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sticks and stones

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The first time he meets Dick- the first time Dick’s lies paint themselves as bruises on his fair skin- is training for the role of Robin. Bruce sends him to Dick, and it’s. It’s-

Dick’s furious, blue eyes burning like the heart of a supernova behind his mask, teeth bared in a wild grin as his legendary showmanship struggles to put a leash on his temper. He looks- Jason understands this later- softer now than he ever will again, powder blue and gold uniform, hair in a gelled wave, baby fat softening all his sharp angles still. He looks at Jason and hunches inward like he’s taken a blow to the gut, like he’s broken a rib and is trying not to show it. Like looking at Jason hurts.

He says-

“I don’t hate you,” and

“It’s Bruce I’m mad at,” and

“You’re a good kid and I’m proud of you,”

-and it burrows under Jason’s skin and festers. He takes his shirt off after a long night of training and one slightly out-of-control drug ring bust, and Dick slides his gaze over him and huffs a hollow laugh and says, “I didn’t realize you got hit that much. Bruce needs to get better armor for you.”

The bruises throb, shaped like fists on his ribs, and Jason pokes at them and sighs at his failure to measure up and doesn’t think anything more of it until years later.

“I think you’re ugly,” a girl at school says to Jason, three weeks before he dies.

He blinks at her, frowns- she’s staring him down like she’s challenging him, chin tucked down to protect her neck and hands balled into fists. It’s a bit overt for bullying with this lot- Bruce had enrolled him in Gotham Academy three semesters ago and Jason loves the curriculum but could take or leave the other students. He’d endured a week of another boy trying to intimidate him with big words in his smooth posh accent, until Jason had shut him down with a Shakespearean insult chewed up by inner-city roads. Now the other kids just leave him alone.

“Okay.” He’s baffled, not offended, and focuses on taking out his notebook and a pen and ignoring whatever this is. Bruce got him a palm pilot for notetaking but nothing compares to the drag of a ballpoint over paper.

“And?” the girl says. He thinks her name is Amanda.

“What?” he asks, and looks up again when he hears giggling. He sees the other two girls she usually hangs out with standing a few steps away, whispering to each other, and Amanda is flushing.

“You know. Did it hurt?”

Oh. Oh. Jason’s heard of soulmates, of course he has- people talk about it, swoon over it, tell stories about it. When they were younger, his classmates would have played the games all kids with decent childhoods play, screaming lies at each other across the playground and then regrouping with their friends to push up sleeves and pull down collars and check for damage. Jason hadn’t done that when he was younger- all he knew about love was the bruises his old man gave his mother with his hands, no lies necessary.

I think you’re ugly, he hears again, and it’s his turn to blush.

“Um.” He has plenty of bruises, cuts and scrapes and a nasty piece of road rash across his left forearm, and they have nothing to do with anything anyone’s said to him. He scrambles for an excuse to hide them, since he cannot possibly explain them.

“Or you can lie to me,” she offers gracelessly, clearly sensing his reticence.

The girls are giggling again. Jason imagines Alfred’s quiet disappointment in him and manages to find words.

“The moon is made of cheese?”

Amanda turns and marches away to her friends, visibly regretting her choices. They fall together in a huddle, whispering and pulling at her hems until the bell rings and the teacher sends them all to their seats so class can start.

Jason focuses on his body for a moment. He doesn’t feel any new aches or pains, and he’s grateful for it. He doesn’t even know if he wants a soulmate, a person who has the power to hurt him so easily. He’s even heard- of course he has, the movies love the idea of it- that a big enough lie could kill your soulmate.

He wonders if he should invent a soulmate to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, then considers that lie painting itself on someone’s skin, and flinches away from the thought.

He’ll figure something out, some way of politely removing himself from situations like this in the future.

(he doesn’t get the chance.)

“I do care about you,” Talia tells him, and Jason- burning with acid, with fury, with a need for vengeance- doesn’t check for new pains, doesn’t care if it’s true.

Later he wonders at that. How ironic would it have been, if those words had raised lines on his skin like fingernails down his back. Would that have changed what came after?

He wonders sometimes, and lets it go. He has other things to worry about.

Red Hood returns to take Gotham by storm, and finds Nightwing there. He’s black and blue now, fingerstripes and a dazzling smile, windswept hair that hasn’t been touched by a single product beyond cheap apple-scented shampoo. He’s knife-sharp despite his bad knee, sending out lines just in time to catch him as he falls- flies. He’s shorter than Jason now, and built like a dancer to Jason’s brick wall, and Jason aches for a proper fight between them sometimes, a chance to rage against someone who could not only hold their own, but would give just as good as they got.

There’s no need for Red Hood to lie to Nightwing, not when the truth is far more devastating. So he doesn’t.

He says-

“Bruce is just using you,” and

“You’re just a soldier in his war,” and

“He’ll just keep replacing you until everyone’s dead,”

-and Nightwing scowls after him and Red Hood turns away and leaves him there, needing no lies or blades to leave him ripped open and bleeding.

The fires bank and cool, and Jason comes away from his showdown with Bruce with new scars and old wounds reopened, and he finds himself washing up in Bludhaven in his bid to avoid Gotham. Dick knows who he is now, and looks caught between grief and anger when he sees Jason.

“I don’t want you to get hurt,” Nightwing says one time, when he’d accidentally crashed one of Red Hood’s operations. He says that, standing there in paper-thin kevlar that will stop, at most, a distance shot from a handgun.

It twists in Jason’s gut, but that could just be the bruise from where his body armor caught the bullet that would have otherwise had him down to one kidney.

“Then stop getting in my way,” he snarls. “I don’t need your help, I don’t want your help, I want you to fuck off and leave me alone,” and he storms away and doesn’t look back, doesn’t see Nightwing dropping to one knee and curling around his own middle, like he’s the one who’s been gut-shot.

