“I can do it, Father!”
Father pinched the bridge of his nose, his expression tightening. Damian was naturally skilled at reading body language, and was highly trained in the art, but understanding the nuances of his father’s expressions was still a work in progress. Americans emoted differently than those from Damian’s home country, and vigilantes expressed themselves with somewhat different flavor than ninjas. Pennyworth was the only one in this country who made sense.
Still, the frustration was clearly written across his father’s face. Damian optimistically interpreted this as wearing him down.
“You’re a ten year old,” Father grunted. He swiveled away from Damian, returning his attention to the giant computer screens. Not as advanced as those from back home, of course, but acceptable. Damian rankled from the obvious dismissal. “And an unknown quantity.”
“Then learn how to work with me,” Damian said. Not plead. Said, very reasonably. “I’ve been trained since birth in the school of the League of Assassins. I’ve been holding a sword since I can walk. I am far more adept in warfare than your average child.”
That displeased Father. His expression tightened further. “I’m well aware. You’re volatile, Damian. Dangerous. I can’t afford a liability in the field.” He turned away from him further, every inch of his body screaming at Damian to go away. “Besides, I work alone.”
Father was a fool. He thought he could out-argue Damian. Damian always got what he wanted, in the end.
But, talented as he was in most things, Damian was especially skilled in the art of negotiation. And the most important aspect of negotiation was knowing when a different tactic was necessary.
Damian bowed stiffly, recognizing the futility of the argument, and turned sharply on his heel before stalking off. He had other methods of making the Batman bend to his will.
So what if nobody had ever heard of a child partner? So what if the Batman was famously recalcitrant to communicate with another living soul besides Captain Gordon? Who cared if Damian was four feet, three inches tall? He had a sword.
A different plan began to hatch in his mind.
Damian allowed himself one small smile. It was a nasty habit, one that must be broken before he took over the mantle of Batman, but he could indulge occasionally.
After all, he was a genius.
Damian had been living with his father for almost three months now. Their relationship wasn’t as Damian had previously imagined it would be. He refused to be disappointed by this.
Objectively, he could understand the hesitation. Finding out at twenty eight, barely a year into an already illustrious career as a successful vigilante, that you had a ten year old son had to be a shock. It wasn’t easy knowing that you had met the love of your life at seventeen. Twenty eight was practically middle-aged, and Damian had tried subtly hinting to his father that it was time to settle down with Mother, but whenever he brought it up Father always found some excuse to leave the room very quickly.
Still, Damian was already ingratiating himself into elite American society. He had established dominance in his new private elementary school through weaponizing his assumed relationship with Saddam Hussien, and after the fifth time attacking his father with a sword he had finally extracted actual combat training from his father. He was in control of the situation.
Next on the to-do list was to establish his position as the Batman’s apprentice, aid in him in the murder of his enemies (easy to do - most of them were still alive, for whatever reason), and to take up the mantle when he reached eighteen. It was a simple plan, but one that father was unreceptive to.
Taking matters into his own hands, Damian had begun engaging in petty theft.
Damian was skilled in all matters, including sewing, and it was easy work to filch bolts of armored cloth from Alfred’s private stores. Feigning an interest in the pile of electronics Father had thrown at him, he holed himself up in his room under the pretense of playing a ‘Gameboy Advance’, whatever that was, and turning the volume on his ‘Playstation 2’ very high as he sewed together the perfect outfit in complete secrecy.
It was a matter he had put rigorous thought into. Damian would have the coolest outfit ever, only matching Batman’s in how cool it was. A hood, to mimic a cowl. A domino mask, to protect his vulnerable identity. Weapons, absolutely everywhere, hidden in a million tiny pockets. Big combat boots, which were cool. Incorporating his mother’s sword was child’s play. All black, to represent his father, but with red highlights to honor his League of Assasin heritage.
Finally, after weeks of busy planning and plotting that were even leaving Father suspicious, Damian was ready to make his debut. If Father wouldn’t acknowledge his skill, he would just have to prove it to him. That was how they did it in the League - even if there was no previous holder of the title of Batman’s apprentice to kill.
Damian was the one, the only. The Son of the Bat. He deserved this.
He put his plans in motion a balmy April night. He patiently waited for Father to speed off in the car, making a show of moping in the Batcave chair over yet another night he wasn’t allowed to go with him. After Pennyworth fetched him some consolation hot chocolate, which Damian was admittedly very fond of, and set off to bed, he set his plan in motion.
He threw open the window of his luxurious bedroom, stuffed with every amenity your average ten year old boy could want, and rapelled out the window with his filched grappling gun. His backpack was stuffed full of his costume and collapsed weapons, and his sword and scabbard was hidden underneath his hoodie.
Damian exhaled slowly, heart pumping, and withdrew the clunky pocket GPS from his pocket. Next up, the true trial: navigating the suburban Gotham Metro System.
He could do this. Damian set off at a sprint, backpack thudding against his chest, the very image of a spoiled child running away from home for some fun in the Gotham inner-city night.
But Damian was different. Damian had a mission. Damian had a purpose. And nobody would keep him away from his calling.
Not even his father. Not even The Batman.
Two hours later, when Father found Damian hanging off the edge of a building for dear life after his grappling gun betrayed him, Damian was forced to rethink his plan just the tiniest bit.
He smiled winningly at Father, looming above him with his arms crossed as Damian dangled off the side of the roof.
But Damian, after only knowing the father whom he had loved, worshipped, and yearned for from afar for a scarce few months, knew even then that there was nothing the Batman hated more than surprises.
Of which Damian was one. Damian, himself, as he was.
Oh, well. Damian would keep trying. He always got what he wanted eventually.
“You can’t be serious,” Captain Jim said, puffing on his cigar.
Father blinked, almost sleepily, as Damian puffed out his chest. Captain Jim was scrutinizing him with almost insulting incredulity, as if the sight of an almost-eleven year old in a kevlar suit with a (blunted!) sword strapped across his back was novel or something.
“Captain, meet my partner.” Father nodded at Damian, who held out a hand for an American handshake. Captain Jim didn’t take it, and Damian awkwardly let his hand drop. “What’s the situation?”
“Hold up, stop. Just...stop.” Captain Jim pinched the bridge of his nose, in an eerie mirror of Father’s own favorite motion for dealing with Damian. “Batman, why the f - heck do you have an eight year old in spandex with you? Is that a sword? What the heck?”
“My name is Ibn al Xu'ffasch!” Damian said proudly. “I have been trained since birth in the art of warfare. I assure you, Captain, that I am more qualified to be Batman’s partner than any of your servants -”
“ - officers,” Father hissed,
“ - officers, and I can prove it!” Damian unsheathed his sword, pointing it at Captain Jim, who looked thoroughly alarmed. “Have at ye!”
Both older men stared at him. Damian wondered, with a slightly sinking feeling, if this was a social faux-pas, like starting a protection racket at recess had been, or classism.
“Batman,” Captain Jim said finally, “can I speak to you in private?”
Father rested a hand on the handle of Damian’s sword, pushing it down, and shot him Look #9, e.g. stay perfectly still, don’t touch anything, and for god’s sake don’t speak to anyone. Damian obliged, fighting the urge to rock on his heels as Father and Captain Jim spoke in hushed tones in the corner of the rooftop where Damian couldn’t hear.
Finally, after what felt like an agonizingly long time, Father grunted something at Captain Jim, took a manilla file folder, and nodded gruffly at him. Father nodded at Damian, flashing a hand sign that served as a signal to disappear, and Damian silently readied his grappling gun.
But Captain Jim crouched down in front of Damian instead, and Damian fought the urge to bristle. Captain Jim was Batman’s most valuable ally besides Pennyworth and Damian, and he knew that if he didn’t make a good impression this entire endeavour might be over before it really began.
He hadn’t trained for another half a year to be turned down now. He hadn’t.
“It’s nice to meet you, ah - Ibn?” Captain Jim crouched in front of him, meeting Damian’s eyes with full seriousness, and Damian did his best to look as adult and serious as he could back. He extended a hand, and finally Damian shook it. “Funny, in those colors you look more like a robin to me.”
A robin? A robin was not intimidating. A robin did not strike fear into the hearts of Damian’s enemies. Behind Captain Jim’s back Father snickered.
“My name is Ibn al Xu'ffasch,” Damian said, before hesitating. “But if that is difficult to pronounce, any name works.”
Captain Jim nodded. Maybe Damian hadn’t put as much thought into the name as he could have. “Right. Can you tell me how you met Batman, kid?”
Making sure his and Father’s stories matched. Father and Damian had already agreed on a cover story, even if it was one that Damian didn’t particularly like. “My mother and Batman are old friends,” Damian recited. “My home country has become politically unstable, so my parents sent me off to America to finish my training with Batman in a more secure environment. They are fully aware of what I am doing and I have their full support.”
The story had rankled, but the fewer identifying details Damian and Bruce Wayne had in common with their alter-egos the safer their identities were. When Damian turned eighteen he could announce his true identity to the world. It was only a matter of time.
“I see,” Captain Jim said slowly. He withdrew a small business card from his wallet, and Damian accepted it with slight confusion. “Well, if you ever need to talk things out, or if you need a friendly ear, you know where to find me. Alright?” He straightened, and made an abortive motion as if to ruffle Damian’s hair, but Damian snarled at him and he backed off. Father pinched the bridge of his nose again. “Please meeting you, er - Robin.”
“Robin!” Damian squawked. “My name is -”
But Captain Jim was already turning away, and Father made a brief hand signal at Damian, and he recognized his cue. Damian backflipped off the roof, instinctively checking for a safe landing for his grappling gun, and safely landed beside Father in a hidden ledge. After half a year, he had finally become proficient in the same action his father underwent so effortlessly. When would Damian ever catch up?
Not many people knew it - in fact, perhaps only two people did - but Father had a habit of muttering to himself when he was stressed or thinking hard. Father was also always stressed. He flipped through the dossier, Damian standing on his tip-toes to try to catch a glimpse of the next gorey crime scene, as Father held it effortlessly above his head.
“Why did I think this was a good idea,” Father muttered. “Jim has to think I’m insane. I am insane. Christ. Alfred was right.”
“What was Pennyworth correct about, Father?”
But then Father looked back at him, and although he never smiled in the mask he spared one for Damian. Father stashed the dossier in a hidden pocket in his cape, where Damian could undoubtedly sneak a glimpse from later, and unsheathed his grappling hook again as he aimed it at the night sky.
“Come along, Robin,” Father - no, Batman - said. “We have work to do.”
“My name is Ibn al Xu'ffasch,” Damian complained, but Father had already leapt into the balmy Gotham air, and with barely a sigh Damian followed.
Damian refused to admit he hadn’t already known that aliens were real.
He had a suspicion that he hadn’t really fooled anybody, but both Father and Pennyworth let him get away with it. When they saw the bulky man in brightly colored spandex, like a circus strongman, stop a car with his bare hands and lift it into the air, Damian had almost refused to believe it. There was ample historical evidence of exceptional people throughout history, of course - Grandfather had more than a few stories about the various immortals he had met throughout his life - but flying men? Men with impeccable white teeth and a spit-curled cowlick? It seemed impossible.
It worried Father. He pretended that it didn’t, but the Batcomputer dossier on the so-called Superman was three times as big as the next largest case file. Over six months, there was more than enough news articles and conspiracy forums on him. All of the other kids at Damian’s school were, naturally, loyalists to the Batman’s legacy, but this Superman was quickly currying favor among the globe. Outside of Gotham, Batman was still popularly believed a myth. Which was how Father and Damian liked it.
Then Father fucked off for a week, fought aliens or something, Damian had to scrub a great deal of blurry photographs of a red-white-and-blue man with a fuzzy scowling figure in the background beating up Intergang, and a month later Damian was packed away in a private jet to Metropolis.
“I thought we were done with the alien,” Damian complained, futilely trying to compose a book report on To Kill A Mockingbird on his clunky laptop. He had gotten a special, express copy of Windows Vista as a bribe from that idiot Gates, and was currently still working on his strongly worded letter about how useless the UI was. Damian wasn’t fantastic with computers - Grandfather wasn’t aware they existed, for one - but he knew what a clunky interface looked like. He made a reminder to himself on one of the billions of widgets clogging up the desktop to sell all of WI’s stocks in Microsoft. “Are we finally killing him for his hubris?”
“This is a personal visit,” Father intoned, reclining in the plush chair across from Damian and cracking open a copy of New Moon. The fuck, Father. “We’re visiting a friend on vacation. Maybe see the art museums.”
“Every piece in the Metropolis Museum of Art is stolen,” Damian sniped. Father shrugged, as if he knew this and it didn’t bother him. “You don’t have any friends.”
“You’re my friend,” Father said mildly.
“I’m your son, I don’t count.”
“We could be visiting Lex Luthor.”
“We can commit corporate espionage remotely. Try again.”
“Always with the ‘we’,” Father muttered, as if Damian wasn’t currently being groomed to lead Wayne Industries someday. He took his responsibilities as Heir very seriously. “Is it that difficult to believe we could be visiting a friend?”
“You don’t like me meeting any of your friends,” Damian said coldly, pointedly rapping out a few more words on Scout’s naivete on racism. Damian and Jeffery, the only two non-pasty children in the entire class, had agreed that they deserved a higher level book than ‘racism is bad’, but their protests fell upon deaf ears. He was going to get a one hundred on the report to spite Mrs. Fowler. “Forgive me my suspicions.”
“We’re not just going for me, you know,” Father said mildly, and Damian shut up. “Excuse me. Bella’s about to get herself killed by the Volturi. I wonder if Edward will save her.”
As it turns out, they really were there just to meet a friend. Father wasn’t a liar, but he was the kind who dealt in half-truths and truths ‘from a certain point of view’, and when they actually showed up to a middle-class half-trendy, half-lame inner Metropolitan neighborhood and rang the doorbell in the most generic apartment complex known to man Damian’s shock was hard to disguise.
“I hate this city,” Damian complained, tugging at his turtleneck and pressed jeans. “It smells weird.”
“It smells clean,” Father corrected, tucking a bottle of wine under his armpit, then holding it in the crook of his arm, then awkwardly letting it dangle by his side, as if he was as equally clueless here as Damian was. Which, impossible. “That’s the lack of garbage you’re smelling.”
“It disturbs me.”
“Maybe this wasn’t a good idea,” Father said, a second before the door swung open.
It was an ordinary looking man, remarkable only in how incredibly jacked he was. Somewhat stressed, with a messy t-shirt proclaiming SMALLVILLE KNIGHTS - 1996 in faded lettering on the front and jeans with dirt stick to the cuffs. He was, quite possibly, the most muscular man Damian had ever seen in his life, barely hidden by his terrible posture. He looked surprised to see Father, and even more surprised to see Damian. He was clearly not of their socioeconomic status, and there was only one person Father could possibly be visiting in Metropolis who wore Goodwill jeans.
“Bruce!” the Alien cried, and Father forced an awkward smile. “I, uh, didn’t expect you to actually come. And Damian! Crazy!”
“I said I would,” Father said affably, or as affably as Father ever got when he wasn’t lying his ass off. He placed a hand on Damian’s back, which always felt like more of a restraint and a warning than paternalistic. “Clark, this is my son Damian. Damian, this is my friend Clark. He’s a reporter for the Daily Planet.”
Damian folded his arms. “Are you even legal?”
Both men stared at him. Father winced, and held up the wine. “I got you a gift?”
“I don’t drink,” the Alien said, and looked down at Damian. His eyes were as blue as crystal, the kind Mother wore in her nicest jewelry, and penetrating. “We, uh, better have this conversation inside.”
But before they could step in, a voice echoed from within the apartment. Damian could barely see inside, the entryway covered by the Alien’s massive bulk, but if he ducked his head and craned his neck he could see a boy, almost exactly his age, jumping casually on the couch. He lingered just a little in the air, and came down just a little slowly.
“Clark?” the boy called. “Who’re your friends?”
“I’m legal,” Damian volunteered. “I lived in the UAE but I never even met Hussein.”
“I didn’t think that you did,” the Alien said, flabbergasted. “Uh, inside? Please?”
When Damian was 11 he had a small phase where he got into one, or two, maybe five, fistfights with other children over his supposed immigrant status. Damian became strangely paranoid over the relentless accusations, to the point of keeping his forged papers folded up tightly in his backpack whenever he went to school. As if he could whip them out and it would all stop. He had started lying and talking loudly about how his Grandfather was an Oil Sheik and his Mother a Princess. What was he supposed to do, tell the truth? That his Grandfather actually was a terrorist? Fox News would never let him live it down.
The Alien’s apartment was...mediocre. Children’s toys everywhere, video game consoles hooked up to a peeling television that wasn’t even flat screen and action figures stuck between couch cushions. The furniture was cheap and from IKEA, all very new. The only things of value seemed to be the framed photographs on the wall, portraits Damian recognized as James Olseon originals. There were still moving boxes tucked underneath an unsteady dining table, books overflowing out of each one. There were many boxes of books, from what Damian could tell all fictional. Uneducational.
But what really caught his eye was the white boy jumping on the sofa. He was the spitting image of the Alien, with a snub nose and cleft chin. His skin tone was slightly lighter than the Alien’s, less tanned, with his hair a creamier chestnut brown instead of black. He was wearing a new pair of jeans and a graphic design with some insipid cartoon patterns on it, and he slowly jumped off the couch when Father and Damian walked in.
“Sorry about the mess,” the Alien was saying to Father, as he took the bottle of wine and set it down on a coffee table crowded with take-out cartons. “We really just moved in. My, ah, old place wasn’t big enough for the both of us.”
The boy’s face grew sullen at the Alien’s words, and Damian tilted his head curiously. When the boy caught Damian looking at him he stuck out his tongue. Damian recoiled, offended. The boy snickered. Both adult men missed this, Father critically surveying the small apartment.
“Is it soundproof?”
The Alien coughed, embarrassed. “As I said, we just moved in - and I have a security deposit to keep up.”
“Did you even sweep for bugs?” Father demanded.
“Who would plant bugs in my apartment!”
Father and Damian scoffed simultaneously. The boy rolled his eyes, fishing a Gameboy Advance out from under the couch and flopping down on it as a series of chirpy beeps emanated from the speakers.
“Don’t worry,” Father said dismissively, “I already scanned. And ran a background check on your neighbors. Mrs. Downey on the floor above you has been convicted of grand theft auto, but other than that you did the best you could. Don’t leave your car unlocked.”
“Really?” the Alien asked, faintly annoyed. “Because I could have sworn I saw Metallo in the basement laundry room. Maybe you should redo those background checks.”
“What was Metallo doing in the laundry room?”
Damian tugged on Father’s turtleneck. “It was a joke, father. Alien sense of humor is very similar to ours.”
“I’ve heard it called the Midwest deadpan, actually,” the Alien said, masterfully suppressing an eyebrow twitch. He glanced back at the boy on the couch, who was pretending to ignore the two interlopers. “Jon, come and say hi. This is Bruce and his son, Damian. You may know them better as Batman and Robin.”
Jon politely stuffed the game in his baggy pocket, pushing himself lightly off the couch and sticking out a hand at Damian. Damian sized it up and reluctantly shook it, applying his firmest grip in a very masculine fashion. Jon grinned, and crushed Damian’s hand in his own grip. Damian hid a wince, but tugged his hand out of the grip just a bit too quickly. “ ‘ello.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Damian said frostily.
“Whatever.” Jon looked up at the Alien, who seemed faintly distressed. “Pa, what’s for dinner?”
Smallville High, 1996 - the Alien couldn’t be older than 25. Not impossible to have a 12 year old son, but improbable. Father’s eyebrows twitched upwards, as severe an expression of surprise he would ever allow himself. Somewhat hypocritically, as Damian was also a teenage transgression, but even the Batman hadn’t known that Kryptonian biology was compatible with human’s. If Jon was even half human. “Congratulations, Clark. You could have mentioned earlier.”
“I didn’t know earlier,” the Alien muttered, and this time everyone winced. He smiled down at Damian and Jon, but the strain was clear. “Why don’t you two go hang out in the courtyard? I think this place has a swimming pool.”
Both boys looked at each other, overly familiar with being gotten rid of, and Father was popping open the $1000 bottle of wine in preparation for what was probably about to be a very awkward grown-up conversation, and Damian and Jon knew enough to scram.
Ten minutes later they found themselves at a nice little swing set, in the miniature children’s park in the courtyard of the apartment complex. It was barely more than a slide, some monkey bars, and a swing, but the birds were singing an unfamiliar song in the scarce treetops of Metropolis as both boys swung in silence. It was hot, hotter than in Gotham, and Damian’s stomach rumbled as sweat dripped down the back of his collar.
“He’s not my real dad,” Jon said suddenly, pushing against the wood chips with his velcro sneakers. It occurred to Damian how boring swinging must be to him, how tedious floating a few feet above the ground must be when you could soar the speed of a jet plane. Jon’s expression was troubled and closed off. The chains creaked and groaned. “My real Ma and Pa are dead. In an alternate universe.”
“That sucks,” Damian said, uncomfortable with the subject, silently praying for Jon to change it.
“But that universe’s done exploded and stuff, and Clark saved me, and he’s basically Pa but like thirty years younger, so it’s whatever.” Jon pushed off the ground with a little extra strength, sending him higher than Damian could reach. Scream, groan, creak went the swing.“I miss my 3DS.”
“He’s calling me his cousin in public. It’s so lame. Ma’s never gonna marry him at this rate,” Jon said glumly, as if he had given up hope of ever getting his father laid. “Now I have to get my parents together. This is so Back to the Future.”
“Single dads are highly desirable to human women,” Damian added, semi-helpfully. “What’s Back to the Future?”
Jon goggled at him, skidding his heels on the wood chips. “It’s a movie? How have you not heard of it?” He adopted a mock low voice, uncannily well. Super ventroliquism? Must investigate further.“ ‘We must go back, Marty - back to the future!’ Ring any bells?”
“I was never allowed to watch television as a child,” Damian said awkwardly. “And I’m much too busy for it now.”
“You’re still a kid.” Jon wrinkled his nose. “You’re weird.”
“ You’re from an alternate dimension.”
“Yeah, but I don’t have a weird accent.”
“It’s British,” Damian said stiffly. Technically, his English tutor had been British, but it was better than sounding FOB. Jeffrey had taught him that word. Fresh Off The Boat. “And it’s not weird.”
“Whatever. I’m from Kansas. I never met anyone not from Nowhere, USA until I went to space.” Jon pushed himself into the air again, but this time it was clear he was cheating. He was barely pumping his legs at all to keep himself aloft. “I hate the city. It smells and Clark doesn’t like me running around. He doesn’t let me go to work with him, your dad still has to forge papers for me so I can go to school, and there’s nothing to do in the apartment but play old video games. The lease says we can’t have any dogs, which is balls.”
“I have a dog,” Damian volunteered. “Her name is Titus. She’s a very good girl.”
Jon squinted at him. “Pics?”
Then they looked at every picture of Titus Damian had on his flip phone, which was so many that it strained the limits of the hardware, and Damian showed him how the keypad worked. It appeared that Jon’s world had been only slightly in the future - even though the Alien, and Jon had hinted Batman too, were much older - and he had never used a keypad before. Jon withdrew the Gameboy Advance which he still had in his pocket, and showed Damian his Pokemon team until both of the adults came to fetch them.
Both Father and the Alien looked relieved that they were bonding, and Damian and Jon quickly separated and affected scowls lest the men get the wrong idea. At least the Alien had changed into slightly nicer clothing, and he seemed somewhat less stressed. Somewhat. Damian grew suspicious that his Father had dragged him all the way onto a private jet for forty minutes for a playdate , but that was impossible. If anything, this was a playdate for Father. He needed some friends without tits. Women (other than Mother, who was perfect) were vultures.
“What do you boys say to lunch?” the Alien volunteered, joviality firmly plastered onto his tone. “I know this great diner down on the corner.”
“It’s Ramadan,” Damian said flatly.
“Maybe dinner,” Father cut in smoothly, covering over the Alien’s wince. “How about the Art Museum? I donated a great Mary Cassat work there last year, I’d love to see it again.”
“Do you one-up everybody on purpose, or is it a happy accident?”
“Lois liked it,” Father said blithely, which made the Alien and Jon choke. “What do you say, chum?”
Father had received his warnings, many times over. Damian silently withdrew a throwing star from his waist holster, flinging it at Father’s kneecap and aiming for a tendon. Father effortlessly knocked it off course with his heel, kicking it back up into his hand. “Do not call me chum.”
“I’ll be confiscating this,” Father said, slipping it into a breast pocket. “Museum it is, then.”
“Are you a ninja?” Jon demanded.
Damian tried not to feel smug and effortlessly failed. “Merely their future king.”
“How do you get to be king of the ninjas -”
“What,” Damian sneered, “jealous?”
“Oh boy,” the Alien said.
But Father just gently nudged him. “This is the most uneventful first meeting he’s ever had with anyone. He hasn’t tried to stab Jon once. Trust me, it’s going great.”
They didn’t get kicked out of the art museum, but possibly only because the Alien had super-hypnosis powers capable of brainwashing unintelligent security guards. Jon, at least, seemed to find it funny, and Father never let on that he found it funny but did nonetheless. The media tended to dub Father a ‘permissive parent’, which was laughable. That being said, one time Father had tried to ground him for biting a classmate only to let him out on patrol that night.
“What?” Father had said, to a very unamused Alfred. “Am I not supposed to let them out when they’re grounded?”
They went to a suitable restaurant afterwards, the kind that everybody but Bruce Wayne needed a reservation for, and the Alien seemed extremely uncomfortable the entire time as he awkwardly tried to figure out which fork to use. Jon, Damian noted, was serene regarding the opulence. Odd for a twelve year old from Nowhere, Nowheresville, but maybe not strange for the son of a god.
“Tell me,” Damian had interrogated over dinner, as Father and the Alien discussed baseball teams. “Has your father become dictator of the world in your dimension?”
“He’s retired,” Jon said blandly, chewing on quail and dabbing delicately at his mouth with a napkin. “Ma wears the pants, anyway.”
Damian’s eyes narrowed. “Is your Mother dictator of the world?”
“What does Father do in your world!”
“Damian,” the Alien hissed, “can you keep it down a little?”
“He’s retired too,” Jon said cooly.
“What do I do?” Damian asked, food forgotten. “What am I doing?”
“I don’t know,” Jon said, pearly white teeth cutting into another bite of meat. His teeth were just a little blunter than Damian’s. No canines. “We’ve never met.”
That subdued Damian, when nothing else did, images of gory deaths flashing through his mind. Well, when you think about it, every birth was some order of cosmic mistake. It was statistically improbable for one person to exist twice, considering the sheer randomness of genetic miosis.
That, or they just genuinely hadn’t met. It wasn’t as if Batman and Robin left Gotham frequently. Except for playdates. Apparently.
Father craned his head, smoothing the cloth napkin in his own lap. His eyes widened in faux-surprise, and he grinned broadly in a way that was thoroughly creepy to all who knew him. “Dear god, is that Celeste St. Clair with Andrew McConaley? From the Country Club? How indiscreet. Damian, snap some pictures for blackmail later.”
Damian obediently withdrew his camera phone and sneaked a couple shots from his elbow, making the Alien groan and Jon raise his eyebrows, unimpressed.
“Do you have blackmail material on all your friends?” the Alien asked.
“Don’t you?” Father asked, genuinely surprised. He wiped his mouth, standing up from his chair and clapping Damian on the back. “Be right back. I want to see old Andy squirm. If anybody asks, Clark, we’re negotiating an exclusive interview with me and Lois Lane.”
The Alien’s miserable expression informed Damian that he was, in fact, quite used to playing both second fiddle and middle man to Lois Lane. The fact that a god on Earth was frequently shown up by his cranky investigative partner was deeply satisfying to Damian, and judging from the smarmy smirk on Jon’s face it was satisfying to him too.
In the span of a second, maybe two, they felt the same thing. It was strange: the half-alien from another dimension and the rich boy from the UAE sitting at the same table, feeling the same thing. How strangely impossible.
Damian’s heart thumped. He shoved more green beans into his mouth, almost gagging on the taste, as Father narrowed in on his prey like a shark with blood in the water and the Alien’s expression folded in distress.
“I really hope this doesn’t get back to her.”
“Everything gets back to Lois,” Jon said. “Like - everything .” He waggled his eyebrows at Clark, who looked strongly as if he had swallowed a lemon. “Eventually.”
Damian wondered if Jon had exactly divulged who his Ma was. He couldn’t decide which would be funnier: if the Alien knew or if he was blissfully unaware.
After dinner they took a leisurely stroll down one of Metropolis’ most popular tourist spots, a length of shops and restaurants on the bank of a river. Jon eagerly and casually pointed out every interesting locale with the ease of a long resident, and Father played the ‘Eye Spy’ game with Damian with his hand stuck in his pockets. Metropolis was an excellent site for it, and Damian quickly roped Jon and the Alien into the game.
Stars were twinkling over the water, and Damian’s stomach was bloated after a long day of fasting. Night had brought coolness to the hot June summer, and Damian’s hands twitched to clasp Father’s hands. Like he used to do with Mother.
But he and Father never had that relationship - that wasn’t what Fathers were for - and Damian settled for effortlessly fielding all of Father’s questions.
“The blonde woman with shoulder length hair, five minutes ago.”
“White, mid-thirties, several children,” Damian said easily, swinging his hands instead and purposefully stepping on Jon’s heels, making him scowl. “Works for a multi level marking scheme, likely cosmetics. Divorced, upper middle class. Hair’s a dye job.”
“Did you get that all from just walking past her?” the Alien asked, fascinated.
Damian puffed out his chest. “I was trained by the world’s greatest detective.”
