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In Your Pocket

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Jason Todd was studying in the Star City Campus Library before his early morning class. The building was a seven level modernist structure; it looked like someone had taken a cement rectangle and twisted it with a palm to click and clatter along the change in elevation. It was nearly dawn, the sun groaning and stretching to poke a warm glow along the horizon. Its exterior, an intricate layer of wood, stone, cement, and glass, matched the feel of the small curated forest trundling up the side of the mountain. The University itself sat on the East side of the highway that cut Star City in half. Campus was cupped in a small valley between the lolling foothills. The large mountain range crested higher to the north, a smokey smear of white caps herding the low hanging clouds to bumble and bump into a thickening gray, corralled between the bay and the stone.

He was as far from Gotham as he’d been able to go.

A small cafe off the front entrance opened early to serve coffee to students. The line wasn’t long, the coffee wasn’t great, and the service was slow. Sleepy co-eds wandered the carpeted stairs that sprung from different sides of the vast space. There were bubbles of quiet study and sections of sleek computers that required a student login to access. Jason had found an old card catalogue one day with a noise of delight and taken to brushing his fingers over the foxed edges of the cards on his way to the study table he preferred.

It was early and Jason was usually alone, but today a group of nursing students were working through an anatomy text, an unseemly amount of snacks, two half-full Mountain Dew 2-liters, and clear exhaustion at the large round table between the sharp corner made entirely of windows. Jason took up another smaller table: laptop, books, and his own breadth pouring over the short story assignment due at the beginning of his morning class. Out the window, the students were either coming back to the dorms to finally sleep after a night partying or stumbling half awake towards an early morning class.

📱 unknown number: dude did u ever find that chicken because I told D that I would watch it
📱 unknown number: after last nights concussion saga I have vague memories of maybe throwing it out a window
📱 unknown number: which makes no sense cuz we were on the first floor right
📱 unknown number: were u wearing oven mitts chasing it down the street
📱 unknown number: consider this me calling you a weenie
📱 unknown number: yes i said weenie there are children here
📱 unknown number: who the fuck is scared of being pecked by a chicken at 3am
📱 unknown number: weenie

Jason turned his phone over when it started rattling in a quick circle on the table in front of him, frowning at the unknown number with a Star City area code. He gave a quick grimacing smile of apology to the pretty round-faced girl with wide dark eyes that lifted her head to glare at him from behind a pile of anatomy texts and neat flashcards at the loud clatter. He snatched it up before it started rattling again letting the face recognition slip through two failed attempts before just thumbing the passcode and frowning at the notes. "The fuck?"

📱 unknown number: seriously?
📱 unknown number: dont Tucking ignore me
📱 unknown number: did the chicer next eat you?

Jason snorted, replying quickly.

📱 jason: You have the wrong number.
📱 jason: Good luck with the chicken, though.

📱 unknown number: oh fuck off mia
📱 unknown number: wait
📱 unknown number: ur not my sister are you
📱 unknown number: she wouldn’t punctuate

📱 jason: Definitely not your sister.

📱 unknown number: whoops
📱 unknown number: sorry to bother u
📱 unknown number: gotta go track down a girl about a chicken

Jason found himself smiling down at his phone, considering a reply before turning it back over and returning to the critical analysis of Mary Flannery O'Connor.

*

📱 unknown number: if i was going to hypothetically make a run for the fifty yard line tonight in my birthday suit would u bail me out of jail
📱 unknown number: there are people depending on me
📱 unknown number: but i haven’t done anything stupid in awhile
📱 unknown number: this calls for nudity

Jason had been asleep, digging under the thin pillow to blink at the screen in confusion before snorting and flopping back into the body warm spot. He lifted his head again, frowning at a small wet spot where he’d been drooling.

📱 unknown number: mia
📱 unknown number: bail me out
📱 unknown number: i want to be naked and stupid

Jason wrangled the pillow over and rolled onto his back. He pillowed his phone on his stomach, wetting his lips and tapping out an answer. He wondered what kind of person would spell out hypothetically and not the word you.


📱 jason: I’m still not Mia.
📱 jason: Try not to get a concussion this time?

His dorm room was larger than average, sitting on the left hand side at the end of the long hall. It faced the South. His roommate had dropped out in the first month after a serious case of alcohol poisoning. They hadn’t been friends and Jason hadn’t minded reclaiming the other boy’s space. It felt safer living alone. The boy had been messy and loud, smelling of cheap body spray and unwashed clothes. Jason had slowly rearranged, hefting the empty bed on top of the desk and closet to make a small covered study space. He didn't have much, just a few pairs of jeans, t-shirts, over large silky basketball shorts, and the battered red hoodie he practically lived in on campus. He hadn’t unpacked the boxes of winter clothes his family continued to mail him. He’d opened one and it was enough.

We’re learning to knit and it’s your fault <3 D was the note that accompanied a lumpy bright red knit hat complete with a ridiculous yarn pom pom at the top. Jason had frowned darkly at it before setting it on the bedpost. He liked to bat at it when he was thinking.

Star City was mild and green, a strange unfamiliar glow of slippery sunshine that filtered in the windows in the morning and then napped under the sea fog and light afternoon drizzle. It was quiet and Jason didn't think about how hard it had been to sleep that first month. He didn't think about the fact that he was used to the endless noise of an angry city.

📱 unknown number: GOD DAMNIT
📱 unknown number: I swear she keeps changing her number in my contacts
📱 unknown number: thanks. Im gonna take my pants off now.

Jason watched the words appear in tempo, the little blue animation making it seem real somehow - that there was someone purposely writing these words in the dark - and he grinned at the screen.

📱 jason: Protip! If you stay on campus it's less likely to be prosecuted for indecency.
📱 jason: Campus security can only hold you while they call for the police. (And they are very out of shape.)

📱 unknown number: what r u a acop?

📱 jason: My brother is.

📱 unknown number: so
📱 unknown number: youre saying@you'll bail me out?

Jason snorted. "Absolutely not."

📱 unknown number: wish me luck stranger danger

There was a pause and Jason rolled onto his side, shaking his head.

📱 jason: Good luck. Don't get arrested. I'm broke.

Jason almost got out of bed. He almost rolled to his feet to move to the window and look out at where the campus stadium was a dark thumbprint ringed with orange street lights and emergency call boxes. He wondered if someone was shucking their clothes. He wondered if they were alone, running and naked in the damp wet grass. He let himself imagine the whoop of laughter, a memory of pale wet skin in the dark flickering over the front of his brain.

He didn’t let himself wonder why he almost put on a jacket to go watch.

*

📱 pollo loco: if youre allergic to pollen why the fuck would u choose lillies for a wedding
📱 pollo loco: that is a level of idiocy i thought only i was capable of
📱 pollo loco: now im plucking the god Damn anthers out of almost 500 lilies

Jason stumbled slightly on the treadmill and grabbed for the rails to keep from falling at this speed. The noise of the conveyer hissed quickly, the pound of his sneakers keeping time with the rapid steady beat. His music paused again to alert him of the text and throw off his rhythm. He frowned at the flagged alerts that continued to pop, almost in counter time to the music he'd picked to keep his run at a near sprint, pounding into the treadmill and skin slick as he breathed into the sing of blood under his skin.

📱 pollo loco: i bet they were like
📱 pollo loco: u know what really matches the aesthetic of eternal romance
📱 pollo loco: hayfever
📱 pollo loco: nothing says i’ll love u forever like a snotty red faced bride bubbling boogers like a toddler

It was the lunch break he'd planned between his classes, using the middle of the day to power through the set routine he'd started with his Dad in middle school to help burn away the anxiety. His therapist said the physical exertion would help ground him during attacks and that the routine would be soothing. Jason didn’t talk about the fact that he hated surprises. He hated loud noises. He hated that he could almost hear his therapist’s hushed voice talking about needing the stability of routine.

📱 pollo loco: okay i’ll admit that’s kind of romantic in the love you forever love you for always kind of way
📱 pollo loco: doesn’t help the workload
📱 pollo loco: don't laugh at my pain
📱 pollo loco: come help me

Jason watched the flags layer in, finally reaching to slow the treadmill and panting as he mopped at his face with the bottom of his shirt, the small towel he'd tossed over the read out forgotten. He preferred to run until the playlist ran out rather than following the routines and timers on the machines. It rained too often in the afternoon to run outside, but he'd revel in the weak sunshine the days the mountain was out and plow through the hilly trails that criss-crossed campus.

📱 pollo loco: MIA mia mia mia mia mia
📱 pollo loco: don't ignore me mia this is important
📱 pollo loco: a wedding hangs in the balance

Jason thumbed into the texts, blinking at a picture as it loaded: a table filled with crates of white calla and delicate pink stargazer lilies. There were other flowers in the background that he was sure Alfred would be able to name, but Jason could only recognize as pink. The table was simple stainless steel and the floor looked like cement with large warehouse windows glowing in the background.

📱 jason: Not Mia.

There was a pause and Jason grinned, almost able to feel the way the person on the other end of the random texts was swearing and collecting themselves simultaneously. He chewed on the inside of his lip, holding his phone and considering.

📱 pollo loco: I swear she plans this@I'm sorry to keep bothering you.

Jason glanced around, the gym always oddly quiet at one in the afternoon, most people in class. He maintained an early class schedule that left his afternoons free to study. He’d gotten a part time job on campus shelving books at the library. He'd find his way to his favorite coffee shop after his shift to start working his way through The Iliad for his classics course.

He tapped into the picture, enlarging it with a quick gesture and noting the set of large worn work gloves and a small pile of tissues that were blotchy and freckled with yellow pollen. He caught himself wondering if pollo loco was a pollo loca and then frowned at the thought and settled for exhaling and shooting off a quick reply.

📱 jason: No worries, man.

There was a bright laugh as two girls jogged up the stairs into the section of the undergrad gym where the treadmills were lined up to face the wide windows that overlooked the green. Jason startled into motion again, heart thumping as he flipped the towel over his shoulder. One girl had short-cropped dark hair and a heart-shaped face, the other a high pale ponytail that swung as she walked. He looked away when they noticed him and snatched his water bottle. He rolled his shoulders, deciding to move to the weights. He ignored the way his heartbeat was still racing.

He jogged down the stairs and sent off another quick text before his brain could register what he was doing. He wasn’t here to make friends.

📱 jason: Maybe you should save my number so she can't swap it?

Jason settled on the weight bench, setting his phone on the black pleather and frowning at the dark screen. He glanced up, looking at himself in the long mirrors that ran the weight room wall to help keep form when working alone. He wasn't swarthy and classically handsome like Dick or sharp and striking like Tim. He was a basic broad-shouldered Gothamite from the Narrows, all broken noses, thick wrists, and black curly hair. He looked like violence. Duke was the sweet-faced one with wide dark eyes, smooth brown skin, and a bright-dimpled smile. Cass was quietly beautiful, petite with calm dark eyes in her moon-shaped face. Damian had inherited his mother's tawny coloring and thickly-lashed green eyes. Jason felt clumsy and brutish in comparison. His nature was carved into his skin.

Jason frowned at his reflection and ducked his head, scrubbing at the scar that cut across his eyebrow and pulled at his top lip after running lightly down his cheek. It had been the last thing he'd gotten from his father before Bruce had taken him in. It wasn’t the only one, just the last. He didn't have any illusions of being handsome. He wasn't even the smartest one in the family - Tim, the fucker. Cass was a prodigy at dance and Duke was pacing Dick for likable charm. Damian was fickle and prickly, but his friends were fiercely loyal.

"You're an idiot," Steph had told him one night before he left for Star City while he was hiding in an Austen novel in the library. The younger girl practically lived with them, stretching between where her legs were tossed over Tim’s lap and head pillowed on Cassandra’s thighs. She flocked with them, loud and colorful in the crowd of black-haired Wayne children. She was a natural blonde, her pale hair brassy over a warm smile that hid a wicked right hook. (It felt like a relief after the unrelenting redheads Dick brought home.) Jason secretly adored her snark and soft curvy hugs. "Thank god no one else sees you the way you see you."

“And how’s that?” Jason had snapped. He’d been trying to hide in bravado as he chewed on his lip, terrified of what she would say and yet caught hopeful into the pause.

“You may think you look like a rhinoceros,” she muttered, crossing to hook his book down and hold his eyes. Her gaze was a pretty cornflower blue, the kind people sometimes called violet, framed by dark blond lashes under startlingly dark brows. “But you’re a fucking muffin, Jason Todd-Wayne.”

Jason had flushed so hard he felt it in his ears, the burn over his cheeks as he’d looked away sharply. He hadn’t had the chance to correct her, to remind her of what happened. She’d simply pecked a kiss to his temple and let go of the book. He’d understood how Tim and Cass could love her. She made it easy.

He held on to her words when girls on campus glanced over their shoulders when he walked behind them. He knew he was scary. He knew what he was capable of. He knew he had a bulk and a breadth. He knew the scar made his face a constant half snarl. He knew what he looked like. He made a point to cross the street, to move away from them, when they looked nervous. Gotham had taught him to walk like he could hurt someone. Star City was moss soft, and he was trying to find a way to loosen his edges.

📱 pollo loco: that's a good idea Not Mia.
📱 pollo loco: thanks!

Jason realized he'd been waiting for an answer when his chest relaxed at the text notification flag. He realized he'd been hoping the other person would agree when he saw himself smiling in the mirror as he grabbed a weight for the bar. He realized he’d almost forgotten what that looked like on his face.

"Fucking idiot muffin," he told himself with a shake of his head.

*

Jason was leaving the gym, hair half dried and curling around his forehead and gym bag over his shoulder when his phone rattled in his pocket.

📱 pollo loco: just know i took this as permission to text u without needing to apologize
📱 pollo loco: so consider yourself adopted Not Mia

His dorm was a quick trio of brutalist rectangles that poked up out of the hillside, the mottled cement walls cut with evenly placed small windows that didn't open. The row was linked together by the small courtyard peppered with groups of students. A few tall gingko trees were shaking bright yellow leaves in the soft breeze, vibrant against the gray sky and grayer buildings in front.

Everyone was easing into this life. Jason ignored the couple fervently making out on the bench just to the side of the front doors, stopping at his mailbox. There was his weekly letter from Alfred and an appointment reminder from his therapist’s office. He tucked them into the side of the bag before jogging up the stairs to the seventh floor. It helped him cool down. He moved quietly down the hall, ignoring the open doors and the layered music that twanged and thumped from the other corridors. The whiteboard on his door was empty. His room was empty.

He set his bag down and sat on the bed.

📱 jason: Yeah, okay.

There was a pause and he took a chance.

📱 jason: Just don't ask for bail, I’m still broke, bro.

*

📱pollo loco: hey Not Mia
📱pollo loco: whatre you doing

Jason was locking his bike outside the coffee shop he'd found his first week on campus. He’d integrated it immediately into his routine, needing something familiar. He’d settled into it with a single-minded focus. He hated not knowing where he was, hated feeling unmoored with his family on the other side of the country and a need to prove himself layered under the anxious excitement of school. He'd spent the first week walking back and forth from class to his dorm room, both hands curled around the straps of his backpack and eyes flicking from one stranger to another. He’d tried not to flinch when people would shout and approach him with flyers, with invitations, with the reckless joy of being out of the house and allowed to define fun for themselves.

“Master Jason,” Alfred would always start, there was a warmth to the way he said Jason’s name. Jason had liked the way it sounded like something the older man enjoyed, like he could break into a recitation of Greek histories with Jason’s name as a launching point. This time he had said it as he finished cutting the sandwiches in front of him into quick perfunctory triangles and placing them on the silver platter.

“Alfie,” Jason had grinned, hunkered over the small kitchen table and watching the unmoving chess pieces, chin settled on his stacked fists. He liked the way the butler would still try to hide the fond twitch of mouth to maintain the strictly British cool at the nickname.

“Perhaps you should join the others down at the pool?” Dick had been home from his first year at Met-U and had carted home a near caravan of friends to splash and frolic through the weekend. Jason had taken one look from the top of the stairs as Dick had been working his way through introductions, turned on an adroit heel, and headed for the kitchen.

“And miss out on hot cookies right out of the oven? You’re a mad man, Alf.” He had reached out and plucked the black knight from the square, moving the piece and slanting the older man a look. “Your move.”

“As you wish, Master Jason.” Alfred had turned, moving through the space with an easy calming grace. He felt stable, like the solid center of the house. He made it feel like a home. He never mentioned that when Jason was feeling nervous, when he wouldn’t admit to feeling scared, he found his way to Alfred’s kitchen table. “Pawn to B6.”

Jason had felt safest there, with the warm wood under his arms and an easy sight line to the door. He’d always felt safest with a table nearby to hide under. It had smelled like Earl Grey and baking with the softer subtle scent of Alfred’s aftershave.

“Shit,” Jason had frowned, glaring darkly at the board. He’d settled slightly at the cool dry hand ruffling his hair as Alfred passed, plating up a pile of sandwiches to tote out to the pool.

“Language,” the old man would hum, half-hearted and desperately fond. Jason had smiled, hiding it against the back of his thumb.

He liked this shop and its Earl Grey scent. It was a simple long space with one wide window running the entire front, a glass door, two tables on the sidewalk, fresh baked pastries, warm well-worn wood tables, and a wall of books that ran from the entrance to the bathroom at the back near the bean roaster. They had poetry readings next to the wall full of glass jars holding loose leaf tea and small batch roasted coffee. They didn't have frappuccinos, and Jason had come back every weekend until they simply handed him his favorite mug and waved him to the back table. The baristas were all a tangle of tattooed Star City teens who exuded an easy cool.

“Hey handsome, usual?” This blonde worked Thursday, Fridays, and weekend doubles. He’d overheard her talking about school and the volunteer work at the local civic center. He’d overheard her complain about family and it felt familiar.

“Yeah, thanks.” Jason nodded, glancing to his table and relieved to find it empty. “New ink?”

“Blame my brother.” She huffed a noise and cracked her gum at him with a smirk, before shaking her head and smacking at her shoulder. She pulled the sleeve of her worn white t-shirt up higher to show him as she snagged the teapot. He liked that she would half dance to the music that pumped out of the speakers shelved with the books as she worked. “He decided we needed family tattoos.”

Jason’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “I would never trust any of- I don’t think I could trust someone else with something so permanent. What if they dressed like a toddler wearing a blindfold picked their clothes? What if they were trying to bring back disco and bedazzling?”

“That’s very specific,” she told him, snickering as she filled the glass pot. He liked her raspy voice, low but still carrying over the noise. He’d grown up with girls who sounded like that, like they’d been smoking too long even before they’d taken a drag.

“You never had to burn hand-me-downs in the backyard, apparently.” Jason tried out a smile, a small one that made the right side of his mouth match the scarred lift to the left. She didn’t flinch, just set the ball of jasmine tea in the water and pushed it and his favorite mug to him. “Thanks.” He felt brave and leaned forward slightly to read her name tag. “... Dearden?”

“It’s a surname,” the blonde laughed. “I have one of those common west coast girl’s names. It’s like every third person is a Mia.”

Jason swallowed the quick surprised thump of nerves at the name. It didn’t mean anything. “I’ve noticed. There’s four on the floors below me and two in my Intro to Classics class.” He almost told her about the accidental text, but that was his.

His phone felt heavy in his back pocket now. He was marking time, unsure of how to answer. He didn’t know what to answer. Jason wanted to reply, wanted it to be right, not sure why he was so happy to have received the text.

Just this week, he had to decipher the continuing string of emojis Dick sent like some sort of strange hieroglyphs, or the quick perfunctory one liners laden with sly wit from Tim. Duke sent pictures every day of what the family was doing: board games, fighting over the controller in the family room during game night. Jason had saved the picture of Tim caught red faced and vitriolic as he combated Damian’s growing reach with a socked foot as the youngest Wayne scrabbled vainly after him. He liked the way the giant family Great Dane, Titus, was obviously about to wade joyfully into the fray. They seemed so alive. Cass sent him music. Damian simply sent one terse greeting from time to time with a picture of his growing collection of pets.

Jason didn’t answer them.

By the time he reached his table, his back pocket vibrated again.

