As a rule, after a hard afternoon of legwork on a case, Jason did not like to return to his main safehouse to find that one of his family members had let themselves in. That was the sort of shit that was only funny when he did it. Damian (not Robin, Damian) didn't even have the good grace to think it was amusing either. The kid could stand to be at least a little smug at thwarting Jason's security.
Come to think of that, that was also strange. Normally Damian would be more than just a little smug at thwarting Jason's security.
Instead, he was sat rigidly at Jason's kitchen table, still in his school uniform, hands spread deliberately on its dark wooden surface. Not exactly the picture of ease and grace. "Todd," he greeted him.
"Damian," Jason said. "What the fuck are you doing here?"
Damian did not immediately reply. He didn't even sneer. His eyes darted up towards Jason's range hood, then over to the fridge, then his kitchen knives, as if Jason's whitegoods and cooking gear might save him from whatever he'd come here to say. At last, he looked at Jason and said, "I require your assistance."
"And you're not asking Alfred?"
"Alfred would inform Grayson, and I do not want Grayson to find out."
"What about your dad?" Jason asked, with a familiar little prickle of resentment.
"Father would not understand."
"But I would? And you think I can help?"
Okay, now he was interested, despite himself. There was no need to ask why Damian hadn't asked Tim for help; it would be a cold day in hell before Damian did that, and there'd have to be a legit blizzard in hell before Tim helped Damian with a personal problem. It had to be a personal problem, too. What other sort of problem would Bruce not understand (Bruce was one of the smartest people Jason had ever met, but everyone who knew him knew there were things Bruce just plain Did Not Get), and Alfred handball to Dick immediately?
Not to mention there was novelty value. He wasn't often anyone's first choice.
Wordlessly, Damian slid a slim bundle of papers across the table towards Jason.
It was...a script? "Brian and the Dinosaurs," Jason read out, before starting to flip through it. Not just a script to a play, it was a musical. A dull one, about some kid zapped back into the past to interact with talking lizards. Only when he saved Timothy the T-Rex from his sore tooth could he finally go home. Why was that so? Who knew? "What's the problem?"
A dull flush of red burned in Damian's cheeks. "I was volunteered for this...production. In a role of some prominence. Participation is compulsory in my year level."
Jason couldn't help it. He burst out laughing. This was too precious. Damian in an elementary school musical. "I see why you're not telling your dad," he wheezed. "What did they cast you as? Please tell me you're Brian." He would pay good money to see Damian trying to act like the naive little dweeb of the script.
"I am not," Damian said. "I was cast as the tyrannosaurus."
That just made Jason laugh harder. "Sorry, sorry," he said, once he could catch a breath. "It's just - it's so perfect. I mean, Timothy the T-Rex? That's some icing on the cake there, brat."
Damian stood. "If you will not help, I'll do this myself," he said stiffly, obviously mortified and offended. Jason even felt bad. Not bad enough not to find it funny, just bad. He definitely understood why Damian didn't want to go to Alfred about this. Alfred would instantly shift into 'doting grandfather' mode and tell Dick. And Dick, well. The less said about how he would react, the better. It would be embarrassing for all of them.
"No, hang on. I just don't know what you want me to do, since I'm assuming you don't want me to blow up the auditorium, and if you want someone to talk your way out of the show, you actually will need Bruce or Dickhead."
"Nothing so flashy," Damian said. "If you would help provide an alibi when necessary, I would...appreciate that."
"Alibi, huh? For rehearsals?"
"And the performances," Damian said.
"You don't want them there? Not even Alfred and Dick?"
Damian ground his teeth, and for the first time in the conversation, looked upset rather than angry. "Why would I ever want them to see me dressed as some insipid reptile and singing about dental problems?"
When Jason had been Damian's age, he might not have given an arm and a leg to have that sort of problem, but a few fingers for sure. His ma was too high to notice when Jason stopped going to school altogether, around that age, the better to spend his time scrounging money. Damian's problem here was that too many people loved him and were willing to show it, and Jason couldn't help but be a little jealous. But he said, "Yeah, okay, I get it." Jealousy aside, Damian did have a point. "Just let me know when you need an alibi for this and I'll cover for you."
