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Apt Pupil

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The first thing Slade does when Jason meets him is knock him out with a hard blow from his staff.

All right, it’s not quite the first thing. There’s some ducking and weaving on Jason’s part before that, a few smacks from the staff that land mainly on his forearms, and at least one attempt to strike back. But ultimately, the encounter ends with a guard dropped for a second and then a brilliant burst of pain at his temple that slams him right into darkness.

When he comes to, Slade is crouched over him, still holding the staff in his hand with a distinctly unimpressed look on his face.

“Thirty seconds,” he announces, “Pathetic.”

Jason’s mouth tastes like blood and his arms ache, and he feels dizzy as he struggles to pull together an answer, “You didn’t give me any warning, I couldn’t—”

“There are no warnings in the real world, kid, and the real world’s what I’m being paid to teach you to fight.” Slade snorts as he stands up. He sounds almost, but not quite, like someone else Jason used to know. “Clearly we have a lot of work to do.”

That Jason can’t argue, as he lets his head thump back down against the ground beneath him.

Yeah, this is going to be fun.

Talia is the one who organised his time with Slade, and paid for it too, as she has practically everything in Jason’s life since she took him off the streets of Gotham and threw him in her father’s own personal fountain of youth. It’s all to his benefit, and the benefit of his plans, of course, so Jason let her.

It makes sense to learn from Deathstroke. In terms of people who can go toe to toe with Batman, he’s high up on the list. Not exactly a villain, but nowhere near being a hero either; Slade’s a mercenary through and through, and like most soldiers of fortune he doesn’t care what the job is so long as the money is good.

With Talia paying him, the money is probably very, very good.

She reminds him of all of that at the end of the first week, when he’s covered in bruises and seething more than a little from Slade’s dismissal of his already existing skills. It doesn't help any that he’s awkward in his own body in places, unused to limbs he remembers being shorter, his weight balancing different than it did before he came screaming out of the pit. He’s still figuring out how that works, and every tiny mistake is one Slade’s quick to capitalize on with a stunning cuff to the side of the head, among other things.

Not fast enough, not smart enough, not good enough. He’s getting really sick, really fast of not being enough for anyone. Of being treated like a child who isn’t even trying, even though he does everything Slade tells him to and more.

“You wanted the best, Jason.” Talia says unsympathetically, when he’s done telling his woes. “Slade Wilson is the best.”

“Slade Wilson is an asshole.” He grumbles, rubbing his bruised arms.

She raises one perfectly shaped eyebrow. “Men of greatness rarely reach the level of skill he has achieved by being nice. If he is pushing you hard, it is only because he believes it is necessary for you to do the same.”

It’s hard to argue with her on either of those points, but still Jason tries. “Or he’s just a sadist.”

“There are many men who derive pleasure from the suffering of others in the world; he is not one of them.” Talia sets her cup down on the table where they’re having dinner. “I hoped you had more faith in my choices for you than that.”

“I do, Talia,” he says, wrongfooted, “It’s just—”

“Then persist.” Her hand, covered in golden rings, rests atop his, “Persist, and you will have the vengeance you seek, Jason. I promise you.”

“I know.” He bites back the sigh that wants to escape him. It wasn’t that he had any intention of being a quitter, he’d simply wanted to vent. To someone, anyone. Even the woman who thinks she’s holding his leash. Slade is getting to him in a way only one other person has been able to since he came back, and realising that Jason carefully softens his voice. “I know, Talia. I will.”

“Good.” Talia’s smile is as much an attempt at manipulation as her touch. The same goes for what she says next. “Now, eat the rest of your food. You need your strength.”

Inwardly he scoffs, but does as she says. Because he’s hungry, not because she said it.

The next morning he’s back with Slade, struggling once again to keep up. It’s just hand to hand this time, both of them dressed down in regular clothes not that it makes a damn bit of difference. It doesn’t matter if Slade is wearing armor or not if he can’t land anything, and he can’t. It’s quickly working towards infuriating. What is the point of him getting his ass handed to him over and over without any sort of instruction? There are better ways to learn; Bruce was a hypocritical bastard but Jason always learned fast under him. Given he was actually explaining things.

“Get up, kid,” Slade says, after a painful twist of his arm flips him through the air and leaves him flat on his back and breathless.

Jason bares his teeth but struggles to his feet, pulling in as much air as he can manage as he faces Slade again. The breathlessness lingers with him, slowing him down and it's not long at all before he's on the ground again, this time from a combination strike that cuffs the side of his head to stun and then sweeps his legs with one sharp twist. He manages to land better on that one, on his side instead of flat down, so at least it's not any harder to breathe than it already was.

"Up," is the callous, impatient demand.

