Another argument, another slammed door, and another unfinished meal.
Dick turned back to the table, but Damian was already gone. Unlike Jason, the ninja child's exit had been silent and swiftly executed while his guardians were otherwise occupied (if that's what one could call the undignified shouting match). It would likely be hours before Dick could find either of them again.
The former-acrobat ran a hand through his hair tiredly, and sank back into his seat reluctantly. He rejected the rest of dinner—it's undoubtedly gone cold in the interim—and Alfred took that as his cue to clear the table. So Dick turned weary eyes to their beloved butler, and waited for the confidence boost of sage wisdom.
Alfred simply patted his shoulder and carried on. Dick dimly remembered agreeing that he needed to make more of an effort with his brothers without Alfred's intervention.
He's twenty-six years old. He can do this.
So Dick apologized and thanked Alfred for his dinner. Then the new Batman headed down to the Bat Cave … which was surprisingly where he instantly located Damian.
The ten year old was regarding the memorial cases stoically, comparing and contrasting the Robin costumes worn by Jason and Tim. It had changed drastically after the explosion, and Tim hadn't been allowed out on the streets without an armoured tunic, leggings and proper boots. It had changed further before Dick and Jason had even considered Damian's Robin request.
A survival suit had been added under the tunic; a very thin, but very strong framework under the mask to protect the boy's eyes, spiked gauntlets rather than gloves, and an upgraded pair of combat boots like those that Jason favoured. The hooded cape was a concession to Damian's comforts, but even that had been designed with the boy's protection in mind.
Between Talia's training and the Batclan's devotion to protection, Damian was technically the strongest Robin that Gotham had ever seen. But even if they could keep his body safe, there were things that even Batman couldn't protect Damian from.
There were sights like last night's child victims. There were sights like an empty Robin suit.
Dick hated the memorial cases.
He approached cautiously, and when Damian didn't object to his mere presence, Dick wrapped a loose arm carefully around his little brother's shoulders. Damian flinched and tried to cover it with an exasperated sigh, but Dick persisted.
"Get off," Damian growled, because the tween was hitting his saturation point of affection. Dick had been the one to support him while he threw up last night, but Jason had carried the ten year old up to the manor. Repeated hair ruffles, shoulder squeezes, and the occasional completely unsubtle hug had commenced upon waking, and now, here they were … practically punishing the kid with affection. "Now, Grayson."
Dick planted a kiss on the top of Damian's head instead.
So maybe they were all being a little extra touchy-feely today, even if Jason and Dick couldn't let their argument go. Damian's concession to the circumstances was their continued survival, and it gave Dick some hope for Christmas.
It would have been nice to solve this case before the holiday, but they were no closer to finding the culprit than before Humpty's involvement had become apparent. Dick wasn't really in the mood for Christmas himself after last night's find, but the gala would go on with or without Bruce.
Eggnog and presents really should too. Speaking of which …
What on earth did one give the ten year old ninja offspring of Batman and a criminal mastermind like Talia al Ghul? As Damian had mentioned earlier, Talia had given him anything his heart desired up to and including the ridiculous fantasies. The boy lacked for nothing, and was the heir to a billion dollar company. Damian already had both Jason and Dick's undivided attention, yet scoffed at every bonding opportunity that Dick came up with. Short of making the kid Batman for a night, Dick was running out of ideas.
Dick sighed, and stroked Damian's hair once as he reluctantly let his younger brother go. "Do you know where Jason is?"
Damian gazed up at him unblinking.
Dick proffered the metaphorical carrot. "Want to drive tonight?"
"Tt," Damian responded a touch too hastily. "Todd is sulking in the kitchen pantry." With his end of the bargain upheld, the younger vigilante disappeared to lavish further attention upon his beloved Batmobile. Dick watched the impressive display of ninja skill with unwilling bemusement stealing across his features.
The kitchen pantry, huh? That was a new one.