Some of the tension left the youngest member of their family. "Thank you, Todd," he said, before drawing himself back up in his usual haughty way. "What repayment do you require?"
Jason snorted. "You just trusted me with the fact that you're in a musical as Timmy the T-Rex. That's its own reward right there. Don't worry, I won't use it for blackmail unless it's really important."
Damian narrowed his eyes. "Very well. I agree to your terms. If you will excuse me, however, I am already expected back home."
"No need to worry Alfred prematurely," Jason agreed. "Go on, brat. I've got your back."
With a nod, Damian left. Jason managed to wait until he was halfway down the hall out of the apartment to start snickering again. It was too bad he'd promised to keep quiet. Tim would get a laugh out of this too.
When Grayson returned to the Manor for dinner and sparring before patrol, as was their usual weekend routine, the very first thing he asked was, "How was school this week, Dami?"
Damian had been expecting this question. "Adequate," he said, and left it there.
"What, that's all I get?" Grayson asked, silly smile on his face. "It was adequate? You didn't get a repeat of the rope-climbing incident? Or the world geography incident?"
This was precisely why he had no intention of telling Grayson about that cursed musical. Grayson remembered everything, if it would be embarrassing to Damian. He seemed to positively delight in hearing about Damian's difficulties in pretending to be a "normal" child. Pennyworth was little better in this regard, for all his reactions were more contained. "We had a spelling test," Damian said.
"Hmph. Of course not. Ninety-three percent."
"You spent more time calculating logical errors for someone whose first language is Arabic, didn't you?"
"I have to keep myself entertained somehow."
Grayson laughed. "You're getting good at this school thing," he said. "I used to drive my teachers up the wall because I couldn't sit still. It took years for Bruce to train that out of me."
He seemed to accept Damian's misdirection. The spelling test had happened as he had described, it was true, but they were spending time in class memorising the script to the musical now. They had read through it as a class in its entirety twice already. Staying awake had been a hard-fought battle.
So far, he had not required Todd to cover for him. A small mercy. Going to Todd had been a gamble. It was entirely possible that Todd would double-cross him. Specifically, he was worried that Todd would tell Drake, and Drake discovering this situation would be intolerable. Much like Grayson, Drake would remember this if he discovered it. Unlike Grayson, Drake would use it, in a way he could trust Todd not to.
The situation changed on the Tuesday. His teacher announced that main cast members were required to stay behind to learn the music for the show. Yet another reason he wanted nothing to do with this musical. After school he customarily went home and trained, either by himself or with his father. He did not want to be in school late.
"Aren't you excited?" Morgan Addison asked him. She was playing a triceratops. The triceratops was not named Tim. In all honesty, Damian might have preferred to play Tina the Triceratops than anything named Tim.
"Not really," Damian told her.
He texted Todd, notifying him that he was required to stay in school for a rehearsal and would be in need of the alibi he had promised to supply Damian with.
Done and done, the message came back. You're working with me this afternoon.
Damian texted back, Thank you, remembering at the last second that he should not use Todd's name in any communications. Todd was still legally dead, after all. How fortunate for him. Dead men did not have to attend school.
Then he squared his shoulders and suffered through an hour of bad music and worse singing. Regrettably, Damian had to include himself in the ranks of poor singers; his voice was pleasant enough, which was more than could be said for many of his peers, but he knew he lacked musicianship.
When he escaped, Todd was waiting for him, in a car rather than on his motorcycle. "How was it?"
"Dull," Damian said, "but thus far tolerable. It was just the music, no dancing." And not what he knew would eventually come - a dinosaur costume. He was already dreading that dark day.
"If Bruce or Alfred asks, we were just doing a bit of sparring. You're not late enough for casework to be plausible."
