AUTHOR'S NOTES: I've never done a chaptered story like this before, certainly not one of this scale. All hail the majesty and courage of the betas in being willing to work through this with me! I request your lenience with my depiction of the Batclan; I have little experience with them, but they shouldered their way into the story and are insisting on playing a significant part.
For timeline's sake, this occurs shortly after the JLU animated series episodes 'This Little Piggy' and 'Fearful Symmetry' but will not be written in continuity with anything afterwards.
Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.
----Prologue: The Last Fall
They ran him to earth in the Batcave.
Can you hear the baying of the hounds?
His pursuers weren't far behind. The Batmobile's tiny screens glimmered at him, scrolling data across their luminescent surfaces. He noted his pursuers' positions on the radar before switching the systems off. Then he emerged from the vehicle into the tall vault of the cave.
Soft lighting slunk over the curves of his armour, the material of his cape, hesitating to cling to him, as if sensing that he shunned its touch. He moved through the still air, and his motion stirred the darkness around him, trailing invisible eddies of night in his wake as he strode up the stairs to the main computer console.
The leather of his chair was butter soft, and he settled into it. It moulded to his seat and posture as he called up the screens with the data he wanted. Sensors flashed and beeped, and the screens flashed their information at him. From his vantage point at the console, he had audio-visual, infrared and radar on the cave and every entrance to it.
He called up a report, and the letters flashed across the screen as the scans ran through the mansion overhead and the cave below, determining life forms, seeking out intruders.
Beneath the lenses of his cowl, dark eyes narrowed at the information.
The bats lurked amidst the overhead vaults of the cavern, their thickly-clustered numbers making a body count impossible. Nothing unusual there.
Outside the mansion, various small creatures scurried around, their heat scans tiny blips on the infrared screen. Nothing for him to concern himself with. The creatures who hunted him tonight were larger and more dangerous than they.
Within the mansion, nothing moved. Alfred slumbered in his bedroom. Scans showed the tall, spare form of the old retainer in unaccustomed repose, resting in the dark of the night. Tonight, for once, he had not waited up for his master.
A betrayal? Or a wisdom?
Batman didn't know. Something in him was glad the old man would not be present for this confrontation. Sleep well, old friend. I would not have you witness this for all the money in Wayne Enterprises.
No father should have to watch his children fall.
It would not Batman's first fall, but it might very well be his last.
According to the Bible story, Adam's first fall had been the most costly. In Batman's experience, it was the last fall that killed a man.
He could not deny that in the last few weeks he'd used his abilities in more direct ways than was usual for him. But what had he done, in the end? Cleaned up the city a little faster, added one more body to the morgue and reduced the drain of resources at Arkham. No, it wasn't his usual modus operandi, but that didn't justify this manhunt.
Bathunt? His mouth curved sardonically at the thought, before he began setting up the defenses against the people he'd once fought beside, and his smile faded.
They would come. They would come because not to come, to leave him at large was unthinkable. A danger to Gotham must be taken down, even if that danger was the Batman; especially if that danger was the Batman.
How well he'd trained the hounds that hunted him.
But these students were still young. They hadn't yet surpassed the master.
Perhaps they never would.
He heard Robin's motorcycle first. There was no way to disguise the noise, and the young man hadn't even tried. Tim would take the most direct route; reason first, only resorting to force if all else failed. His trust in his mentor would be his undoing. He was the least of Batman's worries.
His fingers moved over the computer keys, setting traps, defining parameters. The hounds would come a-hunting, and they would find themselves surprised.
Of course, while Robin was young enough - and innocent enough - to be willing to attempt reason, he couldn't count on the other two being quite so accommodating.
"Batman..." Robin's feet pattered up the stairs. "I was listening to the scanner. They said..." He paused. "They said you threw a man off the Civic building..."
"It wasn't a man," Batman interrupted.
Robin paused, "What?"
"It wasn't a man." He could say that without remorse. Calling the thing he'd tossed from the building a 'man' was like calling black, white; there was no truth in it.
