Chapter 4 - Men of Iron


Family

The word is family…..

A family means…..

I used to think a lot about families and what….

I lost my family twice: one in an alley and the second when …

Family is everything


(Very Early Morning, February 14th 2009 - Hunan Mountain Range - Ten Rings Headquarters)

"WHAT THE HELL IS IT?!" "OPEN FIRE!" "SOUTH SIDE SOUTH SIDE!" "WE NEED MORE MEN ON THE WEST!" "THE EAST WALL HAS BEEN BLOWN! WE NEED TO SECURE IT!"

The radio chatter continued to go insane as a series of well-timed explosions echoed across the mountain range fortress, punctuated by the sound of gunfire and shouting. Wenwu sighed, shaking his head as he watched his elite guards run around like headless chickens, dancing to the magnificent opera of misdirection that was being conducted. He moved casually across the courtyard while ignoring the explosion off to one side of the yard and the group of men being felled by black darts hurled from the shadows.

As he reached the door at the other side of the courtyard Wenwu merely took out his phone from his pocket and flicked through it searching for the right contact before pressing it to his ear. He closed the door casually as another explosion caused the room to shake and one of his larger guards was thrown into the window of the room which cracked as the man fell to the floor outside. Within the room, he saw his two children. His Shang-Chi and Xialing looked terrified, still in their bedclothes while the room shook again. He shot them a quick reassuring smile that everything was alright as the other end of the phone finally answered.

"Jie, can we have some breakfast sent up to the southwest dining room, make it a special one, the children haven't had a lot of sleep," Wenwu gave instructions to his chef as he moved over and sat at the family dining table, then gestured for his children to join him.

"Oh and have some mulligatawny soup made too, we have a guest joining us, it's his favourite."

"Of course sir," Jie knew it was best not to mention the explosions or the attack the base was under.

"So, did you sleep well?" Wenwu smiled, focusing more on his son as his children joined at the table, his son giving his sister a worried look as he sat close to their father.

"Dad, shouldn't we be -" Shang-Chi found himself cut off as the room shook again another explosion nearby caused the ceiling to crack and dust to fall onto the table.

"Are you scared?" Wenwu leaned forward a smile on his face as he glanced at his elite guards whose anxiety was plainly visible in their tense stances. His son merely gave a small nod before looking away in shame. "It's alright, do you know why I'm not scared?"

"Because you're not afraid of anything," Shang-Chi looked up at his father with pride, although a hint of shame was still present at his own fear which he knew he had to master.

"Well, yes, but it is because I know that if you know a demon's true name, then you have nothing to fear, for they have no power over you," Wenwu reached out and tapped his son on the forehead.

"A demon?" Xialing spoke up, trying to sound as confident as a six-year-old could, although a slight tremble was still audible. "Is that what is out there?"

"Oh yes. There are demons in this world. I have met a few and the one that comes to night is one of the greatest of all." Wenwu leaned back looking from his daughter back to his son, a fatherly smile on his face as he glanced at the window the sounds of battle still outside. "He is a demon we will know, one I have understood since losing your mother. He is vengeance, he is darkness incarnate, and none are safe from his wrath and rage. He has many names, many faces, I met him first when he was a student of my old teacher, the King of Demons himself, back then he was simply called -"

Wenwu was cut off as darkness enveloped the room and as everyone apart from him tensed and looked around. The darkness lasted only for a few seconds but it was made far worse as the sounds of explosions and fighting from outside suddenly ceased. The silence lasted only slightly longer as the darkness was returned slowly by flickering lights, which managed to become solid after a few moments.

"... Khufaash" Wenwu finished his sentence glancing up from his son to the towering dark figure that had appeared in the centre of his room, Wenwu raised a hand halting his guards from attacking the figure "It is good to see you again, old friend."

"Wenwu," The dark figure of Batman was cloaked fully in the dark folds of his cape, creating a seemingly void of blackness with white slits for eyes that caused Shang-Chi to freeze completely. "We need to talk…. The children should leave."

"They stay. They have already seen worse than the Shadow of Gotham, please sit." Wenwu replied with a smile on his face as gestured to a spot at the table and then dismissed his guards who left very reluctantly, "I am having Jie make mulligatawny soup, it won't be as good as Alfred's but Jie is a master."

"Thank you." The polite response just caused Shang-Chi to frown as the demon sat down at the table directly across from his father at the other end of the table and nearest to his sister who was just staring at the intruder-turned-guest. "I don't want to take too much of your time. I'm looking for Tony Stark. Your men have taken him and I want him returned."

"You know son, there was a time that this man here was a contender for the position of the most dangerous man alive, only myself and our mutual teacher were his competition. You and he have something in common. He saw his mother die as well, and it turned him into that." Wenwu leaned in towards his son like he was telling an open secret at a casual family dinner, before looking back up at his guest. "You were incredible. The first time I saw you was when Talia had brought you back from your induction in Korea, she was eager to show you off to her father. How many days did you fight without rest, food, or water, defeating wave after wave of attackers? Five wasn't it? Battered, bleeding, fighting on pure instinct alone. Oh, you were magnificent."

