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Exit Strategy

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::::12 years old ::::

Gotham City is a beacon of safety and modernity, its citizens enjoy a high quality of life without fear...but it hasn’t always been the case. When billionaire philanthropists Thomas and Martha Wayne died as victims of petty crime, their son, Bruce, vowed to carry on their work and be the protector the city deserves. Not as a silent guardian lurking in the darkness, Bruce Wayne is a shiny example of hands-on leadership in the revitalization efforts.

The city modernized its archaic asylum model, and now Arkham Psychiatric Hospital leads the nation in the rehabilitation of those with mental illness. A statue of his parents stands proudly in the sunny courtyard, a lasting tribute to their memory. The Wayne Enterprise goes above and beyond to provide generous support for politicians that are tough on crime and donations to make sure that the GCPD is always well-equipped. The city owes much to its hero.  

Business boomed and the Gotham of yesteryears was washed away through gentrification. Of course, the wave of revitalization didn’t hit all districts at the same time. Jason still remembers the drug addiction that robbed him of his mother and his brief stint living on the street before Bruce adopted him.

Now, the pair form a dynamic duo. During the day, Jason thrives at school and spends much time outside of it at Bruce’s side learning the family business. At night, he attends various fundraisers and other media spotlights as Bruce’s sidekick. More Gothamites than ever have signed up to adopt and foster wayward youth, but as much as he knows he’s helping, Jason absolutely abhors these social occasions.

“Ah, you must be the orphan boy Mr.Wayne adopted from the streets,” a portly man exclaims while placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Jason groans inwardly and has to stop himself from slapping away the sausage-like fingers on instinct. If he has to hear another person congratulate him on being rescued by Bruce, then he will take off the stupid tie he’s currently wearing and strangle them with it. Outwardly, the boy flashes a brilliant smile.  

“Oh yes, I’m very fortunate, sir!” Jason replies, laying it on extra thick. “I only hope that one day I can repay his generosity by living a good, honest life.” Too much? Probably...but the sarcasm went right over the man’s head. He nods with satisfaction and leaves for what is surely the buffet table at this fundraising event at the Wayne Manor.

The boy drops his forced-smile as soon as the man turns away. He’s not a natural performer like his showboat of a brother who revels in the spotlight. No, what he wouldn’t give to trade his current company for the stray dogs of crime alley; compare to this lot, they’re much better companions, fleas and all.

Still, he promised Bruce he’d be on his best behavior. Part of learning the family business, unfortunately, includes how to network and make small talks with all these suited yahoos.

Alfred already had to shoo him from the kitchen to go mingle with the guests.

“If it makes you feel any better, Master Bruce doesn’t care much for these social engagements either,” Alfred had told him with a pat on the head while handing him a freshly baked cookie. “But networking is a skill, Master Jason, which means it can be improved with practice! Now, off you go.” It’s hard to disagree with Alfred, especially with a mouth full of deliciousness.

A voice behind him breaks Jason from his train of thoughts. “Well, you’re obviously loving the party.”

He turns around and raises a brow at an older teenager with a head of wild ginger hair. It’s rare for anyone their age to be at a networking event like this; he can only assume he’s here to accompany a professional the same way he is.

“Sure, what’s not to like?” Jason shrugs. “Who doesn’t love listening to people drone on and on about their expanding or shrinking investment portfolios?”

“Well, yeah, how else would these stiffs compare the length of their cocks?” the red-head snorts with a casual contempt for the formal setting. He scratches the suit fabric on his side as if it's ill-fitted skin and Jason takes a liking to him instantly.

“Umm...you wanna sneak out? I’ve got video games in my room upstairs,” Jason offers. Sure, Bruce might be upset at him for ducking out of the event, but he is socializing, isn’t he?

“Say no more,” the older teen extends his hand with a bright smile that makes the freckles on his face dance, and for a moment Jason is mesmerized. “My name is Roy.”

“I’m Jason.”

::::15 years old::::

Jason Todd died when he is fifteen-and-a-half years old, an unfortunate victim of circumstances. For a total of 51 seconds, his heart stopped on the operation table. His father spared no expenses to pay for his experimental treatments, and by some miracle, the doctors were able to resuscitate him. Even so, he spent a year in a coma.

The incident happened while he accompanied his father on an international business trip to visit a manufacturer. The boy was caught in an explosion caused by a faulty, unstable product that failed security checks; he was in the wrong job at the wrong time.

When he finally woke up, nothing was the same. Not for him.

::::16 years old::::

Jason learns two things within a day of him regaining consciousness: one, there were no trial or public investigation into the misgivings of J Corp, nor its CEO, Jack Napier, a.k.a the “Joker” as he’s better known in the media for his larger than life personality. It was his willful negligence and greed which caused the accident that almost killed Jason. Yet, Bruce simply settled out of court.

And two, while Jason was wasting away on a hospital bed, his father adopted another son to replace him...a scion from a pedigreed family in Gotham and a certifiable prodigy. Clearly, Bruce learned from his mistake of picking up strays from the street and was trying to compensate Jason’s shortcomings with someone better in Every. Single. Way.

Jason feels like he woke up to a life no longer his own, into a body not entirely familiar. His muscles atrophied and his reaction speed sluggish. Since his limbs continued to grow during the past year, even the simple motions of walking and dressing seem oddly unsettling.

He supposes that part of him did die on that operational table. You’d think that a street kid would know better than to be so trusting. Alas, Bruce got to him somehow; he let his guard down. Now, for the first time, he can see the truth: Bruce Wayne never considered him a son, just a gimmick to reinforce his profile...a PR prop that needed to be replaced and upgraded when he was out of commission.

“Why isn’t Joker in prison?” Jason asks his father one of the times he came to visit in the hospital. He doesn’t even bother trying to hold back the bitterness and venom from tainting every word. “And how come your new sidekick isn’t by your side, visiting with you?”

“Just focus on recovering, Jason,” Bruce sighs and dodges his questions in that low gravel tone of his, the one he used when Jason shadowd him at work. There’s a subtle deviation that separates boss and father , nonetheless, the teen can distinctively tell the difference. “We’ll talk after you get better. I’ll bring you back home as soon as the doctors clear you for discharge, alright?”

No, it is not alright. When Bruce hugs him and promises to return soon, Jason only feels the cold waves of anger boiling inside him.

His stay at the hospital has been unexpectedly long as the doctors insist on monitoring him for the numerous side-effects of the experimental “Lazarus” treatment, which, funnily enough, includes irritability and severe mood swings. Yeah, just what he needs right now. In the long hours of lying in the hospital bed, Jason’s mind races with dark thoughts. They should’ve never attempted to resuscitate him on that operation table, or at least, they should’ve pulled the plug when he was in the coma.

Or perhaps, even if the accident did not happen, he would’ve been replaced anyway when he aged up. After all, having a cute kid next to you is much better for public relations than a sullen teenager. And if that’s the case, perhaps there’s someone who might understand what he’s going through, someone who at one point was replaced by him, sort of.

Once he can manage to walk, he sneaks out of the hospital and hails a taxi. When the driver asks where to take him, Jason simply answers, “Bludhaven.”

“You shouldn’t even be walking around!” Dick ushers him into the kitchen and shoves a cup of something warm into his hands without pausing his lecture. “What were you thinking, leaving without telling anyone? The hospital had to issue an emergency locked down thinking you were kidnapped! Do you know how worried Alfred is?”

Jason forgot how grating and overbearing his older brother can be, even if his nagging comes from a good place.

“Well, Bruce wouldn’t give me a straight answer--he and Alfred are handling me like I would snap any second! I just want to know why Joker didn’t pay for what he did!” Jason shouts. Even to his own ears, he sounds like a child throwing a tantrum. But then again, Dick has the ability to make him feel so young and immature.

“He did make him pay,” Dick sighs and reaches for a shoulder, but Jason shrugs it off.

“Bullshit! That settlement was just a financial slap on the wrist and you know it! You think someone like him will tighten up his manufacturing practices just because of a little fine ?” Jason fumes. “I died, Dick! I fucking died and no one faced justice for it!”

“Listen, it’s not that simple. The law firm we hired said the legalities of who was responsible were murky at best. Yeah, there was negligence on Joker’s part, but you weren’t an employee of Wayne Enterprise, you were underage when the accident happened, and many argued that Bruce shouldn’t have taken you out of school to bring you to an international factory in the first place!”

“No, I insisted on going with him! I don’t blame him for that , I just--”

“You think that matters? You don’t think someone like Jack Napier wouldn’t countersue him and drag the Wayne Enterprise through the mud? The last thing Bruce wanted was to have the family and the company go under that kind of media scrutiny as the case is dragged through court for god knows how many years. And you don’t even want to know the questions CPS had for him, or the tabloids, god--the media was in a frenzy trying to paint this sick picture of an irresponsible billionaire adopting orphans...it would’ve affected all the good work around the city--”

“Speaking of adoption, Dick, he sure replaced me quick. You’re telling me that Bruce is going to stop having a sidekick shadowing him at the company? ‘Cause I’m sure this genius kid wouldn’t get himself blown up as I did!”

“Damnit, Jason! You weren’t replaced! And he has a name, it’s Ti--”

“I don’t give a shit what his name is!”

“Okay, I’m done. You’re just getting riled up and that can’t be good in your condition,” Dick says, throwing both hands up in defeat. “Look, I’m going to phone Alfred to come to pick you up, okay? Wait here.”

Dick withdraws into the kitchen with his phone--purposefully away from earshot, no doubt tattle-telling about what an unhinged mess he is to Bruce. Jason gets up from the couch and swipes the handful of cash and change he sees on the accent table. It isn’t much, but it is enough for a bus ticket. He’s gone before Dick returns from the kitchen.

---------------------

What did he expect? Dick had one foot out the door when Jason showed up at Wayne Manor. He left on his own terms and is probably enjoying his new found freedom in Bludhaven, far from Bruce’s shadow. How can he understand how Jason feels?

It is late and there are only a handful of passengers on the bus. Jason pulls up his hoodie and sinks into the seat, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. He realizes he must have dozed off at one point because when he wakes up, he finds himself staring at a brightening sky and the welcome sign to Star City.

They say you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends, right?

“Holy shit, Jaybird!” Roy pulls him into a tight bear hug when he sees Jason at the entrance of his studio apartment. “Welcome back to the land of the living!”

