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Out of the Blue

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2016

El Paso, July 6th 9:23PM 2016.

He's been coming to the Guadalupe Mountains a lot the past couple weeks. Watching sunsets from the top of El Capitan or stargazing on the salt flats, it's all grounding. Peaceful. He needs the time alone.

Something about the desert at night makes it seem like the rest of the universe doesn't exist—not in a bleak post-apocalyptic kind of way, more like he's carved a tiny corner of an unthinkably massive universe for himself. No pressure, no world to save, just an endless blanket of stars, rocks, and sand.

Bart has invited himself along this time but it doesn't feel like an intrusion. They spent the entire sunset in shared silent appreciation of the view. Sitting in the dirt looking up at the stars he can almost forget Bart is beside him. Something coiled tight in his chest comes loose.

"I'm still not used to seeing stars." Bart's tone is quiet, confessional. "There was a cloud of ash blocking everything—sun, stars, moon. The Reach destroyed the ecosystem so we'd be dependent on them for food." Bart smiles, small and bitter. "They cured world hunger."

Jaime gropes for words but doesn’t find any.

Bart doesn't seem to mind. "I'd heard about what the sky used to look like but—"

"Words aren't enough," Jaime finishes for him.

"Yeah."

They lapse into silence again. It's comfortable. Inviting, even. So he finally shapes the question he's been ignoring into sounds. "What was I—the other me, like? The one on-mode in your time. You said he was evil and all that but..." his voice trails off.

The silence stretches out, loud and long.

"Come on, Bart. I want to know." Everything he'd said before had been vague and it isn't enough, not when it came so close to being true, not when the threat is finally gone.

Bart leans back onto the dirt, brow wrinkling in thought. His face has lost its bubbling energy, the easy smiles—ever since Wally vanished the goofy, over-enthusiastic Bart has shifted into someone it isn't so hard to believe came from a post-apocalyptic future. The energy is still there, but more contained. Like Wally's disappearance (not death) aged him overnight.

Jaime knows Bart is younger than he is but hasn't asked by how much. He's scared to hear the answer, scared to give a number to the slim shoulders that carried the burden of an entire future.

The Impulse is more skilled at deception than initial analysis suggested.Scarab sounds almost approving, which is downright creepy.

"It's Kid Flash now," Jaime corrects.

The changing of designations is irrational and inefficient.

"Yeah, it is." Bart doesn't always register that Jaime isn't talking to him but the way he seems to agree with the scarab is eerie.

He shouldn't have asked. Bart has enough on his plate already. "I didn't know Wally very well because we weren't on the team at the—"

"Huge."

Jaime's stomach flips. "What?"

Bart is staring up at the stars, head cradled on his folded arms. "Big Bad Blue Beetle. He was really huge."

"What? No way." What is he saying, Bart wouldn't joke about that. Jaime tries to picture it and fails. "Huge how?"

"You made Black Beetle look small. No neck, arms as big as I am, the whole deal." Some of the humor seeps back as Bart sees the confused horror on Jaime's face.

The more he tries to imagine it the more it feels like the scarab is crawling up his spine. "The Reach must've modified my body. No way I'll ever be that huge." As happy as he'd be to get another growth spurt the last thing he wants is to belong in the Mongol and Vandal Muscleman club. "Ugh."

Your hypothesis is correct. The maximum potential height of this body is only 5'10".

"I could live with 5'10"."

"Ha! Aiming low, amigo. If I get as tall as grandpa I'll be way taller than you."

At the rate Bart is growing it seems likely. He's already taller than when he'd first come back. Seriously unfair. "What, by two inches?"

"Still taller."

If the result of not becoming the puppet of alien invaders is to remain short and scrawny forever, Jaime can live with it. Not that he isn't hoping to fill out in a couple years. "Say that again when you're strong enough to carry somebody more than ten feet, ese."

Bart flexes. It's not at all impressive. "Working on it."

After a few moments, Jaime tries again. It's easy to forget how good Bart is at deflecting questions. "Is that all you're gonna tell me?"

"The more I tell you, the more you'll feel guilty for no reason. You're not him. Never will be." His words ring with conviction.

"I know." In comparison Jaime's words sound hollow.

"Nobody on-mode is anything like themselves. They can't be blamed for their actions." Bart turns on his side to stare at Jaime. "You heard about Neutron, didn't you?"

"The explosive guy you fought right after coming back? Yeah."

"He was on-mode for years. He killed people." Bart's voice goes flat in a way that Jaime finds more disturbing than if it had broken. "He killed my grandpa. He killed hundreds, maybe thousands of others. But I knew him when he was off-mode. He helped me build the time machine. He wasn't a bad person, and neither are you."

Jaime lets out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. His chest aches from being crushed by what nearly happened. It makes him sick to think about, sick to remember not being able to scratch his own ass without alien oversight. He wants to puke, or cry, or hug his parents, or throw himself into the sun, or maybe all of them at once.

Bart flicks Jaime's nose.

"Ow, what was that for?" Jaime sits up, clutching his face and glaring over the tops of his fingers.

The Kid Flash lacks respect. Suggest immediate retaliation.

"Stop beating yourself up." Bart looks fierce as he gets into Jaime's face, teeth bared in anger. "You were my mission but you never would've been my friend if you were a terrible person. That other Blue Beetle made my life hell and I forgive you for it. You don't even need it, but there you have it. As a representative of the oppressed masses of the future-that-will-never-be whichissomethingyoudidbytheway, I forgive you for something that was Never. Your. Fault."

"Bart," Jaime breathes, not knowing how to put the twisting pain and relief in his chest into words. What the hell did he ever do to deserve somebody like Bart? "I owe you so much, hermano."

"You don't owe me anything." Bart flicks his nose again, smiling. "Idiot."

He shakes his head. "I owe everyone on the team. Being the Reach's puppet was horrible. And all that publicity—I don't know how to even start undoing that. Everyone saw me shouting their praises. They put my face on TV." Only once, but once is bad enough.

"Whoa there, Blue. One thing at a time. I'm sure the League is figuring out a way to explain it to the public. And you're still on our team—covert ops, remember? I'm sure it'll be fine after you lay low for a while."

Instead of anger at Bart's optimism, what comes out is, "I haven't told my parents." He scrambles with more words to try to explain it when he sees shock spread over Bart's face. "They know something's wrong, they watched the news but I—I haven't explained how bad it was. Not yet."

For a second it looks like Bart is going to punch him but it drains away before he's done lifting his arm. The look he gives Jaime is worse, even when it's barely visible in the starlight. "You've been off-mode for almost a month."

"I know, I know, I'm an idiot." Jaime curls in on himself, the lump of guilt in his chest expanding until it feels like he can't breathe. He barely notices when Bart puts an arm around him. "I have to tell them, I will tell them."

"Thinking about how they'll react only makes it worse." Bart squeezes his fingers hard enough Jaime can feel the prick of his nails. "You made a good call when you told the League about the future. I was wrong to say you should hide it."

"But—"

He shakes his head once, resolute. "We found the ritual to put you off-mode. We won. You did the right thing." Bart smiles. "You're good at that."

Jaime puts his head between his knees. "This is going to hurt them so badly."

"It is. But you'll help each other through it." Another squeeze. "You taught me that."

Jaime wants to tell him to stop, to shrug him off but denying the contact is helping would be a lie. There's been enough lying to go around. "Yeah." He runs a hand through his hair and sighs. "Don't come over again without warning me first, ¿entendido? Not until I give the all clear."

"Sure thing, Blue." Bart turns his gaze back to the sky but doesn't move his arm.

In the soothing blanket of silence, Jaime uncurls and stargazes with him.

***

Central City, July 14th 5:05PM 2016.

It feels weird being the one on the doorstep showing up unannounced. Although Jaime has visited Bart a couple times they never went inside. Now he has time to notice the irises, the ornamental iron fence, the birdbath, the things that make it hard to picture Bart living here. Before he can get too nervous about it he knocks. He's still pulling his hand away from the metal knocker when the door flies open.

"Jaime!" Bart says, surprised. "You're here." It's not quite a question.

"Yeah." He rubs the back of his neck. "Sorry I didn't call first. Can I come in?"

"Sure. Mr and Mrs G are out but I don't think they'll mind." Bart steps out of the doorway to let Jaime pass.

"Shoes here." Bart says, opening a small closet. There are cubbyholes on the bottom and coats hanging above it, divided into clear his and hers. Bart's shoes are piled on top. Jaime puts his shoes beside Bart's and continues inside.

The walls of the living room are filled with framed pictures, progressing from oldest on the right to newest on the left. Almost all of them are Mr and Mrs Garrick. The rest are family, friends, even a few people Jaime suspects are actually superheroes. Bart is in two pictures, one by himself and one with the entire Flash family—the Garricks, the Allens, and the Wests. Wally looks like he's saying something to Bart, annoyed. The picture is out of focus, Bart's face is a blur and Mrs West has red-eye. It's next to a much larger picture that was probably taken a few years ago, where everyone is smiling and in crisp focus. Out of costume it's easy to tell younger Wally and Bart apart.

"Sit down wherever. Want something to drink?"

"No thanks." Jaime surveys the options. All the furniture looks older than he is, with matching textured, patterned fabric and carved wooden feet. What is it with old people and uncomfortable furniture? He opts for the couch, extending his legs so that there isn't any room left. Bart ignores the hint and perches on the armrest by Jaime's head, which creaks in protest. Whatever fabric the couch is made of is slightly scratchy and makes him worry about sweating on it. It's nicer than his family's furniture—no faded stains, no faint smell of fabric cleaner because Milagro spilled her drink again. He spends a moment breathing in the unfamiliarity.

"How'd your parents take it?" Bart's voice is soft and Jaime hates it.

"That for months I was controlled by megalomaniac aliens every moment of my life, trapped inside my own body? Muy bien, nada mal, sin problemas." His voice is too loud but he doesn't care.

Bart winces, ducking his head as if to dodge Jaime's harsh tone. "That bad, huh?"

It hurts to remember his parent's faces, the dawning fear and horror. They had cried and shook their heads in disbelief. His heart wants to ooze out of his chest at the memory; he never wants to make them cry ever again. "They blamed themselves for not noticing, for dismissing it."

"They weren't the only ones who missed it."

Jaime doesn't know if Bart is referring to himself or the others. He never asked if anyone had suspected before he'd betrayed the team and never wanted to hear the answer. It's something best not thought about. He pushes it from his mind. "I told them that. It didn't help."

"Because you're their son."

Almost their exact words. "Yeah."

"Do you think," Bart glances away, staring at the photographs, then back. "Do you think they'd want to ask more questions? I can talk to them, if they want."

"I don't know." Jaime sighs. "I don't know if anything but time will help. But thanks for offering. Even if my parents don't, I bet Paco and Brenda will have questions." Paco and Brenda had taken it almost as badly as his family, though they were relieved he'd stopped talking to them because of evil aliens and not because he'd traded his best friends for super-powered ones. They've been grilling him about the superhero stuff so much having somebody else to answer questions will be a relief.

"Any friends of yours are friends of mine. I'll answer what I can." His eyes flick to Jaime. "Unless there's something you want me to keep quiet about."

Jaime shakes his head. "No. No more secrets—not with my family." If the Reach taught him anything, it's that it's way more painful for things to come out after the fact. Tye is still mad that Jaime didn't reveal himself until he was under Reach control.

Their despair and anger has made it easier to compartmentalize his own. Jaime knows he'll crack soon, all the guilt and fear bleeding out of his skull. He can't burden his family any more than they already are. But Bart, Bart understands. He doesn't have to pretend to be keeping it together for Bart. He rolls over to face the back of the couch and starts talking, letting it leak out.

"Milagro is scared of me. She won't even be in the same room." He's taken to spending as much time as he can anywhere else and coming home through the window. The worst part is he hasn't even been scolded for it—that alone tells him how bad it is. "She was already afraid when I showed them the bugsuit. Now she's having night terrors."

Monster, I'm a monster.

That assessment is inaccurate. We are a highly advanced technological hybrid.

The way Milagro looks at me means monster. What I almost became was a monster.

A hand lands on his shoulder, shocking him out of the thoughts. Bart is on the floor so he can be at Jaime's eye level, leaning close, intense and intent. "Jaime."

He remembers all the things Bart said to him before. It's over, you're nothing alike, not your fault. Bart hugs him, the angle awkward. Jaime sits up to do it properly. There's no tension in Bart's back or shoulders like his parents have now, that body-fear they can't hide, and something in him gives way.

Jaime lets go. For a few minutes he doesn't have to be strong for anyone, he can be a clueless stupid teenager who doesn't know what he's doing and cry unmanly gross tears and wish he'd never seen the stupid scarab. Hugs don't do a damn thing to change it but it does make him feel better. Ay dios, Bart feels so small in Jaime's arms. Thirteen and better at handling trauma; what a crazy world Jaime got thrust into.

There's a backpack with notebook paper spilling out lying next to a cabinet full of teacups. However hard this is for him it must be nothing compared to all the changes Bart's been through. If Bart can handle it, so can he.

***

Near Topeka, October 29th 1:36PM 2016.

Jaime is starting to understand why Superboy hates monkeys so much. He punches two more of the stupid monkey-bots with relish. "How many of these things are there?"

Bart is struggling with one that's latched into his face, trying to keep the others off while unable to see. Jaime forms his hand into a pincer and snaps off its arms so it doesn't take chunks of Bart's hair when he rips it off.

"Thanks!"

"Imp—" Damn he still isn't used to the name change. "Kid, come on! I know you can do better than that." It feels weird. Tigress calls him that and it sounds a step away from kid brother but with Jaime it sounds all wrong, like he's trying to imitate the crazy Green Lantern. He's tried thinking of new nicknames before but nothing feels right. The best one so far is Red, but even with Red Arrow off the team that might be weird. Bart is hardly the only redhead. "I've already taken down a dozen of these things."

"Oh, you're on." Now that he can see Bart takes vengeance on every monkey-bot he can reach. "Don't challenge speedsters to contests, hermano. You're sure to lose."

"We'll see about that." Sonic cannons make short work of the screeching, hooting things and he takes them down in swathes, bits of metal hitting the dirt. The monkeys flee skyward where Bart can't reach them.

Bart is running at him and Jaime reacts instinctively with a maneuver 7, cupping his palms and throwing Bart high into the air to take down the more of the monkey bots. Jaime blasts the rest with a sonic canon on each arm, careful not to get too close. If it weren't for the sheer number of the things this could've been a solo gig. They finish at the same time, Jaime giving Bart an assist spin-and-throw back to the ground. Their eyes meet after they survey their work, grinning.

"And that is why we totally should be on more missions together." Bart says as he throws an arm around Jaime. "We have a wavelength."

Jaime shoves his head away playfully. "More like I'm used to your style of crazy from over-exposure."

"Call it what you want, doesn't stop it from being true. We're definitely a dynamic duo." He strikes a pose, clearly hoping Jaime will join in.