The Alien glanced at Father, lips twitching into a wry smile. “Humble.”
“He’s talking about his grandfather.”
“My grandpa taught me howta find moles in the ground,” Jon said suddenly, “without powers or nothin’. He can feel the vibrations in the ground, and hold his hand over the dirt, and then just wham! He grabs out the mole. Then we put it in Grandma’s bed.”
“Father,” Damian cried, scandalized that old men in Kansas knew how to do something he didn’t, “teach me how to find moles!”
“When we get home, Damian.”
“Father, I want to learn now!”
“I’ll buy you a mole farm,” Father said, expression strained.
“Those don’t exist,” Jon said dubiously, “do they?”
“Where do you think moles come from?” Father said, reasonably.
“This universe is whack,” Jon whispered.
“You’ll get used to it,” Damian informed him, quite reasonably, and suddenly he could imagine it. Showing Jon the ropes, maybe. Knowing a single other kid who knew what it felt like to be an outsider, to have a legacy. Him and Jon weren’t so different. Damian had spent his entire life thinking of himself as one of a kind, but maybe the multiverse was bigger than he had thought.
Maybe one day, when Damian was Batman, and Jon was...doing whatever, they could fight crime together. Like their fathers did last month.
Damian shook his head slightly, breaking out of the dangerous train of thought. Batman worked alone. Well, he worked with Robin, and Agent A, and the Commissioner, but that was a very exclusive list and that was it. Batman was solo. Batman didn’t...team up.
But, Damian thought, as Jon flashed the gap between his front baby teeth in a grin, maybe he could learn.
“I’m not letting you near any more of my relatives,” the Alien was saying, kneading his brow. “This is the last time.”
Well. Maybe not.
“Hey, remember when your dad tried convincing us that moles came from farms?”
“Silence, Kent!” Damian held up a hand, furiously typing away at the Computer and connecting the Cave’s own powerful network to the Hall of Justice’s nascent systems. He brought up the security camera client, reducing the feed to three different videos and scattering them between the three monitors. “This is a delicate espionage mission.”
Jon crammed pita chips into his gaping maw, spewing crumbs everywhere. His puberty was apparently roughly analogous to Damian’s own, and he has spurt up two inches in the last three months. Which made him an inch taller than Damian. Jon already had the power of flight, he didn’t need another advantage. Damian simmered with injustice. “Ya Da La Us Dew Dis.”
“Don’t speak with your mouth full, it’s crass.”
The other boy swallowed, exaggeratedly. “I said,” he said loudly, enunciating through his thick country drawl, “that Dad let me fly over on a school night as a reward for messin’ up Livewire, and your dad let us watch the first meetin’ of the Justice Society as a reward for embezzling from Lex Luthor’s golf fund the last time I came over. So we’re allowed. So it’s not espionage.”
“Justice League, ” Damian stressed. It was vital to differentiate the League from the Society. Father had made a lot of annoying sounds about the League being apolitical if Wayne Industries was going to fund it, and that he didn’t want Bush thinking that he could use the team to go win the Iraq war the way Roosevelt had used the JSA to win WWII. Bush’s breath smelled like chewing tobacco, which was gross, so Damian agreed with him. “And embezzling from Luthor is both a public service and the closest thing that Father will allow for entertainment around here that isn’t a black and white movie. Did you read the dossier I sent you?”
Jon rolled his eyes and kicked his sneakers against the console, spinning in a lazy circle in the chair. Damian was perched in Father’s usual giant chair, because it was his house so he got the good chair, and Jon was sulking over being put in Damian’s chair. The Cave was drafty, bats twittering and flapping far above, but the tea trolley next to the console was stacked with as much junk food as Damian and Jon could fit into their considerable stomachs and they wouldn’t have to go to bed until midnight.
“Please. As if. That thing was like a million pages long.”
“I’ll make a Powerpoint next time,” Damian said waspishly. He minimized one of the windows and pulled up the dossier, rapidly clicking through the biographies. “Research is the most vital first step of espionage, Kent. If we are ever to join the Justice League, than we must understand its members.” He pressed a button, bringing up the cheery profile of a very familiar lantern jaw. “Member One. Superman, AKA Clark Kent, AKA Dad. Not incompetent, but naive.”
“He’s so dumb,” Jon agreed. “I do most of the work.”
Damian carefully added to Superman’s file, ‘SIDEKICK TO SUPERBOY’. He flipped to the next biography, that had no headshot. “Batman, AKA Bruce Wayne, AKA Father. Former cryptid, current target of heavy skepticism. Superior combatant, genius level intellect, borderline acceptable parenting.”
Another package of Lay’s burst open, chip particles floating in the dust. Jon winced. “Burn. Nunchucks still confiscated? Or did he forget your birthday again?”
“He didn’t forget, ” Damian snapped, “he was fighting the Riddler.”
“Yeah, riddle me this: why does the world’s greatest detective not remember -”
“Wonder Woman,” Damian said loudly, flipping to the next dossier. “No secret identity. Supposedly immortal, possessing powers of Greek gods, a previous member of the Justice Society. In which they -” Damian squinted at the screen. “Didn’t let her do anything, so she quit. Disappeared after the death of Steve Trevor, she reappeared in Man’s World a year ago. No known weaknesses.” Damian slanted a glance at Jon, who just spun himself around faster. He never got dizzy. Jerk. “Unless you know any.”
“I’m not telling you anything about Earth-2,” Jon said, yet again. Damian would wear him down someday. “You’re not wearing me down.”
“Tt.” Damian went to the next page. “Green Lantern, AKA Kyle Rayner. Incompetent. I do not know why he was invited.”
“Fuck cops,” Jon said.
“Quite.” Next page. “Flash, AKA Barry Allen. Fuck cops.”
“Fuck cops.” Jon smashed chips into his face. “Irey’s chill, though.”
“Irey vexes me.” It took a great deal of confidence in a 25 year old man to fight crime with his Grand-Niece. She was from the future or something. Whatever. She was overly familiar with Damian and intruded into his personal space, even if she was surprisingly adept at combat. She and her “Uncle” Barry had chased Captain Cold into Gotham and ran - very literally - straight into Batman and Robin’s normal patrol route four months ago. It was probably the first time the League had been mentioned outside of Father and Kent Sr’s ‘Interviews’. Maybe the first time Father had let himself believe that it might work. “I can’t stand her.”
“You can’t stand anyone.”
The speakers rustled, and Damian quickly turned his attention back to the monitors. The new League was beginning to filter into the large conference room, either chatting awkwardly or slinking in awkwardly. “I stand you,” Damian said, distracted by searching for Father entering the room.
Jon’s cheeks pinked. “I, uh, stand you too.”
“Obviously. Silence, alien. The meeting’s starting.”
Despite himself, Damian was nervous. The JSA was a team of legend, an organization of exceptional people who turned the tides of history. There have been no successful organized attempts at superheroics since 1940, and that was for good reason. When an organization did not have a strong head - a Demon’s Head, if you will - it always crumpled and fell. Like Rome, like the Mongolian Empire, even the strongest pieces could fail to form a cohesive whole. Shoving a room full of twenty-something year old men (and one immortal princess) together did not a heroic team make. Other teams had failed before. Father was determined for this not to be one of them.
“I don’t get it,” Damian had complained, sitting in the same chair that Jon was spinning in now. “What do we need them for? Aren’t we good enough for Gotham?” Aren’t I good enough for you?
But Father hadn’t looked up from the computer, furiously scanning thousands of articles and news sites for mentions of the extraordinary, the special, the heroic. A cup of coffee had long since gone cold next to him. “I’m only human, Damian. I put my life in the line of fire every night. I can’t always be there for Gotham.”
Or you. “That’s what I’m for.”
“You’re not old enough to take my place yet.” Father had sighed, pushing his fingertips together contemplatively. “The stakes are growing higher, Damian. Clark tells me that every year his enemies seem to grow stronger. Soon he’s going to face a problem that he can’t solve on his own. That even him, Jon, and us can’t solve together. I know that day will come. We must be prepared for every eventuality.”
“I just don’t think it’s any of our business,” Damian had muttered. “You’re busy enough. We should just focus on Gotham. The world barely started agreeing that you existed last month.”
“I won’t hide anymore,” Father had said, and that had been that.
What had caused this change in Father? When Damian had been twelve you couldn’t pry him away from Gotham with a crowbar, and now he was voluntarily flying to New York City to perform his least favorite act of socialization. Because it would save the world someday.
It was Kent Sr’s fault, Damian had decided. He was filling Father’s head full of rot like hope and friendship, and finding other people their own age to hang out with . Father didn’t do friends. He had family.
At least Jon never preached to Damian about morality one tenth as much as his father did. Jon was quite happy to perform minor acts of rule breaking so long as it only victimized the right people and they didn’t get caught. Jon was cool. That was why Superman was Superboy’s sidekick.
The speaker cackled again, and Jon floated forward in his seat as he took in the sight with wide eyes. Damian knew his eyes had to be just as big, filching chips from Jon’s bag and gracefully nibbling at them, as they all took seats around a round table and stared awkwardly at each other. Only one chair was left unfilled, and they seemed to be waiting for their last member to show up. Father.
“He’s in the corner,” Jon said, unimpressed. Batman stopped being cool when he was your compatriot’s father. “He’s going to dramatically step in front of the board right about -”
Allen was loudly wondering where tall, dark, and broody was.
“Yep,” Damian said, sighing, “now.”
They all looked uncertain, slightly different flavors behind the same emotion. Wonder Woman was the calmest newcomer, muscular arms folded on the oak table, piercing eyes on Father as he stood in front of the room. Rayner was biting his nails, bouncing a leg, and Allen was frowning slightly. Kent Sr.’s expression was identical to his ‘Golly Gee, I’m leading the school paper my sophomore year and I just want to do a nifty job!’ face from his school yearbooks that Father had found. Father was ice, but he always was.
“Thank you for coming,” Father said smoothly. He had rehearsed this speech, laboriously. He was very socially awkward, and a man of cuttingly few words. Alfred had helped him. “and for taking time out of your night to be here. I understand how busy you all must be, so we’ll try to keep this preliminary meeting as short as possible.”
(“He just wants to be outta there,” Jon hissed, and Damian swatted him away.)
Rayner raised a hand, as if this was his daytime college classroom. “Hi, uhm, my name’s Kyle. How - how did you get my address? To send this invitation to? That’s confidential. You aren’t supposed to know that.”
“Introductions are unnecessary,” Father said plainly, “so Superman and I wanted to begin the meeting with our mission statement -”
“Introductions are necessary,” Wonder Woman said, “I don’t know who you people are.”
Allen scratched his chin. “Is anyone in this room physically over the age of 30?”
“I’m thirty five,” Superman lied stiffly.
“Dude, I tell the age of corpses for a living. You can’t fool me. GL’s an undergrad.“
“Does everyone know my secret identity?” Rayner asked, alarmed. “The blue guys said not to mention that!”
“Superman is taking over guidance of this meeting,” Father said, before sitting down. Superman glared at him as hard as he could without setting Father on fire. “I vote for him as leader.”
“Why am I not leader?” Wonder Woman asked, genuinely offended.
Damian and Jon glanced at each other, eyebrows raised, and Jon silently withdrew a pack of microwave popcorn from the pile and heated it up with his heat vision. By mutual agreement they settled back in their chairs and kicked their heels up on the console, passing the bag back and forth between them.
“This is gonna be great,” Jon said. He nudged Damian’s foot with his own. “Maximum chaos: next meeting, we send an invitation to Oliver Queen.”
“Father would never go for it. He hates being upstaged.”
“That’s why I said we .”
Damian grinned at his friend, and they shared a quiet fist-bump as the adults in the monitor began outright bickering. Bros forever.
The Justice League was a fun idea, but it wouldn’t last. Soon things would go back to the way they were meant to be: Damian, Father, and Jon. Kent Sr. could provide snacks, if he must attend.
“Hey,” Jon said, ruining everything, “next time let’s invite Irey. She loves roasting her uncle behind his back.”
“At that rate we might as well be the Justice League,” Damian said, grabbing another fistful of popcorn. “Impulse is a nuisance, but a skilled and confident one. We’d be a thousand times as competent.”
Then he realized what he said, and popcorn slowly fell out of his slackened grip onto the stone floor.
On Damian’s first day of high school he received a missive from his mother. It was a video message, the same sort she had sent once a month for years before they gradually tapered off into nothingness, only popping back up for birthdays or emergencies. Pennyworth had informed Damian that the first day of high school was an important day in a young man’s life. Maybe that counted as an emergency.
In her missive she congratulated Damien for reaching the final stage of his compulsory schooling, wished him well in future academic and personal endeavours, and informed him that she was proud of his take-down of Killer Croc earlier that week.
“Soon you will reach your age of majority and you can come stay with me again,” Mother had said. Damian, to his somewhat shame, had to strain to understand the Arabic. He had stopped speaking it entirely, and had begun telling strangers he was from England. “then you will take your rightful place as the left hand of the demon. Be safe, son. We will see each other again.”
That was what she had said. Damian had deleted the message the minute he finished it, irrationally frightened of Father seeing it. She had never mentioned coming back to live with her once he was eighteen. He knew what the League did to eighteen year olds. She and Grandfather would decide that he was old enough to be Ra’s Al Ghul, they would toss on baseball caps and take a vacation to Tahiti, and he would be left in charge of thousands of ninjas.
Well. It was his birthright. There wasn’t anything he could do about it.
Damian scrubbed the message from the servers, and didn’t say anything about it to Father. But, of course, that did not mean that he did not know.
The fact of the matter was that Damian didn’t know what Father would do without him. He had worked with a partner longer than he had worked without. Who would take solo patrols of Gotham while Father was on League business? Damian couldn’t lead an army of assassins and a board of directors simultaneously. Who would watch Father’s back in the field, who would make him go outside in something besides a bat-suit, who would understand his weird little mind if not for Damian?
Father, confused about the public school system, had begun to leave college pamphlets on Damian’s desk. Harvard, Yale, Stanford. Who would protect Father if Damian was living in a dorm? Damian had heard of the concept of RAs, and he wasn’t impressed.
But Mother wanted him home. Damian hadn’t even known that she had wanted him at all.
Gotham Academy was a new opportunity, and Jon made Damian promise that he would ‘at least try to be normal, for at least a week, Dami? Please?’. Damian could do normal. Damian could do friends.
It was the most elite private school in Gotham, and the building itself was a converted mansion. Not as big as Damian’s mansion, but suitable. The wretched uniform was almost identical to his middle school one, the teachers had the same smarmy grins on their faces, and although the homework was considerably more intensive when Damian looked around he realized that almost every face in the room was the same face he had dealt with since elementary school.
He groaned. Rich kids never escaped each other.
But Jeffery waved to him when he walked into Human Geography, and he smiled at Damian when Damian sat down next to him. Damian, remembering Jon’s pleas, forced a smile back.
Jeffery’s jaw dropped, eyebrows furrowing. “Dude? You okay? Are you sick? Why did you do that with your mouth?”
“Smile?” Damian asked archly, withdrawing a notebook. “It is a social act humans and various other alien species perform with each other.” Martian Manhunter never smiled, but Damian had the feeling that was just because he was kind of a grim person.
“Yeah, humans, but not you. ” Jeffery reached out, poking Damian on the cheek. Damian batted him away irritably. “You have to tell me if you’ve been replaced by a pod person.”
“I promised I would bring a...new attitude to school,” Damian said sourly, arranging his pencils on his desk. “If it is unacceptable I will stop.”
Jeffery blinked at him once, twice, before standing up at his desk and yelling, uncomfortably loud, “Guys! Damian says he’s going to be nice!”
The classroom chatter halted, and every pasty face in the classroom swiveled on their necks to gape like fish at Damian. Damian sank his his seat, crossing his arms over his chest.
“So global warming is real,” Tiffany said, glitter butterfly hair clips out of her ponytail for the first time since she was twelve. “The polar ice caps are melting.”
“Comedic, Dalton,” Damian panned.
“Say it with your mouth, Dami,” Hunter encouraged, grinning. “Say with your mouth you’re going to stop biting people.”
“I haven’t bit anyone since I was eleven!”
“You bit that kidnapping dude in eighth grade,” Ashley pointed out. “It was cool as fuck.”
“I am going to try to be nicer,” Damian said loudly, cheeks burning. “But do not test me, peasants.”
Everyone clapped sarcastically. Damian thunked his forehead on the desk. He would never forgive Jeffery for this.
When he texted Jon the update, Jon just replied with three crying laughing emojis. Traitor.
But maybe Jon was right, because during lunch Damian found himself in solidarity with the ex-St. John’s Preparatory Academy children as they huddled in the lush cafeteria in fear from the older kids. Damian wasn’t scared of any high school seniors as Robin, and they were foolishly easy to defeat, but in nothing but a suit and tie they looked...intimidating.
When he and Jeffery made their usual moves to eat lunch by themselves they were dragged into the fold by Ashley, who apparently thought his whole biting thing had been ‘cool’, and they were quickly dragged into a conversation regarding the stock market and the new episode of Supernatural.
It was only when Damian looked around he noticed he was placed on the female half, and that they were passing around pictures of their favorite cute boy in a strange, puerile competition over their favorite male actor on Supernatural.
“Of course Dean’s hotter,” Rachel said heatedly, narrowing her eyes. “Can’t you see his dreamy eyes?” She stabbed at the phone screen empathetically. “Is chiseled jaw?”
“Sam’s taller,” Ashely said, as if this meant anything. “ Way taller. Therefore hotter.”
“I think Sam and Dean should fuck,” Naomi mumbled, mouth full of watercress sandwhich. Everyone ignored her.
When the phone made its rounds to Damian they attempted to pass it around him, but he snatched it out of their hands anyway as he squinted at the screen. This ‘Dean’ was short, rugged, and had a cocky smile, but this ‘Sam’ had a cool and confident air. Damian found himself seriously considering the question, flipping back and forth between the two pictures.
“Oh my god,” Jeffery said, “you’re actually considering it.”
“Which one has a higher net worth?” Damian asked, distracted.
Rachel shook her head. “They’re both penniless, but they’re also heroes who beat demon supervillains.” Oh. Like John Constantine. He hoped they smelled better than Constantine. They didn’t seem the type to sneak him sips of their whiskey, unlike Constantine. “Give the phone back, Dami, a boy like you can’t even tell these things -”
Damian squinted at the screen, and felt a strange, abrupt, irrational desire to fight crime with Sam. Maybe...they would…?
Jeffery, chewing on his kale, leaned over and showed Damian a picture on his phone of a woman who somewhat resembled Damian’s mother, except pastier. She had large breasts. “Here’s the evil sexy demon Meg. Hot, right? You should watch Supernatural with me next time we’re stuck at one of your dad’s parties.”
Meg, then Sam, then Dean, then Sam, then Meg. Gears cranked in Damian’s mind.
But his mind was the keen one of a detective, and when he made up his mind he casually handed the phone back to Rachel. “Sam’s hotter,” Damian decreed. “It’s the muscles. A man can protect his combat partner with biceps like those.”
Everyone stared at him. Damian had the sense he may have said something weird, but he couldn’t tell what.
For some reason, Ashley’s eyes were shining. “GBF,” she whispered. “GBF?”
“What? Is that English?”
“We haven’t even shown you the new boy Castiel!” Rachel squealed, quickly bringing up yet another smoldering hunk on her phone. “Here, Damian, look! Isn’t he dreamy!”
“Oh.” Damian contemplatively sipped at his thermos of tea. “His eyes are sublime.”
It was probably the nicest lunch hour he had ever had. Maybe high school would be better than middle school after all.
After school that day, when Damian sat next to Alfred completing his math homework as Alfred did the ironing and watched The Prisoner, Damian took a deep breath and put his pencil down.
“Pennyworth,” Damian said, uncertain of how to broach the topic. “If I am to give the Wayne and al Ghul families further Heirs it may have to be through artificial insemination. Or cloning.”
“Ah,” Alfred said, unflappable as ever. He didn’t take his eyes off the shirt. “Should Master Bruce have a talk with young Master Jonathan, then?”
“What? Of course not. I’m just saying.” Damian picked his pencil back up, satisfied that this difficult conversation had been handled. “Don’t be strange, Pennyworth.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”
But Father was Father and Damian was Damian, and although Damian knew that Alfred must have told him Father never said a word. Some part of Damian wished that he would, while another much larger part of him wondered what Mother would say. So long as he could produce Heirs she wouldn’t care, but everyone said that Islam hated -
Much, much later, when thinking back on it, Damian resented it a little. No ‘I love you no matter what’? No ‘I’m proud of you’? Damian was not a machine, cold and unfeeling. He was in high school now, and was someone who ate with others at lunch. He was someone who was old enough to patrol on their own and make their own decisions on who they loved. Mother treated him like everything, like the sun and moon and stars, and Father treated him like nothing. He didn’t like either of it.
But that was later, and for now, for the first time in a long time, Damian felt human.
“And he’s still saying no?”
“It’s useless!” Damian cried, flinging himself onto his bed and groaning dramatically. Jon and Irey glanced at each other, then back at him, and he knew that he was silently being called a drama queen. Sin didn’t look up from where she was sharpening her knife. That was why she was the most acceptable girl he knew. “He’s stubborn, he’s prideful, and he absolutely refuses to listen to another point of view!”
“Sounds like someone we know,” Irey said. Damian threw one of Sin’s shuriken that she left on his bed at her, which she dodged easily. “Okay, your dad’s a jerk. What else is new. Don’t tell me you’re actually going to let that stop us.”
“It’s not ,” Damian said, “but you try sneaking out when the Batman’s grounded you. It’s not easy, Irey. Your guardians just let you do whatever you want.”
“Grandpa Jay and Grandpa Joan are ancient,” Irey said flatly, leaning against the wall. Jon was sitting on Damian’s desk, which creaked under his weight, and Sin was sitting cross-legged on the floor. They tended to all meet up at Damian’s house, since he had the most limited mobility out of all of them, and Alfred had the best snacks anyway. He was a co-conspirator. “They’re a big believer in free range children. Besides, they have their hands full with Jai’s detentions all the time anyway.” She crossed her arms and glanced away, jaw twitching. “But I guess I’m so privileged, with parents who aren’t even born yet.”
Damian had never apologized for anything in his life and he wasn’t about to start, but he still felt a little bad. Being the only non-orphan in a room made it awkward when complaining about your parents sometimes. Even if Damian did have a lot to complain about.
“Look,” Jon said, diplomatic as ever. “It’s not a great situation for any of us. But we’re dedicated to this team, and we have the permission of 3/4ths of our guardians to start it. All we need is to bring Bruce around.”
“Or we could sneak around him,” Irey pointed out. Sin flashed her dagger, as if in agreement. “I have superspeed. Not hard.”
“Fake dating scheme,” Sin said, still not making eye contact. “Dami pretends to date Jon, I pretend to date Irey. Every team meeting is a double date where we go bowling. We fight crime in private.”
“Did you get that from TV?” Irey asked, fascinated.
“I’ll date Damian,” Jon said loudly, face beet red. “Great idea, Sin!”
“Father does feel exceptionally uncomfortable confronting my romantic life…” Damian said contemplatively, actually considering it. “If I told him I was going on dates he’d never ask any further questions. All we’d have to do is avoid the media. Easy enough, since this team is half-ninja. It may soften Father up for the eventual divulging of the truth.”
“I’ll date you for real if you want, Sin,” Irey volunteered, grinning broadly. “I’ll make the sacrifice.”
“I would be honored,” Sin said seriously.
But Jon was still red, awkwardly stammering and avoiding looking at Damian. “Guys! We can’t do a fake dating scheme with only half of us! We’d have to, like...all actually date...that’s what we would have to do…”
“Then I will date you for real, Kent,” Damian said irritably. They were getting off topic. “Congratulations, we’re boyfriends now. Everyone in favor of this plan raise your hand and say aye.”
Jon and Irey’s hands shot into the air in superspeed, Irey still with a shit eating grin and Jon still flushed red. Sin leisurely raised her hand, and Damien sighed and raised his own. “All agreed, then. Now if we could finally settle on an actual name, we’d be all set.”
“Double Dating League,” Irey said immediately.
“No,” Damian said, equally swiftly.
“Justice...Team,” Damian said.
“Justice Friends,” Irey countered.
“Super Friends,” said Sin.
“Sin’s my girlfriend now so I have to agree with her,” Irey said proudly. “We’re the Super Friends.”
“Well, Damian’s my boyfriend, so he has to agree with me when I say we’re the Justice Team,” Jon said, heatedly. Damian wondered if he had made a mistake, before remembering that he didn’t make mistakes. “Right, Dami?”
“We’ll figure something out,” Damian said. He thought carefully. “Justice Lovers.”
“Well, that wins,” Irey said, “for the worst idea -”
He and Jon didn’t talk about it until later, until Irey had picked Sin up and swept her away in a flurry of superspeed. Jon stood next to him on the front steps of Damian’s manor, chewing his lip, hands in his pockets. He had grown kinder over the years, a bit less hard and cynical, more like his Pa than his Ma. It wasn’t easy coping with the loss of a dimension, but Jon had performed admirably. He was...someone to be admired.
“We don’t actually have to date, you know,” Jon said awkwardly, watching the red streak of Impulse disappear into the horizon. “We can just...fake date. If you don’t want to date.”
“What makes you think I don’t want to date you?”
“Are you serious!” Jon whirled on him, expression cracked with something Damian couldn’t identify leaking out. “You hate everyone! You barely tolerate me and I’m your best friend. I haven’t even heard you admit that we’re friends, and I’ve known you for three years! You are the first person who I actually connected with on this stupid planet, and all you do is insult me. What am I supposed to think, Dami? I’m not a mind reader!”
Against his will, Damian thought of his father. He was pretty sure his father was fond of him. Alfred said so, frequently, and Alfred was never really wrong. He had always provided for him, and done what a father was supposed to do. Damian wondered if it was enough.
Father had once loved Mother, but he did not like her and Damian didn’t think that he loved her anymore. Mother was...loyal to Father, and Damian knew that she would be overjoyed if he came back to them, but Mother was not the kind to go begging after scraps. Damian had been an investment in a shared future, not a partnership. This was the only model for love Damian had ever had.
“I think I’m a little fucked up,” Damian said, in surprise. He had never considered that before. He looked at Jon, whose expression read very clearly ‘no shit’. “I care about you very much,” Damian said frankly. “You are my oldest and closest friend. You’re also very attractive and I wouldn’t mind kissing you. I...can’t make any other promises, Jon. I’m not the friend you or Irey or Sin deserve.” For the first time, he felt a little bad about that. “I would be very honored if you courted me.”
Jon stared at him, for what must have been an eternity to the system of a Kryptonian, before he leaned down and kissed him gently on the lips.
It was electric, and Damian was electrified, and it jump started his heart. .
When they seperated Jon was smiling at him, and Damian’s heart threw itself against his rib cage “Super Friends, then?”
“We are not calling it that.”
In the end it had been Irey, in a moment of panic with a camera jammed in her face, who made the decision for all of them. Young Justice. Damian had destroyed the tapes immediately, of course, but the name still stuck. Young, but Just Us.
The Groupchat would still be named Super Friends, though.
“Damian? Can I come in?”
“It’s your house,” Damian called back, and the door creaked open. Damian could only assume that Father was standing at the threshold, looking sheepish. He didn’t look up from his calculus homework, graphite flying over differential equations and limits as he refused to look at him. It wasn’t petty.
“Alfred says dinner’s ready,” Father said awkwardly.
“I’m not hungry.”
They orbited around each other in silence, Father too stoic to fidget or look uncomfortable, Damian too stubborn. Damian bit at his lip, hard.
“Look,” Father said finally, “I know -”
“Mother invited me to live with her once I completed high school.”
“Oh.” Father blinked. He hadn’t known that Damian and his mother were still in contact. Damian hadn’t told him. He had probably come up expecting Part 2 of the argument they had been having downstairs, but Damian didn’t care. All it did was fasten his resolve. Batman and Robin wasn’t working anymore. “Well, that’s -”
“I’m graduating early.”
“You’re what? ”
“Why not?” Damian scratched empathetically at his paper, almost snapping off the tip of the mechanical pencil. “You graduated high school early too. My social development needs have been met. I’ll take two gap years to train with the League, then enter Yale at eighteen.”
“Is this your plan?” Father asked, voice brittle. Out of the corner of Damian’s eye he saw Father fold his arms. “When were you planning to tell me this, the day you got your diploma?”
“I’m telling you now.”
“You’re not going to the League.”
“Yes, I am,” Damian said, with calmness he didn’t feel. He wanted to be with Jon right now, sitting at the banks of a lake with a picnic basket. They had done that last month. It was a pleasant memory. Things were simple with Jon. He understood what Damian needed to do. “I’m old enough to decide which parent I’d like to stay with, and you and Mother never worked out a legal custody agreement.”
“They’re assassins and criminals,” Father said. “I learned from Ra’s when I was your age, and it was a mistake. They’ll try to make you back into an assassin.”
“In comparison with you, who always let me choose my own path,” Damian said wryly. “Don’t worry so much, Father. You’ve successfully avoided making me into a psychopath. It’s time for me to elevate my training.”
“They’ll have you kill, Damian,” Father said.
“Cops kill,” Damian said. “Soldiers kill. Diana kills. Are they evil too? I’ll never hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it. Don’t take out your problems with Mother and baggage about death on me again.”
“I do not -”
“You do nothing else.”
“What about Robin?”
“I need the extra training if I’m ever going to go solo,” Damian said, acutely aware that he had never mentioned his desire to go solo to his father before. He hadn’t felt it, until he realized that Batman would never treat Robin as anything else than a tagalog ten year old.
