(It took ten kisses for Bart to stop counting.)
Bart is curious of kisses. He likes the idea of it, the deliberately slow movement of mouth against mouth, tongue against tongue. He likes that you have get really close to the other person to kiss, how you feel their body against yours, how you sometimes have to go on tippy toes or bend your knees.
He may have only begun fantasizing it when he became friends with Jaime, but shhh that’d be telling.
He’s never been kissed before.
His cheeks warm at the thought, and Bart ducks his head, aware of Jaime sitting up on the hospital bed, spooning down jello. But Jaime doesn’t notice, and Bart resumes his fidgeting, clenching and unclenching his fists on the white sheets and staring out the window at the Earth rotating slowly on its axis. It’s greener and prettier looking than the one in his future.
The mountain blew up. Without a headquarters, the team had relocated to the Watch Tower. He still remembers the way his Watch Tower had cut a jagged ugly scar in the sky, falling down like a vengeful angel and destroying half of New York City in its path. But he wasn’t worried about that. All he could think of was Jaime. JaimeJaimeJaime. How, for a long frightening moment, Bart had thought they had left Jaime behind to die when they evacuated the Reach’s base, but here Jaime was, only a little worse for wear.
Bart can remember a time when the whereness of the Blue Beetle, his solid presence, the whir of contracting and retracting blue metallic plates, used to be frightening instead of comforting. Now when he thinks of the name ‘Blue Beetle,’ the feelings of both danger and fondness clash violently in his mind with a recoil that sends Bart into a confusing silence. Bart never wanted to get this worked up on the ramifications of his trip into the past. But Bart’s not the only one who’s changed. Lately, Jaime has been getting nicer and more nervous around him, and it’s freaking Bart out.
Not that Jaime is ever not a nice and nervous person; he is one of the bravest, most selfless people Bart has ever met before and anyway, he had learned to tune out the way Jaime would argue with himself out loud when he thought Bart wasn’t looking. But this brand of awkwardness, this heated tension, this is different. Or maybe it’s Bart that’s different.
He wants to kiss Jaime.
Jaime’s voice is hesitant, and Bart’s distantly aware that he’s staring. But his mind is reeling. He wants to kiss Jaime. He wants to kiss Jaime. HewantstokissJaime. The idea rolls in his head; one - two - three seconds.
Should he do it? Now? Jaime’s still looking at him, setting down the jello cup on his lap, a frown beginning to form on his lips. Bart turns away, feeling the heat of his blush spreading across his cheeks to the tips of his ears. He shifts, hiding his face in his hands, elbow propped up on the hospital bed. Forces himself to breathe. But he still can’t force his body to quit fidgeting, his leg jittering incessantly.
Bart never expected for the trip to turn out this way. Trying to act inconspicuous in the past was— Bart doesn’t even know how to word it. Exhausting. Nerve-wrecking. But it was also the best thing Bart’s ever done. Not all of his smiles were fake. Not all of his personality was forced. Especially around Jaime.
“You brood even worse than Batman, you know, when you think nobody’s looking. What’s wrong?”
Jaime’s hand reaches over to gently touch his own. Hesitantly, in disbelief of his own daring, Bart nudges Jaime’s fingers until they intertwine with his own. He squeezes it firmly and watches as the concern in Jaime’s eyes changes into dawning realization.
“Jaimelisten-” Bart licks his lips, stops, counts to ten in his head. He scoots closer to Jaime with a whispered, “canIjusttrysomething-” before his breath catches in his throat.
Jaime’s face, frozen, except for his widening eyes. There’s shock there, but he doesn’t flinch away, letting Bart take his time. Deliberately slow, Bart remembers, but he can hear his heartbeat roaring in his ears. Time winds backwards, his heart beating slower and slower to a stand-still, and he’s watching the moment in super slow motion. He’s stuck on how close Jaime is. How Bart can feel Jaime’s breath on his lips. He’s getting drunk on their proximity, on the sound of his own heartbeat.
Bart hesitates half an inch away from Jaime’s face. “Look, Jaime,” he licks his lips again. Nervously. “you don’t have to do this if you-” he trails off.
Jaime’s eyes flicker downward onto the lower half of Bart’s face, and Bart feels Jaime’s hand resting on the back of his neck, fingers tangling in his hair. Gripping the loose auburn strands. Preventing him from leaning back. The smile comes unbidden on Bart’s lips, shy and genuine. Jaime’s eyes are warm like melting chocolate, his answering smile fond.
They meet each other at the same time. Bart parts his lips slightly, leans in closer to Jaime, shifting on his position leaning on the hospital bed. Jaime grip tightens on the back of his head as he returns the kiss, firmly but gently. Bart yields to the quiet strength of the kiss, feels his entire body shiver in reply, their hands still intertwined, gripping each other like an anchor.
His first kiss, Bart thinks in wonder, and then he stops thinking altogether.
Jaime doesn’t ask about the future. If Bart is honest with himself, he regrets telling him. He can still remember the expression on Jaime’s face. He was terrified.
Bart wishes he could take it back. He wants to wipe that look off of Jaime’s face because it had no right to be there. Jaime doesn’t deserve such an ugly premonition, especially one that came straight out of Bart’s nightmares.
Guilt is a feeling Bart’s long acquainted with, and it’s easy to bury it under, and easier when Bart’s focusing on the budding relationship he has with Jaime.
There’s a lull in the tension. The alien threat is still there, plastered on TVs and spoken about on every radio station. But the adrenaline is fading, a weight lifting slowly from his shoulders.
Bart doesn’t worry about as much. He likes that the nightmares don’t come as often anymore. He likes not waking up in the middle of the night, fist in his mouth and shaking uncontrollably. More often than not these days, Bart finds himself falling asleep with a phone cradled in one hand, texting Jaime back and forth until his eyelids grow too heavy to keep open.
The transition from ‘bros’ to ‘boyfriends’ is not big of a change. They still hang out together on patrol, patrolling Jaime’s desert-like city El Paso from the occasional mugger. When the sky’s clear, they retreat to the winding dunes and lying on their backs on the sand to stare at the stars, a bag of Chicken Whizees propped up between them, shoulders touching.
The rough desert terrain of El Paso is a lot like what Bart experienced in his timeline. Bart loves racing on the sand, feeling the sand kick up behind his boots, laughing as Jaime rockets beside him, struggling to match his speed. The familiar feeling of cold biting into exposed skin. He breathes in small inhale-exhales, avoiding the dirt and grit that whips past his face and into his hair.
Then the end of a tease-turned-desert game of tag, both of them breathing hard from exertion. Bart is grinning so hard his cheeks ache, exuberant from the chase, and Jaime reaches out, pulling Bart towards him. Bart laughs, even as Jaime says, teasingly, ‘tag, you’re it’ and pulls Bart a little closer. Right up, bodies flushed together, near enough to breathe the same air.
