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all the world's a fuse

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Jason thinks of Dick rarely, if he can help it, fucking across the world with a bad set of priorities and guns that were probably stolen long before Crane was sliding them into thigh holsters on Jason's legs with a smug grin and honeyed words. He carves Bruce's tracker out of his arm with a grimace and a shot of bad whiskey in a gas station bathroom somewhere in North Dakota, files the serial numbers off his guns in a cheap motel south of Seattle while the rain pours down in sheets outside. He gets a better costume outside of Seoul, with a helmet that'll stay on this time, and learns how to use guns properly in a camp deep in Africa, learning breathing and steady sniper's hands.

Eventually, he ends up in Paris, and he knows Dawn won't want to see him so he watches from a rooftop silently, leaves without a trace. Hank had been aggressive, blustery, but Jason concludes he didn't quite deserve the end he got. He was wrong place wrong time, just the easiest target for a misplaced, manipulated rage. Some things can't be taken back.

He alternately regrets the lives he's taken and counts on one hand the number he thinks weren't deserved. (Counts on one finger, really. He'd take back Hank in a heartbeat if he got the chance, and he's accepted that Dawn never really was the one who killed him.) In the end, he runs out of money in Tehran and picks up mercenary work as a quick way to get more, vets the targets and makes sure it's someone the world won't miss, and stops counting kills as marks against his soul and starts planning before he pulls a trigger.

It was a hard lesson to learn, but Jason makes a point to not learn the same lessons twice: some things can't be taken back, after all.

Jason picks up weapons with ease and learns languages in bits and pieces and then all at once. He learns poisons and explosives, learns guns and a dozen ways to kill, and then he learns classics and charm. He carries fake passports and makes up new identities to kill time, and leaves an area as soon as the local baristas learn his coffee order.

Some edges come out sharper, some round themselves off, and Jason keeps moving, trying hard not to think about the ghosts at his back and their living counterparts half a world away.

~~

Three years later and he gets a call from Bruce, answers on autopilot before he considers his options. (Stupid mistake.) He can't be bothered to hear the actual words but Bruce’s voice, the call itself, that bitter fucking reminder of who he was and what he did, rips open a hole in his chest. 

Jason concluded on the way out of Karachi that Robin had always been a mistake; maybe the mantle itself is cursed, or maybe it’s just Bruce’s influence. Meeting Dick had set him towards that realization. Dick had to burn the damn suit to get away, and Jason never got the opportunity to even do that much. It’s a traffic light colored ghost that haunts his dreams. The suit flashes into his head sometimes on the slow exhale before the gun’s recoil hits like a surprise, brightly colored morality in kevlar and witty accessories. Jason never minded violence, and he never really disdained killing, and he fucking maintains that he did some goddamn good in Gotham as Red Hood, cleaning up Crime Alley. 

Problem is, he did that under someone else’s thumb, just like everything he did as Robin.

The thing about being a mercenary is he's no one's soldier but his own; he takes the jobs he wants and spits on the ones he disdains, and that's that. Jason shrugs off the call after it ends, brings a British passport to the bar and drinks his way through half the bottom shelf before someone starts laying bait for a fight Jason’s too willing to take. A broken bottle feels just as right in his hand as most swords, and his opponent won’t be making that mistake again anytime soon. Jason leaves him injured but stable, slips out the back and takes rooftops out of town, and thinks that he was half unkillable as Robin and is probably entirely unkillable after.

Bruce sends a text, too, as if he knows Jason didn't listen worth shit, says in too many words that there's another disaster in Gotham and he wouldn't ask if it wasn't urgent. Jason stares at the phone screen, listening to the people in the hostel room next to him alternately scream and fuck, works his jaw and thinks about the dreary New Jersey winters. He's somewhere warm, somewhere with a short life expectancy, and he's tempted to grab his guns and go take out his anger at Bruce on the guerilla army he's been hired to stop.

He throws the phone at the wall instead, stomps it into the filthy carpet until it's sparking circuitry and shattered glass, and that's the end of that. He finishes his job and packs his bags and is in a new place with a new name two weeks later.

That’s the end of that.

Except.

It really isn't.

The text lives in his head like a festering wound, opening up too many memories -- Deathstroke, before Jason knew how to withstand torture, doing good as Robin but moving with too much rage, Bruce taking the cape away at the first fucking opportunity --

And he misses his shot.

He takes the second and it hits sloppy, and there's three more people dead at the end of the job than there were meant to be, a graze over Jason’s bicep and blood splatter across his clothes that he's not really thrilled about having to wash out, but he's off the rooftop and out of the country.

