It didn’t take long for members of the Justice League to realize that something was amiss in Gotham City. One or two of the Bats taking time off the active duty roster was not an unusual thing. Three at the same time was uncommon, but not unheard of. However, when practically the entire clan of them suddenly dropped out of circulation in all their respective organizations at the same time, including Batman himself, it made a more than noticeable impact. A group from the League was even prepared to head into Gotham themselves to make sure their friends were alright.
Before they could head out, though, Superman himself called a sudden urgent meeting at the Watchtower.
“Clark?” Wonder Woman said once they were all gathered together on the orbital satellite. “What’s going on? Do you know what’s happening in Gotham with Bruce and his family?”
The Man of Steel nodded solemnly.
“Well spill!” Bart Allen, the current Flash exclaimed. “What’s so important that even the workaholic Daddy Bat took himself off of active duty for the first time in forever? It can’t be that gallery opening we’re supposed to attend in NYC. We just got the e-mail saying it’s been postponed.”
Clark Kent lifted his head to look at the collected members of the League. It wasn’t the complete roster. He’d handpicked the various members specifically for this gathering. All familiar faces. All close friends who’d known each other for years. Everyone who was close enough to Bruce and his family to be trusted with their true identities.
“They found Tim.”
The shocked silence that filled the meeting room after that announcement lasted only a moment before it was broken by an cacophony of voices bombarding Clark with excited questions. Instead of answering even one, though, Superman held up his hand, and eventually silence returned.
“Tim is alive,” he said somberly. “But the situation is complicated. Bruce has asked that everyone respect his family’s privacy for the time being. For now, everyone in their family is going to be gathered in Gotham, but they’ll be staying close to home.”
“Something’s wrong, isn’t it, Clark?” Diana asked after a moment, worry clearly written on her face. “Bruce and his entire family wouldn’t circle the wagons like this if everything was fine. Is Tim… alright?”
Superman hesitated a moment before slowly shaking his head. “He was hurt very badly recently, and they’re not sure…” His words trailed off. He couldn’t finish the sentence, but everyone caught his unspoken meaning.
There was a long moment of silence once more as the gravity of the revelations sank in. Those men and women who had once been closest to Tim, who years ago had been his best friends, clustered together and comforted each other quietly.
“Is there anything we can do for them?” Diana asked gently.
Clark sighed. “We can help keep their city safe,” he said. “And we can pray.”
While Elle was upstairs watching over Neal along with Alfred and Dick, Peter found himself standing on a secluded balcony at the rear of Wayne Manor. From his vantage point, he could see the barest trace of Gotham City’s skyline over the tops of the trees which surrounded the expansive mansion. Searching for the distant skyline in the near pitch black, moonless night was a calming, peaceful exercise the weary federal agent needed after everything that had occurred in the last twenty-four hours.
Then he sighed.
“How long are you going to stand there skulking in the shadows?” he asked aloud to seemingly no one in particular, his eyes still focused on the horizon.
“Sorry,” Bruce said as he stepped into the small amount of light which trickled onto the balcony from the windows. “Force of habit.”
“It’s a bad habit,” Peter scolded mildly. “Especially in your own home.”
“How did you know-?”
“Hmm?” Bruce looked at Peter curiously.
“Although, as one of Neal’s compatriots would say, ‘It’s not paranoia when they really are out to get you.’” He finally turned his eyes away from the night and towards Bruce. “I had no idea you were there,” Peter admitted. “But I had a feeling that I was being watched, so I took a chance.” He paused a moment before continuing, eyes narrowing with suspicion. “What do you want?”
Bruce moved to the edge of the balcony, standing even with Peter. “I wanted to say that you shouldn’t blame Dick for leaving you behind in New York. He doesn’t deserve your scorn.”
“So it was you?”
Peter wanted to be angry with Bruce. He wanted so much to indulge in yelling at the this man who he felt was at least partially responsible for the state Neal was in right then and there. However, when all was said and done, Peter just didn’t have it in him to be angry anymore. He was too tired, and it didn’t seem right at all to vent his frustrations on a man when his son’s life seemed to be balancing so precariously on the razor’s edge. “I understand why you did what you did,” Peter finally said. “That doesn’t mean I like what happened, but it’s not something I’m unaccustomed to. I’ve had to deal with getting the same kind of crap from Neal while working with him.” The FBI agent grumbled. “Always running off to do what he thinks is best. Cutting me out of whatever his plans are.” He gave Bruce a sidelong look. “Now I think I see where he actually gets it.”