"Thank you," Damian said. When they came to a halt outside the Manor gates, he said, "On behalf of Pennyworth, I must extend an invitation to dinner. He would like to see you, I'm sure." So would Father. Father was always happy when Todd returned to the Manor. Happy in a way Damian didn't think his father ever was happy to see him.
Todd glanced up the driveway a bit wistfully. "No," he said. "I've got stuff to do in town."
"Very well." Damian half-exited the car, but remembered at the last minute to turn and say, "Thank you, Todd."
"I promised, didn't I? Call me when you need another cover story."
As soon as Damian closed the car door behind him, Todd sped off, as though the Manor had a gravitational pull that he needed to escape. Or, perhaps, he feared that Pennyworth would know if he set so much as a toe over the property line. Certainly that was a thing Damian sometimes worried about.
The next week, Grayson said, "I hear you were doing a bit of training with Jason."
His tone was light and mildly curious. Damian was instantly on guard. He knew Grayson's tricks. If he wasn't careful, Grayson would lull him into spilling any number of inconsistencies, and have the full story from him in minutes. And if Grayson found out... "I wished to train against someone different," he said. "Todd does not often train with us, so I asked. He would not consent to come here."
"I think it's a good idea," Grayson said, smiling. "It's nice that Jason's willing to spend time with you, even if you are hitting each other. And I think it's nice you're seeing more of Gotham as a civilian."
Damian felt a twinge of shame at lying to Grayson, but he hardened his heart. It was another manipulation/interrogation tactic, and one of his most powerful and insidious. Even Father sometimes reconsidered his actions if he thought Grayson might turn a disappointed gaze on him. Grayson has a camera, Damian reminded himself, and he will use it.
That worked well enough.
Damian took to calling him every Tuesday. Rehearsal night. "How long until the actual performance?" Jason asked after the third. "I don't know how these things work."
"Another three weeks," Damian said gloomily. "Then there will be three performances, one each on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Sunday one is the only one scheduled for the afternoon."
Jason whistled. "That's a bit of patrol you're going to miss."
"I am aware." He shifted in his seat to look away, out the window, as they drove back towards the Manor. "I do not understand why they even make us participate in this asinine ritual. Surely our time would be better spent learning."
"Don't look at me. I never had to do one of these things." By the time Bruce had sent Jason to a school with the resources for any sort of theatre production, he'd been too old for them to be compulsory. He didn't think he would have volunteered, either, not when he'd been twelve and awkward around all the rich kids at his new fancy school.
But, as he drove back in silence with Damian, he thought that might have been his loss. He was a pretty good actor. Maybe not to the standards of most of the rest of the family, but when he'd been Robin he'd been more than good enough for a school play. And he liked plays. He could imagine, sitting in the kitchen reading through his lines, getting Alfred's professional opinion. Back then, Bruce might even have come to see him, if he'd performed.
He wouldn't have sat up the front. That wasn't his way. If he meant to attend for Jason's sake, he'd stay up the back, where he could watch without being interrupted. Jason could almost see it...
"It's probably teamwork or something," Jason said. Pointless daydreaming. "Have you made any new friends in class?"
Damian snorted. "Sebastian Baker was full of himself even before he was cast in the lead role, not that it's anything to be proud of. Isabelle Immer cannot sing. Josephine Willis is upset she doesn't get to play the stegosaurus, for some reason. And Jackson Hall cannot remember whether he is playing a diplodocus, a brontosaurus, or an apatosaurus. Not that it matters when the writers of this script do not even seem to realise that many of these creatures lived millions of years apart."
"You're a little snot, you know that, right?"
"So I have been informed."
For his part, though Jason could see the appeal of casting Damian as Timmy the Toothachey Tyrannosaurus, he wondered why the teacher hadn't doubled down on 'things that are likely to be hilarious' and cast Damian as the titular Brian. He'd've been tempted, if he was a teacher. Or perhaps this sort of thing was why he wasn't a teacher.
