“You don’t know pain, Nightwing,” Morgaine hisses. The portal howling into existence behind her is almost loud enough to drown her out, but not quite. “But you will. I swear, you will.”
Dick finishes reciting the inscription, then holds his lighter to the parchment, so that the enchantment can never be undone. Morgaine screeches and writhes against the chains binding her as she’s dragged back toward the whirlpool of green light sucking her in. “ I don’t know pain?” he quips. “I just found out this morning that Kellogg is discontinuing Crocky Crunch. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
Morgaine spits at him, and her being an ancient and powerful sorceress, some of it actually lands on Dick’s cheek. Then she vanishes into the swirling green depths, the portal suction-seals itself closed, and Dick, Tim, and Jason Blood are left in the ringing silence of a regular Tuesday night on the Gotham docks.
Dick grimaces and swipes at his face with the back of his cheek. “Rude,” he mutters. “You alright, Blood?”
Blood climbs unsteadily to his feet, a hand pressed to his side. “Yes.” He limps forward and picks up the stone idol that now contains Morgaine le Fey, fabled enchantress of Arthurian myth. “Thanks to you.”
“Don’t mention it,” Dick says. “It’s not every day we get to see demons and witches in our humble city. Keeps things interesting.”
Tim snorts; Blood rolls his eyes. “Yes, well. Regardless. Your help has been much appreciated.” He casts the idol one last exhausted look, then tucks it out of sight into his knapsack. “I shall my take my leave. The sooner I return le Fey to a secure location, the better. Nightwing, Red Robin.”
Tim lifts a gloved hand. “Bye.”
They watch as Blood limps his way up the docks and vanishes into the dark tangle of the city. Tim tilts his head and frowns. “I feel like we should have offered him a ride.”
Dick barks out a laugh. It’s a cool autumn night in Gotham, the sharp edge of winter unmistakable on the wind, but still distant enough that he can breathe deep without it hurting. The ache of exhaustion has worked its way deep into his muscles, congratulating him on a productive night. Dick throws an arm around Tim’s shoulder and tries not to linger too long on the fact that he can’t seem to feel satisfied without his body being in some kind of pain. “It’s been a long night, T. I think we’ve earned ourselves a break.”
Tim checks his gauntlet. “Well, considering the fact that it’s four in the morning, I’d say we can probably turn in for the night, yeah.”
Dick grins, ruffles Tim’s hair, and shoots out a line. “Last one to the manor gets to tell B he’s got magic-users in his city again!” he calls back as he soars away, laughing at Tim’s squawk of indignation.
They shower and change in the cave, then drag themselves, half-unconscious, into the kitchen to put down the post-patrol protein load-up of quinoa and chicken that Alfred has lovingly prepared for them. Dick sits at the table with his hand in one hand and his fork in the other, moving from plate to mouth on nothing more than sheer habit. Halfway through his plate, Tim yawns, rubs blearily at his eyes, and gets up. “G’na get some juice. Y’want some?”
“I’m good, Timmy, thanks.”
The sound of shattering glass jolts Dick out of his seat a second later. He peers across the kitchen to where Tim is standing with his face in his hands, groaning. “Timmy?”
Tim heaves a deep, world-weary sigh and looks at Dick. “I dropped the glass,” he says, solemn and defeated.
Dick’s mouth twitches. “You want me to help you clean it up?”
Tim heaves another sigh. “No, I got it.” He disappears into the pantry.
“Put some gloves on,” Dick calls out. “Protect your hands.”
Tim’s head pops out to send Dick a dirty look. “Dick, I’m a crime-fighting vigilante trained in six classes of martial arts, and I have a genius IQ. I think I can manage without gloves.”
“You also broke a glass trying to get orange juice,” Dick points out, helpfully.
“Yes. Well.” Tim huffs and emerges with the broom and dustpan. “Leave me alone for once, maybe?”
Dick snorts and sits back down. He’s scooping up the last grains of his quinoa when a sharp pain suddenly lances through his hand. He hisses in surprise and looks down: A small, clean slice has appeared in the flesh of his palm, as neatly as if it was made with a surgical scalpel. A few fat drops of bright red well to the surface of his skin.
Dick blinks down at it, dumbfounded. Has it just taken him this long to notice he got cut on patrol? But he could swear that it had just happened.
Tim dumps the broken glass in the trashcan and returns to the table, holding up his hands. “See?” he says. “I didn’t cut myself or anything. Worrywart.”
Dick shrugs, wipes the blood from his hand on the corner of his napkin, and throws Tim his snarkiest grin. He’s already thinking of the queen-sized Tempurpedic mattress upstairs and blessing his past self for deciding to stay the night in the manor. “Congrats, crime-fighting genius. Finish your quinoa.”
Nightwing patrols with Robin the next night, because he takes his role as big brother very seriously and he wants to be fair, but mostly because the kid showed up at his apartment after school fuming about “the imbecilic state of primary education in America” and Dick can tell he needs to blow off some steam. They spend most of the night eating seaweed-rice crackers (“Really, young sirs, I don’t know how you can eat donuts while crime-fighting every night and still expect to survive”) and staking out the Iceberg Lounge while Damian rants about his teachers marking down his tests “simply because I choose to practice calculus by a method that does not follow their long-winded, idiotic farce of mathematics—”
“Robin.” Dick straightens behind his binoculars, and Damian instantly falls silent, gaze swinging down towards the nightclub. “They’re moving the guns.”
Damian straightens and grimly cracks his knuckles. “Shall we put a stop to that, then?”
Dick tucks his binoculars away, draws his escrima, and grins down at his little brother. “Let’s.”
They swing across the street, drop down into the alley, and begin making their way through Penguin’s hired hands with harsh efficiency. But something in the intel Dick’s gathered is wrong, because they’ve just taken down the last thugs standing between them and the trucks loaded with AK-47s when a fresh wave of at least twenty men burst out of the club’s back doors and begin firing. “Robin!” Dick shouts, throwing himself behind one of the trucks.
“I’m fine,” Damian answers, from where he’s already crouched behind the other truck. “We can take them.”
