Chapter 5 - Prodigal Son

Children. They are the world to any parent, they become more than the world, one desires both to give them it and would destroy it as well, all for their sake.

I knew Alfred often thought when I was younger that I would have some of my own one day, future Waynes to carry on the grand legacy of the family name.

In the end that is what children exist for is it not? A legacy, something that is both for them and that they themselves are? We create a world for them to inherit, one that we never get to see but can imagine more clearly than we can see with our own eyes.

It is ironic, however, that in an effort to make a world for them we usually create the very thing that most people dread and fear. We create our own replacements, people who are destined to take our place, to take all we have created and then repeat the process again.

In the end, it all comes down to children and what parents are willing to do for them.

(Wayne Enterprises R&D Complex - Los Angeles, USA - March 10th 2009)

"It's an honour to have you here, sir" The executive was almost physically tripping over himself as he walked alongside Bruce. "If we knew you were coming I would have arranged more comprehensive demonstrations that really showed you our successes…"

"Then that would've defeated the purpose of a surprise inspection." Bruce replied, not missing a beat as his eyes kept focus straight ahead, "Now, show me some of these projects we've been paying for."

He privately admitted that this was his favourite mask and the one that most closely resembled his true self. Bruce Wayne the businessman wasn't the hard-partying playboy that had to act the fool or the wounded philanthropist that others cynically saw as doling out cash to cover up his drunken antics while chasing the memory of his dead parents. No, this persona was all facts, figures, judgement calls, and strategy that he had taken years to perfect. In the world of business he was respected, admired and feared in equal measures. Sure, most CEOs thought him an ass and drunk but anyone worth their salt didn't underestimate him when it came to negotiations or management skills.

He quickly glanced around the sunny, ultra-modern and spacious R&D complex that looked worlds away from the company's headquarters in Gotham. Wayne Enterprises had built the original facility back in the 70s, when it had started out as the new WayneTech division, to keep up with the growing pace of the technology market. Bruce remembered breaking ground on the new site when it had been a single office building next to a factory that built bulky computers. Now, looking around at the now massive sprawling complex with gardens, water features and other amenities he suddenly felt….. old. There wasn't anyone close to his age around the campus; they all looked to be in their 20s and the only one dressed in a suit was the department head who looked barely more than a kid himself with an outfit that looked like he had just thrown it on.

"Oh you will definitely find this interesting sir," The voice caused him to refocus as they moved inside and were greeted by a room full of people on laptops. "This is our coding room, where we're fast tracking the development of new apps."

"Apps?" Bruce asked as he moved forward his eyes examining the lines of code on one of the laptops he could see.

"Oh, um, it stands for application, they're programs on your phone or laptop that can do things." The young man explained trying to keep the nerves out of his voice, "It's mostly for young pe-"

"I know what apps are." Bruce stated, cutting him off with a look, "Which programs are we making? What do they do for our customers?"

"Ah, yes of course. Um, well, mostly they are … games." The man winced trying to recover from putting his foot in his mouth whilst also attempting to make the purpose of the room full of coders more meaningful. "They're really popular. The top 3 of the most-played apps are ours, and they've gotten high reviews from both players and critics."

"Games?" Bruce raised an eyebrow before sighing and shaking his head, turning around to continue the tour. "Very well. Show me what else my money is apparently being spent on."

The rest of the tour proceeded very much as Bruce expected it to, with the young executive fumbling his way around the building trying not to insult his boss who he clearly thought was an ignorant dinosaur. Eventually however, Bruce was able to end the young man's and his own suffering once they had seen most of the facility by feigning tiredness. He briefly glanced at the retreating figure of the young executive, before refocusing on what had really brought him all this way: the Arc Reactor unit that was one of only two in the world.

Bruce examined the large structure that was at the heart of both the WayneTech campus as well as the quiet empty room that it sat in. Apart from the occasional check up every few days, the Arc Reactor was self-sustaining and didn't require constant monitoring, which was one of its biggest selling points from the beginning along with its lack of emissions and harmful byproducts. These had been underscored by its huge production cost, the necessity of very rare minerals, and limited energy output, which meant that overall the Arc Reactor just wasn't cost effective. Bruce remembered the days, weeks, months even, that he, Lucius, Howard and Anton had poured into the project. Howard had been convinced that it was just a first step to a much grander project, something that was going to change the world, but that dream had died due to the age they lived in.

"It's still quite something, isn't it?" Bruce turned and smiled at the man he had come to see, Lucius Fox Jr. or, as he liked to be called, Luke.

"Still remember when Dad first showed it to me. I thoughtI was looking at an alien spaceship."

"How is your father?" Bruce paused to look up at the large structure before turning back to the middle aged African-American man who to his eyes still looked like the young boy his father used to carry on his shoulders around the labs.