Jaime rolls his eyes. "That's Batman and Robin, ese."

"Whatever kind of duo you want, then." Bart shrugs. They exchange a victory fist-bump.

The entire area is covered in robot bits. "Who won? I didn't keep a very good count."

"I bet you did. Nothing for me to work with out here." Bart gestures to the wide, grassy plain.

The Kid Flash defeated 61 opponents. You defeated 83. Our power is superior.

"We'll have a rematch sometime." Friendly competition will help him keep his edge.. "Want to come over tomorrow? I told my parents you'd never heard of empanadas and my dad is determined to fix that."

"Wouldn't miss it for the world, but Mrs G says I need to invite you over more often so I'm not 'eating you out of house and home.'" The eye-rolling at the end of the sentence means Bart clearly has no perspective about how much he eats. "This Sunday she promised homemade waffles. You in?"

"Definitely." He'll have to convince his parents to let him skip church, but they've been more lenient about that since he suited up. Maybe he can talk them down to Easter and Christmas.

Their comms beep with Aqualad's voice. Delta squad, report.

"All clear. Looks like this was another decoy."

"I bet Alpha's getting all the fun," Bart grumbles.

Kid Flash, rendezvous with Gamma. Blue Beetle, you're with Epsilon.

"Aw, come on! Blue and I haven't been on the same team in ages!"

We are here to complete missions, not socialize. Your talents are best utilized on separate squads. Aqualad probably has an entire speech prepped about how they need to be better at working with the team as a whole if Bart keeps complaining. On anyone else it would come off as unyielding but Aqualad somehow softens it into solidity, a steadiness Jaime finds reassuring despite the whole undercover business. After all of Nightwing's secrets Aqualad is refreshingly blunt.

While he can see the point, fighting with Bart is actually fun. "We can go on patrol together later or something."

That puts the smile back on Bart's face. "Now we're talkin'! Your place or mine?"

"Whatever works, we'll talk details post-mission. Get going already. We got more monkey-bots to punch."

"Laters!" Bart waves and zooms off.

 

2017

 

El Paso, February 6th 9:08PM 2017.

There's no reason for him to be so agitated. Today has been a good day—Bart, Paco, and Brenda got along, though Paco kept shooting Jaime looks that said "is this guy for real?" No homework left to hang over his head, no Milagro tantrums. Bart is even watching TV without asking questions once a minute or taking up the whole couch.

Halfway through an episode of Community, Jaime can't take it anymore. "Tye is dating a guy."

Bart is unfazed, probably because he's the king of sudden subject changes. "I thought Tye was dating Asami?"

"She wanted a break. Said she was depending on Tye too much or something. He was torn up about it but claims they're on good terms." Good thing Asami and Paco's mom hit it off or her living situation could've been awkward. And that her English is way better now. "Maybe they'll get back together, I don't know. I think the only reason he's dating somebody else is to prove he can."

"Jerk move to whoever he's dating."

"He won't even tell me who!" Jaime's hand seizes the remote but clenches instead of using it. "I can't believe it. First they break up and now this?"

"What do you mean?" Neither of them are bothering to watch the episode anymore.

Jaime explodes, all the pent-up mess of feelings he's been keeping in ever since he found out spewing out in word-vomit. "He's dating a guy! He's into dudes! I didn't know. How could I not know? We hang out all the time, how could I miss something like that? Why didn't he tell me?"

"Probably because he knew you'd react like this," Bart snaps, standing up like he's going to leave.

Jaime jumps up and grabs Bart's wrist to delay him. "Shit, no, Bart. I'm not some kind of homophobe. My family's Catholic but not that kind." Backpedal, must backpedal faster. "It's—it's just strange. It's a shock, you know? Finding out something like that."

If anything Bart looks even angrier. He pulls his arm out of Jaime's grip. "Why does it change anything?"

"I don't know, it just does!" Jaime throws up his hands. "It's not like I think Tye's gonna make out with me or anything. I'm not an idiot."

"Sure could've fooled me."

"You're saying that if I came up and told you 'Oh by the way Bart, I'm into guys,' you wouldn't react at all? It wouldn't be weird for you?"

Some of the anger leaves Bart's face but he hardly looks any happier. "Not weird, no."

Jaime sighs. "You're a better friend than I am. I know it's stupid, ok? I know. But it still feels weird."

"Then get over it!" Jaime can't remember the last time he's seen Bart like this. His whole face changes, sharp-eyed and thrusting himself way into Jaime's personal space. Every gesture is abrupt and jerky, almost vibrating with rage.

"I would if I knew how!" Jaime shoves Bart back. The scarab provides some nastier alternatives Jaime refuses to contemplate, even if none of them are lethal. "Why are you so upset, anyway?"

"I'm not used to my best friend being a jerk." Bart makes a guttural noise of disgust Jaime's never heard before, throwing his arms wide. "Nobody cared about this stuff in my time! It doesn't make any sense."

"What, so the future was—" Jaime stops himself from saying it, but it's not enough.

Bart leaves without a word.

***

Watchtower, February 20th 3:43PM 2017.

Jaime lingers at the Zeta tube until it's just him and Bart left. The armor retracts from his face—it doesn't feel right to say this while wearing a mask. He rubs the back of his neck as he speaks. "I'm sorry, Bart. I was a real pendejo. I talked to Tye." Jaime's ears are still burning from that. "We're cool now. I don't know why I made it such a big deal." It still gives him a slithery sensation in his stomach but it'll go away in time. He'll force it to.

"I was a jerk too," Bart pulls off his goggles, scratches the back of his head. "I should've realized that you didn't mean anything, you were just working it out." He sticks out a hand, mouth slowly curving upward. "Amigos?"

"Friends." Jaime clasps his hand. Bart pulls him forward into a bro-hug that has way more squeezing and contact than normal, but Jaime lets it go.

***

El Paso, July 15th 12:01PM 2017.

Jaime's heart is still pounding and he feels like running around in joyful circles. Paco hangs up on Jaime after the fifth rendition so Jaime dials the other person who needs to know the good news.

"Heya Jaime, how's it hangin?" Bart has clearly been spending too much time with his grandpa. "Want to—"

"Bart, oh man, something great happened!"

"You tasted deep fried pickles?" After finding out they exist last week Bart hasn't shut up about them.

"Way better than that. I was patrolling last night and I met this girl. This amazing magic user girl. You should've seen her, she took down Eclipso like it was nothing."

"That's," Bart's voice trails off, then comes back with force. "That's great."

Thinking about it, Jaime's never really talked girls to Bart—it's always been Paco. Maybe he's not old enough to care yet; he hasn't seemed interested in anyone. But the news is so good he has to tell it anyway. "She kissed me and gave me her number!" Jaime may be shouting again, oops. "I still can't believe it, she's out-of-my-league hot."

"Hey now, don't sell yourself short. You're no slouch in the looks department." Bart's voice sounds kind of clogged. Maybe he has a cold or something.

"Trust me she was way beyond my levels. Think British-Asian Zatanna except not into tights." Jaime sighs. "I'm not sure if we're dating exactly because she travels a lot? But it's looking good. Really good." He's been smiling so much today his face hurts.

Bart's breathing is all over the place, making static on the phone. "That is reallycrashandall, but I'vegotalotofhomeworktodo sooo."

"You ok hermano? You sound sick."

Bart sniffs. "Justalittlecold, reallygottago. Bye."

He must be sick to hang up so fast. Or not interested in girls yet despite growing like a weed. Poor kid still hasn't hit puberty properly. Jaime stares at his phone and wonders if it's ok to text Traci yet or if it's still in the desperate-weird zone.

***

El Paso, November 25th 8:12PM 2017.

The doorbell rings. Jaime knows who it must be and sighs. It's tempting to continue staring at his ceiling instead of answering, but Milagro will get mad if it keeps up. She knows who it is too—only one person has a habit of showing up on their doorstep without calling first.

"I'll get it," he calls at her room as he walks by. She's probably still engrossed in her book. She'd barely even noticed when he'd brought her leftovers a couple hours ago and hasn't made a sound since.

He spends a couple seconds resting his head against the front door before opening it. He doesn't bother looking out the peephole.

"Jaime!" Bart greets him with a wide smile, but it fades into a frown when he sees the house. "Why's it so dark? Are your parents not here?" He almost sounds disappointed about that.

"Hospitals don't get holidays off. And my dad's friend's car broke down so he's at the garage trying to fix it before the weekend is over." Jaime shrugs. "It happens. Milagro's in her room reading another one of those weird cat books. She won't be coming out."

Bart pats Jaime on the shoulder as he walks inside. "Good thing I arrived to keep you company!"

"Yeah," Jaime says without any enthusiasm.

Bart keeps a constant stream of talking as he takes off his shoes, rushes to the top of the stairs and leans on the railing as Jaime trudges his way up. Jaime lets it go in one ear and out the other as they pass his parent's bedroom, the bathroom, Milagro's room and get to his. His piles of semi-dirty clothing are larger than usual but it's not like Bart will care. He kicks them to the side so Bart won't have to step over anything.

As soon as he pauses for a breath Jaime cuts in. "Shouldn't you be with the Garricks and Allens or something?"

"Oh, we already did the big dinner deal. Gotta say I like that part of Thanksgiving, it's my kind of holiday. But all the weird football-soccer stuff, with the teams with funny mascots everyone is so invested in and the rules that make no sense? Pass. Some parts of retro culture I'll never understand." Bart's smile twists. "They're happy for me to get out of their hair for awhile. Besides, I see them all the time."

"You see me all the time too." Whether Jaime wants to or not. He flops down on the bed, belatedly realizing he should've kept Bart downstairs so he wouldn't be forced to sit on the trunk. Oh, whatever. He gestures to the open space on the bed by his knees and Bart perches on the edge.

Bart's hands are a blur of fidgeting. His eyes roam around the room; he never seems to get tired of staring at Jaime's posters. "I don't live with you, hermano my-man-o. Completely different."

Good thing. Living with Bart would be a disaster. Like how he never shuts up, God. Jaime hasn't done more than grunt and Bart just keeps going. There are words coming out of Bart's mouth and he's missing most of them. He tries to pay better attention.

"This year we have a foreign language requirement, which is very crash. I, of course, am taking Español for my best bud Blue."

"Your pronunciation has gotten better," Jaime admits.

Bart beams. "We're learning all kinds of great phrases like 'Dónde está la biblioteca' and 'me llamo Bart la araña discoteca' and useful words like búscame and bésame and papas fritas."

"What the hell kind of Spanish are you learning?" Jaime shakes his head, knowing he should laugh or make a joke about Community but unable to summon the energy.

Bart's gaze sharpens, the amber centers of his eyes take over the pale green. "What's wrong?"

Jaime briefly considers trying to evade the question but dismisses it as stupid. Bart'd find out anyway from Paco or Brenda; they'd recruit him onto the "console/berate Jaime" committee. And it's not like keeping it from him makes it not be true. He sits up and scoots to the edge of the bed, resting his elbows on his knees. "Traci and I broke up."

"Why? I thought things were going well. You never stopped talking about how great she is." There's something weird in Bart's voice he can't place. "Which I'm assuming is true since I never met her." Ah, that's why. Not his fault Bart was busy every time Traci had a chance to come over.

"The distance, ese. We'd been dating for three months and I barely had a chance to see her, even with the magical projection thing. We were both so busy we were lucky to talk twice a week." Jaime hangs his head. "I couldn't do it. I don't know if that makes me needy or an asshole or what but I couldn't do it. I broke up with the best girl I'll ever have a chance of dating because I'm an idiot."

Your preoccupation with mate selection is irrational. You are the one who ended—

"Shut up!" The anger is gone as soon as it flares.

Bart puts a hand on Jaime's shoulder and turns them sideways so they're staring eye to eye. "Hey, distance relationships are hard, everyone knows that. I'd be feeling the mode if I didn't have the superspeed to visit you all the time. Better to be honest than stay miserable, yeah?"

"Yeah," Jaime says without any real agreement, shrugging Bart's hand off. Traci had been so perfect but he didn't want to be that guy, asking her to compromise her mission, her independence, her love of travel. He'd never want to tie her down—she'd lose everything that made her amazing. She's better off without him.

Bart grabs Jaime and pulls him off the bed, marching him to the door and down the stairs. "You need ice cream."

"What?" It's difficult to pay attention over the scarab's many colorful suggestions on how to flatten him into paste. They're so outrageous Jaime wonders if the scarab is developing a morbid sense of humor. Bart hands him his shoes and Jaime starts putting them on more out of habit than desire to leave.

"Break-ups mean ice cream. TV told me so." Bart explains as he ties his laces, then Jaime's. "And you don't have any here."

How the hell does he know that? "That's for girls, Bart."

That pulls him up short. "Why? Ice cream is delicious. I feel cheated not knowing it existed for thirteen years."

There's no use arguing against that. Jaime wants to protest that not all problems can be solved with food, wants to spend more time feeling sorry for himself, but doesn't. Instead he lets Bart tell Milagro they'll be right back and drag him to the nearest Baskin Robins and pester him into buying a double scoop cone. As he orders he realizes he has no idea what Traci would get, and barely manages to keep it together to pay.

Bart steers him back out the door with a gentle hand and Jaime is too tired to get annoyed about it. He walks without paying much attention to anything, watching his ice cream slowly melt yellow into pink. It's too cold for ice cream, anyway.

"If you don't eat it, I will."

Jaime grunts.

Bart licks a stripe off Jaime's rum raisin with a flash of pink tongue. "Scavenger rights!"

"Hey!" Jaime curls around his cone in reflexive instinct honed from living with a little sister. "You made your point. I'll eat it."

They eat in peace as they walk. It is delicious, he'll give Bart that. When he gets to the part where Bart licked he hesitates a moment.

The bacterial contaminate left by the Kid Flash is within safe parameters.

Jaime shrugs and keeps going. For good measure, he sneaks a lick off Bart's pistachio. It causes way less protesting than Jaime expects but Bart's shocked red face is still satisfying. But it still isn't enough, his thoughts keep circling back to Traci and his appetite fails him.

After a couple blocks of Bart eyeing his cone, Jaime gives it over.

"You sure?" Bart is much better about asking before eating everything in sight but his appetite seems to be increasing by the week.

"Yeah. Not hungry."

It's gone in seconds. Jaime wonders if Bart can get brain freeze.

"Feeling better?" As they walk their shoulders bump together every third or fourth step. The trees are in full autumn colors. The overcast sky makes them look brighter, red-yellow-orange on grey.

Jaime is thinking about texting her and taking it all back every ten minutes instead of three, so that's progress. "Yeah."

"TV was right." There's a sing-song you were wrong that Bart doesn't say out loud, but his smirk certainly does.

"Except we didn't do it like TV. I'm supposed to be eating a whole tub while crying and watching movies."

Bart waves a hand. "Pass on the crying. I'll run back and buy a pint of the pistachio if you want to watch a movie?"

The smile on Jaime's face feels strained and wobbly, but it's there. "Sure."

