Standard disclaimers apply, thanks to dragonprincess1988 for beta help :) Merry Christmas!
"Just hold the damned tree while I make sure the base…"
"This is the most pointless thing we've ever done. And you have made me endure coutless pointless--"
"Are you going to hold the tree straight or what?"
And with that, Damien let go of the twenty-foot spruce that Dick was trying to secure with screws into the live tree base they'd been using for the last fifteen years. The tree came crashing toward him, and he barely had enough time to get out of the way before it took his head off.
Damien, for his part, was already stalking out of the parlor, toward the stairs.
"You get back here, right this minute!"
"This has NOTHING to do with fighting crime!"
Dick looked at the screw in his hand and threw it at the tree spread out on the tile floor. "This has everything to do with fighting crime! We have an IMAGE to uphold in this town. And that is the image of people who share Christmas with loved ones and do all the things NORMAL people do. Because we're NORMAL. DAMMIT."
The boy looked at him with a puckered, miserable face. "NO. This has everything to do with your dysfunctional sense of sentimentality for some festival that I'm certain my father never partook of willingly and your own pathetic need to relive pointless tradition."
And with that, Damien spun on his heel and retreated upstairs without hesitation.
Dick looked down at the needles littering the floor and the tree laying on its side. "Dammit."
"Trouble with the tree, Master Dick?"
It should have sounded like concern, but Dick could hear the sarcasm in Alfred's voice. The younger of the two turned around, rubbing his neck. "Bruce always made putting up the tree look so easy." He kicked at one of the branches. "And so mandatory."
"He used a laser leveler, if that helps."
It did. But not with what he wanted help with. "I just wanted this to be fun. You know, me, him, putting up the tree, drinking eggnog…"
Alfred just stood in the doorway, not bothering to say what they both knew.
"Look, I've been busy the last few years. Bruce was too. I came on Christmas day. When it was important."
"Then let this go. Things will have cooled over by Christmas. There will be dinner as always, and life will continue on."
Dick wished he had some witty comeback for that. Some joke he could crack about a hothead like Damien and possibly smothering the boy in a snowdrift to cool him down. But his heart just wasn't in it. He just stared at the tree, lost.
"God. Remember that one year, when Clark helped us set up the tree. And he got all anal about having ornaments on every other branch, and not on every branch, or something? And Bruce just let him have his way? What was up with that? Bruce never does that. Did that." Dick twisted a piece of pine in his fingers for a moment. "What do I do, Alfred? Bruce was a terrible parent. I mean—a god-awful one. I think he was a worse dad than Oliver Queen. But he never screwed up Christmas. I'm screwing up Christmas! Oh my god! I am killing--"
A hand clasped his shoulder. He had no idea when Alfred had come up to him, he'd been lost in his own little rant. "You're not destroying Christmas."
It didn't alleviate the aching in his stomach or the heart pounding in his chest. "Bruce never killed Christmas. I can't put the damned tree up without intervention and Damien's upstairs in his room plotting my demise or the destruction of the universe or who the hell knows what, Tim isn't talking to me, Barbara won't return my calls unless it's about work, AND I CAN'T EVEN HAVE CHRISTMAS RIGHT."
He pulled away from Alfred, running his hands through his hair, pacing in front of the tree. "Like, what the hell? I've had Christmas before. I know how Christmas goes. And I can't even do it the way it's supposed to go."
"There's no manual for Christmas."
"You have to do it right, Alfred. You have to do it exactly right. You have to..."
Alfred stepped in front of him, stopping him dead in his tracks. "Richard, perhaps you will explain to me exactly how one performs Christmas correctly."
Dick gestured to the tree mess. "You have to have the tree up right, first of all. And second of all, you have to--"
"No, you don't."
"You have to have a tree at Christmas," he repeated dully, like a particularly obsessive-compulsive child. "You put the decorations on it, and everyone has to help…"
"No, you don't. None of those things are important. CHRISTMAS is not important."
"Oh my god. Alfred, how can you say that? We did Christmas every year and you guys made a big deal about it. We had the tree, and the cookies, and the pie, and it was the only night of the year that Batman didn't go out, and we sat around three and we did it RIGHT. We did it the way you're supposed to do Christmas. Every. Year. But Damien won't do Christmas. He's always dialed up to 11, and at least one day a year, Bruce at least dialed it down to like… nine and a half. I knew he was checking the police scanners every time he left the room, but he was here. The whole night."
"Except for when you went to bed, and he left the moment your eyes closed. And the reason why Master Bruce stayed in so long on Christmas Eve? I shamed him into it. If the boy doesn't want to perform Christmas rituals, then don't make him. We did it for your sake. Perhaps letting go of tradition is what we should do for his."
Dick's shoulder slumped. He knew he was defeated. He hated it when Alfred talked sense sometimes. "Fine." He sighed and backed away from the tree, leaving it to deal with later. He headed toward the study, lost in thought. "I hate how, sometimes, he's so much like Bruce."
Alfred picked up the screws from the floor. "And sometimes, I hate how he is so different," Alfred said quietly to himself.
