“Why is having fun so important?”
Dick looked up at Damian, who had asked the question, but was in turn staring into his own plate as if he was trying to find the answer there. So he turned to throw a confused look at Alfred who seemed uncharacteristically stunned by the question as well.
The first thing that came to mind was a joke to lighten the mood, but Dick had learned by now that Damian would not react well to that. More than anything Damian hated when he wasn't taken seriously. So Dick decided to take the question at face value. “I’m not really sure how to answer your question. What exactly is it that you want to know?”
God, did that sound like a line from some random parenting book, or what? Damian would probably not like that thought any better either. Dick chanced another look at Alfred who just nodded encouragingly, but even that was not really convincing Dick that he was on the right track here.
But finally Damian was looking up at him, his eyes dark with something that by now Dick knew to identify as a mix of frustration and discontent. He was furrowing his brow and his mouth was drawn into a thin line. It was an unattractive expression, too grown-up and out of place on the face of a ten year old, but Dick thought it best not to comment on that just now. This question had obviously been on the kid’s mind for some time. Now he was clearly unhappy with the way his questioning had turned out. Damian always hated it when he had to clarify something that he thought was obvious.
“Brown said that I should learn how to have fun,” he said, expression grim and voice slightly angry.
Aha. And Stephanie sure had a point there. But something more must have happened to make their little volatile baby bat seriously think about it. “I’ve been telling you something along those lines for a while now, too, haven't? I think I might have.”
Damian’s expression darkened even more and he put down his fork with a clang. Dick was worried a little by both the expression that reminded him too much of his father and by the way his hands were clenched into fists now. For a moment he expected the boy to jump to his feet and either run out of the room in angry indignation or throw something at him. In the very beginning of their partnership he would even have expected an all out attack. By now Dick had become kind of used to simple everyday situations ending in unexpected violence. Alfred threw him a look that seemed to tell him: Not over dinner, please. He held back a sigh. Because Alfred really was overestimating the influence he had on Damian here.
“I know you have,” Damian answered, visibly holding back all the things he really wanted to shout at him. He could guess that most of them weren't very nice. “That is why I’m asking you.” Obviously. He didn't roll his eyes, but his dark, sulking look was the nearest equivalent.
He really was his father's son, huh?
Well, he had dealt with said father for years, so maybe he really was the right person to come up with an answer that would satisfy Damian.
Dick knew that asking for anything, even something as simple as an answer, didn’t come easily to the boy at all. He hated needing help, to not know things already on his own. He saw asking as admitting a weakness. So Dick knew that his best option was to take this as seriously as possible and put Damian at ease somehow. If he didn't want to have plates thrown at his head at least. (It had never happened before, but Dick had been waiting for it.) “Okay,” he said out loud, making sure Damian knew he was listening. He took a moment to lean back and look at him, knowing that Damian would take this as a sign that Dick was contemplating the matter. “It’s not exactly an easy concept, you know? Having fun comes naturally to most people. And I do think in a way it comes naturally to you, too. You’re just...” The right word for what Damian was exactly eluded him, though.
“You're certainly not like everybody else, Master Damian,” Alfred interjected, refilling the boy's glass without looking at either of them directly. “But then that was to be expected. It runs in the family after all.”
Dick tried hard not to chuckle, but Damian had turned to look at Alfred with a serious expression of his own and nodded, clearly appreciating what Alfred was saying for his very own reasons. “Of course, I’m not like everybody else.”
“Well,” Dick pointed out, “I guess, most people would think so about themselves. Not really helpful. Not if you want to learn what people think is fun.” And Damian turned back to look at him with another frown marring his forehead. He was probably trying to decide if Dick had just insulted him or not.
Dick wasn't sure he knew the answer to that himself.
Alfred was smiling a little – his very mild, I-have-a-cute-silly-little-family-all-of-whom-dress-up-as-bats-and-birds-smile. Dick had to admit that they really were a cute – and silly – little family sometimes and in their very own way.
Better not let any of the others know, though. Although he could probably use it to wind up Jason the next time the other was trying to wreak havoc.
“So why is it important?” Damian tried again, sounding annoyed now and getting Dick's attention again.
“Look. There are things that people enjoy doing and things they don’t enjoy doing. People are stressed enough most of the time and sometimes they just want to relax and have fun. You have fun in your way and most people have fun by doing things that are generally considered fun. I’m sure Stephanie isn’t wrong when she says you should try it sometime. Do something without a purpose once in awhile. Just for fun. Just because you like it.”