And then- and then.

He comes into the manor days later, after the mourners have left, after Tim is gone and Talia’s son, Talia’s son, is installed as the newest Robin. He goes downstairs into the cave, and finds Dick sitting in the chair at the big computer, staring down at something in his hands.

“Should I say it?” Jason asks, trusting Dick will know what he’s offering.

“Why not,” Dick says, and tosses the thing in his hands onto the console. A batcowl, Jason sees. “I’ve had Oliver Queen and John Constantine around already, if they can get through it with a straight face you can too.”

“Sorry about Bruce,” Jason says, and Dick smiles, weak and gutted, and leans back in his chair.

“No you’re not,” he says. “But thanks for trying.”

Jason considers raising his hackles and going a round or two, but then lets it go. Dick isn’t up for it anyway. “So what’s the plan?”

Dick is silent for a suspiciously long time. “Someone has to be Batman,” he says finally.

No they don’t, Jason wants to say, and why you and who are you to decide. He could clean up Gotham far better than Bruce did, than Dick could, and when he’s done it’ll damn well stay cleaned up.

“And it has to be you?” he asks.

“Wanna timeshare?” Dick drawls, the first hint of the old Grayson fire Jason’s seen so far.

“You wouldn’t do that,” Jason says, and Dick’s expression locks down again.

“No,” he agrees. “Right now we’re going to carry on business as usual. Maybe in a year or so we can start changing things up, but for right now...”

Jason shifts, folding his arms across his chest and spreading his feet shoulder-width apart. “If you don’t want people knowing something happened to the Bat, I’m a better match for him.”

“And if I said leave the guns behind?” Dick asks, and nods once when Jason scoffs. “There we go. Fight me for it if you want, but you’re not ready for it either.”

For a moment Jason actually considers it- Dick’s tired and broken down, probably hasn’t slept much the last few days, definitely has been through the wringer in every way imaginable. But Jason’s seen Nightwing get back up from worse, and he’s never more dangerous than when he’s got his back to a wall.

Still, he’s not making it easy on the asshole. “I heard you sprung Elliot. Is that the plan? Just let him be Wayne and you be the Bat and hope it all holds together?”

Dick’s smug little smirk flattens into a frown and he pushes himself up from the chair. His eyeline is level with Jason’s mouth, which he seems to be especially irritated by, considering the conversation. “I’ll make it work,” he says, the voice of leadership.

“Putting lifts in the boots?”

“Of course people will notice, that’s why the whole thing with Elliot,” Dick said with a roll of his eyes. “I’ll retire him after a while, when it’s been long enough that they won’t connect Bruce Wayne’s death with the change in Batman.”

“And the Waynelet?” Jason adds savagely. He wants to hurt someone- himself, Dick, it doesn’t matter. Damian’s very existence is still a knife twisting in his gut, one more betrayal from someone who would be happy to remind him she owed him nothing. “Heard he’s been trying to kill people, including the replacement. Why’s he get to be Robin and I get kicked out of the family?”

Dick stares at him, flat and unamused, then turns away. “Thanks for your concern. I’ll figure it out. It’ll be fine.” He pauses for a single heartbeat. “I’m fine.”

Jason opens his mouth to ask if he’s really supposed to believe that- but there’s pain, shivery and rippling across his neck, and he reaches up and touches his hand to it. His fingers come away warm and wet and red.

“I have to get back to packing up, so if you’re done,” Dick is saying as he’s walking away, and Jason lets him go. He staggers away and Dick doesn’t look back at the sound of his uneven steps. He heads down into the guts of the cave and to the nearest bathroom, and slams the door shut and bolts to the mirror.

The scar Bruce had left him on the side of his neck is freshly reopened, Dick’s words as deadly as any weapon. Jason swears and grabs a wad of toilet paper to control the bleeding, though he already knows it isn’t nearly as bad as when he first got it. A scratch, surface-level, like he’d picked off a scab too soon.

Then he stares at his own reflection, wide-eyed and pale, his own blood staining his hands. I’m fine, Dick had said, and-

Oh, shit.

The thing is, Jason doesn’t believe in soulmates. Not the way people don’t believe in ghosts, more the way they don’t believe in guns- he doesn’t need one himself, doesn’t see why people think they do, definitely doesn’t understand why some people build their whole lives and identities around having one.

Jason isn’t sure about how he feels about belonging to someone. He knows it’s a two-way street, and he knows he’s hurt Dick in the past, even if neither of them realized it at the time. But even that- even knowing Dick has been decided as Jason’s just as much as Jason is his- doesn’t really make it better.

His parents probably hadn’t been soulmates. Bruce never had one he’d admitted to, and had discouraged Jason from intentionally granting someone such power over him the one time he’d tried to talk about it. Talia- hah. She wishes soulmates meant anything to her, but only if it was one specific person. Alfred hadn’t been willing to speak against Bruce’s advice, and there had been no one else for Jason to turn to when it would have made a difference. Movies and stories, perhaps, but movies showed soulmates with gentle lies and soft bruises, not words wielded as weapons and slit throats.

Dick Grayson is his soulmate, and Dick Grayson is a liar.

He smiles, and he says everything’s fine, he’s fine. He goes on an interview and talks about bullshit things like being an older brother in a house full of kids, he goes to a Wayne Enterprises party and introduces Thomas Elliot as Bruce Wayne, he goes to shareholder meetings and pretends he doesn’t understand what’s going on. He’s not lying to Jason, but Jason feels it anyway, stinging like snowflakes on bare skin.

On the other hand, Dick’s soulmate is Jason, and Jason is…

He lies in bed some nights, staring at the ceiling, and whispers lies into the darkness.

