“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.
The first thing Jason scrapes together enough presence of mind to do is fumble a pressure pad out of his jacket and press it over the wound spilling Dick’s life out of his chest. Then he looks up at Tim, who’s gone paler than the marble around him, and gasps, in a voice he doesn’t even recognize: “Call an evac, now! ”
Tim’s hand flies up to his comm. “JL code beta oh-three,” he says. “Medical code green, one victim, stat! ” He sprints across the atrium to Jason’s side. “We need to get him outside—”
Jason hefts Dick into his arms, and he and Tim run, leaving a trail of Dick’s blood in their wake. Dick is heavy in Jason’s arms, utterly limp; every wet, rattling breath he takes sounds like he’s dying. Jason is scared, more scared than he can remember being in a long time; all he can think is What did you do, Dick, what did you do—
They burst through the doors of the exchange to find Jessica Cruz in full Green Lantern outfit, pulling up to hover over the street. Her eyes widen as she takes them in. “Is that—?”
“He needs to get into an OR, now,” Tim barks.
“Right.” Jessica raises her ring. An oversized hand of hard light extends from the emblem and gently takes Dick from Jason’s arms. “I’ll take him to the Watchtower medical facilities. Can you—?”
“We’ll be there,” Tim cuts her off. “Go. Go! ”
Jessica nods and vanishes in a long streak of green. Jason stares after her, as numb and blank and cold as a frozen tundra.
“Jason.” Tim’s voice has started to shake. “Jason, I—I didn’t know, I—”
Jason looks down. The front of his bodysuit, jacket, and tactical pants are dark with blood. “Call—call Bruce.”
“Batman,” Jason snaps. “Call Batman. And then call whoever the fuck it is that can get us into the Watchtower.”
Tim’s hand darts to his comm again. “B.”
Bruce answers almost immediately, in that sharp, hard voice that is as close as he ever gets to frantic. “I received an alert that someone in Gotham just called for a Lantern evac, who—”
“It’s Nightwing,” Tim says. “He’s—” His voice breaks. “It’s bad, B.”
There’s a second-long pause, the kind that only Dick can elicit from Bruce; then: “Stay where you are. I’ll come to you.”
Bruce pulls up eight minutes later. “What happened,” he snaps, the moment Jason and Tim duck inside.
“Just—” Jason sucks in a sharp breath and clenches his first in his lap. What did you do, Dick? What the fuck did you do? “We need to get to the Watchtower. Please.”
Bruce gives him a hard look, impenetrable behind that cowl; then he throws the gear forward, and they speed into the heart of the city.
The journey from the car to the zeta tube to the the main foyer of the Justice League Watchtower is a dizzying blur. Bruce runs toward the medical bay as soon as they materialize inside the Tower, but Clark and Hal are there a second later, holding him back from bursting through the doors. “Batman, he’s in surgery—they have to repair his lung, there’ll be an update in a few hours—”
“Let me through, Superman,” Bruce growls.
“Bats. Hey.” Hal holds Bruce back with a hand to the shoulder. “You know there’s nothing you can do for him right now. He’s in the best hands there are. So, c’mon. Sit.”
Bruce rips himself out of their holds. He turns on Tim and Jason. Jason watches as he draws in a deep breath, teeth clenched; for Bruce, it’s like watching a full-blown breakdown. “What. Happened?”
Tim takes a step back, then another, and collapses onto one of the couches in the waiting room. “It was my fault,” he says, emptily. “It was—” He sucks in a sudden breath. “It was Dick. That was the catch.”
Bruce stares at him. “You mean—”
“All of those injuries we weren’t getting?” Jason’s voice comes out so bitter he can taste it against the inside of his teeth. “He was getting them for us.”
Bruce is silent for one beat, two. “He wouldn’t—”
“Please,” Jason cuts him off. “You know he would.”
“He didn’t say anything.” Tim swallows. “On the—the call, when we asked him about it. He didn’t say anything.”
“Was he the initiator?” Bruce demands. “Or was it done to him? Was he prevented from speaking about it?”
Jason shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he says. He can feel himself fracturing inside, opening up at the fault lines, the earthquake of emotions he’s been working so hard to suppress since Dick dropped in his arms shaking to the surface. “All I know is that, when I went to raid that storehouse, he insisted on coming—and I knew, I knew he didn’t break his leg fucking jumping down from the roof—”
Bruce flinches. The three of them stare at each other, Tim pale, Bruce unreachable, Jason shaking. Bruce’s eyes suddenly narrow. “Keep me informed on any updates,” he barks. Then he sweeps past them, cape billowing, heading god-knows-where with all the force of a raging thundercloud.
Jason manages to keep himself upright for about two more seconds; then he caves and collapses next to Tim. Tim hunches forward, twisting his hands together. “We should call Alfred,” he says. “Or—Babs. Somebody.”
Jason swallows. He can’t speak right now, because if he starts to talk then he’ll start to think—and if he starts to think, then he’ll have no choice but to think about Dick, about what’s done, to himself and to all the people he cares about. And then he’ll be useless, because Jason knows himself, and he knows that when that anger comes, it will never go away. So he just nods, wordless, and sits. He sits and he waits.
It doesn’t bring Jason as much relief as he hoped it would when the head surgeon comes out to tell them Dick has stabilized; all he can do is nod, numb, and text Bruce that the operation will be done in an hour. The surgeon has just gone back into the operating room when Cass arrives with Damian in tow, both in their respective suits. “What’s happened to Grayson?” Damian demands, held back only by the calming hand Cass has on his shoulder.
Tim swallows and looks away. It’s left to Jason to push a breath out between his teeth and say, “He was stabbed. Chest wound. He’s coming out of surgery soon.”
Damian’s eyes widen, but in true Damian fashion, instead of showing his worry, he bristles. “How did this happen? Drake? Was it not your operation that Grayson was assisting? Did you fail to—”
“Damian,” Jason barks. “That’s enough.”
Damian looks from Jason to Tim and back again. His eyes narrow. “I thought you said he would be out of surgery soon.”
“And he’ll recover? Fully?”
Tim clears his throat. “The surgeon thinks so, yeah.”
“Then why are you both behaving like this? What are you withholding?”
Jason and Tim look at each other. The demon spawn is a pain in the ass at the best of times, but… Jason remembers how Dick fought tooth and nail when Damian first arrived in Gotham to give the kid something resembling a childhood. Those efforts show: Four years ago, Damian would never have tolerated Cass’ hand on his shoulder, would have treated Tim like an enemy in his interrogation for answers. Hell, four years, Jason had shot Tim, then thrown himself off a train rather than accept his family’s help. Dick has a way of changing people, of bringing them in from the cold. And for all of his skill and all of his bloody past, Damian is barely a teenager. The thought of telling him that one of the people he looks up to the most in the world has been hurting himself leaves Jason feeling ugly and wrong.
Cass’s dark, bright eyes flicker over them. Whatever she sees has a slight frown curving her mouth. Her hand tightens, gently, on Damian’s shoulder. “Come,” she says, in that voice like cool water, dousing all flames in a mile-wide vicinity. “Let’s go to the cafeteria. Dick will like some tea, when he wakes up.”
Damian hesitates for a moment, scowling; but both Jason and Tim’s expressions must tell him that he won’t get any answers, because he relents a moment later and allows Cass to guide him out of the waiting room. Jason meets Tim’s gaze.
“We can’t tell him,” Tim blurts, at the same time Jason says “We have to tell him.”
“He’ll go nuts,” Tim rushes, almost desperate, before Jason can say anything else. “And it’s a”—he swallows, but it’s steel that flashes across his eyes—”it’s a major breach of trust. He’s not gonna react well.”
Jason blinks at him. It’s the first time either of them have directly addressed what Dick has hidden from them, what he’s taken away from them. Their own decisions, their own autonomy, the fact that they fucking care about him and he—he—
Jason swallows. “You think he won’t find out anyway?”
They stare at each other, sinking into the truth of what Dick has done. The clock on the wall ticks on.
The first glimpse of Dick after surgery has Jason’s throat closing up so fast that for a second it feels like he’s drowning. He’s hooked up to a nasal cannula and about five different oxygen saturation monitors, a chest tube running out from under the sheets to drain all of the fluid that built up when his lung collapsed. And he’s pale, so pale that the bruises on his face look like they’ve been painted on. Jason wants to make a joke about how the golden boy doesn’t look so golden anymore, but he can’t get it past the knot in his chest.
Jason and Bruce settle into the armchairs beside the bed while Tim, Cass, and Damian sprawl on the couches by the walls. They wait in silence, Tim typing furiously on his tablet, Cass reading the copy of Anne of Green Gables Jason gave her for her birthday, Damian sketching quietly, Bruce staring at Dick with his mouth hidden behind steepled hands. Jason stares at the wall, going over every injury he somehow managed to avoid in the past two weeks, every bullet that should have grazed him and every bruise that never manifested.
