New York City… an hour later…
“Neal! I know you’re irritated, but you need to calm down!”
“Irritated? Irritated!” Neal glared at Peter as they stood alone in the special agent’s office. “No. Irritated is what happens when a five star restaurant loses your reservation and you have to wait an hour for a table. Irritated is what happens when your favorite sports team loses the championships because of a referee’s bad call. Irritated is NOT what happens when a sniper tries to put a bullet between your eyes! Damn it, Peter! Nearly everyone who means anything in my life were in my home tonight! They could’ve been hurt or killed! Calming down is not an option! Not when Fowler is still running around out there a free man! You know he’s behind this!”
Even with the door closed, everyone else in the office suite could hear Neal yelling at near the top of his lungs, followed closely with Peter’s calmer, but just as loud responses as he tried to talk his infuriated friend down from the murderous rage he’d worked himself into. The agents who were present at this late hour tried to ignore it and continue with their work, since they had to try and find the shooter before the trail went completely cold. Dick wasn’t an agent, though. As much as he wanted to be out of this office, in his uniform, and hunting down the shooter himself, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from his brother. This… This image of him was all too familiar. Dick knew that the man pacing like a caged tiger in Peter Burke’s office wasn’t this upset because someone had targeted him. No. He knew his brother was upset because of everyone else who had been put at risk.
This cemented Dick’s conclusion about his brother. Despite the obvious changes in his outward persona and his memory loss, there were deeper, core aspects of Tim still present. Neal Caffrey may have been a criminal, a thief, a con man, but that was as far as the moral corruption went. Neal… Tim… still cared about people, especially those he let get close to him. How many times had he seen Tim this mad when anyone tried to hurt someone he cared about?
“Thank you,” a woman’s voice came up behind Dick. He turned to see Peter’s associate, Diana, offering him a cup of water. In the background, he could still catch bits and pieces of the now more subdued conversation Peter was having with Neal. Agent Burke seemed to know Neal better than anyone there, and was finally having some success with calming him down. “If you hadn’t spotted that laser sight…”
“How could I do any less?” Dick said as he took the cup. “I’m just glad that the shooter decided to take only a few shots.” He looked at Diana. “Have your people found any leads on who it was?”
“We’re working on a few things,” she admitted, purposefully keeping details vague. “I’m glad that you guys called Peter first instead of the local police. While I don’t mind working with NYPD, it makes it easier when we don’t have to wrestle them for access to the crime scene and any evidence they might have.”
Dick frowned. “Is there anything you can tell me about what’s going on? Why would someone want to kill Neal in the first place?”
The lady agent shook her head. “I really can’t say any-“
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of a metal trash can crashing violently against the wall of Peter’s office, the sound so loud and startling it brought everyone in the office suite to a screeching halt. The next thing anyone knew, Neal burst out of Peter’s office, just as angry as he’d been when he first went in, and stormed over to the conference room where, once inside, he slammed the door and promptly locked himself in. There was about a solid minute of uneasy silence and uncomfortable glances in the office. Dick could see a very weary-looking Peter through the glass office door pinching the bridge of his nose as he recomposed himself. Then he stuck his head out and motioned for Diana.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Grayson. There’s nothing more I can tell you. We’ve already got your statement, so the best thing you can do is just head back to your hotel and let us take care of things. Do you need me to call you a cab?”
“No. That’s quite alright. I’ve got a ride. Thank you, Agent Barrigan.” As Diana left to go to Peter’s office and closed the door behind her, Dick pulled out his cell and quickly dialed up Barbara on his way to the elevator.
As the world moved on outside the conference room, Neal sat alone in the darkness, his back wedged against a corner as he tried to make sense of everything that had just happened. Up until that last hour, everything had been fine. Better than fine really. Then it all went to hell in a hand basket.
Back in his home, Neal had been futilely trying to rub the distracting red spots from his eyes caused by the laser sight shining into them when he was tackled. Then, as he was suddenly forced to the floor by the far stronger man, all he could hear was a cacophony of shattering glass and frightened cries from his friends. He didn’t think it strange at the time, but rather than keep his head down and try to stay safe himself, Neal’s instinctive reaction to all this was to try and get up to make sure everyone else was alright. In fact, he tried several times to get to his feet, but Grayson prevented it.
“Stay down!” he ordered in a tone that expected no argument.
There was plenty of argument in Neal, though. He struggled to move. “Let me go! I need to make sure everyone’s safe!” He managed to slip from Grayson’s grasp with an elbow to the diaphragm and tried to crawl out of the kitchen. However, that attempt was aborted when, the moment he tried to move from the kitchen to the living room, the sniper fired another shot. Neal felt the heat from the bullet as it sliced the air in front of his face, just inches from his nose as he was pulled back hard behind the dining table that had been kicked over moments before by Grayson.