When he was younger he had thought that Batman needed a partner, that Robin needed to watch his back. But if Batman really needed him, then he wouldn’t keep limiting him. Constraining him, telling him what to do and how to think and how to feel. His sword had been confiscated for the last time.
Damian couldn’t be a child forever, and Robin was a bird for children. It was becoming increasingly clear that Father wouldn’t retire until he died, and becoming Batman wasn’t in his future anytime soon. The League had more of a place for him than the Cave ever did.
It wasn’t a decision made out of passion, out of anger or malice. It was a cold, and thoughtful, and logical decision. Damian had been told that he and his father fought differently from other children and their parents, that they didn’t yell and stomp their feet as much as others did. Their fights were always very rational, very blase, and very short. They just also tended to leave Damian screaming at the walls afterwards.
“Solo,” Father said, flatly.
“Yep.” Damian solved for x on the paper, chewing a hole through his lip. “If that’s all you had to say, then I’ll see you for patrol tonight. I have to focus on my schoolwork.”
“Okay, Damian.” Father sighed, and his loafers scuffed the carpet as he turned his back on Damian. He halted near the door, hand hovering over the doorknob, the legendary Batman emotional constipation coming full force. “I’m...sorry you feel this way.”
“It’s not your fault,” Damian said, as flippant as he could manage. “It was bound to happen eventually, Father. I was made for two destinies. You couldn’t keep me away from one forever.”
“No,” Father said, “I guess I can’t.”
Damian waited until the door closed gently shut after him, until footsteps echoed down the hallway, until the stairs creaked in descent, until he let white hot tears fall and stain his page.
He curled up over the paper, and the tears fell faster, until Damian was crying in ernest. It wasn’t the first time - despite everything, Damian was a bit of a crier - but it was as embarrassing and shameful as it was every time.
Damian didn’t want to leave, but he felt like he was being chased out. He hadn’t exchanged an affectionate or loving word with Father in months. They were still perfect partners, still a good team, but they may as well have been nothing more than roommates. Damian knew when he had worn out a welcome.
Where was the joking, deadpan man from Damian’s childhood? Where had he gone? Somewhere along the way Father had grown sadder, no longer exasperated and stressed out by Damian but tired by him. Gotham and Batman was killing Father, and he didn’t even know it.
Or maybe it was Damian’s fault. Maybe it was Damian who was no longer cute and fun, not a happy child but a sullen and anxious teenager. Damian, who spent more time with his boyfriend and friends than his father. It was his fault - it was Mother all over again, who kicked him out and didn’t let him come back for six years -
None of Damian’s parents liked him.
His phone chimed, and Damian wiped his dribbling nose as he unlocked it. It was a message from Sin the groupchat: a particularly cute puppy that she had found on patrol with The Birds of Prey. Her adopted mother Dinah was holding the puppy up, grinning broadly.
The League didn’t approve of contact with the outside. He would have to leave his phone when he left, only half a year from now. He would have to take a break from his relationship with Jon. He wondered if Jon would wait for him, or if he would find someone else. It would probably be for the best: Superboy deserved better than an assassin boyfriend.
His phone beeped, and a private text from Jon slid up.
Jon: do you want me to come over?
He had heard the crying, probably. Stupid super senses. Damian sniffled, laboriously typing out a response. He had never gotten the hang of phones.
What did Damian have for a family? An emotionally stunted father, a sociopathic mother, an insane grandfather, and Alfred? It was so haphazard and uncertain, stretched out over half the world. Nothing held him and Father together, and all that kept Damian changed to his Mother’s side was his obligation and his birthright.
When he was younger being the biological descendent of both the Batman and The Demon was a source of pride. Blood always showed, and families bound by blood was the strongest power in the world.
But when he saw Sin’s family, happily adopted by two nutjobs who weren’t even the same race as her and had probably never even killed anyone, he saw a family more competent than his. Kent Sr. wasn’t Jon’s real father, but he never loved Jon any less. The minute they had broken the news to Lois Lane together that she had a kid she had no idea about she had loved him as fiercely as if she had borne him herself. Jon’s parents weren’t married, had only gotten together a few months ago, but that didn’t matter. They were still good co-parents. Irey’s parents were babies and she was being raised by two ‘grandparents’ of absolutely no relation to her and an ‘Uncle’ of only a tenuous connection by marriage, but they loved her and her twin fiercely and brilliantly. It didn’t make any sense. It was against everything Damian had been raised to believe.
Damian had been the surprise accident teenage baby. Father hadn’t wanted him. Maybe he still didn’t.
Feet touched down at the windowsill, and Damian rose from his chair to open the window and let his family in.
Damian watched Barry Allen die on the television.
The League had eyes everywhere, and agents all over the world. They lived in the silence and the shadows, and were silent observers of the world’s events. Damian had been on strict no-contact with his old life all year, but his Mother took pity on him and let him watch the security feed anyway. He called it information gathering.
She sat next to him on the couch, Grandfather working at his desk, as they watched Barry Allen disappear into the speed force. Corpses littered the streets. It was hard to hear the superheroes talking over the screaming.
Damian should be out there. He should be helping. But he was in the UAE instead, with the family he treasured so much, watching Barry Allen die.
Irey was screaming, begging him not to go, but Damian watched silently as Barry kissed her forehead and whispered something in her ear. He nodded at Superman, hugged Jay Garrick tightly, smiled at the rest of the League that Father had so meticulously put together, and disappeared.
“Dear heart,” Mother said, “you’re crying. Why?”
“I know him,” Damian said, “I knew him -”
“Arabic, child,” Grandfather said, not looking up from his desk.
“Sorry, Grandfather.” Damian forced himself to code switch back to Arabic, but it was difficult when thinking about people whom he had only ever spoken with in English. He hadn’t spoken the language in six years when he came back, and there had been a steep learning curve. The minute Grandfather had learned that he was struggling with the language he banned English. For educational purposes. “His niece is one of my best friends. He was always very kind and generous to me, and is one of the best men I’ve ever known. It is...an incredible loss that he’s gone.”
“That is the nature of death,” Grandfather said, and when Damian craned his head back he saw that he was also staring at the screen now. It was empty of the superheroes, who had long since fled to go back to fighting whoever they were fighting, but he looked thoughtful. He had undoubtedly been paying more attention than he was letting on. “It never seems to come when it should. It takes the young, the vulnerable, and those with more still to offer to the world. And the true burdens on society - the aristocratic, the power hungry, the hoarders - it leaves alone until a ripe old age. Death is not naturally just, child, so we make it just. That is the nature of being an assassin.”
More monologuing on the nature of death. Damian didn’t roll his eyes, but it was a close thing. “Yes, Grandfather.”
“It is a hard thing to lose family,” Mother said thoughtfully. She squeezed Damian’s hand. “Character building, though.”
“I just didn’t know superheroes could die,” Damian said blankly. “I’ve never seen one die before.”
“I’ll arrange for you to kill one later,” Grandfather panned. “I believe it’s time for the two of you to get back to work, anyway. Talia, if you could take a look at these reports?”
That was that. The TV blinked off, break time was over, and Mother casually stood up and squeezed Damian’s arm as he rose with her. Back to assassin training. Like he did the other fifteen hours of the day. He forgotten how being trained in the highest and most deadly arts of murder could get so banal. “I’ll arrange for you to send a message of condolence to your friend,” Mother said softly. “It would be the good Muslim thing to do, to acknowledge it.” Grandfather snorted over his reports, and Mother whirled on him. “Just because you don’t care about faith, Father, doesn’t mean my son shouldn’t!”
So far as Damian could tell, Ra’s al Ghul was an atheist, Talia’s mother had been a devout Muslim, Talia was a devout Muslim, and this had been the source of in-fighting for roughly as long as Talia has been born.
“I’m going to go...er, pray over Allen’s soul,” Damian said, blatantly choosing sides. “Excuse me, Mother, Grandfather.”
“Pray while studying the art of the blade,” Grandfather said, and Damian quickly escaped the room before Mother could begin tearing into him again.
One week later, Iris West II, legally Iris Garrick, received a complementary ninja attacking her in her own home. The ninja passed on a message: a sympathetic verse of the Qur’an that Damian let his mother pick, and that Damian wished her well. The ninja escaped, Irey beefed up the security in her room, and the next week she made her debut as the second Flash.
Nobody had taken the news that he was leaving well except Jon. Irey had yelled at him about going evil, Sin had given him the cold shoulder, Father refused to talk about it, and his school acquaintances were jealous that he was graduating early and spending two years backpacking across Europe.
Now the entire superhero community thought Damian was evil, Damian had cut off all contact with everyone from home, and he didn’t have a boyfriend anymore. Damian didn’t know how to break it to Irey that he, personally, didn’t view killing people as evil, and that he was not going evil on purpose, and that he would appreciate it if she didn’t hate him.
Destiny wasn’t good or bad, it simply was. Fate was not malicious or kind, it simply was. Damian did not feel strongly over the way his life was now, because there had never been much of a choice about it. He was glad that he was becoming a better combatant. A few more years and he could make his solo debut, maybe even surpass Father one day.
His life was planned out like that. Damian had never minded. He had never been able to avoid bad things happening in his life, and he didn’t see the point in getting worked up over it. Once Ra’s al Ghul had his eye on you, you were trapped in his web forever.
Lying awake at night, it occured to Damian that his existence might have been a power tactic to keep Father tied to Mother and unable to cut the toxic and alarming presence of Ra’s al Ghul from his life. Hm. Not great.
He received no news from the outside world until he reached eighteen, although he did occasionally send ninjas to fight his friends because he knew that his friends found it satisfying fighting ninjas, but it wasn’t as if interesting things frequently happened anyway.
The first, and only, problem was that when he told Mother that he planned to return to Gotham on his eighteenth birthday Mother had refused to talk about it.
Damian sensed that he may have some problems leaving the League compound, but decided to deal with that when the time came. It wasn’t as if they could keep him there.
A week after Damian’s eighteenth birthday, after his family tried to keep him there, Damian stowed away on a rickety cargo train heading out of Moscow into Poland. Once in Poland, he falsified himself suitable records and slit the throats of a team of mercenaries dedicated to bringing him back into the fold. He then promptly escaped that hotel room, disguised himself as a homeless person, accidentally took down a human trafficking ring operating out of Warsaw, and smuggled himself back to Gotham just in time to open the door to Wayne Manor to find a child blinking up at him.
Damian, who had been running for his life for the past two weeks, who still smelled like cargo hold, who hadn’t eaten in two days, who had been thinking of nothing but getting home, stared down at the child. The child stared back.
“Who are you,” Damian said.
The kid was short, but taller than Damian had been at - thirteen? Thirteen. He was white, with aristocratic features, and black hair that curled in a way similar to Father’s. He was not as muscular as Damian had been at thirteen, but more muscular than the vast majority of children. His clothing - a graphic t-shirt with designer jeans - was expensive and new.
“Tim Drake,” Tim Drake said. He pointed vaguely to the left. “I, uh, live next door?”
Drake. Drake Manor. Janet and Jack Drake, of Drake Industries. That Drake. “The Drakes don’t have a son,” Damian said, feeling a little as if he was in the Twilight Zone. “Their house is empty almost year-round.”
Tim just shrugged. “I keep to myself.”
Then Alfred was there, almost running down the stairs, and Damian couldn’t help himself but fold the butler into a hug. Damian realized with a start that he was taller than Alfred now. He was far, far more muscular, and had gained several inches. He would likely never be as tall as Father, but Damian was no longer a child.
“Alfred,” Damian said, and his voice didn’t crack. “Is - is Father here?”
“He’s - he’s in his study. I will fetch him immediately. Master Damian, I cannot believe you’re home.” Alfred separated from him, wiping his eyes slightly, and Damian couldn’t repress a smile. “Master Bruce will come home as soon as he hears. Are you staying?”
“I’m hiding from my mother,” Damian said wryly, “so yes, I’ll stay for a week or two until I set up a safe house somewhere. Thank you, Alfred.”
“Thank you, Master Damian,” Alfred said firmly. “I must go prepare your room at once. Excuse me!”
It was almost surreal, to hear the English again, to see the manor again, to hug Alfred one more time. Near the end, Damian had been afraid that he never would. But when he imagined coming home he never imagined a teeanger standing in front of him, face strange and blank, as Alfred hurredly shuffled away.
If Damian had ever had any manners, he had forgotten them in assassin training. “Why are you here?” Damian asked bluntly. Father didn’t let random children roam the manor when there was the slightest possibility of them running into a secret they shouldn’t.
Tim Drake cocked his head at Damian, confusing flitting across his features. “Didn’t Bruce tell you? I’m Robin. I was training downstairs.”
Then Father walked in, and all hell broke loose.
Tim Drake: thirteen years old, genius. Discovered Batman and Robin’s secret identities five years ago, when he realized that Robin’s moves in the field were signature of only the League of Assassins. Talented detective, proficient photographer, shy and awkward, he was what Irey would call a ‘fanboy’.
He was also a thirteen year old kid with absolutely no combat experience who Father had tossed into Damian’s suit and told to go fight crime.
When Damian became Robin many second guessed the decision. It did not matter how highly trained the pre-pubescent child was, a four foot tall kid cannot win in a fight against an even moderately skilled adult. It was only Damian’s skill at League techniques that gave him a fighting chance: the talents of evasion, of precise and skilled strikes, of weapons and stealth. When he was a child, Damian had not been so much a combatant as a skilled strike fighter. When allowed to use his sword as he saw fit - and he never was - he could end a match in seconds.
But more than that, fighting was in Damian’s blood, nature and nurture. He had first learned to fence when he was two. Damian, at the time, was ten years old and highly fucked up, and he did not know how to cope with his emotions outside of violence. Damian was uprooted, disenfranchised, and scared, and Robin gave him power back.
Tim was the boy next door who thought Father needed a partner and then volunteered. He had the training of months, not a decade. He was an embarrassment in a fight. He wasn’t going to survive the year at this rate.
And Robin wasn’t his. It wasn’t Bruce’s to give away, and it wasn’t Tim’s to take. Damian had intended to kill it, not dunk it in a Lazarus pit and resurrect it. And resurrect it for who? This - this interloper? This spoiled child?
Tim Drake also had an eidetic memory, and Father admitted that he was probably smarter than him. A true detective, like neither Damian nor Father ever had been. He was also apparently the best hand with computers Father had ever seen, and that no, he was not retiring him upon Damian’s say-so. Sorry you had to find out this way, you’re welcome to stay for however you want, if you’re going to throw a shit-fit there’s the door.
Damian threw a shit-fit. Probably the worst one he had ever had. He had never screamed like that at Father before in his life. He shut the door behind him after three hours of screaming at his Father, screaming for Jon, and by the time Tim Drake peeped out the windows to see where Damian had gone he had disappeared in a flash of wind and a streak of red.
“We’re moving to Bludhaven,” Damian said hoarsely, hair windswept from Jon carrying him off. Jon had grown, strangely enough, into much more muscular and slightly more male Lois Lane. Thank god. Damian didn’t know what he would have done if he had turned into the spitting image of his beefcake father. “Or - I am. You can come with. Or don’t. I don’t care. Thank you. I missed you. I’m not evil.”
“I know,” Jon said. His costume had changed. That stuck out to Damian. Damian didn’t have a costume anymore. “I was just waiting for you to get back. Help me pack up?”
They had broken up. Damian had killed people. Tons of people. He wasn’t a superhero anymore. But Jon had waited. And Jon didn’t mind.
“I love you,” Damian said, having never said the words before in his life.
“Duh,” Jon said. “Come on, I have our superheroes names all picked out. Dad and Mom have been waiting for me to move out for weeks. I think they want some newlywed alone time. And Connor’s sick of sharing a room.”
“Wait,” Damian said, “what?”
Life had not gone on pause as Damian trained to fulfill his legacy as The Demon’s Head. It had, in fact, fast-forwarded.
With one of its members ‘evil’ and the other member having dropped out to join the Justice League, Damian had assumed that Young Justice was disbanded. He had been shocked when Jon handed him a framed team photograph and pointed out that it had doubled in size, thanks to the additions of a veritable flood of teenage superheroes.
Tim Drake, Robin the II. Superboy, Kon El, Connor Kent, Jon’s bratty but fun loving cloned little brother who lived to annoy and showboat. Wonder Girl - Wonder Woman had taken an apprentice? Of all people? Bart Allen II, Impulse the II, how had Barry had a grandson if he was dead -
Time travel. Of course, as usual.
Green Arrow had finally gotten himself a sidekick (Sin was a daughter, not a sidekick) named Speedy, which was so stupid it could have only been picked out by Sin, a cheerful girl named Mia with a dark past. Arrowette aka Cissie King-Jones was apparently of no relation, but she was on Young Justice anyway. Who was Secret? Damian didn’t care. It was an epidemic of children, and Damian was horrified.
The last surprise had to be Cassandra Cain, the mysterious young girl who reminded Damian strongly of Sin. She was a trained assassin, never taught how to talk or communicate, only to kill. Damian probably would have liked her, if he hadn’t found out that Father was adopting her.
The shock was so great his knees gave out, and Damian found himself falling harshly onto his ass in Jon’s bedroom. Clark and Lois had given them some privacy, and Damian had heard the sound of an extremely loud and nasally teenage boy crash into the apartment before Jon slipped out to talk to him, escorting him away. Damian had a sister. Adopted, not real, but Irey and Sin and Jon would kill him if they heard him calling adoption illegitimate. A sister.
He wasn’t even asked.
Logically, he knew that they thought that he didn’t want to be found. Maybe they didn’t even know where he was. But Robin was dead, long live Robin, and there was someone called Batgirl on the streets. The world had no place for Damian in it anymore. His family had no place in it for him. Cassandra Cain had a kind smile, and Tim Drake was a genius, and Damian was nothing but an adult who chose to become a murderer.
Jon sat down next to him, holding his hand tightly.
“Kon was a shock too,” he said lowly. “We couldn’t believe it. I think Cadmus expected us to blow him off, let him live with them in Hawaii or something. I think Dad even considered it. But I blew my top, Dami. He’s annoying as hell, but that kid needed a family. He needed me the same way that I had needed Dad back then. Cass is a great girl, and so is Tim, but they can’t replace you. You’re their family.”
Damian’s throat was dry as he clutched the cell phone. He had never figured Father the kind to adopt. He thought that he didn’t like children.
Guess he just didn’t like Damian.
“I don’t have a family,” Damian said.
“You have me,” Jon said firmly, “and Young Justice I. I - you don’t have to tell me what happened with your Mom, but -”
“Grandfather tried to steal my body and when I refused Mother tried to clone me, but the experiments failed and I was disowned,” Damian said blankly.
Jon was silent for a long second.
“Okay,” he said finally, “so Mom’s bringing home Thai food in about an hour. You’ll eat with us. Try not to murder Kon. You’ll sleep over, and tomorrow we’re moving to Bludhaven.”
“Jon, you can’t just drop your entire life just to deal with me -”
“You’re my family,” Jon said firmly. “Just like Mom and Dad and Connor and Grandpa and Grandma are my family, just like Ma and Pa are my family. We’ll get this sorted out, Damian. I’ll be here for as long as you need me.”
There was nothing to say to that, or nothing that Damian was brave enough to say, so he settled for learning on Jon’s shoulder as Jon quietly told him a bedtime story that his Pa shared with him a long time ago. The story of Nightwing and Flamebird.
That night, Lois Lane turned up with big bags of Thai and Kent Sr. showed up with a manilla folder that he quietly passed to Damian. There were his residency papers, his passport, and his birth certificate, but there was also a small billfold wallet inside with a driver’s license, insurance card, Justice League Auxiliary identification card, a credit card, and a debit card.
“If you don’t want to take the money,” Kent Sr. said awkwardly, “we can work something out. Lois and I would be more than happy to -”
“I’m maxing this shit out.”
Kent Sr. - Clark - sagged. “Oh, thank god.”
Damian couldn’t count the number of times he had dinner with Jon and his dad, but with Lois and Connor as permanent fixtures the dynamic was different. Lois started ranting about her latest story the minute she dumped the food on the table and did not shut up for the next two hours, pausing only to shove food in her face, and when she took a breath Connor would jump in with his own dumb story, and then they would play off each other, getting louder and louder, as Clark and Jon quietly ate their food and agreed with everything Lois said. If Damian hadn’t already known that Connor was a clone of Clark he would have guessed that he was a clone of Lois.
Connor was also impossibly nosy, but so long as Damian kept his mouth full he got the sense that all questions were rhetorical.
“Are you really an evil assassin? Have you killed anyone? Have you tried to kill Batman?”
Connor was small and wiry, with a pierced ear (how?) and an undercut. He was flamboyantly gay in every way that Damian and Jon weren't, and it made Damian wonder about how different it was to be gay with kids these days. He talked too loudly and his teeth were too white and straight to be real, and he spilled noodles all over his cut-off shorts frequently. Connor had very enthusiastically informed him that he was Tim’s best friend, which Damian couldn’t see. But maybe they hadn’t seen Damian and Jon either.
Finally, Damian swallowed. “Yes to all three.”
“Cool!” Connor shoved more food in his face, spilling more if it then he got in his mouth. “You’re gonna kill Tim? I think you’d kinda win that fight. You’re, like, super big and scary, and Tim’s just this tiny little thing.”
“I’m not in contact with the Waynes anymore,” Damian said cooly, and Clark and Lois winced.
“Clark and I can help you apartment hunt tomorrow,” Lois said, carefully wiping up after Connor. Her wedding band was shining new, and she was dealing with being an unexpected step-mother with aplomb. “It might take some time to go through, but -”
“No need,” Daimian said. “My Grandfather has properties in Bludhaven. I’ll take one over.”
“I thought he disowned you,” Jon said cautiously.
When Damian grinned it was toothy and perhaps not very nice. All the Kent’s eyes widened, and the superpowered Kryptonians leaned back a little. “I’ll have to work some...pest control. Nothing I can’t handle.”
“More fighting ninjas,” Jon said glumly. “Great.”
“If you’re moving in together does that mean that you’re married?” Kon asked loudly.
In perfect synocrity, Damian and Jon shoved food into their mouths and chewed furiously. Clark slapped his forehead, and Lois slipped Kon an extra eggroll as a reward for his investigative reporting.
A week later - because that was the longest they could hold them off - Jon and Damian held a housewarming party. They would have another one next weekend, especially for Jon’s family, but this week it was for Young Justice I. Plus Jai, who was pretty honorary.
Frankly, Damian was surprised that Irey and Sin were still talking to him. Sin had gone through an enormous amount of trauma to escape her assassin heritage and had sworn never to take another life. Irey had just a strong sense of moral purity as her family did, and when they parted terms she seemed to be fairly convinced that Damian had gone to the dark side.
“Nah,” Jon had said, hanging up the picture frames as Damian set up the couch. “It took her a year or so, but she got it. We always knew that you were weird for a reason as kids, but it wasn’t until we were adults that we realized how fucked up you were.”
“Thanks,” Damian panned.
“I never heard you say a single negative word about Talia for three years,” Jon pointed out, tongue sticking out between his teeth as he used the level to make sure that the pictures were perfect. Martha Kent had instilled a strong sense of fung shui into him. “You know how weird that is, to hero worship your mom until you’re fifteen? I don’t think any of us realized until later that you had never been really...rescued, I guess. Sin and Irey couldn’t believe that you would go back to the League voluntarily. I was the one who had to explain to them that it wasn’t really that voluntary.”
The words were an incredible weight off his chest, but the anxiety didn’t go away. Damian still hadn’t bought a new phone, keenly aware of how easily they could be tracked, and some part of him recognized that he felt vague shame. Shame wasn’t an emotion that Damian normally did.
They sewed the Nightwing and Flamebird outfits together in the dead of night, pressed up next to each other on the queen size bed, shitty television flickering between channels. Supernatural played at eleven pm on the CW, and it gave Damian so much fond nostalgia that he kept it on as they worked.
He checked the lease special to make sure that pets were allowed. The minute they settled down they were getting a dog. The bigger the better. Jon wanted a cat, so they would have a cat too. As Jon job searched for reporting jobs with magazines Damian leafed through adoption websites, bookmarking the cutest animals. He missed Titus.
The day of the housewarming party they bought a shitton of food. Jon sat in front of the TV, chewing contentedly away at the snack food, as Damian paced the apartment and tried not to have an anxiety attack.
He hadn’t seen them in two years. They hadn’t left on good terms. Irey had a sidekick now, and he knew that Sin had taken on a mentorship position with all of Young Justice. She was close with Speedy and Arrowette especially. Jai was at MIT learning the science behind time travel, for fuck’s sake. They had all moved forward, and Damian had moved back.
It was as if he was ten again, feral and afraid. How could he be an adult living on his own and still feel like such a child?
The knock on the door startled him so badly he flinched, and Jon squeezed his shoulder tightly before standing up to answer it.
But when he opened the door Damian saw his family again for the first time in two years, and they were adults, and he braced himself for expressions of hate or disgust on their faces.
“Dami!” Irey cried, and she flashed forward in the span of a millisecond to hug him.
Then Sin was there, and even Jai, and for the first time since he escaped Damian broke down into ugly, embarrassing, awful tears.
For the first time Damian was home.
He wasn’t going to rejoin Young Justice, and it wasn’t just to avoid Tim, except it kind of was.
“It’s for the best,” said Sin, with her characteristic quiet surety. “You need time. Tim and Bruce need time too. Family is messy. Half my life is cleaning up after Ollie’s latest mess.”
“Jesus, tell me about it,” Irey moaned, falling on the couch dramatically and filching part of Sin’s cake. She and Sin had broken up years ago, before Damian left, but only because Sin had realized that she was an asexual lesbian. Irey, who liked sex way more than Damian was comfortable with hearing, couldn’t work with that, but their friendship had never faltered. “My entire fucking life is making sure Bart doesn’t electrocute himself. It’s like having five newborns trying to stick metal forks in sockets at superspeed every second!”
“Here we go again,” Jai muttered, changing the channel on the television.
“I can’t handle him!” Irey cried, and judging by the patient expressions on everyone’s faces this was an extremely frequent complaint. “I can’t be the Flash and babysit at the same time, it’s physically impossible! I can’t be a member of the Justice League, go to college, be the Flash, and be this kid’s sole guardian all at once! I’m going fucking insane! Bart is...he’s so lovely, but...Damian, just imagine if the anthropomorphic personification of cocaine took cocaine under the impression that life was a giant video game and had no idea of the concept of consequences or thinking more than two seconds into the future. He’s a menace. Literal demon child.”
“Irey, for the last fucking time, give him to Max,” Jai said. Jai had no superpowers, but together with Iris and Joan they were the emotional backbone of the entire Flash family. Central and Keystone Cities spun on their common sense. “Max can dedicate more time to mentoring him and raising him than you ever could.”
“I can’t just pass him off!” Irey cried, throwing up her hands. “He’s Barry’s grandson! Barry didn’t pass me off -”
“ - we lived with Grandma and Grandpa -”
“He didn’t pass off my mentoring because he didn’t feel like dealing with me,” Irey continued, as if Jai hadn’t said anything. “I can’t do that to Bart. I know what it’s like to be stuck in the past all alone, I can’t just abandon him at the fire station!”
“It is too much for you,” Sin said, quietly but severely. “You are not sleeping. He doesn’t deserve to be passed off, but he does deserve a guardian who can give him the time and energy he deserves. You can’t give him that right now. You have superspeed, but you cannot stop time. You can not set yourself on fire to keep others warm.”
Irey crumpled, folding her arms and leaning against Jai. Jai patted her on the head. “I just don’t want him to grow up like we did.”
“Our childhood was fine,” Jai said.
“We babysit our parents .”
“Fine,” Jai said blithely. “Hey, at least we aren’t as fucked up as Damian.”
“I’ll fucking drink to that,” Damian said, raising a glass, and everyone was startled into laughter.
But then Jon sighed too, from where he was nursing a cup of tea as he sat on the arm of Damian’s armchair, and ran a hand through his hair. “Nobody’s dealing with as much as you are, Irey, but for what it’s worth I get it. I love Connor but he’s so much sometimes. Dad has enough on his plate without dealing with another kid, so as the oldest I feel this weird responsibility to make sure that he’s using his powers safely. It’s a full-time job. Now Dad’s talking about signing me up for the Justice League too, and I just don’t know.”
“Tell me about it,” Sin said, throwing an arm around Irey and squeezing her shoulders. “Cissie has...hm...emotional problems, a little, that her mom isn’t dealing with. I’m like her sister, and now I’m scared of messing up in front of her and teaching her the wrong thing. Mia needs...so much therapy and help that I can’t give. I love them, but I don’t know what to do for them.”
They sat in drearly silence, sipping tea and flipping absently through muted channels.
“Man,” Jai said finally, “when did we grow up? I used to spend ten hours a day playing Halo -”
“We know,” everyone said simultaneously.
“ - and now I’m running mission control for every Flash. And we’re all parents or some shit? Sins of the father, I fucking guess.”
“Sins of the father,” Damian echoed. “I found out a week ago that I was a big brother. I...don’t want it. If that makes me a bad person, that’s the least of it.”
Jon nudged his shoulder gently with his own. “Nobody here thinks you’re a bad person. And let’s look on the bright side, okay? Our own solo careers! Nightwing and Flamebird, free at last! This is going to be great for us, Damian. This is the beginning of the rest of our lives. Our lives. Not our parents.”
“Yes,” Damian said, and kissed him quickly on the lips. “Our lives together. I’m...excited.”
“Now all you need is a job,” Sin teased gently. “Are you even going to college?”
In silent response Damian raised his middle finger, and everyone laughed uproariously. “Jon’s going to commute to Metropolis U. I have a fake degree from Oxford, which is good enough. I’m old money, Sin. I don’t do jobs. It’s low class.”