Do you think I need you that fucking badly?
Dick wakes with the slight pickup of the heart monitor and the slow flutter of lashes over hazy blue eyes. They all jolt forward; Bruce leans in, reaching instinctively for Dick’s hair, but pulls back at the last second. “Dick? Can you hear me?”
Dick’s bleary gaze takes them all in. Something like a grimace passes over his face. They all watch, intent, as he takes a slow breath. “Water?”
Jason and Bruce both start out of their seats, but Cass is at Dick’s side in an instant, gently holding the straw to a cup of warm water laced with honey and lemon to Dick’s lips. Dick sucks down a few sips before falling back against his pillows. “Thanks, Cassie,” he mumbles. His eyes dart around the room, more lucid with every blink. “Tim?”
Tim stands and approaches. “I’m here.”
Dick’s eyes land on him. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” Tim says, stiffly. Uh oh, Jason thinks, grimly, as Tim draws himself up. The replacement’s gonna blow. “I’m fine, because instead of bleeding out, I had to watch you do it instead.”
Dick winces. “Tim—”
“How could you do this?” Tim’s voice rises into a shout. Everyone in the room stares at him. Even Jason is somewhat surprised that it’s Tim yelling and not him. “How could you keep this from us?”
Damian’s expression is nothing short of bewildered. “What is he talking about?” He looks to Bruce. “Father? What is Drake talking about?”
“Dick,” Bruce says. “Tell us what happened.”
Dick swallows, pale, eyes flickering away. Cass frowns and sets the water down, then gently lays a hand on Dick’s shoulder. The touch seems to steel him; he draws in an unsteady breath and meets their eyes again.
“Two weeks ago,” Dick begins, low, “Tim and I helped Jason Blood put Morgaine le Fey back into the idol that binds her powers. But while I was chanting the recitation, she…more or less told me that I didn’t know what true pain was—but that I would. I didn’t think anything of it; villains threaten us all the time. Then I started to notice that I seemed to be getting more banged up than usual—cuts and bruises I couldn’t explain. But I figured that I was just slowing down on patrol, that I needed to train more. And then, a few nights later…” He hesitates, gaze flickering to Damian.
Damian’s eyes widen. “The shotgun blast.” He looks stricken. “It did not affect me.”
Dick nods, reluctant. “I kept getting injuries that weren’t happening to me, but—to you guys. And, I mean, that’s about it; that’s the whole story. I don’t know how it works, or how Morgaine chose who it affects, and I don’t know how to stop it, but—”
“But you didn’t tell us.” Tim crosses his arms over his chest, tight. “On that call, when we were all talking about it. Barbara asked you about it, and you pretended like you didn’t know anything about it. You lied to us.”
Dick lets out an unsteady breath. “You’re right,” he admits. “I didn’t tell you guys about it because I didn’t want you to worry. I was staying in, I had it handled—”
“You had it handled?” Tim’s voice is sharp with incredulity. “Dick, have you seen yourself? You’re covered in cuts and bruises. Your leg was broken. And literally less than eight hours ago, you almost bled out in front of me and Jason. You call that handled? ”
“There was nothing you could have done!” Dick retorts, sharp. “Would you have stopped patrolling, all of you? Would you have stopped working your cases? This is magic, Tim, not some tech problem or a prison breakout, it’s not something you can fix just by—”
“Bullshit,” Jason snarls. Dick falls silent, eyes hard. “You didn’t tell us because you thought we couldn’t fix it; you didn’t tell us because you didn’t want us to fix it. Face it, golden boy: You love being the martyr. Any time there’s a chance for you to come one step closer to canonization, you jump right on it, because you always have to be the one who saves the entire goddamn world—”
“ Jason —”
“You don’t trust us, Dick!” Jason shouts, and there it is—Jason’s yelling and everyone is staring and the roles in the family have been restored. “That’s what it is, isn’t it? Did you ever consider that maybe we’re capable of dealing with the consequences of our own actions? Did you stop to think, for one goddamn second, how Tim would feel if you died because of him?”
“Right,” Dick says, and his voice has gone arctic, because despite what people may think, Dick Grayson has always been just as capable of dark as he is of light. “Because it would have been so much better for me to watch him die instead.”
Jason’s lip curls “You’re selfish, Dick.”
“Yeah,” Dick says. “I am.”
And Jason is—angry, always angry, because angry is safe. Angry isn’t sick to his stomach with the fear that one day they’ll all lose Dick Grayson, and he won’t know what to goddamn do with himself.
Bruce’s expression is as impenetrable as a steel vault. He considers Dick for a moment, mouth pressed thin. Then he turns to the rest of the room. “Tim, Damian,” he says. “You’re off patrol for the next two nights.”
“Father!” Damian protests, at the same time that Dick grits out, “Bruce, that’s not—”
“Jason and Cassandra, you’ll cover the city.” Bruce looks between him and Cass. “You two are the least likely to acquire physical injuries, due to the distance nature of Jason’s weapon and Cassandra’s specialized training. I’ll alert Stephanie and Barbara to the situation; they’ll stay in as well.”
Cass nods her assent. “What about you?” Jason asks.
Bruce’s hand curls on his knee. Jason remembers, abruptly, that Dick broke his leg the same night Bruce was gone on his League mission. “I’m going to reverse the spell.”
The doctors release Dick into Bruce’s care four hours later, equipped with three weeks of antibiotics and strict instructions for bed rest. Hal Jordan drops Bruce, Jason, Tim, Damian, Cass, Dick, and Dick’s wheelchair off at the manor with a wave and a cough. “Hey, uh, don’t hesitate to call if you need anything, alright, Bats?”
Bruce gives him a cool look while Alfred wheels Dick inside. “Do you have experience with magic-users, Jordan?”
“Uh.” Hal makes a face. “Does pulling a rabbit out of a top hat at my fourth grade talent show count?”
Jason leaves Hal and Bruce on the doorstep to follow Dick and Alfred up the wheelchair ramp to the second floor. “Seriously, Al,” Dick is saying, a poorly hidden undercurrent of annoyance in his voice, “this is ridiculous, I can walk up the stairs —”
“You shall be allowed to walk up the stairs unassisted when you can hold a conversation without becoming short of breath,” Alfred retorts crisply. “Jason, lad, help me get Master Dick into bed.”
Dick won’t meet Jason’s eyes when Jason levies him out of his wheelchair, and for that, Jason drops him onto the bed maybe a little more roughly than he needs to. Alfred scoops the antibiotics and painkillers out of the duffel containing Dick’s suit and arranges them on the nightstand. He takes a moment to observe the instructions the surgeon left with them before tucking the slip of paper underneath the bottles and sending Dick a stern look. “This regimen shall be followed precisely . Won’t it, Master Dick?”
Dick sighs, recognizing defeat. “Yes, Alfred.”
“Good.” Alfred retrieves Dick’s suit and drapes it over his arm. “I shall clean and mend this and return it to you when you are fit for duty once again. In the meantime—turkey soup or corn?”
“And for you, Master Jason?”
“Oh, I”—Jason darts a glance at Dick—”I’m good for now, Al; I’ll come down to the kitchen in a bit.”
Alfred nods and retreats from the room, leaving Jason standing alone in the foul mood that surrounds Dick like a dark miasma. Dick’s temper is legendary in their circles, but the man himself is also currently confined to a queen mattress with a nasal cannula still hooked over his ears, so Jason is going to be fuck all intimidated by that. He crosses his arms over his chest and raises a brow, deliberately refusing to honor Dick’s sulky silence. “How are you feeling?”
Dick flicks bruised blue eyes at him. “Fine.”
“Oh, yeah?” Jason retorts. “Because you look like shit.”
“Did you want something?” Dick snaps. “Or are you just here to shit on me?”
Jason’s jaw clenches. “Really, Dickface?”
Dick looks like he’s about to dig his heels in and fight, but something in Jason’s expression seems to cut the legs out from under him. He takes a breath and lets it back out again, slowly. “Jason. I…” He hesitates, then pushes himself up against the headboard, wincing as the movement tugs on the stitches in his chest. “Look. I am—I really am sorry that I lied to you all. I understand why that upset you so much.”
Something hot and prickly pulls tight in Jason’s chest. He looks at Dick, takes in the dark circles under his eyes and the tremble in his arms, and remembers the pure, righteous fury that burned through him when Dick made him choose between letting a human trafficker walk free or keeping his family in his life, the indignation and shame that had curdled everything Jason thought he was beginning to feel. That anger seems so hollow now, with Dick here in front of him, falling apart before Jason’s eyes. “Really, Dick?” he asks, voice hard so that it doesn’t shake. “Is that really why you think I’m upset?”
