His brain could multi-task, so while he was listening to the doctor's prognosis and care instructions, he was also thinking about his next step and the next, as well as remembering all that had recently happened. Memories of the past few months were becoming clearer every moment, and it took effort to keep the emotions at bay.
Anger, frustration, hatred.
While his private doctors had tended to their patient, working hours to save the boy's life, he'd buried his best friend in the rain.
He couldn't cry, couldn't allow himself to show that weakness, not even in private, so the heavens cried for him.
As he'd stood over the grave, the memory of Wintergreen's final words squirming through his mind, he pushed aside all guilt and focused on anger.
Revenge would come soon.
But, he needed help.
His attention returned to the doctor as a woman entered the infirmary. "This is Alice Green, Mr. Wilson. She's eminently trained and very discreet"
"Good." His eye swivelled to the middle-aged, efficient looking woman in the neat white dress. "Take care of him. Call the doctors if anything goes wrong." He handed her a card. "Call this number only if he dies."
Before she could respond, he swept out of the room to make the phone calls to put his next step into motion.
He would have his revenge against the twisted remnant of his son, but one thing having Joseph so close had revealed to him was that he wanted family.
Time to reclaim the only child he had left.
His thoughts went briefly to the boy hanging onto life in the room behind him and a dark smile crossed his face. If he survived, if he recovered, he could be of use.
He was a Robin, after all, and Robins had their uses for Deathstroke.
Trapped in his own body, time was fluid. If he concentrated, he could slow it down. Through his own eye he saw a woman beneath him, her face flushed in pleasure. He saw his sword, his hand rubbing a cloth up and down it with none of the care he always showed.
He saw the bullet pierce Wintergreen's heart.
Inside his head he screamed, but he couldn't do anything. His choices were to watch or ignore, but, after the death of his oldest friend, he desperately sought a third. He fought to free himself. Fought to take back control of his body. Fought his insane son.
The next time he looked through his eye he watched Impulse's knee shatter in a burst of blood and cartilage.
He heard Joseph explaining the truth to Logan and Stone, heard Stone scream as his sword pierced his head.
"Boy Wonder. Looks like you're my lamb."
Robin. Not his Robin, but a Robin, and he watched his fist crack against the kid's cheek, heard the sound, felt the blow on his knuckles, and fought harder than he had since Wintergreen had fallen.
The boy got a blow in, on his chin. He felt his body reeling, then responding, and the staff shattered beneath a hard punch. The kid took more hits, no longer able to parry them or return them, and then fell.
The sound of the bullet chambering exploded in his head, and he heard his voice, almost conversational, though so completely cold. "Tell me Robin, is that mask bulletproof?"
Flinging himself against the prison walls of his own body, Slade tried to turn his hand, tried to stop the finger squeezing the trigger.
The gun went off, an explosion of sound, and time slowed even more as he watched helplessly as the bullet hit Robin's temple, creasing deeply along his skull. Blood and bone sprayed and the kid fell backwards, still.
The shot hadn't been centered.
His body turned away, chambering another bullet, and he could feel his son's smugness, his belief in the righteousness of his cause. Joseph believed Robin was dead.
He wasn't so sure.
Had he succeeded in shifting his aim enough? If he pushed harder, could he retake control?
And he was collapsing, half-blind from a claw from Logan to his good eye, body screaming in pain from electrical shocks from that lasso.
And Joseph was gone.
Slade lay still, listening to the young voices around him, letting himself recover. The fight started again, as his son, in someone else, continued it, and they left him alone. Pulling himself to his knees and shaking his head to clear his vision, he watched for a moment. Superboy.
Smart. Take over the most powerful.
Pushing to his feet, he disappeared into the shadows. Let this new band of Titans deal with his son. He wasn't giving him the opportunity to return to his body.
Anger, frustration, and an icy hatred fought for dominance in his mind, but he held onto one clear thought.
Something deep inside his broken soul needed the young man to survive. Something that remembered an earlier Robin and possibilities lost when Joseph twisted his mind and his actions.
Slade found the fallen hero alone in a dark alley. No one had discovered him yet. Dropping to one knee, he peeled off a glove and felt for a pulse. It was there, thready, but there. Bending down, he heard soft breathing, then turned to examine the wound.
So much blood, and with it bits of bone and brain, and yet the kid was alive. Pulling field dressings from his belt pouch, he bandaged the wound as best he could, then lifted Robin into his arms to disappear into the night.
Slade knew a shady doctor in almost every large city in the country, and the one in San Francisco patched up Robin enough to keep him alive for the plane trip home. The boy never moved, never made a sound, and the doctor told him he was in a coma, and the bullet was still in his head, lodged over his ear.
All could be dealt with. He just had to survive the next few hours.
For a long time Dick knelt on the pavement next to the drying blood smear, his body still, his mind trying to work through all he'd learned in the last few hours. Finally, he reached one gloved hand out to touch the large stain, and was dismayed to find it trembling. Silently cursing he clenched his hand into a fist until the trembling stopped, then touched the blood. He had to touch it for it all to be real.
Tests had already confirmed the identity of the person who'd fallen. The fact that a minute amount of gray matter had been found at one end of the tacky pool hinted at death.
But, then, why was the body gone?
Even if he'd survived, why was he gone?
He'd heard all the details--in one part of his brain they'd even registered and begun to be processed. He knew the who and the why, he even understood the twisted rationale, but knowing all that still didn't help him make sense of the situation.
Still didn't help him deal with the loss of his brother.
And that Jericho had done it, been behind it all. Dick tried to look back on all the interactions with Slade over the years since Joey's death and all he'd heard about him. The darkness that had seemed gradually to infect the man, the distance he'd put between himself and his companions, the rejection of his daughter. At some point Slade had slipped from mercenary to villain, and Dick hadn't even realized until it was too late.
