Chapter 3 - Party and Assassins


Power

The word has as many meanings as there are stars in the sky.

Everyone has a different idea of what power is, where it comes from, what should be done with it and who should have it. People chase after it at one point or another in their lives, craving it like a starving man craves food, seeking it beyond reason or logic. As if gaining it would wash away the multitude of sins most commit to obtain it.

I have watched the pursuit of power drive more than one person mad. Driving them to the most inhuman and foul acts beyond the imagination of even the darkest of demons. Then once gained, once in the possession of their precious power I find most do worse evil to keep it.

But what is power?

I've heard all the platitudes, quotes and axioms;

Knowledge is Power. Wealth is Power. Political Power is all that matters. The People have true Power. Mastering one's self is Power. Hope is Power. Fear is true Power.

And a hundred thousand more like them, each one given with certainty and conviction that they are right.

I've been told many times by many people that they have the path to true Power. They would have us all believe it's a path that they alone can reveal and show the true meaning of the concept.

I've also been told that I myself hold Power. A multitude of people: acolytes, foes, friends…lovers, have told me that.

They have also spoken it with conviction and certainty that it seemed beyond any question it was true. But when questioned about it, none of them can say where or what my Power is, they each give a hundred different answers.

A few ... a desperate few have asked me to show it to them….. To reveal the secrets of what I hold. To teach them the path to the power that I hold. How to harness the power of the dark, how to control fear and rage. How to become something more than a man to become the embodiment of something else.

I have given all of them the same answer…the path to the power that I hold, the sacrifices that must be made…is not something I would inflict even on my most hated foe.


(February 11th 2009 - Caesars Palace, Las Vegas - Apogee Award Ceremony/Bruce Wayne's Birthday celebrations)

The fireworks lit up the strip so brightly and with such noise that Tony actually felt sorry for Pepper, his personal assistant, as she tried to speak on the phone to one of his investors. Hmm, or was it his chef? Whoever it was, his concern for the woman was mostly due to his irritation that his big night was being upstaged. The month-long festivities Bruce Wayne had suddenly decided to throw himself for his 57th Birthday were beyond extravagant or even self-indulgent; they were downright hedonistic.

In truth the industrialist actually didn't care about the commendation he was receiving and was only attending the ceremony because they decided to host it in his favourite playground on god's green earth: Las Vegas. He would have skipped it all if he had known Brucie was going to pull one of his famous last-minute parties, and he was pretty sure the act was deliberate to upstage him. Now, Tony knew he was no saint and he had a reputation for living life on the wild side but even he looked at Bruce and thought what he saw was too much.

The man was like a walking talking drug-fueled, booze-guzzling, serial womanising, frat-boy-with-a-trust-fund stereotype wrapped up in a thick layer of Anglo-Saxon privilege and old money. The man went from one party to another on a weekly if not daily basis, slept with women as if it was a sport and was involved in things that even he at worst wouldn't touch, to say nothing of the rumours of even more depraved acts.

Drugs, prostitutes, gambling, DUIs, long stints in exclusive rehabs, sleeping with multiple women at the same time, and outrageous spending were just the baseline of Bruce Wayne's public image. Tony had heard rumours of underage girls, drug trafficking, illegal underground fight clubs, big game poaching and more. What made it all infuriating to many was that the Wyane family name was still revered not just across America but the world, over a century of charities, job creations and millions given in aid having washed away whatever Bruce did.

However, if he was honest with himself what probably made Bruce intolerable to him was that his own father Howard had always sung Bruce's praises in private. He could remember being a small child with his father when Bruce visited: His memories included a large figure looming over young Tony while Howard had basically fawned over the other businessman. He couldn't remember the particulars too well, as Bruce would just smile, greet him, give his mother a hug and the two men would then disappear somewhere to talk. Growing up it was always 'Bruce is trustworthy and loyal ,', 'You could do worse than to end up like Bruce.' or his father's favourite line when Tony got old enough to read tabloids and throw Bruce's misdeeds back at him 'Don't believe everything you read. Bruce Wayne is a great man'.

'Sure, dad, he's a real Mahatma Gandhi.' Tony smirked to himself as he walked into the foyer of Caesar's Palace and was greeted by a host of scantily clad young women milling before a 15-foot ice sculpture of Bruce in the middle of the room. A massive banner was hung up above the statue with the words 'HAPPY BIRTHDAY BRUCE!' written for all to see.

"Oh, my, god…" Tony turned to Pepper who had whispered the words and turned as red as her hair.

He turned his head slightly to see what she was looking at and let his eyes roll as there was the man himself Bruce Wayne. The cause of Pepper's embarrassment was easy as tucked on each arm were two girls apiece wearing very very little. The four girls, a brunette, a blonde, a redhead and one with jet-black hair were dressed like a pornographic parody of ancient Roman women and the position of Bruce's obscured hands clearly meant he was groping the women behind. They had white very transparent Chiton covering their torsos which proudly showed they weren't wearing bras, the dresses' skirts stopped only a few inches below their waist and left nothing to the imagination,so in all apart from a bit of cloth the women were naked.

"TONYYYY!" Bruce's loud and clearly inebriated voice broke out as he spotted him, and then moved towards all four girls in tow moving still in his arms. "TONY! Come meet my new friends!"

"Hello, Bruce. Girls" Tony managed a fake smile as he looked at the women in Bruce's arms, all were beautiful, with impossibly large firm chests and each one had a playful pout on their face. "You should be careful, the palace does have a dress code and there are laws, you know, about indecent exposure."

"Oh that's not a problem. As of yesterday, I own this building. I bought it as a birthday present to myself." Bruce emphasised his point by slapping the backside of the blonde on his right, who let out an eep but covered it up with practised ease. "Well technically I brought out the Caesars Entertainment Corporation, so I own, ah, over 50 of these things and I think… seven golf courses."

