When I started out, I just wanted to put as much distance as possible between me and Dick and his little Atlantean butt-buddy. I was already on the freight headed for Gotham before I realized exactly where I was heading. But when I settled back, relaxed and started thinking about how to get from the Corner to Gotham Towers in South Gotham, I couldn't fool myself any longer. I was headed directly for Babs like a guided, heat-seeking missile.
Babs lives farther South, more toward Blüdhaven, so I was gonna have to hoof it a more than a few miles or hitch but I could handle that. I checked. I had about ten bucks in my pocket. Hey! Maybe I'd splurge and take the bus or the subway Downtown. Okay, Babs, here I come.
Only ... what the hell was I gonna say to her, anyway?
"Hey Babs! It's Jays! I'm here because I just caught Garth balling the crap outta Dick and I'm in a major funk here. Got a spare couch?"
Shit. That was gonna float like a lead balloon. Babs knows better ... Babs knows. Of course Babs knows. Babs is like Bruce. She knows everything. Oh Jesus. Now wasn't that just a peachy keen-o thought? Babs has probably known about Dick and Garth from the beginning. Bruce, too. It was starting to look suspiciously like the only one who didn't know was poor, clueless little Jays. Son of a bitch. I needed to catch my breath and think. But ... where?
Hunkering down, I slipped past the patrolling bulls and made my silent way out of the Yard. Lounging causally on a street corner, I looked around. If the evidence of my eyes was any clue, the Corner hadn't changed much since I was a kid. Inland and just slightly to the North was Crime Alley and I practically grew up there. Used to come to the Corner with other street-brats from my neighborhood to raise a ruckus where no one called the cops. My stomach sort of growled at me and I knew, then, exactly where I was headed. My favorite restaurant in the world. Shamefaced, I realized that I hadn't been there since I moved in with Dick in Blüdhaven. A hundred and twenty miles is a long way to travel for a bowl of chili.
The Atomic Chili at Aunt Danny Fanny's Tyler Texas Pitt Bar-B-Que has got to be the hottest, the greasiest, the most mouth puckering stuff this side of the Mason-Dixon. A truly awesome concoction that will curl your nose hairs at fifty paces and give you the Montezuma trots for a week. I love it. But that wasn't all that brought me there that day.
See, I hate country and western music. And I was, by God, in a real mood to masochistically abuse myself. Shut up. That *isn't* what I meant.
When I walked in some redneck on the jukebox was wailing about all his ex's living in Texas. "That's why I hang my hat in Tennessee!" he explained. I smiled and sauntered over to the juke. Let's see ... two for fifty cents ... I fed two quarters to the musical demon, kicked it soundly, and pressed the letter/number code for "Thank God and Greyhound She's Gone." Since I didn't see the sequel "But The Devil And Continental Trailways Brought Her Back," I was sort of at a loss for my next selection, if you know what I mean.
Until my eyes fell on just the right song to match my shitty mood.
Humming to myself, "Please Mr., Please ... don't play B-17 ... " I punched B-17, waiting anxiously for the twangy strains of "Drop Kick Me Jesus Through The Goal Posts Of Life (Neither To The Left, Nor To The Right)" to fill the air.
"Lord God a mercy!" exclaimed Aunt Danny Fanny, coming from out of the back, shaking her salt and pepper head in awe. "Ya'll are in a mood fit to be tied, and that's Gospel!" Sympathetically, she handed me a cold bottle of Sugar Bubble Cola as if I hadn't been gone for over a month and I smiled. "Ya'll act like ya'll's best friend just died and went to that Great Bar-B-Que Pitt Down Under, Jays Sugah."
"Worse," I admitted, sadly. "I just caught him doing the dirty deed with *his* best friend ... "
Let me explain something. Before she moved here to Gotham in the Corner, Aunt Danny Fanny was the best whore in the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. But when they moved The Chicken Ranch to Nevada, she put her foot down and refused to budge.
"No decent Lady," she declared with a derisive sniff, "would evah live near all that consarned *gambling*! Ah swan! Why, Ah never heard the like in all my born days! Ah don't hold with it!"
