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How to Train Your Talon

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Slade gets the call one cold winter morning, when he’s between jobs. He recognizes the number immediately because it belongs to a former client. A satisfied client. 

“Mr. Wayne,” he says when he picks up. “What can I do for you?”

“I have a job for you,” says Wayne. 

“What kind?”

“Not your usual wheelhouse, I’m afraid, but potentially very lucrative, if the conditions are right.”

Not your usual wheelhouse is code for not related to interrogation or assassination, which is what Wayne hired him to do the last time they spoke. But it’s the second half of that sentence that gives him pause. If the conditions are right? 

“Care to clarify?” he says as he flicks on the coffee maker. 

“Come by the manor tomorrow afternoon, at five. It’s easier to show you. We can hash out the details then.”

Slade sets his teeth in irritation. The arrogance of billionaires will never cease to amaze him. Wayne doesn’t keep him on retainer, but he likes to act as though he did. The idea that Slade would drop everything just to make the trip to Gotham with only one day’s notice is the height of presumptuousness. If Wayne weren’t a past client, a repeat client, he would have laughed him right off the phone. 

Fortunately, Slade is used to humouring men of his ilk, and Wayne’s bank account is just — just — big enough for him to overlook his outsized ego. 

“Tomorrow, then,” he says. 

 

 

~~

 

 

At precisely five the next afternoon, he presents himself at the front door of Wayne Manor. Two armed heavies pat him down and confiscate his swords before ushering him into the ballroom. 

Slade clocks eight bodyguards stationed around the inside perimeter, along with two maids organizing a buffet in the back, before turning his attention to his client. 

Wayne is leaning languidly against the back of a sofa. There’s already a glass of brandy in his hand. Slade can never tell if the brandy is a prop, or if he actually drinks it, but it seems to go wherever Wayne goes after five o’clock. 

“Slade! Thought I recognized the heavy tread of your step. How’s the murder-for-hire business these days?” He’s smiling like they’re golfing buddies who happened to bump into each other on the green. 

For reasons Slade has never understood, Wayne maintains the same stupid charade with him each time they meet in person. The man has easily a hundred masks at his disposal — Inveterate Playboy, Earnest Philanthropist, Ruthless Mob Boss, etc. — yet the one that Slade always gets is Smarmy Businessman. 

It’s the kind of face that belongs on a polo-playing, Porsche-driving, poker-sharking asshole who gets blitzed at the Country Club on Fridays. Slade is so used to it by now that it doesn’t even set him on edge anymore. He just nods in greeting as he crosses the room, hands tucked into his trouser pockets. 

“Brandy?” Wayne tips his glass in Slade’s direction. 

“No, not today.”

“It’s cocktail hour, Slade. And you’re not on duty, as far as I know.”

Slade looks him up and down. “You look like you need it more than I do, Mr. Wayne.”

Up close, Wayne is broadcasting fatigue. His eyes are bloodshot and his face is lined with bruise-like shadows in a way that is hard to fake. Slade can discern a faint tremor in the hand holding the brandy, and wonders if that’s an act.

“Well. I’ve been busy. You know how it is,” says Wayne. 

“Word on the street is that you seized control of the Neon Dragon Triad last month.”

“Ah, yes. There’s that. You’re very up-to-date with your news.” 

“I try.”

Wayne gives him a considering look. “Are you sure I can’t persuade you to come back and work for me, full-time?” 

Slade smiles back thinly. “Freelancing pays better.”

This is only half a lie. Wayne pays extremely well; Slade just doesn’t like how slippery the man is. 

The first job he ever did for Bruce Wayne was three years ago, when he took a short, six-week contract as his bodyguard. So he knows that Wayne can get tipsy at a precisely linear, mathematical rate — this drunk at seven, and this drunk at eight, like he’d pre-plotted the points on a graph. He can go from smiling social butterfly to cold-blooded mob boss in the time it takes to walk down a flight of stairs. Once, he flayed a man open in his basement and then, before the blood under his nails was even dry, went upstairs and sat down to afternoon tea with the Police Commissioner without batting an eye. 

But even after six weeks of watching him day and night, Slade still finds it impossible to get a handle on the man. To this day, he has never been able to prove conclusively, to his own satisfaction, which of Wayne’s faces is the real one. 

“The last time you hired me, all you sent me was a seventeen-page brief with a deadline,” he says. “That worked out fine for both of us. What’s changed?” 

“I wanted you to meet someone,” says Wayne. There’s a half-smile on his face as he tips his head back and looks up. 

Above them, the enormous chandelier sways and the shadows in the ballroom tilt. Slade only has a second’s warning before the entire structure comes crashing down on them. He and Wayne both step back at the same time as glass and crystal shatter and explode across the floor. 

The maids curse and duck for cover. The bodyguards are yelling and backing out of the exits. Wayne winces in a resigned sort of way. But Slade’s eye is fixed on the tiny shape perched atop the remains of the chandelier. 

A boy?

No, not a boy. 

He would have sensed a person in the chandelier. But this creature in front of him has all the life signs of an undead zombie. 

For starters, it’s barely giving off any body heat. There’s no rise and fall in its chest to suggest that it’s breathing. Slade can’t even hear a heartbeat, despite the fact that they’re only ten feet apart in a quiet room. And it smells like nothing at all — at least, nothing warm and mammalian. 

Everything about the creature looks viscerally wrong — its skin too pale, its face too full of thready black veins, its eyes too bright and yellow. 

Is it even alive?

The creature looks him over, once, twice, measuring. And then it hisses at him. 

“Robin, be nice. This is Slade Wilson,” says Wayne, sounding remarkably unperturbed. “He’s the man I told you about, remember?” 

Slade’s fingers twitch for swords that aren’t actually there. “So this is what you’ve been busy with. What am I looking at?”

“He’s, well. He’s special. A rescue, obviously. I picked him up two years ago, but lately he’s been getting…somewhat out of hand.” Wayne sounds mildly put-out, like he’s purchased an expensive race car that turned out to require much more maintenance than he first expected. “I’ve tried everything, really, and look. I freely admit I didn’t know what I was getting into when I took him in.”

“Took him in,” Slade repeats. 

He’s pretty sure monsters like this don’t just roam the Gotham streets, but Wayne’s talking like he found this kid in a cardboard box in a back alley. 

Before Wayne can explain, the not-boy hisses again and launches himself at Slade. 

What follows is one of the strangest fights in his life. The creature is good, but not in a way he can explain. It’s not any kind of martial art or fighting style he can recognize. Everything about him is just shy of too fast, too flexible, too agile, to be human. Glass shards crunch under Slade’s feet as he sidesteps the broken pieces of chandelier scattered over the ground. Annoyingly, the creature’s feet make almost no sound. 

Slade is almost sure he’s fighting some sort of meta, right up until his heavy, sharp-edged ring catches the thing hard across the face and splits open his cheek. Instead of blood, something dark and viscous and sludgy spills out. Carefully, Slade revises his opinion to demonic entity. 

The creature backflips away swiftly, and Slade examines the smear of black goo left behind on his ring. He’s heard enough horror stories out of Gotham to know that this city is a hellhole. But this pale, not-boy thing bleeding shadows at the edges is unlike anything he’s seen before. Disturbingly, the black stuff smells chemical and sugary and combustible, like molasses and kerosene. 

When he looks up, the gash on the creature’s face is already sealing back up. Within seconds, it’s like the cut was never there. Mentally, Slade appends alien to the list of possibilities. 

“Your new pet is interesting,” he says to Wayne without turning his head. “But if you don’t want me to wreck him, you’ll call him off.”

“Oh, he’s not a pet,” says Wayne as he drifts around the sofa and sits down. He crooks two fingers and says, in quite a different voice, “Come here, Robin.”

The creature cants his head all the way to one side at an unnatural angle. Then his shoulders droop and he creeps towards Wayne, giving Slade a wide berth. In one graceful leap, he hurdles right over the back of the sofa. Then he puts his head in Wayne’s lap and stretches out, loose-limbed and languid. 

“Should I kill him?” he chirps. 

Despite himself, Slade feels his interest tick up. He hadn’t expected the thing — the boy — to be intelligent enough to speak. Not a zombie, then. Or a golem made of clay. Where the fuck did Wayne find him? 

“No, we’ve been over this,” says Wayne. “You cannot try to kill everyone who walks through that door.”

“Then why’s he here?” the boy says. He reaches up, grabs Wayne’s hovering hand, and plonks it firmly down on his own head. 

Wayne obligingly combs his fingers through the boy’s dark, floppy hair. “I told you I’d find you another tutor, didn’t I? Now, do you want your knife back?” He produces a blade from his sleeve and dangles it over the boy’s head like it’s a doggie treat. Like it’s incentive. 

Robin nods eagerly. “Can I go for real this time?” His eyes follow the shine of the metal as it sways over his head. 

“Eighty percent. Do you remember eighty?” 

“I know, Master. I know!”

“Use my name, please.”

After a long moment, the boy swallows. “…Y-yes, Bruce.” And then he flinches at his own daring. 

To Slade, he sounds startlingly young. Not just a child, but a small one. He might have the body of a thirteen-year-old, but he sounds closer to eight or nine. 

“I don’t want to see a drop of red. Understand?”

“No red,” Robin agrees.