“Umm...thanks, I guess?” Jason’s voice is slightly muffled as he speaks into the older teen’s shoulder. All of the sudden, he can feel his exhaustion catching up to him. After all, he hasn’t had a proper meal nor rest since sneaking out of the hospital and traveling across multiple cities. He lets himself be held up by the other’s embrace, if only briefly.

It feels like he saw Roy merely weeks ago, even if in reality it’s been over a year. While lying in the hospital, a part of him worried that Roy had moved on like the rest of the world. He wouldn’t blame him if he did; no one knew when he was going to wake up from the coma, if ever. But Roy still acts like if it has just been weeks since they last saw each other. The sudden wave of relief takes him by surprise, and even hearing the stupid endearment again is making his eyes water.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Get in here!”

At first glance, there is junk littered on every surface of the small bachelor pad. On a second glance, all that junk turns out to be half disassembled computers, microcontrollers, and other electronic parts. Okay, so still junk...but in the hands of a tinkering genius like Roy, they have the potential to be much more.

“Yeah sorry, Jaybird, I wanted to visit the second I heard you woke up, but the hospital said it was strictly family only,” Roy explains as he rearranges some junk off the couch to make room for Jason to sit. “You hungry?”

Before Jason can reply, Roy answers for him. “Of course you are. I’ll reheat some pizza--it’s fresh, leftovers from last night!”

“Sure, that sounds great, actually,” Jason nods, figuring he should probably eat something.  “So, did I miss anything important while I was out, besides you growing your hair out?”

Roy laughs and starts putting together a spare monitor and setting it next to the primary one so that the two screens sit side-by-side. “Check this out! You sure have impeccable timing--woke up from your coma just as this came out!”

“Yeah, well, I try my best...What is it?”  Jason leans in to look over Roy’s shoulder as he connects the monitor to a spare PC tower and switches it on. The messy digital desktop is comparable to Roy’s apartment, littered with icons everywhere. Yet, there’s an order to the chaos and without searching, the older teen clicks on an icon. A splash screen replaces the desktop and a line of bold text, “OUTLAWS” drops in.

“This MMO’s been getting rave reviews, I literally just finished installing it today!” While the game connects to the server and finishes loading, Roy retrieves two slices of lukewarm pizza from the toaster oven and hands one to his best friend.

“Well, don’t hype it up too much, you know those reviews are bought and paid for,” Jason snorts cynically and tears off the corner of the pizza. Oh, yes. A moan almost escapes his lips as the greasy, salty goodness explodes into his mouth. Compare to the bland hospital food he’s been eating, this is a slice of heaven.

Roy licks a drop of tomato sauce off his fingers absentmindedly and clicks on the character creation screen while gesturing Jason to do the same. Failing to find anything resembling a napkin, Jason wipes his greasy fingers on his shirt and settles in front of his monitor. Before they can start the actual co-op campaign, they need to create their characters.

“Seriously? That’s a real original name,” the red-head snickers at Jason’s screen. “‘ Red Hood ’ for a character wearing a red helmet?”

“Hey, at least I didn’t choose to play an archer, okay?” Jason glares at his screen defensively. “I mean, you have the option of choosing to play a powerful alien that shoot freakin’ laser beams out of your eyes! Or how about a character that can shape-shift and use telekinesis...or y’know, anything more useful than using a bow and arrow .”

“Please, you’re making a gun-wielding Edgelord. Besides, did you even read the expanded skill tree of the archer class? Explosive arrows, sticky arrows...wait, is that... propeller arrows ? Oh shit, yeah, I’m definitely going with this guy.”

“I don’t know, the character skill sets seem awfully imbalanced…You telling me that a human character can go up against aliens with superpowers?”

“Argh, you’re like those disgruntled fans crying over the lack of hyperrealism in games,” Roy shakes his head dramatically. “Just suspend your disbelief! The game is still in Beta, they’ll probably tune the characters with an update later. We haven’t even started playing and you’re coming up with excuses already. But that’s okay, I’ll carry you, Jaybird.”

“Ha, yeah right. Just pick a name for your archer so we can start already!”

This feels...nice. For a moment, Jason forgets about the arguments with Dick and Bruce. He forgets about the injustice surrounding his death, his lost time spent in a coma, and even being replaced. He can, however, remember the first time he met Roy...how they sneaked out of the fundraiser to play games in his room, roasting the stupid mistakes the other is making until they’re both breathless from laughing.

“How about ‘Speedy’?” Roy wonders out loud. “Sounds cool, right?”

“Umm...except that name makes more sense for a character in the Speedster class?”

“Yeah, but that’s what they’d expect! It’s all about subverting expec--wait, hold on!” The older teen leans over to grab his vibrating phone off the floor. He checks the caller ID and grimaces.

“Yo Ollie, what’s up?”

Jason freezes but Roy gestures for him to remain quiet before continuing to speak into the phone. “What, no? Why would he come here, we’re like, hours away from Gotham...well, if I hear from him, sure…”

“So, how pissed off are they?” Jason asks after Roy hangs up the phone, his voice barely audible. Already, he can picture the bare hospital room and Bruce’s disappointed face.

Roy only laughs. “Well, I figured this visit was frowned upon, but to actually sneak out of a hospital, drop in on Dick unexpectedly only to bail on him before coming here without letting anyone know?”

His impressed tone makes Jason feel slightly proud of himself, and he can’t help but add, “Yeah, and I stole Dick’s money for the bus fare too.”

“That’s savage,” Roy chortles and slaps him on the back none-too-gently.

“...Thanks for not ratting me out, but it’s only a matter of time. I’m sure Bruce is already on his way here, despite what you told Oliver. He’s... thorough like that.”

“Dude, wipe that doom and gloom off your face,” Roy says, shaking his shoulder for emphasis. “Even if your dad is on his way here like you said, Gotham is still hours away, so save your tears-card for when he’s actually here.”

Jason continues to stare at his knuckles without replying, so Roy continues to fill the silence with his own voice. “Seriously, your dad needs to ease the fuck off. God, you’d think he learned from his mistake after Dick left home the moment he turned 18.”

“Yeah, but even then, he’s never had to worry about Dick as much as he did me. I think my dying just turned the knob up to 11. Face it, I’m the screwed-up middle child sandwiched between the Golden Boy and a child prodigy.”

“I’m friends with Dick too, and trust me, he might not show it especially around you, but he’s got his issues too. As for the new guy? Well, certifiable geniuses are overrated and can fuck up just as easily. I mean, look at me!” Roy shrugs, the smile on his face wavering for just a second, “I fuck up at least twice before breakfast.”

“Roy…”

“Oh, I got it!” The older teen slaps his hands together, interrupting whatever his friend was about to say. “I’m calling my guy Arsenal. Red Hood and Arsenal...got a ring to it, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, it does. I like it,” Jason nods and turns to face his own screen. “Now let’s go kick some ass!”

-----

They were in the middle of their first boss battle when they hear a set of stern knocks on the door.

“Oh shit! That’s faster than I thought!” Roy scrambles to sit up from his seat and in the process knocks over a cup of water.

“Bruce probably took the private jet...”

“Pfft, billionaires. Okay, Jaybird, dive under that cover!”

“What? Like that’s gonna do any--”

The knocks intensify and finally, a defeated Roy drags his feet to the door. It opens to a pair of foreboding men with grim expressions. “Umm...I’m not sure if my apartment is insured to have more than one billionaire within its walls,” Roy gulps meekly before Bruce Wayne walks past him without an invitation. He’s followed shortly by Oliver Queen, who raises a brow and gives Roy a look that promises they’ll be having a chat about the lie later.

The corners of his mouth are turned down as Bruce peers down at his son. The man can talk circle around the boardroom or any social function, but not when it requires something more...genuine.

Jason returns the stare with his chin up, not willing to give ground, and the air between them is filled with tension. Back at the hospital, the teenager had been either too medicated or just doesn’t care enough for his father’s answers to look him in the face. Now that he’s staring back, he notices subtle changes to his appearance.

For one, he can see the few strands of grey hair untucked from around his father’s temples; they weren’t there before. Neither were the fine wrinkles around his chiseled face. It seems as if Bruce had aged more than the one year Jason was in a coma. He looks bone-weary, but more than that, there’s also a new apprehension behind his gaze.

With a startling realization, Jason identifies the emotion behind his eyes; Bruce is afraid of what he might say.

“Hey, old man,” he greets simply--his tone almost skittish, unsure.

The effect of the familiar term on Bruce is dramatic as his entire body visibly relaxes. At the end of the day, Jason will go hug Alfred and reassure the elderly butler that he’s alright and apologize for making him worry, but between the two of them, this is as close to an apology as he will get.

“Ready to come home?”

Jason nods once and allows Bruce to guide him out the door with a hand on his shoulder. He turns to say goodbye to his friend only to see a bemused expression on his face. Evidently, Roy expected more than just two simple phrases for their dramatic reunion.

Still, he shouts, “Hey Jaybird, if you’re not grounded for the rest of your life, get online! We still need to defeat that army of evil French mimes!”

There’s almost a twinkle in his eyes when Bruce verifies, “Evil mimes, really? That’s a pretty offensive French stereotype.”

And Jason can’t help but crack a smile.

Chapter Text

::::Age 18::::

“Hey, does Bruce know that you’re here?”

The first thing that goes through Roy’s mind when he wakes up in a hospital from drug overdose is to poke fun at the best friend sitting next to him. He tries to follow up with a light-hearted chuckle, but it comes out as a string of dry coughs instead.

“Very funny, Roy,” Jason rolls his eyes and hands him a glass of water from the bedside table.

This time, not only does Bruce know he’s here, he didn’t even try to stop him after relaying the message from Oliver Queen. Jason appreciated that, even if he only replied with a curt, I’m going, to his father before packing his bags and taking the first flight out to Star City. He fidgeted restlessly the entirety of the flight as he thought about what to say to his friend once he’s there. Cheer him up? Express worry? Disappointment? Different threads of conversation battled in his mind, but one thing he knew for sure: he needed to be there for him. Jason arrived by Roy’s side before he even woke up.

“I should’ve told you,” Roy announces out loud without looking at him. “But with what happened to your mother and everything...I didn’t want to dredge all that up, y’know?”

