“Tara Markov, I presume.”
The girl is tiny. Slade's files say that she's about thirteen years old, but he doesn't remember Joseph or Grant ever being this small. She looks half-starved and her huge feverish eyes are darting rapidly from side to side, looking for possible escape routes.
“You can't make me go home,” she spits, pressing her back up against the cave wall. He can hear the rocks scraping against each other as she tries to focus. “I'll kill you.”
I'd like to see you try, he almost says. Instead, he pulls off his mask and gently touches her bony arm. “They're gone,” he says.
He turns and leaves. Feels her glaring at his back. He knows that soon, she won't be angry.
Soon, she'll see the bodies at her threshold.
He's never had a pet, but he presumes this is what it's like to feed a stray cat. A couple times a week, he leaves a pack of energy bars and a bottle of water at the entrance to her cave. The bodies have been dealt with by now, of course. It wouldn't be a good idea to leave them lying around like that.
He doesn't let her know that he can see her watching him, but one rainy night she slips and falls loudly to the ground. He looks at her, she looks at him, and she runs away wordlessly.
“Why.” It's not a question. She's staring at her bare feet, pale hair hanging lankly in her face. “Why are you helping me.”
He doesn't answer until she looks him in the eye.
“You're a special girl, Tara,” is what he says.
It takes a moment for it to register. Then, a look of disgust washes over her face.
“I noticed,” she says.
He doesn't see her the next time he visits, so he doesn't leave any offerings. It takes almost a month, but eventually she resurfaces and smiles sheepishly at him. She's noticeably thinner than she was when he last saw her.
Maybe what he's doing is cruel. It's less cruel than ignoring her and letting her starve to death alone, isn't it? Maybe it would be more merciful just to kill her. She must be living in a constant state of fear. But it would be such a waste of such huge potential...
Will would disapprove, definitely. But Will's not here right now, is he? For some reason the old bastard thought it would be a good idea to take his leave, after the incident with Robin a year before. If Will isn't going to provide him with company, Slade might as well seek it out. And this little girl is a wild animal with no prey, ready to pounce at anything that moves, and it would be wrong to let her waste away when she could be an apex predator.
To hell with Will. Slade is going to study this feral child until she becomes either an asset or a threat. It's not as if anyone's there to stop him.
“Haven't heard from them since summer,” she grins. She takes a vicious bite out of a piece of beef jerky. “I don't think they're gonna try finding me again.”
It's the first time she's said more than a few words to him at a time. She's still sitting at a safe distance, hunched over the plastic grocery bag protectively. He nods.
“I bet they think I was the one that did it,” she says. “Killed them, I mean. The bounty hunters.” She pauses, looks pensively at her jerky. “Thanks.”
“You're feeding me because of my powers, right?”
“There are hundreds of metahumans in this country,” he says. “And I've met most of them. But you're the one with the most potential.”
She's quiet for a while after that. She stands, gathers up the bag, and starts to wander deeper into the cave. Hesitantly, she looks over her shoulder. “What should I call you?”
“My name is Slade Wilson.”
“Mr. Wilson, then, I guess.”
She smiles at him, widely. For a second, he can see a flicker of childish innocence in her face before she retreats.
One night, she doesn't wait for him to sit down to show herself. She stands at the entrance, fists clenched, eyes red and tired.
“Teach me how to kill people,” she says bluntly.
He ignores the small thrill in his chest. He has to be the calm one here, always. “Why do you want that?” he asks.
“I'm getting bigger, but I'm not getting stronger,” she says. “People have always been able to push me around. My mom, then my father, then the scientists. When I lived in the city, the bigger kids would always get to the good food and sleeping spots before I could. I'm still slow, and I still suck at using my powers. At this rate, I'm going to die.” She smiles coldly. “Soon, I won't be a kid. Nobody's gonna feel sorry for me anymore, so I'll force them to respect me.”
“You want to be able to get other people before they get you.”
“I guess,” she shrugs. “Show me how.”
“There will be conditions. It's more than just knowledge, Tara. It's a way of life.”
“I'll take it, then. Any way of life sounds better than being dead.”
He offers her his hand, and she grabs it like she's falling.
That's where it starts.
It's almost like being a father again.
Scratch that-- that would make this weird.
All the same, he enjoys the company. Between contracts, he can go for days without talking to anyone. Wintergreen has been busy, after all. Tara isn't the best conversationalist, but she's inquisitive and enthusiastic, and she seems to see him as some kind of demigod.
“If you've made so much money off this assassin stuff already, why do you keep on doing it?” she asks one day. “You could probably retire to a mansion in France or something. Raise lions.”
“I need to keep myself busy,” he says. He ignores the lion remark. That's another topic for another day. “This is what I do best.”
“What do I do best?” she asks, fluttering her pale eyelashes.
“Nothing in particular yet,” he answers. She's clearly fishing for compliments, and she really doesn't deserve any praise at the moment. She's been pretty useless today.
“I'll go check the security tapes,” she says, and scampers off.
Lions. Why does she associate success with raising lions?
Tara has gained weight, which is good. If she's too light to handle a stiff breeze, she won't last five seconds in combat. Slade remembers the tests he had to take when he joined the army. He'd been strong for his age, but some of the other boys, actual eighteen-year-old-legal-adult boys, had wheezed and stumbled through their endurance courses. They shouldn't have passed.
They died too quickly, when they were on the field. It was a waste of resources, and kind of depressing.
Of course, Tara probably isn't going to be in a military situation. She's a meta, and that gives her an advantage over the average person. If she looks small and nonthreatening, maybe that will actually be in her favor.
She's almost 90 pounds right now, which isn't perfect, but isn't severely underweight for her age either. She fits into clothes from the children's section of the Walmart, which probably means something, but he can't think what. Her breasts haven't gotten much bigger. Maybe she just hasn't hit puberty yet?
He finds himself wasting a whole damn lot of time thinking about the logistics of his girl's body fat percentage.
Dick was never this flighty. At least, Dick didn't wander all over the compound like he owned it. He stayed where he was put.
Of course, that was because Slade never took his eyes off Dick, because he didn't want him to escape. Tara hasn't given him any reason to worry that she'll run away. She knows full well that if she leaves, she'll probably die slowly and painfully.
