Actions

Work Header

Red Is Also A Color

Chapter Text

It is a stupid idea. An absolutely horrible, abhorrent, disastrous idea.

Jason lingers outside the Community Center, pulling out his phone to check the time. Maybe if he slips in a little after four, no one will notice him. Or maybe everyone will notice him and think, hey, is that Jason Todd? What’s he doing here?

Shit. He runs his hands through his dark hair, resisting the urge to start yanking it out by the roots. 

A couple months back he saw flyers for the group outside the gym at school. Grant was with him, so he pretended he was looking at the lineup at the Catalyst instead of reading the dates and times on the paper to his left. Every so often he opened up his laptop and stalked the group’s Instagram page, sweating with anxiety over the possibility that he might accidentally click “like” and announce to the whole damn world the type of shit he’s checking out. No way in hell that wouldn’t spread like wildfire. 

Once he actually called the number listed under their contact information. Some young woman answered: “Rainbow Youth Center, how may I help you?” and Jason’s blood ran so cold he could hardly move his fingers to end the call. What the fuck was he thinking? Just calling them up, like some kind of idiot. 

He doesn’t belong in this type of group. People like that blue-haired chick, and that Rayner kid, they’re the ones who should be hanging out here. They don’t care about the things people write on their lockers or say about them behind their backs—hell, he saw what Blue Chick shaved into the back of her head. 

Fuck . Part of him wishes he had that type of confidence. But maybe he doesn’t need it. 

He’s gone with girls before, even took one of them to Junior Prom and made out with her in a bathroom stall. Isabel. She wore a powder blue dress that hugged her hips, and oh god, he knew he was supposed to want her. And when they were in her Nissan, his hands were all clammy and hers were in his pants, and he was afraid to touch her even when she was on top and kissing him. This is what I want , he reminded himself. And after, she dropped him off at his apartment and he sat on the balcony, feeling the cold air wash over his face as he drank everything they had in the liquor cabinet.

Queer kids don’t do shit like that. They stay on opposite sides of the dance floor, too scared to move even though both of them want nothing more in the universe. Rayner didn’t make a move the entire night, and neither did those Atlantean kids, Garth and Jackson. It was almost sad. 

No way. Jason isn’t like that. So why does he feel like he did something wrong by sleeping with Isabel even though she took his breath away? Why does he dream about running his hands over an unshaven face and planting kisses along a sharp jaw, tossing and turning until he sweats through his clothes and wakes, terrified? 

Maybe there is something wrong with him. Maybe it’s all that zoloft and morphine and smack his mom was taking when she was pregnant.

Like that really mattered anymore. In a few months, Jason will have his high school diploma, and maybe even get a scholarship to some university somewhere, and he can study literature like he always wanted. Goodbye Mom. Goodbye Mom’s drugs. Goodbye Dad. Hope the prison guards let you know where I’m going. Goodbye Gotham. Goodbye Rainbow Youth Center.

Hello Rainbow Youth Center. Somehow his feet have taken him to the door of room 142. There are people inside, talking loud enough for him to hear them through the wood. Jason looks around, biting his lip. What is he really afraid of? He plays soccer and boxes and cuts copper from cars. He lives in the East End. He’s spent a night in a jail cell. 

The room is full of twenty, maybe thirty young adults. Jason doesn’t think he sees Rayner or Blue Chick or anyone else from his class. His heart settles into a cautious rhythm, ready to explode at the slightest sign of trouble.

This was a mistake , he thinks. He turns to leave, when suddenly he notices a pair of bright blue eyes locked on him. 

Grayson? Jason recognizes the older boy from a previous senior class, the one that graduated two years ago. Everyone knows Grayson: the perfect, pretty, Golden Boy of Gotham. Bruce Wayne’s adopted son. What’s a guy like that doing here? 

Same as you, idiot , Jason thinks. Except Grayson looks more relaxed about the whole thing, leaning into couch with his feet propped up on a coffee table. He’s sitting with two others, a blonde chick and a redheaded guy in a green baseball cap.

“You’re new,” someone says.

Jason whips around. The person speaking to him is a woman, tall, with short scarlet hair and bright eyes. 

She extends a hand. “Kate.”

He takes it, giving it a nervous shake. “Jason.”

“Welcome to our group, Jason. We’ve got Uno, Monopoly, cards. There’s snacks over there,” she says, pointing to a table with some sodas and goldfish, “and a few of us have started a book club, if you want to hop in and join the discussion. They’re reading The Song of Achilles . It’s quite good.”

“Um.” Jason isn’t sure of what to do with all that information. Can’t she tell that he doesn’t fit in? Shouldn’t she be asking for his gay card, demanding he reveal how many pictures of guys he’s jacked off to, requesting some sort of proof? 

Kate laughs kindly. “I know, I know. What can I say? We all have different hobbies. Want me to introduce you to some folks?”      

“No,” he says quickly. “I mean, I think I’m supposed to be one room over.”

“You’re here for geriatric yoga?” Kate looks at him like there are birds nesting in his hair. 

He shuffles his feet, and grumbles, “Nevermind.”

“Alright then.” Kate winks and pats him on the shoulder. “See you around, Jason,” she says, walking over to a group of teens clumped around a game of Life.

Stupid, stupid, stupid . Jason wants to die. No. He should leave, and then he should die, just so people don’t find out he croaked in the middle of two dozen queers. God, the things Grant would say. 

“I know you.” 

Here we go. An excuse pushes against his lips before he sees that Grayson is standing in front of him. The older boy has a dopish smile on his face; his bright blue eyes sparkle impishly. Jason has never seen eyes so rich, eyes so wide and blue they could swallow him up like the open ocean. 

“You go to Gotham High, right?” Grayson asks. 

Oh, great. The guy would probably put up flyers all around the school, pasting Jason’s face over gaudy rainbow letters: Jason Todd is a queer! This guy’s some kind of homo!

Jason clears his throat and looks away. “I’m about to graduate,” he replies, as if that will make a difference.

Grayson’s grin widens. “I know,” he says. “Here. Come sit with us. Or, you know, you can just stand there like a turd.”

He scoffs. “Who—”

“Come on .” Grayson’s long fingers wrap around Jason’s wrist and tug him toward the couch. 

Before he even realizes what is happening, he’s on his ass, wedged between Grayson and Green Hat guy with a cup of water in his hand. 

“I’m Dick, he/him,” Grayson says. “This here is Stef, she/they, and Roy, he/him. Guys, this is—your name’s Jason, right? Jason Todd?”

“Yeah,” Jason mumbles into his water.

“Right. Jason. We went to school together, sort of.”

Roy nods in greeting. He’s pretty straight for a queer, Jason thinks, with a square jaw and shaggy red hair. Maybe he’s from California, or something.

The blond chick, Stef, leans forward, resting her muscular arms over her thighs. She studies him like a ripe banana for a moment, then says, “I don’t remember you.”

“Yes you do,” Dick says, laughing. “Senior night at the stadium? Against the Jokers? That one sophomore?”

With a start, Jason realizes where’s going with this. “You don’t have to—”

“That was you?” Stef is staring at him, wide-eyed. “Oh my god, are you okay?”

Jason grumbles. “It’s nothing.”

“Care to fill a guy in?” Roy asks.

“This kid,” Stef says, wagging a pale finger at Jason, “got flattened. Utterly steamrolled. I didn’t know the human body could bend that way.”

“We had to call an ambulance,” Dick interjects.

“Yeah, an ambulance.” 

“No way!”

Great. Three minutes into this mistake and he’s already being mocked by Rainbow Youth. “It was nothing,” Jason says. “A concussion.”

“Dude, it’s okay.” Dick pats his upper arm. Jason recoils, but no one seems to notice. “We’ve all been there.”

“Yeah. It sounds like a big freaking deal,” Roy says.

“Roy’s from Star City,” explains Dick. “Our dads are—”

“Friends.”

“Friends, yeah.”    

Jason says nothing. He wonders what it would be like to know Bruce Wayne, let alone be related to him. What kind of privileges does that life hold? What kind of problems?  

After a moment, he asks, “Do they know?”

“Know what?”

He gestures vaguely around the room. “Where you are.” 

“Oh.” Dick laughed. “Yeah.”

Jason had never seen anyone laugh about being queer. “Oh,” he says. Of course. He should have known. There’s no way Golden Boy would keep secrets from his father. No way Golden Boy would feel uncomfortable about what he is. Boy Wonder’s never gone to bed hungry, and he’s never had to busk for cash to pay off dealers.  To him, everything must be one giant fucking joke. 

God, is life unfair. 

“So what are you?” Stef asks suddenly.

“What?”

“I mean, I’m a total dyke.”

“I’m bi,” Roy says. 

Dick winks. “Same here.” 

“What is this, some kind of gay athlete club?” Jason asks, noting the ropes of muscle along Dick’s arms, the way his shoulders are solid beneath his tee shirt. He could almost picture him shirtless, all lines and angles over that deep olive skin—

“Why?” laughs Roy. “You want in?”

Shit . What the fuck was that?

“I’m not... I mean, I’m just here because—” Think, dammit! “—it’s for a research project.” 

The three others exchange looks. Any moment, they’ll stand up and show him the door, and he wouldn’t mind, not one fucking bit. After all, this space isn’t for him. It isn’t

“Okay,” Stef says at last. “You know how to play poker?”

“I don’t have any money.”

“We play with goldfish.” Roy says it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. He stands and stretches, and it takes Jason only a nanosecond to recognize the small bruises along the white flesh of his underarms. He’s seen those in the crook of his mom’s arms for as long as he can remember. Track marks. Shit. At least one of them isn’t perfect.

“I’ll help you with the fish,” Stef says. She stands and follows Roy over to the refreshments table. They start chatting with Kate along the way, nodding excitedly at something that Jason cannot hear. 

“So, Mr. Research Project,” Dick begins, and Jason’s face goes red. He can only scowl as Dick scoots closer and leans in, his face half an inch away from Jason’s. He smells like pine trees and maple syrup. “How’s senior year going for you?” 

They know. Time to get the fuck out of here. 

“It’s alright.” 

“Any A.P. Exams?”

“English lit.” 

Dick sucks air between his teeth. “That one sucked.” 

Jason shrugs in response. 

“What about schools? Heard back from any of those.” 

“No.”

“Do you still play football?”

“Fuck no.”

“Your eyes are such an interesting shade of blue. Almost teal. Very pretty.”

Jason is silent. 

After a moment, Dick throws his head back and laughs loudly. “Christ, man,” he says, “you’re not giving me much to work with here.”

“I don’t know,” Jason replies. He takes another sip of water and swirls the cup around like its a fine merlot. “You seem to know me pretty well already.”

“Is this about the football thing? I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Thought you’d find it funny by now.” 

“I don’t care about the football thing.”

“Then what is it?”

“Why don’t you mind your own fucking business?” Jason snaps.  A few people turn to stare at him, their eyes wide in shock or curiosity. God damn it. Leave it to him to draw even more attention to himself. How soon before someone else recognizes him and starts talking?

If anything, Dick looks disappointed, staring at Jason with this pitiful look that makes him sick to his stomach. 

“I... I should go,” Jason stammers. He sets down the cup of water and practically runs out of the room, his heart hammering in his ears. Only when he is safe outside the community center does he allow himself the chance to breathe.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

He walks quickly towards the bus stop, cursing himself for being so damned stupid. What the hell was he thinking? That he’d just waltz right in there and everyone would believe it was an accident? A mistake? Fucking idiot! 

As he boards the bus to the East End, he thinks, at least I didn’t see anyone from school. Well. He didn’t see anyone who is still in school, anyway. 

The entire ride, he buries himself in his homework, as if it could make him forget. It doesn’t, but at least he’s getting his homework done. One less thing to worry about when he gets back to his apartment. He’d be able to pick his mom off the floor and make dinner without having to worry about calculus or physics or English. 

It’s practically evening when he gets back, and his mom isn’t on the floor of their living room. There’s nothing but scratched furniture and beer cans. An empty pizza box from weeks ago.  A basket of laundry that no one has bothered to fold. The TV is still on, blaring some right-wing crap about money and politics. Jason walks over, and turns it off.

He hates this part, the part where he goes looking for his mom. There is never any telling what state she might be in, alive or dead or somewhere in-between. Sometimes he pictures himself kneeling by a limp body, shaking its shoulder until he realizes that there is no one left inside. 

It’s the only thing that makes him cry.

Taking a deep breath, Jason pushes open the door to the bathroom, and sighs in relief. His mom is standing before the mirror, forcing a brush through knotted hair. He can tell she’s high before he even sees the pills. It’s in the way her eyes are glazed over and her movements are sluggish, thoughtless. 

“Hi, mom,” he says slowly. He takes the brush from her hand and sets it down on the sink.

She moves as if the brush were still in her hand. “Jason?”

“I’m sorry I’m late.”

“Is Tommy here?” 

Jason flinches at the mention of her dealer. “No.”

“He’s coming, I think.”

Fuck . Now that’s really the last thing he needs. 

“Tell him not to come, okay?” I’m gonna make us some food. Are you hungry?”

His mom is swaying on her feet,  as if she hears some ethereal music coming from the vents. She doesn’t say anything, so he repeats himself:

“Tell Tommy that he shouldn’t come over.”

There is the slightest hint of a nod. Jason sighs, and leaves his mom to her dancing. 

The apartment is a mess. Hell, it’s an insult to messes to call it a mess. Dirty dishes on every surface, grime on the counters, dust on the floors, and piles of papers and trash spread over everywhere else. If Jason came in as a stranger, he would be afraid to breathe. 

He picks up best he can, throwing trash into the bag and putting all the dishes in the sink. Wetting an old rag, he wipes the counters down, then sweeps up as much dirt as he can. Maybe if the apartment is cleaner, his mom won’t feel the need to be so spaced out all the time. Maybe. 

When everything looks okay, he goes to the fridge and checks out what little food they have. Eggs (old). Milk (expired). Tomatoes (squishy). There’s a few tortillas in one of the drawers, and some pre-cooked potatoes in a bag in the freezer. 

Cool. He can work with this. 

Jason is almost done re-heating the potatoes when he hears a key in the front door. Shit. He knows who it is by the smell of liquor and gasoline. It was stupid of him to trust that his mom would remember to send the text. Not as stupid as going to the Rainbow Youth Center, but still pretty damn stupid.

Tommy bursts through, his bulky frame struggling to avoid the trash bags in his path.  “What the fuck?” he yells. A cigarette dangles between his fingers. “Jesus Christ. Where’s your mother?”

Jason ignores him.

“I said, where’s your mother you little freak?”

“Go away, Tommy. She’s all set.”

“Yeah?” The man walks over to him and turns off the stove. Jason tries not to shrink away from his huge, meaty arms and the smoke that drips from his lips.  “No one asked me if I was set.” 

“That’s because we don’t care.” 

There is a sizzle, and the inside of his arm erupts in pain. Jason cries out and tugs himself away from the larger man, watching a red welt grow on his skin. A cigarette burn. “What the fuck?” he growls. “Get the fuck out of here.” 

Tommy smirks and tosses the cigarette to the floor. Grinding it into the linoleum, he says, “She owes me. That whore mother of yours. Two-forty.” 

“For what? The thrill of your presence? Fuck! ” Another wave of pain washes down his arm. The burn is pulsing, throbbing. He clutches his arm, itching to grab a napkin, paper towel, anything he can wet and apply to the wound. 

“Yeah. You can say that.” Tommy wraps a hand around his collar and yanks him so close that Jason  can feel the heat of his breath. “I’m not going to ask you again,” he hisses. “Where’s. Your. Mother?” 

“Her unemployment hasn’t come in this month,” Jason says. “She doesn’t have the money.” 

“Find it, then.” 

Damn . Jason forces himself to stand tall. At six feet and nearly two-hundred pounds, he’s not the giant Tommy is, but he’s still big. Big enough to be a challenge, at least. Maybe the bastard’s feeling lazy tonight.

“Or what, asshole?” he sneers. “Got another cigarette?”

Tommy’s fist slams into his face. Jason keels, eyes watering from the force of the blow. His jaw is on fire. When his vision clears, his blood freezes. There’s a knife in his face. A god-damn bowie knife. 

“How about this,” the dealer says. “You pay me, or I find another way to get the cash.” He drags the point of the knife over Jason’s chest, pressing just hard enough to make his heart race. 

And then the knife creeps higher, up to his throat. “A boy like you would make a lot of money, you know,” Tommy continues. Slowly, the edge bites into his skin. A tendril of blood runs down the tendons of his neck, soaking into his collar. The man grins. “There are guys who’d jump on the chance to fuck you. But I bet you’d like that, huh, faggot? ” 

Jason growls but says nothing, wary of the blade against his skin.

With the flick of a wrist, Tommy points the knife toward the apartment. “Get the money, or I’ll find someone else to cut.”

“Fuck you,” Jason mumbles, walking into his mom’s bedroom. His pulse cools a little when he sees her curled up on the mattress. Asleep, thank god. If she were awake, she’d start making promises he knew she couldn’t keep. 

He pulls the shoebox full of cash out from the closet and counts the money. When he returns with a fistful of cash, he aches to knock the wicked smile off Tommy’s face.