Wayne drops the knife and the boy snatches it, springs off his lap, tumbles twice, and rolls into a crouch, all in the same motion. He doesn’t seem to notice the razor-sharp glass shards scattered around his feet. 

“Does he actually know how to use that?” Slade asks mildly. 

With the toe of his shoe, he flips a hooked, broken chandelier arm up and into his hand. It’s not a very sturdy piece of metal, but it’ll have to do in a pinch.

“Indulge me, Slade. I’ve been drilling him all month on non-lethal strikes.” Wayne waggles his eyebrows and looks insufferably smug. “You’re about to see the fruits of all my hard work.”

This time, when the boy comes at him, Slade feels a prickle of anticipation. Whatever percentage of his abilities Robin was fighting at before, 80% is a huge leap, and it shows. Even if most of his movements are sloppy and unpolished — suggesting raw instinct rather than carefully-cultivated skill — he still moves like the shadow of a bird in flight. Too fluid, too fleet of foot, too dangerous by half. 

But what captivates him is the boy’s complete lack of fear. Twice, he attempts a maneuver that would never work on someone twice his weight, but the mere fact he has the guts to try is enough to elicit a smirk from Slade. This kid is a marvel. Under different circumstances, he’d be tempted to make the fight last. An opponent like this deserves his undivided attention, and if he had the whole evening, he would pick the boy apart one weakness at a time.

But with Wayne watching their every move, the circumstances are less than ideal. Slade’s not here to give the man a free show. And having to hold back from hitting Robin too hard is an absolute buzzkill. 

The point of the knife flashes out and Slade feels it whisper across his throat. Reacting instinctively, he knocks the knife flying out of the kid’s hand, catches it in the same motion, and flips it between his fingers. The next chance he gets, he stabs the kid through the thigh, and he isn’t polite about it.

The blade goes all the way through his leg and pins him to the floor, like a moth to a dartboard. Robin makes no sound at all except a sharp intake of breath. 

Slade,” says Wayne in warning, but Slade ignores him. 

“Stay down,” he growls.

Robin’s slitted, cat-like irises pull apart, impossibly wide, like he can’t believe someone did this to him. Slade gets a second of vertigo, like he’s looking into a black hole, before the boy begins thrashing like a fish on a chopping board. 

Keeping one hand on the hilt of the knife, Slade plants one knee on the kid’s other leg and the other hand on the kid’s wrists. “Yield, kid.”

Robin snaps his teeth at him like a rabid dog. 

“Use your words, chum,” Wayne prompts from somewhere behind Slade.

Robin’s jaw moves, once, twice, and then he’s spitting words in a stream. 

“Get off me you monster or I’ll gut you twelve hundred different ways and then I’ll smash your brains into pudding and then I’ll crack your chest open and take your heart for a—”

Wayne’s laughter carries over Robin’s chatter. Slade shoots him an annoyed look, and he holds up both hands. 

“Look, Robin only started talking again four months ago. That was an achievement in and of itself, I can tell you that. This is the most he’s ever said in one go.” 

The boy bucks up and Slade takes a moment to slam him back down. This is starting to infuriate him, but he’s careful to direct his ire at its source. 

“Was this a test for me, or for him?” 

Wayne is still smiling that insufferable smile as he saunters over. “Both, I suppose. Don’t worry, you passed with flying colours. Up until now, Robin’s never had to yield to anyone except me.” 

He kneels down and peels off his gloves. Then he puts his hand over the boy’s forehead, fingers spread wide like he’s palming a basketball, and begins applying pressure with his fingertips. After a few moments, Robin’s mouth snaps shut and he goes still. Eventually the tension in his body bleeds away, and Slade releases him.

Robin’s leg is weeping black sludge when Wayne removes the blade and carries him back to the sofa. Slade counts the seconds while the kid’s skin and flesh knit back together and is only up to four minutes and fifty-two seconds when the wound is perfectly whole again. 

A plate of pastries and a pot of tea have been laid out on the coffee table — the remains of afternoon tea. Wayne seats himself, then produces a handkerchief from his breast pocket and offers it to Slade. 

While Slade dabs at the thin line of blood running down his neck, Wayne feeds Robin an enormous cookie, one dainty bite at at time. 

“I know you like your elaborate games, but I don’t have time for that today,” Slade says. “What’s the job?”

“The job is Robin. You see, I’m finding my efficacy in training him to be — well — slow, and I think he might make more progress with someone else.”

“Tell me first.” Slade leans his hip against the opposite armchair. “What is actually wrong with him?”

“Robin’s got a…bit of a unique problem. He’s been conditioned to kill by some very determined people, and now he’s got a hair-trigger kill switch I can’t turn off.” Wayne moves one shoulder in a microscopic half-shrug, like he’s talking about a puppy that can’t control its bladder. 

Slade looks around the wrecked room. Everyone else has prudently fled. “I see your problem.”

“My staff are terrified, and I can’t blame them. So far, Robin’s put eight of them in the hospital. Four in the ICU. Three in the ground. It’s been a nightmare. My bodyguards are all threatening to quit. Alfred has put his foot down.” Wayne grimaces. “It’s not Robin’s fault, of course, he didn’t ask to be brainwashed. But I can’t take him anywhere like this. It’s…inconvenient, to say the least.”

Slade turns that information over. “Are you telling me he was made like this? By who?”

“A splinter group of fanatics, I guess you can call them. They’re no longer operational, but the damage has been done.”

“So you want me to undo his lethal conditioning.”

Wayne looks him in the eye. “I want you to rehabilitate him. And instill some better habits, if you can.”

“Seems a waste,” says Slade slowly. “Wouldn’t he be more useful to you like this?” He isn’t a mob boss and has no plans to become one, but even he can think of six or seven ways the boy might be uniquely useful off the top of his head. 

Wayne’s lips thin. “Yes, well. As Alfred keeps reminding me, if I’d wanted a mindless killing machine, I could have just bought a velociraptor from Dinosaur Island. But Robin is a child and ought to be treated like one.”

Slade thinks the ‘child’ part is still debatable, but he doesn’t pursue that further. He settles for pointing out the obvious. “If you want someone to teach him how not to kill, I’m really not the best choice.”  

“See, that’s where you’re wrong.” 

Robin finishes the cookie and yawns. Then he twines his arms around Wayne’s neck, rubs his cheek against the fabric of his suit like a very large, very overgrown cat, and promptly falls asleep. 

The whole tableau strikes Slade as excessively cuddly. Wayne might insist that Robin isn’t a pet, but his behaviour is so very pet-like it’s hard to believe he isn’t one. Teenage boys aren’t usually this pliant and tactile. Maybe this was part of his conditioning. 

Or maybe this is something else. 

Briefly, he thinks back to the job he did a couple months ago for a European drug lord who happened to have a taste in young boys. Slade specifically remembers the glazed, hooded eyes on the man’s underfed catamite, whose behaviour had been clingy and possessive and almost…exactly like this. 

Is Wayne as susceptible to the same things that every billionaire crime lord the world over is susceptible to?

Slade considers the idea, then discards it. If Wayne has branched out into pederasty, he would never flaunt it like this. The man’s far too paranoid to reveal a weakness that Slade can later exploit.

“In case you’ve forgotten, I’m an executioner,” Slade reminds him. “All my techniques are lethal.”

“I’m aware of your strengths. But I also know you were a behavioural specialist when you worked for the military. I think you have a good chance of reprogramming Robin’s tendencies.” 

Slade narrows his eye. He doesn’t bother asking how Wayne got ahold of his sealed military records, and Wayne doesn’t bother explaining. 

“Those methods aren’t designed for feral children.”

“All I want is someone who can overpower Robin without really hurting him, and someone whom Robin can’t murder by accident. Those are the only two requirements, and you fit the bill, Slade.” 

“Why outsource it at all? You seem to be controlling him just fine.” Slade jerks his chin at Robin’s docile, sleeping form. Wayne must have already overrode some of the boy’s conditioning with his own, or he wouldn’t acting like this. 

“I’ve done my best, but I don’t think I’ve gotten a full night’s sleep in the last two years.” Wayne makes a tired, helpless gesture. “Robin still needs — oh, I don’t know. Socialization? Speech therapy? A full-time teacher? Someone who isn’t me, for starters. But there’s maybe five people in the world I trust him to be alone in a room with, and I just — I don’t have the bandwidth to do this 24/7. Not alone. Not anymore.”

“So you came to me.” 

“Well, not initially. But seeing as how Robin killed the first three tutors I hired and maimed the fourth, I’m literally out of options.” Wayne flicks a beleaguered look at the ceiling. “Help me, Slade. You’re my only hope.” 

Slade knows this is meant to be an ego-stroke for him. He never could resist a challenge. And he likes succeeding where other men have failed.  Wayne is dangling this in front of him on purpose, but Slade can feel the lure hooking into him anyway. 

“I’m surprised you’d willingly put him into my hands,” he says slowly. “Knowing what you know about me.”

While he has never divulged his past, he has to assume Wayne — nosy bastard that he is — knows not only why his ex-wife left him, but also why she shot out his eye. 

But Wayne just reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a chequebook. “I trust you’ll respect this terms of my contract, Slade, because you’re a professional. And I’m prepared to pay you two mil up front.”

That’s more money than Slade expected. “Exactly how long is the job?”