"Good." Bart becomes a blur and Jaime doesn't it have it in him to protest the public use of powers. He's back before Jaime makes it a block, plastic bag swinging. "I was told there's something called The Moopets I should watch."

Bart has a long list of cultural references he's been making his way through, everything from Battlestar Galactica to Toy Story. As fun as it is Jaime doesn't know what to think about Bart acclimating, maybe one day forgetting he came from the future at all. But Bart is clearly mentioning it in an effort to cheer Jaime up, so he needs to stop thinking about stupid depressing stuff.

"Muppets. Milagro loves them, we have most of the movies." Jaime never quite understood the appeal but it doesn't feel like a good time to bring that up.

"Perfect. Ice cream and a movie. Ooohandpopcorncanwemakepopcorn?"

What a bottomless pit. Jaime tries to imagine what the Flash family Thanksgiving was like and shudders. He never wants to see their grocery bill. "Didn't you eat dinner already?"

"Running here and back to Central City in a day requires some serious munchies."

"You could Zeta instead."

Bart makes a face. "Booooooring. And besides, I'm a growing boy."

That much is certainly true. Jaime has a sinking feeling Bart really will outgrow him. "But I'm supposed to be the one eating all the ice cream."

"I'm taking on that burden," Bart says without missing a beat. "I will eat as much as I have to."

"You may be eating for a while, then." Jaime's heart pangs and he wants to punch himself for being so pathetic.

Bart puts a hand on his shoulder and gives one of his small, too-old-for-his-face smiles. "Good thing I like ice cream."

2018

Central City, January 28th 3:06PM 2018.

"I'm doomed," Jaime sighs as he throws himself back onto the dead grass. "Doomed to be single forever." It's unseasonably warm today, which still means hoodie weather but not so bad they freeze while hanging out in the park. Central City has a lot of nice green spaces, he should visit Bart in the spring.

"A handsome guy like you? Hardly."

"I will with this," Jaime jerks a thumb at his back, "giving me running commentary."

There are no errors in my suggestions.

"You said it's been better."

"Better, sure, but that doesn't mean it agrees with me all the time. Or stops trying to help." Jaime makes air quotes for the last word.

"Help?"

Jaime covers his face with his hands. "Suggested plans of attack." The scarab's ideas of getting over Traci range from terrible to mortifying. The Reach had some seriously twisted ideas about relationships.

I was providing useful data.

Ese I do not want to know when a girl is ovulating. Ever. I wasn't even thinking about sex, never mind babies!

Bart is silent for an entire six seconds before he gets it. "Ohhhhh." And, to show what a great friend he is, he busts out laughing.

"Come on, it isn't funny!"

The laughter continues.

Jaime feels his face getting hot. "Cut it out."

"Subject shows vulnerability in the torso region, commence digital stimulation!" Bart cries in a terrible imitation of the scarab, jabbing his fingers into Jaime's stomach.

My assertions are more logical than The Kid Flash's. It's a wonder the scarab isn't armoring up. Progress.

"Hey!" Jaime squirms, kicking up dirt with his heels as he vainly attempts to avoid the blur of Bart's hands. "No fair!"

Bart continues in gleeful monotone, "For best results, increase output by 5%!"

"That's not—" Jaime gasps with laughter, "that's not even close!"

Petty squabbles have lasting repercussions, recommend deploying armor to assert dominance.

His stomach hurts but he can't help but laugh harder, curling in on himself and trapping one of Bart's wriggling hands to his stomach with both arms. To his surprise Bart doesn't vibrate out of his grip. Jaime isn't very ticklish, but holding Bart's arm—warm and writhing with only a little fabric between them—is strange. Fingertips in their frenzied, careless struggle for a reaction brush his belly button, the top of his jeans, a sliver of skin where Jaime's rolling around rucked his shirt up. Jaime looks up where Bart forms an awkward arch over him, face comically serious with concentration. Bart goes still, his arm a strange, bony line of warmth, elbow digging into Jaime's chest.

"Thanks, hermano." Jaime loosens his grip but doesn't pull his hands away.

Bart pulls his arm back so it drags over Jaime's chest until his hand rests against Jaime's sternum. Jaime let his hands be pulled with the motion, until their fingers are haphazardly splayed together. The wind brushes cold where Jaime's stomach is exposed

"Do you think I have a chance with Solstice?"

Settling back on his haunches Bart reclaims his arm, rubbing his hand. It must be stiff from the awkward angle. "I don't know." He flops back, letting his legs splay over Jaime's and draping an arm over his eyes to block out the sun. "We only just met her."

Jaime wonders if it's a future thing, the constant touching. Bart doesn't seem conscious of the way he invades personal space so Jaime's never been more than mildly annoyed, but it's hard to imagine what it'd be like if Tye or Paco suddenly tried to tickle him. Aside from really weird.

"That's exactly it. She's the first girl I've met in ages." For the first time since Traci dating sounds sweet instead of bitter. Jaime shifts to try to get comfortable. It'd be so much easier if the scarab were under his skin.

Bart raises his head up to shoot a confused look at Jaime. "Uh, what about all the other girls—"

Of course Bart doesn't understand, he's never dated anyone. "I mean like girlfriend material ese. Everyone else is just a friend, you know?" Or is Nightwing's ex, which is just awkward. How the hell does he make it look so easy? "I'm not gonna ruin a friendship like that. Paco and Brenda are enough to deal with." Jaime would never want the team stuck in the middle. He'll leave mid-mission relationship drama to M'gann and Conner. "I can't date anyone outside the team, there's too much risk." And way too much explaining required. "Solstice is hot, super-powered, and single! She's perfect."

A powerful partner is a useful asset with many potential benefits.

Do not go into the physiological benefits of sex again. I don't want to hear it. Sad thing is Jaime has learned more useful sex ed from the scarab than from school.

"And you can tell all this after meeting her twice?"

What's with that tone? "Yeah, you just know that kind of thing. Come on, you're telling me you've never met a girl you knew you'd want to date right away?" There has to be somebody; Bart's almost fifteen and his voice is cracking.

Bart puts his arm back over his eyes. He's certainly got the moodiness down. "I don't know."

"Come on, hermano. Spill." Jaime gives him a shove. The warmth of Bart's skin bleeds into his fingers from the brief contact. "You can tell me, I'll keep your secret."

"Dating wasn't exactly a thing where I came from. Not like it is here, anyway."

Shit, now Jaime feels like an asshole. "Right. Sorry." Jaime stares at Bart's elbow, still blocking his eyes. "Well, you see a girl you like, let me know. I'll be your wingman."

There's something wrong with Bart's smile, but he says "Ok" and Jaime leaves it at that.

***

El Paso, April 5th 5:02PM 2018.

It's been a while since he's had time to hang out and take an aimless walk with Bart. No matter how many weird, far-off places Jaime visits, coming out to the Franklin Mountains where there's nothing but rocks, cacti and scrub brush always sets him right. By now Bart's tagged along so many times he's part of the process. Not to mention seeing him beats studying.

Neither of them has said anything. It's easy to forget how patient Bart can be given how loud he is the rest of the time.

But that patience has a limit. "So, what's up?"

"I got all my letters back. Gota partial ride to Ivy University. Got into UTEP and New Mexico State too, even Royal U." Jaime sighs, "I didn't think my applications were that good. I never thought I'd have so many options."

"Isn't that good?" Bart says, bending to inspect a cactus.

Jaime runs a hand through his hair. "It should be. Doesn't feel like it. I could do the applications, but I—" He curls his hands into fists, then unclenches them. "I don't know if I want to leave El Paso or stay. I don't know what I want to do, I don't even know what I want to go to college for!"

"Thought you were all set on dentist?" He kicks a rock, tapping his hands on his thighs.

Is he bored? Jaime wants to yell at him, to be angry he doesn't have to worry about any of this. How can he be so fucking calm? God, sometimes the three years between them feel like the Grand Canyon.

"I was. But now that I have to put money where my mouth is—" Jaime sighs, knowing he's being unreasonable, knowing he shouldn't take out his stress on Bart. "That doesn't even come into play until grad school. I'm years away from making it. How am I supposed to be a hero and take a full load of classes? I could barely manage high school. It's not like I'm getting paid." Not that he'd want to be, but it still means having no free time and no money to show for it.

Bart goes still, slowly turning to look at Jaime. His eyes are so wide they take over his face. "Would you take a break?"

"No way. I've got enough things changing as it is. I want—I need to stay on the team. I want every moment of my life to erase the one where I helped conquer the earth."

"So what's the big deal?" Unfortunately Bart goes back to fidgeting. "College is secondary, right?"

"Easy for you to say." No, that's mean, it's not Bart's fault the future was screwed up, that his family doesn't have to worry about money. "Sorry, I meant—it's such a big thing, especially for my parents. They always talk about how important it is, how it will impact my future. It means so much for them for me to go to college, I don't want to disappoint them." And his family can't afford for him to be anything less than serious. He's lost track of how many times they've talked about how hard they worked to get where they are. Jaime sighs. "I should go to Ivy. The scholarship means I won't have to work more than a few hours a week. But leaving my family and El Paso—"

"Do you want to leave?"

"Yes and no. I like seeing new places and I don't want it to just be places like Santa Prisca, I want to be places without having to duck and cover. But El Paso is home." Leaving his family—sure, Milagro is older and can take care of herself now but there's still helping his dad at the garage, still doing the little things he could so his parents don't have to. "My life is here."

The thought of not living in the same zip code as Paco and Brenda is unsettling. Even if he stays, Tye is leaving. Nothing is going to be the same.

"Why do people act like I'm supposed to know what to do with the rest of my life when I'm only eighteen?" And why does it feel like he's the only person who has these doubts? Superheroes are a motivated, confident crowd—they have to be—but why doesn't anyone seem to falter like Jaime? Is he that incompetent? The other super-powered Reach victims had clear ideas of what they wanted to do in or out of costume. Maybe he isn't cut out to be a hero. The scarab's doing all the work, not him.

This assertion is false. My actions are shaped by yours, Jaime Reyes.

"Augh!" Jaime kicks a rock, not sure why the scarab's words make him angry. "Why can't I be excited about this like everyone else?" Every one of his classmates have been talking about how much they want to get out of the house, get out of the city and make new friends, new lives, new everything. Like the old stuff isn't worth keeping.

"Even good changes are scary." Bart is giving Jaime his full attention, he's serious-faced and staring like his green eyes can see right through him. This is the Bart he wants to talk to.

They stare at each other awhile, like Bart is trying to telepathically convey everything and only speaks once that fails. "You should talk to B'arzz."

"What?"

"Y'know, green guy, Martian, used to have a scarab too?"

"I meant why, ese."

"This is mentor talk. And who better to be your mentor than the one other person who's had a scarab? That isn't evil, I mean."

It's not like the thought never occurred to Jaime. But the Martian's experience had been so different, and after being freed he stepped out of the hero gig and went back to Mars. Jaime is a reminder of all the time B'arzz lost to The Reach. Why bring up bad memories? When Green Beetle had been nice to him it was out of The Reach's manipulation; there's no telling if they'd actually get along.

But B'arzz couldunderstand. Maybe somebody different, really different, would give some perspective. It couldn't hurt to ask. Hell, he should've asked years ago. "It's worth a shot."

"And there's always Aqualad. Don't get any more sensible and reliable than him. And D-er, Nightwing has it together. Crazy competent runs in the Bat-family. Didn't Bumblebee go to college too?"

He'd been so busy freaking out about the future he forgot he wasn't the first to go through this on the team. Real genius, he is. "Since when are you so sensible?"

"Since always. Had to be, for the mission and all. And like you'd said when we first met, three mentors. Well, three-then-two," Bart's expression flickers but ends on a tight smile. "Artemis finished her double major at Stanford after she put on the mask again, that was hardcore. You could ask her too."

"Yeah. Yeah, you're right." Somebody will have useful advice. Even if they're all better at this stuff than he is, he can at least try to follow their examples. He can do this. He's saved the world, for fuck's sake; he can manage picking a college and a major.

"As your friend, I can tell you you'll be able to do whatever it is you put your mind to. Seen it happen enough times. Aside from that I can't say much. Been putting off thinking about the whole college thing myself." Bart jabs a finger at Jaime. "Is this a mid-life crisis? You've got the different hair and the chin-caterpillar and the freaking out down."

"Har-har," Jaime grumbles, rubbing his stubble. "You'll understand once you need to shave, ese." His beard never grows anywhere but his chin, which makes shaving feel pointless. "And there's nothing wrong with my hair. I thought I'd let it grow out. You don't like it?"

Bart tilts his head, considering. "Hair is ok, but only jerks have chin beards."

"What? Who told you that?" His voice rises in indignation.

"TV. Evilness definitely corresponds to facial hair."

Jaime laughs. "I never should've introduced you to Community."

The expected retort never comes. Bart is staring off into the horizon as he speaks. "But this isn't the darkest timeline." Sometimes a strange melancholy seizes Bart; Jaime has no idea how to react to it.

"No. No, it isn't." Just thinking about it makes him shudder. He touches Bart's shoulder, turning him back to face Jaime, wanting to somehow transmit all his gratefulness through his fingertips. They're almost the same height. "You stopped it from being that way."

"I had a little help from my friends." Bart looks up like it takes him effort but he's got a smile, soft and a little sad.

"I owe you a lot, ese." As many times as he's said it, it never feels like enough. "You've been a good friend."

Bart closes his eyes with a wince, like he'd stared into the sun. "You've saved my life four times since then. We're even."

"Four? Really? You kept score?"

The Kid Flash's count is accurate. He has directly prevented our death only two times in the same time period.

Jaime starts to reply to the scarab but Bart puts a hand on his shoulder, returning the gesture. "You're not the only one who feels in debt."

"Do you—"

"It was worth it." Bart's gaze is clear and amber-green, as intense as a beam and without the slightest hint of hesitation. When he looks like that Jaime notices the way Bart's face is starting to shift, harder lines and stronger jaw. It makes him look less like Wally, not more—Wally had more freckles, darker skin, darker eyes, a squarer face, bulkier build, hair more orange than red. Jaime spends enough time at the memorial to know.

The memory of Wally makes Jaime look away. As much as he's screwed up, Bart's been there for him. He blurts the words before he can second guess himself. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me."

Bart blinks at him, then the sadness falls away in an instant. He puts on a grin so wide it must hurt. "Don't I know it! So, buy me food?"

Jaime punches him in the shoulder. "Yeah, ok."

***

El Paso, October 27th 4:44PM 2018.

"This won't take long," Jaime calls back to Kiran, trying not to get angry about the interruption. He knows who he'll find on the other side of the door. After some yelling Bart stopped showing up at the dorm but every weekend he visits El Paso, Bart inevitably shows up.

Gotta be firm. Taking a couple deep breaths, he opens the door. "I can't hang out right now, Solstice is here." Jaime tightens his hand on the doorknob.

