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hold on to me (unsteady)

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So, this is bad. Jason knows it’s bad. There is nothing he can do right now but pray that detective Harper and the Wayne kids, all actors in this play, will tell no less nor more than the strict and honest truth today. After all, in truth, Jason did nothing wrong. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time, is all. The truth paints him okay, but as for Cassandra Wayne—now, it’s more complicated. It’s a gray area. It’s a matter of opinion and, probably, of what Harper will say. It’s where lies might appear and in lies, Jason might not be painted okay.

There’s some mess on Montoya’s desk where Jason was told to wait while the officer helps record Dick Grayson’s statement. There’s a bit of dust, too, especially on the lamp. It’s nothing significant, but Jason is worried. Stressed out. He starts rearranging pens and pencils and even some notebooks that he deems crooked, all with one hand only since the other one is currently busy pressing an ice pack against his left cheek. 

The punch he took was brutal. Even as someone familiar with beatings, Jason gives this one a solid 8 out of 10. He’s surprised nothing appears to be broken, as per the assessment of the first aid nurse downstairs. He thought detective Harper would have him checked in the ER, but ironically, it’s the dude who punched him who is being checked there right now. It’s most likely warranted.

The story goes like this: Jason was walking home from his weekly authorized trip to the library, when two men in their twenties landed on his path and started taunting him for wearing a purple Wonder Woman t-shirt. Jason knows to remain calm in such situations; he’s a foster kid, he has a record, and most importantly he saw two police officers walking further down the street. It wasn’t a busy street but it was a busy time, so other people were here. Jason thought nothing of it.

He ignored the remarks and tried to carry on with his journey, except the men, again, blocked his way. They had other plans today, Jason was holding a smartphone in his hands so of course, they needed this phone. Eventually, and just as Jason noticed one of the officers making her way toward them, one of the dudes finally lost his temper and punched the boy straight in the face. Jason accidentally dropped the phone on the ground, where it cracked on impact. Next thing he knew, someone was punching the guy back, hard, making him fall on his ass. 

There’s this small girl in front of Jason at that moment, with a boy and a man standing right behind her, and an officer sprinting fast toward the group while the second bad guy had already run away. Jason was too disoriented to run. He recognized Dick Grayson immediately, because the man had been in the media a lot the previous year. As it turned out, the other two were his younger siblings, and being Waynes didn’t result in being able to avoid having to give official statements, because the girl was a minor and detective Harper had to compliment the swiftness and efficacy of her punch. Twenty long minutes and a car ride later, Jason and the siblings were brought into the nearest police station—him for hell knows what, the Waynes for interrogation. 

First end of the story.

It’s not a good story.

Jason wishes he’d have run away, but there were good chances it might have made things worse in the end. Not that they’re looking great right now, either. Jason can’t find one good reason to tell himself it will all be okay. He prays that Derek will be understanding—he usually is—and that they can pretend the incident never happened. 

Jason wants to forget about today. He changed his bed sheets this morning. He studied until late, yesterday. He’s longing for some sleep.

He stops cleaning. He knows it’s weird. His hands are full of bad patches of skin and tiny cuts from the chemicals and the amount of useless scrubbing of the floor and furniture in his room. He’s in public here, so he should really refrain from it. At least one officer is staring, his arms crossed, his frown visible from where Jason is. The boy has no idea what emotion is on display here—is it concern? disgust? Cleaning might have indeed been a bit rude to begin with. 

He straightens up the last remaining pens by the small scanner on his left, which is tedious with his right hand, before he gives one last swipe to the chrome around the lamp. He then throws the tissues in the trashcan on his right and looks up to find that Montoya is being handed some papers by detective Harper. She takes it, thank her colleague, says quick goodbyes to the Waynes and finally start walking back to her desk.

She sits in front of Jason again, sighing as she angles the chair better. She seems chill, maybe bored. Teenagers caught in street fights they didn’t start are likely not as exciting cases to deal with than finer mysteries. She reads a little from the paper in her hand, picking up a pen in her right hand and playing with it for a bit. If she notices the little cleaning session Jason performed, she doesn’t mention it. She speaks kindly enough that Jason doesn’t think she has a bad view of him. “How’s the cheek?” she asks.

Jason shrugs. “Numb enough.”

“Good.” She leans forward, puts the pen down, and starts typing on her keyboard for a minute. Jason hopes that she’s writing something very close to the lines of ‘incident over, everybody go home’. Montoya almost grants him this wish. “Their story validates what detective Harper reports she saw. You’re not in trouble. None of you.”

“Cool.” Jason drops the ice bag on the desk and makes a move to get up. He has to leave. He must be back by curfew. He just had a bad day and anxiety is high. Too high. And he knows he’s a minor and that they’ve probably notified Derek by now, but it costs him nothing to try. “Can I leave?”

Montoya half-stands up too, places her right hand on Jason’s shoulder, and gently pushes him back into the chair. “I’m afraid not,” she replies. “You’re a minor, there are rules. Your social worker will be here soon.”

Jason’s blood pressure goes awry; he’s panicking. If Waylon and not Derek was called, then yeah, he’s in trouble. Big trouble. Derek is understanding and would see the incident as something that befell Jason, but Waylon?

Waylon is tired of Jason’s shit. He told the boy so himself, the last time there was an incident with a foster family, and Jason only narrowly avoided juvie again. Not that he was even at fault, but people do tend not to stand up for him. Waylon placed him in the group home with little hope that he would stay there long, what with the strict rules of the place.

But it’s been half a year now, and Jason has held on. It’s really not been easy, more like a constant state of stress. One bad brush with the police and it’s back to emergency homes, juvie or the streets, to spaces where Jason would likely get his heart and body broken some more, left dry and cracked enough to never feel the same again. 

Jason’s been there. He’s done that. He’s too old for good homes and his record isn’t stellar. He knows he only has this one last chance before he finally ages out, before things start to become even more complicated and tiring, one last shot at keeping an environment stable enough so he can graduate high school if that’s the last important thing he’ll ever be able to do. 

So he’s been good. He’s been kind. He’s done everything in his power to avoid being thrown out, been fighting hard to stay where he is now because it’s decent, better than juvie, better than the streets, noisy and stressful but a roof for when it rains. Jason even gets along okay with the other boys. They don’t fight very often, they don’t ask many questions. They have their own problems and they all know to stay clear from everyone else’s business. Jason almost likes it there. He enjoys Derek’s company and doesn’t complain about chores. He’s stirred away from outside trouble at every single turn in the hope of a future where he could breathe and sleep better.

Yet, to his dismay, his efforts might have encountered a premature and brutal end today, all for his mighty crime of walking on the street and wearing a damn shirt.

Jason feels so worn and oh so, so angry. Why him? What kind of joke is this? Montoya is typing some more on her keyboard, the erratic rhythm making it difficult for Jason to concentrate on his next move. Should he run now? Later? Should he wait? He catches himself thinking that maybe nothing too drastic will happen once Waylon will be there. After all, Jason did not initiate the fight, nor did he entertain it. This could be his saving grace—granted, if Waylon listens to him. (No one ever listens to him.)

“Listen”, Montoya says, making Jason flinch. “I have to leave, so one of our lieutenants will take over the paperwork. All we need is your social worker’s signature, and you’ll be free to go. It will be okay.” She emphasizes the last sentence so much, her eyes so kind when they look at him, that Jason has to believe her. He wants to believe her. He thinks he can, though it’s not enough to calm his fears for good. 

Montoya peers above his shoulders, appears to make eye contact with someone, and gestures in the direction of the small hallway on Jason’s right. She then gets up and silently encourages the boy to follow suit. “Come on, let’s get you settled. Mr Jones is on his way.”

She leads Jason into the hallway and points towards the four chairs resting two by two against each wall, feet away from a closed door on which Jason can read Lt. Sawyer. 

“Pick one,” Montoya says. When Jason hesitates a second too long, she pats him on the shoulder and gently pushes him forward. “Just be patient, kid. Be patient.”

Jason inhales sharply before he moves to sit on the nearest chair on his left. He hears Montoya leave, and she’s already disappeared behind the wall when he glances back toward the main room. Finally alone with himself, he half-relaxes his posture and sighs a bit louder than initially intended. 

It’s quieter here. Not quiet enough to think, but enough to momentarily lull Jason into a calmer state for now. He knows he needs this. His cheek is still aching from the punch, his throat and mouth dry from thirst and the subpar A/C. He hopes that nothing else will come up before Waylon can sign the papers that will allow him to return to the group home.

He prays he can go back there.

After a couple of minutes spent waiting for the social worker to arrive, Jason starts to twist his fingers. It’s a bad habit. He shakes his head and squeezes his hands into fists to stop it from happening, before he suddenly hears footsteps stopping near his personal space. He throws his head backward, his eyes locking with those of the person before him. It’s Cassandra Wayne.

“Hello,” she greets. “We’ll wait here with you.”

Her smile is sweet as rain, the blue of her jacket donning green tones under the yellow lights. Jason nods in agreement. A low ‘hey’ escapes his lips, the roughness of his voice making it near silent. He’s not even sure Cassandra heard him at all.

She comes and sits on the chair in front of him, her brothers following behind her mere seconds later. Dick Grayson tells the younger boy — Jason forgot his name — to take the seat next to their sister, while he himself remains standing up there. Shooting a quick glance at the open end of the hallway, Jason can see an officer come post himself there, his back to the wall, looking at the young group intently and obviously making sure that no fight breaks up between them. 

Now Jason feels utterly uncomfortable. This is far from an ideal situation to have them all parked here, although he guesses it’s more efficient for the GCPD. The boy in front of him offers him a smile the teenager doesn’t return; later, he’ll blame fatigue. Cassandra pulls out her phone from her tiny green bag, then sets to distract both her brother and herself with something playing on it. Dick Grayson, towering over them, is staring at Jason as if trying to dig up answers to questions unasked. 

If Jason is honest, the man’s eyes show no hostility per se. He seems protective, is all. He’s a eldest sibling of four. The tension is more about a clear power imbalance. Right now especially, Jason is small and cornered, sitting on this chair and with so much more to lose than any of the Waynes. Worse, through their number and name alone, they could potentially put him in deep trouble, were they to file any complaint against him or a perceived behavior. It might not even need to be true, at that point. Jason would not admit it out loud, but fact is that he’s too scared to free the slightest amount of  time or space to allow rightful anger between the cracks, because who knows where that could lead.

(He knows too well where that could lead.)

To Jason’s surprise, however, Dick soon reports his attention to the one chair left. “Do you mind if I…” he trails off, his voice even. Jason nods automatically in response. 

Dick walks over calmly and sits down, flashing the boy a small smile. At this, Cassandra and her brother stop whatever they are doing on the phone. They both look at the older man with sheepish smiles, smirks even, that are met with an eye roll then a grin. 

Jason has been gawking, and that is wrong for sure, but he’s an only child and the ways siblings act are still odd spectacles to him. These three seem close. He wonders if it would be easier or worse in his situation to also have a sibling, but he guesses he’ll never know, so there’s no need dwelling long on this impossibility. 

“Hey,” the other boy calls, waving in Jason’s direction. “What’s your name?”

Jason knows he has no obligation to answer. He thinks they already know his name, actually, that they’ve heard it around the precinct or saw it written on this or that piece of paperwork. It’s likely not a real question, just a polite conversation starter. Jason doesn’t want to talk with them per se, since he’s busy panicking and all, but if it’s only his first name they‘re curious about, then he can give the Waynes that much.

“Jason.”

“I’m Tim.” The boy makes vague gestures toward the two others. “This is Cass, and that’s Dick.”

Jason hums. “Okay.” 

He doesn’t know what else to say. He doesn’t mean to be rude—he just really doesn’t know. They don’t have much to share and will part soon enough, them back to the castle and him back to the pit. What else is there to say?

“I take it these men didn’t like your t-shirt,” Dick muses. Jason turns slightly in his direction, unsure how to interpret the tone. Turns out that although the dude’s body language is still somewhat reserved, his eyes and his smile are kind. 

Jason shrugs. “Guess not.”

“I like it,” Cassandra offers. Tim half-represses a laugh, then nods in agreement. Jason thinks it’s all ridiculous, but if anything, it amuses him.

“Thanks,” he answers. “And thanks for earlier, too. You punch nice.”

She beams at him again. “Anytime.”

Dick groans. “No, not anytime!”

This makes Tim and Cassandra chuckle, which somehow annoys the cop at the end of the hallway. “Quieter,” he spits, looking at them with a disapproving scowl. 

