Shutters clicked, flashes flared—winking on hairpins and highlighted cheekbones, on the silver of wristwatches. There was a small amphitheatre proceeding the venue’s entrance, brimming with warm, sweat-sheened bodies, making dewy the flush cheeks of dolled-up friends and peers. A comfortable, summer night breeze—one uncharacteristic of this city—tied a string of camaraderie to the gathering. It seemed to whisper as it rattled round you, we are all here, aren’t we? It would not let tonight be brisk and unwelcoming, none would shiver and leave.
Smoothing out a crease in your dress, taffeta crinkled under your fingers. You felt just a little silly, like this. The others that were dressed up had a reason to, one you felt you could not justify yourself. This dress seemed wasteful. It would make an appearance this night, and perhaps on one other occasion, before it landed in a donation pile to a thrift shop.
“Not going over?” Harper asked.
You knew, without looking, who she referred to. As it happened, he really was there to stop people from sneaking in alcohol. He was in a black suit—suspiciously missing the bowtie, of course—and across the crowd, in conversation with Roy, manning one of the entrances.
“He’s working,” you replied, though you could not have waded through the sea of bodies had you wanted to. Shoulders pushed against yours in the crowd; Harper’s silvery jumpsuit rippled like a pond at their touch. Perfume and sweat hung in the air, and a girl in a silk, emerald-green dress wormed her way past you, no doubt in search of a friend or date. As you approached the entrance, the sea funnelled into a dense line, fortified by muscle and swells of laughter, the occasional shriek. It swallowed you. And, perhaps, you were grateful to be hidden in the crowd, to fade in with the rest tonight, to be unnoticed, to have no one ask: Are you here with anybody? Oh— That flicker of recognition. Nevermind, then.
It’d been a rude awakening at the school, to have him place that distance between you—to realise that the dynamic between you two here would not change. It made a kind of sense—he was never one for crowds or attention—but it wasn’t as simple as disappointment. You felt foolish for allowing yourself to think it might have played out any other way. He had been this way each day in public—had been proper and distant—he had treated you no differently to anyone else. On every opportunity around others, he had shied away from the fact that you were soulmates; he had not told his family about you, nor corrected a waitress in a diner when she offered her hand to him.
You had been avoiding bringing it up, because truthfully, you didn’t know how to say any of it to him—to anyone. You hadn’t said a word on his birthday, for obvious reasons. And tonight? Well, tonight was prom, and didn’t seem like the right time to either. Tonight, you wanted to dance and be young and think about staying upright in heels, not about the distance between you, the non-recognition of your connection. Not about the little ever-present voice that whispered, you were not something to be proud of.
“I know these are impractical as hell, but I’m loving the power rush these bad boys are giving me,” Harper said, staring down at her heels.
Duke, who, at their mercy now sat a little shorter than her, glumly replied, “Tallness is a state of being. Can’t be manufactured.”
“Can’t hear you down there,” Harper said, and Duke’s eye twitched.
Music filtered in through the doors, dampened from the other room, and the three of you were towed by the packed line.
Tell Harper, you thought, as she brushed shoulders with you. Just say it to her, or to someone. Just say it out loud.
The crowd packed tight round you, the throng pushed forward.
But the words were ash in your mouth—not because of any fear on your behalf—it was an inability to express what you’d been feeling, perhaps a little stubbornness too, that could not put those feelings into words—to admit that something was wrong. It was painfully ironic. You could think so well in compositions, in photographs and images—consider light and the meaning it made—but not string together a sentence in your native tongue.
The procession moved forward, you passed into the venue. The sea of bodies turned leisurely round the room, circulating and mingling, flowing with the current to the dancefloor, lingering on the banks where waitstaff bustled to and fro. You slipped into the stream, pulled mindlessly away with the current, losing yourself in the swirl.
“The hell’s up with you?” Roy said.
Jason shrugged, staring past him, to the shapeless crowd, to last year’s recycled decorations, to the plastic streamers and the haze machine lazily clouding the bottom of the room.
“Not even a grouchy response. Concerning.”
Roy’s attention jerked to the side.
“Wh- Mia, NO.” He jogged off, likely to stop bodily harm befalling someone. Jason couldn’t say he minded the solitude.
He wandered around the venue blankly, in an odd mood, not particularly tethered to his surroundings, seeing the shape of things without processing their function.
Trays floated by, white tailcoats of waiters—not like the ones from Wayne galas, in their exclusive, tailored-dress. These were approachable people, ones he could ask about their lives outside of catering. Hope they’re paying you extra to be here tonight, a woman said. He could not remember his reply.
