"It should have been me."
The emptiness in the voice, the words themselves, were too familiar. How often had he said them himself?
After every death.
Slade stood silent, watching the boy rise from the grave, brush fresh dirt off his knees, turn to face him.
Empty face, too.
Maybe it should have been him.
"How long have you known I was here?" Slade asked, forcing a casual tone to his voice, his stance as relaxed as it could be on Wayne property.
"Since you arrived."
"I didn't want to intrude."
Tim snorted, the sound almost irreverent here, but made no move to attack or leave. "He knows you're here, too."
"Of course." Of course, Wayne had every inch of his estate under constant surveillance.
Especially this place.
"He's not buried with his parents." It was a question in a statement.
Tim shook his head, his too long hair hanging limply around his too thin face. "This was where his life was. The meaning for it." The graves of Wayne's parents. "What are you doing here, Wilson?"
"Paying my respects."
There was a flash of something in those dull blue eyes. "After all the pain you caused him? After Bludhaven?"
"I still respected him. Still..." Slade stopped himself, shaken by nearly revealing too much. A tremor of remorse and longing went through him and he took a deep breath. "He didn't deserve this. It wasn't time."
"We live on borrowed time. He knew that." Tim glanced back at the headstone, then back to Slade. "But, you're right, it wasn't his time. It was mine."
"I heard. He pushed you out of the way." And why wasn't he angry about that? That this broken, bitter kid lived in his place?
"A mistake. He'd finally gotten over everything, Bludhaven, Blockbuster, you. Finally found his purpose again. He was making a good life for himself. Me...I'm just empty. Too many deaths, too many losses, and now...him..."
Slade let the dead tone wash over him, taking in the kid's words. He'd seen it a year ago, the blank spots in Robin, the rote fighting, the dull speech. Nothing bright. Nothing happy.
But he'd bet his considerable fortune that he didn't show it to his family or friends. They'd never have let him on the streets in that condition.
If they'd known.
"So, what now, kid? You going to change your costume to black and blue and die even more inside?"
Another flash of something in those eyes, and internally Slade smirked and made a decision. He owed the man in that grave a debt he'd ignored for too many years. Keeping his kid brother alive and sane might go a ways to paying it back.
"What do you want, Wilson?"
"I came to say goodbye. Found something else, though."
Tim cocked his head, intrigued despite himself. "What?"
"His legacy." He nodded towards the grave. "He loved you. He was so proud of you. He wouldn't want you fading away like this."
"I've been fading for two years."
"Yeah, and I bet he tried to stop it."
Tim's silence was acknowledgment enough, and Slade took a step forward. "Let's get out of the cold, kid, and talk."
"I should arrest you."
Slade did allow the smirk on his face this time. "Yeah, he said that a lot, too. Never got around to it."
"You're a supervillain." The hands finally balled into fists and the shoulders rose.
"We're not going to fight, Drake, especially not here. We're going to talk and you're not going to do anything stupid." Turning his head slightly, he stared with narrowed eye at one of the cameras, then nodded. He didn't know why Wayne was allowing this, but he'd take advantage of it. Turning back, he saw the kid's shoulders droop and the determination leave him. Slade held out a hand and, it took several minutes, but he wasn't completely surprised when Tim took it.
He knew Robins, after all.
"Come on, kid," he said gruffly, "Let's get out of here and talk about your brother and how he wouldn't want you going down the path you're on."
Tim stared down at their joined hands and stuttered, "I don't know how to stop it."
"I do," was his confident reply as he pulled the boy in and held him as he began to cry. Looking over the familiar black hair, he swallowed hard as his eye read the inscription on the gravestone. Strong, simple words.
Just like him.
Hours later, Slade put his feet up on the coffee table and sipped from a tumbler of Scotch as he watched the boy sleeping restlessly on the bed of the motel room just outside Gotham. Everything had come out, first in stutters and mumbles, but finally as a cathartic release of more pain than someone his age should ever suffer. Tim had talked for over an hour until his voice, finally hoarse and broken, had trickled away to soft sobs and he'd curled on the bed, crying for Dick.