And there's a bat-shaped demon in his head that he needs to exorcize.

~~

Jason thinks of Dick rarely, but when he does, it topples through his head like some shit word association he played with Leslie. Dick: Brother, mentor, trustworthy, stable as a rock. The golden boy, the neverending expectation, the goal you can never reach, perfect --

But that's not the point.

Jason thinks Dick, and he thinks hostage negotiator, he thinks calm eyes and open body language, thinks of Dick talking him off a rooftop with steady words and an unflappable calm and Jason was always so good at prying apart. He thinks of coming back from the dead, thinks of Dick-resurrected approaching him in civvies and asking for help, carefully doesn't think of anything that happens after.

Jason gets a handle on his rage, learns to meditate and breathe, learns to recognize when his thoughts are spiraling. He never quite manages the therapy Bruce wanted, but he respects what Leslie tried to do enough that he puts the effort in with bits and pieces under fake names with fake stories, pulls enough to consider and then leaves the country again. He doesn't usually feel like a hand grenade anymore, not like he'll explode if someone so much as enters the same room as him, but god damn if he wouldn't like someone to handle him delicately from time to time.

He ends up back stateside.

A job, ostensibly.

A job in Santa Rosa, California.

It isn't San Francisco, but it's easy money, and the plane is waiting to take him back across the ocean.

There's blood on his hands and another person dead (human trafficker, the world better off without) and the California sun hits in a way that feels a little more like home than he's felt in awhile.

The thing is, Jason learns to make up his mind. He learns to know himself, determined that no one will ever be able to use him like Crane did again. So he buys the burner phone from a chilly corner convenience store, wipes a stray drop of blood off the face in the reflection of the security case windows. He rips the box open and calls a number he told himself he didn't memorize, and he knows it was always going to end like this from the moment he set foot back on American soil using a passport under his real name.

"Grayson," Dick answers.

Jason sucks a breath through his teeth, stares at the seagulls in the parking lot fighting over crumbs, tracks the family and their ice cream cones leaving the parlor behind him, and says, "Hey. It's me. Uh, Jason."

The seagulls sound the same the world over, but it always makes him think of San Francisco. It's different, seeing them here in California, populating parking lots like crows and finches, subsisting off of human scraps and poorly placed aggression. He watches as one leaves and half a flock arrives, listens to the inefficient flapping of their wings and hears Dick take a deep breath, hears the walls come up, and then Dick says, "Hey. Everything good?"

"I'd like to meet. I'm in Santa Rosa."

Jason learned a long time ago to keep it simple, not to offer up more information than needed. Not to babble.

"Santa Rosa?"

Jason rattles off an address, says, "I know you can be here in less than an hour."

"Should take about two," Dick hedges, and Jason doesn't have to look at a map to know that's an overestimate and a half even by traffic laws.

"Make it in forty minutes," he says like it's a threat, a little bit of the same growl that Bruce used as Batman, a little bit of the same growl that Dick slips into when he's upset.

The line goes dead, and he leans back on the park bench, feeling the sand in his shoes and smelling American exhaust for the first time in years.

~~

Dick makes it in half an hour. Jason doesn't recognize the car, but Dick chews through them like 98 cent flip flops on desert asphalt. Jason isn't sure he's seen Dick with the same car for longer than a week, ever.

Dick looks the same, really. California rich, like all his bad choices are backed up by a trust fund, wearing a tan and slacks and a polo that shows off his forearm muscles. Jason watches him approach, keeps sightlines open and calculates distances and reaction times for everyone near him. He doesn't tense when Dick approaches, but he registers threat, trained opponent all the same, reminds himself he's here to see his brother and have someone listen to him for once. Not for a fight.

"Jason," Dick says softly, and it's exactly that perfectly level tone Jason dreams of sometimes.

"Dick," he returns. "How are the Titans?"

"Fine." Dick's tone goes clipped, a muscle briefly tensing in his jaw. "What brings you back?"

It's a carefully neutral way to put it. Jason would put money on a bet that Dick hadn't been able to reach all the Titans before he left, that he's calculating the trouble Jason's going to cause, and Jason wants to lean into that with an easy grin and steely eyes. He knows he's bulked out, knows he looks dangerous and carries himself like he knows how to be deadly and it's written straight down into his blood now.

"Do I need a reason to see my brother?" Jason says instead, because it's not a threat but Dick will take it that way, and he's gratified by the audible click Dick's teeth make.

"Is everything okay? Anything I need to know about?" Dick regains his composure, settling onto the bench next to Jason, elbows braced on his knees where he leans in a little towards Jason like he's hanging off every word.

