Confidence Lost - Chapter 29

Present Day… Gotham City…

“Stay with me Neal. Hold on,” Peter said anxiously as he pressed his hand firmly down on the merciless knife wound the pale, unconscious man was bleeding out from. The agent had removed his jacket and was trying to use it to pad the wound and staunch the flow of blood. He almost didn’t register the sound of someone coming up behind him, so focused was he on trying to keep Neal alive, focused on listening to the sound of his entirely too shallow breaths.

Almost.

By pure instinct, Peter’s service pistol found its way back into the only free hand he had, and he turned as best he could to point the deadly weapon at whoever was approaching, uncertain if they were friend or foe. He realized, with a deepening scowl, that he still didn’t know even after taking a good hard look at the masked man in front of him.

“You!” he growled in a low tone.

It was the angry, accusing tone of voice, not the gun, which Nightwing flinched at. He knew Agent Burke was furious, and with good reason. Under normal circumstances, an enraged federal agent was someone he would’ve made it a point to steer clear of, especially since he was the reason the fed was so pissed off.. However, his desperate concern for his fallen brother overrode all thoughts of self preservation. Gone also were any thoughts of preserving secret identities or keeping his emotions reined in.

“Oh god, Tim,” he murmured, completely oblivious to the other fallen bodies on the ground and the gun pointed at him as he made his way quickly to his brother’s side. Dick knelt down beside Neal, worry and grief etched deeply on his face as he reached out with his gloved hand to gently brush the hair from his face and cradle his blood-stained cheek. “Tim,” he choked out through a throat that suddenly felt too tight. “Little brother, please open your eyes.”

The anger and frustration Peter felt towards the masked vigilante cooled as he heard the fear and anguish in Nightwing’s pleading voice. He slowly set his gun aside once more. “He’s lost a lot of blood,” Peter said seriously. “He won’t last long like this. We need to get him to a hospital.”

Dick only partially heard Peter’s words. Though unconscious, Neal’s expression was pained and beads of sweat were appearing on his skin. “Something’s wrong,” he murmured as he quickly pulled off one of his gloves and pressed it against his brother’s face. Dick’s worry increased tenfold. “He’s burning up!” he said with alarm, knowing full well that a simple stab wound should not have caused such a rapid spike in his temperature. His gaze darted around until they finally locked on the dagger which laid on the ground next to the body of the imposter Kate.

Peter watched Nightwing with both curiosity and dread. Having to keep his attention on Neal’s wound, which was still bleeding profusely, had blinded him to the sudden upward shift in the younger man’s body temperature. Inwardly he kicked himself for not noticing it sooner. “Was he poisoned?”

“With the League of Assassins, poisoned blades are standard issue,” Dick said grimly as he pulled a small device out of his utility belt and scanned the dagger with it. “But what kind of poison?” He kept his eyes locked on the small digital screen for what felt like forever, until the blinking word “PROCESSING” was replaced by “ANALYSIS COMPLETE”. Nightwing rose quickly to his feet after he learned what the scanner had discovered. “No hospital can treat him,” he said. “There are three different toxins on the blade, and none of the hospitals in Gotham will have an antidote for even one.” He put the device away and started to turn back to the FBI agent. “I need to take Tim home. We’re the only ones in the city with the medicine he needs-” The masked man would’ve said more to try and press his case with Agent Burke, but his train of thought was cut off at the sight of a multi-armed gunman aiming two guns at a glaring Peter, one at Neal’s head, and the remaining three at him.

“Wolf,” he growled. Nightwing would’ve sprung right into action dismantling the gunman with the extra bionic arms, but he was brought up short by the facts that (one) the assassin had guns on both Peter and his brother, and (two) the mutated spider-human hybrid known as Goliath was walking up behind Wolf, carrying both Robin and Batgirl slung unconscious over his shoulders like sacks of potatoes.

“Put them down!” Nightwing demanded, his escrima sticks immediately going into his hands as he took an offensive posture. “Or so help me I’ll-“

“You’ll do nothing of the sort, dear Richard,” a familiar woman’s voice said. From behind the hulking mass that was Goliath, out stepped Talia al Ghul, an infuriatingly confident expression on her face. Then she turned he gaze upward towards a shadowy ledge on the Didio Building. “And neither shall you, Beloved.”

Peter’s eyes followed Talia’s gaze, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust enough to catch the faintest outline of Batman tucked in one of the darkest shadows on the ledge before the Dark Knight stepped into the light, his face grimly set.

“Release my children and get the h*ll out of my city, Talia!” Batman ordered in a voice that would normally broach no argument.

Talia, though, was not intimidated in the least by Batman and his righteous growling. Far from it. “Worry not. We will leave Gotham as soon as we get what we came here to collect.” She began to make her way towards Neal and Peter.

Immediately, a massive black bat-shaped form dropped down protectively in front of Peter’s eyes, putting himself between Talia and Neal. “Stay away from my son!” he snarled.