Irritation finally rises high enough for him to snap, "You know, this would go better if you just told me what you're trying to do," as he's getting up. "Because unless—” He has to stop, to drag in more air. "Unless your whole plan is just to beat me till I stop feeling pain, I’d appreciate a bit of direction."

Slade's mouth curls slightly at the edges, and then he's moving closer with an unhurried, smooth stride. Jason resists the urge to backpedal, holding his ground and Slade's gaze until they're only a foot apart.

"Your mentor," Slade says, voice dropped into lower registers, "the Bat, prefers a close-combat style. He likes to get in close." Slade takes a sharp step forward, and Jason sees the elbow swing in for his head in just enough time to raise both hands to block. "To unnerve people. To strike with one hand and force his opponent to react to it in such a way to make them vulnerable to something else." Jason sucks in a sharp breath when Slade's other hand thumps into his bared side, hard enough to make him flinch but not to really hurt. "His strikes are powerful but short; meant to stun or to disable. He's efficient in a way that makes him hard to beat."

Both arms withdraw; Slade backs up a step.

"Your so-called brother, Grayson, is a mid-range fighter. That acrobat background makes him flashy, he adds unnecessary flourishes when he's moving, and he falls back on that acrobatic strength whenever possible. He likes to kick, and he's got the flexibility to do it at almost any angle, which makes him more dangerous than most."

Slade lifts a leg, slowly enough that Jason's pretty sure he's not actually being attacked, and the heel presses into his gut and holds there for a moment before dropping. Jason surrenders a wrist when Slade reaches out and takes it, bringing it up between them.

"He also likes to redirect. He'll use your momentum to throw you anywhere he wants you." The fingers twist, sharply, and Jason gives a grunt as he's twisted sideways, his wrist locked into a painful curve and the instinctive give to not let it break bringing his shoulder and torso along for the ride. "If you give him an arm to use, you'll regret it."

Slade lets him go. He rubs his wrist as he straightens back up, and Slade folds his arms across his chest and watches him.

"That's what you've been using," he pieces together, carefully. "You're facing me off against those styles."

Slade gives a small nod, and then a sharper, "These aren't the only things they know, but it's what they default to. If you can counter it and get an advantage early, the rest of the fight will be easier." Jason shifts as Slade begins to circle him, arms falling to his side. "And if you're not good enough, play dirty." A hand comes out, fingers sliding sure and strong along the side of his head, fisting in his hair for a moment before loosening. "The suits make it more difficult, but there are always weaknesses. Go for Grayson's ears, and his hair. For the Bat, target the cape. Pin it down, flip it over his head. Use it against him."

Jason chews on that information, as Slade's fingers slide away from his scalp and his circling brings him back around to the front. He looks up.

"Those two styles; what are the counters?"

Slade smiles. 

The customary slam of Slade's hand against the wall beside his head yanks Jason out of sleep as harshly as it has in the weeks past, fight or flight kicking in with a vengeance. His back slams against the wall, his breath coming in a sharp gasp, the knife kept under his pillow bared and in his hand as he jerks his head up to pinpoint the threat. That... isn't a threat.

Slade. His breath comes out in a rush, the world refocusing as the initial panic fades away and leaves behind only the tension from the abrupt waking.

"It would just kill you to knock like a normal person, wouldn't it?" he grumbles, carefully sheathing the knife and starting to uncurl, flashing a glare up at Slade's unimpressed look.

"Good morning," Slade drawls instead of answering. "Get up, let's go."

Jason knows better than to argue at this point, but there is a faint shiver of resignation as he drags himself to his feet. Another day of getting his ass handed to him; bruises over bruises and fuck he already hurts. The drawstring pants he's got on don't do anything to hide the multitude of marks in varying colors blooming all over his torso and arms. He could probably qualify as a fucking work of art at this point. It's — he takes a deep breath, straightens up and faces Slade head on — good training. Pain management. He can handle whatever Slade throws at him.

He's not offered the opportunity to grab a shirt, so he doesn't detour. Instead he just follows Slade out into the house, repressing any reaction to the slightly chilly air. Well, any reaction he can control. The goosebumps that spread all up his arms are firmly out of his control.

Slade leads him through the house and into a side room he’s never stepped into before, not that he’s explored much of Slade’s base. He’s almost expecting it to let out into some sort of hellish obstacle course or death trap, par for the course, but instead it’s just… a room. Three bookcases against one wall, almost full, and a large wooden table right at the center, weathered surface bare and sort of expectant feeling. On another wall are shelves filled with various random pieces of equipment and tools; Jason recognizes maybe a little over half of them, and can guess at some others.