"He's good. Bored most of the time, and the nurses have to stop him tinkering with the machines when he wants to improve them" Luke chuckled, moving over next to Bruce and leaning on the railing that surrounded the reactor. "He misses the work. Still sends me ideas, things that would help with… that special project of yours"

"I'm sure he does," Bruce allowed a rare genuine smile to grace his lips as looked at the man that looked like the spitting image of his father.

"It's good to see you Bruce, though I never thought I'd see you in the sunshine state. When I moved out here I truly thought we'd never meet in person again unless I came back to Gotham." Luke gave his own smile, liking that Bruce was for once allowing for a little bit of human conversation instead of focusing solely on business. "Tiffany'd love to see you, she still asks about her great uncle. But I think all she really remembers are the presents you use to buy her and that party you threw when she was six….. I still believe the ponies were a bit much"

"Well, I might be able to stop by the house and say hi if I can get the time." Bruce's smile started to withdraw as he glanced at the reactor and remembered his reason for being this far from Gotham.

"We can go see her now, actually. Her lab is right down that corridor. Bruce, you know she works here now, right?" Luke turned with a raised eyebrow at his boss who blinked in surprise at the information. "She's 22, graduated, got her own apartment and a boyfriend I hate. Time moves on."

"Yes….. yes it does," Bruce whispered, briefly lost in the past before he quickly pushed those thoughts aside and refocused on the present. "Tell me what you know about Arc Reactor technology."

There it was. Luke didn't bother to sigh. He knew it was only a matter of time before the mission of the bat took its place again, so he just turned to look at the highly expensive generator.

"Well it was a little before my time, but it's under the WayneTech umbrella so I've long since covered the basics: The first real modern attempt at clean renewable energy, Howard Stark's private obsession since the end of WW2. Initially an independent Stark Industries project started in the late 60s before becoming the only joint venture between Stark Industries and Wayne Enterprises."

Luke summarised all that he could remember of the apparent "vanityproject" that the press and investors had ridiculed as the world's biggest lightbulb. He never appreciated the sentiment of the remark or the shade it cast on his father for his part in the project, it was hard to say it was wrong. The whole project had been monumentally expensive and had resulted in only 3 working units ever built, of which only 2 still existed and for no real reason other than sentiment.

"Development went on for most of the 70s, the science was groundbreaking but practical applications fell far short of desires. Largely abandoned by the 80s, and since then no one except bored physics students and PopSci magazine writers have paid it any notice. The high production cost totaled nearly 2 years' profits, the need to use palladium didn't help either. In short, a nice idea but a dead end."

"Would it be possible for the unit to be miniaturised?" Bruce asked his eyes trained on the reactor now. This was the reason he had come: to pick Luke's brains on this exact topic,. He knew that while he was amongst the smartest men alive, his knowledge wasn't universal and advanced theoretical physics was an area he would need to seek advice on.

"Depends? How small are we talking?" Luke now looked at the machine with equations, numbers and diagrams running through his mind.

"About the size of my fist, but still producing nearly the same amount of energy as a full scale one," Bruce stated, his tone never wavering even as his statement caused Luke to shake his head.

"Ha!" The scientist couldn't help the snort that left his mouth at the ridiculous idea, shooting Bruce a quick apologetic look before clarifying his reaction "Sorry, but no. You'd run into a thousand, tens of thousands of issues, nearly all of which would cause the device to explode if ignored. Cooling a unit that small, heat distribution, radioactive isotope creation, unstable neutrino collision, just to name a few. An Arc Reactor that size just isn't pos-"

"Tony Stark built one." Bruce cut in as his hand slipped into his breast pocket and pulled out a small device that projected a holographic display of Tony's newest creation. "It works. He's been using it to power the medical equipment in his chest that is keeping him alive. This is from what I could access in his medical reports."

Luke didn't say anything for a few moments, his hand swiped the display going through all the data present. It wasn't comprehensive and Bruce hadn't managed to reach Stark yet since the man had disappeared from public view after his industry-shaking announcement of the new direction of his company. What data was present was still enough to conclude that Tony had realised what Howard, him, Anton, and Luke's father had failed at, he had created a portable fusion power source.

"….God damn, he did it, he really did it." Luke shook his head in awe and let out a low whistle at the marvel of technology. "I mean…How? This is incredible, it stumped the brightest minds in the world, including my father and you. Ignoring the impossible engineering advancements it would take, the physics alone is on par with splitting the atom. How in the world did Stark do it?"

"Need and desperation," Bruce replied, taking a moment to look at the equations himself and would admit that Stark had accomplished something truly remarkable, "For us it was simply a goal, something we wanted to achieve, but for him it was this or death. Necessity is the mother of invention. So, I take it this data confirms my suspicion?"

