“Let me do the talking,” he warns. “Jay?”
He turns, expecting to find his brother a few steps behind him but Jason’s silhouette lingers at the mouth of the alleyway. Drizzling mist slicks the shoulders of his leather jacket and catch the shine of a distant street lamp. He has the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up and his back to Dick as he peers into the dimly lit streets. Dick wonders what he’s looking at. Ever since he’s come back, Jason’s been… distracted. It’s not infrequent in the middle of conversation for his eyes to track to one side or the other, or into the distance as if seeing something no one else can. Maybe he is.
Dick shudders. It’s been almost two years since he came back to them with grave dirt under his nails and an unholy rage in his eyes, and another since they managed to exorcise the demon riding around in his skin. Dick had hoped that after freeing him from the parasite manipulating and feeding on his emotions that his little brother would return to them. But the rambunctious little boy Dick remembers is gone, a deeply traumatized and volatile young man left in his stead.
He knows it will take more than one short year for Jason to fully heal, it’s just… He misses his little brother. He misses the snarky back-handed compliments from the gap-toothed kid who would practice drawing sigils on his pizza in ranch dressing. Sometimes he wonders (shamefully and silently to himself) if this taciturn version of Jason is even wholly human. Most demons burn through a host in a handful of months. Jay had one in him for almost a year. What effect would that even have on a body? On a soul?
“I’m serious, Jay,” Dick snaps, sharp tone finally catching his brother’s attention. “Deathstroke is dangerous. I’ve dealt with him before, let me handle him.”
Jason’s head ticks over his shoulder to look at him. Dick locks eyes, staring intently until the younger man shuffles over to join him.
“Relax, Dickie. I heard you. This is your show.”
He shrugs sullenly, cheek distended where he’s pushing his tongue against it. As much as the insolence rankles Dick, the sight of the old mannerism is simultaneously relieving.
“It’s still your case, Jay,” Dick promises him. “I’ll follow your lead from here on out. It’s just… Deathstroke is… He’s crafty.”
“Well, yeah,” Jason agrees matter-of-factly, “He’s a demon, Dickhead.”
Dick fights back a sigh. He wishes he knew how to make Jason believe he isn’t about to pull a Bruce and stage a take-over. Jason is more than a competent hunter; studious in a way Dick never bothered with - his Latin incantations would make Alfred weep with pride, and his instincts for sensing supernatural trouble is uncanny. Honestly, Dick was thrilled Jason had even reached out to him. Preferring to take cases on his own, it’s a rare thing for Jason to ask for help. He doesn’t want to risk the opportunity to team-up again over a misunderstanding.
But this is Slade, who is always looking to take advantage of a situation. Dick wouldn’t be bringing Jason anywhere near him if it weren’t necessary. Unfortunately, they’ve hit a wall in the case and Deathstroke is the only one Dick can think of with both the ability and inclination to help. For a price.
Dick scans the lattice-work of fire escapes and barred windows climbing the wall in front of him. He sees movement on the fourth floor; a shadow hopping in and out amongst the others. Dick reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a chile.
“Hello Adeline,” he croons, “I have a present for you.”
He has just enough time to extend his other arm before the oversized raven lands heavily on his sleeve. It juts its head towards the treat and snips the chile out of Dick’s fingers. She tears into it, scattering seeds onto the old cobblestones that poke up through the asphalt. Once she finishes she shuffles up his arm towards his shoulder, stabbing at his jacket with her beak.
“No. No more treats. I’m all out.” He blocks her, trying to keep the chuckle out of his voice. “I need to speak with your master. Tell Deathstroke I’m here to see him. And that I have a guest with me.”
Adeline fixes one preternaturally blue eye on him, then jumps on top of his head with a disapproving gronk to get a look at Jason. Dick winces as her talons scrabble across his scalp and muss his hair.
“Holy shit,” Jason rasps, “What’s up with its eyes?”