“He’s going to spend all his time volunteering at the animal shelter until they give up and give him money,” Jon said flatly. “If he doesn’t take over WI he’s gonna become a veterinarian, I guarantee it.”
“Let Cassandra Wayne take over WI,” Damian said snidely. “I’m done with legacies. Vet school for me.”
Sin faked a gasp. “No more teams of ninjas after us?”
Jai barked a laugh. “Remember when Cassie Sandsmark asked why Young Justice fought so many ninjas, and we had to explain it was because an ex-member wants to say hi sometimes? And that’s the best fucking way he can think of doing it?”
“Wait,” Damian said, hurt, “did you not like the ninjas?”
“Did you send them to be nice ?” Irey asked in disbelief.
“Yes?” Damian frowned. “They were under orders not to kill you.”
That was, of course, the exact moment when the strike team from the League of Assassins burst through the windows of the apartment. Exactly as Damian had predicted. They had already fought off two different teams since moving in.
Damian used one hand to flip over the armchair and landed a foot firmly in a ninja’s face before anybody else besides Irey even had time to react, and then the game was on.
Yes. He was home.
That said, it was difficult to remain an active member of the superhero community and never run into Batman.
Damian did his best. He had chosen Bludhaven especially for how much of a sunken pit it was, and he and Jon more than had their hands full with the city. Its greatest downside was that it was only an hour away from Gotham, but they had already ruled out Hub City on account of the tap water there being unsafe to drink and Bludhaven was what was left in terms of shithole cities.
It helped that he was a naturally solitary person, like he had once thought his father was, and he didn’t need much other than Jon. Jon worked for the Bludhaven newspaper as an intern, ran five exposes in his first month somehow despite being an intern, and was the target of five different assasination attempts, and Damian volunteered at the animal shelter. They were very proud of each other.
Three times a week Jon commuted to Metropolis to go to college and help out with his younger brother, and it amused Damian endlessly to see Superboy beating down a supervillain in the morning and Flamebird taking down organized crime in the nighttime. Damian discovered how to do his own laundry and cook his own food.
Damian didn’t care what Father was doing, and never even touched the society pages. In the end it was Jon who had to show him the newspaper that advertised the deaths of Janet and Jack Drake, and Bruce Wayne’s subsequent adoption of Timothy Drake. The gossip was running rampant about the nature of Father and Timothy’s relationship, but it wasn’t any of Damian’s business. It wasn’t as if Father called him to give him the heads-up that he was now an older brother twice over. Who cared.
When Alfred called he answered, and they made very awkward small talk, and after a short period of time Damian would pretend that he was busy, then they would say goodbye and Damian would cry as Jon hugged him. You didn’t leave the phone ringing when Alfred called.
In a weird way, the most he learned about Tim was through Connor. Jon brought Connor back to their place occasionally when Lois and Clark wanted some time to themselves or even just when they wanted to hang out, and Connor would eagerly chat on about his day and Young Justice and how Tim was doing without Damian even asking. But he liked Connor, and Connor seemed to think he was a mysterious anti-hero, and whenever Connor stayed over on the couch they all stayed up late and plowed through all of the Disney movies that Connor and Damian had missed growing up.
They were similar like that, two childhoods stolen. It made Damian able to connect to him in ways that Jon couldn’t, sometimes. At one point Damian started referring to Connor as his brother-in-law to his co-workers, and it fit so well it frightened him.
Tim was smart but had some depression stuff going on, Connor would say. Tim never ever sleeps even when we tell him to, Connor would say. Tim has this huge inferiority complex about being Robin after you, Connor would say, somehow completely innocently. Tim’s hand to hand is getting a lot better, everyone’s noticed. Tim looks really cute in those sunglasses he wears all the time. Tim misses his parents but Bruce is such a good dad so it’s okay. Would it be weird if he asked Tim out? You can be honest, Damian.
“Dad might think we have a type,” Jon had teased, ruffling Connor’s hair.
“Mom was a Bat in another life and I’d stake my genetic profile on it,” Connor said confidently. “But Dad said that he loves the idea because he likes pissing off Bruce, and having both of his kids date both of Bruce’s kids is the best possible way to piss him off, and Mom keeps joking about finding a girl in a rocket to date Cass, except that made Dad choke because now he’s always paranoid about finding more random relatives popping up, and I would ask Cass out if she wasn’t so scary, don’t get me wrong, but then who would Tim date, and -”
“You know,” Damian said, because the prospect of having this chatterbox around the Manor 24/7 annoying Bruce literally nonstop was extremely appealing, “I think you should go for it.”
“Yes!” Connor cheered, punching the air. “You’re the double best brother-in-law, Dami!”
That was what they said these days: A Bat. As if they were a flock, a collective, a group. Instead of it being just that crazy psycho demon brat Robin and his cryptid creepy boss Batman. The writing on the wall was clear: Batman was becoming a brand, a legacy. It was becoming something that would last after Bruce was gone, and even after Damian was gone.
Wasn’t this what Damian had always wanted? To uphold a legacy, to stand as the symbol of something important? When had Damian decided to live for himself instead?
But if you were a member of the superhero community - and Damian was, even if everyone knew that Nightwing used to be Robin and had a really big nasty fight with his boss that lead to them splitting and that he was kind of an anti-hero who murders people all the time - you couldn’t avoid Batman forever.
Three months after his nineteenth birthday - Alfred had called, Bruce hadn’t, what else is new - Damian’s Auxiliary Justice League communicator started screaming. He had been mildly shocked that he was still part of the Justice League at all, even in a limited capacity, but barely a second after Damian had fished out the card from his wallet Jon had flashed in front of him, ready to grab his hand and fly them both to the Hall of Justice.
What a pretentious name. He remembered when it was an office building.
They had a much larger conference room now, and a monitoring station, and all the bells and whistles. If you were a superhero who was a) halfway competent and b) mostly not evil, you were an Auxiliary Member of the Justice League, and Damian and Jon found themselves having to press through a crowd of spectacular people in spandex and armor as they found a seat. Sin was there, fully suited up in her all-black armored outfit with her light domino mask, as she chaperoned the small crowd of excited and frightened preteens hovering around her. She strongly resembled a kindergarten teacher, and Jon and Damian did their best to wade over to her.
Young Justice II all squinted or stiffened when they saw Damian, and he scowled at them. The only ones who didn’t have much of a reaction were Connor, who smiled and waved at Jon and Damian equally, and Tim, who made no facial expression and kept his eyes averted.
Maybe he should drop by Happy Harbor more often. Teach them...kung fu or something. It felt strange for the kids in the team he founded to be uncomfortable with him.
Irey was standing at the front of the room with the rest of the core members of the Justice League, talking in low voices with them, and Damian noticed to his amusement that one hand was firmly clasping Bart Allen’s hand in a tether to keep him from running off.
When Bart recognized Young Justice he tugged at Irey’s hand, whispering in her ear, and she scowled and nodded. The second she released his hand Bart flashed all the way across the room to join Young Justice, eagerly high fiving Connor and hugging Wonder Girl tightly. He even got a smile out of Tim, which Damian had been beginning to think was impossible.
Sin counted them off under her breath - Secret immediately grabbing Bart’s hand to make sure that he didn’t run away again - and then clapped her hands. “Okay, everyone has your buddy?” The group murmured assent. “Good. Let’s go sit down in the back and wait for the meeting to start. Does anyone have to go to the bathroom first? Tell me now.”
Everyone shook their heads, except for Tim, who awkwardly raised a hand. “Um, Sin, Batman wanted me to wait by the door for him…”
“That’s alright, Robin. You can join us later. Stay with Nightwing and Flamebird for now until you meet up with your mentor and sister.” Sin gently guided the team to the back of the room, waving at Damian and Jon again, abandoning them to the tender mercies of the fourteen year old Damian actively planned his life around avoiding.
“Not my sister,” Tim muttered, and Jon shot him a sharp look.
“Adopted doesn’t mean illegitimate, Robin.”
“I know,” Tim said hurriedly, still not looking at Damian. “It’s just...never mind.”
They stood in awkward silence, and Damian half-heartedly tried to pick up figures from the crowd. There was Booster Gold and his husband Blue Beetle, along with their sidekick...the other Blue Beetle, the teenage one...except wasn’t the teenage one the older one’s sidekick? Constantine, either hungover or still drunk, sleeping sitting up as he drooled on the table. Zatanna was stacking coins on his head as high as she could, equally bored. Aquaman and Aqualad, who Damian had met a few times but had never really become friends with. They had awkwardly bonded over both their parents being supervillains for five minutes before running off and never speaking again. He recognized Mia as Speedy, holding the hand of a stoic twelve year old with dusky skin but close cropped blonde hair as she quietly named the members in the room for him. First League mission. Be brave, kid.
Did Damian remember his first League mission? Had he tried to stab Ollie? He may have tried to stab Ollie.
“Have I ever tried to kill Green Arrow?” Damian muttered under his breath to Jon. Jon snorted as Tim’s eyebrows furrowed together.
“It’d be easier to list the people in this room you haven’t tried to kill.”
“Aqualad and I bonded,” Damian protested.
Jon shot him an unimpressed look. “You got drunk at a truth or dare Young Justice wrap party and made out with him, remember? We were fourteen?”
“Ah,” Damian said awkwardly. “I remember that now. Before we were together, obviously.”
“I cried. Mom laughed at me. ”
“Aw, babe, you had a crush on me?”
Tim was watching them, eyebrows furrowed and calculating, but looked away when Damian met his eyes. His Robin suit was different from Damian’s - a bit more streamlined, with much less weapons, and more splashes of green and color. No hood. So Father finally got his way on that one. He had always hated the hood. Damian had thought it looked cool, which had been the most important thing back then.
“I have information on the Blockbuster case,” Tim blurted, cutting both men short. “If you want it, I mean. I have it. Uh - he had a secret Dropbox. There’s evidence.”
“Thanks, kid, but we can handle Blockbuster,” Damian said cooly. “Focus on your own city.”
Tim’s eye twitched, so far as Damian could tell under the mask. “B didn’t want me looking at it…”
It was an exceptionally gory case. Damian sure as hell wouldn’t want Connor looking at it. Jon smiled down at Tim kindly. “Thanks, kiddo. I’ll give you my work email so you can send it forward, okay? It’ll be a big help.”
“I just wanna help,” Tim mumbled.
All heads whipped backwards, Damian almost straining his neck, and all three of them stood just a little straighter when a familiar cowled figure brushed down the hallway with Superman at his shoulder. Hovering near his right hand was a slim and short girl in a small domino mask with light footsteps, almost dancing next to him. When she saw Tim and Jon she waved eagerly, but she faltered slightly when she saw Damian.
“Flamebird, Nightwing,” Superman said, clearly relieved. “Thank you for getting here so soon. Let’s start the meeting as soon as possible so we can get all boots on the ground ASAP. The alien transmission said that they would be attacking at 3 PM Central time, so we still have a little time to organize, but the more people we can mobilize as quickly as possible the better. Diana and J’onn are attempting diplomatic overtures, but they’ve been rebuffed. We can only keep trying at this point.”
“Of course, Ukr,” Jon said politely. It was his name for his dad while in costume, half-way between a secret identity protective measure and an in-joke. It was a holdover from when they were still struggling to decide how to present Jon - the nation had been divided on whether or not he was a brother, cousin, son, friend, clone, or weird alien relation that had no equivalent on Earth - and when it came to secret identities sowing chaos was always better. Nobody alive but Superman and his family spoke Kryptonian, anyway. Father and Damien were conversational in it, but hardly fluent. “If I can help with the logistics at all then let me know.”
Nobody had ever received confirmation that Robin was Batman’s son either, which was an old topic of resentment that had muddled into weary ambivalence.
The little girl skipped forward and hugged Tim tightly, flashing him a question in ASL. “Brother wasn’t too mean?”
For the first time, Tim’s lips quirked into a half-smile and he signed back. “His file says he’s proficient in ASL, so ask him.”
If she was embarrassed, it was impossible to tell. She turned to him, cocking her head as she flashed questions at him in light speed. “Were you mean to Robin? I didn’t know you were still a member of the JLA? Does this mean you are a superhero again?”
“I don’t think so, I’m backup, I never stopped,” Damian signed back, far slower and clunkier. “What were you and B doing?”
Cass quickly showed him her personal sign for Batman - the sign for bat, where she crossed her arms and flicked her fingers out, only forming her fingers into the hand sign for ‘B’ instead of just sticking them out. “Detective work. I’m not good at it, so we came here.”
“Nightwing, Batgirl, Robin,” Father said out loud, singing along with his words. He fingerspelled Nightwing’s name out, but used a modification of Cass’ Batman sign with the fingerspelling for C instead of B for Batgirl. For Robin, he made the ASL sign for robin and quickly stitched it together with the sign for duck. Drake. Funny. “You’re with me.” He jerked his head to the other end of the hall. “Let’s go.”
As if he was a footsoldier. “You are not my field commander anymore,” Damian sneered, signing out a clear ‘No way!’ for Cass. “I’m staying with my partner.”
“All three of you would be wasted fighting foot soldiers,” Father said bluntly, signing his words and speaking out loud. “We are working with Dr. Midnite and the Green Lanterns for an alternate solution, and they require your unique skills. We’re going.”
“If you want someone assassinated I’m your man,” Damian said bluntly, and that one he didn’t sign out for Cass. “Is that the unique skill you mean, Batman ?”
League members were awkwardly staring at the growing conflict, taking place clearly in the entryway to the conference room. Superman and Jon were beginning to look uncomfortable, as Cass and Tim’s eyes widened as they saw someone talk back to their father for the first time.
Father’s mouth hardened to a thin line, and he switched exclusively to sign. “This isn’t the time or place for this conversation,” Father signed out, clearly frustrated and forced to display more emotion than he usually preferred while costumed. Utilizing ASL with half your face covered was like speaking in a complete monotone, and it made the process awkward. That was probably the reason behind Cassandra’s relatively small mask - a cowl or a heavier mask would have made her words almost indecipherable. “Yell at me later, Nightwing. We have a crisis now, and you are one of the most experienced warriors in this room. Help or go home.”
“I’ll murder anyone you want,” Damien signed, affecting a faux-sweet look on his face as he stabbed his finger forward. “You say jump, I say how high, your highness. Anything to keep your hands clean.”
“You have issues,” Cass signed, little expression adorably intent.
“Balls of steel,” Tim muttered.
“Will. You. Please. ” Father jabbed out, with deliberate emphasis, “act as protection detail for the kids.”
“Now,” Damian said out loud, “was it that hard to say please? Of course I’ll help.” He bowed mockingly, flourishing his hand. “After you, my lord.”
Both kids began signing out moans and groans about needing a protection detail, but if there was one thing Father could have said to get Damian to help him it was that. Either that or if he really did need someone assassinated, because Damian liked feeling useful and that knowing that his chosen skill set was applicable in the current job market. Damian knew how to kill, but he liked keeping people alive better. It was more of a challenge.
He nodded at Jon and Superman, ignoring the way Superman was frowning at Batman and how Jon was beaming at Damian. Both Kryptonians went inside the room, Father and his children remaining outside, and it was impossible to miss the way the room stiffened and quieted when Superman walked in.
Five years ago Damian wouldn’t have believed it: the way the superhero community respected, borderline worshipped Superman. As his adult ‘sidekick’ everyone extended the same respect to Jon, and he frequently complained about how differently people treated him when he was in the Flamebird costume instead of the Superboy one. Jon had some deep-rooted insecurities about ever measuring up to his father, but oddly enough Connor had seemed to help with that. Maybe being a member of a family was less stress than being the sole heir.
They closed the door behind them, and Father turned abruptly on his heel and swept down the hallway, leaving the kids to jog after his long strides. That was something Damian remembered all too well, but when Damian started after them he found that he could easily keep up with Father’s strides.
They all ducked into a nearby conference room, much smaller this time, with more technology and projectors than the larger auditorium style room did. Kyle Rayner and his...rookie partner or whatever, John Stewart, were already inside, murmuring to each other and flipping through reports. Martian Manhunter and his adult niece Ms. Martian were frowning at each other, either telepathically communicating or just exchanging significant glances.
They all jumped when Father strode in, but the kids barely paid him any attention. Cass snapped her fingers for his attention, quickly signing something out. “I thought I was Robin’s bodyguard, not Nightwing!”
“For the last time,” Tim signed out quickly, “I don’t need Batgirl to protect me -”
“You two are a good team,” Father said out loud and signed, shutting the conversation down, “and there is more to mentorship and teambuilding than who can win in a fight.” He ignored them both, turning his attention to the Green Lanterns and the martians. “Thank you all for meeting me here. Kyle, can you give us the sit-rep?”
Kyle smiled and nodded at them, eyes lingering on Damian. “Sure thing, Batman. Hey, kids.” He stuck out a hand to Damian, still smiling. The formerly awkward and anxious young art student had blossomed into a confident, intelligent man over the course of the last five years, proving his worthiness of the ring to everyone. “It’s nice to meet you, Nightwing. I’ve been following your work. Are you and Batman old friends?”
So he didn’t recognize the eighth grader who dyed his entire house yellow as a prank. Damian wondered, morbidly, what Father said had happened to the old Robin. “We went to summer camp together,” Damian said smoothly. His Nightwing persona enjoyed cracking jokes and deadpan humor, which had fit strangely on Damian first before he realized how much he enjoyed it. “What’s the situation?”
Stewart passed him the dossier, and Damian speed-read it. Tim craned his head to catch a glimpse, so Damian held it higher. “White martians,” Damian said flatly. He glanced up at both of the martians, one of whom was looking very embarrassed. “Old friends of yours, Ms. Martian?”
She shook her head fervently, throwing up her hands. “It’s complicated, I swear! I had nothing to do with it! Well, not nothing, but - it’s not my fault!”
“Family troubles,” J’onn panned. “Surely you can sympathize.”
“They’ve removed themselves from the jurisdiction of the Green Lantern Corp,” Kyle sighed, crossing his arms. “They’re calling themselves a militia and saying they’re exempt from Stature - guess the stature, John.”
Stewart frowned, glancing at Kyle. “Aurek-besh...12?”
“Close,” Kyle said cheerfully, “Quek-resh 1, under the Rimbor laws.”
Stewart visibly wracked his memory. Damian found himself sympathizing. Rookiehood was hard. “That’s the outlaw planet with the gang problems, right? The colony one?”
“Humanoids gotta humanoid.” Kyle tapped his fingers on his arm, clearly deep in thought. “The White Martians are demanding to speak to a leader of Earth for their demands. They blew off Ms. Garcés because they don’t like the UN, though, and refused to talk to a non-native Terran like Superman. We’re trying to get some sort of authority they recognize so we can open up actual dialogues before it devolves into war, but Batman insisted that we grab you before we do anything.”
“Nightwing is the most charismatic leader I know,” Father said shortly, shocking Damian to death. “If they’ll listen to anyone they’ll listen to him.”
From where they were hovering at his elbows the kids were looking up at him with stars in their little eyes. Damian didn’t know what to do about it, but he kept his expression impassive. He flipped open the small console on his gauntlet, quickly accessing Grandfather’s records. They had disowned him, but Damian had practically built the League’s computer systems himself and they couldn’t keep him out. He accessed Ra’s ‘Little Black Book’ and...boom.
“They’ve had contact with Earth before,” Damian said easily. “They’ll listen to me.” He held out his hand, ignoring the dumbfounded looks on the martian’s faces. “Give me a two-way connection with their leader. I’ll do my best to negotiate for a gladiatorial battle between Superman and one of their champions. J’onn, if you can form a mind link with me to give me a crash course in martian politics it would be advantageous.”
“Understood.” J’onn dropped a device in his hand, shaped a little like an earplug with rounded knobs off one end. “Turn that knob twice counterclockwise for the...redial.”
His heart was beating heavily in his chest, striving for escape from his ribcage, but Damian took a deep breath and found his center. The Lanterns were looking at him - one with a confused gaze, one with a considering one. The martians were looking at him too - one quietly supportive, the other radiating anxiety and guilt. The kids hadn’t taken their eyes off him, almost holding their breaths, and Damian refused to look at them. The only one who wasn’t meeting his eyes was Father, who seemed far away inside.
He turned the knob twice counterclockwise and stuck it in his ear. Then Damian called forth something deep within himself that he did not like, that he was not proud of, that kept him alive.
“This is Ibn al Xu'ffasch,” Damian said in Arabic, summoning the regal tones and elevated language of his Grandfather. He stood up straighter, schooled his expression to cold haughtiness, and slammed down the cold metal walls in his mind that held himself. “Heir of the League of Shadows and Descendent of Ra’s al Ghul, The Demon Head, Messiah of the Crimson Son. Respond immediately or face explosive warfare.”
The line did not crackle so much as shoot directly into his brain, spreading his claws in his frontal cortex and sending a direct telepathic uplink with an alien species 140 million miles away.
The Lantern rings automatically translated every language, as did the telepathic powers of the Martians. Father was highly fluent, but judging from the glances Cass was shooting Tim and the way his lips pursed she didn’t understand and he was shaky.
When the white martian spoke it was with an added spike of adrenaline, fear, and nausea straight to his brain. It was obviously affected, and Damian dismissed it from his mind completely. “We asked for a leader of Earth!”
“You have one,” Damian said cooly. “I am the voice and right hand of my Grandfather. Unless you wish to rescind your treaty with the League of Shadows? After every service we’ve provided for you in the 15th century?”
“The League of Shadows has served the martian race well,” the voice spoke, and for the first time Damian detected a hint of anxiety. “And our quarrel is not with them. It is with those who have allied themselves with the reprehensible green martians -”
“Then it seems we understand each other,” Damian said shortly. “The League of Shadows wishes to be rid of the green martians as much as you do. Perhaps we can help each other.”
He glanced at J’onn, who nodded once. The voice was silent for a long moment before responding. “What do you have in mind?”
Damian let himself grin, bright and sharklike. “Let’s work something out.”
Nightwing was offered the chance to become a full member of the League, but Damian turned it down. He had enough Leagues for a lifetime, and large organizations tended to turn bloated after too long. Besides, he liked his solitude.
Three days after the diplomacy session/gladiator fight/alien free for all, he and Jon received a lengthy file deposited directly on their private server stuffed with everything anyone could ever want to know about Blockbuster. It was enough to take him down, permanently.
In the eventual fight that broke out Damian had ended up pulling a martian off Tim’s back and slitting its throat so viciously blood sprayed into Tim’s mouth. He seemed a little traumatized from it, but maybe he had appreciated it after all.
“Are you kidding?” Jon had said, speed-reading the documents at a pace that was a hundred times faster than Damian could ever manage. Not that he was jealous. “You earned yourself worshippers for life after that stunt at the Hall of Justice. Whenever the kids are playing around at YJ meetings Tim and Cass are always fighting over who gets to pretend to be you.”
“Could have gone the rest of my life without knowing that.” They were sitting on the couch together, legs tangled together, and Jon’s long hair was beginning to tickle Damian’s nose. They needed to ask Clark to cut it with his heat vision again. Long hair was a weakness in a fight. But Damian was growing out his buzz cut, and he found that he rather liked it floppy. “I’m surprised Father isn’t filling their heads with tales of how evil I am.”
“He loves you, Dami. You know that.” Jon kissed him lightly on the ear, making Damian laugh. “He’d just, like, die before saying it.”
“Father of the year.”
Jon huffed a laugh. “I’m pretty sure parent of the year is Irey, actually.”
“She finally string Bart up by his ankles yet?”
“He keeps vibrating out of the child leashes.”
“I should drop by Happy Harbor sometime,” Damian murmured, surprising himself. “Even if it’s only to just - scare the kids. I don’t know. They’ve probably heard nothing but bad things about me, and I…”
Don’t want that? Don’t like that? Since when? Damian loved it when people were frightened of him, when they quaked in fear. What was it about a small hodge-podge of thirteen year olds that made him want to be a better man?
“Good cop, bad cop?” Jon asked, humming. “That could work. I think they’d listen to you. Especially if you use that scary voice on them.”
“Ah, yes,” Damian said, affecting a faux heavy accent. “My terrorist voice. Give me your white women and your precious jewels. Down with freedom.”
“Oh, god, oh no, your evil voice is so sexy,” Jon panned, “take me now, Nightwing.”
Then they laughed together, bright and clear, and Jon’s breath was misting on Damian’s ear, and they thought no more about children left behind.
There was a knock at the door.
They lived in a good part of town, but that was relative and no citizen of Bludhaven was stupid enough to answer the door when they weren’t expecting anyone. Ace, from where she was taking a nap in the sunshine, lifted her head and barked sleepily. Damian reached over and rubbed her head, shushing her until she went back to sleep. Worst guard dog ever. Jon wasn’t home, still putting in long hours at the newspaper cracking open his latest corruption case, and Damian didn’t make it as long as he had as an assasin by being stupid. He turned up the volume on Supernatural, continuing folding laundry. His shift at the women’s shelter was two hours, but he still needed to make dinner for Jon when he got home, and it was tiring not having servants.
But the knocking didn’t stop, and in fact got much louder. He heard the muffled sound of someone yelling from the other side of the door, and when he got up and stepped closer he could make out the words. “Damian! It’s your dumb siblings!”
That was not Cass’ voice, or Tim’s. More murmuring from beyond the door, in a voice that was clearly Tim’s. “ - now he’s definitely not gonna open up -”
Damian peered through the peephole, only two find two familiar teenagers and one unfamiliar and very unamused blonde girl loitering outside his apartment.
For a second, he considered not opening the door. He hadn’t seen Tim and Cass out of costume in - well, long enough. He hadn’t even dropped by Happy Harbor to give lessons on getting out of knots in months. But they were at his door anyway, and Damian knew that he was the last person anyone would turn to for help, least of all Tim, and if three vulnerable kids were left outside any longer they were going to get shot, so he opened the door.
He scowled down fiercely at them, only half-heartedly trying not to enjoy the way they all flinched, and crossed his arms. “Why are you here.”
Almost in complete synchronization they all flashed the biggest, most pathetic puppy dog eyes they could at him. “Can we stay here with you?” the blonde girl begged. “It is the biggest, most awful, very dramatic emergency ever, please?”
“I don’t know who you are ,” Damian said, bewildered.
“We really need your help,” Tim grit out.
“Please,” Cass said.
Ugh. Stupid little kid big baby eyes. He was weak. Damian sighed and stepped aside, and the kids eagerly poured into the apartment. Getting mud everywhere. God, how had they even gotten here from Gotham? What were they, 15? Could they drive by themselves? He didn't know how old the blonde girl was, and he had just let a strange kid into his apartment, and why couldn’t he just escape Tim’s smarmy little face -
“Tea, please,” Cass said.
Ten minutes later Damian had deposited all three children in the rickety chairs around the small, circular kitchen table holding little mugs of tea in their little hands with a plate of Moroccan tea biscuits in front of them. Damian sat in front of them, hands folded on the table, glaring each of them down individually as they sipped at their tea and avoided staring him directly in the eyes. He wished Jon was here - Jon knew how to handle all of them. Damian didn’t know how to handle anyone, not even himself.
“I’m going to ask you questions,” Damian began, attempting very hard not to draw upon his interrogation techniques. “And you’re going to answer them as simply yet comprehensively as possible. Nod if you understand.”
Damian pointed at the blonde girl. “Who are you.”
“Stephanie Brown,” she said promptly, clearly having anticipated this question. “Daughter of the Cluemaster, best friend of these two, Spoiler by night and fifteen year old by day. Nice to meet you!”
Damian narrowed his eyes. “Spoiler of...what?”
“Crime!” Stephanie exclaimed. “I was doing my own gig, because I’m my own person, but then Bruce was all like, I don’t let other vigilantes into my city and also you’re like twelve, but I’m fifteen not twelve and it’s not like you weren’t twelve anyway, and then I threw a brick at him, and Cass taught me kung fu, so Bruce was like, fine, you can stay I guess. We’re coworkers. I don’t work for him. But, like, tell him that!”
“Indeed,” Damian said dryly. “What the fu - heck is this emergency?”
Tim kneaded his forehead, taking the question. “I kinda had a fight with Bruce. And he kinda told me to get out. And Cass and Steph kinda staged a walkout with me. And Steph’s mom won’t let a boy stay in their apartment. And Steph won’t let us squat in my old house -”
“ - the gas and water is turned off, Timothy, holy shit, we weren’t doing that when you have a brother right here!”
“ - and this is the one place Bruce is never going to step foot in so here we are,” Tim mumbled. “We can go if you want.”
Cass nodded gravely. “Safe also.”
“Yeah, and Bruce can’t complain since it’s not like anything can happen to us with Jon around,” Tim said, shrugging. “If you don’t want us here we can go. Or, uh, if it’s me, I can go -”
Damian sighed, kneading his brow. Supernatural was still playing on the television, his laundry was still left half-folded, and his old life was chasing after him. What else was new. “I’m not throwing you out on the streets of Bludhaven,” Damian said firmly, and all the kids perked up. “How did you even get here?”
“I drive a motorcycle as Robin,” Tim said defensively. “I can drive.”
“ Legally? ”
Tim was silent.
“Okay.” Damian exhaled slowly through his teeth. “Here’s what we’re going to do. You three are going to stay here -”
“Yes!” Stephanie cheered.
“ - while I call Father and tell him where you are so he or Alfred can come pick you up.”
“Didn’t you listen to anything I said?” Stephanie cried, as Cass frowned and Tim’s expression tightened. “We did a walk-out! You have no idea how bad that fight was! We can’t show back up at the house with our tail between our legs! C’mon, Damian! You know how it is, right? If you give an inch to Bruce he takes a mile. You can’t show weakness in front of that guy.”
“Steph,” Tim said quietly, “maybe he’s right. If Bruce doesn’t want me to be Robin anymore then maybe - maybe he’s right.” He looked away. “It’s what Damian’s always wanted, anyway.”