When she's stronger, though... When she's stronger, maybe she'll realize she can take care of herself. That's an accomplishment on Slade's part, isn't it?
“Is it staffs or guns today?” she asks.
Adeline left when Joseph was 8 and Grant was 12. It was like being shot in the gut.
The divorce was very clean. Hardly any drama. She knew that he was an international contract killer, and now that she'd tried to shoot him in cold blood, he could make his own case against her. If they tried to work it out within the legal system, they'd probably both end up in prison, so they discussed their terms without any nosy lawyers. Addie's condition was that she got full custody of the boys, and he agreed to it. What other options did he have?
The first year was probably the hardest. He had Will, and he had his contracts, and that was it. Obsession was a necessity. If he wasn't busy, he'd be alone with his thoughts. In the end, he got a lot done.
Grant showed up the second year in.
“I found you,” he said.
And they worked together until the end.
The fact that she's getting healthier does have its consequences. When she's less desperate, she's a lot ruder, for one thing. She asks a lot more questions when she's not half-dead. He should probably count that as a good thing, but it gives him a headache when she runs her mouth like that.
There's something else-- something incredibly obvious that he'd forgotten about entirely. Tara is a girl. And girls, given time...
Malnutrition can delay menarche. Will delay it, almost inevitably. It's a matter of conserving resources. But as soon as the feeding schedules get regular, nature catches up, leaving him to explain to a crying fourteen-year-old that she isn't dying.
Part of the job, he figures.
At night, Tara thrashes like an earthworm. He's usually up far later than she is, and sometimes he passes by her room and hears screaming. He doesn't interfere. He knows her history, and therefore he knows why she's like this. She needs to learn to ride these nights out; he did, after all.
There's no room for softness in his world. Their world, he corrects himself. It's nice.
She really does seem to have the right mental profile for a mercenary. That delicate balance of paranoia and determination. A desire to feel powerful. She's going places.
If she lives, anyway.
She starts tagging along for some of his contracts. He tells people she's his daughter, and they say they can see it.
“She has your eyes,” is what the motel owners and diner waitresses say. Then they become embarrassed, because they said “eyes” and they apologize, and look away, and go off to mind their own damn business.
It's still unsettling.
Tara keeps a straight face during the killings. Once or twice, he considers asking her to do the honors, but it feels like it would be condescending somehow. Like offering to let a child sit on his lap and pretend to drive.
He imagines Tara sitting on his lap.
He hands her the gun and she shoots an unarmed CEO right in the fucking face.
She smiles at him.
At fifteen years old, Tara is a completely different species from the shaking, hissing child he found in the desert. She moves with an easy confidence, like some big predatory animal. She still doesn't have much muscle tone, which is disappointing. Slade had thought his regimen was better than that.
Somewhere along the way, he must have become too lenient. Maybe it was when he let her start smoking. It's too adult for her. He wouldn't have let Dick smoke.
Dick was well-behaved. Dick never smoked or drank.
Why is he still thinking about that?
“If only they could see me now,” she says. “They'd be fucking terrified.”
“It feels good, doesn't it? Realizing that you could kill your demons if you wanted to.” He puts a hand on her shoulder.
“It was the same for you, wasn't it?” she asks.
He doesn't need to answer.
He realizes that she is trying to seduce him.
It's the small things. The motion of her hips is just a little more exaggerated. She chews on her bottom lip until it's red and swollen. When she trains, her gasps of exertion are vaguely erotic.
Many things about Tara are unambiguously sexual, and it's creeping him out. Where did she learn that?
He decides to ignore it and hope it goes away.
Grant had a stiff upper lip most of the time. Said he didn't miss his mother, or Joseph. Slade wasn't sure he believed him, but he wasn't about to complain.
Grant hadn't gotten the best grades at military school, but he was a stellar apprentice. Took orders like a soldier, but planned like a general. Knew the pros and cons of heavy automatics, the best survival strategies for different climates, and how to spot a liar from across a crowded room.
The only really worrying thing about him was that when he did get emotional, he lost control of himself. One night, he lost five sparring matches in a row. He broke his staff over his knee and stormed off. He was missing for about 36 hours. He came back smelling like pine needles and campfire smoke and covered in scratches. Slade understood. There were worse things to do with anger.
“There was a coup,” Tara says. Her face is expressionless. “Back home. Things were rough when I left, but...” She stares at the concrete floor, her arms hanging limply at her sides.
“Do you plan on interfering?” Slade asks.
“My father was killed.” Her wide open eyes are welling up. “I didn't really know him, but...”
“Are you going to do anything about it?”
“Gregor is the king now. I think... the article said something about Brion going back, to help get things organized again.”
“Is this relevant to your life, right now?”
She squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head. Before he can say anything else, she's embracing him. Her face is pressed into his chest, and it's making his shirt wet. He strokes her hair and waits for her to stop shaking. She looks up at him with red-rimmed eyes and gives him a watery smile.
She gets five minutes to wash her face, and then they review military history for two hours before she goes to bed.
He can feel small phantom hands clutching the front of his shirt.
She's getting touchier. As in, she's touching him a lot. When they spar, it's as though she's taking advantage of every opportunity she has to brush against him. When he adjusts her posture, she seems to lean into his hands.
Somehow, her very breathing has become conspicuous: the way her chest rises and falls, the way her hair rustles when it gets in her face.
She really needs to stop doing this. It's inappropriate.
The first time he kissed Adeline, she'd just finished pulling him out of a swamp. Of course, she was the reason he'd fallen in the first place. Somehow, that made all the difference.
Her lips were salty with sweat. They were both laughing wholeheartedly.
He dreamed of the mole on her cheek that night.
How long has it been since he's really laughed?
Ah, fuck it.
Tara starts a hand-to-hand session without being prompted first. That's normal. He encourages it. She seems to be filled with nervous energy today, so she might as well make it useful. Slade manages to trip her. It takes a lot of effort-- she really is getting better. But instead of falling away, like he's taught her, she falls forward into him and he has to catch her.
This is the moment, then.
She cranes her neck to look up at him. Her eyes are moon-round and blue. Nothing like Addie's. She tilts her head to the side, as if she's waiting for him to do something.
“Are you--” she starts. That's when he kisses her.