"I'd like a little more time to go through it but, from what I'm seeing, Stark has changed the world." Luke closed the projection as he slipped the device into his pocket for later review. "Even then, by the looks of it I would need the actual tech in front of me to recreate his work. I'm good, Bruce, but this is…."

"The future." Bruce stated. looking up at the reactor and remembering Howard's words: 'This is the key to the future'.

"Yeah, the future and so much more," Luke released a sigh as moved to leave the older man to his thoughts, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder before leaving.

"If you're still around in a day or two, do come round ….and I don't know what you've got planned, but I hope you keep an eye on Tony, when this gets out he's going to need a lot of protection."

Bruce watched the man leave and then quietly stood before the creation that held so much of his and Howard's hopes. He wasn't sure how long he stood there before he felt his phone buzz. Pulling it out, he was greeted by two messages, neither of which brought a smile to his face. The first was from his broker questioning his recent purchase order on the basis that Stark Industries' stock had dropped another 10 points; the company was in freefall. Bruce shot back a quick affirmative. The other brought a full scowl to his face, Obadiah Stane had wasted no time in contacting him once Tony made his announcement and the messages now were almost non-stop.

The message took a few moments to read, it was another one of Obadiah's updates and amendments to the proposal he had offered since the kidnapping. The other man was painting a picture of Tony and the future, a very one sided picture that Bruce didn't even want to think about let alone be a part of. Obadiah was putting a positive spin on things in public, but behind the scenes he was doing the opposite in an attempt to get the board to manoeuvre Tony out of the CEO position and himself in. He had succeeded at getting an injunction filed against the decision to shut down the weapons division and was doing everything he could to secure his position as the head of Stark Industries, which is where Bruce came in.

The easiest way for Obadiah to secure his position was actually fairly simple, he just had to own the most shares in the company. Although Tony held a majority stake, it was being diluted so gradually he wasn't wasn't aware of it and his position was slowly being chipped away. Something still in the way of a takeover, was that despite the fall in stock prices and more than a few eager sellers Obadiah just didn't have the raw capital to finance his coup. That was what had led to his current scheme.

Obadiah was proposing to steer panicked shareholders towards Bruce, who would offer them slightly above market price for their shares and in exchange Obadiah was offering to sell the reserve stock the company held to Bruce at well below market value. The whole plan was to first force Tony out and then when they were in a secure position merge Stark Industries and its holdings into Wayne Enterprises. Obadiah would take over as CEO from the semi-retired Lucius Fox, and the Wayne conglomerate's already dominant market position would become a de facto monopoly on many of the world's largest and most vital sectors. Stane would become the most powerful businessman on the planet, wielding more power than most governments, answering only to Bruce Wayne whose reputation of disinterest and other backroom dealings suited the act perfectly. The upside on Wayne's end would be that he would have a new highly capable and experienced businessman to take over from the ageing Lucius Fox and ascend to a level of wealth even greater than ever.

At the moment Bruce had committed to nothing, managing to walk a fine line that was keeping the conniving businessman coming to him while rebuffing him gently enough to not sour things completely. He had taken a few meetings with panicked Stark shareholders and purchased some stock to keep up the illusion, but nothing else. Almost all that Obadiah had done was confirm his suspicion that the man was behind Tony's abduction in the first place and was likely going to try something even bolder when he felt secure. Bruce was already working out ideas and plans to try and ensure that whatever Stane's next move was, he was going to be ready for it.

(Destroyed Ten Ring Command Centre - Hindu Kush, Afghanistan - April 20th 2009)

"We should not be here, mistress.''

The Ubu's voice was etched with concern as he stood closer to his charge while she watched his kin and her followers pore over the compound. "The Rings will return, their forces have already seized much in this region, and their leader is not pleased."

"Wenwu and I have an understanding, Raza was expendable, and besides, we aren't staying too much longer." Nyssa smiled at her Ubu whilst seated on her chair sipping a cup of tea that she gently placed on the table that had been arranged next to her. "The Rings may desire this region but it is of no concern to us. Once we have our prize then we shall depart,"

"Forgive me mistress but I do not understand, was this all not to seize Khuffash?" The Ubu questioned while his eyes raked over the scene as men combed over twisted metal, scorched rock and in the distance sifted through sand. "Your prize is in America, we should be there."

"Khuffash is still of interest, but my distraction here might have planted the seeds to something far more interesting," Nyssa traced a finger over the iron face mask that her men had already recovered. It brought a smile to her face, "Whilst the right warrior can win a war, a weapon will do just as easily. Now, get the men working on the double. I want to be out of here before sunset"

"Of course mistress." The Ubu gave a deep bow before moving off to ensure her will was carried out whilst Nyssa remained where she was.

