Jason was stuck at the manor recovering from a stab wound when it all started. To be clear, he hadn’t meant to start anything. This was all Tim’s fault, in his opinion. He had been sitting in the family room — the real one, not the fancy one towards the front of the house — bored out of his fucking mind. He had finished his book and watched tv for long enough that if he had to watch one more animal get eaten by another animal he would scream and possibly shoot something. He would have gotten up to get a new book, but Alfred has given him a look that said if he so much as thought about budging the stab would be the least of his worries.
That was when he noticed the small, stapled stack of paper on the side table. All the bats were inherently nosy people — it was basically a prerequisite to being in the family — so Jason felt absolutely no guilt in grabbing the papers and flipping through them. One eyebrow raised at the fact it was an essay, rather than a case file or something less...normal, the second joined at the topic — Flannery O’Conner — and both furrowed at the absolute garbage that was the first paragraph. Jason huffed as he continued to flip through it, scowling at the run-on sentences and complete lack of a coherent thesis. It was no wonder there was a note inked in red pen on the last page that simply said, “See me after class”.
“What the fuck,” he muttered, flipping back to the first page and zeroing in on the name at the top: Timothy Drake. He scoffed and dug into the pocket of his sweatpants for the pen he always had on him. You never knew when you might need a pen and the metal ones he used also made great stabbing tools.
He was just scribbling a final scathing note in the margins of the last page, right underneath the teacher’s note, when the culprit himself appeared, slogging into the room wearing sweats and a dead expression. He looked around, brow furrowing, and checked under the side table, then under the coffee table. His expression went from dead to frustrated. Finally, he got down on all fours and peeked under the couch
“Lose something, Replacement?” Jason drawled.
“Essay,” the Replacement said, flipping over a couch cushion and growling when the stack of paper didn’t appear.
“Ya mean this piece of shit?” Jason held up the essay and smiled crookedly at the Replacement’s relief.
“Yes!” He grabbed it and hurried from the room.
Jason leaned back, propping his feet up on the coffee table. Three, two, one-
He grinned as the Replacement came storming back into the room. “Something wrong?”
“The hell did you do to my paper?” the Replacement demanded, gesturing wildly with the marked-up essay.
“Improving it, assmunch. That there’s an insult to O’Conner’s work.”
The Replacement scowled. “Didn’t ask for your opinion, asshole.”
Jason’s smirk only grew. “What, so you’re saying there’s a different reason your teacher needed to talk to you after class?”
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
“How exactly is,” he looked at the paper, “‘pick a thought and fucking stick with it, you fucking moron’ improving it?”
Jason folded his arms. “You don’t have a fucking thesis, Replacement. You can’t have an essay without a thesis!”
He blinked. “What?”
“The main idea, idiot. Something that you’re trying to prove. You’re just saying random shit about the story but you’ve got nothing tying the paragraphs together.”
The Replacement stared at him for a long second. A spark came into his eye and he plopped down on the couch, ignoring the baleful stare Jason was giving him. “Okay, then what is this,” he held up another page where giant question marks had been scrawled, “supposed to mean?”
“You’re jus’ taking random quotes and shoving ‘em in. They don’t have anything ta do with anything. You gotta have an idea and then find the quotes.”
“Well, how am I supposed to get an idea if it’s not building off the quotes?”
Jason rolled his eyes hard. “Of course you’re buildin’ off the quotes. That’s why you read the fucking book. Read the book, decide on your fucking thesis, then find your quotes again!”
The Replacement looked thoughtful, tapping his fingers on the arm of the couch. “So...what would you say is one of the main themes of Good Country People?”
Jason snorted. “You’re askin’ a bit too late.”
“My teacher gave me until Monday to redo it,” the Replacement explained. “That’s what she wanted to talk to me about.”
Jason tilted his head to the side, studying the Replacement. “Why would she-” he paused. The eyes that wouldn’t meet his, the fingers tapping faster and faster on the arm of the couch, the red flush creeping up his ears…. A grin slowly crept across his face. “You’re failing, aren’t you?”
“What?!” Bingo. “Why would you say that?”
Jason laughed. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. You, the little genius, are failing high school English?”
“Shut up!” the kid hissed, looking around the room.
Jason raised an eyebrow, understanding dawning on him. “Ooh. It’s a secret, isn’t it? Bruce doesn’t know.”