Jason can’t wait for it all to be over. He tells himself ‘anytime now’ and lets it echo on a loop in his head, almost like a lullaby. Silence around the Waynes only brings him stress, and it comes to him that the light talk he just had with them was actually quite nice, relaxing even. 

So when the cop gets distracted and takes six steps away to exchange a few words with a fellow officer, Jason takes it as the opportunity to ask no one in particular: “Your dad coming?”

He’s not sure whether Dick Grayson actually calls Bruce Wayne his dad. They don’t even share a family name. 

Still, it’s him who answers, with a simple “Yes.” He sinks deeper into his chair before he adds: “Well, he doesn’t come for me, I’m an adult. But these two…”

“Shame you couldn’t sign for us,” Tim mumbles.

Jason wonders what it will be like to meet a billionaire, and how well or long he’ll manage not to punch the guy. His thoughts are interrupted when Dick asks him a question of his own: “What about you? Who’s picking you up?”

Jason grits his teeth. “Social worker.”

Not that he planned on giving the Waynes this info about him, but after all, they were all kids in the system at one point themselves. Jason remembers Cassandra’s case in particular—made the papers for a while, quite the story really. He has vague memories of Dick’s situation also kind of a big deal, though he was too young to remember details of that one. He forgot how Tim got there, but he assumes it was bad too. 

So yeah, all three, they’ve once been where Jason is. They won’t think him weird for this.

“Are they chill?” Dick asks. Jason can discern some guard in the tone.

He shakes his head.  “I don’t—“

There’s no time to finish this thought. Somewhere in the main room, Jason hears Waylon give his name to an officer, and that’s enough to make the boy jolts up on his feet, bracing for emotional impact. There’s nowhere to run for now.

Seconds later, Waylon stands in front of the group, too close to Jason. He seems short of breath, some sweat on his forehead, his professional badge hanging backward from the left pocket of his grey shirt.

He is upset.

“What did you do?” he grunts. He is looking Jason in the eye and it is nothing if intimidating. Jason is tall, but Waylon is so tall, the teen feels like he’s suffocating in fear of an attack his rational side otherwise knows will never come.

“Nothing,” he whispers.

“Don’t lie to me.”

Now, that rubs Jason the wrong way. It’s a memory, one he hates, one that rings like a threat. It’s a fight or flight button. 

And Jason, too, is angry now. “I’m not a liar!”

The hallway cop comes closer again, another one approaching as well. Waylon doesn’t even flinch.

Now, the thing is, Jason isn’t stupid. He knows that letting his anger and frustration out in the open will get him nowhere today. His muscles are aching from the buzz in his head, from the rage setting his chest and cheeks on fire, but he retains some sense of reason and reality in there. He’ll definitely have a lot of aggression and tears to part with once the opportunity will present itself, and he’s worried about what that will be like; still, at this very moment, the quiet side of him knows that he should only focus on not getting evicted from the group home, a plan that starts with not punching anyone—let alone Waylon, much less so right here.

He hears the Waynes get up and thinks that at least one of them will back him up, but before anyone can say anything, a tall silhouette appears. Jason can feel the blood drain from his face. Waylon shoots him a weird glance and is about to say something, when—

“Excuse me,” Bruce Wayne says. “You’re blocking the path to my kids.”

He sounds pissed off. He is scary. His fitted black suit and the cold shade of his eyes give him the sort of aura Jason tends not to challenge.

But Waylon isn’t impressed. He turns around to face the billionaire, then spits: “Excuse me, but I’m not done talking to mine.”

The words spark something rotten in Jason’s bones, as if making them porous and pouring poison in the holes. It is liquid anxiety and his mind is oh so drunk on it. “I’m not your kid,” he growls—tries to growl—but it’s barely a whisper. It’s all the energy he has left. 

If he could cry, he would.

Waylon turns around to face him, but where Jason expected wrath, he finds an apologetic look and what could very well be pity in the man’s traits. 

And Bruce Wayne is watching Jason, too. His scowl is not unkind, only intimidating, his eyes piercing and curious.

The teen isn’t in the mood to entertain some staring contest. He starts to seriously consider making a run for it when suddenly, behind the billionaire, another man appears. The glasses on his nose are a bit crooked, right hand holding a tablet and a digital pen, left hand carrying a small, worn leather briefcase. Jason can sense the Wayne kids shift behind him, relax even. The stranger offers them soft smiles and when his gaze lands on Jason, this kindness doesn’t falter. Jason isn’t sure why, but it’s almost as if the air has just become more breathable.

Shortly, Bruce Wayne averts his eyes and leaves Jason to his thoughts. He then turns to Waylon again and extends his hand for the social worker to shake, breathing out a barely audible ‘Bruce Wayne’ as if his face and name aren’t common knowledge in Gotham.

Waylon, his back to Jason again, takes the hand offered. “Waylon Jones,” he mumbles. “We met during your foster parent training.”

Bruce Wayne raises an eyebrow. “Sorry, I don’t recall.”

The man behind him rolls his eyes almost comically, then starts staring at the back of Bruce Wayne’s head with a hint of disapproval.

Maybe Jason is wrong, but he believes what he sees in this stranger’s mocking smirk to be fondness—unbounded. 

He doesn’t have much time to dwell on who the man might be, because not three seconds later, a door opens behind him. Lieutenant Sawyer, paper in hands, surveys the little group. The flat tone of her voice says a lot of her boredom. “Mr Wayne. Mr Jones.”

Bruce Wayne nods. “Lieutenant.”

Waylon groans in lieu of greetings. “Look, can we speed this up? I have other cases to deal with today.”

That hurts. Jason doesn’t even know why it still hurts to know he’s nothing but number, a file, an inconvenient piece in the overcrowded puzzle that is the foster system. He’s temporary. He’s not worth much time. 

He doesn’t even know what to make of his indignation about Waylon insinuating that he was his guardian or father not even a minute ago, now that this new pain has replaced that. The conflict and the fear, this ever-growing fear, are filling him with dread and pain everywhere he can still feel. 

“Of course,” he hears Sawyer reply. She takes a loud step aside, after what Bruce Wayne and Waylon start marching toward her office. The third man creeps a couple feet closer to the chairs, stopping right by Cassandra who immediately gives him half a hug. Jason still doesn’t move. He hears Sawyer’s voice again. 

“Ten minutes—you four behave, okay? Mr Kent, how does babysitting sound?”

Mr Kent smiles politely. “Like no trouble.”

“Great.”

With this, she closes the door.

The echo bounces in Jason’s ears like the announcement of a threat now entering full speed mode, coming straight at him, and there’s nowhere left to hide. Ten minutes to impact. Jason doesn’t know why he’s still standing up. The cops around might not like it, might see it as bad intentions—he knows this. He understands. His body, however, isn’t ready to comply.

He takes a deep breath. He can do this. There’s still a chance the incident will be brushed off, so he should focus on that. Close to him, Mr Kent and Cassandra are making light conversation, soon joined by Tim when the man crouches down to hear Cassandra better and put his tablet and pen inside the briefcase.

From the corner of his eye, Jason can see Mr Kent glancing at him in every five seconds or so, as though studying him or waiting for something. Anxiety pool in the teen’s  guts as he tries to figure out what it is he should do now, until out of the blue, a hand lands on his back. The touch is gentle and light, here for comfort, and it stays. Jason doesn’t immediately register it as Dick’s hand. 

“You should sit,” he hears. “Ten minutes is a long time.” Jason knows he’s right, he does, but he can’t bring himself to move immediately, too busy holding onto the warmth of the touch so not to fall apart again. A brief moment passes before Dick quietly adds: “Bruce knows you did nothing wrong. He won’t ever let them say otherwise.”

Jason shivers and turns around, breaking contact, searching for a possible lie in the way Dick is looking at him.

But the guy seems serious. He even sounded confident. Although it appears he calls his adopted father by his first name, there’s no doubt he carries at least some trust in the man.

Jason doesn’t carry that. He doesn’t know Bruce Wayne. He doesn’t trust people like Bruce Wayne. He would have much preferred never meeting Bruce Wayne.

And yet, what choice does he have but to hope that Dick is right? This isn’t fair. Nothing is fair. Jason wishes he could run away, like he’s done before. He knows the streets, he’s survived there. He’s six months away from adulthood, what’s the system gonna do? They might as well thank him for freeing some space, this time. He’s not fifteen anymore. Not worth saving anymore.

To Jason’s grief, though, he’s in a police station, and at this point there’s no way he’d manage to get out before being made captive again. He’s a bird trapped.

Not to mention, he doesn’t want the Waynes to understand exactly how small he is, how lost he feels, or how desperate his heart grows.

So Jason doesn’t run. He exhales slowly, then does as suggested. The chair creeks under his weight. Tim, who had disappeared from his line of vision for a while, gives him an earnest and encouraging smile. Cassandra and Mr Kent also stop their conversation. This is too quiet now, to Jason anyway. 

In front of him, still crouched by Cassandra, Mr Kent beams and holds his left hand out for Jason to shake. “Hey, I’m Clark.”

The boy doesn’t move. He doesn’t know why his wariness is so high, or why the idea of punching this dude so vividly crosses his mind. Not like Clark has done anything to deserves this, but—but who knows. Jason never knows.

Seeing the lack of reaction, Clark drops his hand. Not his smile, though. “That was your social worker, right?” he continues. “Is you guardian coming soon?” No answer. “Foster parents?”

“Got none.”

Jason doesn’t want to talk, only wants him to stop. Because maybe Clark means well, maybe he’s being kind, but it doesn’t feel that way. He’s causing pain. He must see it, too, because his expression finally becomes grave, and he examines Jason with a concern the teenager finds absolutely unbearable. 

Jason doesn’t think he can restraint himself from punching Clark much longer. He prays that Waylon will be done with the paperwork as fast as possible, and that his fate will be known within the hour. He has hit his limit.

“How old are you?” Clark asks. It’s irritating, but perhaps it’s safer to entertain him just once more.

“Seventeen and some.” This time, when the man frowns and opens his mouth to speak again, Jason is quick to trail off: “Listen, I don’t…”

There’s no end to this sentence. Don’t need any. To his credit, Clark gets it. He acquiesces and keeps his mouth shut—at least for now. It is evident that he wants to ask more. His gaze starts to travel from the main room full of cops to Jason and back, several times. He looks increasingly worried as he gradually gathers the entire extent of the problems the boy might be facing shortly, regardless of whether he is guilty or not. 

Jason really wishes they could ignore each other.

“Sorry about your lunch,” Tim says to break the silence, thankfully getting Clark’s attention away from Jason.

“No, it’s okay, don’t worry about that. We were almost done anyway, just had to miss out on the cake. I might convince him to order another later.”

“We baked one,” Cassandra grins.

Clark chuckles. “Did you?”

Jason stands silent and still. The words don’t exactly register in his mind, but the tones do. They’re all very familiar with each other, open and kind in their interactions. 

He isn’t envious of such things anymore, or at least he doesn’t think he is. It’s more a longing than some sort of jealousy. He will probably let himself feel bad about that later, in private, away from anyone’s judgement, perhaps his own judgement even. For now, he tries to tune it all out. 

Problem is, the way Clark is staring at him again doesn’t allow Jason to build himself a bubble. This man is persistent. He doesn’t give off dangerous vibes—far from it, in fact. But Jason has no interest in being civil when he can barely hold his sanity together at the moment. He doesn’t need pity. He doesn’t need help. 

(He will tell himself so until it becomes true.)

But Clark makes it difficult. “Are you in a group home?”

Although Jason does his best not to engage, his body betrays him, so he ends up automatically nodding and mouthing a low ‘yeah’. Clark considers it for a moment. Cassandra and Tim do, too, by the understanding looks they are now sending Jason’s way. Have they been in group homes before? That’s entirely possible. Dick might have gone there as well, but Jason already has three pairs of eyes examining his every disadvantages right now, so he’d rather not find out for sure about a potential fourth. He doesn’t need the added stress.

“I see,” is all Clark eventually answers. 

Not that this reaction is reassuring or clear, but it’s enough for Jason to relax a little. He has to breathe, after all. 

Likely tired of squatting, Clark finally rises on his feet and takes support against the wall. He lets his gaze linger on Jason’s face again, just a bit longer, before he  gives up and fishes a cellphone from the inside of his briefcase. He unlocks it when something else, under the screen catches his interest—and Jason can see what. His hands. The state of his hands. The way he’s twisting them now. 

