Dick was a little surprised to see Barbara was there, and even more surprised to see Jim—Jim had found a reason to skip the annual GCPD benefit for five years running, and usually that reason went by the name of grand larceny. But there he was, in a rented tux too big for him and a stiff bow tie, standing straight as a steel pipe and holding a flute of champagne in a crushing grip. Beside him, Barbara—Barbara was a knockout, plain and simple, in a sleek black number with a sweetheart neckline that showed the dappling of freckles across her shoulders and collarbone, starry like the night sky out West. She looked a good deal more comfortable than Jim did, but the thing about Barbara is that she could look comfortable covered in pig’s blood in a pit filled with cougars, and stunningly enough, that kind of ease was a look Dick had only started seeing on her after she’d been paralyzed.
Dick nudged Bruce with an elbow. Bruce glanced down, eyes folded at the corners in that specific way that happened when he was uncomfortable, and Dick supposed that was a given, because Bruce was not what one would call a people person. Dick jerked his head at Jim and Babs, and Bruce’s mouth quirked —you ridiculous kid— and he pushed Dick towards them by the shoulder. Get 'em, slugger, Bruce used to say, when Dick was training to become Robin. Get 'em, slugger. That's it. You're doing great.
“I’m going, I’m going,” Dick whined. He stooped to poke Damian in the side. “I’ll be back, kiddo. I have a girlfriend to impress.”
Damian sneered, brows pinching together. “Utterly disgusting.”
Dick grinned, and slipped away through the crowd, weaving between glittering throngs of people. He spared a backwards glance for Bruce and Damian, who had closed rank where Dick had been standing—it was like watching a leashed tiger and its leashed cub, just barely hanging on to some invisible thread of civility in the face of awed crowds of zoo goers.
Barbara smiled, open-mouthed, when she saw Dick. Jim frowned a tad less deeply.
Dick bent down to squeeze Barbara tightly, and whispered into her ear, “You didn’t tell me you were coming, Babs.”
“I told you, you just weren’t paying attention,” Barbara whispered back.
“No, I’m pretty sure you didn’t, actually.”
“Actually, I’m pretty sure I did.”
“Impossible,” Dick said, the corners of his mouth tugging upwards, “I listen to everything you say.”
Barbara chuckled. “If you did, you wouldn’t get in half the trouble you do.”
Jim coughed. Dick sprung upwards, as if he’d been burned. A red flush bloomed up Barbara’s neck.
Dick stuck out his hand. “Evening, uh, sir.”
Jim grasped it and his grip was tight as a metal vice. “Evening, Dick.”
“Dick and I are going to get a drink,” Barbara said. “You want anything, Dad?”
“I’m fine, sweetheart,” Jim said, roughly. Dick wondered if his voice was so rough because he was thinking of his little girl having grown up and off gallivanting with a man—certainly, Bruce had gotten the same shiny look in his eye when Dick had told him he was going to see Barbara not even five minutes ago. Perhaps that was just the domain of fathers, that shiny look—but then Dick thought of Willis Todd, of David Cain, and thought maybe not all fathers.
Barbara set rolling off around the crowd. “Dick,” she called.
Dick shook himself. He’d been staring at the chandelier lights reflected in Jim’s glasses, thinking of breaking David Cain’s fingers, of cutting them off by inches. Dick followed her.
“You seem off tonight,” she said.
Dick shrugged. “Not really. Stressed, I guess. The you-know-what’s information system is getting an overhaul, and there’s a lot I have to re-file, but I’m here instead. Goofing off.”
Barbara stopped. She looked up at him, one eyebrow cocked. “You don’t goof off.”
Dick snorted. “I don’t, you’re right. These are, uh, prescribed goofing off hours.”
“Bruce made me.”
Barbara pushed her chair off again. “For once, I agree with him.”
Dick groaned. “Oh, stop it. I can’t fight both of you, it’s impossible—it’s too much stubborn to top.”
“Please, like you aren’t bad yourself. It took me three hours to talk you into staying home when you had the flu,” Barbara said. “Oh, shrimp snacks.” Barbara snatched one from the table by the toothpick and plopped it in her mouth. “Oh, man, why didn’t I bring a plastic bag, I could’ve taken some.”
“What on Earth,” Dick said. “Why would you take them?”
“Because they’re fucking delicious,” Barbara said. “And Steph’s rubbed off on me.”
“Of course Steph does that.”
“Why the hell don’t you,” Barbara said, plucking another hors d’oeuvre off of the platter.
