Chapter 2 - Old Man On A Hill


Fear

I have often wondered about the nature of it, if it truly can be defined, or if its meaning is truly beyond understanding.

Psychologists would call it a mere combination of defensive responses; physiological, behavioural and the conscious experience and interpretations of these responses—that are called upon by specific stimuli.

Is it something else? Something beyond cause and effect, beyond reason, deep in the very soul, something that calls from a place where science and understanding has yet to reach?

I have indeed sought help, at times, in answering the questions that plague my mind, to address the trauma of the past. I have found all of it lacking. Doctors and their medicines, they only name the cause and try to address the symptoms but no one touches the beast itself. Some force holds everyone back from approaching or even looking at it, because of what will happen when it wakes up.

Fear.

True fear, I found, is something more, deeper, something transcendent. I have seen it, tasted it, watched it be born, thrive and even die. I have met men and women who dwell in it and those completely free from it. I have been its agent and its destroyer, met its incarnation, a monster that walked the earth with a human face, seen the horror it can unleash and the wonder defiance of it can inspire. I have stood in the heart of the storm and commanded the power that seems uncontrollable to all others.

I have come to know fear, I have become fear. I have the ability to terrorise and shatter people with a whisper and flick of my wrist.

I HAVE BECOME THE NIGHTMARE THAT KEEPS EVIL MEN AWAKE

And yet I still ponder its nature. I still wonder if I have mastered fear or if it has mastered me?

Perhaps I am the wrong one to ponder the very thing that consumes him. Perhaps I am still that lost child raging at shadows. I may even be insane, all while believing others are the ignorant ones. What if this is just a means to escape reality?

But then I remember who I am…and it all starts again.


(January 31st 2009 - Wayne Manor - Gotham City)

Fury sat in the back of the car with his right-hand woman Maria Hill sitting next to him as Coulson drove them through the large iron gates that opened up to the winding path that led to Wayne Manor.

He glanced out of the window and saw the imposing building that sat perched like a bird of prey on the horizon. The manor was perfectly positioned and silhouetted on the horizon. It was perched on the top of steep rocky cliffs on a peninsula that jutted away from the rest of the land, cradling the home of the Wyane family away from the rest of the world. It overlooked the ocean around it and when one stood before the manor's doors the city of Gotham lay below.

Wayne Manor always made Fury feel small. Even though he had only been to the building a few times and had been to more impressive and larger buildings designed to give that impression, he only felt it here. There was a presence that lingered over the manor and grounds. It was a dread that covered everything, and everyone who visited was chilled. Most described it as if you were stepping away from the light and warmth of the day and into the shadow of night under the judgemental eyes of Solomon Wayne, who laid the foundation of the Wayne family.

Fury knew people who were ignorant of what this place really was that said the exact same thing as him. Even when Bruce threw wild parties, with hundreds of people and lit the skyline up with fireworks it was still there, lingering around you that not even the intoxication of alcohol could drive away.

"Both of you stay in the car." came the command as Coulson pulled up to the front doors of the house. He and Hill looked at each other causing Fury to frown.

"That's an order, stay in the car and don't do anything."

Both of them shared a look but nodded, still confused. Neither had any idea why Fury had suddenly arranged an escort to the Manor. Their training won out, and no questions were asked as their boss exited the car. Fury took in a deep breath as he glanced up at the looming manor before striding up the large stairs to the double-framed oak doors that swung open as he reached them, negating the need to knock.

"Director Fury, what a pleasure, Master Bruce is expecting you." Fury's eyes widened as greeting him at the door impossibly was the ever-calm and poised Alfred Pennyworth. "Please, follow me."

The ever-present Wayne family butler looked good as he led him through the old manor. Scratch that, Alfred looked amazing for a man in his late 80's. Fury could remember the first time he had come to the manor, nearly 20 years ago back when he had merely been Peggy Carter's rising protegé, and even then Alfred had been old. Yet he seemed nearly unchanged: elegant thin moustache, hair kept short and neat on the sides with top still bald, a few more lines on his face and a few greyer hairs but that was it.

"Thank you Alfred, what sort of mood's he in?" Fury asked as he glanced at the wall directed with pictures of the Wayne Family's past glories, many of which had Bruce dotted about in them.

"Oh Master Wayne is his usual chipper self, I can assure you," The English butler's voice carried the usual professional tone, but this time there was a hint of mirth. "He is currently contending with a most dangerous and momentous decision. It has him quite flummoxed."

"Really? May I ask what has stumped the world's greatest detective?" Fury asked as they approached the beautiful carved black mahogany doors that bore the Wayne Family Crest, which led to Bruce's private study.

Alfred gave a rare smile as he pushed open the heavy double doors with surprising ease and then stepped expertly to one side. "Why… where to hold his birthday of course,"

Fury moved past the elder man into the very large room that acted as Bruce's personal study. The space was vast and long, styled more like a chapel than a study, a sacred place that made him feel like he was trespassing. Directly facing him at the other end of the room on a slightly raised section of the room sat Bruce's desk, its position creating an air of imposing authority and made it almost look like an altar. The room's piousness was slightly diminished by the towering bookcases that reached up to the vaulted ceiling, along with the large arched window that sat behind the desk and the large fireplace embedded into the right hand wall. A few display cases ran up the length of the room with smaller tables set between them also aiding in dispelling the room's sanctified quality.

Fury's eyes raked over it all. The last time he had stood here had been a long time ago when Director Carter still ran SHIELD and Bruce's first acolyte was still around. He knew for a fact that Bruce had several studies dotted around the Manor, each one slightly different and made to present a different front. One was to show him as a playboy and reckless spender, a second as a seasoned and wily businessman, a third as a generous man willing to give to charity, he could go on. There were probably ones he wasn't even aware of. However, what captured his attention at the moment was that Bruce was not present, the room was deathly quiet, the desk was unoccupied and there was no sound at all.