Without even thinking, he lets himself pull her closer, tangles one hand in her hair and holds her lower back with the other. He has to bend his knees to be on level with her. She's so small. If he wanted to, he could snap her in half. She squirms against him, and it's heaven. He can feel her heart beating through her thin t-shirt, like a drumroll against his chest. He wants to shove her down on the concrete and take her right here, but that would probably be unprofessional.
Her mouth tastes like gatorade.
Finally, he has to draw back to breathe. She's staring at him, red-faced and wide-eyed, lips still parted.
“Why...” she averts her eyes, suddenly embarrassed. “What was...” A series of emotions flicker across her face: apprehension, anger, grief, then at last a smile. “Why didn't you just say so?”
She stands on her tip-toes and kisses him. There's something vicious about it-- she wraps her thin arms around his neck and pulls him down. When she breaks the kiss, her eyebrows are furrowed. He knows that look: it's resignation.
To be honest, he'll take what he can get.
Their relationship doesn't actually change much.
They train. She follows him on contracts. She takes a few of her own, actually. When she's gone, he misses her. He hopes she misses him back. His girl is growing up.
It still feels kind of like being father, except with a lot more kissing and groping.
God, that sounds wrong.
“Lemme get this straight,” she says. “You want me to move out so I can live with the Titans. Who you hate.”
“I want you to be my spy,” he says. “I want you to get information that I can't.”
“I won't fit in with them,” she says. “I've seen them before. They look like a church youth group. I don't exactly give off a wholesome image.”
She isn't wrong. While she doesn't look like a wild animal anymore, she certainly doesn't look like any kind of innocent teenager. Whether it's the cigarette in her mouth, the jaded look in her eyes, or the frankly lewd way she sits (with her legs so far apart, like an invitation), the idea of her with the Titans is kind of hilarious.
“You'll clean up fine,” is all he says.
The first step in Tara's infiltration is moving out. She hasn't accumulated all that much during the two years she's been his apprentice, and she can't take most of it with her anyway. They've agreed that her best bet is to go back to homelessness for a while, just to get into character. They'll still meet once a week, on Saturday nights, to recap her findings.
She's strangely emotional as she prepares to leave. Standing in the entrance to her old cave, tiny in her cheap hoodie and jean shorts, she looks so vulnerable, so similar to that nervous little girl from back then.
He wonders if this is what it would be like to see one of his children leave for college. Joseph's not quite old enough yet, and Grant...
“I'll miss you,” she says.
“Saturday at 11:45.”
“What should I do, when I have to fight you?”
“Don't hold back. I can take it.”
“I really want a cigarette.” She grins at him. “I guess that's not very Titan-ish of me, is it?”
He embraces her, then he turns and leaves.
The compound feels very empty.
He doesn't want Tara to become distracted. He doesn't want her to forget what she's in Titans Tower for. He especially doesn't want her to become attached.
"I know that I probably shouldn't be," she says, sitting with her knees apart and her ankles crossed on a rock in a cave south of the city. He catches himself appreciating her legs. "But I've been having a lot of fun with the Titans. They're super goody-goody and holier-than-thou and stuff, but they know all of the good bowling alleys."
"Just don't forget what your relationship to them is."
“I know, I know.” She smiles. “But they're just goofy sometimes, you know? Like, 'oh golly, I forgot to feed the neighbor's plants!' And their immediate reaction to any event is 'throw a party.'”
“Like, you know Wonder Girl? She's getting married, and I don't know what everyone's so happy about because the guy seems kind of like an old perv, but Starfire wanted to celebrate so--”
“Yeah?” She tilts her head to the side. He hasn't seen her get this excited talking about something in ages. It's worrying.
“You can't forget why you're there. It's a contract, and if you start getting too involved, you're setting yourself up for a lot of pain.”
She droops. “Yeah. It's just, umm... It's weird being around a bunch of people my age.” Her face is a little red. It's cute. “And when everybody in the room is excited, it's hard not to join in.”
He gestures for her to come over, so she does. She plops down in the dirt next to him, leans against him shamelessly and sighs.
“I'm such an idiot,” she says.
“You have a lot to learn, but you're trying.” He puts his arm around her shoulder.
They sit like that for a while, before she inevitably has to go back to the Tower.
“Raven hates me,” she announces one night. “No matter what I do, she won't stop glaring at me.”
“You've read her file, right?” Slade hands her a cigarette. It's become their ritual: they meet at night, she reports on the situation, she gets a smoking break, he gets a kiss. It's somehow comforting in its familiarity.
“They say she's part demon. Is that a real thing?” She pulls a match from her pocket (where did she get it? Did she bring it from the Tower? He brought matches, why does she--) and expertly strikes it against the sandstone wall.
“It seems so. You've seen her powers?”
Tara lights her cigarette and laughs. “She can move furniture. Big fucking deal.”
“You haven't, then.”
Tara cocks her head. “I read telekinesis. And empathy, I think. Is that a real thing?”
“It means that she's good at spotting liars.”
“Well, isn't that-- oh.” Tara sucks in a lungful of smoke. There's a bit of genuine fear in her expression, which he hasn't seen for a while. “What if she's on to me?”
“Has she said anything?”
“'I have always sensed corruptness in you ,'” Tara recites dramatically, her eyes closed. “'I do not know what to think. At times my father's evil overwhelms me and my empathetic powers become useless. Now please leave, lest I unleash an evil far greater than any I sense in you...' or something like that.”
Slade stiffens. That sounds a lot like a flat-out accusation to him. “Do you know if she's told anyone else about this?”
“Said she didn't. Still ruined my damn evening, though. I mean, words can hurt, even if they are kinda true.” Tara grins. She's taking this situation far too lightly. “When we get 'em, I'm want her for myself, okay?”
“Be careful around her,” Slade warns. “If she doubts herself, then you have something to grab on to.”
“You want me to just lie harder? 'Cause I'm doing my best.”
“Gaslight her a little. Act friendlier, more childlike, anything to make her second-guess herself more.”
“I'll scramble her brains up like an egg.” Tara takes the cigarette out of her mouth and kisses him an an undeniably un-childlike way before turning and leaving for the night.
He imagines what kinds of psychological torment she'll invent, and he smiles a little. She really is growing up.
“Robin's quitting. He took off his mask and vest in front of everybody.” Tara's in his bedroom, at the compound. He gave her the entry code, which was probably a bad idea. Not that she'd ever betray him, but he didn't want to make their relationship seem too personal.