“Here,” he snarls, thrusting the bills into Tommy’s chest. “Two-forty. Get out.” 

“Good boy. I knew I could count on you.” The dealer walks away, flipping over the pan of food on the stove. It crashes to the ground, spilling everywhere. “Oops.”

Jason doesn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing the anger on his face. He waits until the door is closed before his shoulders fall and his hands begin to tremble. Slowly, he walks over to the door and turns the lock, turning the deadbolt just to be safe. Fuck, his arm hurts. 

“Jason?” 

His mom stands in the doorway of her bedroom. The high must be wearing off; her eyes are clearer and her movements more controlled. When she sees the food splattered over the floor, she frowns.

“It’s nothing, Mom,” he says, turning away so she doesn’t see his face or neck.

“Was Tommy here?”

“He just left. I dropped the pan. Go back to bed.” 

“Why didn’t you tell me he was here? Did you give him money?”

“Don’t worry about it, Mom.”

His mom rubs her hands into her eyes and groans. “God damn it, Jase. I can’t believe—I just can’t—" She stifles a sob. “Can’t you do anything right?”

Something in him breaks. “I’m sorry.” 

“Oh god, oh god,” she whimpers. Before Jason can say anything else, she drifts back into her room and shuts the door. A few more drops of blood spill down his neck. There’s nothing but him and his thoughts. 

He cleans up the floor before he downs two cans of beer and sits out on the balcony, waiting for the tips of his fingertips to go numb. Screw Tommy. And screw the Rainbow Youth Center, too. Those bastards go about laughing and joking like there isn’t a real world out here, a world full of people who have too much on their plate and yet too little, who can’t afford to be queer because they’re already afraid of everything. 

It makes him think of Dick, perfect fucking Dick, with his pretty eyes and pretty smile. How can he laugh about it? It’s not fucking funny when you’re fucking broken! 

Jason grits his teeth and leans into the balcony railing. He wishes he could fold into himself again and again until there is nothing left. It’s not like anyone would miss him. Maybe Grant. And maybe his dad, too, though he doubts it. 

Cold wind blows over his face, freezing his eyes in their sockets. He doesn’t really feel much of it anymore. His head’s getting a little foggy. 

But hey. The day’s almost over, so it can’t get any worse. 

Chapter Text

“We need to break up,” Isabel says, and Jason shatters.

“What? Why?” he asks. 

“I’m not going to be your beard, Jason.”

It takes him a moment to understand what she’s saying. “I’m not gay,” he tells her. As the words pass his lips, he swears that they’re true. 

“Really?” Isabel smiles sadly. “Because you kinda shut down every time we have sex” 

“No I don’t.”

“Yes you do. You get really quiet and start drinking.” 

Fuck. She’s right. He does do that. “I’m not fucking gay,” he says again, because it’s the only thing he can say. “I’ve been attracted to girls since forever. I’m attracted to you .” 

Isabel looks at him. Then suddenly her lips are on his. It’s a slow kiss, a deep kiss, and soon Jason’s hands are on her waist. When Isabel’s fingers creep into the waist band of his jeans, he jerks away.

“See?” she says. “That’s not normal.”

Jason motions to the environment around them. They’re standing on a trail in Central Park, where anyone can round the corner and find them there. “People might see us,” he says.

“It’s practically evening.”

“You never know.”

“Oh my god. You’re unbelievable.” She laughs, but there’s no humor in it. “You know you’re the only guy I’ve ever met who doesn’t like blow jobs?”

“I didn’t say that. I said I wasn’t ready.”

She waves him off. “Same thing.”  

Jason stares at her. She stares back. Before he can stop himself, he leans down and kisses her again, cupping her face in his hands. Isabel shoves him away. 

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” she hisses.

“Shit. I really like you.”

And he does: he likes her hair, her name, the smell of apples and honey that radiates from her skin, the chimes of her laughter. He likes talking to her. He likes kissing her. She’s just so pretty. 

Isabel draws a hand through her short blonde hair and sighs. “Look,” she says, “you clearly have some things to work out. There’s something wrong with you, and it’s not my job to fix it.”

“But—”

“See you at school, Jason. I won’t tell anyone.”

***

Isabel sits with her friends around a plastic picnic table, giggling as she eats Chinese take out. She doesn’t see him watching from across the school yard, but he also knows she wouldn’t care if she did. Jason wonders if she kept her promise, or if all of her friends think he’s gay.

“You look like shit,” Grant says. He slams his tray down next to Jason and slides onto the bench, grinning like a madman. His light hair is sticking up in places, as if he’d fallen asleep in class again. “Who’d you fight? Victor Stone?”

 “Your sister.” 

“No fucking way. You’d have a lot more than a bruise and—” His eyes narrow. “Did someone try to bleed you?”

“I swallowed a razor. You gonna eat that?” Jason points at his apple. 

“It’s all yours.” 

“Thanks.” Jason grabs the apple and eats a quarter of it in one bite, chewing slowly to get the most out of the flavor.  He’s qualified for the free lunch program his entire life, but it’s really not enough for a person of his size, and he’s sick to death of eating protein bars for meal after meal. The only time he gets fruit is when someone else doesn’t want it. 

Grant picks up a fry and throws it into his mouth. “But seriously man,” he says. “Someone knife you at the construction yard yesterday?”

“I wasn’t working.” 

His friend raises an eyebrow. “Um, yes you were, dipshit. You said you couldn’t go to Hunter’s party because you had to work.” 

Oh shit . Jason nearly chokes on the apple. “I mean,” he stammers, “I had work to do. I didn’t have to go to work.” 

“Oh. The party was fun, in case you were wondering. Lots of hot chicks. There was this one girl, with red hair, and fuck! I’m telling you, her ass would’ve made you forget Isabel.” 

“Fuck you, Wilson.”

“Jesus. Someone’s touchy.” 

Jason doesn’t say anything. He finishes the apple and throws the core into the bushes behind them. The pigeons will get it, or the squirrels, or someone even worse off than he is. 

Grant picks at the crescents of dirt beneath his fingernails. “Are you going to soccer practice today?”

“Obviously, stupid.”

“Coach Clover wants us to scrimmage the girls’ team. He’s got a bet with his sister. Loser buys the winning team pizza.” 

Jason rolls his eyes. “And you’re telling me this why?” 

“The girls’ team, Todd,” Grant says. “Wear something tight. They like that shit.” 

“Do you ever think about things that don’t have tits?”

“What, like books? Fuck that.”

An exasperated laugh escapes Jason’s lips. He doesn’t know if he’s trying to relieve the tension in his shoulders, or if he really is fed up with Grant’s shit. Still, he knows he can’t blame the idiot for fucking around at school. Grant’s dad makes bank with some military contracting firm. They live in a brownstone . He’s not relying on school to drag himself out of the trench of poverty.

Speaking of... Jason pulls out his phone to check his email. There’s an advertisement for running shoes, some public announcement about traffic, spam. Nothing from schools. God damn it.

“How are your mom’s treatments coming?” Grant asks out of nowhere.

Jason shoves his phone back into his jeans. After four years, the lies come easily now.  “Fine. Doc says things look good.”

“Hell yeah! Fuck cancer.” Grant smiles and gives him a friendly shove. “You know you can always borrow a car to get her to the lab, right?”

He nods. Sometimes he wonders why he doesn’t give his mom a miracle cure and let everyone know the truth. My mom’s an addict. A proper junkie. A needle whore. After all, he’s a legal adult now; too old to be taken away by the state. What can people do anymore? 

A lot , Jason reminds himself. People love cancer patients but condemn druggies, even though they’re equally sick and left behind by the system. He’d go from Poor Jason to That Fucking Enabler .  Hell, he doesn’t even want to imagine the rumors that would fly if people found out he went to the Rainbow Youth Center. Poor, queer, and druggie mix about as well as baking soda and vinegar.

 At least people like Ron or Roy or whatever his name was have money. They have the luxury of being clubbers. Party animals. Hedonists. 

Fuck . Why is he even thinking about this shit? It doesn’t matter. It was a mistake. 

As if on cue, he sees Rayner and Blue Chick walking across the school yard while having a friendly argument of some kind. His gut twists into knot. Rayner’s hair is bright green and overly styled, and Blue Chick wears a denim jacket covered in pins and patches. It fascinates him, the way they can go about their day dressing as they do and being proud of it. 

“Oh Christ,” Grant says, thrusting his chin at Rayner. “Look at that. That shit’s stupid, right?” 

Jason pauses, shock-still. Is he testing me?  

“I mean, those homos are just asking to be beat. Why do they have to be so...you know. Gay?

Without thinking, he says, “That’s not funny.”

“You’re right,” Grant replies. “It’s pathetic.”

Jason doesn’t know how to reply so he sits silently, watching the two of them get closer and closer to their table. God. It’s even in the way that they walk. Rayner is light-footed and flighty, and Blue Chick has a heavy, masculine gait. He’s not like that at all. 

Then suddenly Grant is shouting. “You two bearding for each other or something?” 

Oh fuck . Jason’s heart seizes. 

“Excuse me?” Blue Chick says. Her eyes narrow accusingly. 

“You know no one is going to believe that shit,” he says.

Grant! ” Jason hisses. But his friend just laughs.

“What? You’re defending these queers?” 

“I—I don’t know.”

Blue Chick flips the two of them off. “Fuck off,” she says. There’s a button on her vest right next to her hand: GENDERS ARE FOR LOSERS. 

“Yeah. Get bent, assholes,” Rayner adds. “Come on, Harper.” 

When they are out of sight, Grant stands and heaves his backpack over his shoulder. “God. What a couple of freaks.”

Douchebag! ” Jason slugs him on the arm. It’s not hard enough to bruise or hurt, even, but it’s not a friendly tap either. “I can’t believe you’d do something like that.”

 “What?” Grant cackles and dodges another swing of Jason’s fist. “It’s not like they can’t take it. Why do you even care?” 

Standing, Jason grabs his backpack. He doesn’t want to make eye contact, just in case Grant can read his expression. “I’m a nice person, I guess.”

“Bullcrap! You’re a piece of shit just like the rest of us.” 

“Whatever. The bell’s about to ring.”

Before Grant can say anything else, Jason walks back to the C Building, kicking the grass beneath his feet. He teeters between wishing he had stood up for them and being relieved that he didn’t. Was it cruel not to? Yeah, kind of. Was he better off not raising any questions? Most definitely. 

Talk about a rock and a hard place.

In English they do this stupid drill where everyone’s assigned a famous writer and has two words to communicate who they have. It’s mostly to prepare them for the A.P. exam, but it’s also because the instructor, Mr. Hall, is out with the flu, and the substitute is the one of the acting teachers. 

When it’s Jason’s turn, he stares at the name in his hand, wary of the eyes on his face. Everyone expects him to be the dumb jock. How could they not? He’s big and listens to angry music and lets his friends make fun of gay kids. 

Maybe no one actually thinks he’s gay. Maybe they think he’s the guy that shoves queers into lockers. But that’s not much better, really.

Clearing his throat, he says, “I’m nobody,” and sits back down.

“That’s a shitty clue,” someone whispers. 

“No it’s not,” Rayner says. He stares at Jason darkly, and Jason shrinks in his chair. “You’re Emily Dickinson. You’re nobody.” 

“Yeah,” he mutters, crushing the paper in his fist. Even when he looks away, he can feel Rayner’s gaze on the back of his neck. It’s all he can think about through the William Shakespeares and Lord Byrons and Maya Angelous. 

Most days he hates leaving English class. But today, the bell is a blessing. 

In his rush to get to his locker he nearly runs over Isabel. She gasps and steps backward, nearly dropping her bookbag. Jason’s tongue goes fat and limp as a sponge. 

“Jesus Christ, Jason,” Isabel says.

“I’m—I’m sorry.”

“Uh huh.” She looks up and him and narrows her eyes. “What the hell happened to your face? Did someone—”

“I fell down some stairs.” 

“Right. And Bruce Wayne’s a janitor.” 

Despite everything, Jason feels himself smiling. He’s always admired her quick tongue. “Isabel,” he starts.

“Don’t.” 

“Please.” His voice low so others can’t hear. “Give me a chance to prove—”

She cuts him off. “I don’t want proof , Jason.”

“Then what?”

“You need help,” she replies, spinning on her heels to join her friends down the hallway. He watches her go, feeling every bit as stupid as he probably looks. A dumb jock indeed. 

The final period of the day goes by in a blur. Ms. Adams shows them graphs and makes them find the area under curves, then gives them the rest of the time to work on their homework. And then all of a sudden he’s in the locker room, changing into his cleats and shin guards with two dozen other guys around him. Some are shirtless, others wear tank tops that hug their chests and frame their shoulders.

You’re not attracted to guys , Jason reminds himself. After all, if he were, wouldn’t he be checking them out? Getting hard, or something?

Grant nudges him. “Tight clothes, man,” he says. “I’m telling you. These girls have thighs that could crush you.”

“Great.”

His friend continues, ignoring him. “‘Course, maybe not you , but that’s because you’re a fucking brick wall. I can’t believe they let you quit football.” 

“Football didn’t want me.” 

“Well, soccer’s glad to have you.”

Jason finishes tying his cleat and stands, twisting his body to crack his back. “Are we really going to scrimmage the girls’ team?” he asks, thinking of Blue Chick. Harper. She’s on that team, isn’t she?

“Are you calling me a liar, Todd?” 

“No.” 

“Then why are you asking?”

“Alright. Damn .” Jason grabbed his water bottle and headed for the door. “Let’s get this over with.”

He was right about Harper. She’s one of the three girls taking a lap around the track, passing a ball between them. For the briefest of seconds he considers going over to her, apologizing for Grant and for himself, and telling her that he likes her vest. 

Shit. He’s just full of stupid ideas, isn’t he?

“Todd!” 

Jason looks up. Coach Clover is beckoning for him to come, grinning like a madman. Sometimes Jason forgets that his coach isn’t that much older than him. This is not one of those times.

“You’re cool playing defense today?” he asks after Jason’s jogged over.

“Yeah.”

“Great. Don’t break any of my sister’s players. We want to beat them, not crush them, if you know what I mean.” 

He doesn’t, but he nods anyway. 

“They’ve got fast strikers, so you’re gonna have to anticipate what their offense is gonna do. That little blue one, she’s a bullet.”

Oh great . “Anticipate. Don’t crush. Got it.”

“Sweet.” He claps Jason on the shoulder. “Go run a lap with the rest of the guys. I’m gonna go make fun of Claire. Hey, Claire!”

Jason watches as his coach runs over to the girls’ team and starts gesturing toward his sister, then joins the rest of his team. They run. Stretch. Run again. Shoot. Pass balls back and forth, one two one two one two

“Heard Coach wants you on defense today.” Bart, a forward, kicks the ball to him. Jason traps it with the inside of his foot. 

“Yep.”

“Think you’re fast enough for the job?”

“No one’s as fast as you, Allen,” Jason replies, kicking the ball back.

“Thanks. Not what I was asking.”

He grunts in reply, then follows the team as they gather on the sidelines. Coach Clover gives them some stupid shpeel (“Don’t lose. I mean, we won’t. But don’t lose.”) and then they’re on the field. Jason jumps up and down to loosen his legs, surveying the team ahead of him. Grant was right; a few of them do have really good legs. But then again a few of the guys on his team have good legs too. What’s the big deal? 

From the corner of his vision, he sees Harper flipping someone off. Rayner’s on the sidelines, giving her a thumbs-up as he mouths: take them out .

Jason is too wrapped up in it to hear the whistle blow. People start running, shouting. The ball goes right, left. He thinks his team is in possession, but it seems to change in the blink of an eye. When someone passes him the ball, he sends it to Virgil, who takes it up the field. At some point, Bart gets a hold of the ball, and dribbles it through their defense, looking like a red and white blur. He shoots; misses. Free kick. The goalie sends the ball soaring down the field, right in front of Harper. 

Who is right in front of Jason. 

He freezes.

Harper looks at him, smiles, and sends the ball flying. Right. Into. His. Face. 

Jason doesn’t even have the time to throw up his arms. It knocks him square on the nose, and his eyes water from the impact. Through the blur he can see the ball has landed in front of him, but something blue gets to it before he even registers what is going on. A shoulder drives into his side, and he’s on his ass. 

Seconds later, there’s a cheer. Someone’s scored, and he doesn’t think it was his side.

“Foul!” someone shouts. “She didn’t play the ball!”

“Fuck off, Allen!” 

That’s Harper’s voice , he thinks. Loud. Boisterous. 

“Todd!” Grant stands over him, glaring. “What the fuck? Get up!”

He does, brushing dirt off his ass. His entire face throbs. “Fuck,” he groans. “Am I bleeding?”

“Aw!” Harper shouts from across the field. She’s at the sidelines, high-fiving Rayner. “Poor babies!”

“You’re nobody!” Rayner yells. 

Jason averts his eyes. I deserve this .

Grant looks like he’s about to say something crude, but seems to decide against it at the last moment. Probably because he doesn’t want to piss off the entire girls’ varsity team. “Come on,” he says. “You’re making us look like a bunch of pussies. Not cool.”