"So you threw him off the building." And now there was something in his protég's voice that he'd never heard directed at him before: distrust. "That's not like you, Bruce."
Maybe it was the tone that moved him to action, maybe the use of his name. Either that, or the sounds of the alarms going off in his earpiece. Someone was approaching the cave, and a glance at the terminal instantly showed him who. He rose from his chair, noting the way the boy took an instinctive step back. "I stopped a criminal--"
"You never resorted to killing them before..." Even as the boy protested, Batman was on the move.
The boy's reflexes were fast; but Batman was faster. He'd trained Tim in defence, watched him study, grow, develop. It was a moment's work to get in under those defences and knock him unconscious with a quick jab at a pressure-point. There was a second of panic, and then the boy went limp in his arms, slender limbs relaxing.
"Things change..." Bruce murmured gently as he picked up the teenager and laid him out in the med bay. Tim would wake up in several hours, none the worse for his unconsciousness, although he might have a slight headache from the jab he'd received.
The boy was safely out of it, at least.
He turned, surveying the cave.
His next assailant would be older than Tim, more cunning; but even in that cunning, there would be a certain transparency about his plans...
Overhead, bats squeaked, and he turned and frowned up at the colony. Unusual....
The batarang whistled past his head, lodged in the wall and exploded out, a mask of smoke and fire.
Batman had a filter mask out of his belt, even as he switched his lenses to infrared viewing. There was a risk to his defence measures, of course. He had to assume his opponent would foresee his actions and take suitable measures. But he had other tricks on his belt.
"Ventilators high," he growled, just before he slipped the filter mask across his face and reached for a batarang.
Abruptly, the cave echoed with the whine of massive turbines as they increased their capacity at his voiceprint order. The bats rustled overhead, disturbed by the sudden noise, and quite a few dropped, squeaking madly.
He had no attention for them. Nightwing threw a punch that Batman blocked high, even as he swung his own fist low and on the left.
"Lovely way to greet your ward," Nightwing chided, the edge of mockery clear in his voice as he took the blow on his hip, turning to lessen the impact. His hand jabbed towards Batman's throat.
"About as charming as the way you greet your guardian," Batman responded with word and punch. Nightwing brought his hand up and blocked, as expected.
There was a certain arrogance in the young man's attitude, the belief that he could outthink or outfight the man by whom he'd been trained. Batman defended himself against a flurry of attacks, noting in the process that Nightwing had been learning a few new moves. They were enough to keep him on the defence, but not enough to worry him.
He frowned as Nightwing attacked him again. To defeat him, his ward would have to launch an all-out attack against Batman, and although he was pressing them back across the cave, that wasn't happening.
Overhead, several bats squeaked, and Batman suddenly realised what was happening. He flung the batarang directly upwards and heard it impact into the cave ceiling. The next moment, the air above their heads was suddenly filled with the shriek of bats – and a falling girl. She had the presence of mind to fling a batarang to the ceiling as she dropped, turning a tumbling plunge into a graceful descent.
Nightwing's expression gave away the ruse as he struke again.
Interesting. Not just an attack but also an ambush...
The dual attack made things a little tricky, but gave him twice as much target. Then, too, he knew their weaknesses as they knew his.
Two weeks ago, Nightwing had been grazed in the left arm by a bullet from one of Two-Face's thugs during a failed heist. It was only a flesh wound, but one that reduced his effectiveness with that arm. Ruthlessly, Batman concentrated his attacks on that side. His intent was not to kill Nightwing, just to take him out first.
He slammed a punch at Nightwing's shoulder, connecting hard. A huff of pain escaped the younger man, but his response was fluid. A hand struck Batman's inside elbow, forcing the joint to bend, before Nightwing used the resistance to rebound-slam his elbow to his mentor's jaw.
He got a glimpse of Batgirl's hair out of his peripheral vision. She was behind him, and even as he turned, he felt and heard metal scrape on polyvinyl carbonate. Two days ago, during the weekly testing of his suit, he'd discovered a slight weakness in the costume – a tiny point where the application of suitable pressure would cause the material to give. It wasn't much of a weakness, but it was enough for something thin and metallic to reach his unguarded skin.