“A year.”

Slade pauses. Blinks twice. When it appears he hasn’t suffered an auditory hallucination, he says, “You expect me to play nursemaid for a year?”

Wayne waves his protestations aside. “Two mil now, two mil when the year is up. Plus expenses, of course.” 

Slade bites back the first five replies that come to mind. Spoiled billionaires aside, he didn’t get this far in his career by alienating his clients. He’s willing to consider babysitting the kid for a few weeks, maybe even a couple of months, but an entire year is out of the question. He doesn’t even like kids, for fuck’s sakes. He can barely tolerate his own, and they’re his flesh and blood. Besides, Robin barely qualifies as a kid. It would be like bringing home an angry crocodile.

“I don’t think I can make myself any clearer, Mr. Wayne,” he begins carefully. 

“You’ve never said no to my money before, Slade. Are you going to start now? Name your price.”

And that’s — well. That’s different. Slade considers. 

“I want double.”

He expects Wayne, in Smarmy Businessman mode, to bargain him down, but the man doesn’t even pretend to negotiate. He just takes out a pen and begins to write. 

The idea of taking Robin home with him, which seemed entirely hypothetical only moments earlier, solidifies with a speed that surprises him. In his mind, he’s already rearranging his schedule for the next year, just to see what it would look like if he actually went through with this insanity. 

What could he do with the boy in a year? 

Robin intrigues him, that much he can admit. There’s just something enticing about that particular combination of fearless audacity and raw, unfiltered potential. Plus, the boy’s still young enough to be wet clay in Slade’s hands. With free reign over his training for a year, Slade can shape him into anything he wants. The prospect is more compelling than he wants to admit.

“I can’t guarantee any results,” he says. It’s time to start managing expectations. “A year with me might not make much of a difference.”

“It will.”

“Behavioural conditioning isn’t witchcraft. It doesn’t fix everything.”

Wayne holds out the cheque, but at the last moment, he twitches the piece of paper out of Slade’s reach. 

“Caveat,” he says. His gaze sharpens, and between one blink and the next, Smarmy Businessman disappears and Slade finds himself looking at the Ruthless Mobster. “Robin can be very…physically affectionate, once you gain his trust. You may have noticed that. You may let him touch you, if you so choose. However, if you touch him anywhere untoward, I will be extremely displeased.

Slade can hear the British creeping into his voice on the last word — evidence of Alfred’s influence. And Slade’s been around the mafia long enough to know what displeased means in their vernacular. Fucked without a hope and God save you from my wrath, is the implication. 

Slade gives him a practiced smile. As a rule, he actually prefers Wayne’s mob boss persona to all the others; this is the sort of man he’s used to dealing with. 

“As you’ve said, I’m a professional. I don’t jeopardize my paychecks.”

“For your sake, that better be true.”

Slade’s fingers close around the cheque, and this time, Wayne lets him take it. 

At that moment, Robin stirs awake from his nap. “Master? What’s happening?”

“You’re going to go live with your new teacher for a year. Isn’t that exciting? Slade’s going to teach you all sorts of things.”

Robin is watching Slade suspiciously, his eyes twin yellow slits. “Why am I going anywhere? I like it here.”

Wayne lets the boy sit up so that they’re facing each other. In a voice like he’s talking to skittish horse, he says, “Remember the story I’ve been reading you? The one where the prince goes on a quest for a year and a day?”

“The one who was ban…bani…sent away, for being bad?”

“Banished,” Wayne corrects, holding the boy’s gaze. “But it was important that he go on the quest, so he can get some life experience.”

Robin’s expression doesn’t change, but his lower lip juts out slightly. “Was I bad?”

“I did say ‘no red’.” Wayne holds up the bloody handkerchief that Slade handed back to him and shakes it for emphasis. “So what is this, hm?”

Robin’s eyes slide away guiltily. “Was ‘n accident.” 

“We’ve talked about this before. Remember?”

“No…” 

“Last week you agreed —”

Robin is starting to vibrate in his seat. “I won’t go, I won’t. He’s just a potential target anyway, I’ll end up killing him too.”

Wayne sighs. “Chum, you promised me. And you can’t kill him in any case. For one, I hardly think he’ll let you.”

Something in the boy seizes up and his pupils shrink to slits. “Fine. Then I’ll kill you first.”

Slade is half a second too slow — some half-remembered instinct to protect the client from his time as Wayne’s bodyguard making his arm snap out toward the boy’s collar. But before he actually makes contact, Robin has exploded out of his seat. His knife rips through Wayne’s forearm. Blood splashes onto the sofa. 

Faster than Slade expected, Wayne’s other arm snaps up and grabs Robin’s wrist. It’s a practiced motion, like he’s done this too many times to count. This turns into a brief but intense scuffle, in which the main victim is the sofa. Stuffing flies in clumps as Robin’s knife flashes and twists, moving almost too fast for normal human eyes to follow. 

Then they’re off the sofa and on the empty floor space, where the kid finally lets loose. Twice, his knife almost nicks an artery. Once, he comes within inches of burying the blade in Wayne’s gut. The only reason he doesn’t is because Wayne is about six times better at this than Slade remembers, and he moves like he was born and raised in a Shaolin Monastery. It’s one of the more unnerving things about him — not his skill itself, so much as the way he can drop the brandy-swilling facade the second he wants to. 

As he moves, Wayne sheds his suit jacket and rolls up his sleeves. Slade’s gaze catches on his forearm and briefly, he gets a glimpse of what the last two years must have been like for him. Because Wayne’s arms are covered with scars that weren’t there the last time Slade saw him. Dozens of them criss-cross his arms from wrist to elbow. The latest one — fresh, still bleeding — is looking like it’ll scar too. 

Slade imagines hand-feeding the kid like a baby sparrow. Cajoling him into talking. Pinning him down every time the kid gets into a mood. Spending endless hours trying to keep him from killing at the slightest provocation, collecting scars and bruises while the kid heals up without a scratch. No wonder the man’s wound so tight that a stiff breeze can make him snap. 

It takes Wayne five minutes to knock the knife out of Robin’s hand, and another five to pin the boy down. By then, Slade knows exactly why he isn’t making the progress he wants. Wayne’s far too soft.

“He doesn’t look like he’s going to stop,” says Slade, crossing his arms over his chest. “So if you want me to take him, you’ll have to lend me a cage. And some steel cable.”

“Oh, it won’t come to that,” says Wayne, panting ever so slightly. Directing his next words to the hissing, spitting bundle of fury in his arms, he says, “Do I need to put you back in the freezer?” 

Robin goes abruptly still. Then he sinks his teeth into Wayne’s hand with a snarl.

 

 

~~

 

 

It turns out that ‘freezer’ isn’t a euphemism. Wayne drags Robin down two flights of stairs, strides into a storage room Slade has never seen before, yanks a six-inch thick door open, and tosses him inside. The digital panel on the wall reads -45°. Even from six feet away, Slade can feel the chill emanating from that door. 

“I’m surprised —” says Slade.

“—That I’d go this far?” Wayne doesn’t sound happy with himself. 

“—that you have a walk-in freezer this big.”

“Slade. I throw parties. It’s for the sashimi.”

Slade does not point out that the freezer is big enough to house a family of three. Or that the locking mechanism on the outside looks complex enough to require a safe-cracking kit. 

“This is how you punish him?”

There’s a bang from inside as Robin slams into the door. Wayne’s mouth pinches flat. 

“This is how I give him a time-out.” 

There’s an expression on his face that Slade can’t quite read. 

“And it doesn’t kill him?” Slade gives the freezer a dubious look. Despite what Adeline says, he does know what constitutes child abuse, thank you very much, and this seems extreme, even to him. Nothing alive should be able to survive a room cold enough to freeze liquid mercury. The whole point of getting fish down to this temperature was to kill every last worm and parasite inside. 

Inside the freezer, Robin wails like a banshee.

Wayne shakes his head. “I take the hits when I can. But when he’s really out of control, this is the nuclear option.” He digs a roll of bandages out of one of the storage room boxes and gingerly wraps the cuts on his arm. His shirt is ripped in so many places he looks like he was mauled by a tiger.

“How long,” Slade asks. 

 “Let’s give it six hours. I try not to do this too often. He hates the freezer.”

There’s another bang inside. Through the CCTV monitor, Slade can see frost forming on Robin’s eyelashes. 

Wayne turns and leaves, but Slade stays to watch out of fascination. Gradually, the light in Robin’s eyes goes dull. After ten minutes, he goes from bouncing off the walls to staggering like a drunk. After twenty minutes, he curls up into a fetal position on the floor. After forty minutes, he turns to stone.

When Slade emerges from the basement, he finds Wayne tossing back a fifth of whisky and ordering Lobster Thermidor from his head chef. He’s put on a fresh white shirt, and his jacket has been replaced with a cashmere vest. Smarmy Businessman is back like he never left. 

“Sorry you had to see that. I should have foreseen his reaction,” says Wayne, all mock contrition. “At least now I’ve solved the problem of how to transport him. He won’t be a nuisance until he thaws. Cheers.”

Slade schools his own expression with an effort, because he can only take so much fakeness in one day and now he remembers why it was such a grind working for this man.

