I'm not sure whether it's embarrassing or kinda impressive that it takes me so long to figure it out. But when I do, it's like a full-momentum kick right to the middle of my chest.
I remember the flash of pain on the side of my throat, the slick slide of blood down my neck as I recoiled and the Joker slipped from my arms. Bruce's batarang cutting my throat open to save a psychopathic mass-murderer and oh boy is that another freakout I'm saving for later. I remember setting off my explosions, feeling the thud of his body as he threw himself over me to try and get us both out in time, and I remember the sound, heat, pain as he failed and was knocked away from me by the building collapsing. The kicker to this is the dim memory of the slam of some piece of concrete into my chest, and the unmistakable crack of bone somewhere in my ribcage before the fire of serious internal damage.
Which is not making sense with my current situation. I'm still in the rubble, but apart from the uncomfortable pressure of what's on top of me I feel… fine. One grab at my chest, and then another at my throat, turns up the fact that I'm not hurt. There's no broken rib, no slice in my neck bleeding alarmingly fast, no bruises, no aches.
What the hell?
I get away from that building as fast as I can, back to one of my more remote safehouses so I can do a real examination. I find dried blood all over my neck, but no trace of what I knew was a deep cut. To make it weirder, I haven't got even a single bruise, even where I distinctly remember Bruce's fists hitting me more than hard enough to leave them. It's like all the physical evidence of the fact that I had a nasty, painful, losing confrontation with Bruce has been wiped from my body.
I can't stay in Gotham, especially not after I hear the news that both Bruce and the Joker survived that night too. It works out well enough; Bruce is too busy making sure that Dick's alright after the devastating shot to Bludhaven to devote himself to tracking me down, and by the time that crisis has passed I'm too far gone for him to come after.
It's when I'm hiding half a world away, under a false name and doing my best not to attract attention until I'm ready to take it, that my lingering suspicion — that I had denied as a crazy thought — turns into fact.
A lucky bodyguard slips under my radar when I break into a high profile mob boss' house, and the time I notice him is about the same time his sniper rifle puts two armor piercing rounds through my chest. I go down like a sack of bricks, conscious but fading fast and pretty much unable to breathe from what I recognize as the sucking drag of a punctured lung. It's pain, desperation, and the absolute certainty that I have fucked up and I'll be dead in minutes if not seconds. It turns out to be seconds, because whatever that second bullet hit it was apparently pretty damn important. My vision goes, and the darkness feels suffocating but the pain is easing away and I feel light. Disconnected.
And then I slam back into my own body and gasp in a breath, my eyes flying open. There's movement around me, shouts, and I recognize the grey shape of a gun and just move. Instinct flips me to the side, leaves the gunshot ringing in my ears as the bullet grazes a path past the back of my neck and into the floor. I fling out my legs, catching the calves of the shooter and knocking them out from under him. He falls and I'm still moving, focusing on the two other people over me, jumping for them as soon as I have my legs back under me. I get the handgun off one of them as I crash into them, and don't even pause before I put a round through each of their chests.
But then I'm left standing there in the middle of the three bodies — one of them is the mob boss I was after, luckily — with the sting of a bullet graze on the back of my neck and nothing else. Looking down shows me two holes in my armor, and a fuckton of blood on both me and the floor that looks about consistent with the injuries I should have. Don't have.
The possibilities are as insane as they are unnerving.
Before I go, I clean up the arcs and splashes of my own blood as best I can, and then hunt down the security for the building, take a copy, and wipe the drives. It's only when I'm back at where I'm calling home for the time being — watching the footage of myself as I unmistakably take two bullets through the chest, lie there for a couple of minutes, and then get up and walk away like nothing happened — that the truth really sinks in.
I can't die.
Dick's smile is just a little strained, a little tired around the edges just like those shadows under his eyes. It doesn't make him any less handsome, and really if I didn't know him as well as I do I probably wouldn't even be able to see it.
We Bats are very good at pretending that we're not hurting; it's kind of gotten to the point of being detrimental, honestly.