He says-

“I hated you from the moment I met you,” and

“You’re not really that hot,” and

“I never wanted to hurt you,”

-and imagines his words like pebbles tossed at a closed window, wondering if Dick will see the marks of their impact. Will he know? Will he care?

Will he be disappointed?

He leaves Gotham, and wonders later, as he peels the last of the gauze off his neck, if he would be more willing to consider the whole soulmate thing if it didn’t hurt so fucking much.

He comes back eventually, because it was always inevitable that he would. He lands in the middle of a mess with people with doll’s faces, and a man in a pig mask performing all sorts of butchering surgery, and the new Batman gets to test his mettle against Red Hood’s rage and somehow manages to bring the bastard in alive. Jason doesn’t snipe him from a nearby rooftop when he’s being escorted into Gotham PD headquarters, but only by the narrowest margin, and only because some tiny shred of him wants to maintain some kind of good relationship with Dick.

“They’re getting more and more fucked up,” Red Hood says when Batman comes to stand next to him, both of them looking down on the building below them as the doors close behind the officers escorting the pig in. Jason’s got a rifle on his knee but it’s only half-assembled, a thought, a whim. “Remember when Dent would just beat people to death?”

“He’s still doing that,” Batman reports tiredly, and Jason sighs, his helmet filters turning the noise into a hiss.

“Where’s the brat?” he asks, looking over at Batman. He’s filled out, that’s not just padding, broader across the chest and around the biceps. He’s reworked his regime to focus on brute strength, something he never valued before.

“Sent him home. I shouldn’t have let him get involved with this one in the first place.”

Red Hood grunts at that, and falls silent. Every conversation with this man is a minefield twice over. What’s he supposed to say, you should have killed him, should have let me kill him, I missed you, we should just burn this whole city down and start over? None of them lies, but all of them argument-starters. He doesn’t know how to do one without the other.

Batman turns away with a dramatic sweep of his cape. Jason amuses himself by imagining Dick adjusting to the weight of that thing. “Are you planning on sticking around?”

“Maybe,” Red Hood says. He honestly doesn’t know what he wants, and it bothers him- he’s not used to indecisiveness. He makes a plan, he follows through. He doesn’t waffle over shit like this.

Batman hesitates and turns, and- he really did put lifts in the boots, they’re almost eye-to-eye now. “Am I going to have to stop you killing petty criminals?” It’s Batman saying it, but it’s Dick Grayson’s exhausted voice, and Jason thinks- knows- he could literally get away with murder if he handles this right. He hasn’t said a word about the rifle, hasn’t even spared it more than a single cursory glance.

“Petty, no,” Red Hood says, and leaves it there.

The wind stirs Batman’s heavy cape a little, and Jason thinks uncharitably that Dick looks like a little kid playing dress-up in his father’s suit jackets. It’s not necessarily true- Dick’s making the bat his own- but if just thinking it hurts him, then Jason gives up.

“Stay out of my way,” Batman says, and because he is Batman, he doesn’t follow that up with the obvious and I’ll stay out of yours. Jason hears it anyway.

“See you around, then,” he says, and tosses off a salute that would have Alfred appalled, and Batman leaves without another word.

He disassembles the rifle and goes home, and feels inordinately pleased that he has no new bruises on his skin.

There are- services.

Jason sees ads for them, when he’s skimming TV channels and blowing past everything that isn’t MASH or Jeopardy, playing on the radio in the background when he’s listening to the news, when he’s riding around the streets of Gotham and a smiling face on the wall of a bus stop shelter catches his eye. Pop psychologists, for-real therapists, Dr Phil or who-the-fuck-ever, even psychics. They all ask questions: is your soulmate a habitual liar? does your soulmate lie intentionally to hurt you? do you hurt your soulmate for no reason? do you want to stop hurting your soulmate? In a world of seven billion people, even the best of them at least occasionally shitty, it’s a booming market.

Jason, fully aware his relationship with his soulmate is not healthy and probably never will be, ignores them. What’s a psychologist going to say to an undead vigilante, anyway. His soulmate problems are the least of his issues- who cares if dinner’s burning when the whole damn house is on fire?

Sometimes when he’s in the guts of the city, wearing the leather jacket but not the helmet, leaning against an alley wall with a cigarette in one hand, he’ll see a different kind of ad. A phone number spray-painted on the wall across from him, scratched into the metal of the fire escape outside his latest crappy apartment. A person with a too-wide smile standing on the street, advocating loudly while parents snatch their children close and steer wide around them. A symbol painted on the sidewalk in front of a basement entrance to a store.

break your bond, the person on the street shouts, desperate and manic, don’t let anyone hurt you like that, if they really loved you they’d never hurt you, until the cops are involved and escorting- dragging- the person away and life can resume uninterrupted.

Jason decides early on that that’s far too easy a solution, and doesn’t consider it even once, and sometimes touches the scar on his neck and never lets himself think about how very lonely it would feel. Pain is better than nothing, after all.

Dick is hobbling around the manor like his head will fly off if he moves too fast when Jason comes for a visit. An offer of condolences, though he knows he’s the only one who will view it that way.

“How are you doing?” he asks, leaning in the kitchen doorway and studying Dick, who is hunched around a mug of hot chocolate.

“Alive,” Dick says with a smile that turns into a grimace.

“Like certain other people,” Jason says, and gets a pained look. He comes into the kitchen, but only by a few steps, and drags a finger over a nearby countertop. “Dusting the old place off again, huh?”

“Bruce plans on living here,” Dick says. “I’m still going to be working out of the penthouse.”

“As Nightwing?” Jason tries to imagine that, Nightwing flinging himself off that building every night, a long drop as he spread his arms like he could actually fly-

“As Batman.” He sips his chocolate again. “Sometimes.”

“Got a custody arrangement worked out with the old man?” Jason asks, when he finds the words.