"You brought Caesars Entertainment Corporation?! As a Birthday present!" Pepper's shocked voice sounded out drawing Bruce's attention to her, the woman's keen business sense scowled at such an insane purchase. "That would have cost a fortune,"

"It did! Just over a billion," Bruce replied with a wide smile and another slap this time to the brunette on his left who also managed to maintain her smile. He glanced at the woman before focusing on Pepper, leaning in towards her. "I secured key shares after a frank discussion with a few stockholders, then after a little look into their liquidity problems over the past few years and a growth model showing a 22% return in 18 to 24 months sold the board, I got the whole thing for a steal. By the end of the third quarter, I'll be making a profit."

This was the other side of Bruce Wayne that made him insufferable to many, despite his toxic personality and planet-sized ego he was still undeniably one of the world's leading businessmen. It was made worse by the fact that Bruce knew how good he was, yet he was still a massive condescending prick who loved to talk down to those he could afford to. Tony hated the fact that when he got drunk and had a party, Obadiah Stane had to step in and calm investors while he had to invent something new to jack up share prices. For Bruce, all he had to do was attend a meeting, shake some hands and he could turn anything around, all on his own.

"Sounds like a great birthday gift" Tony moved to put himself between Pepper and Bruce but was blocked by the women in his arms. "But we have to check in and everything."

"Yes, we better get going, and we will leave you to your….." Pepper donned a smile that was even more fake than the girls in Bruce's arms as she glanced at them before returning her attention to the man. "Friends, and presents. Do enjoy yourself."

"My my my, you are a feisty one aren't you?" Bruce leaned in closer as he shamelessly ogled Pepper's chest and curves. "Well-proportioned too, and smart, not like these ones. Hey Tony, tell you what, I'll trade you my four for your red-head for the evening. I promise not to tire her out t-"

SLAP!

Pepper looked shocked at herself as she lowered her hand from where she had left a clear red mark on the richest man in the world's face. But she wouldn't have taken it back even if she could, so she just straightened herself up, and confidently strode over to the reception desk to check-in. She left behind a stunned Tony, Rhodey and Happy, none of whom had seen her lose her composure before.

"I do like a girl with fight in her," Bruce just grinned as he rotated his jaw obstinately to deal with the stinging sensation, apparently oblivious to the looks of praise the girls on his arms were shooting Pepper's retreating figure, "Tell you what, I'll trade you the girls and this casino for her…..What do you say?"

"Charming as ever Bruce," Tony grunted out in disgust as he walked past Bruce towards Pepper, Rhodey and Happy with him both shooting Bruce withering looks.

"If you change your mind! You've got my numberrrrr!" Bruce yelled after them as he twisted the girls back around on strode over to his guests, his facade flawless even as he spied a different red-haired woman at the edge of the party. "Now let's do some shots, ladies, and then I think the pool is calling our names…"

Tony ignored the comment as he quickly strode over to Pepper with a thousand apologies running through his head. Whatever he had ready just didn't seem good enough as she greeted him with a polite smile and handed him his room keys. He opened his mouth to say something, anything to make up for what just happened but was stopped when she spoke first.

"This is a room pass. The award ceremony starts at 6 PM, you'll get your award at 8 PM and then the rest of the night is for you to mingle." Pepper acted as if nothing had just happened, as professional as always. "You'll want to do that, there are a lot of the board here and key investors."

"Pepper, I….." Tony just trailed off as he took the room keys, part of it was caused by the woman at the nearby desk giving him a flirtatious grin "Thanks. I'll make sure not to get into too much trouble."

"Please try," Pepper replied in the neutral tone she always took when going into work mode as Tony called it, giving one more glance over at Bruce with a strained smile. "... Please, really do try."

Whilst the Stark party left the foyer and headed to their rooms, Bruce was in full swing with his playboy act. He was largely able to remove himself from his body and put things on autopilot as raised a glass in a self-congratulating toast. His eyes glanced at the polished scotch glass's reflection, the angle allowing him to spot Natasha Romanoff mingling amongst his guests. With a swig of iced tea disguised as liquor he started moving amongst his guests as he directed them towards the pool, scanning the area for more SHIELD personnel and equipment. He spotted none, not a single agent, bug, tapped camera or anything else.

'The spider's been digging. She found Peggy somehow, not bad, then followed that thread back to Bruce Wayne.' He thought to himself as he kept track of the ex-Russian spy 'She went straight from Peggy to me, though. Bold move, bordering on arrogant, and without SHIELD sanction no less… now that is interesting'

Bruce let the night continue for a little while, drinking his fake alcohol, flirting with every woman he met and acting as arrogantly as he could. He managed to keep track of Romanoff throughout the night; he was impressed with the Red Room assassin, she was better at shadowing than the last one he had faced. He felt his left shoulder ache as Melina's memory came back to him, the most poignant part of which was her driving a dagger through his shoulder and the round she fired into his leg.

He quickly let the memory drop as he disengaged from the girls he had been dragging around all night leaving them by the pool, as he headed over to the bar pretending to be suitably drunk. None of the hired girls complained, in fact, they looked mostly relieved. His excessive groping had done as he intended, and prevented any of them from being attracted to him for the night. He smiled and waved, and exchanged a few pleasantries before arriving at his destination and ordering a cocktail he would discreetly dispose of later.

"Mr. Wayne, Mr. Wayne!" Bruce turned around and looked at the other woman who had been trailing him all one was much easier to spot, and he turned to greet a blonde woman wearing a suit jacket, she had a push-up bra and her top three buttons were undone "Christine Everheart, Vanity Fair, can I ask you a few questions?"

"By all means, it's my birthday! Or it will be in… oh… a week, so I'm in a giving mood," Bruce leaned on the bar, propped his chin on one arm, and gave the reporter his best billion-dollar grin. "and I can be very generous. Two martinis, please"

"So I've heard," Christine smiled in response as she pulled out a recorder, ignoring the martini on the bar. "You've been called many names, the Modern Rockefeller, The Midas Man, what do you think about that?"