Bruce studied Peter as he spoke. Despite giving the agent and his wife a comfortable private room in the manor after they’d finally brought his son home, but it looked like the agent hadn’t taken advantage of it to get any rest. Dark circles shaded the underside of his haunted eyes, and the weary irritation in his voice was one Bruce recognized all too well.
“You should get some sleep, Agent Burke,” he said.
“Later,” he said simply as he turned his gaze back towards the Gotham City skyline. “There’ll time enough for sleep later.”
“Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” Bruce queried cautiously. “About the night Tim… Neal was hurt? About what happened to Ra’s al Ghul and the imposter posing as Kate?”
Peter thought about the nightmare that had jolted him from his sleep when he last dozed off just a few hours prior; what had led him to staking out the balcony in seclusion in the first place. “Not with you,” he finally told Bruce.
“Kate! Slow down!”
“No, Neal! We’re almost out!”
It was just as she’d said. A few hurried moments later found the two of them bursting through a door that led to the outside grounds just to the rear of the unfinished building. Though adrenaline was able to keep him moving, Neal’s physical injuries and his chaotic, fear-infected mind made it almost impossibly hard to focus and think.
Things didn’t feel right. Neal didn’t understand why he was so terrified of that strange old man he kept wanting to call “the demon”. He didn’t have the slightest where these horrific visions that were tormenting him came from. Adding to his confusion were images of Batman and Nightwing that kept flashing in between the others.
“That’s far enough, young man.”
Neal froze, a chill running down his spine at the sound of the frighteningly familiar voice. His fear did not root him completely motionless, though. Immediately, his thoughts ran straight for Kate and he reacted purely on panic and instinct.
“Run Kate! Get out of here!” he yelled as turned to put himself between her and the demon.
Neal never saw the dagger.
Excruciating pain, sharp and burning, radiated immediately throughout his midsection. It was nothing, though, compared the fresh wound in his heart when he saw the face of the one who held the blade.
“K-Kate?” he gasped out as he stared at the woman he loved, that he’d sacrificed so much for. The betrayal became even more heart-rending at the cold, emotionless expression she wore as she twisted the dagger just enough to send him to his knees with a gasp of agony. When she jerked the blade out of his abdomen, reflexively his good hand moved to press against the bleeding wound, though he had a feeling it wouldn’t do much good.
“I underestimated you, Timothy,” Ra’s al Ghul said as he stepped out from the shadows. “You showed so much promise these last few years. I had hoped to put your incredible talents to work for me, so that you might work off the debt I’m owed for the damage you did to the League all those years ago.” The old man glared balefully at him, the blood from the earlier gunshot drying against the side of his head and matting the hair it had spilled into. “I never thought, with everything your father taught you, that you’d actually take the initiative to attempt to kill me. With a gun no less!”
There was that name again. Even through the haze of pain, both physical and emotional, that name stuck out in his blurring consciousness.
“My name… is Neal,” he weakly stammered out, eyes downcast as he watched, almost mesmerized, his own blood starting to pool on the pavement beneath his knees. “I don’t know… what you’re talking about.” Neal tried to swallow. His throat felt so dry, and his body was starting to feel hot.
Neal felt the cold metal pommel of a sword roughly tucked under his chin, forcing his gaze upward so he could look straight into the face of the demon himself.
“You really don’t know who you are anymore, do you?” Ra’s observed, then frowned as he stood back up. Neal winced visibly at the sound of the demon’s sword being drawn slowly out of its scabbard. “That almost makes this task a little less satisfying.”
“So we won’t be taking him alive, Father?” ‘Kate’ asked, sounding disappointed herself as she began to step away from Neal.
“I’m afraid not,” Ra’s confirmed. “Much as I know you were looking forward to bearing his child, Timothy is too much of a liability to possess.” The demon lifted his sword. “Besides, I made a promise to his father a long time ago that I fully intend to deliver upon.”
Kneeling there on the pavement, watching as too much blood continued to spill from his body and still reeling from the betrayal of the woman he loved, Neal found himself eerily, calmly resigned to his oncoming death. Back in the furthest reaches of his mind, a small voice wondered if this was finally the permanent end that had eluded him for so long.