Tim caught up with him on a Thursday, as Red Robin, slipping out of a shadow next to the Red Hood. Jason had known he'd been there the whole time, of course. The family had a high standard for dramatic entrances. "You're getting awfully pally with Robin lately," he said.
"What's it to you?" Jason asked.
"Uh...the part where you've both tried to kill me."
"It's been years," Jason protested. "And we never teamed up to do it."
"Exactly why I'm worried now," Tim said.
Jason looked sidelong at Red Robin. Red Robin was not looking at him, but out from the rooftop, over Gotham. "Nah, you're just snooping," he said. Once upon a time he'd tried to kill Tim, sure, but that was a while ago. Killing Tim definitely would have been his loss. His replacement might be too clever by half, but he was good value all the same.
"Okay, I'm snooping," Tim said. "You've never spent much time with him before. I checked with Nightwing, and he said he didn't put you or him up to it. I'm just curious."
"Yeah, well," Jason sighed. "I can't tell you. I promised I wouldn't." Sucked, too, because this could be really, really funny. Just imagining the look of bafflement on Tim's face was going to bring a happy tear to his eye for a few weeks. Even imagining Damian's outrage upon learning Tim found out his terrible secret might almost be worth it. He'd get his ass kicked by both Damian and Dick for it, but even so, almost worth spilling the beans.
Tim raised an eyebrow, displaying an eerie talent for keeping it perfectly parallel to the edge of his mask. "Now you're keeping secrets with him too?"
"Guess so. I'd tell you otherwise. It's not going to hurt you. Relax."
Tim glanced back towards him. "Or humiliate me, or inconvenience me, or frustrate me? There's a lot of room open for trouble with that wording."
"Aren't you the little lawyer. None of those things. It's completely innocent. I swear it, and I'll put my armoury up as collateral."
"Hmm," Red Robin mused. "That's a vow I might actually believe. You're on. If it's not completely innocent, I'm coming for your gun collection. I might even need it to defend myself at that point."
The costume was ghastly. Damian was well aware there was no concrete information on what colour any given dinosaur might have been; even so, did the costume have to be such an eye-searing shade of green? Did it have to have spots even more yellow than Robin's cape? Did the eyes have to be so large and...googly?
He rather thought not.
It was entrusted to his care between dress rehearsal (thankfully held during school hours) and the first performance. "Now, be careful with that, Damian," his teacher told him, a vapid smile on her vapid face. "You don't want to get it wrinkled before the show."
"No," Damian agreed. He didn't want to get the costume wrinkled. He wanted to dissolve it in acid. Surely his father had a stash in the cave. Failing that, he would settle for shoving it in the incinerator in the working area of the manor's back garden, but the acrylic fabric would surely produce terrible fumes and thereby tip off everyone that something was amiss.
He couldn't fit the costume in his backpack. Nor could he smuggle such a bulky object past Pennyworth. The butler would spot it in a heartbeat, then discover the whole sorry tale. And then, at last, leave him to Drake's ridicule and the tender mercies of Grayson's camera.
Once again, Todd was his only recourse.
Todd laughed at him too. He laughed long and hard, head falling to the steering wheel of his car and only narrowly avoiding setting off the horn. When he at last straightened up, there were tears of laughter glinting in the corners of his eyes.
These were his choices, Damian thought sourly as Todd wiped away a few final tears. Yet Todd's mirth was preferable to the knife Drake would wield this knowledge as, and the, the, Graysonness with which Grayson would treat the matter. Pennyworth would also treat the matter with a certain amount of Graysonness, albeit more subdued. (Describing this reaction as Pennyworthness would not be fitting.) It was also better that Father never discovered this. Damian did not know how he would ever manage to show his face in front of any of them again if they found out.
"Yeah, I'll stash it for you," Todd said once he could breath again without difficulty. "No problems."
"Thank you," Damian said stiffly.
"That's an incredibly ugly costume. Did Dick make it?"
"No. I wouldn't bother hiding it from him in that case."