There’s a buffet of air as she launches herself up, disappearing into the darkness above. Dick turns to his little brother and closes the distance between them. He reaches up to make sure the mask is properly sealed onto Jason’s face. Latex works just as well as smearing sacred ashes over their faces for obscuring their true identities from overly curious spirits, and it’s a hell of a lot more convenient.
“Remember, codenames only from here on out. Deathstroke’s already seen me without my mask so I may take it off. But keep yours on no matter what, okay?”
“Got it, Mom,” Jason drawls unhappily, batting his hands away.
Dick grins and gives a tug on the drawstring of his hoodie. The distinct sound of a lock unbolting draws their eyes to a metal door tucked back into a corner, hidden from view of the street. Orange rust bubbles up through a layer of black paint over its metal sheeting. It opens with a shriek of unoiled hinges. And Slade calls him dramatic. He shoulders his way into the pitch black waiting beyond. Jason mutters a curse and follows him, startling when the door slams ominously shut behind them.
Dick leads them by memory and touch down a narrow hall that ends in an equally narrow staircase. He doesn’t bother counting the landings as they twist between floors, but comes to a stop at the only one leaking a thin line of light under the doorway. He raises his hand to knock but the door swings silently inward before it makes contact. His knuckles hover over an imposingly muscled chest.
Damn. Somehow he always forgets just how tall Slade is. As tall and broad as Bruce, and then some. His sheer size is intimidating on its own, but Dick knows that the figure hidden beneath the inky black material of his clothing is lethally strong and fit as well. Jason makes a noise behind him like he’s trying to bite back on a gasp. The eye Slade doesn’t keep hidden behind a patch, fluoresces blue and roves over Dick and his brother.
“So what brings not one, but two little birds to my doorstep in the middle of the night?” the demon rumbles, voice grinding like a fault line.
“A proposition for you. May we come in?”
Technically as humans they don’t need to ask, but it’s considered polite. While Slade doesn’t seem to be much concerned with false trappings of civility, he does demand respect. It’s better to play it safe. Slade scoffs dismissively as if he knows what Dick is thinking, but steps back and waves them in. The room they enter is dark by human standards but not uncomfortable, its rich furnishings clashing with the building’s decrepit exterior. The walls are covered in a charcoal damask paper and washed in the warm glow of two glass hurricane lamps, one on the mantle and one on a desk.
“Please, sit.” Slade indicates a black velvet divan, settling himself at the desk.
Dick is surprised when Jason looks to him before sitting. Perhaps he hadn’t turned a deaf ear to his earlier cautioning after all. Dick lifts his chin in assent and ushers Jason to the far end of the sofa, taking the seat closest to Slade. He angles his body subtly to block Jason from the demon’s sight as much as possible. Slade counters by crossing an ankle over his knee and leaning to the side of his chair in a casual sprawl.
“So. You have a proposition for me. Business… Or pleasure?” the demon asks, sharp teeth glinting in the lamplight.
“Business,” he growls.
“Not both, are you sure?”
Dick bristles at the demon’s goading. “I’m sure.”
Slade claps a palm over his crooked knee. “Let’s hear it then.”
“Not from you,” Slade cuts him off and points to Jason. “From him.”
Dick opens his mouth to protest.
“I don’t do middle men, Nightwing. You know that. If it were your request you would have come alone. Introduce me to your friend.”
Anxiety like ice water drips down his spine.
“Deathstroke, please. I vouch for him. Isn’t that enough?” he scrabbles to keep Slade from wrenching the situation out of his control.
The demon levels him with an unimpressed look.
“You overestimate my esteem for you. My reputation is my business and I won’t risk that by working with an unknown factor.”
Dick resists the temptation to tap his fingers against his thigh, a tell he knows the demon will pick up on. He should never have allowed himself to become so familiar with the demon. What would Bruce say if he knew they were on a true-name basis? Next to him Jason squares his shoulders and clears his throat, edging closer to the divan’s edge. Dick wants to shove him back and hide him away somewhere safe.