“You don’t need to justify it,” Jason replies while also avoiding eye-contact. It’s true, there are parts of his early childhood he’d rather not remember; his mother dying in his arms from overdose is one of them. But even as a young child he knew...as much as his mother loved him, needed him , she felt she needed whatever the drugs gave her more. He couldn’t stop her from taking in the poison that made her feel alive, no one could, except for her.

“You’re my best friend and I should’ve told you,” Roy repeats. This time his eyes dart to his friend for a quick second before looking back down at his hands.

Jason doesn’t feel like he deserves that title at the moment. Ever since his little episode following the coma, life back at Wayne Manor resumed as usual, sort of. He still played Outlaws online with Roy whenever he can, and those hours spent in a virtual world where they were bigger than life kept him trudging through the banal routines of fake smiles and tall expectations.

Between adjusting to life with a new brother, catching up on missing school work, and all the obligations assigned to a son of Bruce Wayne’s, Jason has been very busy. The past few months while he’s been taking exams and preparing to enter university, he hasn’t even had time to see Roy in person. He didn’t even notice when Roy dropped off the bandwagon until Oliver phoned Bruce.

He squirms in the visitor's seat and confesses, “I haven’t been a very good friend, Roy. I just...I don’t know...wish I could’ve helped, somehow.”

“Fuck,” Roy covers his face with his palms, jerking the IV needle with his movement. “I didn’t want you to know because I feel like such a goddamn loser .”

“You’re not,” Jason tells him with an unwavering tone. “You’re one of the bravest people I know.”

The redhead turns to him despite feeling uneasy by the display of sincerity. The corners of his eyes are slightly damp but after a moment, a smile blossoms onto his freckled-face. “So much for my air of mystique, huh?” His voice is light even as he laments, “I’ve got no more secrets. You got anything you wanna share so I don’t feel left out?”

Feeling flustered at being put on the spot, Jason turns away again and murmurs, “Well...I’m gay.”

“Wait, what? Since when?” Roy blinks, surprised that his rhetorical question received an admission of this magnitude.

“Been a while, I guess. But it’s not like I got the time nor the interest to date right now...at least not while I’m living at home.” Jason feels some tension lifted from his shoulders even if his hands still sit restlessly on his knees. He had wanted to tell Roy the truth, but he felt admitting something like this over an online game would only invite at best disbelief, and worst, a good-humored ribbing. He wipes his sweaty palms onto his jeans and wills his fingers to stop fidgeting.

Roy burst out laughing then winces as the movements stretched sore muscles. “Yeah, sorry, I just pictured you bringing a date home to see Billionaire Bruce Wayne. Talk about intimidating…”

“Exactly,” Jason wrinkles his nose. “Anyway, I haven’t really told anyone, but I suspect my family figured it out themselves. They’re very--”

“--Nosy,” Roy finishes for him.

“I was going to say ‘perceptive’, but sure, that too,” Jason admits. “I mean, Dick came out as Bi- years ago, so it’s not like I’m even breaking new grounds. He just, like, blurted it out over Sunday brunch one day, and while I was half-choking on my food from the abruptness of the announcement, you know what our butler said? He said, ‘Master Dick has too much love to offer. No sense in limiting it to just half the population,’ and that was that! So, I’m not even sure why I’m making such a big deal of--”

“I feel like I should’ve known,” Roy interrupts him. He hadn’t heard a single word of Jason’s nervous rambling as he’s busy mentally kicking himself for his lack of awareness. He knows every single item in Red Hood’s inventory and their tradeoffs (seriously, he has an excel sheet comparing all the virtual equipment in Outlaws as well as how to acquire them), but he didn’t realize his best friend was gay?

“Well, I feel like I should’ve known about the drugs!” Jason counters with a frown of his own.

The two turn to stare sternly at one another until, after a stretch of time, a slight chortle escapes Roy and turns into full-on laughter. “Touche. I suppose that makes us even?” He fluffs up the pillow behind him to get more comfortable and sinks into it with a soft sigh, all concerns temporarily forgotten.  

“Actually, there’s something else,” Jason crosses his arms and braces for oncoming questions. “I told Bruce I’m not going to Gotham U. I’m going to study here, in Star City, instead.”

“Whoa, when did this happen?” Roy props up onto his elbows. “I thought your dad wanted you around Gotham to work at the company in between classes?”

“I phoned him just before you woke up. Yeah, he wasn’t thrilled about it, but it’s my life,” Jason states matter-of-factly. The actual conversation between him and Bruce was much more intense and he didn’t have the upper hand until he pulled the ‘but-Dick-got-to-leave-Gotham’ card, reluctantly. He even filtered in just the right combination of indignation, whining, and bubbling resentment into his voice. Even as he felt gross for manipulating his father, he was glad to hear the deep sigh on the other end of the call signaling his victory.

“And I figured, if I’m going to be here,” Jason continues with a casual shrug of his shoulder, “--that we can be roommates, what do you think? I’m pretty sure I can get Tim to help me move. Turns out, he’s not completely useless after all.”

After the initial friction of living with his ‘replacement’, Jason quickly realized that the kid wished for his return just as much as the rest of the family. Brilliant, considerate, and pragmatic (an asset Jason values), they soon learned to team up to get around Bruce’s many rules. Every so often, Tim even joins him and Roy to play Outlaws with his character “Red Robin”, which led to Roy mocking the brothers for their lack of creativity. Brothers , yeah, Jason guesses that’s what they are now, and he can no longer imagine a life without Tim.

“Well, it would be amazing to have you around all the time, but…” Roy scratches an itch on his shoulder as he struggles to come up with the right words. His expression hardens to a grimace as he asks his friend, “You know you don’t need to keep an eye on me, right?”

“Roy,” Jason leaves his seat and stammers, “I don’t mean--”

Before he can finish his sentence, Roy reaches his arm out and takes his wrist with something like an apology on his face. “Hey, I appreciate it, Jaybird. Really. Thank you .”

Jason exhales a breath he didn’t know he was holding and returns half a smile, “Don’t get sappy on me, Arsenal.”

“Nah, you’re gonna get a full exposure of sap when you move in with me, so you might as well get used to it now.”

 

::::Age 19::::

 

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“What, spend Christmas at the Waynes? Hell yes!” Roy rejoices with an exaggerated nod. His fingers dance on the steering wheel along with the music from their rental car. “Every time I visit, I realize my relationship with Ollie is not so screwed up after all.”

“Fuck you!” Jason flips him the bird which Roy immediately attempts to slap away with one hand, causing them to almost miss their turn onto the stone-paved road.  

Jason had promised Alfred, twice, that he’d visit for the holidays. While there’s no doubt that Jason loves his family--would go to hell and back for them, even--sometimes he can only take them in small doses. Still, a promise is a promise, even if he’s preparing himself for headaches. To make matters worse, after learning his plans, Roy insisted on tagging along and invited himself.

“Don’t mention it,” Roy lets out a shit-eating-grin and adjusts his trucker cap to block out stray rays of the afternoon sun. “Besides, I get to meet the baby brother you’ve been complaining about. I mean, the main attraction in the biggest and most expensive custody battle ever? That I gotta see.”

“Heh, don’t let him hear you call him that. Man, after I met the demon brat, I told Tim I’m taking back every negative word I ever said to him.”

“I swear, Jaybird, for a family that likes its privacy, you guys are in the tabloids a lot.”

Jason groans and sinks further into the passenger’s seat. “Dude, just keep your eyes on the road.”

“Oh man, you remember all that zombie boy shit from a few years back? Can’t remember which tabloid it was, but there was this photo of you on the cover crawling out of a grave...A fucking grave! Like, supposedly, you dug yourself out of the coffin with your bare fingers. I mean, that’s pretty hardcore.”

“Actually, I do remember that one,” Jason recalls with a lopsided grin. “That photoshop job was decent, but I think most conspiracy theorists believed I was revived in this ancient mystical pool...or something.”

“Yeah, well, reality is often less entertaining.”

--------

“Master Jason, welcome home!” An elderly man dressed in a formal suit greets them at the entrance of the manor. “Your old room is all prepared for you. And Master Harper, we’re so glad to have you join us for the holidays.”

Jason leans in to embrace the man who’s only butler in name, but really is like a grandfather to him--a man who never asked to raise so many children, nonetheless, became the emotional rock and glue for the whole family. “Hey Alfred, it’s good to see you.”

“I hope you’ve been taking good care of yourself in Star City, dear boy,” Alfred asks while reaching for the bags in Jason’s hands. He got the hint, however, when Jason pulls them out of reach immediately.

“Don’t worry,” the young man smiles and gestures to his roommate with his thumb. “Besides, I’ve got this one watching out for me too.”

“It hasn’t been easy,” Roy chips in proudly and wraps an arm around his friend. “Jay’s such a workaholic, I’ve had to drag him home from the library so he can actually sleep in a bed for once!”

“Ah, thank goodness for that,” the butler beams. “I’m afraid the boys picked up their work ethics from their father...and so it wouldn’t surprise you to hear that Master Bruce won’t be home until tomorrow morning due to wrapping up last minute work at the office. However, you will find the rest of the family and other guests down in the gym.”

“In the gym?” Roy questions.

“Yeah, I’ll show you,” Jason grins and pulls him along.

--------

While the original structure of Wayne Manor is somber in all its marble and dark oak, its sublevel has been converted into a high-tech playground as well as a brightly-lit gym with high ceilings. While the facility has enough equipment to produce Olympic level athletes—weights, trampolines, high bars— the small crowd of half a dozen people currently has their attention drawn to the center of a large sparring mat.

The commotions stop on the mat as the group notices the two newcomers. Dick, the eldest of Wayne’s sons and a natural leader takes on the role of the host and waves them over. He introduces everyone to Roy one by one, but Roy immediately forgets all the names save for the people he knew already and the blue-haired girl whose name is identical to his last name. That he can manage.

“Wait, hold on, I know some families run marathons after Thanksgiving and I think that ’s cruel and unusual already, but this? This takes the cake,” Roy stares at the group with wide-eyes after learning why they’ve gathered at the gym. “What kind of family has sparring competitions over Christmas?”

“Ever since the tragedy with his parents, Bruce has been very... proactive about self-defense,” Dick explains while trying not to laugh at his old friend’s bewildered expression. “He also had us involved in intensive combat training, even if we weren’t allowed to flaunt these skills publicly...Something about kidnappers targeting the friends and family of billionaires. Anyway, we practice regularly and eventually, it just became a family tradition.”