The Corner hasn't changed Aunt Danny at all. It just sort of *intensified* her is all. I have no idea how old she is. Never had the cajones to ask, frankly. Maybe five feet tall at her most stretchable, I think she might weigh about ninety-five pounds or so. Soaking wet. Holding a big pot of Atomic Chili.
But Aunt Danny is one of the few merchants in the Corner who've never been successfully robbed. She doesn't bother with a "silent alarm." That polished antique Colt .45 she keeps under the counter is damn near bigger than she is, but she hasn't missed yet. I was eight years old the first time I met Aunt Danny.
"Son," she asked me softly, regretfully, "ya'll want to explain why ya'll are trying to steal from a nice little ol' southern belle like me?" I think I wet myself before she put the gun down.
"Mercy sakes alive," she smiled later, feeding me baby back ribs and steak fries thicker than my fingers, swimming for their spudly lives in ketchup, "if'n ya'll ain't a sight."
I spent a lot of time at Aunt Danny Fanny's when I was a kid, to tell you the truth. Hey! It was a damn sight better than the street, okay? Or being alone. When my Dad just kinda ... disappeared ... the Pitt was a good place to crash and there was always lots of food. I never went hungry while Aunt Danny was around. Lotta people like that in the Corner, I discovered. At the time all I knew or cared about was that when it got dark and the real predators came out ... it was a good place to hide. I think Aunt Danny knew about the stealing. But she never said anything. Not sure why.
After Bruce took me in, I still dropped in on Aunt Danny from time to time. Never told her about the Robin gig. I introduced Dick to the place and he was a biiiig hit. Smiling and blushing, he endured about a thousand jokes connected with his name and learned to crack right back.
About six weeks after I got out of the hospital, I limped cautiously into Aunt Danny Fanny's after being away in rehab for almost a year. I was sweating, still kinda leaning on that damned cane, scared to death at what I was bound to find in my second home. For a moment, I remember hoping that they might not recognize or remember me. But when I saw the looks of pity and shock on their faces at the cane and the eyepatch the rest my heart took up residence somewhere around my tottering ankles. They remembered me, all right. If I'd had the strength I'd probably have left right then. But the door was a hell of a lot further away than the nearest stool at the counter, so I aimed my shaky legs in that direction, lumbering through the silence and the grief.
I sat down on the stool and waited with lowered head for the tide of pity to carry me away in it's inexorable wash. Pretty soon someone was gonna say it: "Jeezus, Jays! What in the name of Christ happened to *you*?" "Are - are - you all right, boy?" Goddamn it, I was not gonna cry. I refused. Fortunately, I didn't have to.
"Well, you look like ninety miles of bad road," said Aunt Danny Fanny. "Where in tarnation have ya'll been, Jays, Sugah? Shame on ya'll for staying away for so long. Why, if'n ya'll weren't already so consarned busted up, Ah'd be tempted to take a switch to ya'll!"
"OOO!" sang Harvey Beeson, the world's best known masochist, "you promise, Aunt Danny?" Snickers abounded.
"Hush up ya'll lot!" cried Aunt Danny, waving a fly swatter from beneath the counter in dire threat. "Dad-blamed mannerless Yankees!"
"Yes Ma'am!" came the responding chorus and I burst out laughing. I might not have been here in almost a year, but things hadn't changed a lot at Aunt Danny Fanny's Tyler Texas Pitt Bar-B-Que. Thank God.
In fact, I laughed so damned hard that my eyes watered and before I knew what was happening, I was face down on the counter, the cold formica chill against my cheek, sobbing my guts out. Aunt Danny stroked my hair with soothing fingers.
"It's all right, Jays, sweetie," said Aunt Danny softly, "ya'll go right ahead and cry. T'aint against the law. Something bad happened, that's Gospel. Ah reckon when ya'll are ready ya'll will tell us about it."
Eventually, I did. Or at least as much of the truth as they could handle. It helped. A lot. The rest of my life might be going down the tubes with Bruce being such an asshole about the Robin thing ... things at Aunt Danny's were copasetic! A-Ok.
Back in the present, Aunt Danny ladled up a big bowl of Atomic Chili with a side order of pickled jalepaños, fresh chopped onions and enough sharp cheddar cheese to bind your bowels for at least a week, and pushed it in front of me without being asked.