“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know, it’s all very…” He shrugs and gestures towards the bandages on his neck, and Jason relents because Dick’s been shot in the head, he deserves to be cut some slack.

He does not- he absolutely doesn’t- think about how close he came to losing something he hasn’t even figured out if he wants. He’s had time to marinate in the idea of it now, and it’s- it’s horrifying, still, that someone who is no longer a theoretical someone can hurt him like that. But he can hurt Dick too, is the thing. He looks at Dick now, the careful measured movements, the open winces, sees the bandages on his neck, the bruises on his arms from rough handling, the scars from a lifetime of fighting other peoples’ battles, and he has to fight off the insane urge to wipe it all away. The blank canvas of Dick’s skin is his and his alone, and he stares at his shoulder, bare in his sleeveless shirt, and imagines watching vessels burst and the purple of dying blood pool under his skin.

He chooses kindness. “You’re the better Batman anyway.”

Dick blinks at him, and smiles slowly. “Thanks,” he says, and sips his chocolate again. Jason can see the torn-open paper pouch on the counter. Microwaved shit, no thank you.

Jason wants to shift and fidget, and it takes iron-fisted control for him to stand still. He wants to- he wants to say something. To tell him. I think you’re ugly.

“I think I’m gonna go somewhere,” Dick says, just before Jason finally opens his mouth. He’s looking down into his mug of chocolate, idly pushing at one of the bullet-hard mini marshmallows that came in the mix, watching it sink down and bob back up.

Too slow. This is why Jason doesn’t waffle. “Go where?”

“Away from Gotham for a while. Kinda feeling not like myself, these days.” He smirks unhappily at his chocolate, and Jason studies him, the breadth of his shoulders, the depth of his chest. He’s got too much muscle mass to really fly anymore, not the way he’s used to. More catcher than flier. “I think I need some space.”

“Is Bruce already giving you grief over something?” Jason asks. He could see it- Bruce does not like change, and things changed plenty while he was not-dead. On the other hand, if the old man couldn’t keep himself from going off on the golden child when he had a gunshot wound in the back of his head...

“No, he’s been fine. He has a project to keep himself busy.” He pushes his hair out of his eyes, more habit than necessity. Nightwing could afford windswept hair that fell past his chin and bangs that brushed at his cheekbones. Batman kept his hair ruthlessly trimmed back, the better to fit under the cowl, and styled it into artistic tousles when he was out in the daylight. “I just- everyone needs some breathing room. Damian deserves the chance to get to know his father, and Tim doesn’t feel comfortable-” He stops, tries again. “Maybe Gotham isn’t big enough for the two of us anymore.”

That’s one way of putting it. Jason would have said something more along the lines of parents aren’t supposed to come back from the dead after their kids have grown past the loss of them. “So where are you gonna go?” he asks. He’ll start a fight next time- for now, he sees Dick wince when he starts to shake his head, and lets it go.

“I don’t know,” Dick says, his tone artificially light and cheery. “Anyplace in particular you’ve been meaning to visit?”

There isn’t, really, is the sad thing- Jason can’t remember ever visiting a place just to be there. He’s fully aware that there are places that exist solely to cater to the whims of visitors, but he cannot recommend a single one.

“The Haven’s still a crater,” he says, and Dick pales and looks away. It’s the truth, but it cuts him anyway. “Central City’s swarming with do-gooders right now if you wanted a reunion tour. Or even Metropolis might be good, if you’re looking for down time. Heard Big Blue’s picked up the tights again so you know it’s gonna be quiet there.”

Dick looks up at him, looking tired and sad and worn out. “Yeah,” he agrees simply, tone resigned. Then he sits up straight when a door opens somewhere in the manor and a sharp young voice echoes through the halls. Jason looks over his shoulder and grimaces- he’d chosen today because Bruce was taking Damian out for the day, school shit. Gone most of the day, except if they come home early. Dick might be clearing out of the way so Damian can bond with Bruce, but he’ll forever be the kid’s favorite person, and Jason can already hear light, fast footsteps hurrying towards the kitchen.

Damian, Jason knows, does not approve of Jason, period. Nothing about him passes muster, according to the most feral of Robins. And Jason hasn’t met Bruce since he came back, and isn’t keen on having a three-way encounter with Dick stuck in the middle.

“Send a postcard,” he says, already heading out of the kitchen through the other door, and Dick stares unhappily after him.

It takes a week for Jason to realize that Dick had been trying to ask Jason to go with him.

He doesn’t get a postcard.

He does get a text at ass-o’clock in the morning, somehow sent to a brand-new phone number, a very simple leaving cell service for a while, just wanted to say I’ll be home later.

Home, Jason thinks, and starts to type out a message and stops about seven times before finally sending a very simple okay?.

He gets a picture, a selfie of Nightwing with his arm hooked around the broad shoulders of John Stewart, who is actually smiling and even doing a peace sign. Fucking Grayson charm, man.

Not my favorite Lantern, but I’m probably better off with him.

Jordan? Everyone who’s ever lived with Bruce is contractually obligated to like Hal Jordan best of all the Lanterns. If Stewart or Rayner want to win the family’s approval- Gardner isn’t even in the running- they have to reach Jordan’s level of making Bruce grind his teeth every time he so much as breathes in like he’s preparing to talk.

Obviously, Dick responds, and Jason smiles. Then his smile slips.

There are so many things he could say- when you said you wanted space I didn’t know you meant it literally, come home safe, I’ll miss you. He finally settles on see you around, then, and sends it after eight minutes of dead air between them.

The message spins and spins, and Jason taps out another message and sends that one out to linger in no-service-purgatory, then drops the phone onto the mattress beside him and rolls over and pulls the blanket over his head.