"Flattering, but Rockefeller was a Republican, I don't do politics, also adjusted for inflation I'm worth more" Bruce replied picking up his martini glass in his hand and giving Christine a small raise of the glass. "And Midas was a king, I'm a bit too American for the more royal comparison. He also had a daughter"

"Really? This coming from the Prince of Gotham?" Christine gave a playful laugh that didn't reach her green eyes, which were familiar to Bruce from somewhere, looking at them closely it finally clicked into place. "And didn't you give the Republican party 200 million dollars in the last election cycle?"

"210 million to be precise, and I gave the same amount to the Democrats in the last cycle. That's not politics, it's just smart business." Bruce replied, placing the martini back on the bar and adopting a slightly more businessman approach to the interview, "It's why I play golf with President Ellis, why every congressman and senator returns my calls personally. You want to do business in the modern world, you have to deal with politics, I just don't ascribe to it."

"And what do you ascribe to Mr. Wayne?" Christine leaned in with a tone as professional as her mother's was when she interviewed him for the Gotham Gazette a lifetime ago. "Because you're also called the Pim-"

"How's your mother?" The sudden question caused Christine to pause and look at him wide-eyed, shocked that the party boy had managed to connect the dots in his drunken state. "Your mother is Vicki Vale." It wasn't a question.

"Yes, how do you know?" Christine was trying to recover from her shock at the sudden change of pace.

"You have her eyes, the same questioning style, and if I remember your byline correctly it's Christine Everheart-Vale" Bruce responded he took out a pen and scribbled something quickly on a napkin that she couldn't see, "So how is she, last time I heard about her she was in New York."

"She's semi-retired now, her and dad moved upstate a few years ago. She still writes, mostly novels, mystery and crime dramas," Christine admitted looking the man in front of her up and down with new eyes, "She said you were a tough interviewee, and would surprise me."

"Hardly, I'm just good with faces. It's a good skill for a man like me." Bruce gave Viki's daughter a wide smile, before passing her the drink he had ordered for her. "Now it was lovely speaking with you, please give your mother my best, but if you excuse me I am waiting for somebody, a female somebody"

"Oh, of course, um ... .thank you for the drink, Mr. Wayne" Christine managed to eke out her response before walking away slightly dazed at the sudden turn.

Bruce watched her leave in the direction of the Apogee Award Ceremony, likely aiming to try and get an interview with Tony as well.

"Bartender!" He slipped his hand into his inside breast pocket and pulled out a thick wad of cash that he placed on the bar.

"How can I help?" The hotel employee moved like lightning to appear before him, eyes locked on the money on the bar.

"This is for the drinks…" Bruce peeled off the amount he owed so far and slid it across. There was a large amount left over, which he held out to the bartender "And the rest is yours, if you do something for me?"

"Anything you want, sir!" The young man took the money and napkin without hesitation, this could probably pay off his student loans!

"Good, take this," He set down the napkin he had been writing on, neatly folded to hide what he had written. "You see the redhead, the one by the Playboy bunnies, over my left shoulder, hair in a bun, wearing the red cocktail dress?"

The younger man glanced over Bruce's shoulder not too subtly which was the point as Romanoff would certainly pick up on it. "Damn, yeah I see her,"

"Good. She's going to come over in a minute. When she does give her this. Don't read it and I'll see you're promoted by the end of the week." Bruce smiled as he stood up while taking his martini glass from the bar. "Also give her a Black Widow cocktail. Tell her, it's with Bruce Wayne's compliments."

The bartender took the item from the countertop. Well, he had been given far stranger requests in the past, so he'd grin and bear it. He looked up to find nothing but air, the martini glass empty, and no sign of the billionaire. He shrugged, rationalising that the man was just off to do whatever the high rollers did, and started to make the requested cocktail. He didn't have to wait long before the woman appeared at the bar, she was calm and graceful but he did notice she was casting her gaze around like she was looking for someone.

"Here you go miss," The bartender placed the correct drink on the bar and slid it over to the beauty before him. "One Black Widow Cocktail,"

"I didn't order that," Natasha looked at the drink, her muscles tensing and her senses going into overdrive as she took the glass.

"No, it's from Bruce Wayne himself with his compliments" The bartender smiled, his eyes raking over the woman's curvaceous body in the tight dress, why did guys like Bruce Wayne get all the money, fame, and girls? He only frowned slightly as he slid the item over. "He told me to give you this as well,"

Natasha took the napkin quickly, opening it and scanning over the message within. If she didn't have years of Red Room training beaten and burned into her, she would have easily shown the frustration that had formed in her mind. She took the Black Widow cocktail before giving the bartender her sauciest grin and wink, pretending that the note was a mere proposition from a playboy and not something that disturbed her.


(10 minutes later -Inside Caeasar's Palace - Apogee Award Ceremony)

Nat approached the room that she had been directed to by Bruce's brief note, not sure if it was her imagination, but the halls of the hotel seemed especially dark and foreboding. She found herself in a meeting room that was positioned so that it overlooked the massive conference hall that the Apogee Award Ceremony was being held in. What was probably most disturbing to her at that moment was the lack of people in the corridor: no security personnel keeping Bruce safe, no signs of staff waiting on him hand and foot and certainly no sign of a single member of the vast entourage that had been following around all night.

When she had come to Las Vegas to observe the man that Director Carter had heavily implied was the Batman, Nat had been hesitant to say the least. Not only because of the woman's Alzheimer's, but because the man she had been viciously beaten by was worlds, whole universes, away from the infamous Bruce Wayne. The Batman had been focused, determined, skilled and deadly, Bruce Wayne was…..well Bruce Wayne. He was a drunk, hedonistic asshole who slept around, took drugs, wrecked cars, and was involved with some very shady people.