God, he should have made tea for himself too. This was too much. Damian stood up, nodding at Tim and forcing himself to make a decision. Keeping the kids here - well, it would piss off Bruce. Which was basically Damian’s favorite thing. Help the kids fight The Man and everything. It would be the brotherly thing to do.
Which he was, legally. Not really in any other way.
“Girls, hang out here. Go inside my and Jon’s room, I will know, and you will die. Tim, take a walk with me?”
The girls high fived, as Tim’s jaw dropped. He shakily stood up, almost in disbelief, and silently followed Damian out the door. He desperately hoped the girls wouldn’t ruin the place while he was gone, but he locked the door behind himself just in case. Ace would keep them safe, probably. Probably not. Worst guard dog ever.
He and Tim walked silently down the hallway, down the stairs, and out into the street. It was summer again, blistering hot, which at least meant that the kids weren’t missing school. Damian had orientation for vet school next week. He was excited.
They walked down the sidewalk, hands in their pockets, and Tim at least had the sense to dress down. Damian nodded at the grifters at the street, at the young men reclining on stoops and smoking a joint, and they all respectfully nodded back at him.
Damian quietly reached into his pocket for the small, thumb sized device he kept attached to his keychain, and flipped it on. “Privacy emitter,” he explained shortly, at the way Tim’s eyes widened. “Nobody can hear us or record us. What did you and Father fight about, Tim?”
Tim looked down, playing with his fingers a little, and Damian eventually came to a halt in front of an empty stoop of an abandoned home. He sat down on the highest step, patting the space next to him, and Tim slowly and gingerly lowered himself down to sit next to him. Rich kid, slumming it. “He thinks I killed someone,” Tim said quietly.
Okay. That was not what Damian had expected to hear. He had been expecting - he didn’t know what he was expecting. Tim wanting solo patrols, or wanting to get in on fights against the Joker. Not fucking murder.
Jesus, no wonder he had wanted to come to Damian. If there was one person who understood…
“Did you?” Damian asked evenly, careful to keep any hints of judgement out of his voice.
Tim opened his mouth, then closed it, and squeezed his eyes tight as if he was trying hard not to cry. “I don’t know,” he said, almost gasped. “He was this awful piece of shit, Damian. Rapist and pedo who was going to get off with a slap on the wrist. He was on the balcony and...he slipped...and I couldn’t catch him in time. I hesitated...I wanted him dead so badly and I hesitated…”
“Oh,” Damian said, “is that all?”
Tim’s head snapped up. “Is that it?” Tim cried. “I let someone die on my watch!”
Damian stretched his legs, yawning as the heavy summer sun beat down on his exposed throat. “Jeez, kid, I thought that you had slit someone’s throat or something.”
“I wouldn’t do that!”
“I have,” Damian said casually, and Tim froze. “Slit my first throat at eight. My nanny, actually. She had betrayed us and my grandfather thought that it was a good lesson for me.”
“Just like in Homestuck,” Tim whispered.
Whatever that meant. “Father and I fought about my killing for a long time,” Damian said, propping his chin on his hand. “I didn’t know any non-lethal techniques and I didn’t want to listen. But that was a strict requirement of being Robin: no murder while in the suit. It tarnishes the Batman’s reputation, the delicate trust that he upholds with the Gotham PD. If Batman starts killing in the suit then he’ll never be trusted again. As Nightwing I have much more freedom.” Cars crawled along the street, coughing exhaust, and the smoggy air clogged his nose. “Father has his rules, and I have mine. Murder makes him sick. That’s fair. I’m used to it. That’s fair too. Alfred was in the military, and he’s killed people in the line of duty. Father knows, and respects that. But so long as you’re a minor working under him, you have to follow his laws. Once you grow up you may have more freedom.”
“I want to be like Bruce,” Tim said miserably. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. To be like him and...to be like Batman and Robin. It was my dream for so long and now I’m just fucking it up.”
“You made a mistake,” Damian corrected. “I hate to break it to you, kid, but Father makes mistakes too. He doesn’t like to admit it, but he fucks up. Constantly. He’s just such an uptight control freak he never apologizes or says when he’s wrong.”
“He said that he was wrong in how he handled you,” Tim said lowly, surprising Damian. “He said that he messed up with you.”
Damian snorted. “Of course he did. I’m Father’s greatest fuck up.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Tim didn’t look at him. He didn’t seem to ever make eye contact with anybody, actually. Autism? It wasn’t his place to say. “You were like...the perfect Robin. I can’t match up. Cass is so far beyond my level in fighting it isn’t even funny, Steph is so brave and charismatic and just this natural born leader, and I’m just...me, I guess.”
This was alarmingly turning into a therapy session, which Damian did not know how to deal with and did not want to. Damian was the least comforting person on the planet, and he had no idea how to deal with anyone else’s problems besides maybe Jon’s. “I don’t actually care,” Damian said, perhaps too bluntly, “but I’ll yell at Father for you. If you apologize and admit that you fucked up he’ll only bench you for the month.”
Tim groaned. “The month…”
“He’s not easy to get along with,” Damian warned, “and he never will be. But...the job’s worth it, in many ways. You just have to find what makes the job worth it for yourself.”
“I’d rather die than quit,” Tim said lightly. “Besides, Cass would follow me to hell and beat my butt herself for ditching her with Bruce. Then Steph would get her turn.”
They must really love each other. It was...sweet. Damian wondered how things would have been different back then if he had siblings too, to take his side against Father and stage walkouts with him. Maybe they’d even still talk. “It’s getting dark,” Damian said, standing up, letting Tim scramble to rise too. “There’s a bodega down the street. Want to pick up some sandwiches and ice cream for you and your sisters?”
Tim brightened. “Does that mean we can stay the night?”
“ Only the night. We have some sleeping bags, but you gotta head back in the morning.”
Tim beamed up at him, and Damian felt - he didn’t know how he felt. Like a decent person, maybe, instead of the shitty guy he knew he actually was. Maybe not like a good brother, but like someone who could be if he tried.
Were some things worth the effort? Were some things worth the pain and hurt and clumsiness? Damian didn’t know. He didn’t know the kids’ favorite flavors of ice cream, or what they were afraid of, or who they would grow up to be. But Damian didn’t think he wanted to go the rest of his life not knowing.
He got the kids set up with ice cream and a movie, warning them upon pain of death not to mess up his apartment, and finally called Father as he stood outside his apartment.
Father picked up on the first ring. “Please tell me they’re with you.”
“Watching Lilo and Stitch with half a gallon of Rocky Road,” Damian agreed. “What the hell, Father? Of course the kid didn’t kill someone. He’s fifteen and starts crying if I look at him wrong. Did you honestly think Timothy Drake has the stomach of a killer?”
Father sighed, a rush exaltation of static across the line. “I know, Damian. I just...I know. I got scared. It wasn’t right.”
“Tell him that, not me,” Damian said, annoyed. “If you keep turning the kids against you, you’re never going to get that back.”
“I know,” Father said. “Alfred will come by to pick them up in the morning.”
“You’re coming, and you’re apologizing, and you’re going to have a long conversation in the car on the way back,” Damian said severely. “I don’t want to play mediator between you and the replacements. I have my own life, Father.”
“You’ve made that very clear.”
“Good,” Damian said, not feeling good at all. “Then...we’re on the same page. Goodbye. Tomorrow, ten am, bring breakfast. All I have is cereal.”
“I’ll be there,” Father said, hesitating slightly. “Thank you, Damian.”
“I didn’t do this for you,” Damian said, and hung up so he could have the last word. Again, it didn’t feel as good as it used to.
When he stepped back inside the apartment the kids had made a blanket fort on the floor, stealing every pillow and sheet in the apartment and creating an elaborate tent. On the TV screen Lilo was praying to Allah, wishing for a very best friend. An angel, to protect her and make her family whole again.
But angels didn’t exist, and nobody could put back together what once was torn asunder. Nobody but children, shoving ice cream into their faces, trying and trying where adults could do nothing but fail. Cass smiled when she saw him, and patted the cushion next to her, a silent invitation.
Damian did the only brave thing he had ever done and sat down next to her, curling his knees to his chest and watching Lilo’s salvation fall from heaven.
Damian said goodbye to Tim the next day. It only took twenty seconds.
“Out of my apartment,” he said. “Next time you need me, call first.”
“Thanks for having us,” Tim said shyly.
“Bye, Damian!” Steph cheered, waving at him. “You’re not as grouchy as everyone says you are, you know!”
Cass hugged him.
Out of my apartment, Damian had said. Next time you need me, call first, Damian had said.
Why couldn’t he have said anything else? Why couldn’t he have said ‘I love you’, why couldn’t he have told Tim that he would always be there for him, why couldn’t have said that next time Tim was in trouble to come get him, that he would help him, that if Tim ever needed him Damian would drop everything he was doing to come back and help?
But he hadn’t said it, because it hadn’t even been true, and even if he had felt it Damian would have died before saying it because at the end of the day he was just like Father. Just as stupid, just as guilty.
The memory was imprinted in his mind. Damian didn’t have an eidetic memory, not like Tim did, but what garbled remnants he did have never left him. Tim’s delicate, pale face that day was burned into his memories. The way he was close to tears, close to breaking, rash and weak and useless. What had his hair looked like, what style had it been in? What was the design on his t-shirt? Damian couldn’t remember. The angle of his eyebrows, the shade of his hair, the purpling bruise hidden under his collar. Why couldn’t he remember the color of his t-shirt? Of his eyes?
Tim left, and the last thing he had ever said to Damian was, “Thanks for having us.” Thanks for having us. Thanks for having us. As if Damian was a stranger. Which he was. Damian was a stranger, and Tim had said thanks for having us, and Damian had said to get out of my apartment, and Steph had said bye, and Cass had hugged him, and -
Thanks for having us.
Thanks for having us.
Thanks for having us.
Damian went home for the funeral and arranged for a temporary withdrawal from classes. Jon had wanted to come with him, but Damian told him to stay. He turned his phone off and kept it off, too tired to deal with his friends or well-wishers, and handled all of the funeral arrangements himself. He was the one who made the statement to the press, he was the one who wrangled Cass into a black dress as she sobbed and tried to throw it back at him, and he was the one who dealt with the will and lawyers.
Weird for a sixteen year old to have a will, but Tim Drake had been the heir to quite a bit of money and a well-sized corporation. Now it was Father’s, one of the many things Tim left behind, and the only thing left that they didn’t know what to do with was the Robin costume.
The back-up. Nobody knew what happened to the original. The Joker had taken it off him at one point, and when Tim broke after a week of torture and shot himself he wasn’t wearing it.
He didn’t show the full account of what happened to the kids. Nobody knew but him and Father. As far as Cass, Steph, Connor, and his friends knew, the Joker had shot him and hid the body until they found it a week later. Nobody had to know.
They ended up sticking the costume in a drawer in the Cave, put away like it was never there. Father had mumbled something about a memorial, but after Damian glared at him he dropped it.
They spent a week sitting shiva, covering every mirror in the manor as Damian and Father refrained from shaving. Damian took care of the funeral arrangements, he took care of Tim’s things, then he took care of the Joker. It was quick and discreet. Damian was a professional.
When he drove the car back into the Cave he found Father waiting there, sitting in a chair in his nightgown and robe. He was the most tired Damian had ever seen him. He didn’t even seem to have the energy to look mad.
It wasn't what Damian wanted. He wanted Father to get mad at him, to yell at him, to disown him. That was partly the reason he had done it. Just a reaction, any reaction -
Damian hopped out of the car, keeping his expression pleasant. “Evening, Father. Patrol was light today.”
“You weren’t on patrol,” Father said. There was no emotion in his voice.
Damian stripped the gloves from his hands, dropping them on the floor. He’d have to burn them later - burn this entire outfit, actually. “Of course I was. Nothing much was happening, but Gotham is rather boring in comparison with Bludhaven -”
“You don’t wear your stealth suit on patrol,” Father said. “What did you do.”
“What I had to,” Damian said lightly. “Don’t worry, Father. I spared the woman. She seemed - well, suitably regretful. I do believe in redemption.”
“I didn’t ask you to do that.” He didn’t mean sparing Quinn.
“You didn’t have to,” Damian said. “I did it for you, because I love you, and you would never have done it no matter how much you wanted to. I did it for Cassandra and Stephanie, because I love them too, and Stephanie told me that she couldn’t sleep at night knowing that the clown was still alive. Tell me I was wrong to do it, Father.”
Father didn’t say anything.
“I thought not,” Damian said, stripping out of his outer armor. “I’ll wake Cass in two hours for school. Get some rest, Father.”
He was halfway up the stairs, hands in his pockets, before Father spoke again.
“How long are you staying this time, Damian?”
Damian stopped, glanced backwards. “As long as you need me to.”
Father didn’t say anything more, but Damian chose to hear the thank you that he thought he saw in his eyes. Damian nodded at him, and Father nodded back, and he climbed up the steps to the manor.
Two hours later he knocked on Cass’ door, opening it a crack to find her sitting upright in her bed, awake. “Rise and shine,” he said softly. Sunlight was streaming into her room, sparsely and tastefully decorated with her learning workbooks and her ballet posters. “Time to get up, Cass.”
But she was already awake, eyes open, and she was staring out the window. She didn’t look backwards, or smile, or do anything besides watch the leaves wave in the trees outside.
Damian stepped inside, and sat down on her bed next to her. “You know,” he said softly, “if you aren’t feeling school I am sure that we can make alternate arrangements.” He glanced at the posters on the wall, at all of the ballerinas and - hockey players? There was a stuffed tiger on the bed next to him, frowning unhappily with plastic whiskers. “We can do something fun.”
She didn’t look at him or say anything, expression blank, close cropped black hair falling down to her ears and messy with bedhead. He got the feeling she hadn’t slept much last night.
“You killed him,” she said finally, “didn’t you?”
Damian was silent.
“Please,” Cass said, and then she was crying softly, “please don’t kill anyone else. Not ever again. Please, Dami.”
“Okay,” Damian said, and he would have only ever said it for her, “okay.”
She knew he was telling the truth, and she hugged him tightly around the middle, crying softly into his shoulder, and Damian held tight until long after she should have left for school.
A week ago Damian had stuffed plane tickets and a wad of cash in Alfred’s hands and told him to go visit his daughter in England, or else, I can handle things here, and with great reluctance Alfred went. He didn’t want to kick Alfred out, but somehow he knew that Alfred was handling what was happening worse than anyone else. If he was with his daughter then maybe he’d let himself be sad.
So it was Damian, because Father was practically catatonic, who did the patrolling, who took Cass to school, who drove her home, who helped her with her homework, who watched television with her, who cooked dinner. He wondered if this was how Irey had felt when Barry died and Bart tripped and fell into her life: like she had been promoted to executive manager in the most stressful job of all time, making no money, and the job literally never ended.
I told you, Damian never said, I told you something would happen to him. I told you he wasn’t ready. I told you we never should have let him out there. But Damian was 21, and was finally smart enough to know when to keep his stupid mouth shut, so he didn’t. He didn’t tell Father it wasn’t his fault, but he wasn’t a saint, and somehow he knew that Father understood how he felt anyway.
Actually, he thought of Irey so much a week later he ended up calling her, sitting on the front porch watching the fireflies dance and wink in the pitch black. It had been a bit of a shock turning his phone back on: he had a lot of missed calls.
He explained the situation shortly to Irey, who had of course already heard it all from Jon. She hadn’t seemed too worried - all of his real friends knew to go find Jon when they were worried about him.
“Sin, Jai and I are coming to Gotham tomorrow,” Irey said finally. “No, don’t argue. We’ll go to the park and shoot some hoops or something, Cass loves that. Physical activity and sunshine will make her feel better, not being stuck in the house all day.”
They knew her better than he did. Damian was officially the shittiest brother in the world. “I don’t know what to do for her,” Damian said miserably. “I can’t make her feel better when she’s sad, or make everything okay, or anything. I don’t know what to do.”
“What you are going to do tomorrow is to play video games with Jai until your brain rots,” Irey said severely. “Sin and I’ll take Cass to the park.”
“She’s my sister, I should -”
“You are bad energy, and she feeds off that. Sticking a sad person next to a sad person all day will make everyone sadder. You’ll bitch to Jai and get everything out of your system, and you’ll feel better because you won’t have to keep pretending that you’re Adultatron 3000. And everything will be fine, because we will all be there.”
“And everything’ll be fine,” Damian said, as if repeating it could make it true.
“And everything’ll be fine.”
The stupid part was that Irey was always right. Cassandra spent the entire next day at the park with her favorite mentors, and she came back smiling and dribbling a basketball in the halls. Jai had helped Damian make lunches and dinners for the week, and had helped him clean, and then they sat on their butts and played video games as Damian ranted for several hours straight. They had opened all the curtains and aired out all the rugs, and for the first time in weeks Damian felt as if things would be doable.
Cass was smiling. He could kiss Irey.
He spent that night on the phone with Jon, too, and listened as he talked about how Connor was doing. The answer was not great, but if anyone could handle it Jon could. He fell asleep to the sound of his boyfriend’s voice, and ached for him.
Nobody really knew what to do about Father, so a few days later Damian made a call and Clark and Diana appeared at the door.
Damian kicked down the study door. “Father, your friends are here. Leave or I’m dragging you out.”
Father had just grunted, the bags under his eyes ridiculously pronounced, typing away at the computer. Probably working on a case. Idiot.
“Father,” Damian said, loudly and pleasantly, “that wasn’t a request. Get dressed and meet me in the lobby in five minutes or Diana is dragging you out of here by your hair.”
Father blinked at him, wounded. “Who are you and what have you done with my son.”
“Oh, Diana!” Damian said loudly. “Father really, really wants you to fireman carry him out of his own house!”
The threat of Wonder Woman’s muscles worked. In three minutes Father met them in the entryway, scowling and buttoning up a shirt. Clark beamed at him, and Diana wiggled her fingers in a wave before she stepped forward and hugged Father tightly.
“I didn’t invite you two here,” Father said gruffly.
“No, but your oldest son did.” Diana nodded at Damian. “He wants us to to take you on vacation. Clark’s taken the week off work, and I desperately want to drink Greek wine on the beach. Damian’s packed your bags for you, so get in the car.”
Somewhat hilariously, Father was deeply insulted. “I have work to do,” he protested, “I can’t just leave. I’m working a case -”
“That Damian and Cass can take care of,” Clark said easily. “They aren’t expecting you back at Wayne Industries for a month. I know how stubborn you are, Bruce. Either you can walk with us out that door awake, or I’ll knock you out and stuff you in the trunk.”
“I’m not going,” Father said flatly.
“If you insist,” Damian said. Almost superhumanly fast, Damian reached out a single finger and prodded Father in the only nerve strike location that still worked on him. He dropped like a log, knocked out immediately. “Have fun, you guys.”
Diana picked him up and slung him over her shoulder, nodding easily at Damian. “Take care, Damian. We’ll bring him home safe and sound.”
“Just make sure he sleeps,” Damian said, and waved them off. The minute they left Cass poked her head out the side door, where she had been watching the entire proceedings with wide eyes. Damian smiled at her. “Father has successfully been ditched. Looks like we have the house to ourselves.” He propped his hands on his hips, surveying his kingdom. “What do you want to do?”
Cass thought long and hard. Finally, she said, “Mattress slide. Like in the Princess Diaries.”
“Mattress slide it is,” Damian said cheerfully. “Think the rest of Young Justice wants in on the house party?”
Cass brightened. It was beautiful.
Mother, Damian thought -
You’ve made me very strong. Many horrible things have happened to me in my life - I’ve been hurt and abused, and I’ve killed and seen death from a very young age. You made me slit my first throat and now I’ve bloodied my blade for the last time. My brother was tortured to death, and I am dealing. I am still living, Mother, and that is because of you. Because I’ve had so much worse than this.
He hadn’t spoken to her since he was eighteen. She sent flowers to the funeral, but Damian threw them away. The last thing father needed was to be reminded of her.
His mother loved him so much but his mother was so fucked up, so she fucked him up. Father loved him but father was damaged, and he damaged Damian.
“I’m so fucked up,” Damian had told Jon, so long ago, and now that Damian was older he understood that it wasn’t his fault. Maybe it wasn’t Father’s fault. Maybe it wasn’t Mother’s either - wasn’t she fucked up by Grandfather too? Who committed the first sin here? Whose fault was it?
Maybe it was Damian’s fault. Some of this had to be his responsibility. He was the one who had a death grudge on a child. If Damian had just gotten over himself, if he had just sucked up his pride and accepted Tim as his brother, then maybe this wouldn’t have happened.
Adults hurt children. Maybe it was all they did. Damian’s adults had hurt him, and the adults in Tim’s life - Damian well included - had hurt him too. Connor had mentioned that Tim suffered from depression frequently, that he and Cass and Steph had done all they could for him, but it had never been enough.
Life went on, even when you were afraid that it couldn’t. Damian could live or he could die, and he was too much of a stubborn bastard to die and it would upset Jon anyway, so he lived. Even when he did not want to.
Damian lived, sluggishly and unenthusiastically, and after a while things went back to normal. He formally rejoined Young Justice, who all gave him a splitting migraine and tested his resolve never to kill again, but within barely a month of meetings they were all making jokes about how Damian was the ‘Dad’ of the group, whatever that meant. Connor bragged that he had known all along how cool and unscary Damian was, and in the middle of the night it was him whom Cissie had come crying to, talking about how she had almost killed someone and how she didn’t want to be a superhero anymore.
Stephanie wanted to be Robin.
“Don’t you dare even say that to Batman,” Damian said, flipping off his communicator just to be sure. They were in the field, working surveillance on a drug smuggling ring, and he couldn’t deal with this right now. He was only in Gotham one weekend a month to check on Father - the first weekend of the month Cass and Steph always spent at his and Jon’s apartment, doing nothing but eating ice cream - and they couldn’t afford to lose the trail now. “Stay focused, Spoiler.”
“Batman needs a Robin,” Steph insisted, looking up at him from her dark mask. Her voice was painfully ernest. “It’s what Tim would have wanted. You’ve trained the fuck out of me, I’m a thousand times better than I was a year ago, and even Batgirl thinks I’m ready. You’re just scared.”
“Of course I’m fucking scared,” Damian snapped. “Robin’s a deathtrap. You’re not doing it. Batman’s a big boy, he can handle only having three partners instead of four.”
“It’s not the same,” Steph said, and for the hundredth time Damian cursed how ridiculously stubborn she was. “Like it or not, Robin’s a legacy. If Robin stays down it meant that the Joker won. People die, Nightwing, but masks don’t. I don’t want to let the only thing we have left of Tim die.”
There was nothing he wanted to do less than have this conversation. “You’re my baby sister, Spoiler. I’m not letting anything happen to you. This conversation is over.”
She tsked, a verbal tic both she and Cass had picked up from him months ago, and went back to her binoculars. She would try again, because Steph was like a pitbull when she had an idea, and she wouldn’t give up on it. “I don’t know why you pretend to care about us when you hated Tim so much.”
That stung, but Damian would never admit it. “Batgirl is impossible to dislike, and you piss Batman off just as much as I do. That means we have to stick together.” He reached over and flipped her hood up, just to piss her off, and ignored her offended squawking. “Back to work, Spoiler.”
“It’s just cuz I’m a girl,” Steph muttered.
No, Damian couldn’t say, it’s because if anything happened to you it would break Father forever, and you’re reckless and impulsive and always the first one to jump on the grenade. If Cass asked to be Robin then Damian would give her his blessing, because Cass had the best survival instinct possible from someone who moonlighted as a baseline human vigilante, but not Steph. She was still so - normal. She was just a normal little girl whom Damian couldn’t protect. Not so little, now.
“I was raised by Talia al Ghul and both Irey and Sin are my best friends,” Damian said instead. “If you don’t think I’m terrified of women you’re wrong.”
She didn’t drop it, but Damian didn’t budge, and she didn’t dare bring the subject to Father.
Tim was a mistake. The girls were - the girls were good, and amazing, and Damian’s family in a way that even Father and Alfred never had been, and could never be mistakes, but Damian wanted them far away from his own legacy. There never would be another Robin.
Steph told him over the phone.
“Freak out now,” she said firmly. The last time had seen her was dropping her and Cass off to their first day of their senior year at Gotham Academy. “You’re going to freak out, so freak out right now, or hang up and freak out at Jon, or the olds in Young Justice. But do not freak out at him. He does not deserve it.”
Damian opened his mouth, then shut it. Then he opened it again. “You have to be fucking me. Stephie, you have to be fucking fucking me, because there is no way Bruce fucking Wayne just -”
“Let it all out, dude,” Stephanie said, “but if you curse like that in front of Jason I’m kicking you in the shins. He’s twelve.”
“He’s from the gutter ,” Damian said.
“Rude? So am I, you know!”
He hung up on her.
Then he screamed at Jon, who was trying to do his homework, and who very patiently let himself get screamed at. Then Damian had a panic attack, which he had been having ever since Tim’s death, and Jon patted him on the back as Damian frantically tried to banish the foreboding feelings of doom. He didn’t know what he was more afraid of: that he would come home to the kid being ganked by the Riddler or something, or that he’d come home to Father and the kid throwing around the old pigskin in the backyard. Both were equally bad.
Then he called Irey, who showed up in two minutes towing her brother and Sin by the arms, and they all frantically patted Damian on the back as he freaked out.
“He’s going to make him Robin,” Damian moaned into his hands. “He’s going to make the gutter baby Robin and then he’s going to die and then I’ll have to kill the Penguin or something and I’ll have to be the guy who murdered a midget forever .”
“I don’t think the Penguin’s a midget,” Jai said, rubbing his chin. He and Irey had moved back in together the minute they graduated college, and were the two loving co-parents of a slightly more manageable Bart. “I think he’s just really short.”
“I don’t think the word midget is very PC,” Jon said, worried. As a Super if he was remotely problematic whatsoever then he was collectively set on fire by the human race. “I think they prefer the term ‘little people’.”
“I don’t care how the Penguin identifies!” Damian snarled. “I care that my idiot father is replacing Tim!” He unintentionally switched to Arabic, working himself up even more. “You can’t replace children like that! The gutter baby isn’t going to be like Tim, he’s not going to be as smart or kind or good! I’ve been holding my family together by the skin of my teeth and my fucking dad is going to fuck it all up again! Fuck!”
Everyone looked at Jon, who just looked embarrassed as he rubbed calming circles in Damian’s back. “All I know are curse words.” He scratched Damian on the neck a little, in the specific way he liked. “Hey, honey, it’s going to be okay. The new kid isn’t a replacement for Tim, just like Tim wasn’t actually a replacement for you. Bruce isn’t dumb. He knows that people aren’t other people.”
“You’ve never admitted you were wrong about anything in your life,” Irey said, folding her arms. “But can you admit that you were wrong about Tim being a petty little ‘take that’ at you?” Damian nodded miserably. “Great. So you can admit that it’s unlikely that the new kid’s a dig at Tim?” Damian nodded again, feeling hoodwinked and trapped by logic. “Cool. So, uh, you’re being an idiot.”
“Bro,” Jai added, “we love you. You are so smart. But you are so dumb.”
Sin patted him on the head. “We love you. But if you take any of this out on the child I am ripping out your spine.” She met his eyes, and a shiver of fear ran down Damian’s spine. Her eyes were the eyes of a cold blooded killer, and of the professional den mother of seven idiot children, plus her two siblings who were both extremely intelligent and much brighter than Ollie. “You will not die, but you will wish you had.”
“Besides,” Jai added, crossing his arms. “It’s not as if Bruce is dumb enough to actually make the kid Robin, right?”
“Oh, yeah, no way,” Jon affirmed. “Nobody in their right mind would ever make the kid Robin.”
“Who’d be dumb enough to do that?” Irey asked.
“I do not want to rip out Bruce’s spine, but I will if I must,” Sin said.
Damian moaned into his hands.
But Young Justice I was right, as usual, and when Damian let himself into Wayne Manor next weekend he stopped in the middle of the foyer and made himself take ten deep, cleansing breaths. He closed his eyes and found his center, and he decided that he was an adult now who didn’t take out his own personal issues on children. Take notes, Mother and Father.
“I’m home, idiots,” Damian called out, letting his voice echo around the empty manor. “Waynes? At attention!”
His phone buzzed, and he quickly checked it only to find a text from Stephanie.
Sis 2: Titus is on my lap and im NOT getting up come to the den xoxo
Damian snorted, stashing the phone in his pocket. Titus was getting on in years, but was still under the impression that she was a lapdog. He hoisted his backpack higher on his chest and excavated the depths of his home, not knowing what to expect anymore. It felt just a little different: more curtains opened, maybe some of the Ming china vases packed away. Baby proofed?
He didn’t know what he expected walking into the den - their least fancy room, filled with video games and plush bean bags and their considerable collection of board games - but it wasn’t two teenage girls and a young boy bending over a coffee table with their laptops open, apparently working on...homework?
“Okay, but you have to keep an eye on the metaphor ,” the boy was stressing. He had a pencil behind his ear, and was jabbing empathetically at a cracked and creased copy of Hamlet. “This is the only long speech in the play not by Hamlet, but by Claudius, so you know to pay attention to it. Look at the language he’s using - ‘O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven’. It shows how Claudius’ guilt over killing his brother is a thing that feels real to him. This language of decomposition and decay shows up all the time in Hamlet. You can also look at it in terms of leeches and bloodletting and stuff, and the humors, which Shakespeare does all the time. If you’ve read Taming of the Shrew, he does it there too for more metaphor shit. It’s okay if it doesn’t make too much sense, you just have to do a lot of extra reading to get it.” He was speaking to Cass, who was sitting seiza next to him with an intent expression on her face as she typed down everything he was saying. The boy pointed at the next line further down on the page. “Okay, read this out loud to me. What do you think he’s saying here?”
