“It’s crowded in here today,” Barbara commented as she dropped into the empty chair after placing her order at the counter. The other three had beat her to Burnside Roasters, and had snagged the back corner table of the coffee shop as usual.
“Midterm season maybe?” Frankie guessed with a shrug, not looking up from her laptop.
Across the table, Stephanie had a large textbook open and was clearly pretending to take notes while actually texting. Next to her, Cassandra was listening to her iPod and nodding a little as she surveyed the room. Barbara pulled out her tablet and opened her notes from Friday’s meeting.
“Harper wants to know if we want to get burritos for dinner,” said Stephanie, nudging Cassandra.
“Hm?” said Cass, taking one headphone from her ear and giving Steph a questioning look.
Stephanie held up her phone. “Burritos for dinner?” she repeated.
“Oh, yes,” Cass said, smiling and going back to her music.
“As your mentor, I feel obliged to tell you to quit texting your girlfriend and get back to studying,” said Barbara, rolling her eyes.
“Yes, mom,” said Stephanie, sticking out her tongue.
“Very mature,” said Barbara while Frankie snorted with laughter. Steph had started at Burnside College last semester and managed to scrape fairly decent grades so far, which actually made Barbara really proud. But that didn’t mean Stephanie Brown wasn’t a smartass sometimes.
“Where is Harper?” Frankie asked, finally looking up from her laptop.
“Campus. She said she needed the engineering lab. She’s just keeping me updated on how the dude at the next workstation smells like onions and it’s ruining her thesis,” said Stephanie, pointing to the phone. “If I don’t respond with constant moral support, that’s three years of college down the drain,” she added, nodding seriously.
“Give the phone to Cass and get back to Descartes,” Barbara instructed patiently.
Stephanie sighed and handed the phone to Cass, who immediately texted an elaborate combination of emojis to Harper.
A few moments passed until Stephanie spoke again.
“Sooo, what kind of coffee did you order, Frankie?” she asked lightly.
“Don’t you have studying to do?” Frankie replied, raising an eyebrow.
“No, wait, I’m interested in this too,” said Barbara, smirking and looking at her roommate of almost three years. “Julie is up front today.”
“You guuuys,” Frankie complained.
“She likes you, too,” said Cass as though it was the most obvious thing it the world. Because really, it totally was. The cute, blonde barista and Frankie had been flirting on and off for weeks now. Barbara had never seen Frankie get so easily flustered by someone.
“I have work to do too,” Frankie mumbled, slouching a little in her seat and focusing on her laptop again.
Barbara returned her attention to her tablet, not paying attention when someone came up to their table.
“Oh. My. God!” Stephanie said suddenly.
Barbara looked up, alarmed. Her stomach dropped when she realized who she was seeing before her eyes.
“Okay, so, I got a white chocolate mocha, a caramel frap, a chai, and hazelnut soy? Oh and a bagel?” said Jason Todd, holding a tray full of overflowing coffee mugs. He set each one down, plus the plate with the bagel then stood back and looked directly at Barbara. “Did I get that right?”
Barbara stood up, speechless and staring at him.
“What the hell are you doing here?” said Frankie behind her, not sounding impressed.
“Uh, working,” he said with a shrug.
“Jason … it’s been months. No one has seen you,” said Barbara. She reached out to touch his arm, hardly believing he was real.
“We looked for you,” said Stephanie sharply.
“Really? Well, hey, here I am,” he said, glancing down at Barbara’s hand and brushing off their clear irritation. “I gotta get back to work though. It’s my first week, still getting the hang of things,” he added, about to turn and leave.
“Wait, Jason,” said Barbara. She hesitated then quickly threw her arms around his neck in a hug.
Jason pressed a hand to her back and muttered, “Good to see you again, Babs.”
She didn’t know what to say, where to even start pulling apart the confusion of anger and relief at seeing him again. Barbara let go of him and moved back.
“Ladies,” he said, nodding and returning to the counter.
Barbara looked at the other girls, all three of whom wore expressions of varying degrees of anger and annoyance.
