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Ducklings on the Freeway

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Jason was finishing his last walk through, site secure, when the all-clears started coming over the comm. Threat neutralized, they said, all targets safe. Red Robin waited for him at the edge of the roof, the blue and red lights of police cruisers flickering off the buildings around them. There -- finally -- the sound of GCPD boots making their way up the stairs. Not a sound Jason ever liked, but in this case, it was a relief.

Tim looked tidy, like he'd already taken the time to brush away scuffs and right any parts of the uniform that had come askew. He wasn't injured. Another knot of Jason's tension relaxed. It had been a good, manageable fight with two of them there.

In fact, the only thing off about Red Robin was the way he was looking at Jason.

“Do you need a ride?” Tim asked, puzzled.

The attention made Jason's skin itch. Tim was right; Jason shouldn't still be here. He should have been on a bike halfway to a safehouse by now. Not so long ago, he would have, but these days, he spent too much time thinking about what might happen at that end of a fight after somebody let down their guard. A hidden knife, an overlooked explosive. And when he thought about it, it consumed him.

It was Bruce's fault. He'd been dead, and none of Jason's anger had mattered anymore, and then he'd been back -- but not back like Jason had been back. Back without damages, just like new. Hard to know which had been more disorienting.

“Naw,” Jason said, carefully unbothered. “You okay?”

Tim gave him a weird look. “Uh, yes.”

Jason had planned to go home after Tim left -- he'd done more than his duty -- but by the time he got to his bike, his hands were shaking on the handlebars. His head was full of broken and bloodied armor, memorials preserved behind glass.

Fuck. It was because they'd split up. He hadn't seen Damian or Steph, just heard them. He'd have to come up with some excuse for going to the cave -- or rather, the same excuse he always used, even though it was wearing thin. He was getting very good at delivering after action reports.

The atmosphere was strange when he arrived, cold and dark as always but quiet. The cave was almost empty, only Steph and Tim huddled around the workstation that overlooked the cave's lower levels. They looked startled to see him, even nervous. He checked, but the medical suite looked empty.

Good. Great. Jason loved feeling welcome in the cave. He clenched his fists against the shakes.

“I didn't think you were coming,” Tim said. “You were up with the docks case all last night.”

That was true, but Jason wasn't going to admit he was as tired as Tim thought he was. He leaned against the workstation between them, deliberately taking up more space than he would have if they had wanted him there. He looked Steph up and down. She seemed alright -- she'd survived, obviously -- and the irrational panic clogging Jason's throat started to subside.

“You get clipped?” he asked her.

She grinned like a satisfied cat, the bruise on her jaw stretching. “Oh, yeah.” Jason couldn't help his lips twitching. He did like Steph. She was a little shit, just like him.

Steph froze like she'd remembered she left the oven on. “But I'm okay! It was totally under control.”

Jason frowned. She was watching him with an unnerving earnestness. He did want to know she was okay. He didn't want her to tell him.

“I'm also okay,” Tim said, a little more grudgingly, offended Jason had doubted him.

“Of course, you're okay.” Jason eyed them suspiciously. Carefully, he leaned back against the desk, crossing his arms in an expansive gesture that -- just like Jason -- was large and unconcerned.

But he was concerned. They were watching him like they expected a breakdown. Steph hadn't waited for him to ask before reassuring him, anticipating the question: are you okay? He must have been checking up on them more frequently than he'd realized. They must have noticed -- this week and last week and the week before -- the way Jason had suddenly been a lot easier to find around the cave. The way he avoided Bruce but haunted their footsteps for just long enough before hightailing it again.

The hair rose on the back of his neck. Tim and Steph exchanged a loaded glance over Jason's head.

He knew that look; there was something they weren't telling him. But they were fine, and Cass was on the other side of the globe with Bruce.

“Damian?” Jason said, as evenly as he could.

“He's fine,” Steph said.

Jason let out the breath he been holding. Good. But they were still watching him with that cautious expression. Right. How could he forget about priority one in this family?

“Where's Dick?”

Bingo. Both of them shifted, guilty.

“Don't freak out,” she said.