Something thin and metallic like a needle containing sleep drops.
It would take someone very nimble and with a good sense of timing to get the positioning right. It would take someone with courage to stick it in without fear of hitting the spinal column or his kidneys. It would also take someone who didn't know that one day ago, he'd gotten the weakness repaired so it was no longer an Achilles heel.
Two out of three wasn't bad. It just wasn't enough.
He heard her curse, and lashed out with his left arm, using the momentum from Nightwing's attack to turn .The action spun himself out of the younger man's reach, and gave him added energy with which to punch Batgirl firmly in the chestplate, sending her reeling back. A weighted net took Batgirl down. She'd get out of it, of course, but it would take a few precious seconds during which he would only have Nightwing to get into position. And then the trap would be sprung.
As he turned to confront Nightwing again, he flipped his lenses back to normal sight and watched the young man crouch slightly as they faced off in wrestler's stances.
"At least Tim asked first," he said.
"He's younger," Nightwing responded tersely. The strong, youthful features convulsed in something like bitterness, visible around the concealing eyemask. "He still believes in you." The heel of Nightwing's boot struck Batman hard and square in the side of the knee. In spite of the absorbent armour, the impact still jarred up his thigh and he fell backwards and sideways, somersaulting heels-over-cape, to rise up with both assailants in his sights.
"And you don't?"
"Good guess," Nightwing retorted. Without any obvious communication between them, the two young fighters separated, drawing his attention in opposite directions. They would come at him from two sides given the opportunity, but enough was enough.
The flung batarang lodged firmly in its target and the retracting wire lifted him neatly over their heads as they leapt in at him. A pair of weighted bolas slowed them down. And then he dropped the batarang.
Nightwing had just managed to free himself with some kind of pressure-controlled razor blades that slipped out from the sides of his gloves, while Batgirl was still bound. She looked up at the clatter, and he saw comprehension dawn on her face as she sliced viciously at the bolas that bound her.
Another superhero - one with a more upbeat style - might have uttered the term, 'Oops!' Batman simply watched from his vantage point as Nightwing looked from the fallen batarang to his hanging mentor, and came to a conclusion that was entirely correct.
The young man ran - for Batgirl, Batman noticed – but it was already too late. The nerve gas required skin contact, not inhalation, and it was as strong as Vexxon or VX. A few milligrams on exposed flesh would induce the poison's result.
It didn't kill. It simply shut down specific sets of muscle groups for several hours, resulting in temporary paralysis. In addition to that, it was heavier than air, so it stayed low on the ground. Where Nightwing and Batgirl were. Where Batman wasn't.
Always be prepared.
As Nightwing reached Batgirl and hauled her up, they jerked. The compound swirled around them, infecting them, numbing them. They tried to run, but their muscles wouldn't obey them. They sprawled, ungainly, across the floor of the Batcave. They'd come to no harm there, but they wouldn't be able to fight him either.
"You really thought the two of you could take me?" Dick might be that arrogant, but he'd thought Barbara would have more sense...
"No." Dick managed as his head lolled back.
The punch came out of nowhere. No alarms sounded, no sirens wailed, there wasn't even a beep from his computer. She arrived at his side like a ghost – or like someone for whom the warning parameters had been deleted. Even as he flew through the air with the force of her blow, a part of him registered that Barbara must have set up a secondary interface on the computers to deceive him.
He'd been set up.
The floor was hard and bruising against his back and he felt the tingle of the nerve gas against his skin. He wasn't worried - he'd injected himself with the antidote over half an hour ago - but it seemed that someone else was.
"Hsinav sag erven!" He barely heard the incantation, let alone realised what it meant. A moment later, the tingling was fading from his skin and the nerve gas was gone.
Zatanna. She stepped out of the darkness, even as Diana's boots touched the ground.