"Master Bruce is in his other study, please wait, I'm sure he will be with you shortly," Alfred's voice caused Fury to turn, with the man closing the door as he retreated leaving him alone.

Now alone Fury released a sigh as he looked around the room, and took notice that apart from the chair behind Bruce's desk there was not a single chair in the entire room. The only furniture present was the bookcases, tables and display cases, the observation made Fury scoff. He wasn't sure if Bruce had consciously or unconsciously made the room as uninviting as possible. His private study was entirely set up to put Bruce when seated behind his desk in a position of power and make anyone visiting forced to stand before him lower down and without the comfort of a chair, stating that their presence here was limited and barely tolerated.

He moved over to the display cases and tables that were lined down the centre of the room, another sigh escaping his lips as he looked at them. They were bare and empty, clear signs that objects and photos had once occupied the tables and cases but had been cleared away, and quite some time ago too by appearances. Fury's eyes then raked over the bookcases, his eyes reading the spines for their titles before his eyes settled on the only aspect of the room with any colour, the large portrait of Thomas and Martha Wayne that hung above the fireplace.

The portrait was masterful in its depiction of the deceased couple, the artist had captured if not necessarily their true appearance at least their souls. Martha looked almost angelic seated before her husband, his hand on her shoulder, calm, serene, the epitome of loveliness herself, Thomas for his part looked handsome, powerful and kind, his eyes soft and caring. Fury was lost for a moment looking at the couple his mentor Peggy had described as some of the strongest people she had ever known. Which Fury reflected was very true, since becoming director he had read Peggy's old classified reports from Project Rebirth and the War and certainly painted a unique picture of the two.

"You know, Peggy used to call before she showed up. I would've had Alfred make tea"

The strong steady voice of Bruce Wayne sounded out from behind Fury, the sudden appearance was almost enough to make him jump, almost. Fury turned to look at the man who was arguably one of if not the most dangerous individual fighters alive, a man made more dangerous by the secrets he held and the other skills he had acquired in his life. The two men were separated by an empty table whose surface and small marks showed it had once held an abundance of pictures but now was bare.

Bruce Wayne, the name always sent a chill up Fury's spine the man himself lived up to the involuntary act. Many still pictured Bruce as the ruggedly handsome, square-jawed, young playboy bachelor that made Tony even at his worst look like a devout Buddhist monk, only saved by his charity endeavours and business skills, when he was rarely sober. However, the man that stood before Fury was not the stock character that was wheeled out to impress airheaded fortune seekers and feed tabloid gossip columnists. No, this was the rare instant of meeting the real Bruce Wayne, unfiltered, unscripted, within the confines of his own home.

Bruce was no longer the young man that had fed magazines and entertainment news groups. He was about to turn 57 and although time had turned his once jet-black hair a silvery grey, that was the only real marker that the man had aged. He was still tall standing at 6 foot 4 inches, his square jawline and crystal blue eyes still made him ruggedly handsome and what few signs of age were on his face merely added to his looks rather than took from them. He was also still physically imposing his muscular if anything had become more pronounced with, his large arms and wide chest strained with his muscles, and his large hands looked like they could break cinder blocks. In all Bruce had aged exceptionally well still looking as imposing and powerful as when they had last met 14 years ago.

"Well, I'm not Peggy." Fury replied, his own arms crossing over his chest as he looked at Bruce who stood unmoving before him, he decided to be diplomatic rather than get straight to the point. "Alfred tells me you're struggling to find a place to hold your birthday. I heard you were looking to buy the Playboy Mansion, you could always host it there as part of a birthday gift to yourself."

"Hef is asking for too much, besides I hate the California sunshine and I don't really do the whole diehard party boy act much anymore. Plus the First Lady might attend, so not the best location." Bruce moved away from Fury towards his desk, arriving at it Bruce placed his hand on a pad causing a computer screen to emerge. "How are the new stabilisers working for the Helicarrier? It was 21 separate units you bought right? Looking to expand the fleet soon?"

"They are working well enough, I'll get the tech boys to send you over some suggestions, and at the moment just making sure we've got spares." Fury now moved himself, hating that Bruce had positioned himself on the raised platform giving him added gravitas the man did not really need.

"I'll make sure to pass it over to my R&D team." Bruce responded while typing something into his computer before returning his focus to Fury. "Now that we've got that out of the way. Why are you really here?"

"Bruce, you know why I'm here," Fury sighed as he looked at the man, now that he was closer he could see that Bruce's left eye was still slightly bloodshot from the night before. "You attacked SHIELD personnel, injuring them and interfering in an ongoing investigation. You can't do that,"

"You came into my city, I just responded. As for the personnel I attacked," Bruce scoffed, as he fell back into his chair he leaned back, his casualness causing Fury's blood to start to boil. "Barton shot at me first, and I didn't do any permanent damage. As for your little Red Room Assassin, Miss Romanoff will heal, her enhancements will see to that. Both got off light, especially in light of Budapest."

"How do you know their names? How the hell do you know about Budapest?" Fury moved, striding up the stairs to stand on the very little space between the desk and the stairs, learning on the desk looking at Bruce with narrowed eyes.

"Please, you're forgetting who I am. People like Dreykov and Romanoff, I keep track of, and you're forgetting which company maintains SHIELD's encryption programs." Bruce responded and Fury knew if it was anyone else they would be smirking right now, instead Bruce just looked at him blankly. "I'd be happy to get someone to look into it for you."

"You're a son of bitch, you know that Bruce." Fury grimaced as he stood up shaking his head as he did so.

"So are we finished then? I have a busy schedule today," Bruce sighed, turning his attention back to his computer screen which showed only 1 meeting.

