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"You can't replace him. When you wallow like this, you always give in to your worst impulses."

 

The child with dark hair and a sour expression skulked around the base, gathering more bruises every day.

 

"They're really nothing alike."

 

For some reason, Dick Grayson refused to change what he was; no matter how hard Slade tried to pound the idea into his head, it wouldn't stay.

 

"He isn't Grant."

 

He could be Grant. He was determined and fiery and obsessive, like Grant. He was rough around the edges, and still finding his footing. Maybe he could be broken and rebuilt. Maybe, if he bled and cried enough, he'd run out of all that foolish rebellion and become Grant.

 

"It's irrational, and I know you're not an irrational man."

 

The boy cringed when he raised his hand. Had he gone too far? Or was this just another stage of the process? He didn't want to make him complacent. All he wanted was for the boy to change his perspective a little.

 

"Go fuck yourself, Will." Slade pulled off his mask, wincing a little at the sudden cold. "I know what I'm doing."

 

Every night, he dreamed of the life that he'd lost. When he compared it to the way he lived now, it was almost surreal. He had been a family man. Sure, he had been a family man who had more knives than neckties and killed for money, but he was still part of a unit. Now, he was alone (save for Wintergreen), and though he didn't want to admit it to himself, it was painful. He slept in a bed without Adeline, which felt wrong, and he never heard Joseph's piano or Grant's pellet gun anymore.

 

But if he played his cards right, he wouldn't be alone anymore. Dick hated him now, of course, but it didn't have to always be that way. Maybe it would be a couple more weeks, maybe it would be years, but Slade knew in his gut that he could change the boy. He just had to knock him off of his heroic pedestal, and the rest would be easy.

 

He himself hadn't realized what he was trying to do, at first. He'd told himself that this was a simple issue of needing a successor; since one of his sons was dead and the other was with his mother, he had to look outside the family. Robin had seemed like the most obvious choice (he was clever, he'd already had basic combat training, and he was not the type to break down easily). It wasn't until it was too late that Slade had realized that he was looking to replace Grant.

 

Sparring with the boy was... fun. Even though he was Dick's superior in terms of brute force and experience, the boy was agile and clever enough to dodge half of Slade's blows and land a few of his own. Even when he was having one of his moods he seemed to put in an effort, which was nice.

--

It got considerably less fun when Dick decided to get pissy. Some days, he would lie prone after taking his first hit. He'd lie there, defiantly passive, like an untrainable melancholic ragdoll. On other days, he'd channel his anger through his mouth instead of his fists, which was unacceptable. When that happened, Slade had to resort to mind games and power play, which (while enjoyable in their way) didn't get much done on their own.

 

It was actually a mind game that led to Slade's realization about Dick's role as a replacement. It had been two days since he'd taken him in, and the former Boy Wonder wasn't handling things very well. He'd been overly aggressive and thrown at least three temper tantrums (when he threw temper tantrums, he became physically aggressive and attempted to knock Slade over the head with a stick. Temper tantrums were a waste of time).

 

"How much longer?" the boy asked, staring at the concrete floor. He had a bloody lip and raw red hands. "How long is an apprenticeship supposed to take?"

 

"As long as it takes for you to learn."

 

"And what comes afterwards?" There was a second, unspoken question there: "Will I be allowed to leave?"

 

"You stay, as my partner."

 

"...I think you might be the worst person I've ever met."

 

"You should rethink what you just said."

 

"I mean it. This is wrong." Dick lifted his head and set his mouth. "Why do you think that threatening my friends will--"

 

That was about the right time to punch him in the stomach. It was also the right time to knock him to the ground and kick him in the back. In general, it was the right time to beat the shit out of a fifteen-year-old kid, because that fifteen-year-old kid was damn rude.

 

And still, the boy remained as he was. He smirked through the blood, and lifted himself up on thin, shaky legs. It was magnificent, in an annoying way. How could somebody so small, so weak, take this much physical damage and still be able to stand? Dick hadn't been physically altered or mutated or even put through boot camp (and Slade assumed that the Batman wasn't the child beater type).

 

For all his impressiveness, he was still being insubordinate and he had to be punished, so Slade tripped him with a pitifully simple swipe of his left leg. The boy landed at an awkward angle. He tried to orient himself, but it was too late. Slade kicked kicked him in the ribs (twice for good measure) and knelt beside him.

 

"Will you ever learn, Dick?"

 

"Don't call me that." Still mouthy. He had to admire the kid's nerve.

 

"You belong to me, and I'll call you whatever I want." The boy shuddered. At least he was afraid. "I know your history, so I have the right." He reached down and petted the back of his head. "A circus brat, right?"

 

"Stop."

 

"John and Mary Grayson's talented son, born on the first day of spring." His hair was startlingly soft, considering how pointy it looked. "The crowds loved you, didn't they? You were so young and yet you moved like an acrobat who had trained for years."

 

"I get the point. Stop." His voice shook a little. He was breaking.

 

"I wonder if you've got the same baby face you have in the pictures." He reached down towards the mask. The boy tried to roll away, but he was already so beaten down that he wouldn't have been able to do anything anyway. Slade grabbed the corner of the mask between his thumb and forefinger, and ripped it off like day-old bandage.

 

Dick Grayson had blue eyes. Slade should have expected it (or at least paid closer attention to the news seven years ago), but he didn't. Dick Grayson had blue eyes with puffy eyelids and dark bruises around the edges. Those eyes were filled with angry involuntary tears, they were narrowed in hatred, and they were exactly like Grant's.

 

That was the moment that he realized what he was doing.

 

It was also the moment that he decided to keep doing what he was doing, despite its impossibility. If, in some distant future, he could make this child mirror Grant in more ways, it would be worth it.

 

He'd been tough on Grant, certainly. He'd taught him to shoot when he was six, and had offered him contacts in the mercenary biz when he was twelve (without his mother's knowledge, of course). He'd left Grant with black eyes and fractured bones, and it payed off. Grant grew into a shrewd, strong, relentless killer, bitter but successful. Then he went and died, and that ruined everything.

 

Dick would be harder to work with; he was older, and had a past. That would make breaking him and reshaping him even more satisfying.

 

Slade waited eagerly for the day when he could throw away the controller. Dick wasn't his son, but maybe he could fill that empty space. If Slade finally wore the boy down into the ground, maybe he'd never have to be lonely again.

 

"There is a difference between us; you don't have any friends."