Jason reclined in the beach chair, stirring his feet into the sand and watching Gabe and Bedevil play with their dogs. Pawpaw — that old, wizened looking retriever — struggled to keep up with the peppy Isabelle as she darted between Gabe’s feet. Pawpaw barked and jumped up into Gabe’s chest.
Jason let a small laugh escape, thought it felt more raw than he wanted to admit. How often had he seen Gabe with a frown, with a dour expression, or like he was pinching a turd between his cheeks? Now he felt like he wasn’t staring at the same man. This Gabe was different; he smiled and he laughed all the time. He’d always been a bit funny, a bit witty, but now he couldn’t maintain a serious conversation for longer than a few minutes without sliding a joke in somewhere. And Bedevil, she always looked so happy, and she couldn’t take her eyes off Gabe.
They ran and played together at the edge of the lapping ocean, kicking up water and muddy sand, and the dogs barked and play-fought through the seafoam.
Jason did not expect the pang in his heart. A few months without Epione and he’d thought he would have moved on by now. Seeing Gabe and Ruby, and that ring on her finger, and their dogs, and their smiles… A lump stuck itself right in his throat, choking him up. Never before had the chill of loneliness hit as hard as it did in this warm summer beach in Argentina.
He mused on Saw Off’s advances. It would be easy to fall back into step with her, but they’d broken up for a reason.
Epione would never forgive him. He knew he shouldn’t be making decisions based off her, but Epione was going to live in the same building as him and work in the same organization as him, so he had to at least consider it.
He really hadn’t had the chance to think about his romantic future. He’d been so busy integrating some of the masks around Argentina into New Foundation that he’d spent everyday working from dawn to dusk. It had taken Gabe about two weeks to convince Jason he needed a vacation.
Wild that Gabe was the one convincing him to take a break now. Things really had changed.
Footsteps crunched in the sand next to him. Jason stirred from his thoughts and looked up, shielding his eyes against the afternoon glare.
Meltdown had decided to visit him, it seemed. She’d come along because she thought the sun and sea might be good for her pregnancy, but she’d spent most of the day walking the shore by herself, or chatting with Bedevil, or sitting with Archimedes and Linear (who refused to wear a swimsuit and instead wore shorts and a polo) to talk for a while.
In the first month when Jason was working constantly to help repair the damage to Buenos Aires, she looked completely normal. Even now, looking at her straight on it was difficult to tell that she was pregnant. It wasn’t until she turned that her profile really gave her away, showing how much her belly had swollen up. She wore a two-piece swimsuit, apparently unafraid of showing the world her baby, and Jason saw the beginning signs of stretch marks along her stomach.
Meltdown did not sit down. She folded her hands to her chest and stared at Gabe and Bedevil. Jason thought he recognized the look in her eyes, the familiar ache of lost love staring at new love.
Not wishing to confront that thought for very long, Jason reached down to the cooler at his side and pulled a beer out, hoping it would blunt his angst. He acknowledged Meltdown, and said, “I’d offer you one, but something tells me that’s not a good idea.”
Meltdown gave him a strong side-eye. She smirked. “What makes you say that, Flashfire?”
“Please, call me Jason.” He felt that he was slouching and straightened up. For the first time he felt a little embarrassed about how much muscle he’d lost in captivity. “Do you need help sitting down?”
“What makes you think I was going to sit down, Jason?” Meltdown asked. Her right shoulder lifted up in a coy tilt, as if she could hide her face behind it.
“Seems like a waste to walk all the way over here and not sit down,” Jason said. “Your real name is… Ashley, right?” He didn’t know too much about her, other than she was one of the more prominent OPI capes and she used to be married to Wind Rider. That and she looked like she could have been Bedevil’s sister, outside of her eyes, which were bright blue.
Ashley lifted off the sand and floated down, using her power to ease herself into the vacant chair.
“Do you have a name in mind?” Jason asked, gesturing to her stomach. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
Ashley rubbed her hand on her stomach, her expression fond but tinged with sorrow. “It’s a boy. I’m not sure. I thought… Jamie.”
“That’s a good name.”
Ashley smiled at him for a moment but she didn’t say anything. Jason smiled back, cocked his head, and wondered what she was thinking.
