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[I]

Bruce's study is quiet, the grandfather clock against the wall unwound and not even ticking, Bruce himself sat in silence. Dick remembers a time when he would bounce and bluster through the door, clambering over the armchair set in the corner and making attempts to climb up the bookcases. For all that the house isn't empty of children now Damian is very different from himself. He's loud in the sharp and harsh words, dripping insults and contempt, but his actions are quiet. He's untraceable even a few doors away.

Dick doesn't know Talia well enough to blame her for the restrained nature of her child, but he's certain Bruce isn't helping.

Especially when Bruce finally acknowledges Dick's presence in the study with a nod before saying, "I have to go to Hong Kong for work. I need someone to take care of Damian." Like he's just another piece of business.

Dick frowns. "And Tim?"

"Tim will be coming with me."

Which will make things both easier and harder. Dick pinches the bridge of his nose. He'd seen Damian in his room, door ajar, a short distance down the hall. He closes the door of the study slowly. "Damian is your son," he starts, as though Bruce isn't aware, as though he has the capacity to glean what Dick is attempting to get him to understand without him spelling it out.

"Yes." Bruce's expression doesn't change, still all business. "But he is enrolled in school here and cannot afford to miss six weeks the same way Tim can."

Dick's eyebrows crawl up his forehead. "Six weeks? You're going away for six weeks?"

"Wayne Industries has requirements. I cannot set that aside for one child."

Dick isn't sure when this became the sticking point between them, the friction; when he'd realised the man he thought of as a father had priorities he couldn't parse. There was no doubt Bruce loved them, there was only question as to whether he loved them enough.

"You could," Dick points out, "but you won't." He turns towards the door to hide his disappointment.

"Dick, please." He hadn't expected the emotional plea. "Damian needs someone to care for him."

Dick isn't sure if Bruce is referring to the time away or to something longer, if it's his own self-doubts or if there's something of Talia in Damian that he finds so difficult. "I'm not about to let him go without," Dick says over his shoulder. He pulls open the door once more. "Let me know when you're leaving."

He puts on a smile past the three shut doors to Damian's room, leans against the doorframe and raps a cheery rhythm on the wood of the door. Damian looks up from the book he's reading with a scowl.

"Grayson. What do you want?"

"Just checking in." Dick makes to move into the room, an attempt to integrate himself, but draws short when he catches the brief widening of Damian's eyes, the flash of something more than disdain. He rearranges himself against the doorway, allowing his little brother his boundaries. "We'll be spending more time together soon, huh?"

Damian rolls his eyes, but some tension visibly shifts from the tightness of his shoulders. "I don't need a babysitter. I am more than capable of caring for myself."

"I don't doubt it." Dick shrugs. "But someone's got to keep Alfred company."

"Why? It's not like my father doesn't have better things to do than spend his day in the company of an old man."

And isn't that the problem? "Well, I don't."

Damian scoffs. "I can tell that from your insistence in bothering me."

"It's what I'm here for." Dick pushes from the doorframe and back into the hall. "That and Alfred's homemade ravioli." He offers Damian one last smile, unsurprised when he gets nothing more than a scowl in response. "If you need anything just let me know."

He turns away when the offer receives only silence, and the smile fades as he slips further down the hall.

 

[II]

Dick's head hangs off the chesterfield, his feet kicked over the back and crossed at the ankles. Alfred had given up on attempting to persuade Dick to sit right-side up long before he stopped living at the manor full time and under the provision that shoes remained firmly on the floor.

Dick smiles at the thought, socked toes curling into the plush cushioning and focuses on the phone pressed to his ear and Wally telling stories about college at the other end of it. "-and I learned not to leave chemistry students alone with a microwave."

Dick snorts. "Didn't you take apart a microwave to see how it worked when you were fourteen?"

There's silence on the other end of the line for a long moment. "Look-" Wally starts. Dick bursts into laughter before he gets a chance to defend himself further. "So I'm visiting my mom for thanksgiving," Wally says when the laughter dies down. Dick hums in acknowledgement. "I figured we could hang out."

"Sure." Dick picks at a loose thread at the hem of his t-shirt. "It's just going to be me and Damian and Alfred so I think I can spare you some time."

"Bruce won't be back by then?"

"Nope." Dick frowns a little, then pulls himself upright to peer over his knees at the door. It's ajar but the other side is silent, no sign of anyone to overhear this conversation. He drops backwards again with a sigh. "He promises he'll be back before Chanukah but honestly? I keep expecting some other obligation he can't put aside to come up." The thread he'd been pulling at snaps off looped around his fingers. "I don't know that I signed up for this."

"Being a full time dad?"

"I'm no parental figure."

"If you say so." He imagines he can hear Wally shrug from the other end of the line. "How is the kid anyway?"

Dick sighs again. "I just wish I could get him to talk to me. Or laugh. No child should be that… reserved."

"Are you losing your superpower?"

"My superpower?"

Wally's grin is practically audible, or maybe Dick just knows him too well. "The Grayson charm is a thing of legends." Dick doesn't respond, doesn't feel the need when Wally presses on. "He'll loosen up at some point, but - and I'm not looking to badmouth a woman I don't know here but - nothing brings up walls like poor parenting."

Dick has his own theories on that front, on what Damian thinks is allowed, on which emotions he thinks he has to suppress in turn. "I guess not everyone overcompensates with carefree humour."

