Damian barely makes it past the kitchen – howling laughter and mocking jeers and bright, sunny smiles and too much too soon. The hallway is long enough and dark enough that he just manages to catch his breath before he’s standing in front of Bruce’s office. He’s dreamt of this since he was six years old, still with his baby teeth and his mother pressing the hilt of a sword to his tiny hands. The promise of someday being good enough, strong enough, worthy enough to fill his father’s shoes. The door is pulled shut and Alfred has been keeping it clean, but it’s not calling for Damian to step inside the way it’s always seemed to be. Damian’s not ready. He pushes forward anyway, heavy weight settling on his chest as he does.
It’s still very Bruce in an I’m-the-most-feared-man-in-Gotham-way-and-I-damn-well-know-it kind of way. The room is dark and polished and done up in a pristine, minimalistic way. The furniture is sleek and shiny, and the computer is huge and the cabinets in the far corner are foreboding. However, there are hints of another’s influence in the soft armchair pushed up against the wall with a bright, red Superman patterned cushion and comforter and pictures tacked to the wall, snapshots of loved ones with smiles and grumpy faces. The room is a mix of Bruce, the Batman Damian had come to replace, and Dick, the Batman who’d taken him in, ruffled his hair and made him Robin.
Damian crosses the room, steps tentative and shaky. He can’t make himself sit in Bruce’s chair and he doesn’t dare to upset the little impact Dick had made in his short stint as Batman. For now, all he can manage is standing in the middle of the room, allowing the pressure and expectations and necessity overwhelm him, swallow him up and make him stronger at his core.
Then, there’s a soft pressure of a head leaning against his hip and a gentle touch at his wrist, tiny, soft fingers wrapping at his pulse and grounding him. He peers down into the curious eyes of his brother, expression softening and tension melting from his shoulders almost instantly.
“It’s scary in here,” Dick decides, voice soft and whispered, “Do you want me to hold your hand?”
Dick pokes his small hand out, earnest in the way he’s always been. Instead, Damian pulls him up, lifting his small body against his chest. Dick’s small enough that he can easily be carried around and very much enjoys the embrace. He snuggles into Damian’s shirt, face pressed against the older boy’s collarbone. He stays quiet, humming a made-up song under his breath but Damian doesn’t think he’s even aware he’s doing it, clutching and squeezing and pressing short, sweet kisses to Damian’s chin in comfort.
Damian returns the favour by waltzing around the room and relaying the stories behind the pictures that Dick had taken but can’t remember. Stories of a life he’s lost and the person they’d all lost with it. A life exchanged for a new one filled with responsibilities and siblings and a persistent lack of parents, but they’ve still got each other. And with the child glued to his torso, giggling away at the picture of Red Hood with strawberry ice cream smushed all over his helmet, the cone sitting at the top of his head, Damian finds the strength he needs. He’ll make his Batman, the Batman who he’d had all for himself, the Batman who was counting on him, proud.
Red Hood is suited up, slouched on one of the beds in the infirmary with his legs swinging freely. His helmet masks his face, but Damian can feel his scowl and disapproving eyes.
Red Robin tugs the hood over his head, smoothens out the cape and takes a step back. Alfred had adjusted the suit to fit Damian’s leaner, shorter frame, but it doesn’t feel right. Too heavy and restrictive and so unlike the Robin costume.
“You don’t have to do this,” Tim reminds, fingers reaching out towards his face. Damian pulls away before he can do anything foolish like brush through his hair or pinch his cheek and scowls.
“Yeah,” Jason stalks across the room, face turned up in an ugly, derisive frown, “you can stay home and play mommy again.”
Damian ignores him, turning away from his brothers. How had Dick put up with these insufferable fools? “You know that I do. It’s my job to step in.” To don the cape and cowl when his father and Grayson had failed.
Tim had taken charge of the Wayne Enterprises. Jason had stayed out of their hair. Dick was another story altogether. And Damian had no choice but to become Batman.
“Oracle’s tuned in to our line and Jason and I will stick close, so call if you need us,” Tim presses on, determined.
Damian nods shortly before he gives Alfred a small wave and a smaller smile.
“Be safe, Master Damian,” the butler is warm and gentle.
“I will.” And then Damian is off, sinking into the dark night, dressed as a bat seeking vengeance and justice. For the first time since Richard Grayson had wooed Batman’s heart and made himself his partner, Batman was going out without a Robin.
The patrol is slow and quiet and for a moment, Damian believes that everything might work out. Batman usually avoided petty crimes but with nothing else to do, Damian starts hanging closer to the ground. Months ago, he’d been doing the same job in a Robin suit and his stomach turns because it’s different now. Gotham is sick and twisted through the lens of Batman. Robin had been a beacon of hope. His name spilled from the lips of innocent children and desperate parents who’d managed to find hope in the bird. Batman was uttered with disdain and fear. He was a promise of destruction and sinister plans foiled.