“Oh?” He hadn't thought about Dick in a while. Apparently, it was time to get that train running again.
“Got half-naked. Gotta say, you don't appreciate how tight that leotard is until it's the only thing he's wearing.” Tara reaches for the bottle of whiskey on the end table, but Slade sharply shakes his head no. There are some boundaries that have to be set. She pouts.
“Announced his secret identity, I assume?”
“Yeah,” Tara says. She looks excited. If she had a tail, it would be wagging. “Dick Grayson. His name is literally Dick and he walks around with no pants on. I mean, not now, I guess.”
Of course, Slade had already known about Dick's secret identity. He'd found it out well before he'd forced Dick to be his apprentice. That had been one of his leverage points. To be honest, he's surprised that Dick's kept the Robin mantle for so long after having it compromised. It must have meant a lot to him.
“Hey, hey, are you listening?” She shifts a little closer to him. They're sitting on the sofa, not the bed, of course. The bed would be inappropriate. “Kid Flash quit, too! His name's Wally. It's, like, I join and everybody else decides to leave. Not flattering.”
“So, neither of them will be with the Titans anymore?” He could care less about Kid Flash, but Slade would definitely miss Robin. All the same, both of them are pretty powerful opponents. The Titans would be much easier to take down without them, but--
“Dick's staying, but now we all have to call him that.” She suppresses a giggle. “I think he's gonna stay on the down-low. Do mostly undercover stuff, you know? I think there was something he said about Brother Blood, but I don't know if that's gonna go anywhere.”
“Anything else interesting happen?”
“Logan won't keep his hands to himself. I think he figures that I'm gettable because we'd be in the same grade and I don't have super-strength.” Her eyes wander over to the whiskey bottle again. “Just a little?”
“You're underage. And that business with the Changeling is good. Flirt a little. It should keep him from becoming suspicious.”
“Not jealous?” she flutters her eyelashes. “Last week he turned into a mouse and hid inside my shirt.”
“How did you react?”
“Tried to swat him. He was way too close to my bra for comfort. But he just laughed, like I was joking.” She leans back dramatically. “He's the worst.”
“Consider it part of your job,” he says. “If letting a mouse crawl all over your chest helps keep up your disguise, do it.”
“But he has cold paws! And I don't like him! And what if he wants to..?”
Slade pushes her down onto the couch. She stares up at him and again, the look in her eyes is confusing. Is it resentment?
“Pretend he's me,” he whispers. She nods and suppresses a squeak when he bites her neck.
This is the way things should be.
Grant and Joseph had never been close. That was fine. Grant rarely talked about Joseph or their mother, and Slade appreciated that. For some reason, remembering that he'd lost Adeline (that she'd tried to fucking kill him) still bothered him, even though he was able to put aside so many other past worries and hurts.
But when Grant did talk about them, it was usually upsetting.
“Remember when we all went camping in the Alleghenies?” he'd asked as he cleaned his gun. He was fifteen then. Still small, and his voice had barely cracked.
“Why do you ask?”
“Joey thought there were bears out in the woods, and he kept on crying. I told him that was why we had the tent up, but he kept insisting that if they really wanted to get us, they could.”
Slade remembered this. The family had been crammed into one tent, and he'd had to feign sleep for a while to avoid having to deal with Joseph's panicking. He nodded, just so Grant would know he was listening.
“I told him they couldn't, but I knew they could. So...” He paused, stared at his rifle thoughtfully. “There are some things that are just too big to kill on your own, right? Like, I know you're a meta, but there are some things that are just big. And, being strong doesn't have anything to do with it at that point. Right?” He looked up at his father, a look of genuine worry in his eyes.
“What did you see?”
“I saw a smashed bear. I think a truck or something must have hit it. Its guts were all...” he trailed off.
“We aren't hunting trucks, son. We're hunting people.”
“But I-- we're supposed to be able to take contracts alone. What if a target is just too strong for us? Not for you, I mean. It's just, I'm not enhanced or anything.”
“If your target is stronger than you, you have to be smarter. Play dirty if you have to.”
“What if the dirtiest trick isn't enough?”
“Then you die. It's a risk.”
Grant was quiet for a while after that. Slade hoped he hadn't raised a coward.
The next day, Grant sparred more furiously than he ever had before.
It's painfully obvious that she doesn't fit in with the Titans. She doesn't have any of their softness, any of that cloyingly altruistic attitude. Tara is a creature of chaos. She enjoys fighting, and she enjoys fleeting entertainments. But Slade knows that she doesn't care about them, in the end. He knows because the camera in her eye tells him that she spends hours staring blankly at the ceiling, and when she talks to her teammates, she avoids meeting their gazes. She's so carefully inoffensive, not at all like she is with him (hot-shot, honey, big guy). Tara is always antsy because the Titans force her to hold back, instead of letting her be the massively destructive force that she is.
They see her as a child. He knows that she's so, so much more.
On a Sunday, when the other Titans are taking the day off, she comes to him in his compound.
“Donna took Dick to the movies because he's feeling needy,” she explains, carefully removing her camera lenses. “I think the engagement's really thrown him off. Kory wanted to come, but Donna told her not to. She got all pouty, so naturally Gar had to take her on a 'date' to cheer her up. And Vic's with his grandparents. He's always talking shit about them, but--”
None of this information is actually useful. To be honest, it seems more like a high-schooler gossiping about her classmates than a highly-trained mercenary reporting to her superior.
He realizes that he really doesn't have anything better to do with his time.
He shoves her to the ground, and before she can say so much as “what the hell” he covers her mouth with his. When he breaks the kiss, she's shaky and bright-eyed, with red cheeks and hair splayed like a halo on the concrete. He's suddenly struck by unexpectedly tender feelings: this is his girl.
He made her like this: as he slides his hand under her shirt and traces the lines of her ribs, he thinks about the child he found in the desert. So tiny, so fragile, hardly even there. He can feel her heart beating rapidly. Without him, she would certainly be dead by now.
He pulls the shirt off her-- she raises her arms to let him.
“Are you sure?” Tara asks. Her voice is barely above a whisper, and it's heavy with some emotion or another.
He answers by kissing a purple bruise onto her neck. Her breath catches.