Dick leaned in conspiratorially. “Alfred makes cookies after every one of these parties. They’re the best things on the entire planet, except maybe 7-Eleven taquitos.”
“Bring me some.”
“There’s a 7-Eleven next to the—”
“No, no, the cookies, you brat, not the awful garbage taquitos,” Barbara said.
“Aw, don’t knock ‘em ‘til you try ‘em. Clark likes them, too, it’s our official stakeout food.”
“Clark?” Barbara hissed. “God, for such a wonderful guy he’s got such terrible taste.”
“Take that back right now, I happen to know he’s an excellent cook. He invited me to dinner with him and Lois and Jon, last week, and I brought Damian, and it was incredible.”
Barbara dug her elbow into Dick’s hip. “Grab me a glass of champagne.”
“Say the magic word?”
“Grab me a glass of champagne, you darling shitass.”
But Dick didn’t have the chance to take one from the table before there was a screech like a hawk robbed of its catch and a crowd-full of gasps and startled shouts—without turning around, Dick winced, and asked, “Damian?”
Barbara paused for a moment. Then, “Bruce is carrying him away.”
Dick swore. He snatched a flute of champagne, downed it in a gulp, and then snatched another and downed it, too. “Fuck,” he repeated. “Okay. Alright. I’ll see you soon, Babs—I love you, baby.”
Barbara smiled at him, but her lips were softened at the edges—and Dick thought he was good at reading people, he truly did, but he could not for the life of him decipher that look.
With a wave, Dick took off through the disgruntled crowd, slithering between suits and gowns like a snake through the grass. He jogged down the foyer stairs and broke out into a run when he didn’t see Bruce or Damian, moving past several confused aristocrats and down the gleaming marble stairs leading to the front entrance.
He spotted Bruce at the valet’s red-topped booth, standing square, Damian kicking and spitting from where he was thrown over Bruce’s shoulder. Dick skidded to a stop just as Bruce was snarling, “—your incompetence is what I’ll be taking up with your employer.”
Bruce’s words were frigid, easy and deadly calm, but his stance betrayed him; he was five seconds or less from punching the man in front of him.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Dick said, raising his hands. “I’m sure it’s fine, I’m sure the valet—er, Mr. Dodson—is just overworked, it’s packed tonight. Mr. Dodson, why don’t you give me the keys, and I’ll go get the car myself, no harm no foul.”
“W-Well,” Mr. Dodson said. “As I was just, uh, telling Mr. Wayne, your car is blocked in.”
Dick felt his smile turn strained. “That’s fine! That’s, really, that’s really just great. Bruce, it’s time to introduce you to a wonderful thing called Uber, and we can drive back and pick up the car tomorrow when everyone’s gone. I’ll go with you, we’ll get donuts, it’ll be a fun morning.”
Damian’s screeching rose an octave. He kneed Bruce in the ribs, hard, and Dick’s smile dropped from his face and he said to Mr. Dodson, “I need the keys. Now.”
Mr. Dodson dropped them into Dick’s waiting palm. Bruce, almost immediately, stalked off down the white-brick drive.
“Can you put me down!” Damian shouted, twisting like a fish on a dock.
Bruce’s patience, worn thin, finally cracked, and he hissed, “Fine,” and then unceremoniously dropped Damian on the ground, keeping hold of one his ankles. Damian landed hard on his shoulders and kicked out but Bruce’s grip only tightened. “I let go when you promise not try and maim anyone with broken glass.”
Damian wriggled furiously, managing to kick Bruce in the stomach. “Ya ibn el sharmouta!”
“You can call me whatever you like,” Bruce said. “You will not hurt a single innocent soul.”
“You heard what the fucking bastard said!”
Bruce yanked on Damian’s ankle. “I did. And you had no right to try and harm him. Goddammit, stop kicking me.”
Dick crouched low to the ground. “Hey, Damian.”
Damian stopped struggling and turned to look at Dick, huffing. His tiny suit was rumpled, his gelled hair ruffled into a wreck. “Grayson,” he said, cautiously. His cheeks and the tips of his ears were flushed red, and he was possibly just realizing Dick was there. He’d been completely overtaken by his temper, which had been a rarity for over a year now.
“How about,” Dick said, “we stop dragging this out. We both know you can break out of this hold anytime you want. So do it, and stand upright, and walk with us and we’ll talk about it, okay?”
“ Tozz feek,” Damian mumbled.
Bruce, for his part, dropped Damian’s ankle and then said, belligerently, “You’re not to discuss it.”
Damian sat up, curled his legs beneath him. “Father,” he said, softly.