“Did one’a youse order a pizza?” Damian said, and he found a shit eating grin rising unbidden to his face. “Because, uh, I have an order for one large, with lots of meat -”
“I’ll throw your dog at you!” Steph called, rubbing Titus’ belly as she panted and kicked her little feet, and the boy - Jason, of course it was Jason - froze. Cass leapt to her feet and tackle hugged him as they both laughed, and Damian swung her around a few times because he knew how much she liked it. “Ugh, dog get off , I gotta hug my shitty brother.”
Titus easily slipped off, woofing and spinning in a circle before curling into a circle and going back to sleep, and Stephanie easily vaulted over the coffee table and gave him a quick hug too. When Damian looked closer, he saw that it was filled with homework for the two senior girls. Unprecedented for either of them to be doing homework on a Friday afternoon, but if Jason had shown interest, then maybe -
“Jason, c’mere!” Stephanie patted him on the back, grinning broadly at Damian. “This is Damian Wayne, who we’ve been telling you about. He’s the big brother of the family and the biggest dad ever.”
“He takes it very seriously,” Cass said, reaching up to her tiptoes and patting him on the head.
“Charmed,” Jason muttered, and bent over the annotations on the book he was making. Steph and Cass exchanged a complicated series of glances that only they both understood, somewhere along the lines of ‘I told you so’, ‘What do you want me to do about it!’, ‘Do something!’, that left Damian feeling somewhat adrift.
It was hard to tell exactly how tall Jason was when he was hunched over a desk, but it was clear that he had more clear muscle definition and heft to his frame than most twelve year olds. Damian and Cass had both been very small, compact children, but it was clear that Jason would grow up to have something closer to Stephanie’s well-built frame despite the malnutrition. The malnutrition wrote itself in his cheeks, in his slightly yellowed skin, in his stringy hair. His ethnicity was completely ambiguous, clearly not white but stuck in that awkward ‘Mexican/Filipino/Pacific Islander/???’ confusion. His hair was wavy and dark, if stringy, clearly resembling all the other boys in their family. His eyes were a piercing blue, like all the other boys in the family. Maybe Father had a type. As Jason looked Damian up and down from the corner of his eye, he wondered if Jason was thinking the same thing. How similar they did look, how they could pass as genetic brothers despite the different races and different classes and everything.
There had been a time when wealth and legacy, when the power and meaning of blood had been everything to Damian. Then he had lost it all, and discovered that you had nothing save for what you made for yourself. Maybe the Damian of even a year ago would not suffer a random brat in his ancestral home, maybe the Damian of last week wouldn’t have, but -
There was something in those eyes, haunted and defensive and ready to bite back. There was something that read, ‘fuck with me and I’ll fuck with you’. A boy like this wouldn’t roll over. He was nothing like Tim.
“A middle schooler helping a high schooler with her homework?” Damian said out loud, forcing a smile. “Nobody told me we had another genius in the house.”
Jason ducked his head, cheeks darkening.
“Shakespeare vexes me,” Cass said lightly. “Jason’s help is good. Much...better at explaining than Dad or Steph.”
“Hey!” Steph cried in faux-affront, propping her hands on her hips. “We have a deal, you know! I do your English homework, you do my math homework. Is our system breaking down because you have a decent tutor now?”
Cass stuck out her tongue. “Jason and I are unstoppable.”
“Where’s Alfred and Father?” Damian asked, forcing the conversation to change gears. He had some choice words for Father, out of Jason’s earshot. “I’m starving.”
“Alfie’s out running errands,” Steph said, raising an eyebrow. Read: picking up some basics for Jason. “Bruce’s putting in a late night at Wayne Industries.” Read: hiding from you.
“So we have nothing to eat?” Damian asked in desolation, knowing full well that the fridge, pantry, and cabinet were well stocked with about three times as much food as the ordinary middle class family their size tended to have. Jason, from the way his eyebrows rocketed up, knew this. “I guess we have no choice.”
“Absolutely nothing to be done about it,” Steph agreed.
“Doomed,” Cass nodded.
“Great, pizza it is. Pizza, breadsticks, garlic bread, hot wings, and all the soda we can cram into our fat stomachs.” Damian fished out his phone from his pocket, easily finding their contact for the best and quickest family-run pizza place in Gotham. He heard that the pizza delivery kids got into fights over who got to deliver to their place. “Jason, anything special you want?”
He shook his head. Why was this so hard?
The only change he saw in Jason, in fact, was when he put in his pizza order in Spanish. His eyebrows furrowed, in an almost cute ‘Does Not Compute’ motion, and Damian made a note of it. He should have read the kid’s file before coming here.
“Enough homework for tonight,” Damian decreed, clapping his hands. “Cass, it’s your turn for the movie -”
“We’re not watching nature documentaries again,” Steph threatened.
“ - Cass’ turn, Steph, we’ll watch nature documentaries if she wants. Jason, want to help me grab the pillow fort materials? It’s traditional.”
Jason looked at Steph first, who smiled at him even as she attempted ineffectually to keep the remote from Cass. “Go for it. We normally keep the spares in the utility closet on the second floor.”
She must have read something in his body language, because Cass whispered in Jason’s ear, but he shook his head and stood up anyway to follow Damian out the door. Fully standing up, his future height was obvious, but so was his malnutrition. Damian only hoped that Alfred was out picking up one of those peanut butter nutrient mixes they give to starving African children or something. His reluctance to be alone with Damian was also obvious, but the girls couldn’t keep acting as a buffer between them forever and it was better to get the fear over with. Damian was not a coddling type.
Granted, he wasn’t as short as he had been as a child - he was six foot two, almost as tall as Father, and Jason was under five feet - and he had been reliably informed that he was ‘built like a brick shithouse’, along with the fact that he never voluntarily smiled, but there wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
Granted, Tim had either been very afraid of him, mildly autistic, or both, but that didn’t mean anything -
“Is this the part where you tell me to get out of your house?” Jason asked in Spanish, crossing his arms and glowering at him. From the twelve year old two feet shorter than him, it was pretty adorable. And very gutsy. “Because Batman said that if you told me to fuck off then to go talk to him, but I’ve played this stupid game before and I’m not fighting with the bio kids. If you want me gone then say it.”
“What makes you think I want you gone?” Damian responded, also in Spanish. His accent and dialect was more Spain while Jason’s was definitely more Mexican, but they understood each other well enough. “Maybe I was sick of helping Cass with her homework.”
“The bio kids always hate me,” Jason said, and Damian fought back a wince. At least that was proof that the foster care system in Gotham was still...relatively functional. Relatively. Not great, if he had run away. “and you were never seen in public with that white boy. I’m not dumb. I read all the magazines at the library. I know you who are.”
“Ah, yes,” Damian said dryly. “The tabloids. The most complete picture of myself as a person. Who am I cheating on my male lover with this time, Olliver Queen or Commissioner Gordon?”
The kid scowled as Damian brusquely walked them both down the hallway, taking the lead because he was certain that the kid hadn’t memorized the layout of the manor yet. The plush carpeted steps, with the enormous banister that Cass loved sliding down every morning, made no sound as their feet thumped up it. “They don’t talk about the - y’know, Batman stuff. But I’m not dumb, okay? I know shit. I hear shit. I got, like, information.” He abruptly looked a bit sketchy as Damian frowned down the cavernous hallway, struggling to remember where the utility closet was. It felt like so long since he had lived in the giant, empty old house. Did Alfred really take care of this entire place by himself? They needed to hire more help. “I can land a good punch too.”
Was that a promise or a threat? It was amusing either way. “Your residence in this house is entirely unconditional. If Father wanted information on the local gang scene, there’s easier ways to do it than adopting a child.”
“Adoption?” Jason squawked, eyes wide. “He didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout adoption!”
Shit. Damian sighed, switching back to English. “This is a conversation you should have with Father, not me.” But god forbid actual communication from Bruce Wayne, with his mouth. Better leave it up to his children, whose responsibility that definitely was, who possessed exactly the level of communication skills that he imparted onto them. And whom one of them had been mute until age fourteen. Thank god for Stephanie. “But...despite appearances, Father is not an impulsive or fickle person. If he decides he’s going to do something, he does it. Nobody has ever changed his mind on anything, which is why he dresses up as a bat and fights crime. If he’s decided that you have a place here as long as you want, then Darkseid can’t budge him.”
He opened a door at random in the hall, hoping it was a utility closet, only to find that it was his old prayer room. Prayer rug and Qur’an and everything still waiting, dusted and clean. Damian wrinkled his nose, having forgotten that the room ever existed, and quickly shut the door.
Jason, with a keenly developed sense for tension, broke the awkward silence. “The Gurdwara on 42nd street gave me free food every day. It’s chill with me if you do that shit.”
“That’s Sikh, not Muslim. And I don’t. Anymore.” Damian forcefully beat back his complicated feelings about his childhood religion with a stick. “Father is Jewish, anyway, although since he only got back into it awhile ago -” Tim had been Jewish, and apparently Father started practicing the holidays again to help ease the transition into a new home for him. “ - he wouldn’t ask it of you. Both Cass and Stephanie are nonreligious.”
“Batman’s a Jew?” Jason snickered. “Jeez, wait til Trump hears about that .” At Damian’s pointed look he quickly added, “Not that he ever would!”
They managed to make it to the linen closet without stirring up anymore ghosts, and they quickly piled blanket fort materials into their arms. Jason’s eyes grew wide at the towering stacks of warm blankets, cushy pillows, and down comforters. He was a kid who had too many cold nights, shivering alone, and now he had all of this infinite wealth and the only drawback was that he got Damian for a brother.
They walked back down the stairwell in silence, Jason clearly deep in thought and chewing on his lip. He was smart, like Tim had been, and stubborn, like Damian. When viewed like that, maybe it was no wonder. But there was something raw and defensive about him too, something that struck hot but burned cool, that could have only come from a life of hardship that none of them had ever experienced. Damian wanted - what did he want?
Jason stopped short in front of the kitchen, gazing wistfully at the food, at the fridge stuffed full of everything a kid could ever want. Father would get him all of it - video games, toys, even food and blankets, if it would smooth things over. That, at least, he would have. “Does he want me to be Robin?”
“I will rip out his tongue from his mouth and make him choke on it if he makes you Robin,” Damian said shortly, and Jason whipped around, eyes wide. “You’re so smart,” Damian said, unintentionally coldly. “What do you think happened to the previous Robin? Why Batman hasn’t been seen with any partner besides the girls and I in a year?”
“So what,” Jason said, voice barely shaking, “I’m the replacement?”
“You are nothing like him, and nothing like any of us,” Damian said. “You are, I suspect, better. I told you, Jason. You being here is unconditional of anything. Children cannot - cannot replace each other. They cannot cover each other up. They can only make you grow, and expand the room in your heart for love. Father is an - empty person, but he loves very deeply. It gets him into trouble. And it makes him sad.” Damian looked down at his hands, at the stack of pillows and comforters he was holding. Damian’s heart had been so small, and Jon and the girls had widened it. How had he lived, so empty inside that the wind went whistling through? “Father is good inside, and sometimes that is rare. If you can, please look after him. It’s a full-time job.”
Jason stared at him for a long moment before setting his jaw and nodding. He looked so resolute and determined, so steadfast, that Damian was worried he have made a mistake. “Okay.” He looked at the door, hoisting the blankets up. “Pizza should be here soon.”
“Yes,” Damian said, “it always comes eventually.”
Later that night, after the kids had conked out watching their third nature documentary in a row, Father slunk back into the house through the back door in the kitchen.
Damian was there waiting for him, holding a cup of coffee. He had turned out all the lights except for the small one directly above the table, leaving him dimly illuminated in its yellow glow, and when Father stepped through the door he froze at the sight of America’s finest retired assassin lying in wait for him.
“I swear I can explain,” Father said.
“Oh,” Damian said, “ can you.”
Father stepped backwards, holding his briefcase in front of him like a shield. “Damian -”
“Sit down, Father.” Damian sipped at his coffee. “We have to talk.”
Father sat down, cautiously and gingerly, because he knew his fate could not be avoided. Damian had gone through a great deal of effort not to inherit many character traits from Talia al Ghul, but he knew that he had picked up a couple. The unique ability to frighten Batman down to his very core was one of them.
They stared at each other in silence, identical icy blue eyes meeting, and it struck Damian how much better Father looked than the last time had seen him. Less bags under his eyes, and more purpose hidden in them. For months after they had lost Tim it was as if Father had never truly looked at anyone, merely through them. He got better, but the sense of frigidity and loss was palpable. Something had been lost in him permanently, and he hadn’t been the same father Damian had grown up with. It felt a little like growing up, to see him that way. Now he looked...not better, but different.
“Just tell me you didn’t kick him out,” Father said, clearly exhausted. “I don’t know if I can get him back if you kicked him out.”
That one stung, but Damian probably deserved it. He jerked his thumb backwards at the door to the den, were all three were sleeping soundly. The girls would wake up in a few hours for their night time shifts, but Damian had excused himself from the party the minute he noticed Jason growing sleepy and trying to hide it. It was unlikely that the boy would let himself fall asleep in the same room as an unknown, larger man right now. “I stuffed him full of pizza and movies and sent him to bed. You do know you’re the one who’s going to have to handle this, Father? Butlers are not fathers. Oldest daughters aren’t mothers either, so don’t pin this one on Stephanie.”
“I know that,” Father said defensively. “Stephanie’s not my daughter, anyway. I’ve never even adopted her.”
“She sleeps over here more nights than not,” Damian pointed out dully. “Her mother probably thinks you’re her sugar daddy, which you kind of are -”
“ - but she seems fine with it, so it doesn’t matter anyway.” It didn’t speak well of Stephanie’s mother, who was an ex-drug addict wading uncomfortably through recovery into nursing school, but Stephanie didn’t tend to speak very well of her mother either so Damian didn’t care. He got the sense that their relationship was slowly being repaired as her mother collected more and more AA coins, but it was none of his business. “What matters is you, Father, and your decisions. I will always be here to support you, but if you have exploitative intentions towards Jason I’m taking him with me back to Bludhaven.”
It was an incredibly decisive stance, and Father’s expression blanked out in shock. “If this is about Robin -”
“Of course it’s about Robin!” Damian snapped, desperately trying to rein in his temper. “Jason knows that every kid who’s ever lived here has been a vigilante. He’s going to feel like it’s expected of him, and that it’s a condition of him staying here! It’s your job as his parent to make sure that he knows that he doesn’t have to throw himself in front of bullets just to get a roof over his head!”
Father opened his mouth, then closed it, breathing deeply. Finally, he said slowly, “Making him Robin was never my intention. If he thought it was, then that’s my fault. I’ll talk to him. Thank you for telling me that, Damian.”
The apology, and the thank you, sent the wind out of Damian’s sails a little. He leaned back in his chair, scowling and sipping at his coffee. “That’s all I ask, then. Kids shouldn’t have to be useful, Father.”
“I know. Trust me.” Father looked down at his hands, giant and rough and scarred. “You’ve really grown up since the last time we had a conversation like this.”
“Yup,” Damian said flatly.
“I…” Father hesitated, almost reaching to pick at a cuticle before restraining himself. “You’re old enough for me to admit that I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
“I know that, Father.”
“Which is why I’d appreciate your help. Jason is...my responsibility. Not Alfred’s, not yours or the girls’. But the help wouldn’t go amiss.” He swallowed, looking almost vulnerable. “I can’t mess this up again.”
Stupid asshole sperm donor. Idiot. Idiot who raised him. Damian reached forward and squeezed his hand, not bothering to fake a smile. They didn’t have that kind of relationship, but never having to fake facial expressions for one person in his life was nice. “You won’t. I’ll make sure of it. I’ve made a commitment to this family. I chose this family. I’m not leaving it behind again.”
This time Father really did smile, and it was uncomfortably real. “Thank you, son.”
“Sorry, too much emotion, let’s beat something up now.”
“Oh, thank god.”
Six months later, Damian got a phone call while he was at work getting ready to stick a thermometer in a cat’s butt.
It was Jason, who called roughly five times a week over stupid shit, but the stupid shit was usually entertaining so he picked up anyway. “I’m about to rectally invade a feline so make this quick.”
“Okay,” Jason said hurriedly, “ please don’t be mad, bro, please.”
“ Please don’t be mad, but I kind of had an idea, and Bruce kinda said yes?”
“So I was thinking -”
“If what is about to come out of your mouth is what I think is about to come out of your mouth you’re grounded for six months,” Damian warned, shooing away another worried orderly bearing an upset cat.
“You’re not my dad, you can’t ground me!”
“If you’re about to say what I think you’re about to say then I’m going to kill our actual father, which would make me your guardian, which would let me ground you, yes. So if you say anything along the lines of -”
“Stephie owes me twenty bucks since I said you’d get like this, but she was like no, it’ll be fine, you’re a boy he’ll be cool with it -”
“It was never about gender, your sister is an idiot, and you are not -” Damian remembered, abruptly and awkwardly, that he was in a very public place. “ - joining the gymnastics team. End of story.”
“Well,” Jason stretched out for several syllables, “Bruce kinda already said yes and so did the girls and so did Alfred so I have a costume now, gonna go for it tonight, wish me luck, just wanted to let you know, love you, bye!”
Then he hung up, and Damian threw his phone across the room, earning terrified looks from the other orderly and a frightened hiss from the cat.
“Wow,” she said, “uh, all that about a gymnastics team?”
“I am going to murder everyone who is legally related to me,” Damian said lightly.
The other orderly handed him the cat, since she knew animals were the only thing that ever calmed him down, and he pet it as he considered how best to break his vow of pacifism and kill the Batman.
“I hate parties.”
“You hate everything,” Jon reminded him, kissing him on the nose. “Except for me. Deal with it for an hour to make our dads happy, drink all of their alcohol, then we can escape and come back home to watch movies. Deal?”
“You drive a hard bargain,” Damian said seriously, but he ruined the effect by squeezing Jon’s hand anyway. “I accept your terms. But I am only coming so I can finally see Irey’s mysterious new girlfriend.”
“I keep on telling you, it’s Bumblebee!” Jon exclaimed, stepping back and fixing his own costume. They were standing in a dingy Bludhaven back alley, loitering in front of a very inconspicuous phone box. As inconspicuous as a phone box could ever be in 2017, anyway. “They were totally all over each other at the last movie night, I know it!”
“I thought she was with Zatanna?”
“God, that was six months ago. Practically an eternity. Keep up.” Jon rolled his eyes. They were both glad that Irey was dating again - she had taken a lot of time off relationships so she could focus on raising Bart - but she dated as fast as she ran. Which, while not as fast as Bart, was still pretty fucking fast. “I’m beginning to think we’re the weird ones, you know.”
“There’s nothing weird about us,” the billionaire ex-assassin vigilante said to the half-Kryptonian refugee from another dimension. “What, just because we’ve been dating for...eight years?”
“It’s a long time,” Jon pointed out, looking abruptly a little sketchy. “Maybe Kryptonians...mate for life or something. I don’t know.”
“Lucky me, then,” Damian joked, and he was rewarded with a brilliant smile from Jon. “If you want to have a talk about our relationship save it for when I’m much drunker, please. Shall we go?”
Jon threaded their arms together, and they stepped forward into the Zeta tube. “We shall.”
The Justice League holiday party was a big deal. It had been regularly held as long as the Justice League existed, and as the ranks swelled to ridiculous numbers it had become more and more of a blow-out party. There were always ridiculous drinking competitions. Someone was always foolish enough to challenge Diana to an arm wrestling contest. Someone was always dumb enough to refer to it as a Christmas Party in front of Father and Aunt Kate, who would bat-glare them into submission, because it was a holiday party, and some of them didn’t conform to colonialist Christian norms. Both Questions would always get so drunk that they threw up. Booster Gold would usually end up dancing on a table, unless his husband stopped him, which was only if his husband didn’t join him. Damian found the entire show obnoxious but Jon eagerly counted down the days until the holiday party every single year. He called it ‘the highlight of his existence’.
Personally, it felt weird to show up to a casual workplace party and get drunk while in kevlar, but Father always expressly forbade any drinking on the job and Damian was over the point where he was rebelliously sneaking drinks to get back at Father for whichever way he had wronged him that hour. He and Jon could get wasted on their own time once they got back to their apartment.
They had made sure to show up fashionably late, so by the time that the Zeta warped them into the teleportation room of the Watchtower the party was already obviously in full swing in the cafeteria. All of the non-essential support staff save the caterers had been given the night off, so the halls were deserted except for laughing superheroes holding glasses of champagne who waved at Jon and Damian as they walked by.
Personally, Damian found the concept of a superhero headquarters on the fucking moon to be ridiculously emblematic of Western opulance and extravagance, but the infighting in the UN over which country the headquarters would be located in was getting so bad that the organization decided to fund the ludicrously expensive endeavour to put it in space. The Justice League had agreed mostly to stick it to Trump, and it was no secret how frosty the superhero’s community with the new administration was. The idiot was already talking about deporting the Supers, so whatever. Hilariously, Lex Luthor had gotten so mad over Trump insulting his son’s residency that he pulled financial support. Guess even evil had standards.
Speaking of which. Damian elbowed Jon in the side when he stopped to exchange pleasant small talk with Barda, Scott Free, and Orion. “Is Connor bringing anyone this time?”
Jon smiled at him, a little sadly. “I told you we mated for life.”
He dropped it, settling for pulling Jon a little closer.
The cafeteria was painfully loud, and everyone had already broken up into their favorite little cliques. The sociology of the Justice League pecking order had always been amusing to Damian, ever since he was a little boy: at that table sat the Original Six, of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Rayner, Green Arrow and the Manhunter, occasionally accompanied by Irey, at the next table over sat the second wave of recruits with Hawkgirl, Zatanna, Black Canary and Captain Marvel. Over there was Justice League International, over here were the aliens, there were the anti-heroes. All of the first round of sidekicks tended to stick together, as they had grown up together, and sure enough it only took a few seconds of scanning the crowd before he found the close-knit crowd of Young Justice. Sin was monitoring them all with an eagle eye to make sure that they didn’t sneak any drinks, but Connor had obviously poured champagne into his apple cider and Cassandra Sandsmark was trying to tattle on him.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Jon said into his ear, “but I have to work the crowd a little before I get to hide in the corner with you. See you in twenty minutes?”
“You’re not a politician,” Damian complained, but he kind of was, so he let Jon kiss him on the cheek and let go of his hand. “I might as well check on the new brat, then. I don’t think his new friends are a good influence on him.”
“You are the biggest hypocrite I’ve ever met.”
“Love you too,” Damian said, and tried not to feel slightly abandoned as Jon flew off to go schmooze with his future royal subjects.
Nobody really knew how long Kryptonians lived. Everyone had thought that when Kara had shown up in a literal rocket that she would finally be able to answer every question Clark, Jon, and Connor had about their heritage, but apparently she was only really good for explaining the intricacies of the Kryptonian boy band scene and hadn’t paid a lot of attention during world politics. When asked how old Kryptonians tended to live she had said, quote, “Our family tends to survive for about eighty mekrons. Oh, how long is a mekron? About ten delsons. You ask for a lot of details. It is confusing. Go away, I am listening to your ‘BTS’.”
She was darling, but unhelpful.
So, Clark would retire when he got too old for the job, but nobody knew if this would be a ‘Damian you’re taking over when I’m fifty and then I’m going to retire to the Bahamas with Alfred’ kind of situation or if it would be a Queen Elizabeth II situation where Jon would die before Clark would. Or maybe Clark would die tomorrow. Who knew. It was Jon’s job to always be prepared to take over the most important job in the world at any given moment.
Thankfully, Nightwing’s reputation had gone from ‘evil anti-hero murderous sociopath’ to ‘hey, THAT’S where the murderous sociopath first Robin had gone to, good to see him again!’ after he had gotten into one too many public fights with Batman, and he wasn’t unpopular in the community. Jon told him that everyone respected him, maybe even more than they respected Batman, which confused and frightened Damian. Jon was probably lying. Sure, Damian had teamed up with or otherwise collaborated with just about every superhero team out there, and he had a good working relationship with almost anyone who had ever put on a spandex suit, but that was out of necessity. Damian wasn’t a fun or pleasant person. People didn’t like him.
“But they respect you,” Jon had pointed out, after a particularly disasterous mission where he had punched Amanda Waller in the face and taken over leadership of the Suicide Squad. “People feel safe with you around, even superheroes. You’ve been fighting the good fight for more than half your life.”
“So have you,” Damian had pointed out. “And you’ve never even killed anyone.”
But Jon had just shaken his head. “I’m inhuman - hey, you know it’s true, don’t give me that look. You’re an example to everyone out there. Proof that just a random guy with no powers can be the strongest superhero of them all. Besides, you tell Batman what to do in public. You know who else can do that? Nobody.”
Whatever. It wasn’t important. Just because the contacts list on his communicator was ridiculously huge didn’t mean Damian was a - a people person or anything. Or the unofficial dad to any superhero under the age of eighteen, no matter what Sin teased.
Speaking of which, Damian quickly found the frightened gaggle of kids hugging a wall near the corner of the room, all of whom were holding apple juices unselfconsciously and whispering among themselves. Damian waved, pushing through the crowd, and the smallest boy among them’s metal eye flashed as he elbowed Jason in the side.
Jason, who had been excitedly waving his arms as he told what was probably a highly exaggerated story to the two girls he was talking with, started and whipped his head around to see Damian. He brightened, smile widening into a beam, and waved back as Damian fought off attempts by well-wishers attempting to talk to him for favor of seeing what his younger brother was up to.
He had, of course, done extensive research on the Teen Titans. Barely teenagers, actually, with the oldest among them being the fifteen year old leader Beast Boy and the youngest among them being the awkward twelve year old kid Cyborg. Father, who was a complete pushover when it came to Jason, had agreed to fund the team and give them them the Tower as a base of operations and a place for the orphaned members of the team to live. Sure, when Damian had been fifteen he had to beg, plead, and go behind Father’s back for the right to an extracurricular team, but let’s have thirteen year old Jason spend half his time with a random motley crew of children, have fun dear, here’s some pocket change. Youngest children were so spoiled.
They weren’t even traditional sidekicks. Starfire, Princess Koriand’r of Tamaran who seemed to be roughly equivalent to a human thirteen year old, was cheerful and gregarious while her half-demon friend Raven was the very image of a thirteen year old scene kid. She was playing on her phone as Starfire listened to the tale, completely enraptured, as Garfield resentfully squinted at his apple juice. Damian had known Garfield from his family, the asshat Doom Patrol, and frankly he was glad that he was away from those clowns. Victor, aka Cyborg, seemed too young to be completely on his own but hopefully Garfield was taking care of him. Not that it was any of his business.
“Nightwing!” Jason called, and all of his friends save Raven froze in fear, eyes widening. “Come meet my friends!”
Damian finally made his way to the small group, and the visible change in their demeanour was amusing. Raven didn’t outwardly react, but both Garfield and Victor straightened and tried to look older. Starfire just tilted her head, expression brightening when she recognized him.
“This is your brother!” Starfire squealed, and she eagerly curtseyed to Damian. For lack of knowledge on her own culture’s traditions Damian bowed his head lowly. “It is my greatest pleasure to meet Robin’s big brother! He speaks very highly of your skills as a warrior!”
“The pleasure’s all mine, your highness,” Damian said smoothly as Starfire’s eyes sparkled. This abruptly ticked Jason off, who folded his arms and scowled at him. He nodded at the other members of his team - the boys nodded back, frightened out of their minds, while Raven just narrowed her eyes at him. “I’ve been keeping an eye on your team for a while. You all performed very well against Mad Mod.”
“You’ve been keeping an eye on us?” Victor squeaked. “I mean - uh, thank you! Yes!”
Garfield rolled his eyes, elbowing Victor in the side before extending his hand to shake Damian’s. “Duh, it’s our job not to get Robin killed. It’s good to see you again, dude. Tell your boss thank you again, too, he’s been fantastic about the accommodations.”
It was incredibly cute, seeing Garfield try so hard to act the part of the oldest leader. He had been the ‘baby’ of Doom Patrol, so it was clear that he was taking his new responsibility very seriously. It was good to see. “It’s our pleasure,” Damian said honestly. “Hopefully soon we can vote you into the League network and get you better UN funding, but until then the Tower will be your home for as long as you need it.”
Garfield saluted, half-jokingly but half-seriously, and Victor quickly saluted behind him in all seriousness. Starfire, confused, saluted too, while Raven blinked sleepily at him and Jason buried his head in his hands. It was so cute.
On the other side of the room, that overbearingly obnoxious newest Lantern recruit Jordan was making a crude joke to Ollie, who was snorting champagne out of his nose as Dinah crossed her arms, amused. The other overbearingly obnoxious Lantern, Guy Gardner, was having a public fight with his rookie partner Reyes, who was apparently the older sister of Blue Beetle and the only half-way competent Lantern to come out of the organization in the past five years. By her side was Irey, who winked and waved when she saw Damian. That solved the mystery of her newest girlfriend, then.
“Can I ask you some advice, Nightwing?” Garfield was saying, and Damian snapped back to reality. “We kind of keep running into this really creepy guy, and we’re having a hard time shaking him off our tail.” He lowered his voice, looking awkwardly around. “Plus, like, he keeps going after Robin specifically, and he’s kind of setting off my weirdo alarms, you know?”
That got Damian’s attention. He spent the next twenty minutes talking seriously with Garfield about what to do with this obnoxious Slade character - did Deathstroke seriously think that going by his first name would keep anybody off his tail? - in a way that somehow ended with Damian promising to call his old friend Rose to try and get him off her back. Rose hadn’t talked with her father in years, not since she had grabbed her younger brother’s hand and gotten him out of their crappy home, but she was in college now and working hard to support the both of them and she wouldn’t appreciate Wilson terrorizing more teenagers.