“Fuck off, Wilson.”

“Fuck you , Todd,” his friend spits. Then he laughs. “Come on, pussy. Get your ass back to defense.”

Jason huffs, jogging back over to his place in the defensive line. His team resets the ball, and the game starts once again. Rayner shouts at him the entire game. 

“Nobody’s got the ball!” he screams. “Watch out, everybody!”

“Shut up, faggot!” someone yells back. Rayner merely laughs in response. 

Oh god . Jason shuts out everything but the ball, watching it speed between legs and fly over heads. Nothing has changed. He’s just a guy playing a game he’s played for years. So why does he feel sick?

In the end his team wins 2–1, thanks to a few good crosses from Virgil. Most people want to shake hands afterward, a few mutter angrily about offside plays and fouls that weren’t called. He floats through all of it. And then he floats through the cooldown drills and a shower in the locker room.

Well. That’s not quite true. He stares at the tile floor of the locker room, water dripping from his hair, afraid that if he looks up, he’ll find himself looking at the guys in a way he’s not supposed to. Maybe they’ll start appearing in his dreams too, and then he’ll have to deal with that

Virgil pats him on the back. They’re both wet and shirtless, smelling like cheap shampoo. “Defense isn’t your strong suit,” he says, but it’s not unkind. It’s reassuring. 

Jason clears his throat and smiles. “Yeah,” he says. He keeps his eyes trained on Virgil’s face, but the action seems almost intimate, so he looks away. Boys shouldn’t stare at other boys.

“Move, Hawkins,” says Grant. “I gotta talk to this guy.”

“Damn, Wilson. Sorry to get between you and your boyfriend.” 

“Oh, she wishes,” his friend says, and Jason goes beet red. 

He knows. He knows. Oh, fuck. He knows.  

But he doesn’t. Grant stands in front of him, a stupid smile spread over his face. “Man,” he says, “you have got to come with me to this party tomorrow.”

“Weren’t you just at a party?”

“Yeah. But it was kinda lame. This one will be good. Saturday night shit. You’re not working, are you? Your mom have an appointment or something?”

“How many parties can there be in all week?”

“Gotham’s a big-ass city,” Grant says. “I have a lot of connections. Come on, it’ll be fun . You need a distraction, anyway.”

Jason lets out an annoyed sigh. “Who are you trying to set me up with?” 

“What?” His friend has the gall to appear shocked. “No one. Honest.”

Tugging a shirt over his head, Jason says, “I don’t know, man.”

“Fuck,” Grant laughs. “What’s wrong with you? It’s free booze.” 

Jason pauses. He thinks about Isabel, what she said that night in the park. There’s something wrong with you , she said, and maybe she was right. He’s supposed to like parties. He’s supposed to want to get wasted and want to makeout with girls who have huge tits and tiny waists. 

That first part he’d do gladly, at least. And maybe that’s the push he needs to get over whatever crap is making him think he’s gay. Maybe it’s some kind of hormone deficiency. Alcohol has an effect on hormones, right?

“Who’s throwing the party?” he asks. 

“I don’t know. Some private school kid.”

“Thought you said you had connections.”

“I weave a complicated web, Todd,” Grant says.  

With a sigh, Jason slips on his shoes and grabs his backpack. His phone tells him that he has twelve minutes until the last bus to East End departs from the metro station. And he really, really doesn’t want to walk home, because that means passing by the Rainbow Youth Center, where someone like Stef or Grayson could lean out the window and shout his name—

“I’ll get back to you,” he mumbles, and heads out. He’s just past the entrance of the school when he hears someone call out to him.

“Hey, nobody.”

Fuck . Jason turns around. Rayner and Harper are sitting on a bench, arms crossed and looking sour. 

“Hi,” he chokes out. 

“We let you guys win,” Harper says. “Just so you know.”

Jason finds himself saying, “I know. I’m sorry.” 

His reply seems to confuse them. He can’t blame them for this; it confuses him too. Why the fuck would he say that now? What’s wrong with him? 

“Did—did you just apologize?” she asks. 

“Um, yeah.” Jason adjusts the straps of his backpack. He doesn’t know where to look.

“Well.” Rayner crosses his arms over his chest. “We don’t accept it.”

“That’s fair.”

Harper studies him. She’s still wearing her practice clothes, and is covered in dirt and grass stains. For the first time, Jason notices that she has freckles. 

“You’re weird,” she says, and his lungs implode.  Part of him wants to point out the irony; another worries that she’s right. 

“Look,” he stammers, “I have a bus to catch. I’ll see you on Monday.”

“Whatever.”

“Bye, nobody.”

Jason practically runs away from them. Only when he gets to the bus stop does he realize that he’s no longer breathing. It’s alright, he tells himself, gasping for air. He’ll get home, pick up Mom, do his homework. And tomorrow, he’ll go to a party, find a girl, and prove to Isabel that he’s not gay. He’s not.

Chapter Text

He’s never been to this part of Gotham before, where the townhouses are glass and brick and worth more per month than he’d be lucky to see in a year. Hell, there isn’t even a bus stop near here—he had to walk six blocks just to get to North Warren Street. That’s the type of money these people have: “I don’t even want to see poor people” money.  

It almost makes him feel bad, leaving his mom in their apartment while he hangs out in Burnley with a bunch of people he’s never met before. Hell, forget “almost.” He feels bad that he only left her a lame sandwich in the fridge.  He feels bad that he put her on the couch and turned on a movie. He feels bad that he looked her in the eyes and said, “I’m going to the library, Mom. Be back soon,” like some kind of teenage rebel. 

At least Grant was right. There is a lot of free booze. 

Jason lingers by the cooler, fiddling with the sleeves of his flannel as he decides whether or not to start talking to someone. Anyone. Half of the people he’s seen randomly at school—passing through the hallways, tacking up announcements on bulletin boards, answering a question in class—and the other half are strangers. Private school kids, he guesses. 

Why is this so hard? Normally he’s fine in big crowds. Not a party animal, but not a wallflower either. Just one of those people who hangs out, has a decent time, and goes home with the mild euphoria of a buzz. Well. Except for that one time someone gave him pot brownies, but he didn’t know they were pot brownies, so he ate three. That was eight hours of paranoia that he’s never getting back.

The party isn’t crazy or anything. There’s a few clumps of people dancing to heavy electronica while the pulse of the bass sends shivers up Jason’s legs. Others are hanging in groups, chatting, laughing, swaying to the beat. Out back a group is passing a joint around in a circle. Other than the location and designer clothes and the few people on coke and molly, it’s not at al different from the parties Grant has dragged him to before.

Speaking of, where the fuck is Grant? 

Jason grabs another beer, his second of the night. It pops open with a hiss, and he downs half of it, not even stopping for air. A dark-skinned girl looks at him and raises an eyebrow. She’s pretty in a bookish sort of way. He raises the can in some sort of toast, and the girl laughs. 

“What? Are you drunk already?” she asks.

He feigns an indignant gasp. “Please. I don’t need alcohol to be funny.”

“Uh huh. Sure.” 

See? This isn’t terrible. Keep going. 

“Jason,” he says.

“Karen.”

“You’re a student?”. 

“I was.”

There must be something on his face, because Karen laughs and says, “I have a boyfriend anyway.” She waves at a tall black guy on the other side of the room. “His name’s Mal. Want some advice?”

Jason blushes. “Sure.” 

“Don’t ask people if they’re students. Unless you want people to think you’re in high school. Or, like, a predator or something.” 

He’s never thought about that before, but it sounds about right. “Cool,” he replies. “Thanks for the tip, Karen.” 

“Don’t be too irresponsible, Jason.” 

“I’ll do my best.”

She winks and grabs a couple of beers from the cooler, then walks back to her boyfriend. Jason watches her settle into her place in the group. No one looks back at him, which is good, he guesses.

“Todd!” someone yells. 

Ah. There he is. 

Jason turns around in time to see Grant push his way through a group of dancing people. A girl with platinum blonde hair follows behind him, winding through people without even looking up from her phone. Rose.  

“You got here early,” Grant says.

“You said seven.” 

“Yeah, I said seven, but then I had to drag Rose from softball practice. Say hi, dumbass.” 

Rose looks at her brother, then at Jason. She rolls her eyes. “Hi, dumbass.”

‘Hey Rose.”

She grunts and wanders off, still texting. In a moment, she’s disappeared into a crowd of people by the kitchen. 

“Don’t mind her,” Grant says. “PMS or some bullshit. How many of those have you had already?”

“Huh?” Jason looks down and is reminded of the drink in his hand. Beads of water have condensed on the outside, wetting his palm. “Oh. This is number two.”

“Good. I’d hate for you to get wasted without me. Wanna do some boilermakers?”

“What the fuck is that?”

Grant gestures vaguely. “You know. Shot of whiskey, lots of beer. What has your momma been teaching you?”

Jason laughs uncomfortably. You have no idea. “I don’t do fancy shit,” he says. “You know me.”

“How many times do I have to tell you, man,” Grant laughs, “you’re with me now. I’ve got you covered. Besides, boilermakers are sports bar fancy.  Totally your style.”

“So is beer.” 

“Beer is boring. Come on. Let’s go let’s go let’s go!”

Ugh. Jason rolls his eyes. “Are you high or something?”

A wide smile stretches across Grant’s face. That’s an answer enough. 

Sighing, Jason follows him into the kitchen, sipping at his beer to get used to the soft bite of alcohol. The people around him smell like sweat and body spray. More are arriving every minute, and even though he knows he is not drunk he feels as if a haze has settled over the room. Then someone shouts for lights, and the room is thrown into dim, oscillating colors. It might have been fun if he were still with Isabel and didn’t think he had a problem.

“So,” Grant says, pouring him a shot of whiskey. “Meet anyone yet?”

“Some girl named Karen. She was nice.”

Nice? You’re not here to make friends , Todd. Look,” he says, setting down the bottle, “See that girl? In the white shorts?”

Jason looks over to the bar. The girl in the white shorts is tall, blonde, and pink. She’s talking with a redhead girl he recognizes from school. A tennis player, he thinks. The two of them seem to be gossiping, judging by the looks on their faces.

Grant raises his shot. Amber liquid drips over the side. “I’m going to take one of these, walk up to her, and ask if she wants to make out,” he says.

“How do you know she doesn’t have a boyfriend?”

“That’s Angelica Smith. From algebra?”

Jason shrugs.

“Fuck man. Here.” Grant thrusts a shot into Jason’s open hand and, tipping his head back, pours the whiskey down his throat. After, he hisses between his teeth, cracks open a beer, and downs that too. “Hurry up, and maybe you can snag Elise.” 

What if I don’t want to snag Elise? thinks Jason. He looks down at the shot in his hand. The shot looks back. Why couldn’t it be something good, like a mojito or piña colada? Beer, whiskey, vodka, they get the job done, but they taste like crap. 

Fuck. That’s gay. 

Jason downs the shot before he thinks of more stupid shit. It washes down in a rich, smoky flavor, burning his throat and bringing color to his face. Before he can cough, he washes down the warmth with the rest of the beer. It’s not unpleasant, but it makes his organs reel. 

He waits. The warmth of the liquid washes through him, filling him from his legs to the tips of his fingers. Grant is talking with the two girls by the bar, grinning wildly, nodding in earnest to whatever Angelica is saying. He makes it look so easy . Like it’s a part of his nature. Boy meets girl. Boy charms girl. Boy gets laid. Where’s all the second-guessing? The part where he has to force himself to want it, really want it, and not just stay content with kissing?

Though, he supposes, it is nature. Bird meet bird. Dog meet dog. Bug meet bug. It’s all the same, isn’t it? It’s what makes them real .

Jason looks around at the counter. Vodka. Whiskey. Jack. That’ll do. He pours himself a Jack and Coke and keeps drinking. 

After a moment, he thinks, this is nice . The music beats in his ear. People seem a little friendlier. His cheap clothes feel more comfortable. He is an ember wrapped in skin, vibrating softly as the seconds pass by. 

“Football?” someone asks. The voice is light, feminine.

It takes him a moment to realize she’s talking to him. He turns. The girl is around his age, maybe older, with pale skin and pink-tinged hair. Instagram goth. 

“Football?” he replies.

“Do you play?”

“Not anymore.”

She laughs. Her lips are dark and purple. “Could’ve fooled me.”

“I’m Jason,” he says. 

“Dawn. Wanna get me one of those?” 

Oh. Okay . He smiles at her and starts pouring. When he hands her the drink, he can smell the soft florals of her body spray. It’s pleasant, not at all harsh like the smell of cinnamon or mint. Across the room, Grant is whispering in Angelica’s ear. Jason wonders how he gets her to smile like that. What is he saying? Maybe he should just ask Dawn what she wants to talk about. Yeah. That seems like a good idea.

“What should we talk about?” he asks.

Dawn laughs again, and strangely, it doesn’t shake him. It’s more of a you’re funny laugh and less of a you’re lame laugh. Weird. Maybe this alcohol thing is working.

She takes a sip of her drink. “Do you like working out?” 

“Working out? Like running and shit? Yeah.”

“Thought so.” 

“I know, I know. I’m rocking the ‘dumb jock’ look,” he replies. This is so easy. Say something else. “Your hair looks nice.”

“Oh, this?” Dawn holds up a lock of her hair. “It’s so old. I’ve been meaning to dye it for weeks.”

Jason finds himself laughing. “What? Fuck off. It looks good.” 

She giggles, and something warm stirs in his belly. He wants to kiss her on her purple lips, to sit down with her and talk about books and movies and life. And he thinks that maybe she wants to kiss him too. After all, she doesn’t take her eyes off him when she drinks. That’s what attraction is, isn’t it? Looking at someone because you like what you see?

“You’ve run out,” Dawn says, pointing at his cup. 

He looks down. Huh. When did that happen? “You’re observant,” he replies.

“Want something new? Or—” She meets his eyes and smirks. “—are you too smashed already?”

“Please. I’m like, heavy and shit.” 

“Good.” Dawn grabs his hand and pulls him to the backyard patio. The people smoking have fucked off to god-knows-where, replaced by a group chilling in a hot tub and another sitting on some wicker furniture, sharing photos on their phones. Rose is with them, draped over an ottoman like a pin-up girl. Jason waves. Either she doesn’t see him, or she doesn’t care. Well. Maybe he doesn’t care, either.

Dawn makes him a white gummy bear shot. It’s sugary, and hardly burns, and so he asks her to make another. His world is a little fuzzy, but that’s okay. That’s what he’s here for, isn’t it?

“My mom’s on drugs,” he tells while they’re sitting on a couch. When did they go back inside? Was it before all the shots, or after?

“Oh shit,” Dawn replies. 

“Yeah. And her dealer did this.” He points to his face. “You know the worst part? I can’t tell anyone.”

She takes a sip of beer. “You’re telling me .”

“Yeah, but you’re not anyone . And I’m fucked, man.” Jason laughs, rubbing his fists into his eyes. Everything’s even hazier now, as if the city’s filled with smog. Is it hot in here? When did the music get so loud? What time is it? Where’s Grant? When did Dawn put her hand on his thigh?

Oh. 

“That’s so sweet,” she says. Her voice is slow. “Wanna make out?”

“Yeah,” he replies, and her lips bump into his. She tastes a little like potato chips, a lot like alcohol. Jason presses into her, wanting to touch her pink hair, wanting to cave into himself, wanting to—

—throw up. 

“Oh god.” Jumping to his feet, he throws a hand over his mouth.

“What?” Dawn asks.

Jason shakes his head. If he opens his mouth, he’s going to vomit. Dawn must realize this. All of a sudden she’s yanking him toward the bathroom and pushing him inside. 

He barely makes it to the toilet before he starts heaving. There was a time when he didn’t understand the phrase “waves of nausea,” but boy does he get it now. It starts in the lowest part of his abdomen and rolls upward, rising through his chest and crashing out of his mouth. Saliva pools around his tongue.

“Are you okay?” Dawn asks. 

“I—” Jason leans over the toilet bowl and vomits again. Fuck . He spits out a glob of saliva and braces himself against the toilet, trying not to fall over. When did everything start spinning?  

Dawn reaches down to rub his back in small, concentric circles. “Oh, baby,” she says softly.

He groans. God, everything hurts. His eyeballs hurt. 

“I’m gonna get you a water, ‘kay? Then we’ll find somewhere to lay down.”

Without looking, Jason gives her a thumbs up. It’s all he can do.

When she comes back, he rinses out his mouth until he can’t taste the sick anymore. After that, he doesn’t remember much. He doesn’t remember which room they went into, and he doesn’t remember whether there was anyone else inside. He doesn’t remember Dawn lying down next to him, but he does remember that they talked some more and then she asked him a question. He thinks he said yes.

She feels good. Her hands are on his chest and her legs are wrapped around his waist. She slides two fingers into his mouth and he moans, but he doesn’t know why. Why is he doing any of this? He doesn’t even—well, he does , but maybe not like that, and—are they even using a condom? 

Jason wants to tell her to stop. But that would be proving everyone right, Isabel and Grant and everyone . He can’t do that and he can’t do that and he can’t do that and—

He can’t do this

“Stop!” Jason spits out. 