Growing up as a little girl in Soviet Russia, she remembered that Bruce Wayne had been the posterboy for the decadence of the western world, embodying everything wrong with capitalism. Even after the fall of communism, the official narratives still used Wayne as a punching bag, signifying the west's continued corruption, especially after he absconded with the entire Moscow Ballet Company's line up on a private yacht for three weeks in the South Pacific and caused a national embarrassment for the newly formed Russian Federation.

Even SHIELD had little good to say about the playboy billionaire. His file was a good 3 inches thick and filled with nothing pleasant. There was a litany of international associates, acquaintances and occasional business partners, some truly awful people, real scum of the Earth types. There were also the rumours of his proclivities and SHIELD although never could prove anything had tied him to less than ideal groups around the man was mostly untouchable due to the sheer wealth he possessed, and the fact that Wayne Enterprises, the world's largest conglomerate, supplied a lot of equipment to SHIELD.

Even as she opened the door slowly she half expected to find that this was some sort of misunderstanding, that he was in fact propositioning her for a good time, and that he had nothing to do with Batman. There was still a chance that things were exactly as they had seemed all those years ago. The Black Widow cocktail, the chill she had that she was being constantly watched and all the connections she had made could be just a massive coincidence. The hope didn't last long.

"Natalia Alianovna Romanoff, born December 3rd 1984, graduate of the Red Room program, star pupil of Madame B and protege of Melina Vostokoff herself." Bruce's cold voice and words immediately vanquished any doubt in her mind.

"Over 500 successful missions, a master spy, seductress, interrogator, hacker and of course assassin… Do you know who I am?"

He had his back to her and was standing by the window overlooking the conference room, his suit jacket had been discarded over a chair while he stood there in his white shirt with his sleeves rolled up. Nat's eyes raked over the man who was now taller than before on account of his no longer slouching or leaning on something.

"You're Bruce Wayne, billionaire, CEO and owner of Wayne Enterprises, the world's largest Congl-" Nat had opted for flattery, but barely got into her routine before he suddenly cut her off.

"No." Bruce's voice was not loud, barely above a whisper, but it sliced through the air between them. He turned to look at her with a face shrouded by the room's darkness, "Do you know who I am?"

"You're the Batman," Nat replied, she felt as if the room had gotten colder the moment she mentioned the name.

Bruce made a sound that was somewhere between a chuckle and snort but made without even a hint of emotion. "And who is Batman? At least, to you?"

"He's a dangerous man, possibly insane due to childhood trauma, an unregulated vigilante who interfered in a SHIELD mission, crippled at least a dozen men for life, put my friend in the hospital, and completely derailed an investigation that was vital to world security." Nat pivoted and went on the attack as she stared at the man who for the past weeks had been her target, even if she hadn't known it for certain till now.

"And?" Bruce asked. He still hadn't turned around. His head moved back to look out over the conference.

"And he turned out to be a self-indulgent playboy with money, who probably does all this either to alleviate the guilt from the lives he ruins with his fun or more likely because he finds it fun to beat people up," Nat responded evenly .

She didn't completely believe her own statements, but reverse psychology was one of the oldest tricks in the book for a reason. Weave the right falsehood at the right time, and the target would trip over themselves to reveal the truth. The reality was that she had seen both sides of the man in front of her and it only made her more impressed. One was the libertine playboy billionaire who flirted and was generally made an ass of himself to everyone. The other was the dark spectral figure that fought like ten men with a drive and determination that she never really encountered before. Her comments and statements were aimed at pricking at his edges to get him to react so she could get a read on him, and get someone angry and they usually showed their true selves.

"You know nothing," Bruce surprised her again, his statement was given with a slight sigh and for some reason Nat felt whatever coldness she imagined in the room leave "What you see and the world see, is a facade crafted and perfected over decades. Created to dismiss the mere thought or inkling that the party boy and the vigilante as you termed it are one and the same. To protect the mission,"

"What mission?" Nat asked edging forward now towards the window that Bruce was staring out of.

"Never again," Bruce whispered his answer. It was so quiet that almost as he turned to face her, she saw the facade he spoke of cast aside and what stood before her was the real unfiltered Bruce Wayne "The mission, the only sensible reaction anyone should have to seeing their world torn apart. At seeing the place they live infested with filth and corruption. When they cry out for justice and are met by the apathy of the world. Call it insanity, call it foolish, call it childish, call it whatever you want. But let me ask you this…What would you do?"

"I…" Nat opened her mouth a thousand responses rang through her head, a thousand reasonable, sensible realistic words came to her, but looking into Bruce's eyes they all died away. "I don't know-"

"Why are you here?" Bruce asked his voice returning to normal, his hard gaze was replaced by a piercing analysing gaze.

"Because," It was Nat's turn to release a sigh, causing Bruce's eyebrow to raise, she wanted to say because she hurt her friend, because he was dangerous, because he had ruined her op but instead she spoke the truth "Because you are the most incredible single fighter and operator I've ever seen. You cleared a ship of over 40 in under 5 minutes, without killing a single person and took down me and Barton without breaking a sweat. That's impressive. I want to know how you did it."

"Training, experience and familiarity with both SHIELD and Red Room training." Bruce replied, his eyes examining every inch of Nat, his features remained impassive as he spoke "I'm impressed as well. You tied Batman to SHIELD, then to Director Carter, then the good Director to me. You're the first to do that. Can I ask how?" She let out a breath she didn't know she was holding.

"It was a file from an Operation that SHIELD had run in the 70s, it was misfiled, and it was the only thing relating to Gotham we had," Nat answered, seeing no reason not to show this small part of her hand. "From there, the file took me to Director Carter. It was difficult given her condition, but she said enough for me to connect the dots,"

"Impressive indeed, you might yet prove useful" Bruce responded with a nod to himself before his head turned back to the ballroom, "You are not here on behalf of SHIELD, Fury and my arrangement precludes that. But I am feeling generous enough for you to still gain answers."

"Answers to what?" Nat's eyes narrowed at Bruce as she moved to stand next to him. Her eyes went to the ballroom below them.