"I need you to tell me what information you got from the crew," Fury stated bluntly, not moving, knowing Bruce well enough that in between punching and destroying weapons he would extract information.

"Why should I do that?" Bruce responded coldly.

"Because if you don't, I know enough of your secrets to turn your life upside down." Fury threatened he felt tension in his throat, hoping Bruce wouldn't see through his bluff. "You forget you used to work for us,"

"I worked withPeggy, not for her, as per our deal which I expect you to honour. Whatever information you have, rest assured I possess the same level on you." Bruce's voice went dark as the temperature and ambient light in the room also seemed to drop. "So be careful, and know you don't want me or my organisation as an enemy,"

"Bruce…..what organisation? That family, clan, whatever you called it, is gone" Fury asked., Despite the threats being passed between the two his voice held real sorrow, as he half turned and gestured to the bare room. "Bruce, this house. Apart from Alfred and Lucius Fox, who's left?... Dick and Baraba left, Jason is dead and Tim is, is…..is retired, the old SHIELD team is disbanded and 's no one left Bruce, it's just you."

"Get out," Bruce's veneer cracked as he stood up wincing at his loss of control, as his fist slammed denting the table, forcing to take a deep breath before continuing. "We're done here, please leave."

Fury tensed for the moment and was about to push the issue and demand the information Bruce had on the weapon shipments occurring from Stark Industries and getting him to understand the world had changed. However, instead, he just found himself releasing a sigh and shaking his head before turning and heading towards the doors of the study. He paused as he reached the doors that opened before him revealing the ever-present Alfred, the man's face betrayed nothing but Fury knew he had heard their discussion.

"You know Bruce, Peggy never wanted you apart from SHIELD, on your own fighting by yourself. She wanted you with us, protecting everyone. You were always the one she wanted to take over when she stepped down, not me." Fury turned his one good eye looking at the tall dark man that was still standing behind his desk, releasing a sigh, and leaving.

Alfred said nothing as he escorted the director of SHIELD back through the manor which now seemed emptier and even less inviting than before. Fury was kicking himself internally. Bruce always found a way to get under his skin, and every time his name came up it meant days of work to clean up whatever shit went down. This time, all he had was a ship of disabled weapons and a crew beaten half to death, not exactly a stellar place to start an investigation.

"You must forgive Master Wayne. Diplomacy was never his strong suit and he finds certain topics…. difficult." The butler finally spoke as they reached the main entrance hall, the two men pausing before the great front doors of the manor. "I shall speak to him and see if I cannot get you the information you need."

"Thank you, Pennyworth, I honestly don't know how Peggy ever let you go" Fury smiled at the former SSR Agent and Howling Commando, knowing Alfred would try his best, as he glanced back into the manor he let out a regretful deep breath. "I'm not his enemy, Alfred, and he might think he has me all figured out but I don't hate him,"

"Master Bruce doesn't think you hate him, he just thinks you don't like him and, like Miss Carter before you, believe him to be insane." Alfred clarified a small yet still entirely professional smile on his face.

"There was a time that was true," Fury admitted as looked back from the Manor to the man standing in front of him. "I only used to see the cape, the gadgets, the persona. Just the sheer lunacy that anyone, especially just one person, could fight the cesspool of Gotham's criminal underworld. It was crazy."

"And now?" Alfred asked with a raised eyebrow curious what an outsider thought of the result of his charges' crusade and what they thought of the man.

"Now….." Fury smirked wryly before glancing around the Manor, then back at Alfred. "I don't dislike Bruce. In fact, I admire the guy, and what he has achieved… I just feel sorry that someone who can do what he can did all he's done and could have done, had to wind up here…, old and alone."

Alfred didn't respond as Fury finished, and a moment of silence fell over the two. The moment ended quickly, then Fury just gave Alfred a nod and then swiftly departed. The Englishman politely closed the door behind the Director before allowing his professional facade to fall with a deep sigh. As he looked back into the manor that held no other living soul but that of his charge, a sense of foreboding crept in.


(Several Hours Later - Batcave - Wayne Manor, Gotham)

The cave was frigid, and despite over 3 decades of acclimating to the temperature, arriving in the cave always sent a shiver up Alfred's spine. He steadied himself with a deep breath as the elevator doors opened, revealing the dark abode of the Batman. The chamber was larger now than when they had first started, having been expanded constantly over the decades and while the manor above had become more spartan in time the cave had become more adorned.

As he walked from the elevator to the head of the stairs that descended down into the cave proper, he took a moment to take in the scene. The cave stretched out and downward, the light was almost non-existent here and if one wasn't used to it you could easily get lost or collide with things. However, even in the darkness, two features stood out, rising from the black like Atlas keeping the shadows above and below away from each other.

The first was Bruce's supercomputer that young Master Greyson many years ago had dubbed the Batcomputer, and although Bruce had hated it the name had stuck. It stood proudly as the centrepiece of the cave, a large and slightly curved structure allowing the occupier of the sole chair to see everything displayed merely by turning their head. The computer was black in colour as was Bruce's preference and despite being decades old Bruce had maintained the device updating constantly to prevent him from falling behind the technology.

The other area and one that always drew everyone's attention, not that there were many people who had come to the cave in its existence, was what Barbara Gordon had called the Trophy Wing, Bat pun fully intended he was sure. The area was a vast collection of oddities, dangerous artefacts, broken weapons, shattered tools and colourful curiosities, that displayed nearly 35 years of his charge's crusade. Alfred hated the wing. It had initially started as a room in the manor and then bloomed into what he saw now.

