Author's Note: Even if I don't publish anything at all in months, somehow my stories still get more than 1,000 hits between them. Remarkable. Here's the penultimate chapter when things are going well…Enjoy.
The Other Me
I wake up after my date with Maddie sometime the next morning. I wake up genuinely thinking it was a dream for at least five minutes before realising it actually happened. I actually did it. I took a risk and it paid off…big time. I have a girlfriend. I have another girlfriend. I never thought I'd get to say that again. There's a knock at my door and then it opens. Bruce walks in clad in a familiar sweater and slacks combo of black and slate. He looks surprised I'm wide awake instead of still comatose, but composes himself enough to show me he brought a full-English fry-up, something I haven't been allowed to eat for almost two years because of the calorie and sugar-spike it jumps on you. I prop myself up on one elbow and look at him in surprise myself.
"Good morning, Jason." He says crossing the room whilst sidestepping last night's clothes that are strewn over half the floor. "I thought you might enjoy breakfast in bed."
"And I deserve this treatment from you, why?" I say sitting up when he comes within two feet of me. He places the breakfast tray over my lap and provides me with a knife and fork. He gifts me a rare smile before answering.
"I believe a celebration is in order. Alfred eluded to me that your date with Ms Prince proved to be…very fruitful." I eye him with suspicion.
"I never said anything to Al last night. I saw him for like five seconds on my way up the stairs." I inform him with a frown I hope indicates how close I am to thinking he's been spying on me. I can imagine him doing it too. The big guy is unfazed by my subtle accusations.
"Alfred recognises the body language of a successful encounter. He saw all the tell-tale signs last night. I hope you're not about to tell me our celebrations are premature?" He inquires as my peripheral vision spots his hand slowly manoeuvring in for the rim of the plate. I smack it away.
"No, I'm not." I tell him rolling my eyes. He looks at me expectantly and I know he wants me to confirm their suspicions on what happened last night with a very specific string of words. I sigh lethargically and nod. "Yes, Bruce: I have a girlfriend." I see his eyes light up without him trying to hide it and feel oddly proud to evoke such a reaction in a man almost made entirely of stone. He nods in return.
"I'm very glad to hear that. Is there a chance of more conversation or should I leave you to your breakfast?" He asks with more than a little hope I'll share one of my better moments with him. I shrug.
"It would only bore you, Bruce. I'm not much of a storyteller."
"I think I'd like to hear it anyway if you'll indulge me." He responds. I smirk at him before shaking my head.
"Is my love life really that interesting to you? You've never gotten down to brass tacks about your string of supermodels and starlets."
"That's different though."
"Oh? And why's that? Because they're out of my league?" I say lightly teasing him. His reply is a complete killer though.
"Because I never loved any of them." There's a palpable tension in the air afterwards that complements the silence between us. He sits down on the edge of the bed and I know how things are about to go next. He prompts me. "So?"
I eat and talk and talk and eat, occasionally spilling crumbs and other debris out the corners of my mouth as I do so. I won't lie: I do gloss over certain aspects. I don't tell him about how awkward the conversation between her parents and me became or how ridiculously nervous I was at the ice-rink, but I supply him with most of the details. No descriptions of kissing though, never with this guy. His facial expression doesn't go beyond that of a small, knowing smile, but his eyes flicker enough for me to gather I'm engaging him on a level deeper than usual. Since I can't weave a coherent narrative to save my life as Al will attest to, having Bruce's undivided attention while I speak utter crap feels kind of powerful in a weird way. I finish breakfast and my story at roughly the same time, about seven or eight minutes after starting, and wait for his response.
"It sounds like you were yourself and that it was enough for her. That's a rare feat in today's society, especially in my dating experience. I'm pleased you found someone you can relax around." Bruce says with the utmost sincerity and understanding. It's starting to reek of sap in here, like one of those coming-of-age feel-good stories you see on TV and sentimental lifetime movies, one where the father and son have one of those 'special moments' that doesn't involve the dad insisting they 'play doctor again'. "Jason? Is everything alright?" Bruce asks me when I realise I've been staring blankly at him for almost two minutes. I'm trying to decide whether I'm comfortable with this kind of scene or not, especially if the big guy is actually playing the parent role with more than a passing effort. He's not as hammy at it as I thought. I nod.