Bart doesn't seem to mind the lack of greeting or hear the implied go away. "You can use her real name you know. She told her backstory to everyone who wasn't on the mission."

"I'm sorry, ese. You know I like hanging out with you, but not this time." Oh no. Bart is going to make that kicked puppy expression—yep, there it is. Jaime holds in a sigh. The wind blows into the open door and his arms break out in goosebumps. He closes the gap a few inches. "You know I like hanging out with you. But my family is going to be gone for a couple hours and Kiran and I never get any time alone. Dorms don't get a lot of privacy."

Bart opens his mouth to say something, but suddenly turns violently red. He stays there with his mouth half-open before blurting. "Didnotneedtoknowthat."

Jaime realizes what he must be thinking. Which, ok, isn't far from the truth. "No, it's not—" Not yet, anyway. They've talked about it a couple times and agreed that it's a possibility in some distant future where there's no risk getting interrupted. "We aren't—"

"It'sfineIgetit," Bart is waving his hands wildly, backing away. Jaime's never seen him so embarrassed before. It's kind of hilarious; he'll have to tease him about it later. "Gonnaleavenowlaterbye!"

"I'll call you next weekend!" Jaime shouts after him, relieved and guilty all at once. He'll get Bart some Halloween candy or something to apologize.

2019

El Paso, January 5th 5:03AM 2019.

The kitchen looks different in the early morning. It doesn't make any sense—the sun never shines directly in the window so there's no reason why the dark of morning is any different from the dark of night—but it does. It's almost unfamiliar in this light.

"And this is why I should never be up so early," Jaime murmurs to the air, stirring the sugar into his coffee. He should be past all this boo-hoo-my-life-has-changed crap. It's just a kitchen. There are a lot of memories here, sure, but it's not about to go anywhere. Jaime presses his thumb into the dent in the wall Paco's elbow left when they were twelve and Brenda decided to mash birthday cake into his face.

Brenda's birthday is coming up. He'll remind Paco and enjoy watching the rematch. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Bart walks into the kitchen with soft, hesitant steps as Jaime is taking his last sip. "I wasn't sure if your family was still asleep so I vibrated in instead of ringing the bell." His voice is pitched low, which Jaime groggily appreciates. Nobody should have to be up before the sun.

"Thanks. My mom already—" Jaime can't stop a yawn. "Already went to work and my dad's up but Milagro is still asleep." He'd made his long goodbyes to everyone last night. It wasn't so bad since he'd already gone away back in the fall but it still feels weird leaving home; somehow real now that he's taking most of his stuff and not just clothes. Ugh, way too much thinking in the morning. "You had breakfast?"

"Ate breakfast, peed, brought a change of clothes and snacks," Bart gestures to his backpack, which Jaime hadn't noticed. "I did pay attention, you know."

"Good." Knowing Bart the snacks will run out in a few hours. Good thing his mom packed a cooler. Oh, he should get that. "Sorry, early." He shuffles to the fridge and pulls it out. Maybe he needs more coffee.

"Want me to drive?"

"You've only got a learner's permit, ese. It's illegal for you to drive without your family in the car." Jaime yawns again. No more coffee, he doesn't want to spend half the morning on bathroom breaks. "Like I told you before, you're here to keep me awake."

"Couldn't the scarab do that?"

We are better able to perform such tasks than the Bart.

"You're way less annoying." That hasn't stopped Jaime from making bets with himself on where Bart will start asking Are we there yet? Ugh, he should've asked somebody who has a real license but he'd been feeling guilty about how he's been too busy to hang out with Bart, especially since it'll only get worse. Oh damn, they need to get moving. He holds out the cooler and the keys. "Here, take this to the car and turn on the heat. I'll be out in a couple minutes."

"Will do!" Bart is all energy and smiles. Good. He's seemed kind of down lately.

Jaime goes to the bathroom, gives his dad the last cup of coffee and a hug, whispers goodbye to his sleeping sister and takes one last look at his empty room. The regret seeping into his chest doesn't make any sense. He smears a hand over his face and heads down to the car.

The cold morning air helps him feel more awake but he's glad for the warmth of the car as he sinks down into the driver's seat. "Ready to put up with me for 30 hours?"

"Still don't understand why you aren't taking the bioship or Zetaing or even the supercycle if she's willing to leave Superboy but hey, road trip. Never been on one of those."

Jaime turns the ignition with more force than strictly necessary. "For the fifth time, I'm not using League tech to move to college. That's just—no."

"What about—"

"Not asking my ex-girlfriend to magic my stuff either." He backs out of the driveway, ignoring the pang in his chest.

"But you're friends!"

Awkward friends, but that's better than barely talking at all like they had been. Jaime takes a moment to hate Nightwing and his easy, amicable relationships with his exes a little. "No, Bart."

They lapse into silence. Jaime glances at the familiar landmarks going by—the electric purple house amid rows of tan and brown, the house with tall, thin conifers stuck in a row like green pencils, the street that leads to his high school, the fire station, the IHOP where Paco got food poisoning, the Whataburger where he'd stopped a robbery a couple weeks after he'd found the scarab.

Bart slumps down in his seat. "Cars are so slow!"

"This is how the rest of us live, hermano. Call it a learning experience." Jaime imagines Bart's reaction to rush hour traffic. Damn, he really hopes they don't hit any.

"That's another way of saying something is going to suck." Bart rolls his eyes.

"Of course it's going to suck, we're gonna be stuck in a car for two days." Jaime laughs, taking the opportunity of the red light to look at Bart. "I won't hold it against you if you want to bail out partway through."

"Not a chance," Bart grins.

Jaime smiles back. Asking Bart to come was definitely the right decision. The light turns green and he accelerates, feeling lighter.

"So," Bart begins enthusiastically, then seems to search for the rest of the sentence. "It's just going to be the two of us."

"For a while, yeah. Tye left with the truck yesterday but he's taking a detour to visit his step-aunt in Oklahoma. She's moving and said he could have what he wanted of her old furniture."

"Step-aunt?" Jaime doesn't need to look over to know Bart's head is cocked to the side.

"Didn't I tell you his mom married John a few months back?"

"Nope."

"Oh." It must've slipped his mind. "Well, they did. Really small ceremony, immediate family only. Anyway, Tye and John's sister hit it off and they've been talking a lot. I think he likes her better than John."

"Lucky you, getting a roomie who knows your secret and brings furniture."

"And is going to a nearby university, and is moving at an odd time like me." Jaime would suspect a set-up, but that makes no sense. There's nobody who'd care that much. At least Tye got the Wayne Foundation scholarship so college was possible in the first place. "Maybe life is just like that sometimes. Things work out." Even after accidentally exploding a dorm. As glad as he is about seeing the back of never-cleans-the-dishes Julian and my-jokes-aren't-really-racist Michael, he feels bad about nearly getting them killed.

Bart hums in vague agreement. "So it'll be awhile before he gets there."

"He said he should be only a little after us. And Asami will be there of course." Jaime flicks his turn signal on and glances in the rear view mirror.

Anything in my blind spot?

Negative .

He merges onto the highway. "Virgil, too. We'll have plenty of help. Though you'll have to keep the speed for after we get everything indoors."

"Ha! Wouldn't want you to take advantage and make me do all the work."

"No chance of that. Don't think you can carry an entire couch, ese."

"I've been working on it." Bart flexes an arm.

It's better than it used to be, but like hell Jaime is gonna say that. "Yeah, maybe you can carry Bumblebee now."

He jabs a finger at Jaime. "One day I am going to catch you and carry you to safety, and you will eat those words."

"You mean like all the times I've done that to you?" He's sure he's done it a couple times, though he can't remember any specific one right now.

"Not everyone has sentient armor to let them cheat."

The Bart's assertion makes no sense.

He isn't being serious. We're giving each other a hard time as a uh, a bonding ritual. "All I hear are excuses."

"Just you wait." Bart grins.

Jaime laughs, pitching his voice high. "My hero."

***

Over the next eight hours Bart and Jaime debate:

Music selection
Star Trek captains
Star Trek aliens vs real aliens
Pet dinosaurs
Battlestar Galactica
Jaime's beard
Bart's hair
Jaime's hair
Jaime's beard
Facial hair in general
What assorted members of the Justice League would look like with facial hair
Why Bart can't pet the cows
Why Bart can't pet the horses
US immigration policy
Hipsters
Moustaches
Jaime's beard
Fast food

***

Dallas, January 5th 1:41PM 2019.

Since Bart (as predicted) decimated their snacks, the decision to stop at one of the many Chicken Whizees in Dallas is easy. The dead-eyed employees manage to not mess up their ridiculously huge order. Jaime regrets not stopping to eat; everyone on the road seems to have forgotten how to drive. If traffic slowed to a standstill it wouldn't be so bad, but it's a combination of congested speeding and reckless merging that demands his full attention.

The sound of Bart chewing and the smell of fried chicken taunts him. Traffic isn't slowing down enough for Jaime to stop. He tries grabbing fries one-handed, only to drop half of them when some idiot tries to merge without signaling first.

"Help me out, ese. I'm never gonna get to eat at this rate." Jaime honks at the minivan trying to edge over into his lane.

We are able to—

No armor in the middle of traffic! Somebody will see.

"Huh? Oh." Bart stops inhaling his bucket of chicken. He hadn't even noticed—typical. He looks to the food, then Jaime, raising one eyebrow. "You mean like, feed it to you?"

"Yeah. Just some fries. I don't do ketchup, it should be easy."

"Ok." Bart grabs a particularly long one and puts it in front of Jaime. He has to reach to get it, but it's workable.

"Little closer next time." It takes a minute before it's safe to try. Bart's aim is better, and he starts grabbing clusters instead of individual fries. On the fifth round Jaime overestimates and bites too far down on the fries. His lips brush Bart's fingers before Bart yanks them away.

"Sorry," Jaime calls as he checks on the asshole staying in his blind spot. What is with traffic today?

"No harm done." Bart laughs, high and nervous. "Let's try the sandwich instead."

Within a couple minutes they get a system where Jaime calls out for food and Bart holds it where Jaime can take a bite without needing to look away from the road. There's a close call with a pickle but Bart catches and eats it before it lands on Jaime's clothes. He gets through half the sandwich and a few gulps of Coke when the insanity stops and people remember how to drive normally. "Thanks. I've got it from here."

"Anytime," Bart says with a smile that'd be a lot nicer it weren't around a mouthful of chicken.

***

Near Sulphur Springs, January 5th 3:59PM 2019.

"Come on, let me drive. Just a little bit! You need a break."

Jaime groans. "Bart, you do understand what illegal means?"

"We're in the middle of nowhere," Bart gestures to the brown earth and skeleton trees outside. "An hour, tops. You need more than five minutes walking around a gas station. You look beat."

It does feel like Jaime is starting to merge with the seat. They aren't even out of Texas and Jaime wants to call it a day. The sun hasn't set yet, it's not like Bart would be driving at night. He's only a month away from being sixteen. Jaime sees a sign for a gas station and caves.

Once he's parked he turns to glare at Bart. "One hour. No speeding, no changing lanes unless you have to, no fiddling with the radio, no eating, no staring at stuff on the side of the road. If I see a single cop, we're switching. Got it?"

Bart beams at him. "Knew I'd win you over."

"You didn't. My aching back did." He pulls into the station and they switch. The back seat of the passenger side isn't full so he can actually lean back a little. He sighs, content.

To Jaime's surprise nothing goes horribly wrong with Bart behind the wheel. Jaime has to remind him about speed limits a couple times and that's it. They don't talk as much since Bart has to concentrate but that leaves time for Jaime to plan his next date with Kiran one agonizing text at a time. Why is it so hard to talk to girls, anyway?

You—

Rhetorical question.

He lets it go past an hour, until the sun is starting to hang low in the sky

Bart's eyes are sneaking skyward—his obsession with the sky hasn't ebbed in the least.

"Let's switch. We need to get gas anyway." They pass one of the stations because the gas price is ridiculous, but the next one isn't as bad. Jaime fills up the tank while Bart goes inside. Jaime goes in to pee and comes out to discover Bart moved the car to a parking spot. It aims the passenger side westward, perpendicular to the road. It's a good view and Bart is taking advantage of it, leaning against the car.

"Do you mind if we wait a few minutes?" Bart asks without turning around.

"That's fine, but it's kinda cold. I'm gonna sit in the car."

"Check out that sky," Bart says like he didn't hear what Jaime said, tilting his head up to stare at the tail edges of the sunset. Jaime decides to humor him. The clouds are vibrant orange and pink strands over a wash of deep indigo, which does look impressive.

"It's—" Jaime turns to look at Bart, and Bart shifts his body to look at Jaime, putting the setting sun behind him. Bart is limned in light, his hair aflame on the edges and embers in the shadow. The corner of his eye catches the sun and burns green-gold. He's looking at Jaime, smiling, the angles of his face aglow, the soft splatters of freckles like constellations on his skin. Jaime's chest has a smoldering coal at its center where this image is searing itself inside him.

"It's a good sunset," Jaime mutters, rubbing the back of his neck and looking away.

***

Near Memphis, January 5th 9:42PM 2019.

The coffee from when they grabbed dinner in Little Rock is proving not enough. Jaime feels his brain trying to squeeze out of his head. Not good. "I've got to sleep."

"Motel?" Bart looks out the window as if one will conveniently appear.

"I just need a quick nap. I'll be fine after half an hour." Aha, rest stop. Knew there had to be one around here.

We do not require this. There are other measures—

No need. A little sleep won't hurt anything.

You are not making full use of our potential. These unnecessary stops—

They're completely necessary. I'm not gonna pee in the suit unless I have to, I don't care how inefficient it is.

"Oh, switch me seats. This one can't lean back."

"Sure." Bart runs around the outside while Jaime crawls over the middle. As soon as he sits down he fastens his seatbelt. One hand on the buckle he decides it's not worth undoing it again, it won't be in the way. Damn, he could use a pillow. Where the hell did he put it?

"Mrs G insisted I bring warm clothes if you need something squishy. They're in middle section of my backpack."

"Oh, thanks." Two pullover hoodies, perfect. Jaime wedges them between his head, the seat, and the window. "Much better."

As soon as Jaime closes his eyes there's a familiar thrumming noise. Bart's fidgeting has been growing worse as the day goes on and he's sure to be bored watching Jaime sleep. Jaime isn't sure if Bart has ever been confined to such a small place for so long. It's amazing how well he's managed so far. "You should go for a run or something."

The finger drumming stops. "I'll figure something out. Get with the sleeping."

The passenger seat can only lean back a couple inches but it's enough to feel like heaven. It doesn't take long for him to drift off.

His dreams are queasy, his body heavy and unable to move. It awakens the sense-memory of being on mode. He'd held Bart's chin with the tip of his blades. He remembers the weight of Bart's drooping head, holding a life on a razor edge. The dream twists into things that never happened, the blade pressing against Bart's throat, stomach, achilles tendon, knee, thigh, pressure slowly building and Jaime wanting it to stop but paralyzed, forced to watch. He wakes just as the skin breaks, armor starting to activate in reaction to his fear and the sense of—

Movement?