"Sounds to me like ya'll have quite a problem there, Jays," she opined. She replaced my Sugar Bubble Cola with a new, cold one, looking thoughtful. "Ya'll decided yet what ya'll're gonna do about it?" The muscles of my jaw tightened and I shook my head.
"You can always come home, Jason," said a sofly accented voice from the screened doorway.
"Close the damn door," I told the waiting Garth, roughly, "you're lettin' the flies in." Obediently, he closed the door and stepped inside my no longer inviolate sanctum. Turning to face him, I said, "And now that you're inside ... get the Hell out." Aunt Danny clipped my ear a good one.
"Ow!" I protested, rubbing my now sore, abused appendage. "What was *that* for?"
"Mind ya'll's manners, Jason Todd!" Aunt Danny smiled. "The nerve! Chasing away my customers! Ah've a mind to take a switch to ya'll's behind. Humph!" Reaching into her back jeans pocket, she studied me and then Garth for a moment before tossing me a familiar key.
"Jays, sweetie, take it out back to the Quiet Room. Ya'll know the Rules. No loud fussin'. Ya'll have got to talk."
Damn. The Quiet Room. As opposed to the Rowdy Room. Just my rotten luck. I sure as Hell didn't want to talk to Garth. But those were the Rules. About the third or fourth time two jamokes busted up The Pitt fist-fighting and Aunt Danny had to replace all the glass and furniture in the place, she laid down the Law. Any arguments, serious or not, could go one of three places: out the door, to the Quiet Room or to the Rowdy Room. The Quiet Room was for peaceful negotiation and discussion; it was full of cold beer, soda, and left over Atomic Chili and ribs. All the comforts of home. The Rowdy Room, on the other hand, was for fist fights and serious knuckle dusting. No weapons allowed. It was full of lots of empty space and breakable junk furniture, courtesy of the Salvation Army.
Strange how fast the idea caught on. The regular customers began to police themselves and then the newcomers. Before you could say "Mahatma Gandhi" peace and good will reigned in Aunt Danny Fanny's Tyler Texas Pitt Bar-B-Que.
The Quiet Room is well ... quiet. It's not very big but the furniture all matches in a pale, soothing pastel blue, like the walls. Soon as I stepped inside, I snapped on the stereo and didn't quite manage not to smile when Garth grimaced and didn't quite manage not to cover his sensitive ears. I'd lived with Garth long enough to know that he didn't like loud noises or most surface music. Too damn bad. I was in a musical mood. Ignoring him for the moment, I turned my back and stuck my head in the fridge and rummaged around. Without a word, Garth throttled Pearl Jam in mid-shriek. I let it pass.
"You hungry?" I asked, pulling out a slab of ribs and heading for the microwave. I hadn't finished my Atomic Chili and I was still hungry. Garth seated himself at the table quietly.
"Perhaps," he admitted. "Are there any vegetables in there?"
Since Garth is a strict vegetarian, I wasn't surprised. He's made a lot of concessions to living here on the surface. Eating meat isn't one of them, though. I've never seen him eat anything higher up on the freakin' food chain than a cucumber. The guy takes on superbaddies in his spare time and won't eat a cow. Go figure.
With a grunt I tossed him a chill bottle of mineral water. Garth also doesn't drink alcohol or sugar. Might pollute his precious bodily fluids or somedamnthing, I guess. Guy's a real tight ass. I grimaced to myself and bit my lip, unseen. No pun intended. Real life of the party kinda mook, Garth.
"Lemme look," I snorted and stuck my head back in the fridge.
Son of a bitch. Who'd a thunk it? But there it was, all neatly labeled in the chicken scratch that blithely passes for Aunt Danny's handwriting. Vegetarian Atomic Chili. It was almost sacrilege. Christ. If there's anything in the world more useless than Diet, no caffeine, no goddamn flavor, cola it's got to be meatless chili. I mean, Jeezus; what's the fuckin' point, anyway?
It was *perfect* for Garth, of course.