He knows what the blemishes look like even though it’s not what they are, and he’s not sure that what they are is much better than what they look like. He knows it’s lame and useless. Quickly, he hides one under the other, the right under the left, the most visible shame under a vain shield above. 

Jason prepares himself for yet another question from Clark. To his surprise, however, Dick is the one who speaks first.

“Did you tell Duke what happened?”

Clark immediately turns to him and nods, his smile instantaneous. Jason’s heart almost hurts at the softness of that grin. 

“I did, and he wants to hear all about it tonight. He called you bad influences and he wants you to know that.” 

Dick snorts in amusement. “Alright.”

Jason has no idea who Duke is, but he can take a guess. Whoever he actually is, Cassandra and Tim are visibly happy with the news that they’ll soon meet. 

The way Tim stares at Jason a moment later, though, is conflicted and urgent. There’s something he wants to say. Something important he doesn’t let escape his lips, like a secret of sorts. Jason doesn’t know whether to be curious or annoyed. When Clark clears his throat, his body betrays him again, because he’s exhausted and ten minutes is a long time, so Jason ends up raising his chin to be able to look the man in the eye.

Clark’s smile for him is kind when he states, “Duke is my foster son.” 

Jason has a thousand angry replies to this information. Ten thousand pleading ones, too. He feels entirely empty in an instant, like smacked too hard, unable to decide what to do of an information he wishes he could have never hear of, ever. Good for Duke. Good for Clark. 

Fuck Jason’s soul.

“Listen,” Clark carries on, his tone more pressing now. “We have a room—“

Stop talking.” 

The vague burning sensation over Jason’s bruised cheek worsens now that he’s maybe about to cry, the tears blurring his vision and making him short of breath. He can’t think. Doesn’t want to think. Has it not been ten minutes? Is Bruce Wayne not in a hurry? Don’t they all have some cake waiting to be eaten somewhere? Waylon can be angry. Jason won’t care. He wants it to be over and he wants to know where he’ll sleep tonight, if he’ll sleep, what to tell Derek. He has homework to do. He needs a new phone. He owes Kyle a thank you text.

He’s not sure what to pray for anymore by the time he hears his name spoken out loud on his left. The sound of it drags on in Jason’s ear, and when he turns his head to face Dick, he is confused to find softness and hope in the gravity of the man’s expression and tone.

“I think Clark meant to say that there’s space for you in his home.”

Jason blinks several times. A couple of tears gather on his eyelashes. When he looks at Clark again, it’s with apprehension now. He doesn’t dare hoping nor can he find within himself the right kind of anger to answer potential rejection after such comments were made. It’s gonna be all or nothing, and Jason doesn’t believe he could handle this nothing.

In front of him, Clark goes back to a squatting position again. He stands lower than Jason, like this. It’s by design. It’s voluntary. Jason feels like a kid. 

The man then nods repeatedly, as if agreeing with Dick. His frown betrays his difficulty finding the words he wants to say—and, from this close and now that Jason is paying enough attention, his age.

The door to Lieutenant Sawyer’s office opens before Clark can add anything to this mess. In an instant, all five of them gathered here raise on their feet. The briefcase escapes Clark’s fingers and falls on the floor with a thump.

Bruce Wayne is the first to exit the office. He shakes Lieutenant Sawyer’s hand over the threshold, whispers some parting words to her, then takes a step forward to face Tim and Cassandra. He seems perfectly calm. “Let’s go,” he sighs. 

But the three Wayne kids glance at Clark and Jason instead, hesitant to comply.

Now, Jason is on alert. He can’t think. He must think. Waylon is exchanging words with Lieutenant Sawyer, so there’s barely a minute left. Jason can’t speak. He must convey. He can read Bruce Wayne’s surprise when no one is hurrying up to move, catches the moment the man quickly surveys him before his gaze falls on Clark. 

And there, in a second, Bruce Wayne understands. 

Not even Jason understands.

He knows he is part of what is happening right now, however most of it is escaping his grasp. He is grateful—frightened, but grateful. He doesn’t know what else to do but to look at Clark in a way that he hopes isn’t too pathetic, a way that doesn’t exactly say save me, that starts with a maybe before allowing it to be followed by a please he is failing to vocalize. It’s not entirely his fault; no one’s ever given him a choice. Jason has never felt this power nor this kind of fear before. He doesn’t know where it lasts. He is afraid to fall harder.

After Waylon has said his goodbye to Bruce Wayne, he focuses on Jason. Although he is not so angry anymore, he doesn’t exactly exude reassurance either. He hasn’t even yet made two steps in Jason’s direction when Clark takes the initiative of shifting his body to stand in the middle of the hallway, raising his left arm like a shield and keeping Jason behind it.

The boy cannot recall anyone ever taking such a protective stance for him.

“Mr Jones? Clark Kent. I am the foster parent of a teenage boy not attached to your care.”

He extends his right hand, which Waylon doesn’t take. Jason stares at his feet. He knows Waylon, so he knows that already now, the man knows. Perhaps he even is glad. He understands, too.

Clark withdraws his hand, shrugs, and in a quiet voice, states: “We have some room to spare.”

 

 

Chapter Text

There are birds chirping nearby. They just came home for the spring. The parking lot by the ice rink in North-Gotham is almost empty now that the sun starts setting below the skyscrapers. Waylon is peering at his watch every thirty seconds or so, the furrow of his brow making him seem almost threatening. Jason is repressing a cough.

He’s a bit cold right now—should have worn gloves and double socks—and still in disbelief about where he’ll soon be going. A lot to process. Not that much time. 

Waylon moved him to an emergency placement for two nights right after another brief meeting in his office with Mr Kent, following the events at the police station. The Wayne clan had waved Jason goodbye at the bottom of the building, and next thing the boy knew, Waylon and Clark were already discussing bedrooms and license checks and school districts and whatnot.

Jason tuned them out. He needed some space. He barely managed to say goodbye to half of the other boys at the group home, later that night, as he quickly gathered his meagre property in a sport bag. He was worried Derek would be disappointed, but as it turned out, the man was happy for him. He gave Jason a quick hug at the front door, wished him well, and waited until the teen got inside Waylon’s car before he returned back to work. 

One more closed and done chapter of Jason’s life.

He wonders how long a wait would be alright before he visits there again, spells out louder ‘thank you’, and offers whatever help he can. He has so many things to do. He wonders if the birds, too, are on edge. He can’t stop scratching a patch of irritated skin on his left index and it looks like it’s about to bleed—again. He tries and fails to calm down. He’d fight for a cigarette.

“You ready?” Waylon asks him. “Excited? How are you feeling?”

Jason thinks it’s the first time in months that Waylon has spoken so quietly to him. Not that it’s really the man’s fault, of course; Jason is a handful. He knows he is. He’s working on that. He turns his head to the right to look the social worker in the eye, and finds genuine curiosity there. 

Still, he has no good answer to give. He puts his hands behind his back and shrugs, not wanting to keep Waylon hanging. “It’s a foster home”

“Your last foster home.”

“I guess.”

“What’s wrong? Planning to run?” 

Waylon’s tone indicates that is only half-joking. Jason glowers. 

It’s not that he has not considered running away again, yes, okay, alright, but—but no. No he wont’t. Not this time, not so close to his goals. Sure, he’s a hothead and a mess, and maybe he’ll fuck this up, but even so, it won’t be without having tried hard enough to avoid it in the first place.

Before Jason can reply as much as simple ‘no’, Waylon adds: “You should trust yourself more. You’re not a bad kid, you know?”

That leaves the boy perplexed. Why is he telling him this? Why now? He sounds sincere and that makes it all the more surprising. To say that Jason is a bad kid would indeed be a stretch, however there’s no denying he has his bad moments and has made his fair share of subpar decisions, these past thee years. Hell, he might be making another big mistake right now.

After a short silence, Waylon gives out a sigh. He pats Jason on the shoulder and he tells him, chuckling for a second: “Well, sometimes you’re not.”

At this, Jason lets out a snort. “Gee, thanks.”

Though they’ve rarely seen eye to eye, now that their time together appears to come to a near end, Jason has to hand it to the man: he tried. The system sucks. Waylon works hard, overtime, underpaid, and for every instance of him yelling at foster kids, he’s yelled at judges and shitty foster parents twice as much and three times as loud.  

He suddenly taps Jason on the arm and points somewhere further on the boy’s left. “There he is.”

A gray car is driving toward them, Mr Kent behind the steering wheel. He stops the engine a few feet away from Waylon and Jason, exits the vehicle, and jogs to them quickly. His smile is shy, however his posture is relaxed.

He greets Waylon and Jason, exchanges a handshake with social worker, gives him a file, and encourages Jason to come buckle up in the car. Before the boy does so, he says his goodbye to Waylon, who extends his hand. Jason hesitates, then shakes it firmly. The contact hurts on the spots his skin is torn. 

“Thank you,” he whispers.

Waylon nods. He looks far less scary now. “You stay out of trouble this time, alright?” 

Jason can only hope that the rushed ‘yeah’ he whispers then will end up a promise and not an impending lie.

 

 

The ride between the ice rink and Mr Kent’s place is longer than Jason thought it would be. To his relief, though, it’s quiet. He lets about five minutes pass before he stops so intently staring through his window. Gotham is grey around them. It might very well rain tonight.

Uncomfortably straightening himself up in the passenger seat, Jason is all too aware of his guts twisting from the anxiety he can’t shake off, the feeling glued to his every nerve like a recurring nightmare. 

He knows he can’t escape conversing with Clark eventually. After all, they’re going to spend at least half a year under the same roof. There’s no hiding for that long. It sucks that he hasn’t had a functioning phone for the past three days—turned out the screen had turned completely dark—because yeah, otherwise, Jason might have googled the hell out of Clark Kent. Knowledge, power, the usual. The fear as well, of course. As it is, the teen only knows the man’s name, that he’s a journalist, and that he knows the Waynes. All information that scares him already.

Be that as it may, Jason would really like to start this new life on the right foot. He can’t give any hint of dysfunction yet—any further hint, more like. After all, Clark already knows about the state of his hands, perhaps enough to already think that there’s something rotten somewhere in the boy’s mind, like a bleeding cut above a scar.

So Jason has to try. At least once, if anything. In an effort to let Clark in, build a narrow bridge and maybe woven some trust, he chances a glance in the man’s direction when the car stops at a red light. 

Clark catches this. His neutral expression morphs in an instant, his smile now eager and soft, the wrinkles around his eyes more evident under the city lights. “Are you alright?” he asks. He sounds worried, and that doesn’t sit right.

Jason averts his gaze, acquiesces, mumbles: “Yes, sir.”

Clark is fine.” The traffic light turns green again. Jason doesn’t know what to say. Clark drives in silence for a bit, until he eventually muses in a hushed voice: “You look like you’re expecting some lengthy line of questioning.”

“I am.”

“Ah.” The man chuckles. Jason isn’t certain of it, but he thinks Clark sounds embarrassed. “Well, I already know you don’t have any substance abuse problem, only some anger issues in the past, but…” Another red light. Clark stops behind two cars, sighs, then turns to Jason. “No incident in half a year, right? I take it you’ve grown calmer.”

Now, that’s not what he expected. He can’t really say why, but it makes him half-grin back. Bitterly so.

“Something like that.”

“The system is faulty and draining, I understand. I don’t blame you for feeling bad.” 

There’s no trace of humor nor fake intonations in that. Clark knows exactly what to say, and the boy isn’t thrilled about this fact. He’s almost scared, in a way. This dude is good at reading the part of him Jason would much rather keep under wrap. More radically, that’s not his idea of his ideal foster parent—one who’d remain indifferent, like a roommate, cordial but not involved.

Clark is definitely not gonna be the type. “That being said,” he continues, “Dick teaches his siblings gymnastics and boxing on his off-time. They have their own teachers too, but he’s the one they prefer. On those days you might feel like punching something or someone, perhaps you should consider giving him a call instead. He’ll be happy to teach you too.”

Jason guesses it’s useless to try and assess the truthfulness of Clark’s positive words today. He will need some more time. When the cars in front of them start moving again, he coughs a little, then answers flatly: “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Alright.” Five o’clock beeps on Clark’s watch. He looks around the street they’re on, still surrounded by too many cars. His eyes briefly meet Jason’s before he focuses on the road again. “Are you hungry? We’ll be eating dinner in a couple of hours, but if you need a snack now, we can stop somewhere.”

“I’m good.”