“What is with the men in this gig?” said Frankie, picking up her coffee and taking a sip.
“Do you think he’s brainwashed?” Steph wondered, her eyes still on Jason from behind the counter, “Like, to be a slave to Big Barista or something?”
“Big Barista? Really, Steph?” Frankie said.
“Hey, that’s totally a thing!”
“He’s hiding something,” said Cass, eyes narrowed as she continued to watch Jason across the room.
“Babs, you’ve gotta find out what happened,” said Stephanie, leaning in. “He’s probably totally still into you so you could use that to—ow!” she said, rubbing her side where Cass elbowed her.
“No, you don’t. Forget him, he’s an idiot,” said Frankie firmly.
“Yeah,” Barbara echoed, glancing over her shoulder at him.
Jason didn’t pay her a second look, nor did he come by their table again as he handled the afternoon rush. She knew the other three were covertly shooting glares at him, mostly on her behalf. While she appreciated the loyalty from her teammates, the more she watched him, the more she really needed answers herself.
Jason Todd had been missing for over six months. He was visiting Burnside (visiting her), he had said goodnight to her, and then she hadn’t heard from him. At first, Barbara was angry that he wouldn’t return her calls or texts. Then she got worried. Her gut was telling her something had happened to him.
They looked. She took weeks off from work to circle the whole damn planet. But he was gone and she was trying to just come to terms with never seeing him again.
After an hour or so, the coffee shop calmed down and Frankie sighed heavily.
“Fine, go ask him if he’s busy later,” she said.
Barbara snapped her eyes away from the counter where Jason was cleaning up.
“I thought you said to forget him.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time you ignored my advice about boys,” said Frankie, rolling her eyes.
Babs looked over at Stephanie who shrugged.
“He does owe us an explanation,” said Steph. Next to her, Cass nodded in agreement.
Barbara looked at Frankie again, finding the resigned understanding in her best friend’s eyes. The younger girls might have some sort of inkling that she and Jason might have had potential for a something before he suddenly left town, but only her roommate really understood just how deeply she felt, how hard she took it when she failed to find him anywhere.
“I have to know,” Barbara said.
Frankie nodded. “I know you do. Go.”
Barbara slowly pushed back her chair and stood up, squaring her shoulders and taking a deep breath.
“Do me a favor and don’t sit here and glare at him behind my back,” she said before leaving the table and heading for the front counter.
Jason was scrubbing at a stubborn spot with a rag when she reached the counter. He looked up, surprised to see her there.
“Hey, need another drink?” he asked. “I’m not great with the espresso machine yet but I can pour coffee,” he added, motioning behind him.
“Uh, no, thank you,” said Barbara, putting her hands on the counter and leaning on it a bit. “I just … wanted to ask if you were busy tonight. I thought we could go out and catch up.”
Jason blinked. “Yeah! I mean, no, I’m not busy. I can do that tonight,” he said quickly. Then he leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Wait, do you mean out out?”
“I just thought we could get drinks maybe? And talk?” Barbara clarified. Was he even still doing the hero game? She and Frankie had yet to hear of Red Hood sightings in Burnside.
“That’d be great. I’m off at eight,” said Jason, nodding.
“Do you still have the same number?”
“Uh, yeah, wait, no! I got a new one, hold on,” said Jason, reaching for a sticky note and scribbling down his phone number. He passed her the note and when their hands brushed, she looked up at him. For a moment, just the way he looked at her made her feel like almost no time had passed, made her stomach flutter and her cheeks blush.
Barbara quickly squashed down the feeling, pulling her hand back.
“Great, I’ll text you later,” she said.
Her anxiety and shock over seeing him again managed to simmer into actual anger at him over the course of the evening. How dare he show up after six months of radio silence? In her town and her coffee shop of all places. And then act like unsurprised to see her sitting there. He had no idea what she went through.
She thought about that night, about the last time she saw him, drawing up the memories as though it were yesterday.
