“Alright alright alright, let me hear you make some noise, Gotham City!”
The crowd packed inside the warehouse screams under the epileptic flash of the lights. Up on his podium, the DJ throws his head back and laughs.
“Yeah, that’ll do. I have the honor tonight of welcoming you to the best, the biggest, the baddest dance competition on the east coast. Are you ready?”
More screaming. The lights burn blue, green, yellow and back again.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen and everyone in between—welcome, one and all—to Street Fleet 2016!”
The walls vibrate with the volume of the shrieking that rises from the crowd. “I am proud to present,” the DJ continues, “representing our beloved hometown—the Gotham City Outlaws!”
The lights go off. A whining synth intro cuts through the darkness, lilting up and down, a simple refrain. The lights go up to reveal a five-person crew on the stage, all wearing matching red baseball caps. A repeated cymbal note sounds over the intro, keeping time; the dancers mime hitting the beat in the air. The music builds, and the entire crowd seems to hold their breaths—
“Ecstasy,” Rihanna sings, long and drawn-out, and the dancers drop on bent knees, hips swaying to the drop of the beat. “In the air—” and they spin to the side and kick one leg out, then stomp the same leg down to generate the force to propel them into a spinning leap. They land on their toes to “I don’t care—” , only to jump into a series of synchronized high kicks in time to the tinny crash of the beat. For a moment, it looks like a scene out of a karate movie, all the limbs between them moving in perfect time.
The crew runs and slides onto their knees, then bends to press their backs against the stage and plant their feet flat on the floor. Their hips jerk upwards as Rihanna croons “Can’t tell me nothing,” until they push up on their hands and sweep a leg around to propel themselves back to their feet. The frontman slides forward while his crew members fall back, and while the others break against the floor he lists to the side, one hand over his pelvis, shoulder rolling in time to the rhythm of Rihanna’s voice.
“I’m going up,” Rihanna declares, and each member of the crew begins to freestyle, the beat moving through the jerk and flow of their limbs, punky and aggressive and as much like fighting as it is like dancing. “I’m going up—I’m going up—”
The routine ends with Jason and Duke on their knees at center-front while Roy, Kori, and Kyle hold their breaks behind them. The crowd hoots and cheers so loud Jason thinks he feels his eardrums pop, but grinning up into the heat of the stage lights, he can’t find it in himself to care. “They never disappoint, do they?” the DJ chuckles. “Who knows: Maybe a home team will carry us to victory this year. Give it up one more time for the Outlaws!”
Roy drags Jason to his feet, and the five of them jog off stage to the deafening roar behind them. Roy flicks the sweat-dampened hair from his eyes and mock-basks in the sound. “Ah, the screams of my adoring fans,” he sighs wistfully. “I do this for them, you know.”
“Sure,” Duke drawls. He reaches out to give a high five to the second crew in the lineup making their way to the stage. “I’m sure the possibility of a five hundred thousand dollar cash prize has nothing to do with it.”
Roy shivers and throws Duke a shit-eating grin. “Don’t talk dirty to me in public, Thomas, you know what it does to me.”
Jason rolls his eyes and shoves at Roy’s head. The song for the 401’s routine begins, something old-school and heavy with rapid-fire lyrics. “All jokes aside, did you hear the crowd? They loved us. I think we might have a real shot at this.”
“They loved us because they’re Gotham trash and so are we,” Jason says, dodging Roy’s attempts at retaliation. “Hometown pride. We can’t rely on it to carry us to the top.”
“But we should not be afraid to celebrate our victories,” Kori reminds him. “We did well tonight, and we have our own behind us.” She flashes her infamous megawatt smile. “I am hungry. Shall we reward ourselves with a cooked sausage?”
“They’re called hot dogs, Kori, you know this…”
Jason can’t help but scan the warehouse as they make their way to the bar. The place is packed; even on the opposite side of the building from the stage, there’s barely any room on the floor to maneuver. Combined with the club lights, it’s nearly impossible to make out even his friends’ faces, never mind that of a near-stranger, half-hidden under a cowl…
“You’re looking for him, aren’t you?”
Jason glances back to find Roy watching him, a sharp little twist to his mouth. “Nightwing,” Roy adds. “You’re trying to find him.”
“No,” Jason says, instinctive; then, “Okay, so maybe I am. The guy leaves an impression.”
“He’ll be here,” Roy says. He doesn’t sound happy about it. “He likes the attention.”
Jason raises a brow at him as they reach the bar. “You say that like you know him.”
“The guy films himself dancing at international landmarks and posts them anonymously to the internet under an alter ego,” Roy says, dry. “I don’t have to know him to know he likes attention.”