"I'm here for Stark," Batman replied from under his armoured cowl, which obscured his features and the fact that he glanced at Wenwu's daughter Xialing who was staring at him. "I am not here to rem-"

"Now look at you, time has reduced you to….. this" Wenwu sighed, shaking his head as he looked at what had become of the Dark Knight. "Truthfully, my friend, I am still amazed by you, for I have met every warrior of note for over two thousand years and none have maintained their skills like you. Assaulting a fortress of one the world's deadliest organisations and reaching its leader unscathed….. Yet, now that you sit before me, it is like looking at the embers of a smouldering log left by a raging forest fire."

"Like you said, I still reached you." Batman stated coldly from his seated position even as the door opened up and servants quickly placed food before them. "I am still the warrior to whom Ra's introduced you many years ago."

"Come now, I perfected warfare, I know a false show of strength when I see it." Wenwu dismissed the servants with a wave of his hand and a scoff. "Your crushing assault, your misdirection, it screams of age and decay. In your prime I would have merely woken up alone in my room with you standing before me. You have gotten slow, old friend."

"I came for Stark, nothing more" Batman tensed under his cape, his eyes lingering on the ten rings adorning Wenwu's arms and then to the children in the room. A fight here would be risky. "I have no interest in your organisation, give him to me and I'll leave,"

"No," Wenwu smiled as he tucked into his breakfast and signalled for his children to do the same, "My organisation is still re-establishing itself, and I cannot give up an asset like Stark, especially if prompted by a threat. Besides, you know how my organisation works. Each cell is separate, each works independently, and they only answer to me. For me to take a prize from a cell, especially one so successful, I would need something in return."

"Lu Xinya…"

Wenwu froze for the first time and set down the cup he had been drinking from. Bruce steeled himself, hating he had been forced to play this card

"Leader of the Iron Gang, the one who killed your wife. I know where he is. Give me Stark and I give you his location."

Wenwu was still for a moment, his eyes staring off into the distance before he closed them and a smile appeared on his face. He looked at Batman and raised his glass to the man out of respect before taking a sip and placing it back down.

"Oh, that is tempting, but I know your aversion to bloodshed. If I take the deal, he'll disappear before I reach him. No, I will find him without your help and I already have plans for when I do." Wenwu's eyes unconsciously glanced at his son before settling back on his guest. "However, I will accept something else in exchange for Stark…. and I'll even throw in what I know about Nyssa as well."

"What is it?" Bruce narrowed his eyes, he had expected Wenwu to take the offer of vengeance and so was unsure what else the crime lord could want.

"YTake my son Shang-Chi as your apprentice, your new Robin," Wenwu's offer caused the entire room to go silent as Bruce was now the one frozen in surprise. "Train him, teach him all of your ways, your methods. I'll even give you my daughter as well, a new Batgirl and Robin for a Stark. A fair trade no?"

Shang-Chi petrified by what was happening and could only glance back and forth between his father and Batman. Xialing who was all of six looked suddenly much older, the shock at her father's offer was evident although the coldness in her eyes, told everyone she was more shocked he offered Shang-Chi than her. Batman however quickly recovered.

"They don't understand, they don't know what an honour, what a privilege being taught by you is. What it would turn them into." Wenwu's smile deepened as he took Batman's silence as an indicator that he now had the upper hand. "A truly great warrior is a man who is not only skilled but can impart his lessons to others. Your surviving apprentices are sights to behold. Barbara is still fighting despite her injuries, you sharpened her mind into such a weapon. Drake, that he still lives and survived his…. ordeals is a testament to the strength you gave him. And that isn't even mentioning the greatest amongst them, Grayson. The man is a force, an absolute warrior, your first Robin has truly becom-"

"No," Batman stated as he stood up. The meal placed in front of him had remained untouched.

He knew what Wenwu wanted, it was the one few things that Bruce would never trade, that he could never give anyone again, not since Tim. Wenwu wanted vengeance on the men that killed his wife, but Bruce knew what he wanted more, his son to take over. He wanted the boy to be his successor, more than that, he wanted Shang-Chi to surpass him as every father wanted, and Bruce knew that feeling all too well. The offer was a trap. Trade the children for Stark, for Bruce to mentor, only for Wenwu to reclaim the two once they had learned the secrets which could turn them into unstoppable killers.

"Are you sure?"

Wenwu didn't even try to stand in the other man's way as he made for the door. He grinned. Bruce was still a sentimental fool even after all these years.

"From the reports I have, Tony Stark might not survive the week."

"Next time we meet, I'll break you." Bruce's hand flung open the sliding door to the courtyard with such force that the frame shattered against the wall, "And tell Nyssa I will find her."

"I'll be sure to do that." Wenwu called before focusing on his meal.

However, as Bruce left, Shang-Chi stared at him for a moment before refocusing on his father, a look of determination to make him proud. Both of them missed the reaction of the remaining person in the room. Xialing looked at her father for a moment and then to the shattered door and the retreating figure of the demon her father was letting leave. She was quick to look back at her plate when her father looked up and gave her only a moment of attention before refocusing on his son. He missed a look of amazement and determination.


(SHIELD Helicarrier - Secure Meeting Room- February 20th 2009)

"Sir, we don't have anything." Maria Hill finished her less-than-ideal report with a straight face to the silent room.

