The book was contacted in plastic—its spine creased, sharp to the touch; when you flicked up the corner of a deteriorating caramel page, it chirred. You blinked blankly at the black letters on the page, not seeing a thing.
It was supposed to be a last-ditch effort to memorise quotes, but who were you kidding—if you didn’t know them by now, you never would. Around you voices droned and paper fluttered; bags zipped, seats clunked. You felt like your brain was in overload, and at this stage, you just wanted to get the essay over and done with if only to regurgitate all the analyses you’d memorised.
You leant over the side of your desk and dumped the novel on the binder you’d chucked there, trading it in for your skinny, cornflower blue pencil case—the one with blooms of black ink stains along the seams from uncapped pens you’d left in there over the years. You retrieved a pen and dropped the case back onto the floor where it rolled lazily near Duke’s sneakers.
On your other side, Harper drummed her fingers against the elephant grey plastic table. Duke made an inhuman noise and her swing beat came to a holt mid-bar.
“Hold up,” he said, a gradual alarum creeping over his face. “Hold up, were we supposed to have two related texts for this one? I only memorised quotes from one.”
Okay… so you’d be doing better than Duke on this one, at least.
“Mr. Todd said you could use a film as a second related text,” you said. “Pull a Star Wars quote out of your ass.”
Duke visibly relaxed. “Oh, thank God.”
There was a beat.
“Wait, how am I going to relate sci-fi to Heart of Darkness?”
“Dude…” you said, right as Harper said, “It’s Wuthering Heights.”
Duke put his hands to his temple and stared down at the desk. “Oh my God.”
Harper and you squinted at him, but then Duke’s shoulders tremored, and his mouth split into a grin.
Harper leaned around you and thwacked his shoulder.
“Asshole,” she said.
Duke rubbed his shoulder. “But I was serious about the related text.”
You rolled your eyes.
Around you, you heard similar chatter, and after deciding that Duke’s stint had helped you keep your mind off of nerves, you tuned into the buzz around you.
Bart Allen was wrestling with a sliding window—somehow unable to open functionally the easiest type of window on the market—and Kristen Field was tying her thick brown hair back into a ponytail while she chatted with her soulmate, Lucy Enne. They were one of about six other soulmate pairs in your year to have found their matches already.
Bart whacked at the window, and Charlie, one of the guys on the football team, stood up, dwarfing him. The player made a grumbling noise and lifted his arm in something that could be interpreted as getting into pre-strike formation. Bart backed away from the window, and Charlie yanked it open for him.
“There you go,” he said.
A smile tugged at your face.
If there was one thing you liked about senior year, it was that it was generally the year everyone gave up trying to fit into the high school clichés. How many times in movies or novels had you seen high school depicted as a petty hierarchy, ranking from prom queens to overachievers, outcasts and stoners? It just so happened that by the time you got here as a cohort, most of the students who didn’t want to be there had already dropped out, and you were left with a generally likeable—or at least, tolerable—group of people you’d known for four years. The Prom Queen to be was an easy-going chick called Natalia who, coincidentally, was the person to see if you needed help on an Ancient History essay, and being a ‘geek’ meant that you had conversation staters with half the year because everyone was watching comic book movies. So against all perceptual odds that the media had been cramming down your throat since birth, your year group generally got along.
“Alright, quit yammering, you gremlins,” Mr. Todd commanded from the front of the room.
He was muscular, and tall, with dark, cropped hair. He stood with his hands in his trouser pockets, sleeves rolled two cuff-lengths up his forearms.
Senior year was generally the year teachers gave you more leeway too—or more accurately, they realised that your being older gave them more leeway, which was how you got Mr. Harper’s thirty minute expletive-filled rant about the ending of Game of Thrones that time he filled in for Mr. Todd.
Mr. Todd was a little different though.
He was all sharp edges and a bit of a bastard in one of those charming ways, which didn’t extend too well into the friendliness aspect. That being said, you couldn’t entirely fault him for it. He was young—you’d guess mid-twenties, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five—and the kind of handsome that made you wonder how he ended up working as an English teacher and not doing leads in action movies.
What it also meant was that the guy got harassed by students trying to not-so-subtly soulmate check him all the time. You involuntarily wrinkled your nose at the memory of Jaina Hudson brushing up against him during your first week this year. About four different people saw, and he definitely knew what she was playing at. It was embarrassing. You’d actually seen it happen at least two times to him since then over the course of this semester, and every single time, he levelled the individual in question with a withering look that may or may not have caused cloud cover. You could concede that the guy was good-looking, but personally, finding out that he was your soulmate wasn’t worth the risk of getting that look.
Furthermore, after the month and a half you’d spent in this class, you decided that the superficial thing was overrated. You knew you respected him as a person when some jerk—who’d since dropped the class—said no women had made important contributions to literature, and he began writing on the board under a list titled “Women who absolutely did redefine literature”: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein–invented sci-fi, Emma Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel–popularised heroes with secret identities (comic books say thank you), The Brontë Sisters (he underlined sisters several times), and the list went on until he’d filled up the whiteboard. When he’d finished, he turned around and said, “Why is no one writing this down? You,” he pointed at the boy, “write it down twice.”
The room was toning down, and you skimmed a hand over the paper booklet in front of you. You could feel the tiny edge of the slip with the essay question on it slotted inside.
“You have 50 minutes,” he said, “keep working through the double period bell—I don’t want to see any half-assing. Mr. Harper took this class last year, so what’s our motto when it comes to him?”
There was a collective grumble. “Show up Mr. Harper.”
“Exactly,” he said, wryly smirking. You clicked your pen.
“You may open your booklets,” he said. You flipped over the page.
In the end, the question was a little unexpected, but you were able to mould your prepared points around it easily enough; and then it was all muscle memory. Your pen skated across the page, leaving wet, glistening blue ink behind. The muscles in your forearm cramped and burned, but the nexus was there in your words, and you knew you’d brought it all together.
Mr. Todd was saying “Pens down” just as you finished scrawling your conclusion.
You threw your pen down and shook out your wrist, rubbing the aching muscle.
Beside you, Duke capped his ballpoint, and exhaled. He leant back in his chair and put his hands behind his head.
“I think,” he said, and turned to Harper and you, “that may have been the best bullshitting I’ve done in my life. I’m talking my magnum opus. They’re going to send that essay in for publication.”
“Shut up, Thomas,” Harper said. “At least own failure like the rest of us.”
“What about you?” Harper said to you.
“Uh, stole Duke’s publication spot, clearly.”
“Fuck OFF, I already told my mom.”
The three of you slipped into another round of familiar banter, but a voice inside you twinged—because you did want it to be good, really.
You had vivid memories of red, velvet curtains, and cinema seats with dust in them; of your mom shutting herself away in her office and putting you in front of animated movies and heroic journeys in rust-coloured sand, or by white-capped mountains. You saw pretty images, creative things, and you went on adventures every time you saw a film; it was why, when you graduated, you had a pipe dream about being involved in making them yourself one day.
High school here didn’t offer anything related to film studies, and you’d never owned a camera until a year ago. You knew the odds were already stacked against you—you were behind everyone else who’d grown up with parents who knew about movies, or who’d had cameras since they were children—and to top it all off, it was harder to break into filmmaking as a girl. But at some stage, you’d set your heart on doing it, and maybe it was idiotic, but doing well in this class was the closest thing you had metering your chances to being a good storyteller—even if it was with words instead of film. You had to do well in this class.
“L/N,” Mr. Todd said, “if you would collect everyone’s papers.”
You looked over at him. He was doing the same thing he’d done the whole fifty minutes: lounging back in his chair reading a dense looking thing. You hated that you had that personality type which instinctively itched to know whatever it was that someone else was reading, but you couldn’t help it. It was too far away though, and all you saw was the vague white blob of a blurb.
You stood up, avoiding Harper’s foot as she playfully tried to trip you, and in retaliation you ruffled her short, cerulean hair. People tossed their essays your way.
“I’ll give you three bucks if you accidentally lose mine.”
“Like you have three bucks, Bart.”
And after you’d collected a hefty stack, you turned to head to his desk.
Harper stuck out her foot again, and you dodged it, not seeing the bag in your path. Your foot tangled in a stray bag strap and you tripped.
The paper stack slid delightfully like a splayed deck of cards along the floor, but you were much less graceful.
“Damn, sorry, girl,” Harper said, and Duke, the bastard, chuckled. You fired an ‘I’ll fight you later’ look and went about collecting the slidden essays.
Mr. Todd rose to help you, but by then you were already righting yourself. Your elbow was unharmed but red from grazing the acrylic carpet.
“Are you alright?” Mr. Todd said, and you looked up at him, a little dazed at being put on the spot.
His eyes were glacial blue.
You flushed, but mostly because you were embarrassed that you apparently fell under the pathetic subcategory of ‘people who got flustered around a teacher’.
“Yeah, it was nothing,” you said.
You shoved the stack towards him, and when he reached out, your hands bumped.
How to describe it?
An electric shock.
And then, a cacophony of sensations.
You knew, right then, how it felt to be bare-skinned and in warm, firm arms—they were wrapping around you in your sleep, they were throwing you over his shoulder as you shrieked and beat your fists against his back. You heard the vibrating timbre of his voice against your ear, felt the taste of his lips crushing into yours and leaving soft, sweet nothings down your shoulder blades, to the base of your spine. You felt the ghost of him cupping your cheek, gripping your hips as you arched above his body.
He felt the same thing, you could tell, because he was staring at you like you were from Mars.
Those arctic eyes held yours. You didn’t say anything—just stared.
Distantly, you noted the papers spouting to the floor; your fingers were still touching.
“Holy shit,” Bart said. You heard other whispers—you guessed you’d been looking at each other for quite a while, but it didn’t matter.
He was your soulmate.
Your pulse pounded.
He was your soulmate.
“Ms. L/N,” he said, voice a croak, and you suddenly felt hyperaware that you were in a room full of seniors gawking at you. “Principal’s office. Now.”
You stood and fled the room.
Jason counted to five, took one look at the parliament of owls gaping at him, then burst out the door after you. On second thought. He pivoted, flung the door back open to his audience and barked, “Keep your traps shut. And stay here.”
There was no trace of you in the hallway, to his relief. He walked several paces down the hallway and leant against the white, painted wall, feeling the cool press of it through his shirt, against his burning skin.
He took a deep breath. He could hear the swarming chatter of the fuckers defying him anyway. God, he hated teenagers.
His soulmate could have been any of the last couple of women he’d been with—Isabel Ardila, Artemis for Christ’s sake, Rose—but no, the universe had stuck him with a seventeen-year-old.
Worse, he thought, a student.
His skin crawled at the thought of what people would say, though, he reasoned, he wasn’t really that much older than you. Seven, eight years was nothing that would make a difference in a few years’ time. Still, it was a big deal at your age.
He almost wished he had never taken the class, never come in to work today, but immediately, he regretted it.
Soft skin, and strands of hair through his fingers. The way you shivered as he skimmed his hands against your hips, down your thigh. The feeling of you laying together, and your palms pressed against his chest and you writhed above him, panting, rocking.
They were all phantom sensations, invading him. The things you saw in a bondtouch weren’t necessarily going to happen—it wasn’t like looking into the future, none of that. They were more like potential indicators for what you could have together—what it could be like, and deep down, he knew he wanted them.
He had a couple of fuzzy memories of you from class—nothing that stood out too well—to be honest, he’d never thought about you aside from marking the roll or work you’d turned in. He’d never thought about any student, ever, in that way. It was hard to equate the vague image he had of you to the moments from the touch—likely, because you weren’t that person in the touch yet.
He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes, then stared at the chipped white-painted wall opposite him. It gave him no answers.
He pushed off the wall and walked down the corridor to Roy’s room. He banged once on the door.
He heard the scuffle of Roy moseying to the door, and he loosened his choking tie. Was the hallway getting warmer?
“What- Oh, Jaybird,” Roy leant cockily through the doorway, “You look like shit. You finally realise your band of insolents weren’t going to outdo my average?”
“Cool your fucking jets, Harper,” he said, clearing his throat. “I need you to watch my class for a second.”
Roy arched an eyebrow.
“I’ll explain later,” Jason said, “just—watch them.”
The office wasn’t somewhere you frequented—at least, not for anything like this. You didn’t even think Mr. Pierno was in today, and when you’d told the receptionist on duty that you’d been sent here because you’d matched, all she’d said was to sit on the chairs in the hall and to wait.
Were you in trouble?
You thought it over.
Nah, he probably just wanted to get you out of the room. The room full of your friends and his students who’d all figured out by now what had happened. You’d left your phone in your locker, but you’d wager it was blowing up right about now.
Your knee bounced, and you could feel the receptionist sneaking glances at you questioningly. She had pretty hair—coloured yellow, pinned smartly, and it was a shade that complimented her matte red lipstick. You ran a hand through your own and struggled to recall if you’d put on makeup this morning. You hoped you looked alright, then immediately killed the thought. The guy may be your soulmate, but you were still underage and a student, so it didn’t matter.
Great, you thought, of course I find my soulmate and it’s someone off-limits.
Technically, the legal age of consent was eighteen, but soulmates were a grey area. Once you found your soulmate, it was pretty much a given than you’d get together with them, except perhaps in instances of large age gaps, which didn’t happen very often. You could tell he wasn’t that much older than you but given your… situation, who knew. It was weird.
Still, had he ever even noticed you in his class before this moment? You weren’t super loud—not in this class, at least. It was an advanced class, so you preferred to just absorb the information being given out rather than risking it to mess around with Harper and Duke. That was what Civics was for.
You’d been in this class for a month and a half already and barely interacted aside from answering the occasional question—you supposed that wasn’t enough to leave much of an impression.
You racked your brain for everything you knew about him. He was a relatively new teacher at your school—starting two years prior, you believed? You knew he had a friendly rivalry with Mr. Harper, and you thought that there was a strong possibility that they were friends. You’d seen him talking to Ms. Anders, Mr. Harper’s soulmate, on more than one occasion too. But other than that? He was just another teacher.
Well, not anymore, an unhelpful voice supplied.
The muffled sound of steps on carpet grew, and he walked past you to the yellow-haired receptionist. He leant over the desk to talk to her, voice in a register too low for you to hear. The receptionist looked at you, and you tucked your hands under your thighs to stop fidgeting, turning pointedly to the frosted glass offices opposite you.
A couple of moments later, he was back in your peripheral vision. He paused near you, and you looked up, catching each other’s eyes. With a shard of relief you realised he was probably as uncomfortable about this as you.
He held out a black, peeling pleather covered clipboard and pen for you, and you noted that he had one of his own tucked under his arm too.
“Necessary evil,” he said, and you half-smiled back, taking it from him.
He parked himself on the olive-green plastic chair beside you.
It was a pretty standard soulmate incident report form—one that you were having trouble concentrating on, what with him sitting beside you.
People did match here from time to time, though on average, people tended to be a little older when they found their soulmate. More college age and above. But on the occasions that it did happen, it was the subject of talk for weeks—and that was just for students. You thought about the people who were probably going to harass you about him when you went to your next class and you had the sudden urge to make like Bugs Bunny or the Juggernaut and leave a you-sized hole in the wall.
You filled out the section on you, detailing your name, your date of birth and the like, before pausing.
Soulmate’s name. Great. You felt your cheeks flushing.
“I, uh,” you said, and he looked up from his form, eyeing you cautiously. It was the first time you’d said anything since you’d touched. “I just realised I don’t know your first name.”
You tapped at the section on the clipboard with your pen.
He glanced at the section on the form, then breathed out a soft chuckle which barely made a noise but sent a ripple through his shoulders. He nodded his head as if to say, Yeah, probably should have figured that.
“It’s Jason,” he said, “Jason Peter Todd.”
You nodded and wrote it down. It was a nice name, your mind going to Jason and the Argonauts.
“Do uh, do you have a middle name? Or is it just F/N L/N?”
It was kind of cute watching him squirm, but you told him your full name anyway.
“Date of birth?”
Your pen hovered above the form. He gave it to you, and it seemed your earlier assessment was right. He was twenty-four.
You huffed out a laugh that rattled your shoulders.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing, it’s just,” you tried to find the right phrasing before giving up and just going for it, “My mom’s either going to kill me or kill you and I can’t decide which one it’ll be.”
Mr. Todd—Jason—groaned and ran a hand through his hair. It was the least teacher-y you’d seen him—and it was nice to see, even if it was due to your mutual suffering.
“Don’t remind me. I already have brothers who are going to find this insufferably amusing.”
You couldn’t help yourself. “How many?”
He hesitated, then said, “Technically, three. And a sister.” He reconsidered. “Though she won’t be so bad.”
You let out a sympathy whistle.
He tapped his pen on the section of his form for your date of birth, and you gave it to him. You wondered if he was thinking about the fact that you still had another five months left before you turned eighteen, but neither of you said anything.
The receptionist informed you that they’d contacted your mother, who was on her way, and you shrunk into your seat a little, the fact that this was actually happening inexorably sinking in. You supposed you should be more grateful—most people spent years worrying that they’d never meet their soulmate, and some of them never did, either. At least this wasn’t that.
There was a knock on the office wall, and you looked up to see Harper toting your bag.
“Thanks, Harps,” you said, and she dumped it into your arms, squashing the clipboard.
She grinned at you mischievously, silver lip stud and bullring glinting in the fluorescent light. You shot back a look that said, ‘Do not, do not, do not’.
“So, Y/N, Mr. Todd,” she said. “Congrats, and all that.”
“Girl,” you hissed.
“Beat it, blue,” Jason said, making a shooing motion. Harper retreated, miming a phone with her hands and whispering to you “Call me later”.
You sighed and thumped your head against the wall behind you.
Another twenty minutes passed before your mother showed up. It had been quiet between Jason and you, and at some stage he’d stepped out into the vestibule to make a call to someone in hushed tones. You didn’t mind though. Your mind kept wandering to the spark you’d felt when you touched, and everything you’d felt alongside it. You wrapped your arms around your shoulders, unable to forget the memory—if you could call it that—of his arms around you. Logically you knew he’d never held you like that. No one had held you like that, nor done those things to you. It was… alien, but comforting all the same. You’d never quite understood the fervour over bondtouch moments until now.
“Y/N!” your mom said, sweeping in. You stood up just as she barrelled into you, wrapping her arms around you and squealing a little. You tucked your head into her shoulder, getting a face-full of long hair and the scent of her fruity shampoo. She pulled back.
“Okay, okay, where are they? I want to know everything.”
“Uh… how much did they say over the phone?”
“Just that you’d matched. I got out of a meeting and came right over.” She scanned the office, looking over everyone; the receptionist, a sophomore boy hobbling out of sickbay with an icepack pressed to his knee, a girl with heavy eyeliner and a bored expression sitting just outside the vice principal’s office. Her eyes flittered over Jason, who was walking back in now, and then she moved onto the next person in the office, apparently ruling him out.
“Well… uh…” You looked up at Jason for help, who was putting two and two together himself.
He cleared his throat. “You must be Ms. L/N. I’m Jason. Y/N is my, uh, English student.”
Your mom shook his hand, still looking around. “Right, it happened in the English class? Did her soulmate already leave?”
She was still shaking his hand when Jason’s jaw locked up. She kept shaking his hand, but the pace slowed down as it dawned on her.
“Age?” she said, and then to you, “How did you say you touched him again?”
You blew out a breath as if to say ‘Told you so’ to Jason, who winced and withdrew his hand. It’d be funny seeing him like this in literally any other situation, you thought, but right now? You wanted to be anywhere but here.
“It was an accident,” you said, “we bumped hands when I passed him my essay.”
Your mom seemed to relax at that.
“And, he’s twenty-four,” you mumbled, which she didn’t seem impressed at, but you could practically feel the ‘At least it’s under thirty’ relief radiating from her.
She seized him up and after a good moment, she elbowed you. “He’s cute.”
Jason looked uncomfortable and he cleared his throat.
“You got a last name, ‘Jason’?”
“Yeah, Jason Todd.”
“Not… Jason Todd as in the Jason Todd, son of Bruce Wayne?”
He stiffened, and you filed that reaction away for later examination. Bruce Wayne?
“You know Bruce?” he said.
You yourself didn’t know much about Bruce Wayne, but you knew that he was rich—insanely rich—and that his company was the reason why your mom was barely ever home. To you he was more of a vague concept, or a two-dimensional face you’d seen scowling on a magazine cover, and nothing more—so hearing that he was Jason’s father was quite a shock. Though, they had different last names, so maybe Jason was his half-son, or perhaps he’d been adopted. It was weird to consider that much about his personal life—where he grew up, he was from—forty minutes ago you’d still have addressed him as ‘sir’.
“Ha, you could say. I work on Wayne Tech’s legal team,” she replied. “I’m flying out with them to Hong Kong tomorrow to finalise a deal.”
Your mom seemed to be curious about something, but whatever it was on her mind, she didn’t bring it up. You’d ask her later. After that you thought he seemed a little closed off, but you tried not to read too far into it.
“Oh,” your mother said, “You’ll have to go register as soulmates this weekend, so I’ll miss it. Bummer.”
She had this very carefree attitude to her, which half the time you admired and the other half you found eternally frustrating. Her missing the registration to be overseas with Wayne Tech could indeed, in a soft reading of the event, be described as a bummer. Not only because registering your soulmate was a big, formal deal, comparable only maybe to getting your marriage certificate (and even then, the importance of the latter compared to the former was debatable), but you had no idea what you were supposed to do there without her.
Registering as soulmates was compulsory to do as soon as you bonded, and it didn’t necessarily mean that you were with your soulmate romantically; plenty of people had platonic soulmates. But once you registered as soulmates, you had special rights, and usually became an emergency contact and go-to person in the event than anything happened to them. Given the fact that you didn’t even have your driver’s license, that was probably going to be pretty fucking useless to Jason, but still, everyone had to do it.
“I’m sure I can ask one of the neighbours to witness for you,” she said.
“Duke’s eighteen. I’ll ask him,” you said.
God, the last thing you wanted to do was have Mrs. McLachlan with her baggy floral shirts and stuffy perfume waddling through the courthouse with you.
“Perfect,” she said, changing the subject, but as she went on you thought you saw Jason watching you, as though he suspected how you felt about the subject. You looked away. Maybe it was a soulmate thing.
When she finally left to take you home, you said your goodbyes, and he offered you a nod as you left.
Jason parked his motorcycle in the grey, smudgy garage under his Gotham apartment complex, and trudged up the narrow, gum-smeared staircase, not even bothering to nod to Mrs. Melville when he passed her in the hallway. It was how he knew he’d reached the threshold of shit he could deal with today—snubbing that sweet old woman would definitely be coming back to bite him in the ass.
He’d decided to stay to teach his sixth period class—a fat fucking misjudgement on the speed at which gossip spread around a high school, and by the time the period was over, he’d given enough detentions and homework that whatever curiosity anyone had had over the matter was likely burned out by unadulterated resentment. Roy and Kory had ambushed him too, disgustingly sweet over the whole thing—you were in Kory’s social studies class, it turned out, but Roy spent twenty minutes ransacking different staff rooms for a yearbook so that he could identify you. The whole thing had been a nightmare. The only reprieve had been when Janine—a hardboiled Armenian woman and veteran English teacher who Jason both feared and admired—had (coolly, without looking at him) opened her desk drawer in the staff room. With one hand, she retrieved and unscrewed the cap of a small bottle of bourbon, and reaching around to Jason’s neighbouring desk, upended the two remaining inches into his coffee.
Jason had been at home all of five minutes and was about to shower when a knock sounded at the door. He considered leaving it, but the knock came again—this time, louder.
Flinging open the door, the first thing he caught was the casually unbuttoned suit worth more than his salary, and then Bruce’s unerring face. It needled Jason that for as long as he’d known Bruce, he’d never been able to read it. In the weathered lines around his eyes, he couldn’t tell if this was the Bruce that was going to buy him a burger on a street corner or ground him for recklessly ‘borrowing’ the Maserati.
“I believe congratulations are in order,” he said, looking anything other than congratulatory.
He’d heard. Of course, he’d have heard—Jason had just been hoping it’d take longer for it to trickle down through whatever means Bruce usually used to keep an eye on him.
He hadn’t told Dick, so it couldn’t have been him. He’d probably heard from your mother. She would have called her boss to give him the news, especially if she thought Bruce and he were on actual speaking terms. He’d known as soon as she’d mentioned Wayne Tech that it wouldn’t take long for Bruce to get dragged into this.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Despite our differences, I did come to congratulate you, Jason. Bring her by the Manor—Alfred will want to meet her.”
The two most stubborn people in the world, Dick had once called them. He wondered how hard it'd been for Bruce to come here—it was certainly the biggest effort Bruce’d made in a while—not that it was going to accomplish anything.
He shook his head.
“Jason,” Bruce said, and the timbre of his voice dredged up an image he’d let slip of Bruce standing by his bed while Jason stared resolutely at the wall in front of him. Jason, he’d said, Dick may have been who I adopted first, but it doesn’t mean I care for you any less.
“Give Alf my best,” Jason said, and Bruce’s brow creased. “Ace, too.”
“You could tell them yourself.”
“Do me a favour,” Jason said. The whole thing gave him déjà vu. Bruce hadn’t been to this apartment before, he didn’t think, and yet he’d done this with Bruce so many times. “Do what you do best, and stay out of this one.”
The following day was a Friday, so you didn’t have long to suffer through school before the weekend. From there, you figured you’d rip the whole registration wax strip off as soon as you could, then spend the rest of the time with your phone on aeroplane mode, binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and comfort-eating whatever you could find in the house.
You’d spent the previous afternoon spaced out at home until Harper and Duke rocked up after school, crowing about the whole situation and demanding you give them a rundown of every single detail. You’d told them everything, only sparing what you’d felt at the bondtouch, and of course, Jason’s reaction to hearing his father’s name.
But with your friends’ visit also came news of everything else you’d been dreading.
“Everyone lost their minds,” Duke said, wiping tears from his eyes. “A few people in other classes got detention because we forgot the period wasn’t over and we started calling everyone.”
“Thanks, Duke,” you said, throwing your school bag at him. It had a couple of textbooks in it, and Duke went down with an oof, but it didn’t stop him from laughing on the floor.
“Don’t make me kick your ass, Thomas! This is so not funny.”
“There’s a betting pool on how long it’ll take you to win over the grouch’s heart,” Harper said. “I’m on two months, Duke here’s a pessimist and took up four-years-to-never, but you’d be surprised at how many people gave it a week.”
“I’m seventeen, nothing’s going to happen. I’m going to suffer through an entire year of being extremely awkward every time I see him until I graduate.”
Duke snickered from the floor, cradling the bag where it was still sitting on his stomach. “Whatever you say, Y/N. But don’t think we didn’t see the heart-eyes you were broadcasting before this ever happened.”
“I so was not. Jesus Christ,” you lied, cheeks heating. “Wait a second,” you pressed on, “they’ll move me out of the class, right? Or make him change?”
You thought about it, a wave of guilt going through you. The class you were taking was Advanced Two English, the only English class that high the school offered. There were no other classes you could transfer into, which meant if anyone was going, it was Jason. It hit you that even though it might be awkward, you didn’t want him to have to change classes, or worse, get fired because of you.
Harper seemed to know exactly where your mind was going and beat you to the punch. “Relax, I’m sure it’ll be fine. Everyone loves that asshole. I don’t think they’d fire him.”
You were unsure, but you resolved that you wouldn’t know anything about it until tomorrow anyway and you tried to push it out of your mind. You hung out with Duke and Harper—getting Duke to agree to witness your registry too—until your mom tentatively kicked them out. Tired from the stress of both your essay a lifetime ago, and your current predicament, you promptly passed out.
The day started off just as badly you’d expected. Worse, really, because you’d thought you’d be safe at least until you made it into school grounds.
You were on the thrumming, ancient bus when a junior with fading pink dye in the ends of her dirty blonde hair plopped into the seat in front of you, turned around and said, “You’re the chick who matched with Mr. Todd, right?”
A boy to your left who’d been on his phone popped out a white headphone and looked over at you. The girl’s friend, a long-haired girl with dark skin, squealed and switched from her seat near the end of the bus over to the one in front of you to join the inquisition.
It was like living the first-person perspective of a sandwich on a beach, seagulls closing in. By the time the bus pulled in, you were swatting sophomores away and fleeing out the door.
The bell rang, and you leant against the brick wall next to the door of the math room, pointedly ignoring people trying to talk to you—Harper and Duke weren’t in this class, and while you were friendly with enough people, the Judases had reared their heads and were now squeezing you for every minutia of the event.
“Come on, what’d you see in the bondtouch? Just one thing, give us one thing.”
“No, piss off.”
“Did he ask you out yet?”
“You don’t have to describe it, if it was dirty, blink twice.”
“All of you, shoo!” Mrs Tanaka said, scattering the crowd near the door. “F/N, Mr. Pierno wants to see you. You better go, I’ll catch you up on anything you miss.”
You straightened, frowning. Mr. Pierno?
Pierno was your school’s principal—a balding, stout guy who had permanent sweat stains on the pits of his shirts. You’d never been sent to see him before—even your brush with the office the previous day had been handled without contacting or encountering the wrath of Pierno.
By the time you’d walked to the office, you’d fought off most of your nervousness through a steep reminder to yourself that Harper would call you a coward if she knew you were being skittish, and that was the end of that. Through the thick, wooden oak of the door you could hear muffled voices.
You wrapped on the door, and a thick, bowery accent said, “What?!”
Cracking it open, you peaked inside the room. Pierno was at his desk, dunking some kind of pastry into a cup of coffee and sloppily eating the floppy miscreation. A few paces next to him was Jason. He leant against the windows, his arms crossed.
“L/N, get in here,” Pierno said. “Sit down, lemme get a proper look at you.”
Pierno sucked the last bit of pastry down, licked his fingers and tilted his head back, eyes asquint.
“You… Did I once yell at you for truanting in a Dunkin Donuts?”
“No?” you said, uncertainty thick in your voice even though you knew you absolutely had not endured that. In fact, you knew who had endured that. It was Susan Lee, and she told everyone Pierno dropped a jelly donut down his shirt while he was reading her the riot act.
“Defacing cars in the parking lot?”
“You ever been in this office for suspect behaviour?”
Pierno’s squint maintained its intensity, then snapped away. “Great, then we’re off to a good start. Todd, sit down.”
He waved for Jason to come closer. Pushing off the wall, he took a few steps forward but didn’t sit.
“Whaddo I gotta say? Congratulations, yada yada yada, the bond is special, blah blah,” he said. “But to get down to it: in all my time, nothin’ like this has happened, so we’re in uncharted territory. Congrats, you’re the freaks of the system.”
He laughed, which morphed into a coughing fit. Jason glared at him and to be honest you were sharing the sentiment.
“You,” he pointed at you, “unless you decide you want to drop the Advanced Two unit down to Advanced One, you’re staying in his class. Got no one else who knows the updated syllabus. Whaddaya wanna do?”
“I, uh…” Speaking to him was like being fired at by a machine gun. It sent your response time into haywire. You shifted, not looking at Jason, hoping he wouldn’t read too far into the choice. You’d worked hard to be in the class, you weren’t going to let this ruin your opportunities for college next year. “I want to keep Advanced Two.”
“Fine. That case, we’ll send your assessments externally for independent marking.”
You were glad he wasn’t getting fired, but you couldn’t help but ponder how the remaining four fifths of the year before finals and graduation were going to pan out. All that time, sitting in the same class as your soulmate, while you both tried to pretend the other didn’t exist…
Did you still have to call him ‘Mr. Todd’? It seemed weird to go back to that. You don’t know at what point it’d happened, but he’d become Jason in your mind. Maybe you could just get away with using indirect phrases for the rest of the year and avoid calling him anything at all. Better yet, avoiding speaking to him entirely.
“That out of the way, it needs to be said,” Pierno pointed a meaty finger between you, “The both of you—keep it off school grounds. Outside of here, it’s your business—I don’t wanna know about it—but while you’re here you keep yer filthy mitts off of each other. I’m looking at you,” he pointed at Jason who glowered back. The look was so scathing that Pierno dropped his hand. “Alright, alright. That’s it, you’re free to go, get out of here. I don’t want to hear from either of you again.”
He practically kicked you out of the room. The door slammed shut, and you were left in the dim hall with Jason.
Pierno’s address had left you speechless, and it took you a couple of seconds to hard reboot. It was awkward, but you had several one-liners lined up to relieve the tension. The top contenders were ‘What a douche canoe’, and ‘Can he spell breath mint?’, but when you peeked at him, he was being waved down by another teacher. Grateful, you took the distraction as an opportunity and snuck out while you could.
The day continued its downward trend. It seemed as though everyone knew your name—people from your grade you’d barely talked to, whose names you didn’t even know, flocked to you, asking if you’d “pashed Mr. Todd yet”. By the fourteenth inquisition you’d perfected the clipped reply, but people barely listened, and by third period, when Ms Anders winked at you when you walked in the door, you considered faking something and booking it entirely. The worst one was during fourth period French, when, as you were waiting for your teacher to rock up, Shauna Belzer said in front of the whole class, “So Y/N, what’s Mr. Todd look like naked? He’s already hot, but the people want to know.”
Your jaw fell open and you whipped around to glare at her. “Can you not? This happened yesterday.”
It was true that you technically hadn’t seen him at all in the bondtouch—it was more that you’d… felt everything. You hoped she wouldn’t call out your bluff. Most people, it seemed, didn’t know how much detail you really got on the first touch. It was more something you had to experience to believe.
“When my brother found his soulmate, he said he saw all kinds of things about their relationship—including all the intimate stuff,” she replied.
Your face burned and turned back around, sinking into your seat. Your lack of a quick-witted response was damning, and half the class cheered. You caught Duke clapping at you from the corner of your eye, the traitorous bitch, and you lobbed your pencil case at him. It caught him with a whack but he only laughed harder.
Your next and final class after the lunch break was English—the dreaded lesson. As you walked down the pale green, linoleum hallway, you thought you finally understood the concept of the green mile.
When you got to the classroom, everyone turned to see what you’d do, a couple of people wolf-whistling. You glared daggers back at them. So much for getting along with your cohort.
“The next person who makes a sound is getting booted into an inferior English class,” Jason said from the front of the room, not looking up from the novel he was reading.
You filed into the seat between Harper and Duke that had your name on it (literally). You’d been in the same room as a sophomore and during a delinquency phase scrawled your name on the underside of it.
Jason put down his novel and strode to the whiteboard. The room quietened down—probably to listen, the irritating fuckers. He began scrawling neat, loopy letters onto it—details about a new text you were starting. When he turned around, several students had their hands up.
Here we go, you thought.
He pointed to the first student—it was Bart, of course it was, the hyperactive twerp. Bart and you had a longstanding rivalry over the fact that he constantly smoked your ass in track and never let you live it down. Your general form of retaliation was smoking him in every other subject, but here the fucker was, going in for a third tier of retribution.
“Is this about homework, an essay, Richard III or a dire, life-threatening situation?” Jason said.
Bart, grinning, shook his head.
“Then I don’t want to hear it, Allen,” and he turned back to writing on the whiteboard. “If anyone’s query is not related to the prior four points of interest and their hand is still up when I turn around, they’re turning in a one-thousand-word essay to a question of my choice. Due by our next class.”
Gradually, hands flopped down like pictures in a game of ‘Guess Who?’.
He turned around, smugly eyeing the lack of hands in the air, and you sat up straighter, your perceived enjoyment level of this class pulling a one-eighty before your eyes.
“Open your copies to act one, we’re going to start a read-through.”
In the end, the class was fine—by far the most bearable of the day—though you’d be lying if you said you didn’t zone out a couple of times caught in the surrealness of it all. You pointedly followed the lines as they were read, trying to think of literally anything else.
Outside the window, the Norway maple tree was mostly a skeleton, a few brittle, honey-coloured leaves remaining. When he excused the class, you watched a rigid leaf detach and float to the ground as you mechanically collected your things.
“Ms. L/N, a moment.”
There was a chorus of ‘Ooh’s, to which Jason gave the stink-eye to but said nothing further. You bundled your binder in your arms and shouldered past Duke and Harper, who were the two biggest perpetrators of the ooh-ing.
You stopped at Jason’s desk, and he glared at the stragglers behind you still trying to eavesdrop.
“Shut the door, ginger,” he said to Bart, who begrudgingly shut it with a thunk.
“For the registry tomorrow, your mom mentioned you might need a lift since she’s out of town?”
“Oh, no, it’s okay,” you said, not really wanting to be stuck in a car with Jason just yet. “Duke and I were going to go in, he can drive.”
He nodded, looking a little relieved. Honestly you didn’t blame him, poor guy. However bad today must have been for you, you could only imagine what he’d incurred from other classes or staff. At least you knew where you both stood on this right now.
“In that case,” he pulled out a neon orange Post It note from his desk and scrawled something onto it. “In case we need to find each other.”
You took the sticky note and deciphered the inky black digits.
Hot damn, you had his number.
“Sweet, thanks,” you said. “See you tomorrow.”
He nodded and you left.
In the corridor, you pulled out your phone and texted him.
To: Jason – 3:14pm
This is Y/N, just so you have my number.
You didn’t expect a reply, and weren’t surprised when you didn’t get one.
Angela—Duke’s mom’s car—was a beautiful rust-bucket made in the 80s that ran mostly on prayer and spat out the kind of soot that your biology teacher, Ms. Isley, would crucify you for. It was also the kind of car that had a window you couldn’t roll down because when you did the pane loosened and fell into the hull of the car door. In short, it was perfect.
Duke pulled into a lot near the courthouse, and when you got out, you had to body slam the door to get it to close properly.
“Man, if your mom ever wants to get rid of this thing, tell her I want it,” you said, shutting it with an unhealthy bang. At the addition of the rattle set off by Duke closing his door, the back-left window slid down a fraction. Duke looked at it as if to say, ‘I see that you’ve done that, but I don’t have the energy to fix it.’
“Back off, she’s mine when I graduate.”
“You couldn’t handle her,” you said, smacking your hands together to get that film of dirt that seemed to just manifest in that car from your fingers.
Grey clouds loomed overhead threatening rain, and the air was muggy, as was the Gotham way. Your mom and you didn’t technically live in Gotham city, but on its outskirts where architecture phased from gothic stone and sleek city buildings into residential areas. Still, you liked the city, and could see yourself moving here to be closer to Gotham U when you went next year.
“Thanks for coming with me,” you said to Duke again as you walked up the bleached granite steps. It was barely past nine a.m., but the place was already abuzz with power-struts, lipstick, pantsuits and messenger bags.
“Don’t sweat it, as if I’d miss this. Harper already made me swear to takes notes on everything,” he said. “Who do you think he’ll bring as his witness?”
“I dunno, maybe family?” You stopped walking. “Wait, what should I do if I meet his family?”
“Don’t ask me that, text Harper. Harper has those answers.”
“She wouldn’t, but solid deflect,” you replied, grabbing Duke’s arm and hauling him along with you again. “I don’t really know anything about Bruce Wayne, should have googled him. Is he married? Does he have other kids?”