The redhead blinks slowly as he takes in this information. He looks between Jason and Dick and remains unconvinced.

“We’re only practicing right now, the actual competition isn't until later.” Dick nudges him in the ribs with his elbow. “You’ll be participating, right, Roy? The winner gets a special present!”

Jason looks around the vast gym and asks, “Hey, where’s Tim?”

“Out with Spoiler doing last minute Christmas shopping; they’ll be back in a few hours.”

“Oh, are they official now?”

Roy interrupts them with his own question, “Who, or what is Spoiler?”

“Oh, that’s Tim’s girlfriend, Stephanie Brown,” Dick laughs. “Jay and I call her Spoiler ever since she spoiled the ending to that fantasy drama we’ve been watching.”

“Yeah, I’m still butthurt about it. She claimed that the novels the show’s based on have been out for years, so she can just blurt out the ending,” Jason grumbles with his arms crossed.

The youngest of the group, a short boy with spiky black hair walks over and gives Roy a quick look over. He turns his nose up and scoffs, “That trucker hat looks stupid, what are you, a Redneck?”

Ah, the infamous demon brat. On one hand, Roy can sympathize with a boy stuck in the custody battle between two rich and high-profile parents. On the other hand, he isn’t just going to let a kid who doesn’t even reach his armpits walk all over him. He puffs out his chest and counters, “What’s stupid is a kid who thinks I won’t kick his ass because he’s a kid!”

“Oh, you better watch it, Roy!” Jason mocks in a baby-voice, “Damien here is a master ninja assassin !”

“Shut up, Todd!” The boy glares daggers at the duo, and even Dick frowns at them disapprovingly like a mother hen trying to keep the peace.

Jason whispers to Roy, “Before Damien came here, his mother used to drop him off at one of those ninja boot camps, so the kid thinks he’s tough shit.”

“I don’t know, something about his attitude reminds me of you when you were younger,” Roy shrugs with a grin, knowingly pushing his roommate’s button, and now it’s Jason’s turn to glare at him.

“Oh, don’t even go there.”

“Ahem,” Roy coughs abruptly and turns back to the others in an effort to change the subject. “So, who won the tournament last year?”

For a moment, the idle chatter ceases around them and the group slowly turn their gaze towards a slim Asian girl who up until now has been a wallflower enjoying the conversations without speaking a word. Noticing the attention on her now, she simply raises her hand with a small smile and sparkles in her eyes.

--------

“That honey glazed-ham was amaaazing!” Roy sings-songs the last word like a devout church choir on Sunday. “Honestly, I don’t know how your family isn’t obese with all this deliciousness surrounding you guys.”

“Wait ‘til you try Alfred’s Beef Wellington. It’s worth coming home just for that,” Jason grunts pleasantly.

Over-zealous from a rare full-house, Alfred outdid himself with a full feast that took the better part of the day to prepare. Even then, the old butler promises yet another feast the next day with new recipes and old favorites. After nearly a year of fast food from the university cafeteria and whatever meal he manages to whip up in the inadequate kitchen he shares with Roy, Jason couldn’t help but eat past what’s comfortable tonight.

The two make their way upstairs to the bedrooms. With a hand on the stair railing to brace himself, Jason says, “Anyway, you should probably head to bed early. After all, you drove most of the way here.”

“It’s still early! Besides, I want to see your old collection of games, if you still have it?”

“Obviously, I do,” Jason replies. “Let’s go, you know the way.”

He’s in a good mood, in fact, he’s downright giddy. Delicious dinner aside, Jason realized while talking to Dick earlier in the gym that he’s now taller than his older brother. And despite not having easy access to the extensive gym in the Wayne Mansion this past year, Jason has worked hard to bulk up his muscles. The results are evident when standing next to his brother; not only is he more muscular (a brawler’s physique compared to Dick’s gymnast one), he’s now also taller. It’s almost as if karma decided to repay him for the shitty hand it dealt him earlier.

The door to his old bedroom barely cracks open before Roy pushes past him toward the shelf with his old game collection. “No way! You still have Super Hero Bros ! Man, how much time did we spend playing this in your room?”

“Way too much,” Jason glances around his old room in nostalgia. “To this day, Dick’s still convinced that this game’s the reason I swear so much.”

Roy laughs and plops down onto the king-size bed (a far cry from the singles in the apartment they share). “You know we have to replay the game now, right? For old time’s sake?”

“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea,” Jason hesitates, glancing at the clock.  Yet, he finds himself unable to refuse the enthusiasm and sheer joy on his best friend’s face. “Well, maybe just first campaign.”

--------

The next time Jason looks up to check the clock, it was ludicrously late. As they advanced through the old game, he had been briefing Roy on the strengths and weaknesses of each potential opponents in the upcoming sparring competition. He may or may not have a bet with Dick on how many people Roy can defeat.

“So, like I said, Duke’s fast on his feet, but he’s also the most inexperienced combat-wise, even compared to Damien. And since Dick taught him a lot of evasion moves, as with Dick, grappling is your best bet. Don’t let them dance around looking for an opening, immobilize a limb then--Roy, are even you listening to me?” Jason nudges his friend. “Hey!”

“Oh, sorry,” Roy straightens up and stretches his neck to one side. “Man, I almost dozed off. I remember the graphics being so much more realistic, but now it’s like, retro. Holy shit, look at the time!”

“Yeah, we really should sleep. Your bedroom’s at the end of the hall,” Jason says, trying to stifle a yawn.

“Down the hall? In this big mansion? That is so far!” Roy whines. “Can I just sleep here? The bed’s big enough.”

Jason was about to refuse with a line about suffering the consequences of one's actions when Roy stretches onto the bed with a happy sigh, taking over more than half of it and rubbing his face on one of the numerous pillows. “Fine, but move over to one side,” Jason mumbles in defeat and pushes Roy away from the center of the bed.

“Goodnight, Jaybird,” Roy grins widely.  

Jason snorts in response and turns off the light. He settles onto the vacant part of the bed and finds a comfortable position on his side when a question hits him. “Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask: what the fuck does that nickname mean? Why a bird ? I have absolutely no connection to birds.”

“It’s just a nickname, you bird-brain,” Roy teases. He then tries to kick him with one foot and misses.

“Just admit it, you also lack creativity when it comes to names, so don’t you give me more grief about Red Hood.

“Fine, but now it’s my turn to ask a question.”

“Oh, is that what we’re doing now instead of sleeping?” Jason groans and covers his face with the crook of his elbow.

The room is pitch black, and while he can’t see the expression on Roy’s face, he can hear the drawn out hesitation before the barely audible question, “You like guys, so how come you never made a pass at me?”  

All traces of drowsiness evaporated in an instant, and Jason hears his own thunderous heartbeat against his eardrums, steadily increasing in tempo. He sucks in a shaky breath and replies, “...Because you’re not gay?”

“Says who?”

“Says the porn you watch. We live together and you don’t exactly hide what’s on your laptop.”

“Oh.”

Yeah, oh.

For a moment, there are only the soft sounds of two people breathing in tandem. Jason thinks that settles the case. It’s not unusual for Roy to ask random rhetorical questions. He probably just blurted out the first inane question that popped into his sleep-deprived mind. It doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. Jason almost convinces himself of that, but then Roy’s voice once again sparks in the darkness.  

“Yeah, I do love soft curves, but, I don’t know...I think it’d be different if it’s you, y’know? Not any random guy off the street, just you. It’d be about making you feel good, and well, I like doing that…”

The voice trails off and Jason cannot breathe. The dark room seems to expand exponentially on all sides as he sinks further into the bed, paralyzed. Of course he had thought about his best friend romantically. It started off innocently enough: wanting to spend more time with him; wanting to run his fingers through the wild ginger tangles and count each and every freckle on his sun-kissed skin.

Jason figured it was just a puppy crush triggered by the loneliness and shellshock of an orphan adjusting to a drastically new life, but the desire only intensified after he returned to the land of the living. Yet, even early on, it was painfully obvious that Roy prefers girls...girls who giggle at his jokes, girls with fiery intensity in their eyes and a personality to match. Girls.

That day as he sat in the hospital waiting for Roy to open his eyes, Jason made a vow. He will not betray their friendship by revealing this overreaching desire. One is lucky enough to have someone like Roy as a friend, why would he ever jeopardize that? He won’t deceive him by being a friend with ulterior motives. It would be sacrilege to desire more when he already has more than he deserves.

And there are songs that cannot be unsung.

“Roy...I…” Jason croaks faintly. His throat is dry and it takes all the strength he has to just say his name. Then he notices the steady breathing pattern from the other man and the soft snore that punctuated every exhale. Roy had fallen asleep waiting for an answer that never came.

Relief washes over Jason; relief and disappointment. As his eyes adjust to the darkness, he can see the sleeping form of his best friend with his back towards him, barely an arm’s reach away. It would be so easy to just roll over and drape an arm across his waist and feel the rise and fall of each breath. He could press his face against his bare nape and take in that comforting, familiar scent. Yet, the small chasm between them feels insurmountable so Jason closes his eyes and shuts away traces of false hope and drifts off into a dreamless sleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

There are no changes to Roy’s demeanor the morning after his late night declaration, it’s as if Jason had imagined the whole damn thing. Sure, he’s glad there isn’t awkwardness between them, but he can’t quite shake off the vague sense of loss either.

During brunch, Damien (whose bedroom is next to Roy’s unused guest room) announces that he happened to glance into the room while passing it, and since “there’s no way that Redneck could replicate Alfred’s pristine hospital corners”, the undisturbed bed means he didn’t spend the night there.

Of course, Roy then makes everything much worse with his oblivious reply of “Umm, yeah? ‘Cause I slept with Jason last night?”

Time itself slows to a crawl as Jason frantically explains the woeful misunderstanding to an entire room of raised-brows and dropped jaws. Much to his annoyance, Roy finds the entire situation hilarious and giggled on the sideline instead of helping him diffuse. The whole room comes alive with festivity as family and friends laughed and Jason thinks if it wasn’t at his expense, it might even be a heartwarming scene.