The second kiss is different, the height difference so obvious with both of them standing. Jaime wraps his arms around the small of Bart’s back, lifting him up slightly as Bart stands on tiptoes, closing the gap between their lips.
Bart starts researching kisses. The internet proves helpful and provides a lot of sources. He learns how to trace his tongue over lips, teeth, another tongue. How and when to breathe, come apart, and come back together. The difference between keeping his eyes half-lidded and keeping eye contact with closing his eyes in full blown pleasure. How kisses aren’t restricted to lips, that he can kiss the ears, neck, throat.
He absorbs all the words, soaking in the knowledge with an almost professional air.
When his phone vibrates on the bed, Jaime’s text popping out on the bright screen: ‘movie @ my house?,’ Bart snatches it up, grinning like a teenager as he starts to text back.
‘be der in a flash’ he types out carefully, making sure that his fingers presses the buttons right. Too often in the past had he texted so fast that the buttons didn’t register his touch. Half from his own daring, half from newly bubbling confidence, he adds a ‘<3’ at the end, pressing send before he changes his mind.
‘<3’ Jaime texts back a second later, making a happy thrill go up Bart’s spine.
Minutes later, Bart arrives at the front of Jaime’s house. The front door is slightly ajar, and Bart slips off his muddy boots, locks the door behind him, and sprints up the stairs to Jaime’s bedroom.
Jaime’s waiting for him, a pack of Chicken Whizees in one hand, laptop propped up on his lap. He pats the space beside him on the bed and laughs when Bart jumps into the bed, snuggling into his side.
“You took your time, cariño,” Jaime says cheekily, bringing the blanket up to cover the both of them. Bart squirms a bit to get comfortable; they’re two bodies on a single sized bed, and there wasn’t a lot of room. Jaime brings an arm around Bart’s shoulders and pulls him closer. The smell of Jaime wraps around him, and he breathes it in, his body relaxing.
“What movie’re we watching?” Bart chirps, entranced as Jaime pulls up a tab on the laptop screen.
“A Nightmare Before Christmas,” Jaime murmurs back. “Figured you never watched that movie yet. Heh, hope you don’t mind spanish subtitles.”
Bart has never heard of the movie before, and for a long while, he becomes transfixed by the odd talking skeleton in a pinstriped suit as they watch in companionable silence. But he’s not a speedster for nothing, and his mind starts to wander to different places. The many posters and picture frames decorating the wall. Jaime’s arm slung over his shoulders. The steadily decreasing supply of Chicken Whizees.
Actually, the now very worryingly small amount of Chicken Whizees. But Bart only scarcely has the thought before Jaime pulls out another one from out of nowhere, an exasperatedly fond smile on his face.
Oh, Bart thinks. Wonderful kind Jaime who’s really nice despite Bart eating all his Chicken Whizees all the time and then offering him more like as if he got speedster baiting tips from Wally because Bart’s never been more in love with him than in that very moment.
Bart sort of tackles into Jaime’s chest, craning his neck and crashing his lips on Jaime’s. Jaime makes a muffled noise of surprise, but his arms wrap around Bart’s waist as if by its own accord. The kiss, however, remains chaste and Bart’s not having any of that.
‘A “kiss with the tongue” stimulates the partner’s lips, tongue and mouth, which are sensitive to the touch,’ Bart recites word for word in his mind and darts his tongue across the bottom of Jaime’s lip. The small noise Jaime makes is expected and Bart purrs low in his chest. What Bart did not expect, however, was the startling taste of Chicken Whizees on the tip of tongue.
That was not warned in any of the websites he searched in.
Jaime takes advantage of Bart’s surprise and kisses back, coaxing his mouth open. When their tongues meet, it’s wet and slick and warm. The taste of Chicken Whizees intensifies, and Bart hums, leaning forward and deepening the kiss.
Jaime tightens his hold on Bart’s waist with a low moan. Their bodies shift and the laptop falls to the ground unnoticed with a loud clatter. Bart wants to kiss Jaime longer but his ears pick up the sound of footsteps in the hallway and he breaks the kiss, shifting back.
Except Jaime’s lips chases after him, his eyes half-lidded as he leans forward with a heated murmur of, “Bart.”
Bart’s eyes widen at the same time there’s a knocking at the door. Jaime’s stops, frozen.
The doorknob rattles. “Jaime?” a voice says from the other side of the door. “It’s dinner time. Come downstairs.”
“I-I’ll be down in a second, Mom!” Jaime calls back, flushing to the tips of his ears. Bart clasps both hands to his mouth to stop the giggling, but a squeak comes out anyway. Jaime shoves him on the shoulder, making a cutting motion with the other hand, and Bart has to pinwheel his arms to regain his balance before he topples off the bed.
“I know your friend is there, too, mi’jito.” The voice says, and Bart can almost imagine the eyeroll. “I’m expecting the both of you downstairs in twenty seconds.”
They sit there, motionless until the sounds of footsteps fade away.
“You… She…” Jaime hides his reddening face with both hands, but his shoulders soon shake with laughter. “Dios mío. My family.” Jaime raises his head again and his eyes are bright. He takes Bart’s hand in his own. “C’mon, let’s go downstairs,” he says.
They run out the bedroom door and down the stairs. Jaime’s family all look up when they come together into the dining room. Bart quickly lets go of Jaime’s hand before they see it. Across the table, Jaime’s mother gives Bart a secret smile. He returns it sheepishly, ducking his head with sudden shyness before taking a seat next to Jaime’s younger sister, Milagro. She doesn’t bat an eye at his presence, only poking him with a tiny finger to get his attention before passing him the mashed potatoes.
Bart accepts the bowl with a exaggeratedly gracious nod and Milagro grins toothlessly back at him. He scoops a couple ladles on his plates, drizzling it with gravy. The first spoonful is creamy smooth, and removes the last lingering taste of Chicken Whizees on his tongue.
When he feels the brush of toes against the soles of his feet under the table, Bart smooths his face into a politely pleasant face, giving Jaime a quick glance. Jaime doesn’t return his eye contact, cutting up his steak, but the toes nudge his foot again, lingering just a bit longer.
Bart’s confused, incredibly confused, but he thinks he gets the idea. Maybe. He nudges back, running his toes up the back of Jaime’s calf and watches Jaime’s face carefully for a reaction.
Jaime’s eyes flicker briefly to his, a mischievous light in his eyes.
It’s just a look, barely a second.
A flicker of emotion.
Only Bart stares.
He stares because it’s barely a second, but Bart can slow down that one second until time seems to wind down to a standstill. He stares because he can slow down that second until he can drink in the pure affection in Jaime’s brown eyes without interruption and hold onto that breathless squeezing feeling in his chest for as close to forever as he can.