“Wait,” Dick commands him. He inches forward and peers around the edge of the truck, then immediately winces back when a bullet nearly grazes his cheek.
“Stay, Robin.” Dick glances around the alley and zeroes in on the pipes running up the side of the club. He pulls a handful of birdarangs from his belt, braces himself, and pops up just long enough to throw the stars into the pipes before diving back down. The thugs let out startled shouts as the plumbing bursts open and soaks them in a torrent of cold water. The hail of gunfire pauses, just for a second, and Dick seizes the opportunity to roll out from behind the truck, flick the switch on the side of one of his sticks, and throw it into the crowd.
The wet floor of the alley lights up electric-blue, and the thugs scream as electricity seizes through them. The majority of them fall to the ground, twitching; those still standing take one look at Dick climbing to his feet, turn, and bolt. Dick walks forward and lets his insulated boots protect him as he reaches down to retrieve his stick.
Damian emerges from behind the truck and surveys the damage with an expression of cool approval. “Well-executed, Nightwing.”
Dick chuckles. “High praise from you, Robin.” He glances over his shoulder at the trucks. “I’ll call Gordon in, make sure these arms arrive at an evidence locker safely and don’t go mysteriously missing along the—”
It’s Damian’s sharp intake of breath that has Dick whipping back around, but he doesn’t even have time to reach for his belt before the half-conscious thug holding up his shotgun on the ground has fired a round straight into Damian’s chest.
Damian flies backwards and crashes, hard, against the wall of the alley, but it’s Dick who screams. He throws his stick as hard as he can at the thug’s head and doesn’t even wait for the crack of it making contact before he’s sprinting to Damian’s side. “Robin! Robin, are you—”
Damian groans and stirs from where he’s slumped at the foot of the wall. Dick skids onto his knees beside him and feels himself go weak with relief: The front of Damian’s vest is mangled beyond repair, but the Kevlar has caught the brunt of the shot. “I’m fine,” Damian says, a little breathless. He looks down at his own chest and seems stunned at the damage. “I am unharmed.”
“Thank fuck,” Dick breathes, quietly enough that Damian (probably) doesn’t hear. He grasps Damian’s shoulder with a staying hand as the latter starts to get to his feet. “Careful, even if the bullet didn’t go through you’re definitely going to have at least a broken rib or two—”
But Damian straightens easily, with only a wince to indicate that he just took a shotgun blast point-blank not half a minute ago. “I am fine, Nightwing. Your coddling is unnecessary.”
Dick frowns. “It’s not coddling, Robin, you just got shot —”
“No,” Damian interrupts him, glancing down at himself again. He almost seems confused himself when he repeats, “Truly, I am fine. Somewhat sore, perhaps, but in no significant pain. Likely the moron was unwittingly using a weapon of inferior quality. It seems its firepower was somewhat lacking.”
On any other day, Dick would call Damian out for trying to save face, but Damian is brushing the flecks of shrapnel from his vest with barely a grimace, movements unhindered by pain. Dick knows Damian’s face better than he knows his own, and he knows when Damian isn’t lying with him. He lets it go with a sigh and gets to his feet. “Alright. Let’s get these guys tied up and then head back to the manor. I still want to check you over, just to be safe.”
Damian lets out a scoff, but it’s a testament to how far he’s come that he doesn’t follow it with anything insulting. They ziptie the thugs and stow them in the trucks with the guns, then wait on the rooftop across the street for Gordon and his sergeants to show up. Dick straightens, groaning at his own stiff muscles, and turns to Damian. “Shall we, Robin?”
They chase each other across the city, letting the wind make them weightless over the dark tangle of Gotham’s streets. The exhaustion hits Dick the minute they back it back to the cave: All of a sudden his body feels like a grapefruit that’s been pulverized into gristle. He has to bite back a gasp at the abrupt pain. Damian’s gaze catches on him instantly. “Grayson?”
“Sorry, I just—” Dick frowns down at himself. Has he gotten so old that a relatively unexciting night of patrol has wrecked him so thoroughly? “I’m a little sore, I guess.” He steadies himself with a grimace before shooing Damian towards the med bay. “C’mon, suit off.”
Damian huffs but complies, stripping off the pieces of his costume as he steps under one of the observation lamps. Dick gently skates his palms over Damian’s chest and ribs, then shines a light in each of his eyes and makes him recite the alphabet backwards to check for a concussion.
Dick straightens and tosses the penlight back onto its tray with a slightly bemused frown. “All clear,” he says, a little awed. “You’re one lucky kid, Little D.”
Damian sniffs and turns up his nose. “It’s not luck, Grayson, it’s skill,” he says, airily. “May I have some cocoa?”
Dick laughs, affection filling his chest with warmth. “Yeah, go on up. I’ll be up in a sec.”
Dick waits until Damian has disappeared up the stairs before peeling off his own suit. He stands in front of the med bay mirror and stares at himself, blood cold in his veins. His entire torso is a canvas of lurid purple bruises, blooming to the surface like a sick painting. It hurts even to breathe.
“Grayson?” Damian voice drifts down from the top of the staircase. “The cocoa is ready.”
“Yeah, I—I’ll be right up,” Dick calls back, fighting to keep the panic from his voice. He grabs the nearest roll of gauze and sets to wrapping his ribs as quickly as he can, hands shaking.
Damian’s eyes narrow across the table as Dick settles into his seat. “Are you alright, Grayson?” he asks. “You’re holding yourself strangely.”
Dick wilts in his seat. “I’m an old man , Dami,” he whines, because there’s no better way to irritate Damian Wayne than to be melodramatic. “My muscles ache and my bones creak. We can’t all be spring chickens like you.”
Damian’s shoulders drop and he rolls his eyes. “You’re a disgrace, Grayson.”
“Yes, well,” Dick grins. “Pass the whipped cream.”
