“I know you just stole my wallet, kid.” Jason turns and the boy jumps away, startled, runs, clutching Jason’s wallet, for a slippery, cold step, for two, but then the ice jerks the balance from under him, swiftly, right from under his (very very winter inappropriate) shoes.
The boy curses, wipes his nose. “Dammit,” he says, quietly. His shoulders hunch; anticipation. Jason smiles.
“Nice try though,” he admits, crouching, close to him even though the boy stays defiant and scared, wincing as he tries to stand up, as he slips right back onto the pavement, heavy and fast. (He resigns.)
“You probably want your wallet back now, don’t you?” the boy asks, offering it somewhere between the distance of their knees, watches the compressed, greying snow under his shoe, intently, as if he wanted to capture every moment of its melt.
(It stays stuck to the sole.)
Jason nods, picking the wallet up from the kid’s hand, from his winter bitten fingers. “Yeah, thanks. Sure did want it back. But you can keep the money, here.” The crumpled dollars whisper through their corners, the wind sneaking past Jason’s shoulders, past the crook of his own fingers, warmed, through the arch of his palm. The boy looks up and his lips are dry, hollowed out, so dry Jason thinks they might split if he laughed, if he merely smiled.
(Thinks that they will split like his coat could, thin and dirty and windy underneath, like his glove, which he has only one left, a size too big, a layer too thin, or like his jeans, chafing at his knees, messily tucked into the neck of his shoes.)
((Jason pushes the money into his palm, with heavier force, and then, then he makes an offering, of his own.))
The boy glances up, up to meet Jason’s offer, looks up from the chilidog, held in front of him, looks at Jason directly, confusion and distrust holding his mouth, tense and wary, steadies his eyes, clouded but warm.
“You must be hungry, kid,” Jason prods, raises his brow.
“See, so am I. And chilidogs really help with that. Difference is, I can buy myself another one. So come on, do yourself a favour and don’t waste a perfectly good chilidog by letting it go cold. A cold chilidog is just sad,” Jason says and keeps offering, holding the chilidog, waiting, until the boy tucks the money into a pocket, grabbing the chilidog with both hands, biting off a huge, soft, steaming chunk.
“There you go.” (Jason smiles.)
The kid stands up, after a few, full-mouthed bites, carefully, shakes off the hand Jason places on his shoulder, to steady him, Jason holds up his palms, bare. ((No threat.))
“You won’t ask me where my parents are? People always ask that,” the kid asks.
Jason shrugs. “I know how a kid supporting himself looks, kiddo. It’s like looking in a damn mirror, trust me.”
“Are you alone too?” The boy asks, again, like he’s hoping, hoping Jason made it this far, like Jason’s something impossible, someone he hoped for but didn’t believe in and something inside Jason stutters at that, crumbles, like the cluster of dollar bills, crumpled, tucked into the holey pocket of the kid’s coat.
“No. I’m not anymore. But I was when I was about your age, too. And listen – it’s okay to get help. I know every adult just seems like a jackass with a hero complex that wants to saveyou to feel good about themselves but – sometimes, they really just want to help you.”
“I can’t trust them, Mister. I can’t trust you. They’ll just call the police!”
“I won’t call the police, okay? But how about, I’ll just tell you about a place. And you don’t have to trust me and I’m not going to take you there and you can just take it as a suggestion and never go there at all. I’m just going to mention it. That sound fair?” he asks and with suspicion, woven, grown into his bones, the boy slowly nods. “Okay.”
“Have you heard of Gotham Knights?”
“The place downtown? That’s for fancy kids. Kids with parents. Or money.”
“It’s actually for kids just like you.” Jason corrects, but the boy keeps – he keeps looking like it’s a scam. So Jason talks, some more.
“You get free meals, a place to stay if you need one, better clothes. They’ll even pack you a lunch for school and help you with homework. They’ll talk to the school for you too. And the best part? They don’t ask questions unless you want them to.”
“That sounds really really fake.”
“I know, right? It so does. You see, I was really skeptic of it too. Thought it was complete bullshit at first. But I went to check it out and I spend quite a lot of time there and it is a good place. It really is. It was actually set up by my roommate.”
“Do you live in a Manor then?”
“So you know who built it?”
“Yeah. But only because he got shot at the opening party. I saw it on the news. I heard his legs were hurt.”
“Actually, his spine was. Hurting his spine then affected his legs. He’s fine now though. And no, we don’t live in a Manor. In a pretty cool house though, yeah. Do you know where the Gotham Knights’ building is?”
“… I do.”
“Good. Then I might see you there, kiddo.”
“Don’t count on it. And my name’s Jake, not kiddo.”
“Really, and here I so thought it was kiddo.”
“Don’t make fun of me!”
“Goodness gracious, someone takes themselves seriously. But sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to be a jerk. Jake it is.” He raises his hand, a whisper of a wave. “See you around, Jake. And finish that chilidog, too.”
“Don’t boss me around.” Jake huffs, pouts. “And I won’t. I’m not stupid enough to waste it.”