Dick glanced up at the memorial cases. Tim's empty domino stared back.
Suppressing a shiver, Dick headed back upstairs. The memorial cases would always bother him, and it was warmer in the kitchen.
Alfred raised an eyebrow from where he stood near the sink finishing up the last of the dinner dishes, and Dick gave a rueful smile in return. The older man turned back to his task politely, and Dick advanced on the pantry. Just as Damian had said, Jason was sitting cross-legged in a back corner under the canned goods with a laptop.
"Mind if I join you?" Dick asked quietly.
Jason waved grandly at the confines of the pantry. "Step into my office." His brow immediately furrowed, and he began typing again distractedly. Dick took the opportunity to clear off a perch on the barrel of what might be sauerkraut, and pulled one knee up to serve as a chin rest.
"It's not that I don't appreciate your stance, Jay, 'cause after last night, I really, really do. It's just that—"
Jason cut him off with a raised hand, still typing away. After a minute, he looked up. "Continue," he offered magnanimously.
Dick groaned, "Jay." He dropped his legs, swinging his weight to face the other man properly. "I can't cross that line, Jason. It's not even that Batman can't cross that line, because in case you haven't noticed, Batman does a heck of a lot of things different now. But me … Dick Grayson … Nightwing … I can't cross it. I can't let someone else cross it. Not again."
Jason's eyes narrowed and his jaw twitched, but he didn't jump on it. "One day, you and I are gonna have a different sort of chat, Goldie. You, me, Alfred, and maybe Babs."
Dick gave a lopsided grin. "Maybe someday, Jaybird."
Jason kicked out on principle, balancing the laptop easily. "Some guys deserve it, Dick. The things they do, the people they hurt, and they don't have a damn reason why. This bastard is targeting kids—kids that no one will miss—because he thinks he'll get away with it. I didn't get into this business to let scum like that keep killing. We're going to bring him down, and if Arkham won't hold him, then we're going to need a more creative solution. That's why I'm here, big brother, and you know it. You've always known it."
Because Jason won't ask permission when it comes down to it—when it's a choice between the villain or an innocent, and Dick will keep believing in that better something for everyone—including the Red Hood.
Jason let out a shaky breath and then a desperate laugh as the silence continued. "Dang, we've gotta get the bat brat to adulthood in one piece pronto. Neither of us is suited to being the big bad Bat."
Dick remembered that harsh chuckle in the aftermath of Bruce's death. He remembered offering to flip a coin in the dry wake of Alfred's lecture, and most of all … Dick Grayson remembered the hard slap upside his head. Jason was a firm believer in tough love.
If they were trying to fool people into thinking that the new and old Batmen were the same man, Jason would have been a better choice. He was taller, stronger, and already used to the limited field of vision. But if they were trying to uphold the ideals of the Bat, hold onto the rules, and keep a tight rein on Damian … Nightwing would have to be close enough.
"There always has to be a Batman," Dick pointed out regretfully, because Gotham wouldn't change. Her rogues wouldn't change. Batman couldn't change either.
"And Batman needs a Robin," Jason quoted, with that same bitterness.
Dick snorted, because when it came to that line … one either laughed or cried. "I don't think anyone saw Damian coming."
"I like the kid. He's got spunk. He's—"
"We are not using Damian as bait," Dick cut him off, and here they were back on topic. "His plan is foolish, and you shouldn't have encouraged him. I can't—we can't lose him. Not like Tim."
Jason growled. "The little demon is nothing like Tim Drake—shut it, Dick. I'm not saying he's better. I'm saying that he's Damian Wayne—formerly al Ghul. His entire life has been Darwin's survival of the fittest in action. And his idea isn't a bad one. First of all, this asshole is picking on defenseless kids. Putting a kid that can defend himself into the mix? I'm seeing a rapid close to the case."
"Second of all," Jason continued. "Demon won't be going in alone, because he'll be bugged to the teeth with us on his tail. We're not going to let anything happen to him, Dickie. There won't be another Robin memorial, I promise."
