He couldn't breathe.
Nightwing's lungs burned as he cleared another rooftop, sweat rolling down his face despite the cold wind buffeting his body from all sides. Blaring horns filled the air as he neared the highway, the ever present sound of police and ambulance sirens drowning out any peaceful hum the city might have had. There hadn't been a single quiet night since he'd come to Bludhaven; tonight was no exception and he had the bruises to prove it.
He fired a quick shot with his grappling hook and leapt off the roof, tucking in his legs as he swung over the highway. His feet skimmed the top of a long haul truck despite his best efforts, his breath ragged as he tried to control his flight. He knew he'd been out too long if he was messing up a simple swing, but he couldn't rest yet. Not when his apartment was only eight blocks away.
Nightwing tumbled onto the opposite rooftop with a sloppy roll, wincing as the tears in his suit were torn even wider, his skin tearing along with it. He'd have to disinfect those scrapes later. He had to tend to a lot of wounds later.
Strange shadows danced across the roof from the headlights on the highway overpass below. Nightwing forced himself to keep moving, ignoring the dull pain emanating from every inch of his body. Light striped across his body before fleeing in a continuous game of tag. The overall effect was nauseating and he knew he'd never admit to anyone just how long it took him to reach the other end of the rooftop or how crisscrossed his path to get there was.
After that, Nightwing allowed muscle memory to take over. The path back to his apartment was a familiar one from this area, but it seemed foreign that night. The streets he passed over were uncharacteristically quiet, providing him with no distraction from the burning of his injuries as he strained them again and again.
He was naturally suspicious of quiet nights. Two drug busts and a gang war on the other end of town couldn't have been all the illegal activity that was happening in a shithole like Bludhaven on a Friday night. In Gotham, quiet nights meant one of the bigger fish in the pond were planning something big, but the big fish in Bludhaven had none of their subtlety or brains. So where were they?
As he swung over two more abandoned blocks, he began to tense. Did someone scare off the lowlifes, either a hero or a villain? Was he missing something obvious or was he just being paranoid? At this point, he half expected to see the two-pronged shadow of Batman's cowl even if the logical side of him kept insisting that nothing short of Gotham's complete destruction could make him take the forty minute trip south to Bludhaven. It'd been years since they'd worked side by side but even here his mind wouldn't let him escape his partner's shadow.
It was well after two in the morning by the time Dick climbed inside through his window, every inch of his body throbbing. The silence of his apartment felt oppressive after the roar of the wind had been deafening him for the last two hours. He stumbled into his bedroom, not bothering to even turn on the lights, and headed straight for his closet. He pulled off his domino mask and escrima sticks first, the motions automatic. His mind felt clouded. Foggy. He knew there were things he needed do, wounds he needed to take care of, but all he wanted to do was lie down. Not that sleep had been his friend recently.
Dick stilled as the cold, metal barrel of a gun kissed his bare neck.
"Bang. You're dead, little bird."
The voice was cold, professional. There was no edge to it, no crazed satisfaction, just clinical detachment. It shouldn't have been such a relief to hear, but it was. Dick relaxed, though he made no move to pull away from the gun. If Slade wanted him dead, he could have killed him without difficulty at any point that night.
"What the hell is wrong with you? I was sitting in your kitchen and you walked right past me. Normally, I can't even look at your apartment without you noticing," Slade said, his voice gruff and sharp all at once. It was a tone he was unfortunately familiar with, even more so than his last.
"What are you doing here?" Dick winced as soon as the words left his mouth. His voice had actually cracked like a prepubescent boy's it was so ragged.
Slade lowered the gun. "Were you captured or something? I haven't seen you look this shitty in years."
Dick sighed, still facing his closet. There was blood on his escrima sticks, the dark red standing out against the dark metal. He needed to wash them off.
"What the hell, kid?"
Slade grabbed his shoulder and jerked him around. Dick was thrown off balance, his limbs loose and uncoordinated. Dick vaguely saw Slade's one good eye widen in surprise as he stumbled, tripping right into the mercenary. Only Slade's death grip on his upper arms kept him upright.