Jaime looks out the window. The car is going fast—very fast. His head whips around and Bart is—

Bart is fucking driving.

The bottom drops out of Jaime's stomach before icy rage takes over. His words drop like stones: "Pull over."

"Oh hey, you're awake—" Whatever Bart sees on Jaime's face makes his smile fall off.

The armor has activated and Jaime doesn't care. "You aren't driving. Pull. Over."

The only sound is the click-clack of the turn signal as Bart pulls into the shoulder. Bart puts on the hazards, shoulders hunched.

Jaime's voice is quiet but sharp. "How fast were you going?"

"Uh, 98ish? Maybe?" Bart holds his hands out in front of him. "Come on, Jaime. You know speed limits don't mean anything to a guy like me."

"They do when we're in my car! Of all the stuff to use without permission cars are one of the big ones. These aren't fucking cheap. What the hell were you thinking?"

"That you'd been driving a lot so I should make things easier. It'snotlikeanythingbadhappenedwhenIdroveearlier." He spits the last bit angrily, then waves his hands in appeasing semaphore. "Don't worry, I slowed down anytime we got close to people."

"To what, 80?" Jaime snarls. "You're lucky you didn't destroy my car. It's not made for high speeds, Bart."

"Then why does the speedometer go up to 120?"

"That's not the fucking point!" Jaime bellows."It was stupid and dangerous. Not to mention illegal. What if we'd been pulled over by the cops? We both would've been in deep shit." Jaime doesn't know what a cop would think about him having a 15-year-old from Missouri in his car in the middle of the night but he knows it'd be nothing good. "Not just cops, but with our parents and the League. Madre de dios, didn't you think about any of this?"

Bart closes his eyes and presses back into the seat. When he speaks his voice is small, bruised. "I fucked up."

In the dim light of the streetlamps the speedster is waxen and still and small; Jaime wants to apologize for yelling despite knowing he was completely justified for flipping his shit. Wait, the level of detail—shit, his armor. Jaime dismisses it hastily. Calm, be calm. "You did."

"I'm sorry." Bart hits the button on his seatbelt with a decisive press of his thumb. "I'll leave—"

Jaime reaches over and grabs the head of the seatbelt before it can retreat across Bart's chest. "You won't do it again."

Green eyes meet his. "I won't." Ribs are pressing against Jaime's hand, in-and-out with each breath.

"Then keep driving. We'll stop somewhere for the night." Jaime clumsily shoves the belt back into place until it clicks, fingers dragging across Bart's hip. The tension dissipates; argument over. "Where are we?"

"Near Knoxville." Bart digs into his pocket and pulls out his smartphone, unlocking it and offering it to Jaime. "Want to look up places we could stay?"

"Oh, yeah. That'll be faster." Maybe he should upgrade to a fancier phone. Can't use the scarab to compare motel rates. Well, maybe he could, but there's a limit. He notices Bart's background and smiles. It's a selfie of him and Bart. They're cheek-to-cheek, Bart's arm around him, he's grinning wide and Jaime caught (as usual) somewhere between annoyance, surprise, and grudging fondness. When was this taken, last year, maybe? When was the last time they hung out? He's been busy with college but—it can't have been that long.

Jaime looks over at Bart, watching the street lamps wash over him in waves. Bart must miss him and not want to say anything about it. Even though Jaime's barely had time for him, they can still argue and make up, still talk to each other so easily. He'll do better. Even with classes and work and fighting crime and visiting El Paso and a girlfriend, he'll figure something out.

***

Central City, December 19th 11:11PM.

This behavior is not effective stress management.

"I don't give a fuck," Jaime snarls as he stalks up and down the hospital corridor. It takes every ounce of will to not punch the walls. The only thing that helps is when Artemis's voice peaks in anger so he can hear them through the closed door, but Kaldur's calm voice cuts in. Calm, why the fuck should anyone be calm right now?

It's been two hours. Two hours and they still won't let Jaime see him. Barry came and went to tell the Garricks; Kaldur, Artemis and Batgirl have been in there for ages. Maybe he shouldn't have told Kiran to leave. No, it was the right thing to do. He can't handle her concern at the same time as his anger.

The door opens and Jaime snaps to attention. Kaldur is saying something but Jaime doesn't hear. Holding up his hands and shaking his head, Jaime pushes past all of them to get inside. Nobody stops him. Good. He'd have armored up to get in at this point. The door clicks shut and silence ensues.

The hospital bed makes Bart look small, faded. He doesn't look like a superhero, he looks breakable. His entire left side is a mottled collection of bruises, eye swollen. Two of his fingers are taped together and Jaime heard his ribs and leg are broken, too. Even with accelerated healing he'll be out for at least a week. He turns toward Jaime but doesn't raise his head. He knows what's coming.

As soon as the door closes, Jaime explodes. "What the fuck was that?"

"I don't think you need my help to identify crazy evil Superclone's fist." Bart winces, sucks in a breath. "Got a good impression of it on my back if you need it."

"Don't play games with me, Bart. You know what I'm talking about! ¿Estás loco de mente?What got into your head to jump in front of me?" God, Jaime wants to shake him but that really wouldn't help with the injuries. "Did you forget the benefit of being a speedster is not getting hit? I've got armor, you don't. You shouldn't have done that."

Bart toys with his hospital bracelet. "I wasn't thinking."

He can't help it, he seizes Bart's shoulders and doesn't let go even as Bart hisses in pain. It forces Bart to look at his face. "The hell you weren't, you've got a brain that reacts faster than anyone else on the team!"

We are capable of reacting—

You are not part of this conversation.

Jaime tries to force every bit of gut-wrenching anger into his stare. Bart finally meets his gaze and holds it, unflinching.

"I'm not your mission anymore, hermano. You don't have to save me." He's had enough being saved for a lifetime. Breathe in, breathe out, relax his grip.

This close can see how Bart's eyes are a series of rings—a starburst of amber, pale green, and a thin rim of dark green. His pupils are narrowed in anger. "You're not my mission, you're my friend."

"I didn't see you jumping in front of Robin or Beast Boy."

Bart stares at the wall, jaw set and eyes hard.

"What's this really about?" Bart's already had it from his family and the team leaders—if he was gonna tell anyone surely it'd be them, but it's clear he'd sat there and taken it. Jaime doesn't expect to get anywhere but has to try. "I know we haven't been hanging out as much since I'm spending time with Kiran and taking classes and all but I thought we were still tight."

Jaime sits down on the edge of the bed and Bart shrinks away. What the hell that is supposed to mean. What the hell is any of it is supposed to mean? "Is it the hair?"

That seems to startle Bart back into the present. "What?

"My hair. Is it that bad? That why you don't want to talk to me?" Jaime gives one long black strand a tug. He never realized his hair would get curly until he grew it out, it's a lot messier this way. Kiran likes it but she's biased. She says he looks hot even in the bugsuit.

"Your hair is fine," Bart murmurs, then looks up slyly. It's wrong, his mouth is twisted into something that barely fakes a smile. "Maybe I'd be more talkative if you ditched the beard."

"Again with the beard? I should've known." Jaime rubs his chin. He likes the scratch of hair and it's a hell of a lot easier than shaving it every day. Jaime gets up. He's not good at this, he's never been good at this, but he has to do something. Even if it's stupid it's still something. "Be right back."

"Jaime?"

He walks into the tiny en-suite. Just like he thought, there's a disposable razor in plastic and a tiny can of shaving cream. He grabs the shaving cream but skips the razor, extending his armor until his first two fingers have fused into a sharp blade. While he'd felt ridiculous at first using alien tech to shave he needs to do it so rarely there's no sense wasting money on a razor.

"What are you doing?" Bart calls, something of his old self back in his voice.

Jaime turns on the hot water and wets his face. His facial hair never gets beyond scraggly so it shouldn't take long.

"You aren't seriously shaving right now, are you? Jaime?" If he doesn't hurry Bart will be out of bed, broken leg or not.

Seven careful strokes and it's gone. Jaime gets a few strays, rinses his face and the blade, dismisses the armor and goes back out. His chin feels cold and naked. Good thing the beard will be back in a few days. He sits down on the bed and wills every bit of resolution into his spine. "So let's talk."

Bart is staring at him wide-eyed, like he's floored by a gesture as useless as shaving.

"I'd cut my hair, too. I'd do all kinds of stupid shit for you because that's what friends do." He already does quite a few stupid things, like keeping extra food around no matter how tight his grocery budget gets. "And you've done some really stupid stuff for me. That's the point! We do things for each other, back and forth, because the whole point is sticking together. Friends live for each other, not die for them."

Just like that, Bart is crying. Tears turn into gasping, heaving sobs that have to be hell on his broken ribs. Jaime leans forward and puts his arms around the lithe speedster body (when did Bart stop being small?) His gut clenches as he feels Bart trembling. Trembling. Jaime feels his body doing the same in sympathy.What is he supposed to do now? Over and over he hears the crunch when Bart's bones broke, the scream, and it's hard not to gag. His throat is raw and it hurts to swallow.

"You scared the shit out of me." He wants to squeeze as hard as he can to feel Bart whole and not dead but knows he has to be gentle. Holding back seems to reroute everything to his eyes, which sting but don't get to tears. It feels like Jaime's ribs have expanded to surround the both of them, the aching center of his chest and in-out of their breathing one and the same.

It's a long time before either of them speak. Bart's hands come up to clutch the back of Jaime's hoodie. Slowly, slowly the trembling fades to the occasional twitch, to a hitch of breath, to nothing. The snot and tears have soaked through to Jaime's skin and he's incapable of caring. His hands are on Bart's back, and Bart's on his, like they're completing a circuit.

"If you died—then what was the point of me coming back?" It's a whisper barely over the hum of the hospital, caught in Jaime's shoulder. He feels the air coming out of Bart's mouth more than he hears the words. Jaime wonders if the scarab is enhancing his hearing. "What's the point of still being here? I'd have changed the future for nothing."

"You don't mean that. You know you changed the entire world, not just me."

Bart's hands tighten into fists. "I didn't change enough."

Jaime's gut clenches. He knows what this is about now, what it has to be. All these years and he thought Bart was over it, had accepted his role as Kid Flash and mourned and moved on. Fuck.

Picking up an alien tech ride-along at sixteen had been overwhelming and frequently puke-inducing. Taking a one-way ticket into the past in hopes of saving your grandfather and the entire world but succeeding at the cost of another family member? At thirteen? Jaime can't even imagine it. How the hell had Bart fooled everyone into thinking he was ok for so long? Jaime still has nightmares about The Reach, still has days where the guilt lodges in his chest like a stone. Bart never said anything. Never did anything beyond occasional staring contests with the horizon that'd fade into grins easy as that. Is this three years of delayed mourning?

"I can't fail you too." One of Bart's hands rises to swipe at his tears. "I can't."

"You didn't fail, you already crashed the mode for good." Bart shakes his head but Jaime keeps talking anyway. "Wally wasn't your fault. And he would never want you dying, you know that." Jaime knows he doesn't need to argue this point much. He'd heard that part of Artemis's yelling. Different tactics. "I need you here, ese. You're my friend, what the hell would I do without you?" He leans forward, trying not to choke. "Who would eat all my junk food?" Paco and Brenda are good friends, great friends, but Bart is different. Maybe even special. Being part of the team, being active heroes mean they get each other in ways his family and friends—even Tye—just can't. "I can't lose you, either."

"Sorry, Blue." Bart reaches out to take Jaime's hand. Normally Jaime would feel awkward about it but nearly dying is an exception; he's willing to call it a manly handclasp.

"No more being stupid. No more blame, for either of us." He can get over his guilt about Wally if it means Bart doing the same.

"Ok." His eyes slide shut but his hand stays.

Voice analysis indicates the Bart is lying.

I know. There's no way it'd be that easy. But it's a start. Jaime will make as many stupid gestures as he needs to until Bart stops bottling everything up.

"If you don't want to talk to me about it—talk to somebody, ok? I'm not your only friend." Jaime tries a smile.

Something flickers on Bart's face, considering. That gives Jaime way more hope than bullshit reassurances, so he'll count it as a win.

Jaime doesn't pull away until Batgirl drags him out and orders him to get some sleep. Before he does, he sends a message to Black Canary about therapy. He has to follow his own advice.

2020

Ivy Town, March 1th 10:10AM 2020.

"Come on, you can tell me. Nobody else will hear." Jaime gestures to the almost empty restaurant. He's surprised they were even open but he's not going to complain about getting dim sum for breakfast. "There's got to be some girl who's caught your eye. Even Artemis and Kaldur are dating again."

"Yeah, each other," Bart unwraps one of those leaf-covered things. Jaime should've paid more attention to the names.

"That doesn't take away from my point. All these years and I've never heard you talk about anyone. You holding out on me?" Jaime grabs more potstickers before Bart eats them all. The amount of food is ridiculous and the bill will be ugly, but it works as a only-slightly-belated birthday present.

"Breaking up with your girlfriend doesn't mean you need to play matchmaker with me instead." Bart grumpily shoves an entire dumpling in his mouth.

"Chill, I'm not setting you up on a blind date or anything. It's just talk. Come on, I've complained about my relationships plenty of times, you can tell me."

Bart chews, swallows. His mouth opens, then closes. He looks at the wall, the floor, then straight into Jaime's eyes. As he stares his face shifts into an expression Jaime recognizes but can't place.

Facial analysis indicates the Bart is considering lying.

Ah, yeah. That face. Wait— "It's not Kiran, is it?"

"What?" Bart realizes he was too loud and quiets down. "No! We're friends."

"You've been spending a lot of time together since that mission to Rhelasia." They won't say what happened but something must've. They'd hardly spoken a word to each other without Jaime there before.

"Not even a possibility. She's not my type."

Despite it being two months post break-up Jaime wants to defend her—why the hell wouldn't anyone want to date her. He has a protest on his lips—

Bart blurts out something fast enough it sounds more like a squeak.

"No idea what you just said."

"ThelastpersonIdatedwaskindasortaRoy? Itonlylastedamonth." Bart toys with his fried squid, eyes darting up to gauge Jaime's reaction.

"Roy?"Jaime sputters. "He's too old for you!"

"Original recipe, not extra crispy. The 8 years as a popsicle don't count. He's a year younger than you."

What did his age have to do with anything? "But he's—but he's so—"

"I know, that's why it didn't last long," Bart groans. "We were both trying to prove something."

Arsenal is perpetually trying to prove something; he's been shouting how different he is from Red Arrow with every breath he takes. But what the hell did Bart bring that up—

Jaime's thoughts slam into the obvious. "You're gay?" he hisses, eyeing the couple in the corner.

Bart is looking everywhere but at Jaime. "Yeah. Lucky me, no kids to confuse the timestream and all that."

"But you—" How the hell are they having this conversation in a Chinese restaurant before noon? It feels like a weird dream.

