There was really no other way to describe it: Damian was a terror.
To be fair, all Robins were terrors. It was part of the job, as essential as the bright uniform and a love of freefall and the guts to talk back to the Big Bad Bat. Jason could speak from experience, even if he’d leaned a little more heavily on the backtalk than Tim. If current behavior was any way to judge, Dick had probably gone for corny jokes instead of backtalk, but that was its own form of sass.
He wasn’t working a case with Dick or Tim though. Instead, he was stuck in an impromptu team-up with the littlest, angriest Robin. Jason’s investigation into an arms dealer had run afoul of one of Damian’s side projects, because tracing stolen antiquities was something the kid apparently did for fun.
A lot of things had changed since Jason kicked the bucket, but he was fairly certain Bruce’s opinions about Robins and their proximity to arms dealers wasn’t one of them. He’d threatened to tattle, and Damian had reluctantly agreed to let Jason be the one to take care of the smugglers and extract the art. The pipsqueak had sulked so much about the whole thing that Jason tossed him a tablet and told him he could monitor everything through the helmet’s audio/visual feed.
He’d spent three hours listening to Damian chew him out for having inferior tech, for not being stealthy enough, for handling the statuary too roughly, on and on and on. Damian’s vaguely British nagging had kept him company all the way back to his safehouse, and if Jason had thought it might ease up when he walked through the door with the figurines intact, he’d been proven very wrong.
Damian had set up shop on Jason’s kitchen table and proceeded to catalogue the antiquities with all the meticulous, excruciating care of a museum curator. Apparently undamaged by Jason’s extraction, the statues were now lined up in perfect rows on the table like hideously expensive toy soldiers. Their general was asleep on his couch.
Jason hadn’t spent much time alone with Damian. He didn’t spend much time with any of the Bats, but he’d worked cases with Dick and Tim and Steph, even Cass on occasion. Babs sometimes tapped into his comm line and kept him company on patrol. The team-ups were often fraught, and they never lasted long, but he had a general idea of what to expect when they happened. Until they crossed paths three days ago, Damian had been something of an unknown.
He wasn’t an unknown now. In short order, Jason had learned that Damian despised jokes about his height, hated nicknames, growled when he was mad — intimidating when it was Bruce, hilarious when it was coming from an ankle-biter — was as big a nerd as Tim, and that he might talk a good game when it came to fancy fighting, but he loved a nasty right hook as much as Jason did. The only thing that had interrupted the stream of “Honestly, Todd,” insults was a low, quickly stifled hum of appreciation the first time Jason dropped a goon with one punch.
He probably should have kicked him out as soon as he’d finished going over his little stone army, but Damian hadn’t seemed eager to head back to the manor. Maybe it was that brief moment of approval that did him in; Jason remembered what it was like to live with Bruce’s disappointment. It was okay to be pleased with the correct form, but happy with the application of a punch? The old man didn’t like it.
We deal with criminals, Jason. We don’t take any joy from the violence of it.
The kid certainly wasn’t hurting for big brothers, but he could probably use a friendly ear that wouldn’t chastise him for every perceived slip-up. Jason could spare his couch for a night, scrounge up breakfast for them in the morning if Damian didn’t rabbit as soon as he woke up.
Damian was curled up in a ball, one hand clutching the blanket Jason had tossed at him when he’d started yawning. His knuckles were white, but he was sleeping soundly enough.
Casting one last look at the table — god, the statues were just fuckin’ creepy all lined up like that — he turned off the kitchen light and went to try and catch a few hours of his own.
Stumbling out of bed the next morning, he found Damian awake and staring balefully at the coffeemaker.
“Too complicated for you to figure out, short stack?”
The glare he got was full strength, but there were lines of stress around Damian’s eyes that hadn’t been there the night before.
“Nightmare?” he asked, nudging the kid aside so he could rummage around in the cabinet for a filter. “Coffee will be ready in a few minutes. That’ll help.
“Coffee is a vile drink. I have no idea how you or anyone else can stand it.”
“So that’s a no on the drip, I take it.” It didn’t escape him that Damian hadn’t responded to the nightmare comment. Silence was as good as an admission, but he didn’t press. Voice deliberately even, he kept poking through the cabinet. “If you can’t handle delicious, delicious coffee, what does Alfred make for you in the morning. Hope it’s not hot chocolate, because if it is then you’re shit outta luck.”
