There was a silence. Dick didn't even look up, but Damian saw what he held in his hands. Dread filled his stomach, dropping through his chest like a ten-ton weight. He tried to look away, to pretend that he didn't notice. He couldn't even fake it.
"Damian," said Dick, and oh, Christ, there it was, Dick was disappointed and Damian just wanted to throw himself out the window right then and there because he could put up with anything, with pretty much anything apart from the look in Dick's eye when he was disappointed in him.
Dick held out the sketchbook. He didn't open it, just held it out. Damian took it from him.
Dick said, "You're a very talented artist."
Fear tightened in Damian's insides. "I've had much practice."
"Those are some very interesting images."
Damian looked away. Goddammit. "They're just pictures."
"Where did you get the inspiration for them? Are you drawing things you dream about?"
Damian looked at Dick as if he were stupid. "Are you joking?" he asked. "Considering the level of violence and hate and murder I see every night, you're honestly wondering where I find my inspiration?"
"I'm just asking," said Dick. "You're young, Damian. I know you have a hard time accepting that, but you're just a kid. I'm really nervous about how all this negativity is affecting you."
"I'm fine," sniffed Damian.
"Your drawings say otherwise."
"They're just pictures."
Dick said nothing for a moment. Then he asked, "Can I see that again?"
Damian looked down at the sketchbook in his hands. Then, slowly, he held it out, and Dick took it from him. He opened it, flipped through some of the pages. He reached one. The bust of a man wearing the cowl. His mouth was sewed shut; the cowl ears crumpled and nearly falling off. Dick turned the sketchbook towards Damian, displaying this image.
"Okay," he said. "Just tell me one thing." He paused, then asked, "Is this him, or me?"
Damian looked at the picture for a few moments, then reached out and took it from him. "That's you," he said. "This is him."
He turned a few pages, then held up the book again. Two gigantic eyes, dark and beady, the eyes of a bat, staring out threateningly, dangerously. Watching them vigilantly.
Dick stared at this, then said, "I get that."
"I thought you would," said Damian, lowering the sketchbook.
"I don't get me," Dick continued. "I mean, I know you say I talk too much, but don't you think sewing my mouth shut is a little bit extreme?"
"No," said Damian, and he began to sound upset. "No, I didn't do that to you."
"You did," said Dick. "Look, you drew me just like that. And while we're at it, why am I even wearing the cowl? I was just keeping the suit warm, Damian, I've told you that many times-"
"I know," interrupted Damian. "I know that. You aren't Batman. You didn't even want to be Batman. Batman is not who you are. See?"
He held up the same picture again, the one of Dick in the cowl with a mouth sewn shut and broken ears. Dick stopped and he looked at it for a long time, frowning slightly.
And then he said, "Yeah. Yeah. I do see it, actually."
There was a silence. Damian put down the sketchbook again.
"But still," continued Dick. "My question stands. Why am I wearing the cowl? Why didn't you, like, draw me laughing or something? I'm hilarious, I laugh all the time. Why the cowl?"
Damian smoothed the cover of the sketchbook. Quietly, he said, "You left. This is in case I forget why."
A silence. Dick sighed and leaned back. "You know, now that we've bonded, you make it really difficult not to like you."
"Bonded?" scoffed Damian. "I have no idea what you mean."
"Sure you do," said Dick, taking the sketchbook from Damian again. "We bonded. Maybe when we fought…" he flipped through the pages, "…Professor Pyg?" he held up a page full of blood and disgusting, rippling, naked flesh, and a hauntingly familiar mask. "Or Flamingo?" A figure on a motorcycle, gun in hand, the bleeding skin of a face stitched over his own. "Hell, even Jason Todd." A simple drawing of a skeletal figure wearing the Robin uniform, its skull twisted into an unnatural snarl. "You bonded with everybody. Look at this."
He held up another drawing, this one of someone wearing Tim's old Robin uniform, his face contorted into a silence scream, his eyes deep and full of rage. "Tim." A solid, angelic face, connected to a body torn into ragged pieces. "Steph." A page full of fluid movements, a language unto its own. Damian was surprised Dick could identify the figures. "Cass." A wheelchair torn in two, a solitary figure lying face down. "Aw, look at that. Even Babs."
Damian took the sketchbook back. "Don't mock me," he growled.
"I'm not," he said. "Honest to God, Damian, I'm not. I get it. I get that you need to explore what these people are to you. What the things you see mean to you. I think it's really important that you do so, because if you don't think about these things then they build up inside of you and you don't know how to express them. Your old man's the same way."
Damian looked down at his sketchbook, unwilling to meet Dick's gaze.
"Look, Bruce shouldn't have looked at these. I know that in this house, it's hard to have things that are really yours, things that he has no power over. Believe me, I know, I lived here too. These drawings should have been that, they should have been yours completely. He shouldn't have looked at them and he definitely shouldn't have asked me to talk to you about them."
"Better you than him," uttered Damian venomously.