The longer Bart stares, the worse the feeling gets. Bart can continue staring, but if he does, he’ll be struck by just how goddamn surreal this moment is, like a fairy tale, a dream, a happy ending where he wakes up at the ending because the feeling Bart is having right now can only be described as happiness.
His eyes sting, and Bart lowers his eyes and spends the rest of the dinner trying not to blink.
there’snohopeleft,helaughedttwhoareyoukiddingyouknowsomething’sgonnagowrong.somethingalwaysgoes wrong wrong wrong WRONG
“You don’t have to go so soon. We can still finish the movie if you want.”
“Depends.” Bart replies, drawing out the word. “Does Sally get together with Jack in the ending?”
“Why?” Jaime leans against the doorframe, hands in his pockets. “You a sucker for happy endings?” he teases.
Bart scuffs his muddy boots against the welcome mat. Bienvenido, it reads. “Yeah, I suppose I am.”
“Cariño?” Jaime tilts Bart’s chin up to his, concerned brown eyes scanning his face. Bart tries hard not to blink. “Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m fine.” Bart musters up a smile. “Just, uh, tired.”
He steps closer, one awkward shuffle and then another. Kiss number four is a chaste kiss, barely a brush of lips as Bart leans up towards Jaime on the front steps of the house. Jaime reaches to touch his shoulder, but Bart’s already speeding off.
It hits him as sudden as a freight train.
Bart is nearly out of the city when he is hit with a violent dizziness, his vision nearly whitening out. He stumbles, actually stumbles, and the shock makes him recover a second too slow. His ankle twists the wrong way, pain searing upwards.
Running should come easier to him than breathing. Bart hasn’t tripped in years.
The thought makes rising panic claws at his chest. His throat seizes up, his airway blocked as if by a tight band. Bart clutches at his neck, skidding on the dirt trail awkwardly with one foot before slamming back first onto a chain-link fence.
He slides onto his knees, hands held over his head, his entire body shaking uncontrollably. There’s a high-pitched ringing in his ears, background noise deadening and all he can hear is the roar of blood in his head and his racing heartbeat.
One second he’s struggling to breath, and then the next he’s not.
The tight band on his neck disappears. The cold fear that’s paralyzing him releases its hold. It lets go and Bart’s like a puppet with its strings cut, his body falling limp in exhaustion. He exhales. Inhales. Exhales again.
Bart wipes the cold sweat from his forehead and blinking rapidly to clear his blurry vision, but fat tears roll down his cheeks.
“What’s wrong with me?” Bart says hoarsely and out loud his voice sounds small and scared in the open. He smacks his forehead hard, once, and then again, but the tears roll unchecked. “Getagriponyourself,Bart! It’s not like… It’s not like…” He lapses into silence.
Bart gets up shakily on his feet, hops on one foot, and nods to himself when there was no tell-tale twinge of pain. Then, grinding the palm of his hands into his eyes, he takes a deep shuddering breath, pulls his goggles back down, and runs.
Bart should’ve expected the nightmare.
It rips through him like a half-healed scab, exposing all the fear and shame he had almost forgotten. He wakes up, hands clasping over his mouth to muffle the ragged breathing. Flashes of black and white memories, the taste of soot on his tongue. He wraps shaking hands around his throat and the spasming pain of electricity running through a cold metal collar feels almost real. He screws his eyes shut and for a second he’s transported back to a time where slavery was his life, when the Blue Beetle was his tormentor, when happiness was all too fleeting and undeserved.
A familiar metallic glint catches his eyes and he grabs at it wildly, blinking hard to block the sudden stinging in his eyes. The screen of his cell phone lights up from its sleep mode, bringing up a chat window with Jaime.
‘sry u had 2 leave. TQM dulce suenos.’ Bart reads. I love you a lot. Sweet dreams.
The small, watery smile appears unbidden on Bart’s lips and he laughs quietly. He shuts his eyes, tears seeping through closed eyelids, and cradles the phone close to his chest.
“You’re being really quiet, cariño. Didn’t like the movie?”
Bart perks up immediately, tearing his eyes off the rolling credits to flash a grin. “Nah, it was pretty crash. When that lady stabbed him in the chest at the ending?Neversawitcoming.”
“Where’s, uh, Jay and Joan?” Jaime said, looking behind him on the couch. “Figured they were sleeping, but the house is pretty quiet.”
“Helping pick out furniture and stuff for a friend’s baby. Might not back until the morning.” Bart says, giving Jaime darting glances. He reaches for the remote and presses the off button.
“Bart, what are—mmf!”
Bart clutches Jaime’s face and deepening the kiss into something harder; more demanding. He slips his tongue into Jaime’s mouth and the answering groan is satisfying.
Jaime gets over his surprise quickly, surging up from underneath him on the couch. He kissing back furtively, and the kiss suddenly turns wetter, harder, so intense that Bart’s mind blanks out in pleasure. The hand on the back of Bart’s head tightens, blunt nails digging into his scalp. Bart shivers violently, pushing closer until he’s flush against Jaime. With their bodies pressing together, he can feel just how much heat Jaime’s giving off through the thin cotton shirt.
The friction is addicting; intoxicating.
Another hand snakes up Bart’s thigh, hitching his leg up so he can straddle Jaime’s lap. He does so eagerly, running both his hands down the sides of Jaime’s chest.
Bart’s hands slips under the shirt, pressing against the flat of Jaime’s stomach. Jaime’s skin is warm to the touch, muscle rippling under his fingertips. The intimacy sends his already fast heartbeat skyrocketing. Jaime sighs into his mouth, bringing Bart in closer, and they rock against each other.
A pillow falls off the couch, kicked off by a foot. Bart’s not entirely sure whose.
Jaime’s shirt is riding up, all the way to his chest. Bart feels hands on his low slung jeans, tugging on the hem of his t-shirt.
“Your shirt,” Jaime murmurs insistently, breaking off the kiss. Bart, his mouth red and swollen, leans back and looks at Jaime with a raised eyebrow, panting steadily. But there was no hesitation in Jaime’s eyes. Bart should be proud; proud that he’s the one who made that look in Jaime’s eyes. He wants this, Bart reminds himself.
So he sits upright, still straddling Jaime’s lap, grips the lower ends of his t-shirt, and pulls it over his head.
Cold air greets his bare chest, goosebumps rising up on his skin. Bart drops his shirt somewhere behind the couch, keeping gaze with Jaime. Waiting.
Jaime’s eyes were dilated. The expression on his face was something new entirely, darker; more heated. And the trembling note of fright in Bart’s chest at the sight is quickly consumed by a thrill of excitement.