“Tea,” came the haughty reply, words distinctly prickly. “Like the rest of the civilized world, I drink tea in the morning.”
Alfred probably got a kick out of this kid.
“Some fancy shit, right? Assam or Darjeeling or something like that?”
“Yes,” he snapped. “Nothing you’re likely to have.”
“Cool your jets, kid. I’m sure I’ve got something you can choke down.”
Buried back behind the coffee filters was a battered tin of tea, a gift from Talia, hauled carefully from safehouse to safehouse. He wasn’t on good terms with her anymore, but that didn’t matter. It was a kind gift— he’d acquired a taste for it during his recovery, and it was a little bit of comfort to carry with him as he traveled.
Damian sat hunched at the kitchen table while the water heated, eyes fixed on the statues.
“What are these things, anyway?”
“Gypsum, with inlaid shell and limestone.”
“Their eyes are creepy.”
“Don’t be disrespectful. They’re votives. Art historians surmise that they were used as temple stand-ins for the worshippers who’d commissioned the statues.”
Jason surveyed the statues again as the kettle began to shriek. “So they’re praying?”
“Yes,” Damian said, raising his voice to cut through the high whine. “Hence the need for respect.”
He sifted the leaves into a tea strainer, measuring out enough for a generous cup. The flavor wouldn’t develop as fully as it would in a pot, but with any luck, Damian would be surprised enough to overlook that.
He set the mug down in front of Damian, careful to avoid the statues, and turned back to pour himself a cup of coffee. Alfred was the master at this sort of thing, but the tactics themselves were simple enough. Give the surly Robin — or Bat — some space. Give them something mundane to talk about it. Ply them with their beverage of choice, and do your best to gently prod them out of whatever dark headspace they were stuck in.
Coffee obtained, he leaned back against the counter and turned around just in time to catch the look of surprise on Damian’s face as he got his first whiff of the tea. He looked his age for the first time Jason could remember. A little boy, far away from home, doing well but still struggling sometimes.
“This is Mother’s lapsang souchong.”
“She gave it to you?”
“As a parting gift. I don’t know how you can drink it if you think coffee is too bitter, but I figured it was better than nothing.”
Damian blinked fiercely for a moment, caught off guard.
Jason hid a grin behind his mug. The drip he’d made up was probably milder than Talia’s preferred blend— he drank coffee most days, waiting until he had a quiet moment to savor the tea. Sometimes he brewed a pot after a particularly bad night. It was smokey and dark, intense enough to keep his thoughts focused squarely on the contents of his cup instead of whatever horrors his sleep had dredged up.
Damian probably loved and hated it in equal measure.
“So,” he said. “Couldn’t these people pray with their eyes closed? I’m pretty sure you’re allowed to blink when you pray, or were the rules different back then? They’re all just staring blankly into the void.”
He thought he’d been pretty smooth on the setup, but either Dick had beaten him to the joke or Damian had developed a finely-tuned bullshit meter as a result of prolonged exposure to this particular brand of terrible humor, because his eyes widened and he nearly spat out his mouthful of tea.
“Do not, Todd, I swear—”
“—it’s like they think if they look long into the abyss, the abyss will call them maybe.”
Damian’s noise of disgust was the best thing he’d heard all morning.
He’d only risked the Carly Rae Jepsen joke because he was safe on the other side of the table, protected by the statues he’d just insulted. Jason hummed a few notes and then took a smug sip of his coffee. Damian was feeling better — or at least more homicidal than upset — and would probably huff off back to the manor before things went sour between them. Pretty good for a morning's work.
(The kid was taking the statues with him, thank fuck.)
He didn’t see Damian again for a month or so, not until a bitterly cold night when the Robins and Batgirls all ended up huddled on a roof together, waiting for the signal to engage. Sleet was coming down in icy torrents, and they were all miserable. Even the best waterproofing Wayne Enterprises money could develop wasn’t a match for Gotham’s winter storms.
Half stakeout and half planned ambush, they normally would've had coffee or tea, something warm to dull the impact of the weather, but Scarecrow was involved and Bruce wasn’t willing to roll the dice on whether or not he’d developed anything new. They were all fully kitted out with respirators— no removing them to drink anything on pain of a very disappointed lecture from Alfred. Bruce's reaction didn't bear thinking about.