He reflexively threw his arms over his head and neck to shield himself from more falling glass as a third bullet quickly followed and tore through his cabinets right overhead, shattering the glass panels of the doors and all the ceramic dishes inside. Very little of the sharp, broken debris actually fell on Neal. Dick made sure of that as he shielded Neal’s body with his own. “For Christ’s sake, Tim! Just stay put!” Then, Dick turned his attention to the others. “Is everyone else alright? June? Alex? Ivan?”
From the living room, Alex’s voice called out. “We’re fine! We’ve called Peter! He’s on his way!”
“Just stay where you are!” Dick ordered. Then he turned his attention to Neal. “Are you alright?”
For his part, though he was certain he was not alright, Neal didn’t immediately voice how he was doing. There was something very unnerving about the entire situation that had nothing to do with the fact that someone was trying to shoot him.
It was the fact that everything felt like deja vu.
Narrowly avoiding being shot at felt… familiar?
How could he feel so safe with Grayson watching his back? For that matter, how could the man be so calm and in control like he was in a situation like this?
Why, despite the evidence he knew Dick had to the contrary, did he call Neal by his missing brother’s name?
And finally… Why didn’t it sound wrong when Dick called him Tim?
Neal needed to focus on something that made sense. Something that wasn’t the weird feelings of familiarity that shouldn’t have been there. Something real. “The shooter has to be Fowler!” Neal growled. As he focused on the man that was his strongest link to Kate’s murder, he felt that now comfortable sensation of churning anger well up inside him. He clenched his hand into a tight fist and slammed it into the floor, heedless of the broken shards of plates and glass that littered it. “The bastard’s trying to finish what he started with Kate!”
“What he started?”
It was about that time that Peter showed up. He quickly took charge and it gave Neal a decent excuse to put some distance between him and Grayson. June was sent to stay with her daughter in Albany, and after taking their unofficial statements, Peter let Alex and Mozzie slip away before the actually NYPD could show up. It didn’t take much to convince Grayson to leave their presences out of anything he told the cops when they arrived. Peter brought both Neal and Dick to the safety of the FBI offices, and then took the former into his own office where the former con man was allowed to go nuclear.
Alone in the darkened conference room, Neal was tired, angry, and confused as hell now that the adrenaline rush from earlier was starting to fade. He tried to keep his focus on Fowler and the assassination attempt. He tried to put all thoughts about Dick Grayson out of his head. That was the only way things that seemed to make sense in his head.
In the quiet foyer of the FBI building, Dick lingered as he waited for Alfred to drive up in the car. He didn’t mind the wait at all, though. He was busy listening to the audio feed Barbara was sending him through his cell phone from the bug that was still active in Peter Burke’s office.
“Neal is convinced that Fowler is behind this,” Peter was saying to Diana.
“You don’t sound convinced yourself, Peter.”
There was a pause, where Dick assumed Agent Burke was shaking his head. “It doesn’t make sense. Why would Fowler try to kill Neal now, when his ultimate goal has always been the music box? It’s still safe, right?”
“Yes. I double checked before I came here.”
“Good.” There was something that sounded like a cross between a sigh and a groan. “Something doesn’t feel right about all of this. I can’t place my finger on it, but this feels all wrong.”
Peter’s chair creaked as he sat back down in it. “If the goal of tonight’s shooting was to kill Neal, well of course it was a spectacular disaster. But given what we know about how things went down, was that really the goal?”
There was another short pause. “You do have a point. As far as assassination attempts go, this one was pretty inept. Professional hitmen usually don’t need to use laser sights on their sniper rifles, and when they do they certainly don’t let their mark notice or do it when there’s witnesses around who could see it. Also, from the building the sniper was shooting from, at that relative close range even a semi-decent shot should’ve managed to kill Neal even when Grayson noticed the laser sight.”
Dick listened with growing interest. Agent Burke had a quick, logical mind that reminded him a lot of Tim’s back when his brother was working on solving mysterious cases back in his days as Robin. He was starting to understand how it was that Peter had managed to catch Neal Caffrey when the elusive con man had slipped through the fingers of other law enforcement agents around the world.
“So let’s take assassination completely off the table,” Peter continued. “What if the goal of tonight’s fiasco wasn’t to kill Neal, but to provoke him?”
“Provoke him? Well if that was the goal, then it was clearly a success. I’ve never seen Neal so worked up before.”
“The day Kate was murdered.” Peter sighed. “Back then, it was more grief than rage. However just like tonight, when Neal’s emotions are running rampant, he doesn’t think clearly about logic or consequences. He becomes more instinctive and reactive, and that’s where he tends to slip up. The fact that he’s tied this attempt on his life with Kate only makes it worse. It makes him easier to manipulate.”