“Like what?” Damian had his arms crossed over his chest. It was a challenge.
Dick came up with no answer. “Watching a movie?” he said, just to say something, carefully phrasing it like a question, because he really had no idea what would be a reasonably fun occupation to Damian, whose upbringing had been rather different from his own. He'd been born into circus for crying out loud and then had suddenly found a new life as the partner of a crime-fighting vigilante. You had fun whenever you could when you led a life like that. “You know? People go out with friends, play games, do sports, read. It's really up to you and what makes you happy.”
“We could try to figure it out,” he said smiling, allowing just a tiny little bit of the amusement he was feeling to seep into his voice.
“I don't think I need your help,” Damian let him know, nodding to himself. The next moment he was attacking the food on his plate with a vengeance again, in a hurry to finish his meal.
Dick returned his attention to his own food and thought that this was the end of this strange conversation and that he would probably not hear any more about it. But a few minutes later Damian had finished his meal, wiped his mouth with a napkin and instead of jumping up to get away stayed in his chair and watched Dick eat in silence. For Damian that was suspicious behavior. Alfred cleared away Damian's plate after making sure he'd had enough. Dick and Alfred exchanged another look and this time Damian caught them at it and glared at them both.
Yes. Definitely his father's child, Dick thought.
“What did my father do for fun?”
Dick couldn't hold back the chuckle this time, careful not to choke on a mouthful of mashed potato. Alfred cleared his throat and said: “You're father had his very own unique definition of what's fun. He was not exactly like other people either.”
Damian nodded, satisfied. He was out of his chair in the blink of an eye and vanished from their view without another word.
“Little bat wants to learn about fun,” Dick chuckled.
“Well, he's found the right teacher then,” Alfred said, giving Dick another meaningful once over.
“I don't think so, Alfred. Our ideas of fun won't mesh.”
Alfred reached for his now empty plate and said sternly: “We'll see.”
This one time Dick was sure Alfred was wrong. “When are we going to tell Damian about the 'Bruce Wayne ways to have fun'? You know, playboy life and all that.” he asked instead.
“We can wait until he has found his childhood before destroying it again,” Alfred answered laconically.
Dick leaned back to look at him with a smile. “Knowing about Bruce hasn't hurt me or Tim,” he pointed out.
“Hasn't it just?” Alfred shot back and reached for his plate. For a moment he thought about protesting, but it seemed like a bad moment to start about his – and Tim's – ability to maintain healthy relationships. To his relieve Alfred seemed to agree with this and continued in a softer voice: “When you first came to live with us you made the boy's father remember what fun was. You'll do quite well with his son.”
It sounded like an interesting theory, but Dick didn't really believe it was true.
They had known about the gun shipment and it had simply been a matter of being in the right place at the right time. There had been a surge in gang wars since Bruce had disappeared from the scene and even though it had quieted down quite a bit since Dick had taken over, the mob was persistent and pushing for a big showdown between the warring factions.
Dick couldn't say he hadn't been waiting for it. After all this was Gotham and the criminals here were nothing if not persistent in their criminal ambitions.
They waited in the shadows until the buyers had arrived and Dick made a mental note to have a little talk with the Penguin later this week, just to make sure Cobblepot knew that the new Batman in town recognized his hand in this just as well as the old one would have done.
Gotham was just relearning how to handle a Batman it seemed. And Dick was set on showing them that things hadn't changed where it counted.
He smirked into the darkness, looking forward to some action after all the waiting.
Robin was crouched down by his side, watching their targets and then looking over at him. Dick nodded. Damian kept still for another moment, watching him as if he was looking for something more, before he used the shadow to carefully scoot away and get into position.
“Do you need help with that? I could send backup,” Oracle's voice chuckled into his ear.
He growled back in the best imitation of Bruce's scariest Batman voice: “I'm Batman.”
“Right,” she chuckled. “No help then.”
He waited for Damian to get into position, before finally moving into action himself, jumping forward out of the darkness.
Another night in Gotham for Batman. He grinned to himself and allowed himself a second to think about Bruce, who had taught him everything there was to know about stopping crime in a city that attracted criminals like flies, before he landed right on top of the crates holding the weapons and jumped into action,
“Oh yes, it is,” he growled, watching the first one making a run for it with satisfaction.