Dick frowns. “You think I don’t trust you to handle yourselves,” he says. “It’s not true, but—I understand that I made you feel like that.”
Jason thinks of Dick slumped against him in front of Saturday morning cartoons, fingers carding through his hair, and forces down the swell of anger rising up his throat. “You don’t understand anything, Dick,” he says, then turns and leaves, the weight of Dick’s gaze heavy on his back.
Jason Blood’s expression, when it fills the monitor of the Batcomputer, is less than impressed. “Batman and company,” he greets them, flatly. The hair at the back of his head is sticking up, and the collar of a robe is just visible inside the screen. “You do realize it is four in the morning, do you not?”
“Blood,” Bruce grunts. Tim and Damian stand beside him, their faces just as grim underneath their masks. Jason sits at the table a little further back and makes himself look busy cleaning his knives. “Morgaine le Fey placed a curse on Nightwing before she was re-imprisoned in the stone idol.”
Blood’s brow rises. Bruce always does get straight to the point. “A curse? What kind of curse?”
“When those closest to him become injured, he bears the wounds instead,” Damian snarls, jabbing an accusatory finger at the screen. “And it is your fault, Blood, so I demand that you fix this!”
Blood frowns. “He’s absorbing the injuries of others?”
“You’ve dealt with this before?” Tim asks.
Blood pushes out a sigh. “During the war between le Fey and my former master, the sorcerer Merlin. She cursed one of his knights during the Battle of Gwynedd to bear all of the injuries being dealt to the soldiers in his regiment.”
“How did Merlin undo it?”
Blood grimaces. “He didn’t. The knight died within minutes; Merlin could not reach him in time.”
Jason’s hands lock up over his knives. Tim and Damian look alternately devastated and furious. Blood sighs. “How is his condition? Nightwing’s?”
Bruce’s fist slowly unclenches on the desk. “Stable,” he grits out. “Precautions are being taken to prevent further harm, but it is a temporary solution. We need a permanent one.”
“That may not exist.”
Bruce’s eyes narrow. “Do not forget, Blood, that we have come to your aid many times in the past, and that it was in assisting you that Nightwing suffered this curse. You are in our debt. I expect repayment.”
Blood doesn’t so much as flinch. “I will not release le Fey, Batman. The damage she is capable of dealing to this world is far more than anything she is capable of dealing to any individual. The greater good must take precedent.”
“Then I suggest you find an alternative solution,” Bruce replies, coldly. “We will talk again soon, Blood.” He cuts the connection.
Damian whirls on Bruce. “Father, bring him back! We need to interrogate him until he is forced to agree to releasing le Fey—”
“Blood will not agree to release le Fey unless he has a significant motivator.” Bruce types his Justice League access code into the computer and pulls up a series of files, all titled with curling letters that Jason recognizes as ancient Welsh. “We will need leverage on either him or le Fey if we want to find a way to reverse the spell.”
Tim nods, already heading towards his bike. “I’ll check in with Cassie and Raven, see if they know anything about undoing ancient curses.”
Damian draws himself up, and, in a rare show of restraint, gives a stiff nod before starting towards the stairs. “I shall consult the volumes of Arthurian legend; perhaps we will find a detail that may be helpful.”
Jason waits for the rumble of Tim’s bike to fade into the distance and the cave entrance to close behind Damian before standing and approaching the computer. Bruce’s gaze is focused on the screen with the militant single-mindedness that used to annoy Jason as Robin. He hates how much more he understands it now. “I’m heading out soon,” he says; then, when Bruce doesn’t respond: “You’ll keep us looped in if you find anything, right?”
Bruce grunts. “Take Black Bat with you.”
Jason grits his teeth, but at this point, he’s learned to recognize a losing battle with Bruce when he’s in the middle of one. He retreats up into the manor and comes across Alfred bringing an empty tray down the stairs. “Hey, Alf. Have you seen Cass anywhere?”
“Mistress Cassandra is upstairs with Master Dick,” Alfred informs him. “You’ll come down for a sandwich before patrol?”
“Sure.” Jason hesitates halfway up the stairs. “Hey, Alf?”
Alfred looks up at him, brow raised. “Yes, Master Jason?”
“Are you—how are you doing with…all this?”
Alfred’s expression softens. He takes Jason in for a moment; the look in his eye has Jason’s heart twisting in his chest. “I have worried over you all for seventeen years, Master Jason,” he says, gently. “It never becomes any easier.”
Jason finds Dick propped up on roughly ten different pillows against his headboard, tablet balanced on his lap, Cass sitting cross-legged at the end of the bed. Jason can tell Dick is talking to Barbara the moment he steps into the room, mostly because of the appropriately cowed look on Dick’s face. “…moronic, and moreover, it was reckless ,” Barbara is snapping. Jason comes around to enjoy a better view of Barbara’s furious face on the screen. “What if Tim or Jason had decided to take advantage of their newfound invulnerability and gotten themselves blown up? What if Damian had come to see you and found you bleeding out on your goddamn carpet because he let some ninja assassin stab him five times that day? Do you think that would have ‘spared everyone a lot of pain’?”
Dick winces. “No, Barbara.”
“Are you an idiot with a hero complex who shouldn’t be allowed to live alone anymore?”
“If you ever pull anything like this again, I’ll call in to the tabloids that you have gonorrhea, understood?”
Dick coughs. Cass throws Jason a grin, which he gleefully returns. “Yes, ma’am.”
Barbara huffs. “Good.” She adjusts her glasses, then looks away. “You don’t move from that bed, got it? We’ll fix this.”
Dick tries a smile, which Barbara coolly accepts. “What would I do without you, Barbara Gordon?”
Barbara scowls. “You wouldn’t have made it past the green panties, Boy Wonder.”
Dick chuckles; it sounds tired. “That’s for sure.”
Barbara sighs, softening, as she always does for Dick. “Get some rest, Dick. You look like you need it.”
Dick collapses back into his pillows. He throws Cass a wan smile. “Still alive, Cassie.”
Cass smirks. “Barely.” She takes the tablet out of Dick’s hands and slides it onto the nightstand. “You deserved it.”
“Yeah, well.” Dick tilts his face up to look at Jason. There’s something hesitant in his gaze, almost vulnerable. Jason is hit with the sudden urge to brush Dick’s hair back from his eyes, which he immediately clenches down on. “Are you here to yell at me, too?”
Jason clears his throat. “I’m here for Cass.” He glances to her. “Patrol?”
Cass nods and slips off the bed. Before she goes, she presses a gentle hand to Dick’s shoulder. “Rest,” she tells him, sternly. “No more worrying. They are not truly mad.”
Jason stills. Dick blinks up at Cass, the picture of benign confusion. “Who’s not, Cassie?”
Cass just raises an unimpressed eyebrow at him and turns to Jason. “Go?”
“Uh—” Jason’s gaze darts to Dick; with Cass’ back turned to him, the innocent act has fallen away, leaving something dark and troubled furrowing his brow. “Yeah, sis. Let’s go.”
Jason waits until they’re out of Dick’s earshot before nudging Cass in the shoulder. “What did you mean back there?”
“When you said he shouldn’t worry. What is Dick worrying about?”
A smile flashes across Cass’ mouth, fond and knowing. Then it sobers into a frown. “You know,” she says, instead of answering Jason’s question. “You know why he did it. Don’t you?”
Jason scoffs. “Yeah, I know,” he mutters. “He’s a goddamn martyr.”
“Yes,” Cass agrees readily. “But that is not why. You are all…” She signs something with her fingers. “His world. His reason for being.” She lowers her hands and gives him a soft look. “He cannot bear to lose you. He has already come too close.”
Jason stares at her for a moment, stricken; then he quickly looks away, a knot forming in his throat. “He’s an idiot,” he says, thickly.
Cass smiles. “Sure.” She enters the six-digit code into the thermometer. The section of the wall sinks in and slides away from the rest, revealing the winding ramp beyond. “Let’s have a good night?”
Jason sighs as he follows his foster sister down into the cave. “Let’s hope, Cassie.”
Even with Batman off the streets, the city is more or less quiet, nothing that makes Jason and Cass break a sweat between the two of them. Jason does as promised and follows up on Acheron and the Gotham Exchange, but both the man himself and his posse are long gone. It’s just as well: Jason doesn’t want to deal with Bruce throwing another hissy fit when he inevitably puts two between the bastard’s eyes.
Bruce is still at the computer when they return to the cave at three in the morning, hunched in front of the screen exactly where they had left him. Jason sighs, shucks off his helmet, and walks over from the vehicle bay, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “B,” he says; then, when Bruce doesn’t so much as grunt, “Bruce. Have you eaten? Slept? Done anything except obsess for the last five hours?”