Give me a call when you get back

“Grayson needs you,” Damian says one night, from roughly eighteen inches behind Red Hood. And honestly, he’s lucky he’s so short- Red Hood turns faster than Robin can duck, but he doesn’t take the kid’s head off with the haymaker he’d come around with because the kid is half his height.

Fuck,” Jason says, and shoves the brat away and holds him at distance with a hand on top of his head. Damian snaps his teeth at him like the monster he is and jerks away. “Are you trying to die young, brat?”

Baby Wayne glares up at him through his mask, lips pulled into a scowl that Jason knows well. “Did you hear me, Todd? Grayson asked for your assistance.”

Jason looks around, as if he’s expecting to see Dick on a rooftop somewhere nearby. He's in Gotham because Bruce isn't, the city safe in the hands of Cassandra Cain’s terrifyingly efficient Batman. Cain doesn't particularly like Jason either, but for better reasons than Damian, so that one actually kind of bothers him. He’s trying to play nice so she will, if not warm up to him, at least thaw out a little bit.

Which- he knows Dick isn’t back, the texts Jason left in the void haven’t been marked Sent yet, it’s only been one-month-eleven-days-nineteen-hours-but-who’s-counting and Dick needs space. So he feels suddenly stupid, looking around for Dick, trying to butter up Dick’s sister who adores him, looking after Dick’s city because Bruce has bigger plans.

“He’s not here,” Damian says, with a level of exhaustion only twelve-year-olds can achieve because life is only difficult for preteens, doncha know. “The Lantern, Stewart, contacted us. Grayson is on Arnos VI, and he has asked for you specifically.”

He has Talia’s tells, Jason thinks- he leaned into that pseudo-British accent he came to Gotham with, enunciating specifically as precisely as he could, and he did it because he hates that he has to say it at all. Talia always trotted out the fancy education when she was forced to acknowledge something she found distasteful. He’s his mother’s son just as much as his father’s, although Jason is probably the only one of all of them, even Bruce, who knows her well enough to spot it in him.

“He say why?” Jason asks.

“No.” Damn, it was like chewing glass for the kid to spit the words out. “Only that the matter is urgent.”

“Yeah?” He looks away. In the distant Batman stands silhouetted against the city, unmoving save for the cape. “Guess I could check my schedule, I might have the time for it.”

He hopes Batman’s close enough to see that Robin’s the one who starts the fight, entirely unprovoked. She’s certainly close enough to finish it, and Red Hood bails while the dust is still settling.

He has to go see an idiot about a spaceship.

There’s a glorified rock they’re calling a moon circling Mars- Deimos. It’s apparently something of a wretched hive of scum and villainy, though when Rayner says this to Jason, he stares at him with the blank face of his helmet and commits nerd-torture by pretending he has no idea what the reference is. They got this far via Rayner’s ring, but getting to Arnos VI requires leaving the solar system, and Rayner needs to get back to Earth. So they stop at Deimos and use Rayner’s connection to get a ship, and Jason gets to punch an alien in the face when Rayner’s connections don’t go quite far enough.

They sit in the docking bay while the ship fuels up, and Jason stares at nothing while his hands work at cleaning his guns. He won’t need them, probably.

“What’s Arnos VI like?” he asks.

“Boring,” Rayner says. He’s hanging until Jason leaves. Probably this is good gossip for the grapevine- with the Bats’ identities still being some of the most heavily-guarded secrets in the superhero community, most b-listers and newcomers would kill for a single juicy rumor. For all that Jason’s willing to indulge the weird friendship borne out of that one time they went on a multiversal jaunt together, Kyle Rayner is still very solidly a newcomer. “All long-winded politics and thirty-page treaties just to decide what to serve for lunch.” He glances at Jason, trying to read the blank mask of his helmet. “What’s on Arnos that’s got you cashing in this many favors?”

Jason considers not answering, then decides that Rayner’s earned it. “Nightwing got himself into some trouble.”

“On Arnos?” Rayner leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “You’re gonna need a good lawyer, then. Or a whole lot more bullets.”

“Stewart’s there.” Jason looks over as Rayner grunts and leans back, kicking his legs out and slumping back in his seat until it rocks up on its back legs. When Dick does that, it looks graceful and gravity-defying. Rayner looks like a high school kid who just got chewed out by his English teacher.

There’s a bruise high on his neck, above the collar of his uniform. It could be work related- it doesn’t look work related. For one insane second, Jason wants to ask him about it, ask him if he has a soulmate, if he’s looking, if he cares. It’s an intensely personal question, unbelievably rude to ask anyone at all, let alone a work friend. It’s also far too obvious, especially in light of Red Hood admitting to dropping everything to play white knight for Nightwing. Rayner’s a clever boy, he can get two and two to equal four.

“They probably like him too much,” Rayner says, and it’s so out-of-line with Jason’s thoughts that it takes him a good ten seconds or so to realign himself with the conversation. “They do that sometimes, try to keep good negotiators. Though why he’d need you for that…”

Jason reaches a foot out and hooks it under one of the front legs of Rayner’s chair, upsetting it and dumping him over backwards. He remembers his own freaking power almost too late and just barely catches himself on a giant green mattress that might actually have ACME printed on the side of it, because Rayner is an unrepentant nerd. Jason stands as he’s fighting with the chair that landed on top of him and waves to acknowledge the dockhand that just gave him the all-clear sign.

“Heading out,” he says, ignoring Rayner’s grumbled cursing. “See you around, Lantern.”

“You know how to fly that thing?” Rayner calls after him. Jason rolls his eyes- fine time to be asking, not to mention the offense of the implication that a student of Batman might have such a fundamental lack in their education.

“How hard can it be?” he shoots back, and heads up the loading ramp before Rayner can come up with a response.