“What is this?” he asks, staring around the room. Refrigerator, chests near the baseboards…

“You didn’t think fighting was the only part of waging a war, did you, kid? There’s a lot more to lethality than learning how to throw a punch.” Slade stops at the edge of the table, turning to lean against it and tilt his chin towards the bookcases. “Go pick something out; we’ll get started.”

A little befuddled, he heads for the bookcases. “Pick something out? Like what?” His fingers come up to run across the spines of the books, squinting at them and tilting his head. Some of them are more standard looking books, generally in hardcover, but the others…

“Do you really need me to hold your hand while you pick out a book?” Slade mocks, the amused drawl back in his voice. “I’m sure you can read the titles all by yourself.”

“Where did you even get these?” Jason asks, the mockery for once just slipping off his shoulders while he pulls free some of the stranger books to actually see the titles on the covers. There are handwritten guides in half a dozen different languages, what look like diaries, printed manuals for things he knows the general public isn’t supposed to be able to read about.

“Contacts. Something you might get, if you survive this life long enough.”

Jason rolls his eyes. Finally reaching a decision, he bypasses some of the more exotic sounding topics in favour of a book on military tactics. Modern ones. It seems to be a collection of the varying tactics and protocols of different countries’ militaries; specific details. He’s pretty sure this is not a book that’s supposed to exist, for the security of several different nations, and really, that sounds like fun.

Slade taps a stool in front of the table with a foot when he turns around and raises the book. “Take a seat.” He does, and Slade steps around to his back and leans over him, taking the book and opening it to the title page with easy, familiar movements. “Hm. Alright; if this is what you want to start with, go ahead and start. Get to reading.”

“That’s it?” he asks, when Slade straightens up and shifts away. “Just… read?”

Keeping himself twisted aches, in all the little spots that are bruised, but he holds it to look up at Slade. Slade, in turn, looks down at him, one eyebrow raised. “I’m not going to lead you through the basics, kid. Get through the first section, then if you have questions, or there’s anything I think needs details, I’ll expand on it. Clear?”

Somehow, the only thing that comes to his tongue is, “Yes, sir.”

Slade pauses, looking him up and down with a quick flicker of his gaze. “Good. Go on then, boy. Get to work.”

Jason dips his head in acquiescence, taking a breath and turning to the book. He can hear Slade moving away behind him, booted footsteps tapping along the concrete floor. He puts the sound as far out of his mind as he can manage, focusing on the pages ahead of him and letting go of the awareness of Slade he usually tries to hold onto. This is reading, that’s all. Slade is probably not going to suddenly attack him, even if he does tend to strike without much warning. ‘Real world’ and all that bullshit.

(It’s not bullshit, and he knows that, but he still hates it. Slade is inhumanly fast and even when he has warning sometimes his own reaction speed is just not good enough; one of the many reasons why he’s so colorful at the moment.)

Despite his attempt to ignore them, he can’t help turning slightly when the footsteps return, drawing to a halt just behind him. Not enough to actually look, but enough to have one ear cocked in that general direction just in case… Well, in case of anything. There’s the sound of a cap opening, the slight rasp of the plastic against what sounds like glass, and he tilts his head a bit more.

“Pay attention to the book,” comes the pointed reprimand. “And stay still.”

He flushes at getting caught out, but instead of giving in he turns his head till he can see Slade out of the corner of his eye. “Why?”

The cuff to the back of the head isn’t strong, but it startles Jason enough to make him give a yelp he quickly cuts off. “Because I said so. This will hurt some; you can handle it. Try not to squirm.”

That’s not at all reassuring, but before he can complain Slade’s hands are on his shoulders. Slick with oil, an herbal scent strong enough it reaches his nose almost instantly, and fingers digging into muscle hard enough that he gasps. He twitches, only Slade’s last words stopping him from trying to pull away. It does ache, as thumbs rub into bruises and sore muscles, but he closes his eyes, breathes as steadily as he can manage, and that’s enough to let him bear it. It’s not as bad as actually getting hit was; this is a deeper, more pervasive pain than the sharper smack of a fist or Slade’s staff.

His head dips as Slade starts to work whatever that oil is into his skin, starting with his shoulders and moving down his back. It smells familiar, brings faint memories of sitting in the cave, Bruce at his back, swimming to the front of his mind, but he can’t pinpoint the memory or the name of whatever the oil is. (But if Bruce used it, it has to be something effective, doesn’t it?)

It’s a bit of a struggle, but Jason turns his attention back to the book. At least, for awhile. He can’t quite distinguish the line Slade is walking, but he’s definitely falling closer to the side of massage than just a topical application of oil. He surrenders his right arm when Slade slides a hand down his bicep, then the other when the first is done. Somewhere in the middle of all of it he folds forward, resting on the table and the open book more than actually reading it. He’s still aching, but it’s a warm, well-used sort of ache instead of the sharper pain of stiffness and really abused muscles. It feels… really good, honestly.