Her eyes followed the servant before flicking back over the array of loyal warriors that had flocked to her personal banner over the years. She suspected more than a few were more truly loyal to her father, but that mattered little to her since Ra's al Ghul was as arrogant as he was heartless. This meant her father's loyalists were just meant to watch her. To the great Demon's Head, this was all a test, a trial for his wayward daughter to see if she was worthy to take his position. If she could kill him then she would become Ra's Al Ghul, and if not, then it was no matter. This was the game immortals played where human lives were as chess pieces and your own death was just a position on the board to be taken when it came due. Although she hated it, she knew she too was just a player and if she took out her father someone else would one day fill her position. Still, that didn't mean she wasn't going to enjoy the moment the monster that had abandoned her died at her hand.

She released a sigh as she watched her men drag the last few pieces of Stark's deadly creation from the sand over to her own team of engineers. Khuffash had been the prize initially. She had longed to bend the legend of the shadows to her will, time had decayed him just enough that she thought she could seize him, after which a few dozen immersions into her pit would do the trick. It had all been so perfect, Howard Stark's pup had wasted his life and arrogantly strode into a warzone at the behest of a man he thought of as a friend, perfect bait to lure the bat from his cave.

Sure she could have staged something in Gotham, but had seen enough fools attempt that over the years, even her father forbade any action in that place, no matter how small. It was Bruce's domain, he wasn't merely the prince of the city or just its guardian, it was an extension of himself, he knew every crack on every pavement, and every street was a vein that ran through him. No, attacking him in his home even at his current age was the height of folly and something she would do only if desperate.

Now, as she looked at the metal mask on the table and recalled the very interesting piece of news that her unwitting pawn Stane had relayed to her about a daring and explosive escape, she didn't feel desperate at all. She had seen the march of progress first hand, witnessed men create deadlier and more powerful weapons with each new war. But they had always paled in comparison to a true warrior since the greatest weapon was still only a tool and as her father had demonstrated any tool could be overcome by a true warrior. She had been met with this truth when her men and their weapons were faced with her father's devoted soldiers. . Even better equipped and armed, her father's men had torn apart her forces with little more than knives, arrows and their own fists.

Now however, here was something new that elevated warfare into a new realm. The idle, spoiled, rich boy Tony Stark had torn through an army of fanatics who were both devoted and armed with the latest weapons. Nyssa hadn't seen anything like it in a very long time, the only thing had come close had been her sister's paramour when he had completed his training under her father, he had torn through her father's elite guards like they had been made of straw. As she lifted the iron face mask from the table and stared into the hollow silts that were its eyes, a small smile came to her face, Tony's weapon had made a masterpiece out of death, sure it was still a tool but if that tool could let a starved, half dead, inexperienced fighter tear through an army then just imagine what a true warrior would do with it.

Or even better…a semi-immortal warrior devoted to her own cause.

Whilst Nyssa was fixated on her men and the future she was imagining, she was oblivious to one of the few people able to observe a child of Ra's Al Ghul without detection. Dick slowly manoeuvred backwards over the nearby ridge, making sure not to disturb his surroundings. Even though he was quiet some distance away he knew even the smallest wrong step could alert his enemies, Nyssa's faction were League-trained and it was only his own training that let him even attempt something that would have otherwise been suicide.

His stealthy movements meant that it took Dick some time to reach the base of the hill that he had positioned himself on. Once there, he was able to make quick progress to the small camp that he had set up and the small elite team that he had hand picked from the ranks of SHIELD's STRIKE unit. He arrived abruptly as usual, appearing amongst the men without a sound, which was something he was infamous for amongst his fellow SHIELD agents. Dick had in fact originally tried to kick the habit when he first gave up his old life but much to his annoyance that it had been so ingrained into him that he just couldn't. So after a few awkward apologies when he first started with SHIELD had led people to think he was odd and creepy, he had just decided to lean into it and embrace the mystique it gave.

Brock Rumlow half drew his gun as he suddenly felt the man appear next to him before releasing a sigh as he saw his superior bend over and pick up a canteen of water that had been placed next to the small cache of supplies. Brock did a quick sweep of the perimeter knowing that the senior agent wouldn't have been followed, but protocol was protocol. The man was a legend, in the years that he worked for SHIELD, Agent 42 was the spy that other spies told stories about and he had seen the man do some truly scary shit.

"So what are we looking at, boss? Local warlord? Taliban? Or are the Ten Rings already moving back in?" Brock fully holstered his gun as he took the offered canteen.

"None, external group, not our concern, I'll inform the director personally." Dick replied, careful not to mention the League whose existence was classified at the highest levels. "They're not staying, camp's temporary, they're moving whatever scrap and equipment they're finding out quickly. Looks like they'll be gone by tomorrow, 48 hours at the most."