"Has he finally given up on the tree?"
Alfred didn't respond. He simply walked over to the tree base to see the massive dent in the metal from the fall. "I suppose we'll need to purchase another one. Before the shops close, preferably." He looked at the time. "You're welcome to come with me, if you wish. If not, I'm sure you'll find Master Dick sulking in the cave."
"Oh you're not mad at me too, are you? Over some invented holiday?"
"No, Master Damien, I am not angry with you over a holiday." And that was all Alfred bothered to say of the matter. "Coming or going, Master Damien? I don't have time to dally." Alfred slid the screws into his pocket and headed to the front door, not paying any attention to whether his charge was with him or not.
Damien scowled at the tree, then ran to catch up. "This is that reverse psychology trash, is it not? Well, I'm only coming with you because if I go down to the cave, Dick will be miserable to be around. Not because I care about a dead tree."
"That's fine," Alfred said, handing the young man his coat. "As long as you can proceed to not-care about the dead tree quietly. And keep your hands to yourself this time."
"I didn't know that mixer was plugged in! Or that that guy was wearing a toupee!"
"A likely story…" the door closed behind them and Dick was left standing at the end of a long hallway, realizing he wasn't going to have his chance to apologize to Damien just yet. He wondered where they were going, and if he was being taught some strange object lesson by Alfred, being left alone on Christmas Eve by himself.
Heading back down to the cave, he resumed the database searches he'd started earlier. Christmas was as good of a time as any to work cold cases, right?
Christmas didn't mean anything, anyways. Alfred had said so.
Dick clicked through screens for a few moments until he realized he wasn't reading any of the words.
Pulling out his cell phone, he dialed Barbara first, and when he got no answer, tried Tim. The voice mail picked up after the first ring. "This is Tim. Leave a message."
When had Tim's voice mail gotten so utilitarian? There used to at least be Tim fumbling over his words, or Tim trying to be clever by telling the caller that they knew what to do at the beep. Dick almost hung up before the tone. "Hey. It's me. Look… I know things haven't been… I just mean… well, keep yourself safe. And Merry Christmas. Or something. I don't know. Whatever." Sighing, he hung up after leaving the worst phone message in the history of the technology.
He could call Wally. Or Clark. Or Roy. Even though calling Roy was a sign of desperation. Just to say Merry Christmas. Even though Christmas Didn't Matter.
It was just a day, right? A made-up holiday, like Damien pointed out at least thirteen times in the last day or so. It only mattered because it mattered to him. And it shouldn't matter to him, right? It shouldn't…
Phone to his ear, it was ringing again before he'd completely thought it through. "Hey, Dick, is something up?"
"Ok, so that one time, when you got OCD about the ornaments on the tree, and Bruce totally didn't flip his shit and just completely let you have your own way, why'd he do that? Because Christmas doesn't matter, right? And it didn't matter to him, because he was only doing it because Alfred made him, and even though he said he stayed in the whole night on Christmas Eve, he took off as soon as I was in bed. So what's the deal?"
Clark laughed. "Merry Christmas to you too. I don't know. I just figured it was the law of averages. Bruce had to let me win an argument once in a while, and the ornament thing was meaningless in the grand scheme of things. So he was padding his odds for later on." He paused. "I don't know. Why?"
"I don't know. I just thought of it. It was stupid. Sorry." Dick could feel his cheeks growing red. That was just great. He was supposed to be Batman and not obsess over stupid kid things. "I'll let you go. Merry Christmas."
"No. I'm not busy."
"You have the Superman Robot on patrol again for you, don't you?"
"Just for Christmas. Not even my anniversary. After that one time."
"With the lasers and the shooting. I know." Something about that made Dick smile—probably for the first time this week. When had Christmas become Serious Business? "Well, at least Lois' eyebrow grew back, right?"
"Always have to think of the positives, I say. So. How's Damien's first Christmas going?"
Dick drew in a breath to speak and then held it, as if the pause would somehow change the outcome of the way the afternoon had gone down. "Well, you know. I'm stupid, it's stupid, everything's stupid…"
"Ouch. You at least didn't hit that stage until you were thirteen or fourteen. It was like, one day, a switch had been flipped, and Bruce could do no right."
"Great. Thanks. Like I have anything in common with that kid. Sometimes I wonder if we're even from the same PLANET. I am from Earth and he's from 'Planet Crazy-People.'" And besides, the situation with Bruce had been different. Dick had been right, and Bruce had been wrong, after all.
"I think you're more alike than you are different. If that's helpful at all."
It wasn't, really. Also, the thought of being too much like Damien was a little nausea inducing. "They just don't think Christmas is important. So, ok, fine—whatever." He sighed. "I guess I'm old enough to get over thinking Christmas is important. I mean, it's not like I'm overly religious and it's not like I really have a family anymore...well, one that's mostly still talking to me anyway. And I seriously did not call you to whine. I promise. I'm just..." A crap Batman, sometimes. Because, seriously, Batman didn't whine. It was in the bylaws somewhere.