Oh, fuck.

He can’t hold onto the brief moment of stiffness that locks his back up, not with Slade’s hands working against his waist, dipping against the last part of his spine, but the sudden fear stays because fuck he’s half-hard. He’s not wearing anything thick enough to hide it; god, Slade’s going to fucking castrate him and it’ll all be his own stupid body’s fault. He hasn’t really had any issues since coming back and he thought maybe he’d left that in the dust with a lot of other things but no, apparently not. It was just lying in wait to—

“Turn around.”

He swears his heart skips a beat.

"Kid," Slade says, lower and with a bit more warning when he doesn't move, "turn around; let me get the rest of you."

Jason glances down into his own lap with as much subtlety as he can manage, and fuck it's visible. Why the hell isn't his newfound fear making it go away? Why—? Fuck it. Either he turns around and risks Slade seeing it, or he doesn't turn around and then Slade drags him around by a damn ear and sees it anyway. If he's going to get his dick cut off he might as well face it head on. Or something. Fuck.

Slowly, he pushes up from the table and turns, dragging himself around on the stool with all the enthusiasm of a man heading to meet his executioner. Slade's standing in front of him, tall and put together and with one eyebrow raised and unimpressed. At least until their gazes meet, and the eyebrow ratchets higher. Probably at his expression. The quick flick of Slade's gaze, scanning him from top to bottom, can't possibly miss the small tent in his sweatpants, and it doesn't.

Slade laughs, a bark of it that makes Jason cringe in anticipation. The smirk looks more amused than murderous at least. So far. "That a physical reaction, kid? Or are you something a little off from straight?"

"I…” The first person to come into his head is Dick; larger-than-life in his mind and lean and strong. But he knows, he knows, he's been attracted to women. "I really don't know," he finishes, weaker than he wants to be but in the face of Slade? What else is he going to be against all of that? He's not… He's not really attracted to Slade, is he?

He tenses when Slade steps forward, one leg coming in deliberately between his knees and a hand, still slick with the remnants of oil, lifting to touch his shoulder. And then shoving him back till he cracks into the table, bent back over it and pinned and—

"Get over yourself, kid," Slade drawls, leaning weight into the hand until Jason grunts in pain, the table's edge digging into his back. "I don't give a damn if you're hard. You're going to pay attention, and do what I tell you to. Deal with your personal issues on your own time, clear?"

“Yes,” Jason manages to say mostly steadily.

Slade’s eye narrows. “ ‘Yes’ what?”

It takes him a moment to understand what Slade wants, and when he does there’s an odd thrill that makes his stomach spin, his breath come a bit shaky. He swallows it away, fingers clenching on the edge of the stool as he meets Slade’s gaze as evenly as he can.

“Yes, sir,” he corrects.

Slade holds him for a moment more, then lets the pressure up and steps away. “Good. I’m going to get the rest of your chest; I think you can handle your legs by yourself, can’t you?”

There’s really only one correct answer, so he says it. “Yes, sir.”

The bottle is off to his side, on the table, and Slade reaches over and picks it back up. He pours more of the oil — somewhat viscuous, yellow-tinted — into his palm. “This will hurt more than your back did,” Slade comments, setting it aside and rubbing the oil across his hands. “Breathe through it, stay still. It’s nothing you can’t take.”

It does hurt, Slade’s fingers digging into sensitive places and against the bones just below the surface, but no, it’s nothing he can’t endure. And still be hard afterwards, apparently. He’s starting to think that there is something seriously fucked up about his responses, or maybe just that he’s so irritatingly inexperienced that his body doesn’t know what to do with slick, oily hands except interpret it as sexual, even when it hurts. (That probably qualifies as seriously fucked up too, come to think of it.)

When Slade’s done he feels freshly tenderized, but also looser than he’s been in… a long time. Pain aside, it feels good. He feels good. Relaxed.

The bottle is pressed to his chest; he takes it reflexively.

“Pants off, boy; get to work.”

The sound he makes definitely, absolutely isn’t a whimper.

 Time passes. Talia stops checking in on him, only communicating with him through an anonymous email each week that contains a brief summary of any information she deems it necessary for him to know. Jason's pretty sure he doesn't agree with her decisions on that front, but he lets it slide for now. He's got better things to focus on than trying to thwart the manipulations of a woman he knows he can't trust. When he's ready, he'll do his own research.

Slade doesn't let up the pressure. Not really. Most days are still devoted to physical training; combat or acrobatics or just flat out repetition of movement until his muscles burn. But now, once or twice a week — seemingly at random, but he thinks maybe Slade is picking the days that Jason's starting to wear out — they shift focus to academic pursuits instead. Tactics, to start with, and then poisons, bombs, computer work. As soon as Slade's satisfied that he has a good grasp of the subject, and he can put it into practice, they move on to something else.