“Dios mío,” Jaime whispers, and surges up suddenly to capture Bart’s lips in a hungry kiss. Kiss number six, Bart remembers to count. Jaime’s hands wrap around his naked chest gently, hesitantly, as if Bart was fragile in his arms. Bart doesn’t mind. His hands were warm, like miniature heaters against his cold pale skin.
Bart shivers violently, but manages to break apart from the kiss to say “Your turn, Blue’ to Jaime with a bit of tease in his voice.
Jaime grins widely and Bart has to lean back on his knees as Jaime arches his back, pulling his shirt over his head. Bart widens his eyes at the ripple of pectoral muscle and tanned skin. Jaime’s frame was lean, but built and made a stark contrast against Bart’s own slim, almost willowy runner’s body. Even straddling his legs, Bart’s shoulders only just barely reaches the same height as Jaime’s. If they were on even footing, Bart would be a few good inches shorter.
The shirt drops to the floor noiselessly, and with it a sudden hush comes upon the both of them. Bart swallows hard, watches as Jaime’s throat bobs up and down and swallows in similar nervousness, as Jaime returns his stare. Slowly, (deliberately slow, he tries to remembers) they lean closer and closer until their chests press against each other. The skin on skin contact is different. More intimate. Bart shivers again, helplessly, and feels Jaime’s hand tightens on his back almost protectively. Their breath mingle, eyes half-lidded.
It’s a strange feeling. Almost euphoric. Indescribable. Because suddenly they’re both just two shirtless boys on a leather couch looking at each other with the reverence of one who knows they’re about to step across a very important line.
“Are we-,” Jaime darts his tongue across his bottom lip. “Are we going to-“
Bart’s eyes widen. “Do you — do you not want to? Because-“
“No!” Jaime cuts him off fiercely. “I mean, yes! I do, I…” He trails off.
Jaime’s hand finds his and squeezes. His lips come next.
Bart kisses back softy at first and then more enthusiastically, melting against Jaime’s larger frame. Under him, Jaime’s body adjust to accommodate his weight. Bart can feel the slight inward curve of Jaime’s hipbone digging into his upper thigh. He can feel Jaime’s heartbeat thudding side-by-side to his own. He can feel…. everything.
“Number seven,” Bart murmurs into the kiss. Outloud.
Jaime stutters to a halt against him. “What did you—”
“nothingnothing” Bart cuts him off with a nervous laugh, deepening the kiss.
A loud knocking comes from the front door.
Jaime pulls away from Bart as if stung, his face paling. The expression he’s making would’ve be hilarious in any other situation, but Bart trying to think because Jay and Joan weren’t suppose to be back yet.
Bart gets up from the couch, still shirtless, and blurs into superspeed to get the door—
—and nearly tackles into with Wally, who grabs him by the shoulders to stop him before Bart collides face first into Wally’s chest.
“Whoa. You need to watch where you’re going, squirt-” Wally says, and Bart can calculate to the millisecond the very moment Wally’s eyes take in the entire room, Jaime sitting on the couch with a classic deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face and the two discarded shirts on the floor. Wally chokes on his next words, his eyes falling onto Bart, then travelling lower to his lips, then his bare chest, and then back up to his hands still resting on Bart’s shoulders. They recoil off of him with blurring speed.
“It’s not what—!” Bart starts to say, but stops mid-sentence, eyes narrowing. His shoulders slump a second later. “Okay, uh it’s exactly what you think it is.”
Jaime makes a funny strangled noise, covering his face in his hands. Then silence.
One, two, three, four seconds, Bart counts in his head, cringing away from Wally’s intensely green stare.
“Put your shirts back on,” Wally finally says, an odd strangled note in his voice. He takes a cell phone out of his pocket and dials.
This going to be a long night, Bart thinks.
It’s five minutes later and Bart and Jaime are sitting on opposite sides of the couch. Jaime is fingering the hem of his now rumpled shirt. Wally is pacing. Bart sort of feels like joining him, but the look on his face stops him.
“Really feeling the mode here, cousin,” Bart ventures, tapping a fast staccato on the floor with one foot. “Don’t see what the big deal is.”
“The big deal?” Wally makes a face, muttering something under his breath. “Uncle Barry is going to come in any second now and-“
Almost right on queue, the door opens with a bright red blur and Barry stops to a halt in the middle of the room, pulling off his cowl in a quick motion. Freed from its confines, his mussed blonde hair sticks out in all directions.
The first thing he looks at is Wally.
“Hey, kid,” His voice changes subtly, more softer. “I got here as fast I could, but you know Iris, she’s…” He catches sight of them on the couch and his face falls. “Boys.” A long sigh. “Boys.”
“Hi grandpa,” Bart says, waving meekly.
“Hi Bart,” Barry replies, an odd note in his voice. “Hi, uh, Jay-mee was it?”
Jaime looks at Barry wide-eyed. Bart tries to remember when he told Jaime about the Flash’s identity. He can’t. “Hi-may actually. Uh, sir.” Jaime says, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Okay now that you’re here I’m just gonna go-“
“No. Wally. Stay, please.” Barry says without looking at him.
Wally bristles, but to Bart’s surprise, he does, leaning on a wall, his body tense.
A beat of silence. Barry sits in a crouch in front of the two of them, putting them at eye-level. “First of all,” Barry says, his eyes serious. “What were you two thinking?”
Jaime screws his face into a pinched expression, as if he is arguing with himself.
Barry flickers his gaze to Bart, but he purses his lips stubbornly.
“Maybe I can help,” Barry says slowly. “One of you start from the beginning-“
“It’s obvious what happened,” Wally cuts in deadpan. “Jay and Joan are out for the night. The squirts decided to take advantage of that and hang out. Things got out of hand, as often happens with full-blooded teenagers-” He points at their rumpled shirts. Jaime blushes furiously. “Then mister boyfriend here decides to take advantage of the moment and now we’re here. Simple.”
Everyone in the room stares at him. Wally crosses his arms. “What? You obviously wanted my opinion.”
“That’s not what happened!” Jaime splutters.
“Hey? Hello? I’m the one who started it,” Bart says at the same time.
”You’re what, twelve?” Wally shoots back.
“Thirteen, actually,” Bart says, even louder.
“Thirteen! Of course, because that’s better,” Wally exclaims, throwing his arms in the air at the same time Jaime yelps, “Wait, what?”
Bart turns to Jaime and says, vaguely hurt, “You didn’t know?”
“I kinda assumed that…” Jaime trails off, scratching his cheek. “You never liked talking about yourself. And, Bart, well, you’re too mature for a thirteen year old.” He smiles weakly at Bart.
“Hey, none of that. You have no right to do that right now,” Wally says.