“HOW do you not know anything about Bruce Wayne? Your mom works for him. Even I know shit about Bruce Wayne.”
“WHY would I actively try to learn about my mom’s boss?!”
You were a couple of feet away from the top of the steps when you got a glimpse of black hair and a leather jacket—Jason, leaning against one of the stone columns. Next to him was a man with chin-length red hair.
“Oh thank God.” You elbowed Duke. “It’s only Mr. Harper. Guess they really are friends, huh.”
“Do you think I could sell this information to other students for money?”
“If anything, use it as leverage against him for higher grades,” you replied.
“Nice,” Duke said, low fiving you.
You jogged together the rest of the way and into the cover of the overhanging eave. Mr. Harper was the first to see you, and you quietly waved in his direction. He tapped Jason’s shoulder, and Jason turned around.
It was the first time you’d seen him in anything but his white button-down teaching look. He was wearing an ashy, form-fitting t-shirt, jeans and a light brown leather jacket.
“Hey,” you said to him, crossing your arms before they betrayed you and jittered.
“Hi, Mr. Harper,” you said, and he waved you off.
“Pff, call me Roy.”
Mr. Harper—Roy—grinned and clapped Jason on the shoulder, who exhaled and looked up at the ceiling. You got the feeling that he was just as amused by this whole situation as Duke and the rest of the student body were. Great.
Jason nodded a hello to Duke too, and he crossed his arms, still clearly not ready to shatter the authoritative teacher illusion for him yet. You were beginning to see through it though. He could be stoic, even quiet when he was unsure of a situation like he was now, but push the right buttons and a boyish, teasing—albeit unpolished—personality came through. You were about to suggest heading inside when there was a yell.
The source was a man with dark hair and a brilliant smile. He was beautiful, and for a second, considering Jason, Mr. Harper and this handsome stranger, you wondered if beautiful men naturally gravitated towards each other like filings on a magnet.
“Absolutely not, Dickface!” Jason said, “Get the fuck out of here.”
Jason turned to Roy, “Why’s he here?”
Roy held up his hands in a 'What, me?' gesture, and Duke and you exchanged semi-incredulous looks. Jason was always pretty coarse at school—it was part of what most people liked about him as a teacher—but Jason’s vocab completely unchained by school regulations was a new one.
By then, the man was within arm’s length of you all, and he tackled Jason into a hug while he protested. Next to him, the man was slightly shorter than Jason, but obviously athletic—lithe like a gymnast.
“You thought I was gonna miss this? I can’t believe you weren’t going to tell me you found your soulmate,” he said, which seemingly reminded him that Jason’s soulmate was nearby. The man looked around and found you. Straight on, you could see that he had blue eyes and dark hair like Jason, but his complexion was a couple of shades darker. He beamed at you, and you smiled back.
“Hi,” you said.
“Littlewing,” he said to Jason, “she’s adorable.”
“Don’t make me curse at you in front of the teens, Dickie.”
“Ahem,” Duke said with the confidence only an eighteen-year-old about to say something idiotic could possess, “I’m eighteen, actually.”
“Yeah, point taken,” the man said, clapping Jason on the shoulder again.
“Y/N,” Jason eventually said, addressing you for the first time since you’d come, “this is my idiot older brother, Dick. Dick as in Richard, but you’ll remember it, because he’s also a di—”
“Welcome to the family, Y/N!” Dick said.
You were still processing the name Dick belonging to this Adonis when said Adonis stepped forward and attacked you with a hug, lifting you off of your toes. You yelped.
“Fuckin’ hell,” you heard from Jason.
You laughed as Dick set you down and patted your head. “I’m so sorry you got Grumpy McGee over there.”
“He’s okay,” you smiled up at Dick, “he’s not a full McGee. Pretty sure I’ve seen him make a joke before.”
“Naw, will you look at that, Jaybird,” Dick said dreamily. “She said you weren’t full McGee.”
The five of you waited in a waiting room for forty minutes while Dick, Roy and Duke chatted with surprising ease. Dick, as it turned out, was a Gotham city police detective, which sparked one thousand and one questions from Duke, who was thinking of doing criminology next year at Gotham U. You were content to listen to them chat, eyes roaming over the room. Given the sandstone and marble exterior of the building, you were surprised by how much its interior reminded you of the DMV or a social service agency.
As with any of those settings, what made the waiting room less of a chore were the people in it.
There was a couple in their sixties sitting together, and you could only describe them as glowing. The man’s skin was cracked and calloused, and her wild hair was greying, her cheeks blotchy with rosacea—but they barely looked away from each other, rapt in conversation you couldn’t hear. There was another couple, a Korean woman in a pantsuit, next to a non-binary person in jeans and a t-shirt. The woman’s elderly mother was in the throws of recounting some sweeping tale that involved her hands gesturing enthusiastically. They hung onto every word and chortled as their soulmate hid her face in her hands.
You wondered what, to the outside observer—to the weathered couple, to the young one—what Jason and you looked like sitting here together, an empty chair between you.
“Do you know if you want to study yet, Y/N?” Dick said, pulling your focus back to the party.
“Yeah,” you said, “Probably at Gotham U, too. Film studies.”
“Really?” Jason said, floating back into the conversation. “You’re a good writer, I wouldn’t have had you pegged for film studies.”
“Oh…Thanks, I guess,” you said. You hadn’t considered that he might remember your writing, though you had turned in work earlier this year. “I think I vibe well enough in English because of the storytelling aspect, but I prefer films as a medium.”
“Would you look at that,” Dick said, grabbing Roy’s hand and clasping it to his heart, “Bonding already.”
Jason’s jaw locked up, and he levelled them both with a flat look.
“It’s time one of you got lost.”
“Nope,” Roy said, “Package deal.”
A voice rang out over the buzz of the waiting room.
“Jason Todd and F/N L/N?”
You stood, and found the voice—it belonged to a pretty, heavyset woman with dark skin and stewed cherry glasses hanging from her neck by a silver chain.
“This way,” she said, not waiting for you to follow.
She took off down a wide hallway and herded you all into a large office. Inside, there was a thick, plastic desk which she briskly went behind. There were two chairs directly in front of her desk, and a couple more a few feet away, to the side. After a moment’s hesitation, Jason and you sat in the two foremost chairs.
She placed the glasses on her nose, and leaning back from her computer screen—too farsighted to see—she clacked at the keyboard.
“Names?” she asked.
Date of birth.
It was a relatively basic questionnaire, nothing you hadn’t put on any other government form before. You supposed, getting registered was like getting a driver’s license—you even got distinctive ID cards sent in the mail for them too. A distant part of you cynically noted: some people had parties for this, whole celebratory functions. If it was only for this, it seemed like a waste.
The woman’s fingers scuttled along the keyboard, recording your responses—occasionally verifying the spelling of street names and the like. You were beginning to wonder when it’d be over when she said, “Romantic or platonic?”
The room when dead-quiet, and after a couple of seconds, the woman looked away from the screen to assess you both.
She was talking about your formal registration—you’d forgotten, but it said it on the ID (a field which some people were actively campaigning to abolish due to its lack of privacy, but nonetheless, it was still there). It was the big question, the one you’d been avoiding thinking about, wasn’t it? Were you to be romantic soulmates, or platonic ones?
You looked at Jason for help. His eyebrows were drawn together. His gaze flickered to you, and then back at the woman.
“I don’t know,” he eventually replied. “She’s seventeen.”
“Well, yes, but this is for your permanent record. When you touched, what did you see?”
You felt a flush go through your cheeks. You didn’t exactly want to be the first person to start listing everything that you’d seen—you hadn’t even talked about that with him.
The woman sighed, and said, “Okay, put it this way, in the flashes did you see anything that could be described between you two as sexual?”
A small sound escaped your mouth. Jason cleared his throat.
“Romantic,” he said.
Behind you, Roy, Dick and Duke laughed, and from the sounds of it, there was a fist bump.
Well, at least that answered the question of what Jason saw, but it wasn’t exactly a confirmation you wanted to hear with Duke, Jason’s brother and another one of your teachers in the room.
You crossed your arms, straightening in your chair.
“Have you developed your bondmarks yet?”
“No,” you replied.
A bondmark was an identical mark on the both of you that developed after the first touch, but you needed to trigger it. It usually developed over the heart, or just above the left breast. You couldn’t trigger it any mundane way, either. It needed to be activated through something you saw in the bond, something that would remind your body who your soulmate was and seal it into your skin.
The woman arched an eyebrow.
She withdrew her fingers from the keyboard, took off her glasses and set them down on her chest where they dangled from that chain. She waved at Duke, Roy and Dick and said, “You three, out.”
There were a couple of complaints, but she waited until they left before she continued.
“You need to do that now. I have to catalogue it.”
It was the second time you both stilled.
“Can’t it be recorded later?” he said.
“No, you don’t register a soulmate without a bondmark,” she said, scandalised. “Most people do it as soon as they match. You’re straggling.”
At the silence, she said, “Come on, you don’t have to start going at it right here. I’m sure you weren’t doing that in everything you saw. For a lot of people, it’s holding hands—or a hug.”
You were both silent as your mind raced, trying to recall everything you’d seen. Your pulse thudded in your ears as you realised, you couldn’t recall a single thing that didn’t involve some degree of sexual overtone. The room remained quiet.
“Oh,” the woman laughed. “Well, it could be anything. Do you remember touching his face, or arm during it? Anything like that?”
Your cheeks warmed, because thank God, yes, you did remember him cupping your face. Jason seemed to have that same realisation too, because he nodded.
The woman said, “I’ll give you some privacy,” and left the room.
You stood and met halfway.
He was clearly uncomfortable, his hands dangling by his side, but you didn’t know what you could do to ease the tension other than to get it over with. The fluorescent light above flickered, and after a moment’s hesitation, he reached out and cupped your face like he had in the bondtouch.
It was a poor imitation, clinical, but you felt a bloom of warmth flood through you, coursing until it concentrated to your chest, above your breast. The burning wasn’t unpleasant, but it stung a little as it marked your skin. Your hand automatically went to it over your shirt.
He quickly withdrew his hand. “You okay?”
“Yeah, just… Weird.”
You were curious to see what it was, but you realised that Jason hadn’t reacted.
“Did it not work for you?” you said.
He absently touched his chest. “Don’t think so.”
Hurt washed through you. What if it hadn’t happened because he didn’t like you? Maybe it was a oneway bond? You’d heard of people who that’d happened to before. It was rare, but you’d never considered the possibility that it’d happen to you. You felt another pang for your mom, she’d know what to do right now. You should have asked her what she’d done when she met her soulmate.
“Maybe you need to touch me?” Jason said.
“Oh,” you breathed, forcing your shoulders to unstiffen.
“I, uh, don’t know about you but I can’t really remember anything that wasn’t…”
You trailed off and he snorted.
“Yeah,” he said, and he scratched the back of his head.
“Oh.” Short of kissing him, there was really one other thing you could do while retaining a modicum of self-respect. As soon as you thought of it, you felt your face get warm. You weren’t really a blusher, but wow had the last few days done a number on you.
“I remember, I touched your chest.” You motioned to Jason’s shirt, “Uh…”
Jason paused, probably running back through everything in case he’d missed an easier option. The moment stretched, and then, he relented. He peeled off his jacket and cast it on the chair. He reached over his back to take off his shirt, and you kind of hated him for doing it in a way that somehow flexed every one of his muscles.
His chest was broad and muscular, and you tried not to peep the six pack, but to your surprise, that wasn't all that drew your eye. His torso had several patches of scarring—cigarette burns, and something that looked suspiciously like a knife wound. Questions came, of course they did—you had an image of him which had abruptly been thrown for a loop—but stronger than those was the flood of guilt. It came in a wave; you felt bad for asking him to take the shirt off. Sure, there hadn’t been many other options, but he clearly hadn’t wanted you to see whatever had happened to him.
He must have seen your panic, because he shrugged and said softly, “Don’t worry about it.”
There was a beat, and you exhaled, hoping the rigidity would leave your shoulders with it.
Taking a half-step in, you raised your hand, and let it hover over his chest. The heat of his skin was palpable through the air. You touched your palm flat onto his chest like you had in the flash, and his skin warmed unnaturally beneath your palm. You moved your hand to the side so you could see it.
The soulmark was black, and an idiosyncratic mix of unyielding, geometric lines, and overlapping inky, swirls. A black bird. You ran a thumb over it and shivered, feeling it mirrored through your own mark.
You dropped your hand, stepping away. “Sorry.”
“S’ok,” he said, touching it himself. Your mark tingled as he brushed at it, and when your breath caught, he glanced at you, and quickly dropped his hand and put the shirt back on.
He opened the door, and the woman waddled back into the room followed by the trio.
From there, there were only a few basic questions. Eventually, Roy and Duke fulfilled their purposes, signing paperwork as witnesses, and you stood up to go get photos of your soulmarks taken.
On your way out of the room, the woman touched your shoulder, pulling the two of you aside.
“You know,” she said, “soulmates who get very intimate flashes tend to jump a lot.”
“No one knows why jumping happens,” Jason said, scepticism clear in his tone in the same way that you might regard a person telling you your horoscope.
“No one knows what triggers a jump,” she said, “but I've been doing this for years. If your flashes were that… exciting, it’s a sign of a strong romantic bond—it’ll be more likely to happen to you.”
Jason and you shared a look.
“So be careful, hon,” she said. “The both of you.”
Outside it was drizzling, and the cool air soothed the delicate mark on his chest through his shirt. It was instinctual to want to touch it—it sent an utterly alien yet comforting shiver at contact—but he’d seen the way you’d jolted when he’d done it and wasn’t sure it was appropriate. The whole thing was invasive, is what it was. There was now a whole, palm-sized area on his chest which he had to avoid touching lest it sent the wrong message.
Dick and Roy were bugging him about showing them the mark, but he swatted them off. Christ, they were fucking annoying. He was going to beat Roy’s ass for telling Dick about this later.
The wind picked up, and a misting of rain blew diagonally under the courthouse eave. Dick and you yelled in unison, which Jason hid a smile at, and the five of you ducked behind a wide column in the opposite angle the rain was blowing. In the sliver of safety, Dick towelled beads of water from his face with the bottom of his shirt, and you dabbed your face with your sleeve. Crystalline specks still dotted your cheeks.
“Oh my GOD. Angela’s rear-left is open,” Duke yelled. You shrieked and said, “Go, go, go.”
You began steering him away and waved a hurried goodbye to everyone. Dick and Roy chimed in with goodbyes, and the pair of you trotted down the stairs under the pitter-patter of rain, water splashing under your feet as you went.
“Did that… mean anything to anyone?” Roy said.
“Nope, no idea,” Jason said.
“We’re getting food!” Dick said, rubbing his hands together and exhaling frosted breath.
“No, we’re not,” he replied. “We’re leaving.”
Roy pitched an arm around his shoulders. “I drove. I get final say.”
They ended up in one of those discount Chinese restaurants that made their menus on laminated paper once seven years ago and changed prices by sticking white stickers over the top. The table was a little sticky, and an elfin woman with a meat cleaver was hewing a red, roasted duck near the paying counter. The restaurant quaked with every lop.
In short, it was everything he knew Dick loved in an establishment.
No sooner had the waitress rushed away with their order did Roy say, “I’m going to the can.”
He stood and the flimsy table nearly came with him. Dick and Jason slapped a hand on it.
As he retreated, Jason felt Dick’s gaze shift to him.
Jason sighed. He’d been waiting for it the whole morning.
“You going to tell Alfred?” Dick said. “I’m assuming Bruce already heard.”
“Don’t use Alfred to guilt trip me,” he replied, doggedly eyeing the storefront window. From their perspective, the vista was stamped by backwards Mandarin characters. A woman who’d lost her ballet flat hopped on one foot against the curtain of rain, putting the shoe back on.
“Please, you’re guilt-tripping yourself.”
“Despite Bruce and you trying to assert yourself back into my life, it’s none of your business. You don’t get to pick and choose what matters.”
Dick watched him through his stupid Disney prince bangs. His eyes were steady.
With every jovial quality Dick possessed, it was easy to forget the detective in there, the guy who wasn’t all quips and cheer, who used to fight with Bruce long before Jason ever did—the guy who’d watched his parents fall at the circus, the guy who had a temper himself.
“Jay…” he said.
Jason squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m not doing this again.”
“Aren’t you tired of it?”
“Of course I’m fucking tired of it,” he said.
He saw the swing of a door in the corner of his eye. Roy, coming back.
“Doesn’t matter anyway,” he said. “Even if things were different, it wouldn’t change anything. My soulmate’s a teenager, I’m not taking her to dinner with my family. I’m staying away, period.” He was saying it out loud for the first time after two days of thinking it. There was a catharsis in it.
Roy plonked himself back in his chair, and the brothers instinctively steadied it again. Dick barked out a laugh.
“Littlewing,” Dick said, “if you think you’re going to be able to avoid your soulmate, then this is going to be more amusing than I thought.”
Jason scowled at him. The waitress arrived, a plate in her hand. Steam ribboned up off of it, and because he had some goddamn manners, he waited until he’d thanked her and she’d left to say to Dick. “Don’t fucking start. It’ll be fine.”
That time, Roy laughed. He smacked Dick’s shoulder and said, “Oh man, I remember when that was me.”
Life crept back into an echo of normalcy—your workload piled back up, and there was no excuse for you to interact, so you slipped back into familiar habits.
Wake up. Go to school. Return. Do homework. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
During his classes you were quiet and tried not to draw more attention to yourself than necessary—not that that stopped the occasional comment. You suspected Jason was getting them too, because not long after you’d bonded, a mason jar appeared on his desk. Whenever someone got too nosy he’d say “jar” and the miserable, erring soul would drag their feet over to his desk and pick an essay question from it.
It was an asshole move, but it was surprisingly effective.
You didn’t realise it until you were living it, but you had subconsciously expected something more to happen. Not outwardly—you didn’t expect him to make conversation—but you’d assumed you’d get something more than what you had. Maybe it’d be that he didn’t call out your name on the roll with everyone else because he’d noticed you were there, or that maybe you’d glance his direction and catch him looking—but he didn’t, and you didn’t. More than ever, you found your gaze wandering outside the window to the scruffy-feathered sparrows hopping along the Norway maple, mind wandering to the registry, to standing under the flickering fluorescent lights, and to the way he’d touched your cheek—the way it’d been cold, performative and nothing more.
In the meantime, you tried grilling your mom over what she knew about him, but she was uncharacteristically tight-lipped.
“It was something that happened to him years ago, everyone at Wayne Enterprises heard about it—but it’s not my business to say,” she said. Steam plumed and hissed on the yellow, daisy print ironing board, the metal nose of the iron sashaying down the blazer. You were flopped over the kitchen table, one cheek on the white top, watching her. From this angle everything she did was turned ninety degrees—she walked up the walls defying gravity, and plucked the blazer from the board, carefully folding it into a travel bag. “You’ll hear it from him someday.”
You made a noise in reluctant agreement, and she walked along the floor-wall, right up to your face.
“Honey, I went shopping—the fridge overfloweth, so you can have Harper and Duke over for dinner one day if you want. Do your homework, and no sneaking out to parties, you know the drill,” she said.
You nodded, one cheek still glued to the table.
While she fussed about her bags, you considered asking her about something else that had been bothering you—a bit of soreness on your mark, like it was bruised. It wasn’t terribly painful, but it was enough to notice. Though, you figured, while she was in a hurry it was probably a bad idea to hold her up.
So, she kissed your cheek, you said, “Bye, mom,” and she rolled out, suitcase in hand, to Tokyo.
Two weeks later, the bruising feeling had crept further into your chest, deepening like the kind of pain you got from running into the corner of a wooden table at full speed. You winced getting dressed in the morning and double-checked the mirror to make sure your chest wasn’t blue and purple like it felt. You’d googled it, and as it happened, it was a rare kind of reaction you could have to not seeing your soulmate enough. You considered saying something to Jason about it, but the last thing you wanted to do was bring it up. If it was happening to him, he hadn’t said a word, so you weren’t going to. If this was a game of “who could last the longest”, it was absolutely going to be you. And besides, you told yourself, it’d probably go away by itself. There was no need to break the flow you’d settled into. It’d be fine.
The following week, with another class nearly over, Jason did the rounds returning your essays. It felt so long ago—you could barely remember what you’d written, and you couldn’t bring yourself to care about the grade. You always felt relief when you were here; it was like taking a Tylenol, and it lasted quite a few hours afterwards too, but the knowledge that the ache would return was draining.
Jason slapped Duke’s essay down in front of him.
“Duke,” Jason said. “Particularly loved the parallels between Leia’s bikini showdown and Jabba being a Humbert Humbert-esque perv. Return of the Jedi, a 1950s controversial classic and the gothic novel we were studying don’t leap out as connected in the slightest, but it appears you were inspired.”
Jason’s voice was heavy on the sarcasm, but when you peaked over at his mark, he was sporting a B-.
Duke whooped, high fiving Harper over your head. “What did I say? What did I say?”
Hand on your chin, you wearily huffed a smile along with them, and watched him approach. You kind of expected him to just leave it and go—he hadn’t said anything to you in weeks that wasn’t a general directive to the class or calling your name on the roll.
A shadow fellow across your table, and he stilled in front of you, laying the paper on the table. His finger lingered on the booklet.
“I didn’t mark it, but I read it,” he murmured, and amidst the chatter of the classroom, you were the only one who had heard it. “Well done.”
It had an A on it.
“Thanks,” you said, but by then he was onto the next person, fishing out the next essay.
You rested your chin on your hands and skimmed your fingers over the paper booklet, feeling the barest bumps of the laser printed lines under your fingers. You skated over it, thinking about him in his office, or his home, at a bustling café, or quiet, in his car. You thought he might have been tired or sick of grading essays, sick of teaching for the day, sick of reading about goddamn Wuthering Heights, and yet he noticed an inconsequential thing that’d been important to you at the time, something that you’d already forgotten writing, something that didn’t matter in the scheme of things at all. And you thought about him picking it up because he saw that it had your name on it, and he decided to read it anyway.
Hey! Thank you all for the kudos and lovely comments. I've written most of this fic already, and I'm just editing and posting as I go, but seeing your reactions makes it all worth it. A lot of this has been establishing characters so far, but after this chapter it kicks off the stuff I had the most fun writing, so, hope you enjoy! ❤️
Lumpy tufts of grass poked at the soles of your feet beneath your worn-out trainers; your socks and ankles were dewy from the humid grass. You stretched your arms wide, trying to ignore the rooted ache, wondering how convincingly you could play breathlessness off as asthma once you started running and it got to be too much.
Mr. West cruised around under the overcast sky with a milk crate full of yellow and blue bibs, making puns and character assessments as he assigned teams. He was in his late twenties, was tall, athletic, had red hair and was sporting ridiculously small, canary yellow running shorts that barely made it past the upper quarter of his thighs.
“Blue for a blue,” he said, throwing a holey blue bib to Harper, who sighed and pulled it over her head.
“A sunshine yellow for you, Ma’am,” he winked at you and pitched you one, “having found your soulmate.”
You caught it and gave him a flat look. A couple of people jeered. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that Bart was related to Mr. West—they were first cousins once removed or something—because they were equally as grating. What you would give to be in Jason’s class right now where everyone feared repercussions from mentioning the dreaded fact.
“Would you look at that, Y/N,” Kyle Rayner said, tugging his blue bib and sauntering over. “Opposing teams.”
“Sucks to be you,” you said, scoping out who else had a yellow bib.
It didn’t look great.
Your team had Bart who was a few paces away talking Jaime Reyes’ ear off—regrettable for evident reasons—but it was tactically okay because on the field he was pretty fast. Other than that, it was just Billie Erving and a couple of other stragglers that weren’t exactly athletically gifted.
Kyle and Harper’s team on the other hand had Cissie King-Jones, Arisia Rrab and Jaime.
“You’re going down. This isn’t Halloween, you can’t distract me with your wily charms this time,” Kyle said, giving you very specific flashbacks to a kaleidoscope of colour and soft, pink lips.
“Oh, shut up,” you said, aiming at kick at him, which he dodged.
Last Halloween, Jessica Cruz threw a party which’d left you waking up the next morning at Harper’s house with a pounding head exacerbated by Harper and her brother, Cullen, cackling at the camera roll of your “highlight reel”. The worst part is? You couldn't be blamed for your actions. Like, at all.
You’d already been four shots in when you’d asked some gentle, lumberjack-looking dude holding a bottle of bourbon if you could have an inch to mix with some soda. The guy’d said a slurry “yerh, o’coars!” and proceeded to clumsily pour into your red solo cup a lethal, flat 1:1 ratio regret-cocktail.
Needless to say, it was 100% Lumberjack dude’s fault for why you hit on Kyle with a bad one-liner and made out with him in one of the bedrooms for an hour. The fact that you'd had a crush on him before was completely irrelevant, as was the fact that you'd gone back for a second make out session after you'd sobered up a bit.
You weren't that embarrassed about it—okay, maybe a little because Harper had a photo of you sucking his face in the hallway—but, honestly? It’d been fun. Kyle was older for the year—nineteen—and cute in a soft-arty-jock-type way. If it weren’t for Jason, you probably would have gone there again. You’d figured the flirting on Kyle’s part would have stopped after you’d matched with Jason, but Kyle was tenacious, and you didn’t precisely understand why, either. It wasn’t like he didn’t have any other options—by extension of said make out session, you’d gotten it on with half a dozen other girls in the year. But, he hadn’t done anything past the flirting to make you feel uncomfortable, so for now, he got a pass.
Kyle winked at you, and Mr. West waved you into your respective halves of the field. You took a spot on the right wing, and feeling a throb from your mark again, you massaged the skin near it, even though you knew it didn’t help.
Mr. West brought his silver whistle to his lips, took a breath, and then the tiny ball inside it leapt.
Harper clocked the soccer ball to Kyle, and you were off.
About twenty minutes in it was five-two to them, which, given your situation, probably belonged on one of those motivational posters about hanging in there.
Kyle and Jaime kept scoring with a play where one player would dribble the ball several feet ahead and boot it backwards to the other once your team got too on their offense. When you thought you had both of them pinned down, Kyle passed it beside him to Harper, who took off with it in an entirely different trajectory. She was thirty feet from the flaking, rust-stained goal post and shooting through players like an arrow when, by some miracle, Billie swept her foot between Harper’s legs and pilfered the ball.
She ran with it and you yelled to her. She kicked it towards you.
It went wide and had too much force behind it, but you were the only active person in that section of the field—it was yours.
You had it in your sights; it was rolling along the field a couple of feet away, when bam.
The team’s cries blinked into silence and you collided face-first with a wall of solid muscle.
The world became significantly shadier, and you couldn’t see who you hit, but you bounced backwards off of them, and in the surprise brought them down too. There was no longer a field under you, and your arms dug into gravel, scraping. You expected to be squashed by their weight, but your human crash dummy braced an arm against the ground and their opposite knee by your hip, propping themself just barely above you.
Eyes widened a half foot from your face.
Jason pushed off of you, and you sat up, your chest still heaving from the soccer game.
“You okay?” he said.
“Yeah,” you said, not really hearing him.
Where were you? Still in school? The area was shaded, and shafts of light filtered through from behind robust, pea green water tanks. You brushed chips of gravel off of you. Nothing had really scratched deeper than the surface of your skin, but your arms were embossed with their petite indentations.
“Are you okay?” you looked at him, dazed.
He seemed fine, but when he brought his hands up to brush them together, you glimpsed red.
“Shit,” you sprung up, grabbing his hand. He seemed too surprised to refute and he let you take it. Salt and pepper pieces of grit had torn into his palm, not too deeply, but there were enough frays and lacerations that it was going to be a bitch to heal.
“Sorry,” you said, lightly swept off any gravel you could without vexing the tears, “I don’t know what happened, I was in PE playing soccer, and then I was here.”
“It’s nothing,” he said, clearly flummoxed by the fact that you cared. Remembering the phrase ‘boundaries’ you dropped his hand and the corner of his mouth turned up.
The smirk was there for a second, and then it vanished.
“So,” he said, grimacing, “jumping’s going to be a thing.”
“Yeah.” You wrinkled your nose. “Yikes.”
Jumping wasn’t an explicitly dangerous thing, but it could happen at any time and in any place, which was what was disconcerting about it. Not many people had died from jumping, what with it being so rare and all—that, and your bodies rather instinctively knew when it was too dangerous to do it—but the lack of a conscious choice in the matter wasn’t ideal.
Rom coms loved to play on the jumping trope, though only about fifteen percent of soulmates ever experienced one. Even then, those people experienced it once or twice in a lifetime, and it generally happened after years of knowing each other. If you jumped early on into the bond, it was a pretty good sign that it’d keep happening too. There was one couple in the United Kingdom who held the world record for known jumping, averaging on a jump once every one to two days. If every jump was like this, you didn’t know how they could stand it.
You took a brief look around, rubbing the skin on your upper arms. They were getting cold in the shade, and speaking of…
“Are we near the water tanks?” you said, “What were you doing here?”
Jason’s jaw locked up, but you caught the micro-shift of his body to shield something on the ground behind him. You raised an eyebrow at him, then took a pointed step to the side and peeked around him.
There, in the granite and lime, was a packet of Marlboros and a smouldering stub.
Your laughter was like a sprung leak, the involuntary pressure of the ridiculousness of the situation driving it through, even when you brought your hand against your mouth to contain it.
“Not a word,” he said.
“Is there a student-snitch rewards program? I could do with the grade boost.”
He squatted and snatched them off of the ground. “Snitches get zilch, and negative respect.”
He shoved them in his pocket, and you glimpsed the butchered hand again.
“You should probably go get your palm cleaned out,” you said, and he shook it out once more. He regarded it another moment.
“Fine,” he said, taking off in the direction of the office.
You couldn’t tell if it was a “fine, come with me” or a “fine, I’m leaving”, but he went nonetheless, and you watched his retreating form. After a beat, you glanced back around behind you to the opposite direction he was going. Through the trees and side of the tanks you could see a slice of the soccer field where you should be. It looked like people were gathering round too, probably wondering where you’d gone.
You looked back at Jason.
The whole previous night—it’d been a Sunday, two whole days without seeing him, when the ache had been at its peak—you’d lain on the couch, practicing breathing techniques because the pressure was beginning to smother you. You’d thought about calling your mom in case you passed out and no one knew where you were, but it was three a.m. in Luxembourg, and she was asleep, so you didn’t.
Watching Jason walking off, you realised your chest felt light, and you couldn’t bring yourself to leave just yet. Internally cursing the universe for being a prying son-of-a-bitch not above using dirty tactics to force you to interact, you sighed and scampered up to walk beside him.
“So, what’s the deal with smoking?” you said. “Lung cancer: yes or yes?”
He gave you petty side glance and said, “Fuck me. You’re a nosy one."
It sounded playful, so you didn’t take it to heart. Even if it wasn’t, you decided, the one person you should be able to get away with annoying was your soulmate, so to hell if you were going to change who you were just to impress some guy who the odds were stacked in your favour for anyway.
“If you must know,” he said, “I quit. For four years. But recent circumstances dragged me back.”
“I take it I’m ‘circumstances’?”
“Yeah,” he said.
You rolled your eyes, quickening your pace to keep up with his long strides, thankful the pain in your chest was currently at bay because it would’ve been a struggle had it not.
“Fuck me," you said, "you're a dramatic one."
“You barrelled me over."
“You’ve got like, twice my body mass. I don’t know how you fell to begin with.”
He huffed, shoes clacking against the smooth concrete as you approached the office building. It was mid-period, so barely anyone was on school grounds; the bumpy concreted areas between buildings ghost-empty, doing naught save gathering sunrays.
To think you’d been here a month ago, scared stiff of talking to the guy, and now you were accidentally maiming him, stalking him and shaming his smoking habits. Man. You didn’t quite know if it should be labelled as progress but it sure was something. You weren’t exactly over him ignoring you for the past month, but… whatever. Let it rest for now, you decided.
“Don’t you have a game to get back to?” he said.
“Mmm… yes, but I would prefer not to,” you said, darting in front of him. You pushed open the cold-to-the-touch building door and held it open for him, saving him from using his hand.
“Chivalrous,” he said.
“Yeah,” you said, “That’s me.”
You expected Jason to go ask for a nurse, but instead, he strode right into the nurse’s unattended office and went for the glass cabinets. He fossicked until he found a bottle of saline and gauze, opening it with one hand and his teeth. He squirted it over his palm in the porcelain sink; pink swirled down into the drain.
“You… look like you know what you’re doing,” you said, jumping up on the counter to watch. He shrugged, but you got the feeling he was downplaying his skillset.
The nurse’s office door was still open, which was how you saw Mr. West tear into the reception area behind you.
“Wendy!” he said and the receptionist looked up, annoyed at being disturbed. “What’s the protocol for losing a student— oh.” He spied you through the open door. “There she is. Call off the search party, Wendy.”
He waved his hand jokingly at her, but she didn’t look amused, and went back to her work.
Mr. West sauntered into the room, stopping at the doorframe and leaning leisurely against it. A cat-like grin stretched over his freckled face.
He looked between you, and then Jason cleaning out his hand, and sighed dreamily.
“Already jumping, eh?” he said. “You know, Dick and I jumped a couple of times, but it was mostly when I was back in Central City and he was pining for me...”
Jason straightened, and turned, full body, to glare at Mr. West. He plonked the bottle of saline on the counter and a droplet plunked on your thigh.
“Beat it, Flash.”
To your utter surprise, Mr. West jumped off the door frame, two-finger saluted you both and scrammed. You never seen another human bolt so quickly before.
You gaped at Jason, who was unravelling a white roll of gauze without a care in the world.
“What was that?” you said. “That was so mean.”
He arched an eyebrow, but by then, Mr. West’s words were catching up to you.
“Wait…” you said, “Did he say…”
“Unfortunately,” Jason said, “yes.”
Jason set the gauze to his skin and began to bind it.
“Really?” you repeated. “Dick?”
His hands were a flurry, swathing it so skilfully that his hand blurred.
“Wow,” you said, both to the gauze and the situation. “Man, that makes him like, my brother-in-soulmate-law.”
“Why didn’t he say something?” You’d had multiple PE classes with him since you’d bond touched, and Mr. West hadn’t said a thing. Maybe he’d assumed you already knew and hadn’t said anything.
“Probably scared of me,” Jason said instead, and when you glanced at him, he had a Cheshire grin.
You sighed in exasperation, which made his smile widen. God, why was he like this.
“'Gone in a Flash.'”
“Oh my God.”
He finished wrapping the gauze and reached for an elastic bandage clip.
“Oh man,” you said, a cursed realisation dawning on you, “Does that make me like, first-cousins-once-removed-something-in-soulmate-law to Bart?”
You wrinkled your nose.
“Yeah. Now, imagine how tired I am,” Jason said, which finally got you to laugh too.
“I’m surprised Bart didn’t tell me,” you said, as Jason began putting items back onto the shelves. They tinkled, clinking against little medical bottles on their shelves.
“Probably afraid of the jar.”
Your face tugged into a smile.
“The jar is some of your finest work, by the way,” you said, softly.
“Yep,” he said, finally looking up at you. A smile crept into the corner of his mouth. For the first time during this whole situation, he seemed unguarded. It was nice. You held his eyes a moment longer.
“Okay,” you said, mission accomplished. “Guess my super helpful work here is done. I’m going back to soccer.”
Hopping off the counter, you said, “See you in fifth. And uh, sorry for maiming you.”
He waved you off and you headed away, leaving him in the darkened office.
By the time you returned to the field, the period was over and everyone had left to change out of their sports uniforms.
You hid during their exodus, and eventually Harper emerged, faithfully carrying your bag. You flagged her down and she careened to you. Dumping your bag on the dirty ground, she jumped on you, shaking you like a magic eight-ball.
“Where did you go!”
“Whoa, woman,” you disentangled yourself and, checking the coast was clear, dragged her back into the change rooms.
She shut the door and stood against it so no one could get back in.
“I full-on ran into him,” you said, shucking your bib and rooting around in your bag for your clothes to change back into. “It was mortifying, we fell over.”
Harper laughed and squeezed details out of you while you changed. You told her about his hand, but left out the smoking part because, well, she didn’t need to know that. After you’d changed, you slunk back out of the change rooms, avoiding your straggling classmates, and went to lunch together.
Harassment accrued throughout the lunch hour, with word getting around that you’d jumped. Jumping was relatively rare for adults, and even rarer in high school, and soon you had a flock of randoms—from freshmen to seniors—casually popping by under the guise of talking to Duke or Harper and then bringing up the jump.
You put your head into your arms on the rotting, painted green wooden lunch table.
“Make them go away,” you said, while Duke patted your shoulder.
“I could, but I don’t want to,” he said, and Harper chimed in with a, “Yeah”.
Some friends. You made an inhuman noise into the table, and through the planks, you saw the scuttle of freshmen feet booking it.
After the bell, you three made it to Jason’s class, Harper finally pulling her weight and flicking away snooping classmates when they approached.
You were standing outside Jason’s door with a broken queue of other meandering students when you heard a yell.
One hundred and fifty pounds of tall, dark and cute bowled into you from the side, crushing you in a bear hug. You yelped and laughed, whacking your fists against Kyle’s chest until he set you down on the squeaky hallway floor. He crowded you against the wall and caged you there with his arms. Your head touched the cool wall behind you.
“Wanted to get out of the game that badly?”
“Rayner,” said a voice.
Jason leant against his door, injured hand in his trouser pocket and the other spinning his keys from his forefinger.
“Don’t you have literally anywhere else to be?”
Kyle straightened but didn’t step back from you. He eyed Jason, and then turned back to you.
“See you around,” Kyle said. He pushed off the wall and flagging down Jessica Cruz, bailed.
A hum of whispers scattered in the hall.
You heard the metallic scratching of keys in the door and glanced back at Jason. Seemingly indifferent, he unlocked the door and disappeared inside.
“Ugghhhhh,” Jason groaned, leaning over the bookstore counter.
“Uggggghhhhhhhggghhh." Bizarro patted his back comfortingly.
“Jason, will you shut the fuck up? You’re scaring my customers.”
“I’ll shut the fuck up when life gives me a break, Artemis.”
Presently, Outlaw Books was the one thing stopping him from going insane. Arty barely worked there anymore, but Biz did, and by some miracle they were paired on shift on Saturdays, which made Saturdays the most bearable day of the week.
The goliath of a woman scowled at him, flipping her thick red braid behind her shoulder. “It’s not that bad. You could be bonded to-”
“‘-an idiot government agent like Diana’, yeah I know, I’ve heard it all before.”
“So quit your complaining and help me put these boxes out.”
Jason lifted his cheek off of the cool, glass counter, and straightened just in time to have a dense cardboard box thrown into his chest, nearly winding him. He fumbled it, somehow managing not to drop it, and shifted it into one arm. He picked out a book, skimming the title.