📱 pollo loco: fuck
📱 pollo loco: this is Not Mia right

📱 jason: I have a name.

📱pollo loco: oh, have we moved to that elvel of intimacy

📱 jason: This is where I remind you that you texted me, man.

📱 pollo loco: you always use punctuation?
📱 pollo loco: you know that that automatically feels like Im in trouble right?

Jason felt himself relax, jaw unclenching and shoulders rolling as he set his mug, teapot, and bag down without tucking his phone away. He sank into the large battered wingback that was pulled close to the table. It was a solid pink velour that was frayed over the arms and worn down to the fabric on the seat and the back, but it had good bones.

“You look at the wood, Jay,” his mom, Catherine, had told him, hand in hand as they walked down the sidewalk with the small cart pulled behind them. “If the legs are starting to splinter it’s not worth our time. You want a table that can withstand anything, you know? Nothing that’s bubbling like this. See, like on these?”

She’d paused in front of a set of neat trash cans in the well-to-do neighborhood, pointing out where the veneer on the matched side tables was starting to pucker and lift from the edge of a corner. “That’s water damage. Takes too long to fix and honestly, the wood underneath is probably composite and will just fall apart soon. You want the real thing, the stuff they’re throwing out that was their parents or their grandparents. You want the stuff they think is old fashioned and out of date.”

Catherine Todd had been a soft-faced woman with wavy russet-colored hair. It had been strawberry blonde in her youth and faded over the years to a brown with intent. She’d had warm dark eyes and round rosy cheeks when she wasn’t using. She’d been pretty, but the damage was wearing on her, bubbling and puckering around the edges. Jason always remembered her as softly curved, sweet with warm arms and a dimpled smile. He remembered the way she would let him duck and nudge under her arm and press close.

“You deserve the real stuff, Jay.” She’d kissed his hair and he’d puffed up under the affection, young and determined to prove her right. They’d found a table that day, dragging it home and laughing when they’d tossed a blanket over it, huddled in the warm safe-feeling dark. It had felt so solid then. “Trust me.”

The wingback reminded him of her, and he curled into it as much as his large frame would allow, tucking the Q-buds into his ears and sliding his laptop out of the bag.

📱 pollo loco: fuck im in trouble

📱 jason: You’re not in trouble.
📱 jason: I was just settling in to do some homework. It’s rude to be on the phone when talking to people in customer service.

📱 pollo loco: so what your telling me is your one of the good ones my sister tells me about

📱 jason: That point could be argued.

📱 pollo loco: are we arguing
📱 pollo loco: I was going for more playful banter

Jason wet his lips, glancing around the coffee shop and pausing when he realized he hadn’t started his music. He hadn’t actually opened his laptop or even opened his text book. He should work on his Algebra. He should read the short story again. He should look at the Philosophy essay question. He should do a lot of things.

📱 pollo loco: im not opposed to arguing

He should text his family instead of this stranger. He still had no clue what Dick’s last text had meant and Tim was steadily adding more and more surreal strings of words to see if Jason would answer. Duke had tagged him in a Snap and Cass had a new video on her Instagram of the dance piece she was working on. He’d heard from Steph that Damian was lobbying to volunteer at the shelter and that Bruce was weighing the pros and cons: civic duty a mark in the good column, but the inevitable menagerie weighing heavily in the bad.

His Dad texted the same thing every night: I love you, Jaylad.

📱 jason: I usually just argue with my Dad.
📱 jason: ...and anyone within arm’s reach.

Jason grimaced, unable to unsend and followed it quickly with a quick text to blunt the edge of the truth to the words. He and Tim hadn’t been arguing.

📱 pollo loco: you are my kind of people
📱 pollo loco: its fate Not Mia

A soft silence filtered into the shop as the music changed, slipping from one song to the next. There was a clatter of spoon on porcelain and the quiet bitten laugh of someone snickering at their phone two tables away.

He could see Dearden-Mia where she was wiping down the espresso machine and blasting out the milk wand with a quick tap of the lever. She was a thin blonde with a sharp smile, sharp jaw, and sharp shoulders. Jason knew the look, the kind of girl that was pretty too early and preyed on before she’d honed the deft dark look of rage that made her both brittle and beautiful in the right light. She smacked at her shoulder again as she silenced an alarm on her phone and Jason noted the new tattoo was a simple, hand drawn set of arrows all pointing the same direction but one. It almost looked like the Queen logo. He wanted to ask about it.

📱 pollo loco: you a student?
📱 pollo loco: oh duck are you@like 12?
📱 pollo loco: ???

Jason cupped his phone and then opened his Q-Book pro, letting it flicker to life and ding once at him with a soft tone. The phone synched and he pulled up the messages app, setting his phone aside and pretending he would actually work. He didn’t want to let go of the fragile connection, feeling oddly like he wasn’t as alone in this strange green city full of tattooed pale people with wide smiles and sharp eyes.

📱 jason: Definitely not 12. I’m a college student.
📱 jason: I’m studying lit, because I want to live off of minimum wage for the rest of my life.
📱 jason: It’s important to have goals, you know?

📱 pollo loco: goals?
📱 pollo loco: they keep telling me those are important
📱 pollo loco: but i find life shows up despite any planning

📱 jason: Are you a student, too?

Jason wasn’t sure he wanted the answer. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to look at each person he passed on campus differently, wondering is this you? He wasn’t sure he could handle the disappointment of being passed by. He wasn’t sure he could handle the terror of being seen.

📱 pollo loco: naw
📱 pollo loco: not anymore
📱 pollo loco: life showed up
📱 pollo loco: I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up
📱 pollo loco: just that I want to be present
📱 pollo loco: I dont want to feel like i missed the important stuff

It felt like a truth handed to Jason the way people would hand someone a book to hold, a purse, a phone while they dug absently for something else. It felt like trust and Jason had to take a slow sipped breath, swallowing and forcing himself to pull up the browser to log into the student portal to access his homework set. He tried to concentrate, working his way through a few questions before stopping and staring at the words again.

📱 jason: You can call me Jay.

He closed the window, staring at the next question and wondering why his heart was pounding.

📱 pollo loco: Hey Jaybird!

“That nickname doesn’t even make sense,” Jason told his phone.

📱 pollo loco: Call me Red.

*

It was eleven pm and Jason’s phone was going to light up with a message. He’d fallen into a tempting routine, showered and folded into the thin extra long twin bed, one foot planted on the mattress with a crooked knee tilted against the wall while his other foot dangled off the narrow frame. It was a defensive position.

Dick had a way of forcing people to claim their space, to spread and leave no room for the oldest boy to worm into. Dick was tactile and probably liquid according to Tim. Jason had been inclined to agree, finding a way to sprawl on the couch that left no room for Dick or argument.

He’d spluttered the first time his older brother had simply hopped the back of the couch and sprawled on top of him instead, going heavy and boneless with a laugh at the affronted noise Jason made under him.

It was eleven and Red was going to start texting him. Jason wondered if they realized the routine they’d fallen into. He wondered if they looked forward to it too.

📱 red: yo
📱 red: I am fucking exhausted and have baby shark stuck in my head
📱 red: tell me something good

“I think I made a friend,” Jason said out loud to his phone, voice low and rough. He cleared his throat, hoarse from disuse and almost sent a picture he’d taken surreptitiously that day at the coffee shop. “Maybe two?”

📱 jason: I watched an art student have a complete breakdown over calling someone pretty today.
📱 jason: How the hell did you get baby shark stuck in your head?

There was a pause, the blue dots appearing and disappearing like they were writing and deleting answers before the texts finally slipped through.

📱 red: the tyrant likes to play it on repeat at all hours of the day.
📱 red: it’s catchy. don’t judge me.
📱 red: yeah?
📱 red: was the person pretty?

He’d been sitting in his pink chair, leaning heavily onto the left arm, weight canted on one hip, and legs sprawled out under the table to rest his heels on the opposite chair. His laptop had gone dark, blinking out. The open word doc idle where he’d been picking away at the end of term paper that wasn’t due for a few weeks. His tea had been almost cold in the cup and he’d slipped into Austen like curling up under a warm blanket.

“Excuse me.”

Jason had looked up, squinting against the brighter light glowing in the slightly hazy front windows and scowling at the interruption. The man who’d spoken stiffened, taking a half step away before making a visible decision and straightening to square his shoulders. He was about Jason’s age, tall and naturally fit with a smooth broad face, warm dark green eyes, and thick wavy black hair. He had a full mouth, strong jaw, natural tan, and a shirt that was too big on him with a faded comic book logo screened onto the front. His black hair was mussed, sticking up in the back and following a smear of pencil on his forehead. His fingers were clean, but the cuticles and nails had flecks of splattered paint that matched the smeared mess of color over his thighs. He’d be tall if he stood straight.

He might be handsome. Jason had frowned harder.

“Yeah, hi.” The man had waved, a loose choppy flip of fingers before barrelling forward, undaunted. “Sorry, sorry to interrupt. I just-” He’d paused, chewing on his bottom lip and then puffing the black hair out of his eyes with an absent-minded breath. “Can I?”

He’d set down a large pad of paper, flipping open the newsprint sketchpad and glancing back and forth between it and where Jason had waited stiffly for him to finish a sentence. “I know this is weird, but I need someone new to draw. Connor is too pretty.”

The black haired art student had frowned down at a pencil sketch of a beautiful man with full lips, hooded eyes, and a loose curl pattern. He’d stabbed at it with an accusing finger. “See? Like, he seems fake.” He’d carried the frown over to Jason, eyes narrowing. “I need someone like you.”

The coffee shop had been noisy in the pause, a latte milk foaming and the burble of it starting to shriek as Jason held the other man’s gaze blankly.

“Because... I’m not pretty?” Jason had grumbled, affronted. He’d bitten back a slow curl of dark syrupy feeling rejection.

“What?” The other man had blinked, eyebrows shooting up and mouth dropping open for a moment before he recovered. “No. No, you’re... you’re very pretty?”

Jason had felt his own eyebrows dart upwards in answer.

“Handsome. Handsome.” Jason had enjoyed the way he floundered before clearing his throat and wobbling a last attempt. “Manly?”

“Is that a question?”

“Do you prefer pretty?” the other man had snarked, slowly going pink under a natural tan and wide long dimples that flickered when he spoke. “I can-” he cut off, rubbing his face with a muttered string of spanish expletives. He’d dropped his hands again and flipped through more pictures, some artful nudes, a series of lyrical figurative sketches, and a series of pages that were his own face making weird cartoonish smiles and grimaces.

Jason had almost reached to pause the flip of pages at something familiar - freckles? a crooked smile? - before the guy continued. “Anyway. I need a new face and you’re here a lot and Connor says you sit still for a long time. Not... not that we’re stalking you? ‘Cause that could sound creepy now that I’ve said it out loud. It’s not creepy. I mean, it is, but it’s not intended to be creepy. We don’t, like, watch you or anything. You’re just a regular-”

“Kyle,” a voice had interrupted and Jason had looked over where another young man had joined the first. He was the handsome face drawn in the book. In person, he had been undeniably beautiful, with rich brown skin, vivid green eyes, and shockingly blond hair. He’d been dressed in a simple loose cream shirt, brown jacket, and rumpled linen pants cinched at his waist. The bottoms of the pants were rolled up over delicate ankles and sandaled feet. He had broad high cheekbones, a lush mouth, and a serenity that seemed to seep into the world around him with his small genuine smile. The artist, Kyle, had tossed him a grateful look before he’d turned to where Jason was watching.

“Hi. My name is Connor. This is Kyle.”

“That was much better than what I did,” Kyle had muttered.

Jason snickered, turning his book over to hold the page across his thigh and nodded. “Hi. I’m Jason. Apparently unpretty, but somehow still handsome?” He’d smirked, cocking his head and slanting a look at Kyle. “Or was it manly?”

Kyle, red-faced and staring at the ceiling, had swallowed. “I’m going to go throw myself into traffic, cool? Cool.”

“Want to start again?” Jason had offered, startling himself. The gesture had felt magnanimous and welcoming. He wasn’t supposed to be making friends.

“Not really? Can we just skip to you allowing me my dignity, saying yes to letting me sketch you, and forgetting that whole start?”

“I make no promises.” Jason had let them sit and watched them bicker. They’d bantered across the table while Kyle sketched. It had felt warm and familiar.

Now, Jason snorted, chin tucked down where his head was propped on the pillows so he could text back, the room lit by the glow of his phone and the feeble orange light that slipped under the curtains at night.

📱 jason: I think they settled on handsome in the end.

Jason tapped the edge of his knuckle against the slim case, considering. “Fuck it.”

📱 jason: Honestly?
📱 jason: I think that’s the first time I’ve talked to actual people since I came here.
📱 jason: It was nice.

📱 red: we talk

Jason rolled onto his side, considering for a moment, before sitting up, pulling his ankle, and tucking his foot under his thigh.

📱 jason: We do, but like...
📱 jason: I have a big loud family back home and I thought I wanted to get away from them.

📱 red: but?
📱 red: that sounds like a but.

Jason shrugged, unable to figure out how to reply before another text snapped into place under the first. He didn’t want this to change too.

📱 red: its okay to miss them
📱 red: even when they piss you off

📱 jason: Absence and all that bullshit, I guess.
📱 jason: I didn’t realize how little I talk to people.
📱 jason: I’m not used to people wanting to talk to me.

Jason inhaled sharply, closing his eyes and started typing out a message to make light of his words. He erased and started over and was about to hit send when an answer popped in before he could try to hide the sentiment.

📱 red: thats a shame
📱 red: theyre loss

“It is a testament to my patience that I haven’t corrected your grammar. You should be proud of me,” Jason said aloud, voice a low rumble.

📱 jason: Middle child syndrome.

📱 red: oldest so you have to listen to me.

📱 jason: I don’t even listen to my own older brother.

📱 red: how many siblings do you have?
📱 red: yes, we are getting personal. deal with it.

Jason snorted and typed out a response before he could consider the implications.

📱 jason: send nudes

He felt the flush that crawled up his neck and the cold creep of fear prickle in his palms. He’d ruined it. He’d fucked up. It was a joke. It was a joke. He’d-

📱 red: lol
📱 red: you first

Someone started yelling down the hall, a muffled rhythmic chant that overlapped a bit of bass before a door slammed shut. Jason forced himself to relax. The dorms were always alive with college students, the thump of feet, overlapping music, and shouts that clattered up the sides of the building from the lawn out front, but Jason could only feel his heartbeat in his ears as he stared at the words on the screen.

“Don’t be stupid, they don’t mean it,” he grumbled, swallowing and shifting his weight before throwing his bulk back onto the bed and sighing at the ceiling. He swallowed, wet his lips, and remembered the way it had felt when Kyle looked at him.

Kyle had propped the large sketchpad onto the table, fingers nimbly digging into the pencil case as he got to work. Connor had gotten up, wandering to browse the books with soft jumping touches of fingers. Jason had been stiff, awkward.

“Relax,” Kyle had muttered, almost an order, and Jason had huffed a small noise of complaint the other boy ignored.

Kyle’s eyes had a hazy sort of focus that flickered over Jason’s face, his skin, his jaw, and onto the paper under his fingers. It had been a skipping quick gaze, but it had left Jason uncomfortable and aware of himself in a way he tried to ignore. He had kept his face to the side, instinctively hiding the mess of his scarred cheek from view. “Sorry my face is all fucked up.”

“Can you turn a little?”

Jason had given the other boy a confused look, eyes going wide when Kyle had leaned forward and grabbed Jason’s chin to turn him so the scar was visible. “Um.”

“You’re actually really handsome,” Kyle had told him, blunt as he reached, moving a bit of Jason’s hair. “It’s kind of annoying.”

“Thanks?”

Kyle had smiled and it felt distracted as he ducked back to start drawing again. “Now, stay put. Just like that.”

He’d felt warm. It’d been nice.

Now, Jason thumbed into the camera on his phone, glancing around his empty room before tilting it down his body, the focus shifting a few times before settling. He reminded himself of Kyle’s compliment. He reminded himself of that warm flush. It was almost easy like this; he could almost believe the quick compliment. He wondered if Red would-

He reached, grabbing the line of his dick through the silky fabric of his gym shorts and almost thumbed the waist down. He could imagine it, imagine the terrifying moment of snapping a picture. He would have the flat of his abs, the line of dark hair, the undeniable sight of his dick half hard. It would be faceless: a picture of skin and scars and hiding. Jason swallowed and exhaled a shaky breath, rubbing his jaw against his shoulder. He forced himself to focus.

The phone went dark from inactivity and Jason sighed, thumbing back into his messages.

📱 jason: There’s six of us.
📱 jason: At last count.

📱 red: last count?

📱 jason: Dad really likes kids.

📱 red: and how do you feel about that?

📱 jason: About what? Dad liking kids?
📱 jason: Or kids in general?

📱 red: both?
📱 red: shit brb
📱 red: keep talking

“I almost sent you a dick pic,” Jason told the screen. “How’s that for talking?”

📱 jason: I think we all just gave up.
📱 jason: After three, it became a running joke:
📱 jason: “Oh shit, Dad’s going to the store! Don’t let him get a kid.”
📱 jason: “Dad’s going to a foreign country. Get another room ready.”
📱 jason: “Damnit, Dad! You said you were getting ice cream!”
📱 jason: “Dad, what’s that behind your back. Is that? You promised!”
📱 jason: They’re all pretty great.
📱 jason: Even the replacement and the goblin child.
📱 jason: Don’t tell them I said that, though. I have a reputation to maintain.

Jason paused, feeling a little awkward in the quiet, the space between texts without response.

📱 jason: There was some time between me and the oldest.
📱 jason: But Dad got number three pretty fast after that.
📱 jason: I call him Replacement. It’s supposed to be a joke, but
📱 jason: Sometimes, it feels real. Like Dad had to get him because I wasn’t enough.
📱 jason: I was defective or something.
📱 jason: I was the troubled kid from the system. Got into a lot of fights. Caused a lot of problems. Had to get some remedial tutoring to be in the right grade at school.
📱 jason: I don’t think anyone realizes that kids can be dangerous until they are.
📱 jason: I don’t think I was what he had hoped for.
📱 jason: So, he got the smart perfect kid.
📱 jason: Instead of the fucked up bargain bin one he got with me.
📱 jason: I know parents aren’t supposed to have favorites and shit-
📱 jason: but

📱 red: they do though

Jason blinked at the interruption.

📱 red: have favorites

“That’s fucked up.”

📱 red: sorry, the tyrant was yelling at me, had to get that settled
📱 red: oldest of four, five if you count the aunt who’s younger than me
📱 red: and dad definitely has his favorites
📱 red: you know, when he’s paying attention and not following some beautiful woman around
📱 red: but i read this article once about a woman in peru who survived that earthquake
📱 red: you know, that big one that like leveled everything
📱 red: and she had 15 kids. 15!
📱 red: and they asked her who her favorite was
📱 red: she gave them this answer that i get all emotional about
📱 red: cry like a man!
📱 red: she said el que mas sufre

“The one who suffers most?” Jason translated.

📱 red: she said i love my children with the steady unending love of a mother
📱 red: but the one who gets my special love
📱 red: is the one who is suffering the most

Jason wondered helplessly if he had suffered enough to be loved.

📱 red: I think my dad just loved the one who achieved the most.
📱 red: it’s probably why we’re all so loud

Jason rubbed his face and frowned at an interrupting text notification from Dick, flicking it away with a thumb. He gritted his teeth when another layered in quickly, thumbing it away and staring at the three blinking blue dots that meant Red was still typing. “Not now, Dick.”

📱 red: you want a subject change jaybird?

“Yeah.” Jason sighed, typing the answer and hitting send. He relented at another notification from Dick and tapped into that message string. “What the fuck, Dick? Use your words.”

📱 Dickhead:🏢 🎄 🥳🥳🥳 🤔
📱 Dickhead: 👋🏾 👀 🎄 🍗🍗🦃 🎉 🧐 LITTLE! DON’T IGNORE ME! 👋🏾 👀 🎄 🍗🍗🦃 🎉 🧐👋🏾 👀 🎄 🍗🍗🦃 🎉 🧐👋🏾 👀 🎄 🍗🍗🦃 🎉 🧐
📱 Dickhead: !! 👀👀👀 🥺🥺🥺💔 😭

Jason clicked a quick screenshot, cropping out the name and sent it to Red. “Help.”

