Grayson turns the page and smiles before beginning to read at the point where they left off last night. “After many long and hopeless years had passed, a fine prince came to the accursed kingdom. He had heard the tale of the beautiful princess who lay sleeping for a hundred years in the forgotten castle surrounded by the briar-hedge. He also heard tell of her father and servants, who were all likewise bound by dark magic. All of them lay in a sleep so still and silent as to be akin to death.”
Damian lies in bed and allows the sound of Grayson’s soft, smooth voice to roll over him. Sleep tugs at him even as he frowns at the direction the story appears to be taking. Why would the prince bother to travel to a kingdom so obviously rife with witchcraft and danger? Surely there were more profitable ventures he could have engaged in for the benefit of his own kingdom.
“And the prince valiantly entered the castle, with no thought to his own safety or concern for the many grievous wounds he received as he fought his way through the briar-hedge. By his bravery and love he lifted the spell—waking the kingdom to life again, and saving the princess from her terrible fate with true love’s kiss.”
Damian scowls, rousing slightly at the sheer stupidity of the story. As Grayson inhales, his mouth opening to continue perpetrating this travesty, Damian finally snaps. “Grayson, I must demand that you cease this at once! Surely there are superior books, if you must insist on these bedtime stories. The Art of War, perhaps, or The Prince.”
There must be something else that would be both useful and soporific. At this point, Damian would prefer to listen to the dictionary read aloud over the ridiculous stories his oldest brother feels the need to inflict upon him.
“Aw, c’mon, Dami, we’re almost at the end. Don’t you want to find out what happens next?” Grayson smiles, looking absurdly hopeful.
Scoffing, Damian shakes his head. “I have no interest in the outcome of this preposterous tale. The princess is a pathetic fool—only a clumsy idiot would stab herself on a common household implement! Further, she should have accosted the old woman in the tower room and demanded her reasons for being within the castle in the first place, not naively trusted an obviously dubious intruder. Clearly, her training or her intelligence was inexcusably lacking. Likely both.”
Damian sits up, pushing the covers back so he can gesture for emphasis. “Worse, the prince is clearly incompetent, and possibly some manner of halfwit. How else could one account for his demonstrable idiocy in pursuing a clearly useless, magically accursed princess, to the near certain detriment of his own kingdom and person? He should never have entered the briar-hedge on such a flimsy pretext.”
He scoffs. “Their children, should either of them have the wit to figure out how to actually engender any—which I highly doubt—will likely be morons. Such pathetic offspring would be bound to blunder into another such trap the moment they learned to walk, thus perpetuating the cycle of blithering dunderheads staggering straight to their own doom.” Scowling, Damian glares at his brother. “Grayson, these lessons are far beneath me. What purpose could these ridiculous bedtime stories possibly serve?”
Grayson stares at him, arrested with his mouth hanging open in a ridiculous manner. “Uh…” He blinks somewhat helplessly, then visibly rallies. “You’re missing the point, Little D! First of all, these stories are meant to be fun. You haven’t had enough fun in your life.” The corners of his mouth tilt down.
The implication that Grayson considers him to be a child is unmistakable, and highly offensive. Damian narrows his eyes and inhales deeply before letting loose. “Fun is neither constructive nor useful in my training and education. I am not a child to be pandered to and—”
Shaking his head apologetically, Grayson quickly soothes his ruffled feathers. “No, I know. You’re highly intelligent and skilled far beyond your age.” For some reason, he looks even sadder, as though Damian’s achievements are somehow undesirable.
Ridiculous. Damian’s prowess and success should be a point of pride for him. Perhaps he is experiencing indigestion. Damian makes a mental note to direct Pennyworth to prepare a cleansing tea for him later.
“Anyway.” Grayson smiles and leans forward to ruffle Damian’s hair. The man then pulls back quickly and expertly in a practiced move to avoid any reflexive snapping.
Damian rolls his eyes. It has been weeks since he bit anyone. And that was merely Drake, who hardly counts.
“These stories are important. They’re something you missed out on growing up. I just want to give you a chance to have some of the things other kids take for granted.”
“Cultural indoctrination,” Damian muses, leaning back on the pillows piled against the headboard and steepling his fingers on his chest. “So, you believe these stories to be important to my integration with civilian school children?” He narrows his eyes in a considering manner. If his civilian cover requires a thorough knowledge of these puerile tales, then that changes things. It’s annoying, but he’s done worse for less benefit.
Grayson’s brows rise marginally and he bites back a smile. “Uh, yeah, you could think of it that way. Also, these stories all have some good lessons hidden away in them. I think it could be good for you to try to figure out what those lessons are.”
Damian freezes, suddenly alert. He forces himself not to tense and to continue breathing normally. So, this is a test. Having spent his entire life up until the age of ten in the less than tender care of his grandfather and mother, he knows very well the importance of passing every test set before him.