“Red Hood,” Jason offers up, his voice a touch deeper than usual as he presents himself.
Slade leans forward in interest.
“I’ve heard of you. Eight heads of Hell’s lieutenants in a duffle bag. The whole underworld was in an uproar over that. No wonder you come to me. I’m guessing no other denizen of the dark realm is willing to do business with you,” the demon hypothesizes shrewdly.
Dick winces. In his periphery he sees Jason grimace as well.
Slade smiles. “And what have you come to me for, Red Hood?”
“There’s a demon that’s set himself up as a mobster topside. He’s been violating—”
“I don’t care what he’s been doing. You don’t have to justify anything to me. You just have to be able to pay. Who is this you’re going after?”
Jason’s mouth twists, about as happy as Dick with Slade’s penchant for cutting people off, though it smoothes out a second later with Deathstroke’s simple acceptance. It makes Dick uneasy. Maybe he should have been less concerned with exposing Jason to Slade, and more concerned with introducing Jason to a potential collaborator with none of the moral inhibitions Bruce instills in the other hunters of their clan.
“He’s going by the name Black Mask.”
Slade’s pale brows arch up. “I’ve heard about him. Aiming high then.”
Jason nods curtly.
“And you want me to… Banish? Seal? Kill?”
“No,” Jason shakes his head. “Nothing like that. I just need his true name for the summoning. I’ll handle the rest on my own.”
“You mean we will,” Dick reminds him.
He’s here because Jason asked for his help. He wouldn’t have done that unless he thought Black Mask was too strong for him to take on alone, right? Jason hums noncommittally and shrugs. Deathstroke chuckles at his cocksure display.
“Confident in your abilities, aren’t you?” the demon observes, only slightly mockingly. He reclines back in his chair, “Well, that’s none of my concern. Let’s move on to what is: payment.”
Dick sits on his hands to keep them still. This is the moment that has loomed over him like the Reaper himself, ever since making the decision to come to Deathstroke. He has his own special deal with the demon that they’ve worked out over the years, but he’s asked other people who have hired the mercenary in the past to get an idea of his more conventional rates. They should have plenty.
Jason reaches into a jacket pocket and pulls out a bottle of Glenfiddich. Then from another pocket he pulls out a packet wrapped in brown paper. He stretches past Dick and holds it out to Slade, careful not to let his gloved fingers touch the demon’s. Slade sets the bundle on his desk and picks at the thread holding it together. He sorts through the contents discerningly: a fragrant plug of native Virginia tobacco, a pouch of fetal bones, a length of frayed rope, and a good old stack of cold hard cash. The bit of hangman’s noose had been a particular pain to acquire since execution via hanging had gone out of popularity with the advent of lethal injection in the 1970s.
Slade flips through the money and puts it to the side. He spills the pouch contents into his palm and rubs his thumb over the assortment of miniscule bones before funneling them back inside the bag. He holds the tobacco beneath his nostrils, inhaling deeply. After he’s assessed everything he grips the whisky bottle by its neck and taps the glass contemplatively.
“Not enough,” he sniffs.
“What?!” Dick cries out, rising to his feet. “This is twice what you accepted from Aresnal!”
“Arsenal wasn’t asking for the true name of a Duke of Hell,” Slade replies coolly. “It won’t be an easy job. Mask is temperamental. There’s high-turnover in his hordes. It will be difficult to find someone who has been with him long enough to know anything worth betraying. I’ll probably need to cross the border into Hell and back a few times.”
“Damnit, Hood,” Dick sighs.
Jason refuses to look at him, his masked gaze sticking to the toes of his boots like glue. A Duke of Hell? No wonder Jason had called him in for back up. The room is silent, lamplight wavering on the walls.
“So… What would be enough?” Jason asks.
Slade’s eye flicks up and down the younger man, then returns to land heavily on Dick.
“I want my normal rate.”