"Okay, that's it," Slade growled, scooped Dick up so that he hung over his shoulder like a sack of grain.
Dick knew he should protest. Just because Slade would never kill him for reasons neither of them fully understood didn't mean that Slade actually cared about him. No one who cared about him would put a gun to his head. Except for Jason, but that was different. Red Hood might be feared, but he wasn't in the same league as Deathstroke the Terminator.
Slade dumped him onto his bed unceremoniously and then headed into the bathroom. He called out behind him, "Get out of the costume or I'm cutting it off you."
Dick obeyed without a second thought. Orders were easy. Much easier than talking, for sure. He hissed as he peeled the light Kevlar off his battered body, having to tug at certain areas where the blood was still sticky. He'd gotten it down to his waist when Slade stepped back into the room, a first aide kit and a clean towel in hand. Dick didn't want to think about how easily he found those. That could wait.
"Can you clean yourself or do I have?" Slade asked, noticing the emptiness in Dick's eyes.
"I can." It came out as a whisper even though he had tried to talk normally.
The mercenary looked at him skeptically, but handed him the towel nonetheless. Dick started cleaning off a nasty cut on his arm with practiced movements as Slade riffled through the kit. He came up with bandages, gauze, and some ointment Alfred had given him that was supposed to minimize scarring.
"Why are you here?" Dick asked again, his voice still a whisper.
"You should be glad I am. Where the hell is your family?"
He'd dodged the question again, telling Dick all he needed to know; Slade was here because he had a contract. As a professional courtesy, he'd stopped by to alert Dick he was in town. If Slade was in a good mood, it would have resulted in a tense, minute-long conversation. If he was in a bad mood, they would have fought. And if Slade really didn't want Dick to interfere, he'd probably drug him or create a distraction on the other side of town from where he was operating. Dick dimly wondered which one of them would have happened if he weren't a wreck.
"Gotham. Like always."
"And your friends?"
Dick knew he meant the Titans. "Busy saving the world."
Slade scoffed. "I think a few people would come running if they knew what was going on with you."
"That's why I didn't tell them." The words slipped out before he could stop them.
Slade raised an eyebrow at him, his frown lines deepening. "So it's one of those moods, eh?"
Dick clammed up, his shoulders tensing as he turned his attention to the next scrape. He'd already given away far more than he meant to.
Slade rolled his eye and left the room when it was clear that Dick wasn't going to respond. Dick heard Slade open and close the fridge and rummage through his cabinets. He couldn't bring himself to care even though a tiny voice in his head reminded him that he should have kicked the mercenary out by now.
The white towel was no longer that by the time Dick set it aside and reached for the gauze and paper tape Slade had left out for him. Slade stepped back into the room, this time holding a glass of water and a banana. Dick stifled his bizarre urge to laugh. Would anyone believe him if he told them Deathstroke, someone he'd fought almost as many times as the Joker, took care of him when he was...Dick sighed as he realized there was no good way to finish that sentence.
"Drink," Slade ordered, shoving the glass in his face. Dick drank as Slade snatched the gauze from him. "Antibiotic first."
It should have been weird, Dick reflected. He sat bare chested in his dark bedroom, the passing headlights of cars on the street below occasionally highlighting Slade's icy eye and deep set frown. The effect on the rooftop had been unsettling, but somehow he felt safer with every glimpse of Slade's face. It made everything feel more solid. More real.
Dick sucked in a deep breath as cold fingers brushed against the jagged cut on his arm. The older man's brow was knit in concentration as he rubbed the ointment onto the wound. If he noticed how Dick's Adam's apple bobbed and his hands shook, sloshing water against the sides of the glass, he didn't show it.
Slade cut out a perfect square of gauze and taped it down efficiently. Treating injuries was something one learned quickly in their world. Dick finished the glass of water, trying to ignore the fingers sliding across his skin. They were cold, but uncharacteristically gentle, a contradiction that he didn't want to think about.