“No, Damian,” Bruce barked. He started forward, refusing to look at either of them—which was irritating beyond belief, because it wasn’t Dick who’d had a temper tantrum and allegedly attacked someone, and he was getting iced out all the same. “Dick, call the car.”
“Aye, aye, cap’n,” Dick said. His tone was more bitter than Bruce would have ordinarily put up with, but Bruce was no longer paying attention. He stood and helped Damian to his feet and brushed gravel and dust off of Damian’s shoulders. “The hell’d you do, kiddo.”
“The right thing,” Damian said. “I shattered a glass and threatened a man with a shard of it. I had no intention of following through. I simply meant to scare him.”
Dick stopped and wiped his mouth. “Jesus Christ, Damian, you can’t just do something like that, especially here, in public—”
“Bold words,” Damian interrupted, “from someone who was not there in the first place.”
And then Damian marched off in Bruce’s footsteps, and good God up above, what a pair the two of them made—leashed tigers, Dick remembered. Leashed tigers in too-small cages, dancing in figure eights for crowds of people.
The ride home was long, silent, and awkward. Dick made small talk with the Uber driver, who wouldn’t stop talking about how cool it was to have Bruce Wayne in his car, and when the driver dropped them off Bruce leaned in for a selfie and flashed his teeth for the camera. It was a brittle smile like dry wood. Dick assumed he had texted Alfred, and his suspicions were confirmed when Alfred was waiting for them by the door with his lips pressed thin and the cut of his eyes sharp as half-lidded owl’s eyes were.
Bruce was the last out of the car, and slammed the car door shut with more force than necessary. The Uber driver wisely took that as a sign to leave immediately. “Damian, get up to your room. Dick—”
“I’m staying with Damian,” Dick said. You need time to cool off before I’ll talk to you, were the unsaid words.
Bruce’s eyebrows furrowed. Crow’s feet spiderwebbed from the corners of his eyes. “Fine.” That’s probably best.
Damian resolutely climbed the stairs and Dick followed. He stopped halfway up, turned, and said, “Father.”
Bruce looked at him coolly. “Damian.”
“That man,” and Damian spat the word as if it were a curse, “was he wrong?”
Something curious happened to Bruce’s expression then—it seemed to crumple at the same time his brows shot to his hairline, simultaneous realization and an odd thing that looked like heartbreak. Heartbreak on Bruce had always looked odd. Dick had seen it far more often than he liked; it always looked like ash, ash and the burned husk of wood from a forgotten campfire, but this one flesh and bone. “Later,” he murmured, voice no louder than the flutter of bird’s wings.
Alfred stepped forward, his shoulder nearly brushing Bruce’s, and said, “Off with you two, then. I’ve prepared cookies. I’ll bring a plate to you shortly.”
Dick followed Damian up the stairs and down the hall, whistling while he walked—whistling, he'd found, was something Damian enjoyed. The repetitiveness, the easy melody, the knowledge that someone else was there in the room with him, breathing air and taking up space alongside him; from what Damian had admitted, every time Damian had made a misstep in the al Ghul household, he'd waited for his sentence alone, and this had created a child who loved to be alone but hated to be alone while he did it.
"You don't have to talk about it if you really don't want to," Dick said, shutting Damian's bedroom door behind him, "but I just want to understand. Damian—you're better than—"
"Do not even say it! I am as I am, and that is not better than this. I am in the right.” Damian swore in a long belt of rapid Arabic, and said, "You did not hear the bastard speak."
"Who's the bastard, again?"
"I do not know his name," Damian admitted. "Father was talking to him, I believe trying to pry potentially relevant gossip from him—and then he gestured towards myself and made a comment that he did not expect me to hear."
Dick lowered himself to sit on the bed. Damian turned on his heel, pacing the room back and forth aggressively, as a shark swims in bloodied waters. "And what was this comment?"
"'Next time, cover your drink,'" Damian snarled.
Dick blinked. "That... doesn't make a lick of sense, bud."
"To you. That beast of a man was saying that I should not exist, that I—" Damian broke off. "Perhaps I overreacted," he said, softly.
Dick watched Damian go from a frenzied shark to a nervous, scared little boy. He watched Damian's shoulders curl inwards, he watched Damian slide to the ground and cross his legs and stared down at his hands in his lap, and he watched his eyes fall and fall and fall.
Dick crawled off the bed and dropped on the floor beside Damian. "Damian. Kiddo, sweetheart. You deserve to be here."
"But Father did not defend me," Damian mumbled. "Father did not—he berated me for defending myself, he—I thought he wanted me now.”
