AN: This story is admittedly less flashy than the other fics I've written. But this one is much more personal, like a journal of sorts, and I hope the meaning reaches.
Chapter One: Catching Up
(Prologue to Week One)
"Do you always have to sit like that?"
Jason glances up.
He's been watching the ice melt in his glass, beads of sweat collecting around the bottom on the tabletop. There's a waiter (a benefit of eating out), but he already knows he'll wipe it up himself. It's habit, a compulsion. Jason's developed a lot of those over the years.
Meanwhile, Roy's still sending that knowing look his way. The guy's been doing it all breakfast like it's a pastime, and it's a new thing, Jason recognizes; Roy never used to be able to keep so serious for so long, not even during the most strenuous interrogations. It reminds him that a lot has changed in the three years since they worked together.
Jason knows he shouldn't ask, but he does anyway. "What do you mean?"
Roy waves his fork in Jason's direction, gaze unabating. "I've been here two days, and any time we sit down somewhere, you're always facing the door." He stabs an egg like he's going to let the gesture speak for itself. "Tell me that's not a coincidence."
Of course, it's not.
Roy's gotten smarter since they split, but Jason wasn't expecting that he'd be able to read him this well. Jason even changed it up for that weekend, slept with the fan on instead of the TV tuned to some random mob movie on late night, anything with shots and screams and getaway cars.
Roy's a cop too. Sometimes Jason forgets that. But at the end of the day, Roy can never pull off a poker face the way he can.
Jason slings a casual arm over the back of his chair, leaning backward to complete the look. "You got me," he admits lightly with a wave of his free hand.
Roy reacts exactly the way Jason expects him to: a bit stunned, like he's wondering where his never-show-weakness best friend has gone and left this clone behind. It gives Jason the wherewithal to meet his eyes for the first time that morning. (It's not like he hasn't been able to, but everything else has seemed so much more appealing: the street outside the restaurant window, the ice in his glass, even the cheaply-tiled floor.) So, Jason makes sure it's a confident move when he looks, penetrating enough to tell Roy to stop digging before letting his expression slip into something more passive. "You call Kori yet today?"
Roy's talked about her enough since he came to visit, some girl with a dream body and a name Roy utters like she's a goddess to be worshipped. At the mention of her, the man's eyes are sparkling. It's a topic Jason knows Roy'll never tire of, which is why it's perfect.
"Yeah, first thing. She's been great—We've been great," he babbles, looking humorously similar to a school boy with his first crush. Must be serious about this one, Jason thinks, and he lets himself chip away at his food while he listens to a story he's already heard.
Roy's a risk-taker. He's always been that way. He sees a girl he likes? She's asked out so quick it makes her head spin—Jason's head too, if he's playing wingman. It explains why Roy was so quick to take a job offer across country three years back, a week later packed and on a plane with Jason's well wishes and a solemn oath that he'll come back to visit when he can.
The spontaneity's a congenial thing that explains why they get along so well, and although it's bitter-sweet, Jason's happy for him.
Roy's been handling the transition with his usual enthusiasm, Jason can tell, bursting with stories of palm trees and ocean sunsets so bright it's like looking into heaven. Jason's reminded of that difference when he spies the shark-tooth necklace Roy wears now (A gift from Kori, he guesses.) and the horrid tan lines the man flaunts with a misplaced pride, battle scars from the Miami sun.
"You should come visit sometime," Roy offers harmlessly, munching on a slice of toast. "The change of pace would do you good. I know you say you've been fine, but you really haven't been the same since you got back."
"I'll think about it," Jason half-smiles, dodging in a way more lighthearted than before, "that way I can meet this new girlfriend of yours."
Roy takes the bait again, sighing as if he's still reveling in the taste of ocean salt and sun-kissed skin. "Oh, man, Jay. You've really got to. She's got these gorgeous eyes and—and her hair!" Roy's tipped his head back, eyes closed. Jason can't say he's familiar with puppy love himself, but its endlessly amusing on his friend's face. "It's so long and thick! I didn't know hair could get like that!"
"A redhead, huh?" Jason prompts over his coffee.
"Oh yeah," Roy's quick to agree. "It's like…like fire!"
Jason shakes his head at the cheesy comparison, Roy declaring it like it's something no poet nor author has ever thought of crafting. "Better keep her away from Dick if that's the case. You know how he's got a thing for reds."