"Right. Ugh." Dick wonders if Wally's fidgeting, it's generally his tell when topics run a little too close to his own childhood, when the discomfort that follows breaks out in fingers and feet tapping insistent rhythms. "But you got through to me in the end. Just give him some time."

Dick keeps the conversation in mind, replays it as he climbs the stairs two at a time to let Damian know dinner's ready. He stops with toes creeping across the threshold but no further, as though the barrier Damian has around himself is physical and not just emotional.

"Hey, kid," he says to the taut lines of Damian's back, "I crust you're ready for dinner."

Damian turns enough to level him an irked look. "What are you on about?"

"Pizza." Dick grins. "Can't be topped. Except by mushrooms, peppers, onions… You get the idea."

Damian's expression doesn't change. "You're a fool."

"Puns too cheesy for you?"

He rolls his eyes, standing abruptly and ducking past Dick in the doorway, putting as much distance between them as he can in the three foot space of the doorframe without making it obvious. Dick watches him walk down the hallway with a thoughtful frown.

 

[III]

Damian spends most of his time at the manor shut away in his bedroom. Dick isn't sure if it's because he's carved a little space of comfort in the room and still feels out of place in the rest of the house or if it's because he doesn't think he's allowed to carve out that space anywhere else. Dick's suggestions that he can read in the living room or the drawing room or the den are met with no change.

It's a surprise then, when Dick goes to check on his brother and finds his bedroom empty, no sign of anyone in the vicinity.

He tracks down Alfred first, who is clearing dust off of bookshelves in the reading room with bound determination. Dick would comment on how unnecessary the task was if he didn't have the faint sense it was a precaution - just in case Jason comes back home.

"Have you seen Damian?" he asks instead.

Alfred looks away from reshelving books onto a dust free shelf. "He was heading out into the garden."

"It's November!"

Alfred arches a brow, a well-practised expression that quiets Dick as though he was still a teenager breaking rules under his care. As though it's any different now he's an adult. "That certainly never stopped you."

Dick tries not to fall back to teenage ways with a pout. "I'm just worried he'll be cold."

"Fortunately the young master had the good sense to put on a jumper. Unlike certain members of this family."

Dick flashes him a grin. "Thanks, Alf." He's dismissed with a nod and makes sure to grab a coat before heading out into the chill of the manor grounds in November.

It still takes him a fair amount of searching before he catches movement of the near-bare branches of the beech tree that twists close to the walls of the manor. On closer inspection he finds Damian straddled over one of the branches, nose buried in an emerald green sweater.

Dick approaches with a crunch of leaves underfoot and catches Damian glance his way more than once before he reaches the bottom of the trunk. "Hey, Damian," he says. "You doing alright up there?"

Damian's glare is familiar to the point of reassurance. "I'm fine," he says sharply.

"Well, if you need anything just let me know." Dick turns and tries not to let the weight of Damian's reticence pull him down. Patience and accession were likely to get far more out of Damian than insistence.

He takes three paces before Damian speaks up from the tree. "Wait." Dick turns to hear him ask in quiet resignation, "Can you help me get down?"

Dick swallows his initial response because as much as Tim responded well to gentle ribbing he's certain Damian will close up again immediately if he makes any attempt at a joke, at anything but sincerity. "Yeah," he says, walking back to the tree. "Of course."

It's easy enough to clamber up the woody boughs, and easy enough to see why Damian - lacking about two feet from Dick's height and a history of circus training - would struggle. Dick leans against a branch about level with Damian's elbow and assesses the intertwining wood. "Come on," he says.

Damian follows Dick's instructions with some struggle, bracing feet and hands and back against various branches and brushing away any offer of physical assistance with a snide assurance he can do this. His self-imposed isolation surprises Dick less than his willingness to ask for help and accept direction in the first place. Damian pales, though, when they reach the lowest branch, still several feet from the ground.

"You're going to have to jump the rest of the way," Dick says, sitting on the branch beside him. The drop doesn't look like too much to him: compared to the jump from a trapeze, or from the jut of the garage roof that was the quickest way to sneak out of the manor from his childhood bedroom.

Damian's hands clench around the bark. "I don't know if I can," he admits in a rough voice, as though the words hurt him to say. Dick wonders briefly how he got up in the first place, and why, but he doesn't think he'll get an answer if he asks.

"You might not like the other option," he says. Damian pauses his wide eyed inspection of the ground to glance sideways at Dick. "I can jump down and then lift you."

Damian bites his lip with a frown but then slowly nods.

It's only when he has Damian in his arms that Dick realises just how small he is, how easy it would be to carry him, and how unlikely it is anyone has - at least since he could stand on his own. He remembers Bruce carrying him upstairs as a kid, when he'd fallen asleep watching a movie. He's fairly certain Damian hasn't experienced the same.

Dick restrains from turning this into a full hug, just barely, because Damian asked for help and he's trying to encourage him, not trample his autonomy the way he suspects Talia did. So he only lingers for a moment and then sets his brother down on the ground, watching as he walks, dignified, back up to the house.

 

[IV]

The dining room is quiet and sombre, and Dick itches with the need to fill the emptiness. He finds himself missing Jason, for all he found him obnoxious, because he never failed to have something to say, always drew Bruce into unrestrained laughter. He misses Tim, who could easily be pulled into a conversation about whatever had captured his attention for the week.

He misses Bruce, who could have borne the weight of the silence and sat at the head of the table and not left Dick to hold such a dour Thanksgiving.

