Chapter Seven: A Talk with Roy

(Week Two)

Jason blows out another ashen cloud, watching it split into coils that get lost in the night air. He's taken to smoking more than he should these past two weeks, but it's so much easier getting lost in the feeling of fire burning his lungs, scorching it more and more with each breath. It's easier getting lost in that because there are always thoughts burning his brain, and Jason likes the alternative a whole lot more.

He brings the cigarette back to his lips and watches the tip glow an angry orange, a brightness about it that sears a hole in his vision, but he keeps his sight focused there anyway, admiring the way the embers smolder as they slowly turn grey, dark as charcoal.

"So," Roy starts. There's that odd distortion to his voice that comes with the phone call, and it stings a bit when Jason glances at the sidewalk next to him to find himself alone, just him and Roy on speaker as he takes another drag.

"So," Jason repeats, the phone far away enough that he knows Roy won't hear he's smoking. His old partner doesn't know about that habit of his, and Jason's fine having just one person fooled into thinking he's less wrecked than he really is. It's why he's called him tonight after work, content listening to someone from his past talk happily about their life and why it's worth living it. Roy's like family, really, and it's nice having a piece of who Jason used to be trapped in a bottle like that, separated enough by distance and time that it's been preserved. It's something he can look back on like a photograph, something he can interact with and say he's the same as he used to be.

"How's the new partner?" Roy asks, and the delusion crumbles a bit.

Jason breathes in again, appreciating the stretch running along his diaphragm as he inhales more smoke. "Fine," he exhales.

Roy knows him well enough to interpret what that answer actually means, and he doesn't hide it, replying with a light "uh-oh." The guy's been drinking something the whole call in between his ramblings, and he must have decided to chug a good chunk of it one go, probably in anticipation of some deeper topic. Jason can hear the clink of a glass being set on a counter. That sound's a one-way ticket out of that exact conversation, so Jason's quick to jump on it. "Where are you even?"

"At one of those late-night cafes," comes the answer, "there's a ton on the streets over here right off the beach, and you can just—Uh, none for me thanks.—" (Someone must've offered him something.) "—you can just sit out and people-watch all night long if you want."

Jason hums, loud enough to tell him he's listening.

"Yeah, and there's this one shack that's got discounts on coffee, 'specially for us boys in blue."

"A mistake if I've ever heard one," Jason scoffs through a puff of smoke, but he lets Roy keep going. It's why Jason's kept in touch all these years, after all, because Roy keeps things light; he likes having fun and allows Jason to dodge the topics he doesn't want to discuss. And if Jason's not in much mood to talk, Roy can hold a conversation on his own, like speaking is synonymous with breathing to him. Jason's just fine with that, and he thinks maybe it's because he was conditioned to listening with all those years of sitting beside Mom when she was on one of her trips.

But Roy's different. The guy's already been there, down waist deep in heroin before he managed to get clean. Now, he's just someone who's high on life, ready to chat about whatever, whenever. It's the kind of high he'll never come down from, Jason's sure, and so Jason's all right listening to his friend reveal those small, irrelevant things he discovers that somehow make life good.

He's been talking for a few minutes now, and Jason takes it all in, closing his eyes and focusing on the noises crinkling through the speaker, weary beach-goers shuffling in in the background, conversations floating, and chair legs squeaking along the floors. If he focuses hard enough, it's like he can even hear the ocean somewhere, and it makes a peaceful image.

Another bundle of smoke eases into the air, getting caught somewhere beneath the overhang of the now-closed shop that Jason sits outside of on the sidewalk. There's rain pouring down in waves, hitting the fabric of the covering and sounding in short snaps like rubber bands; a growl of thunder rolls through the streets. But Jason remains sitting against the cool wall and listens to the distant sounds of a scene almost a thousand miles away. It's almost as if he's not here in Gotham, smoking outside while quiet puddles grow up around him.

"…and guess what?" Roy keeps going. He was talking about everything from Kori to his new computer a few minutes ago, and Jason pulls his phone a bit closer to keep it out of the encroaching rain.

"What?" he offers and leans back against the wall, his cigarette following.

"I could be jumping the gun on this," Roy says, "but I might be making sergeant soon. All that back breaking in Gotham's finally paid off, I think; you wouldn't believe how easy it is here by comparison."

"Nice," Jason comments, admiring the way the streetlights catch on the rain like gold, "but you still can't boss me around with a rank like that, so don't let it go to your head."