She resisted the urge to glance across the table at Coulson, knowing that he had been taking it in the teeth from their boss due to the lack of progress. SHIELD had been firing on all cylinders since the moment of Tony Stark's abduction over a week ago. Since that disaster, things had only gotten worse. Half the personnel in the agency were exhausted. The fact that SHIELD had missed a kidnapping plot for someone of Stark's importance didn't make them look great and it was made worse by the fact that they had zero actionable leads.

"I really want to stop hearing that." Fury sighed and rubbed his one good eye. Stark's casefile blinked at him both in front on his tablet and on the screen at the end of the conference room.

"It's been over a week, and all anyone can tell me is that he is likely being held somewhere in a 200-mile square radius of the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan, information my source gave me a week ago. The President is giving me a call in an hour, and the World Security Council is pushing for an update….. So does anyone have anything?"

No one so much as looked at each other, but the senior agents and leaders of the world's greatest spy organisation had no answers. Fury released a sigh as he looked over the frustratingly thin file that had barely grown from the information that Alfred had passed along from Bruce. It was good intel, solid intel, and had helped very much in narrowing down SHIELD's activities in tracing Stark, but it had still stalled. They lacked critical information on Tony's kidnapper: a criminal empire that had been on SHIELD's radar for a long time but in truth wasn't high on their list since they operated very under the radar. They had never been a big player, or at least didn't appear to be.

The Ten Rings had been around a long time from what SHIELD had picked up, but the name was mentioned either as a ghost story or a middling player. They had connections all over the world but largely were based in Asia. They had largely fallen off of SHIELD's remit because for about the last decade they had appeared to be dismantling their own influence and they had hardly engaged in any criminal activity. So their sudden appearance in one of the world's most unstable regions, organised under SHIELD's nose into a highly-skilled, well-funded and heavily armed unit that blitzed a heavily armoured and secret convoy, that had just added insult to injury.

"Sir, I think we should start managing expectations." Mitchell Carson, SHIELD's head of defence was the first to speak up, glancing at his colleagues before continuing. "These terrorists have made no further demands after announcing they took Stark, who was heavily injured in the video. No follow-up, no ransom, no video of a beheading. Sir, I think we need to assume Stark is dead. The only option now is a massive area bombing of their camps, snuff out this threat before it can build further, Stark's death gives us the pretext to get involved."

"Wow, okay. Hold your horses there, John Wayne." Maria Hill called out, which clearly showed what she thought of the plan. "First off, we have no actual proof that Stark's dead and even if we did, the death of one American can't justify the level of response you're advocating. Secondly, those camps are either deep in mountainous terrain with air defences or surrounded by civilian human shields. The only targets we could hit would kill hundreds, possibly thousands, of innocents in the crossfire."

"That's why I would suggest we get the US military to do it. They loved Stark, and besides, SHIELD is clandestine anyway; we couldn't engage in something on that scale." Mitchell leaned forward as he pitched his idea to the table, but mainly Fury. "When this is all over we can argue that the failure is the US military's anyway, yes we underestimated the threat and will own that but they are the ones who let Stark fly into and then ride through a warzone. We can even have the idea for the cleanup come from the inside, there's a few Generals who owe us favours."

"That's a great idea, we compensate for our intelligence failure by tricking the US into a massive bombing campaign." Coulson spoke up looking at Mitchell before addressing the rest of the table hoping to get enough support to crush the idea quickly. "I'm sure that will in no way cause us more headache in the future, because we all know the US government never has a leak, especially around foreign interventions based on shaky intelligence."

The barb raised a chuckle amongst most of the gathered leadership, causing Carson to scowl at Coulson. Even Fury smirked a little at the comment since he wasn't a huge fan of Carson anyway. The man was a holdover from Peggy's era and was largely in place due to seniority rather than skill. Fury calmed himself before casting a glance around the room and saw despite Coulson's comment the room wasn't universally against Carson's proposal.

"Whilst I don't agree with the whole idea, and do think a retaliation is a step too far..." Jasper Sitwell raised his hand before quickly lowering it when the action caused Hill to raise an eyebrow, Sitwell was new to the inner briefings so was still finding his feet "Carson is right, I think we have to assume the worst with Stark."

"I agree. What we should do is -" Hauer started to speak up; he was another member of the old guard left over from Peggy's day but was stopped by Fury's hard voice cutting in.

"Enough, I've heard enough, I'll decide before the end of the day on our stance regarding Stark. For now, everyone keep working your sources, we still have other cases and ops apart from this one so let's get back to work. Dismissed." Fury closed the thin file in front of him as the leadership of SHIELD quickly left, then raised a subtle hand to pause Hill from leaving. "Is he here?"

"Agent 37 is here sir, but he's….." Hill trailed off. She was never comfortable around or even discussing this member of SHIELD's most clandestine agents.

"Not happy?" Fury guessed with a chuckle.

"No, he just finished in Bolivia and he came straight here. Complained about not having a shower or sleep yet." Hill's tone stayed professional and neutral as she suppressed a sigh before giving her boss a nod. "He's in the hangar, I'll bring him now."

"Good," Fury merely turned his attention away from his second-in-command who took the signal and left. Only a few moments passed before he spoke again.

"You know, this loses its mystique after the first few hundred times, after that it just makes you seem like an asshole."