It does, truth be told, take him a few minutes in the cockpit to familiarize himself with the controls, and another few for him to explore the computer systems. Finally he leans over to the navcom and starts to type in the coordinates for Arnos VI, then hesitates. The gun in the holster against his ribs presses uncomfortably against his chest, held awkwardly by the angle of his body. If it’s a political thing, then maybe he should leave them on the ship- but no, Dick had asked for him specifically. He knew what he was going to get with that request.

He does take his helmet off while the navcom is plotting on his route, and takes a deep breath of filtered air. Then he powers up the ship’s engine, slowly pulling away from the dock and away from Deimos, anxious to be under way.

Apparently he has to go rescue his soulmate.

Arnos VI is an uninteresting planet, a little red ball threaded with ribbons of blue surrounded by splashes of almost violent green. The navcom helpfully pulls up an informational packet that tells Jason that there’s not enough fresh water to build any sort of irrigation system, so the different tribes have to engage in careful, precise, painstaking negotiation to make sure they all get what they need. It also tells him that the Arnoans are a rock-dwelling people that can free climb extremely well. This does not actually prepare him at all for when, after he gets permission and coordinates and lands on a relatively solid patch of ground, he is greeted by a long-limbed four-armed being with goat-like hooves on their feet and wickedly sharp curved claws on their fingers.

The translator in Jason’s helmet chews on the language for a moment, humming uselessly while the Arnoan speaks and Jason listens uselessly. It finally kicks on after the Arnoan has waved him along and is leading him towards a collection of huts in the distance. The ground is broken and jagged, the gaps in the stone so deep that sunlight can’t reach the bottom, and Jason practically does ballet across the surface as he tries to avoid a misstep.

“-unfortunately have no available accommodations,” the Arnoan is saying. Jason takes a too-wide step and almost lands on their hoof. It feels like a really complicated game of The Floor is Lava. He can see why Dick might like it here.

“I’m not here to stay,” he says, hearing the vocoder in his helmet twist his words into the Arnoan language. “I’m here for Nightwing.”

The Arnoan blinks up at him. Their eyes are night-dweller-big, pupils contracted to pinpoints in the bright light of day. “But you cannot have him. He is a skilled negotiator and our need for him is greater than yours.”

Well, fuck. Rayner called it. Jason has no idea how to argue that- or, more importantly, how Dick planned on arguing that, and how to not interfere with whatever scheme he’s concocted. Jason’s going to have to trust Dick to know how to handle these people, and follow what little lead he’s been given.

“May I speak to him?”

“Of course! He is an esteemed guest, he may have as many visitors as he pleases.” The Arnoan nimbly leaps a gaping chasm. Jason stops at the edge and stares down into the darkness with a tired sigh.

One green brick appears in the middle of the gap, then another snaps into place beside it, and then suddenly a whole emerald road is unraveling across the broken ground, leading straight to the huts. The Arnoan sneers at it and avoids it, but Jason gratefully steps onto it and follows it.

“Lantern,” he says in greeting when he’s reached the end of the road.

“Hood,” Stewart replies coolly. “Took your time.”

“Had to ask Rayner for a ride.” Jason tips his helmet back to the ship. “It’s a rental. What’s going on here?”

Stewart sighs, like he’s the one who had to drop everything and haul his ass halfway across the Orion Arm just because his idiot soulmate got into some kind of trouble. “He did his thing, fixed a problem, convinced them to rewrite a treaty so everyone won, and now they want to keep him. You know, the usual.”

Jason never really ran with the spacefaring crowd to know what the usual is for them, but this sounds about par for the course for Dick. Impress, dazzle, have the poor civilians fall in love with him and then leave them high and dry. “They trying to arrange a marriage or something?” he asks. That’s happened, he’s pretty sure. Maybe not often enough to be the usual, but still.

“No,” Stewart says, and gives Jason an odd look. “Funny you should ask that.”

Jason doesn’t take the bait, just walks towards the center of the hut cluster. The ground is paved here, solid enough underfoot, but he doesn’t trust it, and keeps trying to not put his full weight down. He won’t feel comfortable until he’s off this planet, probably. He scans for black-and-blue and doesn’t see it.

“Here,” someone says, and Jason turns. There’s another Arnoan, an older individual than his guide, if the graying face-fur and pooched belly is any indication. They wave a sharp hand at him, indicating for him to follow as they turn and duck into one of the huts. “Your obligation is here,” the Arnoan elder calls as Jason ducks his head to fit through the doorway. He frowns at that- was the translator having a stroke?

“Hey, Hood,” Nightwing says, and Jason looks up and-

It’s been a month, and all anyone keeps telling him is that Dick has asked for him specifically. He’s allowed to be a little worried under those circumstances, okay, and a little relieved now that he can see with his own eyes that Dick is fine. And he is fine, uniform stained with the planet’s red dust but untorn, smile tight but more tired than fake.

He’ll be fucked if he lets any of that show, however. “Obligation?” he asks, tone flat.

Dick stands up from the table he’d been sitting at and comes over, peering around Jason to check outside and disguising it by wrapping his arms around Jason in a stiff hug. It’s over before Jason can even begin to figure out how to respond, and Dick turns and gestures to the Arnoan elder. They’re one of a half dozen Arnoans in the hut, all watching the two humans closely.

“I told them about the bond some humans share,” Dick says lightly, and every cell in Jason’s body freezes. “And how when two people discover they share this bond, they are bound to each other and belong to each other, and must place their partner above all other obligations.” The word choice feels very pointed, and Dick is making aggressive eye contact with one of the Arnoans. Jason still hasn’t reached the point of processing emotions again. “So when they insisted I stay on Arnos, naturally I informed them that I could not, for I already had this bond with someone.”

The Arnoan Dick is talking to looks at Jason. “Your-” and they say a word that does not translate, the translator buzzing harshly in Jason’s ear, “are bonded?”