I know for a fact that Dick is exhausted, that he's been working too hard and for too long without a break, and that it's costing him a lot more than he's willing to admit. I know that's the only reason he's fallen to asking me for 'company' for a night or so, because he doesn't want to admit that Bludhaven is a whole city made of filth and demons and he can't handle all of it by himself. Not easily. He's worked himself to the bone trying, and I'm absolutely positive that if I get a look underneath his clothes he'll be scattered in at least bruises if not more.
When you get tired, you get sloppy and slow. Dick can't afford to be any of that if he wants to live, and that's why I agreed to this whole thing without even asking what he needed. I'm the only member of this family that comes back after getting shot, and I'm damn well not risking losing Dick to this shithole of a city. I don't know what the family would do without Dick; Golden Boy's always been the one to try to hold the rest of us together.
"So?" Dick asks, straightening up from the kitchen table that he's got a couple sets of blueprints spread over. He'll probably never acknowledge the way he winces when he pushes off his right arm, or the slight press of his left elbow in against his side.
"No," I answer bluntly, leaning my hip against the table. Dick looks betrayed for a second, shocked and hurt, before I narrow my eyes and spit out, "Jesus fuck, Dick. You're exhausted, you're hurt, and instead of asking me to watch your back like a sane person you want to send me halfway across the city on a two part sting? Fuck no."
"I'm fine," Dick denies, expression falling into something defensive and just a little irritated. "If you don't want to help you can just go; I'll handle it."
"Like hell," I growl back, stepping closer to his side. "You're gonna get yourself killed, Dick. Trust me, I know a thing or two about that." He doesn't even know how true that statement is — I've pushed myself too far a dozen times; taken bullets and knives and even falls that should have killed me permanently — but it still makes him wince.
I reach out and shove his shoulder hard, and he staggers back a few steps with a small gasp. I come after him, and Dick's always been a great fighter but right now he's tired. It's not hard for me to get him pressed up against the wall of his kitchen, my arm across his throat and my other hand holding both his wrists crossed at his stomach. I hold him just long enough to make my point before I let go again and step back to give him room.
"Dick, you are not fine. Jesus, if I could tie you down to a damn bed so you can work on that sleep debt under your eyes I would, but make no goddamn mistake. If you try and go out there alone tonight, I will knock you out and drag your pathetic ass back to my island so Roy can play nursemaid until you're better." He's glaring, but there's something intensely relieved in the back of his gaze that he's not doing a great job of hiding. "Look, I'm already here, Goldie. Throw out the stupid blueprints and let me watch your back for a couple of nights. You want to take these places down then let's do it, but together, not alone."
He glares for another moment, but then raises a hand to rub over his eyes and sighs, shoulders sagging downwards. "Alright, together." His gaze falls to the plans over the table as he lowers his hands, idly bracing them on his hips. "So we hit them one at a time. Either need to jam their communications or disable the servers before they can send an alarm. Stealth at first, only force once we know that they can't warn the other base to be ready for us. Need to move fast; leave it too long and they might find out anyway. We haven't got much of a chance of getting in if their security gets up and running; these guys are past military-grade."
And he was planning on taking them on by himself. Fucking idiot.
"You sure you want to get involved in this, Jason?" He doesn't sound unsure, just a little cautionary. "These guys are no joke, and I swear their weaponry is some kind of experimental tech based on leftover alien bits or something. It's nasty."
I snort, crossing my arms over my chest. "Well, it's pretty much the most stupid plan you've ever had, that's for sure. Of course I'm in. Someone's gotta keep your ass from getting shot, especially literally." I crack a small grin as he shakes his head, a tired smile playing at the corner of his mouth. "No one's going to forgive you for ruining that view, Goldie."
"Jerk," he accuses, and I shrug and don't even try to defend myself. "Alright, then let me just run you through the blueprints one more time and then we can—"
"No," I stress, uncrossing my arms so I can push him back from the table with one firm shove. "First you're going to tell me if there's anything worse than bruises underneath those clothes. Then you're going to turn right the fuck around and go pass out for a couple hours. I will make you a real meal with some actual nutritional value, you'll eat it, and then you'll sleep a couple more hours before we actually head out to do this. That clear? Because even if you say no, it's happening anyway. I'm not taking you out there when you probably can't remember the last time you ate something that wasn't sugar with a bit of flavor."