📱 jason: What the fuck does this mean?
📱 jason: My brother sends me this shit like I should understand it.

📱 red: lol omg
📱 red: your brother texts like a friend of mine used to
📱 red: hang on, i got this
📱 red: he’s asking if you’re coming home for the holidays I think
📱 red: where’s home again?

📱 jason: Gotham 📱 jason: Technically the Narrows if you’re familiar with the city at all.

📱 red: no shit? hardcore

📱 jason: Not everyone from Gotham is a gang member or hardened criminal.
📱 jason: That’s a generalization.
📱 jason: Mostly.
📱 jason: There may have been some rioting the last time I was home.
📱 jason: ...I got new shoes.

📱 red: your secretly running from your mob family
📱 red: did you change ur name?? are you in witpro??
📱 red: it’s cool
📱 red: i wont tell

Jason couldn’t help the small laugh, shaking his head and picturing his family in matching black suits, fake mustaches, and gold chains mugging for the camera in the next family portrait.

📱 jason: Blood in, Blood out.

He blinked, breath catching at the sudden memory of blood on the clean white tile of the manor’s kitchen.

📱 red: I know someone from there
📱 red: hey!

Jason focused on the conversation, counting his exhale like he’d been taught.

📱 jason: You’re not about to ask me if I know one person in a city of over 4 million right?

📱 red: no.... no definitely not
📱 red: that would be silly
📱 red: totally wouldn’t do somethin glike that
📱 red: or would I? 😜

Jason hummed and fell into the conversation, enjoying the easy mindless back and forth until he was holding a warm phone with a dying battery, curled onto his side in the dark.

📱 red: pretty sure its ur bedtime right

📱 jason: Yeah, probably. I have class at 8.

📱 red: okay, get some sleep
📱 red: but to be clear
📱 red: i don’t think ur defective

Jason stared at the words, frowning hard around the tangled tight feeling in his throat. “Asshole.”

📱 jason: Still waiting for those nudes.

📱 red: lol night jaybird.

*

📱 red: truth or dare

Jason was watching Connor dangle from one of the twisting pipes that huddled next to each other where they erupted from the cement slab. He moved in an easy hand over hand that swayed his bare feet from side to side. Kyle followed him, recording the display of easy acrobatics on his phone.

📱 red: dude, truth or dare
📱 red: indulge me
📱 red: i'm bored
📱 red: jaybird
📱 red: jay jay jay jay

"You should get that," Mia said after a moment, looking back over her shoulder. She snapped a picture of the bay where it sprawled decadently in front of them. The tide lapped at the edge of the park, a soft wet slap under the long hazy sound of the highway and puttering boat motors that burbled like bumblebees. Kyle and Connor were laughing, an easy splash of sound that ducked and twisted around the pipework park and out to echo over the water. “Sounds important.”

"I'm trying to be sociable," Jason told her, leaning back on his palms and enjoying the slight buzzy feel of the cheap wine they'd been drinking. The sky was striped with fast moving clouds that paced steadily south and layered the night with pale moonlight in soft silver lines.

She snorted and turned back to the view. "You don't have to pretend for us. We’re all fucked up too."

Jason blinked and glanced to where Kyle had given up on pretense and was clambering up a pipe after Connor. In front of him, Mia walked closer to the bay. The night felt new and easy as he slipped his phone from under his thigh. It vibrated again, pulsing happily to glow in his hands.

"Who is always texting you?" Mia had asked earlier as they packed for the outing, stuffing the bags of junk food and box wine into the small panniers on her scooter. Connor had handed her the helmet and moved to settle into the passenger seat of Kyle’s beat up green Subaru. Jason had looked up from his phone before tucking it away.

“Nosy.” He’d frowned as Mia struggled to get the latches locked, before pointing at the hatchback. “Why don’t we-?”

“Hush your face. I got this.” She’d leaned her entire slight frame, huffing as she tugged the strap.

“Are you sure?” Jason had almost reached out.

“It is fine.” Connor had leaned over Kyle to smile at him out the open driver’s side window, lifting one shoulder like it excused her stubborn streak. “She enjoys the struggle.”

Jason had finally understood that she and Connor were siblings after a confused moment when a small black-haired six year old slammed shrieking into the cafe and pelted down the worn wood floor to fling herself into Connor's arms.

“Hey, little one,” Connor had smiled, hugging the little girl close while Jason tried to figure out what was going on. Kyle hadn’t even stirred from where he was napping in the other battered wingback. “Did he say when he’s getting back?”

“He said he’d pick her up from the lodge. Probably means he’s just crashing with Dad for the night.” Mia had shrugged, handing over a bright pink backpack covered with patches.

"Um?" Jason had plucked his cup from the table, watching warily as the little girl grabbed the pack and started unloading the thin workbooks that taught vocabulary to first graders. She was so small and delicate looking. "What is happening right now?"

"I'm coloring," the little girl had answered, face serious as she pushed one of Jason's text books out of the way and flipped open a coloring book.

"Okay?" He'd turned to look up at Mia who had been obviously laughing at him even as she unscrewed the pill case on her keychain, palmed one, and dry swallowed with a shrug.

"This is my niece, Lian," Connor had explained.

"Why did Mia have her?" Jason had asked before he could stop himself. "Were you babysitting?"

"She's my niece too." Mia had blinked and then pointed at Jason. "Wait, you didn't know Connor's my brother?"

"He's your brother?" Jason had looked between the wiry blonde with her flaking mascara and undercut to where Connor was calmly letting Lian tug and pull him into the optimal sitting position as she chatted up at him. None of them looked alike. Lian was obviously of Asian descent with dark hair, round face, and pretty light brown eyes. Connor had smiled at Jason’s confusion. He had the same teardrop curve to his green eyes, but there wasn't anything else they had in common.

"Yeah, you don't see the family resemblance?" Mia had asked, faux innocent as she’d ducked to smash her face against Connor’s cheek. Connor had smiled, shaking his head at her antics, and cracked open a pencil case to hold out to the little girl in his lap.

"She's adopted," Connor had supplied, unruffled, as he moved the pink bag onto the floor next to him.

"Who?"

"Me," Mia had waved a hand. "It's complicated."

"Daddy is the biggest. Then Aunt Cissie, Uncle Connor, Aunt Emiko, and Aunt Mia," the little girl had listed. She’d made a face, nose scrunching up. "It's not that hard."

"Show off," Mia had groaned, turning Lian's face kiss her temple. "Be good?"

"Never!" she’d crowed.

Jason and Lian had come to a wary truce, sharing the table. He hadn’t even had to ask for the refill Mia brought him. Red had been telling him about the job he was on, a catered event somewhere out on an island park in the bay. Jason had put together that Red was a part-time florist/part-time handyman who worked strange hours and took odd jobs as necessary. He’d needed money when he came back from a deployment overseas and a family friend had taken him in. He was resettling into his life here in the city.

“I mean, you only really smile at your phone,” Mia had continued, watching him curiously as she panted, red faced after finally wrangling the pannier closed. “Long distance relationship? Left your girlfriend back in Gotham?”

“What? No. No girlfriend,” Jason had stuttered. “It’s kind of hard to explain.” This was his. He didn’t want to share.

“Whatever, be mysterious,” she’d groused, slapping the seat of her scooter closed over the storage and swinging on. She’d patted the seat behind her with a sweetly teasing grin. Jason had deadpanned at her before folding his big frame into the backseat of Kyle’s car.

“She’s a terror,” he’d told Connor in the front seat. Connor had nodded and stretched an arm out, curling his fingers into the driver’s seat headrest. Jason had pretended not to notice the way Kyle’s eyes flickered to Connor at the glancing touch.

📱 red: come on jaybird
📱 red: truth or dare<

📱 jason: How would you even know if I participated in a dare?

There was a pause and Jason watched Mia pick up a stone, skipping it out across the water with a quick underhand toss. He counted the splashes while he waited for Red to finish typing their answer.

📱 red: fair point
📱 red: truth or truth doesn’t have the same ring tho

📱 jason: Truth it is.

📱 red: maybe this should just be the tell me a secret game

📱 jason: You want a secret?

📱 red: something you haven’t told anyone or it’s not interesting

Jason sighed, ducking his head as his mind filled with possible answers. My real mom is alive out there somewhere and I’m scared to look for her. I think I’m bi. My best friend growing up was the butler. I’m hiding from my family, but I miss them so much. I tried to steal Bruce’s tires and he adopted me and I don’t know how to say thank you. I’m worried he regrets taking me in. I’m worried I’ve fucked it up too much and I can’t fix it. I never feel safe. I hate that every time I Iook in the mirror I just see how I failed my mom. I hate that I’ll never forget what a knife feels like. I wish Bruce was my real Dad instead of- I want someone to love me. I’m terrified that no one ever will. I’m jealous of how easy it is for my older brother to be loved. I’m dangerous. Dangerous things don’t deserve to be loved. I almost-

I want to know what you look like. I look forward to your texts all day.

📱 jason: No judgement.

📱 red: scouts honor

📱 jason: Were you even a boy scout?

📱 red: irrelevant
📱 red: the sentiment stands

📱 jason: Fine.
📱 jason: God, what kind of secret?

📱 red: damn jaybird
📱 red: how many do you have??
📱 red: fine, tell me about your first kiss or something
📱 red: we’ll go full middle school slumber party

“I never went to a slumber party,” Jason muttered, frowning at his phone and taking a deep breath.

📱 jason: Fine.
📱 jason: This is embarrassing.
📱 jason: My first kiss was my brother’s best friend and I have never told anyone that.

📱 red: SPICY
📱 red: tell me more

📱 jason: That’s not how truth or dare works, is it?
📱 jason: Isn’t it your turn?

📱 red: fine
📱 red: Dare.

Jason blinked and sat up, suddenly feeling nervous and powerful in the dark as he stared down at the screen. He tapped out a response, deleted it, retyped it, deleted it again, and then sent it before he could change his mind.

📱 jason: Send me the last picture on your camera roll.

Jason didn’t expect them to do it, but a picture popped up almost instantly.

It was incredible: a waterfall in the cool crystalline light filtering through the coniferous trees that framed the image. A sheet of water rushed over the round rock face, frothy white water splitting into lacy rivulets as it traced its way down, the foreground a choppy field of larger boulders with a young kid in a yellow raincoat throwing victorious hands into the air facing the waterfall. The kid was in focus, but faceless in the hooded raincoat and cuffed jeans. There was a downed tree, silvery with wear cutting across the field. A backpack leaned against it, large and red with a few patches stitched onto the top flap. The waterfall looked enormous in comparison to the kid, to the downed tree, to the smattering of green pine branches at the edge of the shot, but the sky was a beautiful clear blue stripe at the top.

“Woah.”

📱 red: bridal veil falls, took a day trip out there the other day with the tyrant
📱 red: she enjoyed herself

📱 jason: You have a kid?

📱 red: i thought you knew that?
📱 red: i talk about her all the time.
📱 red: or did you think I just had a weird roommate with an affinity for kids music?

📱 jason: I don’t know, man. College is weird. I’ve seen some shit.

📱 red: i’ll take ur word for it.
📱 red: only made it through two semesters before i had to drop out
📱 red: worth it
📱 red: truth or dare

📱 jason: Truth.

📱 red: fiiiiiiine
📱 red: are you a guy?

📱 jason: You think this would have come up before now.

📱 red: im pretty sure I know the answer
📱 red: indulge me

📱 jason: Guy. You?

📱 red: same lol
📱 red: disappointed?

Kyle yelped, falling off the structure and groaning lowly as Connor dropped to land lightly next to him.

“You two okay over there?” Jason called, not bothering to get up from where he was sprawled on the spread blanket. The silver udder of wine from a disassembled box of cheap chianti was holding down the far corner next to a few bags of doritos and a small brown paper carton of pickled vegetables for Connor. Jason had bought it all, big enough that the clerk at the small corner store hadn’t even bothered to card him. He’d snagged a soft pack of menthols and a small black bic lighter, too. He hadn’t had a cigarette since Alfred had found him smoking in the manor’s attic. He’d been terrified that he’d have to leave.

Connor huffed a laugh as Kyle tossed a thumbs up into the air. “Good. I’m good. Nothing bruised but my pride.”

“Be more careful, you could have hurt yourself,” Connor admonished, hand resting lightly on Kyle’s stomach before he stood and ambled toward the shoreline.

Jason watched Kyle’s head turn, following the other boy to where he joined Mia at the water’s edge. They had never met Kyle’s girlfriend. She was across the country studying photography in New York. Jason was half convinced she didn’t actually exist.

📱 red: hello?
📱 red: shit, did I lose you?

📱 jason: No. I’m here. My friend is an idiot.
📱 jason: I don’t care that you’re a guy.

📱 red: even though I’ve been flirting with you?

“Oh.” The flush started in the way his chest went tight, crawling up into his ears to throb hotly as he exhaled. “Okay then.”

📱 jason: Ask me to tell you a secret.

📱 red: tell me a secret, jaybird

📱 jason: I like that you flirt with me.
📱 jason: truth or dare

“Please say dare,” Jason whispered, heart racing as his world seemed to narrow to the small animated dots of a text being typed.

📱 red: dare

Jason could feel the way his skin went tight, heat pooling low in his stomach as he exhaled shakily and forced his hands to still. “Fuck it.”

📱 jason: call me

It felt reckless. Jason set the phone face down, taking a breath that expanded his chest and flopped onto his back. He wanted to hide his face. He was too exposed in this open aired night, facing the soft ripple of water on the shore. He wanted the phone to ring. He wanted to fling it into the water, a startled panicked moment of fear. He wanted to know what Red sounded like. Next to him, his phone was buzzing in short bursts, too quick to be a ringtone notification. “Shit.”

📱 red: now?
📱 red: can't right now
📱 red: i want to
📱 red: really really want to
📱 red: but im not alone currently
📱 red: i don't want to be distracted

The throb of heat twisted sickly and then ratcheted back into something terrifying and electric. Jason tucked the phone under his chin, swiping his palms over the thighs of his jeans and then cleaning the screen with a quick rub to the shoulder of his shirt. He reread the messages, looking around and realized that Mia was walking his direction, tugging Connor along by the wrist. Kyle followed both of them, hands deep in the pockets of his light jacket.

📱 jason: tomorrow?

"Did you eat all the cool ranch?" Mia asked, flinging herself down onto the blanket and tugging the blue bag from where it was crumpled at Jason's ankle. She shook it, digging around before whooping happily and thumbing a pile of crumbs into her mouth.

"I'm not a monster," he told her, clearing his throat around how tight and breathless he sounded.

📱 red: gotta put the phone away before I change my mind
📱 red: tomorrow. it's a date.

*

The next day he almost called Dick for advice. The situation was dire.

Instead, Jason jerked off as soon as he made it in the door of his dorm room, sweats shoved down his thighs, hand on his dick, come pulsing over his knuckles with a bitten off whine. He screwed his eyes shut, panting around the way it hadn't eased the anxious twist of nerves in his chest; it hadn't relaxed him.

He frowned at the mess he'd made, hobble-hopping to the tidy desk and snatching tissue after tissue to mop at his fingers, the back of his hand, his stomach, and the stain at the waist of his sweatpants.

"Get a fucking grip, Todd," he growled, balling the tissues to drop into the trash before tipping to fall into bed. He closed his eyes. He tried to ignore the interested twitch of his dick.

He'd been drifting in and out of a fugue state all afternoon, missing almost the entirety of his Philosophy lecture to the fumbled curious haze of hopeful, half-imagined conversations. He’d caught himself practicing what he would say as he walked to the gym. He’d caught himself thinking about little half-remembered moments or bantered conversations. He had let himself linger in the memories of kissing his first and only girlfriend as he decimated the tray of protein heavy food he'd mindlessly grabbed from the dining hall near the library. Jason had been torturing himself with all the bits of his meager sexual experiences he could cobble together.

Rena had been a quiet, intensely beautiful girl who had taken his hands and placed them over the lace edges of her bra - her wide brown eyes kind as her breathing had deepened and pushed their weight against his touch. They’d been in the library of the west wing of the manor, the door locked and the curtains half drawn. The sticky honey-colored late evening sun caught in the wild halo of her pretty black hair. It lingered on the edges of her skin, picking the fine peach fuzz glow along her bare shoulder. Her skin had been burnished, smooth and rich brown. Her shirt was somewhere near the couch. His shirt unbuttoned, the sweater vest with the private school crest inside out on the coffee table. He’d stopped her fingers from finding his skin.

They’d given up on running the lines of Shakespeare the moment she’d skimmed out of her undershirt - the fabric crackling and whisking her hair to stick to his fingers. He remembered the scratch of the lace, the way he'd curled his fingers, tucking under the top line to where her nipples were peaking, dark brown and perfect against her smooth skin. She'd ducked, shoving forward to kiss him, lifted up on her knees. It had been a crashing mess of a kiss, hard and urgent before he'd pulled back, recklessly horny and tenting his school uniform khaki's.

He let himself think about the other kiss, the first one. He let himself think about the low voice, the scratch of stubble, the easy wet slip of tongue. He let himself remember the way he'd shivered, caught against the wall of the pool house with a hot male hand at his hip, the other light and tipping his jaw up. He let himself think that it had been something real instead of a cheap dare to be laughed about later.

Dick’s best friend, Roy Harper, had been a sinful tangle of glowing pale skin that was slick and shiny from the pool, who laughed brightly, flushed visibly, and flipped messy red hair back from his face. He was lean, thickly muscled with sharply defined arms, perfect hipbones, and the sort of shocking sloppy sex appeal that had Jason hiding in the dark, embarrassed and visibly hard. He hadn’t been able to look away from where the thin white boxers the older boy was using as swim trunks went translucent, clinging to his hips, his thighs, his ass. Jason had frozen when Roy had tugged at them, pulling the cotton from where it was sticking to the thick line of his soft dick.

He’d been one of Dick’s best friends and Jason’s sexual identity crisis.

Jason reached and squeezed his dick once at the sweet throb of desire at the memory. He had tried to be so cool, so unmoved by the way the older boy had walked toward him, throwing an arm into the air at the catcalls that echoed from the pool. “Shut up, assholes.”

Jason hadn’t heard the responses, just the sound of his heart jackrabbit fast in his ears as Roy had turned his focus to where he was shifting from foot to foot, fully dressed in flannel pajama pants, one of Dick’s old long-sleeved shirts that was getting tight in the shoulders, and the constant overlarge red hoodie that he hid in. He was trembling, frowning at the way Roy tilted his head and held up both hands like he was calming a wild animal and not a skittish fifteen year old. “Hey. You don’t have to do this. I-”

“Just do it,” Jason had heard himself say, jaw clenching to chatter his teeth at the way his skin felt flushed and feverish. “If you do it fast you won’t have to think about what I look like.”

“What?” Roy’s brows had pulled together in confusion, mouth dropping out of the easy smile as he inched closer, carefully easing into Jason’s space and hooking a pale finger into the front pocket of his hooded jacket. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Jason hadn’t had any illusions about his looks, not in comparison to Dick, to Tim, to any of the pretty people slippery and gorgeous in the watery lights of the pool. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“Okay,” Roy had answered, tucking his hand along the line of Jason’s jaw to tip his head back. Jason had still been growing, shins splintered and aching in the long summer nights, but he hadn’t been as tall as Roy yet. He had stared fixedly at his Adam’s apple. “Hey, look at me, kid.”

“Not a kid,” Jason had answered, bitter and rushed. Kids needed to be protected.

Roy’s eyes had tracked over his face, studying him for a moment before he’d smiled, slow and pleased. “C’mon handsome, look at me.”

“Don’t make fun of m-” Roy had ducked to cut him off, to eat the self-deprecating petulant sentence right off his tongue. He’d kissed him and Jason’s toes had curled, hands moving to settle at the hot skin over his ribs, clutching without anything like awareness from his brain. His whole world had been this moment, this touch of lips that slipped and ached until his mouth dropped open on a sigh and Roy’s tongue had slipped inside.