"Is this going to be Tye all over again?"

"Tye is bi. And dating Asami."

Bart rolls his eyes. "So not the point right now, Blue."

"No. No way, I'm over it." Jaime smears his hand over his face at the memory. "Shit, no wonder you never told me. Perdóname."

"It's ok," Bart says with a crooked smile.

"Was he, uh, your first?" It's only once it's out of his mouth Jaime realizes that could be taken in a way he really doesn't mean.

"First what?" Thank God, Bart missed it.

"Boyfriend."

"Oh, no. I dated this guy from school named DeShaun years ago but the whole secret identity thing really made me feel the mode. Mr Garrick said I wasn't allowed to tell him anything until after a year or two of dating. A whole year!" Bart shakes his head. "We lasted maybe two months."

Jaime drops the steamed pork bun he'd just picked up. "Wait, Mr Garrick knows you're gay?"

"Uh, doi? Well, I didn't know about the whole some-people-hate-you-for-being-gay thing until he told me about it, so it's a good thing that came up early on. He sometimes asks if I'm really sure I don't like girls but that's it."

Jaime smears his hands over his face, cringing. "Me freaking out about Tye didn't help."

"Not one bit." Bart shrugs.

"I'm sorry, hermano. I should've been there for you." And he seriously should've noticed earlier.

"There are plenty of people who don't know. I got used to not talking about it." Bart resumes inhaling food. "The only other person on the team I've told is Kiran."

"Oh." Now it all makes sense. Kiran is a good listener and notices things way before Jaime does. She probably knew Bart needed somebody to talk to who wasn't an idiot like Jaime and offered.

They eat for awhile without talking. Somehow, the silence doesn't feel awkward. If anything it's comforting to have a little time to absorb the new information. Why was it so different with Kiran? Their dates always had long silences he never knew how to fill. Why can't he talk to girls like he does to Bart? It doesn't make any sense. Does he have some kind of weird gender thing? No, he can talk to Brenda just fine—

Wait, Bart just said he was—he just—he came out. To Jaime, who'd freaked out the last time that happened. And he was willing to do it in a restaurant.

"Bart," Jaime begins before doubt can creep in. Bart made a gesture of trust telling him this. Time to do the same. Jaime clears his throat, clasps his hands. Looks very resolutely at the tablecloth. "I never told you I figured out why Tye freaked me out so much."

The weight of Bart's gaze feels almost physical. Jaime swallows and forces himself to keep talking. "Because I saw myself in him. I didn't realize it at the time, but him dating a guy when he'd only been interested in girls before and nobody expected it made me think of, think of me doing that." Jaime stares at his hands, his voice dropping to a whisper. "I think I might be bi, too."

"You think?" Bart's voice is soft and understanding but Jaime still can't look at him.

"It's not like I've ever done anything, or fallen for anyone. I, I just notice things." And watched some porn, ok maybe a lot of porn, but like hell he's bringing that up. Jaime risks a look at Bart's face.

"Notice?" Bart frowns, then lights up with realization. "You mean like how hot a guy is?"

Jaime feels his face going red. "Yeah."

"Was it Kaldur? I bet it was Kaldur."

"Bart!"

He shrugs. "You wouldn't be the first. Kaldur has that effect on people."

Something in Jaime's chest twists. "Do you—?"

Bart waves his hands and shakes his head. "Nooooononono, nope, too old and serious and dating-my-sort-of-sister for me. But definitely hot. Definitely."

Dammit now he's thinking about the way Aqualad's muscular arms look when they glow. "I can't believe we're having this conversation." Yet for all the embarrassment it's easier than Jaime expected it to be.

"Shall we move on to discuss the hotness of the rest of the team? Maybe devise a ranking system?" He quirks an eyebrow.

Jaime kicks him under the table. Bart kicks him back, and a foot war ensues. They laugh.

Just like that they're back to normal.

***

Happy Harbor, June 20th 3:23AM 2020.

Bart drops the key card again and Jaime laughs, leaning on the wall since Bart is too busy to keep Jaime upright.

It takes a couple tries to conquer the door, but they manage.

Jaime is still laughing, hanging onto Bart so he doesn’t fall over. "You're drunk."

"Of course I'm drunk, it's a respectable tradition to drink at weddings," Bart says with a smile, flopping down onto the nearest flat surface--the tiny hotel loveseat. Jaime falls with him. The end table wobbles and things fall off but it's ok, the floor catches it. Their limbs tangle together, it pulls on Jaime's shoulder and the scarab is digging into his back but it's too much effort to move. The room was a good idea. Very good idea. Flying home would've been bad.

It would not be the first time we have assisted you in this weakened state. The scarab has been quiet tonight but always takes the chance to protest Jaime drinking. Not that he's ever had this much before. Special occasion.

Bart hums, shifts so Jaime gets his left arm back (and the beer in it). "There was a lot of toasting. Movies only ever showed the one."

"Lots of toasting," Jaime agrees. "Happiness for everyone. M'gann and Conner deserve it. But you're not—you're not 21 yet."

"Neither are you."

"Will be soon enough. Few months." Jaime watches Bart's throat move as he swallows. "Does it even work?" He holds up his bottle for emphasis. He forgot he still had it. It isn't empty, so Jaime drinks more.

"High metabolism means it takes a lot before I feel anything. Not a problem." The bottle Bart holds up is too big to be beer and full of something amber-colored. Brown is a respectable alcohol color. None of that blue or green shit.

"Nice." They take sips from their respective bottles. Bart is always warm but today he feels like a furnace. Maybe it's the booze. Or the suit. Everyone is hot in a suit. Especially Kaldur. "Oh, there's another one."

"Huh?"

"Another tradición. For weddings. Besides drinking y la ceremonia and all of the-" Shit, what's the word? "The other stuff."

This level of intoxication is-

Ugh, nag me in the morning.

The effects of the toxins in your bloodstream will support our argument. Agreed. The scarab may be less bloodthirsty these days but it isn't any less of a dick.

Even tipsy Bart perks up at the mention of previously unknown retro culture. "Do tell."

"Sex." Jaime declares. Bart's face tells him he's supposed to say more than that, so Jaime takes another sip of beer to jog his memory. "Everyone has sex en una boda."

Bart grimaces and takes another swig. "Everyone?"

"No, not like—not like that." His free hand cuts through the air to dispel any potential mental images. "Single people wanna be less single. So they sex. It doesn't have to be forever. Sex's still good." Jaime smiles and pushes his face into Bart's shoulder. There's a lot more shoulder to Bart these days, it's nice. Bart has an arm around him, and that's nice too.

But not as nice as it could be. Jaime frowns. "I miss sex. It's been ages." Last time wasn't very good sex. Breakup sex sucks. He was never that great at it either. His entire dating career has sucked and he's a bad boyfriend. "I suck at dating."

"Me too." Bart says. Maybe. It's hard to tell, Jaime might've imagined it.

It's quiet for awhile. Quiet is good but his beer is gone. Bart is warm, so it's ok.

"Do you want to go back?" Bart's so quiet Jaime thinks he imagined it, but the added "Jaime?" means he clearly didn't.

"Nooooooo," he drawls, rubbing his face into the wool of Bart's suit. It feels nice. "Here's good."

The bottle makes a soft thump on the carpet as Bart sets it down. He shifts, curving his body to better accommodate Jaime. Jaime's never been a little spoon before.

Jaime closes his eyes and isn't sure how long it takes him to open them again. The painting of a lighthouse may be moving but it doesn't improve the picture. Hotel art is always boring.

"I'm bad at traditions," Jaime sighs into Bart's chest. It expands with air, then deflates, then expands again, shifting Jaime's head up and down. "I didn't get laid." He didn't even try to. What's wrong with him?

It's dark for a while. The room tilts and Jaime reaches out for anything solid to keep himself steady.

Hand. Bart's hand. Bart's hand is very steady. Better than the couch. Jaime keeps hold of it so things stay steady.

"You're always there." Jaime knows he should shut up, that this may be getting weird, but Bart, Bart needs to know. "Siempre me has apoyado."

"No way I'd abandon my best bud Blue." There's something in how Bart says it, something he should recognize but doesn’t.

Jaime stares at Bart's face, looks into his eyes as best he can. "hermano, hermano you—"

"Time to for you to sleep." Bart starts to get up, which is terrible but sleep would be good. Very good.

"Ok." There's a lot of wobbling. Nothing is staying still and everything keeps sliding to the left, especially Jaime's stomach.

"You better not pick me up. I know you can now because Batgirl, but I'm not—no. Ni en tus sueños."

It takes a very long time. The scarab may be saying something but it's a lot of effort to pay attention, so Jaime doesn't. The room is tilting more despite Bart's hand. Jaime adds his other hand to see if that helps. There's a lot of blur, and then the bed is there. The bed is very solid and flat.

Bart keeps talking but Jaime doesn't hear him. Something about clothes. Oh right, suit. Expensive suit. Shouldn't sleep in it. Bart does most of the work, which maybe is weird but Bart has seen Jaime without clothing because of the scarab lots of times. Isn't weird.

"Better." Jaime sighs at the comfort of boxers and undershirt. Suits are terrible.

There are footsteps. Footsteps going away. Not cool. The bed is starting to move. "Stay."

It's quiet, so quiet Jaime wonders if Bart left already. Stupid speedsters. Now Jaime doesn't have anything to keep him steady in this awful tilting world.

"Ok."

Jaime smiles. There's rustling noises that don't make any sense until Jaime feels Bart's bare leg sliding against his. Right. Nobody sleeps in suits. The bed tilts toward Bart and that's not as bad. Jaime reaches out and maybe hits Bart in the face, but that means he's there so it's ok.

This time Jaime doesn't resist when things go black.

***

Happy Harbor, June 20th 7:08AM 2020.

Jaime wakes up so compelled by the need to vomit he doesn't notice anything but the path to the bathroom. Everything Jaime ate or drank for the past week seems to be making its way back up. Good thing he went back to short hair.

I am never getting this drunk ever again.

We will ensure it. It could probably filter everything out of his bloodstream but it decided Jaime needed a fucking lesson. And damn if the scarab doesn't sound smug about it.

At some point Bart's hand appears to make small circles at the nape of Jaime's neck, useless but soothing. Jaime doesn't question his appearance.

He groans, "I bet you never get hangovers."

"Don't think it's possible," Bart half-smiles, apologetic.

"You suck." There isn't anything left in his stomach; it feels like he'll vomit internal organs next.

Once it's done Bart hands him water in the hotel-provided coffee mug, then mouthwash in the same mug. Jaime sends a silent thank-you to whatever genius invented mouthwash.

They sit there, Jaime close to the toilet in case of relapse and Bart taking up all the rest of the space with his stupid long limbs. Jaime glares at Bart's legs, staring at the plaid pajama pants. They don't cover his ankles.

"Are those my pants?"

"Yup."

"Ok." Jaime knows he should react more, more something but it's too hard to think. The memory of last night is smeared with alcohol, blurry bits and pieces slipping through his mental grip. He really hopes he didn't puke on Bart's suit. He winces at what he can remember. "I said some weird shit last night." Hand. I held his fucking hand. What the fuck? Jaime wants to die but Bart is smiling like he always does. Like nothing is wrong at all.

"It's all crash," Bart shrugs. "From the texts I got things were way crazier back at the reception. Gar and Raven were—"

"I don't want to know." He doesn't want to think about the wedding and what an ass he made of himself. Holding hands, shit he must've been clutching Bart for hours like a stupid baby. "I think I need to sleep some more."

"What about breakfast? Most important meal of the day. "

"You say that about every meal."

"'Cause it's true. Also, bacon helps hangovers. Can't go wrong with bacon."

Normal. Everything is normal. Maybe Jaime can write off whatever he remembers as drunken hallucinations.

"You should get up. Take a shower, get dressed. Emphasis on the shower." Bart wrinkles his nose. "I'll run home and change and we'll eat breakfast when I get back."

Bart practically hauls him up by the armpits and threatens to shove him in the shower with his clothes on. Fucking morning people, acting like it's decent being up so early. But he does feel better once he's under the water. After drying off and changing into fresh clothes he feels almost human instead of a sentient hangover. Bart arrives and they make their way down to the food.

It doesn't occur to him until he's shoveling eggs into his mouth to wonder where Bart slept. Jaime decides to drown his embarrassment in grease instead of thinking about it.

"I don't remember last night very well. I didn't—I didn't do anything too weird, did I?" Jaime rubs the back of his neck. "I don't normally get that drunk."

I am able to inform you of all events that occurred.

Not interested. It's better I forget about the whole thing, so long as Bart's ok.

"Stop worrying!" Bart steals some of the bacon off Jaime's plate. "You didn't do anything I had a problem with, we're crash."

What the hell does he mean by that? Jaime turns it over in his head but it can't be—what the hell was he getting at and why was he springing it on him in the morning when Jaime felt like he'd gone three rounds with Black Canary without his armor?

"Oh, there's Kiran. Gonnagosayhi. Andgetseconds." He zooms off at barely human speeds to wave enthusiastically at Jaime's ex and follow her to the food. It makes him want to die of awkward but Bart looks happy and that's reason enough for Jaime to get over it.

Your analysis of social cues needs improvement .

So you know what he meant?

I do.

Jaime waits. And waits. Sips coffee and watches Bart gesture while piling his plate high and waits some more. Come on, you love gloating. What gives?

In our experience, revealing this information would cause weakness. You must perform better on your own.

Jaime grunts. Some help you are.

We are attempting to compensate for your lack of social acuity.

Hell with this, I'm talking to Virgil. At least he makes sense. Getting up to grab more orange juice, Jaime makes his way over.

***

Ivy Town, November 6th 11:58PM 2020.

Jaime glances at the clock once the credits start rolling. "Damn, it's later than I thought." He should really pay better attention to movie running times. He stretches out the kinks in his spine, almost knocking over the empty cans of soda at his feet. Maybe they should get a table. Or trays. Hell even milk crates would be an improvement.

"Hmm?" Bart looks, frowning. "Oh man, I was supposed to be back two hours ago."

"And it's raining," Jaime adds, hearing the soft patter on the roof.

The Garricks seem pretty lenient about it since Bart's always hanging out with Jaime or Kiran or somebody else on the Team instead of visiting crack houses or whatever, but he's supposed to call them first. Too late for that. "Do you want to crash on the couch? No sense running back in the middle of the night."

Bart yawns around a grateful grin. "Thanks. I'll send them a text. My toothbrush still here?" He arches his back, grunting.

"Haven't used it to clean the toilet yet." Jaime stopped reminding him to take it back the fifth or sixth time. Now that Bart's moving he realizes how closely they'd been settled on the couch. His left side is cold.

"No need to steal yours, then." Bart gets up and almost trips. He catches himself on the recliner, hissing quietly.

"You ok?"

"Growing pains," Bart says, looking a little sheepish like it's his fault he's getting so damn tall. "My legs are sore a lot these days. It should pass." He hobbles around the corner to the bathroom, one hand on the wall.