But back in the basement, for a very brief moment, the mask had slipped. And that’s the really curious thing. Because the most sincere and genuine expression Slade has ever seen on Wayne’s face was back there, when he was watching Robin scream inside the freezer.

For a second, all Slade saw was a concerned father. 

 

 

~~

 

 

Slade has twenty-six safe houses scattered across the country, but most of them are innocuous apartment units the size of shoeboxes. None of them are capable of housing a tiny, pint-sized predator like Robin. So he makes the fourteen-hour drive to one of his deep cover hideouts instead. 

From the outside, the house looks like a secluded concrete cabin in the woods — a middle-of-nowhere place so off the beaten track that the nearest town is two hours away. This is where he goes when he needs to torture, interrogate, or otherwise hold someone hostage for an extended period of time, and it’s equipped with everything he needs to keep a dangerous criminal contained. Slade hopes it’s enough.

Once they’re ensconced inside, he begins setting down his ground rules.

“Wayne has spoiled you rotten, kid. You’re not going to get the same treatment from me.” 

Robin, who is still slowly defrosting, shivers as Slade parks him in front of the fireplace. Moisture is beading on him like condensation on a glass of ice water. 

At dinnertime, Slade puts a bowl of pasta and a whole turkey breast in front of him, but all Robin does is stare at it resentfully, like the food is taunting him. Yesterday, before they left, Wayne told him that the boy cannot eat unless it’s directly out of someone’s hand. His captors had wanted him reliant on them for even the smallest morsel of food. 

When Slade asked what would happen if nobody fed him, Wayne’s expression had turned frosty. “I don’t know — I wouldn’t starve him just to find out.” 

Fortunately, Slade has no such scruples. 

“First rule of living here: You’re going to have to eat with your own two hands,” he says. 

Robin says nothing. He’s here under duress. Slade expects him to either attempt to escape or to kill him as soon as his fingers have thawed, but he’s prepared for that. He removes the untouched meal afterwards and puts it back into the fridge. They’ll get there. 

The next day, he foils two escape attempts. On the kid’s third attempt, Slade slams his head against the reinforced concrete wall hard enough to crack his skull and clips a shock collar around his neck. 

Robin spends two fruitless hours scrabbling at it. Eventually he remembers he has actual words at his disposal. 

“What’s this for?” he demands.

“You’ve probably noticed that I don’t have a fancy freezer here.” It’s weird to see any kid flinch as hard as this one does at the word ‘freezer’. He’s going to have to fix that, eventually. “So you’ll have to live with a collar instead.”

“I don’t like it. Take it off,” Robin says. “It itches, I hate you, take me back—

“If you want it off, you’ll have to be a good boy for me.”

“I’m not yours.”

“For the next 364 days, you are. Wayne gave you to me for a year, kid. I can do whatever I want.”

The kid tries to stand, but Slade shoves him back in his seat with brute force. “Did I say you could get up?”

In response, the kid hisses, low and sibilant.

“Try that again, and I’ll get mad,” says Slade. “Do you want to find out what I’m like when I’m mad?”

Robin’s eyes dart around the room, like he’s assessing his avenues of escape. The bare walls are concrete, the doors are metal, and the floors are unfinished stone. Finally, he refocuses on Slade. “You don’t scare me. There’s nothing you can do to me that will be worse than what they already did.”

Which may well be true. Slade doesn’t know who the ominous ‘they’ are, but he can tell they did a number on this kid. Anything that can weed basic biological functions like hunger and pain out of a living creature requires a level of trauma that should not be survivable. Slade is in the unique position of knowing exactly what that’s like — to be someone’s lab rat. 

“Tell me something,” he says, because the question has been bugging him ever since he first laid eyes on him. “Is Bruce Wayne one of them? Did he do this to you?”

It wouldn’t surprise him if Robin were actually the product of some twisted Wayne-Tech lab experiment gone wrong. Slade doesn’t trust the word of a billionaire on a good day, and the man’s caginess about Robin’s origins are suspicious. Gotham or not, Slade doesn’t buy the creepy cult story. A bunch of nut jobs wouldn’t have the resources to pull this off. If it’s true that Robin was made into this, then it would have taken serious money. 

Robin’s mouth hooks up at the corners in an eerie, uncanny valley smile. It doesn’t look quite right on his face, even to Slade’s jaded eye. 

“Master says there are no more Owls in Gotham. He’s the only one left. So I’ll bring him your head as proof that I can be good. Then he’ll take me back. You’ll see.”

 

 

~~

 

 

The next day, Robin makes twelve separate attempts on Slade’s life. 

Slade is initially impressed with the variety and creativity of the attempts. But he finally loses his temper at dinnertime when Robin picks up his fork and almost manages to drive it through Slade’s remaining eye. The boy gets so close to succeeding that the metal tines actually scratch his cornea. 

As punishment, he straps Robin to a metal chair in the reinforced basement bunker and lets him scream himself to sleep. 

The next morning, he goes downstairs to test the lowest setting on the shock collar. As soon as he thumbs the button, Robin’s pupils shrink and he curls in on himself. The veins on his neck darken and he chokes out a whimper. The longer Slade keeps the current on, the more he begins to list to one side like a slowly-capsizing ship. 

Slade is honestly surprised the collar works at all. After what he saw at Wayne Manor, he’s pretty sure the kid’s pain threshold has either been removed altogether, or raised so high that normal injuries don’t register. But Robin’s eyes are hazed over and unfocused, and when Slade presses two fingers over the pulse at his neck, he can feel it spiking. 

Good. Fear is the beginning of obedience. 

And if a part of him likes the feel of that tremor under his hand a little too much, well. There’s a reason he’s in this line of work.

“If you want out, you’ll have to learn some manners,” he says.

Robin spits in his face. Slade flicks the dial higher and Robin’s head lolls to one side. His breaths go shorter and a low sound escapes him. Slade takes a moment to enjoy the view of him helpless and contained, for once. 

“Ask me politely,” he says. 

It’s a struggle for Robin to speak, but his throat works and he rasps, “You’re not an Owl. I don’t have to listen to you.” 

Slade shrugs and leaves. The kid lasts another day and a half, which allows Slade to mentally recalibrate his scale for how long he can go without food or water. Sometime around the thirtieth hour, a dam breaks and Robin begins to babble.

“Let me out, I hate you, bastard, let me out, let me out —”

It goes on and on and on. Eventually, the boy stops hurling insults and starts sobbing. He also dramatically changes his tune. Even through the concrete, Slade can hear that his voice has gone hoarse and ragged. 

“C-come back — I’m sorry —I d-didn’t mean to — I’ll be so good, I promise — just come back, I’m begging you please please please —

Slade smiles and puts down his coffee. He’ll break the kid yet. 

 

 

~~

 

 

It takes four months for Robin to master the basics. Sit. Stay. Eat. Wait. Go. Stop. Slade is patient. Rome was not built in a day.

Once he feels certain that the boy won’t explode (or implode) at the drop of a hat, Slade moves on to finessing the boy’s fighting technique. This is when he really starts enjoying himself. 

On the practice mats, Robin can go for hours without tiring and fight through injuries that would hobble anyone else. He’s the opposite of fragile and that, in a way, is enormously freeing. It means that Slade doesn’t have to treat him as carefully as an ordinary child. It also means he doesn’t have to hold anything back — not his enhanced strength, or his temper, or his sadistic streak. Whatever he dishes out, Robin can take it, and take it, and take it. 

There are days when Slade returns in a foul mood from other jobs outside, but Robin never flinches away from his aggression, not even when it’s turned on him. He never reacts when Slade drags him into the makeshift arena downstairs and uses him as a punching bag. He doesn’t even protest when Slade pushes him past the point of exhaustion over and over, just for the pleasure of watching him collapse.

Slade never hurts him badly enough that the kid doesn’t recover within twelve hours — he knows exactly how to toe that line now — but being able to unleash himself and fight someone at full strength without worrying about the consequences is satisfying in a way that’s hard to describe. He doesn’t often get the chance to really let loose. And he’s starting to realize he could really get used to this.

The more time he spends with the boy, the less he understands why Wayne wants so badly for him to appear “normal.” Every week when he calls, Wayne asks about things like Robin’s literacy level, or how interested in popular culture he is, or whether he’d be able to realistically attend school with his peers someday. It baffles Slade. 

Why bother reintegrating Robin into society? Why force a fish to climb a tree? Robin is special precisely because he’s different, and his physical advantages should be something to maximize, rather than to hide. The boy is fine just as he is. The only thing he wants is a little more obedience. And maybe a touch of restraint.

One day he walks into Robin’s room and finds him sitting on his bed, dragging a knife over his wrist, over and over. Slade stops in the doorway and raises an inquiring eyebrow. Each time Robin slices his skin open, his shoulders go up and he sucks in a breath. 

“What are you doing?” Slade asks.

Robin doesn’t look up from his task. “Practicing.”

“For?”

“Master wants me to pass. So I have to practice.”

Wayne speaks with Robin on the phone twice a week, and while Slade never intrudes on their conversations, he does try to keep an ear out for anything he asks Robin to do. This one he’s never heard of. 

“Pass what — a test?”

“Just pass.”

Slade lets that roll around in his head for a moment before the meaning hits him. Pass as normal, is what Wayne means. Now that he’s looking, he can tell that the hitch in Robin’s breath as he cuts himself is entirely too performative. His timing is off. 

