Bruce is standing next to the Batmobile, engine started and humming, cape settled around his shoulders, when a voice cracks across the cave.
"Father." Damian sounds displeased, and when Bruce turns to face his son his lips are pressed into a thin line.
"You were not about to leave for patrol without me, were you?" Damian's expression is haughty, one of a boy who already knows the answer to his question and doesn’t like what he’s about to hear. He is dressed and ready in the Robin uniform, but his mask remains in his hand. Uncovered, his cheeks are clearly flushed, even in the shadows of the cave, as is his small nose, tilted into the air.
"Damian," Bruce sighs, "I told you, you're not going on patrol today." He scrutinises the boy, narrows his eyes at the pale, sallow undertone to Damian’s tan skin. "You've been sick the whole day and it's zero degrees out."
"Tt." Damian vaults over the railing to get closer to the garage and pretends not to stumble. "I have gone out in worse conditions."
Bruce's jaw clenches. He thinks of hidden bases in the Himalayas, of small hands grasping at sheer cliff faces, of titanium and metal in a six-year-old's spine.
“I know,” is all he says, simply, but Damian barely hears.
"Be that as it may, Master Damian," Alfred interjects from the medical unit, where he stands sterilising the equipment, "this is no weather for a boy like yourself to be out in."
“Tt.” Damian's brows are pushed together, the corners of his lips pulled downward in a fierce scowl. His voice sounds strange to Bruce's ears, the words struggling past a clogged and raw throat. "I am not a mere boy, Pennyworth," he spits out, tone raw and cutting, "I don't need you meddling – "
"Damian." Bruce snaps. His voice is gravel and warning, all Batman in that moment. The word cuts across the atmosphere in the cave like a whip, and Damian falls silent, his frown deepening.
Alfred says nothing, but his hands stop moving, just for a moment. The index finger of Bruce's left hand, secured in its gauntlet, taps once, twice, against the Kevlar encasing his thigh.
(The astrology master, thrown to swim with sharks.)
(Talia's voice, saying "my son" with that same indecipherable curl at the end that she uses to whisper "Beloved".)
(A child's long-sleeved shirt, torn and blackened and bloodied, floating in the sewage-strewn waters of Gotham Harbour.)
Another sigh pushes out between Bruce’s teeth.
"There's no battle to fight here, Damian." The words are softer, breathier, and he isn't sure if it works but his son's hands are no longer in fists.
"Tt," says Damian. He glances at Bruce, no longer as angry, but otherwise makes no move to back down.
They are locked in an impasse. There is something balancing in the air between them, Damian glaring steadfastly at the ground, Bruce watching him in silence. There is a right thing to say here but Bruce Wayne has never been the best at words and has certainly never been the best at talking to angry little boys too old for their years, so for a few long moments he just says nothing.
Then the Cave, quiet before, is suddenly plunged into absolute silence, save for the erratic squeak of alcohol swabs, in Alfred’s hands, rubbing against metal equipment.
The Batmobile is no longer thrumming, no longer ready to burst out into the night, and neither is Batman.
Bruce unclasps his cape first, then begins pulling off the gauntlets, and all the while Damian is staring at him, a wary look in his eyes.
“Let the others know, Alfred,” says Bruce on the way to the lockers where the civilian clothes are kept, all the while stripping off parts of his suit, “Batman and Robin are staying in tonight.”
“Of course, sir.” A smile ghosts at the edge of the old butler’s lips. “There are slices of cake in the refrigerator, left from Miss Cassandra’s birthday party.”
“Thank you, Alfred.” Bruce disappears into the changing area and reappears in less than a minute, dressed in grey sweatpants and a tattered old tank top. He looks at Damian, still frozen in place between the entrance and the garage. “Cake, then, Robin?”
There is a beat of silence.
When Damian emerges later from the changing area, swimming in one of Dick’s Hudson U sweaters pulled over cotton pyjama bottoms, Bruce is waiting silently by the elevator.
“I’d bet you would have let any of the others go out on patrol,” Damian sulks once the glass box is sliding smoothly upward, “I am not inferior to any of them, and you should –”
“Dick has a stubborn streak I never had any chance of controlling,” Bruce interrupts, “Tim has no sense of self-preservation and works himself to the bone and further. Jason is…difficult.” He squats down to better look Damian in the eye, “The girls have more sense and wouldn’t have tried to go out in the first place. But any one of them would have stopped each other.”
Damian’s eyes are narrowed, and Bruce takes a risk.
He places a large hand on Damian’s shoulder, and the boy tenses up but doesn’t try to shrug it off.
“Now only you and I are left to take care of each other,” he says, voice low. “I’m just looking out for you – when it’s my turn to do stupid things, I hope you can do the same for me.”
Damian glances up. His eyes meet Bruce’s for a split second before he glances away just as quickly.
Then, after a moment,
“I do enjoy hazelnut cake.” The words are stiff and monotone, but Damian’s jaw is no longer drawn as tight.
“Brown coerced me into watching a movie called The Princess Bride last week. She informed me that I failed to understand a significant number of jokes. It will make for satisfactory distraction while we eat.”
The elevator slides to a silent stop. Bruce reaches out, briefly, to tousle Damian’s hair, ready to pull away, but Damian stands still and lets him.
He cuts a huge slice of Cass’ hazelnut cake when they reach the kitchen and allows himself a little internal pat on the back when he can still see the corners of Damian’s lips pull up even though he turns away slightly.
He watches The Princess Bride with Damian, and his son spends the next week exclaiming “inconceivable!” at every little inconvenience.
But that’s fine.