"Sorry sir," He turned to the sound of the steady yet ever-pleasant voice of Agent 37, or as Fury personally knew him, Dick Grayson, "Old habits die hard, and as of 3 hours ago I didn't think I would be in this meeting….. I take it this isn't about Bolivia?"

Dick smoothly took the seat to Fury's right on the table that Hill had been occupying. Despite being in his early 40s the man still looked good, and every time Fury saw him he still had to shake away the image of the teenager he first met working under Peggy, adorned in a dark red and green suit, leaping through the air with a laugh as he dodged bullets. The sidekick had always looked short and somewhat skinny next to his mentor, which Fury always thought was unfair on the man who was nonetheless built like an Olympic athlete. Agent 37's figure was imposing to most but Bruce's hulking frame and near freakish height had made Dick always seem like a child next to him.

However, the boy wonder of his youth was also clearly gone, Dick still looked good for his age but he had a streak of grey that tinged his otherwise jet-black hair, which Fury knew was a result of years of stress. His smile was also different; when they first met Dick had had such a carefree smile and was nearly perpetually happy. Now the expression was just seen as charming or flirtatious when he wanted, which he credited as his best asset in gaining trust, but to those skilled in detecting emotions it was clearly hollow. The biggest change for the ex-Robin was his partially-scarred left eye which had a noticeable paleness and was surrounded by a ring of shallow marks. Of course he looked good, the damage was barely noticeable, and no one who didn't already know could have guessed that Dick had survived being shot in the head, something no one had expected him to survive much less keep his eye.

"No, it isn't," Fury refocused and pushed the file over, which was promptly speed-read at a pace he had only seen Barbara and Bruce match. "What do you make of it?"

"It's certainly a non-ideal situation, created by a lapse of intelligence compounded by overestimation of asset management with a highly negative outcome ratio based on available options." came the reply as the file closed, having been processed in a few seconds flat.

"And in layman's terms?" Fury asked keeping his good eye fixed on Dick. He wanted the man's honest unfiltered opinion without the bureaucratic jargon that always bogged down SHIELD's mission reports.

"In layman's terms, sir, it's a clusterfuck. Intel sources are slim to none, and there's no significant assets or contact in that sector. That's because the only people interested in this region are the Ten Rings, aside from that the area's worthless." Dick gave the frank and honest assessment as he reached out a scarred hand and grabbed the jug of water on the table no one had touched and poured himself a glass. "It would take a few months to build up a proper local network, which is time we don't have to help rescue a man who's in all likelihood dead."

"Barbara came to the same conclusion." Fury admitted. He didn't really like Stark but no one deserved to die scared and alone, bleeding to death in a cave in a warzone."She assessed the video, couldn't use it to find him but from the appearance of his wounds and signs of torture due to the car battery strapped to his chest it didn't look good. She estimated he died a few days after the video was made, unless they were keeping a renowned surgeon in the cave with him."

"Babs is usually right." Dick kept his eyes fixed on Fury who had looked away as he ran a hand over his head in frustration at the poor outcome of events. "I didn't come here for an assessment though, what do you want me to do sir?" Fury held up an aerial photograph and tapped it.

"If I gave you carte blanche, whatever you asked for, whatever team you would need, could you infiltrate these mountain strongholds then find Stark and extract him?" He pointed to the t dozen red circles adorned on it indicating the suspected enemy bases.

The room fell silent. Dick just stared at the reconnaissance photos and the very limited reports that were in front of him. Fury didn't push or prod. He had learnt over the years just how valuable Dick was to SHIELD and that the man didn't take any more time than absolutely necessary. He saw a frown that quickly vanished as the other man returned to his analysis, and Fury could guess its cause. Although the rest of SHIELD was in the dark as to who gave Fury his intel on the Ten Rings, Dick could recognise the marks and methods of his mentor, and no matter the circumstances that topic always brought out a grimace.

"That depends on how you want me to answer," Dick finally lifted his heavy gaze from the files in front of him, "As an experienced and high ranking SHIELD agent to the Director? Or as a trusted advisor speaking honestly to an old friend?"

"Well, what would you say to the Director?" Fury was starting to weigh risk and opportunity.

"I would say it would take quite a few resources and a number of highly skilled agents, but I could achieve the objective, not with a certainty of success mind you, but with a high probability as long as Stark is alive." His voice was devoid of emotion like a true agent. "Although there would be a lot of casualties and we would likely lose a few agents, and the noise we would create would need a lot of cover."

"And to a friend?" Fury lifted his gaze from the file, already knowing the answer as Dick sighed.

"I would say, we lost this one Nick, and that's sometimes how it goes. Cost's too high and the timeframe's too tight." He let out a deep breath as he closed the file and leaned back into his seat to rub his bad eye. "It might suck but that's the truth, Stark's not worth the kind of response this would need, the casualties we'd incur… and I hate to say it, he's likely dead."

Nick looked at the closed file before letting out a sigh as his mind made the final calculated cost and came to the same conclusion. "You're right. It doesn't make the conversation for the rest of the day any easier."

"I know," Dick gave a regretful look before glancing around the room, "Surprised you didn't have Nat and Barton sit in, they would be number 1 & 2 on the list of teammates I'd pick.

"Barton took some leave at his doctor's insistence, his last op went bad," Fury filed away the Stark failure as he slipped into a rare casual conversation with a friend. "And Natasha is on desk duty for a while. She overstepped the mark and is making it up to me."