Jason still touched himself to that thought, that memory of hard muscle and hot skin smoothing under his palms. He touched himself to the memory of the way Roy had pressed closer, pressed fully against him and smiled at the obvious hard line of Jason’s dick against his hip.

“I won’t tell,” Roy had whispered and Jason’s hips had rocked, rutting against the sharp jut of his hipbone as Roy kissed him again, kissed him like this one was just for them, like he enjoyed the feel of Jason shaking apart against him.

“God, you’re beautiful,” Roy had tucked against the shell of his ear before he pulled back.

“Stop molesting my brother, Roy!” Dick had hollered, barely lifting his head from where it was pillowed on the long golden thigh of his brazillian girlfriend, Kori.

“Fuck off, Dickie!” Roy had yelled back. Jason had felt the flicker of his tongue when he wet his lips. “Thanks, kid,” Roy had whispered when he touched their foreheads, pushing one more quick smirking kiss to where Jason was shivering, open mouthed and lost in the heady rush of hormones and lust. He’d shoved back, turning his head to yell back to where his friends were draped around the pool in the dark. “For fuck’s sake, Big Bird! You started this!”

The world had crashed back in, just a riot of cat calls and whooping that rippled along the surface of the pool and out to the puddle of shadows Roy left him in. Jason was never sure if that was real or everything he’d hoped to hear. He was never sure if he’d just taken the memory out so often it was malleable and half-fantasy, half-reality. It wouldn’t be the first time he remembered something wrong.

Jason glanced at the clock and then at his dick before reaching to snag the charging cord and plug his phone in. He lifted his hips and pulled his pants up before tipping his phone to check for texts. He’d been checking it relentlessly, absently, obsessively, all day. He kept pulling it out of his pocket, imagining the buzz of a text only to be disappointed.

“Earth to Jason.” Mia had snapped her fingers at him when she’d cleared his table, amused smirk softening the sharp lines of her face. “Woah, hey, easy.”

Jason had jerked hard, pulling back from the sudden noise, and glared at her.

“Hey, you’re okay. Where the hell have you been all night?” She’d been holding the bus tub against her hip, the mismatched china a colorful mess. The coffee shop was empty, the lights behind the counter turned all the way to full volume, and a yellow mop bucket waited by the door. He was the last person here.

“Shit.” He’d shaken himself, looking up at her. “What time is it?”

“It’s ten fifteen. We close at ten. It’s a testament to our unspoken friendship that I let you keep spacing out. You’ve been staring at the wall for the last twenty minutes.” She’d snorted at his confused reaction and turned her wrist to show him where her digital Q-watch was running the stopwatch function. “I timed it. Kind of impressive actually.”

“I have to go,” he’d told her, swallowing back an irrational panic that he’d miss the phone call. He had pulled his laptop closed, stacked his text books on top of it, and tried to stand at the same time, tripping and banging his hip on the metal edge. “Fuck.”

“What the hell, man? You okay?” She’d cocked her head at him. “Got a hot date or something?”

Jason had felt himself flush. “Something like that?” Red had called it a date. He tried not to think about that. “Important phone call.”

“Uh huh,” she’d snorted, shaking her head at him. “Well, have fun with that. I’m turning the music on again to the station you don’t like.”

“Does that count as music though?” he’d asked as he shoved his books and laptop into his backpack, pulling the zipper as she threw her hands up in mock despair and walked away from him.

“It’s Star City Prog Rock, you uncultured swine. Keep your shitty east coast sensibilities to yourself.”

“Just because something is progressive doesn’t make it good!” he singsonged, pulling his bag over his shoulders and walking for the door.

“Fuck off!” she’d singsonged back at him, matching her rude hand gesture with a wide charming smile.

He’d had to walk home. He’d had to walk home with nothing but the tense anticipation and endless racing thoughts. He kept letting himself imagine Red as Roy, letting himself pretend that the person on the other side of the phone was a haunting sharp-hipped redhead who said he was beautiful like he meant it. He’d had to tuck his erection into the waist of his sweatpants on the elevator, dragging the hem of his red sweatshirt down and glaring at the floor.

Now, he was laying on his back, in his bed, waiting for a phone call that might never come.

It shouldn’t have startled him when his phone started buzzing on his stomach, he’d been waiting for it all day. He answered too fast, breathless. “Hey, sorry-”

“Jason! Finally! I’ve been texting you for like... ever.”

Jason blinked, feeling the excitement and tense nerves drain out of him at the sound of his brother’s voice. “Dick.”

“The one and only. Now, don’t hang up.”

“You wouldn’t have to lead with that request if you didn’t keep giving me a reason to hang up on you,” Jason snarled, pinching the bridge of his nose and closing his eyes. “What do you want?”

“I can’t just call my favorite younger brother?”

“That is a terrible lie. Damian is your favorite.”

“Ah, he’s my favorite baby brother.”

“Tim.”

Little brother.”

“Duke.”

There was a pause and Jason bit back the choked laugh as he imagined the very serious line of Dick’s black eyebrows, the artful tumble of his messy black hair, and the frown as he tried to find the easy answer. “Okay, point. But-!”

“Skip to the end.”

“Come home for the holidays.”

“Dick.”

“No, seriously. You have to come home. We miss you.”

“Tim doesn’t miss me. Neither does Damian. You used to be better at lying.”

“Okay fine, Alfred misses you.”

“That’s dirty pool, Dickhead.”

“Did it work?”

There was a stuttered noise as his phone started ringing into the call. He pulled it back, heart twisting at the sight of the contact name: Red. “I can’t do this. I gotta go.”

“Wait! No! Jason,” Dick pleaded, voice rushed. “I just got you on the line. Talk to me, Jason! Tell me about school! Have you made any friends? How are your classes? Does it rain every day? Is the coffee as good as they say? Have you met anyone? Come on, I’ve been good about respecting b-.”

Bye, Dick.” Jason ignored the frantic words and thumbed the call over to the other line. “Hello?”

“Jay?” The voice was rough, a sandpapery baritone and Jason could almost hear the curious smile in the tone. “Is this... um, is this a bad time?”

“No, no,” Jason swallowed, clearing his throat at the way his voice had gone whispery and tight in his throat. “Perfect timing, actually.” A silence settled over the line like they were realizing this was happening, that it was real. He felt himself smiling, bright and helplessly charmed into the silence as he stared up at the popcorn ceiling in his dorm room. “You actually called.”

“I don’t back down on a dare,” Red answered, the audible click of a door shutting carrying over the line. “That’s just unsportsmanlike.”

“So, you only called because I dared you to?” Jason let a small pout tip into his tone. He felt breathless and daring, startlingly confident in the banter.

“Yes.” There was a scuffle, a squeak of springs, and a soft sigh. “But, it’s not why I’m going to stay on the line.”

“Yeah?” Jason’s voice cracked and he cleared his throat, rolling his eyes at himself and shifting on the thin mattress.

“Yeah. I’m trying to find out more about this guy I met,” came the easy blythely flirtatious response. “See if I was just imagining the chemistry.”

“You weren’t,” Jason stumbled into, tripping over the words in his mouth and toeing out of his shoes so he could pull his heels up onto his bedspread. “At least, I hope you weren’t. I mean, it would be a shared hallucination at this point.”

There was a soft lull, silence that Jason could linger in, listening to the soft break of Red’s breathing against the phone. He couldn’t stop smiling. He knew he must look ridiculous.

“So.”

“So?”

“Tell me,” and it sounded wet, like Red was licking his lips. There was a rough laugh and Jason felt it slip electric along his spine. “What are you wearing?”

Jason burst out laughing, startled and warm as he covered his face with one broad hand, blushing despite his reaction. “Um, I don’t know if I should tell you that.”

“Oh yeah?” He could hear the smile. He let himself imagine Roy’s crooked pale lips, the way he’d tipped his head, curious.

“Yeah, I don’t know if sweat pants and drying come are really the best way to introduce yourself,” he continued, inexplicably honest. He bit his lip, closing his eyes and hoping for something he couldn’t quite define.

“Oh fuck, that’s hot.” There was a metallic clatter, something muffled, and a hitch in Red’s breathing. “Seriously?”

Jason closed his eyes, choking down another chuckle and nodded. He paused, rolling his eyes at himself. “Yeah. I barely made it in the door. I kept thinking about you all day. It’s kind of-”

“Shit, really?”

“Yeah.” Jason inhaled, exhaled a soft noise. “Still waiting for those nudes.”

This time Red laughed, a sharp-barked cough that went hushed like he’d covered his mouth with a hand. “You first.” His breathing stuttered, and Jason had the startling realization that Red was just as turned on as he was.

“Okay.”

“Oh fuck, really?”

Jason didn’t hear the soft groan, he’d pulled the phone away, flipping it over to camera and grabbed himself, thick half-hard line of his dick visible in against the shadowed folds of his sweatpants, wrist taut, and arm a flicker of corded muscle. He could see the sharp cut of his hips and the divot of his belly button. The scar there was barely visible. The click of the shutter was loud and he sent it before he could let himself second guess. The soft sent swoosh making his dick pulse precome, bobbing urgently against his palm as he flexed. “Oh god.”

He screwed his eyes shut, pressing the corner of his phone against his forehead and inhaled slowly, terrified for a bright second before he heard the soft heartfelt swearing on the other end of the line. “Jesus, look at you. Seriously? That’s you?”

“Yeah.”

“Touch yourself.” Red’s voice dropped into his chest, a warm rumble that Jason felt in his lungs, in his stomach, in his dick. He caught a soft noise against his teeth and shoved his sweats down, stroking himself quickly. “You doing it? You are. I can hear it. Fuck, don’t hold back. Don’t be quiet. Let me hear you. Fuck, Jaybird. What are you thinking about?”

“I don’t... I-”

“Think about me sucking you off.” It felt like a command and in his mind he imagined Red in Roy’s skin, dropping to his knees and opening his mouth. He imagined the wet strands of his red hair tangling in his fingers. He stroked faster.

“Shit. Would you?”

“Fuck yes. Open my mouth and taste you. Let you use me.” His voice was hitching in regular intervals, the soft metal sound was a belt buckle jangling. Red was touching himself thinking about sucking Jason’s dick. “You want that?”

It could have been words if Jason could catch his breath, but instead he heard the heartfelt vowel that ached out of him in time with the throb of his dick. He stroked faster, pausing to pull his hand up, lick his palm, and start again. “Yes. I want...”

“Faster. I can hear you’re close. Fuck.” His groan was pornagraphic, was obscene, was perfect in Jason’s ear. “You’re going to come for me. Just fucked out and messy over my voice.” Red made a soft bitten-off sound like he was in pain, a quiet rasping thing that had Jason pulsing precome all over himself.

The sound of his hand on his dick was loud in the empty dorm, just the slick sticky noise, the sound of him twisting into it, body weight shifting on the bed as he breathed quiet yearning moans. “I’ll show you,” he managed, choking on it.

“Yes. Fuck.” There was a fumble of noise like Red had shifted, moving somehow, and then it was clearer - speakerphone. “What do you like?” Red was jerking off, face tilted to his phone to listen to Jason moaning. The sound of his hand slapping against skin catching Jason like a gut-punch. He matched the speed, imagining pale, freckled fingers instead of his own. “Want me to hold you down and jerk you off? I could spread those fucking perfect thighs and finger you open, make you pant and flush and smear against my skin. Think about it, my hands on you. My hands in you. Can you imagine it? Or am I still on my knees for you? Do you want that? Want me to choke on you? I could ride you. Let you shove into me. What do you want? Anything. Tell me.”

“I- shit, oh god, I don’t...” Jason was overwhelmed, battered by the sheer thrumming force of it all: the desire, the sound of Red’s voice growling filth that stained his thoughts, each suggestion tipping him hotter, harder, coiled and helplessly turned on. “Yes. Please.”

The groan echoed over the phone. It was drawn out, agonized and perfect. “God, I wish I was there to see you right now.”

“Red-”

“Come on, baby.” It was a whisper. He could almost taste it. It felt like that moment in the dark with Roy’s lips at his ear. I won’t tell. “That’s it. Come for me.”

Jason exhaled a noise that felt tugged from behind his spine, body arching off the bed, phone bouncing on his sheets as he came - electric and pulsing. He was pretty sure he lost time. He came back to himself slowly, panting and gasping for breath, the sound of someone saying his name making him blink and turn, frowning at his phone where it was glowing face down. “Shit.”

“You with me?” came the breathless smiling voice.

“Yeah. Sorry about that. Fuck.” He sniffed, frowning down at himself. “I think I got my chin. Fuck.”

“Don’t apologize.” Red’s laugh was perfect, and Jason felt himself smiling into it, giddy and loose in the aftermath. “Well done.”

“Your fault. Fuck man, where’d you learn to talk like that?”

“Natural talent.” Red smiled and then made a soft tsk-ing noise. “Waiting.”

“Huh?”

“I was promised pictures.”

Jason flushed hotly. “You really-”

“Fuck yeah, I do. Send it over, handsome.”

Jason smirked, smile sharp and almost feral in the dark. “You first.”

The picture came in a moment later and Jason startled. It was a sea of pale freckled skin, cut muscle, and Red’s hand covering his stomach just under his belly button, slick and messy just before the flushed ruddy head of his dick and the open v of his jeans. There was a tattoo half visible on his forearm, but Jason was staring at his fingers. He’d imagined freckles. The reality was better. “Your turn,” came the soft breathless voice over the line.

“Holy shit. You’re a redhead?”

“Yeah.” He could almost hear the shrug. “All my life. There’s a reason I had you call me Red.” There was a pause and for the first time Jason heard something like insecurity creep into the raspy baritone. “That... is it a problem? Some people aren’t-”

“No. Not at all.” Jason swallowed and let his head fall back, eyes closed and thinking about Roy’s smile in the dark. “It’s actually kind of perfect.” He paused, flinging a picture in return and hearing the soft punched-out sound Red made when he looked at it. The silence settled between them, oddly comfortable.

"Hi," Red smiled into the quiet.

"Hey," Jason answered in the dark.

*

"Spill." The word was punctuated with a full pot of hot water clattering onto the table, a new teabag slapped down beside it, and Mia throwing her small sharp-boned frame into the opposite armchair so hard it rocked. She blinked at him, face blank as she sipped daintily out of a mug that was nearly as large as her head.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Jason replied, trying to force the smile off his face.

"Liar. God, you are such a liar." Mia pointed at him around the mug, bright purple nail polish chipping and the small delicate line of her finger tattoo almost underlining the gesture. "Lian is going to be here any second and you look like you finally got laid. I am not having this conversation in front of an impressionable kid who likes to repeat everything she hears."

"That's..."

"Unbelievably kind of me? Yes, I know."

"You're pronouncing invasive wrong," Jason muttered, shutting his laptop and reaching for the teabag.

"Potato, poh-tah-to." Mia settled in, pulling a heel onto the cushioned seat and wedging her shin against the edge of his table. The alarm on her phone went off and she tapped her watch to snooze it. "You're smiling. On purpose. At nothing." She pointed at his copy of the Iliad with her chin. "I don't think you're that excited by Patroclus."

"He's very exciting," Jason replied. "I think Achilles would take umbridge."

"Achilles can bite me. Is it the person you're always texting?"

"He's very dead-"

"And fictional, yes, I've read a book. Don't change the subject."

"Maybe."

"I knew it! God." Mia sank back into the chair, looking delighted. The alarm sounded again, bright and tinkling. Jason tilted his head at her. "That's a better answer than you having an unhealthy obsession with your phone."

"I don’t think that would even rate an episode on My Weird Addiction," Jason said, pushing his teacup to her so she could take her meds.

"Talking to you is like trying to hold seven cats," she muttered around the pill on her tongue, swallowing quickly.

"Isn't it herding cats?"

"Not a clear enough simile, honestly. It doesn't really manage to fully encapsulate the way you deflect and squirm."

Jason forced himself to sit still and not shift in the chair. "I don't squirm."

"You do. It's adorable really, but this is important. Are you finally going to tell me about them? Him? Her? They?"

"No."

Mia pouted, hunkering down in the chair and resting her bottom lip on the edge of his teacup as she widened her eyes at him. "You are a fun-killer and I don't know why we're friends."

"I, too, question this regularly."

"No," she snorted. "You don't. I'm amazing. You're lucky to have me."

"See," Jason answered, opening the teapot and settling the bag, closing it with a soft click of porcelain. "You don't actually need me to participate."

"I just want to live vicariously. Let me live vicariously, Jason." She pouted. He realized he’d never seen her text anyone that wasn’t her family, never gone on a date, never talked about a boyfriend.

"It's... it's ridiculous, okay?" he relented.

Mia managed to be completely focused and quietly relaxed at the same time, forcing a soft smile onto her face. "I live for the ridiculous. You've met my family. They are peak ridiculous. We haven’t even begun to cover how deep it runs. Remind me to tell you about Dad's stupid chili recipe that is literally just doctoring Hormel."

"Oh, God."

"I know right? We all pretend we don't know."

"So, what you're saying," Jason smirked, lifting the lid to check the steep and bobbing the teabag three times. Mia handed his teacup back. "Is that you have mastered my family's method for dealing with each other. We just pretend the others don't exist. Except the oldest: Dick. He just starts group texts and it feels like being taken hostage."

"That is a dick move. I mean, doesn't every group text feel like a kidnapping?"

"I may have changed his name to Boy Hostage on my phone once or twice."

"What's mystery-texter’s name in your phone?"

"Leading question," Jason answered. "That's a good strategy."

"Is it working?"

"No."

"Damn it! Come on. Something. Anything." She frowned. “You never talk about your life. Never mention this family of yours. It’s like you burst into existence fully formed.”

“Like Athena? I’ll take it.” Jason sighed, pouring a cup of tea as he considered her. She smoothed an innocent look onto her face, eyebrows up and smokey eyeliner making her look like a mischievous raccoon. "I like him."

"So, it's a him?" Mia leaned forward and picked up the small pile of tea related trash, crumbling it and moving to her feet.

"You don't have-"

"Literally my job," she answered, moving to toss it in the trash can next to the bus tub. "I'm still listening. You like hi-"

"Mia!" Lian screamed happily as the front door jangled open, high voice carrying easily over the midday bustle of the coffee shop. She was rocketing across the floor, pink backpack flopping from side to side as she pelted and launched herself at where Mia had a moment to brace before impact. "Mia! I'm going to be a Selkie! Daddy is going to be a werewolf which isn't as interesting, but I'm going to let him do it because he seemed excited."

"A selkie? How are you going to pull that off, little?" Mia hefted Lian onto her hip, reaching to tug one of the pink clipped barrettes straight.

"I don't know. Daddy will figure it out. He's smart."

"He pays you to say that." Mia was smiling as Lian snorted and started squirming to get down, shirt bunching before she dropped to the floor.

"Hey, Jason," Lian said absently as Jason moved to pull the hot tea out of reach, corralling it between his text books and laptop.

"Hi, Lian. Big day?”

Lian set her bag down at his ankle with an adult-sized sigh, unzipping it and then pulling her books out to slap one by one onto the table. She frowned, both hands on her hips as she shook her head at them before looking over at where Jason's pile was collected just past his closed laptop. "We had to share what we were going to be for Halloween and Gabriel said I couldn’t be a selkie, so I hit him and Daddy had to come get me, but he’s got work so I’m going to be good for Uncle Connor. What are you going to be for Halloween?"

Jason tried not to freeze too obviously when she put a hand on his knee and clambered into his lap, reaching to open her vocabulary workbook. She was so small. He could barely feel her weight. She stole his pen and started writing her name on the labeled line. "I don't know?"

"You could be a princess," she told the page, focused and oddly bony where she was perched. Jason looked over at Mia, who simply shrugged and sat back down across from him. “Daddy says boys can be whatever they want to be now and that if they want to wear a dress they can.” She tucked her face closer to the page, concentration in the tense way she held her small shoulders. She was unafraid, undaunted, and Jason tried to relax. “So, you could be a princess.”