The area was now filled with people milling around and talking. The awards had been handed out, with Tony of course nowhere in sight. The room was nearly entirely made up of Stark Industries executives, employees, their contacts in the military, and investors. So the whole event now had the feel of a corporate meeting, just with a couple of call girls and pretty faces thrown into the mix to give it a Vegas-y feel. Nat's eyes moved over the assembly and couldn't see anything out of the ordinary, certainly nothing that commanded the focus that Bruce was giving to the crowd.

"Where the shipments of Stark weapons are coming from and potentially who they are going to," Bruce replied before he nodded at a thin bald man in his 30s that Nat had barely registered at the edge of the crowd. "See that man? If you want answers, then get him away from the party and bring him up here."

"Who is he?" Nat asked, eyeing the target, who to her eyes seemed to be just a low-level employee of Stark judging by his reasonably priced suit and clear lack of importance compared to the others in the room.

"If I'm right in my observations, he's the messenger" Bruce's eyes stayed fixed on the man and his tone as cold and calculating as when she had first entered.

Nat glanced at Bruce, then back to the man that he wanted her to lure away from the party. Try as might she still couldn't see anything off about him, he seemed completely normal and blended into the party…perfectly. Her eyes widened for a moment, then she looked again and saw it: he was fitting in too well. Events of this size and ad hoc in nature, no one fitted in perfectly, there was always a rough edge to smooth out, a group you gravitate to or avoided, but the man didn't. He had just placed himself into the party allowing its size and nature to wash over and smother him from the attention of others.

"I'll get him up here, but I want answers," Nat gave Bruce a sharp look and an unspoken promise to continue their conversation, she then turned and headed for the door.

"Romanoff," His voice stilled her as she reached for the door. He remained focused even as he spoke to her. "If he proves unresponsive, which he most likely will, tell him Khufaash wishes to speak with him."

Nat didn't reply; she merely took the suggestion and closed the door behind her as she headed to the party. She spoke about 18 to 20 languages fluently depending on what classification someone used and was passable in another 6 enough to get by, so she recognised the word Bruce had used. Khufaash was Arabic for "bat," a little on the nose she thought but it also piqued her curiosity.

As she entered the large conference room she immediately drew the eye of most in the vicinity, which she didn't mind. She had dressed provocatively in the tight-fitting short cocktail dress for that reason, her initial plan had been to try to get close to Bruce and play on his philandering nature to get him alone to then figure out if he was her quarry or not. Seeing as that was no longer needed, she was now using it to blend into the group of callgirls and trophy women that the Stark bigwigs had brought to get to her target.

She quickly spotted him again, the man hadn't moved very far and now that she knew what she was looking for she could see the small signs that he didn't actually belong there. He flickered around the edges of groups but never directly engaged with anyone, he brought his drink up to his lips but wasn't actually drinking, and his positioning was such that he could leave quickly if needed. As she carefully approached him she could see the rough calluses on his hands and other small telltale signs of extensive training. She could only see it because she was now looking for it and was only about 15 ft away from the subject She looked up to the dark room where Bruce was standing and wondered how in the hell he had seen it from there.

"Hello?" The man surprised her as she made her final approach. She had timed her approach so he shouldn't have seen her coming but at the last minute had turned to face her. "Can I help you?"

"Yes! Um, hi, I'm Irina, Irina Stevens," Nat introduced herself, giving her best smile and looking at the man whose expression didn't change at all. "I… don't really know anyone here, so I thought I'd try talking to someone. You work for Stark Industries?"

Nat examined the person in front of her more closely now that she had the chance and what she saw caused her to tense further. Her training and enhancements meant she could read people as easily as a normal person could read a kindergarten picture book: blood pressure, heart beat, body positioning, even microexpressions were there for her to read. This man however gave off nothing, he just had a polite smile on his face, and that was it, everything else, every conceivable means of expression or body function gave off nothing. Despite the fact he was standing in front of her and generating slight body heat the man to her senses was just not there, like an empty space of void.

"No, I don't. I was invited by a friend," The man replied his voice still polite and poised as he turned to set his glass on a nearby table, as he turned to walk to the nearby exit "I am sorry but I was just leaving,"

"Wait, I thought we could talk?" Nat tired to get in front of the man, her face still fixed in her best smile but the man glided around her without missing a step

"I am sorry but I really must be going" He just smiled as he started to march towards the door with a singular drive like a man possessed.

"Khufaash would like to speak with you!" Nat called out just loud enough for the man to hear her, hoping this wasn't a trick Bruce had set up so he could scurry away while sending her on a wild goose chase.

The reaction was immediate. The man froze, then turned around. His eyes scanned the room and windows above them like a bloodhound trying to track a fox. Unnoticed by everyone else, his hands had slipped into fists and he had tensed ready to spring into action at a moment's notice. When his eyes failed to find anything, his attention snapped back to Nat. In those eyes she saw a shadow that she had only seen on the faces of two other people: the first had been Bruce as Batman and the second had been Barbara when she questioned him.

"Take me to him," The man whispered, his polite American voice was gone, replaced by steeliness and an accent Nat thought sounded Persian, almost. There was an undertone she had never heard before.

Nat just gave a nod feeling her own body tense as she led the man out the party and back towards the room Bruce was waiting in. As they walked, the illusion the man had conjured up for the Stark executives and military personnel faded. His polite veneer gave way to an aura of danger. He walked like a soldier but stepped as lightly as a cat, he projected strength and brutal power but even his slightest movements were as precise and delicate as a brain surgeon performing surgery. Neither of the two made a sound and although he didn't look at her, Nat was certain that the man was assessing her as she was him.

As they reached the door Nat paused next to it and gestured that they reached their destination. However, instead of moving to open it, his eyes narrowed examining every inch clearly looking for a trap or a trick and made no move towards it. After a few moments he gestured with a rough nod of his head for her to go first, causing Nat's to shoot him grunt as her body started to tense as she prepared for the worst as she made to open the door.

