The news of the kid's death spreads like wildfire across the globe, reaching even the lowly dives along the docks in Singapore.
Batman's lost another Robin.
He doesn't think to wonder why his first thought is of the first Robin--Grayson is too much on his mind these days--but he switches his thoughts to the third boy to wear that mantle and listens to the tales told in hushed whispers, sifting through the differing methods and reasons and finding only a kernel of truth.
The only one that anyone truly in the know would believe.
Drake took his own life in Arkham.
Slade knew the day after the Flash's death that the boy broke at the news and his mentor put him in the one place he could keep him alive.
Or so he thought.
In this, Wayne was an idiot. The catatonia the kid was caught in wouldn't last--that mind was much too alive to stay silent--and Slade knew he'd find a way out.
Slade isn't at all surprised he chose suicide.
If the stories are right--and as soon as he returns to his hotel he'll check with the Calculator for their veracity--Tim Drake managed to strangle himself with his own straightjacket barely twenty four hours before.
It will take Slade less than twelve to reach Gotham.
Not going is never an option.
There is surprisingly little coverage in the Gotham newspapers-- but, then, half the time the people in power try to pretend the Batman and his clan don't exist. One of the lower quality rags has a lurid story of Robin's death told by an anonymous orderly at Arkham. The Gotham Gazette has only a brief mention that there will be a private funeral at an undisclosed time and place and that memorials can be given to a local battered women's shelter.
Gotham doesn't bury its heros as publically as Keystone City or Metropolis.
As he folds the newspapers and rises from the coffee shop table, Slade wonders how Bruce Wayne will explain the death of another son.
And, again, his thoughts go to the eldest of those sons.
It takes him just under two hours to find him. New York may be his home base these days, but with Drake's death, Gotham is where he has to be.
He's patrolling, probably following the kid's route, but Slade can tell his heart isn't in it. Nightwing's flying, but there's no sense of freedom in his swings. Following him for several miles, he watches his former protege stop a mugging, rescue a child from a burning building and beat the hell out of a pusher, but there's no joy in any of it. His movements lack their natural grace. It's as if his heart's been ripped out.
Slade knows how that feels. If you lose enough sons, wives, lovers, friends, breaking your heart each and every time, eventually you no longer have that heart.
That's what happened to Robin.
He'll be damned if it will happen to his Robin.
Slade watches him for three hours, following him through the smog-laden skies of Gotham, before Dick finally stops moving. Atop a church, he crouches beneath the steeple and rubs his hands over his head, then buries his face in his knees.
"You're completely off your game," Slade says softly, smoothly, from two feet in front of him, easily balanced on the peaked roof.
Dick's head snaps up and Slade isn't surprised to see tear tracks glistening through the soot and grime on his stricken face.
"I've been standing here for two minutes, kid. Any other villain would have put a bullet in you by now."
"Maybe that's what I was hoping," is the younger man's tired, empty reply.
Gazing at the broken man, Slade tightens his lips beneath his mask and shakes his head. "Think he'd want you to follow him that way?"
"I don't think he cares one way or another." Nightwing pushes to his feet, back against the steeple, and his voice is hoarse from silent crying but the tears are gone. "What do you want Slade?"
Kid's weary to the bone, broken in a way Slade has never seen, but has always suspected was the kind of despair that drove him to Renegade over two years before. "I heard about Drake and..." To his surprise, he's at a loss for words. Just what did he want?
"And you came to offer sympathy?" The snorted answer doesn't surprise Slade. "Or maybe see if I've sunk so low I'll either let you kill me or fuck me." Neither does that, really.
"You once told me I always fail at killing you. You're right. Want to know why?"
A mirthless smile crosses Dick's face. "Because you haven't fucked me yet."
Slade's the one to snort this time. "Because you're the light to my darkness, kid. You may have been that to Batman, but you outgrew him, stretched your wings and flew free. Flew right into me."
"Anyone ever tell you you have an ego problem, Wilson?"
The older man chuckles and takes a couple of steps forward. "We've played a game, kid, for years, but there comes a point you have to win or lose. I'm not going to let you lose."
"I'm not the one dead," Dick replies harshly, hand slashing through the air as he pushes away from the steeple.