"He could," Mia agreed. "We're having a party at the lodge. You should come. Connor and Kyle can be your people-buffer."

"I'm not allowed at the party. I'm getting candy." Lian shrugged and pointed at Mia. "I could let him borrow my crown."

"I'll think about it," Jason said, looking over Lian’s shoulder to watch her carefully spell out one of the words at the top of the page.

"Don't think about it," Mia answered. "I'll text you the address, gimme your phone."

"No." Jason glanced up at her, smirking. “That’s a trap.”

"Fine!" Mia rolled her eyes and pulled out her phone. "Keep your secrets." She glanced up, waiting patiently. “What’s your number?”

Jason exhaled and gently lifted Lian, careful and cautious. She seemed so fragile. He adjusted her position slightly so she’d stop digging a bony bit into his thigh and rattled his phone number off.

“Are you serious? That’s not a joke?” Mia snickered. “Well, that’ll be easy to remember.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, it’s almost the sa-”

“Uncle Connor!” Lian yelled, squirming off Jason’s lap. The table rocked violently as she banged against it in her hurry, spilling tea over Jason’s closed laptop. Connor turned from where he was half in the door, waving behind him at someone down the sidewalk. He smiled brightly, catching Lian and swinging the little girl into the air as Jason and Mia both launched into action; Mia darting out of her chair and sprinting to grab a few bar towels and Jason scooping the laptop up to drip onto the table.

“Is it ruined?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Jason answered.

“I’m going to worry about it. Connor? Text Dad?” Mia sighed, mopping up the spill and looking at him before grinning crookedly, eyes teasing. “At least it wasn’t your phone.”

*

“This looks so fucking cool,” Kyle told him, turning to walk backwards up the long path that led from the winding driveway up to a sprawling Frank Lloyd Wright style lodge that sank slyly into the forest. He tripped slightly in his red flip flops, pausing to slip them back on his feet and tug at his blue shirt to straighten the yellow star. “Two things.” Kyle pointed at a baby blue Bronco parked on the lawn near the front door. “We could have driven? And-” He pointed accusingly at Connor. “You’re rich?”

“My Dad is wealthy,” Connor amended, reaching to continue plucking small bits of broken leaf from the shiny pink satin bomber jacket Kyle was wearing with quick fingers. He was dressed in a nearly exact replica of the Errol Flynn era Robin Hood costume complete with green tights, feathered cap, and quiver.

“How did we not know this?” Kyle was shaking his head, he’d brushed his curls out to fluff into a halo around his face. Connor frowned and grabbed a stray bit of bark that was hanging just behind Kyle’s ear. “Are you rich too?”

Jason shrugged, hands deep in the pockets of his jeans. He paused to inspect a skeletal hand that was clawing its way out of the small man-made fountain set to the side of the front door. There were cotton spiderwebs everywhere. The door itself was a heavily carved monstrosity with two heavy round pulls bolted at hip height and long thin windows that showcased the open floor plan. The entire side of the house was floor to ceiling windows that faced an incredible view of the valley below. He leaned back and looked at Kyle. “Depends on who you ask.”

“That sounds exactly like something a rich person would say,” Kyle told him.

“I, myself, am very broke, bro,” Jason sighed. His skin felt greasy in the face paint, like his eyelids were sticking together when he blinked. The fake blood tasted sweet with a mild bitter aftertaste, like corn syrup and food coloring. He had made the mistake of trying to run his fingers through his hair, the product catching and leaving him looking around to try and find something to wipe it off on. He’d settled for the thighs of his jeans. They were bought second hand from the thrift store along with the carefully distressed leather jacket, black t-shirt, and cheap plastic cap gun. He had almost asked where she’d gotten the holsters. He’d thought better of it and settled on being grateful the clothes were already completely stained with more of the red fake blood Mia had splashed on him gleefully.

“God, you look perfect,” Mia had told him, tipping his chin up as she focused on drawing a deep red line into his scar. “You come pre-loaded with badass.”

“No one is going to know who we are,” Jason had hummed, trying to stay still as she painted him to look undead. They were going as an obscure pair of characters from one of her favorite comic books. He’d made sure to memorize the story she’d rambled to him as she smeared the pale greasepaint over his visible skin. The most they’d spent had been on the cheap disposable contacts they’d had shipped from China. “But I do look kind of like a badass, I guess.”

“You guess,” she parroted, grabbing his chin and forcing his head up. “You’re ginormous, muscled, and stupidly hot with a scar. People are swooning. I would be swooning if I didn’t know about your huge crush on this fictional phone person.”

“He’s not fictional.”

“Oh yeah? What’s his name?”

He’d blushed around a bitter frown, slanting his eyes to the side and hitching his chin out of her grip. He’d realized he didn’t know. “Whatever. I’ll see you at the party.”

“Don’t sit in the dark and be a sad-sack lit major whining about the weight of the world,” she’d told him as she gathered up the tackle box of stage makeup she had brought with her. “If I don’t get to be a sad-sack, neither do you.”

“I never said you couldn’t be-”

“Nope, not hearing this,” she’d grinned brightly, kicked the flannel at him and backed out of his dorm room door. “The hooligans will be here to get you at 8. Don’t keep me waiting.”

He’d diligently stood on the curb outside his dorm, letting the packs of half drunk college kids in various states of undress flow around him. There’d been a honk that pulled him back to himself when he’d spent some time staring at his texts hopefully. He’d put it on airplane mode, determined to have a good time. Red was going to be trick or treating with his kid. They weren’t going to talk tonight. He’d reminded himself of that as he’d slid into the back seat of Kyle’s Subaru.

Duke had sent a picture of Cass dressed as an elegant vampire in a black pantsuit. Steph had been grinning at the camera over her shoulder, fake fangs touching her bottom lip. Tim had been in the background, like he’d accidentally been caught in the shot smiling softly at them both, shirt stained red with fake blood that stemmed from the drawn on bite marks on his neck.

Jason had deleted the picture and stared out the window trying to swallow around the lingering memory of the smell of blood.

“Zombie?” Connor had guessed, head turned so that the long feather of his cap caught on the seatbelt.

“Yeah, sort of? Mia’s favorite character from the Rebirth series she’s been reading. Robin Hood?”

Connor had nodded.

“Uh?” Jason had tilted his head at the wild halo of Kyle’s curls and bright pink jacket. “Are you Rizzo from grease?”

“Steven Universe, but she’s cool too,” Kyle had answered with a shrug. He’d started a playlist of spooky rock and roll and followed Connor’s careful directions out of the city proper and into the wooded island neighborhoods. The walk from the parking area filled with cars had almost felt like a day hike and Jason had laughed viciously when Kyle tripped into a ditch with a yelped flail of arms, nearly dragging Connor with him.

Now, Jason watched Connor continue to pick the bits of their walk from Kyle’s clothes. His hand was half-raised to knock when the door pulled open. He tried to back up, caught in a moment of utter overwhelm at a high pitched shriek, the thumping bass of music, and the soft warm pine scent of good aftershave wafting around a viciously snarling wolf head that was turning towards him in the doorway as a small body crashed into his legs.

“Jason!” Lian crowed, flinging her arms around Jason’s thigh and grinning up at him. “You look disgusting! I love it!”

“Oh hey, that’s a good thing. I live to indulge your every whim.” Jason started, almost touching where she had an otter face drawn neatly over her pert little nose before remembering he was covered in grease paint and fake blood. He smiled down at her and noted the way her big brown eyes widened under the soft round ears strapped to her head. “Oh hey, you did it! You’re a selkie. Good job.”

She nodded, letting go to start pointing at a few ties on the costume critically. “If I untie this then I can leave the skin just like the stories.” She beamed up at Jason before turning to the costumed man shouldering out the door frame as he watched them. The werewolf mask tilted as he actively collected up the bag Lian had dropped and double checked himself for keys. “Daddy made it for me.”

Jason followed her adoring look back up to where her father was walking backwards towards the Bronco, radiating amused fondness in the lines of his frame even though his head was completely covered in a realistic rubber snarling-werewolf mask topped with a sparkly crystal covered tiara. There was a screen over the open mouth so the man could see out but no one could see in. Jason had the distinct feeling he was being studied. “Hi, you must be Dad.”

“One and only. You must be the Jason I hear so much about,” the man replied, voice muffled behind the rubber. Jason felt himself smiling a little at the way the fake teeth wiggled as he spoke. There was a pause as they simply stared at each other, Jason fighting the urge to fidget as Lian grabbed his hand and swung it back and forth happily. The guy was broad shouldered and built. He was wearing costume gloves over his hands, a pearl button denim shirt, and threadbare jeans over black boots. “Zombie?”

“Werewolf... princess?” Jason replied, coy and teasing.

“The heart wants what the heart wants,” the man laughed. Jason wanted to know what it sounded like without distortion. He turned to stuff the bag into the Bronco, holding out a gloved hand for his daughter. “I was told you were also going to be a princess.”

“I couldn’t find a dress in my size.”

“You are big.”

Jason flushed, suddenly grateful for the layer of face paint. “I’m sure Mia has pictures. And stories. It’s all wildly exaggerated,” he managed to mumble, feeling a flush crawl up the back of his neck. The man was possibly still staring at him from behind the open werewolf maw. Jason turned his face to the side, automatically hiding the scar. He wished Mia had let him wear his red hoodie. “Um. Is there something on my face?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, it’s just you look so familiar,” the man said, lifting Lian up and starting to strap her into her carseat, patient as she insisted on buckling it herself. The werewolf face swung back to Jason. “Have we-?”

“Daddy! Stop flirting, we have to go!” Lian kicked her feet imperiously, pointing like she was directing a charge. “The house with the big candy bars is going to be out!”

“Right. Duty calls,” the man gave a brisk salute that dimpled the mask slightly before moving around the Bronco to the driver’s side. Jason watched him go, appreciating the slight bow-legged saunter. He startled hard when the man looked back over his shoulder at him. He felt caught, staring at the span of those broad shoulders and the shape of his ass in the darker denim.

“Stop eye fucking my brother,” Mia interrupted, filling the doorway with her small pointy frame and grinning at him. Behind her, the party was starting to pick up, the volume rising and tipping into a frenetic chaos now that the only child had left. Jason heard something break. “I’ll tell your fake boyfriend on you.”

Jason rolled his eyes, reaching to palm her face and push her back out of the doorway. Connor and Kyle ducked past, Kyle’s fingers wrapped around Connor’s wrist to keep him nearby. “So that’s?”

“Lian’s famous dad? Yeah. Don’t worry, he’s not bringing her back tonight. We can be as loud and ridiculous as we want.”

“I’m only having one.” He held up one finger to which she responded with a finger of her own.

“So you say,” Mia replied, tugging him in the door as the Bronco’s engine turned over, the soft scuff of wheels lost as Kyle whooped, threw his hands up, and waded into the crowd on the impromptu dance floor.

*

📱 red: miss me?

The city bus was dimly lit, overhead lights only sparking to life when it shuddered into a stop, the noise of it a riot of beeping, pneumatics hissing, and the outside world as the doors cranked open. Jason had startled slightly out of his haze, reaching into his pocket and glancing down at the text. He’d been hovering in a strange bland mood, head tipped against the cool window pane as he let Star City’s current overcast day drizzle the world into a hazy gray blur outside. He accidentally elbowed the woman sitting on his left as he sat up straight and reread the text.

“Sorry,” he muttered at her dark look, attempting to make himself small where he hunkered down in the plastic seat to decide if he should respond.

He hadn’t heard from Red in almost a week.

📱 red: i’ll start

Jason flipped the hood of his jacket up, hiding his blush and staring at the sentiment. He’d woken up hungover, face down on the cool bathroom tile, fighting down nausea while Mia giggled and took picture after picture of where Kyle and Connor were asleep, spooning, on the couch. She’d shoved some breakfast, aspirin, and apple juice in him before stuffing him into the backseat of Kyle’s car. Connor helpfully offered to drive, fresh faced and well rested. Kyle had rolled his eyes and shoved sunglasses on. “You don’t have a license.”

“It can’t be that hard,” Connor had muttered.

Jason had stumbled back to his dorm when they dropped him off, pulling the shades closed and collapsing into his bed. The weekend had dragged and he’d drowned himself in a fair bout of self pity and Netflix on his laptop. He had ignored the sour turn in his stomach when Red didn’t text each night, making excuses. He hadn’t been sleeping well, dreams bloody minded and red.

On day four, he turned on the Spanish dubs to keep his fluency fresh. He’d continued to ignore his family's texts. He was sure they’d take the hint eventually.

An incoming text interrupted his response before he could send it.

📱 red: i missed you

The bus was half full, a neat divide between the passengers in the front and where he was seated second row on the right after the step up in the back. The woman next to him smelled like cigarettes and vanilla body lotion, hair kept out of her face with a painfully tight ponytail. There were three teens behind him, sprawled into each other on the furthest bench seat and discussing the newest video game craze. The driver was a perky round-faced black woman who dimpled at him whenever he rode, saying hello before cranking the door shut and heaving the bus back into traffic.

A couple was tucked together on the side facing seats, and the bearded boy watched the streets diligently as she dozed against him. There was a guy near the front with his back to Jason, hunched low in the seat. Jason could see a black beanie, a battered leather jacket, bright lumpy scarf, and an easy calm lean. To the scarf guy’s right a pair of Korean women bickered good naturedly over a drama they were both watching. Jason was ignoring the warm swollen feel of his heart, annoyed at the reaction after a week of tense anxiety.

He sent his response with a flick of eyebrow.

📱 jason: new phone who dis

Someone choked a bright laugh, coughing and settling into the normal silence the bus elicited. Jason barely glanced up, catching the guy in the scarf beanie combo shaking his head. The guy was broad shouldered and he caught a slip of squared jaw when he shifted, leaning his shoulder against the windows on the opposite side of the bus.

“Excuse me,” the woman next to him said, reaching past him to tug the signal line with quick fingers.

“No worries,” Jason mumbled. His phone vibrated in his palm and he glanced back to the conversation.

📱 red: honestly at this point I wouldn’t be surprised
📱 red: I have a good excuse!
📱 red: not excuse really, just explanation involving me being a dumbass
📱 red: been out of town helping a friend get hitched
📱 red: left my phone at home like a dickhead
📱 red: trust me, the tyrant has already ripped me a new one

There was a pause and Jason felt himself forgive him.

📱 red: i did miss you

Jason blew out a breath, rolling his eyes. Dick’s friend Wally had gotten married November 4th, a quaint midwestern ceremony complete with white clapboard church and a neat line of groomsmen and bridesmaids. He knew this because Dick had invoked another group chat, bombarding them with photos of the reception.

📱 jason: Fine. I guess you can have a life.
📱 jason: It’s the season; it seems like everyone is getting married.

Jason hadn’t exited the group text like normal. Dick had led with a full body shot of he and his college friends in tuxes, smiling brightly at the camera. Dick had specifically sent him only one solo shot with the words: look who I found.

He’d stared at Roy Harper grinning crookedly into the lens. It had been years. Dick and Roy had lost touch after that pool party, but apparently been reunited at the wedding. He’d saved the photo. And the next picture from the group chat, too. He may have jerked off to one of Roy laughing brightly in a slim-cut black tuxedo. The redhead seemed impossibly sexier. He had grown leaner. He’d become a refined line of unconscious sex appeal that Jason couldn’t look away from.

Jason had spent too much time studying him in each photo Dick sent from the reception; his eyes flicking from where Roy’s tux was slowly going unbuttoned and gaping to display a hint of tattoos, to the fiery red of his hair where it was mussed out of the careful modest midwestern style he’d worn for the ceremony, to a shot of him smiling around the neck of a Coke bottle, caught mid-taunt. Jason had focused on the last one. Roy had apparently taken it in selfie mode. It was filled with the tantalising hint of pink tongue and a glittering hot look he tossed the camera as Dick beamed in a dazed drunken flush-faced delight under the weight of his arm where it was tossed around his shoulders to hold him in frame.

It had just accompanied the text: ur brother is a ducking lightweight. He’d ignored the one sent the next morning of Roy pressing a kiss to Dick’s cheek, somehow smashing his whole face into the side of Dick’s grin.

He’d stroked himself in the dark, thinking about how Roy’s fingers had been blurred in the foreground, wrist poking slightly out of the sleeve of his fancy suit. Jason’s imagination filled in the lines with sinewy pale skin and freckles. He had made the hint of tattoo take the shape of the one he knew was on Red’s forearms.

He’d come thinking about Red’s voice slipping like silk against his ear.

📱 jason: I missed you too.
📱 jason: Don’t tell anyone or I’ll have to murder you and hide your head in my duffel bag.

“-specific,” someone’s muttering carried into a soft silence. Jason’s eyes flicked up, frowning for a moment at the hint of something familiar before glancing back to his phone.

📱 jason: Maybe we can talk tonight?

📱 red: i should probably pretend to be hard to get
📱 red: right?

📱 jason: You don’t have to...

📱 red: i don’t want to

📱 jason: So, that’s a yes?

📱 red: absolutely.

He didn’t have time to reply before the texts started layering in one after the other. He felt himself flush, ears almost painfully hot under the red hood he was hiding in.

📱 red: I want to hear you
📱 red: couldn’t stop thinking about the noises you made
📱 red: drove me fucking wild that I had to wait until I got home
📱 red: i totally get hard thinking about your voice
📱 red: you sound beautiful when you cum
📱 red: maybe one day I’ll get my hands on you
📱 red: or maybe my mouth choke myself on you
📱 red: i want to hear you fuck your fist again
📱 red: let me watch tonight?

Jason blew out a shaky breath, sinking down in his seat to hide how he had to surreptitiously tuck his dick up into the waist of his jeans. He couldn’t even muster his usual distaste at the cheap porn word choice. He touched the edge of his phone to his chin, taking a second to let the violent throb of arousal dissipate. The bus lights kicked on and he sank deeper, knowing his blush wouldn’t be the only thing visible if anyone looked.

📱 red: god I want to see you lose it
📱 red: I have so many ideas

They were nearing the halfway point of his trip back to campus from downtown. He’d traveled farther in Gotham for a good Bao and he was unrepentant about his choices. He was also pleasantly full. The woman exiting stumbled slightly when the bus hitched to the side, pneumatics hissing. Jason braced for the next influx of passengers.

“I said no,” a man repeated wearily to a small wailing boy he practically dragged onto the bus. The little boy was a loose line of despair, face wet with tears. The pair was trailed by a woman in a pink track suit and bleach blonde hair. She looked exhausted and grabbed the bar as her husband plucked their child up to sit in the seats. She smiled a flaccid show of teeth at the Korean women who tutted once in response.

“We told him he couldn’t play with a bag of dog poop,” she explained his tantrum, wincing as the boy’s pitch peaked and was promptly muffled when the dad stuffed an animal cracker into the kid’s mouth.

Jason snorted and turned his focus back to the phone.

📱 jason: You have my complete attention.

A phone started blaring the chorus to Queen’s Killer Queen at top volume and Jason had to lean around the bedraggled tracksuit mom to see the guy in the beanie and scarf hiss a string of expletives and tap in to take the call. He popped a set of Q-buds into his ear, ducking down like it would hide the conversation.

“I’m on the bus, Dad,” he whispered, voice a strangled tight hiss. “What’s up?”

Jason looked back down to his phone as it lit up with a new message.

📱 red: you going to be up later
📱 red: have some errands to run and a few things to take care of
📱 red: real life is getting busy and i want just a little something to carry me through

Jason, biting his lip on a fit of daring, responded with a quick tap of thumbs.

📱 jason: You know I’m not little.

There was a clatter and he heard someone’s phone hit the floor and the muttered thank you when it was returned. He shifted in his seat, glancing out the window and catching his reflection as the bus rumbled past a streetlight. He looked down when it caught on the garish line of his scar.

📱 red: jesus fuck
📱 red: the shit you do to me, man
📱 red: tonight?

Jason took a slow controlled breath around the hot wildfire throb of arousal, hunkering deeper in the chair to whisper a heartfelt, “Fuck.”

📱 jason: Tonight.