His brow furrows, he opens his mouth like he's going to argue, and then he hesitates. Thinks about it. Sighs. "Fair point," is the muttered surrender. "Strained something in my upper right arm last night, but it's not that bad. Otherwise it's just bruises."
"Kits in the usual places?" I ask, as I manhandle Dick into facing the opposite direction and start to steer him through his apartment.
He sighs, but he's not stopping me from guiding him to his bedroom. "Yes. Under the sinks, bigger one in my closet." On the plus side, when I get him sitting on the corner of his bed he strips off his shirt without me having to ask.
And yeah, he's got bruises. Lots of them, in varying colors and degrees of seriousness that prove he's been working through all of it for at least a week. Probably more. Some of them — mostly the spreading and very colorful one on his left side — make me worry about cracked bones being beneath, but I trust Dick. Even exhausted, he knows better than to let himself go undiagnosed with anything serious enough to hurt like those bruises must. There isn't much you can do to fix broken ribs, but you need to know they're there so you can be careful. Anything else is how you end up with real internal damage.
I fetch the simpler kit from inside his bathroom, tossing it on the bed next to him and then reaching for his arm. He grimaces, but lets me pick it up and explore the injured section — hotter to the touch, a bit swollen — without complaint. It's gotta be a painful injury, but it's not immediately serious and he can probably get away with working through it as long as he doesn't do anything remarkably dumb and make it worse.
"Least you didn't tear anything." I reach for the kit, flicking it open so I can get to the medium sized green bottle within. Arnica; it'll ease anything that's sore and help the bruises and aches heal faster. "Turn around? This is gonna hurt, so just let me know if anything's too bad."
Dick obligingly swings himself around so his back is to me, as I rub the oil between my hands to warm it up just a bit. He makes a faint noise of discomfort when my hands come down on his shoulders, but doesn't pull away. I try to keep my touch light enough to not really hurt, but there's a certain amount of pressure I have to put into it to get the oil rubbed into his skin. He takes it pretty well, and only once flinches away from me and hisses out a request to be a little softer. I do it.
Whatever the oil might fix is only going to get made worse by abrupt tension, especially his arm. He's half asleep by the time I'm done with his torso, head dipped down and breathing mostly even. I lightly squeeze the back of his neck to let him know, and then pull my hands away.
"Legs?" I ask, as he slowly shifts back up to his feet with all the hazy relaxation of someone kinda high on chemical rushes and the relaxation of someone else's hands.
"Not 's bad," he slurs, jaw parting on a wide yawn. He sounds just a bit more alert when he continues, "I'm so not going to stop you if you want to keep going though. But maybe I can just like, lie down while you work?"
He's not really looking at me, but I still roll my eyes as I gently push him towards the head of the bed. "Alright, you spoiled ass. Pants off, lie down, and I'll finish up while you sleep. Just don't come out swinging if I hurt you, okay?"
He stumbles out of his sweatpants — I was betting that he was wearing boxers underneath, and I was right — and then all but falls onto the bed. I save the medical kit from the bounce and relocate it to the end table so it's safe from anything else he might do. True to his word, his legs aren't as bad as his torso though they're still definitely bearing the proof of his insane push to keep working past when he should. On the plus side, at least all of this is just bruises; it could have been cuts and fractured bones. It could be much more serious.
"You're lucky," I murmur, and his eyes peel open and look up at me. I meet his gaze, shifting so I can sit next to him and draw his left leg up into my hands. "It would have been so easy for this to be worse, Dick. You shouldn't push yourself so hard, and you should ask for help when you need it, you idiot."
His shoulders roll in a shrug, gaze slipping to the side and out from under mine. "Everyone's got their own work; I'm managing."
I raise an eyebrow. "This? This is not managing, Dick. Jesus, you know how many people there are flying the Bat-flag these days? Even just in Gotham? They could spare a few nights, at the least. Then you've got your Teen Titans buddies, and all of Tim's generation of them too. You've got plenty of people to ask, Dick, this is about you being stubborn." He grunts noncommittally, but I don't need him to actually confirm it. Pretty much everyone in the family has got a nasty stubborn streak, Dick's just got one of the worst ones. There's a reason that Dick and Bruce are at each other's throats so often; that kind of refusal to back down doesn't do well when it finds an equal.
