When Jason Tancredi is seven years old, he has his first math test.
That afternoon, Uncle Alex picks him up from school.
There's nothing special about Uncle Alex picking him up. Jason's dad works all day in an office down in the city, drawing buildings for other people like he drew the house they all live in (only bigger, 'cause there's only the four of them and sometimes people need more rooms than they do) and Jason's mom works weird times at the shelter, called shifts, and sometimes she drops Jason off at school when she goes there in the morning, and sometimes she's asleep in the middle of the day when Jason gets home because she's been there all night helping people who haven't been as lucky as them while Jason and Dad and Uncle Alex were asleep. But Uncle Alex mostly works at home, and only when he wants to, he says, because long ago, before Jason was even born, he used to work all the time and miss all the important things, like teaching Jason how to hit a baseball, and now he wants to do things differently. So most days it's Uncle Alex who's waiting outside when the bell rings.
Today it's kind of cold out, leaves all yellow on the trees, and Uncle Alex squats down and zips Jason's jacket up all the way before he takes Jason's backpack and reaches his other hand out to Jason to hold while they cross the parking lot.
“The test was really easy, Uncle Alex,” Jason tells him. “There was nothing times more than five, and I can do all the way up to nine times nine, Dad and I practiced all the hard ones last night. I don't think I got anything wrong!” He pauses for a second and looks around him. “Hey, Uncle Alex, we're going the wrong way!”
Their house is left outside the school gates and then across the street and left again down Millbank, he's known exactly how to get there for ages, even if Mom and Dad and Uncle Alex are all agreed that he's not allowed to go on his own yet. They've just made a right, though, towards the park and the shops.
“No, I'm pretty sure we're going the right way,” Uncle Alex says. “See, I thought, since you had a test today, we should go down to O'Shea's and celebrate. Unless you think it's too cold for ice cream?”
“Uncle Alex, it's never too cold for ice cream,” Jason says, rolling his eyes a bit, because his uncle isn't so stupid he doesn't know that.
“Okay, then, buddy,” Uncle Alex says, “ice cream it is.”
They've hit the park by then, and Jason lets out a whoop and tugs on Uncle Alex's hand to pull him running through the heaps of bright leaves on the grass. For a while, they do more laughing than talking.
On the other side of the trees, though, standing still to let Uncle Alex lean down and brush a leaf from his hair, Jason says,
“Dad can do 126 times 95 in his head without thinking, Uncle Alex, did you know that? Mom let me check him with the calculator on her phone, and it was...” He closes his eyes for a moment, making sure he remembers it right, then opens them again. “It was 11,970, just like he said. Can you do 126 times 95, Uncle Alex?”
It's not a weird question, Jason doesn't think, but Uncle Alex gets a strange expression on his face, like when he's trying not to laugh, but also like when he's trying not to worry.
“Not without thinking, no, I can't,” he says. “But you know what, Jase?”
Uncle Alex smiles, and ruffles his hair.
“Just between you and me, I think I've done pretty well for myself, anyway. Don't you think?” He squeezes the back of Jason's neck, his hand warm and huge on Jason's leaf-damp skin, and straightens up. “Now how about that ice cream?”
When Jason is eight, he has a spelling test.
He's pretty sure he got all the words right, but Jenny says no one would be able to tell if he didn't, anyway, on account of his terrible handwriting and how his Rs all look like Ks. Jenny has only been in his class since last Thursday, because she and her parents used to live in Iowa before then, but on Friday she asked him about the hockey-playing dragon he'd drawn in the margin of his math book, and now he can't remember how he ever thought school was fun before she was there to talk to. Most people just don't get hockey-playing dragons.
Uncle Alex is there when they get out of class, leaning up against the brick wall that surrounds the school, his hands in his pockets, face turned up towards the sun. Jenny's mom isn't there yet, though, and Jason snags her hand and pulls her with him.
Uncle Alex straightens up when he sees them coming, and slips his sunglasses off.