I thought he wanted me now. “Damian,” Dick said carefully, “I don’t think that man was referring to what you think he was. I think you’ve misinterpreted something here.” Cover your drink, Dick thought. What a strange thing to say, what a strange thing to give life to even just verbally.
"We are not all children that are wanted, Grayson," Damian said, and curious, how heartbreak looked the same on Damian as it did Bruce. Forgotten summer campfires smoldering slowly.
"What on Earth—of course Bruce wants you, he looks at you like you hung the sun and stars with one hand tied behind your back," Dick said.
"Grayson," Damian said, "That is how Father looks at you.”
“I know. But he looks at all of us that way, especially you. You’re just too short to see it, you little munchkin.”
Cover your drink, Dick thought.
Damian hiked up his legs and pressed his chin to his knees.
Dick pinched his elbow. “Use your words.”
“I,” Damian began, “I am frustrated.”
“Can good things come from bad things,” Damian said. “Can—is it okay for a bad thing to happen, if you get a good thing, or are all things that come from bad things doomed to the same fate.”
Dick rubbed the back of his neck. “I’d like to tell you an easy answer. I really would. But it’s not that easy. My parents died, and that was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me, and that turned into one of the best when Bruce took me in—but it’s not like that one terrible, horrible thing didn’t happen because something good happened after it. And sometimes you don’t get a good thing, from a bad thing. Sometimes you just get more bad.” Like when we lost Jason, Dick finished silently in his head.
“I am frustrated,” Damian repeated, “because I cannot tell whether I was worth it or not.”
Cover your drink, Dick thought.
Damian looked at him curiously. “Grayson. Grandfather told me of how Father did not want me, and how I was obtained anyway. Were you not made aware?”
“Obtained anyway,” Dick repeated. His ears were ringing.
Dick threw an arm around Damian’s shoulders and pulled him into his side. “Fucking hell,” he said. “Fuck me. You’re too young for this. Fuck, I’m too young for this—I’m sorry, Damian.”
Damian leaned his head against Dick’s chest, curled up so his knees were in Dick’s lap. “You are still not repulsed,” he said.
Dick pressed a kiss into his hair. He wiped the hair gel off his lips with his jacket cuff. “Of course not. Never. I’d never be, not for this.”
Damian snuggled deeper. “I overreacted.”
“It’s okay,” Dick said. “I mean, it’s not actually okay. That man said—something unbelievably shitty, and it’s not less shitty just because he doesn’t know the, uh, situations of the people he’s talking to, but threatening him with violence didn’t help. But what you did was understandable, and forgivable. We’ll talk to Bruce together, okay?”
Damian sighed against Dick’s chest. “Alright.”
Damian was asleep by the time Alfred arrived with a plate of cookies.
“Dear me,” Alfred whispered. “Poor lad, he’s completely knackered. I do hope my entrance was not too loud.”
“You can save those, Al, I don’t feel like eating,” Dick whispered back. “I need to talk to Bruce.”
Alfred’s mouth tightened. “I would leave him be for now.”
“It’s not going to wait,” Dick said.
“If you are that determined I cannot stop you—but I strongly advise against it,” Alfred said, solemnly, and he retreated with owl-quiet steps the way he’d come.
Dick shifted Damian into his arms and hefted him up, laying him on the bed and pulling the blankets up and over his shoulders—then he said, to Damian’s bleary gaze, “I’m going to check on Bruce. I’ll be back after.”
“Don’t,” Damian said. “Together.”
“This one’s for his sake,” Dick said. He kissed Damian’s forehead and slipped out of the room.
Dick jogged through the Manor’s expansive hallways. There was a feeling like fire at the base of his spine, but the lining of his stomach had been turned to pack ice —cover your drink, he thought, and his heart twisted until his ribs hurt to the root of the bone. Breathing was harder than it should’ve been.
He rapped his knuckles quickly on the study door, but he shoved it open without waiting for a yes come in or a fuck off.
Bruce was sitting in the old bloodstained chair that had never been re-upholstered, the one across from the bust of Thomas Wayne. Why they’d never re-upholstered it, Dick never knew—it was a macabre totem of a kind, and possibly the reason Dick had not been let in this room when he was new to the house. Bruce’s left ankle was resting on his knee, and he’d changed out of his suit and into his pajamas and the worn, old magenta robe he favored hung off him.
“How is he,” Bruce said. He didn’t take his eyes off of the bust of Thomas Wayne, just watched it with a calculating, pointed gaze. Brooding, as it were.