Dick shuddered. "I hate those things."
"Preaching to the choir." Jason tapped idly at the laptop before continuing grimly. "But if you don't give Damian a chance, if you pull him in too close to protect him, he's gonna run off and do something stupid. And he'll be doing it without our back-up or a prayer of finding him again."
Timmy wasn't the only dead Robin.
Dick scrubbed at his eyes wearily. "Maybe this will be completely unnecessary. Maybe the other guys on the force will catch him, and I won't have to … figure this out."
"Maybe," Jason acknowledged. "Maybe pigs will fly, or Alfred will use poor grammar. Maybe Damian just really wants a precious red scooter for Christmas."
"Christmas," Dick groaned, shoving everything else back deliberately. He didn't want to talk about this any longer. He couldn't talk about it any longer. "It's coming up, and presents need to be a thing. I'm just … fresh out of ideas."
Jason gave him a measuring look, but didn't call him on it. He reached out and tugged Dick's ankle. "Get down here, and take a look at this."
Dick obeyed, squeezing into the alcove properly. "Isn't this … Damian's desktop?"
"Remote access," Jason waved dismissively. "It looks like the littlest bat was having some trouble with Christmas gifts too. I've been reassembling his Google search history."
A gift for a co-worker
Apparently, Damian hadn't liked the novelty items that popped up under that one, because the next search read: a SUITABLE gift for a co-worker which was shortly followed by a suitable gift for my allies and then trusted allies.
Dick bit back a helpless giggle.
Gifts for men yielded potentially scarring results for a ten year old. Respectable gifts for men didn't provide much better results.
Jason grinned. "About here, the brat seemed to give up. He started researching swords and traditional blades from Romania—which, by the way, there really isn't one 'traditional' blade no matter how far back you go. Like most of Europe, sharp and heavy or pointy and easily concealed were the usual considerations in the Middle Ages. He also realized somewhere along the way that the Romani people don't necessarily originate in Romania. So, back to Google."
A respectable gift for my guardians implied that Damian had learned a hard lesson about the whims of Google. A traditional gift for my guardians yielded an impressive number of ties. And then there was the last search.
A traditional gift for my brothers
Dick swallowed. "Oh."
Jason nudged his shoulder. "Screencapping the hell out of that one. You've got a photo album or scrapbook started somewhere, right?"
"Alfred does," Dick corrected distractedly. He had been insistently using the word for four months now, trying to work it into Damian's vocabulary … trying to prove that they were a family. This was the first time Dick had caught even a glimpse of the sentiment from Damian's perspective. "Make copies, okay?"
Jason chuckled. "Better believe it—no way is the Demon getting away with his biological bullshit now." Jason tilted his head. "You want to see what he finally decided on?"
"Yes—no. Yes. Please."
Jason tapped a key and pictures of watches sprang forth. "The black and silver one is mine; the gold one is yours. You can tell, because he's getting our initials engraved on them. You can bet he's going to make snide commentary about you being late for everything and my 'poor' possessions on the day, so enjoy this now."
Dick grinned. "May I have that?" Taking the computer, he began scrolling through the options until he found a perfectly respectable platinum wrist watch. He clicked through a few more pages, providing Damian's initials and his own credit information. "That should short-circuit him Christmas morning," he chuckled, surrendering the machine again. "Now come on," he urged, regaining his feet and ducking a hanging basket of produce. "We're going to buy him all the ridiculous toys a ten year old should want so that he goes into apoplectic rage, and then we're going to teach him how to play while he's vulnerable."
Jason shook his head, but followed Dick out of the pantry. "You've got high expectations, Goldie."
"My Christmas should be fabulous," Dick decreed. "And so will Damian's—whether he likes it or not. You got the rest of your Christmas Shopping done, Little Wing?"
Jason snorted and closed the pantry door behind him. "Nah, I've got a little something else worked out."