A boy balanced on one leg, restringing a shoelace, and a merry-go-round of watery lights projected on the walls. They were blue-green, matchhead dots turning about. Speckles, like stars in a midnight lake.
He stared at a man on the opposite side of the hall. Shorter than he, brown hair, a charming smile.
That he could process.
“Oh, for fuck’s—"
Jason ducked behind a display of blue-green balloons—they bounced on their strings, jostled by his shoulder. He screened himself as best he could, grimacing at the picture ahead, then massaged his temple, headache impending.
Staff had the option to bring a life-partner chaperon to these kinds of things, but shoot him. He’d never counted on Wally doing it—hadn’t forecasted Grayson on tonight’s fucking weather.
He grumbled, and slunk to a different portion of the hall before the other man could spot him, sending a scowl at Dick over his shoulder.
The night ticked sluggishly by. Avoid Grayson like the clap, glare at enough people that they’ll stay away, do the absolute bare minimum until they shut off the lights. He could do those things.
On the fringes of the crowd, you wrapped your arms around yourself, nodding along with Duke, who was passionately miming something. He had yet to see you this night; to give you a compliment, to collect a dance. He would wait until everything died down, then, when the hall was empty, or he was on your doorstep having dropped you home, he could reel you in, have you stand on his toes, and spend at least one moment together. But, he could hardly do it now.
A microphone squealed, and attention drew to the brilliantly lit, tinsel-draped stage. One of the year’s coordinators bent over the mic, an envelope clutched in her bony fingers. He caught the words: School spirit. Embodiment of values. It’s my honour to present this year’s nominations.
The smattering of bodies drew together; you looked towards the stage. Duke had disappeared, you were alone. He watched as you smoothed out a crease in your dress—perhaps only to give your hands something to do—and you awkwardly waited, one long moment. Then, as if by some sense of obligation, you squeezed further into the crowd, in search of another to spend the hour with.
Jason found Kory at the side of the hall, the speech droning on behind him—the annual bullshit—as if everyone didn’t know prom kings and queens were a popularity contest for the most in-your-face soulmate couple that year. At the very least, he could count on Kory for some unfiltered honesty—prime entertainment, if directed towards the events on stage. It was how, not long ago, they had killed many a night in college. He, Roy, and her—occasionally Dick tagging along too—would pack together in a venue, bitching about assessments and day-to-day life, listening to Kory’s background commentary on whatever poor bastard was doing stand-up that night. He parked himself next to her now, leaning against the cool wall. She sipped at a blue, tropical mocktail in her hands, eyes on the stage.
“Grayson’s asking for you,” she said.
He sighed, not bothering with an explanation. He blamed it on that foggy mood again.
A wave of cheers sounded, and sure enough, a conventional-looking pair climbed the short set of steps leading to the stage. He’d been subconsciously rooting for Kristen and Lucy to win, but fine. Fine. They were too cool for that anyway. The cheering died to embers, and he caught a murmur of naysaying from the eastern end of the hall.
He blew out a half-laugh. “Who’d they kill?”
“You,” Kory said idly. “And your other half.”
He frowned, retracing her words, but the second round of internal processing did no favours. "What?"
Kory rolled her eyes.
“I was on that committee because I owed Lorn a favour—people nominated you both in the preliminaries, but they had to exclude you from the ballot because one half of you wasn’t a student. And then in defiance, everyone wrote it on the ballot anyway.”
His brows rose.
“You’re shitting me.”
“I would not shit you, Jason.” She sipped her mocktail. The straw made a squelching noise as she sucked down the last of it. “For some reason everyone was rooting for your useless ass, I don’t fucking know…”
Dazed, he leant back against the wall.
He had never cared for this shit when he was in high school—not in the slightest—and apathy toward it had only grown since. He suspected you didn’t care for it either, but it didn’t change the fact that he had been the cause of you not having the title now.
“I can hear your thoughts,” Kory said. “Don’t be melancholic, you’re dragging down the mood.”
He tsked. “I’m not being melancholic.”
“It’s a piece of plastic, she’ll be fine.”
“Besides,” Kory said, “I’m trying to imagine you on an elevated stage at the same time as her, and in every scenario, you’re being held there at gunpoint.”
He frowned. Ice cubes rattled as she stirred them with her straw.
Perhaps it was the lingering mood since losing that book, or a final blow this afternoon, or the accruing, muted disconnect that seemed to make everything around him remoter—but impossibly, again, the walls around him compacted.