All he earns for his efforts is the annoyed flicker of Bruce’s eyes. “Don’t forget to write up your reports for the night. Help Cassandra if she needs it.”
Jason huffs. “What about your kid that’s laid up upstairs with a punctured lung? How is he?”
Bruce pauses in his typing just long enough to click on a folder. “He’s still upstairs.”
Like pulling teeth, Jason thinks. Cass comes up and nods conspiratorially towards Bruce. “I’ll take care of it,” she whispers. “Go see Dick.”
Jason sighs and leaves Cass to take on her olympian task as he heads up into the manor. He originally planned to book it as soon as patrol was done, but Alfred caught him on his way into the cave with a “I’ve readied your bedroom for the night, Master Jason” and a pointed look, so what was he supposed to do? It’s been a while since he spent the night; the last time was over Thanksgiving, when he let Dick drag him back to the manor because Roy was gone and Dick was insisting that “there’s no way in hell” he’d let Jason spend the day alone.
Dick’s door is half-open when Jason approaches, and for a moment Jason thinks Dick’s alone; then he hears Tim’s voice, drifting into the hall. “...just here to make sure you’re taking your antibiotics,” Tim is saying, voice stiff.
Jason hears Dick sigh. “Timmy. C’mon.”
“What, Dick?” Tim snaps. It surprises Jason less than it should: The whole fucked-up lot of them are a little more fragile than they seem, and it always seems to come out whenever Bruce, or especially Dick, get hurt. “What do you want me to say? That I’m okay with what you did? That I’m not so pissed off that you nearly died on me— for me—that I can barely look at you?”
Dick is silent for a moment. “You’re right,” he says, finally. “I shouldn’t have done that to you. After everyone you’ve lost—”
“Don’t.” Tim’s voice dips into anger. “Do not go there.”
“Tim.” Dick’s voice is hard. “After everyone you’ve lost, I should have known better than to keep this from you. I shouldn’t have let you go up against Acheron without all the information.” He sucks in a breath, and Jason’s alarms instantly go off: It’s always Dick’s favorite move to pull right before he starts a fight. “But you know what? If anything was going to happen—I’m glad it was to me, and not to you.”
“That is exactly what I—”
“You’re my little brother, Tim,” Dick cuts him off, fierce. “It’s my job to look out for you. I’m going to do that however I can. I’m not going to let you down again.”
Jason stills. There’s a pause; then Tim asks, wary: “Again?”
Dick exhales. The defiance leaves his tone and is replaced with something else, something that Jason can’t quite identify, despite how it raises the hair on the back of his neck. “I…well. That year—that year that Bruce was gone. I took—”
“That was three years ago.”
“I took Robin away from you, Tim. And on top of that, I didn’t believe you when you told me Bruce was alive. I thought—with Conner and Bart both gone, I thought you were just—”
“ Dick .” Tim’s voice comes out strangled. “That was three years ago.”
“Yes,” Dick says, tense. Jason realizes then that Dick sounds afraid , and before he knows it his hand is on the door, ready to intervene. “But then you died.” Dick’s voice catches. “You died .”
Dick’s words stop Jason in his tracks. He hesitates, then swallows, drawing away. When Damian was killed by the Heretic, Dick fled to Chicago so quickly that Jason barely saw him, at a time when the budding alliance between them was still fragile enough that Jason wouldn’t have known how to chase after Dick if he wanted to. But when the entire family watched what they thought was Tim being disintegrated before their eyes—Jason was there, for that aftermath; he watched Dick fall apart, watched him drift in a fugue state for the months it took for Bruce to call them and tell them Tim was alive. He remembers finding Dick in nothing but his boxers on his balcony at three in the morning, his mind so far gone that he didn’t even notice it was below freezing out. “He’s gone, Jason,” he said, as Jason cursed and fumbled off his jacket to wrap around Dick’s bare shoulders. “Timmy. He’s just. He’s gone.”
Tim sighs; there’s the sound of shuffling steps, bedsprings creaking. “Dick. It was only a few months, and I wasn’t really—”
“Tim. I watched you—I saw you—” Dick’s voice seems to swallow itself. There’s a long moment of silence. “Anyways. If it had to be someone. I’m not going to apologize for it being me.”
Jason steps forward, just enough to be able to see through the crack in the door. Tim is sitting on the end of Dick’s bed, face turned away; Dick is staring at his knees, his hair hiding most of his expression. After a moment, Tim stands. “Well,” he says. “I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree, then.”
Dick sighs and reaches for the packet of pills on his nightstand. “Get some rest, Tim,” he says, attention already shifting to the antibiotics. It’s a dismissal, Dick taking control even in a situation where he’s in the wrong. It’s so Bruce that it makes Jason’s hand curl at his side.
Tim leaves, shoulders up around his ears. He pulls the door closed behind him, then starts at the sight of Jason standing in the shadows. “Jason, Jesus ,” he hisses. “What are you doing out here?”
Jason just raises a brow. “You okay?”
Tim’s eyes narrow. He crosses his arms over his chest. “How much of that did you overhear?”
“Most of it,” Jason says. “Just answer the question.”
Tim huffs. “I’m fine,” he says. “It just…” He glances back over his shoulder, frowning. “Took me by surprise, I guess.” He looks back to Jason with a cocked brow. “You sure I’m the one you want to be checking up on right now?”
Jason pushes down all of the things he’s wanted to say to Dick since the beginning of the night and instead throws an arm around Tim’s skinny neck. “Spare me the inferiority complex, Tim,” he says, and chuckles when Tim rolls his eyes and throws an elbow into Jason’s ribs. “Now, tell me about what happened the year Bruce was dead. I think I was too busy trying to shoot you guys to get all of the details.”
Jason spends the next three days in and out of the manor, following up on leads for Bruce and looking after his own cases. The rest of the Bats return to the streets, albeit not without a polish on their defense techniques and a few extra pieces of armor. As far as Jason knows, only Stephanie takes a direct hit out of the lot of them, and the way she pales and immediately calls in to the manor to apologize profusely to Dick while delivering a swift roundhouse kick to the head of the would-be mugger is almost worth the sick worry that twists in Jason’s chest.
Jason escorts Stephanie home, then spends about five minutes on her doorstep debating with himself before huffing in irritation, throwing himself back onto his bike, and heading for the manor. I’m only here to make sure he hasn’t busted open his stitches, Jason tells himself as he parks in the cave, and repeats it as he takes the stairs two at a time up to the manor. Five minutes, in and out.
Kicking open Dick’s door to find the bed empty and the curtains drawn sends a fission of fear down Jason’s spine that he absolutely refuses to acknowledge. Instead, he hurries into the next room, where he finds Alfred turning down the sheets. “Alf, where’s—?”
“In the kitchen.” Alfred sends Jason a pointed look, and Jason has to wonder yet again how someone can be so intimidating while airing out a pillowcase. “And I am sure that he would appreciate the chance to speak with you, given that your presence around the manor has been so sparse these past few days.”
“Uh—yes,” Jason says, mostly because his mind is still playing the kick Stephanie took to the chest two hours ago, like a broken record he can’t wrestle off the needle. “That is—my bad and I will, uh, fix that immediately.”
But Jason’s timing is all kinds of off this week, because when he gets down to the kitchen, he just barely stops himself from walking into the middle of what might be Dick and Bruce’s first face-to-face conversation in days. Dick has his shirt off and is sitting at the table, hunched over; Bruce is kneeling in front of him and frowning as he sorts through an open suture kit. “Ah—” Bruce holds up a sterile needle and the suturing thread with a pleased noise. “Here. Finally.”
Dick chuckles, low. “Thanks, B,” he slurs. Jason can instantly tell he’s on about a hundred milligrams of oxycodone from the way his words run into each other. “You don’t have to do this. I can do it myself. Or ask Alf.”
“Alfred is busy,” Bruce replies, crisply, “and you are in no condition to be suturing your own chest.” He tears open the packaging and threads the needle, then places a steadying hand on Dick’s bare shoulder. “Ready?”
From where Jason’s standing behind the wall, he can see Dick tensing to hold himself still. “Ready.”
The first stitch has Dick hissing between his teeth; then he sucks in a shaky breath, and silence falls over the kitchen. Bruce’s hand is steady and even, ice-blue eyes narrowed in concentration. Dick’s back is turned, but Jason doesn’t have to see his chest to know that Bruce’s stitches will be tight and neat, if not nearly as delicate as Alfred’s.
“B.” Dick’s voice is soft and hitches slightly as Bruce pulls the needle through his skin. Bruce hums to show he’s listening. “Thank you. Really. You didn’t have to do this.”