"I'm half-tempted to just move Roy and Kori here until you've pulled your head out of your ass," I threaten, and Dick winces but doesn't outright argue. That's practically a surrender. I swap to his other leg, and I can see his eyes flicker a little bit. About the same time there's a noticeable twitch of movement underneath his boxers. I crack a small grin as his eyes open, his gaze falling to me and clearly hoping I didn't see anything. "Bit of a hair trigger there, Dickie?"
I half-expect him to be flustered, to push me away and try and ignore the whole thing, but instead he just gives a soft laugh and shrugs again. "Sorry?" he asks, with a slow, curling smile. "It's been a while, and that feels nice."
"Hey, can you be blamed for noticing that I am one seriously goddamn handsome man?" Dick gives another soft laugh, and I slide my palm up his calf for a moment in reassurance. "It's fine, Dick. Between you and me, I'll take it as a compliment. Just don't be expecting me to go down on you or anything. That's one bit of tension you're going to have to work out all on your own."
This laugh is a little harder, and his smile is nearly a grin. It's good to see, considering the exhausted mess he was when I got here. "Not the right gender?" he asks, and I snort and carefully work my thumbs into the bottom of his foot. Points to him, he only squirms a little bit.
"Not the right mood," is my correction. I shoot him a teasing grin and a wink. "Manners, Goldie. What would Alfred say if you didn't at least buy me dinner first?"
His head tilts to the side, a low hum of agreement escaping his throat as his eyes close. "Fear the disapproval of Alfred," he teases, his voice regressing back to sounding like he's just a couple steps from falling asleep.
"Always." I set his foot down, rubbing my hands up both his calves for just a moment. "Alright, you moron. Under the covers, get some sleep while I find something in this house I can make edible. Just so we're clear, if you try and sneak out on me I will drag you off to that island."
He yawns, curling up and wiggling beneath the blankets in a move that looks way too practiced. "Clear," he breathes, and I reach up to ruffle his hair before standing.
"Sleep, Goldie. I've got it handled."
He's out before I even get out of the room.
The sleep and the food helps, but when we actually head out — once we're firmly in the middle of taking apart the first of the two bases — it's clear that Dick's still in bad enough shape that it's affecting him. He's a little slower than he should be, a little late on reaction speed, and gets winded more than I remember being normal.
It's not deadly, but it's dangerous. It makes me paranoid as all hell, honestly. I don't let him out of my sight, I prioritize taking out anyone that even starts to look towards him, and I keep it non-fatal but only barely. I agreed to this; I play by his rules and I keep him safe until he's done with this insanity. I couldn't live with myself if I let anything happen to Dick, and he'll be pissed if I start killing people in his city. Even though these dirtbags — he was not joking about the experimental alien weapons — would definitely deserve it based on the flashes of information I get as Dick strips the servers bare before destroying them.
We get through the first base pretty efficiently, with just a few bruises to our names. It's on the second that this whole thing bites me in the ass.
Dick's lagging, and to me it's the most obvious thing in the world to me. He's still good, of course he is, but he's getting tired and this is a bad set of enemies to slow down around. Unfortunately, a few of the smarter ones start to realize that Dick isn't at his best, and my hands become very full trying to keep them the hell off of him without straight up shoving him behind some bit of cover and handling it myself. He wouldn't take that well.
We're near to clearing out the last of the base when I get stalled taking out one particularly stubborn bastard. By the time I've turned around one all the way across the room is aiming one of those guns at Dick's back, and he's busy and he's not turning around. I give a wordless shout of warning, lunging for Dick and nearly tackling him to get him out of the way.
Then it's pain, pressure, the high whine of those guns and then a sharp impact as we hit the ground. My gun falls from spasming fingers as I gasp, the upper right side of my chest on fire. Dick drags me all the way behind the cover that I was trying to get us both into — almost succeeded — and presses me onto my back. He looks horrified, and when I raise a hand to clutch at the source of the pain I understand why.