Grinning, I grabbed the bowl and headed back to the microwave. I sniffed delicately and my eyes watered. Whoa! It might be meatless but this was Atomic Chili, all right. My grin spread itself even wider. Heh. This was going to be interesting. I checked the fridge again, just to be sure. Not a drop of milk anywhere. Heh, heh. I scoured the cabinets for safety's sake. No crackers, either. Heh, heh, heh.
PING! went the microwave and I pulled out my ribs. For a moment I contemplated the waiting beer lurking in the fridge like a trap, then reluctantly decided against it. All I needed was for Aunt Danny to smell beer on my breath and toss my underage ass out. Shit. I really wanted that beer.
I stuck a spoon in the Atomic Chili, pushed it under Garth's nose and flopped down into the other chair, biting into my ribs. Ribs are great, aren't they? I mean, chewing and gnawing on rib bones is so *primitive*, so barbaric, so ... so ... *surface* ... But, I ask you, what else you gonna do with ribs, hey? When Garth totally ignored my tearing and slurping noises, I was pretty pissed. Son of a bitch was about to get his comeuppance, anyway. Eyes sparkling with anticipation, I watched him stir his Atomic Chili in listless silence with the metal spoon that was probably in severe danger of melting in that Atomic mass.
When he reached for the bottle of mineral water and raised it to his lips, I bit back a curse. C'mon, c'mon ... eat already ... Back the spoon plunged into the Chili and my shark-like grin sharpened. Watching his mouth open and his lips close over the spoon was pure ecstasy. Subtly, I moved back in preparation for the Atomic explosion to come. Garth's eyes flew wide open as the taste hit his delicate Atlantean palate.
"That's ... extraordinary ... " murmured Garth, his spoon quickly diving for more.
"Extraordinary?" I returned weakly. "That's all you've got to say about it? 'Extraordinary'?"
"It's quite tasty," he enthused, shoveling more into his mouth. "Very ... ah ... zesty ...! " He didn't even break a sweat, damn his eyes.
I pushed my no longer appealing ribs away in a huff, sulking. Everybody hates me, did you know that? God hates me. A large clump of unruly red locks fell into my eyes and I tried to blow it away with an exasperated breath. My goddamned *hair* hates me.
Not sure how long we sat there, neither of us saying a word into the awkward, screaming silence. Could have been a long time. At least long enough for Garth to finish his bowl of Atomic Chili and he eats only slightly slower than kudzu grows. When he was done, he rose to politely place his dish in the sink.
"You forgot to lick the bowl," I said casually.
"Pardon?" Garth blinked rapidly in confusion.
"Old Texas custom," I explained with a completely straight face. "Let's your host know how much you liked the food. You're supposed to lick the bowl. And a burp wouldn't be a bad thing either." It wasn't all a lie. Burping *is* considered good manners ... in Saudi Arabia. With any luck the next time Dick and Garth ate out, Garth might order chili then lick the bowl and burp. In public.
"Ah!" said Garth and obeyed, licking the bowl with innocent relish, eager to please as always.
I was tempted to lay my arms on the table and bury my head in despair. This was just too damned easy. No challenge to it. Abusing Garth was kinda like abusing a trusting puppy. Waaay shitty. And just no goddamned fun at all.
When he sat back down at the table, I rested my chin in my hands and stared at him for a really log time. He held his silence and didn't so much as twitch a muscle. After about the first five minutes or so, I started to squirm in my chair. By the end of the first fifteen minutes I was drumming my fingers rhythmically on the table in a steady tattoo. Less than five minutes after *that* I was about ready to crawl outta my goddamned skin. Why didn't he say something?
"Just tell me one thing," I finally demanded out of the blue.
"If I can," came Garth's cautious reply. He wasn't going to be betraying any trusts here. Okay. Fair enough. I could respect that.
"Were--were you the first? For Dick? I mean - um - there weren't any other guys, were there?" I ran unsteady finger through my hair and studied the tabletop with its brightly patterned red and white checkered cloth until my head swam. Garth sighed. He didn't answer me right away and my heart clenched.
"Yes," he admitted, "there have been others."
"Sweet Jeezus," I thought. "This just gets better and better, doesn't it?" I was suddenly glad I hadn't eaten much today. I gritted my teeth and plunged onward. Something inside me just had to know. I wasn't proud of it, but there it was.