Had all that been Joey? Twisted and warped by the insane souls of Azareth, had he influenced his father that much?
And what had given him the opportunity to take Slade over completely?
Dick could barely process that Raven was back and Jericho had been absorbed into her soul self. They could be anywhere and he wasn't certain he was at all ready to face his former friends.
Better to focus on Deathstroke.
A hunt was already in progress, but Dick knew it would be fruitless. Slade Wilson wouldn't be found unless he wanted to be found. He probably owned a dozen homes around the world and none of them would ever be traced to his public identity. Dick had always had to go through intermediaries to find him. Even Batman couldn't find him.
Slowly rising to his feet, he scanned the sky wondering bleakly when his father would arrive.
And how he was taking the loss of another Robin.
A footstep behind him made him turn quickly, escrima stick in hand, only to relax as Roy emerged from the shadows and ducked under the yellow police tape.
"Man, you have to leave it for now. The police could return at any minute."
"We handle this," was Dick's icy reply.
"Yeah, but they have the obligation to be involved. You don't want to get caught here with..." Roy's eyes drifted down to the red sticky smear on Dick's glove and he stopped himself from finishing the sentence with 'blood on your hand'.
"It's all that's left of Ti...Robin."
"You can say his name to me, Dick," Roy said gently, coming closer, hand outstretched to comfort or lend. "No secrets."
Dick felt sudden tears sting his eyes behind the opaque lenses of his mask and he wanted so badly to remove it and just cry, but, that wasn't what was expected of him. He had to be strong. The leader. The young Titans had lost so much this night and he was the one everyone would look to. He shook his head, trying to clear it, opened his mouth to say something to Roy about the hunt, but, "He was my brother," came out stammered and emotion-filled, shocking him with the intensity of the loss hitting him so hard. "He was my little brother, Roy."
Watching Dick start to break down, Roy moved quickly, wrapping his arms around his best friend, ignoring the instinctive struggles and pushing him until he could pin him to the nearest wall and just hold him as he sobbed.
Batman arrived and took charge of the investigation. Dick was almost grateful for it, as the simple act of breathing was becoming difficult let alone trying to concentrate on finding Deathstroke. Standing in the doorway to the lounge in Titans Tower--so similar and yet so different from the original lounge in their tower--he could almost see the images of his missing friends mingling with the grief-stricken teens. Roy was talking quietly to Victor, and if Dick looked hard enough he could see a flash of red feathered cap and a longbow on his back to replace the gun on his thigh.
An image of Donna whispered to the new Wonder Girl as she cried in Superboy's arms.
Wally was there as the new Kid Flash made an appearance--subdued and quiet and so completely unlike himself.
Gar and Kory were standing at a bank of windows, not talking, not touching, but there for each other--old friends, sadly accustomed to tragedy.
But, the young ones...
Dick wasn't sure they'd recover from this.
He knew he never would.
Unable to face them he turned and walked silently down a long hallway, heading to a room he'd seen in the original plans, needing to see them again.
Pushing open a door he stepped into the dimly lit gallery and lifted his eyes to the first statue.
There were nine in all.
All their dead.
Four on each side and at the end...
Would Tim's be the next statue in this room?
A wave of pain hit him and he stumbled, hand reaching out blindly, touching one of the statues and he immediately recoiled.
"How could you?" he whispered brokenly, lifting his eyes to the face of the man behind all this. "How could you, Joey? You killed my brother!" With every word his voice rose in anger until he was nearly screaming, then the sobs broke free again and he dropped to his knees, helpless against his grief and rage.
Slade listened to the doctor's prognosis as his eye remained fixed on the still form in the hospital bed. Coma, probable brain damage if he ever did awake, still possible death.
The kid was stronger than that. No one trained by the Bat was weak. Slade didn't know the kid personally but he knew about Robins. They had incredible will.
It was just a matter of time before he learned just how strong this one was.
Rose liked to watch him. She liked to watch his chest rise and fall, the only movement he made. Tubes fed him, administered painkillers and other drugs, but he breathed on his own. From all she'd read about him, this didn't surprise her. He was stubborn.
He was also a vegetable, but her father believed it was a temporary state, so she did, too. Every day she spent an hour or so curled in a comfortable chair at his bedside like a cat, simply watching him. Everyone left her alone with him, and if the nurses wondered what her interest in him was, they never asked.
Today, she hugged her knees, a worried frown on her face, for the first time in this room her mind not wholly focused on Tim. Occasionally she fiddled with the patch over her bandaged eye, every touch making it ache, despite the painkillers her father routinely administered every four hours. She couldn't stop touching it, though.
Still couldn't quite believe she'd done it.
Did this truly make her daddy's little girl? At the time she'd thought it would, but now, three days later, she wasn't so sure. When her father looked at her there was concern on his face and frustration in his eye, and she wondered if she'd ever be good enough. He wasn't allowing her to train anymore, not until she healed, maybe not ever. She'd failed him, and that failure stung as badly as her self-inflicted wound.
All his children failed him, and maybe that's why he'd taken this boy, this Robin. Maybe someone not of his own warped blood would be what he needed.
Rose just wanted her father to have what he needed. If it wasn't her, she'd live with it just like so many other disappointments in her young life.
But, Robin needed to wake up for any of this to happen.
Turning her attention back to the boy in the hospital bed she watched him breathe, and fiddled with the eyepatch again.
Leaning back comfortably in his desk chair, Slade fingered his beard and watched on the monitor his daughter watching Robin. Every day since he'd rescued her she spent one hour in the afternoon with the boy. He'd never asked her what her interest was, but he was intrigued. His daughter was a puzzle and this was one more piece.