“This is bullshit, I don’t even work here,” he said, but he started looking for the shelf they belonged to anyway.
On his way, his eye caught the copy of The Three Musketeers sitting in the glass display. It was a relatively old, beautiful hardback edition, one that’d used to belong to him. He’d sold it a couple of years ago when he’d been in college and the rent situation was tough. Inside, he remembered the faded loopy ink that read: To Bruce. All our love, your mom and dad.
He cast his eyes away from it.
“Have you considered asking her to do something with you like a normal person?” Artemis said.
Jason looked scandalised. “Of course not.”
Artemis waved her arms in frustration.
“She’s a student, Artemis. Students aren’t normal people. They’re smaller, less trustworthy versions of adults. In fact, to make things worse, they’re not adults.”
“And I refuse to willingly go do anything with a non-adult.”
“You say this like you’re not the least mature person in the world.”
Jason frowned and looked at Artemis through the gap in the bookshelf. The books and the shelf framed a narrow strip of her eyes, so that all he saw were her brows in peeved-off formation.
“That’s not true.”
“Correction, you’re the hybrid of a grumpy old man and the least mature person in the world.”
“Heh heh,” he heard from Bizarro.
“You’re supposed to be on my side, buddy,” he said.
“Red Her has a point.” Bizarro shrugged, his massive shoulders rising and falling.
Jason whined as he slotted a book into its rightful place. He nearly picked it up again too, because the cover art was alluring and he’d never heard of it before, but he really didn’t need another book purchase right now. He needed a different kind of therapy.
“If you keep ignoring her, she’s going to think you hate her.”
“That’s the problem,” he replied, “I don’t hate her. She does this thing where she zones out in class and looks out at this fucking maple tree—why the maple tree? Who the fuck knows! Maybe it’s a nice tree! But for some reason it’s endearing. I hate this bullshit.”
He grabbed another handful of books from the box and started shoving them away haphazardly into the shelf, sending spirals of dust motes swirling.
“And to top it off, I think my mark’s starting to ache when I don’t see her. It’s messing with my mind. Remember that time in freshman year of college when I punched Garth for telling me to stop talking to his soulmate in lectures? Yeah, well it’s like my possessiveness levels have been dialled to one hundred—which I fucking hate. The other day, this kid tackled her in the hallway in one of those playful ways, and it took every ounce of my inner will not to tell him to fuck right off back to LA. It's fucking annoying. I can’t believe I owe an apology to Garth fucking Curry.” He shoved another book in the shelf. “Although, on second thought, fuck Garth, people are allowed to talk to whoever they—”
“Jason, stop. You’re being—”
“Dramatic,” he mimicked in what he thought was a pretty good version of her Amazonian accent before he caught himself and frowned. Artemis would have called him an idiot—you had called him dramatic.
There was an exasperated sigh, and the ka-thunk of a box being dumped in frustration.
“I’ve told you the solution to this so many times!” Artemis said, “I will not repeat myself. Just do it, or don’t. I don’t care!”
He shoved another book into the shelf.
He knew Artemis was right, and that was the worst part.
It was almost the Christmas-New Year break, and he knew if he didn’t say anything, you’d go the whole time without interacting, which didn’t seem right. He blamed it on the bond. Being this far away from you was already driving him crazy, and he bet it was driving you insane too.
Frankly, whatever soreness Jason felt through the bond wasn’t unbearable. He’d had worse, but if it was happening to you too, then it wasn’t fair to put you through it as well. In the end, that was the only thing that’d pushed him to get off of his ass and finally say something.
It was the Friday before the Christmas-New Year break. The sky was gloomily overcast, and there was an air of restless energy around. He dismissed the class and half the room flooded out the school gates in one swift motion. You were packing up your bag when he wandered by you. You stilled and looked up at him.
“We need to talk,” he said.
“Sure,” you replied, and waved goodbye to Duke and Harper, who sent you raised eyebrows before they backed out of the door.
When everyone had left, Jason shut it.
You fiddled with a loose thread on your bag strap and looked at him expectantly. He’d had the whole day to think about it, and never came up with the best way to say anything. So, not giving himself time to chicken out, he blurted out the first thing that came to his mind.
“I know it’s not easy seeing each other given our… situation, but sometimes my mark gets tetchy when I don’t see you. If it’s happening to you too, it’s not a great idea to go the whole break without seeing each other.”
Jason didn’t exactly know what he was expecting—you to awkwardly say ‘okay’, or maybe even a flat out ‘I would prefer not to’. But with you, things were always a surprise.
You blew out a lungful of air.
“Oh, thank God,” you said, “It hurts all the time, but I never would have said anything. I have too much pride.”
“What?” He drew back. “Really? How often?”
“All the time,” you said, looking a little surprised, like you’d expected him to have been experiencing the same thing too and were only just realising you’d said too much. You continued slowly, watching his reaction. “It’s… worse on weekends?”
“It feels like my whole chest is badly bruised, or like it’s been kicked? Sometimes it’s hard to breathe?”
“Y/N,” he said, “I- no, holy fuck, why didn’t you say anything?!”
“I just told you I’m stubborn!” you replied.
“Oh my God.”
Jason looked up at the popcorn concrete ceiling. One. Two. Three.
“Is it not that bad for you?” you said.
“Sometimes it aches a little, but not terribly.” He thought about it. “It could be worse for you since you’re younger, and the bond’s new.”
“Y/N,” he said, guilt crawling up through his stomach. He’d been staying away in the hopes that it was the right thing to do, but it seemed that’d backfired spectacularly. “Don’t be afraid to tell me if something is bothering you. Ever, okay?”
“Well I wasn’t afraid…” you said, but when he gave you a levelling look you squirmed and said, “Fine.”
“Is it feeling any better now?”
“A bit, yeah,” you said. “It’s always better when I’m here.”
You were hesitating, and Jason wanted to kick himself that he hadn’t noticed your walls before this. You were his soulmate, of course you’d be just as stubborn as him. He wondered belatedly whether that’d been why you’d followed him around after you’d jumped last week. He scrutinised you.
“… it’s worse when we don’t talk, or… interact, I guess.”
He could hear the muted hum of the lazy wind outside. You stood in front of the row of windows, softly lit. It was a striking image; trees leant and swayed behind you, but you were meekly still.
“Okay, then,” he said. “That stops now. We can see each other on weekends, I can… pick you up for school, or take you home. We can figure something out.”
“Sorry,” you said quietly, looking away.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” he said, voice just as quiet, the gale nearly masking it. “It’s not an inconvenience.”
I do want to see you, he left unsaid, but he thought from the way your eyes quirked up to meet his, you heard it anyway.
“Okay,” you said.
“Okay,” he repeated.
You decided on burgers at a semi-respectable store in your neighbourhood because he figured that it was a fairly neutral meeting ground. He’d offered to pick you up, trading in his motorcycle for the car he barely used. When he knocked on your hyacinth blue door, you opened it wearing jeans and a t-shirt, a pale leather shoulder bag already on.
“Hey,” you said.
The hallway behind you was bare, save a frame hanging on the wall that Jason couldn’t see from this angle. He was able to glimpse what as probably a kitchen or living room at its end, but he couldn’t see any other signs of life in it.
“Hey. You ready, or should I go say hi to your mom first?”
“Oh, she’s away again. London.”
“How often is she away?” Come to think of it, he hadn’t heard from her since meeting her in the office more than a month ago.
“Mmm… every other week. But there’s always food in the house, so, I’m fine,” you said.
Jason wanted to say that it probably was not fine, but he left it for the time being. What could he do now anyway? At least now you’d be seeing more of each other. If he got to know you better and thought the situation was bad, he’d do something then.
The diner was open and spacious—a white tiled floor and walls painted shades of turquoise, aqua and sea green. A sky-blue fluorescent sign on the inside wall proclaimed Waves’ Diner and shone futilely in the broad daylight. It was also one of those places that tried to embrace a modicum of holiday cheer, with metallic blue tinsel tacked to the ceiling coving.
The waitress who took your order was around Jason’s age, and had a neatly trimmed, short fringe and long brown hair that came to her waist. She drew a notepad from her peach-coloured smock and set her pen to the ready.
“What can I get you?” she said, and Jason rattled off an order. You skimmed the menu and added an inexpensive item to it.
“Water,” you replied, and Jason said, “Coffee. Black.”
She scribbled it down and ducked away. A silence you’d been dreading reared its head, and uncomfortably, you shuffled in your seat and looked out the window at the busy street.
“You mentioned wanting to study filmmaking next year,” Jason said after a few seconds. “What kind of movies do you like?”
You whipped your head back towards him, having completely forgotten you’d told him. For his sake he really shouldn’t have brought it up. You could feel the word vomit welling up.
“Oh, anything,” you said. “Sci-fi, fantasy, action, drama, comedy. I think I could enjoy any genre, as long as it’s well-made. For ages I thought I hated romance movies, but it turns out I’d just been watching those shitty, sexist rom coms where no one actually says anything funny.”
“Sometimes I prefer not knowing the genre at all,” you said, “I kind of like the surprise of having no idea where it's headed. Like, if I ever get into grand larceny and can afford Gotham Film Festival tickets, I’m just rocking up to whatever and living my best life.”
“Well, do you have a favourite film?”
You huffed and said, “You can’t ask me that.”
The waitress returned to pour your water. It gurgled, cascading down into the glass.
“What? Why not?” he laughed.
“Well, do you have a favourite book? Just the one.”
“Okay,” he said, “point taken.”
You hummed, and touched the cold glass, catching condensation on it with your fingertip.
“There are a couple I could rewatch forever. Phantom Thread, Adaptation, Clueless, Roma.”
“I should start writing a list,” he said.
“Yeah, probably,” you said. “I’m forewarning you, but it’s going to get on your nerves. I don’t think I really have a personality at this point, it’s just an endless cycle of thoughts about movies.”
“It’s fine,” he said, laughing, “I’ve got those too.”
“Yeah. Local politics and crime. Sometimes I turn on the news just so that I can fume at whatever’s going on. You know the witness who came forward against Cobblepot just up and vanished? No one’s talking about it either. Un-fucking-believable.”
The waitress returned with a glass pot of black coffee and poured it into a stout white mug. A ribbon of steam twirled up above it.
“Coffee’s on the house,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, going for it. As she walked away, she snuck a glance over her shoulder at Jason.
You pursed your lips, trying not to laugh.
“What?” he said.
You lifted up your hand as though to whisper a secret, saying in a faux whisper, “She likes you.”
He went stony. “She does not.”
You quirked your lips and simply said, “So what’d Cobblepot do? Other than be a subpar mayor in every aspect.”
“Please say you’re joking.”
You stilled, glass of water midway to your mouth. “What?”
A dark look passed over his face which you’d only seen once—right before he launched into a ten-minute monologue to your class about how no film adaptation of Frankenstein had done justice to the novel.
Jason took a breath and went into a spiel about governmental and judicial corruption, racketeering and the mob. The waitress dropped off your food, and you both messily cracked into your burgers to the sound of an expletive-filled rant and several uses of the phrase “greasy, monocle-wearing fucker”. You kept up for the most part, though you started to get lost during the detailed segment on whether Cobblepot was using his private club, The Iceberg Lounge, as a front for dirty money.
“You know,” you said, wiping your hands on a bumpy one-ply napkin, “it might work better if you drew up notes on a whiteboard.”
He gave you a flat look. Okay, you mentally filed away, school remains a sore spot.
“How do you know all this anyway?”
“Dick works at the GCPD, and,” he seemed hesitant, but he continued anyway, “I grew up with it. My—Bruce—was always involved in this and that trying to stop corruption in the city. But no one can do anything about it, there are judges and other officers backing Cobblepot. That, and I saw it all the time as a kid.”
He paused, and you wondered whether he was debating how much to tell you. He looked across the scratched, white plastic table at you, dark hair falling over his forehead.
“I’ll tell you if you promise that it won’t get out,” he said.
You sat up a little straighter and crossed your heart. You still didn’t really know anything about him other than what you’d pieced together from interactions with Dick and, well, from this. You suspected he didn’t get along with most of his family, but maybe this was it—he was going to tell you about them.
“I used to pickpocket for his guys, back when they called him the Penguin.”
You inhaled a bit of burger and started coughing.
You kind of lamented agreeing not to tell anyone about it—if the student body thought he was hot now, he could have rocketed to god tier. Though, on second thought, it was nice knowing something about him that the others didn’t. The complexity of your situation sometimes made you forget, but in theory, you were supposed to know him better than anyone someday.
“Yeah,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Right before Bruce adopted me. My mom OD’d so I had to look after myself. Used to steal tires off of cars—that was actually how I met Bruce—poached the tires off of his lambo.”
“Wow,” you said. “Sorry about your mom.”
He shrugged in an ‘it is what it is’ kind of way, but didn’t say anything more about it. You considered briefly asking about his father, but figured he’d have said something on his own if he'd wanted to. As it was, you knew how it felt not to want to talk about a parent.
“Roy, Kory and I actually have a bet with Dick,” he said, “we reckon we could break into Cobblepot’s house, give him the scare of his life, and he’d permanently retire from politics. Dick’s too much of a golden boy, so he’s against it.”
You laughed, assuming he was joking, but then you got another look at his expression.
“Wait,” you said, “Really?”
He grinned his into coffee cup, and waved for the bill.
“Holy fuck,” you said, “you can’t do that.” Though you didn’t exactly know why you were protesting. You blamed it more on your naturally argumentative instincts than actually disagreeing with him. After a second you added, “I mean, not without planning out all the logistics first.”
He let out a surprised laugh, and the waitress floated back, tentatively handing him the bill.
She lingered, one hand nervously skimming at the hem of her apron.
“I, uh, don’t usually do this,” she said to Jason, laughing a little awkwardly, and your mood dropped. “But you’re cute, and my friend,” she motioned behind her, where another waitress leaning over the counter unabashedly watching waved at them, “dared me…”
The waitress trailed off, but instead of finishing the sentence, she shrugged and held out her hand, palm facing up, to Jason. The warm afternoon light danced on her fingers.
It was a thing that people did to strangers from time to time. For older generations, it was considered taboo—even to your generation it was extremely flirty—but not so flirty as to be unacceptable. They called it a ‘white card’, which was a play on the white cards wedding invitations were printed on. Every now and then, you might be at a café, or in a bookstore, and bump into someone cute. And if that person was worth the risk of embarrassing yourself in public, you might just offer your hand—a white card. If said person accepted the touch, you’d check to see if you were soulmates.
He pressed his lips together.
“I’m flattered, but…”
You wondered who she’d thought you were to him.
Maybe a friend, or a younger sibling—someone he was just looking out for. It reminded you of how your mom had been in the office, when she’d looked over him and ruled him out—she hadn’t considered the possibility because you were too different, and because the age gap was too improper.
You waited for Jason to say something, to tell her that you were his soulmate. He didn’t even need to say it, he could nod, or gesture in your direction.
Jason didn’t look at you. He didn’t say a word, not even when the silence stretched on, and the waitress’s hand quivered, pink in the afternoon sunlight.
“He’s matched to someone else,” you said eventually.
“Oh.” She dropped her hand and said to him, “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
He pulled out his wallet.
It was leather, worn, black and the edges were fraying.
He pulled out two twenties from it, placing them on the scratched, white table.
You left together, out onto the sidewalk stained with smears of blackened gum. It was quiet, but because you were you, you pointed to a storefront window advertising the new Dune adaptation, and quipped with him about novels. No, you hadn’t read the book, but fine, you’d read it before you saw the film.
He drove you home and said polite goodbyes, and because he was Jason, he waited for you to go inside before he left.
And you, you shut the door, hearing the car drive away. You walked through the empty white hallway, past the picture frame on the wall. You walked past the kitchen, past your mother’s closed bedroom door, and finally, to your own room.
And you, you sat on your bed; felt the floral, cotton bedspread compress underneath your legs. You pressed a hand to your head, and cried.
Jason was true to his word, and every other day during the break, he came to see you. Sometimes it was fifteen minutes of him standing by your door making small talk, and other times you got breakfast together, or sat in a café and read while he graded assignments or prepared a lesson plan. The conversation was mostly impersonal, nothing like that first day in the diner. He kept you at arm’s length, but you weren’t an idiot. You knew why.
To be soulmates with a student…
From what you’d seen, most people—students and staff—had taken the situation in stride with a “Well, no one decides their soulmate” sort of attitude; you didn’t think many people really blamed Jason for matching with you.
Though, it was never the dozen compliments anyone remembered, was it? It was the criticism.
You remembered the stuffy school office and the way your mom had overlooked Jason, the ocean-painted diner and the waitress. Once, in the bathrooms, you’d heard juniors gossiping about the situation. It had been in the way that most of the student body gossiped about it—wondering what was happening, if you two were sneaking around together yet, lamenting that the hottest teacher in the school was off the market. A balanced voice had rung out and said, “Well, I’m glad he’s not my soulmate. Anyone who matches with their underage student’s a creep. He was probably already thinking about her.”
In the end, you’d waited in the graffitied cubicle until they left.
You wondered what it’d been like for him, what he’d experienced—but he would never say anything to you anyway, so you didn’t ask.
He leant against your doorway one morning after politely refusing to come inside, and said, “How’s your mark feeling?”
“It’s fine,” you said, and it wasn’t a lie. The soreness had undoubtedly lessened the more you saw each other, and truth be told, you barely noticed it anymore. However, in its place another feeling had developed—one you hadn’t been expecting—one you’d never felt so cruelly for anyone before; a coiling sense of hurt, and want.
He was ashamed to have you as a soulmate—that much you’d figured out.
You tried not to be offended by it, wondering if you’d feel the same way in his shoes, but you couldn’t stop the sting every time someone said the word 'soulmate' and Jason shifted away from you, like just being around you was incriminating.
Still, Christmas and New Years came and went, the break too, and whether it was out of duty, want or a sense of responsibility, on the first day of your return to school you opened your front door to find Jason there. He drove you to school with an almost chauffeur-like professionalism, occasionally complaining about Roy or Kory and letting that boyish nature slip through, but then it would come over him, whatever he was remembering or thinking about. His face would change, and all you got were curt nods and monosyllabic replies.
The bar bustled with bodies packed against each other, the hint of sweat and gin in the air. Under his palm, the table mutedly buzzed with the speakers’ bass.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the clip of silver-white hair as Rose ducked around behind the counter with the other bartenders. He turned his back to the bar and slid further down in the red, cracked leather seat at the booth.
In the past, these kinds of outings used to end with Jason making a pass at Rose over the bar, carting her back to his and rolling around in the sheets with her for the evening. Now? It was carte blanche for him with a row of shots while Roy and Kory got handsy in the booth opposite him.
An hour ago he’d finally worked up the courage to go over and talk to Rose. She had been pouring some guy a whiskey and dry when he found her.
Ravager was a dimly-lit, industrial bar with an emphasis on iron aesthetics. The bottles behind the bar were underlit with silver and orange light from within the shelves, sending an eerie glow up into their glass bodies.
“Red,” she’d said, leaning over the bar, unscrewing a bottle of whiskey. “Haven’t seen you in a while. You sticking around? I’m off in an hour.”
Rose was soulmates with her brother, Grant. It was uncommon for people to have a sibling as their platonic soulmate, but it happened, and having a platonic soulmate didn’t mean you were asexual, either. Plenty of people married and had relationships outside of their soulmates—and that’s what he’d been, in a sense, to Rose. It wasn’t a relationship by any means, but it was something. Fuck buddies. A kind of friends-with-benefits. Perhaps a little more.
“I found my soulmate."
The lip of the bottle she was pouring from had clinked against the glass.
There was a beat, and then she'd finished pouring it. She put the drink on the honeycomb patterned, black rubber counter and took the customer’s payment.
When she returned, she'd said, “Now just who could have tamed the heart of Jason Todd?”
“A high schooler.”
A woman with dark hair and metallic orange eyeshadow signalled Rose. “Can I get a Negroni?”
She'd nodded and fossicked round.
Orange peel, gin, vermouth rosso.
“How’s that going?”
“You’re not together, then?”
She'd blown a piece of hair out of her almond shaped eyes and stirred a long cocktail stirrer with a twisted handle through it. The ice spun.
“What’s the problem then?” She’d said. “Wait for me to get off, and we’ll go somewhere tonight. For old times’ sake.”
Tequila shot already at his lips, Jason said to the tangle of ginger and magenta in front of him, “Do you mind? Some of us are trying to drink while remaining pure here.”
Roy had the decency to slide his hand back out of the bottom of Kory’s shirt, whereas Kory chased his withdrawing lips and shot Jason a dirty look.
He knocked back the shot.
He couldn’t believe he’d said no to Rose. Though he was loath to admit it, when Roy suggested coming back to Ravager, a part of him wondered if the night really would end with her. Logically, there wouldn’t have been anything necessarily wrong with it. The line was firm between you two, and there wasn’t anything in the rule book that said you couldn’t fuck someone else while you waited for your soulmate to grow up.
Nothing other than an alien sense of wrong permeating in his gut.
Irked, Kory raked a hand through her magenta hair sat up straighter in their booth. In a blink, she swiped the remaining two shots in front of him, doing them back to back.
“That was very uncool, Anders.”
“I thought it was pretty hot,” Roy said.
“Of course you did, she could shoot you with a rifle and you’d find it hot.”
“That does sound hot,” Kory said.
Jason thought about it. “Yeah.”
Roy rolled his eyes and pullet his wallet out. He slapped a crumpled twenty on the table.
“Jaybird. Be a dear.”
Jason snatched it and slid out of the booth. The thought of seeing Rose again at the bar was unappealing, but getting through the rest of the night sober seemed worse.
“What do you want?” he said to Roy.
“Whatever they have on tap.”
Jason saluted him and turned towards the bar.
Only, it wasn’t the bar anymore.
Dim, warm bar lighting had been replaced with a living room decked out in fairy lights and a less obnoxious music choice. There were quite a few people too—but not the same lumbering men and sweat-dotted women from the bar—these were younger people. College age?
There was a girl in front of him leaning over a keg, her back to him. He didn’t recognise her, but she was wearing sheer black pantyhose under daisy dukes that hugged her ass, and a silk, sapphire blue camisole top. He was respectfully appreciating the view when she turned around and to his horror, he realised it was you.
You stepped away from the keg, drink at your lips. You saw him and choked on it. Your beer sloshed, catching your shirt and your shoes. Coughing, you wiped your mouth.
“Great,” you said.
“You—” he started—God, he couldn’t believe he was going to say this, “Under twenty-one!”
You wiped away the spilled beer from your shirt.
“What, you’re going to narc on me, Sir Smokes-a-lot?”
A couple of other people were turning to watch. There were murmurs, and he heard, “Holy shit, it’s Mr. Todd.”
“Holy shit, he looks good in a leather jacket.”
God. This was a high school party. He’d jumped into a fucking high school party.
Blocking them out, he waved a hand in front of your face. You scowled at it, and Jason had probably the only empathetic pang for Bruce that he’d had in his entire adult life. How did he put up with him as a teenager?
“How far gone are you?”
You smacked his hand away.
“Quit it, I’m fine. Don’t be such a square.”
“Is your mom still away? How were you planning on getting home?”
“The bus, then… walk?”
Jason had a vivid image of a ghoulish, white face, and then the spinning view of an alley from the pavement.
Dull, burning thuds as a crowbar clubbed him. Jaw. Ribs. Chest.
“Alone? Y/N, this is Gotham. I’m pretty sure I was mugged jumping here,” he said jokingly, hoping the memory wasn’t showing on his face.
You pointed to his fist by his side where he still had Roy’s twenty.
“Did you mug someone on the way here?”
“Yeah,” he stuffed it in his jeans’ pocket. “Roy. And it proves my point.”
Zeroing in on you properly, he noticed that for the first time that you were wearing makeup—different to how you usually did it, too. The Smokey eyeshadow and gloss made you look older. Older than you were.
It looked like most people were outside, but the stragglers indoors were staring like the raccoons he’d caught three weeks ago ransacking his bins. Someone had turned down the music, and a couple of kids he recognised from school looked like they were close to bailing.
You levelled him with a look.
“Soooo,” you said, “are you staying, hightailing, or getting zilch on the snitch-respect scoreboard?”
For a moment he considered how easy it’d be to split and find Roy again, but he wrote it off. If something happened to you here or walking home, he’d never forgive himself. He knew better than anyone to gamble with that in this city.
But in the end, it was thinking about Bruce that won out. He remembered how in sophomore year Bruce had caught him sneaking out to a party and had such a screaming match with him that he’d hated him for a week and not talked to him for a month longer than that out of spite. Besides, he thought, he was your soulmate, not the guy to go around busting your rite of passage years. He'd done enough of that as it was.
“Fine,” he said to you, shaking his head and turning to their audience.
“Listen up, you little shits.”
Eyes peered nervously at him, and his voice projected throughout the room.
“I don’t care about your little gathering—drink yourself blind, throw up in a bush—but I’m staying to make sure this one,” he pointed a thumb at you, “gets home fine. So, I don’t want to hear jackshit at school about anyone saying I was here. I’m remembering each and every one of your faces, and if this gets out, I come down on you like the hammer of Thor. Are we clear?”
There was a polyphony of yeses—cheers from the drunker ones—and after a second, the music crawled back up.
When he turned back to you, you looked unimpressed.
“For the record,” you said, “I can look after myself.”
You pursed your lips then plucked a second solo cup from a leaning stack on the white, plastic table next to the keg.
“However,” you said, “I concede to let you stay because watching you put up with everyone is going to be amusing.”
He must have made some sort of face, because you preened and waggled the cup at him.
“Do you want a drink?”
He eyed the dodgy keg. And the plastic, wobbly table holding all the mixers up.
High school parties, man.
“I suppose,” he said. “After all, my night was meant to be spent at a real bar tonight—with real-sized humans—getting plastered.”
Not that there any way he was actually getting wasted tonight—not with an audience of high schoolers surrounding him.
You hummed and reached for the plastic keg hose.
“Do you reckon that’s what it was, then? Why you jumped?” It hissed, shooting gold. The cup brimmed with foam. “Mutual plans to get trashed aligning?”
Shrugging he took it from you. It smelled like shitty, cheap beer. He didn’t want to admit that the jump was probably due to his lack of desire to see Rose again, so all he said was, “Maybe.”
“Whose house is this anyway?” he said.
“Sodam something. Some guy Kyle knows through the Lantern Corps—that boy-scouts-meets-cadets thing.”
Jason snorted. Of course Kyle Rayner was a fucking Lantern.
Kyle fucking Rayner.
He’d had the kid for a semester the previous year and had to put up with his cocky, grating personality the entire time. He was generally pretty smart when he did his own work, but for his final assignment he’d gotten lazy and turned in an essay that lit up on plagiarism software like a Molotov-ed Narrows storefront on Devil’s Night. It was enough for Jason to decide that he didn’t like him. Enough, but that wasn’t all.
Rayner had a reputation with the female student body at Gotham Heights High that was so infamous it had made it all the way up to the rumour mill in the staff room. Normally he didn’t give much credence to that shit, but Jason had seen Rayner all over you even before he bonded with you—and watching him pin you against the wall outside his room the other day hadn’t helped his case.
Someone called your name from outside the glass sliding doors.
“Okay, come on, we’re going outside,” you said, leaving him to follow.
The backyard was decked out with string lights too, and a few dozen people milled around in groups, chatting, laughing, some sitting on cracked plastic chairs—most standing. There was a flat, paved area where someone had set up a beer pong table.
He went with you to Duke who was talking to a long-haired boy in a basketball jersey. Duke’s eyes went wide as he realised who you were toting.
“Ahaha, nooooooooo. 21 Jump Street’s here?”
Drily, Jason said. “His name was Hanson. Jump Street was the address.”
“Actually, their names were Schmidt and Jenko.”
“Actually,” you said to Duke, “Hanson was the original, Schmidt and Jenko were in the reboot movies. But,” you shrugged at Jason, “I’m still giving it to Duke because the reboots were better.”
You low-fived Duke and Jason cursed into his cup, taking another sip.
The long-haired boy who had been chatting with Duke nodded at him. “The leather jacket suits you, dude. Very hardcore, very ‘don’t talk to me’.”
Jason gave him a black look. The kid nodded once and skedaddled.
“Where’s your third amigo?” he said, noting the distinct lack of a blue undercut.
“She had to stay at home with her brother—total bummer,” you said.
Eddie Bloomberg stood at one end of the beer pong table, waving at you.
“Oh man,” you said, “I forgot—last one of these I called Eddie a coward and challenged him to beer pong.”
Duke’s head snapped up.
“Did you say ping pong?” A look of terror passed over his face.
“Oh, thank God,” he said.
“What’s that supposed to be mean?” Jason said.
“You never want to find out,” he replied.
You rolled your eyes and said to Jason, “Well—are you joining my team, or brooding in the corner?”
“No. The last thing I need is to be responsible for beating some kid’s ass and them getting their stomach pumped. How long are you planning on staying here, anyway?”
The reality of agreeing to stay at a party with high schoolers was settling in, and he felt the greasy, conniving eyes of students he’d sent to the jar assessing him.
You rolled your eyes. “Fine. And not too long. Not that you have to stay.”
“I’m staying,” he said again.
The only thing worse than being implicated in a high school party with his soulmate was being implicated in the party, leaving said soulmate, and then hearing something bad had happened. He was stuck here until you left.
Eddie was lining up the pyramid of cups on one end of the table. He cracked open a can of hard cider and started topping up cups.
“Oh, come on, that’s not even beer,” he said, “and they’re filling the cups way too high. They’re just trying to get you drunk.”
“Fine,” you said again, “Then I’ll split my cups with you.”
He instinctively went to protest and fob the task off on someone else, but he couldn’t in good conscious offload cup sharing onto anyone who still called him ‘Sir’.
Begrudgingly, he grumbled out a vague agreement and stepped closer to the table, sending Eddie a dirty look. He stood the whole game with his arms crossed, hopefully sending out whatever ‘Don’t talk to me’ vibes long-haired-boy had been talking about. It seemed, for the most part, to work.
As it turned out, you were pretty good. Eddie was down three to one within a five-minute window.
“Jason,” you swatted his arm after he downed your cup. God, he was glad he had an actual income now so that he could afford better alcohol than this high school party standard piss. “That was my cup!”
“Jason, eh?” a leggy blonde said passing by the table—it was Jaina—and he repressed a shudder thinking about back to the start of the year when she’d tried to soulmate check him. “I didn’t know you had a first name.”
“You see?” he said to you. “This is why I have cup claiming rights.”
After the game (you won, he noted with a spark of pride), he was Ariadne and you were the string. He shadowed you as you wound your way through the party, occasionally chiming in to conversation when it interested him. His first instinct may have been to say that your friends were tiny and their brains still forming, but, he relented, they weren’t so bad.
At some stage, Bart threw up on some girl’s shoes, and Jason walked by just to gloat.
“Looks rough, Allen.”
So, the night wasn’t a total bust either.
He left you to go to the bathroom, which was upstairs, and as the steps marginally swayed, it forced him into the realisation that perhaps he’d forgotten just how potent shitty high school party drinks were, and he decided to call it quits on that front for the night.
The lights in the bathroom were off, but a silhouette was bent over the sink, splashing water onto their face.
Jason flicked the light switch, and nothing happened. Broken, then.
The figure straightened; his face illuminated by a beam of warm light from the corridor.
“Damn,” Kyle said, “You’re here?”
“Unfortunately,” Jason replied.
“Did she bring you?”
“Jumped,” he replied. “Trust me, on my list of places to stop off tonight, the American reboot of Skins wasn’t one of them.”
Kyle shook his hands off, water droplets flicking across the sink, some landing on the faintly lit mirror.
“Figures. Y/N matches with the one guy who fails me in a class.”
“Get better at plagiarising next time.”
Kyle laughed, his mouth widening into a shit-eating grin.
“It’s fine, I think I still came out on top,” he said.
“Yeah?” Jason said.
His smirk grew.
“A word for the wise,” Kyle said, “she makes this little gasp when you kiss her neck—adorable. Oh, and she’s ticklish right,” he skimmed the inside of his thigh, “here.”
Jason’s jaw tightened.
Kyle smirked and went to slip past him, the fucker. On his way out, Jason feigned a move in his direction, stomping his foot loudly on the tiled floor, and the kid flinched.
It was a minor satisfaction; however, it did nothing to unwind the feeling souring in him.
Around one thirty, things were winding down, and you got your coat.
“Bailing time,” you said.
“Finally.” Though honestly, besides Rayner running his mouth, it’d been an alright night.
“You weren’t obligated to stay,” you said, and then promptly stumbled into him as you walked out of the house.
He caught you, chuckling as you righted yourself. “Yeah, I was.”
You blew out a breath but didn’t complain.
Jason knew he shouldn’t let it get to him—you were a teenager, not a nun—but the thought of Rayner with his hands all over you made him feel emotions he hadn’t expected to feel towards you for quite some time.
To be honest, the only lens through which Jason had ever viewed you had been as a student—as someone younger than him and off-limits. He hadn’t even thought of you as someone even possessing a sexuality up until this point. Sure, he’d be lying if he said he didn’t zone out every now and then thinking about those moments from the bondtouch. How could he not. It set his dick off just at the reminder of them. But you weren’t quite the person in those images yet, and if anything, Jason had just felt protective of you. Had he, in all his reluctance, realised that perhaps you had managed to worm your way through a couple of his defences? Maybe. Okay, well, yes, fine, it was a resounding yes, and it worried Jason with the degree to which he no longer minded seeing you, talking to you, or being around you. But accidentally ogling you—being forced into the realisation that you were attractive—and listening to Rayner gloat about it was doing a number on him tonight he didn’t ask nor prepare for.
Thankfully, whatever bout of blurriness Jason had been feeling after beer pong had worn off, and looking at you teeter ever so slightly now, he was glad he’d been there to save you from the beer pong cups.
The bus stop closest to Sodam’s place was right by a convenience store. Its sign illuminated a pocket of the dark street in a white glow.
“Wait here,” he said, and popped into the store, leaving you in a pool of storefront light.
When he returned, he handed you a bottle of water, and gingerly you took it, turning it over in your hands, condensation wetting them.
You stared at it for a moment longer, eyebrows drawing together.
Quietly, you said, “I didn’t ask for this.”
He shrugged, remembering all the hangovers he’d had which Alfred had disappointingly eyed him for; tugging open the thick drapes and returning five minutes later to plonk a glass of water by his bed.
“You’ll need it,” he said.
Your fingers were rigid on the bottle, and your eyes followed cars passing on the street adjacent to you. You pressed your lips together as though you were thinking of what to say.
“I’m not… your responsibility,” you said to him. “Staying at the party, doing this… You don’t have to look after me. You do enough.”
Oh, so that was what it was.
“It’s not looking after you, it’s looking out for you. There’s a difference.”
You looked like you wanted to protest, but instead, your eyes stubbornly roamed at a point behind him.
“You remind me of me, you know,” he said, and your eyes found their way back to his.
“After Bruce adopted me, I resented everything I got from him.”
“I don’t resent you,” you said.
“I didn’t think you did. But you and me, we looked after ourselves growing up. You still do it every time your mom goes away, and I did it in foster care. It took me years to figure out that letting someone do something for me wasn’t a weakness.”
You didn’t say anything.
A gentle breeze blew through the air, and a length of your hair danced with it.
You looked like you might say something, but there was a mechanical rumble and yellow headlights illuminated the sidewalk.
Unbound by the spell, you both headed to the thrumming bus.
Inside, the conversation shifted back to other places, to menial things that were inconsequential, agreeably padding out the silence. The tension that had been there went gently out with the nighttime passengers, and after a time, he noted with concealed contentment, your fingers wandered to the plastic cap and broke the seal.
Thanks for all the comments, guys! Been reading them and they make my heart go "dkjfgnkdj" every time ❤️
By some miracle, Jason’s appearance at Sodam’s party didn’t make its way around school like almost every other interaction you publicly shared did. It was an open secret in your year group that “Mr. Todd rocked up at a party and was pretty chill about it” (an embellishment that you had to laugh at—as if Jason would ever have willingly gone), but if it made its way to staff or the other grades, there were never any consequences, and no one ran their mouth off about it in classes.
In the end, he’d walked you home as promised, and said goodbye like it was any other day (though, he did make you promise to text him in the morning to make sure you were fine), and things returned to normal. You returned to your routine of him picking you up to go to school, avoiding each other in class, and then seeing each other on either a Saturday or Sunday. It was comfortable, and some days had their premiums; those were the days when you got a glimpse into the mystery that was Jason Todd.
Ding ding ding.
“Arty!” Jason called out, tapping the bell on the counter like a first grader pushing a crosswalk button. “I need a copy of Dune!”
“It’s fine, really,” you said. Jason craned around the serving counter at Outlaw Books, peering into the back office for someone to serve him. “I can get it from a library.”
“The library window of opportunity has expired. I no longer trust you. Plus, you’re going to want to reread it. Rereading requires a copy on hand in your room.”
Ding ding ding.
“For the love of the GODDESS,” you heard through the door to the back room. A very tall, very muscular redheaded woman thrust open the door, “IF I HEAR THAT BELL ONE MORE- oh, hello.”
She cut herself off when she saw you standing with Jason.
Arty looked from Jason, to you, then back to Jason again.
“Nothing appears to be wrong with her, what did she do to deserve being stuck with you?”
“Hilarious, Artemis, tell it to the mic at stand-up,” Jason said. “I need a copy of Dune.”
Their bantering reminded you of the way Jason had been with Roy and Dick at the courthouse. There was something playful about him with his friends that took you aback when you got to see it. You were still in high school, so of course Jason seemed so much more mature to you, but seeing him like this was a reminder that twenty-four really wasn’t the pinnacle of maturity. You watched Jason smugly reach out and ding the bell again and the woman’s eye twitched.
Yeah. Really, really not.
“I require some service,” he said, and the woman pointedly ignored him.
“I’m Artemis, tiny one,” she said. Usually you’d be offended at a remark like that—you weren’t that short—but compared to Artemis, everyone probably was tiny. She extended her hand, and you took it.
“Hey, I’m Y/N.”
“Ah, fuck this, I’m finding Biz,” you heard Jason say before he delved further into the store and disappeared behind a shelf.
Artemis’ grip on your hand tightened and she looked down into your eyes.
“Quick, what do you want to know? I have dirt, I’ve witnessed Jason doing things no eyes should see.”
“You know I can hear you, right?”
Artemis let go of your hand.
“Oh, finally, he doesn’t tell me anything,” you said. “What’ve you got?”
She counted on her fingers.
“Embarrassing childhood stories. Embarrassing college stories. Idiotic childhood stories. Idiotic college stories. Criminal trespassing. Criminal-”
Jason’s voice rung out from behind the towering shelves. “Is Biz not in today?”
“Oh, this is a good one,” Artemis said, “So we’d been drinking with Bizarro, who—NO, HE’S NOT HERE TODAY, I TOLD YOU HE WAS VISITING CLARK—who’s a big guy,” she said, gesturing a wide berth with her arms, though it was hard to imagine another giant running this store. “Biz was tastefully buzzed, so we took him home—and keep in mind, Jason had matched him drink for drink, so you can imagine how unintelligible that wisp of a man was.”