Dick sleeps fitfully and wakes exhausted the next morning, roused by the aching of his own body. He holds his hand up to the light and stares at the cut on his palm, just beginning to scab over. He thinks of Damian, crashing back against the wall with his vest full of shrapnel; he thinks of Tim, smirking victoriously at him as he held up his unmarred hands. You don’t know pain, Nightwing, Morgaine hissed, as he banished her to a lifetime trapped in a stone statue. But you will.
Around nine, Dick hears the window over the fire escape sliding open in his living room. A second later, Jason appears in the doorway to his bedroom, hair tousled and grin bright. “Morning, Dickhead.”
Dick tucks his hand back under the covers and offers up a lazy smile. “You’re very chipper this morning.”
“Yeah, well, you know my happiness is linearly correlated with the number of miles between me and the Bat,” Jason quips, then immediately discredits any “I hate Batman” mojo he’s built up by asking, “How’s that going, by the way?”
“Good,” Dick says. “Got an update from him and Clark yesterday. They’ve landed on X’rallia and are hoping to make contact with the Dos’andians by the next moonrise.”
“Okay, I guess,” Jason laughs. He grabs the stuffed Zitka Dick still keeps on his dresser and throws it at Dick’s face. “C’mon, get up, I’ll make you breakfast.”
Dick catches the toy with a laugh and pushes himself upright. “You’re a real sweetheart, you know that, Jason Todd?”
Jason stops halfway through whatever insult he’s about to say next and grimaces instead. “Ouch, Grayson,” he says. “Rough night?”
Dick’s gaze darts down, but he already knows what Jason’s staring at. He fights the urge to yank the sheets back up over his chest. Broken ribs and nasty bruises are a dime a dozen in their line of work; acting frantic about it would only make Jason suspicious. He hesitates, then says, before he can really think about it, “Took a shotgun blast to the chest. Suit caught most of it, but it still hurt like a bitch.”
Jason whistles. “I bet.” He maneuvers around the bed and perches on the edge; then, telegraphing his movements so that Dick can pull away if he wants to, reaches out and brushes a hand over the bandages covering most of Dick’s torso. Dick sucks in a breath, instinctive, but Jason’s touch is painfully gentle, almost tender as he skirts the shape of Dick’s ribs with his fingertips. Jason looks up and meets Dick’s eyes, and Dick’s breath catches for another reason entirely. “You need help rewrapping these, boy blunder?”
The pseudo-gibe is delivered with so much fondness that it makes Dick’s chest constrict. He takes in the blue-green earnestness of Jason’s eyes, the serious furrow to his brow, and feels his stomach perform an aerial flip that would have made his parents proud. “Later,” he murmurs. “Right now I think you promised me breakfast.”
Jason laughs and stands; Dick misses the absence of Jason’s hand against his barely-covered skin more than he would think. “If you think I’m bringing you breakfast in bed, you’re delusional,” Jason warns. “Come on, let’s get you into some real boy clothes; then you can help me in the kitchen.”
Jason makes dough from scratch, then leaves Dick in charge of the coffee while he runs to the bodega downstairs for the ingredients to breakfast pizza. “Where did you learn to do all this?” Dick asks, watching in wonder as Jason layers pureed tomatoes, discs of fresh mozzarella, thin slices of red onion, and torn-up chorizo onto the dough. “You’re like. Martha Stewart, if she were six feet tall and two hundred pounds.”
Jason snorts. “Please,” he says. “I’m definitely more Ina Garten if she were six feet tall and two hundred pounds.” He cracks a couple of eggs on top, then slides the beautiful creation into the oven. “Alf taught me, and he could’ve taught you, too, if you weren’t too much of a raging disaster to be let into the kitchen.”
Dick grins. He curls his fingers around his mug of coffee, savoring the warmth that leaches into his hands. “I can’t help it,” he says. “I was born like this.”
Jason rolls his eyes, grabs his own mug, and drags Dick over to the couch, where he forces Dick to sit under an afghan and watch reruns of Samurai Jack. Being warm and relaxed for five minutes means that Dick inevitably falls asleep. He jerks awake what feels like a millisecond later to a searing pain on his forearm and Jason’s voice hissing “Shit!” in the kitchen.
Dick scrambles upright, clutching at his arm. An angry red welt has appeared on his skin and is already blistering. He stares at it, horrified. “Jay?”
“Sorry—sorry.” There’s the sound of shuffling steps and a tray clattering onto the countertop. “I lost my grip on the tray and it was super fucking hot, so I thought I’d burned myself, but it’s all good.”
A lump of something hard and cold settles in Dick’s stomach. “You didn’t burn yourself?”
“Nope.” Jason appears above him with two plates, and Dick instinctively yanks his sleeve down. “You want with egg or without?”
“Uh. With.” Dick stares up at Jason, his heart hammering in his chest. “Jason—”
Jason places one of the plates in Dick’s lap and raises his brows at the look on Dick’s face. “What? We already established that cooking is not that hard, Dick.”
Dick swallows. “Nothing.” He picks up a slice and takes a bite. “It’s great.”
Jason drops down onto the couch next to him and turns the volume up on Clone Wars . “Eat up.”
Dick eats on autopilot, something frantic and scared thundering in his chest. One part of him is picking the situation part and putting it in its respective boxes, tracing the problem back to its start and accounting for all the different factors— It was Morgaine, it had to be. But how does it choose who to take from? And is it only physical pain?
The other is stuck on a repeating loop, lobbing the same question back at himself over and over again: Do I tell them? Do I tell?
“Dick.” Dick starts out of his daze. Jason frowns at him. “You alright?”
Dick stares at him for a moment. Then all of the frantic thoughts in his head grind to a halt, and he’s hit with sudden clarity. “Yeah,” he says. Under the afghan, his fingers find the edge of the bandages around his ribs. “Yeah, I’m good.”
Jason squints at him. Then he sets his empty plate down on the coffee table and stands. “Up.”
Dick blinks at him. “What?”
“Those wraps are in sore need of a change, prettyboy,” Jason informs him. “Come on, on your feet.”
Dick grins, soft, and lets Jason lead him to the bathroom. He sits on the counter and watches as Jason rummages in his medicine cabinet and comes up with a pack of fresh gauze, a roll of medical tape, and a half-empty jar of anti-inflammatory balm. “How’s your smuggling case going?”