“Everyone calm down. We need to stick to the matter at hand,” Barry brings up his palms. “It’s obvious you two have feelings for each other. But what happened tonight can’t continue. Bart-” A weary expression crosses Barry’s face. “-you’re thirteen years old. And Jaime, you are young as well, but you are still older than Bart. You shouldn’t be leading Bart on,” he waves his hand when Bart opens his mouth in protest, “or letting him take charge. Bart’s reckless. He can get in over his head. Most importantly, it’s irresponsible and thoughtless. As superheroes, I hope you’re both ashamed of yourselves.”
Jaime sinks lower into the couch with every word, but Bart sits there tapping his foot impatiently until Barry is finished. Then he exclaims, “It’s not like I don’t know what sex is. In the future—”
Barry interrupts him, “I don’t know about your era, Bart, but in this era, underage sex is a no. And that’s that.”
The authority in Barry’s voice, the berating tone, as if he is fully confident that Bart is going to follow him, makes something crack in Bart’s composure. “You can’t just do that-“
“Yes I can,” Barry says louder, interrupting him. Again. His expression doesn’t change. “You’re family, Bart. My flesh and blood. And as long as you’re in this time, you are my responsibility.”
Bart can’t believe that. He doesn’t know what that means. He doesn’t belong with anyone. He isn’t anyone’s responsibility.
But the look in Barry’s eyes is oddly familiar. Like ghostly flashes. The sad smile Jay gives him when they share milk and oreos after a particularly bad nightmare. The hardened stare of a scarred man before Bart turns around and disappears forever. The steely blue eyes of a man in a dark cape.
“You understand, Bart?”
Bart looks to Barry and then Wally and finally to Jaime because the first two’s stares make him want to scratch out his skin. The room is oddly hushed which should be impossible because Bart hadn’t been silent for that long and it’s only then that he realizes too late that he’s not the only speedster in the room.
Jaime returns his gaze unflinchingly. He doesn’t want to look away.
“I…” Bart blinks. “I understand… Gramps.”
He’s lying, of course.
But Bart’s trying to understand. He lapses into silence, nodding in agreement with everything Barry says, the rules, the restrictions, and handing over his cell phone without any arguments.
Barry leaves with Jaime to ‘have a chat with his family.’ Bart didn’t think Jaime could get any paler until Barry clasps him on the shoulder and asked him what his maximum flight speed was, and then the expression on his face was like he had just died and was still bound to the Earth.
They leave through the front door and then it’s just Wally and Bart alone together. Bart looks at Wally expectantly, but Wally exhales tiredly, runs a hand through his auburn hair, and mutters a, “C’mon, follow me,” before speeding out the door.
Bart flounders for a second before following. He catches up to Wally easily, but no amount of faces he makes slows the older speedster’s pace, and it’s only when they flash through a zeta tube and then stop on the front porch of a freshly-painted green house that Bart gets it.
“We’re in California, aren’t we? This is your house.”
Wally strides past him wordlessly, pulling a ring of keys out his jacket pocket.
“We could have just phased through the — okay shutting up now,” Bart says quickly when Wally shoots him a withering glare.
He meekly follows Wally into the house and eyes the pile of shoes piled haphazardly next to the door, already self-conscious of his own muddy shoes, but Wally just kicks his shoes off and slams the door shut.
A loud excited barking comes from another room, and a pure white pit bull scampers forward, its tongue lolling out of its mouth as it launches against Wally’s legs.
“Down, Brucely, down,” Wally sighs, shrugging off his jacket and turning on the lights.
“So…” Bart says, moving his gaze off the dog to look curiously around the living room. It is surprisingly spacious, with a large couch in front of the TV, many picture frames adorning the walls. Binders and papers were spread carelessly on the tables and floor. “Any reason I’m here?”
Wally opens a closet, digging through the folded fabrics. “The reason I went to the Garrick’s house was because Joan called me. She wanted me to check up on you.” He throws Bart a blanket. “You’re not sleeping there tonight.”
Bart catches it with a baffled expression. “Umm…”
Wally looks pointedly at the couch. “You. Couch. Sleep now. Comprendo? That’s Spanish, right?” Bart gapes at him. “Look. It’s late. I’m tired. I have class tomorrow. Don’t make any noise.” He walks away down the hall, Brucely at his heels, and flicks off the lights before disappearing into another room.
Bart stands in the living room awkwardly in the dark, still holding the blanket. “Right-o. I, uh, good night?” he calls out in a questioning lilt, but there’s no answer, and after a moment of silence he heads to the couch, stepping around pencils and textbooks, and then settling himself on it as comfortably as possible.
The couch is a plush loveseat and long enough for Bart to stretch his legs out all the way with room to spare. It is softer than he expected, but carries the distinct smell of dog, and Bart wraps himself in the blanket, rolling around trying to get comfortable.
All he can hear is the low hum of the refrigerator and the hanging clock on the opposite wall, his left foot twitching with every tick. The glow of a street light shines through the window blinders, illuminating the room in thin bars. Bart’s eyes travel around the room. He manages to squint and read the first page for Wally’s English Literature essay (messy, but had some good points) and then count the number of pencils scattered on the floor (six, maybe seven), but as much as he is careful to avoid the smiling picture frames on the walls, he feels her accusing stare all the same. In the end, he pulls the blanket over his head and counts his breaths with every exhale until he dozes off.
The lights switch on and Bart sits up on the couch, blinking his eyes blearily.
Wally looks down on him from the kitchen counter with a bemused expression on his face. “Morning,” he says, and takes a bite of a bagel in his hand.
Bart perks up and superspeeds over next to Wally with wide eyes. “There’s more of that, right? Right? Right?”
“Some left in the toaster-“
“Crash!” Bart exclaims, immediately spotting the contraption and eating the four pieces left inside one by one. They were warm and lightly toasted, with a hint of butter. He almost purrs. “Thanks, I needed that.”
Wally pushes a glass of orange juice towards him on the table. “Drink.”
Bart does happily, and doesn’t notice Wally’s continued gaze until he lowers the glass again.
“Okay,” Wally is the first to speak. “You’re awake. You’re fed. My work is done.” He shifts the carrying bag on his shoulder, and Bart finally notices what Wally is wearing: a dark pair of jeans and a tight black sweater. His hair was brushed neatly, and Bart could faintly smell a whiff of aftershave, but the dark bags under his eyes remained prominent. “I need to go. Clean up the kitchen before you go. I do not expect to see you when I get back.”
Wally bends down to pet Brucely, who looks up briefly from its dog bowl to lick his hand before resuming eating. It’s when he brushes past Bart’s shoulder that he pauses, a debating look crossing his face before Wally looks at him and says, “Can I ask you something?”
The seriousness in his voice makes Bart’s eyebrows go up. “Sure! Shoot.”
Wally stares at him hard. “Do you love him?”