"Eat," Slade said shortly, not looking up.
He did. Dick couldn't remember the last time he ate. It could have been before he went on patrol or three days ago for how much attention he'd paid to simple things like that recently. He didn't taste the banana at all, but the dull pain in his stomach that he'd thought was a wound lessened. He tossed the peel onto the nightstand just as Slade patched up the last scrape. The mercenary stared at him, his eye narrowed.
"What?" Dick asked, hyper conscious of the fact that his enemy (because that's what Slade would always be) was kneeling between his legs, Dick's dried blood crusting under his fingernails, a painfully open expression on his face.
"What happened to you, little bird?"
Dick flinched at the sorrow in Slade's voice. Never pity; Slade respected him too much for that, but the sorrow cut deep. Sorrow was too close to disappointment for him to brush aside.
"Nothing that you can do anything about," Dick said, moving to crawl back before a cold hand gripped his chin, holding him in place.
Slade's face was stone, as blank as the metal mask he wore. "I've asked four times, little bird. You can get away with a lot, but not that. Tell me what happened to you or I tell the Bat to come save his prodigal son."
Dick's breath hitched. Bruce couldn't see him like this. Jason, Tim, Babs, Damian, Alfred, none of them could see him like this. He was Nightwing, heir to his father's mantle. They couldn't see him like this.
"I went on a mission with the Titans last week," he said, his fingers twisting in the sheets, his gaze fixed pointedly downwards despite the hand on his chin. "It wasn't anything we hadn't done a thousand times before. Just a recon mission on one of Lexcorp's more suspicious shell companies to help a League investigation. It was going well. Starfire and I were about to signal our retreat when it happened."
Dick clenched his jaw, his eyes screwed shut as he recalled every awful minute. The hand dropped from his chin. He knew it was the only kindness Slade would show him until he spit it out.
"Lex knew we were coming. I don't know how. We might have tripped an alarm or maybe the whole op was a setup. It doesn't matter now, I guess. Either way, we had the League of Assassins surrounding us from all sides before we could regroup. Star and I got off easy. We had a defensible position. The rest of the Titans weren't so lucky."
"Who got hurt, little bird?" His voice wasn't nearly as gruff as Dick expected. It was almost...soft. He knew it was just because Slade was disturbed by Dick's fragility, but he would have expected a more victorious reaction from the man whose life mission was to end the Titans.
"Wally and Donna. They're healing now, but it was touch and go at first. They might not have made it." Dick's stomach knotted at the thought.
"And you think it's your fault."
Dick's eyes shot open, his hands fisting in the sheets. "It is my fault. I was the one who got the intel from the League and led the mission. I should have done more, I—"
"Done what?" Slade interrupted. "Why would you have double checked intel from the League? They've always been reliable, right? And just because you led the mission doesn't mean you're responsible for every boo boo they get."
Slade didn't understand, Dick realized. He'd never been on a team like the Titans. He didn't understand how it felt to try to staunch two of your best friends' bleeding wounds at once and know that if it weren't for you, they would be eating pizza and laughing at Beast Boy's antics in the Tower.
Slade sighed. "You've always been such a martyr. Getting yourself killed won't change the past."
Dick frowned. "I'm not suicidal."
Slade barked out a laugh, the sound too loud in the too quiet apartment. "That might be the funniest thing you've ever said, kid." Seeing Dick's frown deepen, Slade asked, "When's the last time you ate?"
Dick glared. "I had—"
"How about this? When's the last time you saw or talked to your friends or family? Or if I picked up your phone, would I see twenty missed messages?"
There had been sixteen missed messages before Dick went on patrol and he knew that there were probably even more now. Not that he was going to admit that to Slade.
"I'm not trying to kill myself," Dick insisted.
Slade gave him an unimpressed look. "You're not trying to live either. If you actually were, you would still be with the Titans instead of letting Bludhaven scum flagellate you as penance. And before you spout some bullshit about Bludhaven being your responsibility, think about how many of these bandages would be back in the box if you weren't such a self sacrificing idiot."