Pain, heat, and a very familiar wet feeling that soaks right through my glove. When I look down at the wound it's… Ugly.
"Fuck," I spit, staring at the dark stain of what's most definitely my blood. "That's not good."
Dick's hand presses down over the wound, and I choke on a shout and grit my teeth together, before I force myself to shove him away. He almost falls out of our cover, but jerks back and over me within the moment. He starts to push down on the wound again and I snarl, looking down at him and baring my teeth.
"Go," I snap. "Finish the goddamn fight, Nightwing." He opens his mouth to argue — I assume — and I shove his hand away from my chest. "They're not just going to sit on their asses and wait politely; you need to move!"
Another moment of pause, another hesitation, and then he's grabbing my right hand and squeezing tight. "Do not die on me," he almost begs, before he's pushing away and grabbing his escrima sticks from the floor.
I choke back my laugh. If he only knew how ridiculous that statement sounds to me.
My eyes close, and I thunk my head back onto the floor as I try and evaluate how bad the wound in my chest is. Lots of blood, I can feel that, and the pain feels… Well, it kind of feels like someone blew a hole in my chest, which is to say that it's pretty much goddamn agony and every twitch of a breath makes it worse. I haven't been hurt this badly in a long time, and I've never been hurt this badly when anyone important was around to see it.
I think I'm fucked.
This feels like it's fatal, which means that either Dick watches me die or he comes back and I'm healed. Neither option leaves me with any chance of hiding what's happened to me, and fuck but I was doing so well at hiding it. If I thought that I could actually manage to get myself up and out of this room I might stand a chance at getting far enough away that Dick wouldn't see me come back, but I'm not that delusional. I don't think I could stand right at this second, and even if I did I'd leave a hell of a trail of blood to follow. If I managed to get away… Dick might never forgive me for letting him worry.
My breath's coming slower now, and it's with grim resignation that I recognize my oncoming death. The mental disconnect, slower heart rate and breathing, the cold tinge to my toes and fingers now that there's not enough blood in me to reach them… Yeah, this is a done deal. Death is familiar now, and I ease into it because there's nothing else I can do. No way to fight when it's already got its claws in you.
Better me than Dick. At least for me it's not permanent, and it's a nasty thought but maybe this will teach him not to go out when he's not in any condition to be out.
I pry my eyes open at the jostle of gloves hands against my face, and find Dick looking down at me with worry and fear plain on his face. "Jason," he whispers, cradling my head as he tilts it up. "Jason, please stay with me. Stay with me, Little Wing."
I summon the strength to drag in a deeper breath and grab for his arm with my left hand. It lands somewhere near his elbow, and that's good enough. "It's alright," I breathe, trying to squeeze his arm with fingers I can barely even feel. "It'll be okay." He doesn't understand my promise, he can't, and I watch his mouth part on a shaky inhalation.
"God, no. Jason, please. I'm so sorry I made you come out with me; please don't die on me, please. Look, we'll get you to a hospital, alright? They'll fix you right up and you'll be just fine, Little Wing. You just gotta hang on for me. Can you do that?"
I squeeze his arm again, open my mouth to answer, but I'm fading. I can't find the words, can't focus on Dick's face or the hands touching me, can barely find the strength to breathe let alone speak. I can feel my hand slip off of his arm, feel the dull thud as it hits my chest and I struggle just to get a last bit of air into my lungs.
"Jason," Dick begs, his voice cracking, and I'm sure there's more but I don't hear it.
The darkness takes my vision, then the feeling of Dick touching my face, and finally the pain. For a few blessed moments I'm free-falling with no chance of hitting bottom, with a dizzying sense of height and ease in every moment. The darkness is there, but when the pain goes it lets up and just flows around me instead of pressing in. I try and capture the feeling, knowing it will be gone in just a few moments. I never remember all that much of what it's like here in this void of space, but there are still dim shadows of memory lurking in the back of my mind about it.
Then it snaps out of existence, like focusing my eyes after letting them drift, and I'm in Dick's arms. He's holding me all but crushed up against him, on his knees, and he's crying into my hair. It nearly tears my heart out to hear that sound, and to feel the fine tremble in his body as he grieves.