"Makes sense. HQ just reported in, the Ten Rings have rallied and re-secured most of their holdings in the region. They've pressed local men to refill their ranks along with foreign mercenaries, there's a large force under 8 clicks north," Brock resecured the lid on the canteen that he threw to one of his men before pointing north, "Intel says they're heading this way to retake this sector, and we don't want to be here when they do,"

"How bad?" Dick's eyes didn't follow Brock's pointing hand but instead pulled out the team's communicator and signalled their recon was finished.

"Bad. The previous Ten Rings commander in this sector, Raza, died when whatever happened here happened. Whoever's in charge of them sent a replacement they're calling Death Dealer and the guy's making a statement" Brock sighed lowering his hand as watched the senior agent focus on getting them extracted from the volatile region "They're wiping out everything in their path. There's a city called Gulmira a few miles from here, they've made it their new HQ and they've steamrolled everything in their path. If that's not dicey enough, I didn't even mention their equipment, they are seriously well armed, like SHIELD level armed,"

"Get the men together, we're leaving," Dick lifted his attention from the communicator. Brock and the other men exchanged glances but no one objected. "Scrub the area, I want no trace we were here. You've got 20 minutes and then we are heading to the exfil site which is 30 clicks south, so get moving,"

The statement would have caused an audible groan had it not been for the men's professionalism and prior experience working with the legendary Agent 42. Dick just glanced at the men as they started to hurriedly get ready to leave before turning back to the communicator and pressing the secured line that had been set up for the op. It took a few moments before the channel went fully live, displaying a command line that was famous amongst SHIELD agents as the means by which they consulted their Oracle.

"Report?" The words appeared in green font and for a moment Dick's professionalism cracked knowing who was on the other end.

There was a part of him that wanted so badly to just reach out to Barbara, to just talk to her, to reply with some awful witty line like he used to whenever they met up in their youth. However as his fingers paused in the air just about to type about something stupid, the other part of him stepped forward and forced the boy wonder back into the box in the back of his mind. He released a sigh as his fingers typed out the short reply to the Oracle of SHIELD.

"Target X confirmed. X supported by forces, salvage operation underway. Extracting the team, situation too dangerous" Dick shot out the reply as he moved away from his team his eyes glancing at the men making sure none could see what he was sending "Director suspicions highly probable. Exfil result problematic, send C for follow up"

"Understood," The reply appeared only for a few moments before the feed deactivated and the device it was on turned black.

Dick tucked the device away as he turned around and saw that his team had already cleared the area and were preparing for the gruelling march ahead. As he looked at his men a memory of his own youth played up, of his own training in the mountains. A voice sounded in his head, one that he hadn't heard in years 'Nothing beats a hike through the mountains, right son?' Dick caught himself smiling before a scowl replaced it, and the memory soured as he his hand tightened into a fist.

"Right, timescale bumped up, let's move out, double-time." Dick's voice was harsh and caused the men to straighten up their training and military backgrounds kicking in but the sudden order did cause them to glance at each other, something that caught Dick's already frayed nerves "NOW!"

(Third annual benefit for the Fire Fighters Family Fund - Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California - May 16th 2009)

"I can't believe he showed up! I mean, I knew he was brash but my god, this is just desperate…"

"He's putting on a good front but seriously, you can see it, the man is clearly losing it,"

"It's pretty sad that he thinks this is going to save him, everyone knows he's finished,"

"Such a shame too, his parties were so fun, now what am I going to do to tick daddy off?"

Nat leaned back as she listened into the idle conversation that was filling the high society affair, her eyes glancing at the man of the hour. Tony Stark looked as good as ever as he waded through the throngs of people that had turned out for the charity event that he was technically the host off but no one thought he would show up for. The billionaire had been a recluse for the last few months since his miraculous survival, return, and stunning announcement as to the future of his company. SHIELD knew there was a lot more to the picture, especially since the medical staff that had cleared him had actually been theirs and reported the glowing unidentified tech lodged in his chest.

That wasn't even mentioning that whilst the rest of the world thought he had merely escaped, SHIELD knew something had demolished the compound he had been held captive in. That something was still unidentified and from the last report from the region, that something might have been Stark using something new. And if there were two things SHIELD hated it was if something was unidentified or if it was new, both of which always caused them headaches. So it was no surprise that the agency had been hounding Stark's assistant and office for a meeting so that they could assess him. However, despite Coulson being on the case and the fact that he had actively gotten near Stark;s assistant nearly 3 dozen times in the last 2 months, he was getting no closer to the man himself. She could actually see Coulson standing next to the bar, eyes fully trained on the target. She had to hand it to Coulson; the man's gut was never wrong. He had predicted Stark would show despite the rumours that he was locked in his house from a nervous breakdown, and here he was.