You raised an eyebrow, because Jason was absolutely six foot two and well-built out. How big was this Bizarro guy?
“You know,” said Jason from deep within the store, “there’s hyperbole happening in this story.”
“So we walked Biz home and tucked him in, and then Jason gets this bright idea to pull off the Copplebot plan. I don’t know if you’ve heard this one yet, but Jason—”
“Breaking into his house and persuading him to retire?” you said.
“Yes, tiny one,” she said, proudly staring down at you, “that’s the one.”
“So we hitchhike down to The Iceberg Lounge—very unsafe by the way, the drivers would not have survived had we been thieves and murders—and we jimmied the lock on the backdoor of the club.”
“Allegedly,” Jason said, his head popping around the corner of a shelf. “Allegedly.”
“Allegedly breaking in,” she said. “Wait, did I mention Jason throwing up on the pavement before this? I did not. But he did. Violently. He’s lucky they never found out we were there, because there would have been DNA everywhere.”
You grinned and looked over at Jason, knowing you were never going to hear another single sentence from him about being a lightweight at Sodam’s ever again.
“So we broke in and snuck past a couple of goons, and by the luck of Hera, found Penguin’s office. I say luck because, well, we might have had alcohol poisoning. I don't know, it was hard to see. So we riffled through it for, what—twenty minutes?—looking for a letter or anything with his home address on it.”
When you looked over Jason was walking towards you, a thick book in his hand, but he was sneaking a glance at an old, hardback edition of The Three Musketeers in a glass display cabinet near the register. He dragged his eyes away from it and set Dune down on the counter.
“Arty, you’re making me look bad,” he said. “If we’d found it, then this would have been an acceptable story.”
January crept by, that annual Gotham snowfall came, and your workload took an incline. Though you saw Jason nearly every other day, you didn’t exactly have the time to think too hard about him in general, and logically, you knew it was only going to get more intense from there.
There were only about three things you had to look forward to that year. The first being graduation, because it meant freedom and college, the second being prom—because it meant that you were about to graduate—and then lastly, there was senior camp.
Senior camp was a tradition in your school—formally, it was a study camp that lasted a couple of days where you had time to learn the ins and outs of what was expected of you in the SATs and hear from “key academic speakers”—but informally, everyone knew it was your last chance to fuck around as a cohort before finals came and crushed your lifeforce into a pathetic, charred crisp. It was held out at some lake in the middle of who-the-fuck-knew-where, but with Duke and Harper going, you knew you’d probably have a good time.
So with January creeping by, you’d barely stuck your head up above the last Civics essay, when suddenly it was February, and everyone was talking about Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day at your high school was always a certified event.
Done to support whatever charity your school was endorsing that year—this year, Soulmates Without Borders, a program reuniting refugees with their soulmates—you could pay a couple of dollars and send a rose to your Valentine, which got delivered during classes throughout the day. In previous years they’d organised undertakings like paid serenades from the music students, and song requests to play over the PA system at lunch or between periods, however those two had been particularly insufferable, and unsurprisingly were not making a return this year.
Usually you didn’t give a single thought to Valentine’s day when it rolled around—before any of this, you hadn’t really cared for dating, so you’d never anticipated it, nor cared if you got a rose. And occasionally you did get a rose, but those events typically coincided with some guy following you around that previous week until you gently told him to take a hike.
This year was different.
“Are you getting Mr. Todd a rose?” Shauna said as you waited for your French teacher to finally show up.
“What? No,” you replied.
“Why not? I thought you were one of those types to say fuck tradition and get the guy the rose,” she said.
It was a startling good assessment of you for someone who you barely talked to, but still. “He’s my teacher, so, no.”
She’d rolled her eyes, but that was hardly the last of it.
People had generally been okay in Jason’s class, likely fearing the wrath of the jar. That was until the week leading up to Valentine’s day, and suddenly it became open season.
“Mr. Todd,” a voice drawled, “did you get Y/N a rose?”
Jason turned around and glared at Bart.
“I know you’re in the denial phase,” said Kristen. “But I kind of think you have to. If Luce didn’t get me a rose, I’d crawl into a hole and die.”
Lucy leaned over her desk to Kristen, whispered something in her ear then fired a peck onto her cheek. Kristen grinned and they shared a secret glance.
On the one hand, you wondered if you should be at least a smidge grateful that people had taken up the task of wing-womaning you, but really, was it worth the humiliation?
Jason stared tiredly at the sea of seniors.
Usually his first response to anyone making a query about you two was to send them to the jar, but it was possible he’d been getting interrogated about this as much as you and wanted to end it once and for all, because Jason said, “Ms. L/N, how old are you?”
“Seventeen,” you replied, sinking into your seat and mentally preparing yourself for whatever humiliation you were about to endure.
Next to you, Harper ruffled your hair in pity, which had, over the last few months, become a love language between you two.
“Exactly,” Jason said with finality.
“Pretty sure she turns eighteen next month,” said Helena Yin, hand on her chin, batting of her eyelashes.
“Helena,” Jason said, “grace the jar with your presence. In fact, all of you: jar.”
She groaned, but by then, it’d already set off a chain of whispers. You spent the rest of the lesson studiously ignoring them and Jason.
Valentine’s Day fell on a Tuesday.
Despite the overbearing chaos and regular irritation its organisation caused Jason, he’d completely forgotten about the holiday that morning until he’d walked into the building at eight a.m. and seen spiderwebs of musk and strawberry crepe streamers all over the walls.
The harassment from students about it had been worse than Gotham press at a Wayne Gala, and to make it worse, he’d even had to deal with some old, conservative science teacher who looked more like a skeleton than a live human, ask him if he’d placed his order yet.
No, he pointedly told everyone who asked, despite it not being their goddamn business, he was not getting you a rose.
The idea of sending a rose to you was inappropriate and weird, and furthermore, there was no way in hell he would have ever stood in front of whatever smarmy student was taking orders for roses, looked them dead in the eye and said “I’d like a rose to send to my seventeen-year-old-soulmate-slash-student, thanks. And then, immediately, send me to fucking jail.”
It was third period, and you were a little late to the class, rushing into your seat between Duke and Harper, hastily unpacking your books while the class chattered away in a hum around you.
There was a knock on the door, and Jason motioned to a student to open it.
The senior who walked in was decked out in plastic vines draped over an oversized muscle-bodysuit (the one that he strongly suspected used to be the ‘God’ bodysuit from the art department’s live recreation of The Creation of Adam last year).
“Ho ho, citizens! I come, casting joy and my spell of love into the air,” he said, throwing a handful of paper confetti into the ceiling fan, where it rained in fluttering spirals down onto everyone.
There were a couple of chortles, and Jason languidly stared at it, thinking about how it was going to be in his carpet all day until at four p.m. their cleaner, Lou, the poor guy, would have to vacuum it out.
“‘Ho ho?’” someone said from the back of the class, “What are you, Santa Claus?”
“Quiet, dissident,” the kid in the bodysuit said, feigning reaching for the Cupid bow slung over his puffed up, foam shoulder, and a couple of guys in his class—probably his friends—snickered.
“Get on with it,” Jason said, taking the distraction as an opportunity to put up notes on the whiteboard. He popped off the lid of his whiteboard marker, mind switching to the day’s text.
His concentration lasted about twenty seconds before the irritating commotion of Cupid-God forced him to give up.
Cupid-God handed out roses in a ceremonial manner, mostly consisting of him, in a booming voice, botching names and saying, “Am I pronouncing this right? I don’t - where are you, young sir, madam or otherwise?”
The roses were less-than-stellar too, marred with brown creases on their pink, crimson or coral petals—several wilting visibly too. Alfred would have shed a tear in judgement.
In the end, the whole thing took about five minutes longer than it should have, and Jason was itching to get back to what he’d had planned for the day.
On his way out the door, Cupid-God stopped by your desk, and reached into his sack, dropping something down on the desk in front of you.
“From two anonymous persons. Or, anonymi, which should be a word,” Cupid-God said.
You looked up at Jason questioningly.
There, on your desk, were two red roses.
You picked them up and thumbed a floppy petal.
Two of them.
Two, which would indicate that there were at least two other students in this school who, even after knowing you’d matched with him, still thought they had a shot with you.
Jason could feel his frown at the roses deepening, but he couldn’t stop himself. What was the goal there, to take advantage of the fact that he couldn’t do anything with you right now and get there first? To charm you, take you out, and score on Prom night?
He bet one of them was from Kyle Rayner, the stupid arty asshole.
Cupid-God left the room, and the place swelled with talk, people gushing about their roses, complaining that they hadn’t gotten one—some people closest to you asking about the roses in front of you too.
For the millionth time since the bond-touch, Jason lamented having met you here and not when you were older, probably in college, or after that, at some overcrowded dive bar that Roy had dragged him to. He would have flirted with you over the sharp smell of cheap beer and salted peanuts, and after you’d said something particularly in character, he’d have looked over and thought, ‘God I hope it’s her’.
You’d have touched accidentally, or more likely knowing Jason, on purpose when he pulled a move—tucking a lock of hair behind your ear, knuckles bumping as he passed you a perspiring glass—and you’d have bonded. You’d have felt that same, sensory explosion of the bondtouch, and he’d have looked into your eyes, aflame in the light of the bar. And then, after already falling for you all night, he’d have bent down and kissed you.
But it didn’t happen that way. Not even close.
Jason uncapped his whiteboard marker again and faced you, one hand in his pocket.
He whistled, low and loud.
The room fell into pin-drop silence, and you looked up at him.
He was regretting it before he’d even done it, but fuck it if thinking too hard about the consequences of his actions was ever Jason’s strong suit.
“Damn, Littlewing, two?” he said. “Don’t break too many hearts.”
Your mouth popped open into a little ‘o’, and then, he turned back around, and resumed writing on the whiteboard.
It was the subject of talk for a week, and you wanted the earth to swallow you. Not necessarily because it’d happened—the fact that Jason had called you Littlewing made something inside you flutter. You dimly remembered Dick calling Jason that too, and wondered if it was a thing his family said to each other. The fact that he’d done it in response to your Valentines left you equally as curious—was he teasing? Your mind unhelpfully supplied that there might be another explanation for it, but then you remembered the waitress—how he’d been unable to even call you his soulmate in front of someone—and then that hope died down again.
But no, it wasn’t just his words that left you tossing and turning every night for a week, it was more so that everyone at your high school was a gossip obsessed with any drama relating to soulmates, and over the course of a week you’d heard the whole thing get twisted a million different ways.
“Mr. Todd has a nickname for Y/N, and he practically flirted with her in front of the whole class when he saw that she had another rose.”
“Y/N sent herself roses to make Mr. Todd jealous, and it totally worked.”
“Mr. Todd actually said he was going to kick whoever’s ass it was that sent them to her.”
“Y/N totally likes him, but he said in front of the whole class that there’s no way he’d ever get her anything for Valentine’s day. Doesn’t like her at all.”
You didn’t exactly know how Jason really felt about you which was eating at you enough as it was, but the last one hit a little too close to home. You were allowed to wallow in the fact that you liked him and he clearly didn’t look twice at you, but having it peddled around the school by word of mouth wasn’t something you wanted or needed.
And then there was the memory of how he’d touched your cheek for the soulmark—the way it’d been mechanical and performative but nothing more, it was nothing to him. There was the fact that he hadn’t wanted you to meet Dick or, you suspected, the rest of his family, since you hadn’t met them yet. Then, most vivid of all, there was the diner and the waitress… Her pink palm facing up, hopeful. That silence.
Come Friday night, after another day of looking at Jason with a cruel twisting in your stomach, and you still couldn’t sleep. It was stuffy in your room, your mattress was annoyingly soft, and with the way you kept sinking into it, it was like being in desert quicksand. Suffocating, sweltering. You rearranged your pillow a hundred times, flung your bedspread off, and then begrudgingly found it again because you couldn’t sleep without the press of its weight on you.
You got so exhausted you eventually passed out, but when you stirred, the air was cooler. It breezed across you, fanning your skin, catching in the fine hairs of your arms. You kept your eyes closed and revelled in the relief of it. Under your nails, the sheets felt crisp and light—not that watery smooth texture from the linen your mom always bought. You were too tired to really question it, but then the bed rocked and a warm, muscular arm draped over you.
You cracked open one eye and saw the foreign wall.
Jason’s arms stiffened, and then you were both scrambling off of each other.
You sat up straight, running a hand through your hair, chest pounding. Under silver moonlight, you blinked at each other. All that was audible, your breaths.
Sleepy-Jason rode the very fine line between adorable and boyishly hot. His hair was tousled, and he was shirtless—a fact he cottoned onto fast.
Stretching over his side of the bed, he hunted around his floor for a shirt and you turned away as he put it on—though God, you were tempted to stare. You couldn’t believe you’d jumped into Jason’s bed. Of all places.
Eventually Jason stopped rustling and you turned back to face him, your heart drummed.
“Uh, hi,” he said, voice rough.
You were looking right at each other.
His eyes flickered down, and you remembered you were wearing nothing but underwear and an oversized NASA shirt that came only to your upper thigh. Thankfully you were under the sheet, and it was dark, so for the moment you were saved from that particular embarrassment.
Wide awake, staring at a perplexed Jason, you were struck by how absurd it was. The way it was inappropriate despite all his and your efforts to keep a distance, plainly embarrassing and then—to you at least to you, sitting in your underwear, amatorially intimate.
Your laugh rang out like a bell.
Jason’s brows were all straight lines and serious business, but after a few moments the corner of his mouth twitched, and soon he was shaking his head at you. He scrubbed a hand through his hair.
You held the coarse sheet, then after a moment’s consideration gave up, collapsing back down onto the pillow.
His silhouetted profile studied you.
“What’s the time?” you said.
He watched you a moment longer then rustled around off his side of the bed. Light bloomed when he turned it on.
“Ten to four.” Then more quietly, “Did you want me to drop you home?”
“I wasn’t getting much sleep there. Probably why I jumped.”
The light evanesced, and your words stewed a moment in the dark.
There was a plink as Jason set his phone down, then the mattress dipped, and he settled back down on it two feet away from you.
“Something on your mind?”
You shrugged again. Yes, and no, you wanted to say. Everything.
Every single thing that’d happened in your life since November was on your mind. The fact that you had to look at him every day while your classmates gossiped and waited for you to do something, the fact that you had this incurable, tactile urge to shuffle two feet to your right and hold him like you had in the bondtouch. The fact that you couldn’t think about him without something curling in your chest.
You focused on the ceiling, knowing you wouldn’t be able to say it if you were looking at him.
“Do you like me?” you said. “At all?”
His pillow scuffed, and you felt the weight of his eyes on you.
Another moment, and it scuffed once more.
It was dead-quiet. You stared at the ceiling together.
“Against all better judgement,” he said, “yes.”
That time, you did look at him.
You could only see the faint outline of the top of his face, the third that caught silver starlight from the open window.
“You understand why nothing can happen right now, right?”
“Yes,” you said. And you did. In some way, you thought that if he had been pulling a move on you this whole time, you probably wouldn’t have liked him. You liked the fact that he respected you enough not to do anything right now, even if another part of you wanted him too.
“I guess I just… needed to hear you say it,” you said, and you felt everything that’d been building up inside you gentling uncoiling, unwinding from that breaking point.
He had a strong jaw and nose, and for a second you entertained the fantasy of reaching over the gap and kissing him. But that was all it was, a fantasy.
“If you want, you can get some sleep here and I’ll drop you home in the morning,” he said.
“Yeah, I’d like that,” you said, and Jason sat up.
“Where are you going?”
“The couch,” he replied.
“You don’t have to go." You wouldn’t ask him to stay. You wanted to, but you didn’t think you could work yourself up to saying it.
Jason was still, a portrait you couldn't read in the dark. Quietly, he said. "I do.”
He peeled back the sheet, and climbed out.
In the end, you didn’t sleep for that long. It was probably six o’clock when you woke up. Diffused light was peeking through the window. You were able to see his room now. It had an industrial vibe—pale walls with a metal bedframe, and of course, a wooden, overflowing bookshelf with books stacked in towers beside it too. What you were surprised by was the red motorcycle helmet, though really, he fit the profile.
Hopping out of the bed, you were reminded that you were only wearing a shirt that didn’t cover much. Spying a vertical mirror in the corner of the room, you went to it to assess the situation.
You had some bed hair which you were able to finger-brush into pretty good submission, but the shirt was going to cause problems. You weren’t wearing a bra and you figured you could cross your arms when you went out to see Jason, but there wasn’t anything you could do about its scant length.
You tugged it further down then wandered out of his room, into a living room that opened out into a tidy kitchen.
Jason lay on the couch like a prisoner killing time. He stared at the ceiling, an arm under his head.
At the creak of your step, Jason looked towards you and froze. He glanced at your legs, and his mouth popped opened. He pointedly looked towards the far wall and sat up.
“Uhhhh,” he said.
“I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘pants’,” you said.
“Yep,” he hopped up, brushing past you, “I’m gonna… pants…” and he disappeared back into his bedroom.
There was a clunk, and a thud, and then another thud, and Jason was back with a grey lump which you assumed were sweats.
You reached out for them, touching your hand on the material bobbled from wash and wear, but you didn’t take them. Not yet.
You looked up at him.
“I want you to know,” you said, and he looked at you, “the face you made just then? Priceless.”
Revenge for the Valentine’s Day comment, motherfucker.
Smirking at the way his face instantly shut down, you tugged the sweats from his hand and slipped past him. When you heard another thud, which you took to be Jason accidentally walking into the doorframe, you couldn’t contain a bubble of quiet laughter to yourself.
The sweats were pretty gigantic on you, but they had a drawstring, so you managed to make do—pulling them tight and rolling them where you could. You probably looked a little goofy, and despite your best efforts, the hems still trailed on the floor with every step.
When you came back into the living room right by the kitchen, it smelled of coffee, and Jason was standing by a window, mug in hand. Silver mist painted the outside morning, and you wandered closer to the window, looking out onto the pale streets.
“Where exactly are we?” You said, bringing your hands around to touch the cool backs of your arms, revelling in the cool change that’d taken place during the night.
“Midtown Gotham. King street.”
“Huh—how come you don’t teach at Gotham City High then? Seems closer.”
In Gotham, there were three main high schools most went to. It was either Gotham Academy for the rich kids that trumped around in their starched grey blazers and blue sweaters, or, if you were a mortal like everyone else, you went to Gotham City, or Gotham Heights High, where you were.
“I went to Gotham City High for a while—then, Gotham Academy. Didn’t want to teach at either of those,” he said.
“You were a Gotham Academy kid?”
“Unfortunately.” You couldn’t quite tell, but he appeared to be grinning into his mug. “Perks of being a Wayne. Got kicked out though.”
“What did you do?”
“Think it was a combo of the smoking and fights.”
You huffed. Yeah, seemed right.
Skimming the soft fabric of the sweats, you remembered the conversation you’d had last night, and a contented ember glowed in you. The whole morning so far had been surreal, from waking up in his room to standing in his apartment—something you hadn’t considered you’d see for a long, long time.
Jason wandered behind the counter, into his kitchen.
“Breakfast?” he said.
“What’ve you got?”
“Eggs, bacon, toast, yogurt… there’s some fruit… and I’m pretty sure Dick left some ungodly cereal last time he was here.”
“Yogurt and fruit,” you said, “though the ungodly cereal sounds tempting.”
He exhaled in amusement and began pulling items out of the fridge.
“So, is your mom away again, or do I need to call her and explain that I didn’t kidnap you?”
You rolled your eyes and said, “Away. But if anything, I think technically I kidnapped myself. Then broke and entered.”
“Yeah, they used to put people away for that back in the day.”
You reached your hands out over the table as though you were surrendering for an arrest. He slid a bowl to you over the wooden table. It rasped in a low pitch along the varnished, knotted wood.
“You can turn me in but then you’d have to drive to Blackgate to come visit me. The checkpoint traffic will never be worth it.”
“Hmm, seems like you know the terrain of Blackgate suspiciously well already.”
You dropped your wrists and focused on the tub of yogurt instead, cracking it open.
“I do,” you said.
He was rustling behind the bench, and you heard the tell-tale click of the stove. A crackle, and then sizzling.
“My dad’s in Blackgate,” you said, keeping your eyes pinned on Jason to gage his response. You expected him to freeze up like most people did, or maybe conduct a moment of pity silence; what you didn’t expect was for Jason to snort and say, “Huh—mine too.”
You set the spoon down that you’d been dishing out breakfast with, and it chinked in the bowl. “Really?”
“Damn. I thought that was going to be my one hard-ass-factor flex over you.”
“Gonna have to try harder than that. I was raised in the part of Gotham that’s literally called Crime Alley.”
“Well I mean, I figured you had some deep, dark past. What’d he do?”
“Cigarette burns,” he said, and you remembered the mottled pink and white scarring you’d seen at the registry. He absently trailed a fingernail over where they decorated his chest.
“Got him on robbery and assault too,” he said. “In for another ten years at least.”
The pan hissed and spit. He pinned you with a look. “Yours?”
“Killed my mom’s soulmate,” you replied. “Don’t think he’s ever getting out.”
You’d barely known him and didn’t think about him much. The only memory you had was blurry—sitting on a lap, and the texture of a navy polo t-shirt. By the time you’d visited him as a kid, he was a gaunt stranger in a navy jumpsuit, and you felt nothing towards him. To be honest, his absence didn’t affect you all the much. Not in the way most people assumed it would. You didn’t lament not having a father figure to take you to baseball games—your mom had done that, and probably knew more about the subject than any man within a twenty-mile radius too. Neither did you have some instinctive craving in your life for a father—the idea of anyone needing someone because of their gender was plain bullshit to begin with.
But it affected you in the sense that it affected your mom, and you felt the trickle-down effect. She worked a lot, and though you didn’t blame her for wanting to do something to keep occupied with, it would have been nice to see her more. Perhaps you missed the idea of someone else being around, if only to pad out the times that you were home and had no one around to talk to.
Jason put his plate on the table and slid into the chair opposite you.
“Hmmn,” he said. “So, the offspring of felons, huh?”
It was the first time you’d ever told someone who hadn’t immediately apologised for it or given you a look of pity. In a way, you thought, maybe it was the sort of thing only someone else in your situation could understand.
You felt a smile creep onto your face. “Huh.”
Peering through the small, submarine-like window, you felt your eyebrows draw together. You cupped a hand against the wire mesh glass, but there was no sign of life.
You stepped away from the door and spied Roy a few paces down the hall, unlocking his own room. It was recess break and you had about fifteen minutes before class began, with almost everyone still outside. You headed towards him.
“Hey,” you said, waving him down. “Do you know where Jason is?”
“Hey, junior. Yeah,” he pointed back to where you’d been standing. “In his room.”
“Really? I could have sworn…” you said, looking back over. “Nevermind, thanks,” you said to him, taking off back in the direction you’d come.
You cracked open the door—so it was unlocked, you thought—and stepped inside. From the now superior vantage point, you realised where you’d made your mistake. Jason wasn’t at his desk, but you could see the soles of his black leather shoes sticking out from the bottom of it. You had no idea what he was doing, but you had to capitalise on these sorts of things while you could.
Shutting the door as quietly as you could, you snuck closer to the desk.
“Whatchya doing down there?”
There was a thunk and Jason emerged from underneath his desk.
He scowled and pointed a black and yellow-ribbed screwdriver at you. Oh.
“You,” he said. “Don’t act all innocent, this is one hundred percent the doing of you fucks.”
You grinned down at him. “Noticed the screws, huh?”
For your senior prank, you’d brainstormed a billion different ideas and settled on the screws as one of them. Your grade had been chipping away at it for months, sneaking in screwdrivers and swiping odd screws from various items around the school—you yourself had gotten a couple from chairs in the computer labs in building three, and you knew for a fact it was Mal Duncan who’d done Jason’s desk. The goal was to have collected a couple of buckets’ worth of odd screws by the end of the year, and to leave them in Pierno’s office with zero explanation of whence they came.
“Mystery screws have been done before,” he said. “I knew the second I saw them missing.”
“Original? No. But still capable of causing mass panic? Yeah.”
He shook his head. “In my day, the shit we did was unparalleled. We stole the gargoyles from Gotham Academy and put them in Gotham City High. They had to get a crane to get them off the lawns.”
“The gargoyle one was YOU guys?”
“Yeah. And there was another grade, couple above mine, this crazy chick called Harleen put lines of glitter on the blades of every fan in the school—in the aircon too, and a couple of the machines in the woodwork rooms. For months when we turned on appliances, people got coated. I went home to Bruce looking like a human bath bomb.”
“Is there a photo of that?”
He jabbed the screwdriver in your direction. “You’ll never see it.”
“We’ll see,” you said. He grumbled something and went back under the desk. Dropping your binder on the ground, you sat down and ducked under the side perpendicular to him, feeling the acrylic bobbles of carpet beneath your fingers. His elbows were sticking out in the air as he worked a screw into the frame of the desk.
“Anyway, sounds like all this criticism is based on the assumption that we don’t have other ‘plans’ in store.”
His elbow fell a fraction, and he fixed you with a hard stare.
“Will any of these plans affect me directly?”
“You yourself have contributed to the now staunch views I have on snitchery, so I don’t want to hear it,” you said, and he snorted. He picked up another screw from a small pile that camouflaged into the carpet. You frowned at them. “Did you buy extra screws to fix your desk? Because it probably wouldn’t have collapsed. The sentiment was to cause the panic, not to actually break anything.”
“Me?” he said, setting the pointed end against the black metal hole. “Fuck no. I spent the morning in the science room stealing them from Fries’ desk. There were definitely ones already missing when I got there too. I give it a week before it caves. Not even that. A good shove.”
You laughed and he twirled the screwdriver with mechanical precision into desk. Were anyone to walk in, you imagined you’d make a peculiar sight: two pairs of legs sticking out from under a desk.
“Did you need something?” he said. “How come you’re here?”
“Huh, dunno,” you said. “Guess I just came.”
He stopped screwing and glanced at you.
Belatedly and rather pathetically you realised that barring weekend visits to stop your mark kicking you in the chest, it was the first time either of you had willingly sought the other out just for the sake of company. In the dim light of your hidden cove, he watched you.
“In that case,” he said, dragging his eyes back to the desk, “as recompense, you can hand me screws.”
“For the record, this is out of the kindness of my heart. I neither accept nor admit responsibility,” you said, sweeping them into the palm of your hand. Several rolled and jumped like fleas along the carpet, but you corralled them together in the end.
“So,” you said, selecting one and rolling it between your thumb and forefinger. “What’d Mr. Fries do to piss you off?”
“I have a mental list and so far I’ve got twenty-seven. For one: the fucker is always taking my parking spot. It says my fucking name on it. He can fucking see it. He does it anyway. Two: this one time we were at a faculty meeting, and the guy starts blathering on and on about cryogenics…”
The tv crackled and flashed, and white light danced on the shiny red surface of a tipped plastic popcorn bowl discarded on the floor. Salt grains and those few remaining un-popped kernels lazed on the inner wall of the bowl, ready to spritz along the floor were anyone to accidentally kick it.
“UGH, I can’t look at it.”
“Quit being a pussy, Duke,” Harper said. “No—don’t,” she pulled the pillow from his eyes and wrestled with him on the couch.
On the screen, Jeff Goldblum was moulting into The Fly. His fingernails oozed fluid, and in slow, sick movements, he pulled them from his fingertips. The score intensified.
“LOOK at ugly Goldblum,” she said, finally pinning him down, “LOOK at him!”
“That’s not the man of my dreams!” Duke yelled. “That’s not him!”
You thought you heard a knock at the front door, but wrote it off when you realised it was from the tv.
You hadn’t made a big deal about your eighteenth for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, you knew everyone else would make a big deal about it if you broadcasted it with a party invite, and the second was that parties were fun and all when you weren’t hosting, but spending the morning after picking up sticky cups was an ass of a way to spend any day, let alone a day where you felt queasy. But perhaps, the most compelling of these was the fact that your mom was away, and you would have been evicted or publicly hanged if she’d found out you’d had one here.
So, in the end you’d opted for a pizza and horror movie night with Harper and Duke, which was as good a way as any to spend a birthday.
You avoided Duke’s flailing leg, and laid your head against your hand, subconsciously tapping the pizza box on your lap.
Jason hadn’t brought up your birthday the week before, which meant he’d probably forgotten, which you were fine with. Birthdays had never really been a big thing in your family—you actually thought your mom might have forgotten if you hadn’t called to ask her for pizza money, which sounded worse than it was, because really, it didn’t bother you. It’d just always been that way.
You settled further into the seat and grimaced at the beautifully disgusting prosthetic-monster mess on screen. It was gross, but God, you hoped you landed a horror movie gig one day.
“I’ll get it,” you said, tossing the pizza box off of your lap and leaping up.
Booking it to the door, you swung it open, and there he was.
“Uh uh uh—wait,” he said.
There was single, yellow frosted cupcake in his left hand, an unlit birthday candle protruding from it. In his right hand, a lighter sparked to life, and he touched flame to the wick.
He levelled the cupcake to you eyeline and said, “Happy birthday.”
The flame danced, and you felt something burning in your chest when you looked past it, at him.
Carefully, you liberated the cupcake from his hand, and blew out the candle. Smoke slithered, vanishing into the night air.
“Thank you,” you said, drawing it near you.
“Don’t get too impressed, your real present is here.”
He pulled an envelope out of his pocket and passed it to you.
Suspicious, you set the cupcake down just inside the door and closed it partially behind you, stepping outside. You didn’t think Harper and Duke would pry, but it didn’t hurt to take precautions.
Unsure, you plucked the envelope from his hand and cracked it open. There were several long tickets inside, almost like concert tickets, but not that—you couldn’t imagine why he would have gotten you anything like that. You pulled one out and read the black print on them.
“No,” you said. “You didn’t.”
The corner of Jason’s mouth tugged upwards.
You charged into him. He oof-ed as you tackled him into the hug, pressing your cheek into his leather jacket, your palms into his chest. An arm hesitantly came around to hug you back, and after a moment, you felt the touch of his chin on the top of your head.
“I don’t think anyone’s gotten me something so thoughtful before,” you said, though it was muffled on account of the jacket. “Thank you.”
You felt the rumble of his chest through your cheek as he laughed it off. “Don’t worry about it.”
You rolled your eyes and straightened without stepping away from him, so that you could get a better look at him. His hand slipped down to the small of your back.
They were open tickets to Gotham Film Festival in two months’ time—and from the looks of it, you’d be able to go to several different ones too. The film festival circuit in Gotham was always pretty laid back in comparison to other cities—probably because most of the world overlooked the place in general. Though it was technically a festival, it wasn’t really about awards or prestige so much as it was about letting regular people go to their usual movie theatres and see films fresh off of Cannes or Venice, sometimes months, sometimes a year before their official cinema release. It was perfect.
“Will you come with me?” you said.
“If you’d like,” he replied.
Warm, orange spill from the exterior door light gave his blue eyes a grey hue and brought out the pink of his lips. For a moment you had another ‘is he really mine? How is this my life?’ pang, but the warmth of his chest that you could feel through his shirt, the steady rhythm of his breath, grounded you.
You almost didn’t say it. You almost let it pass.
“Are you going to kiss me on my birthday or what?”
He huffed out a laugh, and although he didn’t step away, you noted with disappointment that his hand faltered, and left the small of your back.
“Kissing you on your eighteenth birthday would be a cliché,” he said.
“But even the best writers agree that if a cliché is done nicely enough,” you said, “properly earned and all that, then it’s allowed to stay in the narrative.”
He smiled sadly, and for a second you wondered if he was at least impressed that you’d tried to beat him at his own game.
There was a beat, and then he said, “There’s something wrong about waiting for you to turn eighteen to kiss you.”
It was quiet, and all you felt was the rise and fall of his chest underneath your hands.
You looked at those eyes again, grey in the orange light, then looked down, and away. A second passed, and you took a step back, leaning against the wooden frame of your front door. Wrapping your arms around yourself, chasing that missing warmth, you said, “Is there a timeline, then? Or is it a mystery?”
He crossed his arms and rocked back on his heels. He turned his head away from the light, but you could still make out the hint of a smile.
It was a Sunday morning, and the café was called The Belfry. He was marking something—sophomore assignments, you thought—while you sedatedly eyed French verb conjugations that you knew off by heart already. Je veux. Tu veux. Il veut. Elle veut. Vouv voulez. Nous voulons.
Every now and then you’d look over and find the corner of his mouth turned up at something on the page, and you fought the urge to ask him what was so funny. Spelling mistake? Unfortunate phrasing? A particularly tenuous analysis that only a fourteen-year-old could produce? It didn’t matter, you supposed. It was nice, and a part of you wondered if it’d be like this in a few years—would you be living together? Would you sit in his kitchen on quiet mornings, reading and drinking tea?
That was, when you finally escaped the off-limits bubble you were trapped in, you thought.
Nope, enough of that. Discarding the notebook on the table, you stood up.
“I’m going to go get another coffee.”
He grimaced. “If you can call it that.”
There he was again. Shaming you for getting anything with a flavour it in.
“You know, Todd, I think you lack excitement in your life.”
“Coffee with strawberry syrup in it is not excitement, it’s a massacre. A disgrace to the name of caffeine.”
“I’m not going to hear it from a man drinking mud—aka what you take when you hate your job but desperately need an additive to survive the mental trauma of the day.”
He frowned up at you, and nodded, unabashedly impressed. “That was… surprisingly scathing.”
“Thanks, I’ve been working on them.”
“Do you want to get it take away, then?" He held up his papers. "Nearly done here.”
“Sure,” you said, scooting past his chair.
There was a boy standing near the counter, not that much older than you, you suspected. He was attractive—slender but toned, and had black hair a little on the long side. But that wasn’t what drew you to him—it was the fact that his chin was in his hand, his eyes were closed, and you were sure he was sleeping standing up.
The teenager in a turquoise apron behind the counter was staring at him too, and there was a telling gap between the boy and the counter that lead you to believe he was probably next to be served but he’d fallen asleep waiting in line.
The kid at the counter shrugged at you and you shrugged back.
You considered just cutting ahead but alas, your soul was too kind.
You waved a hand in front of the boy’s face, but there was no response. You continued waving and said “Hello?” which elicited a stir.
Blinking slowly, bloodshot eyes pried themselves a sliver open, and he began to take in his surroundings.
The boy looked from you with a frown, to the counter, and jolted like electricity had gone through him.
“My bad.” He scooted forward.
You stepped in line behind him and heard him say, “I need whatever your strongest drink here is. However much caffeine you can put into a cup.”
There was a whistle and the barista—a giant, unshaven man in his forties—stepped out from the coffee machine, slinging a stained tea towel around his shoulder. He joined the kid behind the counter and put his hands on his hips.
“So, you want the quadruple-espresso-shot-mocha-nitro-cold-brew-infusion?” The man shook his head, “I’ve gotta tell you, kid, not everyone can take it.”
“I just pulled an all-nighter, fell asleep in the line and I have another meeting in an hour. I need it,” he replied. The barista shook his head in resign and went back to the coffee machine.
He paid for his item, and you went up to the counter to order yours. After paying, you shuffled a few feet to the right of the counter to wait with the boy.
“Thanks, by the way,” he said.
“No worries,” you said. “Don’t think I’ve ever actually seen someone sleep standing up. Not sure impressed would be the right word, but it sure was something.”
“That? That was nothing—this isn’t that bad,” he said, babbling, which you suspected was less of a personality trait and more due to the sleep deprivation. “Once I fell asleep during a board meeting and it cost my company a contract, and then there was the time on the rollercoaster…”
“Board meeting? How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” he said.
“Did you say you owned a company?”
The boy cleared his throat, “Oh, I’m Tim Drake, as in Drake Indust—” but he cut himself off, noticing something behind you. He scowled and tipped his head up to the heavens as if to say ‘not today, please not today’.
You looked behind you, but the only person there was Jason. You looked between Tim and Jason.
“You know Jason?” you said.
Tim’s head snapped back to you and he scoffed, as though there was a joke you weren’t getting. “Of course I know Jason.”
He chuckled to himself and then looked good-naturedly over at the kid behind the register as if to say, ‘Are you hearing this?’, and then froze.
“Wait.” He frowned, scrutinising you. “How do you know Jason? Did Jason get a friend?”
“We’re soulmates,” you said, and Tim blanched.
“What?” he said, though it was more of a squeak.
Tim looked between you and Jason, then stepped back to the counter. He leant over it, one leg hanging in the air so he could look directly at the barista. “Do you have an ETA on that order?”
“It’s going to be another minute. The quad-shot-cold-brew-infusion is an artform, kid.”
Tim grumbled noise in complaint, looked back at you, then at the back of Jason’s head.
Was he an ex-student of Jason’s? Nah, you didn’t think so. Too old. Besides, you knew the name Tim Drake, everyone did. It was one of those names you’d heard getting tossed around the news, in magazine articles, though you weren’t sure if you’d ever seen a picture of him, or knew exactly the context in which his name was discussed. Possibly something to do with Bruce Wayne, which would make sense if Jason had been adopted by Bruce.
“Sorry, how do you know Jason?” you said.
Tim, looking flighty, said, “We’re… brothers… kind of.”
He shifted uncomfortably. “Please, don’t tell him I was here. He didn’t tell me about you, so I can’t know.”
It was like turning the corner and walking smack into someone - you've hit your head, suddenly you’re dizzy, and you don’t quite know what’s going on.
Ever since the courthouse when Dick had let it slip that Jason wouldn’t have told him about having a soulmate, it’d nagged at the back of your mind that he hadn’t wanted you to meet his family. You knew there was probably something off about it based on how Jason had reacted to your mom bringing up Bruce—but truth be told, you weren’t the kind of person who desperately wanted to meet someone’s family, so you hadn’t thought too much about it. However, there was a stark difference between not being desperate to meet the rest of your soulmate’s highly intimidating, wealthy adopted family, and then said soulmate not telling his family about you at all.
The barista called out the order, and Tim collected it.
“I’ll, uh, see you round,” he said, saluting his coffee at you and retreating to the door. “Make him come to family nights. We’ve been trying for ages.”
You numbly waved at him as he backed out the glass door and disappeared around the street corner as though he’d never been there to begin with.
Jason was still at the table, lost in pages he was pouring over, pausing intermittently to annotate and cross, tick and circle; the ink of his red, ballpoint pen glistened and gleamed. You walked back to the table, and sat down, gingerly picking your notebook back up, although you didn’t open it. You toyed with the wire, spiral spine, staring idly at him, trying to return to five minutes ago, when the biggest thing on your mind had been his kitchen.
You’d been zoned out for so long that it took you an embarrassing amount of time to realise that he’d looked up over the brim of his papers, and was staring right back at you, humour in his eyes.
“Everything okay?” he said, and you straightened your back.
“Yeah,” you replied, “Of course. Why?”
