, you and I are damn good at that, aren’t we, Wonderbabe?” Rose spat, jabbing an accusatory finger at Cassie’s chest.
Cassie swatted her hand aside. “Knock it off! You can look up ‘teamwork’ in a dictionary if you have to, Rose, but this isn’t it!”
“He’s my father, he’s my problem, it’s none of your damn business!” Rose snarled.
“He breaks into Titans Tower, he’s everybody’s problem,” Cassie shot back.
“All right, that’s enough,” Jason said, stepping between them. Tim looked at him and shook his head warningly, but by then it was too late.
They both turned on him.
“Butt out, Baby Blue,” Rose said dismissively, but there was a brittle edge in her voice. Jason didn’t have time to think about that fact that she probably knew that he knew she’d once tried to take down his father.
He was too busy dealing with Cassie, who turned on him with flashing eyes. “You stay out of this! She goes for my throat every time—”
“All right. Stand down, all three of you.”
Jason cut Tim a quick look; of course he would step in now that Jason had already gotten yelled out by both girls. And even more annoyingly, Rose and Cassie actually broke away when Tim said something. Jason just sighed.
Then again, Rose listened because she had a bit of a crush on Tim. And Cassie wasn’t insulted when he gave orders, because he wasn’t her boyfriend. Jason could already see by the look in her blue eyes that Cassie was decidedly unhappy with him.
He pitched in with the cleanup and triage of the injured, thinking to himself, The hero thing would be perfect if we could just separate out the personal side. But then the personal side wouldn’t work between us if not for the fact that we’re both heroes.
Once the band, plus Dustin, were all home and fed and rested, they headed out to the garage to practice. Song ideas were tossed around over dinner, and Morgan had been fiddling with some lyrics earlier while they waited for Ned and Robb to get in. Those two, caught without local references or highly marketable skills, had been forced to take whatever jobs they could find. In Robb’s case, that meant the local big-box discount store, mostly working as a stocker at night but picking up some day shifts on the registers. Ned, meanwhile, was cooking in a fast food joint. Both of them had quickly become the official weirdos of their respective jobs and took a certain amount of teasing for their looks and style.
Kala was already planning to turn up to both boys’ workplaces, dressed to the nines with the streaks in her hair hidden and generally looking very ‘corporate’ and polished. She could just imagine the looks on their coworkers’ faces when she greeted them both with warm hugs. Maybe it would provide a little object lesson in not judging books by their covers.
Morgan, Ned, and Robb tuned their instruments and warmed up. Kala and Sebast had to tune theirs as well, singing a few scales. Once everyone was sufficiently limber and in the right mindset, Sebast called out the first song, a cover of String Theory. Their version had been rendered as a duet, with Kala and Sebast singing the last verse in counterpoint, and Morgan’s talented guitar replacing the piano in the original. That was a challenge, trying to hit the right notes while competing with the voice she spent most of her time harmonizing with.
Dustin liked being their audience of one, lounging with a soda and just listening. It still wasn’t his style of music, but he could appreciate melody and nuance, and if something sounded off to him he wasn’t afraid to tell them. In just a few weeks he’d become a favorite of the boys, who wouldn’t ordinarily trust someone so normal.
Sebast was in a Les Friction mood, and they ran through a couple of other songs, finishing with World on Fire. Kala loved that one; it always gave her chills. “World on fire with a smoking sun/Stops everything and everyone/Brace yourself for all will pay/Help is on the way,” she sang, putting in an extra kick of emotion to the final line and holding the note. As always, Sebast matched her flawlessly, his voice an eighth below hers supporting her.
Sometimes that song made her think of the legacy she had chosen to step away from … and the way she couldn’t quite manage to do that. Even as they switched to their own music, and set about the serious work of getting every chord and riff to sound perfect, in the back of her head Kala felt that old, faint twinge of guilt. She was living, well, not quite a double life, but one and a half lives. Counter staff at Sephos, rockstar at night, and sometimes a vigilante. She hadn’t actually put on the mask since that night they’d gone to stop Batgirl from trying to get solo revenge on a psychopath, but still.
There’d been the occasional save, using her speed just yesterday to stop someone on a cell phone from walking into a busy street. That didn’t really count, though. Kala felt like maybe she was pursuing her human dream and finally leaving the legacy of Krypton to Jason, where it belonged. Except … she knew if anything happened to him, she’d make whatever excuses she had to and fly to his side.
No one realized she’d actually heard Speedy ask him if his superpowers including summoning hot chicks to kick ass for him. Kala hadn’t known whether to feel complimented or to distribute a little extra ass-kicking Speedy’s way. In the end she had just let it go.
Sebast interrupted her reverie by snapping his fingers by her ear. “Earth to Kala. Kala, come in. Are you gonna offer your opinion on the last guitar riff, or was it so good you’re entranced?”
“Sorry,” she laughed. “Lost in space. One more time, guys?”
Morgan looked at her reproachfully, and Kala forced herself to focus. They had a gig this weekend, and needed all the exposure they could get.