“Fuck’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious,” she said.
Her hair framed her face; she could have been Ariel, were it not shattered by the flippancy.
“Is that what everyone here thinks, then?” he said, drawing the words out. She still did not look up from her straw. “That I don’t like my soulmate? Of course I fucking like her.”
She let the straw go.
“Well I know,” she said, “because Roy and I had to listen to the constant ‘why me’ pity party. But don’t act so surprised, you’ve spent the year practically avoiding looking her direction.”
“I wasn’t avoiding her,” he said, but now, saying it out loud, the words didn’t seem necessarily truthful on his tongue; they were half-truths, ones that couldn’t paint the complexity of the whole picture. If he had avoided you, it had been because it was best, it had been the only way he knew how to handle things. It was to give you no more attention than anyone else, to restore a modicum of normalcy to your senior year. Meetings of this manner were not supposed to happen.
Eventually, he said, “I was giving her privacy. Everyone here’s a nosy fuck, I didn’t want people bothering her over this.”
Kory shrugged, bored, as if it was inconsequential, and not something no one yet had had the mettle to say to him.
“What was I supposed to do differently, Kory?” he said, finally.
“Hmm,” she said in non-committal to a resolution. He could not blame her—she did not care—it was the way of most things. People were solitary creatures; they bore their problems, and learned to solve them on their own. It was not her crucible to lose sleep over, nor to ponder now. Spying a colourful tray of drinks passing by, Kory tailgated the waiter, leaving him a solitary figure on the fringes of a hall.
A second feeling of non-resolution that day.
He melted against the back wall, and thumped his head on it. A dull, monotonous rhythm. The varnished planks comprising the walls opposite him were stacked together, like book spines, towered on their sides.
That afternoon, he had done a thing he had not planned to do, a betrayal to himself, to everything he thought he knew.
He had been dressing for tonight, and seen the tower stacked in his closet—that leaning collection of book-shaped gifts that would appear on his birthdays, on Christmases, on special occasions—the ones that held no return address, but held writ the sender on every inch of the gesture. He had trailed a finger over that faded packaging, and settled on the couch with one—he held it in his hands for an unknowable period, before tearing into it. There had been a cathartic breath, a sense of relief at seeing a title, but as he had read…
It had been nothing. A book.
Pulpy paper, stamped in black print, bound together by glue.
The words he read didn’t shake him at his core, didn’t bring a sense of comfort or closure—they were not accompanied by Alfred stopping by to lay a hand on his shoulder, and say to him, it’s all over, my boy.
It was only a novel—a novel he couldn’t particularly connect to, at that—the kind of story he had grown out of. He couldn’t help but think he might have enjoyed it even a few years prior, when he was the boy it had been addressed to. He might have been drawn into its plot, have become attached to the characters, if not so much time had passed between its reception and its opening now.
But that time had gone by, slipped, unawares, and he could not bring it back; opening the thing now was a reactive measure. He was left with a pile of empty words, opportunities faded like paintings left in sunlight.
He was cripplingly sorry then, again, of looking back onto all the things that he had lost—for not taking stock of what he had now, for not seeing those windows that might close if too long ignored—for noticing too late. For staying there, in a glass display, and letting each chance to hold onto a precious thing pass him by.
He looked across the hall, at you.
You were sitting at one of the round tables with Duke, elbow on the white tablecloth, chin in hand.
“Are you KIDDING,” Duke said to Eddie, leaning over his phone while Eddie frantically swiped through what was either memes or Pokémon-related media. Somewhere, lost in this room, was Harper, deep in a videogame-related discussion, and you knew she would not be returning any time soon.
You traced the cotton tablecloth with your finger, and stared past Duke and Eddie, to the crowd. Caustic light spilled over them. You would give it a few moments more, then either stand, and desperately pretend to be interested in whatever it was Duke was looking at, or meander into the crowd, until you found someone with an excuse to talk to.
You couldn’t rationalise it, but it felt as though everyone was looking at you—seeing how out of place you were. They knew that you were alone tonight, and with every little chase for a companion, you were bothering them. You shouldn’t have come—you did not know why you had thought another round of humiliation was a good idea. You gripped the dress in your hand, concentrating on the texture of the fabric, trying to calm your jackrabbiting heart.
You were gathering yourself, readying to stand, when you belatedly heard it. It began as a dissipation of conversation, and then, little scuffles, as elbows hit sides, murmurs to friends to look, but stay quiet, like the hush as the conductor raises their hands, giving notice to the crowd.