"How many?" I hissed. "How goddamned many?" Garth frowned.
"Does it matter?" he asked softly. I jumped up from the table, sending the chair flying away behind me.
"Goddamned right it matters!" I burst out. "How *many*?" Garth shook his head in sad denial.
"I do not know. I have never asked," he said simply.
"Bullshit!" I snarled. "You know! W-who?" I closed my eyes and my lips moved but it was several moments before I could perform the Naming of Names and say the Unspeakable.
He didn't curse me or tell me what a pervo I was for even imagining such a thing of Dick or Bruce. I think he wanted to. It was in his eyes. Garth is slow to anger. He's like Bruce that way. You have to really work at making him mad. But when you do ... you'd better run like Hell and pray because you do *not* wanna be around for the festivities. In the end, Garth gave the question all the consideration it deserved.
"No," he said.
I discovered I could breathe again. I also discovered that I felt roughly like that purple slime you occasionally see on a baboon's ass. Carefully righting my discarded chair, I sat back down, not meeting Garth's eyes. "T-then w-who?" I asked, trying really hard to keep the accusation from out of my voice. "It's important - I - "
"Why?" wondered Garth. "Why is it important to you, Jason? So that if you know you may judge him promiscuous? A - a - what is the charming English word? Ah, yes. A slut. Forgive me. My English is usually good, but that word has no Atlantean equivalent, so I frequently forget it."
Have you ever been just too tired and sad to argue and fight anymore? I was getting there, real quick. It had been a hellish day and my knee was starting to ache. Anger will only sustain you for so long. Then it cools and what's left is damned ugly ... but it's quiet. I shook my head.
"No," I denied Garth's gentle accusation. "It's - it's not like that. Honest. I guess ... " I closed weary eyes. "I guess I was hoping to find out that there *hadn't* been a lot of others. Christ, I don't know!" He didn't answer me for many moments. I am here to testify that time can pass really, really slowly when your world hangs in the balance. Was Garth right? Did I just want to know that Dick had to be like every other ... gay ... guy I'd ever heard about? Was I just lying to myself? I didn't like to think so.
"There has only been one other that I know of," Garth finally said. I swallowed hard and looked up to meet his eyes. At least I could, now. Not proudly, but I met his gaze evenly and I guess he saw the question lurking so desperately in my face.
"There was Joseph," Garth said. "When Dick's world was falling apart ... when Bruce's fear made him tremble and take away Robin ... when Kory could not understand except to condemn Bruce ... there was Joseph. Who understood. Who asked no questions and demanded nothing." I blinked back astonishment. Why, I'm not sure. I remember the damned questions about Jericho; the speculation. Is he ... or isn't he? I was still Robin back then and I remember a lot of things people thought I was too young to notice. But there're things I've never understood about their relationship, then or now, and I'd assumed that was just something else I wasn't meant to know.
My eyes widened as one particular memory pushed its way to the forefront of all the others.
<"I - I just wanted you to know, Bruce. I didn't want you to hear it from somebody else."
The muscles of the Batman's jaw tightened and he studied the Batcomputer's keyboard for long moments. When he replied his deep voice was barely audible. "No," he said, "I ... wouldn't have wanted to hear it that way." Dick's next words had been painful, very painful, like lancing a boil.
"Bruce, I'm sor - " He never finished the sentence.
"Sorry for what, Dick? Being who you are? For loving someone ... " His voice trailed off for a moment but when it returned it was strong and almost warm with absolutely no hesitation in it. "Are you happy, Dick?"
"Yeah," he breathed, "I am. Very happy." Dick's father pushed back his cowl with sure, steady hands. Standing exposed before his son, Bruce Wayne shook his tousled head, his midnight hair shining in the dimness.
"I'm glad," he said.
On the view screen, I remember watching Dick close his eyes, hearing the soft whisper of his voice.
"I love you, man ... "
I saw Bruce nod. Since he was facing away from me, I couldn't see the expression on his face; the look in his eyes. But Dick could. Silently, Dick laid his hand on the screen, the only way he had of reaching out to Bruce; of touching him. Slowly, like a rusty hinge, long neglected and ill-used, Bruce reached out and covered Dick's hand with his.>
Yeah ... poor clueless little Jays was definitely the last to figure it out. God, I hate being so stupid. It can ruin your whole goddamn day.