Stuck on a roof in the middle of an ice storm, Jason was absolutely daydreaming of being warm again — just like everyone else — but Tim was the one who finally broke and started whining.
“What is it about this city? We planned this thing around the weather, and then the sleet rolled in early.”
“You’ve lived in Gotham all your life, Drake,” Damian snapped. “You should know by now to expect the city to be as uncooperative as possible.”
“I’d like to see you do any better with the planning,” Tim groused, ignoring Damian’s use of names in costume. “Even you can’t nag the weather into behaving.”
“I don’t nag,” Damian growled. Maybe in ten years that growl would be impressive, but now — even after repeated exposure — it was just sort of hilarious. Jason had the sense of mind to keep quiet but Steph burst out laughing, and it devolved from there.
Dick generally wasn't immune to the siren song of Bat-based chaos, but he wasn't having any of it tonight, swooping in to big brother everyone back to some semblance of mission ready. Jason stayed on the fringes of it, and eventually, Damian slunk over to huddle next to him, unhappy and on the verge of sulking.
“Don’t worry about it, shrimp,” he said. “Any luck and we’ll be done with this before we all freeze to death.”
Damian hunched in on himself, a Robin doing a truly stunning impression of a wet cat.
“We’re in no danger of hypothermia,” he muttered. His diction was still impressively prickly. “Though,” he conceded, slanting a glance at Jason and softening a fraction, “it is— uncomfortable.”
“I’d offer you a cup of coffee after we wrap up, but something tells me you won’t take me up on it.”
“You’re the tea snob— you want to risk diner tea, be my guest.”
“Says the man with a stash of Mother’s £250 lapsang souchong.”
“You’re lowballing,” Jason laughed. “Why do you think I hoard it so carefully? That shit’s more expensive than high-end whiskey.”
“Mother has good taste. I’m surprised you had the sense to pick it up from her.”
“Oh come on, I was only mostly brain-dead. Give me some credit.”
Bruce gave the signal before the kid could respond, all of them pushing aside their discomfort to focus on business, but he caught the flash of a grin before Damian vanished over the edge of the roof.
Nothing ever went to plan, so instead of grabbing something warm when the dust settled, a solid two-thirds of them ended up taking decontamination showers in the Cave, trying to scrub off an ugly purple sludge that seemed more like a failed experiment than a fully functional new toxin.
Damian caught him as he was getting ready to head back out into the sleet.
“I am not going back out in this weather, Todd.”
“It’s alright, kid,” he said. “I knew you’d chicken out on the diner swill.”
“That is an infantile attempt to goad me into joining you, and it will not work.”
“Uh-huh. I believe you.”
“I’m merely trying to stay dry. The logic of that shouldn’t escape you, not after you complained about freezing to death.”
“Well, when the sky stops trying to ice us all over, drop by sometime. We can work our way up to the swill.”
“If you insist.”
“I insist. Bring your own tea though— I’m not about to go broke trying to keep up with your good taste.”
He ruffled the kid’s hair almost before he knew what he was doing. Damian bore it more stoically than he would have expected if he’d had a chance to think about it beforehand. The kid was as likely to lop off someone’s hand as endure an unwanted assault on his personal space; maybe he’d seen the flash of panic on Jason’s face when he realized he was unconsciously mimicking Bruce. Christ, maybe it was a new toxin after all.
He drew his hand back, fighting to shove down the unexpected surge of emotion. A quip from Damian put him back on solid footing just as easily as the kid had knocked him off it in the first place.
“No ridiculous short joke this time, Todd? Have you run out already?”
“Never you fear, small fry, I’ve got plenty of nicknames.”
Damian’s voice was dry as dust. “All as fresh as the diner swill, I’m sure.”
Leaving the Cave laughing was a new experience, or perhaps a very old one, made unfamiliar by time and distance. Either way, it was welcome.
Damian didn’t drop by with any sort of regularity, but every once in a while a new tin of tea would appear in the cabinet, carefully placed behind the coffee filters. The kid was a Robin through and through: couldn’t help showing off and breaking in, even when he was invited. It saved Jason the trouble of leaving him a key, at least.