Jason grunts as he busies himself peeling away the old bandages. “Fine,” he says. “They’re in Gotham. I’m raiding one of their storehouses tonight.”
Jason glances up at him “No. No. You are not shouldering in on my operation, Dickwing.”
“You can’t take on an entire warehouse of smugglers by yourself,” Dick protests. “How many armed guards will there be?”
“ Dick— ”
“You need someone to watch your six.” Dick’s pulse is thundering in his ears, and part of him is scared of what happens if Jason finds out, but—he remembers the relief he felt when Damian got up and walked away from a blow that should have put him down for a week. “Just let me be your backup. I promise I won’t do anything without your go ahead.”
Jason huffs. “Fine,” he relents. “But if you steal this case from me, I’ll find your stash of Crocky Crunch and burn it all, you hear me?”
Dick gasps and clutches at his chest. “Jason. That kind of cruel language is not necessary in this household.”
Jason rolls his eyes and wipes a dampened towel over the ugly mess of bruises. Dick holds back a wince, but Jason must sense him stiffening because his expression instantly softens. “Sorry.” He gently holds one end of the gauze to Dick’s skin and begins to wrap. He has to duck close to Dick to do it, and Dick finds himself holding his breath as Jason’s hair tickles his cheek. “They got you good, huh?”
Dick hums. Jason tapes off the gauze and then reaches up to brush Dick’s hair back from his eyes. “You gotta be more careful, goldie, you hear?”
Dick swallows, eyes flickering to Jason’s lips, the serious set of his jaw. Jason is volatile at first touch, but in his mellowest moments he is nothing short of sweet, so tender it makes Dick ache like something’s been torn out of him. And Dick wants—he wants, but…every time he gets close enough, he starts to think that maybe Jason deserves someone who hasn’t failed him so many times.
“Yeah,” Dick whispers. He leans in and rests his forehead against Jason’s. “I will.”
Jason leaves Dick on the rooftop of the abandoned office building across the street with strict instructions. “I’ll stay on the comm, but you do not move unless I call for backup, you hear? Stay put and monitor the south exit. I want to know if any of these scumbags try to make a break for it.”
Dick responds with a salute and the most shit-eating grin he has in his arsenal. “Sir yes sir!”
Jason heaves a sigh that sounds like it’s been dredged from the bottom of his soul. “See you in a bit, ‘Wing.”
“Good luck, Hood.”
The first hour of the raid is quiet. Dick knows Jason likes to take his time, likes to move through a base of operations part by part, picking his enemies off so that they don’t realize they’ve been invaded until it’s too late. He sends pictures and scans of the evidence he finds to Dick for safekeeping: A shipping manifest with bank accounts that Dick knows Jason will be able to trace back up the ring, a roster of names that will put at least a dozen guilty men in jail. “Damn, Hood,” Dick murmurs, flicking through the documents on the viewer in his gauntlet. “You’ve outdone yourself.”
Jason chuckles, low and raspy in Dick’s ear. “Coming up on the main bay now,” he murmurs. “Wish me luck.”
Dick tenses as the burst of gunfire carries over his comm, followed by distant shouting and the sounds of grunting and swearing. “Hood,” he says, then flinches when there’s a second round of gunfire. “Hood, report. Are you okay?”
Jason’s voice huffs onto the line. “Fine,” he pants. “All targets neutralized. Checking the contents of the crates now, then calling it in to GPD.”
Dick relaxes. “Great work, Hood.”
“See, I told you I didn’t need—” Jason abruptly falls silent.
“ Fuck ,” Jason hisses.
“Hood,” Dick says. “Hood, what—”
“The manifests are structured like they’re smuggling drugs,” Jason says. Dick is on his feet before he can even think, because he’s heard Jason’s voice like this before. He’s heard it when Bruce died and Jason spat poison at him before letting himself fall from a bridge; he’s heard it the dozens of time in the past— but not so far in the past, the part of his brain that sounds frustratingly like Bruce supplies—that he and Batman have faced off against the Red Hood over killing rapists and men who sell drugs to children. “But they’re not smuggling drugs. They’re smuggling kids.”
Dick’s eyes widen. Then he’s jumping onto the lip of the rooftop, firing a line, swinging across. “Hood, listen—”
“You scumbags,” Jason snarls, voice shaking. There’s the boom of a single gunshot, and then someone is screaming. “You pieces of shit —”
“Hood!” Dick lands and sprints into the warehouse, reaching for the escrima strapped to his back. “Listen, I know they deserve hell, worse than hell, but you can’t, you can’t kill them—”
“Why not?” Jason snarls. There’s another gunshot, and the screaming turns into sobbing. “How many kids do you think they’ve killed? How many kids do you think they’ve shot up full of heroin and then sold to be raped ?”
“J—” Dick starts, pleading—and then the next thing he knows, he’s tumbling onto the dirty floor of the warehouse, all of the breath escaping his lungs at once at the excruciating pain lancing through his leg. For a second he can’t move with how much it hurts, and he just lays on his side like a beached fish, gasping for air. When he finally regains the presence of mind to look down, he sees his leg bent at an abnormal angle below the knee, like someone has taken his foot and twisted it sharply to the left.
Dick, like everyone in their family, has fractured nearly every limb at least once before—but there’s something about the unexpectedness of this break that has tears springing to his eyes. “J,” he gasps into his comm. “Are you—are you okay, are you—”
“Fine, Nightwing,” Jason replies, grimly. There’s a third gunshot, and Dick is yanked back into the reality of the situation. “And I’ll be much better after I put each and every one of these shitbags into the ground.” The line cuts out.
“ Damn it .” Dick uses his escrima to push himself upright, leaning against the wall to keep from collapsing. Who? he thinks, even as he begins to drag himself forward. If not Jason, then who? Tim? Damian? Are they patrolling tonight? If one of them has just had their leg broken—do they need help? Can I get to them, do I go—?