“You need to flinch,” says Slade, and the boy finally looks up at him. “Like this,” he says, and he demonstrates.

Robin frowns. 

“And say ‘ow’,” says Slade.

“Ow?”

“Louder.”

“OW.” 

It’s not very convincing. Slade strides into the room, takes Robin’s hand, and slices the boy’s fingertip open.

“Feel that?”

“Not really. I mean, it doesn’t hurt.”

“But you feel something.

He nods.

“Focus on that. The moment you feel it again, flinch and say ‘ow’. Your reaction time needs to be faster.”

They practice. Once Robin gets it right, Slade increases the degree of the injury from shallow lacerations to full-on stab wounds to a broken bone. 

“Scream,” he says on the last one. Robin sings like a nightingale. 

Within a few days, he’s mostly got the hang of it. The ‘ow’s’ never become any more convincing, but Slade is hoping nobody will notice except him. 

In his weekly progress report to Wayne, he adds ‘Can fake a pain response proportional to the injury inflicted’ to Robin’s accomplishments. 

Then he goes back to spending the bulk of his time on Robin’s combat skills. With his inhuman speed and agility, Robin can accomplish dizzying feats with a sword that no mortal man can match, and Slade wants to see how far he can go when pushed. Wayne might want to ground his little bird in the mundanities of an “ordinary life”, but Slade wants to see the kid fly.

He doesn’t bother telling Wayne about it. 

 

~~

 

Slade doesn’t expect to like the kid. 

It’s not a requirement of his job, and he knows his success won’t be affected either way. But Robin is the longest assignment he’s ever taken, and he’s beginning to learn that there’s a bright spark of a mind buried under all that conditioning. As the boy’s vocabulary expands and his grasp of logic improves, it’s like a dormant part of his mind is waking up again, too. 

“It’s a good thing you’re damn near indestructible, kid,” Slade says once when he comes home to find that Robin has reduced his favourite mattress into a smouldering pile of ash. “Or I might really kill you, contract or no.”

Sometimes, when he leaves the kid alone in the house for too long, Robin will turn his destructive energies on the furniture, like a nervous dog in desperate need of exercise. Idly, Slade turns over a couple of ideas for how to discipline him this time. 

Robin tilts his head in open provocation, but Slade can see the shiver just under his skin as he skitters out of his reach. 

“You can try,” he says, just shy of taunting. But I’m pretty hard to kill.” 

“I can get creative,” says Slade. 

“You’d have to catch me first, old man.”

“Is that how you want to play it, hm?”

Robin eyes his fists, then he takes a few more steps back for good measure. Slade smirks. The boy is getting entirely too cocky for his own good. Slade is going to have to up his game. Last time, he tossed Robin through a mirror and made him kneel on broken glass for an hour. (It took another three hours after that for the kid pick the shards out of his face and legs, and he was madder about that than the kneeling part.)

“What…” Robin swallows hard. “What are we playing this time?” 

“I’ll give you a head start of twenty,” says Slade with a grin. He takes the remote control to Robin’s collar out of his pocket and spins it between his fingers. 

“Oh. Twenty, huh? Is that like twenty steps, or twenty seconds, or twenty deep breaths, or twenty rounds on your —”

Slade shrugs. Glances at his watch. “Run, kid.”

Robin’s eyes dart between Slade, the remote control, and the stairs leading to the dreaded basement. Then he hurtles out the door and darts into the trees. They’re eighty miles out from the nearest settlement. There are plenty of places out there in the forest for a little bird to hide. And Robin’s ability to suppress his heartbeat and breathing give him just enough of an edge to make finding him a challenge

Slades finishes the count and grabs his hunting rifle off the mantlepiece. He leaves the shock collar remote on the table. Later, he can punish the kid for the mattress. But right now, there’s nothing like a good hunt to take the edge off. 

 

 

~~

 

 

Six months in, when Slade deems the boy stable and obedient enough, he takes Robin along with him on a long-overdue job.

Robin spends the first twenty minutes on the roof of the Lexor Hotel silently surveying the glittering lights of the city below them like he’s hypnotized. 

“Never been to Metropolis before, kid?” 

“I…” He falters.

He looks dazed by the view. Sometimes, the boy relapses into old habits and loses all his words, which is why Slade taught him a wide array of field signals as a backup. Some years ago, Slade invented a system of hand signs for himself and Joey — a kind of private shorthand — so that’s what he makes Robin to use whenever the boy goes abruptly silent. 

I feel dizzy, Robin says with his hands. Like seeing a sea of stars.

Now try it with words,” says Slade.

Robin struggles for a little while, before he finally says, hesitantly, “I’m not…used to it. I haven’t been…out where people are…in a long time. Bruce never let me out.” He gestures at vast forest of skyscrapers spread out before them. “I forgot what it felt like. To see so many lights.”

Behind the Deathstroke mask, Slade frowns. “I thought Wayne had you for two years.”

Robin nods.

“He kept you inside for two years?”

“Well, there was a backyard. But I couldn’t leave the manor grounds.”

“That’s a long time to be a prisoner in one house.”

Robin shrugs. Some days, it doesn’t feel like it was that long, he signs. 

Slade lets him look his fill while he scopes out his latest target in the opposite building with a pair of binoculars. Today’s mission is mostly reconnaissance. When it’s time to go, he says, “Let’s get off the roof.”

Slade means for them to go back down through the service corridors, the same way they came up. But Robin, windswept and wild-eyed, takes a running leap off the side of the building. No hesitation. 

They’re thirty-five stories up and Robin has nothing on him — no hooks or grapples or ropes. Slade knows the fall won’t kill him — probably — but he’s also got a four-million-dollar cheque riding on the kid’s safety, so his legs hits the ledge about a second later, a curse on his lips. 

He looks down in time to see Robin backflip off a window cleaner’s platform, twist through two spirals, rebound off the opposite building’s window ledge, swing off a fire escape, spin twice, and then drop thirty feet to land lightly on the asphalt. 

That’s… not something Slade taught him. He’s pretty sure Wayne’s not responsible for this, either. 

It takes Slade a moment to pick up what he hears next, and even then he doesn’t immediately recognize what it is. 

Because Robin is laughing, and it’s the first time Slade has ever heard him do that. 

 

 

~~

 

 

To train Robin to deal with people in public, Slade takes him to a nearby town or city at least once a week, where the kid can practice blending in. 

If Robin is especially good that day, Slade treats them to an actual dinner at an actual restaurant. Their usual rotation of frozen and freeze-dried meals does turn bland after awhile, and Slade enjoys the occasional deviation from routine, even if he isn’t picky about food in general.

They’re at a faux-Italian steakhouse in DC one evening, sitting al fresco under the pinkish-orange sky. Robin spent the afternoon at a bouldering gym, where he wore himself out climbing the walls while completing every ‘social skill challenge’ Slade set for him (“Get the name of that woman and find out where her husband bought his water bottle”). Since he didn’t make a single person bleed that day, Slade lets him order what he wants from the menu. The kid chooses a tomato cream risotto with chicken fingers and fries on the side. Slade orders a steak, medium-rare. 

To minimize the risk to the other diners, they’re sitting by the shrubbery, as far away as possible from the side of the patio that offers the best view. 

When the food arrives, Robin takes his own cutlery box out of his backpack and puts a pair of thin metal chopsticks down next to his plate. 

“Oh, that’s adorable,” the waitress comments when she slides the basket of fries between them. 

“He prefers them,” Slade explains. 

Three months ago, Slade discovered what he calls the “chopstick workaround.” Up until then, every meal was a fraught exercise that usually ended in blood (Slade’s), ichor (Robin’s), or tears (also Robin’s). Since Robin’s conditioning doesn’t let him touch food with his bare hands or any eating utensil, the only way he could eat was to pick food off his plate directly with his teeth — a method too sloppy and uncivilized for Wayne’s liking. It also made Slade feel like he was feeding a really messy puppy, which annoyed him. 

It took months of trial and error before he realized that whoever the Owls were, they did not consider chopsticks an ‘eating utensil’ and thus had not included it in the boy’s conditioning. (Slade is both pleased and amused by the insular, ethnocentric thinking that led to this oversight.) In fact, Robin was able to pick up a pair and use them to poke holes in his meatloaf almost from the moment Slade put them into his hand. 

Since then, he’s made sure that Robin brings his own pair of chopsticks with him wherever he goes. While it’s not quite a victory, Slade believes in incremental gains. If chopsticks are the first step in getting him to use a fork, he’ll take it. 

As he saws into his steak, he watches Robin pluck fries out of the basket one by one and munch them. For practical reasons, he’s let the kid grow his hair out so it hangs over his eyes and curls around his neck. The rest of his face is smeared with drugstore foundation to approximate human skin. With this disguise firmly in place, the kid looks almost like the ordinary boy three tables over. 

Privately, Slade marvels at how far the kid has come.

The thought lasts right up until the waitress comes by to take away the rest of Robin’s unused utensils, and — in the process of collecting his knife — moves the blade a shade too close to Robin’s hand. It’s a distance of maybe two inches, but Robin reacts like a thing possessed. 

With no discernible pause in chewing or change in expression, he twirls a single chopstick through his fingers, raises his hand up high, and then stabs downwards, inhumanly fast.