As Rose brushed her fingers across the eyepatch and winced, he felt a moment of regret for the loss of her beautiful eye. Her abilities would compensate just as his had, but he hadn't wanted this.
He'd pushed her.
Looking back, Slade could acknowledge Joey's remaining influence on most of his actions of the past three months. Taking Rose as he had, making her kill her uncle, giving her the serum. The latter he should never have done. He'd refined it to a point but it had still driven her insane. She finally seemed to be recovering.
As was he.
He'd trained her to be another Ravager, his only thoughts on vengeance. He hadn't given any thought to the needs and wants of a seventeen year old girl. His only desire had been to mold her into an instrument of that vengeance, and, Rose, desperate for his attention and approval, had allowed him to do it.
The moment she'd stabbed herself in the eye to prove she was his, had shocked him out of his own madness. He could barely remember gathering her up and racing to the infirmary, trying to save the eye he rationally knew was gone, listening all the while to her begging for him to accept her as his daughter.
She'd always been his daughter, despite his attempts at pushing her away, his coldness to her--and as he thought back, he wondered how much of that had been Joseph's influence. It was still so hard to figure out what actions and emotions had been his alone and which had been tainted by his son.
Bleakly he wondered if he'd ever know.
Bringing the boy here, though, that had been his choice, driven by memories from before the possession, of a young man who'd intrigued and challenged him. How alike and how different was this one?
And would he ever wake up so they could find out?
It took Dick nearly three months to finally face the new case in the cave. No body had ever been found, there was no proof of death, but there was no sign of him either. Hospitals, clinics, and morgues around the world had been checked. Oracle had set up a notification system to alert her if anyone fitting Tim's description was brought into any kind of hospital or clinic. Something came across the wire almost daily.
So far none of the leads had panned out.
In Gotham and Bludhaven, life went on, the fight against crime never ceased, but for Dick it grew a little colder every day. When he looked in a mirror he could see the joy gone from his face. Tim had brought something into his life he hadn't expected and barely recognized. He didn't really notice it until it was missing.
Without him, too many burdens had fallen on his shoulders. He had his own problems in the 'Haven, his faltering relationship with Barbara, the ever-growing distance with Bruce, and now he felt the need to be Robin, too.
And, he couldn't. He couldn't go back. He'd told Tim that all those years ago.
So, Bruce had found a new Robin.
And a new case stood in the cave.
Standing in front of it, feeling emotion choking him, Dick read the words in a whisper: In Memory of Timothy Drake, Robin, A Good Soldier.
Bruce hadn't even come up with new words.
And Tim had been so much more than just one more fucking soldier in Batman's eternal crusade.
Rage filled Dick, made him see red, and he clenched his hands into fists, wanting to pummel them against the glass, break the case, make it so it had never existed.
Instead, taking deep, shaky breaths, he turned away and nearly ran into Stephanie.
She was quiet, watching him carefully, gauging his mood. Her personality had undergone a radical change due to both Tim's disappearance and Bruce's decision to train her as the fourth Robin.
Where Dick had been laughter and free falling, and Jason had been street smarts and sarcasm, and Tim had been efficiency and logic, Stephanie was...
She'd never been particularly quiet before, but so much had changed in the last three months. Bruce had become impossible to live with and Batman had shut himself down to the level of pure purpose. His attitude harkened back to the year before when Bruce had been arrested for Vesper's murder and Batman had been the only one to exist for a time.
That had been the wrong move, and Dick could see Bruce making it again, but nothing would convince his father that there had to be a better way.
Dick was just glad Stephanie didn't have to live with the man. It was bad enough he was training her so coldly.
"It's morbid." That she'd spoken, startled him out of his anger and he gave her a curious look. She nodded at the case. "I don't believe he's dead."
Privately Dick didn't either, not any longer with no sign of him, but he didn't like thinking about what that left them with. Since they couldn't locate him in hospitals, both public and private, someone had him.
Dick had his thoughts on who that might be as well. Why, was the confusing part, though.
"You think he'll turn up someday?"
Stephanie nodded. "I think it'll be too late, though."
He didn't ask her what she meant by that, and she turned to head to the gym. Slowly Dick turned back to the case and shook his head. "This is wrong."
Rising to her feet, Rose gave a last, lingering look to the still figure in the bed, then turned to leave. A noise stopped her. A rustle of cloth, the scratch of fingers on bedding. Eye widening, she turned back and found Tim blinking at her. Looking up, she yelled at the camera. "Daddy!"
Slade heard her yell and jerked his eyes to the monitor. Seeing the boy stirring, he was out the door like a shot, racing for the infirmary. The nurse followed him inside the room and immediately went to check Tim's vital signs. Slade stopped at the foot of the bed, watching his daughter take the kid's hand. His fingers twitched against her palm and his eyes moved slowly from person to person.
"Daddy, he's awake," Rose said softly, smiling brilliantly.
"So I see." Giving Robin a wary look, he waited to see what he had to say.
Tim opened his mouth, swallowed, tried again, and finally whispered in a voice harsh from disuse, "Who are you?".
Ignoring the boy's question for the moment, but intrigued by it, Slade turned to the nurse and instructed her to summon the doctor. He then moved to Rose's side, giving her a brief smile and squeezing her shoulder.
"My name is Slade Wilson and this is my daughter Rose. Do you know what your name is?"
Confusion slowly crossed Tim's face before he finally answered with a weak negative.
"Rose, give him some water."
As she poured a glass and inserted a straw, then held the glass for the kid to drink, Slade wondered if this was a temporary condition due to the lengthy vegetative state or something more permanent.
"What do you remember, kid?" he asked, a hint of kindness in his voice as Rose drew the glass back.