I part my lips, draw in a shallow breath, and whisper, "Dick." He freezes, and I raise my hands as much as I can to touch him, to reassure him I'm not just some figment of his imagination. "Dick, it's okay. I promised you it would be okay, remember?"
He pulls back a bit, staring down at me with I can only assume are very wide eyes. "Jason?" he whispers back, like he thinks I'm not real. "I… You were dead. I checked your pulse, I did CPR, I shocked you, I… You died."
I wince, squeezing his side with my left hand; my right is trapped mostly between his waist and my side. "Yeah, uh… You deserve a better explanation and I will give one, but long story short, I don't stay dead. Apparently the universe likes me alive or something because I've died uh…" I take a second to count, tipping my head back. "Fourteen times, including tonight but not including that whole mess with the Joker. Doesn't stick."
He stares at me for several long seconds, several more, and then drops me to the ground with very little ceremony and jerks to his feet. For a moment my lungs freeze with the idea that he thinks I'm some kind of freak, that I'm dangerous, that I can't even die right so I must be beyond fucked up. All thoughts I've had, when I was wondering if I was never going to die and if anything would change if I was the one who pulled the trigger. Idle thoughts, spurred by pain and frustration I couldn't control, but I never came close to actually doing it. There are too many people in the world who need my help to let myself check out early.
"And you didn't think to mention this?!" Dick hisses, as I double check that the hole in my chest is healed and follow him up.
"Well no," I snap. "Would you advertise the fact that you woke up a goddamn freak? I sure as hell wasn't going to. No one needs to know and," I force myself to lower my voice, calm it down so I'm asking, "I would appreciate it if you kept it to yourself. Please."
Dick's expression flashes through a fascinating collection of emotions, but settles on disbelief. "Jason, there are probably so many questions that need to be answered, and— You need to tell at least the family, if you 'die' again and they don't know… Jason, this hurt."
I clench my jaw, and then deliberately shake my head. "I'm not having this argument. I can't really stop you from telling people, but I don't want them to know and I will be pretty goddamned pissed if you ignore me."
"No, this is important, Jason. This is a serious, unexplained thing happening to you and they—"
I cut him off with the one thing I know will stop him in his tracks. "B never needs to know he killed me."
Dick flinches back, like he's been sucker punched, but does manage to gasp, "What?"
I force my jaw to loosen, and clench my hands to fists to make up for it. "When I confronted him over the Joker he put a batarang through the side of my neck to make me stop. I set off explosions, the building collapsed, and I woke up in the rubble without a scratch. I had a lot of time to think about it after I figured out what was happening, and I didn't die from the fall, I died from that wound to my neck. I bled out. B directly killed me through his actions and he will fall apart if he knows that. You do not tell him that I'm some resurrecting freak of the universe, you understand me? You don't."
He's staring at me, teeth clenched together, and oh I can see that he doesn't agree with me. Dick can chase things down to the end of the world and beyond when he sets his mind to it, and goddamn it but I think he's decided I'm now one of those things. I don't think he's ever going to let this go, and I don't think he's going to let me slip under the radar any longer.
I always knew they'd find out eventually, but I kind of hoped — against all the odds — that it would be at my terms. I always had kind of a sick fantasy in my head of standing in the middle of the Cave and shooting myself, seeing that flare of panic and then everyone's stunned disbelief when I got back up. Cruel, really, but I've had a lot of cruel fantasies over the years.
"We're talking about this later," Dick finally spits, like it physically pains him not to argue me down here and now.
There's no way I can get out of it, so I just snap, "Fine. I'm not changing my decision though."
"We'll see," he immediately counters. "Get the guns away from them and put the call in to the police, I'll handle the computers."
"Great." My voice comes out harsh and sarcastic, and we waste another second staring at each other before Dick jerks into motion and stalks away from me. I grab my weapons from the ground, and wait until Dick's left the room before I hiss a couple curses and carefully don't rub my blood-soaked gloves over my face. Made that mistake a couple times.
As soon as this is done, I'm leaving. Fuck Dick's desire to argue and force me around to his point of view. If he can't find me or get to me, he can't convince me.