“Your stitches broke open in front of me, Dick,” Bruce replies, wry. “I wasn’t going to just let you bleed all over the kitchen floor while I made myself a sandwich.”
“Poor Steph,” Dick sighs, mournfully. “I bet taking that kick to the chest really hurt.”
If it were up to Jason, he’d smack Dick upside the head; as it is, he huffs and settles for the sharp look Bruce sends Dick’s way. “Say something like that again,” he says, calmly, “and I’ll bench you for the next year.”
“ Bruce .” The drugs dull Dick’s snap into something closer to a whine. “You can’t do that. I’m twenty— ouch —twenty-seven years old. You can’t bench me anymore.”
Bruce grunts. He ties off the last stitch and snips the thread with a pair of miniature scissors that look almost comically tiny in his thick fingers. “I should have benched you a long time ago.”
Jason’s brows shoot up. Dick is silent; when he speaks again, his voice is hurt. “Bruce. What the fuck.”
Bruce returns the thread and scissors to the kit and carefully wraps the used needle back in its packaging, for disposal in the sharps bin later. “I think about it every time something like this happens,” he says. His voice is quiet, rough. “Would you have been better off if I had just—sent you to therapy and hoped for the best? Channeled your aggression into organized sports and waited for you to outgrow the trauma?”
“What if I hadn’t taken you in at all?” Dick flinches back, so violent that the chair he’s sitting on screeches a little against the floor. “What if I had just…made sure that you went to a good family? That you had a normal childhood?”
“Is that—” Dick’s voice falters. Jason watches as he draws himself up, trembling. “Is that what you—what you wished you had done?”
Jason is rooted to the spot, incapable of leaving, incapable of intervening, incapable of doing anything but staring, dumbstruck, at the profile of Bruce’s face over Dick’s shoulder. It occurs to him, in an instant, that what Bruce says next will make or break his and Dick’s relationship.
Bruce’s hand curls on the edge of the table. His shoulders hunch. “No,” he says. The word comes out scraped raw. “I’m selfish, Dick. I don’t have to wonder what might have happened if I had given you up. You might have had a better life—but I would not have survived.”
Dick’s intake of breath is sharp and quick. “Bruce. That’s not true.”
“It is. I…the anger. And the pain. It would have swallowed me whole. Some days I fear it still might.” He turns to meet Dick’s gaze again, and Jason takes an instinctive step back: Bruce Wayne is normally as impenetrable as the hull of the earth, but now he has been cracked open, and the sheer emotion in his eyes leaves Jason feeling like everything in his chest is being sucked out. “You know, Dick; you must know. What you—what you are to me. What you mean to me.”
“ Bruce .” Jason watches as Dick pushes back his chair and sinks to his knees, so that he and Bruce are on the same level. “B. Please. Don’t say stuff like that.”
Bruce takes a deep breath, then lifts a hand to gently brush Dick’s bangs back from his eyes. Dick crumples forward into Bruce’s chest, and Bruce buries his face in Dick’s hair; then Jason thinks he hears the sound of Dick crying—and it has to be Dick, Jason thinks, as he blindly backs away, because it really, really has to be.
One week, six days, and four hours after Dick nearly bled out in Jason’s arms, Bruce calls them all down to the cave—Dick included—and lays out his two weeks’ worth of research and a plan. Tim is instantly skeptical, brow furrowing as he stares down at the documents laid out on the table. “I don’t know,” he starts. “This woman is a thousands-year-old enchantress who defeated Merlin. Is she really going to fall for this?”
Jason hums in agreement. “We’re really banking on her knowledge of magic being limited to the Welsh and Celtic mythos.”
Bruce grunts in reluctant acknowledgement. “I’ve studied her psychology extensively. It’ll work.”
“And if it doesn’t?” Damian demands. He’s been snippy ever since Bruce brushed him off in front of TIm and Jason, but Jason knows the brat will behave, if only because he caught him curled into Dick’s side in front of a Pixar movie in the den last night. “What if this plan only puts Grayson in the path of further harm?”
“If you all follow it exactly,” Bruce returns, even, “it won’t.”
Jason glances to Dick. He’s curled in on himself in the only chair pulled up to the strategy table, nearly swallowed in the thermo blanket Bruce absently draped over him before laying out his documents. Nearly a month of taking every hit that comes a Bat’s way has taken its toll on him: He’s pale and still, too still for a man who usually somersaults more than he walks, and his skin is more yellow-green bruises than its usual olive-gold. They’ve all been bending over backwards to be as cautious as possible during their night jobs, but there’s only so much that can be done when they’re facing down drug kingpins and gun smugglers, and the guilt of being unable to avoid every injury has started to wear on all of them. Even Bruce is retaliating with more brutality than usual for every unlucky thug who manages to push him into a wall, which is how Jason knows that he’s just as frustrated as the rest of them.
“Dick,” Jason says. Dick lifts his head and blinks at him. “What do you think?”
A frown creases Dick’s mouth. He sighs. “I don’t like it,” he admits. “It puts you guys at a hell of a bigger risk than I’m comfortable with. But if B thinks it’ll work, I’m willing to give it a try.”
“And Blood has the artifact?” Tim confirms.
Bruce nods. “Constantine will meet us at Blood’s estate. We’ll execute the plan there; there are protective barriers around the house, so even if le Fey escapes, she’ll be contained long enough for us to fall back on our contingencies.”
They all look to Dick. He nods. “Okay,” he says. “When?”
“Blood has agreed to meet us at nine o’clock tonight. Tim, Damian: You’re on patrol tonight. Too many people in the room will only introduce more risk.”
“Father!” Damian exclaims, outraged, while Tim bristles in protest next to him. “You cannot keep us from this mission! I will not let Grayson face this wretched wench alone—”
“Dick needs to focus,” Bruce cuts him off, stern. “And he won’t be able to do that unless he knows the city is safe in his absence.”
“He’s right.” Dick clasps Damian’s shoulder. “You’ll be the first calls we make if we need backup.”
Tim swallows. “You’ll keep your comms on inside the estate?”
“Every second, Timbo.”
Tim and Damian relent. They leave Bruce to obsessively plan backups for their backups, which is the only way he ever expresses anxiety. Jason watches as Dick climbs to his feet, wincing, and tugs the blanket tighter around his shoulders. “You want help getting upstairs, boy blunder?”
The nickname slips out before Jason can think twice, but it’s worth it for the way Dick’s expression softens. “Yeah,” he sighs. “That would be nice.”
Jason slips his shoulder under Dick’s arm, and they make their way upstairs to Dick’s bedroom with only a few stumbles along the way. Dick lowers himself onto his bed with a grimace and takes a moment to smooth his hand repeatedly down the bruises on his ribs, as if pressing on them will make them hurt less. He glances up at Jason with a wan grin. “I’m not being very sexy right now, am I?”
Jason’s snort of laughter comes out so violently it hurts his throat a little. He shoves his fist against his mouth, then drops his hand and glares. “You can be a real bastard sometimes, you know that?”
Dick flashes Jason a shit-eating smirk, the effect of which is only slightly ruined by the yellowing bruise at the corner of his mouth, and flops backward onto the bed. “You mean you didn’t come up here for the chance of maybe sucking my dick?”
Jason freezes. “Ah. You. Remember that.”
“I’m bruised, Jay, not brain-dead.” Dick sighs and pushes himself upright again. “I owe you an apology. Another one.”
Jason is already shaking his head. “No.”
“Yes.” Dick’s eyes flash with that mix of stubborn earnestness that used to always get under Jason’s skin. “You were right. It was an asshole move, pulling an ultimatum on you like that. Especially since I know what trafficking means to you. I’ll never agree with killing, but threatening to cut ties every time you and I disagree about how to take someone irredeemable off the streets is patronizing, and manipulative, and it makes it seem like this family doesn’t need you, which isn’t true, Jason, we need you more than you would believe —”
“Dick.” Jason drops onto the bed and grabs Dick’s wrist in his grip, just tight enough to get Dick to stop talking. “Dickie. It’s okay. I forgive you.
Dick looks incredibly surprised and not a little suspicious. “You do?”
“I actually came up here with you because—” Jason swallows. “Look. What I said at the exchange, right before you got hurt—”
“Don’t.” Dick’s smile is tight and so see-through it might as well be made of cling wrap. “You were justified. You don’t need to apologize.”
Jason sucks in a breath. He wants to—god, he wants to say it. Just say it. People tend to think that he’s bad at expressing his thoughts, and he tends to let them, but the truth has always been that the words are there, crystal clear in his head. He has never been bad with words. It’s getting them out of his mouth without letting the acid of his anger and hurt corrode them on their way out that’s the problem. Jason looks at Dick, with his eyes and his hands and his heart made for breaking, and knows—he knows. He has lost so many things in his short and difficult lifetime, but losing Dick Grayson—losing him now, after everything they’ve been through to get to where they are—
There’s no coming back from that. Not for the family, and not for Jason.