“What?”

“Get— getoffme .” 

“Huh—” She yelps as he pushes her off and tugs his jeans back over his waist. Where are his shoes? Is he still wearing his flannel?

“What the fuck? Wait. Where are you going?” Dawn asks. 

He can’t look at her. He can’t look at himself. 

“Hey! I’m talking to you! What’s wrong? Babe—”

Jason shuts the door on her and stumbles into the hallway. He doesn’t recognize this part of the townhouse. A basement, maybe? There are people still talking upstairs, music still playing. He finds the staircase and starts climbing toward the music. Some people are still lounging around the living room, drinking. The rest are gone. Grant doesn’t seem to be anywhere.

“Hey. Buddy. You okay?”

He looks at the person talking to him. That’s Karen’s boyfriend , he thinks. M… Monroe? Morris? 

“Do you need someone to call you a cab?” the guy asks. 

“No,” Jason mutters. “I’m good.” 

“Are you sure?”

He nods and walks past him, pushing open the front door and nearly falling down the steps. The night is freezing cold, almost wet. Everything is dark: the streets, the townhouses, the trees that line the sidewalks. Nausea settles in the pit of his stomach, but there is nothing inside him to expel. His tongue is dry and scratchy. His head reels.

Which way to the bus stop? Left? right? There’s a sports car parked at the end of the road. A million years ago, Jason passed it on his way to the party. So he has to go right, then.

There are two blocks between him and the party when his legs turn to jelly. Jason slumps over and draws his knees into his chest, taking long, slow breaths. The chill of the air clears him enough to see things clearly: it’s too far. And the buses stopped running hours ago, anyway. He should have stayed at the party. He should have stayed with Dawn. Maybe it’s not too late to go back—

No. He can’t do that. Pulling his phone from his pocket, he texts Grant:

Im at te end off Lexingtonnn. Total fucked. Pic me up??

A minute passes. Then another. Grant doesn’t respond. He tries again. 

Buses not runnig anymroe. Need ride.

Still, no response. 

Okay, okay… He can’t panic. It’s okay. This is Burnley. What’s going to happen? There aren’t any bums like Tommy to come at him with knives and bad intentions. Everyone is like Grant, living free with fat ambitions and dreams untethered to money. 

Grant. Despite everything, Jason laughs to himself.  Why does a guy like that hang out with a guy like him? Sure, they like the same video games and play the same sports, and yeah, maybe Jason did give him the answers to a few quizzes, but in the end they’re so fundamentally different. Grant’s cool and funny and good with girls, and Jason’s stuck on the sidewalk, totally sloshed just after some girl—

That’s not what happened. He wasn’t—just because he’s drunk—

He gasps for air. When did he forget to keep breathing? Fuck. He needs to focus on getting home. Home. Home. Home. 

His contact list isn’t very full. There’s a few guys on the soccer team: Virgil, Bart, Richie. His mom. Tommy, for some god-forsaken reason. Isabel.

Need help , he writes. Dive home. 

She starts writing something back. The three dots on his screen come in waves, rippling in their little gray cloud, then disappear. 

Jason adds: Please . Im so srory . Sorry.

The dots don’t come back. 

“Goddammit,” he mutters. No, not a mutter. It’s a sob. His vision blurs; his lower lip begins to quake. Before he can stop himself, he is spilling tears onto the pavement, crying into his hands. 

What the fuck is wrong with him? 

A quivering breath rolls through him. “Please, please, please,” he mutters, but he doesn’t know what he is asking for. He doesn’t know where he is. He doesn’t know what he is.

Light washes over him, bright and blinding, as a car pulls up the road. The driver doesn’t even look at him as she turns onto Lexington. Of course he’s only invisible when he does not want to be.

His mom would be asleep by now, right? Wiping his eyes, Jason runs his thumb over her name on his contact list, his chest heaving. Maybe tonight was one of her good nights. Maybe she’s up and waiting for him to come home, worrying and pacing and—

But they don’t have a car, so she can’t pick him up, which means—

Does he have to call Tommy? No, that doesn’t seem right. And Tommy would never—

Tommy would make it worse, call him a fag and a homo, maybe joke about passing him around his friends like a ragdoll—

Not that he doesn’t feel that way already—

Fuck. He’s going to pass out. He’s going to pass out on the side of the road in fucking Burnley . Jason can feel it in his reeling stomach, the vertigo that takes him even though he is already on the ground and braced against a stop sign. And then someone will find him and call the police...and he’ll be taken in...and no one will want to give him a scholarship...and he’ll end up in prison like his dad…

Jason blinked hard, trying to clear the wooziness from his head. What...is he doing here? Where... is here? Maybe...maybe he should call Tommy...it can’t be that bad...after all…

Suddenly, a light. Blinding. He groans and shields his eyes from whatever—whoever—is causing it. 

“Jason?”

That voice—it reminds him of the color blue. But every time he grasps at a name, it evaporates. 

“Oh damn. He’s really out of it. Can I get some help?”

Four strong hands grip him by the shoulders and pull him up. 

“Thanks, gen’lemen,” Jason slurs. “But I’m fine. Trus’ me.”

“How many drinks did you have?”

That’s the question . “I dunno. A lot?”

Someone pats him on the back. No, they’re pushing him forward. Into a car. “Come on, buddy,” they say. “We’re gonna get you to a doctor.”

Doctor? No, no, no, no . Something like a moan comes out of his mouth, but he can’t make himself form intelligible words. It’s too hard. And the car seat is so, so soft... 

“That’s it,” someone says. “I’m going to buckle you in now, okay?”

“Mmuuh huuuh.” 

The last thing Jason remembers is a sharp click . Then shadows wash over him, and he is pulled under. 

Chapter Text

Jason does not know where he is. No, that is a lie. There is a slight pressure in his arm. Something is beeping. He’s brought his mom to the clinic enough to know what kind of room he’s in.

When the fog clears, the first things he notices are these: blinding light, the new machines, that sharp, clean smell of ammonia and hand sanitizer. There is a poster with different faces to his left. What’s your pain level? Tolerable. Annoying. Intense. 

That’s when he notices the throbbing in his head. Jason groans and squeezes his eyes shut, pressing himself into the bed to get away from that garish, painful light. Fuck. It’s number seven or eight for sure. Very Intense to Utterly Horrible. 

God. He should have died on the side of the road, curled up on the sidewalk—

The night storms back into him. His eyes fly back open and gasps for air, scrambling to rearrange the memories. North Warren Street. Alcohol. Grant. Dawn. The sidewalk. Now here he is, sitting in an upright hospital bed, in a nice hospital bed, above shiny floors and next to bright, expansive windows. He must have thrown up during the night, because there’s a basin next to him that looks shiny, as if recently washed. Someone brought him here. A hospital.

“Shit!” he hisses, and tries to pull away, but the pressure in his arm pulls back. He looks down. There’s an IV in his arm. A needle

The blood rushes from his face and he fights to breathe. It looks just like the ones his mom leaves scattered over the floors and on the windowsills, and who knows what they put in there, maybe heroin or cocaine or amphetamines... 

A needle

A needle

A needle

Some nurse walks in on him as he’s struggling to yank it out. “Stop!” she yells, grabbing his wrists to keep his fingers from wrapping around the foreign device and pulling. “You can’t just take it out like that!”

“Get it out of me!” he chokes, pushing at her torso. “Get. It. Out!

“Oh my god—Maria, help!” 

Another pair of hands wraps around his other arm. Jason didn’t even see the other nurse come in. He doesn’t even care. He just wants that thing gone

“It’s alright,” the second nurse says. She presses him back gently, until his back rests against the cushion of the bed. The lights are flashing in his vision and he can’t fight it anymore. “We’ll take it out. But you need to be still .” 

Still . He can do that. The pain in his head is coming back. 

Slowly, the nurses release him. A moment passes, and then the pressure in his arm disappears. He looks down. A bead of blood has appeared on his inner arm, widening and widening until it drips down his forearm, hot and thick. The first nurse wipes it away. 

“There,” she said. “Better?”

“What—what was that?” 

“Just saline,” she replies, and gives him a look. “You were seriously dehydrated. Alcohol poisoning.”

Fuck . So it’s worse than a hangover, then. 

Jason leans back until he is resting on the bed. Down the hallway, a disembodied voice is making an announcement about something something Dr. Thompkins. 

You don’t have health insurance , a little voice says to him. Get the fuck out of here

“What’s the point?” he mutters. He probably racked up a ten thousand dollar bill already. They should just let him die. 

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing.” 

The nurse clicks her tongue. “You want me to call in your friends? They’ve been real worried about you.” 

“Friends?” 

“Those kids that dropped you off. Want me to call them in?”

It all comes back to him now. The party. Dawn. The sidewalk. The car. Someone buckled him in and held him upright as they drove. Not Grant. It was someone kind. Someone blue.

His confusion must be written on his face, because the nurse stands and smiles kindly. “I’ll call them in,” she says. “They can help you with your discharge papers.”

“You’re not gonna give me a talk about drinking?”

The nurse laughs. “I’d say you learned your lesson, huh? Wait right there.”

Jason opens his mouth to say something else, but she is already gone. Alright then. Sighing, he throws an arm over his face to block out the light. What is he going to tell the hospital? Sorry, but you know that bill you gave me? I can’t pay it. So sorry! Hell. Forget the hospital. What is he going to tell his mom? I racked up ten grand in medical bills because I wanted to have sex with a girl, but I couldn’t, because I’m gay. 

His eyes fly open. His mom . Oh fuck. She’s all alone in their apartment. She’s probably worried sick, popping pills to keep from freaking out—

“Oh. You’re awake.” 

Jason looks over to the door, and his breath catches in his throat. No fucking way. It couldn’t be—but it had to—there was no other option—

Dick Grayson. Dick Fucking Grayson, pretty boy, rich kid, Rainbow Youth, picked him off the street and brought him to the hospital. 

“Christ, man,” Dick says. “Are you okay?”

It takes Jason a moment to collect himself. Dick Grayson, with those beautiful blue eyes, that dark, shiny hair, was nice to him. He remembered his name. He was there when no one else was, not even Grant. God . He probably pictures himself as some sort of white knight, helping those poor, broken boys who think that they’re not gay...

“Fuck you,” Jason mutters. He can’t help himself. 

It’s a small pleasure, seeing Dick so taken aback. “Excuse me?” he asks. 

“Fuck. You. You fucking brought me to the hospital?

“Is that a problem?”

Jason tries to stand up, groans, then falls back against the bed. “I can’t afford this, you prick,” he mumbles.

“Oh.” Something between surprise and pity settles over Dick’s face. “Don’t worry about that. My dad, uh, owns this place. We’ll get it all sorted out.”

Right. His dad. Bruce Wayne.

“I don’t want your help. Or your money.”

“Well, too bad. You’re gonna take it.” 

“Why?” Despite the pounding in his head, Jason forced himself to stare into Dick’s face. “I don’t even know you, man. We’ve talked once.

“And? Should I have just left you there?”

Jason doesn’t say anything.

“Look,” Dick sighs, pulling a bottle of water of his bag, “I didn’t even know it was you. My friend Mal called me about a drunk kid leaving this party.”

He scoffs. “Because you just love saving people, right?” 

“No. Because my apartment’s in the area. Water?”

Jason considers not taking it. He shouldn’t take it. The bottle’s just another thing he’d have to pay back, and he owed enough already. But the more he looked at it, the stickier his mouth felt, the drier his tongue became. God damn it.

He takes the water and pries of the top, gulping it down until he needs to breathe. “Thanks,” he mutters. “I, uh, needed that.”

“I bet. My first hangover, I think I drank about a gallon.” 

“It’s not my first hangover,” says Jason, thinking, and it won’t be my last

Dick laughs, and something twists in Jason’s stomach. He looks like he’s about to say something else when a woman in a lab coat comes in, carrying a clipboard. Jason’s not so hungover that he doesn’t recognize a doctor when he sees one. 

“Jason?” the doctor asks. “How are you feeling?”

Jason looks at Dick, who mouths, Catch you outside . He’s gone in an instant. 

The doctor tries again. “Mr. Todd?”

“I feel like shit.”

“Well, that’s perfectly normal,” she replies, smiling as she removes the stethoscope from her neck. “I’m going to check your heart rate, alright?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m going to have to put this on your skin. Is that okay?”

He thinks about Dawn.

He feels sick. 

He thinks about something else. 

“Yeah,” he says, tugging down the front of his collar to expose the top part of his chest. “Go for it.”

She places the head of the stethoscope on his skin and listens. Then she places it on his back and asks him to breathe in. Breathe out. She checks his eyes, his blood pressure, and tells him that his blood pressure is a little high, but not to worry too much, because it’s to be expected after the last night’s activities

“Looks like you’re good to go,” she says, recording the numbers on the clipboard. “We’ll have some things for you to sign at the front desk.”

“Cool,” Jason says. He itches to get out.

The doctor clicks her pen and pulls a sheet of paper from the clipboard. Handing it to Jason, she says, “Come back if you experience any of the symptoms listed here.”

He looks over the list. Confusion, hypothermia, abnormal breathing, hypoglycemia . Blah blah blah. 

“Here’s a recovery plan,” she says, handing him another paper. “I suggest you get some food in you as soon as possible. Increased blood sugar should help with your veisalgia.”

“Right.” 

“And Jason?”

He shifts his posture to look at the doctor as she gives him—surprise, surprise—more papers. This one is different than the others, lighter. The top of the page reads: Rethinking Drinking: Alcoholism and your health. And the next page is even worse: Domestic abuse: there is help for you. 

“Please read these,” she says, and his cheeks begin to burn. “There are resources for you, if you need them. We’re here to help.”

Yeah, right .

“I’ll check it out,” Jason lies. “Are we good?”

“Yes. We’re good.” 

He is out of the room before she can give him any more stupid advice. His body aches as he moves, but it’s a welcome alternative to spending one more minute on that bed as he’s passed from helper to helper like a broken toy. 

Dick is waiting for him at the front desk. “I’ve got your stuff,” he says, dropping Jason’s phone and wallet on the counter. “Sorry. I had to go through it to find your ID.” 

So he saw how empty it was. Great. Jason takes it and slips it into his pocket without saying anything. “What do I gotta sign to get out of here?” he mumbles. 

“Just these,” the attendant says, placing some document before him. It’s full of legal crap. Patient name (Jason Peter Todd). Sex (Male). Date of Birth (9/16/97). He starts to shield the paper from Dick’s view as he writes his address, then remembers that he’s being stupid, since Dick has seen his ID and everything. God . He must have such a hero complex right now. Look at me, saving this poor, confused queer from the East End

“And we’ve talked about the bill,” Dick says. 

The attendant nods. “Yes. No need to fill out that last section.” 

“Right.” Jason crosses out what he had started writing and hands the paper back over.

She gives it a skim, staples something to it, and smiles at him. “You’re good to go, Mr. Todd. Mr. Grayson, we’ll be in touch.” 

“Sounds good,” Dick replies, grabbing Jason’s arm and pulling him toward the door. 

Jason swats him away. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Taking you home.”

Jesus Christ . “Look,” Jason says, rubbing his race to ease some of the pressure in his skull, “Thanks, but no thanks. I owe you enough.”

“Sorry,” Dick replies, obviously not sorry. “But I kinda put myself down as your ride home.”

“You what?”

Laughing, Dick holds up his hands and gives him a look: my bad, except not really . “I mean, we can go back and change it. But they’re not going to let you leave without a ride, you know.” 

Jason sighs. Fuck it. If Dick wants to be a hero so goddamn badly, he might as well get the whole goddamn experience. 

“Alright,” he says. It takes a lot not to sound like a petulant child. “Let’s go, then.”

When Dick starts walking—with perfect posture, naturally—Jason follows, wishing he had his hood or some sunglasses to block the light pouring into his eyes. It’s no brighter than usual, which in Gotham is hardly very bright, but today the brightness hurts. At least the morning breeze is soft and cool on his face, like that rush of air when he opens a freezer. It feels good, running through his hair.

“Hop in,” Dick says, pointing his keys at a row of cars. Jason expects the sports convertible to be the one that beeps, but the car that unlocks is the one next to it, a normal-looking hatchback.

“You’re kidding,” he says, when Dick gets behind the wheel.

“What?”

“I don’t know. I just thought—”

“That I’d have a nicer car?” Dick’s eyes sparkle. “Do I look like a flashy guy?”

Jason knows he’s not supposed to look at guys, but he does anyway. A floral, short-sleeved button up—a little rumpled, but fashionably—a V-neck tee shirt, rolled chinos, high tops. He looks like he stepped out of an ad for Zumiez.

“Yeah,” Jason says. “A little.”

“Good. Hop in.”

The car smells of air freshener and a little bit of coffee, like someone spilled Starbucks on the floor and never cleaned it up all the way. Sure enough, there’s a splash of brown on the light gray carpets beneath his feet. 

“Don’t drink and drive,” Dick explains, when he sees Jason looking. 

“Very funny.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know.” 

Dick turns the key in the ignition and the car hums to life. Ah. A hybrid. Jason feels a smugness well up in his chest, as if he had proven something to himself. Of course it wasn’t a normal hatchback. 