 

--------Age 19-22--------

 

The moment Jason met her, he knew Roy would fall hard. She is exactly his type: curves in all the right places and a personality that matches her long fiery hair. She even moves with such grace and elegance that she can turn the mundane action of walking across the room look like she’s gliding across, floating.

Kori is simply out of this world.

She’s not without her faults, of course. Jason thinks her over the top spray tan gives her skin an unnatural orangey-hue and her obsession with the latest health fad has her consuming bizarre food like marmite spreads and wheat-grass juice. She offered the green liquid to Jason once, and after trying it, he promptly declares that no other human could drink that with a smile on their face the way Kori could.

Yet, Kori has a warm personality and Jason finds it difficult to begrudge her for obtaining something he never fought for nor possess. He likes the way she says his name, melodic and joyful. She loves him too, in her own way. One night after dinner and a bottle of fine wine imported from her country, she confesses that he was the first person she’s only known as a friend after arriving in the city.

There are moments when Jason feels like a third-wheel in their apartment, but those moments aren’t as frequent as he expected even after she moved in with them. The three of them eventually settle into an odd domestic routine. Roy even sets up three “battle stations” in the living room, top of the line gaming PCs side-by-side, so they can play “Outlaws” together as a team.

“Why does my character have half her butt on display? And you know boobs don’t look like that, especially while flying around, right?” Kori’s delicate features scrunch up as she sighs. “I like the look of Red Hood’s leather jacket, why can’t I equip something like that?”

“Umm, no babe,” Roy chuckles like she just made a joke. “Red Hood’s in the Marksman class with the Gadgeteer proficiency, but your Starfire is an Energy-Generating alien with the power of flight! Since she’s alien, the laws of Earth physics obviously don’t affect her, so it’s a feature, not a bug. Also, Starfire’s outfit is a drop from a legendary loot that was only available during the limited Tamarian event! Trust me, you’ll want this when we go up against the Crux; I’ve min/maxed it.”

"Jason?” Her bright green eyes look to him for a translation.

“Her chest is designed to appeal to the game’s target demographic,” Jason explains while rapidly clicking on the mouse to dodge oncoming attacks in the game. “Weapons and armors are specific to the job class and are not transferable; our characters are in different classes. Roy compared all the equipment stats, and this rare armor is the best for Starfire.”

He hears her mutter something under her breath about unrealistic and overly sexualized armor so he adds, “If Roy’s archer can wear that latex bikini and knee-high boots for those stats, he’d wear it all day long.”

“It’s true, I would,” Roy chimes in without peeling his eyes away from his screen.

Yet, despite her complaints about the game, she nevertheless keeps playing with them--a deed which Jason appreciates even more than her occasional superpower of forcing Roy to do his share of chores.

 

--------

 

Jason doesn’t have the time nor the inclination to date , so when the urge for physical release strikes, he placates it with one night stands and hook-ups. It’s simpler this way; there’s no need for awkward meetings as both parties dance around posing as the best version of themselves, if not pretending to be someone else altogether. Without unnecessary emotional attachments, the whole thing feels oddly like a business arrangement.

His roommates are well aware of his activities, not that he particularly hides nor flaunts them. Instead of treating the encounters as a topic of taboo, Roy faces them with friendly curiosity and casual indifference. Not that Jason would expect him to feel otherwise, why would he?

“You can tell him to spend the night, y’know?” Roy says while leaning against the kitchen counter and munching on a handful of chips.  

“Who?”

“Your beefy, gothy fling? I noticed that he usually bails before midnight...think I’ll call him the Midnighter,” Roy chuckles at his own wit.  

“First of all, he isn’t a Goth,” Jason snorts and goes back to reading his textbook on the couch. His latest fling, as Roy calls it, is a computer system analyst and an ex-colleague of Dick’s, who had introduced them. The guy usually sports a dark outfit along with a black trenchcoat, so he doesn’t blame his roommate for his assumption. “Second, he won’t be coming around anymore. He’s settled down with, if you can believe it, someone with a very sunny disposition.”

“You okay with that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

A small frown appears on Roy’s face as he flicks chip seasoning off his shirt. “Hmm...I just don’t think I can do that.”

“What, sleep around?”

“Be with someone without getting emotionally attached.”

“Well, I should consider myself lucky for being emotionally stunted then,” Jason half-jokes, but Roy seems to have missed the humor entirely and deepens his frown instead.

For a moment, it looks like the redhead would say something, but then the door of their apartment opens and Kori returns with her arms full of groceries. Roy hurries over to help her and Jason returns to his book without another word.

 

--------

 

“Jason? We were wondering if you would like to join us?” Kori asks him one night as he returns home from an evening lecture.

“Oh, I ate before coming back,” he replies as he bends down to unlace his boots. The lighting in the apartment is half-dimmed and he pauses in mild confusion as both his roommates walk over, one lifting his laptop bag from him and setting it on the counter while the other helps him remove his coat.

“Actually,” Roy says, gulping once, his cheeks a shade that matches his hair. “We’re wondering if you’d join us for a threesome.”

“A what?”

“A threesome, Jaybird. Y’know, sexual activity involving three people at the same time.”

“Yeah, I know what a threesome is, Roy ,” Jason mutters in indignation and tries to regain his composure. “What, umm, what brought this up?”

Kori puts her fingers on his stiff shoulders, massaging lightly while ushering him further into the apartment. “Aren’t you curious? It is something Roy and I have never tried before, and we’d like it to be with someone we know and trust.”

Jason has an odd suspicion that these replies are rehearsed as Roy immediately follows Kori’s words with, “I know you’re very busy with the final stretch of your degree, Jaybird, but when’s the last time we spent quality time together at home? This might take your mind off your classes and help you relax for once. What do you say?”

He’s almost in a trance as his roommates subtly guide him to their bedroom, their movements growing bolder by the second, encouraged by his lack of resistance. Jason has spent the past four hours sitting in a lecture about the finer points of statistical analysis in technology management and had planned on turning off his brain and vegetating when he came home. His fried-mind can’t quite follow the sudden twist in development. It takes Roy in front of him unfastening three of his shirt buttons and Kori behind him wrapping her arms around unbuckling his belt before his mind finally processes what’s happening.   

“Wait…”

“Oh, don’t be shy, I’ve seen you naked,” Roy jokes, but his fingers hesitate, lingering over the last button.

“You mean the time you burst into the bathroom to show me the latest upgrade on your flamethrower while I was showering?”

“Umm...I wasn’t thinking about that incident, per se,” Roy flashes a toothy smile as the shared-memory puts him at ease and his fingers continue their work removing Jason’s shirt. “But you can be sure that you don’t have any secrets from me.”

Their bedroom smells like them: warm and comforting. With Kori leaning so close, Jason can also smell the unique fragrance from her hair which reminds him of sweet lemonade in the scorching summer heat. Her soft breasts press up behind him and the pads of her fingers feel like the surface of the sun as she reaches around to touch his bare chest.

She whispers into his ear like she’s sharing a playful secret, “I bought a toy with you in mind, Jason. Let me take you from behind while you use your mouth on Roy, hmm?”

Jason can picture himself on all fours between them, the three of them rocking together in synchronization. He sucks in a breath as a wave of desire ripples through him. Roy cradles his face between calloused palms and leans in to press their lips together in a soft, chaste kiss. Oh , he tastes just like what Jason’s always imagined it and more, and he has to shut his eyes from the intensity of it.

“Don’t you want this?” Roy whispers huskily, lips still just mere millimeters from his, and Jason can feel every syllable.

I do, comes the immediate thought, but then a chill begins to spread.

What if he does want this--realize he can’t live without it--when the couple just wants to explore this experience once? He wonders whose idea it is, Roy or Kori, and if that matters at all. Jason doesn’t want to be a prop, a landmark on a sexual journey the couple can look back and reminisce fondly together.

Like drugs and other addictions, the best way to avoid it is to not try at all.

“Yeah, sorry guys...it’s flattering and all, but this is just too weird for me,” Jason apologizes with a smile that fails to reach his eyes then removes himself from his place between the two. The redheads give each other a quick look and freeze.

Jason leans down to retrieve his shirt on the ground and drapes it over his shoulders like a shell. “I mean, I live with you guys. Besides, I’m exhausted and I still have a term paper to do. But go ahead, don’t let me stop your fun.”

He then retreats to the door without giving either of them an opening to say anything that would change his mind. Without looking at their expressions, he leaves and closes the door with a soft click, leaving the two in their dim room.

Back in his own bedroom, Jason’s hands tremble as they hover over the keyboard of his laptop. He reads and rereads the last line he typed on the screen, but the words make no sense. What the fuck is wrong with me? He closes his eyes to try and focus, then failing that, he shuts his laptop with a frustrated snap. After he makes sure there are no commotions out in the living room and kitchen, he exits his room and the apartment and spends the night in a stranger’s bed, trying to forget the feel of Roy’s lips.  

 

--------

 

Like a flash of meteor in the sky, as sudden as Kori had come into their lives, she was gone.

They know from the start that it wouldn’t last forever. Kori bids them farewell and returns to her home country as soon as her work visa expired. Right before she left, the boys threw her a goodbye party fit for a queen. She and all her friends drank and danced all night--a fitting final hoorah for Starfire...and life goes on.

One cloudy afternoon a week later, Jason comes home from class to find Roy passed out on the floor of their living room. The form of his best friend on the ground triggers a memory he has of him as a child finding his mother on the bathroom tiles out cold from drugs. He feels like he got punched in the gut as he rushes over to Roy, who turns out to only be drunk.

They sit on the floor as Jason holds him in his arms and begins to rock him gently. “Well, from now on,” he says in an attempt to cheer Roy up, “You’ll be the only one to blame for all that red hair clogging the shower drain.”

Roy begins to chuckles, but before Jason can pat himself on the back, that chuckle turns into full-blown sobbing. His body shakes violently and Jason can only hold on tight.

“You can marry her,” Jason suggests, switching into problem solving mode. “Get her a spouse visa; ask her to immigrate here for good. Or, you can move to be with her.”

Roy shakes his head and continues to weep, hiding his face in the crook of his friend’s elbow and smearing the inside with hot tears. They both know Kori’s a free spirit, not ready to be tied down by marriage. Their tiny apartment feels too big and empty without her, and Roy, for whatever reason, can’t seem to leave his life here behind either.