"I'm fine. I just…my teenage years have sucked, all of them have really sucked. It seemed like…every year, things were going to get so much worse. Turning sixteen and realising you're still the same kid you were at twelve only bigger and uglier with more baggage was not…it wasn't what I wanted to see when I looked in the mirror, you know? But, Maddie makes me feel like I am different now. Being with her makes me realise I'm not still in that subway bathroom, that I'm not always angry. And that…being Jason Todd…isn't the end of the world. It's not a deal-breaker anymore. But, more than anything it shows that…" I pause to look from my hands, which are attempting not to ball themselves into fists, to Bruce's face. I don't know where this is coming from or why I've decided to tell him, but I can't stop it rolling now: as interested as he looked during my story, he is so engrossed in what I'm currently saying that he's leant as far forward as he can go without lying on his stomach. He wants me to finish my thought. I shrug. "It shows that I'm not broken."
Bruce swallows hard before leaning back to his upright position. His eyes never leave mine but I know that they aren't concerned with looking through me but at me. After a lingering silence, one in which the big man doesn't seem to breathe at all, he finally blinks and then nods. "I know the feeling. Before Robin existed, when there was only me and darkness, I thought being Bruce Wayne was a deal-breaker as well. But it turns out there's more to me than being an orphan too." I know he gets it. His eyes tell me he understands my pain. I suppose he had to have been sixteen once too. He had to be lost as well otherwise he wouldn't have given me a home. I nod at him.
"It's a good feeling right? Makes you feel like you're actually worth something." I say with a smile. He smiles back.
"Yes it does. I'm just sorry you had to wait this long to find it."
"It was always going to take a miracle for me to feel like this. Now I need to keep it going. But…" I say shrugging my shoulders, "I'm done sharing for today. So, if you'd take off so I can grab a shower and get dressed, I'd really appreciate it." I say with just enough sarcasm to make him understand I'm not being malicious. Fortunately, the big guy can read me well enough when I'm like this and nods before getting to his feet and relieving me of the breakfast tray.
"We'll speak later. Enjoy your day, Jason." He turns to leave and almost makes it out the door before I collar him.
"Thanks for giving a shit this time." I say before I can rephrase it in a more eloquent way. He just smirks and nods.
"We'll speak later. Much later."
The next three months are a lesson in patience, but not from me. Maddie must be wondering how I still haven't let my hands wander after more than ten more dates, but she doesn't say anything to make me feel like a total bitch. But I can see she's getting a little frustrated with my lack of adventurous spirit when we're making out. After yet another date that ends in me and her making out in my car, but me not even fingering the buttons on the low-cut blouse she's sporting to tempt me, Maddie makes her point by grabbing a handful of my crotch through my jeans and feigning shock.
"So you're really not a eunuch. Who would've guessed?" She says in a tone that's only half-joking. She loosens her grip on my junk but doesn't give up the ghost entirely. I sigh.
"I'm pissing you off, aren't I?"
"Yeah, you're starting to. I'm not asking you to go all porn star on me, but I would like to at least feel like you're after a little more than my tongue. What are you afraid of?" She asks, starting off a little antsy before softening at the end. I'm soft all the way through. I take her hand off my crotch and shrug.
"I kind of gloss over certain things when we reminisce about the Narrows…and when I talk about…my sexual history…as it were." I say, sounding more like I'm hiding a rap sheet as a sexual predator than a past as a rent boy. Her expression tells me she's getting that impression too. I shake my head. "No, it's not what you're thinking. I let men fuck me for money, food or shelter when I was twelve going on thirteen. It's nothing bad." Her face goes blank at that confession. Everything else goes quiet. And now I have to wait for her to speak first. If the first thing out of her mouth isn't vomit, I still have a shot.
"How many guys…solicited you, I think is the best way of putting it?" She says with more awkwardness than I've ever heard. She's really not confident at all in responding to this elephant in the room. It doesn't help that I simply can't help myself and try to make light of it all without even thinking.
"Seven. Seven guys have been through me, I think is the best way of putting it?" I fire back with a smile. She isn't smiling at my imitation of her so I drop it and sigh.
"Look, I…I should have told you earlier, but I didn't want you dating me because I was a charity case and you felt sorry for me. I wanted you to like me without any black labels souring the judgement. Have I just fucked everything up here? I can't tell." Maddie shrugs his shoulders.