Tim licked his lips to moisten them, then cleared his throat. "I...I don't know," he finally said weakly. Fear joined the confusion on his face and expression. "Do you know who I am?"
"Your name's Tim, Tim Drake. You were in an accident several months ago."
"No. How are you feeling?"
"...Tired. Fuzzy. My head..." Tim tried to lift his hand to his head but, despite daily exercises, his muscles were too weak. "How long?"
That slowly sank in, and Tim licked his lips again. Slade watched him carefully, waiting to see if awareness and knowledge crept into those expressive eyes, but they remained confused. "Where am I? Hospital?"
"No. There was nothing they could do for you once you were out of your coma. You've been in a vegetative state for nearly three months and I brought you here to my home to care for you."
"We can go into that a little bit later. I'm glad you're awake, kid. You get some rest. The doctor will be here soon to make sure you're recovering and check on this memory loss." Slade looked down at his daughter and beckoned her to his side by calling her name. Together they left the room but he did see her give one lingering look back at Robin.
"What are you doing here?"
The cold, emotionless question didn't surprise Dick at all--he'd become too accustomed to Bruce's new attitude in the last three months--but it still hurt, and, in typical fashion, he lashed out. "That's all Tim was to you? A good soldier?" He waved a hand in the direction of the case, his mouth twisted in anger. "I suppose I'll be lucky to get even that."
Bruce--no, Batman, because he never seemed to remove the damn cowl anymore, and Dick wondered, not for the first time, if Stephanie even knew his identity--remained expressionless, though he did cross his arms over his chest as a sign of impatience.
"I'll ask again, what are you doing here?"
"Oddly enough, I thought this was my home."
Batman shrugged. "It is. You've been avoiding it."
"I've been busy trying to find Tim."
"Robin is dead."
That it was said it in such a simple, uncaring fashion infuriated the younger man. "Bullshit!" The anger that stewed inside Dick every waking moment erupted and he balled his hands into fists. He had to force himself not to lash out physically at his mentor, his father. "There's no proof he's dead and I refuse to believe it."
"There's no proof he's alive either. Three months have passed with no sightings. The evidence trail is cold. If Wilson took him, we can't find him." Batman's lips thinned. "You need to stop searching and get back to work."
"This is my work."
"Not any longer. The mission is suffering. I sent you to Bludhaven and you chose to stay there to make a difference. Get back to it."
"Fuck you, Bruce. I won't become a cold-hearted bastard like you. I'll find my brother without you."
If possible, those lips thinned even more, though the older man's face--what little could be seen--remained impassive. His voice, though, went cold as ice. "Without Oracle, as well. I won't allow you to monopolize her time any longer. The resources here are off limits, too."
Dick couldn't believe Bruce was saying these things. Shock nearly won out over fury, but instead, he went ice cold as well. "Fine. Push me away. You might as well put up another fucking memorial, that way you can pretend I'm dead, too." For a moment, as Bruce's hand tightened and raised, Dick thought he'd broken through the frozen surface and was willing to take a blow if it would just make his father feel something.
But, then Batman turned away with another shrug and Dick watched him go, his frustration growing more deep and bitter by the moment.
After the nurse informed him that the doctor would arrive in fifteen minutes, Slade sent her back in to sit with Drake, while he took Rose up to his study.
"Did you expect this, daddy?" Rose asked with a hint of excitement in her voice as she perched on his desk and he sat behind it in an imposing leather chair.
"It was a possibility. It may only be temporary."
"But, if it's not, he'll be so much easier to train, right?"
Slade smiled at his daughter's intelligence and nodded. "With no memory of the Bats' training, he won't remember their scruples either. There's a possibility his muscles will remember, though, and that would be useful."
A wistful look crossed Rose's face. "Can I train with him?" When Slade hesitated over his answer, she quickly added, "I know I failed you, daddy, but I swear I'll try harder. You won't be disappointed in me again."
An ache formed around his heart and he reached out to take one of her fidgeting hands. "Rose, you didn't fail me and you don't disappoint me. I was wrong to say what I did. I was wrong to try to force you to kill your own brother."
"But, Joey was bad. He hurt you."
Shaking his head at her child-like simplicity on the subject, he squeezed her hand. "His twisted soul twisted my mind and I turned around and did the same thing to you. I'll never forgive myself."
Rose frowned. "Daddy, I don't blame you for anything."
"I blame myself, Rose." She clearly didn't understand, so he changed the subject. "Your meta-gene was triggered by the serum and there's no taking that back. You need to be trained in your abilities. Until you get used to them, your reaction times during normal situations can throw you off just as easily as they can in battle situations. You can train, Rose, but you're not going back out there."
"Because you have him, Robin. He'll be your partner."
"I need you as my daughter more than any partner."
A small smile replaced the frown and her one beautiful eye lit up. "Really?"
Slade tried to smile as well but it hurt to look at her and see his handiwork literally carved on her face. "Really, kitten. The world doesn't need more mercenaries, or more heroes for that matter, but some day I'd like a grandkid or two."
Rose blushed and giggled in protest. "Daddy!"
Stripping off her Robin suit, Stephanie replaced it with a sports bra and shorts and pulled her hair into a ponytail. Her mask remained on because she knew Batman didn't like seeing her eyes.
It was okay. She didn't like seeing them either. They were constantly bloodshot from lack of sleep and too much crying, and reminded her all too clearly of what she had lost.
Not that everything didn't remind her of Tim.
Wrapping her wrists with tape, she headed to the gym for some quality time with the punching bag before weight training. She needed more upper-body strength. She needed more all-over strength.
There was no sign of Nightwing and his bike was gone. She'd forgotten to ask why he'd stopped by--whatever it had been about must not have taken too long. Batman was ensconced behind one of his computer monitors and he ignored her as she passed him. If he wasn't actively training her, he tended to ignore her until he needed her for patrol or a mission.