He raised his eyebrows at you, like there was an obvious answer that one of you wasn’t seeing.
"You forgot your coffee.”
Over his shoulder, you spied the barista on mute calling out your name.
"Oh shit," you said, leaping back up.
So uhhhh, how are we feeling about the eventual rating for this fic? Mature or explicit? ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)
The morning began with apocalypse red—that brief period when the rising sun caught every particle of smog on the Gotham skyline, setting the sky alight in an eerie glow that you’d grown to love over the years. In the freezing cold, you’d hauled your ass onto the bus with everyone else, huddling next to Harper, trying to fall back asleep on her shoulder while the pesky, morning personalities chatted away, or belted out road trip songs no one wanted to hear.
Ugh. Give me a goddamn break, you’d thought as another round of Campfire Song caught on like an STI in a frat house.
Smash cut to four hours later, and your classmates were yelling over heads as they shuffled off of the bus, and then, to another four hours after that, and they were being yelled at to be quiet during the guest speaker seminars. By the time late afternoon had rolled around, you’d had enough of forced senior camp activities for the day, and were relieved that they’d allotted you free time to chill in your cabins or explore before dinner.
In theory, you knew Jason was around here somewhere, although you hadn’t seen him yet. Frankly, you hadn’t expected him to come to this thing at all, but his bleak explanation of, 'Yeah, well, knowing us I’d probably wind up there anyway, at least this way I get to pack a bag,' made a fair amount of sense.
There were about ten large, main cabins at the camp—each wooden, with sleek wide windows to let in the sunlight. Their designs were modern enough to let you know that someone had tried during the design phase, but said effort was negated by the mismatched, primary colour interior and the lint accumulating in corners and along the skirting boards.
In camps from previous years, boys and girls were generally not allowed to mix in the cabin common rooms—a tradition you found patently sexist and heteronormative, and you were glad that come senior year, it appeared to be dying. However, Duke’s cabin was still unfairly privileged, you complained to Harper as you dragged her by the hand over the grassy path to his cabin, because it the only one there with a ping pong table.
“Fine! But I’m swearing right now, I’m not touching a paddle,” she said, swatting at a bug going for her ankle.
Inside, you swooped in and pilfered two paddles before anyone else could take them, thrusting one into Duke’s chest.
“Come on, one game, Duke, one game.”
“Absolutely NOT.” He pushed the paddle back at you.
“I promise, I won’t go hard.”
“That’s what you said last time,” he hissed, “and my pride has still never recovered.”
“Come on, your pride’s like a parasite.” You pushed the paddle back into his arms. “Hard to kill and regenerates easily.”
“Yeah. So now you know how badly you decimated it.” The paddle was in your hands again.
You opened your mouth to argue again when Bart said, “I’ll play you. You can’t be that good.”
“Oh, Bartholomew…” Duke said, and you pumped a fist into the air. “Oh, you sweet, ginger, baby boy.”
Looking smug and unconvinced, he caught the paddle when you tossed it to him.
A couple of people were casually paying attention as you faced each other down the wooden table.
“You should tell the hype man to can it, it’s only going to making it more embarrassing when you lose,” Bart said. “My speed remains unmatched.”
A couple of people groaned, and you made a gagging noise at Bart.
But he continued. “AND as my charity case, I’ll even let you serve,” he said, flicking the ball to you with his thumb.
“So bold, Allen,” you replied, snagging it from the air. “If I’ve unintentionally cultivated one pointless skill in life, it’s this one.”
“Sure,” he said, adding air quotes, and to shut him up, you served.
Bart returned it, playing right into your hands with a shot that gave the ball enough air for you to leisurely hit it back.
Leisurely returns were for cowards.
Pulling your paddle back, you whipped the ball. It was a blur as it skimmed the corner of Bart’s side of the table and disappeared behind him before he even knew that it had touched the table.
Bart disappeared under the table in search of it, and you heard a muffled, “That was a lucky shot,” Bart’s head popped up, “and totally dirty.”
“But she plays dirty,” Harper said, bored, picking up an old magazine from the common room sofa. You shrugged back innocently.
This time, Bart served, and you whipped it back again.
“What the hell,” he said.
Jason had said goodbye to the world for the rest of the afternoon—had told the assholes under his charge to do whatever they wanted as long as they weren’t loud enough for him to legally have to come out and see if they were dying—and he’d retired in his room to Crime and Punishment for the afternoon.
The room was large enough to be comfortable, with a rather old looking, floral bedspread with moth holes in it. So, that was to say, it was as good as any shithole camp was going to offer—and he couldn’t complain, he’d definitely slept in worse places. At least he had a private bathroom, not like the students who shared one at the end of the hall. The room had a sliding door too, which faced out onto a dense, green thicket of trees that supposedly preceded a saltwater lake, so it was alright.
A delirious Raskolnikov was fulling his summons to the police station, when someone attempted to burst into Jason’s room. The silver handle jiggled, and the door strained without giving.
“Jaybird, man, you’ve gotta see this!” Roy said.
“No. Whatever it is, the answer is 'no',” Jason said, and restarted the sentence he’d been reading.
“I’m not leaving,” Roy said, drumming his palm on the door.
It crescendoed, and then began beating in the rhythm of Eye of the Tiger.
Jason swore and got up, wrenching the door open.
“I have had to put up with those grating assholes this entire day,” he said, pointing the book in Roy’s face. “An entire bus ride with them, and then an entire cafeteria hall of them, and now I’m done. And I’m reading. So. Fuck. Off.”
“Y/N is a ninja and she’s tearing every single person who challenges her in table tennis a new asshole. The last game ended 11-0, and I’ve only seen her lose three points in the last half hour. She nearly made Eddie cry.”
Jason’s eyebrows raised ever so slightly, but enough that Roy could see he had his attention.
Roy held up his finger to signal silence. “You hear that?”
He listened. There was a distant cheering.
“That’s the sound of her taking another victim.”
Okay, so maybe Roy was right. Some things were worth missing Dostoevsky for.
An air of comradery seldom witnessed had fallen over the sixty or so students packed into the common room. The air was abuzz and thick with roars, some braver students forming a human barrier around the table to give each player enough room.
La’gaan, an exchange student, was managing to return a shot every now and then, but every time it looked like you’d eased up and gone for a friendly rally, you’d sneak in a brutal speed shot that won you the point.
He watched the ball whiz past La’gaan again and again, each time sending the crowd into a frenzy—whooping, hollering, expletives and laughter.
He was pretty sure someone was making bets, but hell if Jason was going to stop them.
Eventually the game was at 10-2. You spun the paddle in your hands and ended it.
Jason snickered along with Roy in the crowd.
You hadn’t seen him there at first, but in the lull after La’gaan’s thrashing, you looked up and your eyes stumbled onto him. You were already a little flushed from the adrenaline, but Jason definitely caught your cheeks going pinker when you found him there.
You bit the edge of your smile, dimples showing, and motioned with your eyebrows from him to the table. Returning your infectious smile with a wry one as best he could, he shook his head.
Several people caught on to who you were looking at, and gradually a chant built in the crowd.
“Mr. Todd! Mr. Todd!”
He shook his head again and mouthed the word “no” to you, but you raised your eyebrows and sent him a look that said, ‘Scared?’
You stood off for a moment longer before the glowing grin which crinkled your eyes got to him, and he broke into his own involuntary one, the air of the room overpowering him.
He made his way towards La’gaan, the room’s volume rising as he took the paddle from him.
“You sure you don’t want to bow out now?” you said, calling over the table to him. “'Cause when you lose, you’re gonna have to face me in class with the knowledge that I decimated you in front of this entire room. And Roy.”
Roy whistled. “Are you going to school this chick, Jay?”
“He’s gonna try,” you said, and Jason shook his head. He played with the paddle, flipping and catching it in one hand.
“Okay, if that’s how it’s going to be,” he said, and people shushed each other to get a better listen at what you were saying. “Let’s raise the stakes.”
Your eyebrows rose, but you cocked your head.
“If I win, you tell me what the other senior prank is.”
“What?!” you said, “I could never betray my comrades.”
A cheer went through the hall.
“No way in hell, dude!”
“Wait, he knows one of them?”
He quirked an eyebrow. “So, scared you’re not going to win?”
Your face twisted, though it didn’t dim your gleaming eyes. You stood there, concocting a counter stake, and it was like Jason could physically see the moment it entered your head.
“Fine,” you said, “But when I win, you owe me something—anything. You won’t know what it’ll be, and I can collect it at any time.”
He gaped, laughing, and said, “That’s so much worse than mine.”
“So, scared you’re not going to win?” you said, repeating his words back at him. God, half of your relationship at this stage was just him setting precedent, and you finding ways to turn it back against him.
He huffed, and someone yelled out in the crowd, “Do it!”
Jason shook his head again, chest reverberating as he silently laughed. He looked over at La’gaan, whose shoulder Eddie was patting comfortingly.
You smiled, and the glint of the yellow cabin lights winked in your eyes. He hadn’t noticed, but at some stage twilight had settled, and they’d turned on.
He tossed the ball once into the air, and then, served it.
You whacked it back, and by some miracle, Jason returned it, sending it flying off the table at a low angle that you couldn’t feasibly have gotten the paddle under to return in time.
The look on your face made every single stake worth it. The room went silent.
“Did I mention? Dick and I played this all the time in the Manor.”
Roy cheered, and he was pretty sure it was Duke that yelled, “TAKE THAT, TABLE WITCH!”
You tried to frown at him (key word being tried, because he could see you were mostly just amused) while people passed the white, featherlight ball back through the crowd to you like it was a sacred object.
It was placed into the palm of your hand and you said, “Still not going to help you win.”
His words came back to bite him, because in two seconds flat you’d scored a point against him.
There was no way to describe it other than a battle. Where you came in with the speed shots, Jason came for low angles, and despite it all, you even got in a few lengthy rallies. At one point, Jason split a ping pong ball clean in half and the crowd had to hunt around the cabin’s couch cushions until they found another one.
Eventually, you were at match point.
11-10, somehow, to Jason.
Jason was man enough to admit to himself he wasn’t sure how it was going to go. He was serving too, and the advantage nearly always went to you when he served—75% of the time you just lashed it back and the point was yours. He threw the ball into the air and served it.
He’d put a fair amount of speed behind it, and he aced you in one.
A unanimous roar came from the people you'd beaten previously, and Roy hugged Jason, lifting him clean off of his feet.
He turned to you—you were scowling—and he said, “Fess up.”
“Wait up, wait up!” Harper called out, and people quietened down.
She pointed to where he had been standing.
“You were leaning over the table when you served!” she said. “Table tennis rules: arms cannot be over the table when you serve!”
A chatter went through the room.
“I saw it!” someone said.
“He was so not!”
There was a paused and then someone yelled, “SNAPCHAT REPLAY!” which started a whole new commotion. Students whipped out their phones and began scrubbing through the footage they’d taken.
God, they’d been filming this? He’d been so in the zone he hadn’t noticed.
Eventually, a phone was thrust into the air.
“He was over the line!”
Jason, Roy and Duke groaned, and you whooped, high-fiving Harper.
At some point, Jason had realised too that perhaps excluding the people you’d already beaten, the majority of the students watching the game appeared to be rooting for you—not just so that he didn’t find out about your senior prank—but because they all wanted you to have some kind of leverage over him.
“Y/N, when you win, make him cancel an essay.”
“Get rid of the jar!” Bart said, and Jason sent him a dirty look. You could get rid of the jar, but he’d come up with something worse.
You waved them off, but something told Jason that whatever it was you wanted from him wouldn’t be that predictable. But he was trying not to think too far into it.
After Jason’s blunder, the score went back to deuce at 11-11, and you stayed neck and neck for a few minutes up until you dished out a cruel shot and it swayed to 12-13, to you.
It was match point. You pitched the ball into the air, and served.
Jason returned your hit, and you to him.
On the fifth return, he shot the ball back with one of his signature shots. There was a clock and a whoosh, and it missed the edge of the table by a couple of millimetres.
There was a pin drop silence as people registered the lack of a sound which would have meant it touched the table.
The crowd exploded into cheers, and this time it was Harper lifting you clean off of your feet. You swayed with her in a hug, a tangle of limbs, both of you dissolving into giggles.
“It happens to the best of us, man,” Duke said. “It’s unnatural.”
Jason tuned them out. There was an ache in his cheeks, and he realised it was from smiling. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had that ache. Maybe with Roy, or maybe it was with Dick and Bruce—before everything, a voice supplied.
Setting your paddle down on the table, you waded through the circus towards him.
“You put up a better fight than anyone else here.”
“Wait until you meet my sister, Cass,” he said. “You won’t know what hit you.”
Jason’d only met Bruce’s latest adoptee a couple of times, but she was cool—around his age and a quiet type, but in a way that suggested reserved badass-ery. And while he’d never played against Cass himself, he distinctly remembered Dick telling him on the sly that she was better than them both at the game, and he’d believe it, too. He could almost see it then—him plying Cass with declarations of loyalty until, like The Godfather, she agreed to take you down.
“Sure,” you said, rolling your eyes. “If I ever get to meet her.”
Harper enveloped you again, and your face became the visage of victory pride as you were dragged away into the crowd. He took another step towards you, calling over everyone’s heads.
“Do I get a hint at whatever it is that I now owe you? Or is it a mystery?”
You stumbled back on your heels and let Harper take you away.
“Night, Jay,” you said.
It was half past twelve on the camp’s final night, and Jason was buried back in his book. The day had been a chore of herding seniors around like cattle, and after seeing so many people non-stop for the last two days, he was itching to get back to the serenity of his apartment. Here, insects chirred in the night air, and it was like the whole space was alive. He could never get used to this environment, to this kind of place. The air was too fresh, everything too green; it was alien compared to everything he’d grown up with, too far a cry from the clamouring city. He wanted to say it was only because he wasn’t used to it, but in a time like this, in the calm, to himself, he could look the demon in the eye.
It was a feeling that crept up on him from time to time; he caught the edge of it in his periphery, sensed it whisper in his ear when he was low. It had followed him the day Bruce brought him home, when he’d taken one look at Alfred and waited for the English gentleman to take Bruce aside and tell him that he didn’t belong in that veritable mansion. It’d been there when he’d received his teaching degree, when he’d held the bit of paper in his hands and thought, did I deserve this? It’d sat in the corner and berated him during his job interview for Gotham Heights, telling him it wouldn’t last, that a street kid from Gotham didn’t belong on a teaching board.
And then, to his shame, it was there with you; he felt it when he’d look up from his desk, his work, a café table, and catch you looking at him like he was this idyllic thing you couldn’t wait to have. You’d dart your eyes away, or busy yourself with whatever else, and he’d think to himself, you’ll wind up disappointed.
He thought of the cluttered, shoebox apartment he’d grown up in, and of his mom telling him soulmates weren't a promise, that there wasn’t a guarantee that it’d all work out; he thought of the dumpster he’d curled up against to sleep while it rained, the wallets he’d swiped, the tang of blood between his teeth as he brawled with a stranger in an empty parking lot.
And now, somehow, he was here—out of the city, in the kind of place he’d never visited as a kid; a camp, a venue middle class families vacationed to, a relatively average tier to which he’d not even belonged—and the creature bent down, pressed its callous mouth to his ear and whispered, ‘Imposter’.
A muted rap came from his sliding door.
Jason glared at it. It was probably some student sneaking around, trying to get his roommate to let him back in. He was in his reading time—the one timeslot of peace he could get on this trip—and he didn’t have the mental fortitude to deal with another person right now. He figured that he’d give them (mostly likely Bart) a pass this one time, and if said idiot (Bart) had a single remaining braincell (unlikely), he’d realise he had the wrong room and dash in the next few seconds to find the right one.
Tsking, Jason put his book down.
“Allen, for the love of God, count the number of doors like everyone else,” Jason wrenched open the curtains and door, and came face to face with you.
You arched an eyebrow. “Were you expecting Bart?”
You were wearing a t-shirt and jean shorts, your hair in a loose braid behind your back.
Leaning an arm against the aluminium sliding door bracket, he shook his head.
“How’d you get out?”
“It was easy as hell—they put me in a separate room. Apparently someone,” you said, eyeing him accusingly, “told the coordinator we were a ‘night time jumping hazard’.”
“Oh. Yeah.” He blew out a breath. “Guilty. But it was either that or risk waking up in a bunkbed with eight teenage girls gawking at me.”
You let out a small huff, then pinned him with a look. “You never answered why you thought I was Bart?”
“Figured he was the only one ballsy enough to risk getting suspended walking around this late.”
You rolled your eyes. “I’d like to see you try to suspend me.”
Both of Jason’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh?”
“You don’t have the balls,” you said, shoving a finger into his chest, and he caught your warm, soft wrist. You hand was right near his soulmark, and it sent a flurry of energy through his chest. He could feel the heat of your hand an inch away from his shirt.
“Why’d you come?” he said.
You smirked, and he tried not to think about how cute it was. Jason, no.
“If, hypothetically,” you said, drawing out every word, “I had wandered down near the lake last night while everyone was asleep, and seen that the lake was bioluminescent, I might, hypothetically, have thought to come show it to you. Because, y’know, the water glows, it looks really cool, and you lack excitement in your sedentary existence.”
You paused, then shrugged, “If that had happened, that is.”
“Clever,” Jason said, still holding your wrist. He cocked his head to the side, “But what’s to stop me from hauling your ass back to bed, then going to the lake by myself?”
He grinned as your brows traitorously drew together. He added, “Hypothetically, of course.”
“You’re such an ass,” you said, which only made his grin widen.
You darted your hand as far out as you could from his grip, brushing his soul mark. It was an underhanded move, but he dropped your wrist faster than a burning pan. Flitting back a few feet from the door, you turned around and said, “You can haul my ass back to bed if you can catch it.”
You disappeared into the night.
Jason cursed under his breath, then hastily jammed on his shoes.
You’d made it about halfway down to the lake when you stopped hearing his footsteps following you. Well, less footsteps, and more the occasional twig snap from a few paces away. Coming to a stop, you looked around, unable to see him in the dark.
Out of nowhere, hands were on your waist, and you yelped when Jason threw you over his shoulder.
“What was that?” he said.
“Are you serious right now?” you hissed, not wanting to be too loud.
“I’m incredibly serious at all times,” he said, taking off with you at a walking pace.
You sighed in exasperation but realised after a few steps that you were heading further into the trees.
“My, Mr. Todd, I didn’t realise the cabins were this way.”
“Ugh, don’t call me that,” he replied. You feigned a sigh, but really, you were glad to hear that he didn’t want you thinking of him that way. Finally, progress, you thought.
You weren’t far from the lake, and you were sure that if you were facing the right direction, you’d be able to make out water and sand by now. It wasn’t exactly a comfortable position, but you did have to admit, it was incredibly attractive. You could feel the ripple of muscles underneath his shirt, and he held you like you weighed nothing.
“Wow,” you said as the walk dragged on, “you really work out, huh?”
You yelped again when he unceremoniously put you down, and you felt fine, white sand spill into your sneakers. Great.
You were about to complain again, but Jason’s attention had already slipped to the lake.
It really was one of the most beautiful things you’d seen, which was why you’d risked sneaking out to show him in the first place. At first glance it was a mystery, surreal, unreal, your eyes didn’t know how to make sense of it.
The lake stretched out 180 degrees around you, and its surface was dark beaten metal, mirroring a starry night on its surface; and there, a boundary of luminescent, cyan embers rippled and winked on the shore every time the water rolled in. To the right, a small wooden jetty had been built out onto the lake, and the water twinkled unnaturally every time it spilled against its wooden beams.
You’d looked it up the previous night. They were thousands upon thousands of tiny organisms that stirred, glowing in response to stimuli; safe to the touch, and almost like minute flakes of seaweed.
Jason drifted closer to the water, and you trailed behind him. He kicked off his shoes and you followed suit, leaving them in a huddled pile on the sand. Closer to the lake, when sand started to feel wet underneath your toes, you looked down to find your footsteps faintly lighting up like blue diamonds. Jason followed your gaze, looking back at the two sets of astral footprints in the wet sand.
You continued down to the water’s edge, where the glowing became more vibrant at the slightest movement—in some places so concentrated that you could clearly see the detail of the sandy lake floor underneath. Carefully, he dipped his hand into it, and the movements brought a sea of sparkling blue to life; they clung to his skin when he brought it out again, a partial glove of scintillating speckles.
It was warm out, and while Jason, still mesmerised by the responsive sea life, was looking away, you wandered back away from him, to a dry section of the sand. Bras and underwear, bikinis, they were no different to you—what was the disparity anyway? A kind of material. And so, you shed your shirt and shorts, leaving them in a pile on the sand, the lack of a formal bathing suit not about to deter you. When you turned back around, he was still bent by the shore. Passing quietly, your toes touched water, and you waded out into it. It was a little cold, but not icy. The further you drifted out, the more plumes of brilliant blue bloomed to life at the stir of your movement. They sparkled then dimmed. Sparkled then dimmed. Every circulation of your arms elicited fresh ripples.
You hadn’t heard a word from Jason, which was odd, because frankly you were expecting him to protest. When you turned around, you found the vague outline of him by the pile of your clothes, lifting his shirt over his head.
You smiled to yourself, and then, squeezing your eyes closed, breathing deeply, you submerged beneath the water’s surface. It was warming up to you now—or, you supposed, you to it—and it was warm enough to be comfortable. You rose and floated on your back, sensing him not far away, drawing near. You looked up at the stars. Soft light radiated from the water, and a dusting of light shone from the sky.
Stars in the sea, stars in the sky.
Over your shoulder, you found Jason. You put your feet on the soft lake floor. It wasn’t too deep where you stood, the water only coming up to your chest.
You were quiet. Nothing to be said.
Hesitantly, he extended a hand, and tucked a piece of your hair behind your ear. Your skin tingled.
“You look like a sea nymph,” he said.
You could only guess how you appeared right now. If the way they clung to your skin was anything to go by, then sparkling speckles would be in your hair, too.
His eyes drifted down to your mark, and you realised, this was the first time he’d seen it; it’d remained hidden under your shirt in the registry that day, and not even the cami you’d worn at the party had really displayed it.
The black bird; or, more recently you’d begun to think, perhaps it looked a little like a bat.
Carefully, you reached for his hand, giving him enough time to protest, or pull his hand away. The droplets of water on his skin faintly shone as you brought it to your chest. You placed it over your mark, just above your breast, above the topmost crest of your brassiere. The mark warmed, pulsed under his palm. You held it there a moment, then let go, unsure of if you’d overstepped—if he bolted right now, you were sure you’d die of embarrassment; but, to your satisfaction, it stayed. His touch a murmur, he thumbed your mark, like you’d done when you’d given him his soulmark.
Assured he wouldn’t book it, you brought your hands back to his own on your chest, just to hold him there.
You didn’t need to say anything, not even when he let go, and you twined your fingers together in the water, light dancing between your fingers; not when he splashed a spray of bright water at you, and you gasped and splashed back.
You stayed in your microcosm an interminable amount of time. Quiet, drifting, connected; all that remained, the sound of water purling.
After a time, you drifted back to the shore, up, up the sandy bank, droplets of water from your dripping bodies curling into the sand as they fell. You pulled your clothes on, and they suctioned onto you, dampening as you made your way through the trees. You could still see speckles of the glinting organisms clinging to your skin, dying, drying, and gleaming every so often as they went out. You needed a shower, but you wouldn’t be able to sneak into the communal bathrooms without waking up the whole cabin at this hour. The best you could do would be to wipe yourself down as best you could with an old shirt and sneak into the showers first thing in the morning.
Reaching the tree line, where sticks and brush changed back to grass, you could make out the outline of your cabin a furlong away. It had been so quiet between you two that you didn’t want to be the first one to break the silence, so instead, you started towards it without saying anything.
His hand snagged yours, fingers wrapping around your wrist, and he nodded in the direction of his cabin.
He let you in to use the shower first.
It was a modest bathroom, with a mirror no bigger than a sheet of A-three paper, and a plastic-base shower that groaned ever so slightly under your feet when you stepped onto it. The hot water felt like heaven as it thawed your muscles, and you brushed the harmless flecks off of your skin, watching them be swallowed by the drain. You stole his shampoo and after washing your hair, reached for the unused, white towel folded on the shiny metal rack above the toilet. When you’d finished drying yourself, you dismally toed at the wet, sticky with salt clothes on the bathroom floor; they smelled faintly of the lake. You gingerly picked them up, bundling them in your arms, and with your towel still wrapped around you, cracked open the door.
He had, it seemed, read your mind. Stepping out, you picked up the shirt and sweatpants he’d left for you on the bed, and he slipped past you without a word, without a sound save the thudding of the bathroom door closing as he went to take his turn. The shirt would come down low over your thighs, the sweatpants you’d swim in, but they’d both be fine to sneak back into your cabin with. Snaking the towel off, you pulled the shirt over your head, still hearing the thrumming of old pipes and water splashing on the plastic shower floor.
When he came out of the shower, dressed in sweats, towelling his hair dry, you were sitting on the edge of his bed, wearing his clothes—the sliding door closed. Your hair was no longer in its braid, but a damp, loose curtain.
“I thought you’d have left,” he said, and you stood up.
“I was going to,” you said, and you crowded closer to him.
You rose to your tiptoes and leaning in, pressed a kiss onto his lips.
He froze, was still a moment, and then, he was kissing you back. He pressed closer to you, dropping the towel, and brought a hand to your face. It was nothing like kissing Rose, or Artemis, Isabel, none of them.
You stilled, temples pressed together, and he knew, were he to open his eyes, he’d see the curve of your smile.
You stepped down and stole away. His pulse thud as you left.
This was one of my favourite chapters to write, hope you guys enjoyed it.
(P.S. bioluminescence at lakes/beaches is an actual thing and it's magical https://abcnews.go.com/International/video/beach-glows-bioluminescent-algae-57348907)
Thanks for the lovely response, guys! I've been reading all the comments and they make me smile the whole time I go through them. Sorry for the bit of delay from my regular schedule, I was adding some new stuff I thought up ;)
A bird sang outside his window, and Jason ignored it in favour of burrowing further into the warmth of the bed. Barely sleeping at all during the previous three nights had taken its toll, but it appeared his body had finally given up and gone into hibernation mode. Last night's sleep had been heaven, and now, his limbs didn’t want to budge an inch.
He didn’t know what to think about the kiss—he couldn’t think at all, really. You’d sucker punched him, caught him off his guard, and God, days later, it was like he was still catching up. To make things worse, he’d avoided you on the weekend, sending a text saying he was too busy to meet up. Thankfully, you’d been finding the proximity predicament to be waning, the ache only ever rarely rearing its head now, so it hardly mattered to miss a weekend every once in a while. So last night, like the others, he’d lain awake for what felt like hours thinking about it, before eventually, his eyes closed, and the blissful blanket of sleep fell over him.
“It’s six-thirty, get up,” said a voice, and a palm thumped on a door. He scowled, pulling the doona further over him. He couldn’t usually hear his neighbours from his apartment, but after finally getting a good night’s sleep, being woken up by them like this was fucking rude.
You shuffled in his arms and Jason froze, opening his eyes with dread.
He had no idea how he’d slept through it. Last time, as soon as he’d felt you there, he’d been wake in a flash, but from the looks of it, neither of you had noticed—an even more impressive feat considering that you both were practically melded into one person. You were facing him, using his right arm as a pillow, one hand bunched into his shirt, and his left hand sat comfortably on your waist. He quickly yanked it off. Still asleep, you made a noise in protest, and huddled tighter into the crook of his arm and against his side. He looked down at you in shock.
He blearily lifted his head up, surveying the room around him. He’d never seen your room before, but it fit like a glove on your personality. On your door was a poster for an action movie he vaguely recognised, and your walls were covered with photos—photos of wildflowers, Gotham street corners, your friends. Some of the photos he couldn’t identify, other than them being interesting examples of lighting, textures, or structural patterns. But even half asleep, he could tell you had a good eye.
Dropping his gaze back down to you, he took you in. Your hair was just the barest bit damp at the ends, indicating that you’d had a shower last night, and your legs were silken against his. You had a little crease in your forehead from the attempt at waking you up, and with a jolt, he realised you were wearing the shirt he’d loaned you a few nights ago.
Don’t overthink it, don’t overthink it.
You shifted, brushing up against him and Jason jerked away from you.
Not the time for a hard-on.
With the hand you weren’t trapping, he gently shook your shoulder.
You blinked, heavy eyes adjusting steadily until they realised what they were looking at. They widened, and while you let go of his shirt, you didn’t move out of his arms, which he took to be a good sign.
You exchanged a silent conversation, which, had it been subtitled, Jason would have imagined going something like:
Oh my God, you’re here.
– Yeah. Help?!
– It’s your house??
“Y/N!” yelled the voice—your mom—through your bedroom door.
“I’m up!” you yelled back, sending a panicked look at Jason.
The door swung open anyway, and there was a screech. You mom stood in the doorway, wearing a black, floral kimono dressing gown.
“Not in this house, Jesus Christ! Not while I’m here—in fact, no—not at all. You,” she said, pointing at Jason. “Did you sneak into this house like a teenager? What the fu-”
“Mom, it was a jump, calm down,” you replied, looking mortified. “We just woke up together.”
At that, you mom stopped looking like she was about to have his hide, but a skeptical expression still remained.
“I don’t have time for this, I don’t have time for this,” she said, and she pointed at you both, “One, I’m getting ready for work, so you have ten minutes to be gone, two, disentangle.” She snapped her fingers at you. “DISENTANGLE.”
He finally realised what she meant, and you both pulled away from each other. Jason put his hands up in the universal ‘don’t shoot’ sign, and she grimaced at you both.
“Fine, fine,” she said, “ten minutes. Be gone.” And she slammed the door back closed.
You both stared at it, and then slowly, turned to each other.
“The night I spent in juvie was less stressful than that,” he said.
“Juvie, ey?” you said. “I want to hear about that one.”
Instead, changing the subject, he said, “Nice shirt,” and for a fraction of a second you looked flustered, before pulling a signature ‘you’, and leveraging all the power back to your side.
“Thanks,” you said, “it’s comfortable. You’re not getting it back.”
“Is that so?”
You nodded. “Mmmhmm.”
There was a lull, and then he said, “I… have to call someone to pick me up. Can I use your phone?”
“Are you sure?” you said, nodding towards the door. “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind dropping you off on her way if I asked.”
“Y/N, in the nicest way possible, sitting in a car with your mom, both of us knowing full well that I spent the morning in your bed and am about to teach you, is a scenario ripped from my actual nightmares.”
You smirked back at him, which made him frown. How was this not bothering you? You reached over to your bedside table and, unlocking your phone it, threw it at him.
Catching it, his fingers hovered over the keypad, realising too late that he didn’t have Roy’s number memorised. Fuck smartphones memorising everything for you, humankind was better off in the days when everyone just knew their friends' home phone numbers off by heart.
Opting for the lesser of two evils, he keyed a number that he knew too well from all his run-ins over the years. He dialled it, and put it to his ear, cringing in anticipation of what was coming next.
“Gotham City Police Department, this is Andi, how may I assist?”
“Yeah, can you put me through to Dick Grayson?”
Fifteen minutes later, there was a honk outside the house.
Mercifully, he hadn’t seen your mom again, and he could distantly hear the sound of a shower running, which explained why.
He’d spent that period of time waiting for Dick perusing the photos on the wall, while you nervously shadowed him, trying to explain them to him.
Oh, that one—I like the lighting—but, you traced your finger over the tilted horizon line, see? Five-degree slant. Annoys me every time I see it.
You’d both been cordial, but the air had been pregnant, at least, to Jason, with not talking about what had happened—not about the kiss three nights ago, not even about this morning.
At the front door, with Dick waiting outside in his car, you said, “See you at school,” and a twinge of wrong went through him. You said it so casually, like it didn’t bother you at all.
Throughout all of Jason’s life, he’d made the decisions for himself. He'd always thought of himself as a responsible person, but being honest with himself, he'd only really been responsible for himself and no one else - and it worked out well that way, because if he fucked something up, he was the only one who it impacted.
Staring at you now, standing in his shirt, waving him off to work where he’d be seeing you later as a student, it was like a bucket of ice-cold water jetting over him, and like that, he knew what to think about the kiss.
His voice hollow, he said, “Yeah, see you,” and left, walking out the gate.
He could see Dick eyeing him from the driver’s seat of his car, but he blocked it out, pulling the sleek passenger door open, and getting in.
When the car started but didn’t go anywhere, he looked over, glaring at Dick.
Dick leant across the steering wheel, blue eyes smug, his perfect, straight white teeth cracked into a brilliant grin.
“So, Littlewing. How’s staying away going?”
“Shut the fuck up, Richard.”
Basketballs pinged against asphalt, worn sneakers ground and pivoted over faded, white painted lines. He stood in the shade of the Drama building, facing out across the boisterous court, his gaze inscrutable under wayfarer sunglasses.
“I’m surprised you’re stuck on patrol duties,” you said. “Thought you would’ve glared at Mr. West or someone until they agreed to cover you indefinitely.”
He grunted. “I’m waiting for the college interns to get here next year. Loading it off to them.”
“Yeah, sounds right,” you said.
In the pocket of shade from the overhanging roof, you both were mostly hidden from view. Here, he could still get a good view of the students milling around at lunch or competing on the court. With your arms wrapped around your white plastic notebook binder, you rocked back on the heels of your black leather shoes, then clacked them together like Dorothy in Oz.
“So, are you busy next weekend, or are you game for Ukrainian slow cinema shot entirely on expired Super8 film?”
His smile was wry, and for the longest moment he didn’t say anything. His eyes were inscrutable behind his sunglasses, and his jaw tense.
“I know I said I’d go with you, but you should find someone your own age to take,” he said. “One of your friends. Maybe Harper, or Duke.”
Your heels, which had been high in the air mid-clack, halted, then eased back down to the ground.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. Your chest felt tight.
“Is this about what happened?” you said.
“The jump, or the kiss?”
The racket of the court was white noise, a sea of yells between players.
“The jump was no one’s fault, but the kiss shouldn’t have happened. Not while you’re still in high school.”
“I’m almost out of high school,” you said, thinking about the two months you had left before exams.
He didn’t say anything, just pursed his lips and stared out across the courtyard.
“I’m eighteen,” you said, “why is this such a problem for you?”
“It’s not only about being eighteen,” he said, “age is a number, but… you’re still a student, and I’m a teacher—there’s a power imbalance—and it’s not right.”
“You don’t even mark my work,” you said, biting your lip, but you got a brick wall. “So, what? Do I stay away from you until I graduate? Until I’m in my twenties?”
You mouth parted.
“You said it yourself, if age is just a number, then it doesn’t matter. If we’re supposed to stay apart, then- then why do we keep walking into each other? What’s with waking up next to each other? That doesn’t happen to normal people—to normal soulmates.”
He spared you a glance, and you felt yourself bristle defensively. You didn’t want anyone’s pity. Especially not pity from your soulmate.
“That’s not the way it works,” he said, “It doesn’t change the situation. I know you’re smart enough to know that.”
The worst part was that, in a way, you knew he was right, you just didn’t want to think about it, or admit to it, or concede that something that felt so right to you might not be entirely ethical. You wanted things to continue as they had been, the rest of the world be damned.
“So what do we do?” you said, after a pause. “I can’t stay away from you, and you can’t stay away from me.”
You brushed your mark, thinking about the way it had ached when you’d been apart in that first month. Would you go back to that? His eyes were still hidden behind the glasses, but you thought he might have seen you touching it.
“I’m not talking about staying away,” he said. “But we need boundaries.”
“Like what?” you said.
“For one, none of that,” he said, meaning the kiss, and the corner of his mouth humourlessly ticked up, like an escort to lighten the blow.
You might have been offended if you didn’t have the memory of him kissing you back, of him holding your face like you were the floating debris and he, the shipwrecked sailor.
“I also can’t be the person taking up most of your time,” he said. “You need to hang out with your friends when you can, not just me.”
A boy ran past you chasing a basketball. It bounced and mumbled along the asphalt court until he halted it, dashing back to his teammates.
“Take your friends to the film festival. I’ll still come see you on weekends so your mark doesn’t smart, but give it time,” he said. “We have time.”
You were pretty tired of time.
You glassily stared at the window, eyes glazed over, not really seeing a thing.
The beloved, decrepit pizzeria you were at with Harper, Duke and Kyle served questionably cheap pies and slabs of garlic bread, making it one of the hot spots for people around your age. It was eight o’clock on a Friday night, and you four were crammed into a booth together, a dripping, half-empty pitcher of soda on the table between you.
The day had been pretty shitty, to be frank.
You were stressed as it was about exams approaching, but to top it all off, it’d soured after hearing two guys in your home room talking about cameras. Interested, you’d tuned in to the conversation, only to realise that you didn’t understand half of what they’d been talking about.
Up until a year and a half ago, you’d never had your own photo camera, and you were still saving up for one geared towards video. You were still getting the hang of the balance between aperture, ISO and shutter speed, not to mention the differences between formats, t-stops and f-stops, the latest gear everyone was talking about, not to mention the technicalities of the storytelling itself. But, not for the first time, listening to the two boys in front of your gush about gear, you were hit once again by how unfair it was. It wasn’t fair that people had grown up with parents who knew about photography, or who had access to video cameras when they were younger—it didn’t feel fair that you’d be going into college alongside people who already had such a head start over you, who were already shooting their own short films. With areas like filmmaking, where the wealth of knowledge was not readily available in public education, anyone who said that being well-versed in the topic at a young age wasn’t a product of luck and privilege was kidding themselves—and because you were you, the overachiever, the thought of being behind gnawed at you to no end.
It was the kind of thing you wanted to talk about with Jason, because you knew he’d understand. He hadn’t explicitly talked about it, but he’d started off with things much rougher than you, and had still managed to get the degree he wanted.
But the cherry on top of the crummy day was the realisation that Jason and you were still dodging each other a little, so you couldn’t go to him for comfort right now. Not really.
In an effort not to sulk, you tuned back into the conversation.
“And so, my mom says that if I want Angela, I have to pry her from her cold, dead hands,” Duke exclaimed to your right. “Can you believe this? She’s her car but in these last years I’ve cherished her more.”
“I don’t see the big deal. Save up and buy a working car,” Harper said, and Kyle echoed her with a “Yeah.”
Duke gasped in disgust. “Y/N, back me up.”
“They’re both heathens. I don’t expect them to understand God when they see her.”
Harper rolled her eyes, and Duke launched off into an Angela-centric monologue.
The glass sugar shaker by the napkins in front of you, one that you supposed was for coffee, kept catching light from neon signage and the passing traffic outside, glinting and winking pleasantly. Your eyes were following the streetlights outside, through the smoggy, sooted window, when you saw a couple walking hand in hand down the street. You blinked in surprise, recognising them from the soulmate registry room—it was the embarrassed young woman in the pantsuit, and her laughing partner.