“So,” Dick begins, “you hungry?”

Yes. 

“No.”

“Well I’m starving. Hospital cafeterias are shit. Mind if we make a quick stop?”

Jason shakes his head and sinks down in the seat until he’s curved like an S. He wants to go home. He wants Dick to push him out of the car and drive off, leaving him in the dirt where he belongs. At least then he’d look as roughed up as he feels.

His mom must be worried about him. Checking his phone, Jason looks for an anguished text, something he can use to force Dick to hurry things up. I’m sorry , he wants to say, but my mom is freaking out. See? I need to go home right now .

But there’s nothing. Not even a text from Grant. Of course. They’re probably sleeping off whatever shit they had last night.

Jason sighs and looks at Dick, studies the way his hair ruffles in the current of the heater. For the first time, he notices the dark circles under his eyes, how he blinks quickly to drive off sleep. 

Oh my god . Why hadn’t it occurred to him that—of course that’s what happened—he almost died—

Fuck. He’s such a goddamn ingrate.

“You stayed at the hospital?” Jason blurts out.

Dick chuckles uncomfortably. “Kinda.” 

“Shit.” Jason closes his eyes. “Fuck. I’m such an asshole. I’m so sorry.”

“What do you mean?”

“I could have died and you saved me and I didn’t even—I’m sitting here thinking you’re a total jerk because you have money, and I can’t afford to owe anyone anything else, and you know too much about me already—and I didn’t even thank you . Thank you.” 

He says all of this very fast. When it’s over, he realizes he is out of breath.

Dick looks caught between shock and consternation. If he weren’t driving, he probably would be staring. “Okay,” he says. “That’s a lot.”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t owe me anything. I promise. You don’t need to worry about that.” 

Jason grits his teeth. “But I do .”

“Explain.”

“Because that’s how it works, okay?” Jason says. “In my...in the real world.”

If Dick is insulted, he doesn’t show it on his face. He simply shrugs and brushes a loose strand of hair out of his eyes, keeping his gaze fixed on the road. “Alright. You owe me. Happy?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Really. I mean it.”

Dick laughs. “I know. And I’m gonna call in my first favor now. We’re stopping for breakfast.”

That’s not what I meant , Jason thinks, but says nothing. Something tells him that arguing would be pointless. And he is hungry, he realizes, more hungry than he’d care to admit to himself. There’s a menacing emptiness in him, a vacancy that leaves him slightly nauseous. 

“Fine,” he says, and Dick smiles.

They stop at a small place off of the boulevard, some kitschy diner with tile floors and red plastic booths. Dick must be some type of regular here, because the waitress waves at him and says something along the lines of “long time no see.” 

“You’ve got to try the fries,” Dick says, sliding into one of the booths. Jason joins him, trying not to look desperate for food. “They’re to die for.”

“It’s like, ten in the morning.”

“So? It’s five o’clock somewhere,” Dick says, then laughs. “Sorry. That was insensitive.”

“I’m not an alcoholic.”

“I never said that.”

“I know.”

“Look,” Dick says. “We all make mistakes.” 

The way he says it makes Jason wonder if he’s talking about something else. He shifts uncomfortably, and tries to focus on the menu. Eggs. Bacon. Pancakes. Burgers. Milkshakes. He doesn’t look at the way Dick bites his lip in concentration, doesn’t look at the way the tendons in his forearms flex when he rests his head on his palm. He doesn’t look at these things, because he is afraid they might make him feel something he’s not supposed to feel.

When the waitress comes back, he orders a chili dog and a milkshake, and asks for a separate check. Thankfully, Dick doesn’t stop him. Maybe he’s finally catching on to the fact that Jason isn’t a fucking charity case. 

“What happened to ‘ten o’clock in the morning’?” Dick asks when the waitress leaves. He dumps a packed of sugar in his coffee and stirs, leaving the spoon in as he takes a sip.

“I’m hungover.”

“That’s fair. Coffee?”

“No thanks. I’m fine.”

Dick laughs. “Wow.”

“Wow what?”

“I’m just trying to be nice. No need to be so defensive.”

“I’m not defensive.”

“Sure.” 

“I’m not .” 

Dick shrugs and takes another sip of his coffee, leaning back in the booth. “How’s your research project going?” he asks. 

Jason stares dumbly. 

“You know. That project. You were talking about it at the Rainbow Center.”

Oh, fuck. “Right,” he chuckles awkwardly. “I, uh, finished it.”

“Figured. What were you researching, anyway?”

Jason can’t tell if it’s an honest question, or if Dick is trying to catch him in a lie. From the genuine look in the other boy’s eyes, he wants to think it’s the former, but he can’t be sure. Isn’t that something queer people do? Tangle the straight things?

“Support groups,” he says, “for...you know—”

“For us freaky homos.”

“I never said that.”

Dick smirks. “I know.”

Jason is about to say something else but shuts up as he sees the waitress approaching with his food. He thanks her and starts scarfing it down. It’s so rich and greasy and perfect and exactly what he needs. Almost instantly he feels better, more alive. But he keeps eating. Maybe his urgency will tell Dick all he needs to know. 

It doesn’t.

“I hope we didn’t scare you away, last week,” Dick says. He holds a fry like an extra finger, wagging it around in the air. 

“We?”

“You know. Roy. Stef. Me. You remember them? Roy and Stef?”

Jason licks the last bit of chili off his fingers. “Yeah. And you didn’t scare me off.”

“Well, I was being an ass anyway. I’m sorry.”

Really? He’s apologizing? Jason almost rolls his eyes. Mr. Perfect just can’t contain his goodwill, can he? It just slips right through the cracks.

Aaaaannnd here he is being bitter again. God. What is wrong with him? 

“It’s okay,” he mumbles. “I’m sorry for swearing at you. At the hospital, I mean.”

“No biggie. I’m I’m used to it.” 

That doesn’t seem right to Jason. “From straight people, you mean?” 

Dick gives him a meh smile. “Sure. You could say that.” 

Jason wants to ask him why he’s holding back, why he’s so obviously hiding something about his relationship to the world. But that would make him look too interested, and straight people aren’t supposed to be interested in queer people, unless they’re making fun of them. Tommy never calls him a fag out of kindness. 

“Anyway,” Dick continues, “I’ve been thinking about what you said, and I could use your help.”

He doesn’t like where this is going. “Explain.”

“We’re trying to make our building handicap-accessible, and we could use someone who understands construction, right?”

“...Right.”

“So…?” Dick looks at him and smiles, showing off all of his perfect white teeth.

“So you want me to help,” Jason finishes. “How’d you know I work in construction?”

“I might have seen something in your wallet when I was looking for your ID.”

“Right.” He lets out an exasperated laugh. “You don’t want me. I just move things around. Wood and tools and stuff.”

Dick shrugs and tosses a fry in his mouth. “The more the merrier. We’ll take all the help we can get.”

Sighing, Jason runs his hands through his hair. “Fine,” he says, after a moment. “But I can’t skip school or anything.” 

“Next Saturday work for you?” 

“I have work.”

“Sunday, then?”

“Fine.”

“Cool. I’ll text you the details.” 

“You have my number?”

A sheepish look crosses Dick’s face. “I might have copied it from the discharge papers. Just in case.” 

Jason can’t stop himself from smiling. “Stalker.” 

“Anyway,” Dick says, clearing his throat. “Next Sunday. It’s a date.”

Suddenly Jason sees himself in other people’s eyes. He’s with Dick Grayson, out-and-proud homo. He’s sitting with Dick Grayson, out-and-proud homo, at a diner, eating food, talking about Rainbow Youth. Fuck . It is practically a fucking date

He stands and drops his silverware on the table. “I... I forgot about my mom,” he lies, patting his pockets for his wallet. “Shit. I need to get home. Right now.”

Dick stands too. “I’ll—”

“No,” Jason snaps. “You’ve done enough, okay? I’ll, uh, take a taxi. It’s okay.” 

“Right.” The other boy looks somewhat disappointed, and Jason has to remind himself why he can’t care. “I’ll see you next week, then.”

Jason gives him a quiet “yeah” and slips over to the cash register, itching to get out of the diner as soon as possible. Faster, faster, faster , he thinks, watching the waitress run his card. He drops a few dollars in the tip jar. Maybe that will speed things up. 

“You have a good day now,” she says, winking as she hands him his card.

“Thanks,” he mumbles. He can feel Dick’s eyes on the back of his neck as he walks out of the diner and into the cool morning air. 

Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around .

He needs to go home and sleep. That’s what he needs to do. Sleep, sleep, sleep and dream about nothing. Maybe it will help him forget Dick, forget Dawn, forget last night.

Because he can’t remember. If he remembers, he’ll lose himself. 

Chapter Text

Jason gets to the apartment complex just as his phone starts vibrating in his pocket. But it’s not his mom. It’s Grant.  He accepts the call, knowing exactly what his friend is going to say.

“Fuck,” Grant says into the reciever. “Fuck. Are you alive?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry, man. I was totally sloshed.” 

Jason fumbles with his keys to the building. “Yeah. Yeah. I know.” 

“Did you get a ride home?”

“Something like that.” 

“Oh.” The tension leaves Grant’s voice. Jason can picture him settling into his own body, slouching in his chair until his chin is level with his shoulders. “Did you hook up with Elise?” 

Something in him tightens then releases. Jason’s standing in front of his apartment now, number 306. He can hear the television playing on the other side of the door. 

“Holy shit,” Grant says. “You did .”

That’s what he gets for not answering right away. “Look,” Jason replies, wielding his keys like a weapon, “I feel like shit. I’ll text you later.”

“Give me all the details.”

“Yeah. Whatever.”

The call drops. Jason is alone with his reflection in the blank screen, and he doesn’t really like what he sees. He looks drained . His eyes are gaunt; his cheek still tinged with blue from Tommy’s fist. And his hair is a right mess, sticking up this way, that way, caressing his ears like thin blades of grass.

He looks like his mother’s son.

When he steps inside, he instinctively looks toward the living room carpet, just to make sure his mom isn’t limp across the rug. But he sees only books and letters, a toppled can of ginger ale. The couch is empty, though it has only recently become so, judging by frosty exterior of the can of beer on the coffee table. On the TV, some commentator talks about millenials and their overdependence on technology. 

Then it hits him. That gasoline smell. Fuck .

The toilet flushes. Tommy steps out from the bathroom and walks back to the couch, not even giving him the decency of a glance. “Where the hell were you?” he asks, dumping the can of beer down his throat.

“Where’s my mom?”

“I asked you a question, retard,” Tommy snaps, crushing the can in his fist. He drops it on the ground next to the ginger ale. “Where the fuck were you ? Your mom’s been crying all night.”

Jason doesn’t like the way he says all night , and he doesn’t like the idea of his mom crying. His stomach and head begin to seesaw, back and forth and up and down. Fuck, not now . The last thing he wants is for Tommy to see him vomiting.

Blinking hard, he says, “I missed the last bus back. Spent the night at a friend’s house. Not you actually care, or anything.”

“Oh but I do care,” Tommy says. “Your mom’s my best customer. We’re practically family.”

“Fuck off. Where’s my mom?”

Tommy laughs. “Aww. The little boy is finally growing a pair. Go get me a beer.”

“No,” Jason snaps. He’s turning to go look for his mom when he feels a meaty hand wrap around his wrist.

“Why not?” Tommy hisses, squeezing. Jason grunts in pain, but doesn’t move. “Think it’s bad for me, huh? I can smell the booze all over you, kid. You’re no better than me.”

Jason’s face boils. “Let go of me, Tommy,” he says coolly, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of fear. And it’s not like he’s afraid, anyway. He’s more... tired. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. He just wants to find his mom and crawl into bed. 

The man makes a big show of releasing his grip, holding his hands up like a man under arrest. “Now honey,” he says, his voice disgustingly sweet, “I’m just playing. Go be a good little girl and get Daddy a beer, okay?”

Jesus Christ. Briefly Jason wonders if he should just surrender, give into what Tommy wants before he gets another burn or cut or black eye. It would be the smart thing to do. But then again, that solution is only temporary. No, worse: it would be another link in the chain that binds them to Tommy. Submit now, and the man will expect him to submit again and again and again, until god-knows-what. The smart thing to do would be to get him out of the apartment, out of their lives, forever. 

“Get it yourself, you lazy piece of shit,” Jason snarls, flipping him off. 

“What the fuck did you say?”

“I said, bite me, jackass.”

Tommy flies to his feet and looms over Jason, his dark eyes drilling holes into his face. Jason doesn’t look away, not even when Tommy grabs him by the collar and pushes him against the wall. “You’d like that, huh?” the man hisses. “Wouldn’t you, faggot?”

Jason grins. Hurt me , he thinks. Come on. Do it.

He does. Tommy slams him against the wall, knocking his head into the hard plaster. Lights flash in Jason’s vision. A new pain overtakes the old, a sharper, more intense pain, like a thousand needles burying themselves inside his skull. 

“I asked you a question,” Tommy says. His breath is hot and foul, laced with the scent of beer and cigarettes.

“Do you think I’m afraid of you?” Jason asks. “‘Cause if you do, you’re stupider than I thought.”

Tommy growls as he throws a punch. It hits Jason in the gut. He doubles over, gasping. When he can breathe again, he says, “Does hitting me make you feel like a real man?”

It must, because Tommy starts hitting him again. It doesn’t really hurt, because Jason’s too tired to hurt, because he’s used to it. Grant hits him all the time, even if it isn’t as hard or as mean. Guys used to throw him around all the time when he was playing football. And besides, even if it did hurt, it will be worth it, once his mom sees what Tommy did to him.

“You little shit,” Tommy hisses, when Jason is sitting dumbly at his feet. “Your momma would be better off without you.”

Pot meet kettle .

Jason pushes his hair out of his face and gives him his brightest smile. That seems to do the trick. Tommy snarls in disgust, grabs his jacket from the floor, and stomps out, shouting, “Fucking disease!

He slams the door behind him.

A sigh of relief escapes Jason’s lips. He pushes himself to his feet and gently prods at his face. His jaw is tender, but at least it wasn’t his eye this time. 

The apartment is warm. Judging from the strained whirring of the radiator, the heat’s been on a while. Even as it makes the apartment feel more alive, it also makes everything smell older, like dust and mothballs and old paint. Jason walks over to the thermostat and shuts it off. But he leaves the windows closed. Fresh air, his ass. The air in East End tastes like chemicals and oil, and smells the same. 

Taking a deep breath, he walks toward his mom’s bedroom. “Mom?” he asks softly, pushing open the door. “Are you awake?”

“Jason?” she replies. Suddenly she sits up, wild-eyed. “Jason!”

When she hugs him, he lets himself melt into her arms. “I’m sorry,” he mutters, holding her tightly. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Her fingers graze his face like she’s afraid to touch him. “What happened?”

“Someone hit me,” he says, hoping she’ll ask, who? 

“Oh.” His mom frowns. “Are you fighting people? Is that what you were doing last night?”

Jason thinks about telling her the truth, about the party and the hospital and Dick. He wants her to hold him and stroke his hair while he lets go of all that’s been building up. I don’t know what I am, Mom. I don’t know what I am and I can’t stop the things that are happening to me

But he doesn’t say any of that. He lets her hold him, wanting to fold into himself and disappear.

After a moment, his mom pulls away. “Have you been drinking?” she asks.

“Only a little,” he says, after some hesitation. 

She pulls away and smacks the back of his head. “Jason! You know better than that!”

Do I? he thinks bitterly. 

“I’m sorry.”

“God damn it. Stop saying you’re sorry!”

“Mom

She shakes her head and sits down on her mattress, rubbing her eyes. “Jason,” she says. “I don’t want you toyou’re better than this. Are you trying to hurt me?”

His face burns. “No, Mom.”

Ignoring him, she continues. “Drinking, fighting

“I wasn’t fighting.”

you weren’t with girls, were you? We talked about this, Jason. You’re going to end up like me.”

Something in him breaks. “I’m...I’m going to go do my homework,” he mutters. Before he leaves, he kisses her on the forehead, brushing a strand of her dark hair out of her eyes. She remains motionless, eyes locked on the wall across from her. “By the way,” he adds. “Tommy… Tommy was the one who hit me. I thought you would want to know that.”

His mom looks at him but says nothing. She seems to be processing something behind her eyes, but it’s too dull to be the maternal rage he expected. It’s more like... disbelief. Maybe he should try again when she’s more sober. 

Jason closes the door behind him and heads into his room. His bedroom is even smaller than his mother’s, barely big enough to hold a bed and a dresser. But he’s grateful that they can afford a second bedroom, that he can take this little space and make it his. The books he likes are in a pile resembling a night stand; the rest are stacked beneath his bed. He’s put up fairy lights and posters of the USWNT. There’s even a framed photo of his family, before all the shit, when it was just him and his parents and his dog. Maybe they weren’t happy, but at least they still had some innocence.

Sighing, Jason collapses on his bed and stares at the ceiling. His face feels heavy and packed; his stomach tightens with every breath. It’s not the hardest Tommy has ever hit him, and at least he didn’t leave any burns this time. The old one is still scabbed and itching. 