“Uncle Alex,” Jason says, “this is my friend Jenny I told you about.”
Jenny holds out her hand, and says,
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Mahone.”
Rob and Jasper snickered behind her back when she did that with Mrs. Johnson, and Mrs. Johnson looked like adults do when they think children are funny though they're trying not to laugh at them, but Uncle Alex just shifts his sunglasses from his right hand to his left so that he can take hers and says,
“It's nice to meet you, too, Jenny. I've heard a lot about you.”
Jenny shoots Jason a sharp look, but Jason shrugs at her and smiles. He maybe talked about her a lot at dinner last night, but he didn't say anything bad. He wouldn't know any bad things to say about Jenny.
“Mr. Mahone?” Jenny says. “Jason says you're an FBI agent? Is that true?”
Now it's Uncle Alex's turn to give Jason a look.
“Well,” he says. “I used to be an FBI agent. Now I just consult for the Bureau. Lend them a pair of extra eyes on cases when they think they need it. It's not very exciting, I'm afraid.”
“Jenny's mom Claire is a firefighter,” Jason puts in. “She helps people, too, like you and Mom.”
“Now that sounds exciting,” Uncle Alex says. “I bet...”
“Jenny!” a woman calls, and Jason and Jenny both turn to see Jenny's mom come walking across the parking lot. She's an African American lady, like Uncle Alex's friend Felicia, with very high heels that make a quick clicking noise on the blacktop, though Jenny looks more like their third grade teacher Miss Cho, who is from Korea. “Oh, hi, Jason,” she says when she gets closer, because they already met, yesterday, when it was Uncle Alex who was late.
“Hi, Mom!” Jenny says, and her mom puts her arm around her shoulders.
Uncle Alex smiles.
“I take it you must be Claire the firefighter,” he says.
“Oh, no,” Jenny's mom says. “I leave the adventurous stuff to my better half. I'm Larissa the tax attorney, Jenny's other mom.”
She says it friendly-like, like she's making sort of a joke, but there's a hardness beneath it, a stiffness in her smile, as if it could turn into something else in a heartbeat. She looks like Jason's dad looked, that time when Uncle Alex was flying to Boston and Mr. Fredericks from Dad's office ran into them at the airport when they were all hugging and kissing goodbye.
“I'm sorry, I have to learn not to make assumptions,” Uncle Alex says. “I should know better by now.” He smiles, the really nice smile this time – the one Mom once said could almost make her forget he can kill people with his little finger, although Jason is pretty sure he wasn't supposed to hear that – and holds out his hand. “Alex Mahone. I live with Jason's dad.”
“And with me and Mom,” Jason corrects. Because, duh.
Uncle Alex ruffles his hair.
“And with you and your mom, of course.” He turns to Jenny's mom again, and adds: “Though it might be more accurate to say that Jason's mom and I both live with Jason's dad.”
It doesn't seem any more accurate to Jason – Uncle Alex lives with all of them, same as Mom and Dad and him – but Jenny's mom nods and reaches out to shake his hand.
“Oh, I see,” she says. “That sounds great.” This time there's nothing stiff about her smile. “At Jenny's last school, all the other parents were walking poster-children for the nuclear family.”
Uncle Alex laughs.
“Well, I guess we're hardly that,” he says. “Though I have to admit it's taken me some time to adjust to that idea.” He pauses and throws a glance at Jason. “Jason and I were about to go for ice cream. Perhaps you and Jenny would like to join us?”
“Thank you,” Jenny's mom says. “Jenny and I would absolutely like that.”
Jason and Jenny grin at each other.
O'Shea's have the awesomest chocolate sundaes. Jason is pretty sure Jenny will love them. Maybe her mom, too.
When Jason is eleven, he has a standardized English test.
It's a half day, and in the afternoon, Uncle Alex takes him to the aquarium.