“I have no more interest in young Timothy,” Talia said coolly. “He’s served his purpose.” Her path diverted itself so that she made her way to the side of the fallen Ra’s al Ghul. She smirked with amusement as she stared at the old man’s body, settling her eyes on the two gunshot wounds that had fatally torn through his chest. “Despite everything I did to set things in motion for the destruction of my father, it wasn’t Timothy who ended him, but the agent instead.” Peter glared daggers at her as she motioned for Goliath, who set down Robin and Batgirl and started walking towards her. His path, though, was immediately barred by Nightwing.

“You’re not collecting anyone or anything!” Dick said venomously.

“I beg to differ,” Talia purred. “The way I see it, you have two choices. Your first choice is to leave me to my business, and I’ll leave you to yours. Your second choice is to try and stop me from doing what I came here to do.” She shrugged. “Of course if you choose the second, a fight will ensue. However, whether you stop me or not doesn’t matter. What matters is if you honestly think young Timothy can last that much longer in his current condition?”

Nightwing cast a troubled look back at his brother, a lump rising to his throat. The toxins flowing through his veins were causing him more pain now. The unconscious agony was written all over his face. His skin was paling to an extremely unhealthy color, and the jacket Agent Burke had been using to try and pad Neal’s stab wound was completely saturated with the younger man’s blood. The fear was rising up quickly inside him once more.

It was his father who ultimately took the decision out of his hands, much to his relief. “Let them go.” Clearly Batman was not happy about letting Talia just go about and do what she wished, but dealing with her machinations was currently at the far low end of his priorities, especially not with his newly recovered son dying before his very eyes. “Take Tim and Agent Burke back to the cave. I’ll stay and take care of Robin and Batgirl.”

Soon as he was given the order, Dick turned his attention back to Peter and Neal. “C’mon,” he said as he scooped Neal up in his arms, not even waiting for any semblance of permission from the federal agent. “Let’s go before the b*tch changes her mind.”

Feeling well out of his league in the face of the menacing metas, Peter was more than happy to follow Nightwing’s lead, so long as it meant getting Neal and himself out of that tense situation intact. Any harsh feelings he might have still harbored towards Batman for his actions earlier that evening could be dealt with later, once he was certain that Neal would be alright. As he followed Nightwing to an unmanned Batmobile that had just pulled up to the front of the DiDio Building, Peter cast one parting glance back at Batman, who was hovering over his still unconscious youngsters, and Talia, who was directing her people to collect the bodies of Ra’s al Ghul and Kate.

***

The trip to the cave was surreal for Peter. Never in his wildest dreams had he ever imagined that he’d find himself riding in a Batmobile through a series of underground tunnel system beneath Gotham City towards the secret stronghold of one of the world’s most famous superhero clans. Unfortunately, Peter was in no frame of mind to enjoy this rare opportunity afforded to precious few “civilians”. As Nightwing drove through the near pitch black tunnels at breakneck speeds, his attention was focused solely on Neal.

Even when they finally reached the cave, the federal agent was reluctant to let him out of his sight. A silver haired elderly woman dressed in medical scrubs was already waiting for them along with a gurney.

“Place him here,” the old woman ordered, and Nightwing immediately obeyed.

“Leslie,” the masked man said with a pleading, desperate tone. “Please…”

She cut him off gently. “I’ll do everything I can,” she said reassuringly, though worry was clearly written all over her face as she made a quick examination of Neal’s vitals. “Alfred!” she called out as she began pushing the gurney to what appeared to be a prepared triage section of the cave. “I need your assistance!”

“Whatever you need, Dr. Thompkins,” a familiar patient voice said from off to Peter’s right. Alfred Pennyworth approached Dr. Thompkins, carrying several vials on a tray into the triage. As he passed by, he paused for a brief moment before Nightwing and Peter.

“Richard,” he said to Nightwing. “Miss Hunter is being secluded upstairs in the a private room in the East Wing. It is secured from the outside, so she won’t be allowed to wander the manor for now.” Nightwing nodded silently. Then Alfred turned to Peter. “Agent Burke… I took the liberty of bringing your wife here to Gotham with me. She’s waiting for you upstairs in the study.”

Peter stared at the elderly butler in surprise and confusion. “Elle’s here? But why?”

Alfred’s face became drawn and downcast. “Master Bruce requested that she be brought here.” He sighed. “The two of you are the closest Timothy has had to family over the last couple of years. Whatever happens tonight, he felt that the both of you deserve to be here with him now, and to know the truth about him and his past.” Without another word, the old man made his way to the triage where Dr. Thompkins was starting her work.

Peter’s instinctive response was to try and follow Alfred. The idea of leaving Neal alone in his present condition was almost beyond him. However, a strong hand settled on his shoulder.

“It’s better just to stay out of their way,” Nightwing—no Richard Grayson said. While Alfred had been speaking to Peter, he’d taken the time to remove his mask. The younger man’s face clearly betrayed the exhaustion he felt, both physically and emotionally. “Please believe me, Agent Burke, when I say that Tim… Neal is in the very best hands in the world.”