Jason tries to console his friend again, this time with a philosophical angle. “People come and go...but that doesn’t diminish the good times together or the impact they had on us, right?”

“When you realize you’re too good for me, you’d leave too.”

“You know I wouldn’t,” Jason chides Roy’s self-loathing attitude. “Besides, that’s not what Kori did. She didn’t leave you , she was always forthcoming with her plans to move back eventually. I thought you knew this going in?”

“...I’m sorry, I know I’m being clingy. Just leave me to mope...I’ll be fine in a bit, really!”

Despite those words, neither of them move. In fact, Roy turns to face Jason and leans his wet cheek against the nook of his neck, pressing his lips next to his collarbone. Realizing how physically intimate their new position is, Jason’s mouth goes dry. He feels disgusted with himself for having this reaction during his best friend’s moment of vulnerability. He just hopes Roy’s too oblivious to notice the rapid increase of his heart rate.

“Have you thought about what you’re gonna do when you graduate?” Roy’s words are hot on his skin, and Jason finds it difficult to breathe now that his friend has wrapped his arms tightly around his ribcage

“I don’t know yet. Find a job? Bruce always planned for me to return and work at Wayne Enterprises. And Dick said I can always move to Bludhaven and work with him on his startup if I wanted...” Jason ponders for a moment, his voice unsure. It’s weird, before he died, working with Bruce was all he ever wanted. But now?

“I know other people would consider themselves lucky to have these offers, but honestly, between the two of them, I’m not sure who would micromanage me more,” Jason laments with a shake of his head and a wistful smile.

“You can always start your own company like Dick, be your own boss. You’d be amazing at it,” Roy pipes up. For the first time since Kori left, the sound of optimism bleeds back into his voice. “I’m so tired of Ollie treating me like his sidekick even after all I do for his R&D department, I can come work for you!”

“God no, I wouldn’t hire you to work for me.”

“Oh.”

“We’d be equal partners.”

 

--------

 

“Congratulations on finally getting that expensive piece of paper! Not too shabby, Salutatorian!” Roy cheers, toasting Jason with a pint of beer. The two of them are at a semi-fancy restaurant celebrating Jason’s graduation.

Jason sips on his beer and muses, “You know what’s funny? You’d think I’m used to being second place after all these years, but somehow it still gets to me.”

After they gorged themselves on roasted pork tenderloin and succulent lamb chops (not as tender as how Alfred makes it, but not half bad), Jason asks his best friend a question he knows the answers to: “You got room for dessert?”

“Duh! But, before that…” Roy trails off as he gets up from his seat, his fork and knife clatter loudly on the table as he did so. He walks over to Jason and drops down on one knee.

Idle chatter around them screeches to a halt as other restaurant patrons turn to stare. Jason can see a woman gasp and nudge for her friend’s attention. Another guy nearby starts recording on his phone, none too subtly.  

“Jason Peter Todd, will you do me the honor of making me the luckiest man alive and be my lawful business partner?” Roy asks in one single shaky breath and pulls a small velvet box from his pocket. He opens it to reveal a pair of identical keys on plush cushion. “These are the keys to our new life and office.”

“Jesus Christ, Roy!” Jason hisses. The rush of blood to his head is making the room spin and he wonders if he should stab his best friend with the steak knife for this practical joke. “Get the fuck up, people think you’re proposing!”

“Well, they say marriage used to be a business transaction, right?” Roy winks, obviously enjoying the bright flush on his face. “Let’s work together from this day forward, for richer or poorer, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and health, till death do us apart? Or...at least until someone buys us out for a truckload of cash and then we start over with a new company?”

Jason just stares at him and the keys, completely stunned.

“Jaybird,” Roy breathes, the grin on his face starting to falter. “Please say--”

“--Yes.”  

The tables around them erupt into confused applause as Roy stands up and pulls him into a tight embrace. Jason fails to keep his tidal waves of emotions in check and a smile blooms on his face. He whispers under his breath, “You know I’m going to kill you later for this, right?”

“So worth it,” Roy replies.  

 

 

Chapter Text

 

--------Age 22--------

“Okay, I’m sure it looks better on the inside !” Roy’s optimistic tone does not match his expression, but it’s still better than the grimace on his business partner’s face as they arrive at the site of their newly rented office.

“I still can’t believe you paid the deposit for this place sight unseen,” Jason groans as he fishes for the key in his pocket and finds it. It’s difficult to be upset with his best friend while he’s holding the office key--the matching pair to Roy’s--even if he feels foolish for being so sentimental about such a mundane item.  

“Eh, you know me, can’t let a good deal pass me by!”

They received a drastic discount on their lease for a good reason. The location is a block away from what used to be the nefarious “Crime Alley” of Gotham, which has recently been renamed “Newman Lane”. This is one of the last places in Gotham to be gentrified, and the landlord slashed the rental price in an effort to attract small businesses to the area. Unbeknown to Roy, this was also Jason’s old neighborhood and the place he met Bruce the fateful day he tried to steal the wheels off his car.

Roy nudges him as he unlocks the office and suggests, “C’mon Jaybird, I’ll even carry you through the door bridal style!”

“That’s a hard pass,” Jason brushes him off. “Even if you could lift me, you’d probably bang my head against the door frame going in.”

It’s strange to return here after all these years. Jason peers through a grime-covered window and searches for the condemned building where he and his mother used to live. But it seems like those buildings were torn down years ago during the city’s revitalization efforts. Even the homeless population on these streets (in which Jason had once been counted among them after his mother died) have been dispersed through various social services. With a soft sigh, Jason acknowledges that the place of his early childhood is gone.

While the city might have cleaned up the area around “Crime Alley”, the inside of the office is anything but clean. Piles of abandoned electronic and random spare parts from the previous business litter the already cramped space...that’s to say Roy felt right at home and started salvaging usable components right away leaving Jason to battle the rest of the mess himself. Telling Bruce that he isn’t returning to work for him as they previously planned has been another battle. Setting up shop in Gotham was the compromise.

If Jason didn’t know better, he’d think Bruce would be doing some soul-searching now that his first two sons have adamantly refused to return to the family business. But he does know better. At least Tim (who’s going off to college to study Artificial Intelligence this year) has reassured Bruce that he’d be back if only to continue the Brother Eye project he started when he was still his sidekick. And Jason’s sure Damien would also stay to carry on the “family legacy” in a misguided attempt to show up his older brothers.

When the office is finally clean enough for human occupation, Jason and Roy begin to work. With Jason’s business know-how and Roy’s unparalleled tinkering skills, they have decided to create a flexible strike force that can help a larger company streamline their tech flow and online business transactions. Coming up with the “what” and “how” was the easy part, next is naming the company.

No one can undermine the importance of a name. It is the first thing potential clients see and the last thing they might remember about the business. Short and catchy, the name should also represent the values of the company and its founders...and that’s why Jason and Roy have spent the whole day brainstorming and scribbling down various combinations of words until they lost all meaning. They both reach their limits just as the sky outside darkens.

“How about you pick your top 10 from the list and I’ll pick mine, and then we see if there are any overlaps?” Jason runs a hand through his hair in frustration as he scans the pages of his notes once again. Still, nothing stands out.

“We’ve been at this for hours! How about we just be ourselves and call it ‘Red Hood and Arsenal’?” Roy grumbles. For the past half an hour he’s been bouncing crumpled-up paper balls of rejected ideas against the wall.

“Umm, because naming our company after our gaming avatars is unprofessional? Besides, the name’s too long,” Jason dismisses. He also has to suppress a sudden urge to aim a paper ball at Roy as the other man leans back and yawns with his mouth wide open.

“Argh, fine,” the redhead says after his drawn-out yawn. “If that’s too long, we can just shorten and combine the names! How about…‘Red Arse’?”

“You know what, I’m not even going to dignify that with a response,” Jason throws his hands up in defeat. “You’re not even taking this seriously!”

“Yes, I am!” Roy yells back. “God, we’re so close, I can taste it on my tongue! How about...”


----------------


“RH & A Consultancy?” The woman with long dark hair and pristine white suit reads their business card out loud with one raised brow. She squints suspiciously at the two men in front of her, one dressed in a colonel uniform and the other, an admiral.

“That’s us!” Jason and Roy reply in unison with what’s probably over-the-top enthusiasm. They are in the office of Tara Battleworth, a resourceful power broker in DC, who works behind the scenes of many government agencies. She holds herself like she single-handedly invented power lunches and backroom deals.

She tosses their business card aside with disdain. “This office requires a high level of security clearance to enter. You two knuckleheads have exactly two minutes to explain how you got in here before I call security and arrest you for trespassing on government property as well as impersonating military personnel.”

“Okay, lady, chill,” Roy chuckles nervously and shoots a desperate glance at his partner. To Jason’s credit, he came prepared for a fight.

He steps forward and says, “We got in here because the security system in this building is outdated and obsolete. Information for staff and visitors are stored behind insecure code, allowing us to add our fake credentials. Along with a simple disguise, we were able to bypass three separate checkpoints, two of them manned by trained guards. If us two ‘knuckleheads’ can get in here, who's to say more nefarious characters couldn’t? Give us a few more days and I’m willing to bet we can find even more exploitable weaknesses.”

Jason gestures around the large office and continues his pitch, “Sure, our methods are unconventional, but I’m looking at this office you have all to yourself and I’m thinking you’re not entirely conventional either, are you, Miss Battleworth? You sure didn’t get to where you are because of your charm and bubbly demeanor.”

Tara’s eye twitches but Jason doesn’t give her a chance to respond. He adds, “If you were the type to just follow everything to the letter, no way those old men in DC would allow you to rise up so quickly, so I’m guessing you got here by getting shit done by whatever means necessary. Well, so do we. What we’re offering here is a solution to your problems that will be more affordable than any bloated third-party contractors you have, guaranteed.”

He glances down casually to check the time displayed on his phone. “And by my count, it’s been a minute past when you said you’d call security. So, what’s your decision, Miss Battleworth?”

 

----------------


“I could, like, kiss you right now,” Roy exclaims after they left the building. “I was so sure she was gonna trigger a trap-door on the floor where we’d fall to our death!”

“Don’t go celebrating yet. She’s only given us a chance to come up with a detailed proposal, we still have to deliver the goods, remember? We should start by focusing on their weak encryption for the initial entry, what do you think? ” Jason asks. He proceeds to remove the colonel uniform now that the disguise has served its purpose.  