Also, every week he gets one of those full rub-downs with the oil. (Arnica. He's remembered.) Mostly he gets himself these days, but Slade is still the one to work it into his back. Fair, he thinks, since Slade tends to hit him on the back more than anywhere else. He can really only chalk the whole thing up to some sort of desire for efficiency on Slade's part. The oil speeds healing, reduces bruising. He gets a day or two to recover on top of that, and that's enough to keep him going another week without feeling too utterly wiped out. Thinking of it that way is about the only way he can reconcile the nearly-kindness with Slade's usual attitude.

Something that's highly magnified because Slade stops confining the combat training to the actual training room. The attacks start to come randomly, with no regard for what else he's doing. Meals, sleeping, and a shower during one particularly horrifying and ultimately painful incident. It's not just hand to hand either. Sometimes it's the staff, and he gets particularly panicked the first time Slade brings out a knife. And the second. Every time, really. Slade never really hurts him, only give him little stinging surface cuts, but the threat is real enough for it to kick him into overdrive.

It makes him a little paranoid, but he thinks that's... good. Sort of. If he's going to go up against Bruce, he should come at it from a paranoid perspective. If he's caught off his guard, that'll be the end. Even if he gets good enough to match Bruce, surprise makes all the difference.

Slade's sliding an omelet onto his plate one morning when he catches a certain edge to his gaze. It's not obvious, but Jason thinks there's about to be another 'incident.' There's a feeling in his gut and he's learning to trust those feelings.

He dips his head in thanks, heading for the table and carefully setting the plate down. He can hear Slade behind him, the scrape of the spatula against the pan as he (probably) puts the other omelet onto a plate as well. Jason considers for a moment. He picks up the butter knife.

Slade drops the plate when Jason turns on him, and it shatters into pieces on the floor as he swings for Slade's chest. Even a duller edge will split skin with enough speed and force. Slade meets him, boot crunching the porcelain underfoot as he steps in, gets close and aims a hard punch at his side. Jason gets out of the way, barely. He can block Slade's strikes, but it costs effort. Better to dodge when possible; leave his hands free and avoid the defensive bruising.

After that first strike he's on the defensive. He twists off to the side, avoiding the pieces of the plate as he backs off; his bare feet aren't going to be any protection against sharp edges, and that would be a hell of an end to the first time he's struck first. He's going to go down, but at least it can be more or less on his terms.

It's not that long before Slade slams him up against the refrigerator, and before he can do much more than grunt in pain and grab at Slade's shoulder his other arm is being twisted up, a hand clenching hard around his and forcing him to keep hold of the knife as it's brought right up against his throat. He knows it's dull, but he still pulls away from it the couple inches he can out of instinct. It presses hard into his skin anyway, takes his breath as Slade bears him back against the door and it digs into the soft spot just under his chin.

He curls his fingers into Slade's shirt, gives a breathless grunt and shifts to figure out if there's a weakness to Slade's grip. Not that there ever has been before.

"Preemptive strikes, hm?" Slade's other hand lifts, fingers sliding across his brow, pushing his hair back. "Now why did you do that, kid?"

Jason swallows but it sticks in his throat, catching against the knife. He has to just force himself to breathe for a second — shallow, small — before he can get out, "The way you were looking at me; I thought you were going to strike." The laugh that comes out of his mouth is strained, slightly breathless. "I wanted to get to actually eat the omelet."

Slade holds him for a moment. Then the hand around his eases up, letting him pull the knife away from his own throat as Slade chuckles. "Not bad. Maybe next time pick up something actually sharp, hm?"

"So you can put that to my throat instead?" His voice is dry, but he thinks that's pretty appropriate given the situation. He lets go of Slade's shirt as the other man steps back, letting him get free of the pin.

"Go eat your food, kid," Slade says, instead of answering. "Watch out for the pieces; I don't want to have to stitch your foot up."

Jason feels the very edge of his mouth twist up in a faint smile. "Yes, sir."

The omelet is pretty good, and Jason decides he's glad he made the move. Slade joins him at the table. Or rather, leans against the edge of the table with a new plate in one hand, just a couple feet away from him. It's not the first time he's seen Slade eat like that, but it still strikes him as a little weird. It reminds him of some sort of business tycoon, catching a quick meal before heading off to work. Not that Slade remotely fits that stereotype, even just in regards to his looks.

The plain white shirt, sweatpants, heavy boots that totally don't go with the rest of the outfit. It's not exactly the picture of a wealthy businessman. Jason remembers seeing Bruce in the mornings before he'd make his appearances at Wayne Enterprises. Suit jacket over the back of the chair, close-fitting semi-formal shirt crisp and tailored, tie knotted tight around his neck… What would Slade look like in a suit? A real suit? That sounds like quite a sight.