“Honestly,” Peter said wearily as he backed himself out from under Dick’s grasp. “I don’t know who or what to believe anymore.”

“Agent Burke-“

“I’d trusted you to keep your promise,” Peter muttered. “I made one request, you agreed, and then you broke your word.” When he raised his eyes to Dick, there was frustration and anger brewing within his gaze. “If I hadn’t decided to go to Gotham on my own… If I hadn’t been in the city when Neal turned his tracking signal back on, I wouldn’t have gotten to him in time to stop that d*mned man I shot from cutting his head off!” His furious voice echoed in the massive expanse of the bat cave. “And then I had to kill the woman he loved right in front of him when she tried to stab him again!”

“That wasn’t the real Kate,” Dick tried to interject. “She was an imposter working for the League of As-“

“Does that matter?!” Peter snapped. “That was the second time Neal had to watch her die before his eyes, but this time I was the one pulling the trigger! What do you think that will do to him when he wakes up?” The enraged federal agent paused, the anger bleeding off a little as he thought of Neal lying on the ground, bleeding out and suffering from poisons tearing through his veins. “If he wakes up…”

“I- I’m sorry…” Dick tried to reach out to Peter, but the agent just slapped his hand away.

“Where’s my wife?” Peter asked softly. “How do I get to her from here?”

Dick sighed. “There’s a winding staircase to your right,” he murmured, defeated. “It will take you straight to the study.”

Without another word, Peter turned and walked away from Dick. The former acrobat made his way to a nearby chair and sat down heavily in it, burying his face in his hands. A red-haired woman in a wheelchair came up to him quietly and placed a comforting hand on his back.

***

Peter was seething as he stalked away from Grayson, the cave, and this hidden world of masked vigilantes he wished he didn’t have to deal with, were it not for Neal’s sake. Fortunately, the walk up the winding stairs to the entrance into the study was long enough that his anger and frustration had cooled by the time he reached the top, leaving only worry for Neal at the forefront of his thoughts. The door opened easily, and Peter stepped into the well kept study of some massive mansion that he assumed belonged to Bruce Wayne.

“Peter!” Elle’s alarmed voice caught his attention immediately, and he felt a wave of relief wash over him as she rushed to his side, though for a moment he was confused about the frightened expression on her face.

“Elle,” he said. “What’s wrong?”

“God, Peter! Are you alright? You look like you’ve just stepped out of a war zone!” she said as she came close enough to almost touch. Her eyes were scanning him up and down frantically.

Only then did he look down at himself and realize what was causing her so much worry. Though he’d left his blood-soaked jacked down in the cave with Neal, the rest of his clothing hadn’t escaped this evening’s ordeal unscathed. Large, dark red splotches stained his normally pristine white pinstripe shirt and gray slacks. His sleeves, especially around his cuffs, had been saturated by the same blood that was now drying on his hands. It shocked Peter to realize how much of Neal’s blood he had on his body at that moment.

“Yeah, Elle… I’m fine. None of this is mine,” he said numbly.

His wife looked at him with a mixture of relief and confusion. “Then who?”

Peter met her eyes with his. In that shared silent moment, Elizabeth realized exactly whose blood her husband was wearing.

“Oh God!” she exclaimed, her hands reflexively flying to her mouth to muffle the exclamation. “Is Neal…?”

“They’re working on him downstairs,” Peter murmured.

“How bad is it? Will he be alright?”

Peter shook his head. “I… I don’t know, Elle. I just don’t know…”

Heedless of the blood that may or may not have been dry on her husband’s clothing, Elizabeth Burke stepped forward and immediately wrapped her arms around the man she loved. Reflexively, Peter wrapped his arms around her. When she buried her face against his chest, and he felt more than heard the soft worried whimper escape her throat, he held her tighter against him.

Never once before this night had Peter ever entertained the idea that Neal could possibly lose his life while on his watch. He hadn’t realized how close the former con artist had become to him and his wife. But now… The thought of a world without that brazen young man with the confident smile and the practically trademarked fedora tilted at the cocky angle was not something he wanted to face.

For better or for worse… No matter what his past entailed or what the future might hold (if he even had a future waiting for him)… Neal was family now.

----------------------------------------------------

Author Notes:

This was an extremely hard chapter to write. There were so many directions I could envision this chapter taking, and I think I must’ve written and re-written the first few hundred words about ten times or more before I finally settled on this.

There are a lot of emotions running high among the characters.

Neal is seriously injured and practically on death’s door.

Peter had to kill two people to save his life, including the woman who looked like Kate, which of course doesn’t sit well with him. On top of that, he’s not at all happy with either Batman or Nightwing for breaking their word to him back in Gotham.

Dick is, of course, worried sick about his brother, but also feeling guilty about Peter’s involvement. He’s plagued with doubts now about his choice to break his word to Peter back in New York City. “What ifs…” are wracking his brain right now.

And finally, Bruce is forced to deal not only with the threat to his son’s life, but also the fact that Talia showed up to reclaim her father’s body, seemingly according to some plan she has had in the works for who only knows how long.

The End

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