They hadn't even bothered with a turkey, and Damian had muttered sourly that at least no innocent bird had to die for this farce. Dick finds himself agreeing more and more as he picks at dinner. Eventually he looks up with a weary smile and clears his throat.

"So," he says, trying to capture Damian's attention from pushing a few vegetables around his own plate. "It's sort of traditional to talk about what we're thankful for. I know it's not bean a great year-" he pauses to stab a green bean with a fork, grin forced as he waits for Damian's inevitable eye-roll, "but I figured we could still give it a shot."

"Fine," Damian says, setting his fork down. "I'm thankful that Drake isn't here to make this day even worse."

"Damian," Dick says, letting his tired disapproval slip through. He holds it back when Damian speaks badly of him, but he will continue to push back against Damian's problems with Tim, even if he understands - especially now - why Damian feels so threatened by him.

Damian crosses his arms, for a moment all of the ten years old he is and sulking. "You go then."

Dick sets his own knife and fork down. "Alright. I'm thankful for my family, even my newest and prickliest brother." He tries a grin but it does little to lift Damian's scowl.

Or to offset his scoff. "Just because I don't have the option to run off and abandon you."

It speaks more to how Damian feels than how Dick does. He's long outgrown the feeling that Bruce is abandoning him every time something comes up, and for all the manor is still his home it's also not, and the lack of his brothers stings less coming back. For Damian, though, who was pushed into a family only to watch them scatter away, it must burn. "I'm not about to leave you."

"You don't have to lie to me." There's something heart-wrenching in Damian's anger, and Dick recognises - not for the first time, but with startling clarity - that it's little more than a mask; for the fear and the sadness and everything a ten year old shouldn't have to wallow in. "Or pretend you're here for any other reason than your loyalty to my father. Prickly," he spits back at Dick, "I've been called worse."

He dashes a hand across his face, turns away as though he can hide behind his cool detachment, as though Dick hadn't noticed his slip. "May I be excused?" he asks, pushing away from the table without waiting for a reply.

Dick counts to ten before following, takes the stairs one at a time as he waits for the slam of Damian's door and doesn't hear it. He reminds himself again that Damian's anger isn't the way his was, when he felt displaced from his home in this strange city and empty house, or even the way Jason's was, slamming doors and annoying the hell out of Dick at sixteen.

Dick knocks against Damian's door, not even fully closed, and pushes it open slowly. He takes in Damian, gaze fixed past the window, shoulders trembling slightly. "Hey," he says quietly, unsure of what else he can say, "Do you want to talk about it?"

Damian shakes his head and curls his fingers, clenching the bedsheets.

"Do you want to be alone?"

There's nothing for a brief moment, and then - in such a small movement Dick almost misses it - he shakes his head again. Dick passes the threshold, slowly steps over the floorboard he knows creaks because he explored every room in this house once, and sits as gently as he can next to Damian.

He doesn't know where to start, whether to apologise for his own levity or on behalf of Bruce. He's grateful when Damian speaks first. "I'm trying," he says, the words directed somewhere between the window and his knees.

Dick reaches out without thought, because Damian is evidently feeling vulnerable right now, and Dick is completely out of his depth without the familiarity of physical reassurance. He's grateful when Damian doesn't pull away, when he leans into the arm around his shoulders instead. "I know," Dick says, "but you don't need to."

"Tt." Damian still doesn't pull away, although he's tense, and still shaking a little. "I know I am hard to deal with. It's no wonder father wants little to do with me."

Dick files the moment away as something he can yell at Bruce about later; he fears he might as well drive out to the docks and scream at the ocean for all the good it will do. "He's adjusting," Dick says after a breath, "but that's on him, not you." Dick squeezes the arm around Damian a little tighter. "I'm adjusting too."

Damian sniffs. "You are… already adequate."

Dick lets out a laugh, surprised by how choked it sounds. "High praise. Not sure everyone would agree." His own doubts and failures are in sharp relief now that he bears the responsibility of not letting down the boy next to him.

"I'm sorry Todd didn't come to dinner," Damian says.

Dick is struck by his perception. He hadn't known Damian had even been aware of the short conversation he'd had with Jason, of the attempts to lure him from his newly granted freedom with platitudes about family that feel bitter now. He shrugs. "It was a long shot inviting him. But that just means more pumpkin pie for us." He's silent for a brief moment before adding in a low tone, "I'm sorry your dad isn't here. And… I want you to know, I'm here because of you, not him."

He catches sight of Damian's scowl. "You barely even know me."

"You're my brother, I don't need to know anything else." Because he's not sixteen anymore, feeling replaced by a new addition to the family. Because if nothing else he understands that burning bridges is a lot easier than building them again. "Come on," he says, "I think we deserve some fresh pie."

 

[V]

The heavy knock on the front door of the manor makes Dick pause in his motions of drying dishes for Alfred. He frowns, because it's late, late enough that Damian is in bed, and he doesn't exactly get a lot of visitors. "Are we expecting anyone?" he asks, setting down the dish in his hands.

"No one is scheduled to be visiting so late," Alfred says. Dick starts towards the doorway in thought. It could be Jason, making a late night appearance in the hopes of scoring some leftovers. It could be bad news, although the commissioner tends to call first, and if Barbara had caught wind of anything she would certainly have texted. "Might I suggest caution?" Alfred calls as he leaves the kitchen. "We are still in Gotham after all."

Dick turns back enough to grace him with a smile. "Have the criminals learned enough manners to knock? I'll be fine."

