The door to Dick’s apartment is locked, like it should be, but he can tell from the air that there's someone else in there as soon as the door is open. It's a little too cold: someone's had the window open. Came in through the window, most likely, with skinnier hips or more flexibility than Dick has, which is saying a lot—unless the intruder is a child, which he suspects it is. A glance at his pile of shoes by the mat confirms his suspicions. His furtive guest has dropped a pair of red sneakers unceremoniously on top of Dick’s winter boots.
“Damian,” he says, just loud enough to be heard from anywhere in his small apartment. “This had better not be an emergency.”
There's no response, but he finds Damian tucked into a corner of the couch with his hood up, knees to his chest, glaring at an episode of Criminal Minds on mute with the captions turned on.
“It isn't,” Damian says. “I brought you dinner. From Pennyworth.”
He points to the other end of the couch, where there's a picnic basket covered in one of Alfred’s dish towels.
“I don't remember asking for that.”
“You didn't. I volunteered to bring you a reprieve from your tragic bachelor existence. But I have been waiting for half an hour, and this television program is terrible. Why are you giving the time of day to such a rank bastardization of criminology?”
Dick rolls his eyes as he flips on the lights. “My friend wanted to watch it, and I couldn't exactly be like, no, I know way too much about crime to watch this. It was incredibly hard on my secret identity, so consider me punished.”
“A friend?” Damian asks, suspicious, tearing his eyes away from the “rank bastardization.” He seems to have irreparably associated Dick’s romantic prospects with getting stabbed in the liver, and treats any mention of a date like a crime in itself. The worst part is, it might not be the most wrong he's ever been.
“Yes, a friend. A friend with only one identity, and normal hobbies, like not fighting crime or even knowing that much about it. Does Batman know you're here?”
“He will when he checks the GPS on the Batmobile.”
“God. He's going to change the access codes on that thing someday, then what will you do?”
“He changes them every week, Richard. I am unstoppable.”
“So what's the unstoppable Robin doing in my living room stressing himself out with sensational television? You grounded or something?”
Damian’s disgusted look tells him he's right. The kid is not complicated.
“I didn't do anything!”
“I didn't ask if you did something, I asked what happened, passive voice.”
Damian sucks his teeth. “Oh, very well. My mother fractured two of my ribs, and father has forbidden me to do anything even remotely strenuous until he is absolutely certain of my recovery. And he seems to believe that using my mind will affect my ribcage,” he adds, magnificently sulky. “It is as if he has never had a Robin before.”
“I don't know, kiddo. You're not just any Robin, you're a Damian. You jump head first into stuff that would make even Jason think twice. I’m not sure Bats is wrong to prescribe you a medical leave, so if you came here to argue your way into patrol with me, you've wasted this great bribe.” He lifts the basket of food—it smells delicious, and it's still warm, which is so luxurious he can overlook its implications for the speed of Damian’s driving.
“I am not doing anything wrong,” Damian insists, springing up from the couch to follow Dick into the kitchen. He stalks like a predator even in socks with happy dog faces on the toes, but Dick can see the slight imbalance of tension from trying not to stress his injury. “I came here because I was bored, and Pennyworth said I was going to drive him into an early grave if I didn’t leave the house. Which is ridiculous. It wouldn't be early at all.”
Dick takes out a couple of plates and lets Damian unpack the food while he digs up clean silverware and glasses. “So was there a clause in your father-son contract that said stealing the Batmobile is a-ok? Or is that your creative interpretation?”
Damian spoons portions of rice and chicken onto each plate, keeping them equal with the kind of unnecessary precision that drives the rest of the Robins nuts when Bruce does it. “If Father did not want me to take his vehicle, he would give it a more complex security system. Anyway, once he knows I only used it to come here, he will forgive me. I am behaving myself. Look. I am not in uniform. I am unarmed. I am a harmless, ordinary child.”
“I don't believe that for a second,” Dick says, laughing. “I bet you've got at least two knives and a layer of Kevlar under that turtleneck.”