The collection had actually grown so large that it now sprawled across much of the cave including the path that Alfred had to take to reach the computer and his charge. As he walked his eyes glanced at the collection that both filled him with pride at Bruce's accomplishments and sadness at what it had cost him. He passed a misty black book that floated and smoked in its case that Bruce had said was a gift from one of his teachers, that was an especially unsettling piece. Next came a strange device that resembled a pager which Bruce kept hooked up to a power source and would never let anyone touch.

"He asked you to get me to give him the information, didn't he?" Bruce's rhetorical question didn't need answering as the man faced the array of screens. "He won't find it of use. Limbani knew nothing, Klaue just had him pick up and drop off. Nothing about who supplied the weapons or who was receiving them."

"Is that all you've got?" Alfred asked. He moved over to his ward and set down the very cold dinner tray

"No, but nothing that affects the mission," Bruce replied, only glancing at the dinner before returning his attention to the screens. "Nothing that affects Gotham."

The cave fell silent as Bruce focused on whatever Sisyphean task he had elected to undertake this week. A decade ago Alfred would have just left, even a few years ago he might still have, but the visit from Fury had stirred something. Although he would not dispute Bruce's achievements, he could not deny that the Manor was empty and the hope that his ward could pass along his accomplishments was fading fast.

"Master Wayne, I know your relationship with the Agency has not been terrific since Russia….." Alfred cast a glance at the display case that held the tattered, torn and burnt remains of a Robin suit "...since Jason… but perhaps it is time to mend those fences."

"Mend fences?" Bruce finally looked away as his sapphire blue eyes went dark. "I would remind you that our relationship with SHIELD was one of coercion and blackmail. I only worked with Peggy because she threatened to expose me and impede the mission"

"Master Wayne...Bruce, that's not true and you know it. You had enough information even then to force SHIELD to leave you alone" Alfred matched Bruce's look, he was likely the only one left who could win such a staredown, "Director Carter wanted you to work with SHIELD, and when you did you helped achieved amazing results while keeping the world and Gotham safe"

"That was Peggy, not Fury" Bruce shot back his nerves starting to grate on the topic and was about to end it.

"Who she trusted to take over," Alfred replied without missing a beat, his reply stopping "Who has never gone back on the deal you made with Director Carter, who has kept the myth of Batman as just that to the rest of the world and his own organisation."

"Alfred, where are you going with this?" Bruce asked, suddenly calm and calculating, the question caught the butler off guard, a habit he was used to; however, Bruce could always cut to the heart of something.

"What I wanted for you, Master Wayne passed long ago," Alfred sighed as he looked at his not-so-young charge, whose silver-grey hair and aged eyes made his heart sink. "These days, I just don't want all of this, your life's work, to amount to nothing."

"Gotham is as safe as it has ever been. We've made a real difference, Alfred" Bruce tried to reassure his oldest friend, the man who had raised him. "The mission has saved lives."

"And who takes over after you and I are gone? Who will protect Gotham, who will care for the people? Keep them safe, keep them protected?" The question brought a pause as the display cases loomed over the cave, holding the costumes he and his protegees had worn over the years. "You're not a young man, and you are getting slower. If you keep this up, someone will end Batman permanently. Last night should have proved that."

"I'm fine, I handled the situation, the crew, the agents, all of it." Bruce's tone was more reassuring but it still had a cold edge to it that indicated if he had been talking to anyone else then he would have been so polite "If you're talking about the hit I took, she was a Red Room-trained Black Widow Ops assassin. I struggled with those even in my twenties, and yet I still came out on top."

"The Black Widow is a concern, but I was talking about the 2 dozen times you were, or did you forget the suit registers damage?" Alfred asked rhetorically, and gestured to the Batsuit which bore several dents in its armour, an armour that had become thicker and more mechanised over the years. "Frankly, it's a miracle none of them hit your more vulnerable areas; one stray bullet to the face and that would have been it."

"I had it handled," Bruce's tone went dark again as his fist clenched atop the armrest.

"Really? Handled, is that what we are calling using fear toxin? Did you also believe I failed to notice that one of the vials was gone, and not for the first time?" Alfred asked his tone matching Bruce's in terms of frustration and building anger. "When did we start relying on the tools of our former adversaries to get the job done?"

"Their fear of me is essential. It was necessary." Bruce was gritting his teeth now so tightly that Alfred could hear them creak.

"Yes, because you are getting old sir, you lack the presence you once had. Your gadgets and tools, they are becoming crutches that won't last" Alfred shot back, not backing down now that this conversation. It was enough for Bruce's patience to finally snap.

"WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO?! RETIRE? GIVE UP?!" He roared, rising to his feet to tower over Alfred, who didn't so much as flinch.

"I know you too well to hope for that particular act of sanity, and am fully aware that you will pour every last ounce of yourself into this until there is nothing left to give."

The reply caused Bruce's anger to deflate somewhat and cause him to sit back down.

"I merely… I feel as if we have so few allies left that we mustn't alienate the ones still willing to work with us, and I believe we could be doing more, helping more than just Gotham."

"We have who we need, and as for doing more, Gotham is my only concern." Bruce's eyes flickered back to the destroyed Robin suit that was worn by Jason, before releasing a sigh and turning back to the screens. "And besides, if we were to branch out, would you really want to start by helping clean up little Tony Stark's mess of all things? The kid is an idiot who wasted his potential."

"Maybe so, but Howard Stark and your Father were great friends who served together on the battlefield, we all did" Alfred pressed gently, knowing that this had to be handled delicately "Lest we forget, you also worked well with Howard when he was alive, and it was Thomas Wayne's capital that help build Stark Entreprises into what it is today. So, perhaps this incident regarding Howard's son and his company warrants at least a modicum of investigation?"