You let their gravity pull you, gaze drawing to the salient image.
His hands were in his pockets—sleeves rolled a way up his forearms. He was a few feet from your table, watching you openly, wearing an unfamiliar expression. Perhaps, there had been glimpses of it in private, in moments of quiet, but never here, never quite like this.
“You’re being awfully quiet,” he said.
You rose, but when you went to speak, no sound came out. In the corner of your eye, you saw Harper on the edge of the crowd, come to look.
“Just surprised. I guess, I thought you jumped.”
“No.” His lips quirked upwards, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I came, all on my own. No jump, no force of nature to compel me.”
“Do you want to dance?” he said.
He looked at you a long while.
“Everyone’s here,” you said.
And then, he did an ordinary thing—a most extraordinary thing. It was so unexpected, you felt a shock of pain.
He offered his hand to you.
You were aware of people around you—felt the little swell in the room—the weight of eyes on you, felt the raised brows, the pin-drop silence. Blue, caustic light fell on his hand, outstretched, streamed through his fingers like water, across that invitation laid bare. The back of your throat tightened.
Swap the hall for afternoon light, his hand for one more delicate, and it could have been a waitress in a diner, extending her own in invitation. It could have been a white card, exactly as you’d imagined it to be; everything you’d wanted.
His hand wavered a fraction, and you met his eyes.
But a white card between strangers wasn’t putting that much a stake at all, really, was it? It was a whim, a blank invitation.
There, written out on the gesture before you now, amid the spilling venue lights colouring that palm blue, was every little doubt, every head turn and whisper, all the context of prying and awkwardness that had saddled your meeting—the whisper of incredulity, the weight of expectations, and of walking into each other, of care in gestures, long before it was ever said. It was an invitation entirely of its own.
The corner of his mouth turned up; both vulnerable and weary and hoping.
A hint of a smile on your lips, you raised your hand, and placed it flat on his.
There was an uptick in background noise, and vaguely what might have been the shape of Harper’s jaw dropping, but you tuned them out. They dispersed around you, to give you room on the floor. With the propriety of a Victorian gentleman, he rested one hand on your waist; and you felt the rasp of the taffeta under his fingers.
The floorboard creaked under your heels; the music comfortably filled the silence. You hid a smile.
“I’m sorry I kept you waiting.”
“I didn’t think you’d ever do it,” you murmured.
And honestly, he replied, “Neither did I.”
It was the honesty that freed you, and you exhaled, the weight going with you.
“I haven’t been honest, either. Months ago, I promised to tell you when something was bothering me, but I don’t know how to do that. I’m not any good at it. It’s like I know logically that I should just say a thing, but I can’t, I don’t know how to say it.”
He looked at you—then, of all things, wryly smiled, as if to say, you me both.
It reminded you of that time months ago—a white-painted morning, when you’d compared familial prison stories over breakfast; those were the little hidden parts of yourself that no one else had been able to understand, discussed with familiarity, like the stocks, or music, not weaknesses to be ashamed of.
You sighed, and he drew you a little closer. His breath fanned your neck.
“I won’t pretend to have all the answers. Fuck knows I invented bottling it all in, but I’m beginning to form a hypothesis,” he said.
“Oh yeah, English faculty boy?”
His eyes narrowed. “Fine. A thesis statement.”
“There we go.”
“And it’s that us being so terrible at it, may not be quite as abysmal as it sounds.”
You grunted. “How’s that?”
“For one, we can go at it at our own pace. And get better at it together.”
The music reverberated under your toes; you turned together, a rhythm beating in tandem.
“And all those times in between?”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m getting better at reading you every day. I’ll call you out on your bullshit, and you call me out on mine.”
On the edge of your vision, you glimpsed a figure with dark hair watching you both, and your gaze flicked back to Jason.
“Well, if you want to test that out…”
He eyed you cautiously.
“Did you know Dick’s here?”
Jason didn’t freeze like you expected had it been a surprise, but he did scowl and looked at the ceiling, as if by acknowledging some higher power he might persuade it to remove Dick from the Prom-equation.
“I know, I’ve been avoiding him all night.”
“You’re not fooling anyone, Jason. It takes half a braincell to tell you actually like your brother. So what’s the deal?”
Jason’s scowl deepened. You thought he might ignore the question, reneging on your newly formed agreement. He pursed his lips. And then, you saw it on his face—the moment he decided to let it go.