He stays in the chair when he's done, leaning back into it and taking a moment to just relax. He'd wash his dishes but, well, the main debris of the shattered plate is between him and the sink. He could probably get through it with some effort, but if there are smaller slivers that he misses he could still end up with those in his feet. It's not really a risk he wants to take unless Slade demands it.

"So what's the endgame, kid?" Slade asks, most of the way through his omelet. "You want to beat the Bat, sure, but that's not a plan. What is it you're actually looking to accomplish?"

Of all the questions Jason might have been expecting over breakfast, that's not one of them. He blinks up at Slade, stalling out as he says, "Um…”

He's thought about it, of course, but he hasn't made a real plan. That's what all this training is for, so he can actually make a plan that has a chance of working. So he can face off with Bruce and get the answers he wants. He doesn't know how he's going to get them yet, but he will get them. He has to.

"I want answers," is what he decides to say. That's safer than revealing all of his uncertainty about what he's actually going to do.

Slade swallows, speaks as he's cutting another piece of the omelet off with his fork. "You want answers, pick up a phone and ask the questions, kid. It doesn't take all of this."

"No, I—” His teeth set together, and his left hand curls to a fist as he makes himself look up and hold Slade's gaze. "I want to know, if it comes down to me or the Joker, who he'll choose. He— I died, and it was like it never mattered. Nothing's changed. The bastard—” He scoffs out a humorless laugh, shoving his chair back on two legs for a moment just to release a bit of the tension. "The rest of it doesn't matter. I just need to know; that's what I want."

"So it's not revenge?" Slade questions, watching him right back. "You're not looking to kill the Bat? Make him pay for what happened to you?"

"It's not his fault," Jason points out, with a shrug. "Not really, anyway. I thought it was, at first, and yeah I wanted him dead for failing, but thinking of it that way was just plain stupid. He was never going to be able to be there for everything.” He pushes his plate forward a couple inches. “Besides, I had my chance to kill him. It wasn’t enough.”

Slade turns further towards him, a bit of fascinated curiosity in his voice as he asks, “Oh?”

“When I first came back,” Jason starts, glancing briefly away before pushing himself to meet Slade’s gaze and hold it, “I went to Gotham. I set up a meeting, calculated everything out to give myself the time I needed to exploit a security flaw in the Batmobile.” Slade’s eye narrows. “It’s probably fixed by now, considering I left a remote-detonation bomb strapped to the bottom. High yield, right at the weakest points in the structure, closest to the fuel lines. It would have torn the car and anyone inside it apart.” He shrugs, looks away and keeps it that way this time. “I never set it off.”

“Why not? You realize you didn’t want him dead?”

“No,” Jason admits, “not then. But… he never would have known what hit him. He would have been dead in an instant, never knowing who it was or why it happened. That wasn’t enough. Killing him would have been… easy. I don’t want any of this to be easy.”

Slade sets the plate down, stacking it on top of his and then crossing his arms. There’s slight amusement in his expression, but as far as Jason can tell there’s no real judgment. “So you decided to get training. Find the most lethal people in the world and learn how to go up against him face to face?”

“Talia wanted me to,” he corrects. “She thought it would be better if I was prepared for any direction my plan might take.”

The snort isn’t really unexpected. Slade straightens up, takes the plates and heads for the sink. “And you believe that?”

Jason turns, draping an arm over the back of the chair. “No. She doesn’t want me to go after him, and she’s worried what he’ll do when he finds out she’s the one that brought me back. She’s stalling me, and I’m using her. It’s mutually toxic.”

Slade turns back to him, porcelain crunching under his boots as he crosses the distance, reaching out. Jason stays still as fingers slide under his chin, tilting it further up and holding him there. “For a Bat, you’re pretty ruthless, kid.”

He lifts just one shoulder in a shrug; doesn’t look away from Slade’s eye. “I’m not a Bat anymore, am I?”

Slade keeps his chin tilted up for a few long moments. Then he pulls away, thumb sliding across his jaw as it passes. “I guess not. Not completely anyway.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jason asks, twisting the other way to keep Slade in his sight as he heads to the corner, pulling a small broom and pan from a tucked-away cabinet. It looks absurdly small in his hands.

The look Slade gives him is piercing, and Jason finds himself straightening under it, tensing a bit. Slade approaches, setting the broom and pan on the table and coming right up to him. His jaw clenches as Slade leans over him, one hand bracing on the back of the chair behind his shoulder.