Stephanie knew she wasn't as smart as Tim had been, but she had ideas and thoughts and theories and wondered if Batman would ever ask her to help him with the detective work instead of just telling her where to go and what to do.
At first, when Batman had told her--not asked her--that she was the new Robin, while she'd been devastated by Tim's loss, a part of her had been thrilled. She'd fought so hard to be included in the Bat Clan. Her brief induction months earlier hadn't lasted long enough, and she was determined not to fail again. She knew Nightwing had been fired as Robin, that the second Robin had died from his own recklessness, that Tim was...missing, but she was not going to let any of that happen to her.
She'd be the best Robin possible, obedient and loyal, and if that made her sound like a dog, she'd live with it.
This was what she had to do.
Maybe for Tim, maybe even for Batman, but mostly for herself.
If she lost this, she might just curl up into a ball and cry herself to death.
So, if Batman used her only as a soldier and never listened to her, never let her really help solve any of the cases, she'd live with that, too.
Balling her right hand into a fist, she aimed it squarely at the heavy bag, felt the punch travel up her arm and sent the other fist after the first.
He was tired but he tried to answer the doctor's questions. Yes, he knew the name of the president, the year, who had won the Super Bowl. He knew London was the capital of Great Britain, that Superman was the greatest hero in the world, that ten times nine equaled ninety. He even knew that tomatoes were a fruit.
He just didn't know anything about himself.
It just didn't sound right in his head--which was developing a low throb of pain as he grew more and more tired.
The doctor explained some things about head trauma that actually made sense, and he wondered why, because the doctor had also told him he was sixteen and why would a sixteen year old know anything about loss of gray matter, damage to the limbic system, reduced dopamine levels, and other things about the frontal lobe of the brain?
"So...I was hit in the head?" he finally interrupted the doctor.
How did he instinctively know that?
"I want you to get some rest. Tomorrow will be soon enough to run some tests. The memory loss may very well be temporary. If you're feeling stronger tomorrow we'll see about starting you on some real food, as well."
He wanted to ask the doctor why he'd lied, but something kept him from doing so. A natural suspicion and awareness or some dim memory of how to deal with lying?
But, he was very tired and his muscles were beginning to ache from simply being awake--a good sign, the doctor had claimed, not lying in that instant. He had run basic motor skills tests and Tim was relieved to find that, while weak, his limbs all moved.
As his eyes drifted shut and he began to sink into dark warmth, he did wonder what he looked like.
At least he had both eyes, which was one more than half the people he currently knew in the world.
The phone call didn't surprise him--he'd been putting out feelers for the last few weeks, ever since he'd first heard the rumbling. Slade had listened, separating the wheat from the chaff to find the few kernels of truth, and then had let his interest be known.
He wouldn't be one of the masses, but he would be one of the leaders. It was the only way to be there at the end game.
"I heard you wanted to speak to me, Mr. Wilson. Or should I call you Deathstroke?"
"You can call me whatever you want, Luthor, as long as you let me in."
Tim dreamed and had for the last three months. Only this time he woke up, and when he did, an image lingered.
Blinking into the dark room, he let the image dissolve and slipped away again, hoping to dream this time of the pretty girl.
Slade stood in the shadows watching Rose and Tim spar with bo staffs. He'd been right--the kid's body and muscles remembered even though his mind was still muddled--and the boy was supremely well trained.
Not much of a surprise, but Slade knew that more than training was needed to turn a teenager into a warrior. He'd need to see Tim in battle before he could gauge if he'd really be of use. At least, while his memory seemed lost, his mind hadn't suffered. He was smart-- brilliant even--and a very quick learner.
As he watched Rose feint and flip over Tim's back, heard the kid laugh and meet her staff with his, Slade's own memories went back a month, to the day of Tim's awakening, and the lies he'd built around them all.
So far, they were holding, and the kid seemed to believe them. Slade knew that every time he picked up a weapon and knew how to use it, every time he blocked an attack from instinct, every time he knew something on a subject no normal sixteen year old kid would know, he believed the lies to be truth.
In weaving the tales, Slade had sprinkled in just enough veracity to make it all fit, and simply replacing Batman with himself added to the story without embellishing it.
Tim still questioned, but Slade believed that to be a good thing--it kept them all, including Rose, on their toes.
A masculine grunt drew his attention back to the sparring partners and he found Rose pinning Tim to the mat, her knees on his arms, the tip of her staff at his throat. She was grinning, though, and so was he, and the heat between them was palpable.
"Enough for today, kitten," Slade said lightly, noting the wariness in all three eyes turned towards him. He forced himself not to smile--teenagers thought only they knew the big mysteries of life and that people his age had no clue about attraction and desire--and beckoned them both to their feet. They were reluctant to do that, too. "Tim, get cleaned up and join me in my study. It's time to plan your first assignment." Seeing the boy's eyes light up with anticipation Slade knew he'd timed this well.
Having seen Tim exit, Rose slipped into her father's study and found him seated at his desk, fingering his beard, a thoughtful look on his face. She closed the door behind her.
"Is he ready, daddy?"
"I believe so. He's eager enough, yet...not eager. The boy is very controlled."
"That's what all the reports on him say." She perched on the corner of his desk and he lifted her bare feet onto his knee. "Is that a problem?"
Slade shook his head. "It's just not what I'm used to with Robins."
"But, he's not Robin anymore. He's..." Rose frowned slightly, then continued hesitantly, "Are you still going to call him Ravager?"
He saw her take his agreement as a rebuke and softly sighed before patting her calf. "Rose, you're doing very well in your training. You're compensating for the loss of your eye at a pace on par with my own, but the name Ravager has connotations I don't want associated with you. If I let you out there again, and nothing you've done has led me to believe you won't be joining my fight, I want you to pick a name more fitting. Less masculine."