She says something that he can't quite understand.
It takes a lot more work to get her shorts off than he'd imagined it would. Those companies are always marketing such tight clothes to young girls. He needs to get to work planning out a new uniform for her if she's going to make any kind of name for herself in the future. Something unrelated to her brother.
The entire experience is somewhat surreal, like making love to a nervous skeleton. She really doesn't have much fat or muscle (why doesn't anything seem to work? She won't survive in the real world unless) but she's very alive underneath him. She's breathing heavily, her chest is rising and falling in rhythm with it. He can't help but stare at her face. The tiny changes in her expression, how her eyes will open for a moment to meet his before squeezing shut again, and the slight tremor of her lips are... exquisite.
Her hand is shaking, so he grabs it. Her knuckles turn white as she squeezes back. Her fingernails have been chewed nearly to the quick. Maybe he should work on that. If she has such an obvious nervous habit, she might not be able to go undercover.
He's thinking about Tara's fingernails while he's fucking her into the floor. It's kind of hilarious.
Adeline would be able to tell if he was preoccupied. She'd be pissed at him.
Tara lets out a sharp gasp when he finally rolls off of her. He zips up his pants, sits up, and is silent with her for about a minute, catching his breath. Tara doesn't move. She turns her head to look at him, and her cheek presses against the concrete.
“So...” she takes a deep, quavery breath, swallows twice. “That's... um. That was sex.” She sits up, wincing. She pulls her knees up to her bare chest and hugs herself (so small). “Did I do alright?”
It takes a second for him to register the question. She's staring at him with huge, sad eyes. “You did very well,” he says.
“So formal,” she cracks a grin, and her voice steadies. “Was this just a business transaction?”
If this had happened back when they'd met, when he'd just thought of her as a bony bag of geokinetic power, it probably would have been more like a business transaction. It would have made things more complicated, definitely, but it isn't like Slade hasn't had sex with associates before. “Cambodia,” says the back of his mind.
He's become very attached to Tara. She's rough around the edges, but she gleams, like an uncut diamond, like a purebred cat gone feral. And beyond her sharp teeth and bitter words, she's so soft and vulnerable. He doesn't get to see much of that, in his line of work. Hell, she'll probably lose that innocence soon enough. He might as well enjoy it while it lasts. And now that he's seen her like this...
“Well, Mr. Wilson?” she furrows her eyebrows in faux-severity.
He hugs her, catching her by surprise yet again. She melts into the embrace, nestles her head against his chest. She shuffles a bit until she's sitting in his lap. She's radiating heat like a little furnace. Does she have a fever? Maybe he should check to see if-- no, she's fine. He's just cold.
He cradles her like a newborn baby.
Their relationship actually doesn't change that much.
“Garfield Logan tried to kiss me on our camping trip,” she announces. She's just gotten out of the shower, and is wearing nothing but a dark pink bathrobe. Slade doesn't remember buying this. Maybe she bought it herself (in that case, where is the money coming from--) during her time at the Tower.
“It was a team bonding exercise. Dick was super into it. Somehow he got whole chunk of camping grounds reserved for a week. Not just one site. Like, the whole mountain. There was an obstacle course, and a zipline, and absolutely no other people.” Tara sits on the couch, next to the whiskey. She doesn't try to touch it. “He's that Wayne guy's kid, right? The rich dude. From TV, you know?”
“I know.” Slade knows Bruce Wayne. He's lucky that the man has a no-killing policy, considering what happened with Dick. Of course, Tara doesn't need to know this. He keeps standing, maybe a little stiffly.
“Anyway, I was practicing with some sediments in the lake. I had them rolled up in the air, and I was trying to squeeze the water out of them, but I just couldn't get it. Then, Gar sidles up next to me and says 'boo' and ruins my concentration, and I drop the whole damn dirtball back into the lake. And he laughs!” She punches the cushion for emphasis. It's not that great a cushion, so the emphasis isn't that great either. “I mean, he said he was sorry when he realized I was actually upset. Then we, uh, sat under a pine tree and talked about movies, and when I got up there was sap on my pants, and I still haven't gotten it out. And for some reason he thought it would be okay to try and kiss me and he moved right up and I shoved him away and said, 'fuck off!'” She stares at Slade intensely, as though what she's saying has some kind of meaning. As though she's expecting congratulations or something.
“You should have let him.”
Tara's jaw drops. “Are you kidding me? He ruined my dirtball! I wasn't about to, like, reward him for it!”
Slade leans over her, and she shrinks back a little. “If you keep acting hostile, they are going to stop trusting you. If this is going to work, they have to trust you.”
“It seems that I haven't been clear enough,” he says, leaning closer. Tara's eyes are darting from side to side, as if she's looking for an escape route. He blocks her off with his arms. “I am ordering you to do whatever it takes to get and maintain that trust. If that means--”
“If that means you let the little green kid kiss you, then you let him kiss you. If he says he likes you, then you say you like him. And if that means he wants to touch your breasts, or fuck you, or weep onto your shoulder about how dead his family is, then you are going to let him do all those things.”
In a desperate move, Tara leans up, flings one arm over Slade's shoulder and presses her lips against his. He can feel her small hands fumbling around his belt buckle. He steps back, leaving her flushed, panicked, and utterly confused.
“What am I?” she finally asks, brushing her hair out of her face with a shaky hand.
He doesn't answer, mostly because he doesn't want to give her any more power over him than she already has, but also because he isn't completely certain.
She'd left for the Tower a little after that; after all, soon everybody else would return from their adventures, and she didn't want to be absent. She'd shakily summoned up a hunk of granite from the side of a hill, and made her way back quietly. She flew higher than she usually did-- her silhouette against the light-polluted sky was reminiscent of a UFO, or maybe a witch on a broomstick.
Slade watches through her eyes as she smoothly lands on the island, drops her rock into the ocean behind her. Dick is sitting on an outcropping over the sea, and when he sees her, he smiles and waves. Tara approaches him, asks how his day out went. He says something about being childish, and wanting to keep his friends to himself instead of letting them live their own lives. Tara laughs, calls him an “old coot,” and says that he wouldn't know childish if it kicked him in the balls.
