Gotham is never a good idea. Jason should have wrapped his head around that by now, learned to turn back before he hits city limits, but of course he's not that smart. He'll come back time and time again, like an outcast son or a rueful old lover. Both have some truth to them, but it's the latter that's haunting him today.
Vacancies in Gotham's crime landscape are never left open for long. With his constant absence, Red Hood's former territory has been steadily shrinking, and Jason's let it happen. He's got little use for it these days. There are still infringements he's not willing to forgive. Two days ago he had a call from a former informant, involving overdosed high school students, and Jason figured it's high time he'll present the Gotham drug scene with a much-needed reminder as to what counts as an unforgivable crime around here. The warehouse they've claimed as a distribution hub is a particular kick to the groin; once upon a time he gave one of his little presentations here, and that's just another reason why this has gotten personal. Jason's already to rain down hell on the whole posse, a little revival performance, when he hears an all too familiar voice waft over through an open door in one of the unused former staff rooms.
“I'm sure we can talk this through,” he sing-songs, his tone mocking, teasing. “You know, without the weapons? Like civilized people?”
Dick's suggestion is answered by someone reloading what Jason identifies as an automatic machine gun. Jason inches closer to the door and peers into the room, and shit. Fuck. There's three of them and they have Dick in a corner, literally with his ass against the wall. He's not even supposed to be here. Dick's still been living in Bludhaven the last time Jason visited him – although that's maybe too innocent a term for how they spent that night – but he's always been more susceptible to the old man's siren song than any of the others. Dick likes to feel needed, and the Bat has always known how to play him on that one.
“Turn around, shithead,” says a bald guy holding aforementioned machine gun, waving it at Dick to underline his command. “Hands up, facing the wall.”
Dick does lift his hands, but before he obediently turns, he catches Jason's gaze, gives him the hint of a wink. Jason raises his gun, nodding back, and Dick replies with an almost imperceptible shake of his head. “I forgot my cufflinks upstairs,” he says, casual, like it belongs into this setting. “Anyone mind getting them for me?”
Jason freezes; it'd be a nonsensical hint for everyone else, and it sure has the goons looking to one another confusedly, but it carries a special meaning for the two of of them. It's an insider reference meant just for him, because only he would get its meaning. He lowers his gun and takes half a step back to ensure no one else in the room is going to notice his presence, but not so far that he can't keep an eye on the situation. This is Dick's play, and as much as it goes against the grain for Jason, he'll let him play it out.
Hands still up, wearing a placating smile, shoulders hunched, the very picture of meek surrender, Dick takes a step towards the goons. He opens his mouth, about to say something, but Jason never hears it, because seconds later he feels a blunt impact on the back of his head. He wheels around and blinks into the barrel of a handgun. Time passes too slowly, and yet with cruel inevitability, when the goon shouts a name Jason doesn't catalog, not now, and everyone's heads in the the other room turn.
Jason's attempt to kick the gun out of his hand is met with a parry and another punch to his head, the temple this time, and Jason's head is ringing, the ground wobbling underneath him. His mind works too slowly, drags too much, and there's not enough time to react and shout a warning to Dick.
Gun muzzle now to his forehead, Jason watches out of his peripheral vision how Dick starts towards him anyway. Two of his goons step in the way, and a third rams the machine gun into his back, hard enough to produce a bitten-off pained cry. He stumbles a few steps, and Jason can't see him anymore. Moments pass, maybe a minute, and the fact that Dick doesn't appear in his field of vision again veers Jason dangerously close to panic. But that's not entirely a downside; it's what makes his training kicks in, wins out over the stupor, and his mind clears. His breathing slows, and he can finally think. Helping Dick is his new priority, but that won't happen while Jason himself is held at gunpoint. He tears his eyes away from the scene in the other room and focuses on his own attacker. The guy must have written him off already, dropped his guard at Jason's moment of genuine panic, because he's grinning at whatever his friends are currently doing to to Dick.