But saying it—saying it. Saying it is letting down a wall that Jason doesn’t think he will ever be able to let down again. Not since a crowbar shattered the last one into a thousand jagged pieces.
Jason lets out his breath. He looks Dick in his tired blue eyes and nods. “Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
The fake plastic smile around Dick’s mouth eases a bit. Jason lifts a hand and brushes the pad of his thumb over an old bruise the color of oxidized copper on Dick’s cheekbone. “We’ll get you fixed up, Dickiebird,” he says, as close to a promise as he can make it. “Bruce’s plan will work, and after tonight, you’ll be alright again.”
Dick turns his head so that his lips brush Jason’s palm. “You don’t have to worry about me, Jay,” he murmurs. “I’m always alright.”
It’s a typical November night in Gotham, cold and foggy, the air so thick with moisture that Jason can barely see the halos of the streetlights fuzzing out a few feet away. Constantine quirks a grin at them as they emerge from the Batmobile, hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his trenchcoat. “Grayson,” he greets Dick, in his low London drawl that Jason would love to just punch right out of him. “It’s been a while since we last tangoed.”
Dick gives Constantine a wan smile. “Would it be irreverent of me to say that I’d prefer the vampires right now?”
“Maybe, but that’s what I like about you.” Constantine meets Bruce’s gaze over Dick’s shoulder. “Bats.”
The lenses of Bruce’s cowl narrow. “Constantine,” he returns. “You’ve prepared the incantation?”
Constantine reaches into the inner pocket of his coat and tugs out a square of paper to wave for their benefit. “Locked and loaded.”
Bruce grimaces at the expression, but he yields a nod in Constantine’s direction. “I owe you a favor, Constantine.”
Constantine’s mouth curls. His eyes flicker to Dick, then back to Bruce. “Nah,” he says, simply. “Consider it a testament to how well you raised your kid that I like him enough to do this for free.” He tilts his head. “Shall we?”
Blood’s mansion has Wayne Manor beat in terms of depressing Gothic aesthetic by about a mile, which is saying something considering Jason honestly thought the Waynes might have been vampires the first time Bruce brought him home. The foyer is damp and dark, most of the furniture covered in dust sheets, the only light coming from outdated oil lamps mounted on the peeling wallpaper. “Shit,” Jason mutters, glancing around. “This guy is really committed to the whole ‘I share my body with a demon from hell’ lifestyle, huh?”
“One must do one’s best to keep up appearances.” They all flinch and look up. A man in a green velvet smoking jacket and a sliver of white in his slick red hair stands at the balcony overlooking the foyer. “Else the commoners start to think this is just an ordinary house after all.” He gestures. “If you’re done gawping. I’ve prepared the study for the ritual.”
Dick glances at Jason as they all move toward the grand staircase. “An antihero named Jason with a white streak in his hair,” he murmurs, sly. “He’s moving in on your territory.”
If it was anyone else saying it, Jason would think seriously about throwing them off the staircase; but there’s so much fondness in Dick’s voice that all it makes Jason want to do is pull the other close and keep whatever is lurking in the corners of Blood’s dusty house from sinking its claws into him. Instead, he settles himself with a breath and replies, dry, “If he starts slinging one-liners and rubber bullets, we might have to have a talk about copyright issues.”
The smile Dick gives him is soft, like he knows exactly what Jason is doing. When they reach the second floor, Blood ushers them through a set of heavy oak doors into a room that might contain all of the character the rest of the house is lacking. The walls are all shelves supporting artifacts ranging from delicate crystals to six-foot-tall sceptres and crowns studded with precious jewels; the items that can’t fit on the walls are stacked on the floor in piles that look like they could have some organizational system to them, but one which isn’t immediately obvious to Jason. The only bit of clear space in the room is the massive mahogany desk, upon which rests an enormous uncut ruby on a velvet cushion.
Blood crosses the room and kneels by an enormous metal chest that’s held shut by about five different locks. They wait, patiently, as he pulls an overcrowded keyring out of his jacket, undoes each of the locks, and lifts a crude stone idol of a woman out of the chest. He secures the box again before rising and setting the idol on the desk. “Morgaine le Fey,” he says, dry. “As you requested.”
Constantine digs around in his coat pocket and comes up with a stem of chalk. He cocks an eyebrow when Blood doesn’t budge. “Aren’t you meant to be waiting outside?”
Blood’s lips thin. He looks to Bruce. “This is a dangerous undertaking, Batman,” he growls, in a tone that says this isn’t the first time they’ve had this conversation. “Indebted to you I may be, but if your… associate’s wards do not hold, this entire world will fall to its knees at the mercy of—”
“We’re committed, Blood,” Bruce cuts him off, short. “Constantine’s enchantments will hold.”
There’s a moment’s pause; then, “Very well.” Blood makes his way toward the hall outside the study. He spares them a last glance over his shoulder as he stands in the doorway. “May the mercy of Merlin be in our favor today.”
The oaken doors of the study thump closed with ominous finality. Constantine spends the next ten minutes pacing the perimeter of the room, tracing various symbols onto the walls and floor with his chalk. At last, he moves the idol from the desk to the floor, tucks the chalk back into his jacket, and looks to Dick. “Ready, Grayson?”
Dick answers with a tight smile. “As I’ll ever be.”
Constantine draws in a breath and holds his hands over the idol. His eyes roll back into his head as a bright yellow light flares along his fingers. “Rwy'n apelio at hud Albion. Rhyddhau Morgaine le Fey o'r carchar hwn!”
A howling wind fills the room. On the floor, the idol trembles and tips onto its side. A blinding green flash has them all wincing away, arms raised to protect their eyes. When they turn back, it’s to find a woman with dark, tangled hair and a tattered emerald dress crouching on the floor, eyes narrowed as she takes in her new surroundings.
Slowly, the woman unfolds herself and rises to her feet. Constantine clears his throat. “Morgaine le Fey, I’m presuming?”
Morgaine le Fey flashes eyes the color of coal around the room. She ignores Constantine entirely and instead lands on Dick. A slow smile, smug with realization, curls her mouth. “Nightwing,” she purrs with obvious delight. “You’re looking a little worse for wear.”
Jason digs his fingers into his palms to distract himself from how much he wants to put his bow knife into this woman’s throat. Dick just blinks back at her, the milked-out lenses of his mask revealing nothing. “Morgaine,” he returns. “Terrible to see you again.”
Morgaine takes a step toward Dick, and Jason instantly moves forward, reaching instinctively for the hilt tucked into his belt. It’s only after he’s caught in the scope of Dick’s widely-cast Chill, guys look that he realizes that Bruce has done the same. Morgaine, however, just takes them all in with a smile that’s suddenly voracious. “I see you’ve brought your pets along,” she laughs. “Have you all been enjoying the little gift I gave to your favorite son?”
“That ‘gift’ is the only reason you’re standing here, le Fey,” Constantine growls. “I’ve drawn up wards around this room that will make you sorely regret any attempts on your part to attack us. You can destroy this house if you like; you’ll rot before you break free of these twenty square feet.”
“Then why have you summoned me, magician? ” Morgaine licks her teeth with a smile. “Did my beloved Nightwing desire my company so badly?”
“You’ll reverse what you did to him, le Fey,” Bruce snaps, in the voice that has sent the scum of Gotham scuttling away like cockroaches. “Or you’ll know a fate far worse than imprisonment.”
“A threat from Batman, Gotham City’s most valiant hero?” Morgaine laughs, wide and delighted. “Oh, this is going to be fun, isn’t it?”
“Listen here, witch—”
“No, you listen.” The playfulness falls away from Morgaine’s expression, leaving only vicious satisfaction behind. She turns and perches herself on the edge of the desk, arranging her skirts over her knees. “There is no threat you can deal me that will convince me to take back my little present, Batman. I have overpowered Merlin himself and survived a thousand years of imprisonment. How long do you think it will take me to break free from that little doll and the restraints it places on my power?” She tilts her head, coy. “I’ll take a few hundred more years of torture for the pleasure of knowing dear Nightwing will die in your arms, Dark Knight .”
“B—” Jason starts, furious, but Bruce holds up a hand. For one beat, two, he and Morgaine stare at each other, each untouchable to the other. Bruce’ jaw clenches. He looks to Constantine.
“Put her back in the idol.”
“ No! ” Jason snarls, but Constantine is already lifting his hands, runic symbols glowing over his palms. “Pwerau Albion,” he begins, guttural and purposeful, “rhwymo'r Morgaine le Fey i'w charchar unwaith eto—”
Constantine’s chant abruptly cuts off. His eyes roll back into his head and he collapses bonelessly to the floor.