“Yeah, I know you’re not. You took care of yourself this whole time. You’re smart. ”
“You bet I am.”
Jason holds up his hand, then, caught in the wave, barely a stretch of muscles, turning back towards the centre of the street, towards the stalls, littered at the sides of the road, faintly aware of the nervous rush of Gotham’s heart, behind every building’s door.
Glancing away once, Jake was already a part of the heartbeat.
(And Jason, Jason had research to do.)
“I know you know I am following you, Mister,” Jake calls, stepping out of his place of hiding, determined, to be heard, to be seen, and Jason doesn’t know what to do anymore.
“Do I now, kiddo?” he answers, after all.
“And I know you remember my name, too.”
“Well, hello to you too, Jake.”
“Uh, yeah .” A sniff. “Hello.”
“So. How have you been?”
“Okay. Do I get to know why you’re following me, too? Or, why you’ve been following me? For the past week? Can’t eat a chilidog in peace anymore, man.”
It’s a joke, on Jason’s lips but Jake stuffs his hands deeper into his pockets, scuffs the top of his shallow, rusting shoe, looks like he actually feels guilty and Jason swallows a curse.
(It’s bitter, thick. Sticks to his teeth. And he wonders; why is guilt always liquid, anyway?)
“Just – for stuff,” Jake says.
“Stuff? What kind of stuff?”
“I wanted to – learn stuff. From you. Like. How to make money. Without – stealing. Cause I know that’s bad.”
Jason sighs. “Hate to break it to you, but there aren’t many jobs offerings for kids your age. Especially not legal or safe ones.”
“Well I could – I could clean your car! You have a car, right?”
“I’m not going make a nine year old wash my car.”
“And at least eight years too young to be on your own. Especially here. Did you go try out the Knights center?” Jason asks and Jake shrinks, somehow, like he’s drunk a potion left in Alice’s pocket and it just stole an inch, stole the courage from his arms.
“It just – felt weird.” He shrugs, sniffs, Jason digs out a tissue (“Come on, don’t make that face, it’s unused.”) and as Jake blows his nose, Jason recognizes the emotion, the shrinking shoulders and the sinking chins, uncovers it from the thick layer of soil and winter ground and stubborn bones and he wants to shake this kid, shake him just a little bit. (Or hug him, just a little bit more.)
“You don’t have to be ashamed, Jake. Don’t be ashamed, not of being on your own. Oryourself.”
“I’m just another pity case to them!”
“You’re another kid that needs their help to them.”
“Well if I had a job I wouldn’t have to be!” Jake yells and his cheeks puff out and Jason watches him, in the windy alleyway, alone and stubborn and with stupidly curly hair like he had at that age and – somehow he thinks of Tim too, of being a person in this city that doesn’t take prisoners, of wanting to have something for yourself, of wanting to let someone know – he sighs, again.
“Okay. I’ll give you a job.”
“Well, what is it?”
“Let’s call it ah - a companion.”
“What kind of companion?”
“Adventure companion. And trust me, nothing’s a bigger adventure than restocking your roommate’s snacks without him noticing they were gone in the first place. Four star difficulty level right there.”
“How’s that an adventure? It’s just grocery shopping.”
“The adventure is him not finding out.”
“Does he get angry?”
“Close. Some days, he gets kinda annoyed and pretends not to be. But usually, he takes it as an excuse to order pizza and I hate his fave pizza combo. It’s seriously gross. Therefore, I want to avoid him finding out at all costs. Got it?”
“Got it.” Jake nods, serious. He doesn’t need to know that in reality, Tim sneaks kisses right onto Jason’s mouth just to be an ass, knowing Jason hates the taste, doesn’t need to know Jason drops mints into Tim’s mouth right after and holds it shut and that they don’t really fight and it’s not really – not really that bad. He doesn’t need to know.
So they go to the mall. They buy the snacks, Jason buys them lunch, buys Jake the warmest coat he finds and sturdy, nice shoes, gives him his scarf and leads him home and makes him dinner and reluctantly lets him leave again, back to his own unknown, unsafe home.
And Jason really likes this kid.
“Why is your roommate never here when we’re here?” Jake asks, lost and found in one of Tim’s old sweaters, big and roomy and he could fit a whole bag of chips and a box of take out under there but he’s cozy and happy and it was his first week back in school, first week of Jason picking him up at school and giving him a high five and working through stacks of papers he’d get help with at the Center, at the Center because he won’t ask Bruce, no way, but Tim, Tim he has to – wants to – tell, should tell because Tim is home here, too, he’s Jason’shome, scattered across all of his life and now Jason’s dragging Jake in, too, in bursts and heaps and they will clash, they bump into each other and they will find out and they will have to talk about it anyway but – Jason just – he doesn’t want Tim to reject Jake.
Doesn’t want him to reject Jason because somehow it feels exactly like that, even though he knows Tim wouldn’t – he wouldn’t throw them out.
But he might hesitate. He might be reluctant and scared.
(He might not want what Jason does.)
Jason checks Jake’s homework, one more time.