“Y/N, hey, you in there?” Kyle was waving his hand in front of your face. You glanced away from them. Kyle had been on your case all night to break away from Harper and Duke and hang out, just the two of you. Tonight, he wore a pale green shirt with a comic on it, and a black jacket. He was still pretty cute, you thought, but it was dumb of him to keep trying. You only really thought of Jason that way now—you couldn’t imagine liking anybody else, or wanting to be with anybody else.
“So, what do you say?” he said.
You were barely paying attention to Kyle, the couple outside drawing your attention. Tonight, she was dressed in a blouse, pencil skirt and office heels—you wondered if she was a lawyer, or if she worked in a high-end business—while they wore a tie dye t-shirt and a jean jacket—the aptly chaotic opposite to her lawful attire.
“It’s freezing cold—this is so not a frozen yogurt night. I’m not going with you for froyo,” you said to Kyle.
“EVERY night is a frozen yogurt night. Let’s gooooo.”
Outside, they continued to talk. They were shorter than her, but they appeared to have the kind of playful relationship where they weren’t afraid to push her buttons. They took a step closer to her, obviously flirting.
“Kyle…” you said to him.
“Oh, come on,” Kyle said. “What’s the worst that could happen? You get some brain freeze.”
You had a whole speech lined up for Kyle about his braincell count not being able to afford the risk factor of brain freeze, when you caught movement in your periphery, and you glanced outside again.
Kyle kept talking but you’d stopped listening.
You kept looking out the window.
The woman was swept backwards, dipped, like a princess at the end of the fairy tale ballroom dance, and their lips were pressed against hers as they held her. People passed by on the street, and they stayed together, as though the world around them did not exist.
You looked away, then
at the sugar shaker.
The crystalline granules still caught light, refracting in pretty, polychromatic spectrums.
Opposite you, Kyle was still talking.
His knee bumped yours under the table.
“Yes, fine,” you said, standing. “I’ll go. Let’s go.”
Holding a paper cup, you stared at a wall of churning frozen yogurt machines, completely unhungry. You’d pretty much instantly regretted agreeing to come with Kyle. You wanted to be home, or on a bench by yourself in Robinson park—anyplace where you could crumple and wallow. You weren’t a jealous person, not really. But seeing the happy couple who’d matched at a similar time to you out there on the street, everything sorted out between them, left your throat tight.
On second thought, you put the cup back next to the stack and followed Kyle through the line while he went from dispenser to dispenser, creating a heterogeneous mountain of flavours.
The interior of the place was warm, with long, varnished tabletops and bar stools. The upmarket tungsten lights hanging from the ceiling resembled clusters of string, balled like hastily rewrapped yarn. You liked it because it didn’t feel much like a frozen yogurt place—more like a cosy, casual establishment that had been fitted into one. But still, it had the camp of its vocation. Every flavour label used alliteration, even when it didn’t make sense. Mango Madness. Raspberry Rhapsody. Passionfruit Pop.
After paying, Kyle followed you to a wooden table. It was out of the way of most other customers, in a cosy cove near the back of the store. You sat on the bench facing the tail end of the yogurt dispenser wall. Behind you there was a small, varnished ledge that reached your shoulders. If you leant you head all the way back, you’d be tickled by the green decorative ferns inlaid into it.
You expected Kyle to take the seat opposite you, but instead he slid onto the bench next to you, so that you were hip to hip. The material of his jeans touched your thigh.
“Can you believe it?” he said. “No Pistachio Promise? The nerve.”
“Do you really like pistachio, or is it just your obsession with the colour green?”
“Damn,” he said, “what’s got you in a mood?”
“Nothing,” you replied, watching him tearing open the plastic to get to his spoon. The plastic crinkled further, and then he stopped, holding the spoon in his hand, but not going to use it. He put his elbow on the table and turned his body so that he was facing you more directly.
Squinting at you, he uncertainly asked, “Soulmate trouble?”
“You’re the last person who should be asking me about soulmate problems.”
He studied you for a second, then looked down at his tub of frozen yogurt.
He picked it up, mischief in his eye.
“You ever seen The Notebook?”
“Yeah, it’s overrated,” you replied, and then you realised what he meant.
Narrowing your eyes, you said, “Don’t you fucking dare.”
“Then tell me what’s wrong.”
He shot the yogurt out towards you, the perfectly swirled tip of the Strawberry Sublime clobbering you square in the mouth, lopsided around the right corner, a little down your chin too.
Your lips parted in surprised that he’d actually had the audacity.
And then he kissed you.
His lips were warm, clashing against the cold of the frozen yogurt, and you felt a little of it melt into your mouth. He tasted of strawberries.
You pulled away and turned, facing the churning wall.
After a second, you grabbed a napkin and wiped away the smear of artificial, strawberry pink from your mouth.
“Don’t do that again,” you said, not looking at him.
He was quiet, no witty comebacks. You didn’t have one in you either. The day had been enough without that. You wondered what Jason would have done if he’d seen him kiss you—would he been angry, and thrown him off? Placed a hand on the table and told Kyle to scram? Perhaps he would have only been hurt, or not even cared, and wouldn’t have said anything at all. But there was no point in thinking about it, he wasn’t here.
Your throat tightened further, and although you weren’t going to cry—you never cried in public, in front of anyone, not ever—you got the sense that Kyle knew how to read the mood.
“Okay, I’m sorry,” he said quietly, and you could tell he meant it. “I’ll quit bothering you.”
You just stared back at him, too tired to respond. You felt exhausted.
He was appraising at you hesitantly, and with a pang you felt bad for him, because in all your bafflement of wondering why one of the cutest boys in school had kept flirting after you'd indifferently kissed at a party, you’d never stopped to consider if he’d actually liked you, or that he might have been upset when you’d matched to someone else.
“I know,” you said. “But I’ve just… had a long day. Think I want to be alone.”
He nodded, and got up, taking the paper cup and spoon with him, shifting nervously.
“Okay, I’ll see you around then,” he said, and you nodded at him.
He’d be okay, you thought, as he left. The glass door clinched closed, and he vanished from view. Crossing your arms in front of you, you leant them over the table, resting your head against your forearms, staring at the dim table underneath them. Distantly, you could hear the hum and drum of the frozen machines churning. It was not unlike being in a laundromat. Their mixers went round and round and round. You closed your eyes.
You couldn’t say how much time had passed, but eventually you untucked your chin. Fishing your phone out of your pocket and placing it on the table, you looked at it warily—like you it was a snake that might rear its head and attack.
The phone stared back at you.
You reached for it, but didn’t picked it up again. With your fingernail en pointe, you ran it over the smooth glass surface, and then tapped your nails on it.
You picked it up and dialled the number, slotting it against your ear and listening to the droning trill, and then the click.
You swallowed. “Hey. It’s me.”
There a huff and a fizzle on the line, like he’d exhaled in amusement into the receiver.
“I know—might surprise you to know that I did save your number into my phone.”
You rolled your eyes. “Ha.”
You considered telling him about Kyle, and about the kiss, but really, you didn’t feel the need to. You knew he wouldn’t try again; it didn’t matter. It was all in the past.
“How did you know you wanted to be a teacher?” you said.
He hadn’t been expecting it, you could tell from the pause on the line. It was strange not being able to see him, or to read him like you usually would. Here, all you had were sound waves, the rising, falling decibels to decipher. There was a small, low hum over the line, like he was thinking, and you felt the echoes of it through your own chest.
“It was a couple of things. I liked reading, couldn’t put books down. And I liked the idea of helping people at public schools—kids—to want to stay there. Bruce always wanted to help people through philanthropy, policy, the courts, Dick too. I didn’t want to do it their way.”
You lay back down over the table, ignoring the other patrons in the store—they weren’t focusing on you anyway—and you listened to the sound on the line. An auditory tunnel vision of Jason.
“I like that idea too,” you said, softly. “Telling stories to help people. Movies were how I learnt about the world outside of Gotham. But I don’t think it’s fair that men mostly make them. It skews perspective. How can you fairly represent the world like that.”
You didn’t mean it as a question, rather, you were thinking out loud. The line was still.
“What?” you asked, nervous.
“Nothing, you just… keep surprising me, is all.” And it was like you could hear that flicker over the phone. The look you sometimes caught, when you answered a question no one knew, when you got back a paper that did well.
“And you’re not wrong,” he said. “Is that what you’re worried about? Doing it all? College?”
“It’s intimidating,” was all you said, shrinking in on yourself. “Anyone who asks could say I’m good at Math, or English, but what do I know about films? My mom wants me to do law, or business, like her. Says it's more practical.”
You could have elaborated further and told him about the boys talking tech, but after spending all day thinking about it, voicing your doubts aloud would probably squash your mood further.
“Y/N...” he said, his voice edging up into a lighter tone. “In all this past year, I’ve never seen you back away from a challenge, not once. What was it you said, after harbouring chest pain for weeks that took me two days to cave in on—‘I’m stubborn’?”
There was a staticky distortion as he chuckled over the line, and although he wasn’t there, you rolled your eyes at him.
“You’ll do it,” he said. “Whatever it is. Whatever you set your mind on.”
Pressing your lips together, you thought about what he’d said, and readjusted in your seat, melting further into the table.
“How was your day?” you said, changing the subject, and to your contentment, he actually told you. You hooked your ankles around each other under the bench, while he talked about this and that, while you felt the glass of the phone warming up from the contact on your cheek. You listened to him talk, thinking about cameras and worries and being behind, and you thought, Yeah, actually, I am stubborn.
Emotional support fluff because if I see one (1) more fic where female characters don't have life goals or where alleged soulmates aren't actually nice and supportive to each other, I'm gonna s c r e a m
Loving all the responses from you guys :)) ❤️
Gary’s Gotham Picture Palace was a nostalgic, dated venue built in the fifties. A theatre before it was fitted into a cinema, by now the smell of popcorn had soaked into every inch of the place; and yet, somehow, the old stained-glass windows in the bathrooms remained, as if all the Gotham vandals had overlooked this sanctuary.
You’d loved every part of the screening.
You’d been here with friends before, although never for one of their events, but there was something seminal about seeing a movie in a crowd of people who a) knew to shut the fuck up and not talk during it, and b) applauded at the end like they could thank the creators themselves. It left a thrall over the building.
Nearing the exit with Harper, you spied the titular Gotham Picture Palace Gary waving people off. Gary was the sort of sweet old character in his nineties who always, without fail, hung around wearing a red velvet suit, and if you approached him, he’d shake your hand and call you ‘young lady’ as you left (including Duke once, because Gary’s eyesight wasn’t too great). The cinema had various-sized pictures of him at film premieres giddily shaking c-grade stars’ hands, each framed with a distinct frame and tacked to the walls.
Harper and you rammed into the glass exit door, breaking out of the packed air into the cool night. You waved goodbye to Gary on the way out, because, well, bless his soul.
“I won’t lie, I didn’t get it,” Harper said, close enough for Gary to overhear and look crestfallen after her.
You were going to kill her.
“It’s not about ‘getting it’,” you said. “Not every film needs a plot twist or, or a tragic death. It’s about watching the shots—the images, feeling the pace of them—admiring the colours and the craft.”
She scratched at her undercut and said, “Sure. But I could have admired it at two times the speed. Why was it that long?”
“It was 108 minutes.”
“What?! It was not.”
“It was. I’m not listening to you,” you said, covering your ears. “I just experienced emotions previously unbeknownst to me. That shot with the petal? You’re not taking this away from me.”
She clasped her hands over yours and leaned right up to your face, so close that you could see the grey rivulets in the landscape of her eyes. “Fine! But we’re going to get food then. Real food.”
You raised your brows—a superhuman feat, what with the way she was vising your face.
By real food Harper meant fries at Joe’s, which was a two-block walk from the theatre. Your threadbare sneakers scuffed on the sidewalk as you skipped up to her fast-paced gait.
“I don’t get it, why didn’t you take him to this thing. I thought he bought it for you? And the way he goes on and on about books in class. It’s made for you nerds.”
“You’re in Advanced too. You have to be the only person on this planet who’d do Advanced and not like reading.”
Harper tsked. “You know what I mean.”
Across the road, on the sidewalk, there was a woman playing a fiddle, a small hat on the ground in front of her. Over the traffic she was mute—you could not hear one note she played—but she swayed, eyes closed, elbows oscillating hypnotically. She looked so unburdened, like at any moment she could saw her arm at the right note and be transported to another location, one far from here.
“‘Mmmmm’ what?” Harper said.
Biting your lip you thought, what the hell. Holding it in was killing you anyway.
“I kissed him.”
“Yeah,” you said, “he kissed me back too. It was perfect, and then a few days later he told me we need boundaries until I’m older, or until I graduate. I’m supposed to ‘spend more time’ with people my age. Ugh.”
“Okay, ow,” Harper said. “Standing right here. But I forgive you this once.”
You elbowed her.
“You know what I mean. But I don’t know how much longer I can take it, Harper. We already get along so well that I forget he’s older. You don’t know what it’s like. Every weekend we meet up and barely do anything at all, and it’s perfect.”
“Have you talked to him about it?”
“Not… really… not beyond the boundary conversation, but there’s nothing to say. The worst part is that I know he’s probably right, I just wish he wasn’t.”
Harper’s lip ring twitched from side to side—she was subconsciously flicking it with her tongue, a tell she had when she in her thinking mode. After a moment the ring gave one final tic and she said, “I’ve got nothing.”
You grumbled and resumed the walk. A couple of stores away you spied the modest signage of Joe’s. You thought that at one point the plastic sign used to light up, but they’d given up on it after the bulb went. Or, perhaps, it was to save on the electricity bills.
“How was it, at least?” she said.
You pressed your fingers to your cheeks to warm them up—or to hide your head in your hands—either worked.
“Great,” you said. “Cute. Perfect. Hot. He cupped my jaw and my brain melted faster than Chernobyl Reactor Four.”
“Ahaha whoaaaa, right on, Todd.”
You walked into the door together, and a bell chimed as you pushed it open.
“I’ll get menus,” she said, and then she grabbed your arm, jerking you in the opposite direction to the counter. “Hold up, I know this broad.”
“Stephanie!” she yelled.
A blonde head of hair popped up from a booth like a meerkat, and she made a noise that you could only describe as a ‘squee’.
“Harps!” she said. “You changed your hair!”
“It’s been blue forever, you’re just never around.”
“Yeah, been busy. Things to do. Lives to spoil. Hey,” she said to you, “I’m Steph.”
“Y/N,” you said to her, and she reached around the booth, firmly shaking your hand like it was a business meeting, which made you want to giggle—from the way Steph was loudly chewing bubble gum and wearing a purple tank top bedazzled with ‘The Bitch In Question’, she didn’t seem the type to go in for the firm handshake.
“Harps, you know Tim. Y/N, this is Tim,” she said to you, motioning to a dark bundle of clothes in the booth which you hadn’t noticed until then.
The boy in the booth ducked his head up to wave.
His wave faltered when he saw you.
It was the boy from the coffee shop.
His mouth hung open, and you imagined you looked quite similar.
“Is he here?” he said, looking up and around.
Steph slid back into the booth with him without a care, bumping his hips.
“No,” you said.
“Sit down,” Steph said, and Harper dove into the checked booth opposite them. “Who’s here who?”
Tim blew out a sigh of relief and pawed for the cup of black coffee in front of him, like it wasn’t half past ten in the evening. After a second, you sat down too.
“What’s up with being terrified of him?” you said.
His brows furrowed.
“Uh, have you met Jason?”
“Yeah,” you said pointedly.
Steph and Harper were looking curiously between you two, which made you think Harper didn’t know about Tim’s connection to Jason either. Steph picked up a French fry and dunked it in her pink milkshake. Harper blindly reached across the plate, stealing a fry and doing the same.
Unabashedly, Tim looked straight from you, to Harper, to Steph, and then back to you again.
“You know Harper,” Tim said slowly, painting the words out loud as though he were a detective pinning theories onto the case board.
“Hang on,” he said, “do you go to school with Harper?”
“Yeah,” you said.
“And you’re Jason’s soulmate.”
Steph choked on her milkshake. The smallest bit of pink milk spilled from the corners of her mouth. “She’s what?!”
“Yeah,” you said.
It was like a gameshow wheel spinning around in his head. Ding ding ding ding. It came to a stop. Tim’s eyes lit up to a thousand watts, but Stephanie voiced it first.
“A student—a student, oh my God, Tim, he matched with a student—an actual student—sweet Beyoncé.”
You groaned and buried your head in your hands.
"TIM, a STUDENT."
“I am doomed, for the rest of my life, for that the be the thing everyone finds significant about our match.” Lifting your head up, you said, “You know, we have actual things in common. We both read, and every now and then he says something asshole-y and I think, ‘Yeah, I was thinking that’.”
“Man,” Stephanie said, jabbing a fry in your direction, “Hard to imagine Jason having emotions for anyone, but from the sounds of it, you already cover the two biggest aspects of his personality.”
“Nah,” Harper said, “You should actually see them, it’s weird.”
You frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Hello?” Harper said, eyes bugging out. “In a past life, that guy’s name was Oscar, he had green fur and he lived in a trash can.”
“And then you beat his ass once in ping pong, and he’s all smiles and heart-eyes like city council upgraded his trash can and added an option for recycling too.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
“I’ve never seen him smile once,” Steph said, impressed.
“Neither,” Tim said, ganging up with them.
Scoffing, you thought about Jason in the nurse’s office, grinning when you praised the jar, smiling over breakfast, or in the café, or with you at the lake. “Maybe,” you said to Tim, “you just don’t know him that well.” And to your surprise, Tim bristled.
The staff room was only good for two things: the coffee machine and those rare moments when he was either alone in it, or with Roy or Kory. Today it was a full house, the coffee machine was making some sort of hissing noise when he’d tried to turn it on, and some uncivilised asshole had left their old grits in it. It was times like these when Jason appreciated Alfred’s withering stare that’d forced him into good habits early on.
“… and she tells me I’m up on ‘academic review’. Can you believe that?” Carl said, leaning around him and the coffee machine while he cleaned it out.
Jason grunted in what to him was very much an “I absolutely fucking could believe it” grunt, but from the way Carl did not fuck off, he heard it the other way.
“And they’ll make me do another course—‘updated communication standards’—you get a couple of complaints and I might as well get my teaching degree again. It’s ridiculous.”
Jason glared at the machine. The fresh grits were in. He pressed the shot button.
He pressed it three more times.
Click click click.
“And they’re telling me I don’t know how to discipline students!”
“For the love of—”
The machine rumbled and a stream of coffee spurted from the silver twin spouts, falling into the tray beneath.
He snatched a mug from the counter and stuffed it under it. Black espresso crawled up the red, glazed surface.
“Fifteen years and I don’t know!”
Jason drummed his fingers on the bench. The machine coughed to an end and he snatched up the mug.
“What a shame, Carl. Later.”
“Jason, no, come back!” said Dora. “Staff meeting.”
He was five feet from the door when Dora—the den mother of the English department—shooed him back in. He stared down at the bubbles in the black coffee and sighed. He used to be a tea guy, but maybe you were right, this was killing his soul.
He couldn’t see Roy around—probably off harassing Kory—but he was able to exchange a conspiring look with Janine. After the solidarity of her pouring sympathy-bourbon into his coffee, they’d developed an unspoken mentor/mentee relationship, one in the complex artistry of escaping responsibilities in the staff room. Janine and he never communicated more than exchanging a knowing look, but they both understood what was up. The way she knew how to move along the pace of a staff meeting, or how to flat out flee it, was a talent only a true con artist possessed, and while Janine was like a territorial coyote that simultaneously never showed you love and you feared might eat you, he knew that she was teaching him to observe her tactics. On the rare opportunities that he’d managed to battle it out with her for the coveted position of escaping the staff room first, he could tell, despite her glare, that he had earned her respect.
The current state of affairs was this: Janine had gotten the last escape. This was his.
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“Housekeeping,” Dora said in a mousy voice, fixing her glasses over her round face. She lifted a stack of various torn scraps of paper up to her eyes and said, “They changed the passwords for the video library portal: capital X, lowercase g, three—”
“Email it through,” Janine said.
“Oh fine.” Putting the first piece to the back of the stack, she continued, “There’s the new regulation on the—”
Jason was already tuning her out when he heard the soft clearing of a throat. He looked to his left, and you were standing there—arms wrapped around a binder, blinking at the staffroom like it was an exotic, forbidden land. He supposed it was to you. A smile worked its way along one side of his mouth.
“My, hello,” Dora said, pushing her glasses down her nose to take a look at you.
You waved and turned a little pink. Jason wanted to snort. So, you were fine waking up next to him, fine with him waking up next to you, and could sneak out of a cabin in the middle of the night, but it was the staff room that left you speechless.
The idea pinged and he snuck a cursory look at Janine—he had this in the fucking bag. Janine scowled at him, reading his exact thoughts.
“Dor, send anything I need through to my email,” he said and sent her a look that he hoped was very ‘What can you do? I need to take this’.
“Of course, of course” Dora said, waving them off and out the door. “Take care, dear.”
Metallic thuds from navy blue lockers echoed in the hallway as straggling students made their way outside during the lunch period. It was quiet enough that they could walk together without being mobbed or whistled at, which he appreciated.
“Remind me I owe you one for that. I sit in those meetings and watch seconds tick by on the clock.”
“Sure you want to owe me another favour? I haven’t cashed in the table tennis one yet.”
“On second thought,” he said, giving you the side-eye, “you only get the one.”
Jason had expected you to rack up the favour by now, but your lack of action was making him nervous. He was ninety percent sure you weren’t going to ask for anything that could get him in too much trouble, and silently praying it wasn’t something you were going to ask in front of the class. He had visions of you calling out one day, ‘I’m not feeling this assignment—raincheck?’—which wouldn’t turn out well in the event that a) he honoured the favour and got ratted out by some bitter student, or b) he said no and forever became the soulmate who chickened out on the favour-bet.
And then there was another part of him, another part that wondered if it’d be something far less formal and way more scandalous. Ever since the kiss in the cabin, he’d pictured you cornering him in a broom closet, or perhaps a crowded hallway, and saying the words ‘Kiss me’. It was either a nightmare scenario because it shouldn't happen, or a nightmare scenario because to Jason it wasn't entirely one.
“How was the movie?” he said.
“Pretty. I went with Harper. Then we went out for fries and I, uh,” you paused. He looked across at you and you were biting your lip. He gave it three seconds before you fessed up.
“I kind of accidentally sort of hung out with your brother.”
He nearly tripped; his shoe squeaked on the floor. “What?”
“Dick?” he said hopefully.
The last time he’d seen Tim he’d been trailing along with Dick and Cass as they harassed him about family nights at Wayne Manor. Family nights, or, "Richard Grayson's Not So Subtle Metaphor For Talking To Bruce". They’d ambushed him out at Ravager with Roy, commandeering the booth, and there they’d been: the collection of Bruce’s strays. It wasn’t like Jason disliked them—the opposite, really—Dick was annoying and too perfect, but he’d grown attached to him in a Stockholm Syndrome-esque capacity, and Cass had a sleight of hand and ability to read people that he admired. And Tim? Tim was smart, and enough of a highly functioning disaster that every now and then he felt a foreign, brotherly pang to look out for the kid.
It’d been an alright night—Cass had tried a beer for the first time and hated it, which had been an amusing watch—but when Dick had brought up coming back home, Jason had told them in his gruff, pointed manner that that sure as fuck wasn’t going to be happening any time again soon.
But someday, Cass had signed, and to his shame, he hadn’t corrected her.
It was a traitorous twinge he got every now and then, a longing for mahogany banisters and grey, rough sandstone walls.
He missed Wayne Manor every time he glimpsed crystal glass and thought of the chandelier in the hall, or a floorboard creaked and he remembered his old bedroom. He missed Wayne Manor when he opened the staffroom cabinet and saw chipped American mugs; he thought of finely painted china teacups that he’d watched Alfred painstakingly wipe over with a microfibre cloth. One by one, they’d come out of the glass cabinet, and then, return to their home.
However, the most traitorous of all these were the books. At home, at the school, when he picked up a book he thought of Bruce. He saw himself sitting in the library with him, reading together—he, usually with a novel, and Bruce, reading reports from Wayne Enterprises, or researching reforms and recommendations for city council. They read on days when the sun glared through grey clouds, winking bothersomely on the glass windowpanes so that he had to sit with a hand shielding his eyes to block it out. They read on days when it seemed like the day had escaped entirely, and then Alfred was there, stoking a fire, lugging hardwood past the hearth that popped and crackled, nearly melting this Gotham Academy uniform if he sat too close to it.
Jason hadn’t been much of a reader before Wayne Manor. He’d done a few years of schooling before his mom died, but after pickpocketing for Penguin had become his full time job, the transition from that back to school—no less, Gotham Academy with their prestige and high achievers—had been beyond difficult for him. He remembered throwing his copy of his assigned reading, The Three Musketeers, on the floor. It’d landed there with a thud, spine up, its pages bending at off angles. It wasn’t that he couldn’t read—he could—but the language was too dense—he didn’t understand the words. There were words in French, words that he’d never seen in the books his mom took from Gotham library for him, words he never heard another person say aloud before—cuirass, mendicants, sagacity. He had no idea what they were, what he was supposed to be imagining.
Bruce had found him there, had taken one look at him, then at the book. He’d picked it up and sat next to him, and he didn’t accuse, didn’t say what Jason had been dreading to hear. Instead, he flicked open the first page and read, “The Three Presents of D’Artagnan the Elder. On the first Monday on the month of April, 1625…”
When Jason would interrupt and say, “What’s that?” Bruce would explain the term to him (or, his favourite—on the rarest of occasions, when Bruce became more human than anything—he’d squint at the word and say, "Is it a kind of… tablecloth? Hold on, Alfred’ll know").
After getting through the whole thing, Bruce had given him his own copy of the book, one that his own parents had gifted him before they’d died. Giving it up was the one thing that’d never felt right about their falling out; the day Jason had sold it for a spot of cash… well, he didn’t like to dwell on that. He always planned to buy it back from Outlaw Books, and perhaps one day he would, but it never seemed like the right time.
“Tim,” he repeated, numbly. “How did that happen?”
“Harper bumped into this friend of hers, Stephanie, and he was there.”
Jason blew out a breath. Stephanie Brown. Of course she of all people would know Harper. Pesky personalities flocked together, he guessed.
“What happened?” he said, and of course he meant, What’d he say? How did he react? Did he already hear from Bruce?
“Seemed kind of terrified when he found out—said if you hadn’t told him then he wasn’t supposed to know.”
Shock was his first reaction. Shock that Bruce hadn’t told everyone, that he’d respected his wishes. That’d be a first, he thought, but he couldn’t find it in him to be bitter.
Jason quirked his eyebrows in a ‘can’t disagree’ sort of way to Tim’s reaction, though he didn’t feel great about it. Tim and him weren’t close, which, he knew, was largely his fault. The Waynes weren’t his family, weren’t his problem anymore. Their lives were separate, and finding you wasn’t anyone’s business to know except his. For all their intrusions, Bruce had made it clear that when it came down to it, he didn’t care about Jason. A voice nagged in the back of his mind that it wasn’t Tim’s fault he’d gotten caught up in Bruce and his shit though.
“I’m sure there’s a reason,” you said, “but why does no one in your family know about me?”
“I don’t talk to them,” he said, eyeing you, and with a twinge of guilt he wondered if you’d been thinking about this for a while. “They’re not really my family, we’re not close.”
“The first time we ever really talked, in the school office,” you said, and he felt fondness towards you that you thought of that as your first time talking, not the menial exchanges answering questions or the roll before, “after we bonded, you said that you had three brothers and a sister.”
He sensed the irony there, the implication you were hinting at, but he didn’t know what to tell you. He knew what he should tell you, but he wouldn’t do it here—it was a story he was never eager to tell anyone.
“… it’s complicated,” he said.
You were standing in front of a row of blue lockers. Today, you wore a cream blouse, a spot of bright against a backdrop of blue.
He wanted to reach out to you, and tell you it wasn’t about you, but then, the bell rang, droning over anything else he might have said. The ringing trilled for what felt like an eternity.
“Say I run into him again…” you said, “is it the kind of complicated where you would prefer I kept my distance?”
The halls were filling up now, and when a sneaker squeaked on the floor he remembered running across the marble vestibule in Wayne Manor, Alfred chiding him as he passed.
“Tim’s a good kid,” he said, and he hadn't known that he'd meant it until it was said out loud; a confession made real. His voice was susurrant. “I don’t mind.”
Tugging the scratched, silver handle twice—just to be sure—he pocketed his keys. The action was mechanical and ingrained in him at this point: the Gotham ritual for the car to still be there in the morning. The swamp-like car park was situated underneath the apartment’s building complex. Mouldy green light from the few still-working fluorescent tubes flickered against islands of shadow; they buzzed and whispered to each other in the damp cold, but he wasn’t listening to them. No, he was thinking about the hallway lined with blue lockers, and you standing in it.
I’m sure there’s a reason, but why does no one in your family know about me?
He should have answered you properly then, but he hadn’t, and he couldn’t now.
His stomach curled as he walked to the exit, the mouth of the garage that he’d driven in through. The door that led to the building’s interior stairwell was permanently sealed for reasons undisclosed by the landlord, and the only way to get to the complex from the garage was by walking all the way back out of the driving entrance behind the building, around the side alley, and to the front door.
Why does no one know about me?
The question wouldn’t have been so torturous if he hadn’t spent all this time learning you like a watchmaker learnt their favourite piece; the intricate golden cogs and gears, the mechanisms of the way you ticked. He’d listened to you commit murder at The Roast of Duke Thomas on more than one occasion, and coolly shit talk an assigned novel with scathing precision, but he knew you’d never bring up something that made you seem exposed unless it’d been sapping away at your subconscious for months. Leaving you in the hallway without clearing the air had left him uneasy, but it was better this way. He couldn’t talk about it. He didn’t talk about it. Not with Roy, or with Kory, or Artemis or Bizarro, not with anyone.
The night air was frosty—he’d stayed at work later than usual—and he could hear the sound of traffic, of voices, and a couple of teenagers kicking around a glass bottle in the lot on the neighbouring property. It clinked and tinkled on the concrete; but he wasn’t thinking about them, wasn’t paying attention to anything around him really. It was how he missed the shadow.
It slammed him against the wall of the alley. Coarse brick was icy through his jacket, rough against his neck. Blinking at the late-blooming pain, he realised he’d knocked the back of his head too.
There was a clip, and then the biting, cold press of a switchblade was at his throat.
“Wallet and keys,” the man said, bourbon breath fanning over him.
The man was roughly the same size as him, albeit older, with a brown five o’clock shadow and a jacket that wasn’t cheap. Jason had stolen his fair share of wallets as a kid, but never at knifepoint, never at the threat of killing someone. Living on the streets, he’d learned the hard way how to tell between the kids, the starving, and then the gangbangers that did it for fun.
It was just the two of them, crowded against the alley wall, but it was like Jason could sense the third man there breathing down his neck, the one who’d cornered him in an alley like this once before. Ghostly pale skin. Grimy, packet dye green hair. A laugh without humour. He was suddenly overcome by a fear, not for himself but for you, that he might get his throat slashed next to a dumpster and never have the chance to explain everything properly.
“Wallet and keys,” he repeated. The blade kissed his neck, and he felt a warm bead of blood slide down the column of his throat.
Like wading through water, Jason drew his wallet from his jeans. It was warm from being in his pocket all day. Passing it over, he let it slip through his fingers, and when the man grabbed for it, he knocked the arm holding the knife away, sending it clattering along several feet from them, under the rusting, forest green dumpster.
The man punched him, clipping him on the lip, and Jason smashed back, sending him stumbling. Jason hit him again, and the man’s head snapped back; blood sprayed from his nose and teeth. There had been an unnatural sting on his knuckles in the hit—he’d split them against the teeth. Jason leant over him, fisting his shirt, and he before he knew what he was doing, he’d bludgeoned him again.
His pulse roared in his ears, and the man below him—his nose bent and caved, welling red—put up a sloppy hand to protect himself. Hand still locked in the shirt, Jason fought to remember how to unlock it, and when his grip loosened, the man scurried backwards like a wounded animal and bolted.
The world tilted, and in the corner of his eye, Jason saw the silhouette of the ghoulish man laughing at him.
Retrieving his wallet from the ground, he stuffed it back in his pocket, and felt his hands shake. Stumbling back against the alley wall, he closed his eyes and leant against it.
There was a crash like glass breaking, and when Jason looked down, there was a shattered desk lamp on the wooden floorboards, whispers of gas and smoke ribboning from its spent bulb. He squinted, the harsh, warm lighting in the room bombarding his eyes.
Maybe you’d been on your bed, he didn’t know, but you appeared from somewhere and said something to him that he didn’t hear. Lips moving, no sound. There was a desk behind him.
Still orienting himself, he shook his right hand out, flexing it. His knuckles were red and raw.
“Hey—are you okay? What happened?”
He blinked at the floor, then touched his split lip.
He looked at the lamp he’d broken again.
“Sorry,” he said, but not for the lamp. He found your eyes. “I’m sorry.”
You bundled the yellow and white striped tea towel around the handful of foggy ice cubes, twisting the ends it so that they didn’t fall out. You pressed the pack to the knuckles on Jason’s right hand. They were red and swollen, a couple of grazes and cuts on them.
Perched together on the tall barstools by the kitchen table, you could hear the yellow kitchen light hum. It was eerily quiet. This house always felt too empty, but you were glad that tonight your mom was away, that you had the house to yourself. He went to take the ice from you, to hold it there himself, but you wouldn’t let him. Your hand stayed over his.
He shook his head. “Some guy went for my wallet—it’s fine.”
“Doesn’t sound fine,” you said. You extended a hand to touch his swollen lip, but thinking better of it, dropped it back on the cloth. There was a small cut like a razor nick on his neck. It wasn’t bleeding, but from the faint smear of red around it, it had been. “Doesn’t look fine.”
“It’s not what’s bothering me, I—” he said, and then looked away.
You didn’t want the bare bones for this, you wanted him to talk to you, not to deflect or to put it away. There was enough of that between you. But you weren’t going to force something out of him either. You squeezed his fingers to let him know that it was okay, and then you readjusted the ice pack.
He was staring past your shoulder, to the wooden floor.
You pressed the back of your hand against his knuckles to make sure they weren’t freezing off, and satisfied, you placed the pack back on.
“You wanted to know why I don’t talk to Bruce,” he said, “why I didn’t tell them about you…”
He was staring down at the packed ice, at your fingers almost touching, but not quite.
“After Bruce adopted me, some guy nearly killed me. Bruce handled it badly. It’s why I don’t talk to him anymore.”
You felt yourself stiffen, fingers curling a little tighter around the tea towel. After the initial shock, questions rose in you, but you clamped down on them.
“I’m not going to pretend I was a good kid; I know I was difficult. I ran away from home—a lot. Got into fights. Did just about everything I could do to rebel. Hated being around rich sycophants all the time, and let Bruce know it too, but Bruce… I lived with the guy longer than any foster parent I’d had before. Three years. I idolised him, thought he walked on water. The way he would do anything to get justice for people in Gotham…” he laughed softly, his voice husky. “I thought I wanted to be him.”
There was rustle as you took the ice pack off, leaving it on the table. He was rolling his jaw. The hard kitchen light fell off his visage, accenting his strong jaw, his nose, his body. He would look like a Grecian statue if it weren’t for the vulnerability marble couldn’t compose.
“So,” he said, “I was sixteen, passing by the place I used to live with my mom before she died, and one of the neighbours recognised me—told me she had a box of my mom’s old photos and other junk that she wanted to give to me.”
“I took it, it was mostly garbage. Sun-bleached paper with ink so faded you couldn’t make out the words, receipts, photos of people I didn’t recognise, and then, my birth certificate.” He smiled weakly. “Only, the name on the birth certificate didn’t match my mom’s, it was some other woman called Sheila Haywood.”
“I went looking for her—found her in a phonebook—she was in Blüdhaven, of all places. I didn’t want Bruce to know I was looking for her, I thought he’d be upset, or that he’d think I was running away, that I wanted to leave him. So I skipped school one day, and took a bus all the way there. Turns out she had her own shit going on, didn’t want anything to do with me—it was what it was. I left.”
“I was near the station when some guy asked me for a light. We went to an alley to smoke and wait it out until the next bus came. He was messing around, picked up a crowbar someone had left there, and he started asking these questions… ‘How hard do you think I’d have to swing to break a jaw with this? What do you think’d hurt more, forehand, or backhand?’ I thought he was just joking. Can’t really remember the whole thing, but he snapped, clubbed me out of nowhere. I told him I didn’t have a wallet, but I had some change for the bus. He didn’t want a wallet, nothing. He was insane, just kept laughing. I thought for sure I was dead, that I was going to be one of those people who died before they found their soulmate.”
“Funnily enough,” he said, unconsciously thumbing over the place where cigarette burns dotted his chest, “nothing really scarred. Not from that, anyway. Nine broken ribs, a broken jaw, fractured skull, shattered knee, traumatic brain injury, medically induced coma. Worst night of my life, and nothing to show for it,” he huffed an empty laugh.
“I ended up getting registered as a John Doe in Blüdhaven Hospital—didn’t wake up for two weeks. Another two weeks after that, after I remembered how to talk, I asked them about Bruce Wayne…”
“Turns out, Bruce had reported me missing, but hadn’t really looked for me. He’d thought I’d finally split like I’d threatened, and just let me go. And to top it off, he’d adopted some new kid too—Tim. Dick had no idea I was gone. He was in college at the time, and Bruce never bothered to tell him. Alfred, the butler, he was kind of like Bruce’s father, he looked around for me, couldn’t find me either. I think Alfred was the one worried about me the most, but Bruce had just let it be.”
“To be fair, I got over him not looking for me. At first I was livid, but y’know… hindsight,” he said, and shrugged. “I think I only ever told Bruce how much I wanted to leave. Didn’t mean it, though, didn’t think he’d believe me, but I guess he did. Tim’s a good kid too, I got over it. He needed a place to go.”
“I gave a description to the GCPD, was lucky because he was pretty memorable. Dyed green hair, pale… turned out that they’d already arrested him for something else a week prior. He was a low-level member of the Red Hood gang, and he’d cut a deal to testify against their leader, which implicated a whole bunch of other guys—Sionis, Maroni, Falcone—and the condition was full immunity for anything he did during his time as a Red Hood. He’d go into witness protection, have a whole new life. I never even learned his name, in the court documents he was only ever referred to as ‘Mr. J’.”
“I asked Bruce to do something about it, begged him to use all the leverage he had to intervene, which he could have done. Outrage from Bruce Wayne would have been enough to plaster it on every paper—pressure the DA into changing the deal—but Bruce didn’t want to risk missing out on a testimony and evidence against the crime families. It was going to be a ripple effect, if they got this one guy, then it’d lead to more arrests. I even think I asked him if he’d find a way to leak his address for me after the trial, so he at least got what he deserved… I got a resounding ‘no’. Push came to shove, Bruce backed the DA on the deal—wanted to get Maroni and the rest that badly.”