Leaving the thugs for the police wasn't as awkward anymore as it had been the first few times, when he hadn’t yet felt at home in his new role as Batman – and the commissioner and his officers hadn't been sure what to think of the new, younger Batman. Dick smiled to himself, pleased with the way everything had gone as planned for once.
“You're having fun,” Damian observed. “You were smiling practically the whole time.”
Dick tilted his head to get a better look at him and nodded. “Yes, I was. I'm having fun. Aren't you?”
Damian scowled at him and it made him look more dangerous than anyone wearing the mask of Robin had any right to look. “This is not supposed to be fun. This is serious.”
A sigh made its way up Dick's throat, but he managed to swallow it down again. Damian wasn't wrong, of course. “It is and you're right to never forget that. I just prefer to enjoy my work. Sorry. It's just who I am.”
“You enjoy beating up thugs?” Damian asked and there was this very tiny, decidedly nasty smile forming that Dick didn't like at all. The kid was probably coming to his own conclusions why violence equaled fun and Dick thought it would be better for both of them to say something before Damian could elaborate.
“Occasionally. Most of the time. Okay, yeah I do. Although actually I enjoy stopping criminals of any kind in any way. And, yes, sometimes that includes a little action. Don't tell me you don't enjoy it, because you're a competitive little shit. You totally enjoy winning and looking down on others and just being better.” As Tim would happily attest to, Dick thought with a wry grin. “That is not a free pass to go and beat up who you want, by the way, just because it's fun. And we never ever go too far. There are still rules. Understood?”
Damian was staring at him, silent and visibly thinking this over. “You enjoy using your skills,” he concluded finally.
“Yes.” For a moment he remembered a kid laughing with his parents while training a new act under the circus tent, a boy wearing a brightly colored costume making cheeky remarks while Batman was looming behind him, hiding his grin so the thug of the moment wouldn't see.
His own Robin looked up at him and nodded. “That makes sense,” he said, turned around and moved towards the Batmobile.
Dick wasn't sure anything made sense these days, but he wasn't going to argue when Damian was for once not arguing either. But there was something he had to say anyway, so he followed him towards the car and said: “You do know that isn't what Batgirl was talking about at all though?”
Damian's mouth drew into a thin line. “I don't care what the girl blunder thinks!”
“Of course not. What was I thinking?”
“He's not going to tell you this. And you don't have it from me. So the little troll won't hear this from you, okay?” Stephanie said, before he could even acknowledge her presence. She just swooped down beside him and started talking – and although Dick was thinking Batman should really not let this happen without showing his disdain for chatter, he was also aware how often he'd done the exact same thing to Bruce back in the day.
Life had really come full circle now.
“What has Robin done this time?” he asked, aware that it sounded amused and not scary – and that probably meant his Batvoice needed some work.
“Eh... Nothing. I did something. I took him to try out a moon bounce and we had fun. He had fun.”
“He had fun. At a fair?”
“Yeah, something like that,” Stephanie said, managing to look a little sheepish, although the Batgirl costume didn't make it easy. “He's a kid after all.”
“Yeah,” Dick said, staring into the distance and not even trying to keep the whole Batman persona in place. “Yeah, he is. And isn't that a scary thought?”
Stephanie nodded. “I think I may have said something and now he's on a quest...”
“To figure out why fun is important,” Dick chuckled. “Yeah. We noticed. He's been asking questions.”
“Don't get me wrong. But how do you deal with this? Isn't it strange to have a kid around who doesn't know how to be a kid? I mean, I suppose you weren't ever like that.”
“Has Oracle graced you with stories from a long time ago?” Dick asked. He had to smile inwardly, because it would be so like Barbara to not talk about their complicated romantic history, but relay memories of a happy childhood that could have been much worse all things considered.
“No. she hasn't said anything. It's not really a secret that you were a happy Robin.” Stephanie paused and then continued after a moment of silence: “And that you know how to have a – a good time. Don't you think you can teach him how to be a kid?”
“Why?” He let the question hang in the air between them for a moment, watching the way Stephanie startled and grew completely still, probably thinking this was a rebuke. “You seem to manage quite well on your own.”
“He would never have gone too a moon bounce with me.”
“Have you tried?” she asked incredulously.
“No,” he admitted truthfully. “But I've tried a lot of things with him in the beginning. I think he doesn't want me to see that he can be a kid sometimes.”
Stephanie cocked her head to the side and asked: “Matter of pride?”