Todd sighed, snickered a bit more, then started the car. He was still smiling broadly. Anyone who passed them might even think Todd was amiable. "But that means believing there's more than one person in the world who's that bad at costume design."
"Grayson's costume is adequate," Damian said.
"You didn't know him when he was a teenager," Todd countered.
Instead of taking him back to the manor, Todd drove him to his safe house, the one Damian had broken into in the first place. They'd agreed upon it. They needed a better excuse than simple sparring to cover Damian's absence throughout the weekend. Once Todd had given him food (he was almost as insistent that Damian eat as Pennyworth was), he spread a stack of case files across his kitchen table. "Here are our possibilities," he said. "Any one of these will take me 'out of town' for the weekend. Which one can you most plausibly help me with?"
Damian surveyed them all. "This," Damian decided. Antiquities smuggling. In all honestly Damian would prefer to spend a weekend investigating antiquities smuggling with Todd rather than performing as a singing dinosaur.
"I'll call your dad." Todd cocked an eye at the profiles of stolen objects littered across his table. "Can you help with that case? I'm not bad with art, but it's not my forte either."
"It is mine." It's the bare truth. He's better with paintings than with sculpture, but even his father respects his eye for visual art. "I can help. Consider it partial repayment for your assistance with this...musical."
Todd shook his head. "It's not payment, kid. Getting to see you in that dino costume is what I get out of this deal."
"I would rather you accepted my assistance on a case," Damian told him.
"That's why I'm only accepting payment in the form of a ticket to the first show," Todd said, satisfied. "Pay up."
Defeated, Damian slapped the ticket down in front of him. At least he could still rely on Todd's word not to let the rest of the family know about this.
The musical was utter shit, but Jason had to admit, Damian wasn't half bad. Less sullen than he'd been expecting. Definitely a better singer than most of the others. He did a great job at looking just a little bit clumsy when he danced, too. When the curtain went down for the (all too welcome) intermission, Damian even smiled without looking like he really did want to eat the little ham playing the lead role.
The T-rex costume alone was worth driving Damian back and forth for the past few weeks. Gas money well spent. Enduring blackmail material. Oh, it was wonderful.
As he turned to go, he spotted someone familiar in the back of the auditorium. Someone tall and broad with a familiar square jaw. Even though he was wearing a mediocre suit and glasses, obviously going for incognito, Jason knew Bruce at a glance. It was just like Jason had imagined he'd attend. Just like it.
He looked around to make sure Damian wasn't anywhere in sight, then grabbed Bruce by the elbow and dragged him outside. Bruce let him. Didn't want to make a scene, Jason would bet. Bruce Wayne getting into a scuffle with someone at the musical. Good gossip for the parents.
When they were safely out, and out of sight of all the parents grabbing a quick smoke as well, Jason hissed, "What the fuck are you doing here?"
Bruce said, "I am watching Damian perform in his school musical."
"You know what I mean. How did you even know?"
"The school does let the parents and guardians of students know about this sort of thing," Bruce said. "They gave notice at the beginning of the year that this was on the agenda. Damian didn't read every handout he brought home. Dick did. He briefed me."
Jason narrowed his eyes. "Dick knows about this? Is he going to show up too?" It was hard to say whether Damian wanted Bruce, Dick, or Tim to find out about this least, and the only one Jason fancied his chances against in a fistfight was Tim. He didn't want to get in a fistfight with any of them over Damian. "Oh god, tell me he's not in the rafters."
"No. He knows Damian doesn't want him here." Bruce's expression was, for a moment, deeply amused. "He may have installed a camera. I believe Alfred is planning to watch as well."
"Shit," Jason said. "I promised I wouldn't let anyone else know he was in this thing."
"You did well."
Jason did a double-take, was what he did. "What?"
"You did well," Bruce repeated. Jason started running through the checklist for evidence to corroborate the theory he had fallen into an alternate universe. Finding none, he heard Bruce add, "I'm grateful for your help with him."