Jason seizes the opportunity. He doesn't even feign elegance or fair play; he goes straight for a knee to the groin, then whirls around and kicks the gun out of the goon's hand in the same movement. Disabling him is quick work from there on in, and then Jason is rushing into the other room. The sight that greets him there makes his blood boil, makes a sheen of red anger cloud his mind. Dick is falling to the ground as Jason watches, immediately curling into himself by sheer instinct, while two of the goons haul back in order to start kicking him. There's a wound at Dick’s side, and blood trickles down and dots the dirty concrete floor near Dick's head; that must be a preferred technique around here, and it's not a bad approach, simple but effective. At least Dick has given them a fight before they managed to knock him in the head – the third goon is on the ground behind him, out cold.
The first boot connects with Dick's body, making him yelp in pain, quickly followed by a second, a third. Jason rushes towards him and it's a combination of adrenaline and worry and righteous fury that allow him to take both of them out in record time. He doesn't even think about any of the kicks and punches he throws; what matters is that they land on their target. He dispatches the two remaining goons quickly, with precision, and then sinks onto the ground next to Dick's body.
The suit conceals most other injuries so the only thing Jason sees is Dick's face. His left eye is already swelling shut, visible even under the domino, and there's still a slow trickle of blood from his head wound. His eyes are unfocused, and he shies when Jason reaches out to try and wipe some of the blood off with the meat of his hand.
Jason winces in sympathy. “C'mon,” he says. He hooks an arm around Dick's shoulders, pulling him upward, and grimaces at the agonized hiss that produces. “Let's get out of here.”
Dick passes out before they've even cleared the building and it makes for an awkward hobble to Jason's bike, especially since his own relationship with gravity is a bit precarious at the moment. Carrying around another person's dead weight doesn't make it any easier to keep track of up and down, left and right, and the correct route to safety. Yet they have to hurry; Jason expects goon reinforcements at any moment – and if that happens they're fucked because Jason knows his body's limits by now and he so doesn't have another fight in him – but by some small miracle they make it onto the speedway without anyone getting in their way. Another one of those miracles ensures he manages to navigate through the light late night traffic without causing an accident or catching the attention of a patrolling police car, and Jason resists the urge to cross himself in relief when they arrive at the apartment building that contains Dick's emergency hideout.
It's not ideal and kind of risky, coming here, but Jason hasn't been on top of his own safe houses in weeks, and he doesn't have the wherewithal or the time for any of the perimeter checks required to make sure they're not compromised and are, indeed, still safe. This is easier, just one cubicle in an anonymous beehive, and because it also doubled as their very own hour motel a few times Jason kinda knows his way around the place. With Dick in his arms, leather jacket pulled in tightly around the both of them and Dick's face hidden against his shoulder, Jason uses the elevator to get to Dick's floor, ignoring strange looks from the two or three neighbors they pass. He doubts they care; this isn't the kind of neighborhood where people ask questions. He mumbles something about late night and too many drinks and haha what a lightweight to the each of them, and then they're there and inside the apartment.
After a moment's consideration – Jason patches himself up plenty, but this is different and the responsibility for someone else's well-being makes him even more dizzy than he already is – he decides to get Dick into the bathroom, possibly in the shower. He'll need to undress him anyway, in order to assess the whole scope of the damage, and he'll need to clean the head wound before he stitches it up, wash off the blood and find some disinfectant. It's eerie, wrong, to maneuver Dick out of his suit and underwear while he's out of it, even though they've seen each other naked plenty times before and Jason winces again when he sees the pattern of bruises that's already starting to discolor a considerable percentage of his torso, the lacerations where the skin gave and tore under the impact of the couple of kicks the goons actually got in before Jason put them down.
Dick's eyes fly open when the water from the shower starts prattling down on him, and he looks around like a cornered animal, before his gaze settles on Jason and the corners of his mouth pull up into a weak smile. “That kinda went south.”
“Kinda did,” Jason agrees. He shoves a washcloth at Dick, immensely relieved that he won't have to basically sponge him down on top of having undressed him while he's out of it. “How're you feeling?”
With a grimace, Dick sits up a little, getting himself into a position that doesn't rely on Jason's support to hold him up. “Head hurts, and so does my chest. Breathing's kinda hard, so I think maybe they cracked a rib. Other than that, I'm okay.”
His hand flies up to his temple, and Jason catches it midair. “You got enough dirt into that while you were lying on the ground. I'll put a suture on it once you're out of the shower.”