Clark’s grip on the steering wheel tightens. Jason can see it, and it gives him bad chills. Perhaps this last short answer was one too many for today, and Clark is finally about to snap. The boy holds his breath for a few seconds. He braces for the hurt.

Eventually, though, all Clark tells him—in a concerned tone—is: “It will be quite a change for you to be with us, so… You tell me when it’s too much and we’ll give you some space, alright?” 

Jason’s heart is still racing from the fear. Not good. But Clark’s words were—good. They seem to always be that way, and it’s frustrating somehow, because Jason can’t let his guard down now. His time is running out. His nerves are giving out. The tightness behind his shoulders is making him choke a bit on the breath he painfully, silently exhales. He coughs again, exposing his hands when he brings them to his mouth.

Nevertheless, he knows to once again feel grateful for what Clark just said. It’s normal stuff for many, perhaps, but the bar has been dropped so low by unwanted people in his life, Jason is always impressed when someone raises it above ankle height in terms of sincerity and tact.

For this, he offers Clark a small smile. “Thanks.”

Clark lets out a quick laugh. “Got it—not talkative.”

“Give me a week,” Jason hears himself quip.

“Looking forward.”

The rest of the ride is more of the same, although Clark makes a point to talk less. Once they leave the main grounds of Gotham, they soon find themselves in the nicer parts of the city, condos and private houses and pretty gardens around it, the pink and red sky above Gotham easily visible now that the tall buildings are gone. 

Jason has a hard time hearing Clark over the growing chatter of a bitterness he prays will go away soon enough. He gathers that the man is a journalist, and that Duke has been living with him for quite some time—two years or so—and that a dog is waiting them ‘at home’. 

Clark calls it home. Jason chews on his tongue.

It’s almost five thirty when they finally cross an open gate to the driveway of a small houses surrounded by somewhat kept—albeit still gray from the winter—garden and falling ivy branches. Jason tries to take it in already. Two stories, end of the street, partially hidden behind pine trees, dog toys left in front of the door. Clark makes a turn to the left and parks under a wooden roof. A bicycle and two motorcycles, the real and big kind, are already parked there.

As soon as Clark stops the engine, Jason quickly unbuckles his seatbelt and steps out of the car. He needs some air and private time.

He takes a few steps so to exit the covered space then allows himself to look at the sky for a moment. It looks different than that of the Gotham he knows most. He can recall coming this far on the outskirts of the city three or four times, via subway, a couple of years ago, in attempts to make breathing easier. (And to steal. Whatever.) There’s a particular struggle in being here now that it’s only part of a choice.

This whole thing is a lot. Jason feels like he’s not much. 

His mind is simultaneously blank and drowning in saturated noise. The familiar mix of anxiety and panic spreading all across his body and clawing at his bones is here, it’s always here, it’s here more than usual. It sucks.

Jason’s thoughts are cut short when he hears the soft sound of a car door closing behind him, the trunk door opening and closing too, all controlled disturbances made to be as quiet as possible. Clark is giving him an encouraging smile as he comes closer—but not too close—and slings Jason’s bag on his left shoulder. He then gestures toward the entrance door.

“Ready?”

Jason is scratching his hands again. Clark notices, of course, but doesn’t say anything. Ashamed, the boy drops his arms on each side of his body and shoves them in the pockets of his jacket. He avoids looking at Clark any further as they walk to the door. Faint barks come from inside the house, giving some relief to Jason’s heart.

“It will be alright,” Clark tells him as he gently pushes him forward. Before either of them can even reach it, it opens from the inside.

Clark and Jason are immediately greeted by a large, happy looking beige lab, who jumps around the two of them and surprisingly obeys when asked not to bark anymore. Jason wastes no time kneeling down to pet the animal. He already knows who will become his confident in this house..

He hears someone chuckle in front of him and raises his head in the direction of the sound. A young man—Duke, he assumes—is standing in the doorframe, a smile on his lips and a yellow jacket hanging on his left arm. 

Jason straightens up just as Duke offers him his right hand and leans in closer.

“Hey! I’m Duke. So nice to meet you.”

“Hi. Jason.”

“And this is Krypto,” Clark says, scratching the dog behind the ears. “She’s a bit clingy.”

Jason snorts. “Yeah, I won’t mind.”

Clark invites him inside and instructs him to discard his shoes on the rack by the entrance. Here, Jason discovers a brand new pair of slippers with a post-it glued to it, and his name written on the paper. He puts them on and sheepishly finds them too fluffy to bear. He’d thank Clark for the gift, but the man is busy talking with Duke outside.

“Going somewhere?”

“Yeah, sorry, a book I reserved for school just arrived at the library. I thought I’d also stop by the bike shop on the way so they can repair my bell, since tomorrow is so busy. Is that okay?”

“It’s fine, but please be back by six thirty, alright? Do you have your phone with you?”

“Always.”

“Okay.” Clark pats the teen on the shoulder. “Come back safe.”

Duke beams at him and starts putting on the yellow jacket. “Will do.” He pets Krypto as a goodbye and then looks at Jason. “Let’s talk later, yeah? It’s great to have you here.” 

He sounds as sincere as Clark. Jason won’t admit it out loud, but he hopes Duke and him will soon become friends, just in case. For safety. “Good to not be alone.”

With this, Duke leaves. Clark gets into the house and closes the door behind him. Krypto whines a little, but cheers up when Jason crouches to give her attention again. Along with the small peace this contact gives him comes a vivid wave of fatigue. He’s barely slept since he’s met Clark and the Waynes and had to deal with the police, unable to relax in the emergency homes, walking on eggshells even when standing still.

“So—welcome to your new house,” Clark says while taking off his shoes. “You’re probably tired, so how about a quick tour, then we’ll rush the evening so you can rest soon?”

“Sure.” 

They leave their jackets and Jason’s scarf on the hooks above the shoe rack. There are stairs in front of the entrance, but they start with the ground floor first. Overall, Jason thinks the house seems very cosy, the décor rustic and warm. 

He follows Clark to the living room and kitchen combo, on the right from the entrance. Two steps separate the living room space from the kitchen table, the appliances standing well behind it. The place is fairly large, with beige and dark brown furniture with shades of blue on the pillows and tablecloths, and wide windows from which Jason can see a small garden with unkempt bushes and dirty outside dining table and chairs. There’s a good amount of pictures framed on the walls, some pinned letters on a wooden board too, above a small bookshelf and right by a larger one. Jason recognizes the Waynes on a few of the photographs.

“The kitchen is open from six in the morning to nine thirty at night,” Clark informs him. “We don’t do soda, however we have treats, and you’re welcome to two of them a day until five.”

Jason nods absently. He watches as Krypto goes to her bed, on the farthest corner of the living room area from the kitchen, where she sits and starts playing with a stuffed penguin. 

“Sorry, I… where’s the guest room?”

“The guest—you mean your room?” Jason nods. Clark‘s face is unreadable, though his tone remains calm. “Guest room is downstairs on the other side of the house. There’s also a bathroom and my home office there. Your room is upstairs, as are Duke’s and mine. Follow me?”

Jason refrains from commenting. He wouldn’t even know what to say. He climbs up the stairs a couple of steps behind Clark and feels as if it’s not him here, not him doing that, detached from his skin. Even his cough doesn’t feel his. It’s not the first time it happens, and although the kid usually fears this state, maybe it makes things easier today.

There are indeed three bedrooms upstairs, two on one side and Clark’s on the other, next to a bathroom. The room further from the stairs is the one Clark points Jason to as his. Seeing that the boy hesitates to visit it first, Clark pushes him forward lightly, opens the door for him, and flicks the light switch on.

The space is decently sized, with a large single bed under a window framed by blue curtains, a desk right by the bed, and a wardrobe and mostly empty shelves on the opposite side of it. Some comics and manga were left here—by Duke, presumably. The desk is busy, with pens and notebooks and a lamp and even, to Jason’s surprise, a laptop still in its box.

Clark walks into the room. “Duke and I assembled all the furniture yesterday. I wasn’t sure about your style, so this is basic, but… we can always change it later. The curtains too, the cot as well, anything really.” He looks at the shelves by the desk and inside the empty wardrobe, then adds: “We’ll fill these up.” 

Jason hums noncommittally. There’s no point protesting now, it’s too late in the day and too early in his stay. He is grateful for the offer, of course,; it’s not about that. He hopes Clark knows it’s not about that. 

He revels in the short silence they share, reminding himself why he’s here, why he’s not running this time, what it can mean to finish school and how quick his pit stop here will be. Six months, tops. He just has to bid his time. It’s a bonus if he gets along well with Clark and Duke, for sure, because Jason is tired of conflicts and knows he should rest while he can, make rational decisions while he can, keep his anger in check while he can.

Clark‘s glances betray his worry, his frown aging his traits. Jason dodges a staring match by focusing his eyes on the box on the desk instead. He expected access to the Internet, sure, but a laptop for him alone? Is it what it is?

“For you,” Clark says. “From Bruce.” He takes a step forward to get closer to the desk, resting a hand on the top of the box, the other motioning toward Jason’s space. “It’s brand new. I left the WiFi password on your desk too. It has no tracker on it or anything, but listen, I’m a concerned parent, so if you watch porn, there’s a twenty percent chance I might come to know.”

Jason groans. “Gross.”

Clark snorts and chuckles. “To you and me both, yes. We have a Netflix account, I’ll give you the login, please try watching this instead.”

“Okay.”

“House rule is laptops on the counter downstairs at 10 P.M. on week days and not in use before school, unless it’s an emergency or you have that much homework to catch up on. We spent most of our weekends at the Waynes’ but the same weekend rules apply both here and there, and state that you can use the laptop at any time between Friday night and Sunday 10 P.M., but none of us can miss breakfast, lunch, dinner, or agreed upon occasions. No laptop then, and no phone at the table. Sounds fair?”

“Yes.” 

No. The weekends at the Waynes’ part sounds unfair and unwanted, for Jason as much as for this family who didn’t ask for this—for him. It’s a dance the boy dreads and connections he doesn’t see working, be it now or anytime in the future. 

But he knows better than to speak up about it now. No need for right-of-the-bat conflict. He favors deflection instead. “It was stricter at the group home. No laptop to begin with.”

“Enjoy some freedom. This is really yours, by the way, not mine and borrowed by you. Bruce called it a welcome gift.” 

Jason elects to ignore this. Frankly, he’s exhausted. This is one of the longest evenings of his life, and many an evening has scarred him in the past. His hands are itching. There’s wood dust on the floor.

“Now, about the phone. You’re on my plan, and we’ll get you a new one tomorrow. You must keep it with you at all time, it’s important, I won’t track you but I expect updates on your way home from school. More importantly, I might need to tell you and Duke that my job will keep me late some evenings, if not all night.” A pause, then: “We’ll discuss it more in-depth when and if it happens.”

“Alright.”

Jason’s not sure why Clarks hesitated, though he’s not entirely stupid. He knows it’s likely the man was told not to leave him alone, or even with only Duke as company. His repeated history as a runaway isn’t exactly a secret for anyone involved with his life. Been going on since he was ten.

Clark and him share a knowing look, and that ignites anger in Jason. He is seventeen, for fuck’s sake, he can take the truth. He expects it. 

He’s still amazed to receive it. 

“I’m not supposed to give you much unsupervised time during the day, and none at all during the night, but I think it won’t do you any good to only be at school and at home, so let’s strike outing deals as things come up and when you need air.”

At that moment, it hits the boy tenfold: Clark is too soft to understand. For Jason to understand him, and for him to understand Jason. There’s no doubt he’s capable of anger, of course, he’s human, however it’s both a consolation and a fear to find that it doesn’t appear to be his default setting.

A consolation, because Jason could live with not having to deal with someone else’s anger for once, will always welcome peace, and is tired to fight.

A fear, because dealing with people’s anger is what Jason knows to endure best, to internalize most, and to relate to close enough to hold on to the certitude that angry people get him, that there’s a link there, perhaps a tiny fraction of mutual expectations.

Clark is not like this. Jason smiles at him and pretends he’s not drowning. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” Clark stays quiet for a bit. Crosses his arms. “Okay, last few rules. You get weekly pocket money to spend almost however you want, but should you need anything for school or for the house, please tell me, and we’ll go shopping together. No food or hot beverages in the bedrooms. Dating rules are that going out with someone your age is allowed, but there’s no getting anyone pregnant nor fooling around unprotected.”

At this, Jason scoffs and smirks. “That chill, uh?”