They go inside together, talking animatedly about their days. Tara is a good liar: she spins an elaborate story about sneaking into somebody's wedding party and getting free cake. Dick reprimands her good-naturedly, and Tara sheepishly apologizes. Dick says that Donna had promised not to neglect him once she got married, and Tara asks if he is jealous of Terry.
“Only because he's taking up her time,” Dick replies. “Maybe if we'd grown up differently I'd love her that way, but she's just a very dear friend.”
“Hey,” Tara says in the elevator. “Tell me about love.”
Dick becomes embarrassed. Slade knows that expression pretty well. “Do you mean, like, what kinds of love are there? Because, uh, Plato said--”
“Tell me about sex. Do people--”
“Whoa,” Dick says, taking a step away from Tara as the number above the elevator door slowly rises. His face is brick red. Slade feels a twinge of discomfort. “Maybe you should talk to one of the other girls about this. I think it might be inappropriate for me to give you... that talk.”
“Do people only have sex when they're in love?” she asks. She steps closer to him. “And if you're in love with someone, do you always have to have sex with them?”
“Is this about Gar?”
Tara pauses for a long moment. She blinks twice-- that's a bad sign. It makes her look like a liar. “Yes,” she says. “It's about Gar.”
“You guys are a little young to be thinking about that, aren't you?” The elevator door slides open, with a happy chime. Tara looks over her shoulder. Donna and Vic are playing cards on the floor, and Kory rushes over to give Dick a “welcome back” hug.
Tara greets the other Titans, and sits down to watch the card game.
“What the hell were you doing?” Slade asks, the second he sees Tara. They're in the cave she used to squat in. Apparently, it has some kind of nostalgic value to her.
“Asking the team leader for advice,” Tara says, examining her freshly-painted fingernails. He'd told her to stop biting them, and apparently this is a good deterrent. Whatever works, Slade supposes. “I'm young and in love with Gar Logan, remember?”
“You knew I was watching. Was that supposed to be some kind of statement?”
“Dick's going to tell Kory, and Kory's going to tell Donna. All three of them will agonize about it for a while, and I'll flirt with Gar a little bit to make it worse. It's just a game,” Tara says. “Hey, gimme a cigarette.”
Slade hands her one. He should probably discipline her more. She's going feral again. She lights it with a bright pink pocket lighter. He gave it to her, he remembers. He didn't want her to go around stealing matches and making everyone suspicious. Damn, if only his worries were still so small.
“Next time I see you we'll be fighting, right?” she asks. “You're going to kidnap a politician or something.”
“TV news anchor. I want you to look nice and heroic for the public, all right?” Slade smiles sardonically.
“I'll be the cutest fucking thing they've ever seen,” she says.
Terra is a natural actress. She's full of winks and one-liners and dramatic hand-gestures, and even as Slade can feel bruises forming all over him, he's impressed.
“What do you have against public television?” Changeling asks.
“He probably just wants attention,” Terra says, bumping elbows with her teammate. “You could always join the community theater troupe, old man!”
“Be serious,” Wonder Girl scolds. “Cyborg, have you got Mr. Fletcher?”
“Yeah,” Cyborg answers, climbing over the rubble. He's carrying a well-dressed, shiny man with a microphone clipped to his lapel, bridal style. Said shiny man looks absolutely terrified, probably because he had a gun to his head a few minutes ago.
Slade stands and prepares to make his exit, but a chunk of rock hits him right between the shoulder-blades, knocking him over.
“Maybe you're too clumsy for theater,” Terra says. He rolls over to look at her and she seems to be basking in her “victory.” Of course he was going to let her win. That was the point. Why is she playing it up like this?
“Good job, Terra!” Wonder Girl calls over her shoulder as she tends to the traumatized Phil Fletcher, Morning Daily Host. “Don't let him get away!”
Terra, of course, lets him get away. She makes a self-deprecating joke (apologetic, but not too depressing), and Changeling puts his arm over her shoulders. She leans against him.
That's the photo that shows up in the newspaper the next morning.
“The extra rock,” Slade says Saturday evening. It's 11:45, and Tara is supposed to be asleep in the Tower, but instead she's sitting in his bedroom, lounging on the couch as if she owns it. Both of them are still covered in scrapes and bruises from the other day's fight, but Slade got the worse of it. Mostly because Tara just had to throw in that witty little comment about theater.
“I think the public dug it,” Tara says. “And you told me not to hold back.”
“You were enjoying it,” Slade says. “Why were you enjoying it?”
“I like fighting! I like training with you, I like fighting villains with the Titans! I even like it when they're able to smack me around a little. Reminds me I'm alive, ya know?” she says. So flippant. So--
“You made a point of publicly humiliating me,” Slade says quietly. “Then you laughed about it.”
“Wait, did I, like, hurt your feelings?” Tara pours some whiskey into a coffee mug. It must have been in her bag. It says, “2nd Best Uncle” in a brightly-colored font. “I mean, sorry, I guess.”
That's it. He grabs her arm and pulls her to her feet. He twists it a little more than necessary. The mug falls to the floor and shatters, leaving a puddle of whiskey and coffee and ceramic shards. She gives him that deer-in-the-headlights look. She knows what she fucking did.
“You like pain, then?” he asks, dangerously quiet.
“Sorry,” Tara repeats, still staring at him blankly. “I won't do it again.” She makes no sound when he twists her arm further, but she does become a little paler.
“I'll show you pain,” he says.
Without another word, he pushes her onto the bed. She keeps staring. Is she playing dead? It's not working. He can see her muscles tense as he shoves her tank top up to her chin, revealing a mass of bruised skin and a gray sports bra.
“You knew,” she says. He's not sure what that means. He unbuttons her jeans, and drags them down to her knees. She pushes her legs together, tries to keep them on. She's really not that strong, when it comes down to basic physical power. The jeans, the tank top, and finally the bra and boyshorts are discarded in the mess on the floor.
She curls inward, wraps her arms around her chest, pulls up her knees-- he forces her outward, so shes lying beneath him with her arms pinned to the bed with one of his hands and him kneeling between her legs. She looks away from him. She's breathing rapidly, and her jaw is clenched.
“Is this what we're doing now?” she asks. “Is this a punishment?”
He doesn't respond. He bites the curve between her neck and shoulder. She struggles, but she's just not big enough to get any kind of leverage. He moves his hand slowly down her chest and rests it on her stomach.
“Is this--” she says.