In his pocket, his phone buzzes. It’s from an unknown number. 

Hey Jason it’s Dick. Let me know if you got home okay! :p

He doesn’t know if he should smile or roll his eyes. On the one hand, it’s nice that Dick would care enough to check up on him, no matter how annoying it may seem. But on the other...it’s fucking annoying. How old does he think Jason is?

I’m back, he writes. Don’t worry about me .

Good to know! Drink water, buddy .

Jason considers texting him some mundane responsea thumbs-up or k or whateverbut he knows that will just prolong the conversation. Instead he deletes the messages from his phone. He has no need to save them. 

Just as he’s about to put his phone away, it buzzes twice in quick succession. This time it’s Grant. 

Rosie says she saw u talking with a pink chick. Explain ??

And then below that: ??? Hello???

Jason bites his lip, his fingers hovering over the keys as he thinks about what he should say. If something were wrong, Grant would agree, right? Maybe this can be his way of checking himself. Grant’s his friend. He’ll understand.

Grant writes again. Rosie says she was hot. Is that true? 

He hesitates for a moment before writing, yeah

His phone buzzes: Grant loved “yeah.”

Fuck. Jason squeezes his eyes shut and chews on the inside of his cheek. He has to say something. No backing down know.

Tell me if I’m being weird but...

I got really drunk . Kinda passed out. 

When I woke up she was…..you know….. 

He starts to write I don’t know if I wanted it so I kicked her off , then quickly deletes it. Grant is already writing him back, anyway. The three gray dots are bouncing across the bottom of his phone, those little heralds of words.

Fuck that’s weird , Grant says, and Jason breathes a sigh of relief. Then the next text comes. Are you sure you remember everything right? 

Idk. 

Then maybe it wasn’t like that, you know??? I mean, you said she was hot.

I guess.

And maybe you feel bad because of Isabel??? 

Jason stares at his phone. Fuck . Grant is right; if it weren’t for Isabel, he wouldn’t have been feeling like shit, wouldn’t have felt like he needed to prove something, wouldn’t have gone to the party in the first place. Yeah, he’s feeling bad and he was being stupid. No need to blame it on Dawn. 

Lmao forget it, he wrote back. U feeling better yet?

He lets Grant rant about whatever shit he put in his system, all the while grabbing his backpack and sorting his homework into little piles on his bed. Calculus he does first, simply because he only has a few problems left, and they’re all review, anyway. Then it’s Economics (a “Saving and Investing” worksheet), Chemistry (equilibrium equations), and finally Literature. There’s only a few weeks left until the A.P. exam, so they’ve been doing a lot of review and a lot of analysis. Jason settles against his pillow and starts reading a ratty paperback copy of A Separate Peace , underlining that seem to have greater meaning. Finny’s clothes. Blitzball. The tree, the tree, the tree. 

It’s all very homoerotic, the book. Gene might be in love with Finny. For a paragraph he talks about Finny’s ass; he wears Finny’s clothes; he touches Finny in a way that men aren’t supposed to touch other men. If the author didn’t want them to be gay, he could have done a better job. 

Or, Jason realizes, that’s just how men were back in the 40s. They were nicer to each other; softer. Maybe he’s not gay. Maybe he’s an old soul.

Fuck . Why does everything have to come back to queers? It’s like he has a one-track mind, and not the normal type. 

“Jason?”

He didn’t hear his mom come in. She stands in the doorway, wrapped in her bathrobe, her long brown hair falling in waves around her shoulders. For a moment he can see the woman she used to be, the woman who would take him to the park and let him blow bubbles on the balcony. Though her eyes are puffy from crying, her skin looks clear and flushed, and when she’s wearing thick clothing he can’t tell how thin she is.

“Yeah?” he asks. 

“Did Tommy really hit you?”

He nods slowly. 

“Oh.” His mom scratches at the inside of her arm. “Why did he do that?”

For a moment he wonders if he should keep going. She already looks sicker than she did moments before. Her light is fading. 

No. This is why you let him hit you. Keep going.

“I didn’t do something he wanted me to do,” Jason says. “So he hit me.”

“Oh honey,” she says, voice breaking. Her lower lip trembles as she steps forward and wraps her arms around him. “I’m so sorry. Oh god. Thisthis isn’t supposed to happen.”

“It’s alright, Mom. Don’t cry,” he says, but all of a sudden his vision blurs and his eyes feel full and wet. It’s all too much. He can’t help it.

“No, no, no,” she babbles. “I told himI told himI don’t want him hurting you. If your father finds out

“Wait.” He pulls away from her and stares. The weight of her words slowly pushes him down into the mattress. “You told him that?”

She smiles sadly. “Of course, Jase.”

“So…” Jason chews on the inside of his cheek. “You knew. You knew he likes to hit me.”

“I’ll talk to him again, honey,” his mom says. “I promise. Just please don't provoke him. You know how he gets.”

He flies to his feet, anger biting at his tongue. “Mom, he’s a bad man,” he says, trying not to growl. She’s sick , he reminds himself. Don’t take it out on her .

“People said that about your father too.”

“You mean the guy who’s in prison?” Jason yells. “The asshole who used to yell so loud I hid under the kitchen table? Yeah, he’s a real role-model.”

“God damn it. Don’t take that tone with me.”

Jason stares at her for a moment, his heart pounding against the cage of his chest. Then he sighs. “Look,” he says, “you’re not seeing straight. Maybe if you got some help

There’s a sharp crack, and pain spreads across the left side of his face. Only when he sees her open palm does Jason realize that his mom slapped him. She seems just as shocked as he is, staring at her trembling hand like she’s never seen it before. Neither of them speak. Then she puts her hand down and starts crying again. 

“Don’t end up like me,” she whispers, backing out. “Okay, Jasey?”

Jason doesn’t say anything. He can only watch as she sniffs and shuffles out, letting the door trail her heels. On the other side of the wall, he can hear her opening the bathroom cupboard, can picture her unscrewing a bottle of xanax and dumping the pills down her throat. 

Fuck . His face stings. He looks down at his bed, at the open book lying face-down in front of his pillow. The yellowed pages have creased in the corner; part of the cover has wrinkled. Oh well.

He sits back down on his bed and tries to read again, but he can’t make sense of the words. So he closes his book and messes around on his phone, scrolling through old pictures until, on a whim, he opens his email and refreshes his accounts. 

His heart stops.

There’s a new message from the College of New Jersey. Your admission status has been updated. Log into your account to view.

How could he have forgotten about schools? It was spring, and in spring colleges start sending out letters. A glimmer of hope builds in the back of his mind. This is his ticket out, right? One word, fifteen letters, and he can rebuild himself from the ground up. 

“Shit,” he breathes. All thoughts about the book, about the party and Dawn and Grant and Dick and Tommy and his mom, they dissipate into nothing. Heart thumping in his mouth, he opens up the link and enters his login information (JPTodd; janea1797) and waits.

Dear Jason,
Congratulations! The committee has reviewed your application and we are happy to offer you admission to the class of 2020…

Breathless, he keeps reading. If you applied for financial aid… Open the Student Account Center… Payment due by July 15th…

Right. The reality of it comes crashing back into him as he looks at the billing statement. Six thousand dollars. And that’s only for half the year. Not to mention housing and food and books and supplies… That number would increase by four thousand at least if he was lucky. Then he’d half to pay it again. 

No, no, no , he told himself. You should be happy. 

It was like being with Dick all over again. He just couldn’t be grateful. Even if the school doesn’t give him more money, other scholarships might. Other schools might. There are still four of his applications floating out in the ether. Princeton is a long shot, but they give good financial aid. So does Gotham University. And if he got into GU, he’d be able to live at home. He could take care of his mom, be here ifwhenhis dad gets out of prison. 

Don’t end up like me .

Jason throws his phone to the side so he can bury his head in his hands. Right. GU is out of the question, then. But maybe he still had a chance at Princeton. He has an average of 94.8. He’s played sports all four years of high school. He has a job and has even written articles for the school newspaper. He’s not like his mom, or his dad, or Tommy. And Princeton has to know that. It has to.

Someone texts him. It’s Grant again. Jason thinks about opening the message and responding, but instead lets his phone fall from his hands. There’s still so much work to be done. 

Chapter Text

“So prom’s coming up,” Grant says from over his shoulder, and Jason sighs.

He’d done such a good job avoiding Grant, slinking through the crowded school hallways like a cat, rushing from class to class before his friend could grab his arm and start talking about girls, parties, bruises. And now he’s stuck at his locker, staring at stacks of books while Grant looms behind him. 

Please don’t say anything about the party, he thinks. Or about Dawn.

Grant continues, oblivious. “You thinking about asking anyone?”

“I don’t know,” Jason mutters, slamming his locker shut. “I don’t think I’m gonna go.”

“What? It’s senior prom! We’d miss you, man.”

“We?”

He gestures around even though no one is there. “You know. Me. Bart. Virgil. Richie. The guys. Take your pick.”

“I pick Virgil.”

“Very funny. But he’s going with Daisy Watkins, so you’re out of luck.”

Jason shoves his books in his backpack and throws the bag over his shoulder. “Look,” he says, “I’m just not interested.”

“In going? Or in going alone?”

“Take your pick.”

Grant rolls his eyes. “Someone’s cranky. You on your period, Todd?”

Jesus Christ. “Where’d your humor come from? The nineties?” Jason asks, starting down the hall. Grant hurries after him, his soccer cleats clacking against the tile floor. Did he skip class to change early? Probably. He has sixth period pre-calc, and doesn’t mind missing it to dick around the locker room. Not like he needs an education anyway, Jason thinks bitterly. Daddy Wilson can pay to get him into anywhere.

“Is this about Isabel?” Grant asks once they’re outside. At least he has the decency to do it when no one else is around. The quad is nothing more than patches of grass and concrete, with the occasional bench and lamppost.

“No,” Jason says.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Suddenly Grant’s hand is on his shoulder, spinning him around. “Hey man,” he says. “Is something wrong? You’ve been avoiding me. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”

Jason rolls his eyes. “So I didn’t see you all day. Big whoop.”

“Are you mad that I left you at the party? Is that it? It won’t happen again.”

Sure it won’t. Jason’s been to about a hundred parties with him. Some were like the one on Saturday and then others were pretty chill, but it didn’t matter what type of party it was; Grant always wanted to do dumb shit and Jason had to back out. He could could the amount of times he’d gone home with Grant on one hand.

As casually as he can, he says, “I just need a little space. I’m um, feeling kinda sick.”

“Shit man,” Grant sighs. “Do you want some meds? My dad has this stuff he gives to his guys. It gets them right back on their feet.”

Like he wanted military-grade acetaminophen. “Not necessary.”

“Huh.” Grant kicks a rock across the quad. It skids to a stop beneath a plastic trash can. “What if I can get Isabel to go to prom with you?”

Jason’s heart skips a beat. “What?”

“I can ask Rose to talk you up,” Grant says. “It can’t be that hard, can it?”

Biting his lip, Jason resists the urge to say yes, it can. Even if Isabel liked Rose—and he’s pretty sure she doesn’t—no way she’d change her mind about him. He wouldn’t, in her place. There’s something wrong with him, and no one wants a boyfriend in need of repairs.

“Not gonna happen,” he mutters. “Just forget it.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah,” Jason says, hiking his backpack over his shoulders. “I’m positive.”

Grant whistles slowly. “Damn. What happened between you guys?”

“She says that we’re, uh, not compatible.” Understatement of the year right there, he thinks.

“Right, right. Well, like I’m always saying: there’s plenty of fish in the—” He stops suddenly, his eyes fixed on something over Jason’s shoulder. “What the fuck? Why the hell is he talking to them?

Jason turns, and his stomach sinks to his feet. Fuck. What the fuck is he doing here?  

Dick Fucking Grayson is standing by the office, showing off his perfect teeth as he talks with Rayner and Harper. He nods excitedly at something Rayner is saying. Then his laugh peals throughout the quad, and Jason feels his chest constrict.

“That’s Wayne’s kid, right?” Grant asks, oblivious to the way Jason’s knees are trembling. “Didn’t he graduate like, two years ago?”

“Um, yeah,” Jason replies, tongue fat and sluggish. He needs to get out of here. Right now. “Look, I’ve got to go. I told my boss I’d be there at three-thirty. Tell Coach Clover I won’t be at practice today.”

Grant ignores him. “I mean, I always thought he was kinda gay. All those acrobatics, you know? And doesn’t his dad do charities for GLAAD or something?”

Shut up shut up shut up, he thinks, clenching his teeth. He’s got to leave. He shouldn’t wait for Grant to respond. He should just leave, before it’s—

Too late. 

Dick’s eyes flicker over to him, and his face cracks wide open in a smile. He waves, and Jason flinches as he waits for the inevitable shout, some wise-ass comment about cars or alcohol or whatever, but there’s nothing. It was just a wave. Except it was enough to make Rayner and Harper and Grant turn toward him and stare.

Shit shit shit shit shit. No way Rayner’s going to keep his pretty mouth shut. No way Grant’s not going to ask him something stupid.

Jason spins around and walks away quickly, slouched over as if that will make him more invisible. Behind him, he can hear Grant in pursuit. 

“What the hell was that?” he asks. 

“Nothing.” 

“Didn’t look like nothing. How do you know him?”

Jason scoffs. “You said it yourself, dumbass. He used to go here.”

“Hey!” Grant steps in front of him, blocking his path. “What the fuck is up with you? Seriously.”

“Get out of my way, Wilson.”

“No fucking way. I’m not moving until you tell me what your deal is.”

Jason clenches his teeth, swallowing the rage and shame that is building in his throat. He just needs a moment to cool down. He needs to sit by himself, breathe in, two three four, and out, two three four and then maybe it’ll all sort itself out.

“I’m not going to tell you again,” he says coolly. “Move.”

Grant crosses his arms. “No. I’m worried about you, man. What’s wrong—”

“There is nothing wrong with me!” Jason snarls, stepping forward. Before he can stop himself, he throws his shoulder into Grant’s, knocking him back. Grant exhales sharply as he stumbles, catching himself on a lamppost.

“What the shit,” he exclaims, eyes on fire. “You’re fucking crazy.”

“Fuck off.” 

The other boy steps forward and pushes him, hard. “Go suck a dick, asshole.”

“Shut up,” Jason hisses, heat rising to his cheeks. He doesn’t know, he can’t know...

Grant looks at him a moment longer, then walks away. Jason calls his name stupidly, as if that would make any difference, as if that would undo the last thirty seconds and bring them back to a point where he could still fix this. His face burns. There is nothing left for him to do. He needs to get out of here before his stupid brain makes everything worse.

Jason grips the straps of his bag until his knuckles are green and bloodless and takes off, running until he hears nothing but the beat of his heart in his ears. He thinks about Grayson. He thinks about Rayner, and Harper. He thinks about Grant.

Fuck. What the fuck was he thinking? Grant’s a jackass, but he’s the only real friend Jason’s ever had. The only person who knows about his shit—well, most of it—and tries to talk him through it. And maybe, maybe if Jason had told him the truth about what had happened at the party, he could help, somehow—

No. There was nothing to make better. Jason is fine. He’s fine.

Panting, he comes to a stop three blocks down the street. You just need to get out of here, he thinks, remembering the letter from the College of New Jersey. He had written the financial aid department, expressed concern about the cost. Maybe they’ll get back to him with good news. It was like his advisors said. Once you get in, you know that the colleges want you, and they’ll work to keep you. 

Like advisors were ever right about anything.

“Fuck me,” he mutters, picking at the skin around his thumbnail.

Suddenly Jason sees himself from an outsider’s perspective: a breathless, wild-eyed kid in shitty clothes, bent over the sidewalk as he talks to himself. The houses around here are big and old. He gives it two more minutes before someone calls the police.

What time is it anyway? He pulls out his phone and checks: 3:17. Shit. He has thirteen minutes to get to work, and the construction site is downtown, nearly a mile away.

Forget Grant, he tells himself. It’s not the time.

Ten minutes later, he’s half a block from the site when he gets a text. 

Hey! I didn’t get to say hi :(

It’s from an unknown number, which means it could only be from one person. Jason shoves his phone back in his pocket and huffs. Just because Dick’s a rich son of a bitch, it doesn’t mean that Jason has to respond right away. He can wait like the blue-collar common folk. Besides, he deserves it. Everything, everything is his fucking fault.

When he pushes past the chain-link gate leading to the construction site, the familiar sounds of power tools and excavators greets him. Authority Construction’s been doing some basic city upkeep shit and have been for months, fortifying some old buildings that threatened to fall over if someone sneezed on them. At least the guys were nice. Even in his first few months on the job, when he couldn’t tell the difference between an angle grinder and sanders, when he didn’t know what people meant when they told him to fetch the bull float, no one snapped at him. 

As he nears the lockers, he sees his boss waiting, tapping a pen against his clipboard. Lucas is scowling, which is a good sign. He only smiles when he’s angry. 

“Fancy meeting you here,” Lucas says, keeping his eyes fixed on the clipboard.