“He’s here, just either not awake or working downstairs.”
“There’s more downstairs than this downstairs?”
“What does he do?”
“Nothing that concerns you.”
“He’s rich though. You always pay with his credit card. Is it illegal?”
“It’s nothing bad. I can promise you that.”
“What do you do, anyway?”
“Why’d you ask?”
And suddenly, Jake looks shy.
“There’s this homework we have. About our parents. You fill out their name and age and all that stuff. Where they work. I thought – I thought I’ll write about you,” he says and it’s Jason now, who’s suddenly, utterly, utterly shy.
(His chest might collapse.)
“We’ll think of something,” he says, ruffles Jake’s hair, gruff.
“Okay, Dad,” Jake answers, with a nod (with a smile).
(Jake sleeps there the whole night, that day, too.
He trusts Jason now.)
He trusts him completely.
“Here. The painkillers. Safe for kids. Good for fever,” Tim says, throwing the bottle, into Jason’s palms, right as he steps out of their bedroom, barely in time to lift his head.
“So,” Tim continues, as Jason examines the pills. “Who’s the kid in our bed?”
“Okay. How high is his fever?”
“Not too high. He’ll be fine. I think.”
“We can always call Alfred.”
“If he gets worse.” Jason nods, reluctantly.
Tim peeks into the room. “I’ll be honest. When I realized you were up to something, somehow I didn’t think it involved getting yourself a kid.”
“He’s not really mine.”
“Does he see it like that?”
“How do you see it?”
“Definitely better than you having a second boyfriend.”
“You so did not think I was cheating on you.”
“Yeah, nah, not really. But it did cross my mind.”
“Did you know it was him?”
“Yeah, I found out a while ago. You could have told me, you know.”
“You were being dumb.”
“I could have helped.”
“Tim, I know.”
“So, next time do it.”
“Okay. I uh – half promise.”
“Three quarters promise?”
Tim rolls his eyes.
“Just go give Jake the pills.”
(And so – Jason does.)
((He also kisses Tim, fast. Shallow.
(((As best as he can.)))
(( “I know Tim isn’t just your roommate, by the way.”
“What d’ya mean?”
“You have like – those mushy gushy feelings for him. Totally.”
“How did you get that idea?”
“You just look at him like that. It’s super obvious.”
“Oh, really? You know what else is super obvious? That ketchup stain on your shirt. You wiped your fingers onto your clothes again, didn’t you, Jake?”
“Tim does it.”
“To quote someone: Tim’s a heathen.”
“What’s a heathen?”
“Someone who does not care about ketchup stains on their shirts. You don’t want to be that person, Jake.”
“Can I tell that Tim next time he does it?”
Jason snorts. “Sure thing, kiddo. Sure thing.”))
“Oh my God. I can’t believe this. Two bloody noses. Two.”
“Ow, watch it, Tim. Hurts like hell,” Jason hisses, jerking away from Tim’s thumb, from the wet, warm cloth pressed to his cheek.
“Well, good news is, yours isn’t broken either,” Tim answers, moving back, to Jake again, softly padding at the dry blood, at the swollen skin.
“But I can’t believe you picked a fight in Jake’s school yard. With another parent. Are you a soccer Mom at the bake sale or something? Seriously.”
“They were being mean!” Jake interferes, loud, fierce, wincing as his nose ignites, with a stinging, dull ache.
“Yeah, they were being serious butts, Tim.”
“What did they even say?”
“David said Batman sucks,” Jake grumbles, glancing at Jason, glancing back at Tim, then at his shoes. A little bit shy, again. “And that Red Robin is a loser and Red Hood crazy,” he huffs, rushing it out, reading the patters on the floor, his shoulders tense, angry. (Mad.)
“And then the kid had the gall to shove Jake, when he told him Batman is cool and Red Robin and Red Hood kick some serious ass. So I was like ‘Hey, kid stop harassing my kid’ and David’s Dad, Peter Jerkface was like ‘What you think you’re doing threatening my kid?’ So I was like ‘It was your kid who started it, you baboon –’”
“Did you really call him a baboon?”
“Yeah, Dad so did!”
“ – and then he swung and he’s a past quarterback or something so I had to make it convincing. He’s got a mean black eye to remember though,” Jason grins, proud, mostly. Sheepish, not so much.
(Tim holds his own smile, a little bit at the back.)
“Did David punch you Jake?”
“Yeah. He imitated his Dad.”
“We gotta teach you some better self defense, kiddo. Did you fight back?”
Jake shrugs. “I pushed him into the mud. But only because he wanted to kick me. Are you upset?”
Tim smiles, then, and ruffles his hair, fond.
“Not at all. I believe you, kiddo. You did good. The only thing I still can’t believe though is that you two got into a fight and no one called me for backup. I could have tripped someone for you guys, geez,” Tim answers, standing up, a bit of a huff in his syllables, a bit of a feeling of being left out and a whole chunk of being serious and Jake beams at him, right as he turns to Jason.
“Dad, can we keep this one?”