But, for once, none of that was Nat's concern and she wasn't at the party as a result of some operation or to get close to a target. She was there for purely personal reasons and anything else was really just a coincidence. Well, as far as she was aware this was all a coincidence and that this hadn't been planned. Barbara had invited her to the party as she was attending with her boyfriend Sam and thought Nat needed a break. She was still in the doghouse with Fury and although it couldn't have been worse than working under her friend debugging computers and analysing data, it wasn't what she was built for. So, getting out to a party was a nice change of pace from the server room she had been trapped in.

"Hey there beautiful, how about a drink?" Nat didn't even look at whoever was trying to flirt with her, she just ignored the man, picked up her drink and walked away ignoring his protest as she slipped through the crowd.

She was suddenly remembering why she didn't go out to clubs or parties when not on missions: there was never any shortage of meatheads trying to pick her up. Flirting, seduction, these were part of the job; her features, voice and body had been modified to enhance those skill sets the Red Room had made sure of that. There wasn't a person alive who was attracted to women that she couldn't get to fall for her. Even dressed in a frumpy, unflattering, ill-fitting dress didn't stop it, no matter what she did when she was out in areas that people thought they had a chance to pick her up they would take it.

"Not enjoying the night?" Nat finally smiled and turned to see Barbara looking beautiful in a satin blue dress wheeling herself over to her, whilst her date Sam carried his, Barbara's and a spare glass next to her.

"Just another idiot hitting on me," Nat sighed as she expertly set her empty glass on a nearby tray without looking. "I swear every guy here just wants to get in my pants."

"Hey, don't you lump me in with those degenerate frat boys, I have zero interest in your pants" Sam smirked as he passed her the spare champagne glass he was carrying before handing Barbara hers. He leaned in closer to his date "Now, yours I am interested in."

"Sam" Nat smiled as she saw Barbara blush at Sam's flirtation but despite her protest Nat could tell she enjoyed it even more than the blush let on, she knew Barbara rarely got out and so was liking the attention she was getting.

"So Sam, I hear you're up for a full DA position in New York? Must be exciting?" Nat deftly changed the subject to focus on her friend as she pointedly ignored Coulson's manoeuvring nearby, "Can I ask why the move though? Are you tired of the LA sunshine?"

"A little. I'm from the East Coast originally and, well, I wanted to move closer to home, see my parents more, and I want to be closer to Barbara in DC." Sam looked down at his girlfriend who just smiled at the man that was becoming so important to her. His smile faltered however as he addressed Nat's first question. "As for the DA position, it's not happening. The party is going with a local, her name's Samantha Reyes. Our plans are on hold for the moment until I can find something else on the east coast near DC."

"I'm sorry to hear it, if half of what Babs says is true they're making a big mistake" Nat offered her condolences with a raised glass. This wasn't the kind of place she had wanted the conversation to go, so she moved on. "Hmm, you're from New York originally?"

"Oh no, I'm actually a Gothamite, same as Barbara. Always thought it was weird how we're both from the same city, spent most of our lives there, but we met on a government case in LA on the other side of the country." Sam smiled at the irony he was pointing out, chuckling as he placed his hand on Barbara's shoulder "Strange how life works out, must have been fate."

"I never really believed in fate, but meeting two fellow Gothamites at a party on the other side of the country, one of whom I know and with an acquaintance I also know, just might make me a believer," Nat freezing was nothing compared to Barbara who looked like she had turned into a block of ice as the steady powerful voice of Bruce Wayne sounded out, "Sorry to interrupt, I just saw you over here and thought I would stop over to say hi."

"Oh my god, you're… you're…!" Sam suddenly blinked as the living legend appeared, one hand in the pocket of his expertly-tailored suit pocket whilst the other held what would have been a cartoonishly large brandy glass if not for his massive hands.

"Bruce Wayne, the one and only!" Bruce's act was so perfect that Nat almost forgot it was an act. The man's mannerisms, slightly slurred speech were so exact that even she thought he was drunk for a second before remembering who he really was. "And you… are Sam Young! assistant DA here in LA. I've heard great things about you."

"Oh? You have?" Sam just blinked, unsure how to react to the Bruce Wayne knowing who he was and wanted to talk to him, the man wasn't just insanely rich but insanely influential as well.

"Hello Bruce." Barbara's calm voice caused Sam to break out his stupor during which he had missed the glance Nat and her shared.

"Ah, you two know each other?" Sam chuckled awkwardly as Bruce looked at Barbara and although his fake smile remained his eyes had a quick spark of something that even Sam didn't miss.