She gave a small squeal and gripped the chair, and leaned forward as if in great pain. Jason felt as if his heart was going to pop out of his mouth. He had no idea what to do if she was going into labor, and guiltily he thought Epione would know what to do.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t labor. Ashley breathed out and smiled again, settling back into her seat. “He’s kicking. Do you want to feel?”
Jason, surprised she’d ask him that, said, “Sure.”
Ashley took his hand and pressed it against her stomach, underneath her belly button. It seemed an intimate act, and it embarrassed Jason further than he already was, but what else was there to do when a mother wanted you to acknowledge her baby?
Jason didn’t feel anything for a moment, but then gasped as the baby kicked against his hand. Jamie was alive in there and apparently upset about something, but the experience brought a grin to Jason’s face. “That’s amazing. Hey little Jamie!”
Ashley’s smile faded a little. Perhaps the moment was over, Jason thought, and so retreated from her and sat back in his chair. He reached down for his beer, but decided to leave it where it was. He thought that he should quit drinking, as well. Everyone close to him had, and while he understood it, it only accentuated his loneliness these days.
Ashley gazed at Gabe and Bedevil. Jason had trouble telling what exactly she was thinking, now. “I’m happy for them.” Though her sentiment was happy, her expression was pinched and curt.
“I am, too. I never thought he’d be happy.” Though he was also trying to be positive, he couldn’t help feeling glum, too. “I’d never even seen him with a girl until he met Bedevil on the streets, and we didn’t even know she was Bedevil back then.”
Ashley looked very amused by that. She didn’t laugh but her eyes crinkled and her lips twisted into a little smirk. “She was a mask?”
Jason chuckled at the memory. “A really drunk mask that couldn’t stop puking everywhere.”
“It’s strange to me that she was ever engaged to my husband.” Ashley’s pinched expression returned.
“It’s strange that she’s engaged to my best friend,” Jason said. “Who is also a clone of her former boss.”
“Yes, very strange.” Ashley’s voice carried no judgement, no puritanical condemnation. How Bedevil and Gabe met was very strange and how they’d forged a relationship out of their mutual trauma was even stranger, but that didn’t make it wrong.
Jason was always one for stability and for patient moves, for long courtships and borderline chaste dates. Epione had been perfect for that, given her requirements.
“I meant to thank you,” Jason said at last, trying to dispel his thoughts. “I heard that you tried to rescue Gabe in the jungle.”
“Oh, that was nothing,” Ashley said. “He needed help.”
“He’s my brother.” Jason smiled at Gabe, though Gabe wasn’t really paying attention to anything but his dogs and his fiancée. “I’ve worried about him so long. It’s a bit weird, but after everything, I don’t feel as close to him as I used to. On the streets he needed me. Now, he doesn’t.”
Ashley looked like she was chewing on that thought. “I know what you mean. It’s weird to have someone in your life… just vanish, I guess.”
That didn’t strike Jason as entirely fair, so he couldn’t help but frown at her. “I’m not gonna pretend we’re on the same level.”
“Well, I heard about you and your girlfriend. The empath.” Ashley shook her head. “What an incredible story.”
Sure, with the new cape org, there had to be rumors slinging every which way about all of them. They were still figuring each other out, so of course he was the subject of gossip. “Yeah, I suppose. Still, I know Ep’s alive and all. It’s… I’m sorry for your loss.”
He was surprised that Ashley came to the verge of tears. Perhaps he’d just grown use to Epione, who’d never shown much emotion at all that wasn’t calculated. “I’m worried. I’m about to be a single mother, and while I’m a cape and I’m going to be an Inheritor once I’ve had my maternity leave, I’ll still have a child to worry about. And I’ll be alone.”
“We’ll all help. It takes a village, or something like that,” Jason said. He put his hand on her arm, and worried for a brief second that he’d overstepped his bounds.
Ashley wiped her eyes. She sniffled and coughed, overcome for a brief second by her emotions. Then she went back to being composed, and she smiled at him and placed her free hand on his. “I’m glad it’s this village, then.”
Jason felt a thrill in his heart. The frost of isolation thawed. “Me, too.”