They're standing in front of the wall-to-wall glass, watching a turtle swim down through the Caribbean Reef exhibit, in and out of the long, wavy seaweed growing up from the bottom. Uncle Alex has his glasses on, reading the information in the leaflet he picked up outside. Jason can see his mirror image in the glass, tall and fuzzy, lost in thought.
“Uncle Alex,” he says, “aren't we doing this the wrong way around?”
Uncle Alex looks up, his glasses catching the light, a bright flicker in the reflection.
“What do you mean?” he asks.
“Rob in my class gets five dollars from his parents every time he has a good grade on a test.” Rob isn't very smart, and Jason figures that can't cost his parents much, but Mom says being smart means you've sometimes got it easier than other people, and you're not allowed to be mean to them for it, you've just got to be patient and give them time to catch up, so he doesn't say that part out loud. “And Jenny is getting a new bike when the summer holidays start if she keeps getting all As, she's already picked one out online. So wouldn't it make more sense if we went to the aquarium when I get the test back?”
Uncle Alex turns around, sitting back against the railing that keeps you far enough away from the fish tank not to touch the glass.
“Hm,” he says, a thinking noise. “Did you take the test today?”
Jason rolls his eyes.
“Yeah, of course I did. Everyone took the test.”
“And you answered the questions as well as you could?”
“Well, then.” Uncle Alex says. “I think we've definitely gone to the aquarium on the right day.” He taps Jason on the shoulder with his leaflet. “Now, I don't know about you, but I really think we should go have a look at the sharks before your dad comes and picks us up.”
Behind him, the turtle turns slowly back up towards the surface.
When Jason is fourteen, he has a history test.
They don't go for ice cream anymore, and it's been years since Uncle Alex picked him up at school every day – Jason will be in high school next year, it's not like he's a little kid – but on test days they nearly always do something together. It's just, like, this thing they do, the two of them, to hang out, and maybe he'd feel like a dork about it if it was with his mom or dad, but somehow it's different with Uncle Alex. Uncle Alex is cool.
Today, they've only gone for burgers at this place they both like, and talked about who's got the better team this season, the Blackhawks or the Flyers, and how the cop show they watched last night was completely ridiculous about DNA evidence. It's snowing by the time they get home, a fresh dusting of white to cover the exhaust-fume gray of the shoveled-up banks along the curbs. Uncle Alex pulls the car into their driveway, and when he cuts the engine, the quiet is a presence around them, that special snow day hush, like someone screwed a silencer onto the barrel of the world.
It's dark out already, and from here he can see the light on in their kitchen, in Mom's bedroom upstairs.
Uncle Alex pulls the key out of the ignition and moves to get out of the car.
“Uncle Alex?” Jason blurts out, and his uncle stops, fingers on the door-handle. Too late not to follow through. “Are you gay or bisexual?” Uncle Alex twists in his seat, turning back towards him, and before he has time to answer, Jason hurries on. “I mean, Dad has both you and Mom, but you only, you know, sleep with Dad, right? But before you met him, you used to be married to Pam. But Jenny says just because people are married, that doesn't mean they...whatever. So.”
Uncle Alex shifts in his seat, pulling his right knee up a bit so that he can sit sideways, settling in to face Jason. It's too dark inside the car now for Jason to make out his expression.
“Well,” he says, sounding thoughtful. “I married Pam because I was deeply in love with her, and I wanted to be with her, in every way. If I hadn't screwed things up, we might still be together. But then if I hadn't screwed things up, I might never have met your dad.” His left hand has come to rest on the wheel, and his fingers tap soundlessly against the plastic, moving absently like when he's trying to work something out. “I was always attracted to men as well as women, I suppose – there were a few guys while I was in the army, even if that was...complicated, back then – but Michael was the first man I wanted to be with like that, in every way that I could, for as long as I could.” He smiles, a thin smile that looks like it's maybe more to himself than for Jason, like maybe he's somewhere else for a moment. “It kind of took me by surprise. The brightness of it. Twisted me up pretty badly before it straightened me out. But, yeah, to answer your question -” His eyes slip back into focus, as if he's shaking himself out of a memory. “- I do like both girls and guys.”
