Dick found Damian in the cave’s training area, locked in battle with a punching bag. It was evident from the hunch of Damian’s shoulders and his shaky breathing that he’d been at it for a while, that he was exhausted, and that he had no intention of stopping anytime soon. Dick watched him for a moment, deliberating the best approach.
Damian beat him to the punch; he swirled around, wiped the sweat off his forehead and panted, “Richard.” with a greeting nod, trying not to look as close to collapsing as Dick knew he was. “Can I help you?”
“Mm, just wondering if you wanted to watch a movie, or spar together or something?” Dick asked. “Whatever you want, but you know, within reason. I just…I haven’t seen you at all today or yesterday.”
Damian scoffed. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“Nothing that I want to do more,” Dick said, shrugging.
“If you say so,” Damian jeered.
“Dami, come on,” Dick urged him. “Why are you avoiding me? If I did something, then I’m sorry, and I’m also sorry that I don’t know what it is, but I can’t change it if you don’t tell me.”
“You did nothing,” Damian said. “Or rather, you don’t need to.”
He turned back to the punching bag and ignored Dick, who stood there with his brows furrowed, trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong. Usually when Damian was upset or angry, he at least had an inkling what it was about, or he could get Damian to talk to him. Maybe Damian felt like Dick wasn’t paying enough attention to him? But then, the only reason that Dick hadn’t seen him in a day and a half was because Damian had purposely avoided him. He always tried to take a few minutes every day, or even night during patrols, when he wasn’t staying at the Manor, to check in with Damian.
“Dami,” Dick tried again. “You know…you know that I want to spend time with you, don’t you?”
“Grayson.” Damian whirled around, fists clenched and teeth gritted. “You can stop already. I do not need a babysitter, and I do not need you to pretend –“
Then he stopped, as abruptly as he’d started. He looked away, lips pressed together in that way he had, that indicated he was about to cry. Dick took a step forward, and Damian glared at him through narrowed, puffy eyes, breath coming out in shaky pants. For the first time in a long time, when it came to Damian, Dick felt out of his depth, clueless and hopeless.
“Pretend what?” he asked, voice dead-calm and barely above a whisper.
“Forget about it,” Damian said.
“Pretend what, Damian?”
“That you wouldn’t rather be doing anything else!” Damian roared. “That you don’t wish you didn’t have to deal with all my outbursts and anger issues! That I’m anything but a burden to you!”
He was red-faced, eyes welling up with tears, knuckles white and fists shaking. He let out an angry sob and rubbed at his eyes furiously, but once the tears had started, there was nothing he could do to stop them. Shell-shocked, Dick covered the rest of the distance and wrapped him up in a hug, going down to his knees and bringing Damian with him. Damian melted into it, terrible sobs rocking his frame as Dick rubbed his back.
They stayed like this for a minute, silent, Dick fighting to get himself together enough to say what he needed to. In truth, he wanted to roll into a ball and cry as hard as Damian was, but that could wait for later. That wasn’t what his little brother needed. Yes, it wasn’t easy; and neither had it been easy for them during their time as Batman and Robin, but not once had it crossed his mind to blame Damian for it.
“You mean the world to me, kiddo,” he murmured. “You were never a burden. I made a choice, and then I kept making it, every day, because it mattered to me. You matter to me. We’ve had a tough run, but when has anything worthwhile ever been easy?”
“You don’t…” Damian trailed off, voice trembling in a way that was so unusual for him. “Things haven’t been the same since father came back.”
“No, they haven’t,” Dick admitted. “He’s your dad, and I don’t want to overstep. It’s a struggle not to. Whenever he does something I would have done differently with you, and I can’t even – but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to spend time with you. It doesn’t mean that I don’t miss you every time that I’m away. Okay? I’m sorry if I made you think that.”
“It’s not you,” Damian said. “I got into a…disagreement with my history teacher recently, and she…informed me that I was a problem child and impossible to deal with. I wouldn’t have cared, because she’s unqualified to deal with even the normal children, really, but – she said she was sorry for my family. Because they had to put up with me.”
“She said what?” Dick hissed, furious.
“And you don’t,” Damian went on. “That’s what I realized. When father was gone, you had to put up with me, but now he’s here so…you don’t have to.”
“But I’m here,” Dick argued. “I don’t have to be, and I’m here. Is it so strange to imagine that maybe I want to? And Damian, if you think your dad only does this because he has to…obligation can make him give you a roof over your head and food and clothes and an education. It could never make him care about you like he does. Look at me.”
Damian looked up, face guarded.
“We are not putting up with you. I am not putting up with you,” Dick said steadily. “I love you, and no one and nothing made me do that, except you, by being who you are. What your teacher said was so ignorant and unprofessional that I can’t wrap my head around it. What does she know? She knows nothing about our life and our family – so don’t think for a moment that she’s right.”
Privately, Dick resolved to have a talk with the teacher. It horrified him that people like this had access and influence on kids Damian’s age and younger. No child ever deserved to hear that kind of garbage.
“You are not easy,” he told Damian. “You challenge me. I have become a much better person since you came into the picture – I’ve learned patience and compassion and love that I didn’t think were possible. And I’ve watched you grow, and I – I’m so proud of you.”
“I am –” Damian said, voice wavering. “You know – you know that I wouldn’t be this. Without you.”
“I think you’d have found a way to become yourself either way,” Dick countered, tone light. “But I’m glad we had each other.”
Damian nodded. “Me too, Richard.”