Only Slade’s exceptional reflexes let him react in time. He lunges across the table, intercepting the chopstick with his own hand. The narrow point of the metal implement punches through his palm, right between two metacarpals, and bounces off the metal table underneath with a sharp bang. 

It only misses the waitress’s hand by a hair. The young woman startles with a scream and jerks away. The knife slips through her fingers. All the plates on her arm go crashing to the floor. If Slade hadn’t diverted some of the momentum and impact force with his hand, she might have lost a finger.

At least four other tables from the other side of the patio swivel to look in their direction. Slade is glad he had the foresight to put some distance between them.

“It’s fine,” he says, mostly to reassure the waitress. “I’ll handle this.”

She is frozen in place, white as the tablecloth. Her eyes are fixed on Slade’s injured hand, which is starting to drip blood.

Since she is currently blocking curious eyes from seeing what is happening, Slade reaches across the bread basket with his good hand, grabs Robin’s wrist, and jerks him forward until he’s sprawled flat against the table. For good measure, he shoves the kid’s head down so that his cheek is mashed against the tablecloth. Robin peers up at him with one nervous eye. 

“Stay,” he commands. “Don’t move.”

Without looking away from Robin, he addresses the waitress as pleasantly as he can. “Get me the bill, and we’ll be out of your hair.”

Civilians in a panic need clear and direct orders to act — this is a fact that Slade knows well. The young woman swallows, bobs her head, and scurries away.

Robin is staring at the chopstick he impaled through Slade’s hand with an almost puzzled expression, like he can’t quite figure out how that happened. 

“You fucked up, kid,” Slade says.

Robin swallows once, convulsively. The flicker of wariness in his eyes tells Slade that he knows there will be the consequences. 

“Be glad I heal fast,” Slade hisses. 

Robin has the grace to look abashed. 

Slade lowers his hand so it’s out of sight. In one quick motion, he rips the chopstick free and tosses it back onto the table. Robin has hurt him plenty of times — in fact, this is not even the worst injury he’s given him this month. The only reason Slade isn’t as marked-up as Wayne is because his own healing factor is pretty advanced. His skin doesn’t scar anymore, and most fatal wounds close within a few hours. But even he doesn’t heal as fast as Robin. 

“Bandages,” he says.

Without lifting his cheek off the table, Robin reaches behind him for his little backpack. Inside are several rolls of white bandages, a bottle of disinfectant, and a sewing kit with needle and hospital-grade thread. He digs the bandages out by touch alone and rolls them across the table to Slade. 

In the silence that follows, Slade staunches the bleeding and wraps his hand while Robin inches his fingers across the table to pick up the bloodied chopstick. Without moving from his sprawl of submission across the table, he licks Slade’s blood off the metal implement with one long swipe of his tongue. Then he deftly transfers the remainder of his meal — sideways — into his mouth. Fries and chicken nuggets disappear in record time. It’s almost like he knows it’s the last time he’ll be allowed out for awhile. 

Slade gives him a disgusted look, but Robin chews defiantly, cheeks bulging. He polishes off the last bite just as the waitress returns with the bill. She’s now eyeing Robin like he might leap out of his seat and bite her. Slade leaves her a 200% tip, which is hopefully enough to keep her mouth shut. The last thing he needs is news of a deranged, stabby teenaged boy spreading through the city. 

A three-hour drive later, they’re back home and Slade is finally free to let his anger out. 

“You need to keep your hands to yourself,” he growls as he drags Robin downstairs into the basement.

“It wasn’t — I didn’t mean to — she had a knife — ” Robin says, stumbling over his feet.

Slade doesn’t strap him down, but he does turn on his collar, and the electric current turns him sluggish and uncoordinated. Robin grabs Slade’s arm for balance, looking nauseated.

“Let’s do some simulations,” says Slade as he flips an ordinary steak knife between his fingers. “You need to learn the difference between what’s a threat, and what’s not.”

Without warning, he flicks the knife within a few inches of Robin’s ear, just close enough to nick a few strands of hair. Robin snarls, hand shooting up to catch the blade with his bare hands and twisting. If Slade had been anyone else, the move might have surprised him into letting go. 

“That’s what you don’t do,” says Slade as he flicks the dial on the collar to a higher setting. 

Robin squawks in outrage and topples over like a felled tree. For a few seconds he rolls around on the ground, clawing at his neck, until Slade switches it off. 

“Let’s try that again.”

 

 

~~

 

 

The one and only time he lets Robin interfere with his other work, it’s a spur-of-the-moment decision. 

They’re in Central City and Slade is on a mundane kill job. It’s so mundane, in fact, that he brought Robin with him so the kid wouldn’t have to stay cooped up at home. When one of his three targets peels away while he’s distracted and takes off running, Robin skips up to Slade and says, “Can I run him down for you? I can do it, I promise. I’m good at this.” 

Slade says, “Fine, bring him to me,” and waves him off. 

He can kill the two mewling snots in front of him first and stage it to look like an accident, before dealing with the third guy. He doesn’t think it can hurt to let Robin off his leash for once. 

He comes to regret the decision half an hour later when Robin shows up at the rendezvous point toting the third guy’s severed head. 

It’s an appalling sight. Blood everywhere. Bits of spine poking out of the neck. The face itself is a ruin, like it got bumped against too many jagged surfaces in the course of transport. One eye is about to fall out of its socket. 

Robin proudly presents the head to him like a cat laying a dismembered mouse at his feet, and Slade has to just — take a moment. While the gore doesn’t bother him, there’s something to be said about messy DNA evidence and really obvious blood trails and — shit — the cleanup work for this job just got five times more complicated. 

“This is not what I asked you to do,” he says.

Robin droops. “But you told me to bring him to you, so I thought —”

“I didn’t mean bring back just his head.”

“I thought you wanted proof of death.” Robin is actually whining.

“I wanted him alive,” says Slade through gritted teeth. He reminds himself that if he strangles the kid now, he won’t get his payday. 

“Well you were going to slit his throat anyway, and I kind of did that part for you, so I don’t get why you’re not hap—”

“Put the head back. Now.”

“But how? It’s already off. Am I supposed to glue it back on?” Robin is staring at him like he’s the insane one. 

Slade grimaces behind the Deathstroke mask. The client is going to throw a shit fit. She’d asked for a quiet, low-profile murder. A ‘three guys get knifed in a back alley due to mugging gone wrong’ kind of assassination. Now there’s going to be cops crawling all over this. They’re not even in Gotham, where headless corpses are a dime a dozen — they’re in Central City, and here, a corpse this gruesome is going to draw attention. 

He should probably have explained the procedure to Robin first. He should have mentioned that dragging a severed head through the streets and up onto the roof of an abandoned building is counterproductive to the parameters of this job. But none of this occurred to him, because frankly, he would never have expected this. 

“Who —” he takes a breath “— who taught you this?”

Because the really chilling thing is, it doesn’t seem like this is the first time Robin has decapitated someone. His behaviour is too nonchalant for that. The wrongness of it doesn’t even seem to register to him. 

Robin’s eyes go blank. “I’m a Talon. I must bring back proof of my kills.”

It comes out practiced, like a recitation. Slade curses under his breath. “I don’t know what that is, and I don’t care. When you’re with me, you do things my way. Go put the head back with the rest of the body. You will make sure nobody sees you. You will do nothing else after that except return to this spot.” 

“But why do I have to —”

“Because I say so.” Slade pulls the remote control for Robin’s collar out of his belt and the boy flinches. “Am I clear?”

Robin mutters, “You’re impossible,” under his breath as he stomps back to the edge of the roof and flings himself off the side. 

Slade can already hear the sound of police sirens in the distance. He’s badly miscalculated, but that’s on him. No thirteen-year-old kid should be this blasé about beheading someone. The sight of Robin swinging that head around like a Halloween prop was wrong in every sense of the word. Slade doesn’t have a lot of moral lines, but he’s just found a new one. 

If the people who did this to Robin were still around, Slade would stalk the Gotham streets and hunt them down himself. 

 

 

~~

 

 

Two months after that, they’re on another job when someone shoots Robin right through the heart. The culprit is one of the policemen protecting Slade’s target, and it’s sheer bad timing that Robin gets a spray of bullets straight to center mass. The boy yelps at the impact and veers off course with a choked sound.

His back thumps against the wall. “Holy guacamole,” he says thickly, staring down at his own pockmarked chest. 

Even with one hand pressed over the messy wound, black sludge squishes up between his fingers. When he staggers sideways, the stuff drips over the ground in an inky pool. The cop stares at him with unabashed horror, eyes huge. 

Slade finishes what he’s doing, then turns and unslings his gun. Swiftly, he puts two in the man’s chest. Then he adds one to the head, for good measure. Robin scowls at him as the policeman slumps over in a puddle of blood.

“Next time you see a bullet coming, dodge,” says Slade. 

“I can take a measly little bullet,” Robin mutters between ragged breaths. 

“I know. But I’m ordering you to dodge.”

Robin coughs wetly. In Slade’s experience, a through-and-through doesn’t hurt him much; it’s when the bullet gets stuck that he runs into trouble. Right now, the three lumps of metal are obstructing his lungs — Slade can hear it in the wet, laboured sound of Robin’s breathing. 