"I don't know what to make of that, if I'm honest, Jay." She scrutinises my face and then weirdly feels up my torso underneath my shirt. I feel her fingers trace around the individual muscles in my six-pack and then shake her head, presumably at the absurdity of it all. "How are you not a fucked up drug-addict or raging alcoholic right now?"
"I'm not totally sure, but I think Bruce pulling me off the street before I could get to the off-licence probably has something to do with it." I say to earn her disapproval again. She slips her hand off my stomach and uses it to brush my hair instead. She looks concerned and hot at the same time, something I think is really impressive on a woman at any age.
"Shit, Jay, I feel like such a bitch right now. I'm surprised you've even managed to have a girlfriend after something like that."
"Okay, that hurts a lot and I'm not some broke-down wino that needs pity. Okay? I got over it because I had to if I wanted to have a normal life. I don't regret doing anything because if I hadn't, I wouldn't have gotten here with you. If it'll get us off the slippery slope this is thundering down, I'd be more than willing to squeeze your rack or pat your ass. Both are excellent choices." She smirks at that one.
"You've got real guts to tell me straight like this, Jay. I know I couldn't do the same if things were the other way round."
"Sure you could, Ms. Prince: you're from the Narrows after all. I bet you would've had the balls to tell me several dates ago." I offer only for her to shake her head and laugh.
"You're not a pussy, Mr. Billionaire. I get that now. Before this, I thought you might've been gay and just didn't have the courage to admit it to yourself, so a little perspective is good. Honestly, somehow you're kind of hotter now I know you've gotten up after the ultimate beat down and won the big fight." I appreciate the boxing analogy as much as any other violent superhero, but I have to clue her in to the spoiler. I smile at her and sigh.
"I haven't won, not yet."
"Oh, but you have, big guy. Trust me." She says shifting into my lap and clasping her hands behind my neck, "Everyone else can already see it. The one who can't is you. And that's okay because you're going to see it. Jay, you let me in. I know that wasn't easy, but you managed it. And now it's three months later and you still haven't kicked me out yet. That must be an even bigger step for you, but you've done it as well. All you need to do is take it a step further." Maddie's encouraging me to come and play. I want to, but my doubts are jerking me back from the edge. I tell her straight.
"I don't want to hurt you, Maddie. I just…"
"You think you're the only one worrying about that? Trust me, I'm just as shit-scared of hurting you as you are of hurting me. And that was before you dropped the bombshell on me just now so you can imagine how much my stress levels have shot through the roof. I'm still willing to try though. Know why?" She says to cut off my rhetoric bullshit and make me realise my knowledge of the female psyche is equivalent to a two-year-old's grasp of quantum physics. I revert to form and give her the funny answer.
"You're desperate?" She rolls her eyes but keeps smiling regardless of my bad taste.
"Not with my looks. It's because you're special, Jay. And before you ruin it with more sarcasm, I know that's corny, but there isn't a better way of putting it without sounding worse. I still want you. I still love you. So let's move forward together. We're both a little screwed up but we can do this if we both try. Okay?" I don't know I thought I was the only one in this relationship who had a chip. I don't know why I keep telling Bruce and Al that I feel good when deep down I still feel low. I don't know why I strung Maddie along with so many evasions before just coming clean with her on my past. I guess I'm still afraid of being labelled as broken or a charity case, no matter how far I climb from what's come before. I got lucky with Maddie. I got so fucking lucky with her it's not even funny. Just like I did in the café when we first met and just like I did on our trip to the old neighbourhood and every date after, I let myself go. I always tell myself I won't or I can't, but I look into her eyes and then I will and I can. I kiss her.
"I love you, Ms. Princess." I tell her. She smiles and leans forward.
"I love you too, Mr. Billionaire." She kisses me and whispers softly in my ear. "Let's go somewhere a little more private."
I drop her off at around eleven and head back to the manor. I walk in the front door and head straight down into the cave. I'm hanging around for about twenty minutes when Bruce returns in the car. I watch him get out and begin to turn the car around. Then he looks up from the vehicle park and sees me stood near the command centre. For the first time since I've known him, the big man stops turning the car around and begins to head for my location. For the first time ever, he ignores protocol on reorganisation after a patrol and gives his full attention to my presence in the cave. He already knows why I'm down here. He knows I wouldn't come see him now unless I had something really important to discuss with him. For once, everything else is not the priority. For maybe only the third or fourth time in our history I'M the priority for him.