The wind echoes where it whistles across the roof of the manor and through the slight cracks in the old exterior. Dick shivers a little from the chill of the hall as he opens the door to the bitter cold and Wally West standing in it. His red nose could be passed off as a reaction to the cold night, his red eyes less so.

"Hey," Dick says, "I thought we were hanging out tomorrow."

"Right." Wally doesn't meet his eyes, has his arms folded tightly across himself and his hands buried in his armpits. "I just… you know what? It's not important." His tone is familiar, the harsh and hoarse way he used to say I'm not important.

He makes half a turn before Dick reaches out and locks a hand around his elbow, heedless of the biting wind rattling the door and whipping against the thin material of the hoodie he's wearing. "Wally," he says, "it clearly is important. You wouldn't have walked all the way out here if it wasn't."

"I took the bus."

"You hate the bus." He's also freezing. Radiating cold and shivering on the doorstep. Dick pulls and Wally lets himself be guided into the house, the door slamming shut with a little too much force behind them. Dick winces as the sound echoes around the hallway. "So what happened?"

Wally still isn't looking directly at him, red-rimmed eyes fixed on a point over his shoulder. "My dad showed up at dinner." He sighs heavily, lifts one hand to pinch the bridge of his nose even as his feet scuff out an unsteady pattern on the tiles floor. "It's a stupid thing to be this worked up about really, it was just the same old crap about how I'm ungrateful and how I wouldn't even exist without him. Like I owe him for his DNA."

The self-deprecation is nothing new. And here, in contrast to the tightrope Dick sometimes feels he's walking with Damian, he knows a little better how to shut it down. "Come here," he says, wrapping arms around Wally's shoulders and pulling him into a tight hug. There's an immediate stillness, Wally's arms slipping round his middle in response and a gulping breath near his shoulder. "Your dad's an asshole," Dick says.

Wally snorts, then sighs. "I just thought I'd be past the point where he gets to me." He pulls back. "And before you start on that being bullshit - I know, I do listen to my therapist sometimes."

It reassures Dick to hear him making jokes, to see him bouncing back, and to see him here. It's a result of the therapy, probably, that Wally came to Dick instead of isolating and blaming himself. He smiles. "Come on, the kitchen's warm and has hot chocolate in it. Besides I have to let Alfred know you weren't here to shoot me."

"I could be here to shoot you." Wally falls half a step behind him as they head towards the kitchen. "Unless the hug was a disguise for you frisking me."

"Had to check." There's a creak as they pass the stairs and Dick pauses, Wally only following suit when their shoulders bump together. He glances up the steps with a frown wondering in the dim light if he's imagining the fleeing shadow. "Hey, go tell Alfred to put on some chocolate," he says.

Wally follows his gaze. "Sorry," he says, "guess I didn't realise it was so late."

"Because you walked all the way out here."

He huffs. "Fine, yes, I walked." He shakes his head. "I'll go find Al."

Dick shoots him a smile before taking the stairs, the moonlight spilling through the wide windows of the hall enough that he can easily catch Damian's face - peering down the stairs - before it disappears around a corner.

"Damian," he calls out softly.

There's a momentary pause and then the face reappears, looking chastised. "Sorry," Damian says.

Dick frowns slightly, approaching the spot Damian's standing. "For what? We were the ones making noise."

"I am supposed to be sleeping."

Dick isn't sure why Damian thinks so much of bedtime. He certainly skirted it enough as a child, and curfew more than enough as a teenager. He thinks it might be tied up again in something that happened before Damian came here, something that Bruce hasn't taken the time to unpack. "Bedtime is a suggestion, for health and happiness and all that. You can hardly be blamed for wondering who's at the front door." He leans against the wall next to Damian, makes himself relax further in an attempt to keep Damian from raising his defences once more.

Damian scowls at a spot on the floor in thought. Dick makes a mental note, again, to talk to Bruce about talking to his son - about rules, expectations, clear definitions and reassurances. After a long moment Damian nods once and looks up again. "Pennyworth has hidden a selection of cookies on the lowest shelf of the pantry, behind the raisins."

The statement pulls a laugh from Dick. "Hidden from me, no doubt."

"Tt. You are the one incapable of looking after your own health." Damian shuffles his feet a little. "I thought your friend might appreciate it."

Dick smiles. He's certain Alfred has supplied Wally with something excessively unhealthy already, can remember at least half a dozen other occasions when Rudy West was being a monumental prick and Wally had shown up in tears, when Alfred had handed him a handkerchief and a bowl of ice cream. Still, in this moment it is the thought that counts more than anything else. "He will," Dick says, "he's even worse at looking after his health than I am. I think the only reason he runs marathons is to make up for how much pizza he eats."

Damian wrinkles his nose a little. "Is that any different from your own motivations in training?"

Dick blinks at him. "Did you just make a joke?"

"I made an observation. At your expense."

"Observational humour is still humour."

"Tt." The sound comes out like a nervous tic. Damian turns his head and takes a step back into the shadows of the hallway. "Goodnight Grayson," he says.

"Wait, Dami." Dick is almost surprised when he obeys, when he doesn't make his excuses and continue walking away. Dick gets in front of him, and drops down so they're at eye level. He's struck - again - by just how small Damian is. "Thank you," he says, pulling his brother into a loose hug.

"I didn't do anything," Damian mutters, but his hands lift in a return of the hug anyway and Dick feels a tightness in his chest from the gesture.