Dick's chest tightened. "It's not that simple."
"It's not? Enlighten me, then. If you're not punishing yourself, what are you doing?"
He wanted to answer. He wanted to say that this was all a big misunderstanding, that this was just one careless night. He wanted to convince both of them that he was fine, but the words stuck in his throat, choking him with their accusations.
When Dick didn't—couldn't—answer, Slade snorted. "That's what I thought."
Dick flinched. Slade had no right to judge him. After all, Slade was only familiar with this side of him because he'd been the one who put him in this state in the past.
"Didn't your dad warn you that this is what happens in our world? People get hurt. They die brutal deaths. Things happen that you can't control." Though his words were blunt, his gaze was almost gentle. Kind. "You can't blame yourself for everything that goes wrong."
Some childish part of him wanted to snark watch me and laugh at Slade's reaction, but that required too much effort. He'd never won an argument with Slade before; he had no reason to believe he'd win one now.
"You know what you need? A shower and twelve hours of sleep. I don't think I can stand to stare at your blank face any longer," Slade said, standing up. "Can you walk there like a big boy or do I need to carry you again?"
Dick stared at him, his brow furrowing.
"What?" Slade snapped, annoyance etched into his frown lines.
"Why are you helping me?" Dick asked, his eyes searching the older man's face for answers. "You'll fight me without hesitation out there, but you just bandaged my cuts. I don't get it."
Slade's mouth thinned until it was nothing more than a tight line, his body as stiff as a board. For a minute, Dick thought he might actually get an answer before Slade shook his head and said, "Just get in the shower, Grayson."
Last name. He'd pushed Slade as far as he would go.
"Try not to fall down," Slade growled as Dick shut the door behind him. It was as close as he would get to saying be careful.
Dick turned on the water, his whole body feeling sluggish. It was like when time slowed down in the movies and the characters were forced to move at a snail's pace no matter how hard they tried to move faster. In stark contrast, the water seemed to run too fast, individual droplets turning into a bluish blur, a steady stream that Dick had no desire to stand under. All of his energy had been spent getting in the bathroom. Without Slade's orders, he couldn't convince himself to take that final step into the lukewarm spray.
The mirror started to fog up, the reflective white obscuring his face from view. He could still see his torso if he wanted to, but he was scared. Would he even recognize the body as his own when it was covered in a distressing amount of bruises and gauze? Or would it be too familiar that way after spending years as the punching bag for every supervillain and criminal out there, including the one who he could hear moving around inside his apartment?
Slowly, Dick finished stepping out of his costume, sharp pain lancing up his sides and thighs as he inadvertently stretched his wounds. Pulling the plastic covers over his bandages was no less painful. As much as he hated it, the pain helped clear his head enough to realize that a shower was a necessity. If nothing else, the sooner he got in, the sooner he could go lie down. He wasn't deluded enough to even consider going back on patrol even though some reckless side of him wanted to. Maybe Slade was right about him.
With that horrifying thought rattling around his head, Dick stepped into the shower. He hissed, clenching his jaw so tightly it felt like it would break. The hot water burned his battered body, his clumsy hands struggling to turn the temperature down.
Dick showered as quickly as possible, that horrible numbness creeping in again as the water began to soothe rather than irritate his wounds. As soon as he was sure all of the grit, sweat, and blood was swirling down the drain, he switched off the water and stepped out of the shower. The mirror, thankfully, was fogged over.
Dick pulled on the pair of boxer shorts and pajama pants Slade had left for him in the bathroom, though when he had done so, Dick wasn't certain. Again, he didn't want to think about how Slade seemed to know where things in his apartment were. He just wanted the mercenary to leave and to have a dreamless night of sleep.
Slade was inspecting the rack of escrima sticks and other gadgets in his closet when Dick stepped out, a towel slung around his shoulders.
"You're not going to go flitting out the window the second I leave, right, little bird?" Slade asked, not looking up from the new smoke pellets Bruce had sent him. "I'd hate to drag you back here when you can't fight back properly."