“That’s how you caught him the first time, right?”
“Yeah. Kate’s always been his weak spot. Back then, we were able to use her as bait to trap Neal and bring him to justice.”
Diana’s voice took on a more concerned tone. “So you think someone is trying to provoke Neal? For what purpose?”
“I’m not sure. The only thing I can think of is that they want to get Neal so mad, so completely blind with rage, that he’ll charge into anything head first without considering that he might be running right into a trap.”
“Like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”
“Exactly.” Peter sighed. “I’m considering sending him back to prison.”
“What?” Diana’s response was startled. It mirrored Dick’s own reaction to the news.
“In his present state of mind, and with the threat of someone out there trying to manipulate him, I think it might be the safest place for Neal to be until we figure out what exactly is going on.”
“Is that what made him storm out of your office earlier?”
“Yeah.” Peter sighed. “I just don’t know what else to do with him right now. He can’t go back home. It’s a crime scene now. We could try to put him in a safe house under protective custody, but I don’t know if I trust him not to try and slip away when no one’s looking to go hunting down Fowler himself.”
“But to send him back to prison?”
“I know, I know… I don’t like it either. A part of me is tempted to take him home with me so that I can keep an eye on him myself…”
“But if there’s someone out there willing to take potshots at him, regardless of who’s with him, I don’t want to put Elle in the line of fire. The shooter might not have been willing to take aim at Neal’s guests earlier tonight, but that’s not to say he won’t change his mind if it means a better chance at completely unhinging Neal.”
“So what do we do with him?”
“For now, just keep him here. I’ll be staying with him tonight. Then tomorrow… we’ll see what happens.”
From the foyer, Dick Grayson frowned as he absorbed all the information he’d just heard. “Did you get all that, Babs?”
“Every word.” From her computers at the Batcave back in Gotham City, Barbara Gordon was hard at work. “Pulling up every bit of information I can find about this Fowler, Kate, and this mysterious music box we’ve heard so much, yet so little, about. Also checking our backdoor into the Unternet to see if there are any known hit orders on Neal Caffrey.”
“Have you gotten a hold of Damian?”
“Sorry. When he entered the building we suspect is the HQ of the Council of Spiders, we lost both his and Steph’s transmission signals. It’s as he predicted. The building must have some sort of wireless jamming technology preventing unauthorized communication with the outside world.”
Dick nodded despite himself as he noticed Alfred pull up in the car. “Keep trying. The moment he gets out of there, I need him back here ASAP, along with whatever information he might have.” He stepped out of the building and made his way into the waiting open door of the car. Despite maintaining his calm demeanor outside, once the old man was back in the car, he turned to look at Dick with a concerned expression.
“Master Richard? What in the world is going on? You and Master Damian have both been acting very strangely the past week. Are you on a case involving the FBI?”
“Please, Alfie,” Dick said with a shake of his head. “I promise I’ll explain everything later. Right now, I need to get back to the hotel and suited up. There’s some things I need to do tonight.”
Before they were able to drive off, though, a woman quickly stepped out of an alley beside the FBI building and sprinted over to the car. She tapped on the tinted passenger window urgently.
“Alex?” Dick said after rolling the window down. “What’re you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you,” Alex Hunter said as she glanced around herself nervously. “I need your help.”
Dick frowned. “I don’t know what I can help you with. If you need some assistance, Agent Burke is still in there with Neal.”
She shook her head. “No. The feds can’t help me. They tried, but they don’t have the resources to keep me safe. I know you do.”
“Honestly, miss. I don’t know what I could offer you that the FBI can’t.”
Alex leaned against the door and put her face closer to the open window. “I know who you really are,” she whispered. “I know who your father and brother really are. I know how your family usually spends their evenings. And I know why you really came to see Neal tonight.”
Dick noticed Alfred stiffen out of the corner of his eyes. He felt his own expression harden at the brunette’s knowing tone. “What do you want? Are you trying to blackmail me?”
She shook her head. “No. I want to make a trade. Information for protection.”
“What sort of information do you have that would be worth my family’s time and effort spent to protect you?”
Alex took one more uneasy glance around herself before turning back to Dick. “I can tell you how Timothy Drake became Neal Caffrey.”
Longer chapter is long.
This one took a bit more time to flesh out because I wanted to make sure that things turned out the way I wanted because this is going to set up for a couple of really important couple of upcoming chapters. Damian is in Hong Kong getting information from his mother. Dick is in New York about to get information from Alex. The first clear pictures of how Tim Drake became Neal Caffrey are about to be revealed.