'Never be the first through a door if you can help it, most times it gives too much of an opportunity for someone to get a drop on you,' Nat's mind remained her as she slipped open the door and quickly strode in trying to keep distance between her and the strange man, to give herself time to react if needed.

However, the man just stayed in the corridor for a few moments, his eyes darting around searching for any sign of a trick before he slowly entered the room. Nat kept her eyes on the man and felt her hand naturally slip to wear her concealed firearm . The tension in the air was thick enough that Nat could have cut it with a knife as the two stared at each other.

"Where is Khufaash?" The man asked as he closed the door behind him with his foot, his eyes glancing around the empty room.

Nat felt an involuntary frown form on her face as she too glanced around the room and found it empty apart from the furniture that occupied it and Bruce's discarded suit jacket over a chair. "I don't kn-"

CRACK!

Nat blinked as before her brain could register what was happening the lithe thin bald man had blinked from across the room to be standing in front of her with a dagger in his hand about to plunge it into her chest. The only thing that had saved her from the man's impossible speed and deadly strike was Bruce appearing from the shadows next to them, he had blocked the strike with a strange piece of metal that looked like a silhouette of a bat and appeared to be weighted like a large shuriken. The two men quickly broke apart the bald man leaping backwards with the skill of an olympic gymnast whilst Bruce pushed Nat behind her.

The bald man didn't get the chance to act again after his impressive leap backwards as Bruce unleashed a wave of large bat-shaped shurikens. Bruce seemed to pull them out of thin air and threw them with such force that the man stood no chance. The first one knocked the ornate dagger from his hand but it was the other six that caused Nat's eyes to widen and felt pity for her would-be killer. The second struck him in his outstretched hand, that was now weaponless, the projectile travelled with such force that the man was slammed back into the nearby wall, the projectile embedding itself into the wall through his hand.

Before Nat could blink Bruce followed that feat with another, the following 5 projectiles embedded into the man's body along both arms ending in his shoulders, crucifying him to the wall. Bruce however was not done and with incredible speed dashed across the room and landed a powerful blow into the man's gut knocking what little air remained in the man out of his lungs. Nat was about to protest the needless assault but before she could the man raised his head and just gave Bruce a look of pure contempt completely ignoring his injuries.

"Heretic!" The man snarled as he hung off the walls, aiming a murderous glare at Bruce, alarmingly the man lurched forward in the other man's direction only to receive a palm strike to the chin for his trouble.

He made another attempt to move, ignoring the blood flowing from his arms and the sound of his own cracked ribs when Bruce sighed, striking him once more, this time harder and in the chest. Seeing that he couldn't free himself the man stopped struggling and just slumped in his crucified condition on the wall. Bruce stayed where he was, staring into the man's eyes before his hand went to the man's shirt roughly tearing it open, revealing heavily a scared torso. What stood out the most was a strange brand burnt over his heart: an image of a snarling demon's head.

"Just as I thought," Bruce mused looking from the brand back to its bearer, he shook his head before turning away and heading to the room's minibar and pulling out a bottle of water. "You're a long way from home, and very unlucky,"

"What the hell is this?" Nat asked, her senses returning as she glared at Bruce anger rising at his brutal treatment of an information source. "Who is this guy?"

"He's an Ubu," Bruce answered, taking a sip of the water as he pulled the chair with his jacket on to sit in front of the impaled and now-named Ubu, who was choosing to remain silent "A servant, slave, tool, all are acceptable terms for what he is. He is a member of, well I spouse you would call it a tribe, sworn to the service of one man in particular, a very dangerous, very delusional man,"

"I am blessed, unlike you! Apostate, heretic, defiler!" The Ubu roared, tearing his flesh more as he strained against his impalement. "I shall live forever, through the master!"

"They are fanatics, even by the standards of the organisation their master leads, which is saying something. The Ubu I've met are some of the best fighters alive, the first among their number is something to behold" Bruce ignored the man's rant taking a seat as he leaned back and looked at the man, his cold eyes analysing him. "This one's only a messenger, judging by his scars, age and skill, he's very low level in his caste. He was here to make contact with the one supplying Stark weapons to rogue groups abroad"

"We need to get him medical attention, he'll bleed out in this state before he can tell us anything."

Nat examined the wounds Bruce had inflicted and she was begrudgingly impressed despite their brutality he hadn't cut any major arteries and although he was bleeding they could be treated. She might have been sceptical about Bruce and his claims about this "Ubu" but looking at the man and the look in his eye she believed there was enough to investigate further. The Ubu should have been in unbelievable agony and even with her Red Room training and the trauma he had suffered he should be showing some sign of pain, tension, kind of discomfort. Instead he just stared straight forward, unblinking. It wasn't natural.

"I can call a SHIELD team in with medical support, they can be here in about 20 minutes. Fury won't be happy, especially with me, but between this lead and the information we'll get… it should tie him over before he ships me to the Arctic. What organisation does he work for?"

"They have a few names, most know them as the League of Assassins. However, it won't matter, he'll be dead in about 2 or 3 minutes," Bruce's words caused Nat to pause as she brought out her communicator to signal SHIELD, her eyes narrowing at the man.

"I can't let you kill him," Nat tensed, ready to stop the clearly-unhinged industrialist who wanted to kill their prisoner.

"Unlike you, I've never killed anyone. I have a code." Bruce shot back his eyes narrowing at the woman who suddenly felt self-conscious and transparent. He turned back to the Ubu and began speaking as casually as if he were discussing the weather.

"He killed himself, about 3 minutes ago when you brought him to this room. A capsule hidden in a false tooth. It released a very powerful neurotoxin into his system. It's already shut down his pain receptors."

"How do you know?" Nat looked at the Ubu who had just narrowed his eyes to Bruce and kept his look of disgust fixed on the man, however now she could see red appearing in his eyes and the veins in his face were turning a sickly blue tinge.

