It was a nice looking jack-o'-lantern. Not an angry or scary looking one, but not a silly, dopey-looking one either. Lian wanted to feel proud, but she had to get a second opinion.
"Does it look okay, Donna?" Lian Harper asked her surrogate aunt, Donna Troy, as Donna finished cleaning the bowls and cups they'd just used. Donna wiped her hands on a dish towel before joining Lian's side. On the kitchen table there was a triple layer cake, covered in rich chocolate icing. Lian had just finished decorating the top of the cake with orange, green, and yellow butter cream frosting to make a pumpkin face. It smiled up at the young and younger women.
"It looks wonderful, Lian." Donna said, patting Lian's back.
"But it does look like a pumpkin, right?" Lian was unsure as she looked into her aunt's eyes. "You're not just saying that?"
"You won't be getting false praise from me, honey." Donna commented, then kissed Lian on the top of her head. That made Lian believe Donna was speaking true.
"I bet Daddy will love it." Lian mentioned.
"I hope he does too." Donna added, as they had spent most of the afternoon baking the cake for Lian's father Roy, while also keeping an eye on Lian's baby brother Tommy. This weekend, Donna's ex-husband (Terry or Jerry or whatever his name is) had custody of their son Robbie and her stepdaughter Jennifer. So Donna convinced Roy to let her watch Lian and Tommy for the afternoon feeling he'd been doing a lot lately and could use some time to himself. It was entirely transparent she wanted time with Lian to do something for Roy while he was out of the house, but no one said anything.
Tommy had just been fed and put down for a nap while Lian iced and decorated the cake. She insisted on doing it by herself to prove she could.
"Well we both love all the other cakes and stuff you've been bringing over." Lian reminded Donna. "But thanks for letting me help with this."
"It was my pleasure having you as a baking partner." Donna hugged the young girl. "I'm gonna go check on Tommy."
But before Donna could leave the kitchen, Lian had a question she wanted to ask. A question that had been on her mind for a while.
"Yes, Lian?" Donna stopped and turned to face Lian again.
"Is everything okay?" Lian asked, a look of concern on her face.
"Huh?" The question sort of caught Donna by surprise before Lian began talking.
"You've been coming over a lot lately," Lian explained, "And I know you and Daddy aren't together-I mean, 'Together' together anymore. Are you alright?"
"Don't worry about me, honey. I'm fine." Donna smiled. But Lian wasn't fully convinced.
"Is it cuz of all that stuff that happened when I… you know."
"No, Lian." Donna replied.
"Well, how come you're over so much?" Lian continued.
"Do you want me to stop coming over?" Donna asked.
"No! I love having you over. And so does Daddy and I'm sure Tommy does as well if he could talk." Lian emphasized. Donna laughed a little before she spoke.
"I just liking spending time with you guys, and I like cooking for you guys." Donna explained.
"I'll say." Lian smirked, thinking about all the homemade sweets and stuff Donna had been leaving for Roy at their house, and at Titans Tower, and at Donna's place. Her dad especially seemed to really like them. And it was starting to show.
"I'm gonna go check on your brother before your dad gets home. Okay?" Donna smiled at Lian.
"Okay." Lian smiled back.
But as Donna left the room, Lian's smile faded and the look of concern returned.
She wasn't convinced at all.
"I'm home!" Roy called out from the front door. "Any wild and crazy parties or dead bodies better be taken care of by the time I step over the threshold!" He held two big bags of groceries in his arms, and one plastic bag containing takeout hanging around his wrist, as he entered the house when Lian came running out of the living room.
"Daddy!" She threw her arms around her dad's waist and squeezed.
"Etai Yazi!" Roy called back, which was Navajo for "Little Girl." "Gimme a sec," he said as he tried to place the reusable bags down on the side table in the hallway. He then kneeled down to Lian's level and gave her a big hug and kiss on her cheek. "Missed you."
"Missed you more." Lian replied, kissing Roy's scruffy cheek.
"And you didn't burn the house down while I was gone." Roy whistled. "I'm impressed."
"Well I can be trusted not to burn the house down. Unlike some people." Lian folded her arms and gave her dad a pretend angry glare, referring to a certain incident Roy had while Lian was… away.
"True, true. You're certainly more trustworthy than I am." Roy conceded as he stood up. "We all know you're the responsible one, though I don't know where you get it from."
"Oh and, guess what?" Lian asked.
"Boop." Lian poked at his belly button, sticking out after his shirt came untucked.
"Hey!" Roy shooed her off as he tucked his shirt back in.
"Well it's your own fault for getting fat." Lian smugly informed him.
"I know, I know," Roy smirked. "I'm gross."