Jason nods, and looks out the windshield. With the wipers off, the glass is slowly blurring up with snowflakes, the lit square of the kitchen window smearing at the edges like in the watercolors his dad showed him how to paint.
“I think I only like guys,” he says.
It shouldn't be weird, to say it out loud, shouldn't make his heart beat so fast – it's not like he has to be scared of Uncle Alex disapproving, or Mom, or Dad, or anyone he loves – but somehow it still is, it still does.
“That's cool,” Uncle Alex says. He reaches out and puts his hand on Jason's shoulder. “Whoever you like, whoever you want to be, Jason, that's great.”
Jason glances at him, gives an awkward half-smile, a shrug.
“Yeah,” he says. “Just... It's all pretty freaky, you know?”
Uncle Alex squeezes his shoulder, before letting his hand drop.
“Yeah,” he says, smiling. “Tell me about it.”
They sit in silence for a while, letting the snow tuck them in. It's cold outside, Jason knows, but the car is still a pocket of warmth.
“So,” Uncle Alex says at last. “Just guys in general, or anyone in particular?”
Jason feels himself blush all the way up to his hairline.
“Uncle Alex!” he squawks.
Uncle Alex holds his hands up, palms forward, making like he's backing off.
“Hey, you don't have to tell me anything you don't want to. But if you do, it would be just between you and me, okay?”
Jason bites his lip, looks out the windscreen again. He can see his dad moving in the kitchen window, just the outline of him through the melting flakes. He thinks of how Uncle Alex sounded, before, when he was talking about the two of them meeting. That gentleness in his voice, soft like the snow, but heated. Vulnerable, for all that Uncle Alex is the toughest guy he knows, could kick anyone's ass.
“Well,” he says. “There is this guy in Jenny's AP chem class. His name is Shaun, and...”
When Jason is seventeen, he takes the ACTs.
That evening, he and Uncle Alex have tickets to a Blackhawks game.
Chicago are up, four to three, when the signal blares out across the ice to end the second period, and the crowd is keyed up and buzzing with excitement when the two of them get up and squeeze their way out to get drinks.
In the line for the concessions stand, someone jostles Uncle Alex from behind just as he's paying, and his wallet slips out of his hand and drops to the ground. Jason bends down quick to pick it up, gathering up some stuff that's fallen out.
There's a parking stub from the garage at the FBI field office, the business card of the plumber who fixed their bathroom sink last week, and an origami bird like the ones his dad makes, old and worn and folded from what looks like the page of a book.
And there are two photographs. One is of Jason as a baby, so small his head fits almost entire in his dad's palm. It's kind of embarrassing to look at, makes a weird lump form in his throat. He tucks it away. In the other, there is a boy about three years old, with dark hair and huge, brown eyes, playing on a swing. Not Jason.
Someone nearly steps on him, muttering something angry under their breath, and Jason straightens up in a hurry, gets himself out of the way. Uncle Alex has found a relatively quiet spot in a corner, leaning up against the wall, and Jason joins him there, takes the can of soda Uncle Alex holds out to him, and hands over the wallet and its contents in exchange. The picture of Cameron is still on top.
Uncle Alex looks down at it, looks over at him.
Jason pops open his Pepsi and takes a sip.
Uncle Alex puts the photos away, and the paper crane, slips them carefully into their proper places. He tucks his wallet back into the inside breast pocket of his leather jacket.
The milling crowd is very loud around them, the wall of noise so thick that they might as well be alone, for all anyone can hear them. Just the two of them on an island of privacy in the sea of people. Maybe that makes it easier to say what's in his head.