"Yes, Bruce knew my father, he held an annual ball on behalf of the GCPD and basically funded the force singlehandedly," Barbara explained giving an easy smile that caused the worry to leave Sam's body as she explained away their relationship casually "The two of them were very close, so we've met a few times,"

"Yes indeed, Barbara's father was a great friend, I've known her since she was 2, even offered to pay for her schooling but old Jim wouldn't have it," Bruce chuckled, the small anecdote easing Sam further as the playboy billionaire morphed into an old family friend. "I take it that you two are here…. together,"

"Yes, we are," Barbara's smile strained slightly as she reached up a hand and placed it on Sam's.

"That's good." Nat wasn't able to read Bruce for a moment, the mask of his smile revealed nothing as he looked at the two before continuing with his charade "So are you living in LA now? Last I heard you had a government job in DC?"

"No, Barbara's still in DC," Sam spoke up, his sudden act of speaking for her caused Barbara to glance at him and saw he wasn't trying to be macho or take control, he was just trying to help as even with their perfect smiles he was feeling the tension in the air. "We were just talking about that, I'm looking for something close to DC,"

"Would Gotham suffice?" Bruce's question caused Barbara's facade of civility to crack.

"What?!" Her shock caused a few people to look over to them but as Nat glanced around the only interesting thing she could see was Tony Stark was dancing with his assistant Pepper as the two were lost in each other's eyes.

"Gotham's not too far from DC, there's a direct train line now, and the current DA is retiring next year" Bruce made the offer with his usual velvet-gloved style as he took time to assess the man in person that he had vetted only digitally until now. "We need a decent man. Barbara sings your praises, your work in LA speaks for itself and moreover you're a born Gothamite like myself. What do you say? you'd still have to run of course, but I'd be happy to back you even if your party doesn't."

"So is that why you're in LA, Bruce? Looking for a new DA? Is that what Gotham's favourite son does on vacations?" Nat piped in with her joke to draw attention away from Bruce's offer and allow Barbara to hide whatever mixture of emotions she was feeling. "Collect public servants like playing cards?"

"Oh ho ho, why Nat, you of all people should know why I'm here!" Bruce's laugh and smile covered his signal to her, his eyes darting to Tony Stark who was now moving to the balcony with Pepper.

"And that is?" She teased. Whatever he was after, he had to work for it, especially after what he had done to her friend.

"To have a dance with you, of course." Bruce smiled as he took her hand and whisked her so effortlessly onto the dance floor even she didn't register the move fully or how he had disposed of their drink glasses.

Nat adjusted quickly to the slow dance she found herself in, managing to look back over to Barbara who was trying not to scowl at Bruce's move as she spoke to her now eager boyfriend. She couldn't blame Sam, he just been offered his hopes and dreams in a neat little package. Although she wasn't privy to the exact level of Sam and Babs relationship, all the signs tonight pointed to it being very serious, and yet it was clear he didn't know about her past. Barbara had a strained smile on her face as she spoke to Sam who was clearly wanting to take the offer. Her eyes darted over to the dancing pair for a moment and if looks could kill then Bruce would be dead buried and his wake would be in full swing at this moment.

"That was cruel. A mind game I take it, a method of control?" Nat spoke as they moved across the dance floor and used their new privacy to dig her nails into him slightly. To her annoyance, he didn't react.

"Babs deserves better than you playing with her bo-"

"Observe the room." Bruce's whisper cut her off. His dancing suddenly became stiffer as he moved slightly off key, forcing her to look at certain areas of the room as he moved.

Nat's tactical training kicked in and silenced her anger at the man who not too long ago had left her paralysed in a hotel room with a dead assassin. She first saw Tony standing at the bar with Christine Everhart-Vale looking angrily at a stack of photos. Another move and she spotted what Bruce wanted her to see, another move she saw it again. Several more moves later, the picture came together in chilling detail. She was counting over a dozen of them now, littered throughout the party, all trained killers, most armed with a weapon of some sort hidden on their person and one even concealing an explosive vest. She was kicking herself for relaxing too much to see it, but only a little. These guys were beyond good and she had only noticed them because Bruce had glared at each one and all but said look at that suspicious character over there.

"Who are they?" Nat spoke softly, her eyes now searching for more threats, her muscles tensing as she readied for a fight. "More Ubus? The Ten Rings? That League you mentioned?"

"No, these gentlemen are members of a less-trained, less-organised group, but their instability compared to the rest of the league makes them more deadly for it." Bruce's dancing was slowing down now as they reached the other end of the room from where Barbara and Sam were. "They don't have an official name, but to the League they are the Heretics, led by the most dangerous woman alive"

"Who's that?" Nat asked wanting to glean as much information as possible from Bruce who she was fast learning was unbelievably cryptic even more so than she first thought.