“I have to say, I’ve never heard that high pitched of scream over a tiny mouse,” Barbara was saying, smirking up at him. They were standing up on the top ledge of Burnside Bridge, their bridge, doing their usual post-patrol, not-quite-ready-to-say-goodnight-yet chat.
She loved this time of night, these little moments with him under the stars as the city slept. These days, he was stopping by Burnside a few times a week, and not just to patrol with her. They were friends now with, she found herself hoping lately, the potential for more.
“Hey, the shadow looked a lot bigger and it moved really fast,” Jason replied, moving closer to her as they leaned on the brick tower. He had taken off his helmet when they got there, the wind tousled his hair. “Do you want me to bring up the spider web incident from last week? Because you screamed pretty loud then.”
“That’s completely different. You were scared of a cute little mouse,” she teased him, poking him in the chest playfully.
He grabbed her hand and somehow, while she was still laughing at him, managed to turn them so her back was to the brick wall, pinning her wrist up by her ear as he stood in front of her. She went quiet when she realized he was standing so close to her now, his eyes flickering down to her mouth. His hand slid up from her wrist to her meet her palm, their fingers loosely lacing together.
Her beat a little faster as he stood in front of her, holding her hand and staring down at her. The mood had shifted so quickly from playful teasing to something more intense. She let her eyes flutter closed, willing it to finally happen after months of flirting.
“I … I should go, it’s late,” Jason said after a few seconds, releasing her hand and pulling back.
Barbara’s eyes snapped open and she felt her heart sink. Not tonight then.
“Okay,” she said, managing to keep the disappointment out of her voice.
“How about we get pizza tomorrow night?” he said, backing up towards the edge. “I’ll call you tomorrow. Night, BG!” he added.
“Goodnight,” Barbara said with a sigh as he left, headed for his place over in downtown Gotham while she made her way back to Burnside. Stupid boys, always making her do all the work. Maybe next time she would have to make it clearer that she expected him to actually follow through and kiss her.
There was no next time. He definitely had not called or texted the next day. It took a few days of no communication from him for the actual worry to set in.
By the time she was ready to meet him, Barbara was furious. Outside the bar, she took a couple of deep breaths, attempting to calm down. This wasn’t going to work if she attacked him. She pushed the door open and stepped inside.
A tiny part of her hoped maybe he had stood her up. But no, she spotted him instantly at a bar height table near the wall, the best spot to both see the whole bar and off to the side enough to have a private conversation in such a noisy, crowded space.
It was hard to see in the dim lighting, but it looked like he had swapped out the tee shirt he was wearing earlier for a dark button down, the sleeves rolled to his elbows.
Jason stood and pulled out the bar stool next to him when she approached.
“You look good, Barbie,” he said as she climbed into the chair. “What do you want to drink?” he asked after pushing in her chair.
Barbara hesitated. She had said go out for drinks sure, but more to put him at ease that this was a casual conversation rather than put him on the defensive right away.
Misleading? Perhaps, especially since he seemed to have dressed up, complimented her, and now intended to buy her a drink. It was the casual date she had wanted with him … six months ago.
“Whiskey and coke,” she answered, watching him nod and head off for the bar. Her eyes stayed on his figure as he went.
She sighed. What was the phrase? Hate to see him leave, but love to watch him go?
Five minutes later, he was back at the table, a drink each in front of them. She took a deep breath, about to launch into her questioning when he spoke up first, distracting her.
“So how are things? How is everyone?” Jason asked with an easy smile.
“Well, your crew, your Birds. Frankie, Canary, Blondie, Blue Hair, Cass?” he listed. “Oh, and Alysia and Jo, right?”
Barbara nodded slowly, clutching her glass. Really? He was just going to sit here and ask about her friends as if nothing was wrong? He had the same teasing grin and nicknames for them all.
“Everyone is … good. They’re all good,” she said. Then she couldn’t help herself. “Dinah is on tour again. Steph is at Burnside College. Harper graduates this spring. Cass has become obsessed with musical theater. Frankie has been working on some new tech. Alysia is still at my company and Jo is pregnant. We’re … we’re okay.”