"Well I love to see the Black Widow sat behind a desk in a cubicle, is she pulling duty here or at the Hub?" Dick chuckled with a little of his old youthful energy.

"She's working with Barbara in the server room just down the hall… You could go and see her?" Fury's statement caused Dick to freeze in the middle of taking a sip of water, he took a slight breath before deciding to try to push the younger man towards something he needed. " When was the last time you two saw each other?"

"I saw Natasha 2 months ago," Dick stated, placing the glass down and when he saw the look Fury gave him with a raised eyebrow he tried to improve his fumbling cover. "Barbara and I spoke a few days ago, she sends mission updates and intel. She's the oracle of SHIELD after all, so we talk quite often."

"And when was the last time you saw her? You know, in person? Not a disguised voice on a secure line or words on screen giving intel?" Fury pushed. Normally he stayed well away from personal issues and problems but he knew scars well and knew that neither Dick nor Barbara had a healthy role model to follow here.

Dick didn't answer, instead he just glanced away like he was a boy once more, hand in the cookie jar, unable to meet Alfred's gaze. He quickly grabbed his glass and drained the last of the water like it was closing time at the bar before standing up and looking straight ahead. He let out a small sigh and tapped the side of his slightly off-coloured eye.

"You knew when I last saw her, it was the last day Nightwing lived, the last day I could see clearly with both eyes, the last day…the last day my brother didn't spend in a mental hospital." Dick's calmness was defeated by his heavy breathing and that his right hand had become a clenched fist "I understood the decision she made, Br-...he is a…..I get it okay? But that doesn't mean I have to agree with it or condone it,"

"She did leave Dick, it took her a little longer but she did leave, and is that time really worth punishing either of yourselves over?" Fury didn't attempt subtlety or gentleness; it just wasn't in him and Dick wouldn't respond to that anyway.

There was no answer. The younger agent just looked away again before shaking his head and then marched straight out of the conference room past Hill. Her eyes widened for a moment and turned to say something but stopped when Fury raised a hand and gave her a shake of his head. Fury didn't otherwise react to the departure. He knew going in that that would be the result of his attempt to patch up an old wound and he was too busy to wallow in sentiment and feelings. He looked down and saw that he had only 20 minutes before the President's call. On top of that, he still had to approve about a dozen or so ops. A director's job was never done.

Dick was in a haze trying to calm the mental storm he was in. He didn't blame Fury for the attempt at reconciliation, it was his job as the head of SHIELD to make sure his senior staff could work together and as a personal friend to try and get him moved past this. But this was one of the few topics that his usual ultra-rational mind just refused to be even remotely logical. The whole thing set his nerves on fire and brought a sensation like an ice pick to his damaged eye. A petty part of him screamed that it was Barbara who should make the effort since she had been in the wrong after everything they went through, after everything Bru-... after everything that had happened she stayed. She had left him!

But as he started to slow, that side was quickly shoved back into its dark box alongside the less-than-savoury things he had yelled at her over the phone, the fight he had picked at the worst time. Before he could register it he suddenly found himself stopping in front of a very plain very simple door that for him might as well as been on fire and the simple sign on it that read "Server Room". For it might as well have said 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here'. His right hand was raised as he stared ahead ready to push it open and finally deal with the past once and for all.

'Come on Dick! You've jumped into forest fires, dove into burning buildings, you've fought Mr. Freeze, Penguin, and Two face.' Dick took a deep breath as he readied himself for a reunion long overdue, and for the apology he owed. 'God, it's been 18 years since you saw her, 18 years since Ti- He ha he he ha ha ha HA HA HA HA!"

Dick's eyes widened in shock as he turned around as the laughter sounded behind him, the awful piercing guffaw that kept him up at night and stalked the corner of his mind when he was awake. However, there was nothing there, the corridor was empty, and there was neither a sign of the clown nor his brother, just an empty corridor populated only by the ghosts of Dick's mind. The ex-robinhalf turned and looked at the closed door before resuming his walk this time aiming for the hangar and a ride away from here.

Meanwhile, Barbara just looked at the security footage before glancing away as she released a sigh. The apprehension at seeing Dick outside this very room had vanished, and now there was a dull ache of emptiness. She glanced at the dark alcove in the corner of the room that held the set of drawers that contained her memories of the past.

"So you know Grayson?" Barbara found her spell broken by Nat who walked up beside her, her eyes too on the figure of the retreating operative.

"And how did you know he wasn't coming to see you?" Barbara retorted as she wheeled away from the screens and over to one of the servers that she was debugging, a task that Nat was supposed to be helping with.

"Because I've met the great Agent 37 a few times, even worked with him one time and I did nothing to warrant that level of response." Nat stated as she leaned on Barbara's desk her back to the screen as she watched her friend work on the Server tower "You two aren't sleeping together, are you? Because I thought things were getting serious with that DA of yours, Sam right?"

"Nat! I am not sleeping with Dick!" Barbara turned in shock as she stared at the ex-Russian spy who just looked at her with a smirk. Nat raised an eyebrow.

"Dick?" The Cheshire grin grew bolder at the blood that rushed to her friend's cheeks involuntarily. "First name basis? And oh my, that blush. So you two have a history? A personal one?"