He punches her hard in the gut, hard enough that her whole body spasms and she cries out in either pain or rage. Finally, she meets his eye. She's glaring, hateful, feral, uncensored by niceties and social bonds. This is his girl.
“Fuck you,” she says weakly.
This isn't like the first time. He doesn't try to be careful with her, and she doesn't give in easily to his demands. She struggles and screams, bites and scratches and thrashes. He fucks her like he wants her dead. He hopes that he leaves behind enough fresh wounds that she'll be able to tell which came from the battle and which came from her own bad decisions. He hopes he cracks one of her ribs.
“I hate you,” she says when it's over. She's pulled up a sheet to cover herself-- as if there's any point in that-- and is is sitting stiffly at his side.
“You don't,” he answers. He reaches to pet her head. She tries to slap his hand away, but he catches it. He lowers it to her side, and then cards his fingers through her tangled yellow hair, working out the knots as he goes.
“You just.” She closes her eyes, furrows her eyebrows as if she's trying to find the right word. “I know the laws in this country. You just raped me, didn't you?”
“Did I?” He continues to stroke her hair. Unconsciously, she loosens her posture.
“I-- yeah,” she says. She doesn't sound too confident. “I... didn't want it.”
“You aren't running away from me, though.” She's leaning against him now, clinging onto him for comfort.
“You're the only person I trust,” she says. “Nobody else understands me like you do. You know all the ugly parts of me. The snarling parts.”
“The snarling isn't ugly. It's a warning to those who would take you for granted,” Slade says. She's half-lying on his lap now. Rather than blank, or raging, or pained, her eyes just look profoundly sad.
“Should I forget that you did this? Because I will, if you need me to.”
“Okay. I should-- I should get going.” She tumbles off the bed, picks up her clothes off the floor. They're stained, and the top is stretched out pretty badly. All the same, she dresses quickly, covering all the marks of ownership left on her body, save for the red bruises around her wrists. She cuts her foot on a bit of broken ceramic, but she doesn't seem to notice.
By the time she's back at the Tower, all the lights are off. Tara leaves her rock in the water, and climbs into her room through the window. She takes a long shower. She lies down on the unmade twin bed, takes out her lens camera, and that's all Slade knows about the rest of the night.
He has footage of that incident, from her camera. He appears as some huge looming monster, bearing down on an unseen victim. He sees large hands grabbing a large mouth panting and an eye with its pupil dilated by lust, or anger, or something between the two.
He doesn't finish watching it. He deletes it, and the hour after it, just for good measure.
Their relationship doesn't change all that much.
Terra playfully kisses Changeling after they stop a bank robbery. He blushes deeply, and seems to be unable to come up with any clever responses. The news crew catches it. According to the general public, the relationship between the two young heroes is “adorkable.”
They go on dates to the movies and carnivals, hold hands under the table during press interviews. They giggle at in-jokes and smile shyly at each other, as though there are no secrets between them.
Tara is doing a surprisingly good job at playing a virgin. Maybe she's the one destined for community theater.
“Hey,” Gar says, as they sit on the pier and watch the seagulls squabble. “What made you change your mind about me?”
“Huh?” Tara tilts her head, as though she's actually confused. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you kind of seemed to, um, hate me a little. At first. I know I shouldn't have teased you. You didn't have to forgive me, you know.”
“I know.” She's definitely smiling, and it's definitely charming. “I hadn't expected it to turn out like this, you know.”
“Like this?” Gar pecks her on the cheek.
“Like this.” Tara stares at the gulls. Somebody has been cleaning fish on the pier, and there are bones and bits of loose flesh to be taken. The birds are alternating between calling out to one another and shoving each other away.
“Sorry about everything, all the same,” he says.
“Yeah,” is the only way she can respond. “I'm sorry too.”
“I was mean to you, too.” A lone gull sits on top of a pillar and crows dramatically, pumping its head up and down in the air with its beak wide open. Soon, another joins it and it becomes calm.
“What are you so sad about?” he asks.
“None of your damn-- sorry.” She pulls her knees up to her chin. “I was just thinking about my parents. I miss them.”
“Of course you do. That's just how people are.”
Slade knows that Tara doesn't miss her parents. Her father met her maybe once or twice in person, and her mother died from a sleeping pill overdose when she was quite young. Tara has never had parents, so she has none to miss. All the same, her grief seems genuine. He's proud of her.
“What would have happened,” Gar says, “if we all had normal childhoods? Do you think we would have still been friends?”
Tara shrugs noncommittally. “I'd probably be in Markovia or public school or something. We wouldn't have met.”
They're quiet for a while after that.
Slade wonders what would have happened if he'd let that little girl in the cave starve to death.
Addie kicked off her high-heeled shoes and threw herself dramatically onto the bed. “I couldn't take another moment of those society people,” she said. “My God, how do you deal with them?”
Parties were a good way to find clients, but Addie thought that Slade just liked socializing. She couldn't be more wrong-- most of the people he spoke to about contracts disgusted him to a certain extant. It was just that he couldn't handle having nothing to do.
“You come from a wealthy family,” Slade said. “You should be better with them than I am.”
“Anyway, you'll have to come out again soon. We can't have the guests suspecting that we went off on a tryst, can we?”
“Let them think it,” she said, pulling him down with her. She kissed the bridge of his nose, and smiled at him. “Hey, I want you to promise me something.”
“When you go on those big-game hunts of yours, I want you to remember me and the boys, okay?” She'd suddenly become dead serious. “Don't get caught up in the adrenaline.”
“You know I'm not stupid,” Slade said. “And you know I'm always thinking of you.”
“I know you too well to think that,” Addie said. “You're like an addict. And I hear you talking about hunting huge, dangerous animals with all our guests, and I can tell you want to throw yourself into the chase.”
“I love you. Isn't that enough?”
“No. Love isn't enough. I want you to promise not to do anything that might get you killed.” She was looking at him so intensely, burning holes in him with her eyes. “I'm not ready to be a widow, Slade. And the boys need a father.”
“I promise not to do anything that might get me killed,” Slade said. It was only half a lie. He was pretty confident that none of his targets could stand a chance against him. He smiled, and she smiled, and she kissed him.
“Want to have that tryst?” she asked, a devious sparkle in her eyes.