Roy works out a few sarcastic laughs before settling back down. "But really, how's everyone doing back over there on Bats' team? You all getting along alright?"

"Yeah, we're fine," Jason replies, "Dick misses you, though. Wouldn't shut up about you at Alfred's a few days ago."

"Really? What kinda stuff did he say about me? Hopefully nothing bad."

"Nah," Jason exhales, letting the smoke escape in a quick row, "nothing too bad, Speedy."

Roy audibly stiffens on the other end of the line. "Oh. Oh. Um, you know, that story, it's—" A cough comes, and Roy's voice slips into the background. "—uh. Check please."

Jason snorts and waits for Roy to put the phone back to his ear. "You know," he starts once he's got his friend's attention again, "if Dick brings up that story one more time, you're gonna be losing a kidney. I don't care how far you run."

"Alright, alright," Roy laughs, although he sounds a bit unnerved. (Good, Jason thinks.) "But you know, I'm curious about this new guy you've got with you. He got an embarrassing nickname yet?"

"No," Jason lies, tapping the ash from the tip of his cigarette, "he doesn't have one."

Roy groans in disappointment. "Darn. Those stories are always fun."

"Not when you've heard them repeated fifty times, Roy."

"Noted," the man chuckles nervously, "I'll text Dick and plead for him to spare me my kidney."

"You do that," Jason mumbles, observing a patch of still-orange embers getting suffocated by the rain outside of his shelter. Meanwhile, a flash of lightning flickers, splayed white on the cloud ceiling above the street, and a bout of thunder follows in an underwhelming yawn.

"Anyway," comes Roy's voice through the phone again, "I should probably get going. It's getting late."

"You're such a grandpa."

"Hey," Roy excuses, "I've got work early, and I need my beauty sleep. Besides, not all of us can stay up all night like you can." There's a short pause while he takes a drink. "Seriously, do you even sleep?"

"No," comes the truth, followed by the joke, "still out looking for blood. You know me."

"Do yourself a favor and stop reading Dracula, okay? I don't care how good you think Bram Stoker is."

Jason shrugs in a way he hopes makes it through the phone. "To each his own, and you remembered the author's name this time: I think there's hope for you yet." Roy makes a set of faked gagging sounds on the other end, and Jason spares an eye-roll. "Anyway, I'll let you go. I've got stuff to do."

He doesn't really: All Jason has to do is lay awake on the couch and do his best to ignore the sloshing of car wheels passing by on the street outside his apartment window. They're always just passing through—the cars—but it doesn't change the fact that one of them might stop, that there may be the splintering of the door being kicked in and a flash of bullets. They're only flashes; that's all bullets are reduced to in the end. Because light travels faster than sound, and he'll be dead before the noise ever reaches.

Jason stifles his cigarette on the pavement, the stick crushed weakly between the two forces as flecks of cinders escape, and he imagines he's smothering that paranoid thought with the action. Paranoia isn't something he's counting on tonight, because it's raining, lightning flashing like gunfire and thunder revving, nature's version of a six-cylinder. To be honest, he'll probably be able to sleep just fine tonight—first time in a while.

Jason's still waiting for Roy to end the call, though, but it doesn't end quite the way he was anticipating.

"That new kid you've got with you," Roy starts suddenly, and there's another clink as he sets his glass back down, "you give him a chance, alright, Jay? You're not the easiest person to work with."

Jason casts a lengthy look at his phone as if Roy can somehow feel his gaze's intensity. But there's nothing more on the other side, save the white noise of someone else ordering for their table.

"Yeah, yeah," Jason sighs in the end, tugging at his hair in a way he's sure looks tired (It's how he feels.), "later, Roy."

"Later."

The call ends, leaving Jason back alone on the street. He rests his head in his hand for a moment, and he memorizes the rain through his fingers, the way the drops hit the puddles, the way they form hundreds upon hundreds of rings that cancel each other out in a meaningless pattern. The world reflects back in it like a warped mirror: He can make out the streetlamp across the street, the clouds and overhang above, but it's all broken down into patches of light that are minced and split and foreign.

Jason watches the lights twist in the rain for a minute longer, reveling in the damp air that the rain brings as he thinks. Eventually, he releases another sigh, smoothing back his hair before snatching his phone from the sidewalk.

He should've told Roy about the nickname. Jason knows it, but the name's something personal.

Red Hood's personal.