 

[VI]

Saying goodbye to Wally, standing on the street in front of his mom's apartment, feels like a sharp loss. It's ridiculous, considering his friend had only been visiting for a long weekend, but Dick can admit there's a part of him that's tired of feeling abandoned, just as much as he knows there's a part of Damian that's the same.

"I'll be back for New Year's," Wally says with laughter in his voice when the hug extends for moments too long.

"I know." Dick pulls back with a weight settled on his shoulders. "At least I can count on that."

"Bruce'll be back too."

Dick laughs, and shoves his hands into his hoodie's pocket to avoid fiddling with the drawstrings of it. "You always know what's really bothering me, huh?"

Wally grins, rocking back onto his heels. "I think it's only fair I get to be the annoyingly perceptive one every so often and you get to be the one with parental troubles."

Dick snorts. "Honestly? I have less issues with the way Bruce is treating me and a hell of a lot more problems with the way he's let Damian down. That kid deserves better."

Wally shoots him a knowing look. "Right. When I said parental troubles I guess I was talking about the 'I accidentally became a parent to a ten year old' troubles." It's not the first time Wally's made a comment on those lines and Dick can understand why. He's become protective of Damian, in a way he never expected, and is certainly acting as some kind of guardian even if it's not a parental one. He rubs a hand across his face.

"I don't think I'm ready for that," he says.

Wally's smile is softer and reassuring. "You're doing a better job than some, trust me." He sighs a little, and Dick can tell he's thinking of his own father again, right up until the point he frowns at something past Dick's shoulder and mutters, "Speak of the devil."

Dick turns, spots Rudy where he's climbing out of a taxi with a scowl etched across his features. "Surprised you're still here," he growls, eyes only flickering briefly towards Dick before settling completely on Wally. "You're normally so quick to run away from your family." He nods briefly to the duffle bag on the floor. "Or am I just too early."

"I'm not running away," Wally says, but his voice lacks conviction and when Dick looks over at him he's hunched, his eyes lowered. "I have school."

Rudy laughs, humourless and harsh. "Always an excuse with you. Don't let me stop you, I only raised you." Dick can't hold back the sound of disbelief, and it draws Rudy's attention to him sharply. "You should leave," he sneers. "This is family business."

Dick isn't sure if he thinks he's intimidating. Maybe he is to Wally, who's always felt so small next to his father, but Dick sees a sad aging man and draws himself up taller. "Maybe you should leave. You clearly don't know enough about family to be claiming it."

Rudy takes a step forward, but Dick doesn't back down, just sidesteps so he's blocking Wally completely, as though the physical protection can act as an emotional one. "What do you know?" Rudy's tone is harsh and hissed. "Your family's all dead."

Dick's fist makes connection before he's consciously aware of throwing the punch, the smack of his knuckles against Rudy's jaw echoing through his arm. Rudy stumbles back half a step, and turns his head just a little to spit on the ground. There's no blood, but in the comedown Dick thinks he still might have made a mistake.

Rudy runs a hand over his jaw, glaring at Dick. "You'll be sorry for that, boy," he snarls, "I'm gonna sue you so hard Wayne'll regret ever taking a chance on circus trash."

It's only Wally's hand on his elbow that stops Dick from lashing out again, the quiet, "Dick, don't. He's not worth it."

Rudy turns away with his mouth twisted in a grim sneer and starts walking.

Dick sinks against the steps of Wally's apartment building with a muttered, "Sorry." Wally follows him down without seeming to notice he's doing it.

He doesn't say anything, just squeezes the point where his hand is still set against Dick's arm before letting go entirely. Dick glances over at him, flexing out his hand - knuckles still stinging - to gauge his reaction, but Wally isn't watching him, his own eyes focused on the retreating back of his father.

The street is quiet, empty, but Dick has spent enough time in Gotham to know that doesn't mean the confrontation went unnoticed. Nosy neighbours don't necessarily have any interest in being witnesses but the threat in Rudy's passing words ring in his head.

"I shouldn't have let him get to me," he says, running a hand through his hair. "It's not like it's the first time someone's tried to use my parents against me. Hell, Bruce gave me the lecture about picking fights over it when I was still in middle school."

"My dad's hardly a bratty twelve year old," Wally says, leaning forward with his arms against his knees. His fingers tap an unsteady rhythm against the concrete of the steps. "He knows it was a shitty thing to say." He lets out an explosive sigh. "And all bullshit too. I've seen you with your family, the way you are with Tim and Damian and even Jason and all I got was… that." He waves in the general direction of his father, long gone now.

Dick nudges him gently, bumping their shoulders together. "You've got me too. I always figured we were pretty much family. And Roy and Donna and Garth."

Wally actually smiles a little, and his fingers pause in their nervous tapping. "We should throw a New Year's party, right?" He sighs again, but it just feels like the last of the tension draining from his body. "The other stuff was bullshit too, if you're worried. About pressing charges or whatever? He's all threat, no action."

Dick hates to think the things Rudy West might have threatened over the years. Hates to think how scared his best friend must have been. He'd known bits and pieces but he'd known Wally was hiding secrets just as much. He slings an arm over Wally's shoulders and pulls him into a side hug.

It brings his knuckles into Wally's line of vision and he starts upright suddenly. "Shit, we should get some ice on that. Come on, I can wait ten minutes."