“I always thought of him as my big brother, you know,” Jason says. “When I was little. You had that picture of him on your desk, and I used to imagine, I don't know, that wherever he was, he was somehow looking out for me. Like Lila Sucre looked out for Marcos that time he fell off his bike, I guess. Sibling stuff.” He turns the soda can around in his hands. Looks at a couple arguing across the way, a man and a woman in identical white, black and red team shirts, their voices drowned out, but their body language clear enough. “Sometimes I felt guilty,” he says. “Getting to have you around and do all this stuff with you, when he barely got the chance. But mostly I just thought of him as watching over me.”
“That's a really nice thought,” Uncle Alex says. His voice sounds a bit off, thicker than normal, and Jason looks down at his soda can, keeps his eyes there. “I'm sure he would have been thrilled to have you as a little brother.”
They're quiet for a minute. Jason takes another drink, looks up to see the arguing couple call it quits, the woman storming off up towards the rink.
“I was thinking,” he says. “I've never seen -” He hesitates, but there aren't any good words for it. And Uncle Alex wouldn't want him to cover it up with euphemisms, anyway. “- where he was buried. Maybe next time you go visit him, I could come with you?”
He turns his head, then, to make sure Uncle Alex knows he means this. Uncle Alex turns, too, his shoulder still against the wall, and really looks at him.
“I would like that very much, Jase,” he says at last. “Thank you.”
His face is very serious. Earnest. The always piercing blue of his eyes is almost unusually bright.
“Yeah,” Jason says, like an idiot, and looks away. “We should probably get back up there if we don't want to miss anything, right?”
When Jason is twenty-two, he takes the LSAT.
Uncle Alex drives down that day, and in the evening, they end up having drinks at a bar just off campus.
They never had alcohol in the house while Jason was growing up, but liquor isn't the drug Uncle Alex has a problem with, and he's always had the occasional beer or glass of wine in social situations that Mom isn't a part of, even if he nearly always sticks to water when she's there, just like Dad does. It's less strange to see him sitting here, perched on a bar stool, turning a glass of expensive single malt over in his hands, than it is to be the guy sitting next to him, sipping his own whiskey, like they're two adults having an adult night out. But then again, Uncle Alex never did treat him like a kid, even when he was one.
“So have you decided on a law school yet?” Uncle Alex asks.
Jason shifts his weight on his stool, taps his thumbnail absently against the rim of his glass.
“I'm leaning towards Columbia,” he says.
“Yeah?” Uncle Alex shoots him a surprised look over the rim of his glasses. “What happened to Georgetown?”
“I...” There's a shift in the music playing beneath the lazy buzz of late-night conversations, old-school rock drifting into jazz, something soft and complicated that could be Miles Davies. Uncle Alex would probably know if he asked him. Jason smiles to himself, suddenly bursting with wanting to share this, though he's been edging around broaching the subject for months, as though saying it out loud could jinx it. “There's someone I met. A guy I've been seeing. He's an artist, a painter, mostly. He wants to try it in New York, the art scene there, and we've been talking about maybe moving there, get an apartment together. If I'm accepted at Columbia.”
“You'll get into Columbia,” Uncle Alex says, as if that's not even an issue. “This artist, does he have a name?”
“Paul,” Jason says, and he's grinning now. All the joy he's been walking around with breaking through onto his face, and he must look like an idiot and he really doesn't care. “His name is Paul. You should see his paintings, Uncle Alex. The colors, the details. I could look at them forever, just, you know, knowing that they sprang from his mind. Figuring out how they fit with who he is.” Uncle Alex's mouth twitches, as if he's trying not to laugh, and Jason looks away, self-conscious. “I know, that sounds so cheesy.”
“No,” Uncle Alex says. “No, not at all.” His smile breaks through, though, and he amends: “Well, maybe a little, but that's how it goes. I was just thinking, I really have to stop being surprised at how much sometimes you're exactly like me.” He shakes his head at something, some train of thought Jason isn't quite following, and takes a deep drink from his glass. “So you're serious then? About Paul?”