“Five dogs, please,” Duke tells the bartender, holding out a twenty. “All the fixings.”
“Hey,” Roy says. He’s leaning against the bar, gaze cast out over the crowd. “How’s your thing at the ballet company going?”
Jason glances over at him. Roy’s body is relaxed, his tone casual, but Jason knows him too well to be fooled: The euphoria from before is gone. “It’s good,” he replies, carefully. “Slow, but good. It’s a different world, y’know? I want to make sure I know everything they do before I start messing with it. But I’ve got some ideas.”
Roy nods. “They still paying you for your time even though you haven’t done anything yet?”
“Yeah,” Jason snorts. “Too much.” He hesitates. On the stage, the crew from New York takes their bows and run off the stage. “Hey. I know you said you’re okay with me working with Grayson, but—you are okay with it, aren’t you?”
Roy flashes a tight smile. “Yeah, dude.”
Jason thinks of Dick telling him he’s a good friend to Roy. “You ever going to tell me what happened between you two?”
Roy finally looks at him, and Jason thinks This is it, fucking finally—
“Alright alright alright, listen up ladies and gents and everyone in between! I know what you want, what you’ve been waiting for—and I’m here to tell you that it’s finally time! Give it up for the one, the only—Nightwing!”
The entire crowd gasps and surges toward the stage. Roy smirks at Jason over the jostling of bodies around them. “Speak of the devil, huh?”
Jason just sighs and lets Duke and Kyle drag him across the warehouse. They elbow their way to the perfect viewing spot just as all the lights in the house drop again. They go up in a single spotlight, focused on a solitary figure on the stage. With the dropping temperature of Gotham’s nights, Nightwing has changed from his sleeveless hoodie to a skintight black athletic shirt, that iconic chevron splayed across his chest in messy blue acrylic. The eerie sound of a woman giggling begins echoing throughout the warehouse, and it’s only when Nightwing shifts in preparation, half in shadow, that Jason realizes that the paint is glow-in-the-dark.
“I need a gangsta,” Kehlani croons, and Nightwing looks up, electric eyes locking with the crowd. Jason feels a shiver run down his spine, almost violent: Those eyes seem to go right through him. “To love me better than all the others do… To always forgive me, ride or die with me. That’s just what gangsters do…”
The beat drops, and so does Nightwing, chest swaying forward at a near ninety-degree angle, back arched so that he never loses sight of the crowd. “I’m fucked up,” and he snaps upright again, knees bent, one arm out with fist clenched while one foot twists into the floor, “I’m black and blue” and immediately he’s sliding back, arms rising to shield his face with his forearms, hips undulating in time to the beat. At “I’m built for it,” his arms cross over his chest, hands grasping at his throat to mimic a chokehold just in time for “all the abuse.” His feet pop apart again on “I got secrets ,” upper body swaying down and around as he holds a finger to his lips; then, as the music builds, he dives to the stage only to catch himself on his hands, turning the fall into three perfect undulations of his body to “ that nobody, nobody, nobody knows—”
The music speeds up as Kehlani chants “ You got me hooked up on the feeling,” and so does Nightwing’s movements as he pulls himself upright with a hand under his chin, miming the hook, and then breaks into a whip-fast set of footwork. “You got me hanging from the ceiling. Got me so high I’m barely breathing, so don’t let me, don’t let me, don’t let me, don’t let me go…”
There’s something different about this routine: Where Nightwing is usually quick, poppy, sensual and fluid and cheeky at the edges, this time he’s a contrast of grindingly slow and desperately fast, wringing every bit of complex technique that he can out of each beat of the song. In all of the videos that Jason has watched—in the performances he, unbelievably enough, has seen live—Nightwing has never looked anything less than effortless, anything less like he’s having the time of his life. But now, Jason can see his muscles corded with effort, the sweat curling the dark hair on his forehead. And he’s always had a habit of maintaining eye contact with his audience, but this time—god—if Jason didn’t know better, he’d swear, he really would, that Nightwing is looking at him.
The beat quiets for a moment and the music slows again, Kehlani dropping back into her soft begging for “I need a gangsta…” The frantic pace falls away from Nightwing’s movements, but the intensity remains, translated into a tension that pulls each of his moves taught as a wire. As Jason watches, he begins to descend in a split—only to stop halfway down and slide upward again until he’s standing nearly with his legs together, a split in rewind, perfectly smooth and without shifting an inch from where he stands. Jason feels his jaw drop as Nightwing rises and falls with the words, rising with “to love me better,” falling with “than all the others do…” Each time he repeats the move, the crowd screams louder. Jason feels his own calves burn in sympathy just watching.
