He was expecting it would happen, and, on some level, maybe he was even hoping it would. He knows it's unfair to even think about it, but Dick had preferred Damian to him. Not in the beginning, of course. Tim knew that in the beginning it was just out of obligation and good intentions that Dick had taken the Robin's cape away from him to give it to their newfound little brother, a child who didn’t fit anywhere else but with them. Tim had hated Dick for it anyway, but over time he had understood him too. It was necessary, and it worked. They owed Damian at least a way out of the League.
But what had hurt the most - and this is something he’s never going to say out loud because he’s too ashamed of himself to even admit it in front of a mirror, let alone bring it into words ― what had hurt the most had been observing the duty turn into affection, watching from the sidelines how Dick had slowly fallen in love with the brat. Dick had loved Tim too, of course, but not like that. Never like that. Tim had been Dick’s little brother ― he too unwanted, at first ― but Damian had been something else. His Robin. His son.
But now the cape and the cowl were back into Bruce’s hands, and Bruce was not Dick. Now the Batman was flying alone.
If he were a slightly more deluded and cruel man, Tim would believe that Bruce missed him, that he preferred him over Damian, but he just couldn’t shake off the obligation Dick had left him. There was some sense of vindictiveness in that thought: that the true Batman wanted him, Tim, and not his own blood son. And why not, after all? Damian was everything that a Robin shouldn’t be: he was violent and dangerous and arrogant and he had blood on his hands. At the age of ten, Damian had already killed as many people as the enemies they chased every night. Why would Bruce accept that? How had Dick accepted it in the first place?
Tim sighs and rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands. He’s being unfair, he knows. He’s angry and alone and he had missed Bruce so much, he's almost gone mad with the quest to bring him back. And now Bruce was here, and he was alive, but still out of Tim’s reach, still out of his life. It leaves a bad taste in his mouth even if it shouldn’t: Tim doesn't know what he was expecting, it was obvious enough that Damian was not going anywhere, and it’s not like he thought he would be Robin again.
...except that maybe he did. Bruce had sent Damian back to his mother once, hadn’t he? He had washed his hands of his son once, so why not twice? But no, this is unfair too. Damian was different now, better. Still a brat through and through, but he was getting the hang of Robin, and Dick had softened him around the edges with so much care and attention that it would be just shameful for Bruce to throw all that work out of the window.
But there was another way, and Tim discovers he believed in that second option so much that he took it almost for granted, to the point that he never even talked about it with anyone, including those directly concerned. The truth is that Tim always believed that, after Bruce's return, Dick would just go back to being Nightwing and keep Damian with him ― maybe as Robin and maybe not, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway: there could be two Robins, one in Gotham and one in Bludhaven. It would’ve been even. It would’ve been right.
There was nothing of Bruce in Damian, he was all Talia and a little bit of Dick. Even the pang of jealousy he felt every time he thought about it couldn’t deny the evidence of the facts: Damian belonged with and to Dick. He loved him, he respected him. It was so easy too see it even through all the brat’s defensive shields, that every time Damian looked at Dick his eyes were full of the unmistakable wonder of someone who’s seeing the one and only hero of his life. It would be cute, if anything related to Damian could ever be cute.
And Dick... well. Tim knows about Dick's inquiries with their lawyers, of his weekly appointments with social services, he knows about the adoption paper Dick had asked to get in print. Tim remembers the proud looks, the praises always ready on the tip of Dick’s tongue, he remembers the love he kept hidden behind the teasing, the way Dick never lost his temper with Damian and, in contrast, the burning fury that he bestowed upon anyone who dared to threat or hurt his Robin.
Now Tim stares at his computer screen without actually seeing it, his work momentarily forgotten. Dick going back to Bludhaven and to Nightwing like nothing ever happened sounds unfair too, for him, for Damian, even for Bruce. Tim doesn't know if they ever talked about it, if there was an argument or a fight, if Bruce had insisted on keeping Damian with him, or if Dick had handed the boy over before the question even presented itself. He could ask Barbara: she would know, wouldn’t she? And then again, what would be the point? Dick’s back to his city and his life, Bruce’s back to the Manor with Alfred, and Damian’s back with his father. Tim’s the only one who can’t go back at all.
Except for this.
A red light on his monitor flashes three times, signaling an incoming contact. Tim checks the input and approves the connection, then he turns on his microphone, his mind already focusing on the coordinates that now appear in front of him.
Batman's voice rumbles through his headphones, filling his head with the bittersweet memory of the few nights that Tim had believed, even if just for a moment, that he would never hear that exact voice ever again.
“Red Robin, I’m going to need your support tonight”, Bruce says, impassive as ever.
Tim checks his cameras feed and by the sheer number of thugs currently gathering in the new Penguin club, he can easily believe that even the Batman would consider this a two-man job, the kind that requires a Robin to his side.
Tim bites his lips. He should ask about Damian, shouldn’t he? He hasn't seen Robin in weeks. Where the hell is the kid? Is he grounded? Is it Tim’s business if he is?
“Red Robin?”, Bruce calls to him again, and there’s a new edge to his voice, something Tim can not define.
“ETA ten minutes”, Tim responds out of habit. “I’m on my way, Batman.”
“I’ll wait for you”, Bruce announces.
And Tim can’t lie to himself: it does feel good.