Jaime watches him go. Between shooting up two inches in a year and finally developing a body that can keep some muscle on it, Bart doesn't seem so young anymore. Not just physically but mentally. Jaime has no idea what it is exactly, but he's sure there's something. Kiran would probably know; she's good at figuring this kind of thing out. She's certainly spent enough time with Bart lately.

Bart is still wincing as he walks back. He seems surprised to see Jaime still on the couch.

Jaime, on his part, is surprised to see Bart without any pants. All the other times he'd borrowed something of Jaime's. They might not fit anymore, but Bart hadn't even asked. As long as they've hung out Bart has never worn shorts. He opted out of going to the beach and always changed at superspeed. Jaime never thought much about it. After repeatedly ending up naked or shirtless because of the scarab Jaime's lost any trace of being body shy.

Now, Jaime can see why Bart covered up. Bart's legs are covered in faded silver slashes of eerie symmetry. They speak of something methodical, experimental. Jaime forces his eyes away, taking in Bart's boxer shorts—bright orange with white sharks that say BITE ME. He's caught somewhere between horror and amusement, unable to react. Why is Bart showing him this? Is it deliberate? It has to be.

Bart's noticed him looking. There's a guarded expectation there, the same kind Brenda had when she used to show up with bruises. Maybe the same reaction will work here. He needs to say something, anything.

"Nice boxers." Ok, that wasn't what he'd meant to say but it'll do.

The tension leaves Bart's shoulders. He strikes a pose. "I know, right? No sense in wearing boring ones." Almost immediately his face contorts and he sits down, hard.

"Still hurts?"

"Yeah, it's bad tonight." Bart squeezes up and down his calf. "Sometimes massaging helps. It'll pass on its own eventually."

Before he can think about it Jaime blurts, "Let me help."

Red eyebrows shoot up into arches.

"I've been giving my mom foot rubs since I was eight. ER nurse means she's on her feet all the time. She says I'm good at it. Or better than my dad or Milagro, anyway." Jaime shrugs, not sure why he feels defensive or his face is heating up. It's just a leg massage. "Brenda said I do it too hard the one time she tried."

"That sounds perfect. I don't even feel the light stuff." Bart glances at the couch, then Jaime. "Where do you want me?"

"Lay down on your stomach and put your legs in my lap." Jaime scoots to the end and directs Bart's legs so they don't hit anything vital. Bart's long hairy legs are nothing like his mom's short shaved compact ones. They're a lot harder to fit on his lap, but it's workable. He puts his hands on Bart's left calf and gets to work. Jaime doesn't think about what he does; he lets his mind go blank as he rolls the muscles with his palms, kneads with his knuckles and squeezes up and down the meat of Bart's calf. Going by Bart's pleased sighs it seems to be working. Jaime switches to the right calf to do the same routine, then tries to alternate between them equally. The brief happy grunts are the only sign Bart hasn't dozed off.

Jaime runs his fingers over the identical scars on Bart's Achilles tendons and wonders just how far the Reach went to test Bart's abilities, if this was before or after his metagene was active. Better not think about it. It's not like he's going to ask. He eyes Bart's feet, high-arched with long toes. "Is it just your calves?"

"Yeah my legs, not my feet." Bart's voice is mostly muffled by the couch cushions. He sounds ready to go to sleep.

Jaime moves a hand up to the back of Bart's knee, inching past and squeezing before he stops. He's got his hands on Bart's bare thighs. It's not—not sexual or anything, Jesus he does this with his mom but it's—it's too much something. His hand stays in the soft skin behind Bart's knee and Jaime feels exposed. This is, this is intimate. Jaime hasn't offered this to anyone since that one time with Brenda, not even to Kiran.

What the hell does it mean to be sitting here with Bart's pale legs on Jaime's lap while Bart's in his ridiculous boxers with Jaime's hands all over him like it's normal. Would Bart even say anything if Jaime did touch his thighs? Who is he kidding Bart wouldn't, he'd probably not even bat an eye if Jaime patted his ass right now.

His hands jerk back from where they were idly massaging Bart's skin, as if the thought were transferable or his hands would immediately act it out. What the hell, what the fuck is this?

"You didn't do anything I had a problem with." Bart had said after their drunken night. Could that mean—

"Done?" Bart's voice makes Jaime jump in surprise.

"Yeah. My uh, hands got sore." Jaime lies.

Groaning, Bart rolls over onto his back and smiles at Jaime, wiggling his toes. "Thanks. Your mom is right, you're good at that. I feel much better."

"No problem," he mutters, not able to meet Bart's eyes. "Anytime."

"Careful Blue, I just might take you up on that."

Bart's legs are still in his lap. He should move so Bart can sleep but he doesn't. His hands gravitate to Bart's skin before he can think about where to put them—one settling around a bony ankle, the other on a hairy shin. The speedster has beautiful legs. Jaime noticed that ages ago when he thought he was straight (which maybe takes away from the straight thing, but whatever). Seeing them long and sleekly muscled, touching them, is doing something to Jaime. He finally looks up at Bart.

Bart's face is soft with contentment and sleepiness, his smile wide and almost goofy as he looks at Jaime.

Something liquid-hot shoots down Jaime's body, settling low in his gut. Could I—could I be attracted to Bart? The thought is enough to get his heart racing. He'd always assumed he'd meet somebody new but what if—

What if that somebody is already here?

Paco and Brenda had fought a lot when they first started dating but they've been steady ever since. Dating a friend—dating Bart could be—

He has to be sure. There's no going back once that comes out, even if they stay friends. But maybe, just maybe, it could work.

Jaime stays there holding Bart's ankle until Bart falls asleep.

 

2021

Watchtower, April 21st 3:33PM 2021.

They exit the Zeta tube laughing, battered but whole. Surprisingly there isn't anyone else in the room. The control station glows blue and empty—no Mal, no J'onn. They walk down the stairs and linger by the wide windows.

Even though the scarab sometimes forgets to give him his clothes back, he's glad he has armor instead of a suit. Half of the top of Bart's yellow costume has been torn away, the exposed portions of Bart's chest covered in grime. His goggles are broken and dangling around his neck, leaving a ring of dirt. Jaime can see Bart's left nipple, the sweep of his collarbone, a tracery of scars over his ribs, the solidity in his shoulders.

The left side of Bart's face is lit by stars, soft blue meeting warm yellow.

"I could kiss you." The words escape before Jaime has a chance to think them through. The shock rocketing through his body isn't from saying it, but from feeling the absolute truth of it. How long has that been going on?

5 years, 29 days.The scarab oh-so-helpfully provides. Jaime wishes he had time to sit down and review that information but Bart is right there.

"Did you hit your head?" He frowns.

Jaime watches the way the light moves over Bart's lips as he speaks. "I'm serious, I could kiss you right now."

"But I didn't save you or anything. That was the Terror Twins. We beat them like, last week." Bart looks down at himself. "And I've been way sexier in your presence."

"I'm trying to have a moment here!" Jaime throws up his hands, feeling his armor retract.

Actions speak louder than words. Now is the time to attack!

"Good idea," Jaime says as he steps forward. He puts his hands on both sides of Bart's head like it could keep him from running away. There's grit where his thumbs slide over Bart's cheeks and the red hair is damp with sweat and matted into clumps from the dirt. It should by all rights be disgusting. Jaime closes in, tilting Bart's head down until their foreheads rest against each other and closing his eyes. Even with what he just said he can't look, can't stand the thought of being wrong.

"I want to, and if you don't, if it's—that's fine we can—"

Two long-fingered hands gently cradle the sides of Jaime's face. Jaime opens his eyes but all he can see at this distance is the blotchy blur of hazel eyes, brown dirt and freckled skin. Looking up at Bart is jarring. Jaime topped out at 5' 8" (and a half, dammit); Bart is three inches taller than him now. He'll have to get used to it.

"Your timing sucks." Bart moves in to slide their lips together slick-slow and light.

It tastes like sweat and dirt. Jaime can't stop himself from pulling back and grimacing.

Bart laughs. "Told you, Blue. Terrible timing."

Jaime pulls him down and cares significantly less about dirt on the second kiss because Bart tilts his head to the right so they fit better and touches his fingers to the dip just behind Jaime's ear and jaw, which is apparently a very yes thing. As good as it is he has to pull back and stare at Bart a moment to register this is really happening. His t-shirt now has brown smears of dirt all over it, which is going to be hell to get out but Jaime doesn't care.

Bart looks at the new dirt Jaime's acquired and frowns. "Hold that thought." he says, then vanishes. Before Jaime has time to properly freak out about it Bart is back.

Wearing only a towel. How superspeed works in a towel Jaime has no idea. Breezy supplies the part of his mind still functioning around the shock. Ok, maybe functioning is the wrong word. "Did you just superspeed a shower?" And streak across half the Watchtower while he was at it.

"Yup."

"I'm not—" Jaime sputters, unable to look away from the towel and holy shit hipbones. "I'm not ready for—"

"Whoops, my bad." There's another blur and Bart is back in jeans and t-shirt. "I forgot."

"You forgot to put clothes on? You?"

"I was in a hurry." Bart shrugs and smiles, all innocence.

Jaime is sure Bart is fucking with him but decides arguing about that can happen after more kissing. Jaime has really, really missed kissing. And it turns out Bart a great kisser. All the nose-bumping and heavy breathing and accidental teeth is happening on Jaime's end, not his.

Bart licks his way into Jaime's mouth, flicks his tongue in until Jaime returns the gesture in a wet and warm back and forth. Jaime uses his teeth to gently tug on Bart's lower lip. As badly as he wants to turn his brain off and enjoy he can't stop his thoughts buzzing around in panic and worry. He pulls back.

"So, uh, I guess this means you're cool with this. Whatever this is." Jaime scratches the back of his neck and looks away from Bart's well, duh expression. "I've been really oblivious, haven't I?"

"Impressively so. Does this mean you're up for the entire dating gig or did you suddenly want to make out?" Bart grins. "I do have that effect on people."

A hot flash of jealousy erupts from Jaime's gut. "Ese you know I'm not like that, I don't kiss people just to kiss them. I want—I want the whole," Jaime tries not to explode with embarrassment over the word. "The whole boyfriend thing."

"I just wanted to hear you say it. Boooooooooyfriend."

"Shut up!" Jaime feels his face going red. He's said girlfriend and novia plenty of times, there's no reason for him to get like this. Novio is only one letter different anyway.

"What's wrong, boyfriend? Are you embarrassed by me? You are, aren't you? Not a good start, boyfriend-mine."

Jaime sighs. "How long are you going to give me shit about this?"

Bart pretends to ponder. "As long as it took you to clue in seems fair."

"Come on, you could've said something!" Jaime winces as soon as it's out of his mouth. "Shit, Bart-"

"It's ok." Bart's eyes dart away, staring at everything but Jaime. "I'll tell you the same thing I told your dad."

It feels like somebody dumped icewater over him. He disengages from Bart, taking a step back. "My da—you told my dad first?"

"More he figured it out and talked to me about it. And your mom a little after that."

Jaime feels faint. "When the hell was this?"

"Remember that cookout your family threw, with Paco and Brenda and Kiran?"

Oh, no. The first time he'd been willing to kiss a girl in front of anyone. The makeout in Jaime's room that Bart interrupted. Jaime's dad asking Bart to come with him to pick up more food from the grocery store and the long time it took for such a small amount of food. The way he'd teased Bart about how little he'd eaten.

Jaime swallows but the words pop out of his mouth anyway. "What did he say?"

Bart continues to look at the wall. "Your dad is a great guy. He was extremely kind."

Dread is pooling in Jaime's stomach and he doesn't even know why.

"He said he was worried about me, that he knew I—" Bart stumbles, recovers, "Knew I had feelings you didn't return. He saw I was hurting and didn't want me to be miserable. He thought I should tell you so it wouldn't be so hard on me, keeping it secret."

It feels like somebody kicked him in the head. He'd been thinking about touching Kiran's boobs and when they'd get more time alone and how much steak he could eat in one sitting while this was going on?

"I told him your friendship was the most important thing in the world to me; I'd never compromise it on a risk. Maybe I wouldn't be happy for awhile but I'd learn to deal with it. But If you ever felt like dating a guy, we'd happen without me needing to push the issue. We argued about it a little, but I said I'd rather be with you without you feeling guilty or pressured." Bart narrows his eyes. "Which is still true, you better not be kicking yourself over this."

Jaime can't manage a response because he's too busy silently kicking himself.

"Eventually he said that it was my life, my choice and he'd never tell anyone but your mom." He shrugs. "Imight'vecriedonhimalittle."

"And, my mom?" Jaime croaks.

"She talked to me a little while after you broke up with Kiran." Bart says, glancing at Jaime before looking away again. "She uh, gave me her blessing?"

The "What?" crawls out of his throat, faint and stunned.

"She said that she suspected you weren't as straight as you thought you were, and if you ever did date a boy she hoped it would be me."

They'd figured it out before he did. How the hell does that even happen? "Ay dios, over a year. They—they were ok with it?" Jaime hadn't even told them he was bi because he figured it'd be better to wait until he actually dated a guy, in case he never did.

It starts with a hiccup. Then a giggle. Then another, and another until he's honking and hooting with laughter that's maybe a bit hysterical but he can't stop. Here he'd been worrying about coming out to his parents and they'd beaten him to the punch! Hell, they'd probably be thrilled he's dating Bart. Why was he so worried?

A weight he hadn't even realized was there has lifted; now he has too much oxygen, dizzy and hyperventilating and free. He grabs Bart and hugs him. "I've been such a—"

"Stop right there," Bart says, tapping his finger on Jaime's lips. "I don't want any apologies from you. Unless you apologize in other ways." Whoever introduced Bart to eyebrow-waggling must not have realized the horror they'd unleash.

"I can work with that." Jaime puts a hand on the back of Bart's neck to pull him down, presses forward until Bart's back is against the window and he can keep pressing without worrying about one of them falling over. His hands thread into Bart's hair as they kiss, his body arcs into the radiating warmth of Bart's body. Jaime doesn't stop to think about decency when he shoves a thigh between Bart's legs so they can be that much closer, he's distracted by the thrill in his gut when Bart's hands touch his waist. Jaime wonders if Bart can vibrate out of his clothes without disengaging entirely.

Apologies for the intrusion, Martian Manhunter's dry, deep voice echoes inside Jaime's head and causes him to nearly keel over in shock. Bart jerks back and bangs his head into the wall. I suggest you move your activities elsewhere. Batman and Superman will be arriving in less a minute.

Jaime isn't sure what makes him want to turn into a puddle and ooze out the nearest airlock more, the fact that Martian fucking Manhunter knew about their make-out session or that Batman and Superman almost did. Thanks, Jaime thinks weakly, wondering how much mortification carries over telepathy.