Jason rolls his eyes. Standing well over six feet tall and two feet wide, with a dirty blonde mohawk and perpetually bruised knuckles, Lucas is the kind of guy to make strangers tremble where they stand. But Jason knows better. His boss is scary and crazy as shit, yes, but he’s also real sweet when he’s not pissed off. And Jason never pisses him off.

“Missed the bus,” he lies, shoving his stuff in the temporary lockers. His phone buzzes again, but he refuses to look at it. “Won’t happen again.”

“Buy a car, dipshit.”

Jason scoffs as he tugs on the straps of his hardhat. “You don’t pay me enough for that.”

“You don’t work enough to be paid like that,” Lucas laughs. 

“Fair.” 

“Thought so,” Lucas says, flipping through the pages on his clipboard and scribbling something down, “I’m gonna need you to help Cash with the scaffolding. You win the fight?”

The question catches him off-guard. “What?”

Lucas motions to his face. “I didn’t know soccer is a contact sport.”

Jason brings a hand to his cheek, as if his bruises could come off on his fingers. Right. He’d forgotten that he looks like he’s been dragged behind a four-wheeler. No wonder Grant didn’t take a swing at him. 

“I’d call it a draw,” he says.

“Damn.” Lucas shakes his head. “I can teach you how to punch.”

“I know how to punch,” Jason replies, rolling up his sleeves. The scaffolding has been up for a month. God knows how much dirt and birdshit is caked onto the metal. 

“Please. You’re what, sixteen? You’re a fucking baby.”

“Eighteen.”

“Oh wow. I take it back. You’re the literal crypt keeper.”

Sleeves rolled, Jason gives Lucas a mock salute. “See you at closing time,” he says, and heads off towards the scaffolding. 

Two hours later, and he’s still carrying tubes and boards from a truck to the facade of the building, where Cash and a handful of guys haul it up to the roof. His arms ache from the lifting, and his thighs burn every time he bends down to lift some more. Sometimes he wonders how Lucas does it, managing an entire site while he hauls concrete slabs like feather pillows. God, he looks so powerful when he works, the way the tendons in his arms ripple, the way his shoulder blades fold over the muscles of his back.

Jason drops the aluminum tubes in his arms. They clatter against the ground, and a few guys look over but say nothing. Fuck. He has to fucking quit his job. 

Cash sticks his head over the edge of the roof. “You alright there?” he calls. 

“Yeah! I mean, yeah. Sorry.”

Even though he’s thirty feet up, Jason can sense the man rolling his eyes. “We’ve only got thirty minutes left,” he says. “Don’t kill yourself.”

Jason bends down— god damn, his legs hurt—and gathers the tubes back in his arms. “I’ll do my best,” he says, though he knows Cash is no longer listening.

For the next half hour, he walks back and forth, picking things up and dropping things off. He doesn’t think about Lucas, just as he doesn’t think about how he’ll have to see Grant at school again tomorrow, just as he refuses to think about what will happen once Rayner opens his big mouth.

Did you guys hear that Jason Todd’s a gay in denial? Yeah! Grayson said he showed up to a Rainbow meeting and freaked out.

Maybe he’ll show up at school and see that someone’s written slurs all over his locker with a Sharpie. Or maybe they’ll kick him out of the locker room. Or maybe, like Isabel, they’ll just shake their heads and say, “yeah, duh.” 

As Jason walks back to where he stored his stuff, he wonders which one is worse. 

He’s putting his hardhat away when he hears Lucas come up behind him.

“Hey Jason. You free Sunday? One of our guys just backed out.”

“Sunday,” Jason repeats, swinging his backpack over his shoulder. His gut tells him he has something going on that day. What was it again? Oh. Right. That’s the day Dick asked him to help out. “I’m sorry. I told my, um, friend—er, someone I know—that I was available for a project that day.”

“A friend, huh? Or someone you know?”

Jesus Christ. “Just some guy I owe a favor.”

Lucas’ face darkens. “Is this the same guy who did that to your face?”

“No.”

“You sure?”

Didn’t he just have this exchange? “Yes.”

His boss exhales a long hiss of air. “Right. Well, my offer still stands. You’re never too old to learn how to wreck people.”

“That’s nice,” Jason says.

“Some of us are heading out for drinks. You want to join us?”

Yes. No. Fuck. “Eighteen, remember?”

Lucas shrugs. “Water is a drink, too.”

Jason squeezes the straps of his backpack, itching to crawl into the dirt beneath his feet. “Thanks, but I—I’ve got to go,” he stammers. “School night.”

“Fuck. I forgot. Go do your fucking homework, kid.” Lucas tips his hardhat and strolls off, yelling at someone who left their station covered in gum wrappers. 

Before anyone else can talk to him, Jason walks quickly away from the construction site, shoving in earbuds to drown out his thoughts. Some store displays a rainbow flag in its window. He looks away and quickens his pace.

He’s not gay. He’s not. He likes girls. He likes their soft features, the pitch of their voices, the way they swing their hips when they walk. 

Another, stranger Jason whispers in his ear: You like Dick’s arms. You like Roy’s jaw. You like Lucas’ chest. 

Okay, okay, but those things are superficial. 

And Isabel’s hips aren’t? 

Jason turns up his music. When he jumps on a bus, he’s pretty sure the old woman sitting across from him can hear it through his earphones. She stares at him and frowns, and he pulls his hood over his head. Does she know that he likes boys? Is that why she’s frowning?

But you don’t like boys, he tells himself. You don’t.

He repeats the words to himself as he jumps up the stairs to his apartment, as he unlocks the door, as he checks to make sure his mom’s still breathing on the couch. Once he is in his room, he throws his stuff down and pulls out the crappy laptop, pressing the power button until the screen lights up. 

God, is he really doing this? This is stupid, right? It’s not a “Rainbow Youth Center” bad idea, but it’s got to be up there. 

Jason opens up the search engine and asks it if he’s gay. 

There is no one way gay people act or look...there are more identities than just “gay” and “straight”...blah blah blah … 

He scrolls further. You might want to ask yourself these questions: Do I feel strong emotional bonds to the same sex? Am I physically attracted to the same sex? Have I ever been sexually attracted to the same sex? Have I considered having a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex?

Strong emotional bonds...those are friendships, right? That’s a bad question. And the physically attracted one is dumb, too. Half the guys on the soccer team have talked about how handsome Chris Pine and Idris Elba are. Some people are objectively attractive. Everyone knows this. 

Have I ever been sexually attracted to the same sex? Have I considered having a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex?  

Easy. No and no. 

He’s about to close the laptop when a feeling of dread paralyzes his fingers. His eyes flicker back to the questions and he asks himself another one, one that he didn’t really mean to ask, one that he doesn’t really want to answer.

Have I ever been sexually attracted to the opposite sex? 

God, that’s such a stupid question. Why would he even ask himself that? Of course he has. Hasn’t he?

Biting his thumbnail, Jason thinks about what it was like to be with Isabel. He remembers wanting to kiss her, to trace the shape of her body. That’s sexual attraction, right? Wanting to touch another person? Right?

And there’s that voice again, that stupid, tiny little voice: Let’s be honest with ourselves. You’ve never wanted to fuck anyone. You didn’t want to fuck Isabel, and you didn’t want to fuck Dawn, and that makes you fucking weird.

His insides begin to splinter. At once he closes the page and opens a new one, the Instagram page for the Rainbow Youth Center. He doesn’t know why he wants to look at it. It only makes him feel worse, watching youths who are boasting rainbows and grinning from ear-to-ear. There’s two preteens laughing and waving flags, the trans pride flag and another purple and green one he doesn’t recognize. There’s two girls his age, signing “I love you” in ASL. That woman, Kate, with another woman who must be her wife, judging by the matching wedding bands. And then there’s Dick, grinning wildly, looking perfect even though the wind’s blowing his hair and he’s wearing clothes straight from an 80s department store catalog.

He’s beautiful, Jason realizes. He’s beautiful and confident and he knows what he is and it’s just not fair.

Jason studies Dick’s face, the way his eyes—god, those eyes—sparkle in the sun, the way his hair brushes over his face and ears. Then, before he can stop himself, he wonders what it would be like to kiss him. To run his lips over that angled jaw. To draw his fingers over his toned shoulders. It makes him feel the same way he felt about Isabel, the same way he feels about all the beautiful people he’s ever met. It makes him feel nothing.

And he realizes: he likes men and women equally not-at-all.

But that can’t be right. People are supposed to want sex. They’re supposed to fantasize about sex. They’re supposed to grow up, have sex, get married, have more sex, and start a family. For centuries and centuries people have been having sex to pass on their DNA to people who will do the same. How could he suddenly not want that?

He needs a drink.

Shutting down the laptop, Jason climbs off of his bed and walks down the hall, his feet padding against the carpet. His mom is still asleep on the couch, probably weighed down by a couple pills. She wouldn’t hear him if he smashed a bottle against the wall.

There’s only one beer in the fridge, so he leaves it and pours himself a generous glass of vodka. Later, he’ll water down the bottle so his mom won’t notice. But he doesn’t need to do that now. Now, all he needs is to sit on the balcony and watch the sun fall over the skyline. 

He lets his legs dangle between the bars of the railing, swinging them back and forth as he pours the liquor down his throat. This is what I do, he thinks. This is what I am.

For a moment, the smallest moment, he wishes he were gay, or bisexual. At least then he’d know he isn’t broken. 

Chapter Text

No one at school looks at him differently. Well. Grant is the exception. He doesn’t look at him anymore, except in pointed, angry glances. This Jason can live with. Better to have lost one friend than to have Rayner spreading rumors about him behind his back.

Except they’re not really rumors, the strange Jason says. Are they? 

On Friday afternoon he stays late in the library, waiting for the athletic teams to clear from the locker rooms so he won’t have a chance to look at shirtless boys. He taps his pencil absentmindedly against the desk as he watches people pass by the windows, chatting and laughing and motioning with excitement. After five minutes, the crowds thin. By now the boys should be out on the field, the court, the pitch, wherever. 

His phone buzzes. It’s him.

Hey Jason! We’re gonna meet at the Community Center at 10 on Sunday. Hope you can make it!

He writes the most impersonal reply he can muster: Sure. I owe you a favor, remember?

Great! Looking forward to seeing you! 😊

👍

Also, wear clothes you can get dirty. 

K.

When Dick doesn’t text back, Jason stands and gathers his things, nodding at the librarian as he slips out the door. She offers a thin smile and turns back to her computer. Maybe she knows there’s something strange about him, that his mind is racing with thoughts about a boy he hardly knows and doesn’t even like. Maybe she can tell from the way his hair falls in front of his eyes, the way he hugs his books to his chest, the way his clothes are plain and rumpled. Oh god. She knows.

The afternoon is brisk and overcast, but his face is burning.

In the locker room he puts on his soccer gear and stares at the floor, tugging his laces until they threaten to tear. At least they only have three more weeks until the end of the season. Five games, ten practices. And he’ll probably miss a few of them for work. 

This is what Jason tells himself as he does sprints and kicks a ball across the field, going through the motions without even thinking about them. Ball: kick. Offense: run. Defense: sprint. Look: pass. Goal: shoot. 

At some point, Virgil kicks him the ball. It bounces under his foot and rolls to the other side of the field, where the girls are playing. Grant throws up his hands in anger.

“Really?” he says. “It was right there.”

Jason says nothing in reply. Instead he jogs over to the ball, shrugging off the heat of Grant’s stare. On the other side of the field, the girls are practicing crosses into the penalty box. Harper sends the ball flying; a girl in a hijab knocks it into the goal. Reset, start again. Jason turns away and kicks the ball back to Virgil.

After the last whistle is blown and people are gathering around the bags, Jason stands by the edge of the field, balancing the ball on the top of his foot. A few of the guys wave at him to join them. He shrugs and points down, as if the ball were tethering him to the earth, as if he couldn’t risk letting it fall. This seems to do the trick.

In the corner of his eye, he sees flashes of blue and green walking down the track. Harper is trying to give the ball to Rayner, but Rayner keeps shaking his head and laughing. They don’t even look at him, which is good, he guesses.

Part of him wants to know how much Dick told them. Another reminds him that he only has two months until graduation, that he should just stay quiet and then get the hell out of here. Who cares if he leaves Gotham High on a sour note? Lots of people hate high school. There’s nothing wrong with that.

And yet when Jason grabs his things, he finds he is headed in the same direction. It’s just a coincidence, he tells himself. They’re going to the parking lot, and he’s going to the bus stop, which is behind the parking lot. And both of them are shorter than he is, which is why he’s catching up. Longer legs, and all.

Suddenly Harper turns around and looks at him. “Are you following us?” she asks.

“I’m going to the bus stop.”

“Uh huh. Sure.”

“Buddy,” Rayner says, “if you think I’m hot, I’d totally understand.”

An angry blush spreads across his face. “I just…” Say something, dumbass! “I want to know why he was talking to you.”

“Who are you talking about?” Harper asks.

“Dick!”

“Jesus, man. She was only asking a question.”

God damn Rayner. “Dick Grayson,” he adds, itching to fold into himself and disappear. “On Monday. He was talking to you.”

“Oh.” Harper pulls the strap of her bag up her shoulder. “Why do you care?”

Jason pauses as he realizes he’s entered a no-win scenario. If he was wrong, and Dick said nothing, they’ll know something is up—or worse: they’ll think he has a crush on Dick. (Which is stupid, because he doesn’t. He doesn’t .) And even if he was right, and Dick was talking about him, then he’s still stuck in the hell he’s living. 

“Well, I think—don’t take this the wrong way—I think he thinks he knows something about me. But he’s wrong. It’s not true.”

Rayner cocks his head. “What’s not true?”

“Whatever he said!”

“Are you—are you okay?” Harper asks. “You’re shaking, and you’re kinda pale.”

Jason looks down. She’s right. His hands are trembling around the straps of his bag; the knuckles are bone-white. “Forget it,” he mumbles. “I’m just—forget it.”

“Wait,” Rayner grabs his arm before he can walk away. His hands are warm and stronger than Jason would have expected. “You need to sit down.”

“I’m fine.”

“Like hell you’re fine,” Harper snaps. “I’m giving you a ride home, asshole.”

Rayner looks at Harper like she’s grown a second head. “Really, Row?”

For once, Jason agrees with him. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“No. I just don’t want to find your dead body in the parking lot tomorrow.”

“I’m not going to die.”

Harper waves him off. “You get what I mean. And the bus just left, so I don’t know what else you’re gonna do.”

Fuck, really? Jason cranes his head toward the bus stop in front of the school, just in time to see the red lights of the 16 bus flashing down the street. Shit. He knew from experience that the next one wouldn’t come for another hour.

“Look dude,” she says, pulling out a pair of keys and pressing a button. Two cars down, a beat-up station wagon beeps twice. “We’ll talk in the car. Okay?”

“Why?” Jason blurts out.

“Why what?”

“Why are you being nice to me? What did he tell you?”

Rolling his eyes, Rayner says, “He didn’t tell us anything.”

“Then what—”

Harper cuts him off. “Get in the car, asshole, or I’ll tell everyone what you think he told us.”

His blood runs cold. God damn it. Heknew he shouldn’t have said anything. Fuck. He’s so fucking stupid! 

 As he climbs into the back seat, he hears Rayner whisper, “That might have been a bit harsh.”

The car starts with a grumble. It’s at least twenty years old, maybe even older. A real tin can. On the dashboard, there’s a picture of Harper with a kid who can only be her brother. They even have the same haircut.

Taking a deep breath, Jason says, “I live in—”

“I know where you live,” Harper replies, turning onto the street.

“Wait, what?”

She and Rayner look at each other, then burst into laughter. “Oh my god, dude. Really?” she says with a snort.

Jason stares blankly. Did he enter an alternate earth or something? What the hell is going on?

“You guys live in the same building,” Rayner explains. “Why do you think she offered you a ride?”

He looks at Harper. “But I’ve never seen you.”

“That sounds like a you problem,” she replies, shrugging.

With a sigh, Jason settles back into the seat. For about a minute no one talks, they sit quietly watching the houses pass by the windows. Jason wonders what they must think of him now, the dumb jock who never notices anyone but himself. Maybe Harper should just pull over and leave him on the side of the road. It’s not like he hasn’t walked home before.

“Is Todd your first name or your last name?” Rayner asks suddenly. He’s staring at Jason from the front seat, a genuine look on his face, as if he really cares about the answer. 

“Last. My first name’s Jason.”

“Nice to meet you, Jason. I’m Kyle,” Rayner replies, extending a hand.

Jason takes it cautiously. 

“What? I’m not going to bite.”

“I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”

“You really have a low opinion of us, huh.”

“I didn’t mean that,” Jason says quickly. “It’s just, I shouldn’t have said anything about...you know…” Shut up, moron .

Ahead, a stop light flashes red. The car slows to a halt. Harper turns around in the driver's seat and stares at him.

“I was joking,” she says. “Earlier. When I said that thing about Dick. I wouldn’t spread things like that. Or make fun of you for it.”

Rayner—Kyle—nods in earnest. “None of us would.”