They returned to the party half an hour later. Addie left her shoes in the bedroom, and socialized gracefully with all kinds of people.
It was only a few days after that night that Joseph got his throat slashed in an alley by a man in a mask.
Nobody was dead, but Slade remembered Adeline's smile and her stocking-clad feet on the night of that party, and he remembered his promise, and that was what he was thinking of when she shot him in the face.
Tara celebrates her sixteenth birthday with the Titans. She has a cake with a big “16”-shaped candle on top, and everybody sings “Happy Birthday” to her enthusiastically, including Starfire, who gets several of the words wrong. Raven stands to the side, quietly mouthing the words.
“Hey, you can legally 'do it' now,” Gar says. He nudges her suggestively and she scoffs and rolls her eyes.
“Not in this state,” Dick corrects. He's looking at Gar very suspiciously. He must be thinking of the conversation in the elevator. “The age of consent in America is sixteen at a minimum, but over here it's--”
“It's not a school day, I don't want lessons!” Gar says, covering his ears. Tara laughs.
“I don't know what you're talking about, and I don't want you to tell me,” Vic says as he cuts himself a generous slice of cake.
“We're talking about se~ex,” Gar says in a singsong voice. “And who's allowed to ha~ave it.”
“Maybe it's time for you to take a nap,” Donna says, firmly putting a hand on his shoulder and steering him out of the room.
Sleeping with an underage girl is far from the worst thing Slade has done, but for some reason he feels like Addie would be ashamed of him. Of course, Addie's already pretty ashamed of him, what with the contract-killing and all. Has he sunk to a new low? Maybe forcing her was the low. Or was it just kissing her that brought him down to the bottom of the pit? What's the rubric?
This isn't something he has time to think about. Instead, through Tara's lens, he pays close attention to the structure of the room, the words on the computer screen. She does a good job of pretending to be a teenager having a good wholesome time. She drinks three cans of orange soda and falls asleep on the couch, which is lights-out for the camera. Slade can still hear the Titans speaking to each other, though. They've moved out of the room, presumably to let Tara sleep, but snippets of conversation slip through the doors.
“Kind of worried.”
“She cries when she is sleeping, sometimes.”
“Something dark is in there. I can feel it.”
It's all very unsettling. Slade reminds himself to discuss this with Tara immediately the next time they meet.
The next time they meet, Tara initiates the fucking, so he doesn't get the chance to discuss the situation immediately. In the dusty quiet cave, by the light of a solar-powered survival lantern, she lets her orange-and-brown uniform pool around her ankles, the metal bits clattering against the stone.
“This is what you want, right?” she says, peeling off her mask. “Let's do this and then let's actually get some work done.”
And suddenly she's kissing him, and she has her hand in his pants, and it's not really like anything that's happened with her before, but he definitely doesn't mind. It makes him feel a lot less like a child molester when she's wearing red lipstick and her eyelashes are coated in flaking mascara. Tara isn't like any other teenage girl. She's an exception, and the Titans won't acknowledge that.
“Look, I'll do whatever,” she says. “I did some reading, and I know the basics. I mean, you taught me the basics, I guess.” She laughs. “But then I did some reading, and I wanna know what you want me to do. Like any other order you'd give me.”
After taking a second to deal with the shock, he complies. What else can he do in this kind of situation?
“Get on your knees,” he says.
After she's redressed and he's caught his breath, she stares up at him with her hands on her hips. “I haven't gotten any good instructions in weeks,” she says.
“The Titans are worrying about you,” he answers.
“As in, worrying that I'm spying on them? Because I thought I was doing a pretty good job of hiding that.”
“They think something is wrong with you,” Slade says. “Wonder Girl thinks you're depressed. And you still haven't convinced Raven of anything. You need to fix up your persona, or else you'll be in serious trouble.”
“How about Gar? What does he think?” is she distressed? No, definitely not.
“He thinks you're the sun and moon. You don't have to worry about him.”
“Why would Donna think I was depressed?” Tara crosses her arms. It has a nice effect on her breasts. They're small, sure, but when her arms are crossed they're definitely there.
“You need to stop spacing out, for one thing.” Slade puts a comforting hand on her shoulder. “And you need to smile more. Otherwise, they'll think something is wrong, and then they'll find out something else is wrong.”
“And I need to become friends with Raven, so that she won't suspect me of anything anymore.”
“Is-- is that all?” Tara asks.
“Just about. You've been doing a good job.” Slade pats her head. She blushes.
“In that case, can I kiss you goodbye?” she asks.
“You didn't ask earlier.”
“That was business,” she says. Still rude. That's good.
She stands on her tiptoes and kisses him chastely on the lips, as though she hadn't been sucking his cock a few minutes ago. She waves goodbye, and floats off on a big slice of sandstone.
What is Tara Markov, exactly?
He hadn't considered the repercussions. Not the legal ones-- those ones haven't caught up with him yet, and at this point, they probably never will. But three years ago, Slade took in a new apprentice as a poor substitute for Dick, who was in turn a poor substitute for Grant. He hadn't realized that she'd been setting him up: that she was a spider, and he was caught in her web.
Slade wonders if this creature that's been revealing itself to him was inside Tara Markov when he first found her. Back then, when she was a child, she didn't have any of that manipulative attitude, any of that sly seductive behavior. Or did she? Maybe he hadn't seen it through her hissing, snarling, starving mask. Maybe at thirteen, Tara was already a deadly fille fatale, a half-grown succubus just waiting to be found and doted upon.
Did he make her this way? Certainly not. Slade isn't a pedophile. He's always been attracted to adult women who've already established themselves in the world. There is nothing appealing to him about pigtails and jump ropes and clapping games. Maybe he's found himself occasionally staring at a particularly well-developed adolescent, but that's just human nature. He didn't corrupt her. If anything, she corrupted him!
He's getting tied up in knots about this. Was it that age-of-consent discussion? Or was it that quiet, heavy “I hate you” she'd whispered as she sat bleeding on his bed, covered in evidence of his crimes? But so many times, she's been the one who's kissed him for no reason.
She called him “old man” during the fight at the TV station. He wonders if she thought he seemed old when he was--
“Raven knows,” she says breathlessly, stumbling into the room. Her mascara is dripping down her face. “I was sleeping, and Raven saw everything.”
Well, shit. This is how it's going to end, then.