Bruce didn't respond immediately. To anyone else, the man in front of him would have been unreadable as a stone statue, but to Alfred, perhaps only to Alfred, it was a simple task. In reality, Bruce only had 4 modes of his whole existence since that awful night. One was quiet brooding, the second was righteous fury, the third was stony complementation, and the fourth and most rare were those brief quiet moments of rare joy that were quickly smothered as soon as they were noticed. This was very clearly the third. Bruce was thinking, analysing and calculating what was being presented which was honestly more than Alfred could have hoped for. Finally, he spoke.

"You know, Howard called me insane and crazy 32 times in one meeting,... Insane, crazy, and an asshole." Alfred smiled just a little as he understood what Bruce had decided.

"Yes, well, I remember your father and Howard's bantering from the war. I can assure you, your conversations with Howard were positively civil in comparison." Alfred was comforted for a moment. The man's features hadn't changed but he knew Bruce and knew when he was intrigued by something. "Shall I arrange for your birthday to be hosted in Las Vegas this year sir?"

"Why Vegas?" Bruce asked carefully.

"Well, we've hosted that last 20 or so in Gotham, so perhaps a change of scenery might be appreciated?" Alfred remarked before gesturing to the newspaper that he had brought down with his food, which had Tony Stark's grinning face splashed across its front page "It would also happen by chance that around the same time, Anthony Stark is receiving the Apogee Award at Caesar's Palace. He will be attending alongside Obadiah Stane, Colonel Rhodes and most of Stark Enterprises' senior staff."

"Will he, now?" Bruce actually cracked a small smirk now that he realised what Alfred was up to, his mind calculating what would be needed. "The Apogee Award, I've won that one right?"

"Most certainly, sir. 7, no, 9 times, of which 1999 was the most recent. So, shall I arrange everything for next month?" Alfred schooled his features, careful not to the hope that his charge was willing to take an interest in the greater world again.

Bruce was quiet for a few moments before releasing a deep sigh and just giving Alfred a nod. "Very well, I suppose it won't hurt to touch up the old cover of Bruce Wayne: Playboy Spendthrift and steal some of young Tony's thunder."

"Very well, I'll make the arrangements. I'll make sure we display the utmost degree of vulgarity, vanity and self-indulgence." Alfred gave Bruce a small nod before retreating to prepare the itinerary before Bruce could retreat back into his usual ways and shun the world outside his city.

Bruce watched Alfred leave via the elevator before turning back to his screens and tapping a few keys. Manifests from Stark Industry scrolled across: shipping routes, schematics of missiles, emails from various members of the company board, recent military reports from the Middle East and a host of other information. His eyes darted between every window and absorbed it all as the brilliant mind of the World's Greatest Detective struggled to make a meaningful connection between the data.

Before, he had only been looking into the matter wherever it had crossed into Gotham and landed on his proverbial doorstep. His interest was stirred further by the fact it had also been the only stimulating thing to occur in years since his patrols had only consisted of stopping minor crimes while he hadn't had a more intriguing case in nearly a decade. And this one was proving to be quite captivating. The man he questioned, Limbani, had more to say than what he had passed on to Alfred, and it painted an interesting picture, a picture that put Stark Enterprises in the middle of it. Bruce remained still as the bats started flying about the cave, his mind finding their squeaks and chirps soothing as he dove into the puzzle in front of him.


(February 8th 2009 - Margaret Carter's Residence - Washington DC)

Nat tugged at the hem of the suit jacket she was wearing. Sitting in a car for a long time was never good for clothes, even if it was a chauffeured ride like the one she had hired. As she exited the vehicle and looked up the small staircase to the large colonial manor house, she felt that this was not one of her better ideas. She glanced at the guards and security that were dotted around the estate. One, two, three, four, five, and that was just the ones in the open. Yes, this was a bad idea, a really bad idea.

The house and its occupant were known to every senior SHIELD agent and were officially off-limits to everyone apart from those with level 10 clearance. Unofficially it was career suicide to come here even if you did have the clearance, Fury blacklisted anyone that broke that rule and then sent you to the most remote unfriendly assignment he could. The house belonged to the previous Director of SHIELD: Margaret 'Peggy' Carter, a woman who had more secrets in her head than even Fury, whose knowledge could collapse governments, and whose tactical brilliance had once made her one of the most dangerous people in the world.

However, Peggy Carter was no longer the world's foremost spy or secret keeper, old age had slowed her once formidable mind and to make matters worse she was suffering from Alzheimer's. The security surrounding her was largely to keep people away so highly trained and vetted staff could look after her without worrying about the old Spymaster's tendency to accidentally reveal classified information. From what Nat understood most of the time Peggy was still clear-headed but she was frequently having episodes where she forgot who and where she was, and willingly gave up SHIELD secrets thinking people around her were agents or old friends. It was mostly out-of-date Cold War secrets, long since useless or even declassified. But some weren't, and an unscrupulous person could gain a lot from the old woman, so SHIELD had placed an iron wall around her to keep her safe.

In truth, as Nat walked up to the door ready to present her fake credentials that showed her as an approved Doctor scheduled to visit Peggy Carter she was still debating whether to turn around and abandon this idea. In spite of her worry, Nat needed to push forward as the former SHIELD director was the last lead she had on unravelling the mysterious Batman. It had been over a week and every lead she had looked into had turned up dry, no one knew anything about the Batman beyond myths and rumours.

In fact the more she looked into it the more she was convinced that it wasn't by chance. Someone had actively spent a lot of time and energy making sure "Batman" stayed a rumour to people and she knew the culprit: SHIELD.It had taken only a few days to get into the classified sections of SHIELD's database and she had found nothing, no mentions of a Batman, no reports on investigating the supposed myth. More interestingly however she had also found that Gotham was a massive blindspot on SHIELD radar, The agency had offices in every major city in America except Gotham, and in the last 30 years, they had done operations in every urban US centre except Gotham. Clearly, something was up with the city, something that happened at some point about 30 years ago that kept it and her organisation apart.