“For emergencies,” Damian says, defensive. “My father is a billionaire. Someone might try to kidnap me.”
“Also, don’t pretend you don’t know five hundred ways to kill someone with that spoon.”
Damian frowns at it for a moment, like he's genuinely counting in his head.
“Irrelevant,” he says at last.
He manages to keep the frown for only a couple of seconds after Dick starts laughing, the mask of disapproval cracking to show a shy smile. Ninety percent of the time even Dick would be hard-pressed to call Damian sweet, but the startled pride on his face whenever he makes a successful joke is consistently heart-melting.
Dick reaches over to ruffle his hair, messing up the slicked-back style Damian wears out of costume, which Dick suspect's is either a typically half-assed Robin method of protecting his secret identity or a completely backfired attempt at looking older.
“Too much gel, kiddo. Your hair’s crispy.”
Damian slaps his hand away, without much commitment. “So don't touch it. Do you use furniture when you eat, or are you becoming more like my father than I ever suspected?”
That's rich, coming from the kid who could pass for Bruce’s clone some days if he didn't look so much like Talia. “Where would I put chairs in this place? I eat in the living room.”
Damian sniffs scornfully, but he takes his plate back to the couch and tucks himself into the corner again, balancing his food on his knees.
“If the no-doubt fearsome villains of Blüdhaven require Nightwing’s services tonight, you have my word of honor that I will stay right here,” he says. His tone is stiff. Dick has heard it a hundred times before, usually when Damian is saying I understand about something he doesn't understand at all.
Dick settles at the other end of the couch. He tries a bite of chicken and has to make a deliberate effort not to inhale the whole plate. Damian’s finicky palate has forced Alfred to learn new recipes, and this one is magnificent in its layers of spice. “It's Nightwing’s night off.”
“I thought Nightwing didn't take nights off.”
“I'm trying to be less like the man who raised me. I've been helping people all day; if I do it all night too, one of these nights I'm going to use my social worker voice on a killer robot and get torn to pieces. Or worse, flip over someone's desk at city hall and suplex the people who give us our funding.”
“Surely that would show them the strength of your arguments,” Damian says, lighter in tone. Making a joke again.
“That's what makes the temptation so dangerous.”
“Perhaps you ought to reconsider your decision to work alone.”
There it is again, careful stepping around what he really wants to say. Dick doesn't understand how Tim and Bruce can have so much trouble figuring out what Damian is thinking. It's right there, written all over him, all the time.
“Nightwing and Robin? Who ever heard of that? Besides, you've got your Teen Titans.”
Damian makes a face. “Amateurs.”
“Hey, now. They’ve been doing this longer than you have. Anyway, what I meant was, I thought you were trying to be more independent. Carve out your own space, and everything. You wouldn't want to be stuck under my wing again.”
“It seems everyone is carving out his own space these days,” Damian says, voice full of bitterness. “Perhaps I found that I was—” he shoves his food around his plate for a moment, chewing his lip. Finally he dredges up the final words of the sentence like he's dragging a corpse from the harbor, sodden and heavy. “Not ready.”
“For?” Dick prompts him.
Damian throws him a poisonous look, and takes a forkful of rice instead of answering.
“The other kids?” Dick asks. “Being public?”
“Being a leader,” Damian snaps, as if the suggestions are unreasonable. Dick suspects it's really all three. “It seems I have not learned how to lead a team to do anything but—but what my mother taught me. I fall back on old instincts and I cannot seem to get over it. I am still what my mother made me, and it isn't—it's not fair.”
His voice cracks and he stops, chewing his lip again, looking down at his plate so Dick can't see his face.
Dick leans over to give his shoulder a squeeze. Part of him doesn't want to have this conversation, not tonight, after the long day he's had. He was really hoping for no emergencies, but Damian is young enough still that everything is an emergency. Dick would ask Alfred if he was that dramatic at Damian’s age, but he's afraid of the answer. “You need to give yourself time, kiddo. The League had you, what, three times as long as we have? Honestly, you're doing great.”