"Nah, you're not." Lian hugged her dad again. "Whatdja do while we were here?" Lian asked.
"I took care of some stuff at Titans Tower, then I did some shopping. No big deal."
"Come look what me and Donna did while you were out!" Lian began to pull her dad into the kitchen, bumping into Donna who was coming out of the first floor bathroom.
"Hi Mr. Speedy." Donna said as she hugged Roy.
"Hi Ms. Wonder Girl." Roy replied. "You guys have fun?"
"Surprise!" Lian practically shoved the cake in Roy's face.
"You guys made this together?" Roy asked as Donna took the cake from Lian.
"Does it look good?" Lian asked.
"It looks great!" Roy messed up Lian's hair before turning his attention to Donna again. "But what's the occasion?"
Donna shrugged, acting like it was no big deal.
"No occasion, just wanted to do something nice while you had the day to yourself." Was the convenient explanation she gave.
"I did the icing myself, and I put the pumpkin on it since it's almost Halloween." Lian revealed. "It's chocolate and spice."
"I really don't know what I did to deserve you two." Roy kissed Lian on the cheek and then Donna. "You're spoiling me."
"I can put these away if you wanna check in on Tommy." Donna offered as she set the grocery bags on the kitchen counter.
"It's cool, I can do it." Roy reached over, but Donna playfully slapped his hand away.
"No no, go see Tommy." Donna insisted.
"He wasn't any trouble today, was he?" Roy asked.
"Not at all."
"I'll go with you, Daddy." Lian joined her father.
The two Harpers headed upstairs to where Tommy Harper, nee Blake, the youngest member of the family slept. Roy quietly opened the door and stuck his head inside to see Lian's baby brother sleeping soundly in his crib.
"I hate leaving him alone." Roy sighed as he closed the door.
"It's cool dad, we had fun with Donna." Lian explained. "But, um…"
Roy saw the look on Lian's face and knew what she was referring to.
"She didn't tell you what was wrong, did she." Roy guessed. Lian sighed.
"No." Lian shook her head. "But she's sad about something, Daddy. I saw it when I asked her what was wrong. It was like when you used to tell me you were okay, even though you weren't."
"Damn it." Roy muttered to himself.
"I'm sorry." Lian apologized.
"It's okay, peanut. You didn't do anything wrong." Roy reassured her.
For the last couple of months, Donna had been acting strange. But then it had been a strange couple of years for a variety of reasons and they were only just returning to a semblance of their old lives.
Their REAL lives.
Probably the strangest things had been how Roy was brainwashed into thinking Jason Todd was his best friend, and Donna had been replaced by a doppelganger who then gave her life to save Donna.
With Roy and Donna back on the Titans with their friends Dick, Wally, and Garth, things felt real for the first time in a long time, even before the world had been gutted inside out. It was like someone had engineered a string of tragedies to make them as miserable as possible before killing them. Now they were all alive and healthy, and so were their kids and loved ones.
Yet Donna had started becoming… not clingy, but, was motherly the right word? Overeager? It seemed that way to Roy and Lian, and to a lesser extent Tommy. Admittedly, he was a new addition to the Harper household after Roy learned of his existence and rescued him from Tommy and Lian's mom a few months ago.
Donna seemed to worry a lot if Roy was eating enough, and had been showering father and daughter Harper in a variety of baked snacks and treats. Cakes, cookies, pies, even these delectable pomegranate pastries Donna learned of from her sister Diana. Roy was certainly enjoying them more than Lian was, since Donna saw more of the older Harper than the younger one. If he had to stay late at the Tower, she had food ready for a late night snack. If he was arriving early in the morning, there was breakfast in case he skipped the meal. It certainly explained how Roy had put on such a significant amount of weight and developed a noticeable belly on his large archer frame.
Roy could sense SOMEthing was bothering Donna, as this type of behavior was new. Oh sure, Donna had long doted on Lian as if she was her daughter. But baking and preparing meals hadn't really been something she was interested in. Roy and Lian weren't ungrateful, but they wanted to know what the problem was. He kept trying to ask her if she wanted to talk, but she smiled and said she was fine. The way she said it, Roy could recognize a slight trace of sadness. Then she'd hurry off to do something else, a mission or monitor duty or something with her sister Diana and the Amazons.
Lian recognized it too, but she was always a perceptive child and probably noticed before Roy did. They began to feel guilty that Donna was doing all this for them and asking for nothing. Maybe they were imagining things and she was trying to be friendly. But maybe not. That was why Roy had caved in so easily when Donna suggested he take a day for himself and let her watch the kids. He'd agreed with Lian that she would try to ask Donna what was on her mind without him in the vicinity.
"What are we gonna do, daddy? I hate seeing her like this." Lian admitted.