“Batman!” Dick runs across the room and falls to his knees at the side of Bruce’s unconscious form, sprawled on the floor. He yanks out the hypodermic needle lodged between the plates of Bruce’s cowl and his body armor—the same one currently sticking out of Constantine’s neck—and looks up at Jason. “ Hood! What have you done?”
Jason ignores him and turns to Morgaine, who is looking at him with a mix of surprise and delight. “Now that that’s out of the way,” he grinds out, “we can start these negotiations for real.”
Dick is on his feet in an instant. “Jason,” he says, and Jason can’t look at him right now, or else he’ll lose his resolve. “You know you can’t trust her—”
Morgaine barks out a laugh. “Well, this is certainly an interesting development.” She leans forward, eyes glittering as she takes Jason in. “You’re a bold one, aren’t you, Red Hood?”
“Tell me what you want,” Jason says. “Tell me what it’ll take to lift this curse.”
Morgaine stares at him for a moment more, as if to gauge his authenticity; then a sudden, wide smile splits across her face. “Why, power , of course,” she says, sharp and hungry. “The lands of this world, and all of the wretched, ancient magicks it contains—it belongs to me . Not Uther, not Arthur, not whatever insipid peasants reside as the heads of its various states— me . I want the power to make it mine.”
Jason swallows. “I thought you’d say that.” He walks around the desk and lifts the ruby from the cushion. “Do you know what this is?”
“Jason,” Dick says. “Don’t. Not for me.”
Morgaine’s gaze only grows keener at Dick’s quiet plea. She takes in the ruby with hawkish interest. “Why don’t you enlighten me, Hood?”
“This is an Egyptian jawhrat mukbira . A magnifying crystal. There are only three of its kind in the world. It’s useless on its own, but it has the ability to magnify the magic of any enchanter powerful enough to wield it. The more of your magic you feed it, the more it magnifies your magic in turn.” Jason holds out the crystal and forces his voice steady, forces himself not to look at Dick across the room. “It might not be enough for you to conquer all the lands just yet, but it’s enough for you to take Gotham—and I’d imagine that, with a city at your disposal, the rest of the world won’t be far behind.”
Jason barely manages to get his spiel out before an escrima stick drives into his shoulder, knocking him back. Dick is on him a second later, expression hard, his other baton raised for the strike. “Give me the ruby, Jason—”
But Dick is slow from his injuries, and projecting more than a middle school class presentation. Jason ducks easily out of his way and sweeps a kick under him, knocking him onto his back. Dick falls to the floor with a pained gasp, instantly curling in on his ribs. “Sorry, Dickie,” Jason murmurs, stepping aside. “I’m doing this for you.”
The scuffle has convinced Morgaine: Jason can see it in her eyes. She leers at him, wicked with glee. “You’d give up an entire city— your city—for one measly life?”
“Gotham has done nothing but take from me,” Jason returns, measured. “I have no qualms giving it up for this life.” He looks down at Dick, at the pained look on his face, and swallows. “I’d give up a lot more.”
Morgaine straightens. The ruby vanishes from Jason’s hands and reappears in Morgaine’s a second later. She slides her fingers over it, head tilting. The ruby begins to glow, and Morgaine’s eyes go half-lidded. “You’re right,” she breathes. “The power in this stone—it’s incredible. I can sense it, just out of my reach…”
“Lift the curse, le Fey,” Jason snarls.
Morgaine looks up at him, lit from below by the bloody light of the gemstone. “I understand why Jason Blood is not among us now,” she purrs. “He would never have allowed a fool like you within my reach.” She sweeps out a hand, and Jason goes flying back, crashing into a shelf full of brass instruments that clatter down around him as he falls. “As a reward for your boldness , Red Hood, you will now have the pleasure of watching as I remake your pathetic city in my image.”
Morgaine lifts the ruby above her head, face tilted to bask in its power. Rivers of green begin to flow up her arms and into the heart of the stone, fueling its ever-growing halo of red. Jason climbs to his feet, wincing, and watches as Morgaine pours her magic into the ruby, filling the room with crimson.
The light suddenly fades. Morgaine abruptly drops the stone, a bloodless expression on her face, but the magic keeps pouring from her skin, wrapping around the gem before vanishing into its depths. “What—” she gasps. “What is the meaning of this—”
Jason crosses the room and helps Dick up. Dick smiles at him, soft. “Thanks, Jay.”
Bruce and Constantine rise to their feet, dusting off their suits. Morgaine gapes at them. “You—”
“C’mon, love, you didn’t really think it would be that easy, did you?” Constantine strides to the doors of the study and pulls them open. Blood enters, an impassive look on his face. “Blood, mate. Welcome back to the party.”
“ Blood ,” Morgaine snarls. “What have you done to me?”
Blood tilts his head toward the ruby on the floor, drinking in the magic still pouring from Morgaine’s body. “There is no such thing as a jawhrat mukbira , le Fey,” he says, cold. “Though its origins are Egyptian. That stone is an absorption crystal, mined from the tomb of Cleopatra herself. Its purpose is to absorb magic, not amplify it. All it needs is for an enchanter to willingly allow it their magic signature; once it’s allowed a first taste, it becomes quite…voracious.”
Morgaine shrieks, an unearthly sound, and reaches for Blood, lips already forming the start of a curse—but the green light flickers and dies between her fingers. She stares down at her own hands, horror dawning on her face. The she lunges at Blood, face twisted in an expression of pure hatred—
Jason has never been as fast as Dick, but he thinks he might approach Barry Allen velocity when he slides between Blood and Morgaine and throws his elbow as hard as he can into Morgaine’s throat. She falls back, choking, and glares up at him through watering eyes as he looks down at her. For a moment, Jason allows himself to fantasize about pulling out his gun and putting two between her eyes; then he takes a deep breath and releases that thought into the void, because he’s a goddamn saint among men. “Hey, Constantine?”
“Put this piece of shit back where she belongs, won’t you?”
Constantine chuckles and raises his hands. “Gladly.”
Morgaine le Fey goes back into her idol, even less likely to escape than she was before, and Blood presents the ruby to Dick with something approximating a smile. “The stone will recognize le Fey’s signature and draw her magic from you,” he explains. “It will take any vestiges of her magic that it finds in your body. With any luck, the curse will go with it.”
Dick straightens, still grimacing over his sore ribs, and glances up at Jason, as if for affirmation. Jason swallows, presses a brief kiss to his hairline, and gently pushes him forward. “Go on, boy wonder. Fix yourself.”
Dick smiles. Bruce comes forward, adjusting his gauntlet, and tips Dick a single nod of encouragement. Jason watches as Dick takes a deep breath and faces Blood. “Alright. Let’s do this.”
Blood holds out the ruby; Dick strips off a glove and places his bare palm over it. For a moment Dick’s entire body glows green. Then the light of the ruby wanes and fades, and like that, it’s over.
Silently, Bruce shucks off a gauntlet to bare the same hand as Dick, extracts a butterfly knife from his belt, and presses the tip against his finger. A bright bead of red wells to the surface. Dick turns his hand over and observes his unmarred skin with a wry grin. “Well,” he says, looking up, mouth curled in a smile. “I’m fixed.”
The relief that fills Jason’s chest is so huge and tangible he can barely breathe past it. He meets Bruce’s gaze and watches as Bruce crooks the slightest of smiles. “Come on,” he says, laying a hand on Dick’s shoulder. “Let’s go home.”
Damian barrels into Dick’s middle the moment they disembark from the Batmobile, because he may be the son of the Bat and the heir to the demon or whatever, but as long as Dick’s around, he’ll always just be a kid to be loved. “I am glad you are alright, Grayson,” he says, muffled against the front of Dick’s suit. “ Never do something as stupid as that again.”
Dick smiles and runs a hand over the back of Damian’s head. “You say that like I asked for this.”
“Careful, Damian, you’ll burst his stitches.” Tim guides Damian back with a hand on his shoulder. “I’m glad you’re okay, ‘Wing.”
“You and me both, Timmy.”
“And le Fey?”
“Back in her idol. She won’t be casting curses on anyone anytime soon.”
Tim lifts a brow at Bruce. “Your plan worked.”
Bruce’s mouth twitches as he comes around the car. “This is why you should always listen to me.”
Tim grins, the first real smile Jason has seen from him since Dick nearly died in front of them. Jason huffs and rolls his eyes, because he knows what’s expected of him. “Alright, batbrats, Dickface still has a punctured lung to heal, so hands off. You can crowd him tomorrow.”
Damian scowls in Jason’s direction before turning to Dick. “We’ll watch a movie? Perhaps with a delivered pizza?”
Dick grins and ruffles the kid’s hair. “Only if you let me put pineapple on my half.”