“A lot of the family agrees with him too. Dick rocks back and forth. Sometimes even I think I agree with it… Maroni was put away for life. Sionis too, for a while at least. Falcone died of old age during the trial, but a lot of his people went away.”
“But,” he said, and when he opened his mouth to continue, no sound came out. It took him a second try for it to work, and when you heard his voice tremor, your heart squeezed. “The kind of person you have to be to do that… to a kid… not because you need anything, only because you want to do it. That guy’s still out there, who knows what else he’s done. And I- I thought at least, because Bruce’d adopted me, because I was like his son, he’d do something about it, so that it was fair. Justice. Revenge. I don’t know,” he said, voice barely audible.
“So that’s why I don’t talk to Bruce anymore,” he said. “Couldn’t stand the sight of him. Most of the family came in after that, I don’t have a problem with them—but they’re inseparable, they all come together. You take one, you get them all, Bruce with them. We keep our distance, and it’s for the best,” he said, finally meeting your eyes.
You were at a loss for words, speech had left some time ago. His uninjured hand was clutched in yours, though you hadn’t even remembered picking it up. It seemed neither of you had noticed, because he looked down at it too.
“Jason…” you said, “I…”
Your throat was dry, he looked away.
Gingerly he stood, extracting himself.
“I need to be heading back,” he said, and you stood, dazed, following him out of the kitchen, down the hallway to the door. His hand was on the handle when you reached out, stopping him.
“Wait,” you said, and his hand stilled.
It wasn’t logical, wasn’t governed by any decision you came to consciously, rather it was that an unassailable need, a burning instinct to comfort him, to hold on to him. It was why you locked your arms around him, tucking your head against his chest. And then, the secondary fear settled in, and the thought of retroactively losing him only made you cling tighter.
“I’m sorry that that happened to you,” you said against his shoulder, and though he didn’t reply, an ironclad arm held you back, and he tucked his chin on top of your head. You felt the firm press of his jaw against your skull.
“Has he ever… apologised? Or tried to make it right?” you said, drawing you head back out a little. “Tim said something about… asking you to come to family nights or something.”
“It’s not that simple,” he replied, but he didn’t elaborate.
You lifted your head up a fraction more, examining him, trying to read what was going on behind his eyes. They were distant, as though he were in thought, or presiding over a war played out many times.
“What is it?” you said softly, studying him. “What aren’t you saying?”
He looked down at you, like you’d twisted a knife. Gently, he reached for you, and brushed your cheek with his thumb, a feather’s touch. He looked down at the floor, as though he was thinking about something; or perhaps he wanted to voice it, but couldn’t quite say. He stayed there, fingers against your cheek like that for several breaths, enough time that you felt the warmth from his body seeping into yours. And then, he was slipping past you out the door, and he was gone.
From: Jason – 5:41AM
Heading into work early this morning, you okay to get the bus?
The bright phone screen nipped at your tired eyes. You were unrested, pulse jittery. A heavy feeling had swathed you all night, ever since he'd abruptly left.
The digital green clock on your bedside table blinked at you, telling you it was a quarter to six. If you wanted to you could still sleep in for another two hours, leave by eight, and make it there for your first class at nine. After sending him back a reply saying it was fine, you stared at your bedroom ceiling.
It was seven nineteen in the morning when you got off the bus. Your shoes hit a puddle, brown flecks painting your white socks. The air was brisk, whipping your cheeks. The sky was grey, the air smelled of fresh rain.
You trotted up the building stairs, your first four footsteps leaving a wet track behind you, and there was a hum from a lone floor cleaning machine on a different level.
Through the submarine-like window you saw that he was sitting at his desk staring out against the expanse of windows. Rain droplets clung to glass, blanketing them, and the Norway Maple drooped under the looming sky. His elbow was on the arm of his chair, and his head was propped on his hand, his gaze was distant as it had been the previous night. Lost.
You entered, shutting the door behind you, and you sensed him go rigid at your invasion. You didn’t look at him, didn’t say anything, but you felt his eyes on you. In one hand you juggled a delicate white paper bag and a cardboard tray. You walked to one of the desks and picked up a chair with your free hand, rehoming it next to his desk, the desk you’d sat under months ago as he tightened screws.
You placed the white paper bag in front of him, and then, the paper cup labelled in barista shorthand LB. Yours went to the space in front of you. Opening your bag, the zipper buzzed, and you extracted the novel you’d been chipping away at. Sitting down, cracking it open, you began to read. You reached for your cup, sipping at it.
You could sense him studying you, but you continued down the page as you would on any weekend morning with him at a café. As though nothing had changed. As though you wouldn’t let it be any different.
It wasn’t until the second page turn that you heard him exhale, his shoulders releasing some of their tension. You kept reading.
By the fourth page turn there was a crinkle; he had unearthed the almond croissant. A moment later, a muted touch against the desk. The coffee.
On the sixth paper rasped, and you knew he was reading next to you, no longer staring out at the windows with that blank, lost expression.
By the ninth, an ankle hooked around yours, affectionately trapping it, and you smiled into the book as you bumped his back.
On the twelfth, he said, “Thank you,” and you replied that it was alright, letting every meaning of the sentiment hang in the air.
And on the fourteenth, when the wind picked up, and raindrops travelled sideways across the windows, you whispered, “I love you."
And it was quiet.
He replied, “I love you too.”
Thank you for all the comments, you guys were so overwhelmingly sweet, watching you freak out was the best ahha ❤️
I know this chapter ain't *that* long but there's a long one coming up either next chapter or the one after that, I promise :]
Life had a live wire running through it—it had become like notes on a music sheet marked affrettando. Formal classes were nearly over, and you had AP exams approaching—your first exam, the one for French speaking, was in a week, and everything else would snowball after that. There was graduation to think about too, and you were organising getting your Gotham U application in within the next few days. And, to make things even harder for yourself, one of the tech stores downtown was looking for employees, and you figured if you got a job there you'd get the first intel on when all the camera gear went on sale, so you were sorting out a resume for that too. Seven thousand things were happening at once, but, you supposed, life was like that. It wouldn't slow down just because you'd had a revelation about loving Jason Todd.
Slowing down in front of the English room, you looked at the giant banner adorning the opposite wall. The letters were each the size of a watermelon, and they had been done in blue glitter. Oh. And there were was that to think about too.
Information slips had come around in your homeroom a couple of weeks ago, but, like most responsibilities that stopped by to say, 'Remember this for a later date!', you completely forgot about it. You'd need to get tickets soon before it sold out. There was another reason why you didn't want to think about it too, but you stopped the thought before it started.
"I think," Harper said, "I'm going to go in a suit, or a jumpsuit, I don't know. I need the sweet, steady comfort of pants. But I am not opposed to heels. Femme-masc prom look is sounding extremely visionary right now. I would date myself if she wore the combo I'm picturing."
"James Bond tux or a blue suit to match the hair?" you asked.
"Hello?? My eyes are blue-grey, I need-"
"NOOOO," Duke said, leaning over, "I told you I was going to get a grey suit, we are not twinning."
"If you'd let me finish, I was going to say blue-grey eyes match any material that's silver and sparkly. Go matte grey, we'll be fine."
"Oh, so now I'm supposed to pretend I know what matte means," he said, and Harper and you rolled your eyes.
Pretty much all the other classes in the hall had gone inside five minutes ago, but it looked like someone must have kicked the lock or bashed the handle with something, because it was jammed. A portly man who you assumed was the school's maintenance guy pulled a tool out of his grease-stained utility belt and began working on it.
You could sense him there, but it was like you were both purposefully trying not to look at each other—it'd been a bit like that since that morning. It wasn't like it was an uncomfortable sort of avoiding, but it was more that the admission suddenly made interacting this big question mark; you didn't know what else might come out of seeing each other if you were left alone.
"Going to need the smaller screwdriver—maybe I can lever it out," the maintenance guy said.
"Let me try?" Jason replied, and almost like he was only humouring him out of politeness, the guy handed it over.
You watched as he angled the screwdriver into a section of the door, and banged the end like it was a ketchup bottle. There was a hollow noise and then he pushed the door open. You smirked, wondering if that was something he'd learned working for Penguin.
"What about you?" Harper said, turning to you.
To be honest, you didn't really want to think about it yet, but then Kristen leaned over and said, "We talkin' dresses?"
"Guess I should go this weekend or next," you said. Great, another thing to add to the schedule.
"You going stag, or...?" Kristen asked, tracing your eye line back to where it had been on Jason. You cleared your throat and the line started moving into the classroom.
"No," you said, "I'm going with the twinning idiots," which led to another protest from Duke over the nature of 'matte'. You took your seat.
You'd barely set your folder down when an all too familiar voice called out, "Mr. Todddd?"
No, no, no, no, no.
"Are you going to prom?" Harper said.
He spared her only one cagey look, then ignored her and sat back in his chair. Foot by foot, he put his feet up on his desk and grabbed a novel out of his draw. He began reading it.
"Everyone, you know what you're working on."
"Come on, don't be so lame, answer the question," she said.
His head didn't raise from the book. “I have to go to make sure you lot aren’t spiking the punch, yes.”
Kristen butted in this time, saying, “Dude, she means are you taking Y/N?”
Jason didn't look up from the book, didn't give away an ounce of either irritation or surprise, but, inevitably, as always, you knew what was coming. You might have wondered if Kristen was just a masochist at this point for going into that knowing how he'd respond, but you couldn't pay much mind to it, you were thinking of something else.
Of course you wouldn't be going to prom with Jason, it would be naive to think that you could, so you hadn't allowed yourself to entertain the idea. But then again, this whole year had been unreal, so maybe you'd thought about it for just a second. There were lines between what you wanted and what you could tangibly have, you just didn't like finding them.
For months the image of the waitress had been stuck in your mind. It’d hurt you to the point where you couldn’t shake it, and at first you’d thought it’d only been because of the way Jason had been quiet, but it wasn’t just that. There was something else in it.
The image of her palm facing up was embedded into your mind because it was something you’d never have. He hadn’t meant to touch you that day your hands bumped because he wasn’t looking for a soulmate, not from someone like you at least. Outside of a student-teacher relationship, he hadn’t even known you’d existed. And now, even though you were eighteen, and although you loved each other, because of this situation you'd been forced into you couldn't be affectionate; you couldn't lean across the desk and flirt like Lucy and Kristen, and couldn't stare doe-eyed or sling an arm around each other walking down the hall like Roy and Kory. When you'd bonded you hadn't been able to do any of the things most people did when they found their match.
You wondered, if you’d never accidentally touched him in high school, what would have happened? You’d probably have gone through the year not thinking about each other in the slightest, not really knowing the other existed. To you he would have remained the good looking English teacher that the other students swooned over, who had once made a student twice write out a list of women who made important contributions to literature—and he might have had a thought about you once or twice in a while, when he wrote a comment in the margins of an essay, or called your name on the roll. And maybe, at your senior camp, you would have snuck out to a different cabin in the middle of the night, and asked Kyle to go with you to the lake; you might have kissed him in a frozen yogurt parlour, might have even snuck into his house this year and made love. He could have asked you to prom, some dumb tradition you didn't even really care about, and you'd probably have scoffed about it—but he could have asked you, and you could've gone together. You'd have graduated, and you'd have gone to college, and you probably wouldn't have thought about Jason Todd for years and years.
You'd had a fantasy that one day, after all that, you’d have been at the gym, a library, a swarming bistro—it didn’t matter—and he’d have strolled over, with his hands stoically in his pockets as always. He’d have leaned closer to you, close enough to make you shiver, to feel the heat through his shirt, and knowing him, he'd have said something possibly scandalous or witty. You'd have played along and midway through the conversation realised that he didn’t recognise you. It would have been funny, because you’d have a story to tell Harper—remember our super-hot senior English teacher? I saw him the other day, he had no idea who I was, and he totally hit on me!—and after knowing you’d spent half of senior year staring dreamily at the guy, you’d have melted a little when he smirked and held out his palm, facing up, for you to touch; a white card.
He’d have done it because it didn’t matter what anyone else thought, it was only that to him you were pretty, because he liked you, because he’d wanted you to be his soulmate.
But there hadn’t been that choice in your match, you'd bumped hands when he hadn't been looking. There were no white cards on your horizon, and you would never, ever have a moment like that between you.
“Kristen,” he said, head remaining burrowed in his book. It was like in slow motion you saw it, and you knew that to you, these moments—the things you couldn't have—would always be a waitress with her hand outstretched, and the silence. “Jar.”
"Once again," he said, "this is your last class with me. I will not be supervising the exam on Thursday. This is your last opportunity to ask me any questions, or to check drafts. If you want to go over anything, now is the time."
The class looked blankly back at him. He didn't know why he bothered—it was like having a dead mobile phone and holding down the power button anyway.
Another beat passed.
"Anything?" he said.
The screen didn't turn on. Jason sighed.
Out of the corner of his eye he spied Bart watching at him again with that uppity, smug look on his freckled fucking face. He'd seen that look before, and it usually precursed some god-awful class upset. So far Bart had yet to make his move but he knew something unholy was coming any second.
"In that case..." Jason went to the dented, scratched whiteboard and uncapped a marker. Their chemical smell used to sting but after two years he'd gotten used to it. A comforting sign.
"Wait, but this is our last class," said Sebastian Wheeler. "Aren't we going to do something fun?"
Marker gliding along the board, he replied, "This is going to be incredibly fun."
His back was to the students but he could feel their grimaces.
"I still have to teach you," he defended, "otherwise they'll take me out the back and kneecap me. But fine, it is something different."
In bold black letters, he wrote 'Oulipian Constraints', and underlined it.
"Oulipian writing exercises stem from the group known as the Ou-"
"Are we giving it to him now?"
"Shhh, no, at the end."
He turned around and narrowed his eyes at them. Ugh, another thing to worry about.
He cleared his throat and started again.
“The Oulipo,” he said, “are a group of writers, mathematicians and philosophers who founded a writing group based on the idea of writing to constraints. They only ever have as many members as you can fit around a table, and you have to be invited to join. Their number one rule is that if you ask to join, you will be banned from the group for life, with no exceptions to this rule. Does anyone know what that translates to?"
There was silence.
“Being a group of elitist assholes," he said.
"But unfortunately, they had some good ideas about creativity, so here we are today. One of the best ways to deal with writer's block is to set constraints for yourself, it narrows down your field of possibility and the challenge sparks creativity. An example of which we're going to do now."
Like almost any instruction he gave, there was a stereo feedback of protests. He wrote on the board anyway:
JASON PETER TODD
“For this constraint, you each take the letters in your name,” he said, and underneath his name, he wrote a horizontal, alphabetised list of each letter, “and use it to make your letter pool.”
A D E J N O P R S T
“The task is to think of as many words as you can from the letter pool, and then either make a sentence or a poem—whatever—with them.”
He eyed the list for a couple of seconds, then scrawled out the line:
‘Jade toads dart atop nets; spared, not trapped.’
“You get the picture,” he said, “everyone, give it a go.”
“Is there a theme or anything?”
“No. Just the constraint."
There were grumblings, but almost everyone pulled out a notebook and began chipping at it. Bart, before pulling out his own, gave Jason that look again, and reflexively, Jason clenched his jaw. Any second now. On the scale of Bart-wraths, if it was in the 8-10 range again Jason was publically making him suffer at the next Grayson-West gathering he was blackmailed into attending. God forbid that was any time soon though.
Savouring the calm before the storm while he could, he wandered around the room, looking over shoulders as he passed. Most people had chosen to do a sentence and were struggling because they had barely any conjunctions or articles that they could form from their letter set—that was, it didn't afford words like ‘and’ nor ‘it’ nor ‘as'—all those little words that make a sentence flow. A few people had figured that out and were doing a poem instead because of the lack of need for a formal sentence structure.
He paused by your desk, his shadow falling over the page. You stilled and tilted your head up. From this angle the page bore three, upside-down lines.
"Thought you hated poetry," he said, distinctly recollecting an aneurysm-inducing speech you'd given about how 'Kubla Khan fails the three act structure and Robert McKee would have told Coleridge where he could kindly shove it.'
"I do," you said. "But this is a spite poem born of necessity."
"Really?" he said, spinning the notebook around so he could properly read it. "Because it looks like," the corner of his mouth ticked up, "a haiku about woodland creatures. Cute. What would Robert McKee say?"
In the beginning, when he didn't know you well enough, teaching you had been like teaching anyone else. For lack of a better word, he could (try to) ignore you and focus on the subject matter at hand. Somewhere along the line though—between you publicly beating his ass at ping pong and morning bickerings about what constituted for coffee—it'd irreversibly altered. He neither held, nor wanted to hold, the illusion that you listened to a thing he said anymore. It was like trying to teach Roy. By now you knew each other too well to view the other as an authority on anything.
"Actually, he'd be fine. The rabbit has a character arc. See, here," you tapped the first line, "it's in the woods, and here," line two, "second act journey of sniffing some moss, and finally," the third line, "it's not mentioned at all, so maybe it's dead. Or it pulled a Good Will Hunting and left at the end, fleeing woodland life. I will be collecting my Academy Award."
"Clever," he said, and he tapped his finger on the final word, "but you broke the constraint."
Following his finger down to the page, you studied it a second, saw the issue, then tsked.
It was the ending word to your haiku—a pretty perfect word, he had to admit—it had the right number of syllables to sound satisfying, and made sense within the mood and tone of the poem—but you’d used a word with a letter not in your name. Your brows furrowed like they had that morning you'd protested waking and burrowed into his shoulder.
It lasted a moment longer before you testily regarded him as if to say, do you really give a shit?
He really didn't but his brow ticked up anyway because getting under your skin was developing into his favourite pastime.
You stood off a few seconds longer before that signature attitude you got sometimes, usually right before you handed his ass back to him, reared its head. It was a look that said, you had the upper hand for zero point three seconds and now it's mine again.
Reclaiming the notebook from his fingers, you scrawled something onto it. The ballpoint pen made a scratching sound. You turned the notebook back around to him and innocently said, "There we go."
He reread it, but the poem hadn't changed.
He frowned at it and traced words back up to the top of the page where your name was written—it had been altered.
You'd given your name the right letters to vindicate your word alright, because you'd added a hyphen and then 'TODD' to the end of your last name.
A laugh bubbled out of him. It was baritone, and perhaps a little loud, because a few students looked up and over to him.
He shook his head and wet his lips.
"Was it cheating, or did I spark my creativity?"
"Fuckin' hell," he murmured, only loud enough for you to hear, and you split into a grin. He shook his head and after exchanging one last look with you, moved further down the room.
His mind kept wandering while he walked; it was nearing the end of the day, and it had become a chore to pay attention. One sentence in particular snapped him out though.
"'Be a tall rat'," he read, and fixed Bart with a tired look. "Inspiring."
"This is lame anyway," he said, "I could be doing better things."
Don't ask, Jason. Don't ask. It's a set up. Don't fucking ask.
"Yeah," he said, putting his hands behind his head like he was tough shit and not a scrawnier, more hyperactive version of Dick's idiot other half. "Starting a socialist revolution for one. Rallying the proletariat against the authority."
"You want me to ask. But I'm not going to ask."
He kept walking down the room.
Bart called out after him, "Did you know that Dick was at my mom's birthday last week? He gave me dirt on you, so we could start there."
"Did Bart just call him a dick?" Jason heard someone say behind him, but he didn't acknowledge it. Bart fucking Allen.
Over his shoulder, he said to Bart, "Jar."
Only, there was no sound of movement. He turned back around. Bart hadn't moved. The only change there had been was that his smarmy look had spread.
"Mmmm, last day though, huh. So I guess the jar holds no power here," and a couple of students, catching on, looked over. So this was what the fucker had been sitting on all lesson. Had the situation been reversed Jason might have approved of the genius in his move, but right now? Jason was a sitting duck.
"Welcome to the revolution, Todd."
Ten. This was a ten.
Jason didn't tear his eyes from that little shit, but behind him he heard a cheer and what sounded like a thunder clap high-five.
"The jar may be dead, but there's always detention."
"You won't. Because I'll tell Dick and he'll scold you."
"Hold on-" said Duke. "Dick like, your brother Dick? How does Bart know him?"
Jason set his jaw. He was going to beat Grayson's ass. Of course he'd have befriended this little shit. He should have seen this coming sooner.
"What is going on?"
It was then that Bart decided to raise his voice and say, "Wally- my-grandpa-Barry's-nephew -Mr.West-teacher-Wally—HE'S TOTALLY SOULMATES WITH MR. TODD'S BROTHER AND I'VE BEEN HOLDING IT IN ALL THIS TIME."
"Oh my fucking God."
"HE MADE ME SWEAR AT THEIR WEDDING THAT I'D NEVER SAY IT IN SCHOOL BECAUSE HE'D MAKE MY LIFE HELL BUT IT'S LAST LESSON SO WHAT THE HELL."
His jaw clenched. "You really want to play this game, ginger?"
"I KNOW SECRETS."
"Bart, quit being an asshole, we all know if anyone has secrets, it's Y/N," Karen said, turning to you, who'd been casually sipping at a water bottle. You put down the bottle, wiping your mouth.
"Uh, I plead that law where soulmates don't have to testify against each other?"
"Fine, Bart, go ahead," Karen said.
Jason tsked. "No. This isn't happening. We're doing another writing exercise. Allen, you're on thin ice."
"Come onn," said Harper, "this is our last class, let's hear all the dirt."
"Do y'all wanna hear about the time he took a joyride in a cop car or how he orchestrated the legendary Gotham City High gargoyle stint."
He was this close to saying fuck the wrath of Richard Grayson and giving Bart detention anyway when Duke said, "Jump Street? No way he did that."
Swivelling his neck to Duke at the pace of a Chucky doll during peak murder-hour, Jason pinned him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Um, you're you," he said, as though it were the most obvious statement in the world. Duke reached across the desk where you sat, all the way over to Harper, who low-fived him.
What the fuck.
Logically he knew and had known for some time now that when you were staff you automatically lost all your identity and got the bad-cop-factor, but Jason was only six years out of high school, and more importantly, Jason still had fucking pride.
"You know what," he said, and not breaking eye contact with Duke he grabbed a chair from an empty desk beside him and dragged it from the desk. As much as he hated Dick he probably wouldn't have told the kid anything too bad. So, what the hell. He walked the chair to the front of the room, and sat down, lording over them. He crossed his arms.
"Fine, you want to spend your last lesson talking up my list of accomplishments, go ahead," he said. "But ground rules first: nothing that's going to embarrass this one," he said, pointing a hand at you, "and if it's anything illegal, the statute of limitations has to have run out."
He fixed Duke with a look that said 'Listen up', and then said, "Allen, proceed."
Bart cleared his throat, clearly thinking he wouldn't get this far. Wow, maybe it really was a bluff.
"Uh, all Dick said about the cop car was that it was at a party, and when the cops rocked up to bust it you stole the car to give everyone a running chance."
Sparse. Probably best to keep it that way. He'd gotten away with it, though Jim Gordon had later heard through the grapevine (aka, Barbara) that it was him. But Babs was tight with Dick, so she talked him out of both arresting him or handing his ass to Bruce for it. He probably should check in with Babs again. He owed her a six pack for that one.
"Borrowed," he corrected, "I borrowed the car, and then I parked it two blocks away, so it was given back. The sirens were kind of fun to mess with though."
"What, seriously?!" said Harper.
He shrugged his shoulders.
You were watching him with a faintly amused expression.
"What the fuck, have you been cool this whole time?" said Harper, and Jason scowled at her.
"Of course. Next."
"You once snuck a girl into-"
"Not that one." Christ.
"Fine. There's more."
"I have one," you said, piping up. You were sitting there, legs kicked out in front of you, head tilted to the side innocently. "Dirt, that is."
"Vetoed because we decided this was a list of cool things I've done."
God. Nothing too terrible, nothing too terrible.
"He's totally a smoker—jumped one time and caught him smoking by the water tanks."
"That," he said, "counts as breaking the snitch code, and now you're in for it."
You shrugged. "Yes, but snitchery in the hopes of keeping you alive is acceptable snitchery."
"Snitches will say that about all snitchery. It's in the name, they're narcs."
"But did it work?" you said, and he noticed that the room had gone quiet. It was always like that when you spoke to each other here—like the hush that fell over a theatre during Star Wars premiere nights—anyone who spoke during the crucial moments was getting stabbed by another audience member.
Your innocent smile persisted, and he thought, why are you so good at this? To be fair, he had been planning on quitting again soon, it just never seemed to be the right time.
Keeping his eyes fixed on you, he dug a hand into his pocket and held up, with two fingers, the half-finished carton of cigarettes. Your eyes flickered to them, then back to him.
"Yes Ma'am," he said, and without looking he shot it into the bin on the other side of the room. There was a crinkly swish as it hit the trash bag. You smiled as he settled back into the chair.
He tuned out the squawking around him and said, "Allen."
"Okay, fine, fine," Bart said, "This one I don't believe but what the hell. He once beat a whole group of rich dudes in a game of poker or something."
"Or something?" Jason said. "Oliver Queen, Lex Luthor, Maxwell Lord and Morgan Edge were at that table. I was fifteen and I fleeced all of them. Cheated, but still fleeced."
"Is that supposed to mean something?" Bart said, "The only name I recognise there is presidential candidate Lex Luthor, and there's no way in hell that actually happened."
"Google them sometime."
"Already forgotten the other names."
"No way," Kristen interrupted. "Why would you have been at a table with those guys? He's been bullshitting us this whole time."
"Oh, uh," Bart said, "his dad's a big business guy, Dick said it was at a gala or something."
"They let me play to humour me," Jason added.
"No way, still don't believe you."
"Believe it or don't," he shrugged. "But I, for one, will never forget the look on Luthor's face when he did the math on how many Kings there were in a deck of cards."
He'd glared at Jason like he was a literal piece of shit, which breached the list of top ten satisfying moments in his lifetime for sure.
He could never prove it, but he was ninety-nine percent positive that not only did Bruce know exactly what he was doing, but that after the first round he'd gotten up purely to invite Oliver Queen to the table and make sure he also got robbed. The smug look in Bruce's eyes at the end of the night had said it all. In total, Jason had raked around forty-five thousand in the one sitting and put it into a charity of Bruce and his choosing. They'd been like a duo that night.
"Okay, what about this one: one time you got out of a test by-"
And it went on. Fragmented anecdotes and rumours that had been gathered over the years. Mostly Jason stayed quiet and let Bart make him seem more badass than he actually was, all the while exchanging silent conversations with you. Things were winding down when Lucy said, "Wait, wait," and stood up.
"As entertaining as this is, we have five minutes left, so," she said, "Mr. Todd, this class has been the number one source of entertainment this year. You're a great teacher, and we'll miss it, which is why we all got you something. Everyone contributed, so you know it came from the heart."
He looked at you and you shrugged, apparently just as surprised, which was how Jason knew it was going to be bad. No way he was going to be getting a genuine goodbye present from those hobgoblins. Not in this lifetime.
She retrieved something from behind her desk then stepped out, coming to the front of the room. She held them out. The action said sincerity, but the look in her eye was 'Loki, son of Odin'.
On top were a box of chocolates and he had the thought, they may be poisoned, but they appeared upmarket enough to be perceived as the 'nice' part of the gesture. Underneath, however, was a mason jar—identical to the one he had on his desk—and it had a red bow around it. Inside, he could see folded paper slips. Cautiously, he took it.
Twenty-five students grinned at him.
Curiosity broke him, and he opened it.
Pulling a slip out, he read aloud, "'I'll meet your Great Expectations'."
He raised an eyebrow.
He dove into the jar again, pulling out another. "'Did you write a literary masterpiece? Because I'm getting lAusten your eyes' —fuckin' hell, are these pick-up lines?"
The class erupted into wolf-whistling and claps. Kristen grinned.
"Yeah," she said, "figured you needed the help since you obviously suck at it." She turned around and winked at you.
Your lips parted, and then you scowled at her. "Are you serious?" And then you groaned. Harper whooped, high-fiving Duke over your head and then ruffled your hair.
The bell rung, a long trilling that covered a good portion of your swearing, but mostly he was just proud that you had such a varied vocab.
As it drowned off he said, "Well, would you look at that. Time's up."
He stood, putting the jar on his desk, and placing his hands in his pockets.
"Final words: You're all menaces and have made teaching this class an actual nightmare. There's only three to four of you that I'll miss—absolute maximum—and if I see any of you on the street I will pretend not to know you. Also keep reading books, broaden your minds, don't be assholes—that is, unless it's to someone else who's a bigger asshole, then it's okay. Thank you for the pick-up lines, I will not be using any of them. Now, shoo."
He made a shooing motion and there were several half-hearted grumbles and goodbyes. They packed up their bags, they waved and chattered, and filed out the door. As the room thinned he was overcome with a complex feeling, not unlike how it feels to explain to someone why a book was completely shitty and overall terrible in every possible sense, but you still loved it anyway. He'd miss this class.
Unsurprisingly, you lingered. The room was bare, the door was closed, the row of windows lightened the room, light falling complimentarily off of the shape of you. It highlighted your hair.
"I hope it didn't bother you," he said, but he knew, in the way that you were quiet, that it had a little. None of this situation was fair to you. Sometimes it felt as though he and you were the only two people that understood that, that it wasn't some rom-com dream scenario that'd come true when you'd touched.
"It's alright," you said, wandering by him. You sat on the desk closest to him, and picked up the mason jar with the little paper slips. You unscrewed it, and trapped one between your fingers, drawing it out.
You read it first before you said it to him, and it coaxed a smile.
"'I'll be the Albatross around your neck.'"
He shook his head, gathering his things. "I'm comparing handwriting samples from previous essays and failing people based on how terrible their one was."
You snorted. "Oh yeah?" you said, and then were quiet, as though debating whether to say what was on your mind.
A second later, "What would you use then?"
His hands faltered zipping up the bag, and then he continued again, closing it.
He slung his laptop bag over his shoulder.
"Well, for starters, it wouldn't be a pick-up line, because they're cheap and the rewording ruins the author's original intent."
You seemed to find this typical of him, and expressed it on your face accordingly, but he continued on.
"But, for the record, I would use a quote. And for you? Anna Karenina," he said, and you looked up at him dubiously.
He knew he shouldn't. He turned off the voice saying so.
"'He stepped down,'" he said, walking from his desk over to you, "'trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun..."
He reached out, taking the jar from your hands.
"'Yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.'"
A flicker of something went over your face, and then it was gone, masked by that deflection you'd adopted onto your personality so well. "Ha. Bet you say that to all the girls."
"Just you," he said. There was that flicker again. You stilled.
"Or," he said, feigning confusion, "was that the quote I use for all my hoards and hoards of women?"
You rolled your eyes and playfully smacked his chest. He dodged your blow. Walking towards the door together, you chatted away about something else. The weekend. Your friends. A film you saw.
On the way out he emptied the jar in the bin, placing the jar on a nearby table, and clicked off the light. Paper fluttered down on pencil shavings and balled up worksheets, between saran wrap and a snapped pen; on top of a carton of cigarettes.
The girl beside you was blonde, and her hair was neatly pulled back with a pink ribbon. The staffer had stipulated that you sit in the waiting room with one chair in between each other, which you thought was rather silly. It wasn't like either of you knew the contents of the exam, or that a one-chair gap was going to be a far away enough distance not to lean over and whisper something if you wanted to anyway.
You took a deep breath and blew the air from your lungs.
It was your first exam out of any of them, and you were in knots. Anxiety was so fucking stupid and absolutely not punk rock, but you rationalised that you were probably only more nervous than usual because of the location. French speaking exams (all the language speaking exams, really) ran differently to other subjects—they were held at an off-campus location in the city so that all the students from the Gotham high schools could get it done at once with a proper AP examiner. It was more intimidating and ergo, you had had to get up earlier than usual to make a conscious effort to look presentable for this one.
The key to beating a speaking exam was knowing the topics and using as many language structures as you could within the allotted five-minute window. Your French teacher, who usually had the inside scoop on the exam, had drilled it into your class that there were six main areas you’d almost certainly be asked about: family, describing personalities, goals for the future, work, school and hobbies. You’d practically memorised responses to all the aforementioned areas, and in the waiting room you revised them, going over the language structures. Passé simple, futur proche, futur simple, passé composé, impératif, subjonctif.
A woman with chestnut hair and a maroon cardigan opened the door, and a boy followed behind her. He slipped out down the hall, to a different exit, and the woman consulted her clipboard.
You stood up.
“Come in, dear,” she said, moving out of the door frame for you.
The room was sterile white, with a grey desk and brown chairs on either side of it. There was a silver analogue clock on the desk, it’s shiny back to you. You could see a stretched carnival mirror reflection of yourself in it.
You sat down in front of the desk. Your heart thumped.
The woman had a sleek, silver voice recorder in front of her. She pressed the record button, and the screen sparked to life, backlit in digital blue.
“Please state your full name and your student number.”
You gave it to her.
“We shall now commence the exam, from here out, you will only be spoken to in French.”
"What is your name, and how old are you?"
"My name is Y/N. I’m eighteen years old."
She asked you about your plans for university, and you told her about Gotham U, your course, and filmmaking, about the camera you wanted to buy, about your mom and your friends. You were surprised with the ease you blurted everything out—it flew from you—but then, you’d been memorising responses for some time now. You knew the topics like the back of your hand.
You'd probably spoken for three and a half minutes before you realised she was regarding you with an impressed look. Her eye glinted, and you finished your sentence.
"Talk to me," she said, "about soulmates," and your lips parted in surprise. "Have you found yours yet? If not, what do you look for in a soulmate?"
Soulmates were a small section of your vocabulary, but you hadn’t prepared much for it—your French teacher had said most examiners rarely ever asked, only if they wanted to give you a challenge.
Swallowing, your fingers tightened on the edges of the plastic chair.
"Yes," you said, finally, "I have already found my soulmate. We met at the beginning of the school year. His name is Jason, and he’s twenty-four."
The woman nodded her head slightly as if to say, 'go on'.
"Actually—Jason is my English teacher."
Her eyebrows raised.
"A few months ago, we bumped into each other in the classroom, and it was a bolt of lightning. We were surprised, but there was no pretending it didn’t happen—everyone saw."
"I think that if he’d had it his way, he would have spent the year ignoring me, but it wasn’t an option. We jump often."
She was still regarding you in a way that said 'did not see that coming' and you thought, yeah, well, you asked, lady.
"And... what is his personality like?"
You thought about it for a second, sorting through your limited vocabulary, trying to find the words to describe the enigma that was he.
"He is smart, and fearless and doesn’t care if honesty offends. He acts very… diplomatic about all this, but secretly, I know that he likes me."
The woman smiled.
"At first, I wished I’d met him under different circumstances. But now… I wouldn’t change it. We were in need of each other, even if only, as a friend, this year."
The woman reached over and clicked off the recording device.
"Tres bien, Mademoiselle," she said, and you released the breath you’d been holding.
HEY! Okay, firstly, apologies for the late update - life responsibilities swung by to repeatedly side-tackle me every time I got up, but, [Terminator voice] I'm back
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Harvey Dent's brassy voice sounded from the TV. He was on the stained concrete steps of city hall, a microphone under his nose, pontificating about fairness and defendants and Gotham's integrity. He could have been talking about thermonuclear dynamics for all Jason knew—he was caught up in looking at the unerring attorney's dark, perfectly combed hair, a few streaks of grey visible on the sides. It had been eight years since he'd last sat alone in an office with that bastard, since Dent had told him that the city wasn't changing a deal for a street rat that would've wound up dead on the corner anyway. For years, Jason couldn't look at an image of him without wanting to throttle something—and while time had not warmed him to Jason one iota more, it was funny how it had disconnected him. It had been eight years. Now, Jason was twenty-four, he was sitting in his own apartment, eleven thirty on a Friday night, and Harvey Dent was on his TV. And then, there, knowing all that he did, all Jason could think was, Harvey Dent's hair is going grey.
Then, like it had so often lately, his mind traitorously slipped back to Bruce, and back to kept promises.
When it came to the current state of Bruce and his relationship, it really only boiled down to two junctures: when Bruce had sided with Harvey on the deal, and when Jason made up his mind about being done with Bruce. It'd been so long ago, but Jason remembered the exact conversation, he'd gone over it in the back of his head at least a thousand times.
'I gave up on you once,' Bruce said, 'and it was a mistake. It's not happening again.'
'We're done,' he bit back. 'And if you'll know one thing, Bruce, it's that I always keep my word.'
And Jason had kept his word.
He'd legally emancipated himself and refused a penny from Bruce, working two jobs while he finished up at Gotham City High—the latter of which he'd only been able to do because it was a public school and didn't charge fees. When it came time for college, the financial situation became trickier, because Jason knew he'd have to pay for it himself or get in on a scholarship, and he picked up a third job to compensate. But, the day Jason went to the Gotham U financial office, the financial planner looked at him quizzically, furrowed her brow like he ought to know, and told him that his tuition had already been taken care of. He knew it was Bruce, but Jason didn't call, not even to yell at him for doing it, because, well, Bruce was a millionaire, it didn't matter to him.
It wasn't enough for him to break his promise.
Every year, on his birthday, he got a book, but he didn't read them. They sat unopened in a pile inside his closet, dust building up in a film on top of them. He sometimes wondered what they were about, why Bruce had thought he'd like it—his guesses had never been wrong before—but Jason never read them. Every few months there'd be a Wayne gala invite too, no matter where he moved—even that month he'd been between apartments and lived with Roy—they found a way to his door. But Jason wouldn't call, he wouldn't humour him. Not even when Bruce started to come around and stare at him with that unreadable look, or in his own stunted, awkward way, try to bring it up, but Jason wouldn't hear it out, because they were done.
Because Jason always kept his word.
Harvey Dent left the screen, and the news castor moved on to something else.
The searing spray of the shower cleared his head, and he focused on the rivulets of water running down him, the steam fuming, clouding the room. He shut the water off, grabbing a towel, and wrapped it around his lower body. Wandering to the sink to find his tooth brush, he raked a hand through his dripping hair and swiped the mirror above the sink to clear fog from its surface. His gaze flicked to it. He froze.
There are moments in life you do not think to prepare for—happenings that are possible but not probable—and so you say to yourself, "Well, it'll happen to someone, but not me, so it's not like I can live my life in fear". Jason wished, fucking wished, he'd been so paranoid that he'd have developed a Twelve-point Safe Exit Strategy just in case for this one.
You were in the midst of brushing your teeth, a lime green toothbrush rested between your lips, and you were in your underwear—a black bra and briefs with a lace trim. The only other item you had on were sheer pantyhose that ran from your toes to your waist.
The whole room electrified, and there was a charged moment when both of you waited for the other to react first.
Technically he had seen you like this at the lake, but contextually? Swimming was different. He was suddenly very aware of standing in a towel. It didn't help that he caught the tail-end of your eyes sweeping over him either.
Filling the silence, you cleared your throat, and said through a mouthful of toothpaste, "One sec."
You ducked out the door and he watched your retreating form, tightening the grip on his towel. If anything, he felt numb.