“Love?” Bart says, bewildered, and hums thoughtfully. ‘I’m only thirteen. I don’t know what love is yet,’ he is supposed to say. But Bart looks back up Wally and gets the feeling that this moment is very important, that he is being judged for his answer, and for once he wants to answer truthfully.
Love. Is that what he can call it? Bart thinks of love and imagines Jay and Joan, married for seventy years and still going strong. He thinks of Barry and Iris, whose twins will now live under the guidance of their father. He thinks of his long dead parents, who loved in a dangerous time but loved all the same.
But Jaime? And himself? Can he call it that? What they have? Bart has spent hours at night tossing and turning and trying to define what this emotion he feels whenever Jaime is around, but it seemed that no combination of words could ever accurately capture it in its entirety.
All he knows is that it hurts. It makes his chest ache constantly, bruised inside out from how hard his heart is beating. If what love Bart has seen is even a sliver of what that feeling is, then yes, Bart loves him. It may be the only thing he is confident will never change.
“I wasn’t suppose to,” Bart finally replies, and his answer comes out softer than he intents to.
Wally peers at him closely before smiling wryly. It’s a nice smile. Bart thinks Wally should smile more.
“That’s not how love works, kiddo.” Wally says, and steps closer to ruffle his hair. Bart stays still and lets him, eyes wide with amazement because this is the first time Wally had ever done so.
He’s still partially in a daze and doesn’t notice when his name is called out again until the third time.
“Bart…? Hey. Impulse.”
“Yeah?” He raises his head quickly.
Wally’s standing halfway out the door, one hand on the doorknob, face half-turned to Bart. He lingers hesitantly, shifts the strap of his carrying bag again. “Look. I’m not going to lecture you. That’s Barry’s job. But listen to me. Whatever you’re thinking? Get it out of your head. You’re still kids. You have all the time in the world.”
Bart’s eyes widen for the second time, but Wally’s already left, closing the door with a soft click. Down at his feet, Brucely whimpers softly and suddenly pads forward to jump on the couch, nestling in the remains of Bart’s body warmth and under the blanket, tail tucked between its legs.
Bart stares at the door a few moments longer and then gets to work. He picks up the empty glasses and plates on the kitchen counter, sweeps away the crumbs, and washes and dries the dishes. Casting a considering look at the living room, he quietly tiptoes over to the couch, pulls the blanket out underneath Brucely and folds it before placing it back in the closet. Then he picks up the pens and pencils up from the floor (six, not seven) and places them up on the table.
The entire process takes less than five seconds.
A sudden ringing makes Bart jump, and he snatches up the noisy phone from its charger, staring at the tiny glowing screen for the long seconds until the Caller ID lights up.
‘Garricks J’ it pops up two rings later, under the large bolded words: REC MEM FULL. Cringing, Bart pushes the cancel button before placing the phone gingerly back in place.
He should probably get going now.
Bart heads to the door, accidentally flicking off the light switch and hastily turning it back on when Brucely starts barking. He finds one of his shoes and slips it on, but the other one is harder to find, and he resigns himself to digging through the pile of shoes next to the door to find it.
Finally he digs it out from underneath a brown boot. He’s nearly ready to run out the door, but for some reason the boot catches his attention. It is wideset and comfortable looking, with a white fuzzy collar, unique amongst the worn out shoes and sandals. To Bart, it spoke of someone with simpler tastes. Someone who preferred neutral colours opposed to Wally’s brightly coloured Adidas.
Bart crouches down and searches the pile for the other pair. When he finds it, he props the boots upright side by side, carefully brushing the dust off the fuzzy collar. He sits there silently, his eyes roaming the boots up and down, blinking hard.
The clock ticks four times. A low unhappy whine comes from his side, Brucely nudging his hand with a wet nose, his wide eyes shining.
Unable to resist, he pats the dog’s head, scratching the short fur on the underside of its ear. The dog’s tail wags furiously, nuzzling into Bart’s hand like as if it was touch-starved.
Bart briefly considers staying here a bit longer, but just the thought of being alone here changes his mind, and with one final scratch on Brucely’s chin, he gets up and phases through the front door.
It’s hard to ground a speedster. Jay can watch over Bart as suspiciously as he can, but the truth is, the only reason Bart complied to the rules for this long was out of respect.
But absence makes the heart grow fonder, and by the third day, Bart, his heart racing in anticipation like the teenager he isn’t, sneaks out his bedroom window and makes the long run to El Paso.
By the time he gets to the front porch, the city has lulled into slumber and the crickets chirp loudly and busily. He speeds around to the back, climbing up to Jaime’s window. But to his complete disappointment, when Bart peaks through the glass, Jaime isn’t there.
He gets over it quickly though, pretty sure that it just meant Jaime was out on patrol. Phasing takes barely a thought, and Bart navigates easily through the mess of school binders and textbooks to collapse face first onto Jaime’s bed.
The bed creaks and bounces under the sudden weight. Bart grins widely, cocooning himself in Jaime’s blankets and then settling down to wait.
He’s half-asleep when Jaime finally arrives. He hears the wings first, buzzing like a bumblebee, then the soft squeak of the window opening and closing shut.
Footsteps pad closer and closer and then stops abruptly. “Bart?” Jaime whispers, surprised.
Bart can’t contain himself any longer. He leaps off the bed, throwing the blankets off him and tackles Jaime into a big hug.
“Hey Blue,” Bart says in a stage whisper, burying his face in the taller teen’s chest. “Missed you.”
Jaime laughs quietly, wrapping his arms around Bart and giving him a quick squeeze. “Missed you too, cariño.” Bart vibrates happily at his response and Jaime laughs a bit louder. “This, too.”
“Yeah?” Bart says, pleased. He leans up to kiss Jaime, but is cut-off by a sudden high-pitched sneeze from the next room. He hesitates.
“Maybeweshould…” Bart takes a step back.
Jaime raises an eyebrow. “Tag?”
Bart cocks his head quizzically at the offer, eyeing the sheen of sweat on Jaime’s forehead and his disheveled hair, falling in shaggy strands over his face. But it’s been so long… “If you’re up for it,” he teases.
“Well then,” Jaime replies airily, arms stretching out wide as he walks backwards towards the window. The lock clasp opens with a single motion. Jaime’s grin shines bright in the moonlight. “You’re it.”
Jaime flies out the window in a blur of blue metal. Alone in the bedroom, Bart saunters up to the window and slowly closes the window as soft as he can. The crescendo of crickets lull back to a muted silence. Shifting into a ‘ready’ stance, he counts the five seconds aloud in his head before he phases through the glass.
Jaime’s bedroom is on the second floor, but Bart cheats gravity, twisting into a backflip and kicking off the wall to land on the road in a near-silent crouch. Looking up, he barely manages to catch the fast-disappearing flying figure in the horizon. Then, grinning, he gives chase.