“You know something, Jason--I don’t think I’ve ever worn white before,” Roy declares, looking down at his own admiral uniform. “It’s kind of empowering really.”

“Focus, Roy.”

“I’m being serious. Maybe if I’d made different life choices I could’ve been an admiral by now.”

“Again, focus.”

 

--------Age 24--------


The past two years have been a bumpy ride. In the beginning, both of them were idealistic and perhaps even a bit naive. They wanted to make it on their own without relying on the fame or wealth of their respective mentors. And that means no Wayne or Queen investment.

Their own pithy savings ran out three months after they opened their door and at one point they were almost evicted. Still, they stuck to their guns and started skimping wherever they can, including canceling the lease on their apartment and sleeping at the office for several months, and even skipping the occasional meal.

On more than one occasion (as Jason settled into his sleeping bag for yet another night on the hard floor of the office supply closet), he wondered if he had made a huge mistake. But then he remembered the curve of Roy’s lips when he accepted his proposal to start a business as 50/50 partners. For richer or poorer indeed. Yet, recalling that memory always alleviated his anxiety about their uncertain future somewhat, at least for a little while.

When Alfred’s first care packaged arrived (homemade food lovingly packaged for the two of them in microwavable containers with detailed labels on top), Jason swallowed his pride and accepted it, much to the relief and delight of his partner.  

It’s been worth it--the late nights, the travels, the arguments, frustration and all the doubts of starting their own business. Their contract with Tara was the lucky break they needed to prove themselves, and it was only the start. It got RH & A Consultancy on the radar, and soon, other companies came knocking on their door. After several high profile projects, they even received flattering media attention and several industry awards.

Now they had funds for new office furniture and a small staff! Their first hire was an inexperienced yet spirited young woman by the name of Duela Dent. Jason gave her a chance after feeling an affinity with her, but long story short, it didn’t work out and they had to fire her after a dramatic confrontation. Tears were involved. At least they learned from that experience and their subsequent hires worked out better. Eh, growing pains.

 

----------------

 

“Oh, this has potential,” Jason announces one typical Tuesday morning while scrolling through his work emails. Roy’s desk is beside his, and the redhead shuffles over in his chair with interest.

“Remember when I attended Bruce’s masquerade gala a while back?”

“How could I forget? You even dressed up as ‘Red Hood’ ‘cause you’re such a dork,” Roy teases, ruffling Jason’s hair. “And I still can’t believe Dick asked your dad to dress up in that costume as a favor for winning the Christmas tournament that year.”

“Ahem, anyway,” a scowl appears on Jason’s face as he twists away from the offending hand. “I was busy networking at the party and one of the people I spoke to just emailed me requesting a meeting. It’s local too, so we don’t even need to travel!”

“Sweet, book it!”

If he knew what the future holds, Jason would tell Roman Sionis to shove that meeting request up where the sun doesn’t shine.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The thing about conducting a business meeting over a meal is that while both parties are sizing each other up with verbal bullet points and summaries, they’re also eating, and so it becomes this intricate dance of trying to appear professional while chewing a mouthful of food.

The setting compounds the number of things one needs to worry about: What does my choice in food say about me? Is this a steak sort of meeting or a soup and sandwich one? Would the mention of any food allergies be an admission of weakness? Why is the sound of my chewing suddenly so loud? Is the ratio of my talking and eating well-balanced? Should I order a drink, but more importantly, what does my choice in beverage say about me? The list goes on...

“Well, that was weird,” Roy states abruptly during their drive back to the office after their lunch meeting with Roman Sionis. “And I don’t mean the overdone steak.”

“Yeah, I agree,” Jason nods thoughtfully, recalling the details. “I think we should counter-propose the delivery timeline. It’s gonna be tight if we need to review their system for supply logistics first.”

“No, I mean, didn’t you notice? That guy was totally into you!”

“What?” Jason does a double-take then brushes Roy off with a laugh. “Man, I killed that presentation, alright? Roman was just...keen to learn more about how RH & A could help his company, that’s all. You’re overthinking it.”

“Oh, tell me you don’t think he’s hot?”

“Dude, who cares what the client looks like? What’s going on?” Jason tries to read the uneasy expression on Roy’s face but comes up empty-handed. The tugging need to justify and defend himself soon turns concern into mild annoyance. Why would Roy care if someone flirts with him? Besides, does he really think he’d just jump into the lap of anyone who shows him an ounce of interest, especially a client? He’s a professional, dammit.

When Roy fails to give him a reply, Jason continues, “I had other things on my mind during the meeting, obviously, but I suppose the man could be considered attractive to someone into the whole ‘wolf of wall street’ aesthetics? Look, if it’s really as you said, Roman and I met at the fundraiser more than a year ago, why approach our company now only after we’ve made a name for ourselves?”

“I suppose,” Roy gives him an unconvinced shrug but wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“Relax. I’ll go ahead and get the official paperwork started and schedule a follow-up meeting. We still have to visit their office, of course, but my initial impression is that this is a straightforward job. We’ve cracked much tougher cases with fewer resources.”

 

----------------

The high-impact nature of the project at Sionis Industries means that Jason and Roy are taking care of it personally instead of dispatching their small team of employees. They spent weeks working onsite and offsite examining the current tech pipeline and coming up with suggestions to streamline and cut cost. During this time, they had additional meetings with Roman in order to request information and to update him on their progress. And while Jason wouldn't admit it to Roy’s face (the redhead isn’t exactly a gracious winner), he has realized that Roy was right in his initial assessment: Roman is indeed interested in him. Well then.

It becomes abundantly clear the way their client lavishes attention on him, his actions and words growing bolder the more time they spend together. During meetings, Roman would ask questions both professional and personal, not to mention the frequent not-so-accidental touches on his shoulder or arm.

The man also has questions for Roy, but they are often tricky and oddly barbed even if they remain work-related. If Jason didn’t know better, he’d think that the technical questions were intended to put Roy on the spot and humiliate him. The confrontational exchanges stress Roy out and he starts finding excuses to avoid going to the Sionis building, preferring to work in their own office and letting Jason deal with the meetings.  

Jason doesn’t mind. It allows Roy to do his thing, get in the zone and focus on technical work. He’s always been the more business savvy, diplomatic of the two anyway. That’s the point of partners. Jason also trusts and relies on Roy’s skills. He knows his best friend would cover up for his shortcomings if needed.

Still, Roman Sionis doesn’t concern him. They’ve dealt with worse clients during the past two years. Rampant miscommunication, endless last minute changes, clients with employees resentful at having their work evaluated by an outsider, government red tapes and regulations, refusal to pay for their services on time...Think of a bad client, RH & A has dealt with them.

Who could’ve known, the skill ingrained in him to smile at Wayne events despite wanting to punch snobby socialites is serving him well now. And besides that, even if Jason has had ugly duckling syndrome during his teenage years and the overwhelming response greeting his first foray into dating surprised him, he’s now had a lot of experience turning people down. Yeah, god forbid a client who flirts with him. He thinks he can handle that with ease, thank you.

But there’s one more thing Jason would not admit to Roy’s face: the fact that he does find their client attractive. From an objective point of view, naturally. It’s the way Roman holds himself and the husky, confident, borderline- smug tone of his voice. Even his macho posturing is kinda endearing in an out-of-touch sort of way. The man has a presence that demands attention. By chance, Jason observed the CEO giving a speech to his executives and it was clear the man owned the room. That particular image of Roman lingered in his mind long after he left his office.

Jason likes the way Roman looks at him--a cool appraising glance...then a sudden flare of desire sparks in his eyes after he deems him worthy . Bursts of delight flutter in his gut when he answers Roman’s questions beyond expectation and gets a small smile of approval in return. If Jason’s being totally honest: all this attention is getting to his head.

And sure, plenty of people have accused Roman Sionis of having poor business ethics--undercutting competitors and forcing them into bankruptcy, outsourcing manufacturing to countries with substandard worker rights, laying off underperforming employees without remorse, abusing tax loopholes--but no one can dismiss the man’s brilliance in transforming his company into the industry giant it is today. Besides, Jason’s a realist; he knows it takes a certain... ruthlessness to lead a company of that size. The captain of a ship has to make difficult calls, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a healthy ego so they don’t falter and second guess themselves.

Even Wayne Enterprise isn’t completely faultless and undeserving of criticisms.

 

--------

“It’s true, when you own a company you’re never really off the clock, isn’t that right?” Roman remarks with a smirk and hands Jason a glass of something boozy and sweet from the well-stocked liquor cabinet. “That said, I do appreciate you coming in so late, and on such short notice too. I hope it was no trouble?”

The panoramic view in Roman’s office is breathtaking and the setting sun outlines the edge of Gotham skyscrapers with a warm hue. Jason returns a smile from his seat on the leather couch and replies, “Not at all. RH & A might not be a large company, but because we are small, we can maneuver quickly to accommodate our clients’ requests while providing a personal touch.”

A pleasant purr rises from Roman’s throat and he drops down to join Jason on the couch, knees touching. “Well, I just want to personally thank you for the great work your company has done in the past two months. My accountants tell me that, by their most recent estimation, we will be saving 6% of our operational costs annually. I’m very pleased by the results.”

“Always glad to have another satisfied customer,” Jason replies after taking a sip of the drink and letting the heat of the liquid burn a path down his throat. “Would you give us a testimony, for marketing purposes?”

“Absolutely,” Roman nods and shifts closer to him. “It would be my pleasure.”

He is now sitting so close that Jason finds it difficult to maintain direct eye contact without feeling some warmth rising to his cheeks. He cast his eyes downwards to his drink and asks, “Is there anything else I can do for you, Roman?”

“Well, I’m not one to mince my words, so I’ll go ahead and say it: Jason, I want to have sex with you on this couch, right here, right now.”

“Wow,” the young man chuckles lightly but remains in his seat. Roman’s intention is not a surprise, but his bold delivery is. “It would be extremely unprofessional of me to fuck a client, don’t you think?”

“Your last paycheck cleared, so I’m not a client anymore, am I?”

“Hmm...You got me there,” Jason smirks and reaches for Roman’s tie, wraps it around his hand once and pulls him in for a kiss.