Dick knew he should quip something biting back at him, knew that Slade was hoping for that, but he couldn't. He was just too tired.
"I'm not going anywhere," was all he could manage.
Dick sensed his frown rather than saw it. He didn't care. He just wanted to sleep.
He stumbled over to bed, ruffling his hair one last time with the towel before dropping it onto the floor. Dick all but collapsed onto his mattress, dropping hard enough to bounce twice before settling in. He pulled the blankets up to his chin and rolled over to face the window, turning his back on Slade purposefully.
Slade was quiet, the only sound a light clink as he brushed his fingers over the various gadgets and weapons. Dick should care that his enemy was taking stock of his supplies. Even as his eyes began to droop and his body relaxed, the part of him that was Robin and Nightwing and the son of Batman screamed, reminding him of just how many of his scars had been carved onto his body by Deathstroke's blades.
Slade sighed and the sound seemed to echo in the quiet apartment. "If I ever find you like this again, don't expect me to be so generous. You lost me a lot of money tonight."
Dick should be happy that he (inadvertently) stopped Slade from fulfilling whatever contract took him to Bludhaven. He wasn't. He wasn't anything.
"You didn't have to do this," Dick murmured, rolling over to face Slade, his dark hair falling into his eyes.
Slade's lips were nothing more than a thin line, his brow furrowed as his ice blue eye took in the young hero. Dick had always prided himself on his ability to read people, but he suspected even if he was at his best, he wouldn't have been able to interpret what Slade's expression meant.
"Go to bed, Grayson," was all he said.
Fuck Dick Grayson and the stupid power he had over Slade.
None of it should have happened, Slade fumed as he stormed out of the kid's bedroom. He had only accepted the contract because it was easy money and a convenient excuse to see Bludhaven's own guardian angel. He'd been suspicious when he saw the state of disarray Dick's apartment was in (it wasn't unusual for him to slack off a little and let dishes pile up, but every surface was covered in dirty dishes, worn clothes, and random papers), but it wasn't until the kid walked right past him, bleeding and looking like a kicked puppy, that Slade realized just how wrong things were.
He should have called the Bat and left the apartment before Dick could notice him. Taking care of injured birds who had flown too far from home wasn't in his job description, but to be perfectly honest, it didn't seem to be in the Bat's either. At least, that was how he rationalized it when he grabbed the first aid kit out of the bathroom.
He'd seen all of the little bird's highs and lows over the years, and at a point, they became predictable. Whenever his relationship with the Tamaranean or Batgirl was going well, he was nigh on unstoppable, to the point where Slade avoided picking fights with him. He was the same way whenever he opened up his too-caring heart to a new sibling or team member. Slade had tried to drill this weakness out of him to no avail; the kid was a natural martyr.
The lows were even more extreme than the highs. They came and went as erratically as the tides, here one minute and gone the next. The cause was always the same, though. Whenever someone he loved was hurt or killed, the kid went crazy. As soon as his vengeance was satiated, he cut all ties with anyone who cared about him and launched himself headfirst into his work, not seeming to care whether he lived or died. Usually one of the Bats or Titans would shake him out of it, but there were more than a few times that that unpleasant task had fallen to Slade, something both of them had hidden from the world. Both their reputations would suffer if anyone knew just how close the mercenary and hero were.
Still, this time was different. The Titans should have checked on him by now. For a team that claimed to be a family, they didn't seem to know the first thing about their fearless leader otherwise they'd stop leaving him voicemails and whisk him away to Titans Tower. And where the hell were his father and brothers and all the other Gothamites? Were they really too busy to check on the golden child in person?
The true difference in this particular low wasn't the others' inaction: it was Dick himself. Slade was used to Dick working himself into a stupor and growing more and more reckless as he continued to wallow. What he wasn't used to was the horrible emptiness in Dick's eyes, eyes that were normally so full of light and laughter and emotion. There was something especially unnerving about staring at his face and finding nothing recognizable, nothing that marked him as the loud mouthed brat who had dared to fight Deathstroke the Terminator even when his mentor had explicitly told him to disengage. It had affected Slade more than he cared to admit.