"Robin's fine," the magician reported. "Just out like a light."
"Check Nightwing and Batgirl," said the Amazon.
It was a conspiracy of women. And he had to admit, bringing Zatanna in had been a good move. He hadn't expected that.
He had expected her.
"Bruce?" Her concern was her undoing as she knelt down beside him. His mouth quirked, and that was all the warning she got before he flipped them over, trapping her beneath his weight.
"Playing possum, Princess." His weight wouldn't hold her down, but the way he'd positioned himself over her made it very difficult to find the leverage to throw him off even with her superior strength. Give him a minute, and she'd find it impossible to get leverage against him.
It would be a temporary measure, but it would last long enough.
The syringe was in his hand and he was thumbing off the lid of the needle when she shouted, "Now!"
Around him there was the soft pattering pop of compressed air darts. His jaw suddenly ached, and when he brushed his hand along the exposed skin of chin and mouth, minute darts tumbled over his fingers. He looked down at Diana, lying prone beneath his thighs, no longer struggling. "Who...?"
Batman lifted up his gaze and saw the angel of death, descending from the ceiling to hover a little way away. Clothed and masked in black, her white wings spread out behind her, pale and broad against the bright scarlet of her hair. She held a tranquilliser gun held in her hands, the muzzle still aimed at him.
Batgirl? It couldn't be. Barbara still lay on the floor, attended to by Zatanna. His senses began to spin, even as the mystery angel hovered and stripped the mask from her face. As she shook out her red-gold locks, the last pieces of the puzzle into place. A hawk's sight, and not just a hawk's wings...
This wasn't the ending he'd wanted. Exactly what ending he had wanted, he didn't know, only that this was not it.
Batman had no time for regrets. If they'd drugged him, then he had no time at all. He jerked the needle towards himself, only to have Diana reach up and grab his hand. "Don't." At her plea, he looked from their joined hands to her face, seeing the momentary anger in her eyes at his planned action.
He felt the flex in her body, the shifting of muscles as she gained enough force to thrust him off her, tossing him up into the air as though he weighed no more than a ball. The needle flashed silver as it spun into darkness and was lost to him.
He had others in his belt, but he had lost the presence of mind to reach for them - if he could even have done so while hurtling up towards the roof.
She'd thrown him high, so high, too high - even for the Bat. Higher than he could survive if he tumbled back down to Earth without a batarang and line to break his fall.
The drugs they'd injected into him made it feel as though he was falling upwards. They inhibited any action, any retaliation he might have taken against the triumvirate of women who'd been his downfall: the woman flying overhead, the woman kneeling over Dick and Barbara, and the woman who had planned all this to bring him low.
At the apex of his 'flight,' he felt gravity reclaim him as one of its own, and the weight of his body, of his heavy limbs dragged him down, down, down...
This was his death, the death of the Batman. And, in a way, he welcomed the end; the eternal fall into the shadowing night.
It was the last fall that killed a man. Always.
His senses were fading, one by one, the drug taking away his control - the precious control he had held up above all other things, only to lose it. But he felt the hands that caught him in midair, the arms that wrapped around his body, slowing his fall; a familiar touch, both powerful and gentle.
Her face was a pale oval in the dramatic lighting of the Batcave, the dark curls writhing around her face like Medusa's snakes. He was so intent on her face that he barely felt it when she laid him down on the floor of the Batcave.
Fingers touched his skin, stroked his jaw, but he couldn't feel them. Her lips moved in words he could no longer hear, and he tried to use his lipreading abilities to tell what she was saying, but those skills had deserted him, too.
Darkness coalesced beyond her; in a moment, it would sweep over them both, swallowing them whole. She was beautiful - had always been beautiful, with an exquisite sunlit loveliness that should never have been touched by the shadows he cast.
Bruce moved his fingers to touch her wrist, felt his lips move in an attempt at speech. Two words. Ones he rarely uttered - either as Bruce Wayne, or as Batman.
He saw her expression: deep sadness.
Then he was lost to darkness.