"Are you kidding?" Roy cracks a smile, leaning forward in challenge. "What does Goldie have that I don't? Sure, he's got the glutes, but me?" He scoffs comically, sipping at his water. "I've got the whole package!"
Jason opens his mouth to counter but stops short, because that's the moment Roy chokes on his drink ("Smooth, Roy. Real smooth."), and soon enough, they're both laughing in earnest, loud enough that it fills the whole restaurant.
Jason's been doing fine.
He tells himself that every time he drops his keys on the stand in the entryway and kicks the door closed. He always has a hand on his gun when he does it, and it reminds him that maybe "fine" isn't the word he wants to use—but it's as close as he can get considering everything he saw over those two years in the field, which amounts to quite a bit.
He hoped life after the assignment would be normal again, that he could slip back into his old habits and return to being Jason Todd, a simpleton cop with a mild book-addiction, instead of an infamous mass murderer, drug-dealer, crime lord.
What surprises Jason most is that life post-assignment is normal, overwhelmingly so. He gets to the police station by seven every morning. Brief (if not blunt) hellos are foisted on whoever gets stuck next to him at the coffee machine before he's allowed to spend the remainder of the day in solitude, holed up at his desk doing paperwork or stretching his legs on a patrol. He never returns home any earlier than eleven, collapsing onto the couch for a few hours of well-deserved rest before repeating the process like clockwork.
Jason does so again, flopping on the worn sofa cushions once he's certain the apartment's clear, and he busies himself flipping through channels. He's looking for something loud, something to drown out the voices drifting in from the neighboring apartment through the outlets. A young couple lives there, murmuring about taxes and work and how many kids they'll have. It's nothing abnormal. Nothing that should make Jason feel the way he does.
He finds some crime drama that he decides will do the trick and cracks the binding of another book, trying to get lost in the pages only to reread the same paragraph over and over without absorbing a single word.
It's been a year since he was pulled out, and Jason's life has returned to this: a regular rerun of weathered books, case files, gleaming squad cars, and other normal things, things he encountered daily in the life he used to lead three years back.
But that's just it.
It's the normalcy of it all that throws him.
The humming of the refrigerator is always the ominous engine of a car, the tell-tale sign of a drive-by shooter; vehicles parked harmlessly on the street are really lying in wait; even an innocuous man he passed on the sidewalk one morning… His eyes were too shifty, meaning he had to know something, had to know that Jason is really an undercover cop, and Jason will be ratted out and dead before he can so much as blink.
Unsurprisingly, Jason avoids the path he walked that day religiously, and even when he gets off work, he continues to calculate alternate routes to every place he frequents. It's not a bad thing, he tells himself often enough. Bruce does that too, even encourages it. But Jason knows that, for his boss, it's more than just the precaution that it is for everyone else at the station.
Bruce does it because years of being undercover have left him paranoid, they all know it, and as much as Jason tries to convince himself he and Bruce are different, he already understands he's suffering from the same thing.
But that's the only mindset Jason has anymore: paranoid. He hid his status for two years, and now that it's done, now that he isn't undercover as some crazed felon, he's come back to his ordinary life and his ordinary job only to discover that he isn't ordinary anymore; he's still trying to pass himself off as something he isn't, and after having spent so much time living on edge, so much time second-guessing and being on guard, he's found he can't let those habits go.
And Jason knows he's nothing if not a creature of habit.
It's why he consistently does a doubletake when he retrieves his mail from the P.O. box downstairs, why he likes the familiar sound of gunfire blaring from the TV, and why he cleans his pistol any time he can't sleep.
He's put the book down before he's fully realized it, and the weapon's disemboweled on the coffee table as always, like some magical force has instructed him to start vetting the bullets in the chamber because there's that omnipresent chance they won't work when he needs them to.
He falls asleep making sure they won't misfire.
Jason's thankful for the fan. He'll never admit to Dick that it was a good idea, but the circulation helps combat the summer humidity, spread through the office thick as marsh water. The whirring fills the silence, and his desk is out of the way just enough to keep his paperwork from being caught in the wind when it oscillates.