“Our souls, basically,” Dick murmurs, just loud enough and close enough for the helmet sensors to pick up on it. Jason kills the vocoder for a moment and breathes, deep and measured. He’s feeling- he approaches the tangled knot of emotion carefully, prods it gently- angry. Yes, angry, and also something bigger and deeper, vast like the ocean, and it scares him to look at it for too long.

Dick knows. Dick knows, and he did nothing. And Jason can’t even get properly angry with him, because he did exactly the same.

“Yes, we’re bonded,” he says. “He belongs with me.”

The Arnoans break into furious whispers, talking too low and too quickly for the translator to keep up. Jason pins a glare on Dick, who looks back with an expectant lift of his eyebrows. He’s ready for this to be a fight.

he knows, a voice keeps whispering in Jason’s head, he knows he knows he knows, and he can’t tell if it’s relief or terror driving it.

The elder Arnoan turns back to them suddenly. “Will you stay as well?” they ask, looking at Jason.

“No,” Dick says quickly. “Red Hood’s good health demands he not stay away from Earth for long. That’s why he didn’t come here with me in the first place.”

The elder nods, as if Dick hadn’t just called Jason a sickly weakling who’s apparently allergic to non-Earth air, which they will absolutely be discussing later. “We wish to see it,” they say, and Dick makes a politely confused noise. “You say your bonds are known by seeing. We wish to see it.”

Dick actually hesitates, clearly thrown off his stride by this request. “That’s not,” he begins.

“We demand proof,” another Arnoan says. Their fingers are curled, as if preparing to use their claws, and Jason reconsiders his initial impression of them as fussy and harmless. “Or we will ask this one to leave, and you will stay.”

“Do you want a negotiator who lied to you?” Dick’s so cool butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, but it’s not enough. The Arnoans shift, clip their hooves against the ground and glance at each other, but they don’t yield.

Jason blows his breath out in a sigh, returning Dick’s attention to him. Then he reaches up and thumbs the release on the helmet and pulls it off, revealing the red domino mask underneath.

“What- Hood, no-”

“Shut it,” Jason says, leaning down to put his helmet on the ground between his feet. His jacket is next, folded and placed next to the helmet. “The goats want proof, ‘Wing. So let’s give them proof.”

The shoulder holsters, complete with guns, he hands to Dick, not trusting the Arnoans to not try to pull a fast one. The upper layer of body armor goes on the ground next, then the long-sleeved shirt he wears under it, then he’s down to a tank top and a layer of lighter armor. His arms and shoulders are bare, and a decent portion of his upper chest thanks to the low neck on the tank top. He looks at Dick and arches an eyebrow and waits.

It is, he knows, one of the cruelest things he’s ever done to Dick- forced him into a position where he has to hurt Jason. Even so, very second Dick delays, every steadying breath he takes, is a victory.

“I,” Dick says. Then his expression shifts, settles, and Jason braces himself. “I wish we weren’t soulmates.”

For a long, alarming moment, nothing happens. Jason takes in a breath to demand he try again, trying not to think about what that means- and can’t. He can’t breathe. He hears the Arnoans burst into more whispering, and Dick says something, but Jason’s bending over double and coughing and grabbing at his throat as if to pull away the intangible fist closed around it and he can’t breathe.

It’s hurting now, at least.

“I’m sorry,” Dick says, leaning over with him, pressed tight against him, “I’m sorry, it’s not true, I don’t know what I’d do without you, I’m sorry.”

Jason inhales, and coughs, choking on air. He doesn’t need a mirror to see the bruises blooming around his neck. The Arnoans are nearly frantic now, hooves clattering all over the place. He’s pulled down to sit on the ground by careful hands and sharp claws that still prick at his skin, and a cup of water is held to his lips until he drinks from it. Dick stays pressed against him the whole time.

He rallies enough to look up when he hears the elder Arnoan speak, and finds them standing in the doorway, the rest of their people already gone and only Dick and Jason still in the hut. They say a few words, then leave with their head high, and Dick sighs heavily.

“What was that?” Jason asks. His voice is hoarse but it’s not so bad anymore, just a bad moment at the start and then can’t-breathe-panic taking over.

“Paraphrased? Our bond is cursed.” Dick puts a finger under Jason’s chin and lifts his head, dipping down to look at the damage for himself. “How is it?”

“Barely felt it,” Jason says, and grins when Dick winces and scowls at him.

They huddle there for a moment, together and alone on the floor of a hut on an alien world. Jason drinks his precious water until it’s gone, then sets the cup aside.

“I’m heading back to the ship,” he says, already reaching for his helmet. It won’t stop Dick from hurting him some more, but it’ll make him feel better.

“Yeah,” Dick agrees uselessly. He’s looking everywhere but at Jason.

They need to talk. They’ve needed to talk for years, really.

“Be there in a minute,” Dick says, and hands Jason his guns back, and Jason grabs his clothes and his armor and leaves without another word.

Dick takes his time leaving Arnos VI. He says goodbye to Stewart, who looks unamused to be left holding this bag by himself but also seems to understand that there’s some talking needs to be done here, preferably without an audience. He even waves to the Arnoans, who stare after him mournfully. If Jason knew how to rev a spaceship’s engine, he would.

He takes his time on the ship too, lingers down in the hold long after Jason lifts them up out of there and blasts them out of the atmosphere. He finally comes up wearing the civvies Rayner had convinced Jason to pack, pointing out that Mister Nightwing- and hadn’t that been a fucking trip- might want clean clothes after who-knows-how-long in his uniform.

He lingers in the doorway, and Jason spins his seat around to watch him. He considers the odds that this will end in a fight and a long, awkward ride home, because they sure as shit can’t have one of them get out and walk.