Jason looks at the amber liquid in his glass, swirling as he tilts it from side to side in his hands that rest on the bar.
He remembers suddenly a night in the snow, in a warm car while the flakes fell, years ago.
“He's the one I want to be with,” he says, and as he says it, he knows that it's true, that this is exactly it, the feeling he hasn't quite dared to put into words. The feeling he didn't quite understand, that night when he was only a kid. “In every way that I can, for as long as I can.”
“Oh, Jase,” Uncle Alex says, and reaches over to squeeze the back of his neck.
They have quite a few more drinks before the bar closes.
When Jason is twenty-nine, he completes the Phase II testing for admission to Quantico.
Uncle Alex flies out the day of the written exam, and they have dinner that night at an Italian place in Chelsea, just around the corner from Jason's apartment.
Uncle Alex asks Paul along, but Paul begs off, citing all the work he has to do for the upcoming exhibition. It's not a lie – this exhibition could be the one that makes his career, and he's been working hard towards it for months – but they know each other so well by now, and Jason has no trouble seeing that if Paul is giving himself a few uninterrupted hours in his studio, he's also, primarily, giving Jason this time alone with Uncle Alex, this time they've had set aside for just the two of them for almost as long as Jason can remember. He kisses Paul's cheek as he heads out the door, breathing in the familiar scent of oil paints and turpentine from the stained old t-shirt he works in, the scent of him from the warm skin at his hairline, and squeezes his hand to make sure he knows the thought is appreciated. His heart skips a beat at the feel of the wedding ring on Paul's finger, still unexpected every time, though it's been eight months already since he put it there, and then the door closes behind him and it's just him and Uncle Alex in the New York night. The world simple for a while, as it's always been between them.
Over pasta, they talk about the mock-up case that Jason had to write a report on for the exam, about the new free clinic Mom is trying to raise money for, about the bridge Dad is working on for the port of Buenos Aires. The conversation weaves in and out of words and silences, resting in the flickering light of the candle on the table, rushing nowhere.
Uncle Alex is still the same man he's always been, and he's always been more physically fit than his age would suggest, but it's easy now, when they see each other so seldom, to remember how much older he is than Mom and Dad, to see how deep the furrows in his face are getting and how much more white there is in his hair every time they get together. They'll be having dinners like this for years to come yet, Jason is sure of that, but there's an awareness in him tonight that they won't be having them forever. It makes him listen harder, makes him want to say more.
“Jenny came by when she was back in town last week,” Uncle Alex says over coffee. “She's off to Central Africa with Doctors Without Borders again next month, though.” He leans back in his chair, nursing his half-empty cappuccino cup in his hands. “Sometimes I wonder whether that girl doesn't take after your mother as much as her own, with all the time she spent at our house.”
“I'm pretty sure that's an accurate assessment. She adores Mom. If she ends up on the most-wanted lists of any small African dictatorships for springing free speech activists from prison, we'll know exactly who to blame.”
Uncle Alex smiles into his cup, a wide grin full of quiet, amused affection. He's never loved Mom the way he loves Dad, but there's always been this – this other kind of mutual love between them that kept that third wall of their relationship standing. That allowed Jason to be certain of all his parents, certain of their commitment, though it didn't look like other people's.
“You know,” he says. “Dad always claims that I have Mom's heart and his eyes, and everything else I got from you.”
Uncle Alex makes a dismissive gesture with his hand.
“That's because your dad's never given himself enough credit for his contributions.”
Jason takes a sip of his coffee.
“Yeah,” he agrees, trying for a straight face. “Paul once told me that after the first time they met, he wanted to write Dad a note of thanks for the fact that I'd inherited his lips. But he decided that probably wasn't an appropriate correspondence for a man to have with his future father in law.”
Uncle Alex is rarely fazed by anything. It's very gratifying to see him splutter into his coffee cup.