“About Dick?” Jason said incredulously.

Her eyes had gotten huge. Like she thought he was going to fall apart. And, alright, he was falling apart -- just like they thought -- but not about this. Dick wasn't someone who needed watching. Steph, squinting up at him with a bruise on her jaw, she needed looking after, her and the rest of the infants in Kevlar. They kept Jason up at night. They made him shake when he should have been sleeping.

Dick -- Jason didn't worry about Dick as a rule. The bombs hadn't gone off, so wherever Dick had been, he’d done what he'd needed to.

Faintly, he heard the shower cut off. Damian appeared in the entrance to the locker room, freshly clean and wearing a Bludhaven shirt so oversized it did nothing for Jason's anxiety about his life expectancy. His expression tipped Jason off that whatever action was happening here tonight, it was in the locker room behind Damian.

Dick. Jason gritted his teeth.

It didn't matter. With Damian in front of him, that was all three accounted for. Jason could go home.

They were both of them watching Jason like a piece of precariously balanced fine China in a hurricane. Dick's injury couldn't be serious; they wouldn't have time to give a shit about Jason if it was.

Had Dick given them the idea that Jason worried about him? No, when Dick pinged Jason's private channel he only gave Jason updates on the kids, and sometimes, Cass, who Jason didn't worry about but liked. Dick never bothered telling Jason about his own status, and Jason didn't ask because he didn't care. Maybe Dick had told the kids Be careful, Jason worries -- and if he had, fuck, Jason was going to kill him -- but it was these little sweethearts who had assumed Jason worried about Dickface too.

Jason let out a breath in annoyance. His mental tripwire was for Robins, and Dick wasn't one, not the same way. He'd never worn the suit with the weight of legacy -- or in the shadow of a memorial case that said Bruce really should have known better.

Damian made a disgusted sound from the lower level. “Pennyworth needs assistance.”

“Medical?” Tim said, shooting another look at Jason. Jason ignored him. If Dick had been really hurt, Tim and Damian would be the ones having fits, not Jason. Which meant Dick was fine, and this solicitous behavior was doubly unnecessary.

“Brute force,” Damian said, miffed to be found lacking.

Jason let himself flow to his feet, easy, light. “I know when my name's being called.”

“I can do it,” Steph said quickly.

“Listen, babies -- ” Jason draped an arm over Steph's shoulder. He started when she leaned into it easily, taken aback by the warmth of her hair against his chin. For a beat, he forgot what he'd been about to say. “Listen -- there might be a few youths in this family I like, but Dickie isn't one of them.”

“Ok,” Tim said in his best ‘I'm lying to Batman but I want him to know’ voice.

Jason glared him down, but Tim stayed strong. And there was Steph, nose wrinkled skeptically, still tucked up snug under his arm. Jason didn't know what to do with that besides leave. He ruffled Tim's hair as he headed for the showers, a parting reminder of Jason's extra inches. Dick would have put him on the ground for it. Tim flailed.

Steam hit him as he entered the locker room, pulling off his jacket as he went, unbuckling the armored top layer after a moment's consideration. There were only so many directions this could go.

Dick had his head in his hands, half-collapsed on the bench with his suit pulled down to his waist. Tired but whole. Well, that was underwhelming. The kids’ expressions had promised a lot more angst than this.

Or they thought Jason really was as fragile as wet tissue.

Dick's back carried a pattern of bruises just coming in. The worst of them circled his neck and shoulder, the color of crushed berries. It looked like somebody had tried to garrote him through the armor. Jason let out a low whistle, impressed. Moisture, a mix of sweat and condensation, ran down Dick's back, shiny in the lights.

Alfred stood next to him, a water bottle filled with some kind of electrolyte mixture in hand. With half the sugar of the branded stuff, it was a bit like fruity seawater. Jason could taste it just looking at the bottle. It gave him vertigo; threw him back to nights when Bruce had seemed nine feet tall and the only source of calm in the universe.

They were talking quietly, or Alfred was. Dick's voice seemed to be all but gone, hinting at the brutality of those awful bruises around his neck. Alright, Jason conceded, if he'd found Steph or Tim or Damian like this, he would have gone off the rails.