“No,” the Replacement hissed. “And he’s not going to.”
“She’s not going to tell him if I get a decent essay in on Monday.”
Jason stretched out his arms, folding his hands behind his head. “Right. Good luck with that.”
The Replacement struggled with himself for a couple minutes. Jason ignored him, switching the tv back on and flipping to some sitcom. Finally, the Replacement burst out, “You’re decent at this right? I mean,” he held up the essay, gesturing with it until a note caught his eye and he paused, scowling. “Not sure how ‘fucking pitiful’ is helpful but you seem to know what you’re talking about.”
“Your grammar sucks ass s’what it means.”
The Replacement looked about ready to punch him but he took a deep breath instead. “Anyway, could you...I mean...it would be….”
“Spit it out, Replacement, the anticipation is killing me over here.”
“Would you be willing to help me?” he said in a rush.
Jason glanced at him from the corner of his eye, a weird stab of...something in his chest. “You want me to help you?”
The Replacement stood up. “Never mind, stupid idea, forget I said anything.” He started speed-walking from the room.
“Now wait jus’ a second.” Jason twisted around, reaching over the couch and snagging the back of the kid’s shirt. “Whaddya mean, you want my help?”
The Replacement caved after a minute of futile tugging. “I know you don’t like me,” he said. “And to be perfectly honest the feeling’s mutual. But I need this grade. And I could...do something for you?”
Jason let him go. “I’m listening.”
“I could...take one of your cases?”
Jason snorted. “No.”
“R-right. Um…I could get you intel?” At Jason’s silent, calculating look, he continued rapidly, “I mean obviously I can’t be complicit in your whole...thing but I could slip you some files? Hack some cameras?”
Jason rubbed his chin, grimacing at the stubble. As much as he didn’t need the bats, they did have a vastly superior network and the Batcomputer’s files were second to none. It was a good deal and that was the only reason he was agreeing to it. “Alright, Replacement.”
And if he grinned when the Replacement finally understood the difference between a motif and a theme, it was just because he was thinking about the intel he would soon have.
And if he ruffled the Replacement’s hair when the kid finally made a decent outline with a solid thesis, that was just the pain killers he was on.
And if a flare of what might have been pride ignited in his chest when a stack of paper appeared in his apartment with a big “B+, good work” marked on it...well, no one had to know.
The ‘Tim incident’, as he had taken to thinking of it, was a one-time deal, never to be repeated. That’s what he thought, at least, until Steph burst through his window two weeks later, eyes wild and backpack thrown over her uniform, sca- er, startling him enough that he spilled the mug of soup he had just finished making down his front.
“Jason!” she yelled. “I need your help!”
“Goddamn, Blondie, what the hell?” He slammed the mug on the counter and yanked off his now-scalding shirt.
“I have a book report due tomorrow!”
“So Scarecrow broke out and I didn’t sleep for three days and I forgot about it!”
“How the fuck is that my problem?”
She rolled over the back of his second-hand couch, dumping her backpack by her feet and peeling off her cowl and gloves. “Tim said you saved his English grade!”
Jason snorted. “I told him all the ways his paper sucked ass.”
“Which let him fix it!”
Jason rolled his eyes, grabbing a towel and mopping up the soup. There were many things people could criticize about Stephanie Brown, but her persistence was not one of them. She’d never let him hear the end of it if he didn’t help. That was the only reason he was considering helping her. The little jump of something in his chest meant nothing. Heartburn, probably. “What’s it on?”
“I don’t know! We’re supposed to pick a classic play.”
Jason sighed heavily and gestured at the bookshelf by the window. “Take your pick, I gotta get a new shirt.” When he came back out Steph was sitting at his kitchen table, a pile of books in front of her. Jason scowled at his shelves and pointedly moved a book to its correct spot. He sat down in front of her and snorted, pulling the top book off the stack and putting it to the side. “Anna Karenina is not a play, Blondie. Also, it’s in Russian. Did you even look at these when you were grabbing them?”
“Look, asshole, I have had a very long few days, so if you could tone down the attitude, that’d be great.”
Jason grinned lazily, picking the next book off the stack. “You’re the one that came to me for help, Blondie. Take it or leave it.”
She growled in frustration. “Fine. Which one of these would you recommend? I need at least one quote per body paragraph,1500 words.”