Slowly, his eyes began to close.
“Freeze! FBI! Put down the weapon, now!”
Neal’s eyes snapped open. His dulled blue eyes stared past Ra’s al Ghul and found a familiar federal agent’s silhouette in the dimly lit dark. The light that was present on the construction site glinted off the barrel of his gun, which was trained squarely on the demon.
“Peter?” he whispered in a hoarse voice. Fear returned to Neal’s expression, though it wasn’t for himself. Suddenly he was faced with the very real prospect of the one of the few people he actually truly trusted being hurt or killed right in front of him. It didn’t matter to Neal if he himself died or not. However, he couldn’t allow Peter to be killed. What would Elizabeth think? He didn’t want her to become a widow. He didn’t want her to suffer that grief.
Ra’s wasn’t at all bothered by the sudden presence of the federal agent. “Take care of him, daughter,” he ordered dismissively.
“Yes, Father,” ‘Kate’ said obediently as adjusted her grip on the dagger, Neal’s blood still dripping from its tip.
Desperation rose up in Tim, pushing him past his pain and his fear as he tried to rise up and grab at Kate. “Stop! Please don’t!”
Immediately, he was struck on the temple with the pommel of the demon’s sword and was sent crumbling to the ground. “Your suffering ends now!” Ra’s declared as he lifted the sword high and started bringing it down fast.
Two shots rang out like canon fire in the night. Everything in that moment seemed to freeze in time. Neal stared, in wide-eyed shock, at the demon with his sword raised just inches from his face. His eyes weren’t focused on the blade, however. They were focused on the formerly pristine white shirt that were now blooming crimson from the two bullets that had torn through Ra’s chest.
The old man had an expression of shock on his face as well. He turned his head to look back at Peter, who stared at him pointedly. Even with ‘Kate’ just a couple of yards away from him, her dagger in hand and poised to strike, the agent had taken the shots to save Neal’s life first, completely disregarding his own safety.
“I… underestimated… the wrong… people…” Ra’s stammered out as his consciousness faded and his sword fell harmlessly from his hand. His lifeless body followed soon after.
‘Kate’, who had frozen in horror at the sight of her father being killed, stood there for a moment in complete disbelief at what had just happened. “…no… Father… No!” she murmured before whirling on Peter, her face blazing with rage. “NO! I’ll destroy you!” she shrieked as clutched her blade and went dashing towards her father’s killer.
“Peter! NO!” Neal screamed as loudly as he could, anguish written all over his face. He tried to get up, but he was in too much pain and was far too weak to reach Kate in time.
Unfortunately for ‘Kate’, her hesitation when her father was killed cost her. It had given Peter just enough time to refocus his aim on her, and she rushed him before he could even warn her to drop her weapon and surrender.
“I’m sorry, Neal,” Peter whispered as he closed his eyes and pulled the trigger, knowing full well that at point-blank range the bullet would find its target without fail.
Neal’s eyes snapped open with a gasp. He would’ve sat bolt upright, but a stab of pain in his midsection aborted his body’s reflexive action. So he laid back, closed his eyes, and tried to will away the shakes and chills caused by the remains of the horrible nightmare.
Several long minutes later, a much calmer Neal opened his eyes once more. He stared at the ceiling with a puzzled expression. There was something about what he was seeing nagging at his sleep addled mind. Something wasn’t right, and yet it strangely was.
He blinked. With a turn of his head, first to the left and then to the right, Neal was surprised to find himself lying on a massive king-sized bed in what looked like a bedroom in a very nice old home. A home that seemed almost familiar, and that confused him.
Gingerly, Neal eased himself up into a sitting position, mindful of expertly wrapped bandages wound tightly around his abdomen and his right arm bound up in a cast. He rubbed his eyes with his left hand before taking better stock of where he was.
“Where am I?”
Chapter 30 brings a more detailed explanation of what exactly happened between Neal, Peter, Kate, and Ra’s al Ghul the night everything came to a head before Nightwing and Batman found them all. We also have a slight bit of interaction between Bruce and Peter, as well as a cameo from members of the Justice League. And finally, of course, we have Neal waking up alive in the safety of Wayne Manor.