Tim and Damian drift off across the cave, heading toward the computer to give Bruce their report of the night. Jason turns to Dick, who looks like he’s one strong wind away from tipping over. “Fancy a nap, boy wonder?”
Dick groans. “Yes please. And a shower. I’d go through a month of being cursed by a psychopathic enchantress for a hot shower.”
Jason glares. “You’re really not funny.”
Dick grins and shrugs as he starts toward the staircase. “I’m hit or miss.”
Jason helps Dick upstairs and into his bedroom, even though he should actually leave him to die in the cave, and even waits as Dick climbs in and out of the shower so he can help the idiot clean his stitches. At last, Dick is clean and dry on his bed, looking up at Jason with that expression like he wants Jason to stay. “Thanks, Jay.” He absently pats the gash over his sternum. “You didn’t have to do all this.”
“Yeah, well.” Jason closes the suture kit with a click and sets it on Dick’s bedside table. “Get some rest. And, uh. Hit me up when you’re back on your feet.” He turns to go, fully intending to head straight back down to the cave, throw himself onto his bike, and race off to an establishment seedy enough for him to drown his feelings in whiskey and drunken fistfights, like a man .
“Jay, wait.” Dick jumps to his feet, then immediately winces because the idiot probably forgot he has a hole in his chest. “You—you don’t have to go.”
“You don’t.” Dick swallows. “Stay the night.”
Jason sighs. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I don’t mean—it doesn’t have to be with me,” Dick blurts. “Just—spend the night at the manor. Let Alfred make you waffles in the morning. I just…” His eyes flicker, and for a moment he looks so hurt. “I know you don’t want to be around me, but. I don’t want us to go back to only seeing each other when we work cases together. You said you’ve forgiven me for what I did, and I’m holding you to that, so let’s, you know.” He takes a breath. “Let’s be friends. Brothers.”
Jason gapes at him for a moment, speechless. Then he barks out a laugh so sharp it makes Dick flinch. “Dick. Two hours ago I told you, to your face , that I would gladly give up this entire soulsuck of a city for the chance to keep you safe. And you think I want to be friends ?”
Dick stares at him, wide-eyed. “That was. That was for Morgaine, I thought that was—”
“It was real.” Jason swallows and draws himself up, because, well, fuck it. Fuck it. He has loved Dick for so long the years burn in his memory, and the number of times Dick has almost died in his arms, the fact that Jason has died and then come back to life again still loving him— “You think someone as powerful as Morgaine would have believed me if I wasn’t telling the truth, on some level? Why do you think Bruce insisted that I come along? Everything I said to her—to you. It was fucking real, Dick. Every single word.”
For longest half-minute of Jason’s life, Dick just stares at him, like he can’t believe his ears—so Jason crosses the room in two long strides, hooks his hand around the back of Dick’s neck, and crushes their mouths together.
Dick responds instantly and enthusiastically, yielding to Jason’s mouth with a hungry moan that has Jason’s fingers tightening in the curls at the nape of his neck. Dick kisses like he fights, fluid and flexible, pushing back against Jason and yielding to him by turns. Eventually they break apart for breath, and Jason takes the opportunity to duck down and nip at the slender column of Dick’s throat, drinking in the low, breathy sounds he draws forward with his teeth.
Jason pushes forward, and they fall together onto Dick’s bed. Dick slips his hands under Jason’s shirt and tugs it off, then sets to work on his pants. “Off,” he murmurs, a rush to his voice that has Jason shivering and hot. “C’mon, Jay, get it off.”
They get the rest of Jason’s clothes off together, and Jason returns the favor by stripping Dick of the undershirt and sweatpants he put Dick in himself. Then he has to take a moment to collect himself at the sight of Dick laying bare before him, his still-damp hair curling into his eyes, mouth parted and panting as he claws at Jason’s shoulders. “What do you want, Dickie?” he asks, soft, smoothing a hand down Dick’s ribs and watching him tremble under the touch. “Tell me what you want.”
Dick levies himself up onto his elbows just long enough to reach over to his nightstand and pull open the drawer. He turns back to Jason and holds out a half-empty bottle of lube. “You,” Dick says, steady and sure as he meets Jason’s gaze. “You, Jason. Always.”
The thought of Dick using the first half of that lube on himself makes Jason feel like a corkscrew is twisting in his gut. He takes the bottle and pops the cap, covering the fingers of one hand before steadying Dick’s hip with the other. “Hold on to me, goldie,” he murmurs, reaching between Dick’s thighs. “This might sting a bit.”
Dick latches on and buries his face in Jason’s neck as Jason opens him up, biting back whimpers with a fist to his mouth. Jason gets up to two fingers before Dick groans and arches his chest, rocking impatiently against his hand. “Jay, Jay, just—do it. Get in me, c’mon.”
Jason groans and nips at Dick’s shoulder. “You’re so tight, prettybird, you’re gonna—”
“I won’t, I won’t.” Dick hooks his legs over Jason’s waist and draws him into another desperate kiss. “Fuck me, Jason. Now.”
“Shit.” Jason presses Dick back against the pillows and grabs at the headboard. Then he starts pressing in, into the impossibly tight heat of Dick’s body, and Dick is gasping against him, eyes rolling back. Jason rolls his hips and sinks in to the hilt, then holds himself there for a moment, panting. “Dick, are you—I’m gonna—”
“Move,” Dick whispers. He opens his eyes and looks up at Jason, searing blue in the dark of the room. “I won’t break, Jason.”
Jason moves. He sets a hard, sharp pace between Dick’s thighs, almost on the edge of brutal but not quite. The more forcefully he moves, the more pliable Dick becomes, until he’s practically limp, eyes going hazy as he lets his entire body rock with Jason’s thrusts. “Hey,” Jason murmurs, and ducks down to press kisses against Dick’s shoulder, his neck, his open mouth. “Dickie. C’mon. Look at me.”
Dick blinks. His eyes clear, and his fingers curl against Jason’s shoulders. “I’m here,” he whispers. “I— ahh , Jay—”
The noises Dick makes become unintelligible as his voice rises in a series of high, hitching gasps that sound almost like he’s in pain—then he tosses his head back and shakes apart, coming wet and warm against Jason’s stomach. Jason groans, drops his head between Dick’s shoulder and neck, and presses himself deep inside Dick in one final thrust. Then his arms give out, and just barely manages to roll them so that Dick is on top before collapsing into the mattress.
They lie there like that for what feels like an eternity, panting against each other’s bare skin. After a while, Dick stirs on Jason’s chest, wincing as he shifts around where Jason is still inside him. “Hmm,” he hums, failing to sound anything other than entirely pleased about it. “Looks like I’ll have to take another shower.”
Jason swallows. “Dick…”
But Dick knows him too well, because he leans down and presses a kiss to Jason’s mouth before Jason can say anything else. Then he sinks down again and tucks himself against Jason’s neck, so that Jason can feel the rise and fall of Dick’s chest against his own. “It’s you, Jay,” he says, so soft it makes Jason’s throat tighten. “I don’t feel as safe with anyone as I feel with you.”
Tomorrow, Cass, Tim, and Damian will sit Dick down at breakfast and tell him he can’t ever do anything like this to them again, because the Bats can take as many hits as there are in this world but the one thing they can’t lose, ever, is him. Tomorrow, Alfred will set a plate of Dick’s favorite blueberry pancakes in front of him and tell him, gently, that he is the heart of their family, and Steph and Barbara will come by with fresh fruit and coffee and inform Dick in no uncertain terms that if he ever finds himself in trouble like that again, he is to go to them, immediately , “And don’t you dare make excuses not to, bird boy, I swear to god.” Bruce will lay a heavy hand on Dick’s shoulder in a gesture that speaks volumes more than words ever could, and Dick will squeeze Jason’s hand tight under the table as he tries to hide his tears in his glass of orange juice. Jason will look at him and know that if Dick was offered this tradeoff again the very next day—the opportunity to take his family’s pain away, no matter the cost—he would take it in a heartbeat; and he’ll promise himself that as long as he’s alive, he’ll spend every day trying to make Dick believe that he is worth more than any protection spell ever could to the people who love him as much as he loves them.
Tonight, Jason threads an arm around Dick’s bare shoulders and holds on as tight as he dares.
and that's all she wrote! hope you've all enjoyed this compulsive manifestation of my obsessive fixation on hurt!dick + all of the issues that i wish were addressed more in comics (tim and dick's relationship, how important dick is to bruce). dedicating this to you guys and all of the fantastic creators in this community who have been affected by tumblr's shit stupid nsfw ban, i love you and will follow you to the ends of the earth
on that note, hope you all have a wonderful holiday :) leave a comment or come talk to me at perissologist.tumblr.com!