“Please,” the cry is soft and broken, strung out and shivering in the cold, dark night.
Damian swings down, masking himself with the shadows. The alley is dim and wet, the back of a bar spilling out. There’s a couple pressed up against the wall and Damian wouldn’t have thought twice if he hadn’t heard the plea.
“Hush, babe,” a command and a gentle touch. “Relax, I’ve got you.”
“No,” a man’s voice, “I don’t… my head… where’s Peter? Vixen?”
“Be quiet. Everything’s fine,” another man. Two men. Man on man rape. Damian feels acid burning the back of his throat.
“You going to do anything?” a gruff voice at his ear has Damian startling. Red Hood is there, shoving roughly at his shoulder, pushing him back against the wall.
“Worse than Grayson,” Jason says just because he knows it will hurt and drops down to the floor. In a couple of seconds, he’s got the perpetrator bound and sagged against the wall and is tending to the drugged man.
Damian watches, hovers, hesitates and then takes off, disappearing – fleeing – into the darkness.
The return to the manor is everything Damian had hoped it wouldn’t be. Red Robin had already returned, and Red Hood had retreated to one of his safe houses for the night. Damian had been planning to nurse a cup of cocoa and work on some sketches to soothe his aching heart. He’d dealt with worse than a couple muggings, gang-related crime and the rape, but his insides felt slimy and achy. However, he’s met by Alfred and the fluttering of the bats’ wings in the cave can’t mask the Disney soundtrack playing upstairs.
“Clark’s here,” Alfred sets out a pair of sweats for him, looking worse for wear than Damian’s seen him in a long time.
“It appears that Master Richard wasn’t aware that Batman would be returning tonight.”
Oh. Yes. “About that—”
“If you are not capable of caring for him,” Alfred starts, “I will. Don’t forget that I’m not merely a butler. And I care for Master Richard. As does Clark.”
“You won’t take him,” Damian snaps, pulling the suit off and leaving it on the floor. It’s muddied and bloody and too familiar. “He’s mine. We agreed that he’s mine.”
“Only if you prove that you can handle it. Master Richard should have no reason to call Clark in the middle of the night.”
“A nightmare, then? How can I stop that? He’s a child. It happens.” Damian’s almost shouting. Almost. He can’t bring himself to actually yell at the butler.
“Have you taken him to the grave yet?” Alfred has a knowing look.
Damian pauses, jaw clenched, “He’s not ready yet.” He grabs the clothes and slinks towards the showers. “Would you tell Clark that I’ll be up soon?” He doesn’t wait for Alfred’s reply.
He finds Clark and Dick in the living room, the child snuggled up against Superman with sleepy eyes. Dick jumps up when he sees Damian, teary and desperate as he clambers towards the teenager.
“Hey, hey,” Damian coos, pushing a hand through Dick’s soft, tangled hair, “It’s okay.”
Dick shakes his head, burying deep into his brother’s embrace. “You left me.”
“No, Dickie. I told you I’d be going out. I promised I’d come back. I came back. I’d never leave you.”
Dick pulls away, cheeks wet and shiny, tiny lips pulled down in a frown. “You’re Batman now?”
Damian swallows, hard. “Yes.”
“Did I – Did I tell you to do that?” Did Richard Grayson make you Batman?
“No, Dick. You didn’t.”
“Good. I don’t like this. It’s too dangerous.”
Clark snorts. Damian sends him a warning glare.
“See? I’m right,” Dick grins, accomplished.
“Gotham needs a Batman, Dick.” Damian sets him down, ignoring Dick’s attempts to stay perched in his arms. “You should know that better than anyone.” Gotham’s a place where children watch their parents’ murders.
Dick seeks out the refuge of Clark’s embrace and the man easily accommodates him, large hands wrapping his small body in a hug. Dick looks ridiculously tiny against his broad chest, but his eyes are defiant and his shoulders are squared. “I don’t want you hurt.”
It takes everything Damian has to not stomp away. “You don’t think I’m capable? I’ll have you know that I was the best Robin – much better than you were, Grayson – and. And I’m doing this whether you like it or not.”
“The Dick Grayson I know would have never doubted me,” Damian adds before he turns away and walks – not stomps – to his room.
Later in the night, he hears Clark crooning a tale of bunny rabbits and elephants and a quiet, cheery voice urging him to continue. Dick’s laugh is tired and slow, and Damian does not feel betrayed and definitely doesn’t feel lonely. His eyes don’t itch and his throat doesn’t feel stuffy. Mostly, he does not miss the bundle of warmth he’d grown accustomed to having cuddled into his side.