"I should've gotten Dick and the others to help," Roy said more to himself, "but I didn't want to put her on the spot in front of everyone."
"But she hasn't been acting weird with them, right?" Lian asked. "It's just us, for some reason."
"Yeah…" Roy furrowed his brow, trying to think.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Donna had finished putting away the rest of the food in the fridge when Roy tapped her on the shoulder.
"What'd you pick up for dinner?" Donna turned and asked him.
"I got some chicken and rice with plantains from this place near the supermarket." Roy explained. "But hey, before we eat…"
"Donna, I want you to please tell me what's wrong." Roy asked his teammate and best friend.
"You sound just like Lian a little while ago." Donna laughed. "You guys worry too much. Can't I do something nice for one of my best friends and his daughter? Is that so strange?"
"No, but I mean," Roy scratched the back of his head as he tried to come up with the right words. He should've been direct to begin with, but feared he was over thinking things. He trusted Lian's judgment, though. "I remember you don't like it when everyone expects you to act like their mom. So Lian and I, we were both wondering if you're really okay doing all this. The baking, cooking."
"Roy-" Donna was about to begin before Roy cut her off.
"Hey, I'm not complaining or anything. Aside that I'm gonna need some bigger clothes, of course." Roy smiled and patted his new belly. "I appreciate all the stuff you've done and how you're trying to look out for me and my kids. But I feel like I'm taking advantage of you, and that isn't even the main thing I'm worried about. Donna, Lian and I both think something's going on with you. Please, if something's wrong I wanna help. We both do."
Donna wasn't sure what to say, Roy's green eyes locked on her blue ones.
"Please? Tell me what's wrong?"
Donna hesitated and looked away from Roy and Lian. She scratched her arm.
"It's… it's silly, really." There was a little tremble in Donna's voice.
"Well look, why don't we eat dinner first, and then you can tell the two of us what's on your mind over that cake you and Lian made. Promise?"
Donna wasn't sure whether or not to look forward to the talk after dinner, which was something of an event when Tommy absolutely refused to eat unless Donna was the one to feed him. Roy had barely eaten anything as he struggled to get his stepson to budge a little on the subject of mashed carrots. Lian was happy to get dinner AND a show, until Tommy swatted his food in Lian's direction.
After Tommy finally settled down, had his bath, and was told a Navajo legend to get to sleep, Roy, Donna, and Lian sat in the living room with coffee and cake (and milk for Lian since she didn't need the caffeine AND sugar). Roy sat in the middle of the couch with Donna and Lian flanking him on both sides.
"So, tell us what's bothering you, Donna." Roy got straight to the point.
"Am I gonna have another baby brother, Daddy?" Lian wondered. "Is that why you're so unhappy Donna?"
Donna practically choked on her cake.
"Ahaha! No, Lian, nothing like that." Donna assured Lian.
"I figured," Lian sighed, pinching her dad's side. "But I was hoping he was eating for two."
"Hey now-!" Roy almost dropped his plate as he squirmed.
"It's cool daddy, I like you better this way." Lian giggled. "You make the best pillow when we stay up late watching movies and you're a lot happier than you were before."
"True. So thanks for that, Donna."
The three of them set everything down on the coffee table before they began to really talk. Donna looked down at her hands, folded in her lap, as Roy and Lian aimed their attention solely on her.
"I know my behavior has been bizarre lately-" Donna started.
"I wouldn't call it 'bizarre'-" Roy added.
"But with all the ridiculousness of the past few years and how badly things went for all of us," Donna began to list the horrible things everyone went through, "Prometheus, the Black Lanterns, the Villains for Hire, and then the time Barry Allen and Dr. Manhattan stole from us, I've been feeling… I-I guess I'd call it regret."
"Regret?" Roy was confused, wondering what she was referring to, "For what?"
Donna looked at Lian before she spoke again.
"Lian," Donna felt uncomfortable just remembering what happened, "You know about what happened after you…"
"Died?" Lian finished.
Roy and Donna both winced.
Her death. One of the most painful moments of Roy's life. A senseless accident that was a harbinger for what felt like an eternity of unhappiness for both the Harpers and their extended family.
"Um. Yeah. I-I do." Lian reluctantly confirmed.
"The last time your dad and I spoke before things got really bad, at your, um," God Donna hated everything right now, "Funeral. It wasn't great."
"I know about that too." Lian revealed rather somberly. She knew about the awful things her father had screamed at Donna regarding the deaths of her own children. How he'd accused her of "Whoring in space" with Kyle Rayner while her son died in a car crash. Which absolutely wasn't true, by the way.