"You know your recent snooping got you into a world of trouble, that would have landed you in the lighthouse in the best-case scenario." Barbara turned back to focus on her work and hating that she had volunteered to have Nat assigned to her for the widow's period of reprimand from Fury, "You're lucky you have value and the information you gave Fury was of some use."

"I'll admit I got lucky there, but that still doesn't change the fact that you are avoiding the question." She tilted her head at her old friend who was trying to look like she was too focused on her work to take notice. "Just like you haven't told me how you know the former Director of SHIELD? Or generally anything about your past… You even knew Bruce Wayne was Batman, didn't you? I'm guessing you worked for him?"

Barbara didn't response, instead she just set down the tablet on her lap as she just stared off into the distance. Nat didn't say anything as she knew the look on Nat's face it was one she had seen on more than a few Agents faces and on nearly every widow's face at one time or another. She was lost in a memory, a very painful one that in this moment was more real to hear than the servers, her tablet even Nat herself.

It was a few moments of intense silence before Barbara finally reacted turning her chair with one hand to face her friend before she released small sigh. She was tired of not talking about it, nearly 2 decades had pased, year after year of bearing the pain, of trying to move on, of never speaking about it and what had it accomplished?

"Bruce was my mentor, he taught me everything I know. Computers, hacking, reading people, following leads." Barbara admitted her eyes not really looking at Nat as she spoke about her past for the first time in years. "Before I was in this chair, he also taught me how to move like a cat in the night, how to blend in with shadows. If you had met me then, oh you should have seen me. I was good Nat, I was amongst the best. Only Dick and Bruce were better than me "

"Bruce was his mentor?" Nat asked looking at her friend, hearing a very rare tone of pride in her voice from the usually playful but ever humble analyst.

Barbara shook her head a small chuckle leaving her lips. "Oh no. I was just a student, Dick he was…..he was everything to Bruce once. The two were inseparable, Dick followed Bruce everywhere, and Bruce taught him everything."

"Can I ask what happened?" Nat's question caused her friend to break out of her spell a look regret and pain on her face as took in a deep breath to continue.

"At first time, time happens to everyone. Bruce started to train Dick when he was 9, he grew up and eventually want to be his own ma-" Barbara found herself cut off by Nat's

"WIAT! WHAT?! He started training at 9, like as a kid?" Nat's outburst was accompanied by a shock and a paleness to her face, she had experienced being used as a child and it was one of the few things that she couldn't hide her disgust at.

"Oh yeah, that's not my tale but Bruce had good reasons for why he took Dick on. Maybe that was the problem, Bruce always had reasons….they were always good, they just never ended well," Barbara wheeled herself forward so she was in front of her monitors and next to Nat who half turned to face her friend's side.

"Babs you don't have to -" Nat tried to place a hand on her friend's shoulder but stopped as Barbara continued her story.

"Dick grew up, he wanted to be his own man, after he left Bruce took on Jason, that ended….badly. Jason died along with a few friends during a mission to Russia in 87. For a few years, they didn't talk no one did really…..Then came Tim Drake."

Barbara suddenly had a smile on her face that Nat had very rarely seen, it was so real so powerful she found herself smiling. Barbara was silent for a few moments as she just looked into the distance like she was watching the memories of far better times play out in front of her.

"Tim was young, energetic, so smart, he came to Bruce, he figured out he was Batman somehow and begged him to let join Said Batman needed a Robin. Bruce said no, of course, everything with Jason had made him bitter, more bitter but Tim, oh Tim he just kept at it. Until Bruce, eventually let him join. Dick was furious of course when he learnt Bruce had started again, came racing from Blüdhaven ready to stop it all. Ready to raise hell"

"I'm guessing he didn't?" Nat prodded her friend, interested in the story but was more enjoying the happiness she was seeing her friend display.

"No, no. Tim was…..infectious. Turned out we really did need a Robin. Tim brought us back together. For a time it was perfect, the past was forgotten but we were in a good place we were honouring the memory of those we lost. The future was so clear, Bruce would carry on until he couldn't, Dick would take over, Tim would take Dick's place, and then Dick would take his own Robin. It was so….so perfect, the family,"

"What happened?" Nat heard the tremor in Barbara's voice and saw the smile slowly but invariably fall from her face, as a dark shadow lingered there.

"Things went wrong…..one bad day." Barbara stared at the wall before closing her eyes, shifting as she felt the old wound on her spine shiver. "There was this….monster, he um…it was bad, Tim he….he got hurt, changed, we, we…..failed to get to him in time. Me and Dick ended up shot, it wasn't Tim's fau-...I lost my legs and Dick….I thought he was dead, he was laying next to me."

The room fell silent for a few moments Barbara forced herself to let this out, feeling the weight of a lifetime of pain starting to lift from her chest.

"I don't know exactly what happened, a loss a lot of blood, and I…..I was….I didn't see what happened. All I know is the monster that tore my family apart, he died, Dick survived due to Bruce spending a fortune and Tim…..he lives in the Ravencroft Institute now, I send him a postcard at Christmas, visit when I can"

"Is that when you left?" Nat pressed gently moving to place a comforting on Barbara's shoulder which she placed her own grateful hand over.