A small smile flitted over her face and she teased, "Chauvinist."
Slade chuckled. "I prefer old-fashioned."
"So, where are you taking him and when?"
"Tomorrow night to Philadelphia, and it's surveillance only. I want to see him move, see if he can still jump off a building without falling. Simulations in the gym can only prepare him so much. So far, his muscle memory has been nearly one hundred percent, but testing him in the field is necessary."
"Do you think he'll kill for you, daddy? I mean, I know he's been training on guns and he's really good, and that has to be new to him, but...will he kill?"
"I don't know. I'm not going to push the issue and I don't need that from him, yet. The kid has too many other uses." Rose's eye shuttered and Slade forced down another sigh. "I pushed you too hard and too fast, kitten. It was wrong of me. You don't need to kill to fight at my side. Despite my reputation, it's not all I do."
"I know, but...I have...killed. Why don't I feel bad about that?"
Slade had no answer for her, and he knew a part of him really wished she did feel remorse, and another part of him cursed his son for poisoning her and driving her insane, and the largest part of him blamed himself for being a killer in the first place. It was too late for him, but maybe it wasn't too late for Rose.
Another reason to make Tim Drake and not his daughter his partner. He liked the kid, but he wasn't his son. He wasn't even Nightwing.
He was a tool and a weapon.
His mind going over all the details on the upcoming mission, Tim realized he was eager to get out of the house and put all he'd learned to practical use. It was a surveillance mission and chances were there'd be no fighting, but it was a start.
And a niggling part of his brain seemed glad there was no chance of anyone dying.
Slade had told him that he'd never killed anyone, but Tim wasn't stupid, and he knew what a mercenary did. Killing was inevitable, and he'd trained hard on weapons--guns being the only ones that didn't seem a natural fit--yet he didn't like to think about it. He didn't know if he'd be able to pull the trigger.
From all he'd read, a person never really knew what they were capable of until they tried something. His body had remembered how to throw a shuriken, how to do a triple somersault in mid-air, how to break a collar bone with one blow, but until he'd done those things--the last on a dummy--his mind hadn't been certain. It was the same with applying all the weird knowledge in his head--the latest he'd explored had been a chemical agent to counter a rare poison used by one of Slade's enemies, which he needed to be able to mix on the run, and, which, apparently he could.
Everything would be easier if his memories returned, but Tim knew he was doing well. Obviously well, if Slade was taking him out already. Only a month had passed since he'd awakened, and during that first week Slade had slowly filled in some of the gaps in his life.
Tim lay in the semi-dark room his mind working a mile a minute while his body threatened to drag him into sleep.
Slade was his guardian, a mercenary who'd been training him to follow in his footsteps, as a partner. He--Tim--had been shot in the head during a mission. He'd been lucky to survive. While Slade and Rose were meta-humans, Tim wasn't--just exceptionally skilled, having trained from age thirteen.
He was sixteen now, and Tim hadn't questioned the wisdom of putting a kid into a costume and into battle.
Why hadn't he questioned that?
Everything Slade said seemed to make sense. Tim had known the doctor was lying about an accident, and his one glimpse of the scar on the side of his head had told him it was the track of a bullet--and how else could have known what such a thing looked like if he wasn't training to be a mercenary?
And, Tim couldn't think of a good reason for Slade to lie to him. Most of what he said sounded logical, and, after lying in bed for nearly a week, spending most of his time awake thinking, the one thing Tim could trust was his mind.
Which only made sense to him, considering he still had no memories.
He was creating new ones, though, especially of Rose--Slade's daughter--and just thinking of her made him flush with pleasure. She was beautiful and exotic, and could talk about battle tactics and weapons at the same time as pop music and fashion.
That, too, seemed right, as if talking to girls about both nerve strikes and movies, miniaturized gas bombs and skateboarding, was something he did all the time.
Tomorrow he finally would be allowed out of bed for more than a trip to the bathroom and he knew Slade was wondering if his physical training had stuck whereas his memories of everything else were gone. The doctors were cautiously optimistic about him regaining those memories, but Tim wasn't stupid, and he seemed to have a lot of practical knowledge about the brain and what damage could do it. Chances were his memory loss was permanent.
Which left him with no choice but to trust that Slade was telling him the truth. Oddly enough when he'd broached the subject with the man, Slade had actually smiled and told him that if he hadn't been suspicious, he'd have been surprised. Apparently being suspicious came naturally to Tim.
Another quality a mercenary would probably have.
Everything seemed to fit.
Sighing, Tim reached over and turned off the bedside lamp. Closing his eyes, he began to meditate to quiet his active mind, and hoped tonight he wouldn't dream of bats.
They were really beginning to freak him out.
Strapping the navy and orange gauntlets around his wrists, Tim smiled at his reflection, feeling the weirdness of breathable cloth move against his hidden lips. Unlike Slade's his hood was completely navy with two opaque eye holes, but otherwise their outfits were similar. Turning to his mentor, he accepted the gunbelt and nine millimeter. He checked the cartridge and the chamber, and made sure the safety was on, before strapping the belt around his waist and holstering the gun. It was heavy on his hip, but it also felt right.
As did his new moniker.
Tim--no, Ravager--nodded at Slade. "Ready."
Leaning heavily on the crutches, Dick dropped his uniform in front of Tim's case, feeling nothing. No loss, no relief, no sorrow.
He only felt dead inside.
Since Tim's disappearance--and, actually, everything had started to go wrong a few months before that, with Donna's death--his life had spiraled out of control. It really shouldn't have come as a surprise to him that he'd sunk so low as to step aside while Cat put a bullet in Blockbuster's head.