“To always forgive me, ride or die with me, that’s just what gangstas do…”
Kehlani’s voice fades away and the beat comes back in, heavy and uneven, over a whining synth tune that fluctuates between notes. Nightwing draws himself upright again and spins on his heels to face the crowd, arms lax, shoulders cocked back and tilted just slightly to the side. As the beat pulses, so does his chest, as if the heart of the song is throbbing through him. Then he shifts just his upper body and falls lax again, arms swinging slightly, like a robot malfunctioning, chest still pumping. Jason can’t look away if he tries.
The song and routine finally end. If Jason thought that the reaction to his crew’s routine was loud, this is deafening —blow-your-eardrums-out, pure-wall-of-sound deafening. He flinches despite himself, and Duke and Kyle wince and cover their ears. “Come on,” Duke mouths, gesturing. Jason, Kyle, Roy, and Kori follow him out of the crowd.
Outside the nexus of the worst of the noise, Jason can actually hear himself think again. He can also hear the garbled noise Kyle makes as he grabs Jason’s shoulders and shakes him, like he can’t contain himself. “Dude. Dude. ”
Jason remembers Nightwing grinding against the stage and coughs, lips curling. “Yeah, I know. Not a bad way to end the night.”
“God, I love dance!” Duke shouts, clapping Kyle on the shoulder. “And hot dogs. Which still haven’t made it into my mouth, by the way.” He wiggles his eyebrows at Jason.
“Why are you looking at me, Thomas?”
“I paid for them, you pick them up!”
Jason rolls his eyes, but the night has been too good; he can’t help but grin. “Fine. Keep your lazy asses here; I don’t want to have to crowd-dive to find you later.”
Duke salutes him. Jason leaves them chatting by a support beam and makes his way back to the bar. In the lull between acts, the DJ is playing some wordless electronica, and the warehouse has turned into just another trendy nightclub on the East Gotham strip. The throng around the bar seems even denser than usual, and it’s only when Jason finally makes it to the front that he realizes why: Nightwing is leaning against the counter, skin still glistening from his routine, nursing a rum and coke and answering questions about his process from the dozens of adoring fans press in around him.
Somehow, instantly, Nightwing’s eyes finds Jason’s. Jason freezes. There’s no way, he thinks, no way he’ll remember me— but then Nightwing grins under his cowl, and Jason’s entire body flushes hot under his clothes—
The next second, Jason’s eyes widen. “Shit—duck!”
Nightwing flinches away just in time to avoid the hand that swipes through the air where his face had been a half-second before. A man in a hoodie and oversized sneakers, clearly wasted, stumbles, then straightens again with a leer. “C’mon,” he slurs, while the crowd falls abruptly silent, shocked. “What’re you hiding under that mask of yours?”
The pisshead actually has the audacity to try again, but before Nightwing can do anything more than frown, Jason has the offender’s hoodie in his fist. He jerks the guy to throw him off balance, then slams him back against the bar, ignoring his victim’s furious yelp. “Are you fucking serious?” he snaps. “Get the fuck out of here. Before I kick you out myself.”
The man snarls at him, but he’s too drunk to do anything but comply. Jason watches as he stumbles off. When he turns back, Nightwing’s eyes are crinkled at the corners.
“My hero,” he quips, in that clear, smooth voice that sounds so familiar to Jason. Jason coughs to hide his flush.
“Hey, I did just kind of save your ass back there,” he retorts, in a vain attempt to hold on to his dignity. What is it about this guy that does this to him? “The least you could do is not rag me for it.”
Nightwing laughs, fucking near-melodic. He faces the crowd and waves a hand. “I think that’s it for tonight, yeah, guys?”
With the mood somewhat ruined by the would-be mask-snatcher, the crowd doesn’t protest, just calls their thanks and dissipates. Nightwing turns back to Jason and tilts his head. “Can I buy you a drink?”
Jason laughs. “Only if that’s not a line.”
Nightwing grins. “Rum and coke okay?” At Jason’s nod, he waves to the bartender. “Hey, Nick. Same for my friend.”
“You know the bartender by name?”
“I actually know most of the stage and service crew at these events,” Nightwing says, glancing around. “I usually meet up with them beforehand—they helped me set up the skylight and grappling hook for my routine last time. I like to think they like me as much as I like them.”
Who is this guy, Prince Charming? Jason almost wants to roll his eyes. Almost. The bartender brings Jason his drink; Jason thanks him and swallows half of it, not realizing until now how thirsty he was. “Thanks, by the way. For last time.” Nightwing raises his brows quizzically. “You know. When you pulled me out from under the stampeding crowd. I would probably still be pancaked to the floor of that theater if it wasn’t for you.”