"Don't you have a plane to catch?" Dick asks. It's not like Wally's known for his punctuality and Dick would hate to be the reason he misses a flight, the confrontation with his father has to have already pushed back his departure to something dangerously close to late.

Wally shrugs. "Mom insisted I leave about three hours early. Trust me, I've got time for you."

*

Dick is surprised when he arrives back at the manor and - in search for a snack, because the day has left him drained - finds Damian sat in the kitchen, sketchbook open on the breakfast bar, intent on whatever it is he's drawing.

"What are you working on?" Dick says before approaching, because he's not sure Damian's even aware he's walked in.

He's proven right when Damian slams the sketchbook shut sharply and jolts upright. "It's not finished yet," he says rigidly.

"Alright." Dick holds his hands up - a mock surrender - and moves to fish around in the cupboards. "You don't need to explain yourself, you know," he says, pushing up on tip toes because he's sure Alfred is hiding some better cereals behind the Cornflakes. "You can just tell me to mind my own business."

"Like that would work. You're incessantly annoying."

"Well, sure." He draws out a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and moves to find a bowl. "But if you genuinely want me to leave you alone I can respect that." He keeps an eye on Damian, watches as his expression turns from his usual mask of vexation to something introspective that Dick doesn't quite know how to parse.

He catches Dick looking and ducks his head, before his features drop to a frown. "What happened to your hand?"

Dick sets the cereal box on the side and flexes his fingers briefly. Wally had insisted on wrapping a bandage around his knuckles, even though they're only mildly bruised, even though he's definitely had worse. He thinks Wally's care might have been something of an apology for Dick having to get involved - not that he minded any, or would have preferred to stand aside. He shrugs, "It's nothing major."

Damian's still frowning. "It's from a fight."

Dick's not sure how Damian is so certain, but he's fairly sure getting into fights - even when you're standing up for a friend - would count as a bad example for a ten year old. He shakes his head with a smile he hopes doesn't look too fake. "A fight with a pavement maybe. I just fell." As if that isn't the textbook excuse from every assault case. He turns to hide his grimace in the motion of pulling milk from the fridge.

He doesn't feel better when he turns back to find Damian looking away, despondent, kicking his feet against the crossbar of his stool. Because Damian's perceptive, and knows when he's being lied to. It's clear on his face that he thinks Dick doesn't trust him, and the questionable morality of Dick's earlier actions are a wavering thing.

Dick sighs and sets aside the milk to round the counter and put it between himself and Damian. "It wasn't a fight," he says. "It was a single punch, and a bad idea."

Damian meets his gaze. "Why?"

Why did he punch Rudy? Or why was it a bad idea? Dick bites his lip and decides the second question is easier to answer, at least without throwing aspersions about poor parenting that will come back to land on Bruce and Talia if he's not careful. "Because I escalated the situation. Which goes against everything I'm learning with the police academy. I let someone get to me when I shouldn't have."

"Did he deserve it?"

Dick has no idea how to answer that. The part of him that's been reading books and taking tests in the hopes he can do some good in the city knows the answer is no. The part of him that's been Wally's friend since they were both awkward teenagers tips the other way. "It wasn't my place to decide that," he says, "but I made the decision anyway. That's where I went wrong, and why I'm not proud of what happened."

He thinks it might be a bit early to be discussing philosophy with his little brother, both in the day and in Damian's life, but he's trying to be something like a mentor to this kid, something like a good parent too. Damian looks thoughtful for a second before he nods. "Okay," he says, and then he grabs his sketchbook and walks out of the kitchen leaving Dick to question if he's doing anything right.

 

[VII]

"You'd think," Barbara says, leaning over the arm of the sofa so she can prod at the bruising across Dick's knuckles and ignoring the way he winces and pulls back, "that someone would have taught you how to throw a punch by now."

"It wasn't exactly planned." Dick flinches as she pushes a thumb against the bruise again. "Would you stop that?"

Barbara makes a thoughtful noise, but she draws her hand away, drops it across her knee instead. "Have you considered talking to someone," she asks, "about your anger issues?"

"I don't have anger issues."

"I think there's someone's face who would disagree."

Dick runs a hand through his hair. Yes, he'd lashed out at Rudy, and yes, a certain amount of that anger had been… misplaced. Not that the guy wasn't an asshole, but he couldn't be blamed for Bruce's failings getting to Dick as well. "I'm under a lot of stress."

Barbara tilts her head a little and pins Dick with a look that is in no way distilled by the lenses of her glasses. She's always known him inside and out and he feels completely exposed under her gaze. "Have you considered talking to Bruce?"

Ha has, of course. Every time the man calls to check in Dick thinks about telling him everything: his suspicions of Damian's past, his disappointment in Bruce, his inability to focus on his future when he's so worried about his family's. And every time the words turn to dust before he says them. "What would that even achieve?" he asks.

"I know you hate the idea of asking for his help, but I also know he would give it."

Dick weighs her words. He has his doubts, of course, but he's hardly objective when it comes to Bruce. But Barbara's never been his biggest fan either and she's perceptive as hell. "Maybe he would, but I'm not about to let Damian think he's too much for me, that I don't love him enough to stick this out."

Barbara's lips twitch with a suppressed smile.

"What?" Dick asks.

"You're a bleeding heart, Grayson," she says. "You always have been."

"I'm just an idiot who can't stay out of trouble." Dick flexes his bruised hand. He doesn't regret his actions for what they were, but he's still concerned there's some coming consequence he can't plan for, that he lacks the foresight Bruce has, or Tim's analytics. Even Jason has developed a sixth sense for when he's in too much trouble.