"I used to have one myself, it's standard practice amongst members," Bruce admitted as he took another sip of his drink leaning back in his chair. "He's already delivered his message. It's a League procedure to kill oneself if discovered once the mission's succeeded. Otherwise, he would have tried signalling his failure and then killed himself."

"It's procedure to kill yourself even if you succeed?" Nat turned to look at Bruce who just sat there with his cold gaze fixed on the impaled Ubu.

"Oh yes, they're quite fanatical." Bruce replied. "To be discovered is to compromise the League, that's a capital offence." He took a sip that finished off his drink which he threw perfectly into the wastebasket without looking.

"If you knew he was going to kill himself, why bring him in? Why not just follow him?" Nat still wanted to move to help the prisoner to call in a medical team.

"Too problematic. Tracking League members in a populated area is like trying to hold smoke in your hands: near impossible. This way I confirmed my suspicions" Bruce finally stood up, his eyes raking over the impaled Ubu one before putting his suit jacket back on.

"Your suspicions?" Nat snapped back as she looked back and forth, incredulous at Bruce's candour. "You did all this because of, what, a hunch?!"

"A little more than that. I set this whole month of extravagance up so that outside parties wanting to meet clandestinely with anyone amongst Stark Industries higher-ups would have cover for such a meeting, a meeting I could then observe using my special access as the building's owner." Bruce responded as cold calculations rolled over him and the man's mind started putting pieces together. "I didn't manage to catch him before he met with whoever it was, but I have a few theories on the culprit selling weapons."

"Mind sharing them?" Nat pressed her arms crossing her body, starting to feel anger building again

"Not yet," Bruce mildly replied as he stared at the dying Ubu who had just silently observed everything with a look of disgust "The more interesting question is who sent you?"

"I serve the master, heretic!" The Ubu tried to follow his insult by spitting blood on Bruce but the toxin was fast robbing him of his strength and managed only to cough up blood onto his chest.

"No, this is too sloppy for him. If he was the one behind this I wouldn't have discovered his errand boy this easily." Bruce stood unmoving as his eyes narrowed and whatever question Nat was going to ask stilled on her tongue as she watched his brilliant machine-like mind work. "You're an Ubu, so it still has to be a member of the family. This is too organised for Dušan, too disorganised for The Sensei, Talia won't have used an Ubu. She never liked them. So that just leaves….Nyssa,"

Nat saw the Ubu's reaction along with Bruce who just gave a small smile as she watched the assassin's eyes widen for a fraction of a moment. However, before any further questions could be asked of him or he could offer a rebuttal to the Dark Knight's reasoning, the pinned body tensed. The Ubu gave one final shudder before his head snapped upwards and he slumped lifeless on the wall, the neurotoxin overtaking him finally.

"Nyssa, hmm. What is she doing shipping Stark weapons on the black market?" Bruce mused to himself as he turned away from the dead man, returning his chair to the room's table unfazed by his death

"Okay, that is it!" Nat's patience at this bizarre tableau had finally given up, she was standing in a room with one dead man and one obvious lunatic who was keeping vital information to himself, "You're coming with me and we ar-"

Nat wasn't entirely sure what happened next as she reached out to grab Bruce's arm but in a blur, she went from standing to being on the floor facing the ceiling. There was this electric tingling pain shooting down her back, and she couldn't move! She strained, she pushed, but her body just wouldn't respond.

"Wh-what did you do?" Nat stammered as her eyes widened. For the first in her life she was completely helpless.

"It's a form of Dim Mak, I blocked your body's chi for a few moments. Learned that one in Kamar-Taj, took a month to get it right," Bruce remarked conversationally as he moved over to the table and placed a USB drive on the table. "It'll wear off in about 2 minutes with your enhanced physiology. Once it does, take the USB to Fury. It'll hopefully smooth things out with him for the moment. I included some extra pieces on other projects to make him happy enough to keep you onboard for now."

Bruce then did up his suit jacket again and moved towards the door, briefly adjusting his cufflinks as he went. He craned his neck for a moment as he closed his eyes, summoning up the energy to re-enage with the masquerade outside. He stopped as he heard Nat managing to move, causing him to half turn to look at the woman impressed once again, if she kept this up she would prove useful.

"Y-yo-you're leaving?" Nat asked as, with an excruciating effort, she lifted her head enough to look at Bruce standing by the door half turned to look at her with cold eyes.

"Yes, I still have a presence to maintain. Don't worry about the Ubu, I'll have all this cleaned away before midnight." Bruce replied, about to turn away and leave before he felt something inside him staying his departure for a moment "Tell Barbara to run a search for Nyssa Raatko, it's the alias she most uses. I'll be in touch if anything interesting comes up on my end and….. tell Barbara…"

Bruce left before finishing his words, whatever had caused him to stay had been crushed by something that lurked inside his head. As the door swung shut Nat allowed her head to lay back on the floor waiting for feeling to return to her body as she felt an even greater desire than before to punch Bruce Wayne in the face. One thing was certain she was going to have words with Barb and start really digging into Bruce Wayne's life….. just as soon as she could stand up!


(Penthouse, Caesars Palace - Roughly 3 AM - Morning 13th February)

Bruce was poring over files on his personal computer trying to find a link between Nyssa, Stark Industries and the weapons being smuggled around the world. He was lacking a piece of the puzzle or possibly several pieces, he could see the board and knew most of the players but he just couldn't figure out the game being played. Nyssa's involvement made everything more complicated out of all members of the House of Al Ghul, the rogue Nyssa was always a headache and one of the few people he struggled to anticipate.

She was unpredictable, bold beyond belief, and unlike the rest of her family she could be reckless as well. She would take risks that her father never would, and do whatever she thought necessary to complete her objective. She was also never restrained by League conventions or their laws. Whilst Bruce would never like or agree with the League, they at least had a code, but Nyssa's only codes and conventions were power and blood.