"You're doing fine. I'd be surprised if you WEREN'T completely out of your depth at least ONCE in a while with Damien. It's not like parenting comes with a manual."
"Oh no, wait, dude. Right there. I am definitely NOT his parent. I'm barely even his FRIEND."
Clark laughed. "Whatever you need to tell yourself, Dick. Lois is home--I've gotta go, but you have a good Christmas, and don't let Damian get you down. You can have your tree and decorate it too."
Clark hung up before Dick could return with a clever retort about how he couldn't even have a damned tree—he couldn't make it stand up on his own. But the conversation had left Dick smiling. Granted, it was an evil smile—like when he was about to do something horrible to the Batmobile, like fill it with peanut butter. But what he was thinking of doing was evil. Evil of the likes he'd never attempted with Bruce.
He looked at his watch. Time was wasting. He only had about seven hours before midnight.
It was wrong and unnatural for Batman to grin from ear to ear. It was even wronger for him to be putting that weird icecicley stuff all over the tree he'd dragged into the cave with the aid of a grappling hook and a climbing equipment. Dick would just leave out that he had used aircraft cable and pullies to winch the tree into an upright position since he didn't have someone else to hold the monstrosity.
In the house, 20 feet had looked just big enough. IN the cave, it looked infinitesimal against the cathedral ceilings created by the Stalactites.
When the tree was covered in the silvery stuff, he grabbed the ugly orange extension cord he'd rigged the whole deal up with, and plugged in the lights. The tree popped on first, but just a second after, the enormous outdoor bulbs strung around the computers and lab equipment fired up and started blinking in clever little patterns.
Batman saw it, and it was good.
"What in the HELL have you done to the Batcave?"
If it wasn't for the boyish alto making the declaration, it would have been the same tone and inflection that Bruce would ask him just what in the hell he'd done to The Car.
Somehow it made his grin just a bit wider and maniacal, like his face would split open if he smiled any happier. Right now, the cowl was the only thing holding his head together, or it'd explode from sheer evil glee. "He. He. He. He."
"You've finally lost it, haven't you?"
He gestured to his kingdom. "You're right, Damien. Christmas is stupid." And awesome. Christmas was awesome, when it was in the Batcave. New tradition. He'd just declared it.
Dick finally looked over at the boy on the cave steps. He was wearing a stupid-ass sweater that lit up and probably required fifty-four AA batteries. Those things didn't look good on anybody. But they looked HYSTERICAL on serious-as-shit Damien Wayne. Possibly funnier than they looked on Bruce. Cos at least Bruce had the Brucie façade to maintain. Damien was just a stick in the frickin' mud.
Somehow, Batman managed to not laugh at the sight. But he did stand there, perhaps a little too long, just grinning stupidly.
"Well, fine. If Christmas is stupid, than you don't need to come upstairs and have some cookies and pie."
"Before we go on patrol." Dick wasn't stupid enough to believe that Damien was going to let "the Mission" go for one night.
"Of course. Crime does not stop for banal human traditions and--"
"Right. Whatever. Pie first, patrol second." Dick had already ditched the cowl and was pealing off the gloves. "And thanks, Damien."
"For what? I also like pie."
The belt got tossed on a chair somewhere and the boots were kicked across the floor. Grabbing the nearest set of clothes, he scrambled into them even while he was walking up the steps. "For meeting me half-way with the Christmas thing."
"Your holiday is still meaningless and the lights are distracting. I doubt my father would approve of the Cave's décor."
Dick stopped at the door behind the Grandfather clock. "Probably. But he always wore the stupid light-up sweaters, though. Even in front of Superman." That was probably it—it was really hard to appeal to logic and the mission-critical nature of proper ornament placement when you were wearing a light-up sweater and reindeer socks.
He pushed open the door and was surprised to see the small, but tasteful decorations (sans tree, of course), around the study and in the connecting rooms. "Aww, Damien. You guys didn't have to."
The smell of gingerbread caught his nose, and he automatically began drifting toward the kitchen.
"No, we did not have to. But we did."
Alfred probably told him that it was improper to make holiday foods without appropriately festive decoration. It was ok, Dick would take it.
"This smells great," he told his old friend, who was pulling something from the oven. "Do you mind if we take it down stairs?"
"I thought there was to be no work done on Christmas Eve, Master Dick?"
"New rules this year, Alfred." He snagged a cookie off of a plate on the counter. "Besides, I made all the lights in the lab blink to music. How can we watch that, if we're up here." He crammed the cookie in, full force—mostly to hide how hard he was smiling.
"Yes," Damien said dully. "You'd be very proud of him. He's using a thirty-thousand dollar computer to coordinate the blinking to 'Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer.' And going out for the new tree stand was pointless—he has it hoisted up in the Cave as if it were being lynched."
Dick grabbed a couple of plates and gestured for Damien to take the pies. "Later on, I plan on hooking it up to your SHIRT when Jingle Bells comes around in the music rotation…"
Damien said something about wasting energy on pointless pursuits, but Dick didn't care. They were together and that was all that mattered.
Besides. Damien's boots were filled to the ankle with chunky organic peanut butter.