"Is there a difference?" Barbara reaches out, and curls a hand around his own, gentle this time, avoiding his bruising rather than exacerbating it. "Look," she says, "I don't know Wally that well, but I know you. I wouldn't-"

She cuts off when the living room door creaks open. "Oh," Damian says, stood in the doorway with a sketchbook and a pack of pencils clutched to his chest. He shuffles his feet backwards a little. "Sorry. I'll go."

"It's fine," Dick says. Barbara drops his hand and pushes back a few inches. "You're welcome to come and draw in here."

Damian doesn't move, except for the flicker of his eyes towards Barbara and away again. She hides a smile behind a cough and sends Dick another piercing look. "I'm going to track down Alfred," she says. "I didn't just come over to play therapist to you."

Dick slips a hand into hers before she can move away completely, pulls her back across the inches so he can kiss her cheek. "Come find me before you leave?"

She breathes a short laugh. "I'll think about it." She says goodbye to Damian on her way out, and it's only when she's left the room completely he steps into it.

"Aren't you going with her?" he asks, cautiously approaching the back of the sofa.

"Nah. I've sat in on enough conversation between her and Alfred to know it will mostly go right over my head and only serve to make me feel like an idiot." Dick watches as Damian finds a seat in a patch of sunlight and props his sketchbook against his knees. "Unless you want me to leave."

"I don't mind your presence," Damian says slowly, the words directed at the paper.

Dick continues to watch as he puts a pencil to paper, drawing arching lines that don't seem to be following any particular form. "Alright," he says, "but I feel it's only fair to warn you I'll keep talking."

"Tt. I would be far more concerned if you ever stopped."

 

[VIII]

Damian sighs heavily, with obvious frustration, as he sits with arms folded in the plush armchair. His irritation is a little hard to take seriously whilst wrapped in a warm fleece blanket, nose red and skin dried out from his cold. "Just pick something already," he says, the hard sounds softened and muffled by his illness.

"It would be easier if you gave me some input." Dick keeps his focus on the rows of DVDs in the open cabinet in front of him. He's fairly sure his childhood choices for sick day films - namely The Wizard of Oz over and over - would be shot down, but he's at somewhat of a loss as to what to offer in place.

There's another sigh and then a shuffling as Damian's socked feet - just poking out from the blanket wrapped around himself - come into view.

Dick watches him as he glances over the shelves, as he reaches out briefly to pull something from one and flips it back and forth. "Ah," Dick says, peering at the cover, "one from Tim's James Bond collection." He hasn't seen it, had always been content with letting Tim and Bruce have their space to watch spy movies together. The DVD is shoved back into place immediately. "I'm sure he won't mind if we watch it," Dick says.

Damian sniffs, although Dick isn't sure if it's in disdain or just from the cold. "I doubt anything Drake has is of any quality."

Dick considers protesting further but Damian has already moved on, scanning different shelves. He stops again and pulls out another DVD that Dick is unfamiliar with, it could be one of Jason's. It could be Bruce's. "What about this one?" Damian asks.

"Not one of Tim's if that's what you're worried about." Dick lifts the DVD from Damian's hand, an old samurai film, the title written in Japanese script, with an English translation underneath. "Of course you would pick out something R rated." He flips the DVD over to read the warnings. "Extreme violence," Dick reads, "I guess that would be expected."

"Tt. I highly doubt there will be anything that alarming involved."

What's more alarming is the statement itself. Damian still talks little of his childhood, of the ten years before this one, but he makes allusions, makes no secret of the fact he was trained to fight and something in the way he speaks of it suggests it wasn't just basics of self-defence. Dick's estimation of Talia drops another notch. He sighs. "Alright." At Damian's self-satisfied look he raises a hand. " But we're watching my choice afterwards. Also you're not allowed to tell anyone I let you watch this."

Damian rolls his eyes, retreating towards the armchair. "Very well, although I doubt father would care."

"Maybe not, but Alfred would." Dick loads the DVD before grabbing a seat on the sofa and the remote. He looks over at Damian, attempting to pull the blanket tighter around himself and sighs again. "Come here," he says.

Damian narrows his eyes. "Why?"

"Because you're sick, and obviously cold."

"I would have thought you would want to avoid any infection."

Dick counts a small blessing that Damian neither rejected the idea that he was sick or that he needed extra warmth. That he can accept an offer for help is a growing occurrence and one that fills Dick with hope. "I think it's too late for that." He pats the cushion next to him. "Now let me look after you, okay?"

Maybe Damian's easy acquiescence is simply a sign of how ill he feels, but Dick minds little when Damian leans against his side readily and curls under his arm and the extra blanket he's wrapped around his own shoulders for the purpose of a cosy movie night.

Dick's worries about showing the movie to a ten year old turn out to be unfounded when Damian's focus quickly wanes, his eyes drifting closed for longer and longer periods as Dick subtly turns the volume down on the television. It takes around an hour for him to drift off completely, head dropping against Dick, gentle snores muffled by the layers of blanket.

His skin is slightly too warm where Dick gently pushes his hair from his face, a gesture he likely wouldn't attempt if Damian was awake, but one that doesn't even register whilst he's asleep. Even more carefully Dick turns the film off completely and shifts so he can lift Damian into his arms.