Now, what, precisely, does Grayson intend for him to glean from this story?
As Grayson’s smooth, deep voice resumes reading the deceptively idiotic story, Damian focuses his entire attention and listens as though his life depends upon it. While he knows his father and brother would never subject him to the types of punishment for failure as his previous caretakers, he wants to make them proud.
He will pass this test.
The next morning, Damian sits at the breakfast table consuming a plate of mixed fruit, nuts, and plain toast. He’s still puzzling over what lessons could possibly be taken from the foolish story of a princess, a wicked witch, and an annoyingly noble prince. It clearly can’t be an example of what to do—none of the characters’ actions are at all deserving of emulation.
Perhaps it is meant to be an object lesson of what not to do? However, in that case, it would be quite difficult to demonstrate he has absorbed said lesson. He would have to wait until a home intruder or enchanted maiden appeared in his path in order to showcase his admirable ability to apprehend said intruder and ignore said maiden.
As he ruminates, Todd barges into the room, stomping through the kitchen and whistling cheerfully as he gathers what appears to be ingredients for an omelette.
Damian scowls. “What are you doing here, Todd?” The family black sheep rarely appears in the Bat Cave, let alone upstairs in Wayne Manor. The only times he dares show his face here are when—Damian’s brows rise in realization. “Is Father out of town?”
“Yep.” Todd flashes him an insouciant grin. “For a couple of days. There’s a little heat on Red Hood right now, and I’m pretty sure a few of my safe houses are compromised, so I’m stayin’ here while Daddy Bats is away.” He winks, pulls a jug of orange juice out of the refrigerator and opens it, then raises it directly to his mouth before Damian’s scandalized gaze.
A throat being pointedly cleared draws their attention over to the doorway, where Pennyworth stands, looking entirely unamused. “Master Jason, really.”
Todd lowers the jug quickly, the back of his neck turning red as he unsuccessfully attempts to hide the purloined jug behind his back. “Aw, shi—uh, I mean, shoot. I was just giving the squirt a hard time.”
Pennyworth raises a minatory eyebrow at him, confiscating the orange juice and pouring Todd a glass before expertly taking over the omelette preparations. “Please see that it does not happen again. I know very well that you were taught better than that.”
“It is quite all right, Master Jason. And may I say—” Pennyworth clears his throat, looking momentarily overcome before gathering his composure again. “It is good to have you here, my dear boy.”
The two fall into quiet conversation, and Damian resumes puzzling over the challenge Grayson set for him. Perhaps it isn’t specific to the story they were reading last night. It is possible Grayson intends for him to take into account the various movies he has been subjecting him to, as well. In that case, the princesses have additional qualities he may need to consider.
As a group, they tend to enjoy singing. Animals are attracted to them. They are deeply sympathetic and make a habit of saving people.
Damian glowers. This isn’t getting him anywhere. None of those are characteristics of anyone he’s ever met, much less someone he spends time with around here—
Softly sung words draw his attention back to the present, and he looks across the table in surprise. “Mama, just killed a man…” The quiet song dissolves into humming for a moment, and Damian realizes Pennyworth has left the room and Todd is now seated across from him. The man is singing, to the same tune he was whistling when he entered the room.
Todd continues, apparently unaware of his audience. “Put a gun against his head—pulled my trigger, now he’s dead…” He shoves a large forkful of eggs into his mouth and continues humming undeterred even as he chews his food. After a moment, he notices Damian staring and grins, displaying fragments of half-masticated eggs. “What, you don’t like Queen?”
No. There is simply no way Todd is intended to be the princess in this scenario, his apparent tendency to spontaneously burst into song aside. Although his puzzling reference to some unknown queen is another point in favor of that troubling hypothesis.
Todd clears his plate, then rises to his feet. “Okay, I’m off. See ya around, brat.” He ambles away, leaving Damian to his thoughts.
He watches as Todd wanders toward the hall, resuming his song about violence and mayhem after a moment. Could it be…? No, impossible! Damian shakes his head. Just then, Titus trots past him through the kitchen, faithfully following Todd. Alfred the cat appears a moment later, darting after them.
Damian blinks in shock. Todd spontaneously bursts into song. Animals apparently adore him. He also spends a sizable portion of his time saving people. One by one, realizations tumble into place like dominoes. Todd was once taken from them by a wicked monster, which sent his father into a terrible period of mourning for years. Almost like a curse upon their family…
Perhaps… Todd has yet to be truly saved? The state of his relationship with the family, and Damian’s father in particular, does seem to leave much to be desired.
Wide-eyed, Damian continues to stare after them for a long while, struck speechless by the realization—Todd is a Disney princess.
Damian has a lot of work to do.