The light falls green, and they’re moving again. Chewing on the inside of his cheek, Jason thinks about what they don’t know, that it’s not as simple as him dreaming about boys, that there’s something wrong with his head and Rainbow Youth can’t fix that. 

You’re fucking weird , the tiny voice says again.

But they don’t know these things, and they can’t hear the tiny voice.

“Anyway,” Harper says, clearing her throat. “How long have you lived on Briggs?”

“Four years.”

“Damn. You beat me. I’m working on eighteen months. It’s not the best place, but Cullen and I make it work.”

Cullen. That must be the kid in the picture.

“You live with your brother?” he asks.

“Yep. It’s just us. Sometimes Kyle, if he’s too smashed to make it all the way home to Gotham Heights.”

“Hey!”

Jason falls back and lets them argue. He doesn’t say much for the rest of the car ride, except to answer superficial questions. No I don’t have pets. Dogs and cats are both pretty cool. My mom doesn’t work, she’s sick. No, it’s okay. She’s going through treatment. No, I haven’t seen that movie. Our homework is to finish Pride and Prejudice . Yes, I have read it before. I really like it.

After Harper parks in spot 312A, he gets out of the car and offers a hasty thank you. 

“Have fun on Sunday,” Kyle says. 

Jason whips around. “What?”

“That’s what Dick was talking about, you know. He told us that you’d agreed to help out the group with the construction project.”

“That’s it?”

Kyle nods and, giving him a wave, disappears around the corner with Harper. Jason stands alone in the parking garage, staring at the cracks in the asphalt. One of the fluorescent lights above him blinks rapidly, then dies. He wonders if they meant what they said about making fun of him, or if they were trying to crack him open to see what’s inside. 

The next morning, he sees Harper as he’s leaving for work. Of course he does. That’s how it works, isn’t it? Someone points something out to you and from then on it’s the only thing you notice. But at least she doesn’t seem to notice him back. She’s too busy listening to music as she heaves bags of trash into the dumpsters. 

Jason continues on. As the day passes, so him of himself is lost in the motions: 

Catch the bus. Nod at Lucas. Get assignment. Don’t look at his chest. Pass cables. Wrap cables. Move rebar. Stop for lunch, two protein bars and beef jerky. More cables. More rebar. Don’t look at Lucas. Don’t go out to drinks with anyone. Catch the bus. See Harper and Cullen getting into their car. Make food for Mom. Listen to her talk about Tommy. Do homework. Drink. Pass out in bed.

And then it is Sunday morning, and his phone is screaming at him to get up. Light falls through the window of his room. Ugh, he thinks. Drunk Jason doesn’t know how to close shades. 

Drunk Jason is an idiot, the strange voice says. Drunk Jason lets girls fuck him even though he doesn’t want them to. 

A sharp ache washes through him. For a second he can feel her on top of him, feel her hot breath on his cheeks. Then he squeezes his eyes shut, and the feeling goes away.

The alarm is still going off. Leaning over, he switches off his alarm and sits up. “Damn,” he groans, feeling his heartbeat throb in his head. It’s not unbearable at least. A mild annoyance, at worst. But still. Jason takes a shower to clear his head and wash the smell of concrete and dust from his skin.

Why did I agree to this? he wonders as he picks up a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt off the floor of his room. The mirror tells him that he looks horrible. Like he crawled out of a dumpster. New shirt. New pants. The result is marginally better.

As he steps off the bus, he finds himself lingering outside the doors of the Community Center, not because he worries that someone might see him, but because he doesn’t know what to think. A week ago, he would have told himself that he was straight and confused. Hell, he did do that. And now, he’s looking at the wide lettering above the doors, lost in his own body. 

With a sigh, he pushes the door open and heads down the hall, where he sees a group of people gathered around a table. Jason stands awkwardly behind them, looking for Dick among the groups in the distance. 

Finally, he taps someone on the shoulder. The woman turns around, caught in a fit of laughter. It’s Kate.

“Oh! Hi!” she says. “I’ve seen you before. Jason, right?”

“Yeah. Hi. I’m, uh, looking for Dick,” he replies, and at once his cheeks are boiling. I’m looking for dick. Did he really just say that?

Luckily, Kate seems to understand. “Oh, Dick. He’s—Maggie, where’s Dick?”

A Latina woman at the table looks up. That’s her wife , Jason thinks, remembering the photo he saw on the Instagram page. 

“He’s retouching the mural on the stairs,” she says, smiling at Jason. “Hey! The name’s Maggie.”

“Jason.”

Maggie shoots a look at Kate. “Babe. You didn’t tell me Dick has a new boyfriend.”

Aaaannd the blush is back. “Wait, no,” he stammers, letting out a breathy laugh. “I’m not—we’re not—he’s not my boyfriend.”

“Oh.” Maggie offers an apologetic smile. “I shouldn’t have assumed.”

“It’s cool,” he replies, feeling very warm.

Kate blows a kiss at Maggie. “Like I would keep things from you,” she says, reaching down to ruffle her wife’s dark, wavy hair.

Jason offers the two of them a weak wave, and hurries toward the stairs before he starts wishing to share such a soft intimacy with someone. That could never end well.

At the foot of the staircase, Dick stands, clutching paintbrushes in front of a rainbow mural. Even in jean shorts and a ratty sweater he could be a model. No wonder Roy and Stef are looking at him like he’s Michaelangelo’s David. It’s incredible that the other people with him, a dark-haired boy and an Asian girl, can focus on the mural and not on his face.

Or his ass, Jason thinks before he can stop himself .

Then Dick is looking at him, and his smile makes Jason’s stomach clench. “Hey!” he says brightly, dropping the brushes in paint trays. “I’m so glad you could make it.”

Jason shrugs. “I owe you one.”

“Damn right you do,” Roy laughs.

Steph elbows him in the ribs, hissing, “Dude!”

Suddenly his heart is pounding in his mouth. “You told them?” he asks Dick, surprised at how hurt he is. Why do you care? He’s just a stupid rich boy .

But Roy cuts in before Dick can respond. “We were there,” he says. “Do you—do you not remember?”

Oh. Jason shakes his head. “Sorry, I—”

Dick waves him off. “Pssshh. No apologies, okay? Here, sit,” he says, patting the stairs. 

He sits, keenly aware of how close he is to Dick’s thigh. Fuck , he’s so beautiful. It’s not fair. 

The dark-haired boy working on the mural turns around and glares at Dick. “So,” he says, “Are you going to introduce us, or am I just going to stand here looking like an ass?”

“Oh yeah. Jason, this is Tim, my brother, and Cass—”

“My girlfriend,” Steph finishes. 

At the mention of her name, Cass turns around and gives him a shy wave. Then she’s back at her work, tracing the faded black lines of the mural with sharp, fresh ones.

“Dick says that you play soccer,” Tim says. “You have a favorite team?”

“Women’s National, I guess.”

“Ugh, yes,” Steph says, blowing a kiss into the air.

Tim shrugs. “As long as it’s not the Star City Arrows.”

Roy throws a pencil at Tim, who bats it away casually, grinning. For someone who isn’t related to Dick—or at least, Jason assumes they aren’t—they look fairly similar. His skin is lighter and his hair shorter, though he also has that dark haired, blue-eyed look. 

“So,” Dick says, and Jason can feel the warmth of his gaze on his face. It’s a struggle to look at him without burning. “How’ve you been?”

“Fine.”

“You look good.”

Fuck. Jason pinches the skin between his thumb and forefinger, hoping that the pain will draw the blood from his cheeks. “Thanks,” he mutters. “I, uh, like your shorts.”

“Oh, these things?” Dick twists his body to look over himself. “I just cut up an old pair of jeans.”

Haute couture,” Roy adds.

Jason feels himself smiling with the rest of them. “That’s kinda thrifty for a rich kid.”

Dick shrugs, giving him that stupid, beautiful grin. 

“Not to be a party pooper,” Tim says, rolling his eyes. He picks up a can of paint and starts touching up the yellow parts of the rainbow. “But shouldn’t we be, you know, working?”

Roy sticks out his tongue. “You’re no fun,” he says. 

“But I’m right, right?”

“Right,” Dick replies, standing. Then he looks down at Jason. “You know how to use power tools?”

“Yeah?”

“Oh thank god.” 

“What?”

“We’ve got a handicap ramp to assemble. Think you’re up for the job?”

Jason stands, shoving his hands in his pockets. “That’s what I’m here for,” he says. 

“Sweet.” Turning to the others, Dick says, “I’ll catch you guys later.”

And then his hand is around Jason’s arm, and he’s dragging him out back. Dick’s hands are warm and more calloused than he would have expected, like a weightlifter’s, or an acrobat’s. When he lets go, Jason can still feel him on his arm, squeezing gently.

Dick hands him a drill, and motions to a pile of metal sheets and poles. “It’s a kit,” he explains. “Just a temporary solution. But it will do for now.”

“Okay.”

“So…” 

Jason realizes he’s waiting for him to give instructions. “Oh. Where’s the paper?” 

“The paper?”

“The paper. With the instructions.”

“Ah. Here.” Dick hands him a little booklet. “Bruce would buy me a lot of Lego sets when I was a kid, you know. Thought it would make me good at this stuff, but—”

“—it’s different,” Jason finishes, flipping through the booklet. Step 1: Measure the height from the upper landing location to the ground . “Yeah. A lot of people think it’s easy work.”

“Oof. Does your boss understand, at least?”

“Lucas? Yeah. He’s cool. Does a lot of it with us.”

“Wait,” Dick says. “Lucas? As in, Lucas Trent?”

Jesus Christ . “Is there anyone in Gotham you don’t know?” Jason asks flatly, tossing a measuring tape at Dick. “We’re supposed to measure from the deck to the ground, by the way.”

Dick kneels down—Jason looks away—and starts measuring. “Bruce has hired Lucas a few times. That’s all. Cool guy.”

“Yes. Cool.”

“It’s twenty inches.”

“Thanks.”

Step 2: Adjust upper legs (C) to proper height and tighten with an allen wrench. 

“Got an allen wrench?” Jason asks. 

Dick stares blankly.

“You know,” Jason adds, gesturing. For the first time, he appreciates the patience of the guys he works with. How they didn’t start screaming at him, he’ll never know. “The thingy with the hexagonal hole.”

“Oh. This.”

They work for a while in relative silence, sharing only the names of tools and descriptions of what they look like, what they do. A few people stop by and offer to help, but Dick turns it away every time.

“We got this,” he says, winking at Jason. 

Jason wishes he’d stop. Or maybe he doesn’t. He just doesn’t know, anymore.

After twenty minutes, when the first section of the ramp is complete, Dick says suddenly, “You like music? I can go grab a speaker.”

“I’m good. We probably have very different tastes in music,” Jason replies. 

“Wait! Let me guess. Evanescence.”

“What? No!”

Dick just stands there, smirking.

“Okay, fine. But I mostly listen to Breaking Benjamin. Nine Inch Nails. Three Days Grace. That kind of thing,” Jason adds, his face burning. Why do you care what he thinks? Stop it!

“I get it, I get it,” Dick laughs. “We’re all good.”

“Let me guess. You like Lana del Rey and Hozier and whatever.”

“Yep. Marina too. And Birdy. And Cigarettes After Sex, but sshh. That one’s my guilty pleasure.”

Jason aligns one of the legs of the ramp and puts the screw into place. The drill whirs, and then the leg is steady. “Second section’s done,” he says, more to fill the silence than anything else.

Dick taps the sheet of aluminum as if testing its strength. “I’ve got to say,” he muses, “it’s nice having a guy who knows how to screw.”

At once Jason’s stomach sinks to his toes. He finds himself staring at the ground as he chews his own tongue, wanting so badly not to care, not to feel so locked up inside his own body. Does Dick know? Is he rubbing it in? Fuck, fuck, fuck!  

“Sorry,” Dick says suddenly.

Clearing his throat, Jason forces himself to shrug it off. “Why are you apologizing?”

“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“I’m not worked up over a joke.”

Dick shrugs. “I mean, it’s okay if you are. I hate it when people make ‘gypsy’ jokes. ”

“You’re Romani?” Jason asks.

“Yup.”

“Oh,” he replies, not sure what else to say. “That’s cool.”

Dick reaches down to pick up another piece of the ramp. “Now. Where were we?”

“Step 13.” 

“Lucky us,” Dick says. He’s just about to say something else when Roy appears next to them and wraps an arm around Dick.

“Hey. I’m about to head out. Gotta go to—” He pauses, and looks over at Jason. “—a meeting. See you later.”

Dick nods. “Take care, man.”

“See you around, Jason?”

Jason gives a noncommittal shrug of his shoulders. “Maybe,” he mutters.

Then Roy is gone, and it’s just the two of them again. Dick says nothing as he assembles part of a railing. He looks worried, and Jason can guess why. A minute passes. Two minutes.

This has to be a record for him.

Finally, when he can’t stand the silence, he says, “Roy seems like a good friend.”

“Yep. Great.”

Fuck. He has to say it, doesn’t he? 

“I know someone who’s suffering from addiction,” Jason blurts out. “It’s hard.”

Dick looks up at him, smiling kindly. “Roy’s getting help. He’s almost three months clean.”

The unsaid hangs between them. But for how long? Jason remembers the track marks on Roy’s arm; no way those belonged to a beginner. They weren’t as bad as his mom’s, but they were something. And everyone knows that groups rarely work on long-time users. 

“That’s good to hear,” Jason says softly. “I’d give anything for my—for this person to get clean.”

Dick quiets, then sighs loudly. “Cheery conversation, this.”

“Yeah.”

“Want to go grab a snack? There’s bagels.”

Jason nods, and the two of them are headed inside to the snack table, where Dick grabs a plate for them both.

“Stay away from the cinnamon raisin,” he says.

“Why?”

“Because it has raisins in it. Why else?”

With a start, Jason realizes that he is chuckling. Genuinely. This isn’t so bad, he thinks, watching Dick plop a spoonful of cream cheese on the side of his plate. Being around him feels effortless, almost natural. It’s almost enough to make him forget what he was so afraid of.

When they’re sitting cross-legged on the grass, Dick tells him that he’s gotten cream cheese on his face. “Right there,” he says, pointing.

“Here?”

“No. Here.”

Jason touches his cheek. His fingers come back clean.

“No!” Dick laughs. “Here. Hold still.”

And he’s leaning forward, and he’s so close, and Jason can feel his breath on his face, and he imagines, just for a second, leaning forward and kissing him. His heart thumps against his ribcage. Don’t , his head tells him, but maybe his head is wrong, and he should, he—

Dick swipes his napkin over his cheek and crumples it into a ball. “How did you even get it there” he asks, stifling a laugh.

Jason blinks, hard. What the fuck just happened? “I’m a messy eater, I guess,” he mumbles.

“Right.” Leaning back on the grass, Dick stretches out, as if making a springtime snow angel. “So,” he says, “Are you seeing anyone?”

Nearly choking on his tongue, Jason forces out, “Why are you asking?”

He’s not—is he? 

“Relax. I’m just trying to get to know you.”

Oh. 

“No.” A pause. “Are you?”

“No,” Dick replies, and Jason feels a tension leave him, one that he didn’t even know he was carrying. 

Why do you care? Why do you care? Why do you care?

Dick continues. “I was seeing a girl named Babs for a while, but we broke it off after she got into MIT and I stayed here. We’re still friends, though.”

Babs. Jason actually remembers her. He’s pretty sure that she was the valedictorian of Dick’s year, or perhaps the class speaker. One of those two things. 

“Must be nice to like your ex,” he mutters. 

“Something tells me you don’t like yours.”

“No. She’s nice.”

Dick sits up. “Then what is it?” he asks. Then he adds, “I mean. You don’t have to tell me. But you look like you want to.”

He does want to. But he doesn’t know if he can. And then he finds himself thinking about Harper, about what she said in the car. I wouldn’t spread things like that. Or make fun of you for it. Maybe she was telling the truth. Maybe, when people talk about safe spaces, it isn’t just talk.

Taking a deep breath, he says, “She thinks I’m gay. It’s why—it’s why I came here in the first place.”

Dick nods. “To see if she was right.”

“I’m not gay.”

“That’s fine.”

“I don’t know what I am.”

“That’s fine too.” 

“You’re not going to tell anyone, will you?”

“God no.” Dick shakes his head. “No one.”

Jason bites his tongue before he starts giving Dick too much information. Instead of talking, he sits and stares at the grass, gulping down air to push aside the tightness in his chest.

“Hey,” Dick says, wrapping an arm around him. “Some things take time. I thought I was straight until I was like, fourteen. And then I thought I was gay and that I was conditioned into liking girls. And then—you get it.”

Jason nods. He doesn’t want Dick to take his arm away. It’s such a welcome weight. But then it’s gone, and he’s alone on the ground.

“Well. We better get back to work before Tim yells at us,” Dick says.

“Yeah. Probably.”

“Jason.”

He looks up. Dick is smiling down at him, looking like a dream. 

“I enjoy talking with you,” he says, offering a hand to help him up. “I’d like to keep hanging out with you, if that’s something you’d want.”

That is something he wants, Jason realizes. Taking Dick’s hand, he stands and offers him a small smile. 

“Yeah,” he says. “That sounds cool.”