With her long blond hair falling around her shoulders and her earnest expression she reminded him a lot of a younger Barbara. And now she was taking an interest in family matters. It was a familiar dynamic, but somehow the roles had been all messed up. He looked away. “Something like that.”
“I don't know. I think by now he wants to belong to the family even if the twerp would never admit it. And you're the only real connection he has.”
It made sense in a scary way. Damian wasn't a kid you could easily read, but Dick knew he wanted to belong somewhere. Somewhere with his father's family - or he wouldn't have stayed. “Yeah. You're right. It's just not that easy.”
She beamed at him, reminding him again of her mentor. “Jeez. This will never get old, right? Batman just told me I'm right about something.”
He smiled back, wryly. “Better not get used to it.”
Since Bruce's death and moving their headquarters Dick had deliberately avoided the manor. It was just too strange to come back to the place where he'd spend a good deal of his childhood and realize all over again that Bruce was dead and things had changed. Now it was mostly Alfred and Damian living here, when either of them weren't with him at his new place at Wayne Tower anyway.
“Did I miss some important occasion?” Alfred asked when they came across each other in the hall. “I was about to drive Master Damian over to Wayne Tower.”
“No,” Dick answered and smiled, feeling a little silly and self-conscious. “Do we still have a basketball lying around the garage?”
“A basketball?” Alfred looked at him then, barely keeping a straight face.
“Yeah, I want to shoot some hoops.” Dick smiled a little wider. He'd spotted Damian at the top of the stairs, keeping himself close to the wall and obviously listening in. “You know? Like I used to do with Tim all the time. For fun. All. The. Time.”
“You used to do it with Master Bruce first, as far as I remember. You couldn't have found a place to do this near Wayne Tower?” Alfred asked. “Or are you taking a deliberate trip down memory lane?”
“I'm really not sure, Alfred.”
“I'm sure the ball is where it's always been. I can't remember moving it.”
Dick nodded. “Thanks!” He could feel a pair of intense eyes on him when he walked away, and smiled to himself.
He made sure the ball was pumped up enough, before playing by himself for a while. It was a cool evening, but not too cold for this. He'd always had time for a little innocent fun and games like this, back when he'd been Robin with a younger and a little more approachable Bruce and even later during his time as Nightwing. There had always been time for a bit of relaxation during his time with the Titans, although teaching Kory about sports had led to some slight alterations to the common rules. He could even remember the one time he'd made Jason play him, while Bruce had been glowering at the both of them.
Yes, he'd always had time for this.
But not since he had taken on the mask of his mentor.
Maybe he would have if Tim had stayed around.
He could hear the door open and close behind him and near silent steps approaching. Damian was there, watching him and not hiding himself. He deliberately exaggerated his next move, jumped higher than necessary and threw the ball at the basket and caught it again when it bounced back.
“You're acting strange, Grayson.”
He kept his face straight and just went on with what he was doing, answering Damian without looking at him: “That's rich, coming from you, Damian.”
The boy folded his arms across the chest and glared at him. “Strange even for you,” he said.
That made Dick laugh out loud. He threw the ball at Damian, deliberately aiming for his head, knowing it would never have a chance to make contact. As expected Damian just caught the ball in front of his face and then looked at him in a gloomy fashion that Dick thought might also have been slightly curious. It was always hard to tell with him. “Want to join in?” he asked.
“Aren't we patrolling tonight?”
“When I'm finished here.”
Damian was still holding the ball up in front of him with both hands and finally looked actually surprised and Dick had to smirk at his successful attempt of making him loosen up a little.
“Think you can beat me?” Dick goaded, because this was just turning into the right kind of fun.
When Damian growled and stepped towards him, Dick couldn't hold back his laughter.
Later that night – or more precisely in the early hours of the morning of what he supposed was the next day – he was looking through all the data he'd gathered on possible suspects in his current murder case when Alfred put down a plate with sandwiches in front of him.
“So, is basketball going to be a thing now, sir?” Alfred asked, deliberately looking up at all the open files on the big computer screen, not smiling.
“It's going to be a thing again, Alfred,” Dick reminded him.
“Do you think this means, Master Damian's quest to find the true meaning of fun is over now?”
Dick had to think about Stephanie dragging Damian to the fun fair and grinned. “I think his true quest to actually have fun has only just begun.”
Alfred looked at him then, with a soft expression and patted him on the shoulder, before he turned away to make his way up to the apartment again.
Next time Tim was in town Dick would make him join in, too, and remind him that having fun was totally a family thing. Sometimes.