But Dick could take it. And more importantly, Jason didn't mind seeing Dick in a little pain.

“Master Jason,” Alfred said, “could I bother you to provide some added stability?”

“I can stand up, A,” Dick whispered, so hoarse Jason winced. “Just give me… an hour.” He laughed at himself, nearly soundless. “Or maybe tomorrow?”

“I've got it.” Jason dropped heavily onto the bench, close enough to earn a sharp exhale from Dick. He pulled his boots off without a word, letting Dick's reaction to a little jostling make his argument for him.

“Master Jason,” Alfred said, unimpressed.

“He's fine,” Jason said. “The kids aren't worried enough about him for him not to be fine.”

Dick made a sound, though Jason couldn’t tell if it was a laugh or a protest. Dick still had his head down like he was too tired to lift it, and he smelled like battle sweat. Jason pulled his underlayer over his head with an aggrieved sigh. He'd been right about where this was going.

“They're more worried about me.” He tossed his boots aside, and got his arms under Dick's, bracing his legs to take Dick’s weight. “Alright, up.” Jason leaned him against the lockers.

“Yes, thank you. Hold him a moment there, please,” Alfred said.

With Jason's help, Alfred stripped Dick of the rest of his suit. Dick watched it all with a resigned expression like he was torn between joking and complaining. Jason waited for a fight, but it didn't come. Dick must be having real trouble standing. Exhaustion? A leg injury? Maybe it was an old favorite -- that Grayson knee acting up. Jason tightened his grip.

Instead of complaining, Dick squinted at Jason's chest. “You said they're worried about you? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Jason flexed, rippling unblemished skin. He'd probably have a few bruises tomorrow, but he was, by the standards of this family, effectively pristine. “They think I'm going to cry over your bruises.”

Dick squinted at him. “That's… a stretch.”

“Surely not so far a stretch as all that,” Alfred murmured, and Jason and Dick shared a moment of true connection -- that of the guilty caught out.

Alfred pulled the rest of the suit away, gathering it all up to go to the laundry, and Jason helped Dick limp over to the showerhead. He put out an arm and let Jason guide him until he was taking his own weight, forehead pressed against his closed fist. A shuddering breath passed through him.

“Wow, what the fuck,” Jason said, meaning all of it -- the bruises, the exhaustion, the unsteadiness. Dick looked a lot worse than Jason had realized when he'd first walked in. None of this had been on comms. He didn't think the kids knew either.

“Shove it,” Dick muttered into the wall.

Jason tested the water against his palm. After a moment, he said stiffly, “Did you say anything to them about me?”

“To who?”

Jason dropped his voice. “To them. You look like shit, fine, but they thought I was gonna freak.”

Dick didn't say anything.

“Dick.”

“Jason,” Dick said, tired, “you call me every night.”

Jason froze. “You call me.”

Dick opened one eye, incredulous. Are you kidding me, that look said. Dick did call him -- because Jason had choked on his own tongue asking him to. He had tried to make it sound like it wasn't asking for help, but it turned out Dick wasn't an idiot.

“How do they -- ” But even Jason couldn't pretend there weren't plenty of ways for a Bat to know that didn't involve Dick breaking confidence. “Did they hear -- ?”

Dick let out a short laugh that ended with a painful cough. “Tim knew who was on the other end, not the content. It turns out he tracks my contact with people he thinks might kill me.”

Jason was surprised. He shouldn't have been. Violence against Bats was old leverage, a bargaining chip Jason had relied on for a long time. To hear it again now -- he should have expected it, but it felt so far away. He could open his mouth and say, I would never. Or a little less commitment: I probably wouldn't. But he balked. There was a minimum safe distance between Jason and Bruce, and giving this up might give up his last and best barrier. The last of his independence.

So he didn't say anything. The water was warm enough, and he tapped Dick's side, prompting him to roll into the spray. He pulled Dick's hand over to the soap and shampoo dispenser, dispensing gel into his palm. Dick frowned at it. Jason crossed his arms; he wasn't going to do the rest for him.

“I added you to their call list,” Dick said. “That's when he told me he knew we were in contact.”