Jason glanced at her over his well-worn copy of The Twelfth Night. “Why didn’t you start this before?” He waved her off before she could speak. “Yeah, yeah, Scarecrow, but a paper like this should have had at least two weeks of prep.”
She scowled at the table. “I’ve been busy. Not all of us can just chill at home all day, some of us have responsibilities outside of masks.” Jason raised an eyebrow. That sounded a little more bitter than she intended, judging by the wince she tried to hide.
“Okay, then. Your teacher mention any plays specifically?”
“Uh,” she squinted. “Earlier this year we talked about the Oreosta.”
Jason stared at her. “The what,” he asked flatly.
“The Oreosta! You know, with the Greek guy who got stabbed by his wife in the bathtub.”
“Yeah, that’s the one!”
Jason rubbed his face with a hand. “Oh my God, this is worse than I thought.”
Steph looked like she was considering smacking him with the book in her hand. “Do you have anything helpful to say or should I just leave?”
Jason sat back in his chair and folded his arms. Just because his stomach had jumped at her request with something that might have been excitement didn’t mean he was going to turn into a doormat. “You go right ahead, s’no skin off my nose.”
“Oh my God, you asshole, can you please just help me?!”
Jason paused and actually looked at Steph. Noted the dark bags under her eyes, the nails that had been bitten down, the sheen of grease in her hair. The way she had said Scarecrow, with an almost-hidden quiver on the ‘a’. He sighed, “Yeah, okay.” He stood up, scooping the pile of books up with him.
“Hey, what are you-“
“Your teacher said classics, right? Any classic play?”
“Uh, yeah. He said to pick a play and discuss it in the context of the stuff we talked about in class. Like, symbols and shit.”
Jason carefully placed the stack of books on his coffee table to put away properly later. He grabbed a book from the shelf and plopped it in front of Steph as he walked past her.
“Tar-tuff?” she asked.
“S’pronounced Tar-toof, actually. S’good. A comedy. Easy read. Take a look, I think you’ll like Dorine.”
“What are you doing?”
Jason smirked over his shoulder as he pulled the fancy coffee machine that had appeared in his apartment one day out of its cupboard. “I’m going to need caffeine if I’m going to save your English grade.”
And if he dug through his library to find comedies and stories with happy endings, that was just because they were usually easier to read.
And if he bought a pack of pens in that particular shade of purple she favored, that was just to make marking their disastrous first drafts less boring.
And if she broke down sobbing and shaking when her school had a section on Chekhov and he held her close and made her hot chocolate, well, she had always been his favorite of the bats anyway.
After that, it kinda became a thing. They would just show up uninvited, either together or separately, and eat him out of house and home while he explained for the billionth time that no, Steph couldn’t use “I shit you not” in an academic paper. He got into passionate discussions with Steph over whether Clytemnestra was justified — they agreed she totally fucking was — and nearly smacked Tim over the head when he said that he thought King Lear wasn’t problematic in questioning his daughters’ love.
And yeah, that was kind of a thing too. “Replacement” was a bit clunky to keep saying all the time, so Jason switched after the third time the kid appeared in his living room, unless he was particularly pissed off. The face Tim made whenever he said his name was pretty damn funny too.
The King Lear incident brought a whole host of issues to the light, mostly because Steph yelled, “Just because your parents were pieces of shit doesn’t mean Lear is right!” and he couldn’t just ignore something like that. The chances of blackmail were too high, obviously.
And if, after that night, he toned down the biting comments about Tim’s cushy childhood, that was just because he didn’t believe in overusing the same material.
And if he dug up stories with good parents and referenced them enough that Tim checked them out for quotes, that was just because they lined up with his school curriculum.
And if, after learning that Tim had started drinking coffee at 7 because no one was around to stop him, he started switching it to decaf, that was just because Bruce would be pissed if Tim had a heart attack in his apartment.
Jason was chopping veggies to add to the paella simmering on the stove when his window slid open. “Hey,” he called, “I thought you said you couldn't make it. Shrimp sound good?”
Jason paused, slowly lowering the knife and turning around. He folded his arms, suddenly self-conscious of the “I put the lit in literature” apron Steph had gotten him two weeks ago. “Damian. What are you doing here?”