“I draw a line at drugs and smoking.”

“Right.” 

Right. Jason hopes it sounded neutral enough, or at least not too suspicious. The last time he snuck out to smoke was in December, three months ago, and Derek almost caught him then. Foster care is not the best place to find indulgence and stress-free spaces, and although it’s a bad habit, he knows, Jason might be missing this.

Judging by his tone, though, Clark is very serious. Whatever. Six months—Jason can deal. He’s got a more pressing concern. “School?”

Clark looks startled for a second. “Yes! Of course, yes, sorry, I… yeah. You’re going to a nearby high school, the same one Duke is attending. You start on Thursday, I’m sorry it’s not earlier, but the still administration needs some time. They’ll process your file and decide on your schedule soon, they’re on half-break until Tuesday and have a sport day on Wednesday. We must be patient.”

“Will they…” Jason trembles. He’s shoved this worry to the back of his mind for the last two days, but there’s no escaping it now. “I was attending a couple extra classes after normal school hours to catch up on some stuff so I’d graduate over this summer. Can I do this there too?”

“Ah…” Clark’s expression falls. “I’m sorry, but I’m not sure. They do have some summer school programs, though, so you might still graduate then. Let’s discuss it with them after we know your situation for sure.”

“I can’t not graduate,” Jason stresses, his voice trembling a bit. (He’s scared. He’s angry. He’s scared.) “I’ll be eighteen in August.”

“You…” Clark searches for his words. He seems concerned, and Jason knows it’s because he can’t hide his bad physical response to this potential bad news. It takes a lot from him to not scratch his hand again, he needs to settle down. There’s wood dust on the floor. 

He crosses his arm, and at the same time, Clark reaches out to him and squeezes his right shoulder. “I understand,” he says. “We’ll figure it out.”

Jason nods. He is searching for lies in the man’s gaze, but as usual so far, there is none. Sure, he could be reading this wrong, however there’s not much more he can do than trying not to fall for obvious baits  or botched truths.

A shudders passes through him and makes Jason feel othered from his own body again. He’s tired. He feels gross. Clark’s watch beeps again—six o’clock. He clears his throat.

“Okay, so here’s the plan. I’ll work from home this week so I can stay with you until you can go back to school. We can get to know each other better, go somewhere, or… anything. All up to you.”

“I won’t be a bother.”

Jason.” Clark sighs. “It’s not a bother having you here—it’s a choice. I chose to take you in, if you wanted me to, and I’m glad and relieved you took me up on the offer.”

Each extra minute with this man leaves Jason with a louder and louder wish to run away; he can’t deal with kindness. He doesn’t know how. He doesn’t trust it, it never comes for free, and he’s so damn broke of money and mind, he can’t afford to rack up a tab.

Clark makes a first motion toward the door, but stops midway. “Before I forget, do you go to church? temple? mosque? Any worship? 

“No.”

“Okay. I attend church services on main occasions, but you don’t have to come with. Duke usually doesn’t. We’ll sort things out in the moment.”

Jason nods. Clark studies him one last time, then states: “I’ll go do some chores and prep dinner now. Is chicken filet okay? I’m afraid I don’t qualify as a chef.”

“Anything is fine. Always happy to eat.”

“Great.” He is smiling again, though it’s a little strained. “I’ll call you when food is ready, alright? You can relax for now, take a shower, read, set up the laptop… all up to you. Duke will be back soon, he’ll likely take a shower then, so we’ll eat right after. There are towels and other things in the bathroom for you, we labeled your shelf, so you’ll find it easily. If you’re missing anything, please ask, and I’ll provide.”

“Thanks.” When Clark starts walking away, Jason hesitates a second, then calls, making the man face him again: “Eh. Really, I mean it. Thank you.”

Clark’s grin is soft. It reaches his eyes. “It’s good to have you with us.”

 

 

Jason possesses a grand total of one jacket, one scarf, one winter cap, one backpack, two pairs of shoes, two pants, two sweaters, two pajamas, four tops, five pairs of socks, and seven undies. The shoes, the jacket and the scarf were left downstairs, and the rest is barely fitting in the sport bag on his bed. Most items are dirty and rest in a plastic bag, separated from the clean side. Jason forgot to ask about the laundry, or Clark forgot to tell him, so the teen doesn’t know what to do of it just now. Can he even wear pajamas in the evening? Should he stay in normal clothes until he goes to bed? What [are the rules for this?

He takes a deep breath. A second one. A third. It’s pretty useless stress.

He ons that eventually, he’ll find out. He’ll ask at dinner, be told, and will then see if he can clean at least some of the dirty clothes tonight. In the meantime, he leaves them in the sport bag, puts it at the bottom of the wardrobe, and sorts the last few pieces of clothing on higher shelves for a better reach. 

He longs for a shower—a second one today. Since he knows he can go, he grabs his last clean t-shirt, a clean boxer and his tiny bathroom essentials bag, then scurries to the bathroom.

It’s well lit and not as cold a space as Jason worried it would be, and the lock on the door, to his relief, seems reliable and sturdy. There’s a sink on the right side of the room, a mirror glass double-door cabinet above it and a blurred dormer window standing even higher, almost to the ceiling, as well as a large closet against the wall adjacent to the door. On the farther right side of the room, behind the sink, three towels are hanging from wide holding hooks with names on each of then. The shower is not delimited by any sort of platform, only separated from the rest of the space by an opaque, white curtain that circles the farther left corner of the room, while the floor inclines slightly toward that same corner to let the water escape through a grid Jason almost doesn’t notice at first. 

And perhaps it’s silly, paranoid, a very unhealthy thought and a bad habit to have, perhaps it should tell him that he has a problem, but Jason does it anyway—search for cameras. Goes all around the room. Opens the cabinets, the closet. Fears seeing someone behind him when his eyes flick to the mirror. Worries about the glass of the dormer window.

It takes him several minutes to calm down. He moves things around the sink, reorganizes them by theme.

His heart rate runs too fast. The three shelves inside the cabinet above the sink are clean, with name tags on the side—Jason’s is at the bottom, full of brand new essentials—but there’s no common organization to the items stored there, no symmetry. He corrects this.

Should he take this shower hot or cold? The inside of the closet is mostly clean and neat, however the home pharmacy supplies on the middle right shelf are a mess. Jason sorts it by type of care.  

After a lot of minutes, and although he’s still not entirely convinced there’s nothing fishy around him, he takes off his clothes and wonders if he can drop his top and undies in the dirty laundry basket he found on the lower left side of the closet. Can he mix his stuff with Clark’s and Duke’s? Again, he could just ask. The answer will likely be a yes—come on now, would they separate everyone’s things for six long months? (Though it wouldn’t surprise Jason much, on reflection.)

In the end, he decides to leave his top and underwear on the floor by the door, hangs his toiletry bag, pants and sweater on the side of the sink, then steps under the shower head. He pulls the curtain around him and tries to understand the way the shower works. As soon as he does, he opens the faucet.

He sets the water on hot, too hot maybe, burning against his skin. It doesn’t bother him much. There are several bottles of shampoo hanging from a steel basket screwed into the wall; once Jason feels more relaxed, he turns off the water, then picks the most neutral-looking bottle. The blemish on his left index, the one that’s been slightly breaking all day, stings and starts itching again at the contact with the chemicals.

Jason turns the water back on and wonders how long he can stay under this warmth before only cold water is left, leaving Duke short on comfort. A bit more? Maybe just a bit more. He needs be here a bit more.

He inhales and exhales deeply a few times, coughing in the process, trying to decide what he should process or at least reflect on first. It comes to it fast, of course—the Waynes. The whole situation with them. It was clear right from the start, at the police station, that Clark and this family are close, alright, but to learn that he and Duke actually spend ‘most’ of their weekends with them…

This is really close. Suspiciously so. Jason can’t decide whether Clark, being a journalist and all, covers up enough shit on Bruce Wayne’s behalf to be invited to Saturday dinner, or if these two are fucking and this is a much different mess altogether.

Jason thinks it’s option two. Has to be, because the other one—he doesn’t want the other one. He won’t ask Clark directly, he wouldn’t even know how, however he does hope to uncover this over dinner. After all, if he’s gonna live here, he’d rather know. 

Would they even tell him if that were indeed the case, though? They could be thinking Jason would run to the press and spill the beans to make some money, or something of that type. And of course he would never, on principle, but he guesses he understands the doubt. 

Anyway. Six months—he can shut up. Still, he wants to know. To plan. Because the thing is, these two being together would make those shared weekends far less likely to avoid, and that in turn would mean for Jason to have to mentally prepare himself for it all, for yet another temporary family, more people and more trouble.

Jason turns off the water, steps out of the shower space, and wraps himself in the surprisingly giant towel Clark has left here for him to use. 

There’s a lot on his mind. There’s nothing in his stomach.

 

He is sitting on his bed, has taken the wood dust off the floor, and is now trying to set up the laptop when he hears Duke come home and go straight to the shower. Ten minutes later, the teen walks back to his room. Ten minutes after that, Clark calls them both downstairs for dinner.

Jason is on his feet in a flash. He’s not that hungry, but he doesn’t want to upset anyone. Failing to comply in a second to adults’ orders has never really ended all that well for him. He reaches the living room quickly and catches glimpses of Krypto running after something in the garden, where lights have been switched on. He observes her before he climbs the stairs to the kitchen area and starts looking for any help he could give; but Clark, busy mixing a salad at the main counter, has already set up all that’s needed for tonight.

“Jason, hey. How was the shower?”

“Good. Setting up the laptop now.”

Good.” He gestures toward the table. “You sit where you want. Duke and I will be fine.”

He has arranged the plates so that two are one on side and one on the other, center to the plates on the  opposite side. Jason is closest to the lone plate—the one he doesn’t want. Being alone on one side will feel like an interrogation, no doubt. He’d rather not go through this. 

He sits down on the opposite side, left plate, just as Clark brings a large salad bowl and a pan full of slightly burned chicken pieces to the table, and Duke climbs the two steps to the kitchen. Jason looks up to meet the other boy’s eyes, but the odd glance he receives in return makes him feel instantly uncomfortable.

“Eh,” Duke starts as he takes the seat behind the lonely plate, “did you move things around in the bathroom?”

Jason’s face and ears are burning. Oh no. “Just… straightened up some stuff.”

Duke opens his mouth, but doesn’t answer yet. He sends a quick look in Clark’s direction then brings the chair closer to the table before he finally replies with a simple: “Okay.”

“I won’t—” Really, Jason doesn’t have much of an excuse. He hates himself.  “Sorry.”

Clark hums and sits right by him, a basket with bread in hand. “You’re quite organized. It’s a good trait.” He leaves the basket on the table then gives a soft pat on Jason’s shoulder as he adds: “But let’s keep everyone’s mess separate, shall we?”

Jason nods. He worries this means a false start with Duke, but the boy is pretty chill after that, relaxed and smiling and already acting like he has put it behind him. He did sound annoyed, though, so Jason will try to make it up to him later. He knows he fucked up.

While the three of them eat dinner, Clark and Duke ask Jason basic questions, nothing too invasive—if he’s ever lived outside Gotham (no), his favorite subject at school (social studies), favorite color (red), what food he doesn’t eat (garlic)… Jason takes this opportunity to ask about the laundry, and Clark tells him that of course he can mix his with theirs, they’re going shopping for more clothes the next day (Jason worries about that), and yes, he can do a round of laundry tonight, the machine is in the bathroom downstairs.

Although Jason also wants to ask whether he can get part-time job now or a full-time job in the summer, because he needs to save up a bit before he is eighteen and has to move, he doesn’t dare doing so just yet. Next week, maybe. Or next month. As soon as he will have the reasonable belief that Clark trusts him enough for this.

He stays silent, save for a cough, when Duke starts discussing his plans for his eighteenth birthday, which Jason is then told will happen in late April. Upon hearing this, the question ‘what then?’ becomes a scream in Jason’s mind, though he is resolute not to ask it out loud. It’s none of his business, to start, and adding to this, Duke’s apparent happiness hints at the fact that it doesn’t look like a source of stress for him. That boy probably has good enough a relationship with Clark by now that he doesn’t need worrying about being thrown out once that day will come.

Must feel great. Must be nice. Might be an act.

Jason is almost done with his plate—second serving, alright—and still unsure of when and how to approach the topic of this family’s relationship with the Waynes, when Duke makes mention of plans of going to some 90s style arcade with Dick, Tim and Damian (another Wayne? sounds somewhat familiar) before the winter break ends.