He was in the middle of giving Garfield recommendations for what to do when the two teenage girls started fighting over outfits when his phone buzzed, and he quickly pulled it from his pocket.
Jon: DAD IS SO DRUNK OFF THE SHIT MILAGRO BROUGHT FROM RIMBOR LMAO
Jon: He’s calling Mom and telling her how much he loves her LMAOOOO
Jon: this is going on snapchat
Jon: are you gonna spend the entire party hanging out with the middle schoolers or are you gonna come over to the Secret Corner where YJ1 is having a drinking contest
Damian rolled his eyes, but typed out a simple ‘Be there soon’ before pocketing the phone. “My better half is looking for me,” he said shortly, ignoring the way Starfire’s eyes started sparkling again. She had been relentlessly flirting with Jason, which he needed to talk to him about sooner rather than later. “I’ll catch all of you later. Jason, if you drink anything I’ll know.”
“You’re no fair,” Jason moaned.
“Batman spoils you enough already, I’m not going to do it.” He ruffled Jason’s hair anyway, ignoring the way he squawked and batted him away. Soon he would be too old for hugs. More’s the pity. “It was nice to meet you all. Remember, if you need my help for anything -”
“ - then call you, I know, I know,” Jason groaned. “You’re so clingy.”
Garfield elbowed Jason in the side. “Understood,” he said quickly. “Thank you, Nightwing.”
“Is ‘better half’ a human term for romantic partners?” Starfire asked eagerly. “Robin says that you have, in human terms, a ‘boy-friend’. Can you give me advice on getting a ‘boy-friend’?”
“Not touching that one.” He was definitely going to have to give Jason the safe alien sex talk. “See ya.”
Sure enough, when he separated from the Teen Titans and made an effort to intermingle with the rest of the room he saw that the party was in full swing. Jaime was yelling at both Ted and Michael in rapid Spanish not to embarass him again, neither of which who looked very repentant, and when he passed by Aunt Kate, Renee, and the homeless bum they adopted, Vic Sage, drinking heavy whiskey in the corner he was forced to stop and succumb to Aunt Kate’s mothering and patiently answer her rapid-fire questions. If he was eating enough, how was he and Jon doing, so when were they tying the knot, you should do a nice blended cultural ceremony, it’s not her fault her idiot cousin never had a proper bar mitzvah and Jason was going to have the nicest bar mitzvah in Gotham if it killed her, etc, etc. So far as Damian had ever been able to tell, Kate wasn’t so much motherly as suspicious of Father’s ability to do anything right, but they often manifested in the same way. Renee, who had known Damian since he was the brattiest ten year old in Gotham and had been the first cop to sneak him whiskey from her desk, gave him sympathetic looks and snuck him whiskey again. Vic Sage, very annoyingly, kept on drunkenly trying to engage Damian in objectivist debate over the sounds of Aunt Kate raging at Damian over his idiot father ruining the family name. He thinks they secretly love each other, but she had been dealing with him for much longer than he had.
He escaped that as quickly as possible, but then he ran into the annual Shayera vs. Diana arm wrestling competition, which Diana won every time but that which Shayera never gave up on. John Stewart was loudly screaming about how ‘that’s my girlfriend, fuckers, go honey I love you!’ and Cassie Sandsmark was supplying Diana with wine and wiping her brow after every round. The blonde girl smiled at Damian and waved, capturing him in an awkward conversation about how him and Jon were doing, when are you guys going to tie the knot, huh, wink wink? By the way, do you know if Cass and Steph are actually, like, together-together? They refuse to say anything on it and if anyone would know it was you.
The thought was likely but distressing, so Damian blew her off and dived back into the crowds. He stopped by a small table to give Sin a quick hug, who was standing with her siblings and mother as they all complained loudly about Ollie.
“What did he do this time?” Damian asked, uncertain if he even wanted to know. The Queen family drama was the stuff of superhero legend. But what really caught his attention was the alarmingly young kid in a small domino mask and stupid hat, chugging a cup of milk with narrowed eyes. “And who’s this?”
“New Speedy,” Mia said cheerfully, slinging her arm around his shoulders. “Roy Harper, meet the scariest man you will ever know and the only bastard to ever best the Batman. Don’t worry, he’s a big softie inside.”
“Do you have to introduce me like that?” Damian asked flatly. He forced a smile for little Roy Harper, who shrunk back. “It’s good to meet you, Roy. I think there are some kids your own age over there, including my little brother. If your mom says it’s okay, why don’t you go say hi?”
He looked at Dinah, who was furiously slamming back champagne. She smiled down at him, and glanced at Connor Hawke. He shrugged. “Sure, honey. If you see my idiot husband you can tell him to stick his -”
“Got it,” Roy squeaked, slurping up the rest of his milk. It left a milk moustache. It was adorable. “Can I take all the cookies?”
Connor patted his pocket. “I already collected all of the M&M ones for you,” he said severely, like he said everything.
Everything about their family was cute and wholesome but Ollie. Damian watched Roy scamper off, weaving through the crowds, and raised his eyebrow at the exhausted Dinah, Sin, Mia, and Connor.
“Trouble in paradise?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Dinah sighed. “I’m sure the Birds of Prey are tired of hearing me bitch, anyway.”
Sin patted her on the arm supportively. “Please run off with Helena.”
“Mom, please divorce Dad and take all of his money so you can retire with Helena in Paris.” Connor sipped gingerly at his apple juice. “Nobody would blame you. We love Helena.”
“It’s not good for Roy to be around fighting parents so much,” Dinah fretted. “And kids, this really isn’t the time or place.”
“You’re the best mother I know, Dinah,” Damian soothed. “You’ll figure it out. I hope you aren’t sending Roy out into the field for awhile, though.”
“Oh, god, no. The little outfit was just so he could come along to the party.” Dinah smiled. “Isn’t he just precious?”
“It’s adorable,” Damian said gruffly. “I hope he hits it off with Jason, he needs more friends his own age.”
“Okay, Mr. Mom,” Mia mocked, elbowing Damian in the side. “When are you and Jon going to tie the knot and adopt your own bundle of joy, huh?”
“Why is everyone asking that today?!”
“Marriage is a prison and a curse,” Dinah said blankly, staring into her cup. Connor gently took it away from her, patting her on the back.
Damian made his excuses quickly after that, diving back into the crowd. There was King Arthur, Mera, Kaldur, and Tula, but his family's relationship with Arthur’s had always been somewhat strained. Athur was one of those anarcho-communist, murder all corporation types, and he disapproved of them on principle. He avoided them, only nodding weakly at Kaldur when he was acknowledged, and in his endless quest to find his boyfriend ran straight into Irey.
She wasn’t even bothering to drink, with her metabolism burning through the alcohol too much, and instead was engaging in her favorite past-time of complaining to her brother. Jai, who was wearing plain clothes and a mask, was only making the barest token attempts to pretend he was paying attention. Bart was standing with them, blowing bubbles in his apple juice. Next to him was Jessie Quick, who was texting what could only be Supergirl BTS gifs on Tumblr and giggling.
“What am I supposed to say? Every time I see him it’s Flash this, Flash that, isn’t she cool, my life dream is to meet her one day, there is literally nobody cooler than the Flash ever, Aunt Iris says you know her is it true you know the Flash?” Irey groaned, running her hands down her face. “His little face is so adorable, Jai! I can’t keep lying to him!”
“You know how Dad is,” Jai said flatly, scrolling through his phone. “He’s going to be Flash fan No.1 until he dies, probably. Why don’t you just tell him?”
Irey groaned. “Then he’d never be normal around me again, and then he’s going to ask further questions, and you know he’s a fucking genius like you, and then he’s going to find out that he’s my dad. Then we’re all sunk.”
“We have to tell him someday,” Jai pointed out. “It’s unfair that literally everybody in the family knows but him.”
“Yeah, but... “ Irey deflated, sipping her drink. “I don’t know, Jai. He’s not dumb. He knows something’s up with his cousins that have no parents and how often we’re all over at each other’s houses and how many supervillains kidnap him and his aunt and how many other supervillains rescue them. He knows our family isn’t normal. Just...not the extent.”
“I think we should tell him,” Bart said suddenly, despite previously haven given absolutely no indication that he was paying attention to the conversation. “But, like, the minute we do he’s going to give himself superpowers. So don’t tell him unless you want another sidekick.”
“I’ll made him your sidekick,” Irey threatened, “so you get a taste of your own fucking medicine, kid.”
“He keeps on asking me how me an’ Uncle Max an’ Grandpa Jay an’ Grandma Joan are related to him,” Bart confessed, “and I’m not a good liar, Aunt Irey. I’m really not.”
“I know, honey,” Irey sighed. She smiled weakly at Damian. “Sorry, family drama. I’m not drunk enough for this. Gar taking good care of Jason or do you need to threaten him again?”
“I never threatened a fifteen year old,” Damian protested half-heartedly. “Besides, you got off easily in comparison with Arrow family drama. All Dinah’s kids are telling their step-mom to divorce their dad.”
“She needs to divorce him,” Jessie Quick said, not looking up from her phone. “Like, just get it over with. Her mom keeps coming to JSA meetings and complaining about her good for nothing son in law.”
“Why are you here and not at the JSA party?” Damian asked her. He didn’t know Jessie Quick very well, but having another set of hands around to keep Irey from going insane never hurt.
“This one’s more lit,” Jessie said flatly. “An’ I just broke up with Stargirl and it’s sooo awkward seeing her, so I’m hiding here. Don’t tell anyone.”
“Secret’s safe with me.”
Man, and Damian thought his family was weird. The mental image was somewhat amusing, though: little eleven year old Wally West, deep in the pit of his hero worship of the awesomely cool and talented Flash, looking around his crowded house one day and realizing how many mysterious cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents he had. Both of the twins had never said a word on who their mother was - all anyone knew was that she was Korean, and even that was only guessed from the Korean that both Jai and Irey insisted on teaching baby Wally - and Damian knew that they would never say a word. Similarly, if Barry Allen was still alive somewhere, Bart never said a word. Surprisingly secretive family.
“If you’re looking for Jon he’s babysitting his drunk dad and stopping his brother and cousin from strangling each other over which boy band member they’re going to marry,” Jai said, seemingly bored. “You ever think that Clark and Lois were looking forward to finally being empty nesters, and then Kara showed up? Like, they’d never admit that they just want to live in a house without kids, but I think Lois’ eye is twitching.”
“I don’t think they mind,” Damian said diplomatically. He didn’t mention the fact that Lois had told him that she had never really wanted kids because she had always wanted to focus on her career first, but she had known what she was getting into by marrying a single father. Granted, Jon had been a latch-key kid who had basically raised himself, but the point stands. “Kara keeps on insisting that on Krypton everyone lives alone by the time they reach pubescence but she also can’t figure out a GPS so nobody trusts her by herself yet.”
“She’s such an idiot,” Jessie sighs, dreamily. “I love my idiot girlfriend.”
“Speaking of which,” Irey said, eyes glinting. “When are you finally going to make an honest man out of Jonathan?”
“Wow, I think I see him now, I must go attend to my beautiful boyfriend,” Damian said quickly, and utilizing every ounce of his superior ninja evasion tactics he escaped the conversation.
He narrowly avoided Jaime, who was still yelling at Ted and Michael, and who had his very drunk older sister hanging onto his shoulder and laughing her head off.
“May auld acquaintance,” some were singing, voices light and airy, “be forgot, and never brought to mind! May auld acquaintance be forgot, in the days of auld lang syne!”
Damian thought of them then, those auld acquaintances: the youthful faces of his friends, Jon’s chubby little cheeks and ratty sneakers, the pigtails Irey used to wear as she spun around him in circles just to prove how she was the best. Sin’s grim little face, gaunt and sharp, and the way Father used to smile. Alfred cooking dinner over a hot stove, watching old BBC serials, and even the faces from when he was much younger, the parade of tutors and trainers whom Mother hired and then promptly killed. They had all grown so much older, with kids of their own, and there were new generations of the young.
The young: Connor, barely a few months old who never knew when to speak quietly or keep his mouth shut, ignorant of his heritage. Cass, silent but deadly, with Steph her loud and impudent shadow. They were growing older too. Cassie Sandsmark, Anita, Greta, Bart, and everyone - when Damian turned away for five seconds he missed it, had missed them growing up. Tim, who never would grow up.
He struggled to remember Tim’s face. The aristocratic features, the sharp eyebrows and gelled hair. He had only been a little older than Garfield when he died, desperate to prove himself. May auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind.
When he finally did find Jon he was welcomed to the sight of him holding both Connor and Kara by their collars, keeping them physically separated as they spat venom at each other in Kryptonian. Kara spoke it so fluently and strangely gutterally that it was hard to understand her, but from what he could tell it was...boy bands again. Yup.
“Having a good time?” Damian asked Jon lightly, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Oh, the usual,” Jon said, strangled. Damian saw no sign of Superman - probably escorted off by Damian’s own father before he could make a nuisance of himself. “What about you? Having a good time?”
“You know,” Damian said, “I am, actually.” He hesitated, watching amusedly as Jon physically threw Connor over his shoulder so he would stop trying to scratch Kara’s eyes out. “Do you know why all of our friends keep asking me if you’ve popped the question yet?”
Jon blushed a deep red. “N- no! I don’t know what they’re talking about!”
“Alright.” Damian shrugged. “Your loss.”
His boyfriend sputtered as the drunk partygoers struck up another rousing rendition of Christmas carols, and Damian happily watched another year pass by.
Father called Damian back home after they found the duffel bag full of heads.
It had been a while since Gotham had a serial killer on their hands, and Father had finally grown old enough to know when to call his oldest son for help. There were other aspects of the case that had made Father antsy enough to call Damian back in - the peculiar pattern of victims, the way that a new drug lord had been making waves through the Gotham underground - but more than anything else Father admitted to simply having a bad feeling.
It was the admission that got Damian hightailing it home, and it was the pattern of victims that had him stepping on the gas pedal. Drug dealers who peddled to kids, pedophiles and rapists, were being systematically wiped out as another player entered their horse into the game.
More than that, however, as the fact that it was more than the lower rung who were being bumped off. Peers of Bruce Wayne were being bumped off too, respected men in Hollywood and politics who appeared on the doorstep of GPD decapitated with their little black books stuffed in their mouths. More than one famous Hollywood director made the cut, and soon the case was hitting national news. A dead asshole was nothing new in Gotham, but the exposition of a new drug lord and a new vigilante was too much to be coincidence.
In fact, the MO for both the drug lord and the vigilante were identical. Damian found himself suggesting to Father, once he got home and started leafing through the Computer’s complex files on the case, that the two were one and the same.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Father admitted, rubbing his chin as he stood next to Damian. “It’s why I asked you to come back to Gotham. You’re the best detective we have, and I have the feeling this case is going to require some delicacy.”
Damian couldn’t fight the smirk. “So we’re keeping the girls off it, then.”
Father just sighed and ruffled Damian’s hair, ignoring the way Damian irritably batted his hand away. The indignities never ended. “The girls are wonderful operatives. But...sometimes we need a scalpel, instead of a hammer.”
A familiar expression was stealing its way across Father’s face, the painfully common ‘I wish Tim was here’ eyebrow twitch, and Damian quickly brought up more files of the case to show him. Best to keep his mind off it. Granted, that was usually Jason’s job - he had a way of making you pay attention to him, mostly through threatening to blow something up again - but Damian could step in when needed. “Then we will go over the case with a fine toothed comb. Between you and I, we can figure something out.”
He was rewarded with a slight relaxation of Father’s features, and he nodded at Damian. “Yes. Serial killers always have a pattern. Even if his victims are...somewhat more targeted than usual.”
“Couldn’t have happened to nicer guys,” Damian grunted, and Father politely pretended not to hear him.
It was nice, working solely with Father again as the girls handled the patrols for that night. More and more information kept on coming in, their mystery vigilante/drug lord’s body count rising by the day. They mapped out areas of Gotham that he was taking over, and Damian couldn’t help but note that he (or she, or they) was staking his claim over the high class areas of Gotham. Not the dirty, easily up for grabs ghettos, but the neighborhoods that had been solid and reliably under mafia protection for decades. The entire underground political climate of Gotham was being thrown into flux, all because of seemingly one person.
During the daytime he cooked with Alfred, who was finally starting to approve of his cooking skills after six years living by himself, and sent his sisters stalker pictures of them walking together on campus (“I’m your sister, but I’m not Cass’ sister, and it’s really important to me that you know that, no you can’t ask why -”). They seemed to be making friends with the other kids, which was par for the course for Stephanie and a huge relief for Cass. She had apparently ingratiated herself into the Deaf community on campus, and was a big hit for her expressive and fluent ASL. She was on five different dance teams and Damian went to every recital. She was incredible.
Damian liked the flexibility and lack of responsibility from only working part time as a vet tech, but all of his civilian coworkers were having serious conversations with each other about independence and living without parental support. Damian had tried half-heartedly to explain that he had been raised in his early childhood with no expectation of eventual financial independence (at which point every well meaning white person wanted to talk about collectivist vs individualist cultures, which stressed Damian out) and that his Father would never notice if Damian spent ten thousand dollars a week. Damian had, before others had begun to tell him it was wrong, been perfectly happy living off his father’s money forever. One of them would probably have to take over the company - everyone had assumed Tim before, well - and it would probably have to be him, but that was also stressful and Damian didn’t like thinking about the future. Cass, with no understanding of the value or place of money by both her fathers, was majoring in dance, and Stephanie was ruthlessly practical and was going for pre-med. Jason was still tagging Gotham Academy, which made him the most popular boy in school.
It wasn’t like Bludhaven rent was expensive. Why couldn’t everything be like it was, if only for a little while longer?
But it was during five am, in the awkward space after they got home from patrol and when Damian was too wired to get some sleep before dawn broke, that the emergency bells in the Cave went off. Damian was already sitting at the computer, texting Jon and half-heartedly looking at more permanent work, and the harsh klaxons startled him thoroughly awake. He frantically started running a checklist through his mind of where everyone was - Alfred and the girls were fast asleep upstairs, Father was working on last-minute paperwork before his presentation at ten, Jason was having a sleepover at Titans Tower - Jason -
When he answered the call there was little Cyborg standing in front of the computer, looking the most frightened he had ever seen him. In the background Raven and Kory were running back and forth with bandages as Garfield yelled something off screen.
“Nightwing!” Cyborg cried, and Damian realized that his mask was off. Too late now. “We’re under attack - well, not now, he left, I think, I hope? - and Robin was attacked by an unknown assailant. In his bed! Nightwing, what do we do?”
“We calm down first,” Damian said, despite the fact that his heart was leaping into his throat. “Get Raven and Starfire to sweep the Tower and make sure that he’s really gone. Prep your Zeta beam and ready Robin for emergency medical transfer to the Watchtower. Batman and I will be there immediately. Get Beast Boy to go with him, but you stay there and man the tower in case the assailant comes back. Understand, Cyborg?”
“Yes, sir!” Victor said, clearly relieved. “Prepping Robin for emergency medical transition now. Beast Boy will give you all the details there. Cyborg signing off.”
At least he had been trained in emergency comm procedure. From behind him Damian heard his Father throwing on one of the backup Batsuits, the lightweight one that they saved for when they needed the costume on as soon as possible and couldn’t waste the twenty minutes it took to get it on.
Damian rolled away from the console, grabbing his own costume from the rack and brushing the spirit gum on his face. “He’ll be fine, Father,” Damian said sternly. “The Titans would have mentioned if he was dying. The others are probably awake by now, if you want to wait -”
“I don’t,” Father said shortly, and they both suited up in silence. The girls ran downstairs several minutes afterwards, Stephanie yelling loudly and Cass’ expression pinched in worry, and Damian gave them the short version as Father booted up the Zeta tube. Alfred came in after them, lingering silently near the back but just as worried as the both of them.
“We’ll be right behind you,” Steph said firmly, as Cass already started throwing her Black Bat costume on. “Jason needs -”
“You will stay here,” Father said abruptly, and Steph shut up. “Jason doesn’t sleep with the mask on. If the assailant can infiltrate the Tower systems, he can infiltrate ours. Stay here and protect Alfred and the house.”
“But Bruce -”
“Master Bruce is right, Miss Stephanie,” Alfred said, placing a calming hand on her shoulder. “We do not know how many of our systems are compromised. If the assailant had access to the Tower, they may have used the Zeta tubes too. While Master Bruce and Master Damian attend to Master Jason, it may be more useful to concert our efforts here to see where they may have gone.”
The sheer logic of it made Stephanie scowl, but she threw herself down onto the computer chair and acquiesced. Cass wasn’t happy, and she didn’t stop putting on her costume.
“If you see him call me,” she signed out quickly. “I’m the best fighter here, and I’ll be the one who takes down whoever hurt Jason.”
“We’ll let you know,” Damian said shortly, clipping his gauntlets on. He nodded at her, forcing a smile, and she frowned unhappily back. “I get first crack, though.”
“Agreed,” Cass signed, giving him a flicker of a smile.
It was five am, and the Watchtower was deserted save for essential support personnel. Among which included the emergency medical staff, and when Batman and Nightwing Zeta'd immediately into the transporter room the technician immediately gave them the updates on the John Doe who had been brought in five minutes ago in his pyjamas.
It was like Damian sleepwalked to the medical wing - at first, he was in the transporter room, following so closely behind Batman that his cape snapped at his heels, and next he was watching the emergency doctors flock around Jason, shining a light in his eyes and bandaging his oozing wounds. They wouldn’t let them into the room, and Father and Damian were forced to wait, twiddling their thumbs and hoping he would be okay. Useless. Father was gripping the windowsill so hard his gloves were creaking, and Damian was spending half his attention on the phone where he was communicating with the Titans and the other half on Jason and Father.
“The kids say that the Tower’s secure,” Damian said. “They have no idea how the guy broke in. Raven was able to give a vague description - male, short, black hair - but didn’t get anything else before he disappeared. She says she can’t track him. Cyborg says that there’s no hole in the system, no evidence that it was even hacked into.”
“That’s impossible,” Father said shortly.
Damian shrugged, watching more messages spill in from the concerned teenagers. The extremely concerned Starfire, and the incredibly guilty Garfield, were chief among them. Garfield had dropped by the Watchtower to send Jason in and give an explanation of how they found him to the medical personnel, but Cyborg had immediately wanted him back to double check the systems. They’d talk with him more in-depth later, but for the time being he didn’t know much more than they did.
Jason hadn’t woken up. He was beat, badly. With a...crowbar.
“He’ll be okay,” Damian said, resting a hand on Father’s shoulder and squeezing. “He’s scrappy. He always pulls through. No matter what.”
Father didn’t say anything, just stared at the window, and Damian awkwardly let his hand drop. Jon and the other Young Justice members were texting him, but he just sent them brief ‘everything’s okay, talk later’ messages.
“He’ll be okay,” Damian said, as if he could make himself believe it.
Jason was okay, if somewhat traumatized. If he was, though, he never showed it, and the injuries hadn’t been as bad as they feared. Jason was up and walking again after three days, if on strictly enforced rest, and they took him home quickly. A good rule of thumb with Jason was that the more he was complaining the less severely he was injured, and he was bitching his head off about being stuck on the couch with nothing but ginger ale and Netflix.
He claimed that he didn’t remember the attack that well, but Damian had gotten a few details out of him. Jason had woken up late at night screaming, flailing as much as his bandages would let him, and when Damian entered his room to sit on his bed with him he finally talked about it.
“He didn’t monologue or nothin’,” Jason said, pulling his knees up to his chest. The purpling bruise was still big and ugly on his cheek. “Otherwise I would have flipped the alarms stat. He just started, like, whaling on me. Just got on top of me, pinned me down so I couldn’t move, and...bam, bam, bam. It was only after he got a bunch of good shots in that he started talking.” Jason’s hand started shaking, and Damian silently took it. “I was too busy getting the snot kicked out of me to really hear what he was saying, but he kept on talking about...Robin. How I wasn’t Robin. How I didn’t deserve it.” He turned his eyes on Damian, lost and confused. “What kind of shit was that? Why did he do that?”
“I don’t know, Jay,” Damian murmured, running his fingers through Jason’s hair. Damian wasn’t very touchy-feely, but Jason was, and that was more important right now. “Some people are...just really fucked up. Some people aren’t right in the head, in a way that makes them violent, and they take it out on other people. There’s just...sociopaths out there, Jay. I’m sorry you ran into one without us.”
“I knew a lot of schizo people, and they’re harmless,” Jason said flatly. “This dude wasn’t schizo. Not every sociopathic person is evil, either. But this guy was. Can you be careful when you’re looking for him, bro? I bet you can take him down in no time flat, but I’ve never had a perp go ballistic like that on me before. Just be careful?”
“I always am,” Damian promised, and kissed him on the forehead. “Do you want to go back to sleep, or do you want some tea first?”
Jason brightened. “I could use some whiskey -”
He sighed. “Tea’s fine. Thanks, Dami.”
He was going to beat this guy to a bloody pulp.
He thought about Jason’s words as he boiled the water for him, as he served the boy the ultra-sweet ginger and orange tea he was fond of, and when he sent him back to bed. Someone who was skilled enough to get into the Titan systems - and the Titan systems were identical to the impenetrable Cave systems - who was well trained enough to sneak into a room in the middle of the night and beat the exceedingly well trained Robin to a pulp.
More than that, someone with an emotional connection to Robin. ‘You aren’t Robin. You don’t deserve Robin’. Someone who felt so strongly about it that they went ‘ballistic’.
Nothing was stolen. Nothing was attained. He could have killed Jason easily - they only found him once the man was already gone - but he didn’t. Someone who would risk their life just to get a few good punches in. Ballistic. You don’t deserve Robin. You aren’t Robin. Crazy. Well trained. Good with computers.
He wasn’t getting any more sleep that night. Damian became Nightwing again, texting Jon to put his plans on coming home the next day on hold, and dove back into the streets. He had a drug dealer, a vigilante, and a psychopath who beat up on little kids to find.
They thought, for a while, that the drug dealer was the Black Mask. A vile, filthy person, and if Damian had met him three years earlier then he would have cheerfully slit his throat. He, Batman, and Black Bat chased Amazo down to one of Black Mask’s shipments on the docks, where they finally found the actual new drug lord.
He and Batman were tag teaming Amazo, and Damian’s full attention was on the robot, but it was only Black Bat’s hoarse scream that tore his attention away from Amazo and earned him a solid hit in the stomach. He grunted, rolling with the blow, but the man in the stupid red motorcycle helmet was yelling something down at Black Bat. She quickly abandoned her post against Amazo and leapt onto the rooftops in a chase, despite Batman’s barked command to stand down and wait for backup. It was wildly uncharacteristic of her to run off, and Damian couldn’t fight the sick flash of worry.
“She can handle herself,” Damian barked anyway, knowing that Black Bat was a match for one stupid drug lord. “Help me with - urgh!”
He regretted those words later, when they heard the sound of the explosion. Batman and Damian’s faces paled, staring at each other in horror for one wasted second before they both burst into action chasing Black Bat’s last known location.
They found her safe enough, if somewhat charred. The only shocking thing was that she was sobbing hoarsely, mask half-peeling off her face, and didn’t even react when Damian swept her into a hug and checked her for injuries.
“Black Bat,” Batman ground out, more worried than he would show. “Report. Are you injured?”
Black Bat - Cass - ignored him, still crying, and Damian glared at Batman as he rubbed circles into her back.
“Black Bat,” Batman said again, “collect yourself. I need to know if you’re injured.”
She sniffed and shook her head, shakily signing out that she was fine, but refused to say anything else. They couldn’t get anything out of her, and she refused to say anything until they met Stephanie back at the Cave.
They found Alfred and Jason waiting there too, clearly worried sick, and when she saw Jason she broke down again. Steph ran forward and embraced her, still in costume, murmuring something in her ear and stroking her back, as Jason anxiously tugged at her cape.
“Did someone hurt you?” Jason demanded imperiously, in a shaking high voice. “I’ll beat them up for you, Cass, the minute I get better, I swear. Come on, was someone being a creep?”
She laughed a little and shook her head, bending down to hug Jason tighter. “I am okay,” she said. “But can you please get some of Alfred’s cookies for me? I am very hungry.”
“Come on, Master Jason,” Alfred said quietly, placing a hand on Jason’s shoulder. “I am sure that we can whip up something quickly for Miss Cassandra. I understand we’ve all had tough nights.”
“You can say that again,” Steph complained, cracking her back. “I was chasing down some of Hood’s goons when he was going after you guys. Oh, that’s his name, apparently - The Red Hood. He’s the crime boss we’ve been looking for, and the vigilante too. Is it just me, or is it pretty loony toons to name yourself after the Joker’s old alias?”
Then Cass burst into tears again, and it took another five minutes to calm her down, and it was clear that Father was going to tear his hair out if he didn’t know what was upsetting Cass in the next five seconds.
Steph already had her arm slung over her shoulder, rubbing circles into her back, so Damian settled for standing in front of her and trying to make his body language as loving and accepting as possible. “Cassandra,” Damian signed gently, “we need to know what’s wrong. What did the Red Hood say to you?”
“Just stupid stuff,” Cass signed back, hesitantly and sloppily. “He says he’s going to kill the Batman, that he’s going to kill you and me and Steph. That he’s going to take over Gotham and make it his. Boring, stupid stuff.”
“Okay,” Damian signed, confused. “Then what’s wrong?”
But she just shook her head, signing over and over again, “You won’t believe me, you won’t believe me.”