Dick rolls his eyes, but he obeys. He holds the washcloth into the spray and cocks an eyebrow. Jason catches the hint, rises to his feet and moves to sit on the closed toilet seat while Dick washes himself. He doesn't stay there longer than two minutes, before it occurs to him that he, too, got a good kick to the head and could at least have a look at himself in the mirror. Wiping the fog off the glass, already collected there from the hot water of the shower, he inspects himself, turns his face both ways , but doesn't see any visible injuries. His head is throbbing, too, and he's expecting a tender bruise for the next few days at least. He wets the guest towel that's hanging next to the sink, wipes his face, and turns when he senses movement behind himself, ready to help Dick out of the shower should he ask.
What he's not prepared for is the painful tug in the pit of his stomach at seeing Dick cling to the wall, eyes hooded, expression lined with pain. The wound on his temple is still bleeding, blood mixing with the water that's dropping out of his hair and tainting it pink. He takes shallow, measured breaths, and the hand that isn't holding his weight, propped against the wall, is curled around his torso.
“Stop staring,” he says, giving Jason a strained smile. “Pervert.”
Jason wants to smile back, but finds that he can't. The scene in the warehouse replays in his head, and... he screwed up. He didn't see his attacker. He distracted Dick from what his original plan was. Dick is hurt because Jason showed up. He had the situation under control until Jason dug his nose in and screwed it all up.
He holds the towel out to Dick, doesn't meet his eyes when Dick cocks his head, and hurries out of bathroom as soon as he's made sure that Dick's capable of climbing out of the shower without a helping hand. He waits in the kitchen, getting the suture kit ready, until Dick pads out of the bathroom and sits down heavily on one of the stools at the counter.
They've both been sewing their assorted family members up since they were teenagers, gotten sewed up for just as long, so it's basically commonplace. Or it should be – Jason's fingers tremble a little more than they should, guilt curling around his neck like a cold hand. He's got Dick sitting on a chair in the kitchen while Jason sits on another at his side, tells him to look straight ahead. For practical reasons, mostly, it is the best position, but it comes with the added benefit of not having to look Dick in the eye while he works.
“There,” Jason says once he's done, letting the needle clatter into the brazen bowl that's a staple in each of their standard medical kits. “Another scar to lend your charming face more character.”
Dick frowns, hand yet again flying up to touch the wound. “You really think it'll sc– “ Then it must sink in that the wound is beyond his hairline and he groans, glances up for a glare. “Very funny.”
“Like I could pass that one up.” Jason grins, even though he's not feeling it in the least, and it drops off his features as quickly as he conjured it up. “You're all set now, so I guess I'll get going.”
The smile Dick gives him is patient, knowing, and that cold sensation spreads from Jason's neck, shoots all the way down his spine. “Why don't you stay?”
He doesn't mean sex. Neither of them is in the state for that. He means something entirely different, something they've never done before, and there are a million and one reasons for Jason to refuse – because they're not like that, because he needs to get away from the evidence of his incompetence, because he needs the distance between them or this thing, whatever it is they've been doing, is going to start fucking with his head – but Dick shifts on his chair and holds out his hand, palm up, an unmistakable invitation for Jason to take.
“Just for tonight,” he says, his voice not quite pleading. “Call it observation if you like. Concussion vigil. Making sure I don't wake up in the middle of the night, throw up and choke on my own sick.”
Jason makes a face. “Now that's enticing.”
And yet, he takes Dick's hand, waits while Dick stands, groaning slightly at the change in altitude, and lets himself be led to the bedroom. He doesn't protest or joke when Dick folds the covers back and slips underneath; instead he follows suit on the other side. He doesn't move away when Dick curls in closer to him, molding his body against Jason's, back to front. He also doesn't examine the calm and content feeling that settles inside him before he drifts off, faintly familiar from a time when they both were different people.
Jason's arm is numb when he wakes and it takes him a second to determine the reason, orienting himself in the strange-but-not-strange environment: Dick's sleeping on it, tucked into his side, head resting on the dip of Jason's shoulder. He looks a little better in the light of day; his face is still a mess, now also mottled with an impressive, multicolored black eye, but the swelling is already going down. The relaxed, peaceful expression he's wearing helps as well, in contrast to the pinched, pained expression he wore for most of last night.
