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A little bird told me

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“This really isn’t necessary, Drake,” said Damian as he and Tim grappled across the rooftops one quiet night in Gotham. “I am perfectly capable of patrolling on my own.”

Tim sighed and suppressed the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. He had been hearing a myriad of similar complaints ever since Bruce had announced yesterday that he would be gone on a super-secret Justice League mission for several weeks, effective immediately. According to Kon, who had been invited to join the mission by Clark and had eagerly accepted, aliens were probably involved.

Since Dick was busy working on a major drug bust in Bludhaven, it was up to Red Robin and Robin to patrol the streets of Gotham in the absence of the Bat. Needless to say, Damian wasn’t too thrilled about this fact.

“Robin, you know that B specifically said that you are not under any circumstances allowed to go on patrol by yourself,” Tim said tightly, exasperated at being forced to constantly repeat himself. “Especially after the gargoyle incident last time.”

Damian snorted. “Tt. I don’t need to be weighed down by someone like you dogging my footsteps.  Particularly when you’ve been compromised by the absence of the clone. I really don’t know what you see in that abomination.”

For that matter, Tim wasn’t too thrilled about it either.

“Don’t call Superboy an abomination, Robin,” he warned, struggling to keep his tone even. So what if he was feeling extra on edge because he wouldn’t be seeing Kon for a long time? Damian just tossed his head dismissively in response, though he seemed the tiniest bit regretful of what he had said.

Whatever Damian was about to say in response died in his throat when a scream pierced through the night. Silently agreeing to put their conflict behind them for the time being, Robin and Red Robin sprang into action.

Mere minutes later, they resumed their patrol, barely even out of breath. The would-be mugger they had encountered had gone down without much of a fuss. They had left him zip-tied to a lamppost, alerted the police to his location, and returned to the rooftops.

Damian continued a constant stream of critique throughout the patrol. Despite being pleased that he was finally getting to do something, he was evidently still frustrated by the fact that Tim had to accompany him. He questioned everything from Tim’s athletic ability (“Father would have been able to make that jump easily.”) to his costume (“Father’s suit is far more regal and commanding. Not even a child would be intimidated by your gaudy display.”).

Tim was starting to get the distinct impression that Damian missed his father.

Around the end of the patrol, as they landed on yet another rooftop, Tim heard a soft but noticeable twanging sound. From the way Damian whipped his head towards the sound, he had heard it too. Something blurred past them, and buried itself in the ground just a few feet away.

Tim immediately backed as far away from the object as possible, putting up an arm to prevent Damian from moving any closer. He got a baleful glare, but Damian complied with his silent order.

When nothing exploded or jumped out at them, Tim approached the object and knelt down to examine it. It turned out to be a crossbow bolt. A quick scan showed that there appeared to be no explosives attached to it, nor was it secreting any gases or liquids. A folded piece of paper was pinned to the rooftop by the head of the bolt.

Gently, Tim pried the bolt from the ground and picked up the paper, which contained a note.

A little bird told me that the Big Bad Bat will be missing from his city for a while. Let’s have some bloomin’ good fun in the meantime, shall we?

21:00 05/14/17

Underneath the note was a crude doodle of a pair of birds, drawn in red crayon.

“What does it say, Dra-Red Robin?” Damian asked impatiently, craning his neck in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the note’s contents. Wordlessly, Tim handed it to him. As he did, something green fell out from underneath the folds of the paper.

Damian snatched the falling object out of the air, then held it close to his face and peered at it suspiciously. It was a leaf. With a grunt of dismissal, he dropped it to the ground, focusing his attention on the note instead.

Tim picked the leaf off the ground and examined it more carefully as Damian tt-ed over the note.

“This looks strangely familiar,” he murmured. “I think I’ve seen this somewhere recently.”

“That’s a leaf that got caught in the paper, Drake. Those aren’t difficult to find, even in Gotham.”

“I don’t think this one is so easy to accidently acquire,” Tim replied. He tucked the leaf into a spare pouch and readied his grappling hook. “In fact, I think there’s only one place in Gotham that this leaf could have come from.”

He jumped and swung towards home. Damian scrambled to follow behind him.

Back in the Batcave, Tim was able to confirm his suspicions.