Slade had simply listened, absorbing Tim's grief and letting it mix with his own. It was familiar, too familiar, yet he was a few steps back from all but this latest of Tim's losses. And, maybe that's why the boy had talked to him when he wouldn't to anyone else. His friends, Wayne, were too close.
Maybe sometimes you needed an enemy to get it all out.
His phone vibrated and he slipped it from his pants' pocket. A text message.
::How is he::
Typical. Snorting, Slade thumbed back a message. ::He'll live, probably sane:: He was curious as to why the Bat had allowed him to take Robin away, but he wouldn't press the matter.
This time the phone beeped and Slade lifted to his ear. "Yeah?"
"I couldn't reach him." The voice was half-Bat, half-Wayne, and leaking pain. "When I saw you there, I took a leap of faith." Unspoken were the various threats their kind always exchanged, along with a tenuous hope that his faith hadn't been misplaced.
"I'm still one of the bad guys, Wayne."
"I was never blind to the fact that you were more than that to him."
Slade could almost see the teeth grinding, and smiled a bit sadly. "And if I let this kid in the same way?"
There was a moment of silence, then Wayne's voice came through, no longer Bat at all. "If it keeps him alive and sane...I can't lose him, too, Wilson."
"You know the risk." Double meaning there. The death of sidekicks, and the potential loss of the boy to him.
"I always did. I still can't lose him to his grief." There was a plea there, and Slade nodded to himself in understanding and a bit of surprise. After everything that had gone wrong, that had driven him down the paths he'd taken, that the Batman trusted him with his son was a bit amazing.
Or the man was simply too desperate and too broken to care that he was placing an eighteen year old kid in the hands of a murderer.
"They found the Joker's body."
"The police have no leads."
Of course not. He wasn't that sloppy, despite the dark pleasure that had taken him when he broke the clown's neck.
There were no thanks, but Slade could hear them in the silence over the phone, before Wayne changed the subject back to Tim. "Bring him home when he's ready." A click terminated the call, and Slade slid the phone back in his pocket before taking another sip of whiskey.
Tim sat up on the bed, no eye-rubbing, no yawning, simply staring bleakly at him. "Bruce is leaving me here."
"You got all that out of a few words?"
A tiny, minuscule glimmer of a smile tickled the kid's lips. "Detective, remember?"
Slade rolled his shoulders and crossed his ankles. "You're free to leave any time you want."
"I'm not a substitute for him."
Tipping his head back, Slade drained his glass, then set it aside. "No. He was never quite this bad off."
"Too broken for you?" Tim asked casually, moving to sit on the end of the bed, only a few feet from Slade.
Slade grinned, all teeth. "I like broken birds."
Tim nodded, no smile on his face. "You were the only secret he ever kept from me. I found out anyway." His hands spread behind him on the bed and he leaned back slightly, almost provocatively. "So, if I'm not a substitute, what do you want with me, Slade?"
"You think a night in my bed will help you forget him?"
"No." The bleakness in Tim's voice echoed in Slade's heart and he swung his feet down, sat up to lean forward, his eye locking on the kid's.
"You're a pretty boy, but not quite sane, you know that, right?" Tim nodded. "I can help you find yourself again. I will, for him. But fucking you in this state isn't the answer."
"I know," Tim breathed and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "So...where do we start?"
"We start with the first person you lost, and we go from there. Tomorrow I watch you fight, and you unlearn all those moves that open you for a too quick death. No suicide attempts on my watch, no matter if they're unconscious. And we talk, about whatever you want, whatever you can't talk about with Wayne or the Titans."
"I won't be your apprentice or protege or whatever you wanted Dick for."
Slade smiled at the strength returning to the young man's voice. "How about just being Tim?"
"If you don't know by now that Robin is a mask, that'll be lesson number one. I'm doing this for Dick's little brother, not Nightwing's sidekick or partner."
"They're...not really separate."
Tim nodded slowly, rubbing a thumb over his lips as life began to return to his eyes. "I never saw what Dick could see in you." He looked up, a hint of surprise on his face. "Until now."
Slade smiled. "And what is that?"
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