The nights following that murder were still hazy and he still didn't know what had stopped him from signing the marriage license in Atlantic City. He'd put on the suit again, returned to Gotham to face Batman, but then...
He couldn't. He couldn't tell the man he no longer believed in that he'd failed so horribly. Batman had become colder and harder than Dick had ever believed possible. There was no forgiveness in him. He'd turn Dick in himself.
So, fear had stopped him from telling of his crime, had led him to fight alongside his mentor once more as Gotham had, in the oppressive heat of summer, descended into yet another gang war. And, somehow, Batman had managed to alienate the new police commissioner in ways he never had Jim Gordon, so much that a scared rookie had taken the 'apprehend all masked vigilantes on sight' order to mean shoot them, and Dick had ended up with a bullet in his thigh.
He knew he was lucky to be alive--the bullet had nicked the femoral artery and only the fact that Batman had found him in minutes had saved him--but Dick really didn't care. As he'd lain in his old bedroom in the manor--old, yet new since the quake--all he could think about were his failures--his circus burning, his apartment building exploding, the deaths of friends and families all his fault because Blockbuster had put two and two together with the bullet wound in his arm and connected Officer Dick Grayson to Nightwing.
Another failure--allowing any hint of the secret out.
Dick knew how close his enemies had come to knowing it all. If Blockbuster had cared to look past him, he would have found Batman.
Something else he'd never be forgiven for.
So, as he'd lain there, Alfred refusing to let him get up, Dick had come to a decision. He had to turn both he and Catalina into the police. He had to face the consequences. Nightwing couldn't face Batman, but Dick Grayson could go to jail and atone for both their crimes.
So, he'd done it--still wounded and sore but determination making him fight harder than he had in months--he'd captured Tarantula and turned them over.
And Amy had refused to let him take the blame.
Which had led him here, back to the cave where he'd been fired before, finally to resign.
Nightwing was dead, or might as well be. He could never put on the suit again, fly as one of Batman's lieutenants under his auspices. The truth about his role in Blockbuster's murder would get out sooner or later and now he had the added sin of hiding that truth from the man who'd raised him. Nightwing could never be forgiven. Bruce Wayne's son...he didn't seem to exist anymore.
But, maybe Dick Grayson could still do something good in the world.
As he turned to leave the cave, he fingered the business card he'd received in jail, and knew he was about to start down an even murkier path than he'd been treading. Dick had a noble goal in his head, but even he could admit that getting to it might never happen.
And he might never escape the person he'd become.
And that path, the one on which he'd stepped aside for a bullet, might lead him some place even darker.
Unfortunately, he couldn't see any other options.
At that moment he really missed Tim. Talking to his little brother always seemed to make things better.
Crouched atop a forty story building in lower Manhattan, Tim raised the binoculars to his eyes and peered intently across the street to the target's window. He was on his first solo mission--intelligence gathering on a gun runner suspected of becoming a stoolie for the Feds. Tim was to track his movements, determine the size of his arsenal and protection, and report to Slade who would take him out.
Lowering the glasses, Tim took a sip from his water bottle and thought over the last few weeks. He'd been on several missions with Slade, helped take down a kidnapper, a drug runner who'd screwed over the Philly mob, and stood guard as his mentor had terminated three corrupt politicians on foreign soil. So far he hadn't been asked to kill. He'd been in several fights, but never even shot his gun. Slade didn't believe in wasting ammunition--if it wasn't a contract and there were other options than a kill shot, use of non-lethal force was preferable.
Tim was very good at non-lethal force, but he was still concerned about actually having to kill.
Oddly enough it hadn't bothered him to watch Slade put a bullet in someone's brain, and...a part of him felt he should be bothered.
Shrugging at the turn of his thoughts, he returned to surveillance and saw his target pass in front of the window and pull open the curtains.
Sitting at his desk, Slade glanced over reports on gang activity in cities in the tri-state area. Since Black Mask had consolidated power in Gotham, everyone was tense. Chances were good the sociopath would attempt to spread his influence, but would he go north or south?
South would logically put him in Bludhaven.
Slade picked up a print-out on stirrings in that city. Blockbuster's death had left a power vacuum and within twenty four hours any number of mobsters had begun fighting over his position, which wasn't surprising for a city nearly as corrupt as legendary Gomorrah. As he fingered the paper, he briefly wondered where Bludhaven's champion had gone. The last reported sighting of Nightwing had been during the gang war in Gotham and that had been a month before. His sources had placed Grayson at the Bludhaven police headquarters a week later, on crutches, and there were rumors about an undercover operation involving Blockbuster and even an arrest of the kid, but the BPD was covering everything up with more efficiency than he'd ever given them credit for.
Since that night there'd been no sign of Nightwing or Grayson in the 'Haven, and the absence of the former had also encouraged the local mobsters to become more active.
Frowning, Slade forced his thoughts from the first Robin and onto the last.
The kid was impressive--brilliant and logical and rarely impulsive. As he'd trained with him, he'd seen what Shiva had seen. There was natural talent there, but, more, there was discipline.
Slade had enjoyed turning that discipline to his cause, and Tim had yet to fail him on any missions, or even falter. Even when he'd stood by as Slade had executed a general known for torture of children, Tim hadn't flinched.
Still, there was no need yet to have the boy kill anyone. He was too good at disabling them with a few blows of his bo staff or toss of a knife.
He'd sent Tim on his first solo mission earlier that night and his fingers itched to pick up the communicator and check in with him, but he knew he needed to step back and see what the kid would do on his own.
He had to trust him.
Surprising himself, Slade found that he did.
Three in the morning and three in the afternoon were one and the same in the cave eternally lit by halogen lights and filled with the rustle of leathery wings. Batman sat at one of the computer stations, scrolling slowly through a report from Oracle.