“Cass,” Damian signed, “I promise, whatever you say, I will believe you unconditionally. Whatever you tell me, I will believe you. I swear this to you on my sword.”
Cass sniffed. “It was Tim,” she said out loud. “Red Hood was Tim. I read it in his body.”
You could have heard a pin drop. There was no expression on Father’s face, even though the mask was pulled down. It was blank, almost uncomprehending. Steph’s hand had flown to her mouth, her eyes wide, and Damian didn’t know what was showing on his own face.
“No,” Father said.
“What, like, a clone?” Stephanie said, almost hysterically. “Someone cloned Tim?”
“No,” Cass signed curtly. “A clone would be completely different in his movements. The way Tim moves was very unique. He always repeated every left step twice. Every time he moved a left finger, he always moved a right finger. I could set my clock by him. That was Tim. He walked on the balls of his feet, and so does the Red Hood. A clone couldn’t copy that. A shapeshifter, a fake, a copy - no! It was Tim!”
“Okay,” Damian found himself saying. He turned to Father, who was ash white. It was immediately obvious that he was going to make a mental breakdown in five seconds if they left him alone. “Father, go drink some tea. Ask Jason how his day was, then go to bed.”
Father turned on him, as he knew he would. “You are insane if you think -”
“Go upstairs. Drink tea. Hug Jason. Go to bed,” Damian said, and his tone brokered absolutely no arguments. “You are too close to this case. Jason is scared, and needs you to let him know that everything is going to be okay. I am your oldest son, and your second in command. I will let you know what we found out in the morning, and then you can handle this when you’ve slept and are no longer about to go insane.”
Father stared at him for a long time, vein in his jaw jumping, before he scoffed and turned on his heel to climb the steps and leave the Cave. Damian watched him go, unimpressed, as Cass and Steph watched with wide eyes.
Once he disappeared Damian exhaled, glad that at least he no longer had to worry about managing Father’s breakdown. Steph looked close to tears herself - although he had never really seen her cry - and Cass was still sniffling.
“Is Tim the drug lord?” Steph asked, voice shaking. “The vigilante too, oh my god. Oh fuck, the guy who attacked Jason -”
“Him. Without a doubt.” Damian took another breath, and fished his phone out of his pocket. He pressed the first name that showed up on his frequently contacted list, and despite the late hour only had to wait a minute for Jon to pick up.
“What’s up?” Jon yawned, and Damian’s heart broke with love for him.
“Dear, I need you to check if Tim Drake’s grave is empty. It’s an emergency.”
There was silence on the line, then he hung up. Damian began counting under his breath - one, two, three -
Then a burst of wind flew through the cave, and Jon landed on the floor. He was panting. “It’s empty. Grave’s busted open - from the inside. What the fuck, honey?”
“Can you tell how long ago?” Damian asked, instead of actually explaining anything.
Jon, bless him, just squinted into the distance again. “The soil doesn’t actually look that disturbed. Grave’s ruined, but whatever zombie shit you got going on happened a long time ago.”
“Tt.” Damian rubbed his chin, scowling at the slight stubble he felt. He needed to shave. How strange, that Tim Drake was a zombie and that the first thing Damian thought of was that he needed to shave. Maybe life went on. For everyone. “Thank you, Jon. We don’t have any DNA evidence as of yet, but maybe if we show you where we last saw him you can pick up some traces -”
“Okay, cool, so guess I’m not getting an explanation then.”
“Well, congratulations for keeping your bat-cool about this, Dami,” Steph said loudly, almost accusatory. “I’m still trying to deal with the fact that my dead best friend had faked his own death and didn’t tell me for three years. Still kind of in shock over that, I think!”
“He didn’t fake his own death,” Damian said, distracted. “I saw him die, no way that was faked. The only real explanation is Lazarus Pit, but they are incapable of bringing people back once they’ve already passed on. Unless -”
“You said that you found his body,” Cass said quietly, and Damian shut up. Jon winced. “You said the Joker killed him, and you found the corpse.”
Fuck. Damian had - fuck. It had been the easier thing to say. “That’s more or less what happened,” Damian said evasively.
“ More or less ?!” Stephanie screeched.
Cass just looked unhappy. “I knew you had been lying about something.”
“What did you want me to say, you two?” Damian snapped. “That your best friend and brother had shot himself in the head after a week of torture? That he bled out on Father’s lap? That I got brain in my mouth ? You were sixteen! What did you want me to say?”
The girls were quiet, Cass crying silently and Stephanie furious, but Damian didn’t care. He wasn’t sorry. It had been his call as much as it had been Father’s, and it made things easier. The Joker had killed Tim. A...little more indirectly than he had said, but the Joker had killed him. It made what he did afterwards simpler, and it was what Damian chose to remember.
Jon cleared his throat, breaking the silence. “So the death wasn’t faked,” Jon said finally. “That’s certain. It’s...also certain that nobody’s ever come back from the dead before.”
“Barry Allen is still out there,” Damian muttered rebelliously.
“Nobody’s ever come back from the dead before,” Jon repeated, ignoring him. “Besides, like, Jesus, I guess. Tim being Evil Jesus is last on the list of possibilities, I think. But...hey, weirder things have happened. So this is what we have. This is what we’re dealing with. Get mad at Damian and Bruce for lying at you later. The main question now, is what do we do about it?”
Jason’s words echoed through his mind. Ballistic. Crazy. Madness, maybe.
“I need to talk to my mother.”
He didn’t get the opportunity.
Tim Drake - The Red Hood - struck again the next night, Harly Quinn disappearing from her bed. They had only discovered the kidnapping through Poison Ivy’s frantic call to Catwoman, who frantically called Father. Apparently a familiar figure in a red motorcycle helmet had snuck into Harley and Ivy’s apartment, took down them both in two seconds, and carried Harley away on his back. Harley Quinn, who had run away from the Joker’s torture all those years ago, and who had been the one who tipped off Batman and Nightwing where to find Robin. She had been spared for that, and from Batman’s careful surveillance she had made an effort to turn her life around since then.
But there was no Joker to get his revenge on, so Harley Quinn would have to do. Damian cursed himself for failing to secure her first, but they hadn’t expected Tim to act so fast. In retrospect, Tim must have known that the minute Black Bat saw him the gig was up. He probably accelerated his plans, ditching the goal of killing the Black Mask and conquering the city for favor of getting his last ‘fuck you’ in.
Because it was a fuck you. Cass said that, from what she could tell from his body language and from his words, he was overflowing with hate. The Red Hood’s goal was to fuck up Gotham and the Bats as throughly as physically possible, and it was working.
Jason was kept inside the manor, and complained thoroughly about it. He wasn’t going outside until the matter was settled. Damian warned everybody about the effects of the pit - how insane it drives you - but everyone seemed to know well enough. Stephanie was a vindictive person, so she told Jason everything that was going on right away - “Because he’s not too young for the truth, asshole!”.
He had been upset, and knocked off balance, and startled that it was possible to come back to life, but other than that he seemed to take it pretty well. Jason had dedicated most of his energy to calming Father down and cheering him up, which wasn’t really working, but the effort was appreciated.
When they suited up that night in preparation to search the city for Harley Quinn - Jon would be useful here, but there was no way Tim would have forgotten to lead line wherever he was holding her, so the question was irrelevant - Jason tugged on Damian’s gauntlets, eyebrows furrowed. The girls were talking quietly between themselves as they fired up their motorcycles, and Father was typing commands into the Computer with a blank stare.
“What are ya gonna do when you find him?” Jason whispered.
Damian blinked down at him, holding his motorcycle helmet. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. “Try to get him help. See if he can be reasoned with. We’ll do our best to bring justice, Jason.”
But Jason just crossed his arms, unamused. “He’s a criminal and a psycho. What are you going to do if he doesn’t come quietly and give you great big fun hugs? You can’t dump him in Blackgate or Arkham, he’d spill your identity in seconds.What are you going to do if he’s too dangerous to be left running around?”
Damian stared at him.
“Are you gonna kill him?”
Finally, Damian put on his helmet in lieu of an answer. “You and Alfred stay inside the Cave tonight,” he said instead. “Put everything on lockdown. Call for Uncle Clark and Jon if anyone comes. Do not go out. I’ll take care of this, Jay.”
Judging from the scowl on his face he wasn’t happy about it, but Jason flounced away anyway and went to go sit next to Alfred, who was quietly talking to Father. Thank god for Alfred - Damian couldn’t handle everyone’s emotional crisis right now.
They had an entire city to cover, and no expectation of how long Tim would wait. They didn’t have any hints of where he would be, either, and Tim knew their usual search patterns. Everything depended on if Tim wanted them to find him. If he wanted to make his execution of Quinn public, then they would find him soon enough. If he didn’t want to be found then they never would. Tim had been the smartest of all of them, and Damian had never won a game of chess against him.
They all split up, motorcycles and car roaring out of the Cave, and Jason watched them go with his arms folded. He knew, logically, that Jason and Alfred weren’t safe so long as Tim was out there and knew their IDs. He had never shown any resentment of Alfred - god, who could - but he had attacked Jason before. If this is a trap to get everyone out of the cave while Tim went after Jason, it was working. He should call Jon back. He should be having Jon sit on Jason right now, not having him chase after his stupid mother, but they needed answers -
Damian sent out the coordinates for the search patterns to everyone’s computers, giving everyone a different area based on probability. He gave Batman the top five most likely places that Tim was based on the intel from his goons, and the minute they got into Gotham everyone peeled away from each other for their search.
Then Damian closed out the search pattern he gave himself and went to where Tim was.
The warehouse where Tim died still stood. Abandoned warehouses had a wide variety of utility in Gotham, and this one was well-hidden and useful. Nobody knew that Robin had died in it, and someone had probably scrubbed the blood away. Or didn’t. Damian wouldn’t know, he never went back to it. Father probably did, but Damian didn’t like to ruminate. He didn’t focus on the past.
Damian unsheathed his sword from where it was snugly packed on his motorcycle, and lifted the seat to reveal the hidden Glock. He secured it in a shoulder holster, throwing a jacket on top of it. He didn’t like to kill with guns - inelegant - but he may not have a choice.
Was there a choice? That was what Father said that, there was always a choice to kill. But Jason was smarter than he knew, and more perceptive than any of them, and he was right. Damian knew better than any other how the Pit affected one’s brain. It was a poison, sick and sweet, and whoever left the Pit was not the same as the person who went inside. When he was a child Grandfather used to threaten to throw him into it whenever he was being naughty as a sick sort of joke, and he used to laugh when it made Damian cry. Even back then Damian had known, despite Grandfather’s lengthy monologues on the subject: nobody can ever truly come back from the dead. The Pit doesn’t give life, merely unnaturally extends it. It was a deal with the devil, and not worth the price.
Hm. He may have to kill mother for this. The thought was unpleasant, but by then he would have probably broken his promise to Cassandra so why not. It was made under false pretenses, anyway.
Or maybe it wasn’t. Cass was a human lie detector. She had known he was lying about how Tim died, and she had chosen not to follow up. Maybe she knew that she didn’t want to know. Maybe she had known that Damian couldn’t bear to say it.
He went into the warehouse through the ceiling, slipping in through a hole in the roof and landing gently on catwalks. He could see Tim clearly, who was standing in the middle of the warehouse with Quinn in nothing but a nightdress tied to a chair. She was either unconscious or faking it. He was checking his guns, cleaning them with methodical precision and whistling lightly. Hall of the Mountain King, from what Damian could tell. Tim’s favorite. He and Cass had been fans of classical music together, often taking each other to ballets or concerts.
He quietly slid the sword into the hidden scabbard in the back of his costume, padding gently on the rickety crosswalk. Tim had aged in the three years, now a short but well built nineteen year old. He was well armored and helmeted, and Damian wished desperately he could search his eyes for hints of green.
“Found me pretty quick, Batman,” Tim said lightly. The helmet had a voice synthesizer, scrambling his voice slightly, and it had clearly deepened while he was gone. The inflection wasn’t Tim at all - mocking, where Tim had always been monotone. “I expected at least another hour.”
Damian drew his gun, aimed it at the back of Tim’s head.
The reason why he didn’t like guns was because there was no such thing as a warning shot. In the movies the anti-hero could kneecap the bad guys and everyone would be fine, if a little humiliated, but in real life every time you shoot someone you must be prepared for them to die because of it. There is no control. Any shot could be fatal. Damian’s sword or knives were far more precise, with a better measure of direct control over which artery he severed, but in a hostage situation close range combat was unlikely.
If Damian shot Tim, Damian was deciding to kill him. Again.
His hand shook a little.
That thing down there wasn’t Tim. It was a zombie. It didn’t act like him, even if it walked like him, and it was a perversion of his brother’s memory. He could tell Father that Harley had gotten her hands on a gun and defended herself, she would back him up...he could lie...
“He’ll be here in about an hour,” Damain said clearly. “You’re stuck with me until then. Sorry.” Tim turned around, any advantage Damian may have had was lost. “Can I take a message?”
“Nightwing,” Tim said, vaguely surprised, as if Damian had just decided to drop by the house an hour early with groceries instead of catch him in a kidnapping plot. “Nice of you to drop by. You’d really risk Quinn’s life to spite your father? How characteristic.”
“Let Quinn go,” Damian said, instead of everything he wanted to say. He wasn’t going to give Tim the witty banter and monologuing he wanted without getting something in return first. “And I’ll put my gun down. Then we can talk.”
“We’re talking now,” Tim said, affecting a wounded tone. “And really, Nightwing? No ‘Begone, replacement’? No ‘It’s impossible for you to be alive!’. What happened to you? You’ve changed, bro.”
“That makes two of us,” Damian said. If Batman saw him standing still for too long then he’d come check out the situation, and this entire scenario would go straight down the toilet. “Let Quinn go, and you can do whatever you want. Take me as a hostage against Father. Wouldn’t I be a better hostage than her?”
“I don’t care about you,” Tim snapped. “I didn’t set up this stupid fucking plan to lure you to this fucking trap! Give me Batman, now, or I’ll blow her fucking head off!”
It was like it wasn’t even Tim. Tim would have never - or would he? Damian hadn’t known him, not really. Damian had gone through ludicrous amounts of effort never to learn a single thing about him. He didn’t deserve to be the one here, trying to talk the boy down from the ledge. It should have been Steph or Cass or Father, someone who loved him. Instead all he had was Damian, who could have only ever loved him after he died.
Did Damian love Tim? It was a question he had asked himself millions of times. Some days he would say yes, that he loved his brother, and other days he would say no, but he would have liked to be able to learn. Some days Damian thought that he was incapable of love.
When he looked at Jason he wanted nothing more to keep him safe from the cold, hard world he had already experienced too much of. When he looked at Steph and Cass he just wanted them to succeed, and to be happy, to build their own lives because they were so talented and so kind. Alfred and Father had raised him, and had made Damian the man he was. Jon, Irey and Sin and Jai, were the reason why he was a decent fucking person. That was the way Damian loved his family. Had Tim ever fit into that? Had Damian ever let him?
God, Allah, Damian thought, I have a second chance.
“You’re my brother,” Damian said, because this was what he decided, right now, “and I’m not going to hurt you. But I’m not going to let you hurt Quinn. This is between us, Tim.”
Tim scoffed, but Damian knew that he was finally giving Tim what he wanted. The confrontation. The closure. He had gone three years with no closure, and he had come back in a blaze of glory. “Talia said that you might try to pull this. But you made it really fucking clear in 2012 that you and I were nothing to each other. I want Batman here, so I can look him in the fucking eyes and ask him why he let some psycho assasin kill the Joker when it should have been him!”
“Tim,” Damian said blankly, “I killed the Joker.”
“Duh, idiot. But it should have been Batman. If he was the dad he pretended he was to me, then he wouldn’t have let his wetworks kid do the dirty work for him. I know you went behind his back to do it. Talia said so. She told me everything about the past three years.” His breath was coming quicker, more hitched. “About the fucking replacement. About how you all became friends and a happy family now that I was gone. I was the one holding you back, huh, bro? Once I offed myself you could finally crawl back to my friends and play big brother to them.”
“Talia lies, Tim,” Damian said, shocked by the venom. “It’s all she ever does.”
“Not about this!” He brandished his gun, hard, and accidentally knocked Quinn on the head. Clumsy. Mad. “I was never a part of your stupid family! I was the weirdo kid, the neighbor who showed up and wouldn’t go away! Bruce never loved me like he fucking adored you, like he fell all over Cass and Steph! I was always the fucking extra, and I always knew it. The family was better off with me dead.”
What a sitcom. Damian couldn’t believe this was happening to him. It was unreal, like a dream, like he was swimming through acid. “Connor wasn’t better off.”
“Fuck Connor!” Tim screamed, and although Damian shouldn’t have been surprised by the vitriol he was. “And fuck Young Justice! Spoiled children! Connor had his mom and dad, his big brother! He’s better off without me!”
“He never moved on.”
“He should have,” Tim snapped, “because everyone else did.” He raised his gun again and pressed it against Quinn’s temple, breath heaving. “The world went on without me, Damian. I came back and...and I had missed it all. I just want everything to stop. I killed myself to make it stop, and I fucked that up! I’m going to kill myself again in front of Bruce, and then maybe he’ll actually feel bad that I’m dead!”
“You aren’t dead, Tim,” Damian said, angling his own gun. “You’re right here. You’re alive, and you have a second chance. This isn’t you.”
“You know,” Tim said, almost randomly, almost friendly, “change of plan. I’m going to make you kill me, and then Bruce’ll hate you for it, and maybe that’ll make me feel better.”
Before Damian could even begin to point out how fucking stupid that was a great deal happened at once.
Quinn lashed out with an elbow, hitting Tim square in the throat and making him wheeze. Damian took the opportunity and jumped down from the catwalk, holstering his guns and aiming with his knees so he landed directly on top of Tim with a sick crack. He fell to the ground like a ton of bricks, Damian rolling on top of him, and they grappled in a desperate few seconds before a high window shattered and an avenging demon swooped in on devil’s wings.
But Damian only had eyes for Tim, his brother, whose helmet bounced when it hit the ground. It must have jiggled loose a latch or something, because then the helmet was sliding off and for the first time in three years Damian saw his little brother’s face. His eyes were a sick green, almost glowing, and there was a white streak in his perfect hair.
But besides that it was Tim, just Tim, as fine featured and aristocratic as ever. His expression was twisted up in hate and fear, which Damian had expected, but there was the unmistakable glint of tears in his eyes, which he hadn’t.
He had gotten bigger, and stronger, and was fuelled by wild adrenaline by the pit. Damian grappled with him on the floor, base and dirty, trying desperately to avoid accidentally firing any of the live weaponry on Tim’s body as Tim attacked him with no other goal than to rip his throat out with his teeth.
There was no more monologuing, no more anguished screaming. It was just Tim, and Damian, as it never had been, with Tim screaming gutterally and Damian grinding his teeth as he took another sock in the jaw.
Then big, coarse gloved hands wrapped around Tim’s middle and wrenched him off Damian, and Damian slid out gasping. He scrambled to his feet, chest heaving, and drew his sword as the Batman held Tim in a sleeper hold. Quinn was standing behind him, looking woozy but proud of herself, clutching a micro-tracer between her fingers. Of course.
Against Batman, it was no contest. Within seconds he had cut off Tim’s air supply, and in a few more seconds he was knocked out. Unconscious, drooping against Batman’s gigantic figure, he seemed young again.
“Tim,” Father whispered, and for a second Damian could taste brain in his mouth again. “Tim…”
He knelt there, holding his son, until the cavalry came, and Damian stayed with him.
The funeral was an event. Almost a spectacle, which was more than he would have wanted. Damian knew that he was obligated to make an appearance, that he might regret it if he didn’t, but he decided to stay with Richard instead.
While the Justice League held the secular ceremony at the Watchtower, with his body already buried at the family cemetery, Damian sat in a public park with a nine year old boy. They were both eating ice cream - Damian’s a drumstick, Richard’s a rocket pop - and enjoying the sunshine. There were ducks in the pond in front of them, and Damian had a small bag of lettuce and peas with him to feed them.
They would hold off on announcing the death of Bruce Wayne for a month or two, so the world wouldn’t connect the two. Maybe give him some time to get back, as well. For today, the Justice League and the Justice Society mourned the Batman.
“Don’t you want to be up there?” Richard asked in French. English was roughly his seventh language, and he was barely passable at it. It wasn’t the time to throw him into immersive learning yet, so the house easily accustomed to the French. Jason struggled somewhat, but appreciated the chance to learn. “He’s your Papa.”
“I’d rather spend the time with you, honestly,” Damian said. He licked carefully at the ice cream. He had never quite gotten the hang of American food. “Would you like to be there? He’s your guardian too.”
Richard sucked carefully at his ice cream before popping his lips off. His tongue was dyed bright red. “I dunno. I didn’t like Papa and Mama’s funeral. It was...everyone was crying. If people are going to be crying at Bruce’s funeral, I don’t want that.” He scuffed his feet on the gravel a little. Birds tweeted in the sky above them. It was a beautiful day. “I only knew him for like a month.”
“It’s okay if you don’t feel as sad as you think you should,” Damian said shortly. “or if you don’t feel as sad as the others.”
“Tim doesn’t seem sad.”
“Tim pretends he has no feelings other than hatred and smugness.” He was getting vauguely better about it - he was nothing other than sweet to Richard, thank fuck - but Cass had already punched him three times over being snide about Father’s death. “But...he really did want you, Richard. He wanted nothing more than for you to be a part of our family.” He took a deep breath, unreasonably afraid. Why was this hard? He had killed people, killed supervillains, and talking to this innocent little child was one of the hardest things he had ever done. “If you will still have us, Richard, I would be very honored to be your guardian.”
Richard squinted up at him, crunching on his ice cream. “But you’re not old like Bruce or my Mama and Papa.”
“I’m twenty five. That’s almost how old Father was when he met me.”
“Oh.” Richard crunched on his ice cream some more, deep in juvenile thought. “You aren’t nice like my Mama and Papa either.”
“I’m afraid I’m not,” Damian said apologetically.
Richard looked down at his hands, sticky with red syrup. “I wanted to live with Bruce,” he confessed. “Him being gone is weird. But I am so numb, it’s like I don’t even care. I do care, Dami. Normally, I...I care a lot about things. But so much as happened I feel numb inside. He looked up at Damian, eyes brimming with tears. “Am I a bad person?”
“No, honey, of course not.” Damian cautiously reached out, and was rewarded when Richard eagerly hugged him and settled in under his arm. A hugger. They’ve never had one of those before. “You know, you...remind me a lot of myself when I first came to live in America.”
“Really?” Richard sniffed.
Damian just nodded, lost in memory. “Yeah. I was an outsider, too. Brown, with a weird accent, always too angry and cold and adult. I grew up communally too, and I lost everything when I moved here. What I got back didn’t seem worth it.”
“That’s me too,” Richard said. “That’s just like me.”
“Then maybe we’re a good pair,” Damian said fondly. “If you are angry, or cold, I understand. That is okay. The sun will shine on us again, Richard. Everything will be okay.”
“Everything will be okay?”
“Yes,” Damian said firmly, and in that moment it would. Because Damian wanted it to, because he wanted to give that to Richard. He would move the world if it made Richard smile, because he deserved it. Because Damian had deserved it, fifteen years ago. “You will always have a place with me. I...I know I can’t replace your parents, Richard, but if you will let me be your brother I would be very honored.”
Richard hugged him tighter and turned his face into his Damian’s side. “And you will be Batman?”
He couldn’t believe he was about to say it, but - “If that makes you uncomfortable, I won’t. Gotham can get along without a Batman for a while.”
“Oh.” Richard frowned up at him. “Does that mean I don’t get to be Robin?”
Somewhere, Father was laughing. Damian sighed. “I’m not promising anything.”
“Mama used to say that,” Richard said easily, almost cheerfully. “But I always got what I wanted. I want to ride in the Batmobile and play on the Batcomputer in the Batcave -”
“The what and what in the what?”
“Batmobile and Batcomputer and Batcave,” Dick said patiently, repeating the words in English before switching back to French. “I named them that. It is stupid that they don’t have names.” He adopted a somewhat sly expression. “I was raised with a big family, you know. Mama and Papa always said that in our family, you can have more than one Mama and Papa. Mama and Papa will always be my Mama and Papa, but for a little while Bruce could be a Papa too, and that’s okay. It doesn’t replace, it gets bigger. You can be a Papa too, if you want.”
He thought, in a moment, of Jason, of Cass and Steph and Tim. “I’m okay with that,” Damian said, stupidly choked up. “Yes. That’s okay with me.”
When he took Richard home that afternoon, carrying the tired little boy on his back, he opened the door to the manor to find an impromptu family meeting. Everyone was there, all of his siblings and Alfred, even Tim, and Jon was standing in the middle. He seemed very stressed out, which was reasonable.
Everyone froze when they saw him, carrying Richard on his back, and an identical expression crossed all of their faces.
“Told you,” Steph said, crossing her arms. “Jay owes me a hundred bucks.”
“Dammit, Dami,” Jason complained, stomping his foot. “Couldn’t you have waited, like, another week before adopting the kid? Steph’s gonna hold this over my head forever.”
Tim was sprayed on the couch, drinking whiskey from the bottle, and he rolled his eyes and burped. “Bet he’s already sewing the adorable little suit. Gonna model it after his little circus uniform, bro? Give him little pixie boots?”
“Can we please do that,” Cass whispered, eyes gleaming. “So cute!”
Alfred just sighed, standing up and rubbing his hands. “I suppose I’ll baby-proof the Cave, then.”
“Batcave,” Damian corrected, almost inanely. Everyone stared at him as if he had grown a second head. “Uh - it’s the Batcave now. Richard said.”
Tim snickered. “He goes by Dick, you know.”
“Yes, and that’s stopping now.” Damian jerked his head at Cass, who quickly came forward and gently took Richard from him. “If you can get him up to bed? Thanks.” He glanced at Jon, who was wringing his hands, hair windswept. He must have come straight here after the funeral, his suit all messed up. “I have something to discuss with Jon.”
Jason snickered, in a horrible mimicry of Tim. Once those two started talking to each other they had quickly become terrible influences on each other. “Trust me, you do.”
But they filed out quickly enough, the girls pecking him on the cheek as the boys playfully punched him on the arm, and Alfred nodded at Damian as they all climbed back down into the Batcave to change to start their stretches in preparation for the night. Crime didn’t stop just because Batman did.
Finally, it was just him and Jon, and Damian found his mouth dry.
“I have something to tell you,” they said simultaneously. They both flushed, and also simultaneously said, “No, you first.”
Alright. Damian didn’t play games, so he sighed and actually went first. “I am sorry I missed the funeral. I - I told myself I had to babysit Richard, but in reality I just didn’t want to come. I’m sorry. I know it was unfair, and disrespectful, and it made a horrible son, but -”
“Hey, Dami, c’mon.” Jon stepped forward, smiling hesitantly, and swiped a lock of hair away from Damian’s forehead. “Nobody blames you for that, dude. You’re his oldest son, you can decide how you mourn. Is that all you needed to tell me?”
“I’m adopting Richard,” Damian said faintly.
“I’m also becoming Batman.”
“Yep,” Jon said, eyes wide. “Hm. Yep.”
Then, all of a sudden, it was like a dam had broken, and everything came out at once. Not all of it - not the grief, the sadness, the fear, but the sheer panic. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” Damian cried. “I’m twenty five, I’m not old enough for a kid! He wants to be Robin and I can already tell he’s gonna worm his way into the suit eventually. Now I have sole responsibility over Gotham, I’m the goddamn Batman or whatever, and I thought I would be thirty before Father ever passed on this legacy! But I’m not, Father’s dead, and I’m the oldest so I have to do it! I have a kid now, Jon, I’m a single father, and I can’t do this all by myself! The courts will never give a circus kid to a single gay Middle Eastern man! It’s so fucking sketchy!”
Jon frowned, contemplative. “What about if you weren’t single?”
“Obviously we’re dating,” Damian said, exasperated, “but I meant marital status, and last time I checked I was still - Jon, what are you doing?”
Because Jon had stepped back, and Jon had reached into his pocket, and Jon had gotten down on one knee, and Jon had pulled out a thick silver band. There was a single gem encrusted in the center, and lettering engraved into the inside.
“Damian,” Jon said. “Will you -”
“Oh my god,” Damian said, bursting into tears, like a complete girl.
“Let me give my speech!” Jon, horribly enough, was burning bright red and obviously completely embarrassed. “I worked hard on it, let me say it!”
“Holy shit, Jon -”
“I love you, Damian Wayne,” Jon said loudly, drowning him out. He hoped the others weren’t hearing this. What was he kidding, they were listening at the door. “I’ve loved you since we were twelve and you kept on attacking me with your sword, and I loved you since we were fifteen and you agreed to date me just to get back at your dad, and I loved you since you were eighteen and the first thing you did after coming home was tell me you loved me. Okay? I love how much you love your family and I love that you just agreed to adopt a random child who you barely knew, because it was the right thing to do. I want to spend my life with you. Kryptonians, Damian, we - we mate for life. And it’s you. It’s always been you.” He faltered. “I know this is bad timing since your dad’s dead and you’re a dad now and I just asked your entire family for their blessing and they roasted me really hard, and I guess this makes me a step-dad at twenty five too so at least we’re in this together, so just please say yes because now I’m babbling -”
“You fucking idiot,” Damian gasped, and he leaned forward down and kissed him. “Yes, idiot, of course, yes!”
Then Jon laughed, and leapt into the air with his arms around Damian’s waist, and they floated in the middle of Damian’s living room with his family listening bursting into the room screaming their heads off, even little Richard who clearly didn’t know what was going on but was very excited to be included, and they spun together in orbit around each other, and Damian’s future opened up in front of him, bright and real and welcome.