Things had gotten even worse from there. Sure, the kid had snapped out of it enough to talk and follow basic commands, but he was too...pliable for Slade's comfort. Too vulnerable. What would have happened to him if someone less attached to Dick had found him in such a state? Just thinking about it made his stomach turn.
It wasn't just how uncharacteristically obedient Dick was being. It was how he didn't stop Slade that had him so worried. Even when Dick was at the lowest of lows, he kept a stranglehold on control over the situation, dictating how close he'd allow Slade and what both of them said. At his core, Dick was terrified of losing control, so the fact that Dick had let him set the terms this time around put him on edge.
He had decided to test how far Dick would let him go. It wasn't too surprising Dick consented to eat and drink and it was a testament to how much he trusted Slade that he made no effort to inspect them. It wasn't even surprising that Dick allowed him to bandage his injuries, though he was expecting at least one tired quip that never came. No, it wasn't until Dick didn't stop him from kneeling between his legs that Slade realized how utterly screwed he was.
Though he'd never harbored any inappropriate feelings for the little bird when he was still standing in his father's shadow, Slade wasn't blind. The little acrobat had grown into a truly pretty young man, something that had caused the both of them a fair bit of trouble over the last few years. Slade had fired more than a few shots and dumped more than a few bodies into rivers to keep some of his less savory colleagues away from the vigilante. The message that Nightwing was protected spread quickly after that. Still, Slade hadn't truly realized why all those idiots would even consider going after a Bat until he was between Dick's legs.
Dick knew what kind of effect he had on people and had used it to his advantage more than once. His looks were as much a weapon as his fists, but Slade had never had the full force of them directed at him before. Dick's hair fell over one of his eyes artfully, as if he had planned it. His chest was bare, exposing blood and scars, but also lean muscles and a narrow waist. As Slade's eyes dropped even further, he saw the sharp lines of his hipbones, the bulge in his suit only inches from Slade's face. His mouth dry, Slade's eyes snapped back up to Dick's face. The kid hadn't even noticed just what he was doing to his unlikely savior.
He'd nearly lost it when he'd grabbed Dick's chin earlier that night. He hadn't thought about what it would be like to be that close to, to see it all right in front of his face. Slade could handle the light blush on his cheeks and even the bobbing of his Adam's apple. It was Dick's eyes that took him down, night blue eyes that were even prettier with his pupils blown wide, his focus solely on Slade. Dick's pink lips had parted slightly as he took in their intimate position. Accidentally, Slade was sure, but God if it didn't seem like it was intentional. Slade had seen Dick give plenty of men and women this exact look on some of the little bird's more unpalatable missions, but never before at him. It was enough to make a sinner out of a saint.
Luckily for Dick, Slade was no saint. Temptation and him were old friends.
It had taken all of Slade's self control to remain professional as he taped the gauze onto Dick's wounds. He wasn't a man who normally denied himself, but the little bird was where he drew the line. His restraint was tested multiple times as he noted the effect he had on the boy, most notably his unsteady hands and the bobbing of his Adam's apple. Why the Bat ever let his first bird fly away from the nest was something he would never understand.
Finding out that Dick was so fragile because some of his friends had been hurt was no surprise considering that was always why Dick broke down, but the fact that he hadn't heard about it was bothersome. Normally, he had an information network that rivaled Oracle's, but he'd walked into Bludhaven at a disadvantage. If he'd known Nightwing was on a self destructive rampage through the city's underworld, he would have gone there first and not to the shabby apartment, although his snooping had made tending to Dick easier.
It wasn't until the little bird had dared to talk to him with bed tousled hair and a sleepy drawl to his words that Slade finally left the room. If he stayed any longer, he knew he'd do something stupid and Dick would take it as penance for his nonexistent crimes. How Dick wasn't a martyr whose death inspired a new generation of heroes by now was beyond him. He seemed to be asking for it half the time.