Jason decides to dive in carefully. “You see the Waynes often,” he muses.

Duke raises an eyebrow. His surprise is genuine. “We… do?”

“Bruce is my partner,” Clark states. “Boyfriend.”

Oh.” Option two, alright. “Congrats?”

Clark seems confused, but takes it lightly. “Thanks, I guess. I actually thought you knew, since… well, you probably don’t read gossip papers.” 

Jason waits a couple of seconds, and the silence is awkward, until he looks Clark in the eye and shakes his head no. He didn’t know, only speculated. It’s fine. It’s stressful. But it’s fine. 

Still, the way Duke gawks at him tells Jason that he probably doesn’t appear all that fine.

Clark clears his throat. “Are you worried about this?” Duke finishes his plate. He leans back and crosses his arms. Jason is locked in a staring contest with him, and neither of them seem to be reading the other clearly. What does Duke believe this is about? Is he concerned, curious, angry? 

Clark soon interrupts Jason’s thoughts. “If you really don’t want to go, I can—“

“I won’t mess up any more of your plans.”

“It’s not…” Clark and Duke exchange a strange look. “You’re part of our plans and we care that you’re comfortable.”

“Yeah,” Duke agrees, a small smile now back on his lips. “It’s a lot of new people and a special situation, true… But they’re cool, you know? All of them. Even Damian has good days, though he’s a gremlin most of the time.”

Clark snorts before he winces. “Duke!” 

Duke chuckles. “A lovable one,” he amends. “Anyway, don’t worry. They won’t step all over your personal space and time. We don’t do anything special, just homework, baking, volunteering, playing video games, taking naps… normal stuff. As a family. It’s pretty chill.”

“It’s not ideal for you, Jason, I understand.”

Jason shrugs. “I’ve known worse.” And hoped for easier. “You’ve been dating him long?”

“About… four years?”

“Four years?” Now, the teen is too shocked to be nervous. Four years is a long time. Jason’s life four years ago was—it doesn’t matter what it was. It was different. Much so. It’s such a significant chunk of one’s life and it gives so many weird signals about this situation, he can’t stop himself from wondering out loud: “Why don’t you live together?”

Duke grimaces briefly, while Clark’s half-laughs, half-sighs. Although the tone isn’t exactly bitter, it’s clear he would have liked Jason not to ask him that. “It’s not so simple,” he replies.

“This welcome dinner is turning a little sad,” Duke remarks, and it’s not mean or accusatory, only here to defuse the tension. Jason mouthes a penitent thank you when their eyes meet. Duke grins in return.

“Well,” Clarks shrugs, starting to gather their plates. “There’s ice cream for dessert.” He twists on his chair so he can face Jason better. “What do you eat for breakfast?”

“Whatever there is to eat.”

“Then you are in luck, because we have that.” It makes Jason smirk in amusement. Clark continues: “Tea and coffee too. Orange juice as well. Hot cocoa is always an option, morning and evening alike.”

“And there’s marshmallows in a jar, right behind the cocoa box.”

“… if Duke hasn’t eaten them all.”

“Look who’s playing innocent…”

Jason watches the scene unfold without a word. Soon, he feels Clark’s finger lightly poking his upper arm, commanding attention. The man looks a little worried. 

“Does it sound good?” he asks.

Jason wonders if he’ll ever be as relaxed in these two’s presence as they are in each other’s, if he’ll ever find it in him to let Clark be his dad or something of the sort, like Duke seems to be doing now. 

And Jason actually wonders why he is concerned about it at all, because he knows it’s not for him. He won’t have that. They will be cohabiting together for a while, sure, but that’s—that’s not the same as family. It’s not. Probably not. Jason thinks it’s not. He was never close enough to anyone in the system to see this type of relationship ever becoming a reality for him, and today is no different. The whole new, supportive, permanent family shit happens to other people only. He’s stopped hoping for it.

“Yeah, it sounds great.”

 

After they’ve put all the dishes away, Clark shows Jason how to operate the washing machine, then leaves the boy alone for the night. Duke mentions having some homework to do, so all three of them end up splitting in different parts of the house. Jason takes care of his clothes, finishes to set up the laptop—he wants to contact a friend—and, an hour and a half later, goes back downstairs to hang his laundry to dry.

He finds Clark in the room, doing exactly that. He doesn’t want the teen to be overwhelmed tonight, or so he says; it sounds silly, really. Of course Jason is overwhelmed. Everything here is overwhelming.

He bids Clark good night and is met with a kind smile and the same wishes in return. It’s only about nine o’clock, but Jason is exhausted. The climb back upstairs is tenuous. He stops by the bathroom to brush his teeth, hurrying the end of the day. He doesn’t know if the 10 P.M. rule applies also now that it’s a school break or if they are in weekend mode, so just in case, he connects on Twitter and sends Kyle a quick DM about his situation, tells him he’ll get a new phone soon, and asks him not to worry. He doesn’t wait for an answer. He unplugs the laptop, makes his way downstairs, leave it on the counter, then returns to the room in the same slow pace as before.

He changes into his pajamas, turns on the lamp on the desk and turns off the light on the ceiling, grab a manga from the shelf, and goes to lay above the covers for some quite pre-sleep time. But right as he’s about to turn off the light and call it a day, not even fifteen minutes later, a knock on the door startles him.

“Yeah?” he calls, then coughs again.

The door opens slowly. It’s Duke. “Hey… may I?” Jason nods. Duke takes three steps inside the room, not letting go of the door handle. “I came to call dibs on the bathroom tomorrow morning. I leave early, Dick is teaching me moves at the gym, so…”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Are you okay?” When he asks this, Duke pushes the door so it’s almost closed again. His voice is lower too. “I’ve been there, I know it can—they can—be overwhelming at first. Clark and Bruce. The whole Wayne clan too. But Clark first.”

Jason makes a face, one that he hopes is straight-up telling Duke you don’t say’. “Yeah.” He sighs. “I’m okay. Promise.” Duke smiles but makes no movement to leave. Jason takes this opportunity to connect. “You’ve been in the system long?”

“Two years and some. I’ve spent most of it with Clark.”

“Then where to?” He sounds warier than he wants Duke to know he indeed is. It’s not great. 

But it doesn’t seem to bother the other teen. “College. You?” 

Jason shrugs. “Wherever. Work, I hope.”

“Okay.” Duke glances at the door. He keeps his left foot pressed against it, so although it’s still open, they have some privacy here. Perhaps he doesn’t want Jason to feel trapped, but still tries to foster safety? Whatever he thinks, Jason can go with this.

“Do you have family?” Duke asks.

“No.” Jason’s heart beats too fast. He doesn’t want to remember. He needs to change the subject—bring it back to Duke instead. “You do?”

“Yeah, a cousin. Same name as yours, in fact. He wasn’t even nineteen when I entered the system, and on a college scholarship several states away. I didn’t want to mess up his plans, and DCFS probably wouldn’t have let me go to him anyway. He mostly grew up in Canada, his family is there, it’s complicated. Still, he swore to me he’ll move to Gotham as soon as he’ll graduate, so it’s only one more year of patience now. We talk daily. We’re pretty close.”

“Sounds nice.”

He needs Duke to leave. He likes the guy alright—well, he doesn’t know him. But sure, Duke seems chill, friendly, someone Jason doesn’t mind sharing a house with. It’s not about that. It’s the anxiety.

And it only grows when he realizes that Duke is staring in a way that tells Jason he’s being seen, that Duke knows what’s up with him, at least enough to make Jason curl his hands into fists so tight, he’s pretty sure he’s gonna leave some scratching  marks inside his palms.

But Duke seems perfectly calm when he presses his whole body against the door. He’s not judging Jason. His voice is quiet, loud enough only for them both to hear.

“Look, I know it’s difficult to trust people around here, but I want you to know: Clark is a good man. He has his moments, of course, like everyone does, and he can win yelling matches alright, but he’s not like that. He is kind. There’s no string attached when he does things for you, he only wants to do it and tries to follow the cues. He’s observant and sincere, so you can always go to him with your problems.” 

He stops here for a moment. Jason unclenches his fists. 

Did Clark send Duke to tell him this? Unlikely. Jason doesn’t get that vibe from him—from either of them, really. The way Duke speaks is flowing, his body language is relaxed, the tone is emotional… the whole nine yards. He’s not lying, or he’s a class A liar. Jason is cautiously ready to believe it’s the former. 

Though what he hears Duke add right then makes him tense up in a second again.

“And Bruce is kind too, and a good man in his own right. Different demeanor, though, he can be a bit intense. It takes some getting used to.”

“Do I have to?” Jason snaps. 

He regrets it instantly. It’s the worries. It’s the stress. He’s not proud of his reaction, of the anger, and it’s not because he doesn’t feel this way (he does) but because his words hurt Duke, visibly so, and that wasn’t the plan for tonight.

He gets up from the bed to apologize, stumbles on his words. “Sorry, it’s…”

Duke’s frown deepens. He sounds almost agitated, all of a sudden. “It’s not because they’re both men, is it?”

It’s not—oh. Of course. Jason hadn’t thought of that. He blinks in surprise. “No, not at all.” He looks Duke straight in the eye. He needs him to know he’s telling the truth. “It’s not it, I swear. I’m sorry, I’ve had a long week.”

Duke’s expression softens. It’s not completely back to what it was, but it’s a start. “It’s okay, I understand.” They stay silent long enough for them both to let the tension in the room calm down. Duke soon shows Jason this face people make when they suddenly remember a message they forgot to deliver. “Ah, yeah, by the way, Tim and Cass asked for your phone number or social media handles. If that’s alright with you?”

“Oh.”

Is that alright? He kinda liked Cass. Tim seemed okay too. He’s bound to meet them again, at one point or the other.

Still, Jason can’t convince himself. “Maybe later. I won’t have a phone ‘til tomorrow, so…” Half a lie. It’s not the reason. It’s a problem, sure, but… anyway. It’s not about this.

Duke looks like he knows it’s not about this. He doesn’t address it, though. “Yeah, sure.” He smiles and rolls his shoulders. He’s tired too, and it shows. He turns around and releases the door from his hold. “Eh, I’m beat, I’m gonna go—“

“So will I—“

“Good night?”

“Thanks, and same. See ya.”

It takes Jason a long time to fall asleep after that.

 

 

The following day, Friday, is a partial blur. Jason argues with Clark for the first time in the mall. It’s nothing too serious, a mere difference of opinion regarding how many new outfits is too little or too many. Jason caps it at three; Clark believes it should be ten. They compromise on five and a new pair of shoes. His new phone is much nicer than what he’s used to, which makes him feel bad somehow. Also, snd he isn’t sure how, but he ends up getting a new backpack thrown on his lap when they go back to the car. By the time they make it home, Jason must look thoroughly worn out, because Duke chuckles when he sees him and pats his arm in sympathy. They eat pizza for diner. Kyle has replied to the online message with about a thousand words and too many question marks; Jason can’t really find answers to that. He gives his friend his phone number and proceeds to mute his notifications for now. Before he sleeps, he cleans the bathroom sink twice and folds his laundry three different ways, four times.

On Saturday morning, Duke invites him to the arcade. It’s the plan he mentioned, the one with Dick and Damian. Jason doesn’t want to bother them. He declines, and thankfully, Duke understands without him needing to explain. Perhaps he too, at first, has been where Jason is now. Between himself and a lack of space. Shortly after Duke leaves and Clark retreats to his home office for a while, Jason finds a sponge and some soap under the kitchen sink. He cleans up the counters and wipes barely-here dust off the chairs and the cupboard for thirty minutes, then hangs out with Krypto in the garden until lunch time. Duke comes back then, and that afternoon, Clark takes them to the movies and to an ice cream shop. It’s so cliché, but if he’s honest, Jason doesn’t really mind that.

He takes two showers on Sunday because he needs to cry twice.

Duke comes back home almost thirty minutes after curfew on Monday, and although Clark reprimands him sternly and grounds him for a week for it, at least neither of them is yelling. Still, Jason shivers. The whole time. After it’s over. The diner is tense but by the end of it, Duke apologizes and Clark gives him half a hug in return. Jason isn’t convinced that he didn’t imagine the scene. He has trouble falling asleep, again, and when he goes back downstairs at nine thirty for a glass of water, he finds that Clark is already here, leaning back against the kitchen counter, reading notes and drinking tea. The man gives one look at Jason before he offers to make him a mug of hot cocoa. Even though his mind answers ‘yes’, the boy hears himself say ‘no’. He misses Kyle. He quickly climbs back upstairs, without having drunk anything  at all, and goes to sleep parched.