There's a brief moment when he's climbing the stairs where Damian stirs, blinking up at Dick before twisting even closer against his chest and closing his eyes again with a sigh. Dick reminds himself that it's likely a combination of illness and a significant dosage of NyQuil that leads to the action, but can't dispel the soaring feeling at the idea that maybe it's also a sign of Damian's increasing trust in him.

He tucks Damian into his bed, surrounded by soft pillows and a thick comforter and with deliberate slowness and stealth leans down to drop a kiss on his forehead - only wrinkling his nose a little at the feel off the skin, both too dry and too clammy. "Goodnight, little D," he whispers, because Damian's not awake to protest the nickname as imbecilic.

 

[IX]

If Dick had been feeling charitable he would have let Bruce settle back into the manor and get some sleep before this conversation, but despite the season - and really, the only sign it's December is the frost on the windows - he corners Bruce the second he steps into his study and closes the door.

"Dick," Bruce says, his exhaustion drawn in the lines on his face. He does little more than deposit his briefcase on the desk, obviously content to leave unpacking until after he's slept.

Dick folds his arms across his chest. "We need to talk," he says, "about Damian."

Bruce frowns. "If he's been a problem for you-"

"He hasn't."

Bruce's mouth shuts, set in a hard line as his frown deepens further. There was a time when the radiating severity would have caused Dick to hide away, afraid that if he stepped wrong Bruce would realise it was a mistake to take him in.

"I'm not pretending to know everything that he went through before he got here; I don't know if he'll ever tell me, or you, or a counsellor. But I do know he's scared, he thinks if he's not good enough, if he steps too far out of the expectations he's placed on himself, that you'll pack him up and send him back. He thinks that if he was a better son you wouldn't have left."

"Dick." Bruce runs a hand through his hair, exhaustion heavy in his tone. "That's not why I-"

"I know. But he doesn't. He needs you, as more than just the person whose house he's living in."

There's a moment of silence, a moment where Dick hopes Bruce is listening, for once. "Has he… has he spoken to you about this?"

"Not really." Dick laughs dryly. "Most days I can't even get him to tell me what he wants for breakfast, let alone answer big questions. But… he's ten, he's not the master of his emotions he pretends to be." He's not you, Dick doesn't say.

"Still, if he's opening up to you…"

Dick thinks it's self-deprecation more than apathy that drives Bruce's comment. The man doesn't think he can be a good enough father, he's not trying to pass the buck. "He's not my kid," Dick says, and it only tastes a little like a lie. "I'm not running away and I'll be there when he needs me, but he needs something else from you."

He sighs. Bruce is tired, but whether that will make him more or less responsive remains to be seen. "I'm gonna head off," he says.

"You're leaving tonight?"

"Well, I haven't watered my plants in weeks." Dick shrugs. They both know why he's leaving, how little he likes being in the manor when Bruce is there, how it itches. This is probably the longest they've spoken in years. "Damian already knows I'm going home."

"What about Tim?"

"I'll take him out for ice cream." Dick glances over at the frosted windows. "Or hot chocolate. And he can tell me all about Hong Kong." They can take the subway into the city proper, hit up the Winter Wonderland, enjoy themselves without Dick obviously wanting to be somewhere else. "I'll see you around, Bruce."

Bruce's grunted reply is cut off by the walls of the study as Dick steps out from it and walks instead to Damian's room. The door is ajar and Damian sat reading by the window within.

"Knock, knock," Dick says, as he raps against the door.

"Grayson." Damian sets his book aside and focuses all his attention on Dick instead, a little furrow between his brows and a twitch in his fingertips signs he has more to say, but that he can't think of how to say it. There was a point it might have unnerved Dick, but now he's more than happy to lean against the doorframe and wait his little brother out.

He's still surprised when Damian crosses the room in quick strides and throws his arms around Dick's waist, face buried somewhere just below his sternum. He gets over the shock quickly though, moving without thought to wrap his arms around Damian in return, leaning forward so his nose is almost pressed to Damian's hair.

"I'll miss you too, kiddo," he says, voice partially muffled by the strands.

Damian squeezes closer for another second then pulls back. A part of Dick wants to pull him back in, because it's rare that he chooses this closeness, but settles for ruffling up his hair, gratified when Damian only huffs in mild irritation.

Then Damian is smoothing out his shirt, expression flat, as though he never cracked at all. "I have a gift for you," he says.

Dick peers over Damian's shoulder as he walks to the desk and flips through the sketchbook there, trying to catch a glimpse of the page he carefully tears from the ring binding. It's a portrait, but only when it's in Dick's hands does he realise it's of him, of his face picked out in soft graphite. He's smiling at something off page, obviously unaware that Damian had been observing him so closely and it strikes him that he looks just like his dad - the mirror of the faded photograph of his parents from a time before he can remember.

He's speechless. At least until Damian shuffles his feet and asks quietly, "Is it acceptable?"

"Dami, it's… it's amazing." Dick wonders if it would be too on the nose to pin the picture up on his fridge. "You're a really good artist."

Damian looks down at his shifting feet, the tips of his ears turning slowly pink and Dick thinks briefly that he would do just about anything for this kid. He gives into the temptation to wrap an arm around him one last time, a hug Damian accepts - although it may just be because he can hide his embarrassment easily against Dick's shoulder.

"I've got to get going," Dick says, "but if you need anything, anything, you can call me. Okay?"

"I know. You needn't make a scene."

Dick pulls back with a smile. "I never learned how to do anything else."