When he gets on my level, he doesn't even bother to head for the armoury to drop off his ancillaries or change into civilian clothes. He just pulls back the cowl and gestures for me to take a seat. I oblige him. In the last few months, his dating advice and his counsel afterwards have just gotten better and better until I almost believed he could pass as a good friend. He still doesn't have that father tag, but it's close. He's really trying these days.
"Did you feel something this time?" He asks, not needing to ask if we had sex. He can probably tell by the stupid look on my face that we did. I nod.
"Yeah. I did."
"Was it enjoyable for you this time?" He asks knowingly. I have told him a lot over the last few months about how bad things were with Laura towards the end. Obviously he remembers all of it. But for once, he didn't judge me on my poor performance. He was just understanding. I guess he shares more in common with me on the romantic side that either of us thought. I smile at him.
"Actually, it was, yeah. I felt…happy about it all." He smiles and nods before pausing to consider his next question. When he poses it I'm surprised, but glad we're at that kind of level with one another after so many dark days.
"Did she rate you afterwards?" He asks and I give him a sheepish grin. Thank God she didn't rate my performance. I'd probably never dare have sex again if she'd scored me on a points system.
"No and I'm glad, but I think I did okay."
"Protection?" He inquires without any hesitation. Almost a parent, almost. I nod immediately.
"Yep. I guess I should put another one in my wallet now."
"Perhaps several." He suggests with a sly smile I've never seen on his face before. Oddly, it looks good on him. I roll my eyes.
"I don't think I'm quite that prolific yet, big guy."
"I see. Did she…warm you to the idea?" He says in such a way as not to step on my manliness by saying outright that she got me in the sack instead of the other way around. I don't go for false bravado and say I masterminded the whole encounter. I tell him the truth.
"She's got a silver tongue shinier than Al's. I was glad she did. I would've hated myself if nothing had happened…again." I admit. Bruce smirks at me and nods in understanding. I don't take offence to him doing that anymore. He actually does understand this dilemma we always face with dual-lives when it comes to relationships. He knows how big a risk I've taken by tangling myself in a situation that I can't simply cut loose from at a moment's notice. He's done it several times before and mostly ended up on the wrong side of the fence when it all comes crashing down. He really doesn't want me to get hurt. It means a lot.
"When will you see her again?"
"The day after tomorrow. We're going for dinner downtown. She said she'd like it if you were there." Maddie hasn't come back to the manor yet, or met Bruce. She asks after him a lot, wondering what's so wrong about him that I don't want them to meet. I keep telling her he's deformed, but she isn't buying that anymore. Her parents want to meet him too. I guess if I'm serious about all this, I have to let them meet the big man. I know he can be all charming and charismatic, so I'm not worried about them liking him. I'm worried about him liking them…and her.
His opinions recently have meant an awful lot to me. He's helped me organise the dates and make this whole relationship a lasting success. He's suggested places to go and activities to do and every time I've taken his advice, it's been fantastic. But he's making the suggestions on what I tell him about her. I know from the look in his eyes, he hasn't gone behind my back and researched her, like he usually would. He's been respectful and I just don't want that to end if he doesn't approve of her. I don't see why after living with me he could consider anybody else to be a bad influence on me, but you never know. He smiles at me.
"I would be happy to cow to her wishes, if you don't mind my presence that is. I don't want to make things uncomfortable between you."
"Trust me, I don't need you to do that on my behalf. I'm more than capable of alienating her on my own. I'll book a table for three then."
"Excellent. Well, I won't keep you any longer…" He says getting up from his seat, "I'm sure you'd like some sleep after tonight's…escapades." I laugh at his attempts at humour. They're really not too bad for him. I stand up.
"Thanks for making sure I'm okay." I tell him honestly. He nods and squeezes my shoulder. He is bordering on fatherly behaviour now and I'm okay with it.
"You've done very well so far. I hope it continues." He tells me in exactly the same genuine tone before his hand slips off my shoulder. I nod and give him a little wave.