Slade cleaned his blades while kicking back on the surprisingly plush living room couch until he heard the subtle change in Dick's breathing and heartbeat that meant he was finally getting some much needed sleep. Mission accomplished, Slade thought as he stood up and sheathed the katanas.
A part of him wanted to peek inside Dick's bedroom and see how sleep changed his familiar expression. The other part of him argued that he should use Dick's vulnerability to his advantage to make up for the millions of dollars he'd lost that night.
He didn't listen to either of them. Instead, he grabbed Dick's phone and got to work.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Dick groaned and tossed out a clumsy arm, fingers fumbling across the nightstand until they finally found the button on the alarm clock. The loud beeping was silenced and Dick was left with a sudden sharp pain in his arm. Bruce and Alfred had always hated when he was injured because he was prone to forgetting until he'd torn his stitches back open or banged his bruises against furniture. It seemed that even years later, he hadn't learned his lesson.
Dick cracked his eyes open, the red numbers 11:59 staring accusingly back at him. 11:59. Dick would never set his alarm to such a strange time. His blood ran cold. Slade would.
Dick stayed perfectly still, hardly daring to breathe as he tried to listen. The faint sound of driving cars and bird calls filtered into the apartment, the normal sounds for noon in Bludhaven. No creaking floorboards or rustling in the kitchen tipped him off to the mercenary's presence. Had Slade left?
His room was different. Cleaner. The stained towel and the clean one he'd slung around his shoulders last night were nowhere to be seen even though he remembered dropping them on the floor. The banana peel he'd left on the nightstand wasn't there anymore, although there was a full glass of water next to his alarm clock. The first aid kit was also gone, presumably back on its designated shelf in the bedroom. Had Slade really cleaned up his room while he'd slept?
A note on his nightstand caught his attention. Dick sat up, eyeing the shadows in his room warily. When he still caught no glimpse of Slade or anything else he might have left behind, he grabbed the note. The small scrap of paper only had one sentence written on it in meticulous penmanship.
"Don't worry, I told them to leave your Robin behind," Dick murmured, reading the note aloud to himself.
His breath hitched. The note fluttered down to the floor as he scrambled for his phone, eighteen missed messages greeting him on the lock screen. Before he could pull up Damian's contact, Dick heard the distinct sound of keys opening a door. Someone was letting themself into Dick's apartment.
As Dick scrambled over to his closet to get dressed before his family or a Titan (the two groups who had keys to his apartment) walked in on him half-dressed and littered with injuries, he heard two people come inside, slamming the door shut behind them.
"—and if you had just told me that you have a massive bruise there, maybe I'd be sorry about punching you there," a familiar, aggravated voice said as he stomped into the kitchen. Dick knew that voice and the combat boots that accompanied it. Jason.
"Or maybe you could just say hi instead of punching my arm." Tim's annoyed tone was evident even from down the hall. Dick could picture the pinched face Tim made while talking, a look he often got when he was talking to Jason.
"No way. Punching is how I show affection. You should have seen how Dickiebird and I used to say hi before you were around. If only one of us had a split lip, Bruce and Alfred called it a success."
Dick finished pulling on clothes and hurried into the bathroom to give himself a cursory once over, but his attention snagged on his reflection. He looked...okay. Not good by any means, but better than he had since Wally and Donna had been hurt. The near permanent bags under his eyes had eased, making it look like he'd had one restless night rather than a week's worth. His skin was sallow, and he was suddenly aware of just how much weight he'd lost, but it wasn't as bad as he feared it was last night. His long sleeved shirt and pajama pants covered all of his gauze and bruises perfectly. Jason and Tim were too observant to not notice how bad he was doing, but they wouldn't be able to tell the full extent. Slade's gift to him.
"Up and at 'em, Dickiebird," Jason hollered. "You're the one who asked us to come over and like the amazing brothers we are, we came. On time, too."