As if somehow sensing that Jason's awake, Dick stirs, blinking up at him with bleary eyes, and smiles. “You're still here.”
It's an observation, not a question, but the disbelieving tone almost makes it sound like one. Jason raises his hand, fingers brushing over the lower edge of Dick's black eye. He almost smiles back, almost lets it happen. It could be so easy. He certainly wants it, he realizes with a start. Wants more than sex, wants to have this again, spend more morning in a slow fog with Dick's body, warm and comfortable and trusting, pressed up to his own.
That's the thing: he doesn't deserve Dick's trust. Dick's wearing the evidence of what happens when Jason interferes with his life, right on his face. Dick throws him off center. They shouldn't even work together; they certainly shouldn't be together. The idea that they might manage a relationship, something real, belongs to the past, when things were simpler and the only occasion they could ever imagine fighting the other was a sparring match in the training area of the cave.
Dick has somehow sunk low enough to at least let him back into his bed. He shouldn't try and take anything more from him.
He does smile, but makes it a sneer, lewd, suggestive. “Fuck knows why, all that cuddling and I didn't even get off beforehand.”
Dick blinks, straightens up into a sitting position, the blankets pooling around his hips. “Excuse me?”
Involuntarily, Jason shivers, as if Dick has taken all the warmth in the room with him. But he's not going to turn this around. Instead tugs at the sheet, feigns trying to get it off Dick entirely. “Feeling better? You up for making the lost night worth my while?”
“Yeah, not happening.” One hand shooting out to keep the blanket in place, Dick cocks his head. “Jay, what's going on?”
“Nothing,” Jason replies, propping himself up on his elbows. “I'm just not here to comfort your clingy ass all night and then not get mine. But it's not too late to fix that, is it?”
He wriggles his hips for emphasis, dials the leering up a notch.
But Dick doesn't take the bait yet; stupid, ever-optimistic son of a bitch, always assuming the best out of the people around him. “No, seriously, Jason, what the hell is your issue? I didn't strong-arm you into staying, I saw you last night, you wanted to – “
“Oh, that's rich.” Jason decides to change tack, just a bit, adjusting his approach. “So you have to stay or I might choke on my own vomit overnight isn't emotional blackmail?”
Eyes darting away, Dick swallows. “I didn't mean to – “
“No, of course not,” Jason cuts in. “It's probably second nature to you at this point, using other people to hold you up, take what you need from them while you don't see that you're bleeding them dry. Just like the Bat did with you when you were younger, like he did with all of us, sucked the life out of us before he threw us away.”
It's almost too effortless; Bruce is the hot button that will raise Dick's heels one way or another. “Leave him out of this. What's between us doesn't have anything to do with him.”
“What's between us?” Jason repeats, voice gone mocking. “Dickie, I don't know what's gotten into your head but there's nothing between us anymore. You're pretty and a damn fun lay. That's why we're doing this again, but anything else that could have been between us died when I did. When you moved on like I was nothing more than your weekly Sunday morning delight.”
Dick's expression darkens, closing off. “You were so much more to me, and you damn well know that.”
This tone is low, small, hurt, and it almost feels like Jason has gone too far. But maybe that just means he's finally gone far enough. He scoffs, disbelieving. “Yeah? So what do you think is going on here? Did you think you'd trick me into staying with you once and we'll wake up humming show tunes whilst we kiss and confess our undying love? Is that how you got the others to take pity on you?”
The betrayed look in Dick's eyes in response to that is all the confirmation Jason needs to know that he's won. He pushes himself up into a sitting position and holds his hand up when Dick opens his mouth to speak again, waving him away before he swings his legs out of bed and stands without a look back at the scorched earth he's leaving behind.
Despite having had good reason to come to the city, Jason's first instinct is to leave. The simple fact that Dick had been at the warehouse means the bat gang is on the case, whichever case that is, and he's got less reason to meddle than ever. Gotham isn't his home anymore, not like it used to be anyway, and he's actually got somewhere to go now. Well. Not a place, per se, but people. People who don't wear one of the many variations of the bat symbol, and might even miss him when he's gone. No, really, he should make a run for it. He should already be on the way.