"Morning, Jay," Dick chirps as he passes by, probably on his way to turn in a report. He must think better of it, as he lingers in front of the desk, persuading Jason to set aside his work for a second. He glances up to find the man's hair is disheveled with sweat, his tie limp around his neck like a feather boa. It's something Dick would probably wear now that Jason thinks about it, and in that moment, he's glad their unit has mandatory uniforms—no matter how insufferable they might be in the heat.
"Is Bats in The Cave?" the older man asks innocently, fanning himself with the manila folder in his hand.
"Is Bruce in his office?" would've been the normal question, but Dick has given everything and everyone at the station a nickname ("They did it in Blüdhaven!" he argued years back, "we should do it here too!"), and despite the efforts of a few concerned citizens at the department (namely Bruce and Jason), the names have stuck.
But right now, Dick isn't terrorizing the recruits with cheesy nicknames, instead standing artlessly in front of Jason's desk and waiting for an answer.
Jason quirks an eyebrow. "Do I look like his secretary to you?"
The quip isn't venomous, but Jason pulls back another page in the file he's been reading as if that's all he has to say on the topic. The report's a serial bombing case that's somehow gotten dumped on him to solve. It's not his expertise, but he's dealt with enough explosives before to know he'll be able to crack it on his own; he hasn't had another partner since Roy, and he's fine with it being that way.
He looks up again to see Dick still there, proffering a sarcastic pout.
"He's in a meeting with Gordon," Jason finally relents. He lets the paperwork fall back onto the growing pile on his desk. "Won't be back for a while."
Dick beams, big brother to everyone there even if it's not wanted or warranted. "Was that really so hard? Gosh," the man tuts like an old maid, "you're more stubborn than Bruce, you know that?"
Jason doesn't comment and, instead, turns to his computer and the steady flood of emails it promises.
"You want me to get you some more coffee?" Dick offers, trying to save the conversation with an air of amity. Jason shoots him down, but the man scoops up his empty mug with a shrug and a, "I'm headed there anyway," before slipping out the plexiglass door.
It's in those quiet moments that Jason thinks he should tell someone readjusting hasn't been the cakewalk he was expecting, but he bats away the idea as soon as it comes; he can handle it on his own.
The people at the station give him space, and Jason appreciates it—although he'll never say it. Still, sometimes he finds himself that way there too, a bit paranoid, a bit untrusting.
Because everyone in the department is practically a bloodhound, all trained to sniff out any pretenders. He can feel Cass Cain's eyes on his back when he isn't looking, and even Dick Grayson's happy chatter and morning greetings sound irrationally threatening, like it's all an attempt to lull him into a false sense of security before announcing that he's paranoid and should be kicked off the force.
But Jason's particularly skilled at pretending (He's got years of practice under his belt, after all.), and if worse comes to worst, he's more than happy to point to the compulsory psychiatry sessions he endured months ago. It was difficult, but after faking a breakthrough following a few weeks of nonchalance, the shrink seemed to buy his act and cleared him not three visits later.
Jason's boss wasn't quite as amicable back then, but with the psychiatrist's recommendation staring up at him from his desk, Bruce Wayne had to take him back.
This job is all Jason really has and all he's ever wanted to do. Bruce knows that. But it doesn't mean the man hasn't given him a second look since, and even though Jason's all but settled back into the routine of everyday life, he can still feel the pressure of expectation—maybe even concern—in Bruce's gaze.
That's likely why the man gave him some advice when Jason returned from his undercover assignment a year ago. Bruce is direct in everything he does, and it was true for back then too as he looked Jason dead in the face one day after a briefing and grunted that patrols were good, that they'd help him get back into the swing of things.
And as much as Jason is typically the last to agree with anyone, he's found the advice solid: Hitting the streets is something Jason did plenty of times before in those two years undercover. It's one of the reasons he loathes going home at night, always planning how he can sneak in more overtime without being suspicious.
Jason straightens his legs under his desk to relieve some of the stiffness, feeling the bones in his hip pop, and he decides maybe the idea's a good one that morning too.
Patrols aren't something he has to do anymore considering his rank, but Bruce won't be back for at least an hour, and after accepting his mug back from Dick, Jason's out in the parking lot swinging a leg over his bike. It's such a dark navy that it's practically black, broiling from the city sun like he could cook on it if he tried, and he wonders briefly if it's this hot in Miami.
But Gotham's home, no matter how crummy it may be. Jason jerks back the kickstand like the thought is final. He'll get better, he promises himself. All he needs is time, that and open road.