But then Dick looks down at his bent leg dragging behind him and remembers: Neither Tim nor Damian has just had their leg broken. Relief, mixed with something bitter and scared, fills Dick’s throat. He shoves it aside for now and puts all his focus on moving forward. Tim and Damian don’t need him right now, but Jason does; Jason is in a world of hurt that goes beyond the physical.
Dick finally drags himself into the loading bay, almost dizzy with pain. Jason is standing over a man sobbing on the ground in a pool of blood, aiming a gun at his head. Behind him, the doors to a shipping crate have been thrown open. At least fifteen teenage girls, covered in filth and dressed in little more than rags, huddle on the floor, holding each other as they silently watch the scene unfold. “Hood!”
Jason snarls. “Get out of here, Nightwing.”
Dick takes a deep breath, braces himself, and pushes off the wall. He begins limping across the room. “Hood. You don’t want to do this.”
Jason laughs, sharp and breathless. “Oh, but I do,” he says. “I really, really do.”
“Please,” the man on the ground sobs. “Please, don’t kill me—”
“Hood.” Dick comes to a halt on the other side of the trafficker and tries to find the Jason he knows in that expressionless red helmet. “J. Look at me.”
Jason’s posture doesn’t change, but he must oblige, because when he speaks against his voice is a little less thick, a little closer to the surface of his haze. “What the fuck happened to your leg?”
Dick takes a deep breath. “It’s broken.”
Jason bristles. “How the fuck —”
“I’m not leaving without you, Hood,” Dick says. “I can’t. So either you lower your gun and we both get out of here—or I stay and wait for the police to come and tell them everything you did.”
Jason goes still. “And if I kill these men and leave you to tell the cops whatever the fuck you want?”
Dick swallows. “Then we’re done,” he says, quietly. “It’s over. And I don’t want to hear from you again.”
For a moment, all Dick gets is the cold face of Jason’s helmet, staring back at him. He feels himself teetering, as if on a precipice. All he can do is hope that when he falls, it’ll be on the right side.
Abruptly, Jason holsters his gun; Dick sags with relief. Jason turns to the girls in the crate and lowers his voice. “Stay here,” he tells them, gentle. “The police are coming in five minutes. Tell them everything that happened to you. You’ll be safe with them.”
One of the girls looks to the man bleeding on the ground, then back to Jason. “Thank you,” she says, voice thick with tears.
The man on the ground sobs harder and presses his forehead to the ground. Jason ignores him and grabs Dick, wedges his shoulder under Dick’s arm. “Come on,” he snaps. Dick closes his eyes and lets Jason drag him out of the warehouse.
By the time they make it back to Dick’s apartment, Dick is fading in and out of consciousness, his entire world a grayscale of pain and nausea. He comes to on the couch to Jason, helmetless, shaking his shoulder. “—son,” he’s saying. “Stay awake. What happened to your leg?”
Dick swallows. His throat his thick; he feels like he’s gonna throw up. “Landed wrong,” he rasps. “Bad jump coming off the rooftop ‘cross the street.”
Jason’s jaw clenches. “Bullshit,” he snaps. “You’ve been flipping off rooftops since you were nine years old, and you expect me to believe you broke your leg jumping down into an empty street?”
“Jay.” Dick reaches out. “Thank you, for not—”
Jason snatches his hand back. Dick’s words shrivel and die on his tongue. “I’m going to scan your leg,” Jason says. His voice is flat, devoid of all emotion. “Hold still.”
Dick swallows and stays quiet while Jason runs the scanner on his gauntlet over Dick’s leg. There’s a moment while Jason waits for the imager to load in which Dick tries and fails to find the right way to apologize for threatening to leave, as if Jason hasn’t been let down by enough of the people in his life. Then Jason nods, once, and the moment is gone. “Single fracture, clean break. I can set it here.”
“Okay,” Dick whispers.
Jason stands and stalks out of the living room. “I’m gonna get a splint. Try not to go into shock.”
Dick takes the opportunity to bang his head against the back of the couch. Shit.
Jason returns with the splint, more gauze, and a handful of ice packs. He helps Dick strip out of his suit, refusing to meet his eyes the entire time, then pulls up a footstool and puts his helmet back on, flicking on the X-ray vision in the visor. Dick sucks in a breath as Jason grasps his leg. “This is going to hurt,” he warns.
Dick only screams once, when Jason first starts moving the bone; he spends the rest of the time digging his teeth into his lower lip and breathing in short, rapid bursts through his nose. By the time Jason finishes tying off the last binding on the splint, he’s bone-white and covered in a thin layer of sweat.
“Done.” Jason pops off his helmet and stands. He bends down and gets one arm under Dick’s shoulder and the other under Dick’s uninjured knee. Dick doesn’t have the energy to protest when Jason levies him into the air. “Bed.”
Dick knows he’s not the lightest princess in the tower, so he tries not to take it personally when Jason drops him onto his mattress. He bounces against the sheets with a grunt, already feeling himself yield to the exhaustion that’s begun creeping over his mind. Jason busies himself with something out of Dick’s sight; by the time he returns, Dick can barely keep his eyes open.
Jason sets a glass of water and a bottle of painkillers on Dick’s nightstand. “Don’t be an idiot,” he says. “Take them when you wake up.”
Dick blinks blearily at him through the dark. “Jason,” he says, already waning. “Stay.”
But when Jason looks back at him, Dick sees more of that mouthless steel helmet than he does the man who wrapped his ribs and made him breakfast pizza. “Sorry, goldie,” he says, “but I think you were right. i think we’re done.”
Dick closes his eyes and finally yields to the dark sea washing over his mind.
Dick swims back to the land of the living the next morning to find a familiar face bending over the bed, the slight furrow in his brow all the expression Dick needs to know he’s worried. “Bruce?” Dick mumbles, thickly. “Y’re back?”
“Yes.” Bruce slips a hand behind Dick’s shoulder. “Can you sit?”
“I got the juice!” Clark appears in the doorway. Dick begins to think he’s still dreaming. “How are you feeling, Dick?”
“Clark? What’re you—what are you two doing here?”