The little demon stood with his back to the open window, looking torn between bolting and trying to slice Jason’s fucking throat. Then again, the kid always looked at least a little bit murderous. Jason raised an eyebrow, taking note of the backpack held in the boy’s arms, and turned back to his chopping. “I’m not gonna stab ya, kid. Close the window.” It took a minute, but he heard the window slide shut and felt the air in the kitchen shift. Or at least, that was the closest he could get to describing the feeling. It was more intuition than physical sense.
“What’s in the bag?” Jason asked, after letting the silence sit and curl around them, broken only by the thud of his knife.
Damian didn’t answer right away and Jason resisted the urge to turn and make sure he wasn’t pulling a knife or something stupid like that. “You have been assisting Drake with his homework.”
It sounded more like an accusation than anything else and Jason snorted lightly, dropping the onions in the pan and starting on the peppers. “How d’ya figure?”
“He is not failing anymore. His English grade has come up approximately fifteen points.”
“Maybe ‘Drake’ just decided to kick his ass into gear.” He checked on the shrimp, giving it a stir before going back to the peppers.
“He and Brown have been frequenting this location for the past six weeks.”
Jason sighed, dumping the peppers in the pan and setting it on low before turning around. He folded his arms, raising an eyebrow. “Alright, you got me. I’m helping them not fail 12th grade. What’s it to ya?”
Damian hesitated, staring at his hairline. It was a good trick to avoid looking someone in the eyes, but Jason was on to him. “I...perhaps have been having some difficulty with my own class.”
Jason’s second eyebrow joined the first. “Seriously? Talia didn’t find you enough tutors to have a doctorate in that subject too?”
Damian’s jaw tightened. “The teacher is an oaf. She does not understand a higher writing style. Also I perhaps...have had some difficulty with the idioms and expressions used in the texts we study.”
Ah. Jason tilted his head to the side. “Idioms are tough.” If Damian thought for one second Jason was going to let him off the hook, he was wrong.
Damian did not shuffle, but Jason was positive he would have been if the League didn’t beat it out of him. “I would be...grateful. If you would consider extending to me the same services you do for Drake and Brown.”
Jason hummed and turned to add the garlic and turn off the flame under the shrimp. “And why, exactly, would I do that?”
“I am sure they provide some form of payment,” Damian said, voice as stiff as his spine. “I would be willing to compensate you similarly.”
“Why don’t you ask Alfred or Bruce?”
“I am not helpless,” Damian said, the first trace of heat entering his voice.
“And yet here you are.” Jason might have felt a little bad for how uncomfortable Damian was if the brat hadn’t broken into his apartment and left a crowbar in his bed.
Damian hesitated again. “Father said I could speak with him about anything. Grandfather gave similar promises.”
“Not worded as such, but he told me he would hear any questions I had about running the League.” The, it was a heaping pile of bullshit, was implied.
“I see.” Jason wasn’t in the mood to defend Bruce to anyone, even if he was 94% sure Bruce would be totally fine with Damian needing some extra help. Instead, he just raised an eyebrow and said, “Ya know, one’a those English expressions is this wonderful little word called ‘please’.”
Damian faltered before setting his face and grinding out, “Please assist me, Todd.”
Jason opened a drawer and tossed an apron at Damian.
The boy caught it, staring at it in confusion. “What-”
“The ‘payment’ you were wondering about. You help with the food and cleanup.”
It was awkward, a messy amalgam of English and Arabic with an underlying tension that only existed between people who had genuinely tried to kill each other in the past; but after a few hours Damian was able to understand most of the common phrases used in his books and had even agreed that Spanish cuisine was an acceptable runner-up to the Middle Eastern he grew up with.
And if he let Damian come back, it was just because he was Talia’s kid and she had been good to him.
And if he and Damian talked at length about the dangers of the ‘American Dream’ in a discussion about The Great Gatsby, that was just to make sure Damian understood the concept.
And if Jason cut off a burgeoning argument the first time Damian showed up when Tim was there, that was just because he didn’t want to get blood on his new carpet.
And if he insisted that no insults be thrown during their meetings, including last names, that was just to make communication easier.
And on days when the Pit raged in his skull and his hands shook and he had to lock the windows and tell them to stay away, if he pulled out essays and notes, a selfie Tim took with them all, a sketch Damian drew and left shyly on his table, and held them close, well. No one had to know.