"Me, child." The soft calm voice startled Nat as her dancing with Bruce stopped as the man turned to face a very petite, small framed woman wearing a green dress that hugged her figure perfectly as she hid in the corner of the room. "Well, isn't it interesting that the bat has caught a spider? Aren't you going to introduce me?"

Nat got a full look at the woman as she stepped forward. She wasn't much to look at; her features were a mix of Middle Eastern and Eastern European, her accent was clearly Russian, possibly Ukraine. She was only about 5 feet 9, with that being in heels as well and looked like she couldn't weigh more than 140 pounds, her frame was light and she didn't look more than 25. Her sheer lack of physical presence was undercut by something beyond description, a sense of danger and a glint in her eye that wasn't something Nat would describe as warm.

"Nat, get to Barbara tell her Nyssa Raatko is here, go now" Bruce's tone dropped and the chill in the air was accompanied such tension that Nat just found herself obeying the order, quickly moving back across the room to Barbara "Nyssa, it's bold of you to be here."

"Oh I've missed the scary voice. So chilling," Nyssa smirked as she sauntered past and moved towards the balcony forcing Bruce to move with her his eyes darting to keep track of any new threat he could see. "And not really, you're ... .well, old and we are far from Gotham so I'm pretty confident."

"And. If. You're. Wrong?" Bruce punctuated each step, using his size to overshadow Nyssa as they were now outside and away from the eyes of civilians.

"Then a couple of my men blow themselves up and the rest gun down as many survivors as they can. Inelegant, but I think a good enough deterrent for this chat," Nyssa smirked as she moved over the balcony railing turning herself to face Bruce as she effortlessly lifted herself up and sat on it. "I have no doubt you could subdue me and my men, but by the time you did most of the people would be dead."

"What do you want?" Bruce asked the question, crossing his arms over his chest, knowing Nyssa had planned this well enough that he had to hear her out. He would stop her just not tonight.

"Truly? I don't know yet," Nyssa smiled her cruel smile as her eyes glinted with vengeance, her hand tracing over the metal railing. "I am seeing what's on the board. I originally came for you, to go through the usual motions, but things got interesting. Very interesting so I am, what's the saying, waiting to see what will get me the most bang for my buck"

"You're the one who's been selling Stark Weapons on the black market." Bruce's declaration of his findings got no reaction from Nyssa who just kept her sly smile on her face as his eyes narrowed and his mind kept working. "You're after the arc reactor technology Tony created, you think you can use it to kill your father."

"Like I said, I don't know yet. I saw the first draft and I am waiting on the second." Nyssa teased as she leaned forward, her smile becoming dangerous "The pup's taking his sweet time however, so I've turned up the heat to see what bubbles to the surface."

"What did you do?" Bruce's eyes turned back to the room only to find that Tony was gone as was Christine

"A few things, naturally you'll disapprove but that's nothing new. My friend in Stark's company sold me some lovely new toys, which I in turn shared with my friends, and they are making a lovely bloodbath in a region no one cares about." Nyssa's smile was gone now, replaced by a bored expression as she leaned backwards over the edge of the balcony before swinging back up. "I made sure it was extra bloody and that Stark's weapons were all over it, and planted an idea in an idiot reporter's head to take some pictures and show them to him"

"Why?" Bruce moved forward and would have placed his hand around her neck but knew that wouldn't do anything and might cause one of her men to do something stupid.

"To turn the pup into a wolf, and see if his teeth are sharp as I think they are," Nyssa smirked, sitting up straight as she looked Bruce straight in the. "And if they are, well…I'll pin him down and steal them for my own. What fun that will be!"

With that Nyssa dropped backwards, her legs going skywards as she fell backwards off the balcony. Bruce once would have rushed forward to try and catch her or see if she survived the fall but experience said it would just be a waste of effort. Instead he just walked forward, his eyes glancing not directly below him but instinctively to the sidewalk straight across from the building he was in, he was greeted by Nyssa standing smugly giving a little wave before strolling down the street. He headed back inside to update Nat and Barbara. He knew that they wouldn't catch Nyssa, she was gone and her men would stand down now, she had had her fun and delivered the rules of her game. Now he knew her true target.

The only question now was, what had Tony built?

He knew the man had created the miniaturised Arc Reactor and he rightly suspected he had used it somehow to escape his captors. He hadn't been able to pry too much into Tony's escape, his mind had been occupied by the Arc Reactor and its potential. Who knew what really happened in those desert caverns? The US military only picked him up in the desert battered and bruised, and his captors base was now gone. SHIELD had classified everything but when he had looked into their files they basically knew what the military had gathered, just with the added benefit that they had a diagram of Stark Arc Reactor that was lodged in his chest. Bruce needed answers and fast, because Nyssa knew something he didn't about Tony and she wanted it.

Bruce had learnt a long time ago that Nyssa wanting something spelled trouble for everyone else.