“This leaf comes from Gentner’s fritillary, an endangered species of lily. Freshly picked, judging from its condition,” he said, placing the leaf in an evidence bag and storing it in case they needed to investigate it further. “They aren’t found anywhere in Gotham except the botanical gardens. I remember seeing a couple of these when my biology class visited the gardens during a field trip last week.”

“Poison Ivy, then?” Damian asked idly from a corner of the Batcave, where he was aiming a batarang at a hanging target. After a moment of contemplation, he let it fly. Like the last five batarangs he had thrown, it hit the target dead centre.

“She’s in Arkham right now, and there’s been no sign of a breakout recently,” Tim replied. “Plus, something like this doesn’t fit her MO at all. She would never stand for desecrating her plants just to mess with us.”

“The Riddler, then? Perhaps the Joker?” Damian pulled the batarang out of the target and prepared to throw it again.

“Could be, but they’re both in Arkham too. Besides, this doesn’t quite seem like something either of them would do. The Riddler would have included some kind of, well, riddle in the note, and the Joker’s methods tend to be more...direct.” Tim crossed his arms and frowned, frustrated at the lack of information they still had despite his breakthrough. “We don’t know who is doing this or what they want from us. All we have to go on is this leaf and the note.”

“In other words, you have procured no useful information. Honestly, Drake, I don’t know why Father always praised your mediocre detective skills.”

Tim couldn’t help himself from rising to the bait. “Do you think you could have figured out more than I could? I haven’t seen you trying to help investigate this since we got back from patrol.”

The batarang hit the center of its target with a satisfying thunk. “Tt. I see no need to look further into this matter. This is obviously a trap designed to lure us to the gardens.”

Secretly, Tim agreed with Damian. This had all the makings of a trap, and a blatantly transparent one at that. However, he was still feeling quite curious about the note they had received, as well as a little vindictive for having to put up with Damian all throughout patrol.

That was probably why, instead of letting the matter drop, he instead replied, “I’m not so sure we should ignore this. How about we ask Bruce what he thinks about this? I’ll just let him know that you think someone who knows our patrol route and could sneak up behind us without either of us noticing doesn’t require our attention.”

The batarang clattered against the wall, missing the target entirely.

“Father is busy enough as it is without having to hold your hand through everything, Drake,” Damian snapped, flushing slightly out of what had to be either embarrassment or anger. Probably both. “This is a simple enough matter for the two of us to handle ourselves. We simply go to the botanical gardens on the date specified and capture the culprit as they are lying in wait.”

“Really? You want to walk straight into the trap that you just pointed out?” Tim asked faux-incredulously, although he noted with some appreciation that Damian had finally stopped insisting on doing everything by himself.

“We will obviously go an hour early and ambush our would-be ambusher. We can certainly take on whoever is foolish enough to be there. Well, I can, at least. If you wish to remain behind you are welcome to, Drake.”

Well, that had been quite a short-lived hope. “You’re not going alone, Damian. And we’re at least letting Dick and Alfred know where we’re going in case we get in over our heads.”

Damian sighed in resignation and turned away to pick up his fallen batarang, although Tim caught the edge of a smile as he straightened up and dropped the batarang back in its pouch. “So be it, then,” he said.

Tim was starting to wonder exactly who was playing who, here.

A couple of nights later, the evening of the fourteenth of May, Tim and Damian headed to Gotham’s Botanical Gardens, the former carrying a lengthy coil of rope and the latter armed to the teeth. Although they searched the place up and down, they found no trace of Poison Ivy (unless you counted plants in general), the Riddler, the Joker, or any other suspicious people.

When nine o’clock arrived, they both tensed in anticipation of a confrontation, but nothing happened. No henchmen blasted them with sleeping gas, no ninjas jumped out at them from behind a bush, no thugs fired any bullets or arrows at them. Tim and Damian remained in the gardens for another hour just in case, double checking every nook and cranny, but they came up with nothing more than a family of rabbits who had made their home beneath a large tree.

“This is a waste of time,” grumbled Damian, although Tim noticed him petting one of the rabbits contentedly a few minutes later.

Just as Tim was about to give up and call the entire thing off, another crossbow bolt thunked to the ground not three feet away from them. Tim whipped his head around, but the shooter was nowhere to be found. Next to him, Damian exclaimed something extremely inappropriate for someone his age.