"No, I um….I stayed after that, for a few years it wasn't the same. Bruce was different. Darker, more Bat than man." Barbara sighed remembering her blind devotion to a man who couldn't accept what she had offered and could never give her what she needed or wanted "It took me a few years but I left, Fury offered me a job and here I am."

"Can I ask why did you stay?" Nat asked as her friend repositioned herself as Nat removed her hand to face the ex-Russian "I mean, I've seen him fight, met the man, he's impressive, but he doesn't strike as a man that inspires the devotion you showed him."

"Bruce…Bruce is a man of iron. He's cold, rigid, inflexible will break before he ever bends and is possibly insane." Barbara admitted feeling her anger flare up for a second before a calm cool breath steadied her. "But it's that iron in him that makes you….makes you want to follow him. To prove yourself to him, to show this, this force of a nature that you can do it, you can do what he can….that you are strong enough to stare into the abyss."

"You make him sound like a cult leader," Nat's statement was given with genuine concern in her voice, looking at her friend who wasn't speaking anywhere her usual rational self.

"Maybe you're right. Maybe, that's all Bruce Wayne ever was, a crazy man who indoctrinated a bunch of lonely kids into believing in him, to join his family, his cult of the Batman," Barbara admitted with a sad chuckle, she had sometimes wondered the same thing in the years since she left him, "Or maybe Bruce was always right. That the, in the end, we really didn't understand…the darkness"


(March 1st 2009 - Ten Ring Command Centre - Hindu Kush, Afghanistan)

"You should have killed the Doctor." The soft woman's voice echoed slightly off of the cave walls as she traced a light finger over the antique weapons on display on one of the walls

"You are here as a guest, nothing more." Raza Hamidmi al-Wazar commander of the Ten Rings in Afghanistan was fast running out of patience with his guest "We are grateful you told us who we were attacking but that doesn't mean you get to order us to do anything. Al Ghul or not we obey only one man"

"It's actually Raatko, I haven't used my father's name in about a century" Nyssa replied scoffing at some of the clearly fake antiques she was seeing, turning to face the bald warlord "And I'm not giving orders, suggestions. Trust me you'll know the difference if I do."

"Understood, but I can ask why are you still here?" Raza shifted, he wasn't used to having his authority challenged and would love to put the lone woman in her place but he knew the reaction that would cause. "We are grateful for your introduction to Stane, for the weapons, for Stark, but why are you still here?"

"I'm waiting," Nyssa replied casually moving over to look at the monitors that displayed the mountain fortress, her eyes going to Stark's cell where he and his fellow captive were fast at work assembling something just out of frame her eyes lingering on the glowing circle in his chest.

"For?" Raza pushed, his eyes glancing at the screen, a swell of pride as he saw Stark starting to finish the missile, his threat to kill him by the end of the day was paying off.

"An old acquaintance," Nyssa's voice continued to be dismissive as she narrowed her eyes at Stark, her instincts told her something was off.

"What acqu-" Raza leaned forward his eyes narrowing at the woman who had long overstayed her welcome.

"What is he doing?" Nyssa turned pointing to the screens that showed Stark's prison, which now didn't show Stark or their captive doctor.

Raza stood up and moved over to the monitor's his eyes raked over all of them, he moved his hands to the camera's controls and started moving a few only for him to see the edge of something. He could see half of his captive doctor standing in profile as he started to strap metal and equipment to something. He tried to move the few other cameras in the cell but couldn't see Stark at all.

"Khalid!" Raza yelled grabbing his AK-47 from his desk, the lieutenant quickly appeared, "Get to Stark! NOW!"

The young man nodded and rushed off yelling for a number of his men to follow him. Raza turned his attention back to the monitors, watching as Khalid raced to the doors quickly opening the eye slit to peer inside. There was a brief moment as their captive doctor Yinsen started yelling something to Khalid who just got madder, before he took out his keys to unlock the door. Khalid started to place the keys in the door and forced them open, that was when everything shook.

BOOM!

The monitors in the cell went dead as the sound of the explosion rocked through the entire cave system. Nyssa remained impassive as she watched Raza curse before rushing out the room hefting his gun and screaming orders for his men to follow. Nyssa just took a seat and leaned back putting her feet on the table as she watched this play out, although the cell's monitors were out she could see men streaming all over the base to converge on the cell. She smiled as she suddenly saw the doctor running down a corridor firing a gun blindly as he went causing several of men to run away, the scene ended predictably as the untrained man rounded a corner and found himself outgunned.

She didn't watch the result as that screen flickered with gunfire, her eyes were looking for any trace of why she was really here. She had set all of this up to draw out a very particular foe, an old one and someone she needed to get to before age diminished him further. Khufaash, her sister's lover had been the one man who had ever matched her father, she had fought against both for years, her father out of hatred and Khufaash because he kept getting in her way. A decade ago even she wouldn't have dared to try to draw him out like this, although she didn't like him the man was good, the best. Now, however, he was slower older, and diminished, she had read the report on his attack on her smugglers and knew now was the time. She had to seize him now before age took him to a place where trying to lure him out like this would kill him rather than tire him to the point she could catch him.