“He’s going to invite me to Wayne Manor again. Every time I see him, I hear it.”
From the tone of his voice, you might have thought he was irritated, but you studied him—really looked, underneath that familiar exterior.
You were hit with déjà vu, hailing back to that night, when he’d first opened up about Bruce in your kitchen—he’d looked then how he did now, like he wanted to say more, but couldn’t bring himself to form the words. That night, you'd assumed it was because he was angry at Bruce, but—
Once you had the thought, you couldn’t fathom how you’d not seen it sooner.
“Do you miss it?” you said, and his eyes wandered back to yours, locking there.
The music padded the silence between you; you felt the material of his tux under your fingers, the rise and fall of his chest.
“I’ve wanted to go back for years.”
Steps against the wooden floor, the gentle quiet between you. He seemed very young, then. It had been his secret—one you suspected he had not revealed to a soul, not since this whole ordeal began.
“I don’t think he’ll change his mind about what the right thing to do was,” Jason said, “and I won’t change mine. I told myself I’d never forgive him, and I’ve always stuck to my promises. The difference is that I’m not certain I care for it anymore. He was my father before all of this. I miss how things were.”
“Jason… Why don’t you go back? You said they invite you all the time.”
He pressed his lips together, and looked away. He had an indignant look to him.
“Right,” you said, he was your soulmate after all. “Stubborn. Or is it that you don’t imagine you can go can back without an excuse?”
“Both. I swore we were done. Getting tired of a fight isn’t a reason to be over it. It doesn’t solve the original issue.”
“Sometimes it is. Sometimes it's enough to want to try to... work out how to be over it.”
Those eyes watched you; riverbeds of blue. They were still unconvinced. He looked past you, to the floor, eyes faraway. They were lost, resigned to a lack of resolution, as though in bringing the subject up, he had only hoped to finally say it out loud, to share with another his longanimity.
The moment it entered your head, you smiled, because you knew it had been meant for this.
It had waited, patiently, for him.
“Well, what if I have one for you?”
His gaze wandered back to yours.
“An excuse?” The corner of his mouth ticked up.
“It’s tenuous at best—not to mention juvenile, and all things considered, a ridiculous solution.”
“You’re really selling this.”
“But, it’s guaranteed to get you to go, so, you can tell it to them and yourself, if it makes you feel any better.”
“Tell them what?”
You thought back to that cabin, to the eager crowd, to the plastic ping on hardwood.
“That your soulmate handed your ass to you in a game of table tennis. And when she won, she used the favour she was owed, to make you take her to meet your family.”
He had stopped moving; you were both still in the crowd. He stared at you, holding your eyes.
“You would do that,” he said. “Use your ultimate favour over me, to strongarm me back into visiting them.”
It was both a question, and disbelief, and doubt, and buried under that, the faintest of flickers.
“Well when you say it like that, it makes it sound like I won’t have other ultimates over you in the future too, so let’s not rule that out.”
His brow crumpled just a little bit.
It reminded you of that first day—the first real day you’d met—in the class, when you’d touched, and you’d been absorbed in the other’s eyes, the breadth of possibility between you. You had both been strangers, then. Neither had known how much was missing.
He cupped your cheek, and kissed you. It was rather chaste, and you rose on your toes to deepen the kiss. It wasn’t until you had broken apart that you heard the cheering. You imagined it was how it felt to be on stage at a rock concert when the final chord plays, the deafening speakers die down and the band hears the roar of the crowd.
Harper violently low-fived Kristen, and someone stood on a chair hollering. Wallets began to open, and bills started passing in a line, all the way up to an individual collecting—and that was when you remembered that there had been a bet—the one Duke and Harper had mentioned on the day you first matched. Bart was swearing particularly loudly, so you guessed he’d lost—a fact that made Jason smirk. A couple of people looked to be doing a victory cheer that you suspected had nothing to do with a financial gain or having won. You hid a smile, and Jason cleared his throat. Then, as though nothing had happened, he placed his hand right back on your waist, picking up where the song had left off.
You huffed, then shook your head, doing your best along with he to tune out everyone else in the room. There was warmth in your chest, one which you had felt before—a glimpse of feeling in a bondtouch, a lifetime ago.
“As soon as we get there,” you said, “I’m asking to see the glitter bomb photo. From when you got doused in that senior prank.”
The song changed. Lights flitted across you in coloured waves, and he scowled. “Absolutely not. It was destroyed in a fire. Or, it soon will be.”
“It’s happening, Jason.”
“It will not.”
“I’ll change your mind.”