“How about,” Dick says slowly, carefully, “instead of both of us getting angry and doing the how long have you known, why didn’t you say anything thing, we just. Don’t.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Jason asks, because the when ultimately doesn’t matter. Dick comes over and sits in the copilot’s seat, and Jason tilts his head back to watch as he spins the chair around for a moment. If there are scars on the back of Dick’s neck, his hair covers them.

Dick leans back against the headrest and sighs. “My parents weren’t soulmates,” he says, and sees the sharp glance that earns him and smiles. “Yeah, I know. They never said anything, but I knew they were gonna talk to me about it someday. I heard my mom and Katarina- the fortune teller- yelling at each other over it sometimes.”

“She didn’t like soulmates,” Jason says, a logical conclusion.

“No.” Dick smirks and looks away again. “Why would the universe choose someone special for you, and mark them as yours in such a way that the only way you can tell is through hurting them? And from there it would go to, how do we even know it’s soulmates? What if it’s meant to be a warning, a great big stay away sign? Who decided soulmates were even a good thing? Why would anyone want a soulmate, when all they’re good for is pain?”

It shouldn’t hurt- it’s about what Jason expected, and a similar thought process to one he went through. But he’d made peace with it, or perhaps simply made room for it, and had found himself- stupidly, he’d thought that if he’d found a way to be okay with it then Dick definitely- but Dick is settled on an idea Jason moved through and on from and now-

The anger is there. Jason can feel it, tickling in the back of his throat like a cough. It’s comfortable and familiar and safer than whatever he’s feeling now, and he wants to sink into it. Dick’s allowed his own wants, needs, boundaries- Jason’s allowed to be pissed they’re only soulmates when it’s convenient to Dick.

“And you?” Dick asks, leaning back in his chair and spinning it a little so he could kick at Jason’s knee with one foot. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Jason’s angry enough, with both of them, that the truth slips out as punishment. “Because it’s you. Of all the people it could have been, it had to be you.”

The ship murmurs to itself around them as Dick sits back in silence. “It had to be me,” he repeats slowly, softly. Standing on the knife’s edge between offended and hurt.

“It had to be the one person in the world I might actually fall in love with,” Jason bites out, because it’s true. He and Dick have always had a relationship built on pain, on getting back up after the other knocks them down and coming back for more. The one person Jason knows who gives as good as he gets.

He takes a deep breath to say more, then doesn’t, lets that stand between them until Dick makes a thoughtful noise.

“Okay,” Dick says, and shrugs when Jason looks at him.

“Okay,” Jason echoes, riding the emotional whiplash for a moment. “What does that mean?”

“It means okay.” Dick sits forward again, staring out the viewport blindly. Jason is considering stopping at the first friendly planet and kicking him off, for the sake of his own blood pressure if nothing else.

Dick,” Jason begins.

“No, listen. Jason- I am one of the most selfish people you’ll ever meet.”

Jason laughs, low and hoarse with lack of practice, until he realizes he’s not feeling anything, no bruises on his ribs, no suckerpunch to his jaw, no fist around his throat. “Shit, you actually believe that.”

Dick ignores that. “You asked why I didn’t tell you, and that’s the answer- I’m selfish.” He shakes his head and huffs a laugh. “My mother hated the idea of soulmates but I kept thinking- good or bad, this is something that is mine. This person is mine, and I never really had anything that was just mine, even after Bruce-. And then it was you, and I knew you knew, but I didn’t say anything. Not telling you was the best way to keep you close. If I told you, you’d leave for real, and you wouldn’t come back. So I didn’t, and we both pretended we didn’t know, and I got to keep you. There- selfish.”

Dick looks away again, and Jason studies him. He’s left some marks on Dick- scars from the good ol’ days, when he’d drop in for a visit and inform Dick of his arrival by cutting the line he was flying on. He’d had a thing for knives for a while there, and had clipped Dick’s edges with a bullet once or twice. Dick’s still got a lot more marks on him from people like Hurt and Dent and Slade fucking Wilson.

Jason’s got a scar on his neck that he looks at now and thinks of Dick, not Bruce. Stay away, it says, and throbs sometimes, possibly when Dick is pissed at him and muttering uncharitable things under his breath.

Keeping one thing for yourself and giving away everything else is not selfish, if anything I’m the selfish one here because I don’t give anyone anything but I’ll take you and keep you too, Jason thinks. Someday he might even find the courage to say it. “You’re not selfish,” he says instead, and gives Dick the time to realize he isn’t lying. “Stupid sometimes, yeah. But not selfish.”

Dick hums and swings his chair idly back and forth. “Agree to disagree,” he says, and Jason snorts.

“We’re gonna beat the shit out of each other,” he observes, less a threat and more an analysis of both of their characters.

“Yup.” Dick turns his chair to face Jason fully.

“Next time just say hey, Jason, I’m running away from my problems for a little while, want to come with?

“I thought I did.” Dick’s tone is wry. “If I’d used words so that you knew what I meant, would you have said yes?”

Jason hesitates for a moment. He thinks about the text sent into the void, that Dick would get when they got home.

“Probably, yeah,” he says, and Dick’s smile brightens.

“So if I say- hey, I know a great bar just on the other side of the Kuiper Belt, want to take the long way home-?”

“Setting the bar high on the first date,” Jason says, already tapping at the navcom to prepare to enter the new coordinates. “What are you gonna do to top that on date number two?”

“Your turn, your problem,” Dick says casually, and Jason mutters motherfucker, and laughs when a hickey sucks itself high on Dick’s neck just under his jaw, Dick touching his fingertips to it in disgruntlement.

(six hours and one bar fight later, the mark is darker, a little swollen and sensitive to the touch, and jason’s cheek starts throbbing like he’d taken a blow to it as he and dick run hand-in-hand back to their ship, dick’s voice echoing through the hallway as he laughingly tells him “i hate you so fucking much,” and it’s the sweetest pain jason has ever known.)