“There's absolutely no comment I could make on that statement that wouldn't make me sound like a very dirty old man,” he says.
“Don't worry,” he says. “We'll take them all as read. Or at least I'm sure Paul will. He's always found you and Dad and that whole The Fugitive thing unaccountably romantic.”
Uncle Alex shakes his head, half amused.
“It's mostly romantic in hindsight, I'm afraid, because we know where it would take us. At the time it was one long stretch of continuous terror, shot through with occasional moments of terrifying desire.”
“Ah,” Jason says, nodding sagely. “A profound statement about the nature of love.”
Uncle Alex glares at him, and Jason flashes him his brightest, most annoying grin.
“If you want me to say anything profound,” Uncle Alex says, raising his hand to wave their server over, “we're both going to need something stronger than coffee.”
An hour later, the restaurant is almost empty, save a loud birthday dinner party in a corner, a couple talking in soft voices, holding hands across the table, and them. Uncle Alex has pushed his chair back a little, his long legs crossed, the glass of brandy in his hand resting against his thigh. Jason is toying with the wrapping from the thin chocolate square that came with his cappuccino, smoothing out the crinkles in the foil.
They've been quiet for a while, whatever they talked about last sunk back into a comfortable silence, when Jason picks up the thought that's been there all along tonight.
“Uncle Alex?” he asks, and his uncle looks up at him, up from whatever late-night reverie he was drifting in. In the corner, a girl laughs, bright and drunkenly. Outside the window, two women with their arms around each other are hailing a cab. “This test thing, why did you start it, back when I was a kid? Were you afraid I wouldn't do well?”
Uncle Alex shakes his head.
“No, I...” He pauses. Sits up a little straighter, puts his glass down on the table. “I already knew you were a smart kid. We all did. But I worried that perhaps our expectations of what 'smart' meant were skewed. Michael is...” A complicated expression flits across his face – reverence and exasperation and something that is still, even now, too much emotion. “Well, Michael. And Sara is the classic over-achiever, perfect scores on every test she ever took. We all expected you to be like them, but I thought, what if you'd inherited their intelligence, their creativity, but not their focus or their self-discipline? Me... Before I met Michael, I don't think I had ever been anywhere where I wasn't ninety percent certain that I was the smartest person in the room. But I didn't do well in school. There were too many puzzle pieces missing, too much that didn't fit right in the rest of my life, I couldn't settle into it or believe that it mattered. It was only in the Army that I calmed down enough and learned the right skill sets. So with you, I thought someone should try to make sure you knew that you didn't have to get all the answers right or have a genius-level IQ for us to be proud of you. Not that your Mom and Dad didn't feel that way, too, but sometimes you subconsciously expect things, and if then they don't materialize...”
“You've been a really great dad,” Jason blurts out. He doesn't know he means to say it until the words are out, but it's the statement that goes with the sudden rush of feeling in his chest. “You've always been a really great dad. I just... You should know that.”
Uncle Alex looks at him. For a very long moment, he just looks.
Then he blinks, and Jason realizes that his eyes are wet behind his glasses just as he looks away, down at the table between them.
“Uncle Alex,” Jason starts to say, but he has no clue what the rest of that sentence is.
But Uncle Alex smiles, then. Draws his breath in with a sound that is soft laughter; water-color laughter, washed out at the edges with the moisture in his eyes.
He reaches across the table and takes Jason's hand, turns it palm up between them.
Sitting there is a tiny chocolate-wrapper flower, a creased and crooked miniature of the one that's always lived on the top shelf of his mom's bookcase. Jason hadn't even been aware he was folding it.
“Whatever Michael thinks,” Uncle Alex says, looking up to catch his gaze, squeezing his hand, “I would have to say you got the best parts of both your dads.”
In Jason's palm, the tinfoil rose catches the light, a thousand refractions that he wouldn't know how to describe.
It makes no sense, but when they leave the restaurant, he slips it in his pocket.