"Right," said Dick. "I'm not one hundred percent sure you mean that, but I'll let it slide. In any case, I just wanted to touch base with you to say that it's okay. It's okay to have things that he doesn't know about. It's okay to feel things that he doesn't understand. Man, I didn't really have anybody to tell me this when I was growing up with him, but it was a different time then and I had the opportunity to start a great team, which unfortunately is something that may not be able to happen for you. I'm sorry that I'm gone so much, and I'm sorry that I left you in the first place, but please, if you learned anything under me, let it be this." Dick smiled. "You can be whatever you want. You can feel whatever you need to, and then some. I was the happy, fun Batman who smiled. I wanted to be that. I needed to feel that, for the part to work out. I made it work because I was myself. Not Bruce. I didn't lock everything away and inside like Bruce. I didn't want to be him and I couldn't. I couldn't not feel, like the way he does."
He paused for a second. Then, he continued, "He's a control freak. In case you haven't noticed already. He needs to be in complete control of every little factor in his life and, by extent, ours, which is why he looked at your drawings and why he made me come all the way home to talk to you and why it feels like you can't ever be good enough. But that's it exactly. That's what I need you to understand. He can't make you feel anything. What you feel and what you believe about yourself, about him, about me, about anyone – that is yours. And he can never take that away. Nobody can."
Dick shook his head.
"I guess what I'm trying to say here," he continued, "is that he doesn't own you, Damian. And that you get to feel whatever the hell you feel, and you don't have to conform to his weird ways of thinking. If drawing this is what you really need to do, and it reminds you of things you feel, keep at it. Draw more. And find better places to hide it. Don't let him see."
"He's the world's greatest detective," said Damian. "Tell him not to look."
Dick smiled. "I will," he replied. "I actually already did. Yelled at him for a few good minutes about how he needs to respect your privacy and who you are and yadda yadda yadda. All that jazz. He took it relatively well."
"How could you tell?"
"Oh, he started crying and we hugged for a while."
Damian looked genuinely surprised, then instantly suspicious.
"I'm kidding," said Dick. "I couldn't tell. He doesn't show anything. But just because he keeps it inside doesn't mean you have to. Remember that."
Silence. Then Damian took a deep breath. "I don't know what he wants from me."
"He wants you to be happy and healthy and safe. Nothing more."
"He has too many secrets."
"You don't have to understand him to love him, Damian."
"You would know."
"Yeah," said Dick. "I would know. He and I are really, really different and most of the time I have no idea what's going on in that crazy head of his. But I love him anyway. Completely. Unconditionally." He grinned. "It's the same sort of situation I have with you."
Damian opened the sketchbook again. "That's not true. You understand these," he said, motioning to the images as he turned the pages. Dick nodded. "So you do understand me."
There was a silence. Dick said, "You're more than a couple scary drawings, Damian. You are so much more."
The silence continued, extended past both of them, filled the air and pressed against them. Then Damian said, "Dick."
Dick answered, "Yes?"
The boy held up the sketchbook one last time. "This is you."
There was a hand. It was simple, healthy, vibrant and anatomically accurate. A few inches away, in the corner of the page, there was a smaller hand, shriveled and battered and cut up viciously. Its fingers were outstretched, reaching up towards the healthy hand.
Damian said, "And me."
Something inside of Dick melted. He looked at the drawing for a long time, and then he reached out and he put his arms around the boy and he hugged Damian tightly and he said, "You can do this, you know. You are so much more than you want to believe you are."
The sketchbook in Damian's hands fell to the ground and somehow he found himself reacting naturally to the embrace, putting his own arms around Dick's back. The act felt familiar to him; this was strange. He could not remember ever being held like so.
"Come back," he said, his voice more of a whisper than he intended.
"I can't stay forever."
"Stay until I don't need you anymore."
"You don't need me."
Dick pulled away from him.
He looked Damian in the eye and said, "You don't need anybody else to be who you really are, Damian. I know you. I know what's in here," he pressed a finger to Damian's chest, "and it's the right stuff. You don't need anybody else to validate that. You're good, and you're strong, and you have compassion. And that's all inside of you already. I just helped you find it."
Dick removed his finger and Damian pressed his own hand to his heart.
"Chin up, kid," said Dick. "You're doing okay."
Damian didn't reply to this; instead he turned away, hiding his face from Dick. "Thank you," he said. "Goodnight."
Dick hesitated, and then nodded. "Alright," he said. "Goodnight, Damian. I'll be here in the morning. I promise."
Damian looked at the sketchpad on the floor, his hands shaking slightly.
Dick had told Bruce not to do it, but this was his son and Bruce was going to make sure things were better with his child, in whatever way possible. If this meant invading his privacy, well, it was a necessary sacrifice.
The sketchbook itself wasn't hidden. In fact, it was lying on Damian's bedside table. Bruce picked it up, inspected it in the dim light.
In one corner of the page, it looked like something had been scribbled over and then erased, so violently that it tore the page.
But in the center of the page was one simple hand holding a smaller one, and there were no cuts or bruises or gruesome lacerations. There was just one hand, and it in another. A younger one. A child's hand.
Bruce put down the sketchbook and left his son's room, a wave of gentle relief washing over him.