Dick closes his eyes behind his mask. He was afraid of this. That regardless of what they brought, this is what the demon would demand. He swallows his pride, steels himself, and takes a breath.
“Alright,” he accepts.
“Alright?” Slade questions, a smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth.
He stands in one sinuous motion and circles Dick like he’s prey.
“It’s a deal. Just give me a few minutes to talk with Hood and walk him out.”
Slade comes to a stop in front of him. “And why would you do that?”
The demon’s hand ghosts over his hip and he shivers.
“You know why. We can’t—not with my—not with Hood here. Come on, Deathstroke,” he whines.
“Not with your…” Slade pauses, letting the seconds stretch tortuously, “Friend? Lover? Brother?”
Each option is more vulgar than the last and has Dick huffing with anger. Slade delights in his discomfort and inches closer until they are standing chest to chest.
“But why would I let him leave when he’s the one who needs to pay?” the demon whispers in his ear.
Dick goes rigid, eyes darting over Slade’s shoulder to where Jason stands with his hands in his pockets looking bored and uncomfortable with the scene taking place before him. There’s a mean tilt to Slade’s mouth. Dick snorts and shakes his head.
“Not funny. I know you get off on riling me up, but this is low even for you.”
He rocks back on his heels ready to yell at Jason to pack up their remuneration and head out when Slade hisses.
“Your ego is showing, Nightwing. Do you really think you’re the only pretty boy I’ve made such arrangements with? I assure you, any interest I have in your associate rests entirely upon his own merits.”
Dick experiences a split second of relief that if Slade is referring to him as an associate, then Jason’s identity is safe from him at least for now, but that relief fades as soon as the rest of the demon’s words sink in. He recoils in disgust. His face feels like it’s on fire, though he isn’t sure if it’s burning in embarrassment, rage or shame.
“C’mon, Hood,” he growls, reaching behind him to grab his baby brother by the sleeve and bodily drag him out of the apartment. “Coming here was a mistake. We’ll figure something else out. We don’t need his help.”
But the leather slips free from his fingers when Jason refuses to follow, hesitating just inside the threshold.
Jason’s tongue prods at his cheek again. “My case, my call, you said.”
“Hood,” Dick breathes out, shaking his head.
“I need that name,” his brother rejoins softly, deceptively. There is steel beneath the hushed words.
Dick’s squeezes his eyes shut and clenches his fists at his side, because of course now is when his little brother is going to decide to be so stupidly noble as he used to be as Robin—when he has no idea what the stakes are.
“Yes, Nightwing. This is his decision,” Slade purrs.
His hands reach for the escrima sticks holstered under his jacket; forged from sanctified steel and blessed by the Pope during his visit to the Vatican his first year as Nightwing. They may not have the power to banish Slade from this plane with a single swipe, but they still pack a punch. Hopefully, enough of one to buy him time to drag Jason out by the collar if need be.
Slade isn’t some low-level peon of perdition though. He’s a Knight of Hell who spends his days tracking down other super-powered creatures of the abyss. Dick has never won in an all-out fight against him. He doesn’t now. Before the escrima even clear their holsters Slade slides a finger down his sternum. He shakes his head and tuts at Dick’s attempt as the hunter’s arms fall uselessly to his sides.
“Now, Nightwing. As you’re not a party in this exchange, your intrusion will no longer be tolerated. Please wait while the Red Hood and I finish our negotiations.”
Power blooms out from Slade’s touch and suddenly he’s flying backward. His back cracks into the mouldering plaster of the landing, forcing the air out of his lungs. Before he can gather his senses the door to the apartment holding his brother and sometimes ally, sometimes adversary slams shut, the light beneath winking out.
“No!” he screams and throws himself at the door, roiling with anger.
It splinters beneath his weight and he trips into an empty abandoned room with mouldering walls and sagging floorboards. There’s no sign of the desk, the divan, the ornate wallpaper or his brother. There’s nothing he can do to stop his brother from making the biggest mistake of his second life.