But he's not. He's lingering on one of Gotham's many rooftops, in the shadow of the very same gargoyle he'd already been coming to as a boy. It's a stupid habit, all things considered, and also not particularly conductive to avoid thinking about Dick. He, and his legacy, are the very reason why Jason ever became attached to that damn stone figure.
He sighs. No wonder this is so hard. Ever since he was a teenager, his life has been pivoting around Dick Grayson in some way or other. Becoming his successor. Becoming his... friend is probably the wrong word. Falling in love with him before he even really knew what that word meant. Jason keeps him at arm's length not because he doesn't care. He keeps him at arm's length because he's afraid what might happen if he'd own up to just how much Dick means to him.
The very first time they kissed, Jason was fifteen. His first official appearance as a Wayne, the ink on the adoption paperwork not yet dry, and he'd been completely out of his element. Alfred had left his attire for the evening out on his bed, and Dick had found him, sitting next to a suit that had probably cost the equivalent of a year's rent where he grew up, and crouched in front of him with a knowing expression.
Jason had startled, immediately made to rise to his feet, but Dick had put a hand on his thigh and smiled and Jason's whole world had zeroed in to that point of contact between them.
“Never worn one of those, have you?” he'd said, and at Jason's head shake, “I get it, I hadn't either before I moved to the manor.”
He'd helped Jason get presentable, put the suit on without wrinkling it, knot the bow-tie so that it looked proper, wrangle the cummerbund into place. And once they were done, still standing so close Jason could feel Dick's breath on his jaw, Jason had given into the intoxicating closeness, the possibility, the small signs he wasn't even sure weren't just born out of his own desire to see them.
For a few seconds, Dick had been completely still, frozen, and Jason had worried he'd indeed been deluding himself, that he’d just ruined everything, overstepped his boundaries. But then Dick had kissed him back, tentative but sure, and they'd been breathless when they parted. When Dick drew away, and Jason will never forget the look on his face on that moment, so torn between excitement and confusion and guilt. He'd mumbled something about Jason being all set and then he'd turned, all but running downstairs. Jason, startled, had needed a moment to convince his feet to move in order to follow after him, and when he'd finally caught up, they were in one of the hallways leading to the ballroom.
Dick had looked at him, pained, pleading, and Jason had had no other solution than back him up against the wall, between two huge, old paintings, and kiss him again. Both hands on his shoulders, Dick had shoved him away.
“I'm sorry,” he'd said. “I should know better, I don't want to take advantage of you, I – “
And Jason had stopped him with a finger to his lips, shaking his head. “You're not taking advantage of me. I know what I want, I can make my own decisions, and anyway, you're not that much older.” Then he'd kissed him again, and this time he'd met no further protest. They'd stood there in the hallway, trading kisses and nips to each other's jaws and necks, until Jason had smirked against Dick's skin and cleared his throat. “I forgot my cufflinks upstairs. Do you mind getting them for me? Or better yet, come with me and show me how to put them on?”
Jason never put on those cufflinks. They'd arrived to the banquet twenty minutes late, and Jason couldn't quite bring himself to care about Bruce's scolding when he'd spent those twenty minutes finding out what Dick's skin felt like against his, what noises he made while Jason had proven to him that he'd been neither innocent nor delicate and that there was little left for Dick to ruin or corrupt in the first place.
But all that is ancient history. Years have passed since then. Jason died and came back a different person. If they'd ever really had a chance for more, it's been gone for a long time. And now that they've had a long overdue fallout, maybe Jason can move on. Leave Dick be. Find a way to stop wanting, stop needing him, to grow out of his shadow in every way that's left.
He gives the gargoyle a pat and he rises to his feet. His hand wraps around the grapple on autopilot. He's about shoot a line out when he hears a voice behind him, familiar and unexpected.
“If distance is what you want,” Dick starts, hands held up in front of himself, “I'm not gonna talk you out of that. But I'm not gonna let you leave thinking you've bitten me away either.”
Of course he won't. He's far too stubborn for that, and as Jason keeps forgetting, also knows him too well. Jason sighs, heavily, and turns around. “So I've not been clear enough, then.”