Pinned to the bolt was another note.

Fly, little Robins, fly! The law of nature is cruel, and you’ll always be courting death, but perhaps you’ll make it out alive. Perhaps not.

22:00 05/16/17

Underneath was another crayon doodle, this time of an empty bird’s nest. When Tim unfolded the note, a coin fell to the ground. When Tim picked it up, it turned out to be a commemorative coin celebrating the erection of the Gotham courthouse. One of the sides had a deep groove scratched into it.

Tim and Damian looked at each other.

“Two-Face,” they said in unison. An unspoken agreement passed between the two of them.

Two nights later, they headed out to the courthouse. Two-Face was nowhere to be found, but lying on the steps was the familiar crossbow bolt, lying atop a folded piece of paper.

Some profess that there’s nothing to fear but fear itself, dear Robins, but I’d rather not risk shooting at a courthouse.

21:00 05/18/17

A piece of old, stitched up burlap fell out of the paper. With the help of the Bat-computer, they tracked its origins to the psychology department at Gotham University. Specifically, to the office formerly held by Professor Jonathan Crane.

“What would a psychology department possibly need burlap sacks for?” wondered Damian.

“Who knows?” replied Tim, who had his suspicions.

At Gotham University, a crossbow bolt and note was shot not-quite-at-them once again. The note contained another seemingly random message, this time interspersed with rabbit puns and containing a lacy hat ribbon that led them to Gotham’s biggest hat manufacturing company, which had nearly been taken over by the Mad Hatter two months ago.

Who knows where little Robins fly during the cold winter months? Truly, it’s an enigma for the ages.

“Whoever is sending these sure is obsessed with us being ‘little,’” Damian said irately.

“Not to mention they don’t know much about avian migration patterns,” Tim observed.

They went to one of the Riddler’s former hideouts. They went to Catwoman’s favourite animal shelter (Damian had a lot of fun that night). They went to the sewers that Killer Croc liked to frequent (Damian had much less fun that night).

Time passed. The date of the Justice League’s return from their mission got closer and closer. Tim and Damian followed the seemingly endless trail of villain-themed clues in between patrols. Tim was starting to become obsessed with the mystery of the notes. None of the villains alluded to in the notes and dropped objects ever showed up to the locations Tim and Damian were sent to, nor did anything or anyone else. The shooter never showed themselves, nor did they ever attempt to harm anyone.

There was no reason that Tim could figure out for them to be sending him and Damian on these wild goose chases, other than a distraction for some nefarious scheme. But with most of Gotham’s supervillain population currently locked up in Arkham Asylum, the streets were quieter than usual, and there were no indications that anything big was about to happen in the criminal underworld.

In fact, only one major thing had changed since the first note had dropped next to them on the rooftop almost two weeks ago. Damian continued to antagonize Tim whenever he had the opportunity, and Tim continued to respond to his provocations, but their constant banter gradually became less deliberately hurtful and more playful in nature. Tim was even starting to look forward to going on patrol with Damian rather than dreading it. Even Bruce, checking in from the far reaches of outer space, had mentioned that he was glad that they were getting along better now. Damian had sputtered a hasty denial, but from the look on his face not even he had been convinced by it.

At Mister Freeze’s labs, the shooter attached a manila envelope to the crossbow bolt rather than a piece of paper. When they opened the envelope, they discovered why. Out slid the familiar note, along with a DVD copy of Happy Feet.

For a moment, Tim just stared blankly at the DVD. He turned his head slowly to look at Damian, who was still gazing at the contents of the envelope in utter bafflement. Something seemed to snap in Tim at that moment, and he burst into laughter at the sheer absurdity of the situation.

After Damian, not sure why Tim had suddenly started laughing like a madman next to him, had confirmed that he had not been dosed by Joker Venom, they headed back to the Batcave. There, they held an impromptu movie night. As they munched their way through the bowls of popcorn that Alfred placed before them, they watched in fascination as a young emperor penguin tap-danced his way into his friend’s heart.

“I can’t believe you’re crying because of a dancing penguin movie, Drake.” Damian tried to sneer, but the effect was greatly diminished due to the fact that his throat had mysteriously tightened and he was blinking furiously. Tim was too busy wiping his eyes to respond.