On Tuesday morning, before leaving for school, Duke gently reminds him that Tim and Cassandra, and apparently Dick as well now, would like to get his phone number so they could chat a bit before they meet again. Jason is too tired to welcome this stress. He just shrugs and wishes Duke a good day, which is met by a worried glance, a small smile, and a low ‘thanks’. The thing is, Duke has had Jason’s number since Saturday, so that means he hasn’t shared it this entire time. Jason is grateful for this, for sure. It is always a relief to know he has this kind of ally here. Duke is easily in the top three best foster brothers he’s ever had. That afternoon, while they’re binge-watching a show, Clark offers again to make him some hot cocoa, and Jason doesn’t turn it down. The marshmallows in it are the sweetest he’s ever tasted. 

Things take a turn come Wednesday.

Jason is awaken too early by knocks on his door and Clark calling his name. He springs into a seating position in a flash, his respiration strained. He doesn’t even have time to tell the man to come in before the door opens, and Clark stands right there in what vaguely looks like a complete outfit already. Jason’s eyesight is still too poor. Clark’s hurried speech doesn’t help the situation.

“Hey, I’m so sorry, Jason, can you be dressed and ready to go really soon? Don’t worry about breakfast, you’ll get it in forty minutes or so.”

It’s still so dark outside. Jason’s brain fog thins too slow. He aches from the interrupted sleep, and to his frustration, the mention of having to be ready to go sends him on an emotional ride rilled with panic and worry.

“What’s wrong?” he croaks.

“Wrong? Oh.” Clark raises his hands in front of him. “No, please don’t panic, it’s just work. Something urgent came up, I must be there quickly and I can’t leave you here alone.” Jason shoots him a glance that he hopes won’t be seen as too hostile, prompting Clark to clarify: “I’m sorry, the rules—“

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, I know.” The teen switches on the lamp on the desk, then rubs his cheeks and his eyes a couple of times. He’s feeling lightheaded, as expected, but he thinks he can do it. After all, he’s used to emergencies by now. He’s even mastered pretending that he’s not affected by it anymore. “I’ll be downstairs in ten.”

“Thanks.”

When the door closes shut, Jason takes a deep breath and presses the side of his head against the wall. It helps him settle down. His heartbeat is still set on awry and his lungs are struggling to wake up. It hits him that he’s either gonna have to go with Clark to wherever the man is working today (and he’s fine with this) or that it will not be possible so instead he’ll end up with some babysitter somewhere (he is not fine with that).

The thought that said babysitters could be the Waynes crosses his mind, and then it stays. It stays. It stays. It’s still here when he gets up, his legs wobbly and his arm weak. It’s still here when he drags clean clothes to the bathroom. It’s still here when he cleans up, it’s still here when he gets dressed, when he realizes he won’t see Duke leave for school. It persists when he goes back to the bedroom to prepare his bag with books and his phone charger. It’s the reason he forgets his phone upstairs and has to run from the car to there and back to retrieve it, confusing Krypto in the process. It’s giving him shivers when he fastens his seatbelt, when Clark starts the engine, when they leave the garden.

He has to know for sure, fast, so as soon as they’re on the street, he asks: “To the Waynes, uh?”

Clark frowns. “You… yes.” 

Jason audibly breathes in and out and sets on staring at his window. He doesn’t want Clark to see just how bothered he is, how scared really. Angry too. Frustrated. So many things.

“Sorry,” Clark continues with a sigh. He does sound apologetic. “There’s no other place I can drop you off for the day, I can’t have you tag along with me on the field. The kids have school and Bruce has to go to work, though, so technically you’re having breakfast with the Waynes, and after that you’ll be alone with Alfred, the butler. He’s everyone’s favorite and will be good to you, I promise. I’ve sent him a text, they know to expect you. You can play video games all day if you want, I won’t mind. I feel guilty to have to send you there alone, but—”

“I know. Rules.” Jason doesn’t mean to be difficult so early in the morning. Really, he’s—he’s all of these things he hates. All these feelings he can’t help. He’s already twisting his fingers too much. He doesn’t need anyone to hate him more than he hates himself. “It’s okay.”

“You’re short of breath. It’s not okay.” 

They don’t speak for some time. Jason doesn’t want to talk. Traffic is fluid around them, though it gradually gets more dense. Soon, they cross the river and arrive in a less residential area, scarcer and bigger houses standing almost outside Gotham city. Clark slows down the car then. “Listen, I’ll be back around two or three this afternoon, before most of the household, and we’ll go straight back home then. I’ll make it up to you somehow.”

This kindness again. It stresses Jason out, making him too wary to avoid mumbling: “Fuck’s sake—”

Language,” Clark scolds him; however, four seconds later, he amends: “Though I guess I’ll give you a pass today.”

“You don’t have to sound so worried all the time.” Jason is more alert now. He looks at Clark when he speaks. He sees the grief in the man’s frown and hears the nuances in his tone.

“I… Right. You’re right.” Clark sighs again. “It’s just not exactly the first week with us that I’d envisioned for you.”

“Yeah, well, life’s a mess.” Jason inhales sharply. “I’ll be alright.”

“I trust you will.” 

The road gets narrower there, the gardens taller. It’s six thirty-four and Jason assumes they’re about to reach their destination. Clark slows their speed again. He has more to say. 

“So—the Waynes. You already know Tim and Cassandra, and Dick is living on his own closer to the campus, so he won’t be here today. You’ve met Bruce, albeit briefly. That leaves Alfred and Damian.”

“The gremlin.” 

Jason...”

The tone doesn’t sound all that disapproving, rather a mixture of annoyed and amused. Jason snickers. He tries not to read into this too much, but to be privy of a family inside joke makes him feel included, more relaxed now. A few yards in front of them, on the right, stands a gray and gigantic house barely visible behind trees and a secured black gate. Clark sighs.

“Look, it’s true that Damian can be… difficult. His tongue is sharp. But he’s very sweet of heart, don’t get it wrong, we all love him and he loves us back.”

He makes the turn to the right, briefly stops the car in front of the gate, grabs an electronic key from behind his sun visor, brings it to the door log and types in an additional code on the numerical pad. Jason follows the movements and waits for whatever else Clark was about to say. The guy looks almost sad, all of a sudden, when he restarts the car and enters the property. 

“Still, the thing is, there’s a high chance he’ll reject you today, and not kindly at that, but I want you to remember that this is nothing personal. It’s not you. He has good reasons, and Bruce and I will do our best to manage that, but as it is… Well, it should get better. Give it some time. He’s just a kid—a brilliant one. If it can help you connect with him at all, he likes animals.”

“I get it, it’s fine. Good gremlin, can be bribed with cats.”

Clark‘s chuckle is shaky. “He could be, alright.” He parks the car quite close to the main entrance of this ridiculously large, slightly eerie building. Jason doesn’t even attempt to take in the size and neatness of the garden and instead stares at Clark, who asks: “Feeling ready?”

“Dunno.”

Ah.” He seems taken aback, but that’s it. No fuss. He gives Jason a reassuring smile, unfastens his seatbelt and opens his door, all while enjoining the teen to do the same. “That’s fine. Let’s go greet them together.”

They exit the car and walk up a small flight of stairs. Before they can even reach the top of it, the wooden door opens. An old man emerges from it, dressed in a suit and beaming at them. He seems kind enough, at least for now, from what Jason can see. Two large dogs, a great dane and a german shepherd, dart toward Jason, whom Clark protects from their enthusiastic jumps. The boy pets them once or twice before they obey Alfred’s command for them to go run elsewhere in the garden. Clark goes to greet the butler with a close handshake.

“Good morning, Alfred.”

“Good morning, Master Kent. It’s always good to see you.” The old man then turns to Jason and offers him his hand. “And you must be Master Jason. It is lovely to meet you.”

Jason blinks. The whole Master thing makes him freeze in place for a second. He  shakes the butler’s hand, barely managing a quick ‘hello’ at that time. Duke had warned him, of course; it’s only surprising because hearing it in person is way different than knowing it could happen in theory. Jason can’t fight this, he’s been told, so he lets it go.

Alfred invites them inside, but Clark declines; he’s already late, he must leave. They exchange parting words and Clark gives Jason some last minute encouragements. The boy waits until the car has left his line of sight before he gets into the house.  

The butler asks him about platitudes (Jason only half-answers) and informs him that everyone else in the house is upstairs, waking up just now or getting ready for school and work, soon coming downstairs for breakfast—but Jason can dig in before they arrive, it’s fine. He must be hungry. (He is.)

Jason tries not to see everything around him. He doesn’t know how to process it. He can’t do his weird shit with his hand and forearm and bad habits of being himself. When they enter the kitchen, it’s the most standard and somewhat normal sized part of the house he’s seen so far, so it’s not so bad anymore that he feels like an off-tempo shadow following his own body, as it was the case so far. Alfred points to a chair in the middle-left on the side of the table opposite the stove, and starts listing everything Jason can have to eat and drink. 

This—that won’t do. Jason would feel awkward sitting here on his own and getting served breakfast by a butler. It’s not him, so instead, he asks about helping setting up the table. Alfred hums, as if thinking about it, before he thanks the boy and accepts his offer. 

He instructs Jason on where to find what, how many plates to bring, what milk they take in the morning. There’s a narrow service door in one corner of the kitchen, and the dogs soon come to beg for entrance back into the house. Alfred lets them in. Jason plays with them for a minute, until the german shepherd goes to sit under the table and the great dane trots away, to somewhere else in the house. Behind him, the butler turns on the coffee maker and the boiler for the tea.

Jason is washing his hands in the sink when he hears voices coming closer. He recognizes them even before Bruce Wayne and Tim get through the door. The german shepherd goes to them instantly. 

Tim, sporting what looks like a school uniform, is the first one to come closer and exchange greetings with Jason. His smile is soft and sincere, something the other boy doesn’t understand, given the phone number debacle. Why is this still a thing even, anyway? Why not give his number to people he’ll often see? Jason forgot. Maybe he had a rationale at first, but it’s escaping him right now. He knows it’s stupid. He should correct that. 

While Tim goes to greet Alfred and waits for bread to be ready in the toaster, Bruce Wayne, dressed all in black again, sends the dog back under the table. He approaches Jason and quietly wishes him good morning. The teen is glad to be busy drying his hands a second time, because it gives him something else to focus on than his heartbeat racing again.

He knows he’ll have to get used to this man’s presence somehow, used to speak his name, used to foster some degree of connection with him. Sure, Jason could probably limit seeing him a little or a lot, if he only asked, but he doesn’t want to break this family apart. To break Clark’s heart. These things aren’t his, he can’t. He’s wrecked enough stuff as it is, in his seventeen years of life, that’s enough. More than enough.

“Hello,” he replies. “Thanks for having me.”

“No trouble at all.”

Bruce walks around Jason, grabs a mug, and pours hot water in it. He sits at the corner opposite to the chair Alfred has told Jason he could sit. Jason is fine with that. He goes to sit down on said designated chair and waits for the rest of the family to arrive. Tim comes to sit by his side, right in front of his dad, who smiles at him and is almost immediately distracted by the buzzing of his phone. It’s a call, so he walks away to answer it. Jason starts buttering some bread. 

“I’ll give you my phone number,” he tells Tim.

“You don’t have to, that’s fine. But how about I give you mine? You can get it from Duke. You start the conversations.”

Tim is serious. Jason wasn’t expecting that. He’s about to reply something, he doesn’t yet know what, when the great dane comes back and runs through the kitchen, going to lay under the table too. Jason worries he’s gonna kick either or both dogs by accident now.

He doesn’t have time to worry so much about it, though, because a small kid gets into the kitchen at that moment. He’s wearing the same school uniform than Tim, is visibly grumpy, and looks at Jason with a level of wariness the teen had thus far thought he’d only ever find in his own eyes.

Damian doesn’t make a single move toward Jason, so Jason makes one first. He gets up and extends his hand above the table.

“Hey, I’m Jason.” 

But the kid doesn’t move. His frown is too serious and hostile for that of a child. Jason now gets the gremlin thing, though he can’t quite believe the kind words Clark and Duke spoke about Damian. 

Whatever. He doesn’t want conflict and he doesn’t need the approval. The kid will have to speak to him eventually anyway, Jason can wait until then. 