“They don't like me,” Damian says, quietly desperate. “It shouldn’t matter. I should be able to win their respect, and they do not need to like me, provided they listen to me. But they don't like me and I don't know how to fix it.”
“Jon likes you,” Dick points out. If the Kent stamp of approval doesn't prove Damian’s more than a villain, what can?
“ Jonathan is ten years old,” Damian says.
“Are you saying I can't trust a ten-year-old to make good decisions? Oh, how the tables have turned.”
“He likes everyone.”
“Come on, give your friend more credit than that. He's not stupid. He'd drive you nuts if he were.”
“He does drive me nuts. And I annoy him.”
“I know how he feels,” Dick teases, scraping the last forkful of his rice together to clean his plate. “Come on, Damian. Try thinking about it a different way. Like, maybe you're not ready to lead a team. That's fine, you don't have to. You could just be on the team. Let someone else be the boss. I know it bothers you doing what Bruce says all the time, but I promise if Kori or someone was in charge of the Titans they'd be way more open to your input than he is.”
“But why should they want me on their team?” Damian asks, doing a passable impression of someone merely pointing out a practical flaw in Dick’s argument. “I told you, they don’t like me. In father's case at least I have faith that he holds some affection for me, even as I am.”
“Holds some affection? Kid, he loves you more than just about anything on earth.”
Damian casts him a scornful side-eye. “As I said.”
“Seriously. Why is everyone with Wayne genes allergic to just putting things out in the open? I'd say Tim holds some affection for you, and you almost gutted him one time. For the man who tore a hole in the universe to get you back when he lost you, it's a wild understatement.”
“I have also fought my father, on occasion,” Damian reminds him. Avoiding the question. “And you, as well. Drake is not unique.”
“But you haven't stabbed anyone in the Titans, right?”
Damian gives it a moment of thought. “Not stabbed, no.”
“See? Progress. And by the way, you're not unique either. I promise you the Teen Titans are used to dealing with villainous pasts and difficult personalities and whatever else you're worried about. You don't really want to be my Robin, do you? Not with the disappointing caliber of criminals we get out here.”
“Sometimes I truly despise you, Richard,” says Damian, which means Dick is right. He takes another bite from his still-heaping plate. Damian is the world’s most distracted eater. “It would be—easier. Though. To be your Robin.”
“You hate when things are easy. It bores you to tears, and your boredom drives Alfred to his grave.”
Damian makes a disgusted face—silent acquiescence—and keeps eating.
“You're allowed to miss your brother, too, you know,” Dick tells him. “Not just your Batman. You can just come and visit like this. Like, whenever. Not just when you're broken. I even have tea in my cabinet.”
“I know. I looked. Earl grey, really? Vile.”
“Hey, it reminds me of Alfred. You drink it when he makes it.”
“Only because he would be hurt if I didn't,” Damian grumbles. “Next time, I will bring you real tea.”
“Yeah, sure. And while we’re making plans for next time, how about coming through the door? Putting your shoes in the hall doesn't count as a misdirect if you haven't touched the lock. I won't ask you to come in the daytime. Baby steps.”
“I merely assumed you chose an apartment with a fire escape for a reason,” Damian says, haughty. “It is practically an invitation. And I couldn't remember the access code for the front of your building. Of course it would have been child’s play to hack. But I thought you would appreciate my effort to be ordinary. ”
“You know what, kiddo? I do. Great job. Any chance Alfred packed me dessert?”
Damian waves a dismissive hand toward the kitchen. His eyes are back on the television, drawn in despite himself. “You know he has never had any restraint. I believe he thinks they don't have food in Blüdhaven at all.”
Dick ruffles his hair again as he passes by. Sometimes his family are insufferable. In fact, most of the time. He's not sure what kind of person he is that he loves them more that way.