"And you're a step away from being lost. You've been there, remember? I do, and unfortunately for both of us I was still shaking off Joseph's possession and all the crap I'd gotten myself caught in to help you then."
"Is that you're excuse now for going evil?"
"We can talk about that later. Right now, we have to get you off this roof."
Dick's lips twists derisively. "I think we need to fight and then I arrest your ass for Bludhaven."
"Now I do know you have a death wish and you aren't following Drake there, Dick."
With a snarl, Dick charges him and Slade puts him down in under a minute. A nerve pinch and he's out.
He still has bolt-holes scattered around major cities and the one in Gotham has all the necessary amenities. Slade changes out of his uniform into a pair of navy slacks and a white and blue striped shirt. As he rolls the sleeves to his elbows, he watches the kid sleeping on the bed, then goes into the bathroom to fetch a wet cloth. Placing one knee on the bed, he removes the mask and bathes the grime from Dick's relaxed face, then peels off the gauntlets and reaches down to do the same to the boots.
"Leave me alone."
The desolate voice surprises him. "You should have been out for another twenty minutes." He tosses the boots to the floor and watches Dick roll away from, curling into himself.
"Go away." Slade stays silent until Dick sighs heavily and looks over his shoulder. Without his mask his face is so young, and his eyes so full of pain. "What do you want from me?"
"I want to make sure you don't jump off the next building without a line."
"I'm not suicidal, really."
"Aren't you? Okay, maybe you wouldn't jump, but would you stop someone from pushing you?"
He watches Dick think about it for a moment, then moves to sit more comfortably next to him. The young man sits up facing him, but unable to look at him. They sit like that for several minutes until Dick finally forces out the words he's been holding inside. "How could he do it? How could he hurt me like this?" The tears resume and he bows his head, letting them drip onto his raised knees and open, helpless palms.
"The boy was broken, Dick," Slade softly says. "One too many losses. You reach a point where there are two paths and you make a choice. He chose to end the pain."
"Neither did you. Neither will you."
Dick snorts and wipes his wet cheeks almost angrily. "Didn't he realize how it would hurt us all?"
"That's the last thing someone thinks about when they choose that path. His pain was too great for him to think of the consequences to anyone but himself. Don't hate him for that."
"I don't, I could never...At least, I don't think...Oh god, this is killing me and, you're right, I don't want it to." He looks up, his blue eyes so stricken that all Slade can do is reach for him and pull him in, wrapping the now struggling body in a tight embrace.
Dick presses fists against his chest, his forehead burrows into his neck, and he sobs until he's limp and weakly gasping for breath. Slade doesn't say anything--platitudes aren't something the kid needs--simply lets him cry out the anguish. "He...he was my brother, Slade, my little brother, everything I'd always wanted in one, and now he's just...gone. I don't know how to live with this hole in my life."
"I don't have the answers. I just know you do it, one day at a time, and you realize you're not the only one in pain."
Batman isn't his favorite person, but he knows the soul-deep pain of losing a son to the war they fight, knows the guilt the man suffers, and knows that sending him another son either broken or dead so soon after Robin will be his end.
He can't wish that on anyone.
"I shouldn't have left him alone."
"He handles these things alone. You don't," is Slade's response, because he knows his Robin too well and, through him, knows the Bat. "You'll be there when he needs you. You always are."
Slowly Dick pulls back and Slade lets him until they're no longer touching but the bond that's always been between them is still tight.
"Why are you here, Slade?" Dick asks, his voice brimming with exhaustion and confusion. "We should be fighting."
"I told you why I'm here, and, you're in no condition to fight."
"Are you going to give yourself up, then?"
Slade can't help it--he smiles and reaches out to brush the back of his hand over the kid's upturned cheek as he rest his head on his arms folded on his knees. "Not my style. When you're feeling better, we can fight if you want, but I'm hoping we can talk so it won't come to that."
He has a lot to atone for, and he knows that he needs to have this man understand about the possession, the way Azareth's influence had lingered. He needs Dick to understand.
Because he needs his Robin in ways he's not sure even he understands.
But, since the boy is looking stronger and more sure of himself, looking like he's pulled away from the brink, Slade knows they'll have time to work it all out.
Maybe this time they'll finally work everything out.
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