You walked back in seconds later, still holding the toothbrush in your mouth and buttoning up one of his white teaching shirts, still wearing the pantyhose underneath. The ensemble covered to the upper end of your thighs.
You padded over to the sink, and he moved to give you room while you rinsed out your mouth. Then, in an action that only amplified his sense of living in the Twilight Zone, you placed your toothbrush on the sink next to his, like you were already living together, and a foreign yet not undesirable feeling rocketed through him.
"Ground control to Major Todd?" you said, cocking your head to the side.
His voice was rough. "Hi."
The white, glazed bathroom tiles winked like golden glitter, the light from the bulb above catching their surfaces. Gold fell on your hair, on your face, on his shirt, kindled the irises of your eyes. You smiled and echoed him. "Hi."
“You don’t have to go on the couch,” you said. “You're taller than me, I’ll go. You don’t fit.”
“I’m taking the couch.”
You huffed, brushing your hair through your fingers. “You’re being obstinate.”
“I’m already changing the sheets,” he called out from the hall. You grumbled then went in to help him.
You still felt wired, adrenalized from the jump—and, perhaps, from other revelations. After your arrival he'd said to you, 'You should really start leaving clothes here, this is going to keep happening anyway', and while it made sense in a practical capacity, your brain short-circuited nonetheless. Given him being your soulmate and the general trajectory those relationships entailed, in all likelihood that pile would start out as a pile, and item by item grow, until one day, all you had was in an apartment with him.
You had the thought, then, that your bathroom light was still on, and it would be on all night, because no one knew you weren't at home where you should be. That idea didn't bother you the same way it might have, once. Your toothbrush was on his sink, you'd stolen his shirt. You liked being here. You didn't feel displaced.
You knew where his laundry cupboard was by now, and together you unfolded the sheet—it billowed like a sail, deflating down, onto the bed. You tucked in the corners together and smoothed out the creases. Having accepted being thrust into a new location, you felt a little bad about intruding. That, and the fact that you’d evicted him from his room again. The damn jumping was annoying (even if you did like the excuse to see him after hours).
After you’d finished making the bed, you admired your handiwork, then turned to him, suddenly a little nervous. "Are you actually tired?"
"I'm awake," you said, "we should do something."
"I don't know," you said, then wandered to his bedroom window. You twirled the rod on the venetian blind, letting in city lights. It left a slatted, multi-toned projection on the opposite wall that you thought was quite beautiful. Beyond the window, there were distant colours—homely tungsten, blue fluorescents, reds and pinks and greens—and faint rooster tails of that Gotham smog pluming into the sky. "We could watch something, go on an adventure..."
You paused, then looked down at your attire. "Fine, I won't be going on an adventure, but we should still do something."
He was leaning against the doorway, hands in his pockets. Even from there you could see the chords of muscles in his arms. Christ. He cocked his head to the side, as though in thought.
"I have a short-range adventure."
The woollen, red throw blanket was bundled in your arms, and the cotton-knit sweater you'd borrowed from him, donned. He held, tucked under his arm, a grey, enamel thermos and from his fingers hung the loopy handles of two glossy mugs. You followed him out onto the rooftop, and when he headed in one direction, he moved as though to touch your arm and guide you, but he faltered, and dropped his hand. Instead, he said, "This way," and your skin felt burned even from the possibility.
Maybe it was the multitude of crime movies you'd seen, maybe it was your own preconceptions of how city roofs should be, but you'd expected a blank, dreary concrete place, anything that fit in with the overall tone of Gotham city. Then again, life crept into all kinds of unsuspecting places. On your left was a clothesline, with sheets and multicoloured t-shirts—all shades of dark in the night—gently breathing in the breeze, and to the far right was what looked like a small greenhouse someone had installed; you could make out dark green bushy silhouettes and nothing more.
He led you to a particular perch overlooking a section of King street. The edge had metal rails, so you could sit and dangle your legs over the side and still feel the pressing cold bar at your chest that prevented you from falling. You stepped closer and peered over.
From your roost the intimate view of the street was voyeuristic, yet plainly unexpected in its beauty—the way it feels to marvel a painting at a gallery, then turn, only to see a more salient glimpse of life in the crowd. Every shop, bar, butcher, restaurant, club competed for attention with light-up signs—and because Gotham was a gothic Babylon, they had no restraint. Within the space of six feet you could spy a neon pink, flickering doodle of a sprawled woman in a thong and tasselled nipple pasties, and then, marmalade orange music notes and a pizza humbly glowing. It was late, the streets half-full, and the wet tarred road shone green, then orange, and cherry red, as the lights changed. And there were gargoyles—creatures that loomed from old rooftop perches—either silent guardians or threats ready to pounce. A woman at a food cart swapped coins with a customer, and a dog—either hers or a stray—guarded the cart like a merry sphinx to its pyramid.
You had the thought to remark that it was beautiful, but he would already know. Nothing needed to be said. Your eyes followed a woman in a red sequin dress. It winked different colours in shop lights as she waded past pedestrians. Next time, when you had proper clothes, you'd drag him down to the street with you, and you'd bring your camera.
The wind picked up and he cleared his throat pointedly at you. You rolled your eyes.
Stepping back from the rail you undid the blanket and folded it around yourself. While you'd taken his sweater, your outfit wasn't exactly outdoors-proof. Cold needled through you—he was right—but fuck it if you'd ever let him know that. "Happy?"
You sat down on the rooftop and tucked your legs up into it. You instantly felt better, but he didn't look satisfied.
He sat next to you at a respectful distance, and without thinking you almost shuffled closer to him (almost). There was a plastic grind—he was unscrewing the thermos lid. A spout of steaming tea flowed from the rim as he poured it into one of the mugs. He handed it to you. Heat seeped through its sides, heaven thawing your hands.
On the street the dog had gotten up from the side of the cart and was now sniffing at the customer's coat pockets while they protested.
"I've been thinking," you said. "If we ever plan on travelling, one of us should fly to the destination while the other waits it out a week or so, and boom: free travel fare. It's our inconvenient superpower, I say we use it."
"I'll do you one better," he said. "Crime spree. If one of us gets arrested, the other disappears with the cash—give it two weeks and we're both in Corto Maltese."
There was a clink as you toasted your mugs.
And it was like that for the minutes that stretched on—he'd offer up little insights too, about the city, about what you saw on the street below. He told you that the woman at her food cart made the best chilli dogs in the city, and about the time in college, before he'd met Roy, when Kory got kicked out of the bar on the corner for hitting on the bouncer's soulmate. They were little things, but freely presented, which was not always the case with him. Getting him to open up was never easy, but here he let slip little pieces, slivers of life.
You'd finished your mugs, they were put down a few feet away now. You were lying back against the roof, bumpy concrete at the base of your skull, blanket beneath, stars turning above. Moonlight was phosphorus. At one stage, your fingers brushed, and he pulled back his hand. You frowned at that.
He was finishing up a story about the old, wooden-floored gym Artemis, Biz and he frequented when you said, "Can I ask you something?"
He looked across at you. "On our last day, when Bart was running through your hall of fame, how did the sentence, quote on quote, 'Once snuck a girl into-' end?"
He coughed, caught off guard, then, having collected himself, safely answered, "Uh, not sure how much of that one you want to hear."
You grinned. "Fine, but second question—how old were you?"
He narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
"Answer the question, Todd."
"Interesting," you said, stretching your arms out, then pillowing them beneath your head smugly. You could sense him watching you. "And yet, here I am, eighteen, on Untouchable, Purity Mountain. Smells like 'double standards' to me."
You could practically hear him freezing. A second passed, and he rebooted.
"Really?" he said, "Because from here it looks like 'I'm six and a half years older than you'."
"That's because you haven't applied the 'I'm an adult and I can do what I want' filter onto it yet."
He was silent, face unreadable, and then, after a long, borderline tortuous pause, said, "I think, for now, you should just focus on being eighteen."
Your brows pinched. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means," he said, considering his words, "I got to do everything I wanted to because I didn't have a soulmate. Dated, messed around, messed up and it was fine. Just because we matched doesn't mean you shouldn't have that chance too—that would be a double standard."
You didn't quite know how to respond to that. You knew what you wanted to say—it was something along the lines of 'I want to date and mess around with you, you beautiful idiot' —but you hadn't quite figured out the proper phrasing for that one.
"I know it's strange because we see each other so much," he said, "but we're not together. If you want to, take a date—another student—to prom. It's fine." Then, he added, "It wouldn't bother me."
It was like you'd stepped too close to the edge of the building and tripped off. Fallen, unspooled on the wet, cherry red road below. The dog from the cart had wandered over, was licking your unmoving fingers.
"It wouldn't bother you," you repeated, but his face was closed off. You couldn't get a reaction. Maybe you really were on the road below. The woman in the red sequin dress steps round you, heel just missing you. Your pulse elevated, you could hear it in your ears. "Cool, so I'm cleared for making out with them on the dance floor too, right?"
He stared back at you, not giving you a response.
"Customary motel afterwards?"
"If you wanted to," he said, and you flinched.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" you said, voice cracking.
He regarded you a moment longer, then looked away, back at the sky.
An infallible despondency bled into you like ink to water. The dog trots away.
We're not together.
Your throat was tight. You could hear the hum and screech of traffic below, of the wind breathing through the clothesline, curving round the greenhouse, and your thoughts were scattered with it.
A long, heavy moment passed. There was a scuffle. He was getting up.
He let you back into the warm apartment, and you dropped the blanket on the couch, took off the sweater. Staring numbly out the kitchen window, you folded it, then placed it on the table. Neither of you had said a word—it had only been the clatter of shoes on the flight of stairs, the zip and turn of key in lock.
When you turned around, he was a statue-still profile in shadow.
The word felt so superficial, hollow, and it sat heavy on your tongue, but you forced it out anyway. "Night."
His nod was his only acknowledgement, and you passed him, went out the door, down the dark hall and into his bedroom, not bothering to turn on the light.
Peeling back the covers, you got in. A moment passed, and you sat up, worming your arms inside the shirt and yanking your bra off, pulling it out through the sleeve, flinging it onto the floor—but the press of the underwire hadn't been what made your chest tight, what made your heart ache. You felt the start of a frustrated sob wrack your chest, but you bit down on it. You weren't doing this here. You took two breaths—one, two—until your breaths were steady. You battled with yourself not to go back out, you didn't know what you'd say, but you were still angry with him—that he, in all his genius, didn't understand it by now. You stared at the lampshade on his bedside table, the slatted window, and then, at the ceiling. You wrapped your arms around yourself, hugging your chest, holding yourself together.
Shifting onto your side, you hit a warm wall of muscle and gasped.
Though it was he who'd jumped this time, you'd rolled onto him—you were lying on one of his arms, it sat under your waist—your legs were tangled. You could feel the rise and fall of his chest.
Caught unawares, you recognised this raw, fractured look about him, one you knew yourself—and like that, you knew that the cool exterior of earlier had been just that. That he had lied. That he, after all, in a rain-dotted room, had confessed he loved you, and yet, he would have let you go if it had been what you wanted—to give you the opportunities he had—to do right by you. Those eyes watched you. The hand you had pressed to his shirt clutched material; the arm around you tightened. You crashed into each other.
His lips seared into yours; they were soft, warm, and every bit as consuming as the last time you'd met them. You arched into him, feeling the heat of his body firm against you, deepening the kiss, and it became like an uncoiling, heavy metal chain that falls to the floor, momentum propelling the crash the whole time it unreels; you unravelled together. Your mouths moved against each other, and he cupped your face—gripped your waist—in a way that was gentle but firm, reminding you how strong he was. You grasped his chin, feeling the faintest rough of stubble under your fingers, but there was this thing between you, this unspeakable yearning, one that'd built for months. It had built for so long now that though you were kissing, your heart still ached. You pressed your body flush to his, wrapped your arms around his neck—his arm curled you more tightly to him—but there was no sense of relief—that yearning persisted—you could not get close enough to him.
Placing one palm against his chest, you rolled him back, and he propped himself upright. Hooking a knee over his hip, you straddled him, and his hand landed on your thigh. You lowered yourself into his lap, and he sat up straighter, still having the height difference on you. Your heart was pounding. He leaned in, reclaiming your lips, and your hand landed on the compact curve of his bicep, ran over the chords of his arm. His fingernails buzzed against the nylon pantyhose, his hand tracing up your thigh, leaving your skin tingling in its path. It slipped up beneath your—his—shirt, resting on your waist, but restrained from exploring any further, and you realised he was still being a little delicate with you, as though you might break, or tell him to stop momentarily. In retaliation, you lightly bit down on his lower lip, letting it run between your teeth, and he huffed. His hand landed on your ass, slamming your hips together, and a spike of arousal shot through you.
His mouth wandered from your mouth down, to your jaw in wet, warm strokes, burrowing into the crook of your neck. He sucked on your skin, the kind of way that left hickeys, and when you shivered, leaning into him, your crotch brushed his.
You snaked a hand up underneath the bottom of his t-shirt, skimming the muscular plane of his abs, and frustrated that you could not go further, tugged at the cotton so he got the message. His hands left you briefly, and you had to break the kiss so that he could pull it off, casting it to the floor, but then you were back on each other, and it was more intimate. His skin was burning.
The last time you'd seen him like this had been at the lake, and memory of his thumb at your mark reminded you that you had another weapon at your disposal. Experimentally, you brought your hand over his mark, brushing it. The touch shot an arresting tingle through both of you, and when he gasped into your mouth it was a whole new kind of satisfaction. Drawing those kinds of reactions from him, you decided, was going to add a whole new layer of fun to what you already had.
His hand traced down until it found the hem of your shirt, rucking it up, so that he was gripping the bare skin above your waist, beneath your breast. You broke the kiss and began unbuttoning the shirt. You'd made it halfway down when it became evident you no longer had a bra on. He grabbed your wrists.
“Wait,” he said, and he blinked as though to clear his head a moment. Your chests heaved together.
“Don’t… feel like you have to,” he said, and you shook your head.
“If you think I haven't been thinking about this for months, you're kidding.”
He exhaled a laugh and he pressed a kiss into your jaw, near your ear—it sent shivers through you. Your wrists still remained in that vice-like grip.
"I..." you said, trailing off, and his hands tightened again. "I, uh, haven't exactly done this before though," and you felt your cheek burning against his. He pulled back a fraction and studied you.
"We don't have to," he said, but you huffed. Your lips felt swollen from kissing already, but they were eager to return.
He seemed to get the message, amused at your frustrated reaction. Instead, he said, "If you change your mind, it's okay, yes?"
You nodded, and then, after a beat, he released them; and it was like you could feel that final wall dissolving, that barrier that'd been there since the moment you first touched. It receded, and he uncurled his fingers. You kissed him, undoing the rest of it. You brought the shirt away, peeling it back from your shoulders—never breaking the kiss. Its landing was muffled as it hit the floor. You arched into him as he pressed kisses down your jaw and neck, and in a trail of fire along your collarbone. Your breasts skimmed his chest, your nipples stiffened. He brushed his lips over your mark and the breath rushed from you, a foreign wave of pleasure tingling through your chest. Okay, wow, you thought, and he continued his path downward, between your breasts, to your sternum, his right hand supporting the curve of your back as you leant backwards to accommodate him.
His grip on you tightened, and then you were spinning. He rolled you over so that you were underneath him, and he crowded you, kissing you deeply. Elevating your hips, you shimmied off the pantyhose, flinging them away, and when he paused, and looked down at you, naked with the exception of your boy briefs, your skin burned—not because you were embarrassed, but because being the recipient of that look was the most flattered you’d felt. His hand skimmed teasingly on your outer thigh, sending shivers along where it brushed, and then, his mouth was spending you once more.
It was need you’d never felt so intensely with anyone. True, you’d never been this naked with anyone, but you suspected it wouldn’t be the same with another person anyway. Jason and you clicked. Every touch was heated, sending you further; every brush against him left you wanting more. A throb went between your thighs, and you skimmed your knee up his side, further up, still, and you hooked a toe beneath the waistband of his sweats. You nudged it down, and your felt the corner of his mouth upturn. He stripped them off, leaving himself in black boxer briefs that hugged his muscular thighs and bulge. You scooted further backwards on the bed, and he crawled over you, eclipsing you. Your fingers wound around his back and you pulled him down onto you. Your leg brushed his crotch and with a flush, you realised he was hard.
You kissed, all the while growing more urgent, the sheets underneath you warming; you were lost in the tangle of your fingers in his hair, the curve of his bicep against your side, the movement of his mouth against yours.
His hand started at your thigh and skimmed up, up, to your hip. He hooked a finger through the band of your underwear, and slowly, drew them down your legs, off, discarding them on the floor. Catching your right leg, he pressed kisses up along it, working his way to your inner thigh, and you thought, welp, definitely have not done this before. You'd always thought this would be awkward or embarrassing, but it didn't feel that way with him. It was right.
When his mouth touched you, you sharply inhaled and looked down at him. The sight of him between your thighs set you aflush again, and if you'd had the voice you were sure you'd have croaked, holy shit. He flicked his tongue—wet, warm strokes; you clenched the sheet between your fingers. Okay, so, him being experienced definitely had perks too. Heat built in your core, your breath quickened, and he roused a gasp from you. You were getting close when he pulled away, and you made a sound in protest. He looked smug—and you realised, then—you don't know why you thought it was going to be any different—that that motherfucker was teasing you here as he would have anywhere else. It was as in character as it was maddening, and you swore under your breath, which made that smirk of his widen. You went onto your knees to return the favour, but, realised, abruptly, you were out of your element. He must have read you, because he caught your wrists and shook his head.
“It’s your first time, don’t worry about it.”
A little swell of nervous relief went through you, and you nodded against his lips, noses bumping, then, stole another kiss. He kissed you again, laying you both back down against the pillows.
“Tell me if you want me to stop, or if anything doesn’t feel right, okay?” he said, and you nodded again.
He was above you once more, kissing you. His hand skimmed your breast, down your side, painting a trail of shiver-inducing fire ending between your thighs. His finger parted your folds, swiping over your clit, and you felt a finger at your entrance. Carefully, he pushed inside, slowly, and shallow at first. You nodded, and he added another finger. Jason was a pretty big guy, and even the addition of the second finger was suddenly wider than any self-exploration you’d done on your own. He pumped them in, carefully, so that nothing hurt, and then deeper, until the bottom of his fingers were squarely against you. Tilting your hips up to meet his thrusts, he pushed deeper—when he curled his fingers you moaned into his mouth.
Restless you moved your leg and brushed his hard-on again, and you broke the kiss.
“I want you,” you said, and he withdrew his fingers, leaving you feeling achingly empty, and he reached for something in his bedside drawer.
He tore open the condom with his teeth and ditching his boxer briefs, he rolled it onto him. You flushed at his size, but you were so turned on you figured you’d be fine. For a brief moment, you considered what he'd said about getting to fool around with other people before you met your soulmate, and you knew, then, that there was no one else you wanted to share this moment with except him.
His hand came to your cheek, caressing it, gaze pouring over you, and you thought of how he'd touched you at the registry, and how they existed on opposite ends of the spectrum. He twined his fingers in yours, kissed you tenderly. You squeezed his fingers.
You felt a blunt pressure lining up against you. You nodded against his jaw, and he gently pushed in.
It was a little uncomfortable at first, but there was pleasure in the stretch, and after warm breaths into his neck he bottomed out, his hips flat against yours.
"Fuck..." he rasped, which you noted down for the single sexiest sound in the English language.
You stayed there a moment, breathing against him, one hand still twined in his, the other grasped at his shoulder blade, feeling it become real that you were doing this with him. You kissed along the column of his throat, up his Adam's apple, up his jaw, back to his lips. His skin tasted of salt. He eased back, and then, thrust forward.
As you relaxed, things became easier. It was a fullness that mounted to pleasure, building up inside you every time you moved together. It was unlike anything you'd felt. Repositioning your legs around his waist, you wrapped your hands around his back, and when he pushed in deeper, a throaty gasp escaped you. At your reaction he seemed pleased with himself, and when he kissed you, you felt the curve of his smile. He built up pace, every motion sending you further off the deep end.
When things were heating up, you thought, my turn, and arched up, pushing him off of you. You twisted around, so that you were on top, and he scooted back so that he was sitting upright, back against the headboard. You straddled him once more, taking your time. Flipping your hair out of your face, you reconnected the kiss and felt his tip at your entrance. You sank down onto it, clenching around him. His chest radiated heat, and when you placed your palm to his mark, he shuddered and placed his hand over yours to hold it there. You felt pressure building in your lower body, and you pressed your cheek against his, panting against him as you moved.
You switched again, then, lay on your side, he was in parallel behind you. Sliding his leg between yours, he entered you again, and you stopped thinking. It was a heat coiling between your legs, it was his breath against your neck, the firmness of his body. You tilted your head up, stealing his lips. It was that tension there, about to crack. You were pressed firmly against his chest, touching his mark, and when he wrapped his arm around you, pulling you closer, he rested his hand over your own mark. He thrust deeper, and you shattered. You felt it through the bond too, energy coursing to every nerve end. A second—and from the sound he made—he was there too. You slowed together as it went through you—for a long while it washed over you, leaving you quivering. His forehead rested against yours. As it went out like the tide, he cupped your cheek and kissed your lips. You lay like that, together, while your hearts steadied from the climax, and gently, he pulled out. He disposed of the condom, you went to the bathroom, and you were back together, in the slightly damp sheets, nestled into his side.
Sleep was heavy on your eyes when you mumbled into his chest the answer you had tried to find on the rooftop.
"I only want you."
He pulled back just far enough so that he could see your face.
His hand brushed your cheek, featherlight.
"You have me," he murmured, and contented, you folded back into his side.
In the middle of the night, very early morning, you roused. It was dark, even the street quiet, and he was asleep. One of his arms was draped comfortably over your middle, and though you were naked it didn't feel like anything was missing. It reminded you of waking up with him at your house, except here it was just the two of you, and this was infinitely better. His breath rose and fell softly. He was so peaceful when he slept. You pulled the blankets tighter around you and drifted back off.
The second time you came around, filtered light filled the room. You protested, burying into the sheets, and when you shifted you noted you were a little sore between your legs. It wasn't unpleasant, and the memory of its origin made you smile. You spread your arm to find him, but only felt the cool canvas of the sheet.
Blinking away sleep, you sat up. The bed was empty.
Hopping out, you set a toe on the ground, and after some stark naked hunting, found your underwear and his shirt, putting them back on. You wrapped your arms around yourself and breathed in the scent on the shirt, it smelled of him, his aftershave. There, in his bedroom, with no one else but yourself to bear witness, you thought, fuck YES that happened, and pumped your fist in the air.
Cracking open the door, you headed to the kitchen, hoping to surprise him, but when you stuck your head around the corner, he wasn't there. It was unoccupied, light from an overcast morning streaming in through the windows. The sweater you'd folded and left on the table last night remained. You touched your fingers to it. A nervous feeling rose, and you checked the bathroom. The lights were off. Not there, either. He wasn't in the apartment.
A feeling sunk through you—lead weight—and you desperately tried to turn your brain off as it went through every possible reason why he might have left, with no explanation, on the morning after that. You didn't remember walking back into the kitchen.
You sat down, at the table, stared at the varnished wooden grooves. Lines and squiggles in wood. You traced them with your fingernail.
To think that you had thought it would be different.
You laid your head on the table.
That this was something you'd have, not just once, in the night.
There was a metallic squeal and you stilled. A thud of a door. You sat up.
You drifted, meeting him halfway.
He was peeling off a jacket one-handed, and might have said, 'Morning', but you weren't fully listening, your eyes landed on what was in his other hand.
"I didn't know what monstrosity you wanted," he said, "so I picked one with a whole bunch of words in it." Amusement crept into you, chipped away at some of that fog—you'd spied the cup scrawled in barista shorthand (made long).
"But first..." he said, presenting a new offering.
Your heart tugged.
You took the white paper bag, it crinkled in your fingers, and peeked inside.
Powdered sugar like freshly fallen snow, white, oval slivers on folded pastry. An almond croissant.
Your laughed tinkled.
And then, standing, in his living room, in the broad light of day, he set the coffees down. You yelped as he dipped you backwards, low, in the crook of his arm. He kissed you.
Don't leave yet, there's still Third Act Events™
asdfghfd thank you for all the comments! Love you guys. 🥺
He uncapped the whiteboard marker, pressing the black, welling nub to the whiteboard. With his finger, he rubbed out the dot, and sighed when the smudge disappeared. He uncapped all of them and repeated the process. Dot, smear. Dot, smear. Each, an elimination.
You watched, unseen, from the door, as he, satisfied with the regularity of the pens, walked to the bookshelf and extracted a book. He upended it, shaking it out. Nothing fell from its pages—no trap nor trick revealed itself. He gave up on them, this time, rocking the entire bookcase. It creaked. Nothing happened.
It was ten past nine on the school's final week for the year, and as luck would have it, while most freshmen to junior classes were in full swing, he wasn’t teaching this period. You could hear hollering down the hall as a group of seniors doing a victory lap visited their old teachers. Formally, you'd all needed to come to ‘collect items from your lockers’, but... today's visitation had other perks too. Each time a wave of voices sounded, you knew another teacher had figured it out. The group, featuring Kristen, Lucy, Harper, Duke, and a bunch of others, would be here soon too.
You cleared your throat, he jolted and spun to face you. Warmth flicker in him, and then, abruptly, darkened.
The smirk on your lips was involuntary.
"Me," you replied. He shut down, going into bad cop mode. Ha. If only that could work on you.
“I can’t find anything—what did you do?”
You shrugged, innocently.
“Pierno's office had two buckets of screws in it this morning,” he said. “What's the other prank?"
Pressing the door closed behind you, feeling rather coquettish, you replied, "Honestly, I'm surprised you haven't found it yet."
A few minutes earlier, on the walk in, you'd walked past the home ec staffroom and seen Ms. Spencer loudly cursing before storming across to neighbouring rooms for answers.
“Is this one of those psychological torture tactics where prisoners of war are told they’re about to be executed, then the captors don’t kill them?" he said. "Did you even do anything?”
“Of course we did,” you said, feigning offense. “What do you think I was doing between the hours of one to two this morning?"
At that, he seemed torn between wanting to protest and wanting to grant some concession of approval at your rule-breaking. He shook his head and resumed his search. There was another wave of hoots.
He put his hand on his desk and shook it. It rattled, but didn't reveal anything further. Grinning, you ducked past him, right to near where he was standing, and shifted a stack of papers on his desk to the side. You sat on it, right near his legs. He eyed you.
"So," you said, changing the subject, "It's your birthday this weekend. Are you doing anything? How are we celebrating?”
“Mm. I'm not really a celebrating birthdays kind of guy.”
“I never would have suspected.”
He opened the first draw tentatively. When nothing happened, he pulled it open fully and combed through it. You huffed. He was getting warmer.
"I usually do this tradition with Artemis and Biz—we go for brunch, and the birthday person racks up the biggest bill they can. If you eat everything you order, the other two have to foot the bill, no matter how high it is."
"That sounds… horrifying."
"Last time, Biz ate so much I nearly didn't make my rent that month."
God. One day you would meet this myth of a person.
"Okay, well," you said, hooking one of your legs around his and reeling him in. "After you've finished gorging for pride, we can do something."
He stumbled closer, looked down at your leg pressed against his thigh, then up at you. "Is that so?"
He took a calculated step closer.
Sliding a knee in between your legs, he balled his hands into fists and leant on his knuckles, placing them right by your hips. He towered over you, making you tilt your head back, and then—
He reached past you, diverting his attention to the desk, continuing his inspection of the drawers. You swore. Like an ass, he cockily opened the second drawer.
“What the... Who the fuck’s drawer is this?”
He pulled out a ball of fuzzy, yellow yarn and a packet of small, jelly candies.
You stood, hopping off the desk.
“Don't know!” you said. “Could be from any of the seventy—seventy-five?—staff desks in this school that are identical.”
He gaped at you, still holding the yarn, understanding creeping into him.
“Did you switch them all one to the right? One to the left? If I walk next door, will my second drawer be in there?”
“Oh, absolutely not,” you said, and he exhaled in exasperation. “We put all your door numbers into a random selector program some kid built. Spent all night taking drawers to specific rooms. We didn’t swap pairs either.” You slung your arms around his neck. “Good luck.”
“Give me the door number.”
You stretched up onto your tiptoes and kissed him. He petulantly made a guttural sound before giving up and kissing you back.
Thump thump thump.
Fists beat, palms slapped on the door. Abruptly, he pulled back from you, right as the victory lap group barrelled in. You stiffened, a sinking feeling catching you.
"Todd," Kristen crowed, then doubled over laughing when she saw him holding the yarn.
He glared at them.
"Where the fuck's my drawer, Field? I want a room number."
"No WAY," crowed Kristen, and Jason scowled down at her. They began bickering, but the sound became a gargle—drowned, as though heard from the bottom of a swimming pool.
Just to test, you took a step towards him. You weren't sure he was aware of it, but like polar ends of a magnet repel, he took one step away from you.
Sound around you dragged on. The distance between you burned. The realisation dawned on you.
The bell jangled atop the door as he strode into Outlaw Books. Brown, colossal shelves leant precariously; colourful, inviting titles whispered 'read me' as he passed them by.
Arty and Biz were at the counter. Approaching, Jason took off his shades, slowly, like a Hollywood jackass, and said, "I have been starving myself for hours. By the time this is done, you will rue the day you befriended me."
"I've been doing that for years," Arty said while Biz shook his head as if to say, 'how dare you imply such a thing'. They were complete opposites on the asshole-wholesome spectrum, frankly. He had no idea how Artemis and he had roped Biz into their godawful shitshow of a friendship—but by God, he was there now, and no way in hell was that pure soul going anywhere.
Jason clapped Biz on the shoulder and said to Artemis, "Big words for someone I’m about to bankrupt.”
"I make more money at this store than you do on salary, Todd."
Jason winced. "Be nice to me on my birthday."
"I will not."
Jason grumbled and struck up conversation with Biz while she stepped out back for final errands before lockup.
“Biz, where the hell’s the Stanley knife?” she called, and Biz ducked out to help her.
“FINE, I’ll peruse. Keep ignoring me on the sacred day I was born,” he yelled back and there was a muffled expletive response.
His eyes swept by a new display of titles, past the counter and the glass home for The Three Musketeers. He was opening his mouth to fire some shelving criticisms at Arty when he stilled.
Slowly, he looked back at the cabinet.
He felt his brows draw, his stomach turned, but still, he looked at it, couldn’t turn away. He owed it that much at least, the torture of having to realise how much he’d fucked up. He stared down at the empty display.
There was a trail in the dust motes where the corner dragged as it was taken it away—when it was sold.
He looked away.
He heard their conversation from the back room, but couldn't find it in himself to call out. Instead, he swiped a Post-It note and a pen from the counter.
Work emergency, had to cancel. Sorry. –Jason, he scrawled, not really caring that it didn't make sense. He burst out into the street, into the warm daylight, that bell jingling behind him. He walked a few paces down the spinning street, turning into an empty, cobbled laneway filled with local business’s dumpsters. He walked several paces down it, until he was out of view, then sunk down against the wall. He pressed the heels of his palms to his head, desperately trying to steady the turning world. He closed his eyes; it still spun.
Shouldn’t have sold it.
As though disconnected from his body, he walked to his closet, flicking through shirts, touching a long-sleeved, thermal Henley with his fingers.
He’d thought he’d recovered after the meltdown in the alley, only to return to his apartment, nausea rolling through him. Spending the last half hour in the shower hadn’t driven away the feeling of wrongness taunting him, either.
God, he should never have sold it—he’d been such a fucking idiot—
Not thinking about that right now.
He clenched the shirt in his fist, then changed mechanically, pulling it over his head.
And to think that year after year he had still seen it there, on its display—a thousand times since he’d sold it—and every time he’d thought, I won't buy it back yet, it’s not the right time. I’ll wait a little longer, I’ll get it later.
He leant forward, leaning his head on the wooden frame of his closet door, exhaling. He closed his eyes. He didn’t know how long he leant there, how long he felt that spartan press of the frame against his temple.
It was a paradox. He didn’t care about Bruce. He didn’t.
But… He knew how much it had meant to Bruce. It had been an heirloom from Bruce’s parents, and Bruce had given the copy to him…
But Jason didn’t care about Bruce.
In some sort of cruel, fucked up irony, he opened his eyes, and looked at the bottom of the closet. There, under the shadow of hanging jackets and dress shirts, was the lopsided stack of wrapped gifts—the ones Bruce sent every year, the ones that Jason never opened—the ones that he left to gather lint, to fade and fossilise in the darkened space.
Jason reached down, and picked one up; felt the heaviness of it in his hands, the dust clinging to the fading red wrapping paper. He stared at the shape of it—at the unevenly tucked and taped corners—and for the first time, wondered if Bruce had wrapped it himself. Surely, the hand who’d done it hadn’t been as meticulous as Alfred’s.
It was idiotic to consider opening one—what would he do with it, anyway? Read it? Talk to Bruce afterwards? And if Bruce ever asked about the old edition of The Three Musketeers, what would he say?
Even thinking it, Jason knew he was matting a straw man excuse not to call. It wouldn’t be the end of Bruce’s world if the copy was lost—the other man had already given it away. He might be disappointed, but would not yell, nor scold. It really wasn’t fear of Bruce’s reaction that was tormenting him, because this loss belonged entirely to Jason. It was a final nail in the coffin, an ending that had snuck up on him, although it had always been inevitable. He’d been listening to nails going in for years. There had been no other way for it to play out but this.
As iron punctured wood, Jason had stopped thinking about the impending status of it—had forgotten that he’d once had the power to wrench the lid off if he’d wanted too—and instead, he’d gotten comfortable. He’d stopped asking himself when he’d buy the book back—if he really wanted to buy it back at all—and he’d let it sit there, stowed away on the shelf. It was still his to come and ponder on from afar, but the glass case was a reminder it wasn’t his, that it wasn’t a part of his world. And like that, The Three Musketeers, waiting on the display, had become a fixture in routine. Go to Outlaw Books, talk to Artemis and Biz, and then look at it—if only to verify its permanence, its continued safety in the store—before carrying on with his day. He’d forgotten it wasn’t his, that he’d really given it up, that it could be taken away and sold—that the convenient security he felt in looking at it could run out.
There had been no other way for it to end, but this. It had only been a matter of time.
There was a knock on Jason’s apartment door.
But, he thought, what he wouldn’t give now to get it back. To have a second chance. Perhaps he could try to track down the buyer, explain the situation to them. But he knew, even then, that it was a lost cause. Gotham was a metropolis, dozens upon dozens of strangers drifted into the store daily. How long ago had it been sold? There would be no way to find a stranger, some random buyer like that. It had slipped through his fingers by his own doing.
He opened the door, and you were there—as promised—in striped cherry stockings and a dark coat. Today was the kind of day where Jason didn’t know how he could stomach seeing anyone. He wanted to bury himself alive. But, then again, you were the exception to most of Jason’s walls, weren’t you? Like a thief in the night that kept getting through. So perhaps, he suspected, he could bear to see you. His eyes trailed to your hands, and despite the awful sense of loss weighing on him, his lip involuntarily curved up.
Well, he should have seen this coming.
A pink, frosted cupcake sat in your hands, a birthday candle jammed in its centre.
“Uh uh uh,” you said, shushing him before he could say anything. You began patting down your pockets. You pulled a plastic lighter from your pocket, and with your thumb rolled the flint wheel until the wick caught, flaring into a small flame.
“Happy birthday,” you said, presenting him with the cupcake.
He took it, gazed at the soft, squishy offering in his hands, and smiled. The flame seemed to hypnotise him, and he sharply blew it out. Juggling the cupcake, he reeled you into an embrace, and pressed his lips into your hair. “Thank you.”
If you felt the minute tremor in his shoulders, you didn’t remark on it. Rather, you pressed your cheek flatter against chest, then said, “Don’t get too excited, your real present’s here.”
He felt a hard rectangle press into his stomach. He looked down, taking it. It was wrapped in yellow and blue-striped paper, but the shape of it was unmistakable—a book.
He stared at it, not wanting to entertain the possibility. He knew, logically, you couldn’t have known about it.
You looked at him with a twinkle in your eye—like you were waiting for him to tear open the paper and glimpse its contents.
Had you seen it there on the shelf, and read the message inside, the one from Bruce? Had you seen the way he’d looked at it before, when he’d introduced you to Artemis?
... surely not?
No you couldn’t have, he decided. He let you into the house, then dropped off his cupcake in the fridge. You sat on the edge of the couch, legs dangling dangerously over the side while he tore into the paper. Before he could properly peek its contents, you said, “What’d you wish for?”
Jason knew what he’d wished for, but for whatever reason he couldn’t bring the words out, to make them real by saying it. Instead, he said, “Well, not to doubt the magical properties of the cupcake, but…”
You rolled your eyes, and when he sat down on the couch with you, you draped your legs over his lap.
“You’re no fun,” you said, but he could barely hear you.
Of course, there was always the possibility. That you had.
His hands were deceptively steady as he tore into the paper, stripping it back.
His fingers touched faded cloth.
It was a hardcover edition, aged, missing a dustjacket that had disintegrated or been lost decades ago. The pages were thick—the kind made from proper paper, not the same pulp they printed cheap, modern books on anymore, nothing that would decay and fade after a year in the sunlight. The spine was inlaid with bold, gold letters.
A novel by Frank Herbert
“Open the cover, open the cover!” you crowed, excitement thick in your voice.
On the old edition of The Three Musketeers, the one lost, the one he would never see again, there had been faded lines, worth more than any book’s weight in gold. They had read,
All our love, your mom and dad.
And beneath, in Bruce’s own hand,
‘The merit of all things lies in their difficulty’.
He stared at the title a moment longer, until he couldn’t make sense of the letters, then unlocked its pages. There, on the flyleaf, scrawled in a loopy hand, was a signature. He stared at it, not daring to think about how much it had cost you. He ran a finger over the page, tracing the letters.
“Thank you,” he said, after a long while, voice so threadbare he wasn’t certain it had been intelligible.
He thumbed the hard, cloth cover, then said, “It’s perfect.”
You smiled, then launched into a detailed explanation of how you’d found it—procured it for his birthday. He listened to you talk, and gently, laid the book on the table by the couch.
He sat back against the seat, watching you talk, for what might have been minutes, what could have been hours; time seemed to ebb and fold. He listened and replied, and if you noticed anything off about his demeanour, you didn’t remark on it. He punished himself, all the while feeling disconnected, as though he was physically in another room, listening through a door, or through a wall. Everything was muffled, sound passing through glass—a box he had been sealed in of his own volition, and felt resigned, to remain.
Firstly, I would like to thank everyone for waiting - this finale was delayed longer than I had hoped - but I hope it was worth the wait. I had also mentioned an epilogue, but at this stage, I think this ending works better without it. Lastly, I want to thank everyone for your support over the course of this fic. You made every labour worth it ❤️
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.”