"Love is where we find it," said Garth. "We do not choose it." I had to work pretty hard not to lash out at the compassion I glimpsed in his gaze when it fell on me. "Is it such a strange thing to you?" he asked.
All my life I've been waiting to hear those words. I love you. My step-mother said them to me. Before she died. I waited for Bruce to say them and when he couldn't I rebelled and went looking for someone who could. I went looking for my mom. I mean, she *had* to say them, right? A mother loves her son, right? To spite Bruce I went looking for her and when I found her she didn't tell me that she loved me. She told me something, all right. Without ever opening her lying mouth. But it wasn't that she loved me. Nope. She left me beaten and half dead in a grungy warehouse with a ticking bomb about to explode in what was left of my face. If the Joker hadn't forgotten to lock the damned door, I'd have been toast. She left me behind.
Not much room for misinterpretation there.
No, no one ever told Jason Todd they loved him; not his father who abandoned him, not his "father" Bruce Wayne, and for damn sure not his mother; no one -
"I love you, Jays ... " I heard a familiar voice in my head say and stab me through the heart.
I began to realize then that I might, just might, mind you, have shat big time on one of the only people to ever say the actual words to me.
"I've loved Dick since I was thirteen," Garth said in his softest voice. I almost missed it. "He was always there for me. When - when Tula died, I - " he took a deep, calming breath and, after a moment, his eyes quieted. "I thought that I should have died with her. I wanted to. I think Arthur tried ... but the currents of our lives had taken us too far from one another. I thought there was no one. I thought I deserved to be alone that it was my fate. But I was wrong. There was Dick. He did not leave me."
I swallowed hard. Oh God ... Oh God ...
"Look, kid, I gotta go," I heard my father's voice again. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
"And when Dolphin returned to Arthur's bed from mine, I thought she had taken the last good part of me with her ... the part that could trust and love. The child, she was careful to explain to me, was not mine. Dolphin is Queen of Atlantis now, as she always wished. And Arthur has a new son, born of his body, as *he* always wished." He studied the tabletop for a long moment, then smiled.
"And again there was Dick. Always Dick. Since I was little more than a child. I cannot remember when I did not love him." He turned those violet eyes on me and I almost quailed. But not quite.
"And what about you, Jason? Was he not always there for you also?"
I stirred uneasily in my chair and looked away. "Yeah ... " I managed not to stammer. "I guess ... " He kept *looking* at me.
"When he gave you his Robin costume and told you that you were worthy of it ... that was Dick Grayson who entrusted you with such an important part of his life. It was no sexual deviant who did that. That was no 'faggot.' And when you fled from Bruce and his guilt, it was Dick Grayson who comforted you and understood you. Dick Grayson. Your brother, under the skin. Not a 'queer.' Not some 'pervert.' Dick." I was having a hard time breathing ... as if he'd hit me right in the old solar plexus with his fist instead of just his words.
"You understand about love, Jason. It's no great mystery to your heart. Love is no stranger there." He paused and then hit me again. A real low blow this time. "You love Barbara," he said.
Damn him! All right, I guess I've never made a secret if it, have I? Poor scarred Jays pining away for something he's never gonna have. Sad enough to make a statue weep. Yeah, right. Weep tears, all right. Tears of laughter. My hands spasmed into fists. Why did he have to rub it in like that? Never woulda thought he could be so cruel. Dick has all this shit you're never gonna have on your best day. Love. Love of all kinds. Bruce ... Babs ... Garth ...
"The way you love Barbara ... That's the way I feel about Dick. He lifts me above myself, makes me strive to be more than I am ... and when all else is chaos and confusion I know there is a calm, unquestioned center to my world and his name is Dick Grayson." He rose.
"And Barbara loves you, Jays. Never doubt that." He didn't say any more. On his way out the door he laid a hand on my shoulder in comfort. Only for a second ... but I forgot to flinch and that says something, doesn't it? Barely disturbing the air, I heard the sound of the door shutting quietly and I was alone.
The only question was ... did I want to be?
End, Part Two