Her musing was stopped as the lights above her flickered before draining completely, the monitors too went black as all the power in the cave fortress went down. She smiled, her hands retrieving her daggers from her side as she stood up, either something had drained the power or more likely someone had cut it. She would admit she was impressed, she hadn't spotted him and didn't think he was ruthless enough to sacrifice someone to distract the guards but Khufaash was here. Nearly 60 and he was still surprising her, how he had infiltrated the base and reached the cell she didn't know.

'Perhaps the Doctor had just been overzealous on his part or something had gone wrong Talia's beloved never liked bloodshed' She mused as she moved through the tunnels, hering the sounds of battle and gunfire. Her daggers set and traced with poison to subdue her old foe, ready to entact her revenge 'Just one cut and a little exertion and I'll have him then, it's just getting him to my pi-'

Her mind stopped as she spotted corpses, the tunnel had seen a massive firefight and it was clear that the Ten Ring's soldiers were losing, badly. There were massive deep boot prints going down the hall towards the exit and the sound of gunfire, she looked at the bodies and saw bullet wounds and evidence of a flamethrower. Nyssa frowned as she started moving more swiftly down the hall, this wasn't Khufaash, sure he was slower now and had to rely on brute force but this was a massacare and he didn't do those.

"Well you not Khufaash," Nyssa halted as she reached the main entrance and saw the perpetrator of the attack firing a wrist-mounted machine gun on one hand and a flame thrower on the other, annihilating the forces in front of him. "Who are you?"

Nyssa holstered her daggers and slinked back as she examined the large metal man-made from wrought iron and salvaged steel. She quickly deduced it was a suit of some kind, it was a very clunky design, lacking elegance and was crude but that didn't take away from its effectiveness. As the metal man turned to fire a rocket from one of his wrists that blew Raza into a wall as the man fire at the killing machine, she saw a bright circle of light in its chest.

The metal man quickly moved towards the sunlight of the entrance ignorant of her presence as he moved out of the cave to a hail of bullets that did nothing. She moved forward slightly just in time to watch the metal man fire at the men outside his bullets and fire setting off the huge stockpile of weapons they had. Nyssa raised a hand as she felt the heat reach her, she gave an impressed smile as following the impressive explosion the large metal-suited man suddenly took off flying into the sky and freedom.

"Well Mr Stark, that was unexpected," Nyssa heard a gasp of pain causing her turn and see Raza was still breathing albeit badly burned and bruised, she took out one of her knives and threw it squarely in between the man's eyes killing him before turning back to the cave entrance. "Very unexpected but….not unwelcomed,"

Nyssa turned back around and started heading back into the cave system retracing Stark's route to his cell and wondering what treasure he might have left behind in his flight to freedom.


(Wayne Enterprises India Division Aerodrome and Proving Ground - Northern India - March 3rd 2009)

"Master Wayne!" Alfred rushed as fast as he could the hot indian heat not helping him at all as he moved through the deserted private hangar that Bruce was using to store his equipment "Master Wayne!"

"I know what you are going to say, Alfred, we've been over this I'm going alone," Bruce replied not looking up as he carefully placed more darts into his suit's gauntlets and started to repair the damage the chest area had taken during his assault on Wenwu's fortress, "I know it's a three-person job as a minimum, but I'm just going to have to rely on the element of surprise to make up the difference."

"No sir, it's-" Alfred took a moment to catch his breath, as he reached the workbench that Bruce was using to patch up his Batsuit.

"I don't want to hear it Alfred," Bruce cut off his butler, sighing as he started to charge up the suit's inbuilt tasers whilst also looking for the smoke pellets for his belt, "You wanted me to help, this is me helping. I swear if Howard was still alive I would -"

"He escaped!" Alfred loudly announced knowing it was the only way to get through to Bruce when he was in work mode, he moved forward and gave Bruce the pad he was holding that had a live News report on it. "Stark alive, he's back in the US at Edwards Air Force Base in California right now,"

"SHIELD?" Bruce asked looking at the live images of Tony being escorted to a car one arm in a sling, Pepper, Happy and Stane quickly following him.

"No, they are just as shocked as everyone," Alfred stated before he moved his hand and tapped the pad's screen which changed to show aerial photos of a destroyed mountain stronghold "Then there's that, someone took out the command centre Stark was being held at. Levelled the entire cave network, destroyed the stockpile of weapons and scattered the forces,"

"What's Stark saying?" Bruce examined the photos his eyes examining the photos for any sign of a clue but they were too high up to give him any details.

"Nothing, but…." Alfred suddenly trailed off as he released a sigh.

"But?" Bruce glanced at his former guardian and oldest friend who had a contemplative look on his face.

"I'm not sure if it is anything. One of my sources in the US Army Medical Corp said the report on Stark was strange," Alfred relayed the minimum information that his source had given about Stark, he was still getting information in and was still waiting for more details "It said something about a support apparatus embedded in his chest."

"Support apparatus?" Bruce asked the question to himself more than Alfred, recalling everything he knew about Stark's medical status knew he didn't have anything like a pacemaker implanted, "Get are things in order we are heading back as soon as possible."

"Yes, sir, Las Vegas or Gotham?" Alfred asked so he knew what preparations needed to be made, as Bruce's party had been carrying on in his absence and had in fact been extended to give him cover.

"Vegas, take back over from the doubles and then Califorina," Bruce announced placing the pad on the table as he turned his attention back to his suit's repair. "I want to see Stark myself, welcome the prodigal son home,"