"Got a text from Bruce," Jason says, figures he might as well cut the guy some slack. "Figured we could compare notes."

Dick shrugs one shoulder. "Got the same, didn't have time to rush over there. Last I heard, Superman helped out and that was the end of it."

Jason snorts. "So after all that, he thinks we're still his soldiers."

"You don't have to be anything you don't want to," Dick says softly. "Dying set that priority straight for me." His eyes slide over to Jason, then drift back to watching the kids on the swings at the playground across the street. "I think it set it straight for you, too."

"I'd like him to know," Jason admits. "I'd like him to know that I think I ended up here because of him, that he did a lot wrong by me, and even more wrong by you. But I don't think it would accomplish anything to tell him."

Dick laughs, a warm thing for how fragile and startled it sounds. "No, no, I don't think it would accomplish anything. He'd shut down before you could blink."

"He's done some good, though, for all the bad," Jason says, thinks I am the same.

"Him and us both," Dick agrees softly. "What're you up to?"

Jason shows teeth, says, "Mercenary work," like pulling a pin on a hand grenade, and Dick the hostage negotiator doesn't blink, just says, "Like it?"

"It pays the bills," Jason says. "I don't take a job if I don't think they deserve it."

Dick smiles a little, the slant of his shoulders shifting slowly into something more relaxed like the conversation isn't about life and death anymore. "Fair enough."

"Not going to say no killing?"

The smile goes sharper, a little more dangerous, and Dick says with Nightwing's tone, "It isn't worth it to live under someone else's code."

Jason doesn't pry. He doesn't think Goldie is killing, doesn't think the blood on his hands outweighs the blood on Jason's, but he knows how Dick counts deaths against his soul like lit matches lined up around a container of gasoline, whether he pulled a trigger or not.

"Does it come out even for you, in the end?" Jason asks instead, because the Dick Grayson he knew three years ago was desperate and independent and guilty as all hell for things he didn't even do.

And Dick takes a considering breath, nods a little, and says, "Yeah. I think it does. We put a lot of good in the world, Jason, and I think maybe you could, too, in your own way."

Jason can think of a lot of ways to say no to that, and not very many ways to say yes. So he lets them lapse into silence, watching kids on a playground have the childhood they both missed out on, and imagines what it would feel like to press into Dick's arms for a hug.

He thinks of Hank, thinks of a lot of wrong done to people who mostly tried to help him. He doesn't ask for a hug, doesn’t initiate contact.

Dick claps him on the shoulder when he leaves, says a goodbye and to call if Jason needs anything, and he leaves in an expensive car that purrs and Jason climbs back into his mark's beater and is out of the country before the end of the hour.

Satisfying enough, he thinks, but he doesn't think he'll do it again.

~~

Three weeks after Santa Rosa, Jason drops his newest job’s head on his employer’s desk, says flat and deadly, “There’s your fucking proof. Where’s the cash?”

The man leans back in his chair, looks at the head disdainfully over steepled fingers. “This is most unbecoming.”

Jason shrugs one shoulder, disinterested. “Where’s my money?”

“I believe the contract stated –”

“Bull shit .” Jason slams both hands down on the desk, a paperweight rattling satisfyingly. “I read my contract, it said a quarter million transferred immediately upon completion, ten percent up front. Job’s complete, give me my money.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be happening.” His employer smiles, tight-lipped and unpleasant, and Jason knows what’s going to happen before he can process how to move. His employer draws a gun, fast, fires off a round and Jason’s already backflipping away, pulling a gun of his own as fire lances through his side. His shot strikes true, and his employer’s gun falls from a hand that no longer exists in one piece. 

Jason stalks up to the man and presses the barrel of his gun to his head. “Money. Now.”

The man doesn’t stop whimpering, types awkwardly with one single, shaking hand, the other bleeding copiously across the floor. The money transfers, Jason’s phone chirping once to confirm, and he fires before the man even knows his death is coming.

Jason strips his jacket, shoves it against the hole in his side, and limps his way off the property.

He crashes in a pay-by-the-hour motel, leaves the lights off, lets the only illumination come through the curtainless window courtesy of the dingy neon sign outside. There’s a cheap suture kit somewhere in his pack, and Jason grew up patching clothes, but giving himself stitches makes more sense in theory than it does in practice. He really didn’t anticipate the way the blood loss would make his steady hands shake, and there’s no way in hell he’s getting the needle in and out of his skin.

Jason settles for slathering the damn thing in superglue, tells himself it’s better than nothing and passes out on the filthy bathroom floor two hours and change after the shot hit, adrenaline finally spent. 