“Okay, I’ll be there,” the guy continued in the tight-hissed whisper, tugging the exit line and grabbing a bag from the seat next to him. Jason watched him shuffle to grab the handhold at the bus front, tucking his phone into the pocket of his jacket. He pulled off his beanie with a wild crackle of red hair that made Jason’s heart stutter, breath catching in his throat as he stared - poleaxed as Roy Harper slung a backpack over his shoulder and winked at the busdriver.

“What is happening?” Jason breathed, slinking low into the seat, barely peeking over the blue plastic lip of the row in front of him. He watched in silent horror as the focus of his furtive desire jogged lightly down the steps and out onto the sidewalk at the bus stop. He couldn’t stop watching the easy way he walked, the cut of his jeans, the ridiculous red of his hair where it was plastered flat on one side and cowlicked up in the back. He was talking, shaking his head as he continued the conversation.

The bus door shut with a hiss and the lights flicker out. Jason panicked. He knew this exit. “Oh no. Oh no, no, no.”

He’d stopped on the same block as Jason’s coffee shop. Roy-fucking-Harper was walking down the sidewalk that led to Jason’s school. He stared out the window as the bus shuddered into motion and trundled alongside Roy as he walked. Jason watched him, unable to look away.

Roy glanced up and Jason froze, eyes wide at the accidental eye contact. Roy tilted his head, caught on Jason’s lingering gaze. The rain was a soft mist, catching and clinging to Roy’s hair, his scarf, and the soft-looking leather of his jacket. Jason could almost taste the damp in sympathy when Roy wet his lips.

The look lingered. It pulled like impossible, terrified taffy: taut, unending, and stringing out to fold another layer into the slow-burning panic that churned under Jason’s skin. Jason watched Roy’s brows draw together, a soft crease of confusion as he blinked.

The held gaze lasted no more than a heartbeat, but it felt filled with unending embarrassment. Jason felt his body move with no permission from his brain, his hand lifted in a small wave. Roy’s eyes followed him as the bus continued moving. The bus didn’t care about this moment, it didn’t care about Jason’s anxiety. It had places to go.

Jason watched in horrified fascination as Roy Harper lifted a hand and gave him a small uncertain wave in return.

“Fuck.” Reality slammed back in and Jason ducked on instinct, flinching low and pressing his hands to the seat in front of him. Roy lived in Star City. Jason had known the other man was from the West Coast. He’d overheard him detailing why the music scene was better when he’d walked past the open door of Dick’s room that summer night. He’d known, but he hadn’t ever thought he’d see him again. He’d never considered that Roy might be roaming free-range and beautiful in the wild. He didn’t seem to really exist anywhere except in memories and pictures on Dick’s phone. He shouldn’t just be on Jason’s bus ride back to the dorms. “What the fuck?”

Jason forced himself to straighten, turning cautiously to look back out the window, but Roy was already gone.

*

Jason glanced up from the textbook he was reading and over at his phone, thinking he’d heard it rattle. The coffee shop was bustling through a busy Saturday, littered with college students frowning down at textbooks or working methodically through a set of flashcards with a friend. Star City had stumbled into mid-November, crisply ordering up a bout of cold mornings that wobbled into unsure afternoons. Some days were balmy while others threatened snow. Jason had learned to layer and was currently stripped down to his t-shirt and unzipped red hoodie, his favorite leather jacket and hand knit scarf-hat combo folded onto the chair Lian had abandoned.

“Stop moving,” Lian frowned, pushing on his leg with a quick remonstrative hand and resettled into her work. She had clambered into his lap, moved him until she was comfortable, and stolen his favorite mechanical pencil to continue her numbers worksheets. She’d declared that he was her favorite last week. Something had broken warm and sweet in Jason’s lungs, and he let it translate into an easy hug to the small girl in his lap. She’d absently turned to press a quick kiss to his cheek, still focused on her coloring.

They had both ignored Mia’s muttered, “Traitor.”

His cell rattled again and he attempted nonchalance, swallowing and snagging it off the table top, a quick apology to her hair as he leaned back. He frowned at another text from Dick.

📱 Dickhead: please jason
📱 Dickhead: 🥺 🥺 🍗 🎉🏠🤞🏽🥺🥺😭

“Take a hint, Dick.”

“Bad word.”

“Sorry,” he muttered, twisting to set his wrists on the pink armrest and considering a response. He rolled his eyes and just set his phone face down on the table again. She twisted in his lap to look at him. He glanced up, making a face at the sly expectant smile on Lian’s face.

She held out her small hand, palm up. “You said a bad word. That’s five dollars.”

“That’s highway robbery,” Jason countered.

“Daddy says you can do something bad, but only if you’re willing to pay the price.”

“Your Dad sounds like a masochist.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“Ask your Dad. Wait, no, don't do that. Forget I said anything.” He gave her a quick low-five instead of money with a wink. She frowned, and Jason looked to the side where Mia was working her way through a burst of orders from a short line of girls in matching sorority t-shirts with a tight smile. She held up a quick hand to let him know she’d be there to take Lian from him in about five minutes. He made a decision, plucking his phone back up to help explain. “Also, it’s not a bad word. It’s my brother’s name.”

Dick?”

“Yup.” Jason nodded. “He’s... special. Don’t tell him I said that, okay?” Jason sucked his teeth and sighed, thumbing into an app and pulling up Dick’s Instagram. He handed his phone to the little girl. “He used to be in the circus, so he was actually raised by clowns. Everyone loves him.”

“No way!”

“Way.” He reached around her. “Here, look.” He scrolled, finding the video he was looking for. “So, this is my favorite.”

She tapped play on the thumbnail, starting a compilation of Dick laughingly flipping over his family where they were standing, sitting, and generally minding their own business throughout the manor.

The cafe seemed to fade at the sound of Dick’s bright laugh on the tinny phone speakers. The shot opened on the kitchen in the manor, the warm cream walls and the wood table that was piled with breakfast food. His Dad sat at the head, tablet in one hand and coffee in the other. Bruce Wayne was a powerfully built man with a serious face, craggy and handsome. Jason caught glimpses of his brothers and sister in the background, milling around the island to help distract Alfred. He swallowed around a tight throat at the sight of them all. This was filmed before.

Dick vaulted across the breakfast table, the cut off sound of Alfred’s startled British indignance a familiar reprimand. “Master Dick! No acrobatics in the kitchen.”

Bruce barely reacted, just a small barely-visible smile and hint of eyeroll.

“That’s my Dad,” Jason whispered to her, voice tight.

Then the scene shifted, and Jason swallowed at Tim standing on the pretty parquet floor of the West Ballroom. He was slumped shouldered, body language telegraphing utter resignation, as Dick leap frogged him easily in a quick series as Tim was placed on taller and taller stacks of boxes. Jason always choked a laugh at the sudden shout of “So small!” from off screen and the dark indignant glare Tim shot the speaker before Dick cleared him again.

“That’s Tim. He’s short,” he said quietly to Lian. Jason grinned when Stephanie and Cass collapsed giggling in the background. Steph pumped one of the previous boxes in victory when Dick cleared the highest, Tim’s hair ruffled in passing.

A moment later, Tim’s face broke into a stunning smile of utter vindication when Cassandra vaulted Dick gracefully and landed in a soft curtsey. “That’s my sister Cass. She dances ballet.”

Another cut neatly shifted to Dick and Duke doing a series of quick round-offs in the massive foyer of the manor, the elegant double staircase curling around the edges of the shot. It ended with Duke breaking easily into a stunningly fluid pop-n-lock dance set while Dick’s mouth just dropped open. “Duke. He’s almost got more followers than Dick now.”

Next was Damian’s segment. “This is Damian. He’s a little older than you. He’s ten.”

“I’m six,” Lian whispered, hushed as she watched. The littlest Wayne stared directly at Dick with a potent glower that wrinkled his small nose. They stood opposite each other on the mats in the training room. Jason’s weight bag was still hanging like it was waiting for him in the corner.

It was a standoff. Jason watched Dick toss his littlest brother a conspiratorial wink before they both simply launched into an intricate backflip twist combo in unison, perfectly in sync. The youngest Wayne looked flushed and sweetly smug when Dick threw his arms up in delight and tackled him with a bright laugh.

“It’s you!” Lian shouted and Jason blushed at how excited she sounded. She cuddled close, pulling the phone until her nose was almost touching the screen as she watched. She giggled and he knew the moment: Dick cartwheeling easily over him, hand on his head where he was lost in a book. It had been shot before he’d hit his last growth spurt and refused to participate in any more of Dick’s videos. He’d been sprawled face down on a blanket on the grounds; he’d been hiding. He snorted at the startled look on his face and the violent red he turned, startlingly angry - disproportionately angry. He realized that Dick had politely blurred his reaction out in the edit. Dick had made a point to film him so that his scar didn’t show. Jason hadn’t realized at the time.

Lian poked the video to rewind and watch that part again. “I like Dick.”

“What in the world are you showing her?”

“It’s nothing,” Jason said, fumbling the phone back and clicking out of the video. Mia was looking at him, both dark brows near her hairline. She was wearing dark plum lipstick today and gold eyeliner. He gave her a bright innocent grin. “Just a stupid meme. Nothing bad, I swear.”

Lian giggled and leaned close to whisper against his ear. “I won’t tell.”

“Keep your secrets,” Mia groused, snagging Lian’s pink backpack from the floor to settle in her lap when she sat opposite them.

“No one wants to admit they were robbed by a preschooler,” Jason explained.

“I’m in kindergarten,” Lian corrected, poking him in the chin with a bony finger before hopping down and pushing her workbooks toward Mia.

“You’re terrifying,” he corrected her. His phone buzzed in his hand and he swallowed, glancing down. The smile was almost helpless at the note.

📱 red: hey jaybird
📱 red: before I forget because all of you is an exceptional amount of distracting

“You should meet Aunt Emi.” Lian shrugged and started stuffing her markers into the canvas pencil case she kept them in. “She killed a man just to watch him die.”

“Is this true?” Jason asked, widening his eyes at Mia. She was packing up, pulling her caramel colored leather jacket on and stuffing a knit burgundy beanie over her hair. “Are you all criminals?”

“Only every other Tuesday and maybe - technically - a few times in the years before I was adopted, but we don’t count those.” Mia shrugged. Jason’s phone lit up and he tried not to glance at the text too obviously. “Emi has rage issues. We love her anyway. Family, you know?”

📱 red: what are you doing for the holidays?

Mia snorted, tipping him a knowing look at his distraction and holding Lian’s backpack out to her. “Thanks for watching her. Big man’s on his way so we’ll just meet him at the stop.”

Jason’s phone rattled again at Red’s response.

📱 red: because i don’t like the idea of you being alone

“Okay, good, I- uh- I have somewhere I need to be,” Jason mumbled, fumbling with the question Red had tossed casually between them. It seemed intimate. Mia arched an eyebrow at him. “What?”

“Mhm.” She held his gaze like a dare and Jason wet his lips, trying not to blush. Mia shook her head, smiling fondly and he gave in, checking his phone.

📱 red: im going to be mia for a bit so just think about it while im gone

📱 jason: I thought Mia was your sister.

📱 red: out of town. offline. M.I.A.
📱 red: smartass

📱 jason: Someone else getting married?

📱 red: naw just spending some family time with no electronics
📱 red: the tyrant and i have a tradition
📱 red: miss you already

Jason blushed and muttered, “Maybe something came up. You don’t know.”

“Is that a clever euphemism?” Mia snorted, moving to scoop up Lian’s bag and hold it out to her. “Tell your boyfriend I said hi.”

📱 red: back to the point
📱 red: you don’t have to answer right away
📱 red: but maybe we could meet up
📱 red: just wanted to put that out in the world

“Not my boyfriend.”

“You could be Daddy’s boyfriend,” Lian piped up helpfully, tugging on the straps of her backpack and then grinning over at him. “He asked about you. He likes people like you.” She puffed up, making a display of flexing her skinny arms. “You could get married and then I could have another brother.”

“That’s not really how that works, Munchkin,” Mia snorted. She turned Lian with a palm to her head and started towards the door. “Have fun. Wear a condom.”

“I hate you.”

“No, you don’t. I’m your only friend. Later, Jay!” She tossed a wave over her shoulder, steering Lian through the crowd.

“Oh! Jay- like a bird! I love mountain jays because they’re pretty and blue. We’re probably going to see some when we go camping,” Lian told Mia, tugging on her hand. “Did you know that-” The door shut on the conversation, and Jason turned his phone over and sighed.

📱 red: and maybe put my hands on you

📱 jason: Did you just proposition me with a handjob over the holidays?

📱 red: maybe
📱 red: consider it

📱 jason: I will.

He sighed, sinking down further in the wingback and pulled his red hood up, embarrassed at the next words he sent.

📱 jason: I’ll miss you too.

*

Jason snatched up his phone when it rattled, answering the call without looking. He was hunkered down in his chair at the coffee shop and frowning at his phrasing on the term paper he was writing. “What’s a good word for antagonism? I can’t keep repeating myself. There has to be a way to write this without saying fucking antagonism for the fiftieth time in the same damn paper.”

“Vitriol?” Tim replied, voice a surprisingly deep baritone considering his size. Jason froze. “I need you to answer Dick.”

“Fuck,” Jason blew out a breath, pinching his nose and closing his eyes. He’d been hunched over for too long, the strain a low ache at the base of his spine. A tension headache was threatening in a sharp throb at his temple. “I don’t want to, Replacement. Tell Dickie to do his own dirty work.”

“I’m just doing my due diligence,” Tim sighed. There was a brief crash in the background of the call on Tim’s end followed by a muffled yelp. Jason could hear a keyboard, biting his lip on the faint smile at the reminder that Tim preferred to build his own computers. He liked the clatter of a vintage keyboard loud in contrast to the silent sleek modernity used by the rest of the family. “He’s half ready to fly out there and drag you home.”

“I mean, he can try.”

Silence settled into the conversation and Jason swallowed, leaning back into the soft worn fabric of his favorite armchair, picking at a frayed seam in the pink velour. It was familiar, the muggy warm air littered with the scuff of shoes, the shift of chairs, the clink of porcelain cups, and a murmured humanity under the synthy clap of a rimshot kicking over the speakers as a singer crooned. He could hear Tim sling his cellphone to the other side, the clamor of his family just on the other side of the line. There was a muffled laugh and an electronic melody signaling a video game victory under a soft absent swear from Tim.

He heard the moment Tim stopped what he was doing and leaned back. He could see it in his mind’s eye, the way his younger brother would push away from the desk with straight arms and spin slowly with his head tipped onto the chairback. “Come on, Jason. Are you really going to make me beg?”

“I’m not making you do shit, Timberly.”

“Jason,” Tim sighed, voice easy around a low surety. “Please come home. The family needs you. They miss you.” There was a pause and Jason knew Tim’s Adam’s apple would bob, prominent and almost sharp in his pale throat. He swallowed and imagined the thin terrifying line of the scar he’d left there. “Who else is going to tell me how shitty I’m doing? Who else is going to mutter the next line of Alfred’s sherry-inspired late evening Shakespeare recitations?”

“I can’t believe you just brought the Bard into this. You’re fuckin’ shameless.” He should have taken a sip of his tea; his voice sounded tight and thin.

There was a pause and he knew Tim was smiling. He knew it was a knife-blade smirk. “Did it work? I could use guilt. I’ve heard it’s very effective.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Okay. Love you.” Tim didn’t hesitate, just handed the words to Jason like it was something he deserved, like nothing had ever happened.

“Yeah. Yeah, okay, whatever. Later.” Jason tapped out of the call, setting his phone down on the table. It had been dark and silent for nearly a week, only popping up with regular emoji sprees from Dick, snapchat notifications from Steph, and a few random memes from Mia.

Star City was collapsing into the cold wet of late-November, a crunchy shimmer of frost lingering even as the sun rose. He could smell snow, the wet blue ache somehow cleaner than the raspy grit gray that Gotham shook from its shoulders. He’d been moving between his dorm, the library, class, and the coffee shop. He had been in half time, waiting between breaths for a specific notification. He felt silly every time he pulled his phone from his back pocket, sure that it had rattled a text, and was presented with the time and the basic background he’d had since he pulled the phone from its packaging.

He stared at the dark screen, glaring at it and the muddled reflection of his face in the glass. He watched it recognize him, flipping to the home screen with a small circular arrow animation.

The messaging app was filled with unanswered messages. He tapped into the newest. He was quietly slipping into a sticky nostalgia, a longing for something that felt familiar and familial. This was Tim’s fault.

Saudade, his mind supplied helpfully. Toska. There were words for this, these obscure sorrows. Jason had been hiding.

📱 Dad: Alfred attempted waffles this morning. Your decision to study in Star City might have been an excellent decision in retrospect.

It was hours later, just another unanswered moment in time. Jason had been brushing his teeth when it arrived carrying the memory of warm baked bread, hot sweet syrup, and Bruce’s aftershave. He’d spit and exited the message quickly. He had a paper to write. He had to focus. He didn’t have time for this shit. Now, Jason ducked his head, glanced to where his paper was nearly finished.

He was typing before he could stop himself.

📱 jason: im sorry

He couldn’t take it back and he snatched his paperback up, the phone clattering loudly on the table where he tossed it.

Bruce would be at work. It was late afternoon in Gotham. He’d be in Wayne Tower and too busy to answer. Jason could imagine him sitting at the long wood table in the conference room, powerful and steady in his expensive bespoke suit. He imagined the man who rolled the business world forward with his signature - the glossy man in Forbes magazine. Bruce Wayne was a powerful man, a busy man, but he was also a kind man under the stern sharp line of his mouth. He imagined this version, but apologized to the man who taught him to trust men again, careful and gentle with the sharp edges of Jason’s rage.

“It’s okay to be angry,” he’d told him as he sat across from Jason on the benches in the training room. Bruce’s hands had seemed huge, strong fingered with neatly buffed nails that were surprisingly gentle. The tape smelled like sweet glue and tangy fabric as he worked the white stripes around Jason’s knuckles and then back, practiced and almost meditative. Jason had the sleeves of his baggy shirt pushed up slightly, stopped just low enough to hide the neat line of circular scars. He was swimming in his clothes, the shirt too big, the loose gray sweatpants cuffed at his ankles, and his bare feet pale where he curled his toes to stretch the tops of his feet, burning off restless energy. He could run if he needed to, the door was open to the hall.

Jason’s skinny arms had felt heavy, his fingers stiff in the protective tape. He’d watched Bruce’s face for any sign of violence, focused on the flick of eyebrow, the hitch of breath. He’d watched with the specific knowledge of a child who knew it was going to be painful by the way the key turned in the lock. Jason was tuned to terror and Bruce had been humming his own in harmony. He’d been watching Bruce speak, disbelief plain on his face.

“I was angry for so long after my parents were killed,” Bruce continued, his voice a rough low rumble. He’d always sounded like something permanent. “I was lost in it, drowning in the grief and the endless belief that I could have done something different. I could have stopped it. I could have stopped the bullet.”

“That’s stupid. You’d die.” Jason sniffed, shoulders stiff as he frowned at Bruce. “Guns trump everything. Even knives.” He’d turned his face to the side, already starting to hide the scar that had torn his face. “Everyone knows that. Only idiots try to save people who can’t be saved.”

Bruce had patted the flat plane of Jason’s fists, the sound a bright slap of noise as he nodded. He’d looked up and held Jason’s eyes. It had felt like understanding, like what fathers were supposed to feel like. “I was a child. I couldn’t have stopped it. I didn’t even try.”

“I would have died too,” Bruce continued, testing the tape at Jason’s wrists. He was sharing something with him in that cold room, the space filled with the smell of antiseptic cleaner and old sweat. Bruce had spoken as Jason’s eyes burned, awkward and uncomfortable in this quiet moment between them. Jason had been so grateful he didn’t say anything about Jason’s tears. “Sometimes, I wished I had. Sometimes, it hurts more to be the one who survives. It’s so much for a kid to carry.” He’d dropped a warm dry hand slowly on Jason’s shoulder. Jason had gone wary. “You don’t have to carry this alone, Jaylad.”

“It’s safer,” Jason had whispered.