Months go by. Batman stops flying alone. Damian starts to look a little bit like Bruce too. Nightwing is back to his city for good. Tim keeps mostly to himself. It’s not good, but almost. It’s a new thing, a new balance. And all things considered, it could be worse.
Then Damian dies. Bruce shatters and Batman snaps. Dick dies too. It’s all so quick, it would stand to reason it should barely have the time to hurt, but that’s wishful thinking: it hurts as hell, so much and so deep Tim feels like he’s drowning in pain, burning from the inside out while falling into an arctic abyss.
The first thing he does when they get Damian back, is fall on his knees and hug the brat to his chest for the first time in his life. He’s surprised to learn that Damian smells good and that he feels little and soft into his arms. He’s not surprised when Damian, in spite of everything, hugs him back.
Still, Tim makes sure he’s not there when Bruce tells Damian about Dick. He can bear a lot of things, but not that. He can barely deal with his own grief ― meaning that he does his best not to deal with his own grief. It’s simpler that way.
But after he’s sure the news has been delivered, he tries to stick around. Pop by the Manor more often, try some small talk, lend a hand in a few missions where his presence was never requested in the first place. He can’t be Dick, he could never be Dick, but he can at least make an effort.
He’s still surprised when, while he’s driving home from the office, his phone starts ringing, and Damian’s name comes across the screen. Calling each other is not something they do unless they’re forced to.
“Hello?”, he asks tentatively.
Damian’s voice sounds deadpan as ever, but there’s something weird in the way he breathes out Tim’s last name: unlike the usual, this time it doesn’t really sound like an insult.
“Hi brat”, Tim answers, tapping his fingers on the wheel. “What’s up?”
Damian inhales quite violently and for a moment Tim’s worried he’ll start screaming at him. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Can you please come and get me?”, Damian asks instead and Tim hits the brakes just a little too strongly, screeching to a halt in front of a yellow traffic light. The car behind him honks at him, but Tim doesn’t care.
“What?”, he asks, because it’s not even the weird request of picking him up, it’s that please that makes his skin crawl. “Damian, what happened? Are you in trouble? Are you hurt? Did someone take you hostage and now you’re trying to sound like a normal kid?”
Damian doesn’t answer, not really. But his breathing stutters just once, and Tim understands.
“Alright, whatever, I’m coming”, he corrects himself. “Where are you?”
The boy needs two more shaky breaths to answer. It hurts that Damian’s trying to hide the fact that he’s crying even if he knows that Tim already knows.
“In Bludhaven”, he manages to say eventually, and he seems to choke on the word.
“I’ll be right there”, Tim answers softly. Damian doesn’t need to say where exactly in Bludhaven he is, Tim already knows.
He runs the first red light of many, and barely takes notice of it.
He gets to Dick’s apartment in record time, and finds Damian sitting on the doorstep. His eyes are perfectly dry and his face more than stoic, but there’s no hiding his slumping shoulders or his messy hair. When Tim suggests to get inside the apartment the kid shakes his head with such determination, he doesn’t have the heart to insist, even if he’s tired and really needs a rest.
Instead he just walks Damian to his car, sits again in front of the wheel and starts the engine. He doesn’t turn the radio on, and doesn’t ask any question either: if Damian’s uncomfortable with the silence, Tim’s sure he’ll let him know.
“They stole the car”, Damian offers after a while, as Tim speeds through the evening traffic. “That’s why I needed a ride from you.”
That’s a lie. Damian could have stolen another car without batting an eye. Then Tim’s mind registers: the car.
“The car?”, he repeats out loud, glancing at the boy sitting next to him. Damian’s looking the car window, all that Tim can see is his reflection mixed up with the street lights. “What car? Bruce’s car?”
Damian shrugs, like it’s inconsequential to him. Tim sighs. He’s not looking forward to having to tell Bruce that one of his expensive car has gone missing by the hand of his youngest son, that has also just risked to get caught by the police by driving it in the first place.
He doesn’t argue with Damian about it. He’s not in the mood, and it would be useless anyway.
“I miss him”, Damian says after a minute.
Tim’s grip on the wheel stiffens so much his knuckles turn white, but he tries to sound as normal as he can when he answers the boy.
“I know, gremlin. Me too.”
“Father refuses to talk about him”, Damian adds. “It’s like he’s never existed for him. How could he- “
There’s that choked sound again, then silence, and Tim can see it all so clearly even without other words: he can see Damian asking one, two, three-hundred times about Dick, grasping at memories, trying to relieve the good times, holding on whatever scrap Dick’s left behind him. He knows that feeling all so well: the need to keep the person you lost so close in words and memories since there’s no other way to have them with you anymore. And he can see Bruce turning him away, refusing to talk, refusing to share. Pain was something too personal for Bruce, something that only the Batman had the right to see. Tim had felt it on his own skin, he knows how much it hurts, and it was more than Damian deserved.
“We could go back to Dick’s apartment”, he says after a moment, even if the very idea makes him sick. “Stay there for a few days. He wouldn’t mind, you know? He’s always loved having us there.”
He keeps his voice soft, clear of any emotion. This is Damian’s choice, not his.
But again, Damian just shakes his head no. The doorstep is as close as the boy’s willing to get. Tim understands that too.
“Okay, then let’s go to mine”, he counterproposes. “I have a new couch and it’s quite comfortable.”
He leaves the offer there for a moment. Damian doesn’t say anything, but from the corner of his eyes, Tim sees him shrug again and takes it as acquiescence enough.