“Heartbroken,” Dick said, after a minute of silence. He strolled forward to stand behind the chair and dropped a hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “I told him we’d talk to you tomorrow.”
“Today,” Bruce corrected.
“Today,” Dick amended. “I know I told him we’d talk to you together, but if you want to talk to him alone, I’ll stand by for that. He’s your son, you’re the dad, you know best.”
“Do I,” Bruce said, quietly. “Do I truly.”
“You know better than I do.”
“You were the one who calmed Damian down tonight.”
“Christ, Bruce, if you’re going to nitpick everything I say I’ll just leave now and let you handle it,” Dick said. “I don’t think you want that, because so far, you’re not doing a great job of talking to your kid instead of yelling at him.”
“Mm,” was all Bruce said.
“You’re drunk,” Dick said. Mm was a noise Bruce made only when he was drunk; it was a noise Dick remembered fondly from once in his teenage years and less fondly from several times in the months after Jason had died. Bruce had only called him, then, when he was too drunk to remember all the reasons he shouldn’t.
Dick sucked in a deep breath, ran a hand through his hair. “And what made you think that was a great idea?”
“Would you believe it,” Bruce said, “if I told you that I had nothing to do. First time in twenty years, not a damn thing to do.”
Dick shook his head. “You could’ve talked to your son.”
“He needed you, not me. You have a gift, not only for reading people, but for talking to them.” Bruce leaned back in his chair. A hand rested on top of Dick’s, the one he’d rested on Bruce’s shoulder. “And I—need your help.”
“Wow. You said the help word, the ‘h’ word.”
“Tell me what to say,” Bruce said. “Tell me—tell me what he needs to hear.”
Dick squeezed Bruce’s shoulder. “You picked a hell of a thing to be shit at, y’know.”
“They don’t exactly teach how to parent the child you were unprepared for at the Sorbonne.”
“Step one is to acknowledge that there’s a little bit more than unpreparedness at play here,” Dick said. “Step two is to acknowledge that as much as you love being a brick wall of a person that says things to no one and has no emotions, ever, you’re gonna have to be honest with Damian.”
“He asked me that,” Bruce said. “Was he wrong, Damian asked me that. And he wasn’t wrong. I should’ve—”
“Woah, shut up. Yeah, yeah, you can shut up right there. Don’t finish that sentence. You’re mixed up. Damian thinks that comment was an attack on whether he should exist or not, and he sees this as you not defending that right to exist. He told me you don’t want him anymore.”
Bruce jerked. “Of course I want him,” he said. “Now,” he added, a beat later.
“Step three is tell him that, for Christ’s sake,” Dick said.
“Okay,” Bruce said.
There was silence for a while before Dick said, “Can good things come from bad things?”
“It’s a simple question. Can good things come from bad things. Can you want a child conceived from rape is the more complicated version, but since you’re so drunk you’re actually being honest with me, we’ll boil it down to the simplest version: can good things come from bad things, or does everything that spirals out of that bad thing carry that taint?”
Bruce flinched at the word rape. Possibly, he had never heard it said aloud before, which made Dick’s heart jump against his sternum.
“I think,” Bruce said, “the answer depends on the person. I think some people have eyes that cannot see a silver lining.”
Dick leaned against the chair. “Okay. Is that person you?”
“No. You—you are one of my silver linings.”
Dick was quiet.
“I have several, and they have names,” Bruce continued. “One of them is named Damian. I should tell him that.”
“You should. You really should. But maybe do it sober.”
Bruce leaned forward, dropped his head into his hands, and said to himself, “Cover your drink.”
“Fuck that guy,” Dick said. “You take the most precautions of probably any human being on the face of this planet. You trusted someone, and that’s not a crime.”
“I didn’t even know Damian knew until tonight,” Bruce said. “Fuck. Get that bin.”
Dick moved as fast as could, and got the tiny trash can that sat by the giant mahogany desk onto Bruce’s lap just the second before Bruce heaved into it. Dick thumped his back.
When Bruce was done, he dropped the trash can by the chair, and leaned backwards. “I’ll sleep here,” he said.
“Okay,” Dick said. He dropped a kiss into Bruce’s hair—still damp from a recent shower—and said, “B, you know you’re one of my silver linings, too.”
Dick waited behind that bloodstained chair until Bruce fell asleep, and then he pulled a throw blanket out of the basket and stretched out on the couch. He didn’t sleep. He stared at the ceiling, thinking about his brother, thinking about the man he considered equivalent to a father, and ached for both of them.