“You think I haven’t noticed that you never strike to kill?” he asks, voice low and dark, eye narrowed. “You came at me with a knife and aimed for my chest. Not the face, not the throat, not even a stab. You sliced at me with a blunt blade; I could have let it hit and the most it would have done was torn my shirt.”

Jason can feel himself flushing at the derisive tone, his hands curling to fists as shame and anger coil hot in his chest.

"You can kill or not, kid; I really don't care. But eventually I'm going to get sick of wasting my time teaching you skills you're never going to use, so if you're going to keep playing by hero rules you might as well save us both a lot of time and make up your mind now." The hand on the chair pushes slightly, and Jason flails to grab the edge of the table and make sure he doesn't tip over even though all Slade is doing is holding him at that slight angle. "If you're still just some do-gooder hero what are you doing here?"

"I'm not—”

Slade knocks his hand away from the table and shoves him back, and he sucks in a breath as he falls, grabbing for Slade's arm or anything to stop it but his fingers just close on empty air. He hits the ground on top of the chair, the slats of it digging into his back with the force of the impact before he falls off. He pushes away from the dangerously close minefield of shattered porcelain, the chair getting pushed along behind him as he puts a couple feet between him and those shards. He looks up to Slade, wariness joining that tight mix of anger and shame in his chest.

Slade gives a quiet snort and straightens up, and Jason feels something in him draw even tighter at the dismissive coolness in his expression. "Commit or go home, kid. Make up your mind before I get sick of you."

Jason can feel that thing in him shiver, feel it start to crack and he's just so angry. Slade heads for the sink, leaving him on the ground, and Jason feels his lips curl into a snarl.

The piece of porcelain he snatches off the ground digs into his hand, and it hurts, but it's not enough to stop him as he shoves up to his feet and lunges. Slade turns faster than any normal human could be capable of. Hands close in his shirt before his foot even comes down, yanking him into the air and off balance. He yelps when Slade cracks him back against the counter, his head smacking into a cabinet and the porcelain shard skittering off across the tiled surface. But the knife rack is right there and he grabs for one of those instead.

Slade's gaze snaps that direction, one hand letting go of his shirt. Jason snarls and drives his head forward, cracking their foreheads together in the moment of distraction. Fuck, it hurts. His vision spins, his head lolls back a moment, but he clenches his hand harder around the hilt of the knife and swings blindly for where he knows Slade's throat was.

A hand intercepts his, weight pinning his legs in place as Slade's other hand releases his shirt and closes around his throat instead. He chokes, grabbing for Slade's arm and digging his nails into the bare skin there. The knife is pried out of his hand. He struggles, managing to shove back enough to get a deeper breath in and finally lift his head enough that he can see Slade standing in front of him, see the dangerous edge to his gaze and his clenched jaw.

"What do you think you're proving?" Slade growls, fingers clenching hard around his throat for a moment. "You think you can make one swing for my throat and I'll forget about everything else? You're not dangerous, kid, you're just a softhearted little hero playing at rebelling against daddy."

The sound that escapes his throat is something wounded and angry, breathless. Slade shoves him back into the cabinet before letting his throat go, mouth curled into a faint sneer.

"Crawl home, kid. Get back to saving people like a good little hero; you don't have the backbone to see this through."

Jason shudders, his teeth baring. The words burst free from his chest like they're ripping a hole in it, as he shouts, "I can do both!" He shoves at Slade's chest, gets him to back up half a step. "Fuck you! You push and fucking push like what you think is the only fucking way to do anything but you're wrong! I don't have to be some mercenary son of a bitch like you to kill and I don't have to be a fucking hero to help people!" He snarls, shoving again and snapping, "And you know what? I don't have to subscribe to your black and white bullshit either so fuck off. I'll find other teachers that won't be monumental jackass pricks and I'll follow my own fucking plan and I don't need you for any of it! That enough fucking backbone for you, you bastard?"

He notices, suddenly, that Slade's mouth isn't in a sneer anymore. It's a tiny smirk, and he barely has time to stare at it with complete incomprehension before Slade says, "Yeah, that's better."

He blinks. Slade snorts. He flinches hard when Slade grabs his wrist, twisting it off to the side and pulling him into a lean across some of the counter, shoving his hand under the faucet. He doesn't understand it until the water turns on and his hand burns, pulling a startled cry from him. Slade doesn't let him go. He can see the blood washing away from his hand, and he tracks droplets of it across the counter. It's staining the handle of the knife Slade took from him as well as the piece of porcelain now sitting off by the microwave.

"Next time you come after me with something sharp," Slade comments, turning the water off and reaching up to the cabinets above with his free hand, "try not to slice your own hand open with it, hm?"

Jason stares, following the small box Slade pulls down; nondescript, but when he pops the latches open it turns out to be some sort of first aid kit. A pad is pressed into his palm, and then Slade starts to work on securing it.