What follows is a adrenaline-pumping chase across the entire city. Bart keeps his eyes on Jaime’s figure, trying to keep pace while running through rows of speeding cars. He twists and circles around utility poles effortlessly. His entire body vibrates happily; excitedly, heart racing to the beat of his blurring feet. Litter and newspaper and dust flies up in his path, but he keeps his gaze skyward.
Still, Jaime knows his city well. Sometimes he disappears for entire seconds at a time, until Bart has to dig deep into the ground with his foot for a hard 90 degree turn, until Jaime reappears at the edges of Bart’s vision, often with an distant echoing laugh. It’s hard to catch enough momentum and bounce off enough buildings for the distance he needs to leap up and tag Jaime, but skylines turn to schoolyards turn to house rooftops, and Jaime’s trying to be nice by flying low.
Bart catches Jaime on the outskirts of the city, grabbing onto Jaime’s ankle with a triumphant shout of ‘tag!’ Jaime yelps at the sudden weight, but Bart already letting go, falling and rolling on the sand before scrambling upright because it’s a different game now.
The city is aglow with streetlights and car lights, but the desert is just sand and sand and more sand. Running past the city limits and straight into it is akin to running straight into darkness. The moon is steady and the night clear, but Bart still can’t see down past his knees. Sand accumulates rapidly in his padded boots, rubbing roughly between his toes and under the soles of his feet. It’s only when he’s spitting out sand from laughing too hard that Jaime finally tackles him from behind.
They roll down a sand dune in a tangle of skinny limbs and painfully pointy alien armour, falling to a stop with Jaime lying flushed above a giggling Bart, armour quickly retracting back into a much softer cloth. Bart is trying to spit out the grit while still finding the time to laugh, and accidentally spits in Jaime’s face. He laughs harder, and Jaime rolls his eyes, plopping his head in the space above Bart’s shoulder and gasps out a hoarse, “you’re it,’ into his ear.
They lapse into silence, heartbeats slowing. Bart pulls off his goggles over his head with some effort, discarding it off the side where it tumbles in the sand.
He huffs out a breath. “Hey, Blue?”
“…What did your parents say?”
Jaime looks away and after a beat, rolls off him. Bart sits up quickly, watching as Jaime grips his knees with slumped shoulders.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it, we don’t have to—”
“Naw, it’s okay,” Jaime replies, rubbing the back of his neck. “The whole thing was just all really stressful and my family is so—” He exhales loudly.
Bart sidles up to him and tugs on his hand. “You can tell me.”
“Well… Alright then. Y-you know how the Flash escorted me afterwards to my house?” Jaime glances at Bart for confirmation, grimacing. “He had a… talk with my parents. If you can even call it that. Things got heated, and I mean really heated, and Mom started yelling at me loud enough to wake up the entire neighbourhood. I think even the Flash got regretful when Mom started crying and hugged me and he realized I haven’t even come out to my family yet.” A beat. “I’m pretty sure they already knew, though.”
“I’m so so so so sorry,” Bart said thickly, swallowing down his guilt.
“It’s okay. Really.” Jaime gave him a strained smile. ”It was a long night. My parents were mostly just upset that I didn’t tell them beforehand. How that ‘new boy’ that started coming to our house was actually my boyfriend. Dad even gave me a sex talk. Which was absolutely mortifying for the both of us.” He laughs weakly. “Things would’ve calmed down faster if mi estupida hermana hadn’t spotted me climbing out the window a few days later. They thought I was sneaking out to visit you—” Jaime looks at Bart hastily. “—I wanted to, so so much, but it’s just bad luck that she caught me when I was going out on patrol and…” He sighs again, more quieter.
“What is it?” Bart presses.
“It’s just,” Jaime says haltingly. “My parents. They… they still look at me like I’m just some kid. Something to protect. But I’m not. I have a violent, homicidal alien beetle latched on my back. I’m a superhero. I’m part of a superhero team. I get shot at multiple times. I almost died multiple times.” Bart looks away. “I beat up criminals and fight alien invasions and save lives and… and… sometimes I just…”
“You want to tell them,” Bart murmurs, not as a question.
“Yeah, I do!” Jaime exclaims, throwing his hands in the air. “Ever since I’ve started this superhero gig, I’ve had to lie to my family over and over again. I hate doing that, going behind their backs. My family means a lot to me. I trust my mom more than the entire world. The looks on her face sometimes, y’know? Like all she’s waiting for is for me to tell her with my own words.” Jaime grips his hair, tugging at the short strands. “It’s not like I wanted to lie to them. I trust them, I do! It’s just….”
“You want to keep them safe.” Bart says quietly, looking away and licking suddenly dry lips. “I know the feeling.”
Jaime turns his head, searching Bart’s eyes. “You do, don’t you?”
Suddenly uncomfortable, Bart can’t do anything except blinking back at Jaime’s stare. After a beat, Jaime smiles, a tiny sad quirk of his lips. “I know you can’t tell me everything about what happened… or will happen…. but you know you can trust me, right Bart?”
Jaime has the same eyes as his mother’s, a deep shade of brown, like dark chocolate. Bart can’t look away no matter how much he wants to. Because there lay the dilemma. Bart can’t trust anyone. His future? His real reason for coming back to the past? It isn’t just a nightmarish warning for this era. It isn’t some dark prophecy. That was his life.
Nobody needs to find out the weak and worthless person Bart used to be. The tale is… too sad. Bart doesn’t want anybody to look at him differently.
Bart is afraid of many things, but if there is one truth he is not afraid to hide from Jaime—
“I know I can,” Bart tilts his head, hair falling into his eyes. “I love you.”
—it would have been that one.
“I… Bart…” Jaime laughs, a huge smile widening on his face. He lifts one hand to Bart’s head, strokes through his hair and pushes the soft strands out of his face. The emotion in his eyes can only be defined as wondrous. “I love you, too.”
His heart beats painfully again. Bart wiggles his eyebrows. “So… alone in the desert, no adults around…”
Jaime cringes. “Actually, Bart…”
“What? You’re kidding, right?”
“When my mom yells, she gets really into it. She was really mad at me, y’know? Because I’m the older one. And, erm, a lot of what she said made sense.”
“A lot of sense?” Bart scowls. “Is it because I’m thirteen?”
“What? No! Or, uh, yes. G-give me a second to explain!” Jaime rushes out, as if sensing Bart was to run off. Which he was not. Really. “I think that maybe we should wait until we’re older, at least. I know you’re a speedster, and you like to hurry with everything, but we have all the time in the world.”
“All the time in the world,” Bart echoes. His skin crawls. “You’re really making me feel the mode right now.”
“You’re allowed to take things slow, Bart,” Jaime replies, as if that was the truth. But then again, he doesn’t know.