Oddly enough, even as he explores the other man’s lips, an unexplainable surge of guilt washes over him. He almost stops, but Roman chooses that moment to run a hand through his hair and deepens the kiss. Jason returns to the moment and dispels the turbulence simmering within him. It’s not like he’s shy about casual trysts, after all. Besides, there’s nothing quite like celebratory sex after a job well done.

With an eager groan, Roman pushes Jason down onto his back and showers him with all of the attention he’s given him in the past few weeks and more.

“Oh, Jason,” the man whimpers with lips pressed against his throat, and Jason’s sure he can feel the accelerating heartbeat from his jugular.

From the lips of a man like Roman Sionis, those three syllables sound like sweet victory. Jason has to clench his jaw to prevent pleased little whines from betraying his pressing needs. Frantic fingers remove bare minimum clothing as weeks of repressed sexual tension is released at once. The sex is unrefined, urgent, with Roman just taking everything he has to offer.

 

--------

“When can I see you again?”

When it’s all over and they’ve readjusted their clothing, Roman wraps an arm around Jason’s waist and pulls him back down onto his lap. He presses another kiss against his shoulder and repeats the question, louder this time.

Jason hates this part--the part that comes afterward --no matter how many times he’s had this conversation or one similar to it. He gently but firmly pushes himself off Roman’s lap, even if the other man maintains a grip around his wrist. “Sorry, don’t take this the wrong way, Roman. That was nice and I enjoyed it, but I’m not really looking for something serious right now. Maybe I’ll give you a call next time I’m in the area?”

Fine creases appear between the older man’s brows as he loosens his hold on Jason. “I see...That’s truly a shame.”

The young man pulls his wrist back and readjusts his sleeve. He wonders how often someone like Roman gets told “no, thanks”, and watches with apprehension as the CEO crosses the office to his ornate desk. Thinking he’s been dismissed, Jason heads for the door without another word; some man needs to lick their wounds in isolation, after all. Yet, there’s something cold and calculating in Roman’s eyes as he types into his computer.

“Before you go, Jason,” he announces. “There’s something you should see.” A video pops onto the screen and the redheaded figure is unmistakable.

“What is this?” Jason frowns, moving next to him for a closer view.

“What does it look like?”

The clip starts as Roy steps into the scene. He’s alone, standing next to a shelf in one of the R&D biochemical labs at Sionis Industries. There are hundreds of vials on the shelves still waiting to be barcoded and stored away, and untraceable before then. There’s a moment of recognition as Roy reads a label on the vial. They all lists the same content: the key ingredient for an illegal recreational drug popular for its mood-altering properties.

When combined with other ingredients, it’s used as an effective antidepressant in the field of psychotherapy. Yet, the unaltered compound taken in small doses produce euphoric sensations and relieves stress, if only for a little while. It’s also highly addictive and some elective officials have even chosen its eradication as key pillars of their political platform. Jason is in a trance as he watches his best friend hesitate briefly then reaches out with shaky fingers and pockets one of the vials.

When the screen goes dark, Jason looks up and meets Roman’s eyes. Even the post-coitus glow can’t stem the panic rushing through him. “Did you set this up?”

The other man returns his gaze with cool indifference. “It wasn’t easy digging up Harper’s drug abuse records, but the information did come in handy,” Roman offers calmly. “Still, I only set up the opportunity, your partner still had to put the noose around his neck himself.”

“Why? Why are you doing this?” Jason whispers with wide eyes. He instinctively takes a step back, but Roman advances and closes the distance between them.

“You’re smart, you already know the answer to that. And I bet you can already picture the consequences if you refuse. Tell me, Jason, what percentage of RH & A’s revenue is government contracts, fifty-five, sixty-percent? What would happen if a co-founder gets convicted of stealing from a client? A prohibited substance, at that? Not to mention with this quantity, if convicted, will carry a minimum sentence of four years.”

Jason can hear the man speak, but his mind is blank, numb. A hand reaches for his shoulder but he jerks away violently. Yet, the other man doesn’t seem discouraged. He tilts the young man’s chin up with not-so-gentle fingers.

“Leave your company and come work for me. Two years. Half of what your partner would lose in prison, not to mention a record that would follow him for the rest of his life. Seems pretty reasonable. During this time, I want exclusive access to you,” Roman says, staring into his eyes and Jason has to stop himself from shuddering. “And who knows, maybe I’ll be bored with you sooner than that and release you from this arrangement early.”

All professional niceties evaporate as Jason shoves his fingers away and growls, “What, work as your private secretary so you can fuck me anytime you want?”

“Don’t be crass, I already have a perfectly fine secretary, but I’m sure I can find a position that will suit your talents. As for the other point, yeah, that’s the idea.”

“Fuck you!”

“Take your time and think it through,” Roman dismisses him with a casual wave of his hand. “You have 24 hours, come back and give me your reply then.”

 

--------

He doesn’t need that much time; Jason made up his mind before he even arrived home.

It isn’t really a choice; lose both Roy and the company, or lose his freedom for two years. He thought about telling Roy the truth, but that would only remove his options. If Roy knew, he’d never let him go through with it. He has to lie to him, convince him that this was his idea. Jason slowly builds up the courage for what must be done, but it vanishes the second the door to their apartment swings open.

Roy shrugs off his jacket and drops his laptop bag onto the floor. “Oh Jesus,” he gasps, “Turn the lights on if you’re gonna sulk in the living room like that! You scared the crap out of me!”

“We need to talk, Roy,” Jason says with a grimace. He is not ready for this conversation. He doesn’t think he ever will be.

“Shit, if it’s about the dishes, I said I’d do them this weekend!”

“Goddamn, it’s not--Please, just come over here,” Jason insists. Something in his tone must’ve conveyed the severity of the situation because Roy walks over without further protest.

“I can’t do this anymore.” The words leave him like air out of a balloon.

“Do what?” the redhead narrows his eyes in confusion.

“The company,” Jason breathes out. “I’m done. I want to quit.”

“What? What are you talking about? What’s the matter with you?”

“What’s the matter with me? What’s the matter with you ?” Jason throws his words back and jabs a finger in Roy’s chest. The best lies contain elements of truth. He knows Roy better than anyone, and he’s going to use this knowledge against him.

“We’ve been grinding away for the past two years, but no matter how many jobs we take, we’re still in the red! You know why? Because of you!” He jabs his finger again for emphasis and Roy flinches. “You keep misusing funds to buy equipment without a care for our budget! And running that expensive national ad campaign without clearing it with me first was fucking stupid! There are processes in place. The business account is not your own personal piggy bank!”

Roy winces like every sentence is a physical blow. “Okay, I’m sorry!” he whispers. “You’re right, I’ll change.”

Jason didn’t expect Roy to just accept his outburst without a fight. He realizes he needs to drive home the message, even if it’s the hardest thing he’s ever done. He presses on.

“What use is your apology? It’s not the first time you’ve done this. Last week, I had to listen to Bruce go on and on about Nightwing Inc. over family dinner and the glowing interview Dick had with Business Week. It fucking sucks, because I’m stuck here, cleaning up your messes! And I just can’t do it anymore. I’m done with this shit.” By the time Jason is done with his accusations, he is slightly out of breath.

“I’m sorry, okay?” Roy repeats helplessly. He begins to sob, tears stream down his face without reservation. “You can’t quit. I’ll leave RH & A, you won’t have to deal with me anymore.”

“No. Just...pay me back my half of the initial start-up cost, buy me out, and the company’s all yours. I’ve already accepted a job offer from Roman--”

“That guy’s a snake,” Roy interrupts fervently.  

“Well, it’s an opportunity to learn from a real business, and I’m taking it,” he lashes back.

“You want to sleep with him that badly, huh?”

The words hit Jason and he staggers back, stunned. Roy narrows eyes and sneers in disgust. “Oh, you two fucked already. That’s wonderful. Good for you.”

“It has nothing to do with that,” Jason whispers numbly, but he can feel himself losing control of the conversation. He digs his nails into his palms and repeats in a louder voice, as if that will drive the words through his partner’s thick skull. “It has nothing to do with that!”

“Really?” Roy scoffs. “Then tell me, would you still quit our company if we were fucking?”

Jason has to suppress the sudden, overwhelming urge to punch Roy in the face. His chest heaves with restrained anger as he hisses, “What kind of person do you take me for?”

When someone has known you for more than half of your life, you would think you’d know them pretty well. When you’ve played, lived, worked, laughed, cried, dreamed and done a million other things together, damn right you’d think you know them well. When they’ve seen you at your very best and worst, and you them, you would think you know them, right ? And you do...until the moment you realize you don’t, not really. And if you don’t really even know the person you’re supposed to know, even after all these years, then do you really know yourself ?

Roy deflates, all the anger bleeding out of him.

“I’m tired too, Jaybird. I don’t want to fight with you. You’ve never even given me a chance, but I guess I’m just too oblivious, too dumb to pick up on all your rejections. It’s alright, I finally got your message loud and clear. So yeah, leave! Quit the company!”

Roy grabs his key and leaves. He slams the door with enough force to shake the frame, and Jason can feel it vibrate all the way to his core. He remains there, staring blankly at the door and the empty room long after he left.

 

---------

The edge of the desk digs into Jason’s skin as Roman thrusts into him. After he returned with an answer, the man had decided to test Jason’s resolve by bending him over his desk. He’s still sore from the rigorous sex the day earlier, and the fingers digging into him, holding him into place are downright painful. He bites down on his lip so not a single whimper or moan could escape. Depriving Roman that offers some twisted comfort, even if it’s pitifully small in the grand scheme of things. Two years. Two years and this is only day one.

Instead of focusing on the man slamming into him, Jason thinks about the first time he met Roy all those years ago. The way his freckles danced across his face when he laughed. The way his eyes sang with mischievous joy. The way he looked at him. The way he looked at him with unspoken longing guarded by jokes and a laid-back attitude. Then that image is replaced by his current reality as tears and anguish fill Roy’s eyes instead. Pain inflicted by his hands.

Jason feels hollowed-out. The best parts of him left with Roy, and what’s left are storms of rage and apathy. Yet, he can make do with those.

In the dark office, the crude sound of flesh slapping against flesh is obscenely loud, but Jason dismisses them and puts his mind toward something more productive. He closes his eyes to strategize all the different ways he’s going to destroy his new employer and his empire of sand.