When she had hit the wall of a lack of information in the database she almost gave up until she had visited Barton in the medical bay. That had reignited her drive. After some outside-the-box thinking, she remembered that 30 years ago SHIELD's database wouldn't have been digital, it would have been hard copies, hard copies that would still be stored somewhere. So, after a few days searching, Nat found that SHIELD kept a copy of all their physical records in an area beneath The Hub that the Admin division called The Crypt. It had taken her nearly another full day of physically looking through about 2 decades' worth of files before she had found it, and only then because of luck since the file had been misplaced.

Even now though, she wasn't exactly sure what she had.

Her hard-won prize was a file from an op called Harp Trap in 1975. The file itself wasn't itself very interesting; it was just a manifest for a lot of equipment and a large number of personnel assigned to it. The interesting part was that despite the substantial resources assigned to it the Operation, apparently didn't exist. Apart from this one misfiled document, Operation Harp Trap never existed. Nat thought she had hit another dead-end when she noticed the file had been authorised by the Director's office personally, meaning that the operation had been overseen directly by the head of SHIELD.

Nat knew going to Fury was a no-go. So she had been forced to turn from the current Director to the person who had ordered the operation themselves, hence her very bad idea of coming here. She stopped as she reached the front doors of the large house.

"Please hold." The voice belonged to one of the two very large men that stood in front of it.

"Please place your bag on the floor and take one step forward, lift your arms outwards away from your body."

Nat complied, taking the opportunity to examine the area around her. The security was even more extensive than she first thought. There were multiple concealed cameras covering every last angle. The two men approached her, one of them took the small purse she had brought and placed it into a sealed box that had been hidden from her sight. The second man scanned the security badge on her chest and then unceremoniously waved a security wand over her checking she wasn't armed or carrying any recording devices.

"Code Clearance?" The man waving the wand asked as he stood back. His eyes were hidden by the tinted sunglasses he was wearing.

"Parrot, Racecar, Epsilon, Blue, Steel, Monkey, Red, 2, 4, 9, Phillip" Nat responded quickly, remembering the random word code that was generated by SHIELD for each hour of the day to gain access to the site.

"Proceed." The man responded after a few moments having typed the code into his pad and been given the all-clear.

Nat gave a polite nod before heading inside. As she entered the house, she was greeted by a very large ornate foyer, with many paintings and expensive decorations but no one in sight. Nat felt nervous as she didn't know what to do now, all the protocols and procedures she had found on Director Carter's care stopped once you were inside. She felt her muscles tense as she anticipated an ambush because she had tripped some hidden protocol and revealed herself to be an intruder.

"You're new, I take it?" The question came from an older man who was exiting from a set of double doors to her right which he closed quietly.

"Yes, first time and first shift," Nat responded, feeling the tension leave her body slowly, but kept herself on alert just in case.

"No worries, we get a lot of turnover. Not ideal, given her condition, but it is what it is, Director's orders." The man smiled kindly at her before gesturing to the large double doors he had come through. "You've got the midday shift, she's in the main drawing room and will spend most of the day there. What have you been told about her condition?"

"That she's suffering from Alzheimer's and her mobility is greatly reduced, requiring a cane and a wheelchair sometimes but she's still good most of the time and can get around on her own," Nat answered remembering the medical and care reports she had read to prepare for the role.

"Ah yes, that's not really the case," The Doctor's face fell and he let out a deep sigh bringing his hand to rub his eyes, tired at the head office playing games again. "They need to start informing the new starters of the realities and stop playing politics with an old woman's health….. Director Carter has a few years left at best, she's not well, she's 95, she can't move without assistance and her 'good days' are very rare."

"Is there anything I can or should do particularly?" Nat asked as she cast at the doors that the Doctor had come through, feeling slightly apprehensive at her plan suddenly.

"Technically yes, memory exercises, slowly repeating everything but….she's largely beyond that now. Just be there for company and help her when you can." He spoke softly before looking at his watch noting that he needed to leave as his handover period was quickly ending. "Look, she gets confused and will mistake you for someone else and will lapse into the past. Handle it gently, keep to her medication table and just be kind."

"Understood," Nat nodded and watched the man leave before composing herself and heading through the double doors he had departed from.

The main drawing room was huge and grand, it had a few bookcases and one whole wall faced the very palatial garden which contained a very large water fountain and stables. In all, it was very impressive. As she came in she noted the clear track marks on the carpets and floor indicating that a wheelchair was commonly used and that most of the tables dotted around the room were filled with photos. There was one table in the centre of the room that most of the tracks lead to and by its position clearly placed the table's contents as most important. Nat walked over to it and glanced at the photos.

What she saw caused her to pause and a slight frown would have appeared if she didn't have masterful control over her reactions. Director Carter was one of the most powerful and influential figures of the mid and late-20th Century even if most had been unaware of her true existence as SHIELD's Director. As such Nat had expected the central table to be laden with photographs of equally powerful figures: presidents, captains of industry, world leaders and the like.

It was not.

The place of pride was given to a black and white photo of a very thin and ailing man whose dog tags looked like they weighed too much for him. As her eyes scanned over the photos she saw what looked like a Howling Commandos reunion from the mid-70s. There was Director Carter in a half hug with a man with a thin moustache and receding hairline. Quite a few had Howard Stark in them, and in many among them Peggy and Howard were joined by a couple that Nat didn't recognise, although one photo of them in a Hospital room with the woman holding a newborn child was annotated P, H, T, and M with B. The collection largely appeared to be personal mementoes rather than achievements, however, a few photos stood out due to the oddity of them being in the collection.