"Looking back on it, I've felt, yes, what your dad said to me was really out of line, but I shouldn't have let that stop me from trying to help." Donna was now referring to how almost everyone in Roy's life had completely, utterly failed at trying to help him deal with Lian's death. Even with how aggressive he'd turned in the most recent days after Lian died, the lack of empathy most of Roy's friends had given was astonishing. It hurt worse because it turned out more had been going on than everyone assumed, which they would've noticed had they really paid attention to Roy's behavior.
"No. Please let me get this off my chest." Donna stood and seated herself in a chair away from Roy and Lian, so she could get a better look at them as she spoke. "I've been wondering about if maybe, if I'd tried harder to reach out to you Roy, when you started slipping, then maybe things wouldn't have reached the point they did. I've seen how much you've worked towards making it up to Lian, and how hard you've been trying with Tommy. I feel like if I'd been more help back then, you wouldn't have needed to work so hard now."
"I didn't 'slip,' Donna," Roy firmly told her, owning up to his actions, "I did drugs, called you a whore, tried to kill Dick and Mia, and joined Deathstroke's fake Titans because I was angry and using Lian as an excuse to justify all the crap I pulled."
"I'm not trying to absolve you of the stuff you did Roy-"
"He's been doing his best for me and Tommy!" Lian interjected, almost pleaded, to Donna, to immediately make her feel better and end this unbearable moment. "And I help with Tommy too! Plus I already forgave him for all that, a-and he apologized to Uncle Dick and Mia, anyway!"
"It's alright, Etai Yazi." Roy tried to soothe her.
"I'm sorry, is what I'm trying to say. I didn't do enough to help after Lian died. When Robbie and Jen passed away, I-I don't even want to get into some of the stuff that went through my head. You wanna believe part of me hated you, Roy? Because you still had Lian and I barely saw Robbie at that point after the divorce? I should've been more forgiving after that argument."
"And so you've been worrying so much lately, doing all that cooking and baking…?"
"I wanted to do something more tangible to show I care and that I wanted to make up for it." Donna finally admitted. "I've been trying to pay attention. It's easy to say stuff about doing everything I can to help, but I figured this was the best way to show it."
Roy and Lian looked at each other and then looked at Donna.
"Well, I've been trying." Donna sighed and sank back in the chair.
No one said anything for a minute that seemed to last hours, before Roy stood up.
"Donna, can you stand up please?" Roy extended his hand towards her.
"Come on, up and at 'em." Roy said. As Donna took Roy's hand, he pulled her into a tight embrace as Lian stood behind Donna and placed her hands around her waist."
"Listen Wonder Chick," Roy began, "you've got nothing to be sorry about and nothing to apologize for. I heard about what happened with the Black Lanterns, and you'd have been totally justified for taking my head off after what I said."
Roy referred to the nightmarish ordeal where Donna encountered a zombified version of son, whom she tried to kill in order to stop. It didn't work, and what she did continued to haunt Donna even though Robbie was alive again.
"Yeah, I would have and he's my dad." Lian agreed.
"Even before I found out, I didn't blame you for anything. You didn't do anything wrong. It's not right for you to blame yourself when you needed help too after what you went through. And I'm sorry I made you feel like you had to make it up to us."
Donna wasn't sure what to say.
"Come on, I hate seeing so unhappy. What can I do to make you feel better?"
"Yeah, what can WE do?" Lian corrected.
Donna relaxed, and smiled. Roy and Lian let go and she sighed, a sigh of relief instead of unhappiness. There'd been too much sighing today.
"For starters, next weekend you can make breakfast for me, Jen, and Robbie when she visits." Donna joked, then sniffed and wiped away a tear from her eye. "And then the six of us, Tommy included, can spend the afternoon baking at the Tower." Donna mused.
"Snickerdoodles, peanut?" Roy conspired with Lian, taking Donna totally seriously.
"Roy I'm ki-"
"How about something with macadamia nuts?" Lian wondered.
"No good, Jen's allergic to nuts." Roy surprised Donna by mentioning that since she wasn't aware he knew of her children's allergies.
"Okay then snickerdoodles!" Lian declared.
"Does that help?" Roy asked Donna, mock pouting with puppy dog eyes. "Snickerdoodles?"
"You're both such dorks." Donna held his hand.
"Well, DUH." Both Harpers said.
"Besides, I'm the Titan who's supposed to be constantly ashamed of themselves." Roy joked. "It's kind of my whole shtick, in case you hadn't noticed."
"Yeah, stop stealing my dad's shtick!" Lian ordered. "It's all he has going for him. It's bad enough you made him fat!"
"Yeah, it's bad enough you made me fat!" Roy parroted his daughter.
That was too much for Donna and she started to laugh, and laugh, and laugh.