"That's only because you take speed limits as a challenge," Tim grumbled loudly enough for Dick to hear. He almost grinned.
How did Slade reach them? And how did he make it look like Dick was the one who contacted them? And what were his brothers going to think of him when they saw him? Dick's breath grew more and more shallow as his mind began to spiral.
"Come on, Dickiebird. I didn't come to your shit city to hang out with the Replacement."
His stomach twisted in knots, Dick walked down the short hallway into the combined living room and kitchen area. Tim was unpacking grocery bags, dressed casually in jeans and a hoodie. Jason was cooking something on the stove, his signature leather jacket and combat boots contrasting with the domestic scene. Dick couldn't even remember the last time the three of them were together voluntarily and not because there was another breakout from Arkham Asylum.
"What are you guys doing here?" Dick asked.
Jason and Tim whirled around at once, eyes narrowed as they took him in. Even if he felt rested, his voice was just as broken as it was last night and his brothers picked up on that immediately. Dick's appearance only served to confirm their suspicions.
"You're joking, right? You're the one who said you were too busy all week to go grocery shopping and decided to have a family get together like a middle-aged white lady," Jason grumbled. Dick knew him well enough to see the concern in the tight lines around his mouth.
"I didn't ask you guys here. Someone else was in my apartment last night and they must have reached out to you," Dick explained, sitting down on a barstool at the kitchen counter.
Tim frowned. "Who was it?"
"No one important." Both of them seemed inclined to argue, so Dick quickly asked, "How did you get the message?"
"Text," Tim answered, pulling out his phone. After a few swipes, Tim handed it to Dick.
Hey, babybird! I've been swamped all week between work and patrol, but I want to catch up with you and Jay. Could you guys bring some food and groceries around 12 tomorrow? Sent at 3:49.
Dick had to give it to Slade, he'd done a good job imitating how Dick texted his brother. Judging by the time Slade sent the text, he must have spent a few minutes after Dick went to bed reading up on their prior texts to get a sense for how they talked to each other. Dick was glad he deleted any texts that had sensitive information the second he read them. There was another text from Dick's phone under the first message that read:
P.S. don't tell Damian. I'm planning to steal him away from B tomorrow, but I want it to be a surprise.
"So you didn't send this? Who did? I mean, who was here that managed to hack your phone?" Tim asked, rambling on. It was one of his nervous habits.
Dick's lips twitched. It was all too perfect. Slade had ensured that he got a peaceful night of sleep and that he couldn't go back to his self-destructive patrols by inviting his overprotective brothers over. With food, no less, because Slade knew he wouldn't eat otherwise. But if it made his brothers happy, he would do anything. And to make sure that he didn't revert the second Jason and Tim left, Slade had already arranged to send his Robin to Bludhaven. For Jason and Tim, he'd eat and rest, but for Damian, he would force himself to recover.
"What the hell's going on?" Jason demanded as Dick continued to stare at the bright screen, his lips twitching.
That was the last straw. Dick burst out laughing.
"Dick?" Tim asked apprehensively as his big brother continued to laugh. Jason was eyeing him like he'd gotten sprayed with the Joker's hellish laughing gas.
Dick couldn't stop. It wasn't his usual laugh, the kind that would make his belly ache later and never failed to coax reluctant grins from Bruce and Damian no matter how foul their mood was. This laugh was rough and loud, his sore throat hating every peal, but he couldn't stop himself. It was just too ironic.
"Should I knock him out? I'm totally willing to knock him out," Jason offered.
"Yeah, no. Let's not do that," Tim said, stepping between Jason and Dick just in case.
Dick managed to smother his laughter enough to sling his arms around their shoulders and say, "Let's finish cooking. I'm starving."
"Are you okay, Dick?" Tim asked.
Dick snorted, unable to stop himself. "No. Not at all. But I am glad that you guys are here."
All three boys were too absorbed in each other to notice the masked figure watching them from the opposite roof. As they started pulling out plates and playfully elbowing each other, the masked figure left. After all, his mission was accomplished.