The next one that caught her eye was Director Carter sharing a drink with Ted Grant the former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion from the 50s. Nat only knew him because the Red Room had had an active file on the man when she was trained there and he was noted as being a dangerous person and a target for removal if possible but she didn't know why. Judging from the image the two were good friends with Ted having an arm around Peggy whilst lifting his drink to the camera, so it was possible the athlete had some hidden depths the public didn't know about.

The next picture was from what looked like the late 70s of two men, one was clearly the inventor and former CEO Hank Pym, the other man's features were in shadow and he was turned away from the camera but he had an impressive build from what she could see. It appeared to be taken in the lab with Hank showing off a metal helmet of some kind with little antenna on the side. Director Carter had a polite smile on her face as she listened to a very enthused Hank Pym, whilst the man stood in a manner which seemed to donate complete focus.

Nat failed to prevent her eyes from widening as she spotted a person she knew very well in the pictures. It was BarbaraGordon, a very young Barbara Gordon who looked about 16 or 17 with an impressively slim physique and standing on her own two feet next to Director Carter, in front of a building that had Gotham City Library written on the front of it. Nat had always expected that Barbara hadn't always been paralysed but never dared to ask just how she ended up in the chair, and she never knew her connection with SHIELD went back so far into her youth.

The last image to draw her attention was also of Director Carter, now with clearly greying hair, seated with 6 individuals around a table with glasses raised in a toast. There was the tall broad-shouldered man once more but still he was purposefully seated so his features were barely in profile. The others around the table were a strange collection, Director Carter was in the middle of the group.

Seated to her right was Hank Pym was present, his arm around a woman Nat guessed was his wife, the late Janet Van Dyne. Next to them was a blonde woman that Nat thought looked very similar to her and Clint's friend and fellow agent Bobbi Morse, a smoking cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other.

Seated to the Director's left was first the large mysterious man whose head and position had clearly been placed in such a way to render identifying him very difficult, interestingly where everyone else was drinking alcohol he only had a glass of water in front of him. Next to him was a very interesting Asian woman wearing a white domino-style mask with a red circle on its forehead and a Japanese Katana was placed next to her. The final member was the oddest; he was a very pale almost ivory-skinned bald man with what appeared to be a stretched face. He was wearing thick clothing but Nat swore she could see that part of his lower neck was two different colours, bright orange and purple, it almost looked like -

"Who are you?" The voice managed to catch Nat slightly by surprise, but only slightly as she had heard the wheels moving across the floors. It was still impressive that a 95 year-old was still nearly able to get the drop on her.

"I'm your new Nurse, Mary, and I'll be looking after you for today at least." Nat smiled as turned around and greeted the aged ex-director in her semi-motorised wheelchair, before gesturing to the table behind her. "I'm sorry, I was just engrossed in your pictures, is that the heavyweight champion Ted Grant? My father was a fan."

"Yes it is. Ted 'Wildcat' Grant, that was December 1949 before the boxing commission stripped him of his title," Peggy answered while pushing the small joystick to move closer to the table, stopping when she was in front of it. "He regained it 2 years later but only for 6 months until Rocky Marciano beat him on points in Philadelphia. That was quite the match."

"Why did the commission strip him of the title?" Nat asked, hoping to build a rapport, but also curious as she knew little about Ted Grant other than the Red Room when she was younger and considered him very dangerous.

"He had links to the Communist Party and refused to give names during those awful hearings McCarthy, what a bumbling fool" Peggy replied however her tone made Nat look at her, it wasn't that she was insincere but she was detached as if she wasn't really there with Nat. "It was all bloody nonsense, Ted was merely a unionist. and one of the best agents I knew. He eliminated more than 10 Red Room assassins in Europe in the 40s and 50s"

Nat's eyes widened at the statement as she looked at the image of the man again with newfound respect, although she hated the institution it did produce deadly operatives. Taking out one was a feat worthy of deep respect and one very few could boast of but eliminating 10 was something she had scarcely heard of. However, that statement also showed that it was very clear that Director Carter's grasp on reality was gone or at least very loose for revealing such a fact so casually.

"And who's that, your Granddaughter?" Nat pointed at the picture of the young Barbara Gordon wanting to know more about her friend's apparent involvement with the director.

"Oh, no. She was a protégé of… of the son of old friends, a very remarkable young woman." Peggy smiled at the picture. Her eyes were slightly glossy as she was losing herself in pleasant memories. "Although he didn't introduce the two of us, Alfred did, but he was very proud of her."

"Alfred?" Nat pressed, feeling bad about her using her interrogation skills on the woman but pushing it aside for the sake of her mission.

"Yes, Alfred Pennyworth," Peggy raised an unsteady hand pointing to the picture of her with the man with the thin moustache and a receding hairline "A very old friend, The only Howling Commando left, damn fine shot and deadly with a knife. Wouldn't know it if you met him now, but I found him in a jail cell in North Africa half drunk and swearing like a Soho prostitute. He got arrested for punching an officer and then beating 12 men near half to death in the resulting bar fight."

Nat spent the next few hours listening and gently prodding Peggy as she slipped back and forth into her memories that the photos reflected, almost ignorant at times of her being next to her. Nat learned some very interesting things about SHIELD's early days, nothing groundbreaking but interesting nonetheless. As she listened it became very clear that the Doctor had been right and Peggy was much worse than the official reports said. The woman was barely able to stay grounded for more than a few moments at a time and easily slipped into the past without any real prompting. After listening enough and establishing a pattern Nat took a deep breath and plunged into the reason she was here.

"Director Carter. There's been an issue with an operation," Nat spoke after she finished pouring Peggy some tea, changing her tone back to how SHIELD personnel generally spoke to their superiors.

"An issue? What issue and what operation?" Peggy's tone was confused but her eyes became steely and focused just like Fury's did.

"It's Operation Harp Trap. There are some concer-" Nat never finished her statement as Peggy slammed her tea down on the table.