"I don't understand," he finally manages to say, anger still warm in his chest but he doesn't know where to aim it. He's just… He's confused. This isn't remotely what he expected. He doesn't know what he expected.

Slade hums slightly, smoothing down the edges of the tape that's holding together the gauze wrapped around his hand. "I wanted an honest answer about things you hadn't figured out yet. Get someone angry, they make decisions. Stupid ones, sometimes, but usually it's accurate to what they're feeling."

"You… baited me so I'd rant at you?" Jason asks, feeling somewhat incredulous.

"Just about." Slade lets his hand go, packing the kit back up and sliding it away. But when Jason shifts forward to slip off the counter Slade shoves a hard hand against his chest and pushes him back. "Stay," Slade orders, before he can do more than open his mouth to complain. "I told you to watch out for the pieces, kid. You're lucky I reacted fast enough to lift you or you would have cut your feet apart; no one else is going to be that considerate."

Oh. The plate, right. Wait, so Slade…? He grabbed him mid-lunge to stop him from getting hurt?

"Don't ever attack when you're angry, kid," Slade says, with a small cuff to the side of his head. It doesn't even hurt, just pulls his attention back as Slade backtracks to the table and picks up the broom. "It makes you reckless and stupid; it'll be satisfying for exactly as long as it takes for you to make a mistake, which you will, and then you'll lose. Clear?"

The, “Yes, sir," is more automatic than a thought out response. He does get it, he just… He's trying to come to terms with the events of the last five minutes and that's primarily involving trying to calm down and stop feeling like he just got blindsided by Killer Croc.

"Good." Slade hands him the broom and pan, which he takes as automatically as he responded, and then grabs him at either side of his waist and lifts him off the counter. He sets Jason down outside the range of the shattered plate, then asks, "Want some coffee?"

The utter casualness is throwing Jason for a serious loop. "Uh. Yeah. Yes, please." He adds the, "Sir," belatedly. Slade smirks.

"I picked up a job," Slade comments over his shoulder, as he goes to the refrigerator and opens it. "Two weeks away, over in China. Why don't you come with me?"

"On a job?" Jason echoes. "Like an assassination? Why?"

The pitcher Slade pulls out to set on the counter seems to be partially full of coffee; dark and apparently chilled. "To watch and learn; get a bit of practical experience and some fresh air. Don't worry, I made sure he's suitably scumbag enough not to offend your moralities, if you really are going to be willing to kill people. Hot or iced, kid?"


"The coffee. Hot, or iced?"

It's stupid that the perfectly normal question stalls him out, but he does eventually manage a, "Hot." He shifts his grip on the broom, looking down at the porcelain-strewn floor for a moment. "Wait, you really want me to come with you?"

The mugs clink together as Slade pulls them down and starts to pour. "Don't read into things. I offered you the chance to come, I didn't say I wanted you there. It's your choice whether you think you can handle watching or not and if you can't, do me a favor and stay here and out of my way. I'm going regardless."

Jason watches as he puts both of the mugs into the microwave, the offer spinning around in his head as he stares, barely actually seeing. Until Slade leans back against the counter, the microwave whirring away as background noise, arms folding across each other as he watches the cups within. His gaze catches on the muscle to Slade's arms, easily twice as big around as one of his, and just as strong. The hands are rough with callouses, he knows; earned from before Slade ever became what he is. They'd have to be. He doesn't think callouses can form with enhanced healing.

Should he go? Can he stand off to the side and watch Slade kill someone? He knows some people deserve it, that's the point of all this, but someone he doesn't know? Someone Slade's being paid to kill? He's not sure if that makes it different or not. If the person still deserves it, does it matter if someone else gets paid to kill them? Does it matter if Slade kills the person to make money, and not out of a desire to make the world better if the end result is the same? Does it matter to him?

He's not sure it does. It feels… a little odd, but he's not feeling repulsed or horrified at the idea even though he kind of expected to. Whoever it is, Slade said they deserve it, right? He doesn't think Slade's a liar.

"I want to go." The words come before he's fully given himself permission to say them, but when Slade looks up to meet his gaze he doesn't find himself wanting to take them back.

The microwave beeps, and Slade nods. "Alright then. Tomorrow we'll start on guns; I want you to be able to do more than punch someone if anything goes wrong. Guns are a bit more impersonal than knives; it's a good stepping stone."

"To killing people?" he asks, with a curious amount of impassivity. He knows he should be reluctant, he remembers Bruce's view on them, but he isn't at all bothered by the idea of learning to shoot. It sounds handy.

"Yes." Slade pulls both mugs out of the microwave, and nods to the floor. "Clean that up, then you can join me. Understood?"

"Yes, sir."