“We just got back from X’rallia,” Clark explains. “Bruce received a message from Jason saying that you were hurt, so instead of dropping him off at the manor, I took him here so we could check on you.” He comes forward and hands Dick a bottle of orange juice. “He said you prefer to take pills with juice.”
“Uh. Thanks.” Dick grimaces as Bruce helps him sit up. He hates taking painkillers in the morning—it always leaves him muddled for the rest of the day—but his leg feels like someone is slowly working a skewer through it, so he swallows the two pills Bruce hands him without protest. “How did the rescue of the Dos’andians go?”
Clark laughs. “We weren’t planetside for two hours before the Holrathians realized we had snuck in and attacked us. It got ugly for a minute, but we got all of the Dos’andians out safely.” He quirks an eyebrow at Bruce. “Though I swear Bruce is getting more and more invulnerable every day. Soon he’ll be able to give me a run for my money.”
“What do you mean?’
“He took a nasty fall when the Holrathians cornered us,” Clark explains. “It must have been at least thirty feet, but he didn’t so much as fracture a finger. Still, I should’ve caught him, but I didn’t realize what had happened until it was already too late.” He grimaces. “Sorry, Bruce.”
Bruce just grunts. “What happened?” he asks Dick.
Dick’s entire body has gone cold. For a moment, he imagines letting himself tell his dad everything—Morgaine and the words she spat at him, letting Damian get shot on his watch, the fact that he’s certain, now, that the only reason Bruce didn’t break something when he fell was because Dick got broken for him instead. But the words only make it halfway up his throat before they get stuck. So, instead, he pastes on a watery smile and leans into Bruce’s hand on his shoulder. “Bad fall on a mission, too,” he says. “Though I wasn’t as lucky as you.”
Bruce frowns. Dick sees him narrowing in on the tension Dick can’t quite hide from his expression, the way Dick deliberately avoids looking at his own leg. Dick holds his breath, irrationally afraid that somehow, Bruce will know—
Bruce sighs. “Did something happen with Jason?”
And Dick—Dick almost laughs. Even when Bruce is wrong, he’s right. “Yes,” he admits. “But you don’t have to worry about it. It was mostly my fault, anyway.”
“No,” Dick says, hurriedly. “He didn’t.”
Bruce watches him for a moment more, parsing whether or not he’s lying. Then he nods. “Will you be alright on your own? I have to submit the report on the mission to the League.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Dick gets a hand on Bruce’s massive arm and pushes him, gently, towards the door. “Go, do what you need to do. I’ve had much worse.”
“I can send Alfred if—”
“No, don’t bother him.” Dick waves them away. “Thanks for stopping by. It was good to see you, Clark.”
“You too, Dick. Heal up quick, alright?”
Dick grins. “I’ll try my best.”
Dick waits until he hears the front door shutting before reaching for his tablet. He takes a moment to draw in a deep breath, taking all the pain in his body and pushing it off to one side; then he types Morgaine le Fey into the Justice League database search engine and begins to read.
Dick makes it two weeks before the rest of the family realizes something is happening. He gets a call at two in the afternoon on a Saturday, Tim, Bruce, Damian, Jason, Barbara, Steph, and Cass’s names all flashing across the screen of his tablet. He stares at it for a moment with the same feeling he got when he watched Chemo blow up Bludhaven. “Shit,” he says, to his empty apartment.
He picks up the call on audio, because he doesn’t want video footage of what he looks like right now getting to any of his over-perceptive, extremely paranoid family members. He’s supposed to have been off patrol for the past two weeks to let his leg heal, but if any of his loved ones catch sight of the bruises on his eye, jaw, and cheek, his sprained right wrist, his burned left forearm, the hastily-packed stab wound on his right shoulder, the fresh slice across his collarbone, or his still-mottled ribs, they’re all going to realize that was a big fat lie—even if he hasn’t, technically, been out on the streets since the night of the storehouse raid. Damian calls him out on it immediately, because of course he does. “Grayson? Why are we unable to see your face?”
“Uh.” Dick limps across the kitchen to drop himself on the couch with an unceremonious huff. “Spotty connection. What’s got everyone’s panties in a twist?”
“How do you know something is wrong?” Barbara’s smooth voice asks, faintly amused.
“Please,” Dick laughs. “All of you, on one call? The world must be ending.”
“Someone’s been protecting us,” Tim says, because Tim always gets to the point. “Someone with magic.”
Dick swallows a curse. He knew this was coming. “‘Us,’ as in…?”
“All of us,” Tim says. “All of the Bats, everyone on this call. Alfred, too, I’m pretty sure.”
“Okay,” Dick says. “What do you mean by ‘protecting’?”
“None of us seem to be able to take a hit lately,” Steph chirps. “And by that I mean it’s as if we’re literally not taking any hits. Well, we are, but they don’t seem to have any effect. I haven’t copped so much as a bruise on patrol in, like. Two weeks, I think.”
“Maybe you’re all just getting really good at this,” Dick suggests.
“Someone stabbed me in the shoulder last night and it straight up did nothing,” Tim deadpans. “The knife went in, but when it came back out, it was like nothing had happened.”
“Are you sure that—”
“My suit tore,” Tim says. “But I didn’t even bleed.”
Dick sighs. Okay, well, here he goes, then. “And it’s all of you? You’re all experiencing this?”
Damian sniffs. “I do not make a habit of allowing criminals to injure me regardless,” he says, haughty; then, “But…I admit that perhaps I have been coming off patrol cleaner than usual.”
“This hasn’t been happening to you, Dick?” Barbara asks.
“Uh—maybe. Not sure,” Dick lies. “You know I’ve been mostly off patrol since I broke my leg. But what’s the problem? Only this group of people can suddenly become invulnerable and start complaining.”
“We’re not complaining,” Bruce’s steady baritone rumbles. “But it’s necessary to uncover the source of this…enchantment and determine whether or not it’s friendly.”
Dick thinks of the hatred that twisted Morgaine’s expression as she was sucked back into the idol. “You’re literally immune to injury,” he says instead, because he knows it’s what Bruce is expecting. “How could it not be friendly?”