Two nights later, they headed to the Iceberg Lounge, one of the Penguin’s “legitimate” organizations. There, they found another note. They also busted one of the Penguin’s human trafficking operations, which just so happened to be taking place that night.

As the police started arriving and arresting people, Tim and Damian ducked into a shadowy corner to take a peek at the note they had acquired. It was too dim to see the writing properly, and as Tim fumbled for his flashlight, a card slid out from between the folded sheets of the paper.

Damian picked up the card and held it up to the light of Tim’s flashlight. It was a stained, somewhat crumpled business card for a psychologist at Arkham Asylum. Doctor Harleen Quinzel, to be precise.

The night of the Justice League’s anticipated return from space, they went to Arkham, where they were informed by a tired-looking receptionist that Harley Quinn was indeed in at the moment, and that neither she nor anyone else had broken out lately.

“It’s been oddly quiet here, actually,” she told them, absently doodling something on her notepad as she spoke. “Lots of incoming patients, but they haven’t been causing as much of a fuss as they usually do.” Neither she nor anyone else around them seemed the least bit surprised at the fact that two masked vigilantes, one who couldn’t be older than 12 and the other barely on the cusp of adulthood, were standing in their midst. When you worked at Arkham, you soon became accustomed to all sorts of strange sights.

They thanked her and left. As they headed away from the gloomy asylum and back to the residential streets of Gotham, a piece of paper floated to the ground beside them, not shot from a bow as the rest had been but dropped from above them. Tim and Damian immediately looked up, scanning the rooftops for movement, but there was no trace of whoever had dropped the paper.

They unfolded the paper. It contained no words or drawings, but nestled in the paper was a white playing card. A Joker card, with a smear of blood covering the grinning figure’s eyes.

Tim and Damian looked at each other.

“Now what?” Damian wondered, echoing Tim’s thoughts aloud. Tim looked back at the paper. There was no time and date, nor any other clues as to where they should go next.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I think we’re stuck.” He suddenly felt lost and foolish. Was this all just a giant waste of time? he wondered.

Just as Tim had decided they should head back on patrol, there was a large thump behind them. They immediately turned around, ready for a fight.

Standing before them was the Red Hood. He stood there in a carefree stance, giving no indication that he had just jumped from the top of a three-story building.

Damian immediately confronted him. “What are you doing here, Todd?” he snapped.

Tim was piecing things together. “You were the one sending us all those notes, weren’t you?”

“Got it in one, kid,” said Jason. “I hope you two appreciate it, because some of those things were hard to come by. A couple of vines almost ripped my arms off when I plucked that leaf. Plus, DVD copies of Happy Feet are surprisingly hard to come by in Gotham.”

“Okay,” said Tim slowly. “But why? What was the point of all this?”

Jason spread his arms wide and shrugged theatrically. “It seemed like you needed the exercise. Without Daddy Bats or Dickiebird around to keep an eye on you two and the baddies all locked up, I guess it’s up to me to whip you into shape.”

They wouldn’t be getting a straight answer from him, then. “This,” Tim waved the blank piece of paper and playing card in his hand, “seems a little excessive.”

“Can’t I be concerned with the health of my little brothers, Timmy?”

Throughout Jason and Tim’s back-and-forth, Damian had been looking between the two of them pensively. “You wouldn’t happen to know the reason behind the sudden drop in Gotham’s crime rate in the past few weeks, would you, Todd?” he suddenly asked.

Jason’s masked visage tilted to the side. “I may have called in a couple of friends to help with a little spring cleaning lately,” he admitted. “Couldn’t let the scum of the streets distract you two while you ran around Gotham chasing my leads.”

Damian looked aghast. “You allowed metahumans to work in Gotham?” he demanded, balling his hands into fists and narrowing his eyes. “And all for what, some elaborate prank at mine and Drake’s expense to distract us while they did all the work?”

Jason held out his hands calmly. “Hey, hey,” he said as Tim pulled Damian back, preventing him from leaping at Jason with intent to severely injure. “It’s not quite like that. Most of them don’t have powers, and they didn’t interfere too much with Gotham’s day-to-day operations. Besides, without the Bat breathing down all our necks, why not get a little extra help? Don’t worry, they’ll all be gone by tonight, and you can blame me if he finds out.” His shoulders slumped very slightly, barely perceptible unless you were looking closely for it. “It’s not like he could think much worse of me.”