They pull back to a more respectable distance, but the way Bart's lips are swollen and red might as well be a neon sign saying HELLO WE JUST MADE OUT. Looking at him makes Jaime want to mess him up more, until his hair is a red tangle and he's got an impressive hickey on that long neck. Wow he hopes J'onn isn't listening in right now. (Which Jaime would be more creeped out about it if it hadn't just saved their asses.)

Would you have warned me they were coming?

Only if the Batman posed a threat.

The scarab definitely has a nasty sense of humor.

The ridiculousness of it all strikes him and Bart at the same time, as their eyes lock and they start laughing. It's the same easy laughter they've always had—that hasn't changed.

"My place?" Jaime asks before he can lose his nerve. His heart is pounding so hard he feels it all over his body. It's like he's in a bubble of joy that would burst if they parted ways right now.

Bart grabs his hand, threading their fingers together. It's nice. Really nice. "Sounds crash."

They exit out the tube, smiling like idiots.

***

Ivy Town, August 8th 10:29PM 2021.

It turns out dating Bart almost exactly like hanging out with him, except with more touching. A lot more touching, then making out on the couch when Tye is away, then making out on Jaime's bed.

They don't decide to have sex so much as a little grinding turns into a lot and Jaime comes in his pants, which is gross and embarrassing but still kind of hot, then Jaime decides fuck it and cups his hand over Bart's crotch and Bart shoves his hips forward and grunts in ways that somehow manage to be sexy until Bart's equally gross and embarrassed.

Since it was over so fast and was the least impressive sexual encounter ever, Jaime decides it doesn't count and they need a do-over with actual nudity involved. Preferably after a shower.

Which of course means that the universe decides to cock-block him and they get called in for an emergency.

***

Ivy Town, August 12th 2:03AM 2021.

After days of intense almost-dying and no time to think about sex at all, the second Jaime finally gets a chance to go home and sleep his body decides to make up for all that lost time and remind him of all the sex he should be having right this second.

Jaime is desperate enough to turn on the lamp and reach for his phone when he hears a knock at the apartment door. Before he can get up to answer it Bart is there, crawling onto the bed.

"IknowI'mnotsupposedtovibratethroughyourdoorbutpleasecanwegettothekissingpart?"

Jaime isn't sure exactly what Bart said but knows the answer is pulling Bart down on top of him.

Bart has all his clothes on and Jaime's only in his boxers, which feels unfair but kind of dirty-hot at the same time, the denim brushing his bare thighs.

There's a lot of undignified scrambling and an accidental elbow to the ribs, but they find mutually beneficial positions on the bed. Jaime wraps his legs around Bart, the bulge of Bart's dick and seam of his fly pushing against the underside of Jaime's balls and Jaime makes a lot of high-pitched wheezing noises. He really doesn't care how stupid he sounds because fuck that's hot.

Jaime tangles both hands in Bart's hair and pulls him down for kissing. Bart's hair is silky-soft, softer than any of Jaime's ex-girlfriends. Maybe it's magical future hair, maybe it's Maybelline—either way it feels great. Bart's tongue is warm and wet and very keen on being inside Jaime's mouth, which also feels great.

They pull back and pant at each other a while. Bart is still pressing against Jaime's balls so he doesn't manage to stay still for long as every bit of movement rubs them together in a very yes way. He kisses mouth, chin, trailing to bite at Bart's jaw a little. It leaves a faint red trail of stubble burn.

Bart taps Jaime's beard and makes the most ridiculous pouty expression. Jaime responds with his best "No way!" face perfected from years of living with Milagro. They smile.

Bart puts his teeth on Jaime's neck.

Jaime says something like "hhhhnnbbbbbt" which Bart correctly interprets as yes, more and he bites down just enough to sting.

Jaime's whole body twitches and his heels dig in so Bart's hips push forward and it's almost fucking, wow, Jaime might be ok with that at some point. He shoves his hands further up Bart's shirt, soaking in the softness of skin, the irregular bumps of faint scars. Once the shirt is at Bart's armpits he keeps tugging and Bart nearly falls off the bed in their attempts to get it over his head, but they finally succeed. The flat chest against his is definitely not at all like boobs and maybe Jaime should be freaking out about that, but he doesn't care right now.

He puts his mouth to Bart's jaw and ok, there's a little stubble there and that's kinda weird, but Bart makes this great little moan when Jaime bites his ear. Jaime does it again, then checks to see if it happens on the other side (it does).

Bart palms Jaime's dick through his boxers without so much as a warning and Jaime definitely doesn't yelp or squirm or clutch Bart's head.

Seize his hair.

Damn it, we talked about this but Jaime does it anyway and the results are very, very good going by the way Bart's breath hitches. He'll forgive it this time.

Bart is breathing in his ear and Jaime can't get his arms to unclench. That doesn't seem to pose any problem for Bart who pulls and shoves at Jaime's boxers until they slide down lower on his hips and Bart can stick a hand inside.

"You still have your pants on," Jaime groans and he's not sure if it's a protest or a declaration of hotness but either way he loses the ability to form sentences once Bart starts moving his hand. There's no teasing, just his curled palm (softer, broader than Jaime's with none of the hesitation like Kiran ok not the time to think about exes) moving faster and faster, better and better. Jaime wonders how fast Bart can go without causing friction burn and then he's coming, panting into the side of Bart's head, arms still wrapped around Bart like vices.

They shift their legs so Jaime is laying flat and Bart is kneeling over him. It makes him look ridiculously tall, all long lean lines.

Bart is still wearing jeans and that is a terrible crime that must be stopped. Jaime puts his hands on Bart's flat stomach, trails them down to the waistband of his pants. He just got off with the guy so Jaime doesn't know why this feels intense and intimidating, but neither of them is breathing much as Jaime goes for the button.

They both exhale as it pops open. Jaime realizes it's got to be uncomfortable being trapped in those jeans for so long and hurries to unbutton the fly. Bart's dick is right there, straining against his blue boxer briefs (wait, are those whales on there?) and Jaime can see the outline of it.

It's just a dick. Jaime reminds himself as he slips a finger through the slit and touches skin. We've both got one, hooray, stop freaking out. Jaime manages to get it out with minimal fumbling, then wonders if he should've pushed the boxers down instead.

Bart's dick is red where it juts out of his open fly, and the head is wet and exposed, and hey, no circumcision in the future. Also, red pubic hair. Wow. Jaime had thought that was a myth, something porn stars did along with the boob jobs and everything else, (which sounds stupid in retrospect and Jaime should've known Paco was messing with him). Now that he's paying attention all of Bart's body hair is kinda red, even the faint fuzz on his arms and his eyelashes. The lamplight does magical things to Bart's eyelashes, they look like wisps of flame.

How did I miss he was this hot? Damn, he's supposed to be doing things to the cock that's right there, not staring. Not that Bart seems to mind much, since he's looking right back. Jaime tries not to feel self-conscious about how he's not nearly so well-put-together. Fuck, now is really not the time for this. "Sorry."

"No problem, just admiring my work." Bart's smile is sweet and devious; his still-very-there hard-on means he likes Jaime sweaty and gross.

"I had no idea you were this dirty."

Bart waggles his eyebrows and damn, if that isn't the best thing Jaime doesn't know what is. They both laugh and it's so easy. Before Jaime can think about it he sits up to blow a raspberry on Bart's stomach, not even caring that Bart's dick is sliding over his chest. They laugh again, Jaime smiling as he leaves one, two kisses leading down to Bart's navel. From here the thought of sticking a dick in his mouth isn't gross but Jaime knows his limits and that is so not on the table right now. Better stick with the familiar.

He leans back and tries to find a comfortable angle for his wrists as he wraps his hand around Bart's dick. It's awkward but Bart makes this noise that means it's all worth it. For lack of any better ideas he moves his hand up and down a little. At least he has an idea of what to do with another guy. It's weird holding a dick that isn't his own, but Bart's little ha-ha-hahs don't sound like a bad thing, so he keeps at it. And keeps at it. And now he knows it's not right, the angle is wrong, or Jaime's too loose or too tight or something because Bart still isn't coming. Jaime starts to adjust his grip but Bart puts his hand to stop Jaime, shaking his head.

"I can't, ngh," Bart shakes his head again and Jaime doesn't know if it means "no" or he's trying to clear it. He removes Jaime's hand, curls those long fingers around himself, and starts to pump.

Ok, that sucks and Jaime is definitely going to do better next time, but Bart is jerking himself off and that's something Jaime needs to pay attention to. Not sure what to do with his hands Jaime grabs two handfuls of (very firm, very fine) ass and tries to divide time equally between watching Bart's hand on his dick and his face. Which means he isn't paying very good attention to either.

Giving up the jerking off as something he'll need to study later in great detail he watches as Bart's face flushes even redder, his hair sticking to his forehead and he's looking at Jaime, that intense green gaze catching the lamplight so his eyes seem to glow and those damn eyelashes again and he doesn't look away even as he's coming and his body is twitching he keeps looking at Jaime like nothing else in the world exists. Something tugs behind Jaime's breastbone, sharp and sweet.

"Hey," Bart says with a dopey grin, like he's just come back from a mission not jizzed all over his hands on Jaime's bed at 2 in the morning.

Jaime smiles back and he's sure it's just as stupid-looking. Especially since his dick is still hanging out. "Hey."

That was a much better first time. Jaime decides it counts, even if neither of them got naked.

Your definitions of sexual intercourse are illogical and inconsistent .

Really not talking to you right now.

They move together to the bathroom where all clothing gets dumped on the floor and they clean off perfunctorily with wet washcloths. The exhaustion of the past few days manages to slam into them in the few minutes it takes to do that, so they stumble back to Jaime's bed without checking the covers for potential grossness and fall in, barely staying awake long enough to arrange themselves.

***

Ivy Town, August 12th 10:45AM 2021.

Everything is soft when Jaime wakes up, that perfect fuzzy state of warmth and sleep. He tries to luxuriate in laziness, but the combined warmth of summer and the body he's curled into means it gets too hot as soon as the AC cycles off.

He should move. If he stays this close to Bart he'll start sweating. But the heaviness in his limbs is pleasant and rolling away would be so much effort. Rolling forward on the other hand—Jaime can't help the low, pleased grunt at the feeling of their skin pressed together. Bart shifts back, Jaime's face pressing into the nape of Bart's neck. He lifts his left hand to place on pale skin, trying not to wake Bart.

There's a soft hum from low in Bart's throat. Too late not to wake him up, then. Jaime moves his hand from Bart's arm to stomach, which makes Bart suck in his breath and stifle a groan.

Jaime feels heat surge through his veins once he realizes what it means—Bart woke up hard but hasn't done anything because Jaime was asleep, which is considerate and maybe hot, ok definitely hot that Bart wanted to wait for him. Jaime presses up against Bart's back more firmly, runs his hand down Bart's side and lets it rest over his hip.

"Go on," Jaime whispers, hoping it comes out sultry instead of sleepy. It seems to do the trick as Bart lowers his hand and doesn't bother trying to control his breathing as he grabs his half-hard cock and makes the familiar motions. There's not much to see with Bart's body in the way but he can feel the warmth radiating off Bart's skin, the slight jerks and gasping breaths as Bart starts to really work himself. He squeezes his fingers until he can feel the jut of Bart's hipbone and that makes this amazing little whine erupt from the back of Bart's throat. Their breathing is so heavy it seems to fill the room, almost weirdly voyeuristic if they weren't skin-to-skin.

"Jaime," Bart groans and Jaime responds by kissing the back of his neck, scraping teeth on the ridges of vertebrae."Jaime, I've wanted—I've thought about—nngh."

Fuck, just the sound of it is making Jaime hard.

"I've thought about this so many times."

Something swoops low in Jaime's gut. "Did you jerk off thinking about me?"

"Yeah. Yeah, a—" Bart moans, soft and wet. "A lot."

It's a little creepy and a little flattering and thinking about Bart like this makes Jaime push his hips forward in approval. He hates only having one arm free so he grabs Bart by the hip and rolls back just enough to get his other arm around. It puts a lot of Bart's weight on him and Bart is too tall to fit well and he's sure his arm will complain before long but now he can splay a hand against the hummingbird beat of Bart's heart, feel the push of ribs with each breath.

There's no finesse to Bart's masturbation, just a straightforward pumping up and down so fast his hand starts to blur. Jaime wonders if Bart's so used to superspeed Jaime won't ever succeed in getting him off, but damn he'll keep trying as long as he has to.

"Jaime," Bart's reduced it to almost entirely air. "Jaime, Jaime," his head falls back, too tired to keep it upright. The angle looks incredibly uncomfortable but Bart twitches and he's coming, breath heavy like it never is when he's running.

Bart's weight against his dick is not pleasant but it feels so good to be holding Bart he does what he can to ignore it. Bart stops pumping slowly, like he got so used to the motion he has to remember how to stop. Jaime can feel Bart's entire body going loose and relaxed like Jaime is catching him. It's too much.

"You're heavy."

"Oops," Bart rolls to the side and pushes himself up on unsteady limbs until he can maneuver himself over Jaime.

Oh damn, he'd forgotten how much he loves seeing somebody naked over him so that there's nothing but skin and a smiling face. And sex hair, wow, it looks like Bart was attacked by a weed eater. In a good way. Jaime palms his dick and tries to go slow but can't, not with Bart smiling at him like that. Bart leans down and tries to kiss him but Jaime can't concentrate enough to do it right, so they end up with faces close and breathing at each other, not trying to touch and not needing to. Bart leans forward until his weight is resting on one arm and puts his palm on Jaime's stomach.

It's so simple but something sparks where their skin meets and he's done, ending with a grunt-moan that he doesn't have time to be self-conscious about because Bart is pressing a grin into his skin. They spend a couple minutes like that, boneless and sated. Jaime almost regrets when they separate to properly look at each other.

"Good morning," Bart says with a hint of a leer.

"Really good morning," Jaime agrees. "Why didn't we do this ages ago?"

"Because you’re an idiot."

Ok, that was fair. So many opportunities missed."How lo—" Jaime stops, not sure he wants to hear the answer, if it's something he should even ask.

"A long time," Bart interrupts, shaking his head. "But it doesn't matter. We got here in the end."

Jaime wants to protest, to apologize, to agonize over chances lost. But maybe this is where they were meant to be. He doesn't believe in fate like Kiran but the idea of things happening for a reason is appealing. Maybe this is the right time out of all the other ways it could've happened.

And if it isn't, fuck it, they'll make it the right time. They've managed five years of friendship already.

They lie there exchanging lazy kisses and touches until Jaime's bladder protests. He almost forgets to put on pants before leaving his room. He trips over the pile of clothes on the bathmat. Oh damn, they left that last night. His boxers are lying on top of Bart's and he feels his face heat up. Maybe Tye was at Asami's last night and didn't see. As he carries the clothes back from the bathroom Jaime notices a sticky note attached to his door in Tye's familiar scrawl.

ASSHOLE: STAYING WITH ASAMI. WILL RETURN WHEN YOU TWO LEARN TO PICK UP YOUR CLOTHES. CONGRATS. ABOUT FUCKING TIME!