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“Slade, I need a favor.”

Slade barked out a laugh before taking a long drag on the cigar balanced between his fingers. The hot, humid night air clung to his skin and smoothed the muscles in his back and shoulders almost as well as the smoke and Sazerac. Cicadas cried and then abruptly ceased, off in Slade’s left peripheral. A quiet curse echoed in the stead of their raucous hum.

“No wonder B doesn’t come this far down South,” Dick muttered, appearing first as a flash of blue and then as a whole person, stupidly dressed for the swampy summer in his Nightwing regalia. The light from Slade’s rented porch expose the sheen of sweat edging Dick’s domino.

“Shoulda worn the panties, kid,” Slade drawled into his glass. He took a sip. “Would’ve cooled you down and with those green scales, you would’ve fit right in.” Dick glanced back with trepidation at the black water far behind him. “Anyway,” Slade continued, drawing Dick’s attention again. “You know damn well that I don’t give favors. Unless you’ve got a reasonable offer, I’m on vacation.”

Dick cocked his head, mask lenses doing nothing to disguise his perplexion. “Never pictured you the type to lurk in the swamps, Slade. I thought you had a place in South Africa.”

Slade exhaled, white smoke pouring from his lips. “We all get cravings, kid. You should know that better than anyone. Now, how much are you willing to put down to pull me out of my leisure? It’ll have to be a pretty penny.” He took another drag of his cigar and watched Dick squirm with a narrowed eye. The kid was usually pretty good at disguising his feelings, when he wanted to be. Except for anger, he was better at duplicity than he thought. And yet, he appeared be laid bare, uncomfortable, and reaching.

“I can’t offer any money, not right now anyway. I’m not what you’d call independently wealthy, and B’s got his eyes on our accounts ever since Damian paid you off the last time. But, I can—”

Slade sighed, audibly, and crushed his cigar against the wood of his rocking chair. “I’m not buying what you’re selling, Grayson,” Slade muttered, taking another swig of rye whiskey. “Your product’s shit.”

Dick reeled back, the first authentic body language he’d offered Slade since he’d slunk from the shadows. And then Dick planted his feet and crossed his arms, chin going up so sharply Slade idly wondered if his neck would break.

“Why are you always such an intolerable—”

“Whose idea was it to honeypot you?” Slade interrupted, meeting Dick’s whited out glare. “It was Jason, wasn’t it? Boy’s got an inferiority complex tangled up in you enough to think you’d be able to pull it off. You all should talk, give therapy a go.”

“Where should I start?” Dick ground out, “with the death of my parents, or with the leering old man who liked to burst through my windows and threaten my life?”

“Ooph,” Slade grunted in faux hurt. “You should be kinder when you talk about Bruce. Parenting’s a bitch.”

Slade took the punch to his jaw. He saw it coming a mile away, but it was well earned.

Afterwards, Dick slumped to perched cross legged neck to Slade’s chair. Slade reached down and undid the latch hiding Nightwing’s zipper. Slade slid the zipper down, the fabric already so taut against Dick’s skin that it only took one hand. When he’d reached Dick’s midback, Dick shrugged him off in order to tug away the sleeves and let the torso of the suit slide off and bunch in his lap. Dick practically whimpered.

“I don’t know how it’s so hot out and still feels so good,” he cooed before closing his eyes and bracing himself on his hands as he leaned back.

“You were overdressed,” Slade grunted. “Now, you’re going to get eaten by mosquitos.”

Dick frowned, glancing up at Slade. “You don’t seem to be worried about bugs. I think you’re just trying to lure me into your cabin in the woods.”

Slade finished the last of his drink and set the glass down. Then, he crouched to Dick’s level, reached out a hand, and none too gently peeled Dick’s mask from his face. Dick winced as the adhesive clung to his skin.

“I,” Slade cooed, “have super healing. Get your ass inside.” Slade stood and went inside, taking Dick’s mask with him. That’s why Dick chased after him, Dick decided. To get his mask back.

In the end, despite Dick explaining with dramatic gesticulations the stakes of his mission, Slade declined to take on the job that Dick had to offer. Dick made further, gallant attempts at convincing Slade, but Slade did not relent. In the end, Dick sighed and let his head fall on Slade’s sweat slick shoulder.

“Can’t fucking believe you’re telling me no after all of that,” Dick wined, kicking away the comforter that had strayed too close to his leg. The entire room was sweltering, and Dick couldn’t tell if it was the heat or the sex. Or both. “Probably both,” Dick muttered to himself.

“You’re flexible, Grayson, not magic,” Slade muttered, pulling Dick closer against him despite the heat. “It’s a low paying job with high risk. Red Hood’s drug change wouldn’t be worth any of the other variables individually, much less all of them, in the same vicinity.”

“What?” Dick murmured, goading, “Afraid of a little occultism?” He skittered his fingers up Slade’s side, but Slade didn’t so much as flinch.