“I thought so too, once.” Bruce had squeezed his shoulder gently before scuffing a light palm over his hair as he stood, smiling. He’d rolled his thick shoulders, the heavy muscle of his arms rippling. He let Jason creep onto the mat, slowly moving to tap his own knuckles against the bag. He had been letting Jason get used to him moving with intent before he jabbed at the weighted bag with power, the thud of it curling a moment of panic just at the base of Jason’s neck before it stilled. The room had been covered in mirrors; no one could sneak up on him here. “I was wrong.”

Jason glared at his book, words blurring wetly on the page as he flipped to the next note he'd made himself in the margins. His phone interrupted him. He tilted his head back, pretending it wasn’t tears. “God damn it, Tim. You fucking asshole.”

📱 Dad: We all make mistakes son. It is how we move forward that defines us as family.
📱 Dad: I am proud to be your father. Dick says you may come home for Thanksgiving. I’ll have Alfred prepare your room and attempt to...misplace the waffle recipe while you are here.
📱 Dad: Just in case.

*

📱 jason: Truth or dare?

Jason stared at the glow of his phone in the dark, endlessly tabbing between open apps. He’d watched the line of waiting videos from Cassandra’s channel until his eyes were gritty, blurred and salty with need of sleep where he was propped up and vacant in his bed. She’d been stunning, graceful and delicate with a stretch of fingers that caught in his chest, caught in his heart, and made him think that maybe there was something more out in the world. It was silly, but it kept him awake and out of his head. He’d moved to Duke’s channel. Then to Dick’s instagram. He’d caught glimpses of Damian.

He almost turned on Tim’s Twitch. He was out of ways to hide from the memory. He was left with the reason he ran.

The first thing he’d remembered when he’d surfaced out of the safe blackness of rage was the way his whole body hurt - the blinding pain of panic clenching every muscle tense as he fought the hold. He’d surfaced out of his blackout fighting, voice raw and terrified. It had shredded his throat even as he’d tasted blood on his mouth. He’d come back to himself fighting the viselike strap of his Dad’s arms around him.

He’d felt like he was floating, disconnected from the ground, from anything solid. He’d kicked out his feet and bowed back, lost and lifted off the ground.

“Jason,” he’d finally heard. Bruce’s voice a rumble of soft command in his ear. “Come on, Son. Breathe.”

📱 jason: I know you’re out of town, so I’m just going to imagine you saying dare.
📱 jason: It’s not like you can stop me.

The sheets smelled like him, warm sweat and soap with the underlying spice of his shampoo. He hadn’t moved all afternoon except to roll from one side to the other, shifting his weight as he shifted his thoughts. He’d packed up his laptop and ducked out of the coffee shop, hiding under the hood of his jacket and slipping out the door without a word.

📱 jason: I dare you to tell me something you think would scare me off.

He’d moved through his own life like a ghost, making plans around his family, around the hole he’d cut into his own chest.

“I’ll go first,” he muttered, voice no more than a rasp of sound.

📱 jason: I’ll pretend you answered. I’ll pretend we match.
📱 jason: Hrmm. Truth or dare? I’ll take Truth.
📱 jason: Same question? That’s so original, Red. Fine.
📱 jason: My brother’s friend tells me I’m a muffin. I don’t feel like a muffin. I feel like a bomb.

He’d felt the soft animal whine in his throat as the panic receded with the fuzzy feel of lost time. “Let go! Let me fucking go!” The kitchen had felt tense, a fragile swollen moment strung out as he watched Alfred move in half time, like the world was stuttering around every blink of his eyes. He’d been caught like a feral dog, held up and away as he slammed back into his body. “Get off of me!”

“Alfred?” Bruce’s voice a gruff question as he struggled with Jason battering against his grip, against the hold he had to keep him still, to keep him from fleeing. His Dad held him so he couldn’t hurt anyone else. Jason had still tried, frantic in his need to escape.

“Stay with us, Master Timothy.” Tim’s eyes had looked so blue against the red freckling his jaw, against the black of his lashes, the black of his hair, and the wide startled fear as he bled.

“Father?” Damian’s voice had been high, the light sound of a child and Jason hadn’t been able to stop staring in horrified confusion at where Tim’s breath bubbled pink, the line of blood at the corner of his mouth and the spreading stain that Alfred had clasped under the dishtowel, arms straight and well trained for trauma. It couldn’t have lasted more than seconds. It couldn’t have been the endless stretch of loathing Jason remembered.

He’d seen Alfred’s competent fingers knead bread, the spread of it between his neat knuckles and the perfectly white press of his cuffed sleeves. He wondered if he’d ever be able to look at them now, without seeing them slippery with blood between the knuckles.

“Call 911,” Bruce had barked. It had slapped into the kitchen like a command. It had weight. It had purpose. It had startled him, startled the rest of his family staring at the violence Jason had left in his wake. The kitchen smelled like copper and sweet, like rosemary and hollandaise and the quiet cloying memory of fear.

Jason remembers it like a photograph: Dick had moved instinctively between Damian and danger. He’d been wide eyed, with his arms lifted to keep the kid behind him. Duke had been half-sitting, cereal bowl overturned and the spreading stain of milk running to the edge of the table, dripping in a single rapid line. Cassandra had taken a half step to where Steph had started to scream Tim’s name.

In the end, it had been Damian who snapped into motion, pulling a phone from his pocket. Jason hadn’t heard what was being said. He hadn’t been able to focus on anything, but the need to escape. All he had felt was the rough scratch of Bruce’s jaw against his ear, the thick iron line of his arms where they held him like a cage.

The sound the knife made as he dropped it on the expensive travertine floor had been a backbeat to his own ragged pleas. He hadn’t meant to hurt anyone.

He could still smell smoke; the burned frittata they’d been about to eat going black and inedible. He couldn’t eat eggs anymore.

📱 jason: Without getting too personal, I’m pretty fucked up. It’s been nice pretending like I could be a normal person with you.
📱 jason: I can almost hear you say something about role playing in response.
📱 jason: God, that sounds so deranged.

This text felt like racing in slow motion, like breaking a glass in his hand. It felt on purpose this time. He was breaking something on purpose. Jason didn’t let himself stumble, just kept running. He wasn’t sure if he was running to or from anymore. He was just used to the feel of panic in his throat and the need to get away.

📱 jason: How’s this for a truth?
📱 jason: We’ve been fucking around for months. You’ve heard me come, but guess what?
📱 jason: Surprise! I’m dangerous and terrified to meet you in person, because I hurt the people I love.
📱 jason: I can’t let myself hurt you too.

“Shit. Unsend. Unsend.” Jason stared at what he’d texted in horror. “What the fuck are you doing?”

Jason had done that, just panicked at a loud noise behind him and slipped into the automatic safe black instinct of fight or flight. He’d swung the knife on instinct. Tim had looked so startled, smile turning quizzical right before the blood. He’d read later that if the knife was sharp enough, if the movement was quick enough: people didn’t even know they’d been cut. Tim’s knees had gone out before the smile had faded completely. He’d hurt Tim. He’d almost killed him. Jason had done that and there was no taking it back.

📱 jason: It was nice for a while though, huh?

He turned off his phone and stared at the ceiling. “I guess I’m learning.”

*

The bus shuddered onto one knee, the bleating noise of warning before the doors hissed open, a quick slap of cold air fluffing over Jason before he ducked out into the weak late-November sunshine and squinted over the sidewalk. The street had a few fall-themed decorations hanging on the lamp posts and a turkey was plastered to the inside window of the dry cleaner on the corner. He huddled into his coat, flipping the hood of his red hoodie up against another stubborn gust of cold. The black trash bag fluttered, slapping loudly against the metal slats where it was hanging beside the bus stop. He had a little bit of time before he needed to get to the airport.

He heard her before he saw her, the putter of her 50cc scooter a light burble under the near silent shift of electric cars and the intermittent SUV. Mia Dearden was wearing a red bomber jacket, a red helmet, and a bright smile under the mirrored aviators that sat on her small nose. She waved, walking the scooter into the space between two cars with a little cheery honk.

“Hey,” he called in greeting, reaching to steady the front as she rocked it up onto its stand and started unspooling herself from a long knit scarf. “I’m heading home today, so I figured I’d stop in-” He cut off, blinking in surprise as she pushed into his space and stared at him. “Uh, Mia?”

“You look like shit.” She pulled her sunglasses off with a frown, leaned back, and pointed at him as she hooked the earpiece into the collar of her jacket. “What the fuck happened?”

“I didn’t sleep,” Jason muttered, looking away and rubbing a finger at his eye before tossing a loose shrug. “I’m fine. It’s whatever.” He turned and tried to head for the coffee shop.

“Do I have to hurt someone?” She was planted in front of him on the sidewalk, a tiny sharp shard of a person ready to be loosed at the world. He shook his head, tightening his fingers on the bag he carried and tried to step around her. She didn’t flinch and didn’t give ground. “Jason.”

Jason coughed a laugh. “Naw, c’mon. You know I’m perfectly capable on my own.” He hefted the bag higher onto his shoulder. “Just need a cup of tea for the road. Did you hear the part about heading home for the holidays?”

“You’d tell me if it wasn’t safe for you, right?” Mia asked, reaching out and pressing a hand to the center of his chest, unafraid. He could see the edge of her bony wrist where her coat pulled tight at the shoulder. Her bleach blonde hair curling from under the knit beanie.

“Seriously, Mia. It’s not me you have to worry about.” He made himself look at Mia where she was standing small and mulish in front of him. “They’re good people.”

“You are my friend, Jason Todd. I will worry about you.” She frowned harder and shook her head before visibly relenting. She tilted her head towards the door to the cafe. Inside it would be warm and loud, the clatter and press of people under the rich scent of espresso and steamed milk. He nodded at her before she sighed and pressed her fingers to his stomach lightly and leaned close to whisper. “You never talk about them. You have scars. You flinch.” They were talking about it, in the open air instead of the quiet understanding looks they handed back and forth. “I may have jumped to the wrong conclusion. I’m sorry.”

“I hate it that we’re a lot alike. I hate that it left its scars on you too.” Jason closed his eyes, taking a slow breath before reaching carefully to touch the back of his knuckles to her wrist. They’d never talked about it, but he’d handed her the glass of water whenever her alarm went off to remind her to take her medication. They knew what happened in the world. “You’re the best, Dearden Mia.”

“I know!” She smiled sweetly, pushing the door open and smiling brightly at the woman who’d been waiting on the other side to leave. “I’m the best.”

Jason ducked back, muttering a low apology as the woman passed.

Mia shoved the door open behind her, letting Jason catch the edge against a palm as she crossed to the counter, ducking under and skimming out of her coat. She folded into the easy shape of customer service even as she grabbed the clear teapot and his favorite mug to set aside. “Go settle in, I’ll bring it over.”

The cafe was busier than normal, packed with people home for the holiday week and muggy with the warm feel of too many bodies in not enough space. He grabbed his bag, making sure it was hefted high enough not to take out a table as he eeled through the group of people waiting for their completed orders. The mumble of voices was broken intermittently by laughter and the slow welling scream of milk being steamed. He could hear the clatter of the espresso wands dumping the grinds, he could hear the chug of the dishwasher running a cycle, the press of people and the noise they made rising as he tried to focus. He could see his chair, the pink velour of it a beacon. He could see Connor’s blond curls. He could see Kyle’s head bent over the table. He just had to get from point a to point b.

“Jason!” He couldn’t stop the smile at the sudden lunge of the little girl standing on the cushion of his chair and beaming at him.

“Hey little,” he answered, shifting sideways and edging through the crowded cafe. He was careful of the bulk of his bag. Everything was normal. He was fine. He waved at where Connor was watching Kyle sketch at the back table. The newsprint sketchpad rubbed elbows with Lian’s coloring books and Jason felt himself start to smile. He was fine.

“You’re here!” She shoved out of his chair and flung herself at him.

“I’m here,” he agreed as he caught her easily, lifting her up and grinning at her. “You’re the one who was gone all week. Where’ve you been, Princess?”

“We were camping! Daddy says no screens during family outdoor time or I could have sent you the picture of a jaybird I took for you! But, it’s a tradition.”

“Oh yeah?” He hooked his bag off his shoulder, setting it at the edge of the table and slinging her to cling to his side. “Hey guys. Camping, huh? I’ve never been.” He nodded at Connor and Kyle before frowning at the third cup of coffee on the table, pale and nearly all cream. It sat next to Lian’s hot chocolate where it was oozing melting whipped cream down the sides of the cup. “How does it work? Did you sleep in a tent?”

“She’s a little young for tentless camping. Aren’t you, Munchkin?” came a startlingly familiar voice from behind him. The hall that led to the back prep and dry storage was that way. The bathrooms were there and Jason couldn’t turn his head. He couldn’t look. He knew that voice. He closed his eyes. Every terrifying thing that happened in his life felt like slow motion and Jason could feel this moment stretch like taffy.

“Daddy! Jason’s never been camping before. We should take him.” Lian squirmed out of his arms and wobbled before shaking her head up at him. “Everyone needs to go camping.”

“Don’t do it,” Kyle muttered, shaking his head and looking over his shoulder at where Jason was rooted to the spot and Lian was grinning at the man behind him. “They say camping and you think oh hey, this will be fun. It’s a lie.”

“You enjoyed it,” Connor snorted, leaning back and pausing as he studied Jason’s face. “Jason?”

Jason swallowed and the man behind him ducked to pluck Lian up easily and stepped past him to toss himself into Jason’s pink wingback like he belonged there. Jason could only stare.

“Hey, sorry, I guess I should have introduced myself.” Roy Harper grinned at Lian where she shoved herself comfortable in his lap. “Settled?” he asked her. She nodded, reaching to take the crayon she’d left on the page. Roy looked up and held out a hand. Jason couldn’t look away from the splay of freckles over his fingers. “I’m Roy. Roy Harper.

I won’t tell. Jason couldn’t seem to catch his breath.

The cafe was overly loud and Jason’s entire world was narrowing down to the sound of his heartbeat and Roy Harper’s voice. He was that young kid again, trapped and awkward under the weight of his stare. He was shaking, lost in the impossible weight of his own wanting. Roy was stunningly handsome, rugged and freckled with a broad-planed face, crooked nose, and wry grin. He was in a plain white t-shirt and a flannel cuffed and shoved to the elbow, tattoo winding in clean lines over his forearm. He was beautiful in motion, smile going wider as Jason stared. His red hair stuck up around his head like he’d been shoving it back with a restless hand. Jason could see the edge of another tattoo peeking from under the collar of his shirt, the four arrows that matched Mia’s family ink. Connor had the same on the underside of his left forearm. He knew that the one on Roy’s forearm matched the one in a picture he had saved on his phone.

Jason was drowning. He knew that voice. He knew what it sounded like when it breathed his name in the dark. I won’t tell.

“Your sister’s name is Mia. You said that.” He was whispering. He didn’t sound like himself.

“Um, yes? I thought you guys were friends.” He pointed at himself like Jason actually needed an introduction. “I’m the oldest. You’ve met my daughter.” He smiled fondly at where Lian had gone back to coloring. “She rules my life, the little tyrant.”

“Oh God.”

Roy tilted his head, grinning. It felt like Jason was falling in slow motion. “Not usually called that. Well, not in public.” He huffed a laugh and then tossed a flirtatious smile to Jason like it was easy, like he deserved it. “I’m sorry, you just... you seem so familiar. I swear this isn’t a line-”

“He’s lying. It’s always a line,” Mia muttered as she swanned past him to set down the teapot for Jason like everything still made sense. She shook her head at Roy, hands on her hips. “Stop it, Roy. I’ll get the spray bottle.”

“But, have we met?” Roy continued, unphased.

“You met at Halloween,” Connor reminded, voice considering.

“Connor,” Jason couldn’t tear his eyes away, but he heard himself ask the question with a shaky panic barely contained in his voice. “You said your last name was Hawke.”

“It is,” Connor tilted his head, glancing between Jason and Roy before wetting his lips. “It’s my mother’s name. We find it safer if I use her surname instead of Dad’s.”

Queen,” Jason exhaled the name like a gut punch, taking a half step back. “Your dad is Oliver Queen.”

“How did-?” Connor blinked, eyebrows flicking up.

Kyle’s head snapped up. “Wait? Connor, your Dad is Oliver Queen? Like the Oliver Queen?” he hissed, voice hushed despite the urgent question.

“Oh shit.” Roy beamed, blinding and Jason choked on panic. The loud clap of delight flinching through him. “I knew you seemed familiar. You’re Jason Wayne! Dick’s little brother! What a small world.”

“Bad word!” Lian grinned up at her Dad, holding out a hand expectantly.

“Shoot. Got me, Munchkin,” Roy muttered. Roy Harper leaned to the side to dig out his wallet. Jason watched him go still, one hand easy where he held Lian in his lap. “I haven’t seen you in - God, what’s it been? Years? Last time was at that... pool party. Oh-!”

He watched those green eyes flash up to where Jason couldn’t feel anything but cold terror. He felt Roy’s gaze trace over his scar. Roy knew. He watched as it happened; he felt Roy’s eyes flick over his face and then down to his hands, across his body, and then slowly crawl back up. Jason felt too big, awkward and damaged in the soft afternoon light pouring in the front windows of the cafe. He couldn’t hide behind his hood. He couldn’t hide, because Roy had figured it out. He couldn’t catch his breath, couldn’t make this moment stop. He couldn’t breathe. It was too much. This was too much. He watched, stunned at the lingering realization that spread over Roy’s face. He watched the smile, too much like the one he’d let himself fantasize about, spread over that sly mouth. He’d let himself remember that smile as his. He’d let himself think it wasn’t mocking.

Jason was a fool. He had to get away. How had this only been seconds?

“I thought your last name was Todd?” Kyle asked, lifting his head from a sketch to blink between where Connor was staring at his brother and his brother was staring at Jason.

“Todd-Wayne,” Jason heard himself whisper. He hadn’t lied.

“Oh shit. It’s you.” Roy focused on him, that same soft-eyed look that tilted into a confused smile. “You’re Jay.”

Red?” He heard himself ask like he didn’t already know the answer. It was the last tendril of hope snapping and leaving him drowning in the unexpected, unprepared and unwilling to stand and be mocked. He didn’t want to be pitied. “I- I have to go.”

“Jay, no, wait. Lian, baby, I need you to get down.”

Jason knocked into the table behind them, spilling something to the backbeat of a startled cry. A cup shattered, wet and a bright note of chaos that didn’t slow him down. He was breaking things. He was always breaking things. Jason kept moving, stumbling blindly, ricocheting from one disaster to the next before he managed a startled look at Mia. He swallowed, tossed her a helpless panicked apology and turned to the door.

“Wait! Jaybird!

Jason Todd did what he always did when cornered; he fled.

*

The flight was delayed and Jason tilted his head against the window, staring blankly out at the wing. He was in the emergency exit row. He’d needed the leg room. He watched the line of taxied planes, squatting low on the tarmac under the low hanging fog.

He turned his phone on, glaring down at it while it booted and then tapping into his messages.

📱 jason: You win.

The reply dinged in surprisingly fast.

📱 Dickhead: 😍😍😍🥰🤯🤯🤯🤯🤩

He exited quickly when a text notification started pinging over his screen, layering in rapidly.

📱 red: jaybird
📱 red: talk to me
📱 red: cmon jay
📱 red: please

Jason turned his phone off and shoved it into his back pocket. It wasn’t supposed to be on for the flight anyway.

*

The Gotham airport was built outside the city limits, cut into a valley and surrounded by a seemingly endless sea of asphalt parking lots and huddled outcroppings of bare trees. The building itself was a lofty newer design with long panels of wide windows that hooked into an exposed roof cluttered with metal beamwork. The ends of each terminal had long walls of carefully excavated mosaic that had been moved from a section of crumbling subway tunnels that were slowly being drowned by the Bay. The orange tiles in the forge fire scene tapped into the mosaic seemed to glow in the late evening dim.

He’d lost hours to the flight, to the endless buzzing anxiety that curled and spread over his skin, under his ribs, and rattled an endless whispered litany of his failure. His ears had popped and he tried to stay still, to not take up too much space as the woman crammed into the center seat shifted to continue drowsily watching a movie on her tablet. She’d smelled like shampoo, chardonnay, and old weed. She’d smiled at him wanly and kept her elbows in.