An image appeared on the screen--fuzzy but clear enough to show two men in distinctive colors. He knew the costume on the one, knew that build, that arrogant stance.
But, the other...
It wasn't the girl--definitely male--but smaller, lithe.
Gun on his hip, knife on his thigh, sword on his back.
Something clenched in his chest and he found himself swallowing hard against a bitterness he'd been denying for months. Punching a button, he signaled Oracle. When she appeared on the screen several minutes later, obviously awakened from sleep, he barked, "Find me Nightwing."
Barbara's eyes widened, the need for sleep instantly vanishing, as she gaped at the hard, tight lips and the flare of nostrils beneath the cowl--the only indication that Bruce was still there somewhere. "B...I've tried. He's dropped totally off the radar. It's been three weeks. No one has seen him." An image flashed onto the screen, splitting it with Batman's face, an image she had sent him earlier, but, too worried about too many other things, hadn't given much thought on. Now she looked closely at it and sudden fear flooded her body, making her shoulders jerk and her teeth clench. "You can't think..."
"You know as well as I that Deathstroke would take him in."
"But, he wouldn't go," Barbara whispered painfully.
Barbara's screen went dark and, with shaking fingers, she started to boot all her systems. When she'd found that image earlier that night--the time stamp showing it had been taken over a week before in Miami--she'd jumped to the conclusion it was just an operative, refusing to even think about the possibility of the other man in blue and orange being Dick.
She still didn't want to.
Dick couldn't have turned.
The sun was rising when Tim returned to the Long Island mansion. Yawning, he headed for Slade's office to print out a hard copy of his report. He left it in the center of the desk, then went on to his bedroom.
He was dead-tired but also smelling of kevlar and smog, so, after shrugging out of his costume and storing his weapons, he took a quick shower, nearly dozing off beneath the spray. It was amazing how more tired he was from doing surveillance than he got after a mission that involved fighting. One thing he'd discovered over the last few months was that he liked being active.
Rinsing off the soap and shampoo, he turned off the water and climbed out of the shower, eyes drooping to half-mast. One towel around his waist, another on his head, Tim shuffled back into the bedroom.
And came instantly awake.
She was naked. Naked and sprawled across his bed.
Tim's brain stuttered and nearly shut down as another part of his anatomy rose to attention.
Sitting up, Rose swung her legs over the side of the bed and smiled at him. "Is this really a surprise, Tim?"
Slowly he shook his head, dumping the towel from it. He ignored it, ignored everything but her and his body's reaction. "Have we...have we ever done this, Rose?" he stammered, his feet automatically moving him towards the bed.
"No, but I wanted to." Her voice was throaty, slightly amused, and yet he could hear a tremor in it.
"Are you sure?"
"God, yes." As she spoke, she rose to her feet and reached for his hand. Their fingers entwined and he lowered his head at the same time she lifted hers, and they kissed.
A flick of a switch turned off the monitor for the camera in Tim's room, and Slade sat back in his chair, fingering his beard, a frown on his face.
It was the frown of a father realizing his child was grown.
A part of him was proud of Rose for taking this step to bind Drake tighter to them, but the father in him wasn't happy at all at the evidence that his teenage daughter was sexually active.
He couldn't do anything about it, though. To do so, would reveal the monitoring system, a necessity in case the kid's memories returned.
Still, he could put him through a hard work-out in the morning, beat him down a few times on the mats.
That would make him feel better.
Over breakfast Dick listened intently to Tommy lay out the upcoming job, trying not to get distracted by the near constant run of thoughts on how he'd gotten to this place. For the last three weeks he'd been living under a mobster's roof, eating his food, healing his leg, learning the ins and outs of the Family he'd entered.
He'd kept up his training as best he could, learning to use the crutches as weapons, staying in shape. His refusal to touch guns had made Tommy amused, but once he'd shown he didn't need them, the mobster hadn't pressed the point.
Still, Dick had to wonder why he was even bothering to avoid guns. In his mind there was no difference between pulling the trigger yourself and having someone else do it for you. The latter had ruined his life as easily as the former would have.
Tonight he'd finally step fully into this new world. His plans to manipulate it for his own ends were still half-formed in his mind--planning had never been his forte--and he wasn't completely convinced he wasn't simply nuts--but he was itching to get on with it. Get back in the game, even if the game meant becoming a mob enforcer.
Hitting was hitting, and he'd missed it. A hanging bag just didn't satisfy his need for violence.
And, he'd missed flying.
Unfortunately that wasn't something he'd be doing any time soon. His bad leg kept him grounded.
His conscience did the same.
Flying had been Robin and Nightwing.
Dick Grayson needed something new.
He just hoped he wasn't making an even bigger mistake in looking for something new in this direction.
After opening the blinds to let the morning light into the room, Tim slipped back into bed and smiled as Rose curled against him, yawning. They hadn't slept yet, hadn't really talked, both still processing what had happened. Rose's hand lay over his heart, her head was pillowed next to his, their feet touched. Tim snuggled closer to her, feeling the ache of muscles unused to this particular kind of activity, and smiled. It felt good, really good.
More...it felt right.
The sun fell across their nude bodies, warming them, making them drowsy, and Tim let his eyes close, breathing in the scent of her hair--something flowery--and her skin--sweaty yet sweet--and drifted to sleep.
After several minutes, judging that he was really asleep, Rose opened her eye and pushed up on one elbow to look down at him.
A shiver of pleasure traveled through her relaxed and tender body, and she smiled and brushed her fingers over his heart.
"You're mine now, Tim," Rose whispered, "and I'm not ever letting you go."
As she settled back down to sleep, she hoped her daddy would be proud of her.
to be continued
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