“Too good to be true,” Cass says, and Bruce hums in agreement.
“Cassandra is right. Deals like this are never without their debts.”
Dick sighs. Sometimes he wishes he came from a dumb family. “Okay, well. Anything I can do to help?”
“Have you encountered anything out of the ordinary recently? Anything supernatural or magical in origin?”
“Dick and I helped Jason Blood send Morgaine le Fey packing a couple of weeks ago,” Tim says. “Maybe he did this, as a way of saying thank you?”
Bruce hums. “Unlikely. Blood is not known for being magnanimous. But I’ll check with him. Anything else?”
A chorus of “No”s and “Nothing I can recall, no,” comes back to him. “Very well,” Bruce says. “I’ll follow up with Blood. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled.”
“Will do, B.”
“Until next time,” Bruce says, and signs off. The rest of them say their goodbyes and leave the call, until it’s just Jason’s name on the screen of Dick’s tablet.
Dick swallows. “Jay?” They haven’t seen each other since that ill-fated night at the storehouse. “Are you—?”
The call ends with a beep , and Jason’s name disappears. Dick clenches his jaw and tosses his tablet aside. He takes a moment to breathe past the hurt; then he gets up and hobbles to his bedroom.
The past two weeks have been like a carnival funhouse of pain; Dick has lost track of just how many cups and plates he’s broken because a stab wound has suddenly appeared in his shoulder while he was pouring his morning coffee. He hasn’t deliberately skipped a patrol in years, but not even Dick is cavalier enough about his boundaries to test what will happen if he takes his own injuries on top of his entire family’s, so he’s had Cass covering for him while he holes up inside his apartment claiming convalescence. He ameliorates the guilt of not being on the streets by telling himself that at least he’s still doing something to protect those he loves.
The past two weeks haven’t turned up anything useful about Morgaine le Fey, either, nothing that Dick didn’t already know. He considered calling Jason Blood, but eventually decided against it: Blood would never agree to release Morgaine again, and besides, that’s not what Dick is looking for. He considered calling Zatanna, but he knows that all she’d do is beat him over the head for being an idiot and then go straight to Bruce.
Besides, says that irrepressible voice in his head, the one that used to keep him on the high bars for hours at a time until he finally mastered the quadruple flip, the one that pushes him now to see every case through to the end. Do you really want the people you love to start getting hurt again?
Dick has just landed on his bed for his third nap of the day when his phone starts ringing again. He groans, digs it out of his pocket, and hits the answer button. “Hey, Timmy,” he says, trying not to sound as exhausted as he feels. “What’s up?”
“Hey,” Tim says. Dick hears the sound of rapid-fire typing in the background. “Just wanted to say hi, check in. You sounded kind of weird over the conference call, and I haven’t seen you in a bit, so…” He trails off for a moment. “Sorry. Working a case. But yeah. Everything okay?”
Dick laughs. “Your undivided attention and concern are truly touching, Timbo.”
“Hey,” Tim protests, mildly. “You know how it is.”
“I do. And I’m fine, by the way. A little sore still, but on the up and up.”
“Good to hear,” Tim says; then, sheepishly, “Um. Do you think you’re up enough to come out tonight?”
Despite how tired he is, Dick has to grin. Tim almost never asks for help—none of them are any good at it—so the fact that he trusts Dick enough to even bring it up… “What do you need, Timbo?”
“Are you sure you’re up for this?” Even without being able to see Tim’s eyes, Dick can tell that he’s being given a very skeptical once-over. “Didn’t you say you were ready to go? You look a lot worse than I thought.”
“Wow, thanks, T,” Dick deadpans. He knows that most of the injuries are hidden under his full-body suit, but he can’t help the nervousness that twists in his stomach at the unsure cock of Tim’s head. “I’m fine; just haven’t been sleeping great, that’s all.”
“And your leg?”
“My leg is fine,” Dick says. “J’onn sent over some of that Martian bone regeneration powder. Worked like a charm. I’m all set to go.” He lowers his voice and shoots Tim a significant look of his own. “Though I would have appreciated it, Red Robin, if you had told me that Red Hood was going to be here, too.”
Tim is definitely rolling his eyes right now. “Right. I forgot you guys are fighting again.”
“We’re not fighting,” Dick says; then, “Is that what J said, though?”
“ J didn’t say anything to me that you can’t ask him yourself,” Tim retorts. “God, you’re all so dramatic.”
Dick laughs. “Alright, fair enough.” He tries not to look at Jason standing on the other side of the rooftop, watching the entrance to the Gotham Stock Exchange through a pair of binoculars. “So. What’s the deal with this guy?”
“Goes by the moniker Acheron.” Tim taps at his gauntlet and shows Dick a picture of a half-blurred figure moving between two rooftops, the lower half of his face hidden under black cloth. “He trained with the League of Shadows, but didn’t make the cut. Still, he was good enough that when the League tried to execute him, he strangled his executioner and escaped. He’s been pursuing his own personal mission of ushering in the downfall of western society ever since.”
“My intel says he’s going to hit the stock exchange tonight, try to crash the servers like he’s done in other cities and wreak havoc on the market. If he knows we’re onto him and we don’t manage to bring him in, he’ll disappear; he’s good at covering his tracks. Which is why I asked you guys here tonight: I don’t want to risk letting him get away.”
“Is he alone?”
“He’s been trying to convince some of his old League classmates to join him, but as far as I know there weren’t any takers. Still.” Tim’s mouth twitches. “I’m not a hundred percent on how many people we’ll be up against, so be careful, alright?”
“Ay ay, boss.”
Dick follows Tim to the side of the rooftop overlooking the exchange. “Any activity yet, Hood?”
Jason doesn’t look away from his binoculars. “Nada. When are you expecting this guy?”
“He usually hits his targets sometime after midnight.”
Dick glances at his watch. “Well, it’s almost two now, so if he hasn’t come yet, we can probably expect him—”
The frantic beeping of Tim’s gauntlet cuts him off. Tim sucks in a sharp breath. “Shit. Oh, shit .”
“What? What is it?”