“Call list?”

“Who to call for backup,” Dick said. “Promise I didn't imply you cared. About me, anyway.”

“Because I don't,” Jason pointed out.

Dick seemed to find that funny.

Jason leaned back against the cool tile, staring fixedly at the bare stone of the opposite wall. The call list. Steph and Tim and Damian were going to call him when things went bad from now on. He was on record as an approved source of retribution in case of injured bird. It felt like Steph leaning into him in the cave, unexpected but not bad. Maybe a lot stronger than not bad.

Dick hadn't moved to use the soap. He was still leaning rather than standing under the spray. Jason didn’t like how much being upright was taking out of Dick. His chest rose and fell in short, uncomfortable breaths, but he did seem to be relaxing slowly under the hot water. The heat brought more color to his bruises, making them gruesome. Jason told himself Alfred would have kept Dick in medical if he’d needed it, and Jason didn't doubt his judgement, but -- it was just that Dick was bad enough visually that Jason was surprised the kids outside had been so calm.

“What did you do, walk in here under your own power and then realize you couldn’t get up?”

Dick closed his eyes and ignored him. So that was a yes.

“Why are you here?” Dick said, even though he had to know.

“I love the decor.”

Dick squinted at him with one eye. “The verbal all clears weren't enough?”

Jason grimaced. So Dick hadn't known how bad it was, and now he did. Jason swiped the soap in Dick's palm. Dick tried to shove at him, but Jason was bigger and -- for now -- a lot stronger. It was easy to spread the soap over Dick's shoulder and chest and down his arms. The shower washed it away quickly, but they had lots and Jason wasn't aiming for perfection. Just get Dick up to bed stinking less.

Jesus, the bruises on Dick's neck looked even worse when Jason had his hands on them.

“Jason, come on,” Dick whispered. His throat vibrated under Jason's thumb, striking a nerve in Jason's brain very different from caretaking. He pulled back sharply.

“Hurry up, then. I'm not standing in here all day. My reputation is already fucking ruined enough.”

“It's the excuses,” Dick said thoughtfully. “They know you don't love giving Bruce reports this much.”

Jason stared at his fist, suds bubbling up between his knuckles. Dick's observation hit him someplace more raw than he'd expected, someplace humiliated and defenseless. Jason was usually ready to go to the mat on his decisions; he usually relished the fight, but this -- he wasn't ready for scrutiny.

Reporting out had been his first -- and only, really -- excuse for being at the cave to check on Steph, Damian, and Tim after that first unexpected anxiety attack. In retrospect, he should have known it wouldn't hold up, but he'd been panicking, not thinking.

“They know?”

“Not really,” Dick said. “Just that you want them to survive. They find it reassuring.” He spread his hands palm up: no accounting for taste.

Jason didn't know how he felt about that. He did want them to survive -- or he needed them to, for his mental health. He'd just thought he'd be able to do it from a distance.

**

Getting Dick up to his room was a pain. The biggest pain was the look on Steph and Tim's face when they realized Dick had more than minor bruises. On the one hand, it took their attention off of Jason. On the other, Dick dug his fingernails into Jason's neck and wouldn't let go, trying to use him as some kind of blind between the kids and that ugly ring of eggplant around his neck.

Upstairs, Jason had to tuck him in. At least one of Dick's arms didn't have full mobility, and he couldn't get the sheets up over his shoulder. Jason enjoyed it more than he should, smirking while Dick grumbled at him, clearly embarrassed.

Jason flipped off the light but didn’t leave, sitting on the bed instead. The darkness helped with the exposed feeling. Going back downstairs wouldn’t. At least Dick already knew about Jason's problem, and all he’d done was give Jason better access to information he needed to feel safe. That meant something.

“Jason,” Dick said groggily, sounding very tired. He was about to kick Jason out.

Jason didn't want to go downstairs yet, so he said, “What happened?”

Dick didn't respond. Then, “It doesn't matter.”