Jason blinked. After a seriously undignified silence, he muttered, "Whatever, I only did it for the blackmail. Except it turns out everyone knew everything all along."
At least Bruce had the decency not to look amused at that. "Think of it this way," he said. "You now have blackmail material on the rest of us, should you so choose."
He did. Think about it. It wasn't bad, now that Bruce mentioned it. He could tell Damian that the others had witnessed him singing in an ugly dinosaur costume and pretending to be a normal fifth-grader, and then stand back and watch the fireworks. He might have to make a run for it afterwards when Damian inevitably turned on him for hiding it, but it might be worth it.
"Whatever," Jason said again. "Intermission's probably almost over. You better get back in there, old man, and if Damian sees you I'm not covering for you."
"I wouldn't expect you to," Bruce said. "Thank you, Jason."
Jason let him take his seat first, hidden in the back-of-the-auditorium shadows. He stayed even further back, standing behind the seating, where he could keep an eye on both Bruce and Damian. He didn't want to miss Damian's villain song, such as it was, after all. As Jason had initially thought, Damian wasn't too bad. Even taking the ugly dino suit into account.
Bruce slipped out as soon as the curtain call was done, leaving Jason to pick Damian up and drive him back to his safehouse, where he was planning to spend the night. Assisting with that antiquities case. "That wasn't so bad," Jason said.
"It was atrocious," Damian snapped.
"Relax. You did fine. And for the record, the triceratops costume was way uglier than yours." It had been magenta, with lurid blue edges. That costume probably had been Dick's work. Somehow. Jason was going to prove it. Again, somehow.
"I don't see how that makes my own costume any less vile." Damian visibly fumed for a few minutes of driving, and then said, "Thank you, Todd."
Thanks for what? The whole family knew. They'd known before Jason had ever agreed to help out. "No need," Jason said. "You could have just told them, you know. I don't think they'd've cared." Not in the bad way, for the most part. Bruce showed up. Dick and Alfred stayed away because they didn't want to embarrass Damian any more than he already was. Damian's worst fears about Tim hadn't come to pass.
Damian narrowed his eyes. He didn't need to say I don't believe you. It was written all over his face.
If Damian couldn't see how much the family cared about him, that wasn't Jason's problem. Not until he was called to help Damian avoid more rehearsals, anyway. He'd do it too, more fool him.
"Pennyworth has invited you for dinner again," Damian said abruptly, resuming his intent staring out the car window. "He knows you have been avoiding the house."
"Only to be expected, brat," Jason said. "Alfred knows everything." Alfred knew he was avoiding Bruce. That had also been a smashing success.
"You should humour him at least once. Father would also appreciate it."
Jason checked the road was clear, then gave Damian a sceptical glance. Bruce didn't want anything to do with Jason. He was the reject son. Bruce wasn't going to show up at any school musicals for Jason, even if he somehow got into one. Graduation, maybe, that would be the analogy, if Jason decided to get the piece of paper for the sociology studies he'd enjoyed. Not going to happen.
Thank you. You did well.
It was a pipe dream. And Bruce absolutely would never show up quietly to watch an elementary school musical just because his son was in it.
"I'll think about it," Jason said. "Maybe afternoon tea. Don't know if I could sit through a whole dinner." Especially since he wouldn't put it past Alfred to cook a six-course meal to get him to stay longer. That was his sort of subterfuge. The sneaky old bastard.
Damian nodded stiffly. "Thank you. Again. You have been far more accommodating than expected."
"Damned by faint praise," Jason said. He made himself grin, because a) this was getting dangerously close to Dick's sort of conversation and, more importantly, b) he really ought to remind Damian of why he'd done this all in the first place. "You sure you want to say that sort of thing to someone who just saw you playing Timmy the T-rex?"
"I will end you, Todd!" Damian snapped, but he didn't take out anything sharp and pointy or lunge for the steering wheel.
And that sort of reaction was all he'd ever wanted from Damian, really.