Dick shrugs his shoulders and smiles. “You've been crystal clear. Just not in the way you thought.”
It should feel condescending, him showing up here and nullifying their earlier conversation in two sentences. But it doesn't. Jason feels relieved, and he hates himself for that. “We're a bad idea. Always have been. You're better off without me.”
Smile fading, Dick takes in a breath. “I don't get a vote on that?”
“No, Dickie.” One corner of his mouth quirked into a smirk, Jason shakes his head. “You don't.”
“Sorry,” Dick says. “I won't accept that.”
With a few long strides he's in Jason's face, cupping his jaw with both hands and bringing their mouths together, and although he should, he really should, Jason isn't strong enough to refuse. The temptation to get one last taste of what he's going to give up is too strong and he kisses back, deep and hungry, makes it a deserving farewell. He doesn't know where he gathers the self-discipline to stop, eventually, break the kiss and step away.
He can't, however, make himself leave.
And because Dick isn't the type to let things go easily, never has been, he doesn't leave either. He waits Jason out, lets him waver and reconsider – he's always been as patient as he's stubborn – and when he finally decides now's the time to continue the conversation, just enough time has passed that his mere presence serves as both reassurance and temptation.
“Talk to me, Jay,” he says, somehow manages to sound authoritative and understanding at once, and Jason sighs, glance at him, looking for a last way out; for the anger he tried so hard to stoke, for something to chafe against.
And maybe it's Pavlovian, or maybe it's just a sudden bout of simple, basic human decency, because even with the best possible reasons it's still shitty to break up with someone without giving them all the information.
“You got hurt,” Jason replies. “Because I got distracted.”
For a moment Dick seems lost, head cocked, wheels turning visibly inside. But then it seems to click together. “Wait, you mean the warehouse?” He pauses, a crease to his brows, and Jason nods. “Jay, come on. We get hurt all the time, that's not – “
“We do. I know. That's not the point,” Jason says, shaking his head. “You distract me. Thinking I might lose you distracts me. Worrying about you distracts me. And you damn well know we can't afford that. It's dangerous, for both of us, and for everyone else.” There's something in Dick's eyes, then, that makes it impossible to keep holding his gaze. Soft, a little haunted, and this might have been easier if he didn't get it. But of course he does; he's been on this rodeo for longer than Jason has, even though he didn't fall quite that far the few times he got thrown out of the saddle. Jason sighs, looks away. “I can't do this job and care for someone so much. I just can't.”
“Look, I get being afraid. Worrying. And... you've seen me after Bruce died, after Damian died. Hell, Damian died to protect me, and I've been grappling about that for a long time.” The shadow of how painful that must have been is clear on his face, and Jason's heart sinks in sympathy. Then Dick smiles, sad but... content? Proud? A bit of both, maybe. “But you know what I realized? Remembered, really?” He does a dramatic pause, and Jason dutifully shrugs his shoulders, signaling he couldn't even begin to guess at the punch line that's in his future. “The people who love us don't hold us back. They give us a reason to fight, and a reason to come home. We're better for them. It's not a weakness to care, it shows strength. It doesn't have to be a distraction, it can help you focus.”
“Now you just sound like a goddamn lifetime movie,” Jason says, groaning, and buries his face in his hands. But then something in that speech, in the wording, belatedly resonates, and he looks up, frowning. “Love, huh? Are you using that as a general term, or...?”
Dick laughs, a breathless little thing that sounds surprised, almost breathless, but also threaded with relief. “You're the one who just admitted that you can't form a coherent thought when I'm around.”
“That is not what I said,” Jason volleys back, shooting him a fake-affronted glare.
Breaking a into a grin, Dick winks. “Why don't we go back, then? You can show me how much you don't care, then we can get a couple more hours of shut eye, and after that you can, you know, try not to rage and run and see how that feels?”
There's still a voice in the back of Jason's head that screams at him how much of a bad idea that is, how much he'll live to regret it and how badly it's going to hurt when that happens. It's probably not going to go away for another good long while, but for what it's worth, it's getting a little smaller, a little less convincing.
“Sure,” he says. “I can try.”