Bart bites his lip and looks down, staring blankly at his lap. One, two seconds. “Slow, huh?” He lies down on his back, stretches out like a cat, and pats the sand next to him with a lazy grin. “Okay, hermano. I can do slow. It’s a clear night, tonight. Perfect for a bit of stargazing, yeah?”
Jaime glances back to the horizon, to the city, only briefly before smiling back at him. “Yeah. Perfect.”
He settles down beside Bart on the sand, nudging closer.
They lie there, staring at the night sky. Bart counts and naming the constellations to the breathy whisper of Jaime’s voice in his ear. When he inhales, he smells the tinge of sweat and something distinctly musky and sharp, like gravel dust and gasoline, like El Paso. He absentmindedly wishes for a bag of Chicken Whizees to make this perfect, but he’s okay without them. Bart didn’t intend for them to stay there that long, but they end up spending the entire night there. Side by side. Shoulder to shoulder. Until Jaime’s tired eyes slowly flutter close and his breathing slows.
Bart lapses into silence, staying as still as possible. He doesn’t have the heart to wake him up. Darkness creeps upon them until they’re only lit by the stars. It’s quiet, except for the rustle of a lizard digging in the sand or the howl of a coyote in the distance.
Bart lies there holding Jaime’s hand while night falls dry and peaceful and time slows down to the pace of the clouds’ infinitesimal chase miles above them.
Forever blinks back in his sight as starlight, until it fades away in the dawn, until Bart looks beside him and watches the morning light shine on the smooth angles of Jaime’s sleeping face, illuminating the caramel skin and dark eyelashes and the slight part of his lips.
It’s the break of dawn and Bart leans closer to wake Jaime up. He’s not sure if he should count this kiss if the receiver can’t kiss back, but he counts it anyway.
The Reach appears on every TV channel, every newscast, every radio station. The world is captivated. Nightwing starts disappearing in longer intervals, and even when he is there, he’s talking on the com-link or with Captain Atom. The team is getting restless. Even level-headed Tim is starting to give Nightwing odd glances.
When Bart’s not with Jaime, he visit Artemis’ grave. It’s never lonely there. He doesn’t get too close when he sees a woman with asian features sobbing, hands gripped tightly on the armrests of her wheelchair, but the team is there often or not. M’gann comes with flowers, sometimes with La’gaan, sometimes with Conner. He sees Nightwing once, hands clasped behind his back, face bowed.
Wally is there everyday.
It gives Bart a creepy feeling when he stands there next to him. Wally doesn’t bring flowers. He doesn’t cry. When Bart comes up beside him, Wally doesn’t even glance at him, doesn’t react to his presence at all.
Barry’s still alive. He’s tired, but happy and all he talks about is Iris and the twins and the future. His smile is bright and genuine. Bart looks at Barry and thinks, ‘See? You made a difference.’
Jaime is still alive and Bart cherishes that every day.
But Wally doesn’t know. He’s not sure. He lives in an empty house haunted by memories and when he’s not there or in college, he’s here, in front of her grave.
Bart can’t figure out whether Wally is trying to remind himself that Artemis is alive, or preparing himself for the inevitable.
‘You have all the time in the world,’ he had said.
Was this hope? Or are they both lying to themselves?
Nine, Bart thinks, almost in relief, as he breaks the kiss to rest his head on Jaime’s shoulders, and accidentally says the number out loud.
“I remember you doing that before. The numbers.” Jaime hums in question, and his breath tickles the back of Bart’s neck. “There a reason for it?”
“Like you’ve never talked out loud to yourself before,” Bart quips back lazily, too comfortable in Jaime’s loose embrace to argue further.
Jaime groans in exasperation, just as expected. “And like I’ve said before, it’s the scarab! I’ve been talking to the scarab! And don’t…” His voice lowers to a hush. “Don’t try to change to subject. You said nueve just now. And siete before.”
Nine and seven, Bart translates in his head. “How can you still remember that?” He lifts his head up, genuinely confused.
Jaime smiles wryly at him. “The scarab, remember?”
“Right, right,” Bart rolls his eyes, lowering his head back down again. He should have known.
“The numbers.” Bart closes his eyes. “They’re the number of times we kissed. I’m counting them.”
“Oh,” Jaime says, sounding surprised. And a bit wary. “Is this a future thing? Do they do that sort of thing in the future or-“
“I just-” Bart was taught to lie incredibly well. But he could never hide his emotions properly from Jaime, and to his horror, Bart finds his throat tighten. He tries again, swallowing hard, but all that comes out is a ragged breath. Bart can’t look at Jaime, instead fixing his gaze on the smooth expanse of skin that connects Jaime’s neck to his shoulder. He doesn’t want him to see just how much all of this is affecting him. Jaime. His anchor. His hope. His.
“—I don’t want to forget,” Bart lies, murmuring the words into the crook of Jaime’s neck.
“Bart. Bart. Please, look at me,” Jaime says, gripping his shoulders and shaking him until Bart reluctantly lifts his head again to meet his eyes. Jaime’s face was full of resolve. “Whatever you’re scared is going to happen, we’ll face it together. Everyone will. The Team. You and me. Together. Okay?”
Bart nods shakily. But he can’t look at Jaime anymore. His face burns. His eyelashes hang heavy and wet. He clenches his eyes shut, but the tears roll traitorously down his cheeks. Jaime clutches his face with both hands, wiping away the tear tracks with his thumbs.
“Together, Bart. Together.” Jaime says again, more softly.
Bart opens his eyes, traces the blurry face of Jaime and commits it into memory. He takes a deep, shaky breath and says as confidently as he can, “O-okay. Together—”
Either Jaime knows just how badly he’s lying, or his acting is really atrocious, because Jaime cuts him off with a kiss, lifting Bart off his feet and spinning him around in circles. Like every single kiss before, it makes Bart’s heart thump in equal pain and happiness.
‘I want to remember us forever,’ Bart wants to blurt out. ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen anymore. I don’t know how long this will last.’
But he remains quiet. Bart holds on tight to Jaime’s shoulders and kisses back as hard as he can. He’s either laughing or sobbing into the kiss, he’s not sure.
He’s never completely sure about anything these days.
Bart can’t be the weak and worthless person that he used to be.
That Bart. That Bart was a slave. That Bart had no powers. That Bart did nothing to stop the Reach. All he did was runrunrun and even then that wasn’t enough. Even then the Reach still took him. Tortured him. Enslaved him. Collared him. And not only him: hundreds, thousands, millions of people. The entire world.
That Bart was tired. He was tired of acting like he was happy. He was tired of lying. Sometimes he was tired of living.
That Bart had no hope.
But then Jaime kissed back.
And he continues to do so. Every single time.
(It took ten kisses for Bart to stop counting.)
(It took one to convince him to try.)