The stash built up slowly over the next couple months. Rich, woodsy pu-erh, toasted hōjicha, even some delicate rooibos, all of them beautiful blends he had no hope of affording on his own. Damian was clearly picking and choosing according to his own palate, but Jason was the one getting free tea, and expensive tea at that— no reason to complain.
Lapsang souchong was conspicuously absent from the rotation, but Jason made sure to keep some in reserve; he wasn’t the only one who had nightmares. It was a poor substitute for Talia, but it was a comfort nonetheless.
The scrape of a window opening jolted him awake. He was halfway out of bed with a 9mm in his hand before a voice rang out from the kitchen, too familiar to be a burglar or anyone else stupid enough to try and crash the Red Hood’s safehouse uninvited.
“No need for guns, Todd. I’m merely here to reclaim some of my tea.”
He tucked the gun away and padded into the kitchen, blinking against the harshness of the overhead light.
Damian was standing in the middle of the room, hands loose at his sides but tension strung tightly throughout the rest of his body. He looked tired and bewildered and angry all at once. He looked like he’d lost a fight with Bruce.
“Pretty late at night for tea, kid.”
“No stores are open at this hour.”
“And Alfred mysteriously ran out back at the manor?”
Jason kept his voice neutral, as gentle as he could, but Damian tensed at that, coiling into himself like a spring about to shatter.
“I didn’t—” his voice broke. He swallowed and tried again, diction still painfully, heartbreakingly precise. “I fought with Father. I didn’t know where else to go.”
Fighting with Bruce was like fighting the Gotham weather, only worse. You could try, but it never went well; the storm always won. Fights like that felt like the end of the world, every goddamn time. It was a heavy burden for a kid, even a Robin. Especially a Robin.
“You want the lapsang, or something else?”
Damian didn’t answer, just stared blankly at the cabinet.
“My mother’s influence is no small part of why he’s disappointed,” he bit out.
Jason went with the rooibos. They stayed quiet until the kettle shrilled, harsh and grating. He half-expected to turn around and see those damn statues, but instead, it was just Damian alone at the table.
The pot clinked down with a thud, sweet steam curling around them as he poured.
“I don’t know what to tell you, kid. I fought with Bruce, and— I’m sure someone’s filled you in on how that ended.” He took a sip, wincing a little bit at the sugary bite of it, trying to gather his thoughts. “There’s no trick that’ll make things easier. No way to get him to listen if he’s decided he knows best.”
“Then what changed?” Damian asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Something changed. You spent years fighting with him, and now you’re...civil to each other, despite the differences in ideology. What was it?”
He heaved out a sigh. “To be honest, I don’t know. Guess I just realized that we were never going to see eye to eye. I stopped fighting those battles because neither of us was ever going to give in. It’s been long enough now that sometimes we manage to meet in the middle. Sometimes we don’t.”
“So I just wait? That’s all I can do?”
“I don’t know, Damian. I’m not exactly the best person to ask. Not many people come to me for advice, especially about Bruce. That’s usually Dickie’s job.”
Damian ducked his head. “I didn’t go to Grayson because I didn’t want a lecture. He’s— I made a mistake, and he would be upset with me. Rightfully so.”
Anger prickled through him despite his own best attempt to ignore it. “So you decided on tea with the family disgrace instead? Can’t fault you for your priorities there, tater tot. I’m an instant ego boost.”
Damian’s hand tightened dangerously around his mug. “Don’t talk about yourself like that, Todd. The self-deprecation is ridiculous.” Then, less sharp, “That's not why I'm here. I came because I knew it would be quiet; no lectures, no judgment. Just— this.”
Shame washed away the anger.
“I’m sorry, kid. I’ll go dig up some blankets, maybe even a spare pillow, and you can crash on the couch. No bad Nietzsche jokes this time, I promise.”
The barest hint of a smile crossed Damian’s face. “I can’t decide which one you butchered more thoroughly: the music or the philosophy.”
“Shut up and drink your tea.”
Damian was gone in the morning, blankets folded neatly on the couch, cups rinsed and set out to dry. Full pot of coffee brewed and waiting for him.
Jason grinned, imagining the grimace on Damian’s face, scrunched up and disgusted; the little snob didn’t even like the smell of coffee.
You’re welcome, kid. Anytime.