Damian still did not look at all pleased, but subsided as Tim tightened his grip on his arm. To be honest, Tim wasn’t too pleased with Jason’s actions either, but he had to be the reasonable one out of the three of them.

“Alright,” he said. “Fine. But I have one more question.” He held up the playing card with his free hand. “Where did the blood on this card come from, Jason?” What have you been doing where you would be spilling blood , he didn’t ask aloud, but Jason caught on to the implications of his question anyway.

“Don’t worry, kid. My associates and I didn’t kill anyone while we were here. We didn’t break all of Daddy Bat’s rules. As for the blood, well, I was about to put the card into the paper when I just so happened to cut my hand on the corner of the Joker.”

Jason removed his right glove, revealing a wound on his hand that was too large and deliberate to be a paper cut.  “Clumsy old me,” he said with all the sarcasm contained in the known universe.

After that, there wasn’t much else to be said. As they began to part ways, Jason turned back abruptly. “Say hi to the old man for me,” he said hesitantly.

“We will,” Tim replied, despite Damian’s grumbles of disapproval beside him. He turned around. “You know, you could always come back with-”

But Jason was gone.

Tim and Damian headed back home, where Bruce would likely be waiting for them. They finally knew the truth behind the notes they had so intently hunted, that it never really amounted to anything other than that meeting with Jason in a deserted corner of Gotham City.

Tim was almost disappointed that it was over, that in the coming nights he would no longer be going on patrol with Damian. There would be no more nights spent poring over the latest note together, investigating whatever villain-related object had been slipped between the folds of the paper, arguing over the next location, planning their patrol route around that location once they had come to an agreement, bantering back and forth as they leapt from rooftop to rooftop. At some point, he realized, Damian’s little tics and idiosyncrasies, from his tendency to put his feet up on every available surface to his uncanny ability to take the last cookie no matter how many he had already eaten, had become somewhat endearing rather than merely annoying.

When they arrived at the Batcave, someone jumped up to greet them, but it wasn’t Bruce.

“Hey, Tim!” exclaimed Kon. He wrapped his arms around Tim in a tight hug that Tim reciprocated eagerly, smiling when he heard Damian huffing in annoyance at “the clone’s” presence.

“How was the mission?” he asked Kon, who immediately launched into a breathless account of his adventures in the Andromeda Galaxy.

“Oh man, you should have seen their faces when Clark and I showed off our heat vision! Then Batman pulled out some freaky-looking gadget from his belt and threw it at-”

“Father,” said Damian. Kon’s mouth clicked shut. He and Tim both turned around. Bruce had walked into the cave. They watched as Damian shuffled up and just...stood next to him. Both father and son looked extremely awkward.

“Welcome back, Father.” Damian finally said. Bruce looked down and smiled at him, then lifted his head and smiled at Tim.

“It’s good to be home,” he said. Next to him, a rare look of genuine, unfiltered happiness spread over Damian’s face.

Tim thought about how, several weeks ago, he hadn’t been looking forward at all to spending so much time apart from Kon and with Damian. He thought about how Damian had kicked over the Robin Cycle the night he had heard that Bruce was leaving. He thought about how, the next night, the notes had started showing up. How, after that, he and Damian had been too busy running around Gotham in pursuit of the next note to feel too lonely. How he and Damian had eventually stopped finding each other so insufferable after weeks of interaction together. How the notes had stopped the night that Bruce and Kon were scheduled to return from their mission.

He thought back to their meeting a couple of hours ago with Jason. Jason, who had dismissively explained what he had done as being out of patronizing concern. Jason, who had clearly put time and effort into the game he had devised for them. Jason, who had gone behind Bruce’s back to help keep crime in Gotham low in his absence, while knowing that what he had done would earn him nothing but ire. Jason, who had refused to come home with them.

Tim wondered.

Several miles away, in the seediest neighborhood of the already seedy city of Bludhaven, a red-masked figure crouched on a rooftop. He held a gun, which was trained on a heavy-set man carrying several large crates into a derelict warehouse. A crossbow inscribed with the letters R.H. laid at his feet, along with several unused bolts. He aimed carefully at the space next to the thug’s head and prepared to pull the trigger.

Beneath the mask, he smiled.