He wakes up thirty-some hours later to a maid chattering nervously, and he defuses the situation with a few large bills and a friendly smile – slipped on some ice, bloody nose, what can you do – and explores unblemished skin with curious fingers as soon as she’s gone.

Jason’s half an expert on killing and that makes him half an expert on human anatomy in all the ways it counts, and he’s very sure bullet wounds aren’t supposed to be gone thirty hours later. He discounts the possibility of a garden variety healing factor, because bumps and bruises and scrapes linger just as long as they always have. That leaves something that edges towards an inability to die, and, well. Jason Todd always felt faintly unkillable, right up until the Titans, until Deathstroke, and he’s not about to test this new superpower, but it feels like as good a backup plan as any.

~~

Jason reaches the end of his rope somewhere in the Colombian jungle, slams his fist into the guard's face hard enough to send broken cartilage into his brain, and drops along with the man to avoid a kick that flies over his head. A third guard lunges from around the corner. The knife hits lucky, catches between two panels of his body armor. (Jason needs to splurge on the good shit, but he doesn’t want to go back stateside.) Jason twists, rips the knife out of the man’s hand and dislodges it from his side in the process. 

The fight ends in Jason's favor, but he grunts at the knife wound in his side when he prods it, covers it with a hand and watches his palm come away bloody, and he's so fucking tired.

He's tired of patching himself up, using cheap vodka instead of isopropanol if he even cares to put that much work in, tired of sleepless nights watching his own back. It's worth it, to be his own man, but fuck if he isn't dreaming of the end, most nights.

He stalks through the compound, kills three more guards and shoots his mark without the fucker even stirring. Nasty heroin habit, he'd guess, from the track marks up and down the bastard's arm. Poor form to sample your own product.

The compound is silent except for stray dogs howling out somewhere in the jungle. There's no one left to sound an alarm, and no one's coming to investigate. Jason makes it his policy to dip out of a country immediately after completion of a job, but he slides down the stone wall instead and watches the way his blood catches the light on the marble floors.

Jason Todd rarely feels suicidal, rarely feels without a purpose these days, but the blood is sticky and leaving too quick, and he can't summon the energy to do more than rest his hand on the wound and count his heartbeats through the hole in his side. Emergency first aid in Bruce’s voice rolls through his head, and Jason pointedly ignores them.

Either it’ll take, or it won’t, but he doesn’t have anything on him that’s not for killing and he’s out of options.

Last time, he didn't die alone -- he died at the hands of the Joker and it was a shit fucking way to go, but at least he didn't die afraid. He doesn't feel fear now either, doesn't think death would really stick to him at this point, but he doesn't feel like being alone.

He drags himself far enough over the edge of the bed to flip the mark over, finds his phone in his back pocket. He steals it, pats the corpse once on the hand and says, faintly delirious, "You won't mind, will ya, buddy?" as he flops back onto the floor.

The corpse stares, head akimbo and too-loose, bullet wound between the eyes still leaking sluggishly.

Jason dials the number, forgets the country code the first time and tries again.

"Grayson."

"Heyyy," Jason says, the syllable dragging out too long. "Knew you'd answer."

"Jason? Is everything okay?"

There's surprise there. Jason isn't sure why. "Bleeding out," he admits, instead of getting into it.

"Where are you?" Jason hears rustling, like Dick is mobilizing, and he can't help but laugh.

"Somewhere in Colombia, I think? Might have crossed a border somewhere but I'm not exactly sure. Borrowed a dead dude's phone to make this call."

The background shuffling goes silent abruptly, and Dick finally says, "Have you put pressure on the wound?"

Jason's gaze drops to the gash in his side, watches the blood come out through his fingers. Not as bad as the bullet wound, sure, but Jason made an effort that time. "Nah. No point." His head flops back against the wall a little too hard, and he winces. "'S kay."

"Jason." Dick takes a deep breath, and then says, steady, "I'm here."

"Knew you would," Jason says softly. "Always wanted to be you. Became Robin to be you."

"You were always your own person," Dick says, half reverently. Prayers for the dead, spoken just moments too soon. "Bruce never should have expected you to be me."

"He was shit at raising kids," Jason says. "But I don't want to talk about Bruce. He did what he thought best, but you really tried. Collecting all your orphans and shit, scooping me up too. Did your best, even if I thought all your friends hated me. Couldn't calm down long enough to see everyone was trying."

"You were never a burden to us," Dick promises. "You were fast and strong and I always --"

"Always what?" Jason blinks, lets his eyes stay shut for a moment, and then forces them back open.