"Bloody Howard! I know he's not happy with the arrangement, but it's the only solution!" Peggy's voice was rough and exasperated, anger and exhaustion present on her face. "6 teams of our best agents, and they did nothing but turn the south side into a warzone, Mitch Carson levelled a city block for heaven's sake. The logistics and public relations fallout were… they were…."

Nat pressed on. "He just thinks the arrangement wouldn't sit well with the Security Council and wants to explore other options," She said, taking note of the names mentioned. It was clear Harp Trap had been a big operation involving top people at the time and hadn't gone as planned.

"Howard's being asinine. He knows the only other option is to expose him, and what good will that do? None. Having him work with us, it gives me time to convince him to abandon this childish fantasy he's playing at." Peggy spat back leaning in her chair for a moment looking very much like Fury did at times when commanding a meeting. "The council won't know, I'll see to that, and more importantly they don't want to know. Gotham's a headache and they don't care about methods as long as we get results. Just give me time, I'll convince him to come on board fully, and then he'll do incredible things"

"Do you think it's wise? Making a deal with that man? He doesn't seem very stable." Nat hoped Peggy would drop a name or a clue she could use to untangle the mystery she was hunting.

Peggy looked down.

"He's…. eccentric to be gadgets, cape and the rest of the ensemble are a bit much, but I wouldn't say he's mad. Far too focused and resourceful for that. We still need to find out where he trained, his skills are dangerous and I don't like that he learnt them from somewhere not on our radar " She spoke analytically before sighing slightly her face turning to the picture of the hospital scene, her mind pulling her into another memory "I really should convince him to give it up, it's not healthy and I owe it to them, I owe them so much….. I do hope wherever they are they'll forgive me, they wanted so much for him and I just used him…..I failed them, I failed him, some godmother I am."

Nat looked at the photo of the hospital more closely and suddenly realised she recognised the woman who was holding her newborn, not the whole of her person but her eyes. The picture was faded and old, so the quality wasn't great but those blue eyes she would recognise anywhere. The last time she saw them they had been filled with fury and deadly focus, such a contrast to the women's eyes which were only filled with love and happiness but they were undeniably the same. They were the eyes of the Batman, the man she had been trying to track down and which the rest of the world wanted to pretend didn't exist.

Her eyes however didn't linger long on the woman. Instead they lowered only a little to look at the babe in her hands. Her mind made the connections and deductions before slowly turning her head to face the woman and apparent godmother of the child next to her. She waited for a few moments as Peggy's mind slipped again back into its mild foggy haze of the present before risking another question which may finally give her an answer.

"Director Carter, who are these people with you?" Nat carefully lifted the photo to show it clearly to the ex-SHIELD leader, who peered at it as her mind carried her to another old memory.

"Oh that's a lovely one, isn't it? Alfred took that for us, that's me with Howard visiting Martha and Thomas after Martha gave birth to little Bruce at Gotham General." Peggy smiled wistfully at the photo she had taken with shaky hands while memories flooded into her. "Thomas was a bundle of nerves, pacing and smoking all the time. He hadn't been so nervous since he worked on Project Rebirth with Howard during the war." Nat saw her opportunity and leaned forward.

"Thomas and Martha?" She was desperate to get a surname and to finally start getting answers.

"Hmmmm…. oh, Thomas and Martha Wayne, such a lovely couple. Steve introduced them during the war you know…" Peggy answered her mind starting to slip worse than before as she got lost in the memory, her grasp on reality flittering alarmingly quickly before Nat's eyes "And that's little Brucie, my godson …. I was the second person to ever hold him, he smiled so well at me….. of course he doesn't smile anymore…not since that night… oh god, that night!"

Peggy suddenly became very distressed as she squirmed in her chair placing the photo back on the table flat almost knocking over a dozen others. She was very distressed as she tried in vain to just move somewhere but her distress and condition meant she couldn't remember how to move in the chair. So she just sat shifting in distress, almost falling from her seat, her face almost in tears as she just whispered about that night, over and over again.

"What night?" Nat asked moving to kneel in front of the woman not searching for answers but wanting just to help her now, placing her hands on Peggy's in comfort.

"They, they, they found him….he was there the whole night…..left alone, left alone with their …oh god, I don't want to remember, please just stop," Peggy tried to shove her hands from Nat's causing her chair to almost tip over, which was only prevented by Nat catching it.

"Okay, okay, I just want to help ma'am." Nat stated softly as she steadied the woman's chair but looking at her it was clear Director Carter was just lost in whatever memory had seized her.

"He was covered in their blood, he even had pieces of his mother's brai-... it was in his hair, oh god ….. it was a mugger, I couldn't have done anything…..Martha's pearls were everywhere, her face, oh god her face." Peggy was rambling now as she just stared into space as the room seemingly got darker at her tale, as if shades were summoned by the recount of evil deeds once done. "He was alone all night with them, no one came, just the rain, pearls and, and…them. They found him in the morning, he wouldn't talk… "

Nat just stayed silent and hugged the woman as she cried for the loss of her friends who had apparently died a violent death. A violent death that had been witnessed by the foe she was seeking, the man who weeks ago had beaten her with such ease. Who had knocked her best friend into a mini coma for a few days. The feared and mysterious Batman was…Bruce Wayne.

'…..Wait what?! Bruce Wayne was Batman? The Bruce Wayne of Gotham was Batman?!' Nat's mind froze even as she comforted the ex-Director, unable to reconcile what she had just learnt with what was general knowledge. 'The nearly 60-year-old, drunk, lecherous, gambling, alcoholic, drug addicted, formerly young playboy who dated women young enough to be his granddaughter was the figure of terror and fear that had defeated both her and Barton?"

'...BRUCE WAYNE WAS BATMAN?'