Jason had glanced over, watching the protagonist kiss the girl at the end of the movie. He’d read too many books to believe in happy endings. The woman had said a faint goodbye as they’d stepped out of the gangplank and into the terminal. She’d ducked into a restroom and Jason hadn’t slowed down.

The air felt cold under the long tracks of lighting that striped the polished floors. He’d taken a small tram from the terminal to the baggage and ticketing building, riding the escalator as it lifted to trundle three flights into the open space. Each floor before the top was dark, taped and coned off. Gotham was always under a constant level of construction.

A floor cleaner hummed, chugging along in a slow line from one end of the lowest level to the other, the man driving half asleep and bored in the late evening dim. A soft velvety alto greeted travelers, informing them of each tram stop before the noise of air brakes hummed and skidded along the tracks. There used to be music, but it peppered into the small alcoves, the restrooms, the closed food court, and was lost in the lofty heights of the main space.

He cleared the third floor, huffing a breath as he stepped off the escalator and onto the landing. Baggage carousels were to the right, the wet cold of Gotham nights were directly ahead through the sliding glass doors. It was raining, the cold constant drizzle of late fall. He recognized some of the other passengers ambling to the third round conveyor belt, tired and brittle from the long flight.

“Jason.”

The sound of his name shouldn’t make him want to cry, a desperate welling homesickness in the deep gravel tone.

Bruce Wayne had a way of slipping out of the shadows that seemed impossible for such a large man. He was in a dark charcoal woolen coat with shiny black buttons and a clean bespoke fit. His shoes were polished and his slacks pressed. He wasn’t in a tie, the top button of his dress shirt open. His hair was wet, glistening black and combed back from his handsome imposing face. He looked safe. He looked solid. He held a small sign written in his neat block handwriting: Welcome Home, Jaylad.

“Dad?”

Bruce smiled, a small barely there tip of his mouth and let Jason collect himself. “I brought the Bugatti.”

“Is this a bribe?”

“Is it working?” Bruce turned, shoulders brushing as they moved to the baggage claim carousel.

Jason tipped his head back and stared at tangled rafters before nodding. “I’m driving.”

*

The manor hadn’t changed. It persisted, sprawling and solid. Jason touched the wood-paneled hallway that led to the East Wing and his old room. It smelled the same. The light washed the wood warm and thick with memory. He could feel the pile of the carpet as he walked, thick and rich. He knew if he laid down it would feel soft against his cheek. He knew that the dumbwaiter still worked. He knew where the laundry chute was hidden behind the wood paneling next to the shared bathroom.

He knew everyone was home. He swallowed, unendingly grateful that they’d let him come home quietly.

“Jason?” Dick yelled as Jason padded past the game room towards the kitchen. He heard a shout of dismay and the thump of furniture. He could see a flash of blonde hair, the silky sweep of Cass’s chin length cut. He could hear Duke singing a triumphant song of victory filled with ridiculous phrasing. He could hear Damian’s haughty reply. “Jason wait!”

Dick skidded into view, stopping himself with a quick hand to the door frame. Dick Grayson was the charming oldest child, the handsome mess of tanned skin and blue eyes. He was built for glossy photos and the spotlight. His hair was a mess, a tangle of black waves that seemed to highlight the breathless smile and his easy dimples. He was casually beautiful in a gray Bludhaven PD shirt and loose joggers. He was barefoot.

Jason didn’t slow, pacing towards the stairs. He had someplace to be.

“Question!” Dick called, voice a light memorable baritone. “Why is Roy texting me asking if you’re here?”

Jason started down the stairs. He didn’t look back. “I don’t fucking know, Dick. He’s your friend.”

*

“Master Jason,” Alfred stated, voice a soft warm burr of British inflection as he pushed a toothpick delicately into the cake. “As much as I do enjoy the pleasure of your company,” he continued, eyeing the crumb critically before pulling it from the oven. He turned, setting it on the island and looked up, holding Jason’s eyes where he was glaring at the chess board. “Perhaps you should consider joining the festivities in the game room? Your brothers and sisters have missed you terribly.”

“You are trying to distract me from cake,” Jason muttered, voice low. “I am aware of your nefarious plan, Alf.”

“Perish the thought,” Alfred smirked, a faint twitch of his lip as he pulled the oven mitts from his carefully manicured hands.

“Your rook is going to perish,” Jason answered, shifting in the seat to drop his temple onto his fist and move the pawn to take the white chess piece, setting it with a small collection to the right of the board. The table was empty except for the teacup, delicate pale pink floral china with a scalloped edge and lightly gilded saucer. The oolong was spectacular and Jason was savoring it slowly.

“Some things are inevitable,” Alfred replied. The chess board had been waiting for him with Alfred, like nothing had changed, like he hadn’t drawn blood in this sacred space. Jason had swallowed, ducked into the kitchen, and slid into his seat. He’d stacked his fists and dropped his chin. Alfred hadn’t stopped whipping the icing, the beater a soft electric noise. It was set aside now, the pretty white mixing bowl a light click on the marble. Alfred knew Jason wouldn’t eat it. Dick was the danger there and happily distracted upstairs.

“Like me beating the pants off of you?”

“Perhaps I was referring to the endless optimism of youth.” Alfred crossed the space, plucking the knight and shifting it on the board, cradling the fallen pawn and arching an eyebrow at Jason.

Fuck.”

“Language, Master Jason.”

“At least you don’t charge me five bucks,” he said before he thought better of it, eyes panicked for a moment before he ducked back to study the game play. He didn’t want to think about what he’d left in Star City.

“An excellent suggestion.” Alfred let Jason take a moment to hide, nodding when he moved another pawn into play. “If I had implemented such an agreement sooner, I do believe I would be the one with a manservant and mansion. Young Master Bruce did have quite the-” He smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners as he raised both eyebrows. “-flair for colorful language. A trait his family also seems to enjoy.”

“Put it on my tab.” Jason closed his eyes, ducking his head, and exhaled, taking a moment to ground himself in the warm sugar smell of the kitchen, the soft musk of Alfred’s aftershave, and the indefinable touch of something that was home. He’d missed this place.

Alfred let him be silent. He let Jason be sad. Here, in this kitchen, it was okay to be scared.

Alfred let him simply be.

“I fucked up, Alf,” he whispered into the patient silence Alfred gave him, voice careful as he opened his eyes, jaw working as he tried to focus on the pieces on the board. He swallowed, lifted his gaze and quoted Keats into the warm baked butter flavor of the air. “My mind has been the most discontented and restless one that ever was put into a body too small for it.”

Alfred tilted his head, eyes gone distant and assessing before he pulled the chair from the table and sat. He reached, touching the board with easy fingers. He was planning, Jason knew the look.

“Master Jason.”

They’d sat at this table so many afternoons, a quiet camaraderie of silence, the slippery sibilant poetry in shared readings, the lingering metaphors that defined emotion in words weighted and wonderful. Alfred had known war. Jason had known fear. He could almost hear Alfred’s tremendous baritone, the way he’d slip into his chest to shove the strong vibrancy of Shakespeare’s kings, or how he could twist into an adroit whisper to linger in the words of love poets like Keats crafted, and then the shaking agony of war penned by Jacobsen. It was the shared joy of words, of theater, of something warm like love.

The kitchen table was solid, he could feel its weight under his palms. It would hold the weight of this.

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” Alfred lifted his chin as the replied Keats quote sank into the evening. He reached then, brushing Jason’s hair back from his brow with an undeniably proud smile. “And what a soul yours is, young sir.”

*

Tim plopped down next to him on the couch at four in the morning, dressed in an over-large black shirt with the bright red S of his favorite punk band and baggy flannel pajama pants that puddled around his ankles. He didn’t turn on a light or make a sound. Jason knew the kid had been sneaking out since he was thirteen. It was the worst kept secret of the family. Tim was short, but built with a wiry strength that knotted his calves and winked in the flicker of muscle in his forearms. Jason had gotten used to sharing the quiet with him over the years, awake and staring out the window when his nightmares shoved him out of sleep with a whimper. Tim just napped, built like a bird. He’d toss Jason a controller and a smile like a dare.

Jason hadn’t wanted to like him. Tim was just stubborn that way.

It was four in the morning and the manor was asleep. The game room was quiet. Jason was a tangled jumble of nerves on west coast time. The couch was plush, well worn, and half full of Damian’s Great Dane, Titus. The dog huffed in his sleep, legs twitching. Jason had been reading, or trying to, just staring blankly at the paperback he’d bought out of habit in the Star City Terminal. He’d read it before, pounding through the quick love story like popcorn at a movie.

“Can’t sleep?” Tim asked, leaning forward and snagging the controller from where Duke had left it earlier. He tossed one at Jason.

“It’s only one back-” Jason cut off, frowning at the feel of the word home on his tongue. He could almost taste the soft moss wet of Star City air and the creeping green feel of it on his skin. Everything in his life felt unsettled, one step to the left of where it had been. He’d missed the acrid soot of Gotham air, the stained salt smell that lingered in the streets. He’d gone soft, soaked in the easy green of the west coast. It had left Gotham feeling ferrous and gritty, like the taste of blood and cement. “I’m not tired.”

“Cool,” Tim noted. He turned on the TV, tapping through the set up on a two player game. “Just don’t stab me when I kick your ass.”

Jason stilled, holding the controller against his stomach and caught the sly glance Tim darted at him. His brother was half-lit in the glow of the video game, the sound muted as the characters shifted and moved, impatient for play.

Tim should be afraid of him. Tim should hate him.

“Tim-?”

“Are we playing or what?” Tim scooted back, settled into the couch arm and angled toward the screen. He folded his legs under him and arched a brow at Jason. It was forgiveness and Jason bit the inside of his cheek.

Some things didn’t need to be repeated.

“Not making any promises, Replacement,” he managed, setting the book on the table and clearing his throat. He kicked his feet up onto the table and motioned for Tim to click them into gameplay, mashing the buttons carelessly around a bright smile.

*

Steph was screaming to be put down, voice rising in pitch as she was carried across the foyer. Jason peeled out of his jacket, head ducked as he smiled at the chaos. Titus was huffing happy barks as he cantered into the cluster of family members, long legs splaying on the pretty parquet floor of the entry. The scrabble of his claws lost to the waves of laughter and yelling that ricocheted around the open space. Jason could hear the steady thump of the dog’s long tail against the side of Duke's leg.

“Unhand me, Grayson!” Damian was shoving at Dick's head with both hands and straight arms, red faced as Dick held him up and beamed into the camera as he took a selfie. The youngest Wayne was a disheveled mess, hair hidden behind the wide construction paper band of his turkey feather crown.

Thanksgiving at Wayne Manor was generally a cacophony of happy yelling, the excited shenanigans of the ever growing collection of Damian’s animals, and Bruce smiling placidly as his children frolicked. Alfred was a stiff backed line of long suffering patience that kept them in a vague semblance of manners. They’d all paused one by one at the door to toe out of their shoes, sliding around the wood floor in socks. Jason could tell that Alfred was simply waiting for the inevitable tryptophan coma.

Every year they would spend the morning at the Martha Wayne soup kitchen being of service. They'd scoop the stuffing, plate the pie, and scrub the sheer volume of pots and pans that had cooked a stunning amount of donated turkeys and casseroles. Jason had caught himself smiling at Cass where she had leaned into his space quietly and bumped her nose against his cheek.

He'd found himself swallowed by family, swaddled in the easy kind of forgiveness. Tim had kicked him in the ribs on the car ride over, clambering into the back seat, awkwardly trying not to fall face first into Steph’s lap, and wriggling to unhook his belt from where it had caught on the seat belt hook. Dick had laughed at the spluttered noise. No one had moved to help him.

"Please buckle up," Alfred had said, eyes watching them all in the rearview mirror as the tinted window closed and shut them into the back and at each other's mercy.

The Manor smelled like browned butter, sage, rosemary, and sweet brown sugar. It smelled like baked bread. It was Thanksgiving and Jason took a few of the jackets from Alfred, shaking his head and heading to hang them in the coat closet off the front hall.

“Dibs on the oysters!”

“Absolutely not Brown! That is a familial tradition and I will not relinquish it to-”

There was a knock on the door followed by a long echoing chime of the doorbell. The notes were a bloom of sound, the chord a long easy melody. The sound was so unfamiliar it brought the entire Wayne clan to a halt, blinking at each other and then at the door in abject confusion.

“What?”

Jason caught Tim glancing around, visibly counting everyone to himself before looking even more confused. “I don’t? Who?”

“Did we leave someone again?” Dick asked.

“Duke! You were in charge of the kid count,” Steph snickered.

“I didn’t forget anyone! We’re all here!” Duke pointed around at where everyone was gathered.

Jason straightened, a slow wash of dawning nerves prickling brightly over his skin. His phone hadn’t vibrated in hours. “Oh no.”

“Allow me,” Alfred said into a moment of quiet, the clip of his polished oxfords a neat tick of time to where he crossed to open the door. “Ah. Mister Harper? This is... unexpected?”

“Hey, Alfred. Sorry to interrupt, I just-” Jason watched Alfred take a quick step back, opening the door as someone shouldered forward.

“I like Dick!” Came a high piping voice and Jason felt himself go cold, rooted to the spot as Roy Harper ducked around Alfred, breathless, red faced, and angry as he shifted Lian on his hip and stared around the foyer - looking for something. Roy was in mismatched socks, the same flannel he’d been wearing in the cafe, and a smear of green marker over his cheek. He was handsome, undeniably beautiful as he shifted Lian and searched the foyer until his eyes landed on Jason. He had tucked one pant leg into a golden workboot, laces loose. Lian beamed, delighted at the crowd and smacked a hand at Roy’s hair. “Dick! Do a trick!”

“Uh, Roy?” Dick dropped Damian, face confused as he stepped forward.

“Hey, Dick, I’d apologize for barging in, but I’m not sorry. You-!”

“What are you doing here? It’s Thanksgiving,” Dick continued, crossing to where Roy was frowning at Jason.

“Fuck Thanksgiving. The pilgrims were genocidal assholes who would have starved if not for the kindness of the indiginous people they promptly murdered, launching an endless string of violence and bloody genocide that’s left an entire population without their home lands and disconnected from their own history.” Roy rattled off the answer, breathless and off hand like it was something he’d learned and repeated by rote over the years. He dug out a five dollar bill, handing it to his daughter who smirked happily and waved it in the air in triumph.

“Bad word,” she explained to Alfred’s calm head tilt.

“Daddy’s saying a lot of bad words right now, Munchkin, and I’m only paying you once. Sorry.”

Jason felt Alfred look at him. He could feel the question in the eyebrow. He was rooted to the spot, breathless, panicking, and unable to do anything but stare. He was wearing a paper crown, the battered feathers crooked where they were stapled. He was wearing a helpless sort of hope even as he tried to hide behind the mass of his family.

“...Okay?” Dick sounded confused, and Roy ducked, setting his daughter down.

“I’m here to kiss your brother.”

“You will not!” Damian blanched, voice imperious and tightly aghast.

“Jason-”

“Oh, thank god,” Duke muttered, turning to where Tim, Steph, and Cass were lined up. “He’s here for Jason.”

“You’re here for Jason?” Dick asked, voice going high and understanding before he turned and looked at where Jason was stuck, hands full and heart in his throat.

“He’s here for Jason,” Tim whispered to Steph.

“He’s here for Jason!” Steph sighed, smiling at Cass.

“I thought he was here for dinner,” Cass replied, delicate black brows pulled together in confusion.

“You fucking asshole! Do you know how fucking expensive same day flights are on a holiday?” Roy was advancing, face stormy and determined. “What the fuck, man? You can’t drop an I love you and ghost me. That’s not cool.”

“I... I didn’t-”

“Shut it. I’m not done.” Roy stopped in front of him, eyes an incredible stunning green as he stared at Jason like he was the only thing in the room. Jason couldn’t look away, trapped and melting into the feeling of being seen, of being looked at like he was important, like he was wanted. Everyone was staring. He couldn’t hide. Roy squared his jaw and moved closer. “I love you.”

The silence settled into the foyer like the first stripes of sunlight at dawn, slow and then impossible to ignore. It caught Jason up, cupped him into the stunned indrawn breath of waiting and he was shaking. He could feel it, the tremble like the quiver of a drop of water waiting to fall, urgent and inevitable.

“You can’t. I- You don’t know me. I’m-”

“Dangerous? Yeah, you mentioned that. Dangerously fucking sexy maybe. Jesus. It’s like I made you up.” Roy waved a hand that seemed to encompass all of him and Jason couldn’t breathe, heart a worried warm weight in his chest, pressing fervently against his lungs. “Lucky for you, I don’t care.” Roy kept getting closer, the space between them drawn in a loose pulled loop, like Jason had his own gravity, like Roy was going to crash into him slowly, press against him until there was no space left. He wasn’t sure how Roy was moving, how he was able to come closer, to push through the thing that pinned Jason in place, helpless and quaking. “Hi. I’m Roy. I love you, Jaybird. It’s not a mistake. I’m not afraid of you.”

Roy cocked his head, and Jason knew what was coming, he’d felt it before - he’d lived through this moment. He wanted Roy’s crooked smile smearing against his mouth. He was being reckless. Roy was undaunted.

“Fuck, you're beautiful." He watched a flicker of Roy’s tongue and wet his own lips in response. “I’m going to kiss you.”

Oh. You meant it.” Jason inhaled sharply when Roy touched his jaw, slid his fingers and his gaze over Jason’s face. He felt it burn, felt the throb of his heart kicking over. He could feel the atoms between them, the weight of the air, the burn of this emotion. He was alight. “Please.”

"Get it, Muffin!" A sharp whistle echoed in the foyer.

"Stephanie," Bruce admonished, voice quiet.

Roy slipped his fingers into Jason’s hair, the soft clatter of the paper crown hitting the ground lost to the feel of his mouth settling against Jason’s lips like they belonged there, like they’d never left. Roy kissed him on purpose - undared. Roy kissed him, slowly, savoring the feel and Jason closed his eyes. He felt Roy settle one hand at his hip, the other clutching his curls with an urgent moan that Jason could taste. This was his. He was allowed to have this. Jason couldn’t do anything but kiss him back.

“Hi,” Roy whispered against his mouth in the silence.

“Hey,” Jason answered, reveling in the light.

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

📱 Dickhead: 🩲 👖 🙅🏽♂️💦💦💦🙌🏽
📱 Dickhead: 👨🏽👦🏽👦🏽👦🏿👸👧🏻✈️ 🏔️🌳🌲🌳⛰️⛰️🌳🌲🌳🏕️

Jason sat straight up in bed, eyes wide. Sunday morning was sprawled over the rumpled sheets, the small bedroom cluttered with discarded clothes, a tumble of boots near the door, and Jason’s red hoodie tossed carelessly over the dresser. The drapes let the sunlight draw neat lines on the sheets, cutting tidily over the breadth of Roy’s back. He dropped his hand, tracing the line of Roy’s spine before tapping at him with quick fingers.

“No,” Roy grumped even as he tossed his arms over his head and shivered into a yawning stretch. He kicked at the tangle of sheets and shoved the pile of blankets to the side to reveal a stunning display of pale freckled skin, red lines Jason had drawn on his back, and sinewy cut muscle.

Jason flipped the sheet back over his bare ass, dropped a kiss to his shoulder, and frowned at his phone. "Roy. I need you to translate."

There was an unintelligible mutter as Roy heaved to fling an arm around Jason's waist and tug him towards his mouth. He was always stubborn in the morning, smearing sex appeal into Jason’s skin even before he was fully awake. “But thighs...”

"Roy, wait." Jason scratched his fingers into the sleep warm tangle of red hair. "We have a problem." He tilted the phone to show the string of emojis. "I think... fuck, does this mean?"

Roy cracked an eye and pressed closer, kissing the skin of Jason's bare hip thoughtfully even as his hand wandered up the inside of his thigh. "Your family's coming to visit."

"Shit."