It hurt to realize that maybe he really did still care about what everyone in her life was up to, that before he disappeared, he was actually quite present in their group to the point of getting to know all of them. Because they were important to her.
And he had missed a lot.
“That’s really great, Babs. You sound so proud of them,” said Jason. “And you?”
She looked at him, thinking of all that time she wasted wondering.
“Jason, I think it’s time you told me where you’ve been,” said Barbara.
He looked uncomfortable for a moment and then waved her off, saying, “Nah, it’s really not an exciting story, Babs. I’d rather talk about you.”
“Not an exciting story? You ditch me on the bridge, right when we were about to … you left and then you didn’t call and for weeks I was angry at you for pulling away again!” she said, pushing back her drink. “And then I was worried! You wouldn’t answer my calls. I asked Bruce to look for you and he couldn’t find you. I asked Dick to use his old Spyral connections to try to find you. I took weeks off, tracking down Roy and Kori and neither of them had seen you! All for you to wander back into my life with a job in my town, with a new phone number, like you’d been on vacation or something!”
His brow furrowed and he tossed back the rest of his drink. “This is really not how I thought this would go, tonight,” he said, shaking his head.
“Oh, really?” she said, angrily. “You hoped you could just charm me enough that I wouldn’t ask for an explanation? I know that game pretty well, I’m not that stupid.”
“Do I get points for not purposefully faking my own death?”
“No,” she snapped. “I ended up thinking you were dead anyway.”
“Barbara, I don’t have anything to say,” said Jason. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s crap. Why now? Why Burnside?” Barbara demanded.
“It’s a good place to start over. And you’re here,” he added, chancing a glance at her.
She wasn’t letting him have it.
“This is my city, under my protection. If anything followed you here, if you living here threatens the safety of the city, you’re leaving,” she told him, pointing at him.
“Nothing followed me. I promise I won’t cause any trouble,” said Jason, looking irritated now. “In fact, you’re welcome to find a new coffee shop if you don’t want to see me.”
“Don’t be overdramatic,” said Barbara, rolling her eyes. She hopped off the chair and pointed at him as she spoke. “How about until you feel like even giving a half assed excuse for where you’ve been, you just stay out of my way? I’m getting really tired of the way you Bat boys have been treating me.”
He looked away from her. “You’re right, Babs, you deserve better."
It pulled at her heart, knowing that she had probably hurt him. Even after everything, she still had feelings for him, she still cared. Dammit, Gordon.
“I’m glad you aren’t dead,” said Barbara, “but if you want back in my life, you’re going to tell me what happened.” With that, she turned and left him before he could respond.
About an hour later …
A man with tired eyes and greying, brown hair stood behind the counter at Burnside Roasters, patiently counting money from the till. Satisfied with its contents, he closed the drawer and locked it.
Calvin Walker walked over to the front door, flipped the “Open” sign over to “Closed” and turned off the lights inside the little coffee house. He sighed and made his way to the back stock room, intent on finishing up inventory before going upstairs for the night.
As he counted boxes of napkins, cups, and sleeves (all recycled and compostable, he would always proudly add when chatting with his customers), the familiar strain of financial woes settled in the form of another tension headache between his eyebrows.
Maybe he could just make a deal of some sort with … no, he was always a man of principle and he believed in the work and in the people at the coffee shop.
A soft noise from out in the shop startled him and made him lose his place in counting.
Calvin peeked out of the stock room and down the dark hallway. Had he remembered to lock the door?
“Claudia? Is that you, dear?” he called.
He shook his head and turned back to the shelf. No, his wife had gone upstairs for the night and probably wouldn’t be back down. He had to be imagining things.
Lost in thought again, Calvin didn’t hear the soft footsteps treading down the hall until a shadow appeared in the doorway to the stock room.
He turned around and glared.
“You! I told you— what is … no! Get back!”
The figure advanced, drawing a long knife from beneath a large jacket.