It’s not my fault, Robin signs at him vehemently as Slade inspects the damage. 

The boy can’t quite get enough air to speak, but that doesn’t stop his hands from moving. You said I’m not allowed to kill cops in uniform, so I took the bullet. Why did you kill him?

“My trigger finger slipped,” Slade lies. He’s not going to say, because the bastard shot you, you idiot. 

Per the terms of his contract with Wayne, Robin must stay a secret. Nobody can know the extent of his unusual abilities, or else curious tongues might start wagging. The cop already saw too much; Slade would have been obliged to kill him either way. But that’s not the real reason. 

The real reason is that the cop saw what looked like an unarmed kid coming down the hall at him, and he hadn’t hesitated to pull the trigger. So Slade hadn’t hesitated either. As far as acceptable collateral damage goes, this one’s no loss. 

For once, he doesn’t make Robin dig the bullets out of his chest with his own fingers. They’re on a tight schedule, and Robin’s slow when it comes to tasks like this — especially when the bullets hit something vital. 

He pulls a pair of pliers from his belt. “Hold still. And shut up.”

Robin gives him strange looks for the rest of the day. 

 

 

~~

 

 

Word gets around that Deathstroke has a small companion. 

Nobody seems to know what to do with this information. Inevitably, though, the crosshairs shift to Robin’s back. Deathstroke has a reputation after all, and his enemies have always targeted those closest to him. 

For once, Slade isn’t too worried; Robin is the one person he can’t imagine being used against him. 

So when the boy vanishes one day during an outing to Bludhaven, and a ransom video lands in his inbox three hours later, Slade immediately sees red. His fury obliterates all rational thought. For a while, the only thought running through his head on repeat is — not this time. The spectre of a different child, a boy with his throat cut open, lives permanently on the insides of his eyelids. There are still some nights when he can’t sleep for seeing Joey’s face. 

When he finds the fucker responsible, he’s going to carve them up like a Christmas turkey. If he has to burn a city to the ground, then so be it. 

He almost does burn down Bludhaven when he tracks the clues to Blockbuster, of all people. A man like Roland Desmond should not be smart enough to kidnap someone as slippery as Robin. But Slade knows there are ways and ways to do it, and each possibility pisses him off more than the last. 

Maybe Desmond figured out Wayne’s freezer trick. Or he noticed the shock collar and found a way to hack into it. Or he discovered Robin’s weakness to Nth metal, which slows his healing to normal, human speeds. Or — worst of all — he’s somehow discovered an as-yet-unknown method by which Robin can be hurt. It’s that last thought that spurs him onward. 

By the time he bursts into Desmond’s inner sanctum, he’s angry enough to smash skulls to pulp. There are ten men in the room, but Slade’s eye immediately finds the boy tied to a chair in the middle of the room. Abruptly, the haze of rage recedes and cold logic reasserts itself. It’s like waking up from a nightmare. 

Because the chair that Robin’s sitting on might be bolted to the floor, but the only things holding him are some ropes and zip ties. They haven’t removed his full-face mask or bothered to gag him. A thug is holding a knife to his throat, but Robin’s feet are tapping the ground idly and he’s humming softly under his breath. He is the very picture of unconcern. 

The tidal wave of relief almost washes away his anger. Almost.

“Kid, what the hell are you doing?” Slade growls. 

Robin tilts his head like his namesake. “Waiting for you. I didn’t know what the kidnapping protocol was.”

At that moment, Blockbuster stomps in triumphantly. His massive bulk seems to fill up the room. He gets halfway into a spiel about baits and traps before Slade attacks. 

Slade loses a hefty chunk of time after that, because in the heat of his own battle lust, he doesn’t bother keeping track of anything except his opponent and his own blade. The battle could have taken five minutes or an hour, he doesn’t really know or care. But when he comes back to himself, Roland Desmond is a smear on the floor, and his henchmen are standing around, slack-jawed, their guns pointing at Slade.

Robin’s expression isn’t visible, but he’s gone perfectly still in his chair. He’s also stopped humming. The henchman holding the knife on him is shaking so hard he looks like he might wet himself at any moment. And then his knife slips and Slade’s heart actually lurches. For one frozen moment, it’s like all the breath is punched out of him. 

Robin clears his throat politely.

“That wasn’t very nice.”

The thug jerks comically and freezes. The world roars back into focus. Robin’s slashed throat is already healing. Slade looks between him and the ten goons, and then he carefully sheathes his bloodied swords.

“Get yourself out of the chair, kid. I’ll wait for you downstairs,” he says.

“What about all of these guys?” Robin yells after him. 

“Make a mess, I don’t care.”

Behind him he hears a delighted laugh. 

Two henchmen try to bar Slade’s exit, but he goes through them like a sickle through chaff. Then it’s just a matter of retracing his path through Blockbuster’s stronghold, sidestepping the bodies he left behind on his first circuit through, until he reaches the entrance downstairs. Outside, in the cool night air, he catches his breath quietly with his forehead tipped against the brick wall for two minutes. It takes another two minutes for the tremor in his hands to go away.

Twenty minutes later, the door bangs opens and Robin emerges. He’s covered head to toe in blood. Slade can smell it on him from twenty feet away. In the darkness of the alley, Robin yanks off his mask and shakes his hair free. 

“Sorry, was I just supposed to know that I had permission to kill them?” he demands as he stalks towards Slade. “Because I don’t remember you saying anything about that!”

Slade surprises himself when his arm goes around Robin, blood and all, and pulls him in. Even Robin is visibly startled. He freezes, blinks, and then squirms and gives Slade’s armored chest plate a whack

“I like your hugs a lot more when it doesn’t feel like I’m hugging a friggin’ rock!”

Slade exhales. Then he shifts his hand up, gets a grip on Robin’s hair, and shakes him. “You scared the shit out of me, kid. Was that on purpose?”

“I — what? Why would I do that?” His eyes are wide with confusion.

“He had you for two days.” 

“So? You’ve starved me longer than that.” 

Slade gives him another shake. “Roland Desmond doesn’t fuck around. And you just sat there for him? He could have killed you.”

Robin scowls. “Don’t be dumb. You know how hard I am to kill. You know that better than anyone.”

And Slade does know. By now he’s done every experiment that Wayne has refused to do. He’s held Robin’s head underwater, to see how long he can go without breathing. Burned him a couple times, on purpose. Dipped his fingers in acid. Broken his bones a hundred different ways. Shot him with twenty different calibres of bullet. 

Even when the tests hit the limit of Robin’s tolerance, even when it left him choking or panting or blown right past the cusp of discomfort into real pain, Slade forced him to endure anyway. His rationale was simple and pragmatic. Better to learn the limits of one’s own body in the safety of one’s home, rather than in the field. 

So Slade knows exactly what the boy can and cannot take, but he never lets himself forget one incontrovertible fact. 

“You’re not invincible, kid. The minute you forget you have weaknesses, you’re dead.” 

Robin swallows the rebuke with a sour look. He doesn’t say anything else for the rest of the trip home. 

It’s only when they’re safely out of Bludhaven that Slade realizes something else. For two days, Robin had sat in Blockbuster’s chair without lifting a finger to save himself because he hadn’t been sure if he was allowed to hurt anyone. In the absence of instructions, he’d waited for orders, just like Slade taught him to. 

It’s not the first time Robin’s been out among the populace, surrounded by people. Slade’s brought him out into cafes and crowded streets and parks full of families before, but never with any guarantee that the kid would behave himself. In fact, Slade has never had any real confirmation that his training took, until now. But if Robin can restrain himself even when surrounded by men who want to kill him, then he’s passed the final test. 

Somehow, without meaning to, he’s managed to turn the boy into exactly what Wayne wants.

 

 

~~

 

 

It’s past midnight when Slade is roused by the telltale sound of his bedroom door locks clicking apart. 

The first three times Robin broke his locks, he was trying to kill him in his sleep, so Slade’s already sitting up and reaching reflexively for the gun on his nightstand when he sees the shadow slip through the crack in the door. But tonight he doesn’t get a blade to the throat, or a knife to the pillow. Instead, Robin burrows under the covers and his cold body seems to suck all the warmth out of the room. 

Slade puts down the gun and flicks on the lamp. “What are you doing?”

“You only give me hugs when I get hurt. I want my hug.” Robin blinks up at him innocently.

“Kid. You were not hurt.”

“Blockbuster knocked me around for hours before you got there. With those big massive fists of his. I thought he was going to try to snap my neck.” Robin blinks some more. 

“I will hit you harder than Blockbuster if you don’t get the fuck off my bed.”

But Robin just snuggles closer and leans the side of his head against Slade’s hip. “If I let you hit me too, will you give me my hug?”

Slade groans. “Don’t tempt me.”

“It wasn’t on purpose.” Robin’s words are partially muffled by the blanket he’s pulled up over his nose. “I wasn’t trying to scare you. I thought it was one of your tests, I swear. I didn’t think the whole kidnapping thing was real.

Slade stares down at him. “And when did you realize it wasn’t a test?” 

“When you showed up and you didn’t… look like yourself. You sounded mad.