"I always wished you had been able to stay. I always thought that a little longer, and we could have made something out of Robin for you." Dick hums a little to himself, and then says, "I'm proud of you. I, uh, sometimes I can tell which hits are yours. You became a good man, Jay."

Jason lets the tears fall, notes the way he's feeling unmoored from his body. It's the first time he's been this close to death and still conscious for it since the Joker, and he's surprised he's not scared. (Although he's not sure he can feel fear, exactly, not anymore and not for death. Not a whole lot for him to lose there, really.) "Means a lot," he says, the words slurred around a tongue that can't move well enough. "Means a lot you'd answer."

"I'm here for you," Dick murmurs. "I'm right here."

Jason doesn't tell him help isn't coming. Doesn't tell him he's not sure he can even die. He tries to say thanks, tries to say that Dick shouldn't worry too much, but the blackness starts to steal over his vision and Dick starts singing a song softly in a language Jason doesn't recognize, and Jason lets go.

~~

Jason wakes up with a new scar and a phone as dead as the man he lifted it from stuck to his face with blood and sweat, and he smashes it before he leaves.

He sends a postcard from a tourist trap with international postage, a cheeky, "Thanks for being there for me while I died again," and no signature.

~~

Jason drags himself stateside two years after dying again, five after leaving Gotham, control in shreds and a small country decimated behind him. He bribes his way onto a ship with a crate of guns and ammunition, sleeps with his back to his weapons and an eye on the door, and is dumped unceremoniously in a port on the East Coast.

Uhauls are easy to rent, and Jason takes one out with a stolen credit card and a fake ID, starts the long process of dragging himself cross-country with hands that can't stop shaking. Eventually he breaks and starts guzzling energy drinks and cheap gas station coffee that was burnt the second it hit the carafe just so he can tell himself there's a reason to feel this way.

He doesn't call.

He parks behind the building in a public lot and enters his codes in the door, a little surprised when they still take. The elevator is familiar, the entrance still the same, and he brings a duffel bag with his favorite guns because he can't shake the paranoid feeling that half the world is after him.

The elevator opens to a kid he doesn't recognize, and he just says, "Where's Dickface?" and cuts off all the questions he can't answer.

The kid's face shutters and they turn away without a word, probably pressing a panic button from how Dick rounds the corner at a run.

Jason watches expressions dart across his face before the hostage negotiator is back in full force, Dick's shoulders dropping their tension as he says, "Hey, Jason."

"I'm not dead," is all Jason can think to say, and Dick says, "Yeah, got your postcard. Listened to you breathe all night, too."

Jason doesn't sway, but his hands are still trembling, and he knows Dick clocked it, so he says, "I'm crashing."

It's not a code or anything, but Dick reads the plea in his tone anyway and catches him by the elbow, the hand more steadying than Jason would have dreamed. "Let's get somewhere we can talk in private."

Dick leads them to his room, and Jason drops the duffel next to the dresser and almost collapses with it. Dick catches him, steady hands, and says, "Are you hurt?"

Jason shakes his head, and Dick starts prodding anyway, expert hands moving across undamaged ribs and unbroken skin, searching for hurts that have long since healed.

"Drugged?"

Jason shakes his head again, and Dick supports him by the shoulders, the contact warm and grounding.

"What happened?"

Jason shrugs, blinks, can't think of a way to say that he's lonely and itching and he can't say why, just that he needs somewhere to lick wounds that don't stay and collect himself for a night or two. There’s a million ways for Jason to say that he’s made a life of destruction and he’s getting tired of reaping the lonely benefits, but none of the words will come. Dick is studying his face, eyes moving back and forth as he searches for answers he can't find.

"Tired," Jason says finally. "I'm here because I'm tired."

"You're welcome to stay as long as you need," Dick says, and Jason believes him. Believes the brother that listened for proof of life all night long and probably mourned him when the phone died even though the call just ended, and he sees his "I'm still alive" postcard tacked up opposite the bed where Dick can probably see it and remind himself.

"Kind of want a hug," Jason admits, because his walls are too far down and he can't even describe why, and Dick pulls him in.

It's warm and firm and encompassing, and Jason shudders apart. The sobs never quite come, but Dick gentles him anyway with soft murmurs and a hand against his head, and Jason lets himself fall knowing that Dick Grayson won't let him shatter.

~~

Jason slips out the window three nights later with a two fingered salute. Dick waves once and watches him go, holds up a hand in the old fashioned phone symbol, pinky to his mouth and thumb to his ear and mouths, Call me.

Jason shakes his head and scoffs, and Dick grins like he knows the truth.

He probably does.