Nightwing snort-laughs; it’s stupidly adorable. “Don’t mention it. We’re more than even now. Besides, I benefited as much as you did: If you were still pancaked to the floor of that theater, I wouldn’t have been able to watch your sick routine tonight.”
Jason grins into his glass. “Of course: You watch all the performances, right?”
Nightwing’s eyes crinkle again. “You remembered.”
How could he forget? Jason swallows the rest of his drink. “Can I ask you something else?”
Nightwing hums. “I think you’ve earned it.”
Jason flicks his fingers at the cowl covering the lower half of the other’s face. “What’s actually the deal with the mask? I know that technically we’re all not supposed to be here, but an underground dance competition is hardly on the rob-the-bank-in-a-plastic-baby-face level of crime, you know?”
Nightwing laughs so much it tilts his head back a little, exposing the slender line of his throat. “It’s a…personal issue,” he answers, finally. “The people in my real life. If they knew about my, uh, nighttime activities...there’d be issues.”
“Who would know?”
Nightwing’s smile is sharp with self-deprecation. “People would know.”
“So why do this at all?”
Nightwing grins. He gestures the hand still holding his half-empty glass, the ice clinking against the sides. “Look at this. Everyone coming together, supporting each other, showing off what they can do and what their friends can do. How could I stay away?”
Jason’s lips twitch. “Even if it could cost you something?”
“Even if it could cost me everything.”
Jason looks down into the dregs of his drinks. “I wouldn’t care,” he says. When he looks up again, Nightwing has his head tilted at him, eyes quizzical. “If I knew you in real life. Whoever you are that makes it an issue that you dance in unsanctioned competitions. I wouldn’t care, and other people shouldn’t, either.”
Nightwing’s grin fades under his cowl, and for a moment Jason thinks he’s said something wrong, crossed a line he probably shouldn’t have. But then the smile returns, a little wistful this time.
“Who knows,” he says, and tugs a little at his cowl. “Maybe I’ll take this off, one day.”
Jason grins. He’s about the make a quip about screaming fangirls when someone abruptly jostles his shoulder. “Hey, man, what’s taking—” The rest of Duke’s sentence dies midair. “Holy shit.”
Kyle, Roy, and Kori come to a stop behind Duke, all of their eyes fixed on Nightwing. Kyle looks just as dumbstruck as Duke, but Roy’s expression is curiously flat. “It’s you,” he says.
In an instant, the vulnerable expression vanishes from Nightwing’s face. He straightens and flashes a smile. “You guys are the rest of the Outlaws, right? It’s an honor to meet you; you’re all great.”
Kyle chokes. “ We’re great? You’re a legend. ”
Jason rolls his eyes. “This is Duke, Kyle, Kori, and Roy.” He blinks. “Oh—and I’m Jason.”
Nightwing waggles his fingers. “Nice to meet you all.” His eyes flicker to Jason, mirthful and blue. “You too. Jason.”
Jason grins. “Yeah.”
“I have to go, but, uh. Good luck to all of you.” For a moment, Jason thinks Nightwing’s eyes land on Roy—but then they slide away again to take all of them in. “You guys deserve it.”
Jason watches as Nightwing turns and slips away, vanishing into the crowd. When he turns back to his crew, Duke and Kyle are making awestruck eyes at each other, Kori is looking after Nightwing with a thoughtful frown on her face, and Roy has turned away, trying to catch the bartender’s eye. “Curious,” Kori murmurs, her waterfall of red hair shifting as her head tilts. “Why do I feel so strongly that Nightwing and I have met before?”
Jason sighs and finally begins to pass out the hot dogs. “You and me both, Princess.”
Roy finally flags down Nick’s attention. “Pepsi, please,” he says, with a tight smile. “But only because I’m banned from anything stronger.”
The text comes just before dawn, rousing Jason from sleep with the ding of the alert. He blearily swipes it open in the darkness of his room and squints at the screen. Moving on to the next round, the message begins. Philadelphia Redliners. NYC Door Crew. NYC Sean Li. DC Hailey Ryce. Baltimore Halcyon Club. Jersey City Hawks. Boston 269. Gotham City Outlaws. Gotham City Nightwing.
Jason hears Duke and Kyle’s celebratory whoops through the walls. He falls back into his pillows and throws an arm over his eyes, grinning. In an hour, he’ll have to drag himself out from under his covers to open up the shop; and in three, he’ll have to head downtown to the day job that’s begun taking up increasing amounts of his time. But for now, he lets himself feel the light of the new day on his face and imagine all the possibilities unfolding before him.