Slade tips his head back against the headboard and looks up at the ceiling. He doesn’t often kill out of personal indulgence — but he doesn’t regret what he did today. The horror of what happened to Joey will never go away entirely, but today’s fiasco just dragged it all back to the forefront of his mind. Every time Robin opens his mouth and Slade is reminded of everything he’s lost, the knife digs a little deeper. The last time, a knife took his son’s voice. He’ll never hear Joey laugh again. 

But Robin’s right here, and he’s alive, and the whole ordeal has slid off him like water off a duck’s back and suddenly the memories of his own past failures don’t swamp him as they normally do. He holds out an arm and Robin climbs into his lap and the weight of him has never felt so reassuring.

“The next time someone kidnaps you,” says Slade, “you will break yourself out. And you can kill anyone who stands in your way.”

Robin hums against his shoulder. “Kay. I can do that.”

“And you’re wearing a tracker from now on.”

“A what?”

Slade picks up the tiny, thumbtack-sized device on his night stand. “Hold still.” He tugs the collar of Robin’s fluffy pajama top down and slides the diode under his skin, pressing until it’s lodged firmly beneath his collarbone. 

“What — I have to wear another device? Slade.” Robin rubs a finger over the tiny, almost imperceptible bump. “I’m already wearing your stupid collar.”

“That one’s for other people’s protection. This one’s for your protection.” Slade hesitates and reaches up and presses his thumb against the fingerprint sensor on the collar. It clicks open with a hiss, and Robin’s eyes widen. 

“Really? You’re taking it off?”

“You don’t need this one anymore.”

“Why?”

“You’re safe now.” What he means is, you’re safe to be around other people. 

But Robin laughs and buries his face into the crook of Slade’s neck. “I know I’m safe,” he says, and it sounds a lot like, I know I’m safe with you.

Slade exhales for one beat. Two. Then he shifts and dislodges the boy.

“There. That’s your hug. Now go back to your room.”

“But I like it here, with you. You’re warm. My room’s always too cold.”

“That’s because you’re cold.” 

Robin huffs indignantly and refuses to acknowledge the truth of that statement. No matter how many layers he wears, he’ll always be the temperature of a refrigerator. 

But under Slade’s glare, he obligingly crawls off him and rolls onto his side. Slade’s bed is big enough for two, but it’s still strange for him to have someone there. He never brings anyone here, to this house. He keeps every aspect of his personal life strictly quarantined from his work life, and Robin is firmly and solidly on the work side of his life. Every minute the boy is here is paid for, by someone else. He needs to keep reminding himself of that.

“The door is over there, kid.”

“C’mon, Slade. Be nice to me, please? I’m leaving next month anyway.”

Something about the way he says it gives Slade pause. Robin’s concept of time has always been iffy, and while he’s gotten better at keeping track of it, Slade wasn’t aware that he was actually counting down the days to the end of his stay. 

“Do you even want to go back?” he asks. 

Robin’s eyes flutter close and he squirms slightly, but he’s silent. For a long time he says nothing at all, but his small fist clenches and unclenches over the sheets. 

Slade has worked out a few things over the past eleven months. From the hints that Robin has dropped, and the clues he’s dug up himself, he knows enough now to know what Wayne really is. He knows who the Owls are. He knows the meaning behind that odd, vaguely menacing nursery rhyme he found in Gotham’s twisted history books. He knows why Robin still calls himself a Talon. 

It makes sense now, why it had been so easy for Wayne to subdue the boy. Why Robin still struggles to call Wayne anything except ‘Master.’ 

And it shouldn’t make a difference to him, the relationship between his client and his charge — Slade has worked for despots and dictators and genocidal psychopaths with worse sins to their name — but he’s no longer sure he can send Robin back to the man who had a hand in exploiting him. 

A part of him knows Wayne will never willingly let the boy go, but Slade wants to give Robin the choice anyway and damn the consequences. It’s on the tip of his tongue to make an offer he knows he’ll regret. 

“Answer me,” he says softly. “Tell me you still want to go back to him.”

“I can’t not want to go back,” says Robin around a yawn. “I’ve already tried.”

That should be Slade’s cue to pick the kid up and drag him back to his own room, just down the hall. But the way Robin is slowly dozing off next to him, complacent and affectionate, is something he didn’t think he could have again. Not since Joey, anyway. Perhaps for one night, Slade will indulge himself.

 

 

~~

 

 

One month later, Slade will bring Robin back to Wayne Manor. 

The boy will be able to sit down to a five-course meal and eat every bite with his own two hands. He’ll be able to read and write to the correct grade level, and his facility with numbers will put him in the 96 percentile of kids his age. He might still cut a man’s hand off when attacked with a weapon, but he won’t slit a throat unless he’s specifically ordered to. 

Robin will know how to hide his unusual eyes with contact lenses and how to disguise the corpse-like pallor of his skin with studio makeup. He’ll wear gloves and avoid skin contact so that no one will ever notice the coldness of his body. When he’s injured, he’ll gasp and reflexively cover it with a hand, to conceal his lack of blood. 

Slade will stop his car at the outer gates of the Wayne estate and together they will wait outside under the light drizzle while the security guard calls the main house. 

When Wayne finally comes down the long driveway to greet them, Robin will stay still, silent and unblinking, until Slade gives him permission to move by tapping the back of his neck. Only then will Robin take two steps forward and fold into a formal bow. Wayne will look utterly bemused. 

“I see you’ve taught him any number of new tricks.”

“You wanted him polite, didn’t you?”

“And look at you!” Wayne will say to Robin, all smiles. 

Robin’s eyes will be a piercing aquamarine thanks to his blue contacts, his skin will be a dusty olive shade he picked out himself, and he’ll be dressed in black jeans and a thick orange sweater. To Wayne, he will look the closest to an ordinary boy he has ever been. But all Slade will see is his own fingerprints on the boy’s every gesture and mannerism; his own conditioning subtly embedded into his psyche; his lessons carved into the boy’s bones. 

His. 

It will almost be a shame, to give all that back to Wayne. But Slade will keep his eyes on the prize, which comes in the form of a fat bank draft. 

“You’ll get your bonus in four week’s time, after I’ve looked him over and made sure he’s everything you promised.” 

“Oh, he will be,” says Slade. 

“And how was your year, chum?” Wayne will turn to Robin.

As if Slade hasn’t been sending him weekly progress reports and daily photos, at Wayne’s request. His burner phone is still full of photos of Robin, which he’ll be loathe to wipe. 

“It was long,” Robin will say. “But I got to visit five different cities. And oh! Slade let me do — uh — a bunch of cool stuff — in Bludhaven, it was kind of fun.” 

“Yes, I’ve heard some hair-raising news out of Bludhaven.” Wayne will raise his eyebrows in Slade’s direction. 

When it comes time for him to say good-bye, Slade will draw Robin aside and say, “You are not indestructible. Remember that.”

Robin will duck his head and give Slade a mock-punch in the stomach. “Yeah, yeah, I know.”

Then he’ll run a finger along his collarbone, searching for the tracker. Slade will grab his wrist before he can dig it out and return it. 

Keep it. He will sign the words slowly and deliberately. 

Why? I’m not in danger anymore, Robin will sign back. 

You don’t know that. Slade won’t look in Wayne’s direction, but he won’t need to. He’s not your dad, no matter how much he pretends to be.

He’s not my dad, Robin’s hands will agree. He’s my saviour. 

And he’ll emphasize that last word with a double thumb-tap to his chest.

Keep the tracker, Slade will repeat. One day, when you need me, you will be able to call me from anywhere in the world. 

After a moment, Robin will sigh and nod. 

Wayne will watch them with narrowed eyes, knowing something is passing between them he cannot comprehend, but he will say nothing. 

Slade isn’t a sentimental man, but Robin will nuzzle into his hand when he pats him on the head one last time, and Slade will wish, with a ferocity that surprises him, that he’d said fuck it to Wayne’s money and taken the kid away with him anyway. It will startle him, the vividness of the idea. He’s been in this business for years, and not once has he ever considered reneging on a contract with someone who hired him in good faith. Not until Robin. Not until now. 

Wayne might command more men and money and resources than Slade ever will, but if Slade put his mind to it, he reckons he could still get them pretty far away if he wanted to. He knew all along that Robin was never his to keep, but letting the boy walk away from him will fill him with regret. 

He’ll never find anyone like Robin ever again. The age of Owls and Talons is over. Robin is the last remaining vestige of their reign of terror. And as long as Wayne is alive, Slade will have to live with the knowledge that Robin will never truly belong to him. 

This time tomorrow, he will be four million dollars richer, but the thought leaves him cold.

“So.” Wayne will angle his umbrella so that it covers Robin’s small head. “What sorts of things have you been up to, hm? Tell me everything.”

He will put a hand on Robin’s shoulder as they walk back up the long, curving driveway together, and the brightness in Robin’s eyes as he turns his face up to reply will look like worship and devotion.

At the threshold of the house, they will pause. Just before the heavy front doors close behind them, Slade will hear Wayne say, “You didn’t tell him your real name, did you?”

Robin will throw a quick look over his shoulder and say, “No. I didn’t tell him anything you didn’t want me to.” Then he’ll tug at Wayne’s sleeve. “C’mon. He can still hear us here.”

“Good,” Wayne will say. He’ll turn and wave one final time before stepping through the door, and that’s how Slade will know he was meant to hear every word.

Robin won’t look back a second time. 

And Slade will know he’s lost him.