“I’m keyed into the exchange’s security system, and an alarm was tripped— twelve minutes ago .” Tim curses again and whips out his staff. “He delayed the outgoing signal, the fucker —”
“R, you want us—?”
“Triangle formation, go .”
They leap down from the rooftop and rush the exchange’s entrance, Tim leading the way with Jason and Dick bringing up the rear. “We need to split up,” Tim says, gaze sweeping the darkened foyer. “We’ll clear the building faster. It takes at least twenty minutes to do the kind of damage he’s aiming for; we can still catch him.”
Jason nods. “Tell us where you want us.”
“You two take the second floor; I’ll finish down here.”
Dick salutes. He and Jason split off toward the staircase while Tim proceeds forward, steps silent as he vanishes into the shadows of the main corridor.
Dick lets Jason lead in clearing the rooms while he scans the building’s network from his gauntlet and tries to figure out whether or not Acheron had been there first. He can’t help sneaking glances at Jason while he waits for the virus isolation program to run. Dick can’t see his face behind the helmet, but Jason’s body language is just as hostile as it was when he dumped Dick and his broken leg at Dick’s apartment two weeks ago.
Dick follows Jason out of the fourth empty room and checks his program: 78% complete. He exhales. “J—”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Jason says immediately.
Dick grits his teeth. “Well, too bad,” he snaps, and suddenly he’s angry—angry at Jason, angry at himself, angry at that goddamn human trafficker because isn’t the world cruel and twisted enough without selling fucking children into slavery? “What do you want from me, J? I apologized; I tried to make it right—”
“Oh, right,” Jason laughs, harsh, “I forgot that a fuck-up like me should consider himself lucky that the shining star of the superhero community would deign to apologize to me —”
“ Jason— ”
“No, Dick, you know what?” The face plate goes up, and Jason whirls on him, jaw clenched. “I know you’d rather cut your own testicles off than betray the Bat’s conditioning, but you don’t get to claim you want something—something more from whatever the fuck this is, and then turn around and threaten me every time I make a decision that you don’t fucking agree with. Do you know how patronizing that is, how degrading? Do you think I need you that fucking badly, that I’ll let a child slaver walk just for the chance to maybe suck your dick one day?”
Dick wonders if the hole Jason just blew through his chest is visible to anyone but him. “I—I didn’t—”
“Hood, ‘Wing,” Tim’s voice spills over the comm, frantic. “I need backup, now!”
Fuck. Dick’s fingers go to his comm even as he whirls toward the staircase. “Red, what happened?”
“It was an ambush,” Tim hisses. “Fuck—there are too many, I can’t hold them on my own—”
“We’re coming!” Dick doesn’t bother with the stairs: He vaults over the balcony and falls in a controlled roll to the floor below, letting his suit take the brunt of the impact. He’s on his feet in seconds and sprinting up the corridor in the direction where he last saw Tim. “Where are you?”
“Atrium.” Tim’s voice is strained with effort. “Be careful, they— unph —they know you’re here, too—”
Dick skids into the atrium and immediately dives onto his knees. The shuriken that would have buried itself in his forehead lands in the wall behind him instead. A quick scan of the space reveals Tim by the water feature, furiously holding his own against at least thirty assailants, all dressed in identical black tactical clothing and wielding an assortment of knives and swords. Tim spots Dick and manages to point at an attacker with sleeve ripped off before swinging his staff into another’s knees. “That’s Acheron—don’t let him escape!”
Dick throws himself into the fray, reveling in the coppery taste of adrenaline on his tongue. He takes out two men with a flying roundhouse and lands to see Jason putting down three more with rubber bullets to the joints. “Looks like our friend’s recruitment tactics worked after all,” Jason mutters, grim.
A sharp pain bursts in Dick’s still-healing leg. He bites back a cry and whirls around, expecting to find an attacker—but there’s no one there. It takes him a moment—but then his gaze goes across the room, to where Tim is spinning a retaliatory foot into the neck of the man who just tried to kick out his knee. Dick sucks in a sharp breath and fights down the panic rising in his throat. You got this, he tells himself, and throws a punch into an assassin’s oncoming face. Don’t let them down.
The training shared between the three of them amplify their individual skills, and by the time the pain of taking both Tim and Jason’s hits for them has started to slow Dick down, most of the assassins are groaning or unconscious on the floor. Dick shoves the electrified end of his escrima into the last attacker’s stomach and steps back as the unfortunate recipient seizes and slumps over. He glances around, panting. “Everyone okay?”
Tim grimaces as he pushes an unconscious assassin off his chest and climbs to his feet. “Okay, I know we all had our panties in a twist over that weird protection spell earlier, but I’m definitely not complaining about it right now.” He takes in the room and suddenly stiffens. “Wait—where’s Acheron?”
Dick sees it the moment before Jason does, but it’s already too late. “Tim!”
The katana pierces cleanly through Tim’s chest, so clean it makes no sound going in, and no sound going out. Jason’s gun whips up; a second later Acheron is on the floor, out cold from a rubber bullet to the temple. Then Jason is sprinting forward, shouting for Tim, and so is Dick—until he tries to breathe and feels white-hot pain exploding in his lungs, like someone has set his ribs on fire.
Dick falters and stumbles to a stop. “I’m fine,” Tim is saying, pale with relief, patting his chest repeatedly like he can’t quite believe it himself. “I’m, uh—the protection spell, remember? Fuck, whatever the catch ends up being, I’ll take it if it means I don’t have to lose a kidney this time—”
Dick tries to cough and ends up choking instead. Blood, thick and dark, fills his mouth and pours from his lips.
Tim suddenly goes bone-white. “Dick—oh my god, Dick— ”
Dick looks up, eyes wide. Then his knees buckle, and he feels himself fall.
Jason catches him before he hits the ground. The visor on his helmet is up, and he’s looking down at Dick with the most horrified expression Dick has ever seen. “Dick,” he gasps, and then his hand is pressing down on Dick’s chest, trying desperately to keep Dick from bleeding out. “ Dick , what did you do —”
The world goes dark.