He sits back down and shrugs. “Alright.”

Damian.” Bruce Wayne is back in the vicinity. He scowls and stares at Damian with narrow eyes, though his tone is not too harsh. “Be polite and kind. Jason has done nothing to you, he’s here to share our breakfast today and will be part of our lives for now. I expect you two to get along. Apologize.”

Alfred puts a pot of coffee on the table, loudly enough that the impact has to be intentional. Damian hesitates, but eventually locks eyes with Jason. His voice is raspy from sleep.

“I’m sorry.”

“No worries.”

“Jason,” Tim cuts in, “do you drink coffee or tea?”

“Coffee.”

“Rule here is only half a cup if you’re not eighteen yet.”

“I can live with that.”

“Milk?”

“No thanks.”

Damian carries a mug of hot water to the table. To Jason’s surprise, this kid sits in front of him and doesn’t stare while he picks and tears a tea bag from a bowl left in the center of the table. Bruce types away on his phone, puts it back in his pocket, then comes to sit by his youngest son. He squeezes Damian’s shoulder and asks him to eat something too, not just drink tea. 

Cassandra enters the room just as Jason finishes both his bread and his coffee. She is wearing an uniform quite similar to those her brothers wear, and is carrying her phone with her. She smiles at Jason and waves her left hand in greeting, before she shows her phone to her father.

“Dance club meeting at three,” she says. “I’ll be home around four.”

Bruce frowns. “So will Tim, right?” Tim nods. Bruce hums and whispers to Cassandra to get started on breakfast, as it is getting late. When she sits down on the other side of Damian, Bruce gets the kid’s attention by lightly poking his forearm. “Since neither of them can bike back here with you today, I’ll ask Clark to come collect you from school around two. I’ll drop you off myself this morning.”

Damian nods and gulps his tea. “Very well.”

“You can pick the music.” 

Bruce’s offer makes Damian smile. A real big grin. Jason much prefers this aura from him to the one he had before, but just as he thinks this, Damian’s gaze falls on him and the hostility is back. Great. Jason tries not to care. He feels Bruce’s stare on him and returns it, unintentionally pushing back on his chair. 

“You’re welcome to stay for supper too. Clark and Duke wouldn’t mind—they’d likely join us, in fact.”

Jason misses a breath. “Thanks, but…” But what? Plenty of reasons to choose from. Jason doesn’t know which one would be both the most truthful and acceptable enough. He ends up saying nothing at all, his mouth sewn in a tight line, and the silence sucks. The billionaire’s presence is putting more pressure on him than the boy thinks he can bear.

Alfred’s voice, in this moment, sounds like nothing short of a miracle. “Children, quickly now, time is running out. You all came downstairs a tad late today again, you really need to be more mindful of this. Five more minutes for breakfast, five extra upstairs to gather your things, then you all should go.” 

Jason gathers that the old man also includes Bruce in his statement, given the brief and apologetic smirk that appears on the man’s lips, soon replaced by an expression most neutral. Cassandra and Damian pick up the pace a little, while Tim serves both Jason and himself a glass of apple juice.

Shortly, Alfred starts putting away dirty dishes and utensils, speaking fast as he does so. “Master Tim, please don’t forget your vitamins. It’s also colder today than it was yesterday, shouldn’t you add an extra layer before you leave? You too, Miss Cassandra, please take gloves with you at least. Master Damian, have you fed your dog?”

And the cats, yes.”

Bruce instantly looks interested or shocked to hear that. “Did you say cats? Plural?”

Damian gawks at his father in disbelief. “I can’t let a stray die if I can help it, can I?”

“You…” Bruce doesn’t finish this sentence. Instead, he lowers his head and sighs. “Okay, upstairs. The three of you—upstairs. Everyone hurry up now.”

Tim doesn’t even bother concealing a breathy laugh. He gets up from his chair and taps Jason’s shoulder in acknowledgement. Cass finishes her tea and she and Damian get up from their respective chairs at the same time. The dogs follow them all in the hallway as they disappear to their rooms.

Bruce relaxes in his chair. “It’s probably calmer at Clark’s.”

“We’re not as many.”

Bruce grunts in response. He looks older than Clark, not by a lot, but older enough for someone really two years younger—Jason’s asked Duke about it on Sunday. He hasn’t googled either Clark or Bruce yet, nor actually intends to do so while he’ll be living around them. Truth is, he’s terrified to maybe find things that would paralyze him emotionally and fuck up his sleep even more than the unknown is doing now. Knowledge might be power, but it is cousin to pain and stress. 

Such as knowing that the day Jason met Clark and the Waynes just so happened to be Bruce’s fortieth birthday.

Alfred finally brings a cup full of hot water for himself on the table and sits down in front of Jason. He takes his time choosing a tea bag while he says: “I hope to be of good company today, Master Jason. I look forward to getting to know you better. What would you like to do? Touring this place might already take us some time.”

Jason shrugs. “I’m not high maintenance. Anything is fine.”

“Very well, then.” 

“I must go.” Bruce gets up from his chair and takes his dirty mug to the dishwasher. “I’ll try to be back before five. Perhaps I’ll see you then, Jason.”

“What of the stray cat?” Alfred asks.

Bruce groans. “Well, Damian has a point, and I’d hate to upset him when he’s doing something good, but… We have enough pets, I’m afraid. I’ll figure something out.”

Alfred sips on his tea, asserts: “Your son will understand if you tell him you want the cat to get more attention and care somewhere it won’t have to compete for it with five other pets.”

“You’re right. As usual.” Bruce takes a peek at his phone again and puts it back in his pocket one last time before he takes his leave. “Have a good day—both of you. See you later.”

“See you.”

“Careful on the road.”

Jason recalls Clark saying something similar to Duke. Alfred is, no doubt, what Bruce has left that’s the closest to a parent. The teen starts on this thought for two minutes or so, but it hits him suddenly that he might have missed the chance to say goodbye to the Wayne kids before they leave.

Alfred seems, again, to be able to read his mind. “Shall we see them out?” he asks.

So they do that. They get to the wide lobby behind the entrance just as Damian is crossing it, his last glance in Jason’s direction far from the picture of peace. When he opens the door to leave, he tells the great dane behind him to stay put, and Jason is impressed to find that the animal obeys the command. A minute later, Cassandra and Tim are coming down a long flight of stairs from the upper level of the house. They both say goodbye to Jason in kind manners, and in turn, the teen asks Cassandra for her number. She stays behind to enter it in Jason’s phone, then scurries to join her brother for their bike ride to school. Bruce and Damian exit the property in a black car at the same time.

 

Spending the day with Alfred turns out to be a relaxed affair. The butler hooks Jason up with video games, movies books, and a bowl of chocolate snacks (“Master Clark insisted”), all in a room downstairs that appears to be some sort of  hang out space for the Wayne kids. Everything here is shiny and expensive, however not in a way that is remotely enjoyable in Jason’s mind. He manages to ignore this feeling after about an hour, but even then, it’s only because he’s still worried about having ruined Bruce Wayne’s birthday, and because he’s spamming Kyle with memes and receiving silly videos in return. He hurts his left pinky by twisting it weird, but he doesn’t tell Alfred this. The pain will go away.

At ten o’clock, the butler offers to play Mario Kart on the Wii with him. Jason keeps his comments to himself, and rightfully so, because the butler ends up winning gold in the three games they play in mirror mode. Jason’s pinky recovers. 

At noon, while the man’s homemade lasagna finishes cooking, Jason and Duke exchange several texts. Duke wants to know that the other teen is fine and, in particular, asks whether Damian has cursed him already or if they’ve gotten along okay enough so far. Jason tempers his concerns. He tries to do the dishes once they’re done eating, but Alfred politely reminds him that there’s a dishwasher in the room. Jason has no argument against this and is not about to tell the truth to a virtual stranger. It’s odd to need this, he knows. He goes back to the game room.

He’s reading comics on a sofa when he almost falls asleep from the lunch and his exhaustion. It startles him when he catches himself doing that, because sure, he could use a nap, however not here—not alone. Not now. Maybe it’s silly, whatever, but it scares him really. Clark will be back soon, thankfully, and until then, Jason plans to stay wide awake. He’s craving cigarettes again. He wants to go to school. He wishes to be home. 

He can’t stop feeling tired so in an effort not to collapse, he goes to find Alfred in the garden and asks if they could do a basic tour of the house. The butler agrees. With commentary and frequent breaks to pet the cats upstairs, it takes them about thirty-five minutes to reach the second floor. Jason barely registers the rooms they pass by and hears without listening what Alfred is telling him about the place and the shrubbery.

Clark comes back at two fifteen, Damian right behind him at the door. He greets Jason and thanks Alfred, telling them both to wait a few minutes while Damian retrieves a few things upstairs for him. Jason doesn’t question this, nor does he attempt any form of connection with Damian. He’s too relieved to see Clark here, he can’t care about anything else.

“We’re going back to your place, right?”

He can tell Clark doesn’t quite like this wording; though his smile is still here, some hurt is in his eyes. Jason feels guilty—didn’t think he‘d ever feel guilty over something like that. But it’s done now.

“We are. And we’re taking the cat. Krypto could use a friend.”

Jason raises an eyebrow. Alright. So Bruce did figure it out. Damian comes back downstairs with one of these travel crate for cats, a small folded bed, and a couple of toys.

“Can I come see her sometimes?” he asks. He sounds softer than he did this morning.

“Of course, yes. You know you’re welcome anytime. Don’t worry, Damian, I’ve had cats on the farm. We’ll take good care of her.”

Jason sees in the glance Damian gives him that the kid doesn’t believe in this ‘we’ if it includes anyone else than Duke and Clark. When these two told Jason that this one might be difficult to approach, it was the euphemism of the year.

Clark transfers the accessories to the backseat of the car and gives the cat to Jason so he can carry the crate on his lap during the travel. It takes him and Alfred five good extra minutes to convince Damian that it’s alright, he can let go, Clark knows what he’s doing and this cat will be safe and cared for. Eventually, it works.

Jason says goodbye to Alfred, who tells him that he’ll be glad to see him with ‘the whole family’ one of these weekends. Jason smiles, but doesn’t replies. Really, he wants to scream. He says goodbye to Damian who, to his surprise, acknowledges this with a nod and even mouthes ‘bye’. Clark waves in Alfred’s direction and opens his arms to hug Damian who, bewildering Jason further, happily accepts the gesture. 

This kid—this gremlin, it’s true—will be a nightmare to understand.

Clark and Jason get in the car and drive away then. Although Jason realizes it only when they’ve passed the secured gate, it looks like he’s been holding in his chest about a hundred aborted breaths and ten thousands anxiety seeds all day. It hits him like a truck and all he can do right now is holding the cat crate closer, listening to the soft meows coming from it, forcing his lungs to perform a regular respiration rhythm he’s struggling to transform into an automatic one.

“How was it?” Clark asks. He sounds cautious.

Jason sighs. “It was alright.”  

“I see.” Clark doesn’t believe him. He sounds and looks uneasy again. “Sorry, I take you in to reduce your stress, but all I’ve managed to do so far is… not it. I’ll do better.”

“You don’t…” 

Jason doesn’t know what to say after this. He’s got so much to tell Clark, many words of anger and many more leveled enough that he thinks it might make a productive conversation. He doesn’t have the strength today. The breakfast alone drained his entire social reserve for the week, and he has to go to a brand new school tomorrow. He doesn’t know how he’ll cope. (That’s untrue—he knows how. It just sucks.) 

He bargains without belief. “Can I get one more weekend with just you and Duke at home? Then I’ll follow your usual schedule.”

“Of course,” Clark agrees. It’s unexpected. Jason forgets to thank him, is about to tell him that it really was alright there, not ideal but not the worst; only, Clark speaks again before he can. “By the way, in three weeks, my mother will come to visit us. She normally comes later in the year, but she is excited to meet you. She’s not the overbearing type, so don’t worry about your personal space—she’ll respect that. She only wants to catch up with us, share meals with us, and to wish you welcome.”

Jason isn’t sure he enjoys the idea, but what can he say? It’ll happen anyway. No real choice here. Clark is a good man, no reason his mother would be awful, but… who knows. Jason can always retreats to his room for a few days if it gets too much, right? He hopes so. “Sounds nice.”

Clark delays his response for now. Jason receives a message on his phone, judging by the buzzing. It’s probably from Kyle. He’ll check it later. 

When they cross the river again, Clarks quietly says: “It’s as good a time as any to tell you I was adopted.”