He put Nyssa from his head as he refocused on the lead that he could potentially decipher at this time. He examined the footage from the hotel's cameras and his own surveillance equipment that he had set up around the award ceremony and Stark executives. He had managed to track some of the Ubu's movements, it was hard nearing impossible but he managed to place the assassin near or in the vicinity of his top culprits for the weapon shipments. The Ubu had been near each of them enough and without unaccounted time that a meeting or passing of a message was feasible.

He narrowed it down between four people each having the necessary access to organise the shipments, Tony Stark, Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes, Virginia Potts or Obadiah Stane.

Tony? Not likely. The man was amoral, not immoral. Largely wasted his talents may have been, but he loved the publicity of being America's protector and was earning enough from military contracts that the black market was too high risk. Tony loved the limelight and despite his own personal feelings towards the man-child, he had never given Bruce any inclination of criminal intent, the risk-to-reward ratio just wasn't there. Sure he would sell weapons by the boatload, but only to good guys. He was following in his father's shadow, and his motives were to try and outdo the man rather than become his own person.

James Rhodes was a possibility. Here was a patriot and devoted soldier surrounded by wealth and power that could easily make him jealous and do something stupid. Then again, he could be a puppet of some black ops general shipping weapons to rebel groups fighting America's enemies. But as he dug into the soldier's life he could find nothing that pointed to unexplained funds, hidden offshore accounts or orders from a superior.

Virginia 'Pepper' Potts was at the bottom of his list. The woman was certainly smart enough and well-positioned to organise all of the illegal shipments. Yet her history and psychological profile indicated that she would be the type to blow the whistle on such activity and not engage with it. She personally oversaw all of Stark Industries' charity endeavours, had gotten her job under Tony by calling out fraud when she found it in the finance department she had been working in, and had also passed up a modelling career in her younger days due to her dislike of the vanity it entailed and the lack of challenge it provided.

What personally convinced Bruce she wasn't involved was that if she wanted to get rich she could be easily embezzling Tony's fortune, she had complete access to it and managed all of his assets. If he thought she could be convinced to leave Tony's employment he would offer her a position on his board right away. The woman would thrive under Lucius, maybe even take over from him one day.

That left Obadiah Stane at the top of his list, and for good reason. Bruce had known the man for as long as he could remember, and he had never left a good impression on him. Obadiah was smart, observant, and an incredible businessman, which was why Howard brought him on to the company all those years ago. However, Obadiah was also ambitious and had a ruthless quality that made him few friends. Stark Sr. had been able to manage him, but nothing stood in his way now and the man had had a taste of power. His brief stint as Stark Industries CEO following Howard's death and Tony's takeover had made him more ambitious than ever. If anyone had the recklessness to sell weapons on the black market it was Obadiah Stane. He had also looked into the man's financial records and although he couldn't find anything tangible there were indications that something wasn't right, slight inconsistencies in finance that were quickly corrected and connections to slush fund accounts.

Despite the public show he made of being Tony's mentor and his surrogate uncle, looking after the man as an old friend of his father, Bruce knew Obadiah secretly hated that he had been replaced by Tony and likely hated the man himself. Bruce remembered Obadiah approaching him, asking for capital to buy out Tony's stock before the young man turned 21, with Obidah offering to sell it under market value to entice him. He had even offered a merger between the two companies once the deal with done, with Bruce owning the joint company whilst Stane ran it as CEO with Lucius as COO. Bruce had politely declined the offer careful not to bruise the man's ego and had made out that he would have accepted if they had more time, something Obidah had accepted and so still thought Bruce his friend.

Bruce's musings over his findings were stopped as a small message alert popped up in the corner of the screen. What made him pause was both the application being used and the initials of the messenger. The application was an old highly encrypted channel he had made years ago, he couldn't recall what he had originally named it as his young wards had quickly taken to calling it The Bat Channel. The rare pleasant memory was stopped as he opened the channel and read the messages from the last person he thought would ever contact him.

NW: This is purely professional. BG told me you were involved.

NW: Honestly you should stay out of it. SHIELD has it handled

NW: But BG thought you should know…(Upload Video File)

The video loaded quickly and before Bruce could type his response the sender's icon disappeared showing that they had disconnected from the secure channel meaning messaging back was pointless. Bruce stayed still for a moment as he stared at the first communication he had with his first protege in nearly 2 decades, an uncomfortable weight in his chest. Bruce opened the downloaded file and found himself confronted by a video of a bloody and badly injured Tony Stark being held captive. Bruce's eyes however didn't focus on Tony nor did he listen to the speech that was being made but instead his eyes lingered on the symbol the men were wearing and draped on the flag behind them, an interlocking series of Ten rings.

"Alfred!" Bruce called, he didn't have to wait long before the elderly butler appeared as poised as ever, having long gotten used to having no sleep with his charge's nocturnal habits "We will need the body doubles for the rest of the month to cover for me. Get the jet prepped, we are leaving in the hour"

"Of course and can I ask where we are going so quickly?" Alfred asked as he fought back a smile although he didn't miss the last-minute trips, it was worth it to see Bruce engaging again with the world

"China, don't bother with a flight crew I'll fly us, and get my suit packed please."

"I take it then we are not visiting our overseas plants," Alfred fought back a grimace, his joy at Bruce's return to activity muted due to the clear indicator that Bruce expected a fight, which narrowed down their destinations in China to a handful "Can I ask are we heading to Hong Kong, Beijing or Hunan?"

"Hunan, I need to speak with Wenwu," Bruce answered as he started packing up his devices and moving to collect his other items.

"Ah," Alfred released a sigh not bothering to hide it from Bruce as he moved to start packing and organise the body doubles to maintain his charges cover "In that case, I will make sure to pack the extra special equipment, some explosives and a lot of medical supplies."

Bruce just glanced at Alfred and his frank assessment of the situation, before giving his oldest friend a rare smile. "Why Alfred I never took you for an optimist…We are going need all the specialised equipment, a lot of explosives and a cargo container of medical supplies."

"Of course Master Bruce, what was I thinking," Alfred returned the smile as he shook his head and made to start the calls.