“No. But you are, or you wouldn’t have sought me out. Or,” Slade grinned and slid his own hand down to cup Dick’s ass, “maybe you would have, but you wouldn’t have asked until after.”

Dick pouted and wriggled away, loosening the damp fitted sheet further. “Fine, but you’re really gonna miss my ass when I die because you wouldn’t run interference over Constantine being there.”

“And Zatanna,” Slade offered. “And Papa Midnite. And whatever other underworldly entourage accompanies them. I’m surprised you’re even involving yourself; this sounds like a problem for the Bat, not his brighter faced ilk.”

With a sigh and a slight wince, Dick stood, stretched, and sought out the bathroom. He disappeared through the right door and once Slade could hear the shower running, Dick poked his head out to say, “B’s off world and Zee’s an old friend of his. I’m happy to help.”

Slade grunted. “Don’t die.”

“No promises!” Dick sing-songed as he returned to his shower.

As it turned out, Dick didn’t die.

But Slade did find him limp, slumped on the floor against his rocking chair, when Slade was returning from a venture deeper into the swamp. Dick was in civvies, a blue v-neck and dark wash jeans that only served to shrink him and make him out to be even younger than he was. As Slade drew closer, audibly crunching gravel and twigs underfoot, Dick didn’t even blink. He just stared listlessly with wet, half lidded eyes.

“Kid,” Slade said, nudging Dick with his foot when he got close enough. “Grayson, get up.”

Dick shifted, but didn’t stand. Slade huffed before reaching down and dragging Dick up by his upper arm. After some scrabbling and Slade’s unrelenting grip, Dick’s feet found purchase on the deck. But tired of lifting mostly deadweight, Slade just hefted Dick over his shoulder anyway and carried him indoors. Slade wouldn’t say it out loud, but Dick’s ragdoll-esque compliance to being carried disturbed him more than the dead-eyed stare.

When inside, Slade tossed Dick on his bed and then left the room only to return a few minutes later with a glass of water. Dick, responding for the first time since managing to place his feet on the ground earlier, looked up at Slade. Tears clung to dark lashes, and Dick shook.

“You were right,” Dick whispered. “High risk. Low reward.”

Slade arched an eyebrow. “What is it, kid? What did they do to you?”

Dick shook his head, so Slade pressed the water against his lips and did not move until Dick drained the entire glass. Then, Dick pushed the glass away and laid down on the bed, curling up in a ball. Obligingly, Slade undressed himself down to his shirt and briefs and then crawled into bed behind Dick. Slade wrapped an arm around Dick’s waist and pulled him close. He whispered in the shell of Dick’s ear, “What happened? Where’s Jason?”

Dick shook his head. “Jason’s fine,” he mumbled. “Made sure before I came here. Zee’s okay too. No one’s hurt. Everything’s okay. Everything’s fine. I’m just tired.” Dick nestled deeper into the sheets. “Just tired.”

“You don’t seem tired,” Slade muttered. “What spooked you?”

Dick shook his head but peeked up at Slade. “I wasn’t… it’s not like that. I got caught between Constantine and Papa Midnite. Some kinda spell or something, I guess. I just. I saw a lot. I saw them, and him, and her, and it was like being on fear gas except way more potent and I didn’t have a tolerance for this one and it just, it kept going until I finally came to on the ground.” Dick began talking so fast that his words ran in together, so Slade pulled him tighter against himself and rubbed circles into his chest.

“’Nyway,” Dick finished after a few moments of quiet ministration, “I came out of it and Jason was leaning over me. I got up and brushed myself off in front of him, to let him know I was okay, but I don’t know. I just… can I stay here? Just for a day or so?” And Dick looked up at Slade with those big, damp eyes, and Slade was telling him, “Of course, kid,” before Slade realized his mouth was moving and maybe Dick was better at batting his eyes and getting what he wanted from Slade than Slade cared to admit.

And maybe Slade should have gone with him, protected him from whatever nightmares he was exposed to while out of reach. And maybe Slade should just keep him within reach, indefinitely. Teach the Bat how to take care of what’s his. Rewire Dick so that he wouldn’t be such a martyr for the Cause, wouldn’t expose himself to other people’s miseries. Slade felt wet fabric press against his chest as Dick shifted, prompting Slade’s mind to quiet as he dug that melodic hum (the one he’d heard Dick sing to himself more than once) from memory.

“Saw you too,” Dick mumbled, exhaustion finally leaking into his voice. “You obliterated Bludhaven. Stood and watched the carnage.” 

Slade humphed. “Unlikely, kid. I don’t do mass murder.” 

“I know,” Dick murmured. “That moment was sort of grounding.” Dick was quiet for several minutes before whimpering, “I don’t know how I’m going to face the family.”

Slade ran his fingers through Dick’s hair. “Tomorrow, Little Bird. Tonight, I’m the only monster under your bed.”