Jason turned slowly to the indistinct lump under the covers. The newer, kinder Dick Grayson always answered Jason's questions, even the stupid ones. He was usually annoyed with Jason or annoying Jason, but at some point, he must have decided total honesty was the only way to rebuild this bridge, even when it meant saying things like I found the supplier Bruce couldn't find by trading a favor with Slade Wilson.

Dick had hated answering that one. Probably because Jason had made sure to tip Bruce off about it. Jason had been pushing, not trusting Dick's honesty and finding a way to punish him for it. Bruce had been pissed. Dick had been pissed too, but he hadn't stopped answering Jason’s questions, even though Jason had sold him out to Bruce.

The point was Dick answered Jason's questions. And just now, he hadn't.

“The strike team going after Tim was better than they should have been,” Jason said. “Expensive.”

“It wasn't --” Dick stopped, his voice hoarse. “I made a mistake.”

Jason waited.

“Missed a guy, don’t know where. I was lucky; he misfired, but I turned around, and they got me in a line and threw me off the roof. If my arm hadn’t gotten tangled in the line -- it doesn’t matter.” Fingers touched Jason’s thigh in the dark. “Don’t tell them.”

“You told Alfred,” Jason said, not bothering to pretend it was a question. It was, in fact, a threat. A wave of cold was making its way up his body. He’d seen the bruises; Dick would have gone over the side with a rope around his neck, jerking to a stop in the foggy gloom a hundred feet above traffic. Without his arm in the line, all the force -- two hundred pounds of acrobat and gravity -- would have landed on Dick’s neck. Jason would have arrived at the cave to a very different atmosphere. Hell, he would have seen it on the news.

Dick made one of those soundless laughs. “Yeah. You don’t have to tell on me this time.”

“Ok,” Jason said. Sounds seemed far away. He wasn’t really processing.

Tim and Steph didn’t know. Dami definitely didn’t or Jason wouldn’t be up here alone. Probably wouldn’t be up here at all once Damian had worked up a good bout of paranoia about threats to Dick’s safety. Jason could sympathize.

Jesus, Jason didn’t like that it had been a near miss. He almost wished Dick hadn’t told him.

How many near misses did Bruce have and not tell them? Were either of them any good at this at all, or was it just fucking luck that Jason had any family left to scream at? The vigilante life was a terrible idea for everyone. Fuck.

Jason slid down the bed until he was lying on the covers staring up into the dark. His skin felt over sensitive and too tight, his eyes finding swirling shapes that weren’t really there. There was a little green in them, the acid haze of the pit. When Jason worried about Tim and Steph and Dami, he could tell himself they had training and backup -- now Jason was their backup -- and someone in charge paying attention. Dick and Bruce didn't have that. They were the training and the back up and the people in charge paying attention.

“Jason,” Dick whispered.

“Shut up,” Jason said. The silence was heavy, Dick’s annoyed glare boring into the side of his head. Jason closed his eyes. “If I go back out there, I’m going to shoot somebody, so just go to sleep.”

“You can’t shoot anybody,” Dick said. “I just had Tim take you off that list.”

Jason rolled his eyes. He wasn’t giving Dick a laugh for that. Dick tried to shove Jason off the bed with his good hand, but even his good hand was weak right now, and Jason caught it easily. Dick's hand was warm and whole and not hanging dead off the side of the roof.

Jason didn’t let go.

He felt Dick get ready to pull back. It crossed a line to be clutching Dick’s hand like a lifeline in the dark, and Dick was reacting. Jason needed a reason, so he dug a thumb in and dragged it down Dick's arm to the elbow, working out the tightness in the muscle. Dick made a startled sound.

“Just shut the fuck up, and go to sleep,” Jason said. He didn’t stop, moving on to massage the palm of Dick’s hand. There was a lot of violence in Jason's head, nightmare scenarios and memories both, but the body next to him was whole and unbroken. Some of the green faded from Jason's vision. That it happened to be Dick was strange, but Jason had been running on terror and rage for two years, and he was tired.

“Are you trying to start something, because seriously you’d win,” Dick muttered, but it was groggy and resigned. He shifted, getting his arm out from under the covers and letting Jason pull it across his chest. A final mumble: “D’you need a blanket.”

“Don’t make it weird,” Jason said.