Iron Man needs help and not just with his stock price. There's something in the stories about Batman that calls to him so he goes to seek the Big Bat out on his home turf.
AN: This is BM/IM FRIENDSHIP ONLY! There is no, and will never be, any slash between the two of them. I am going for a touch of bromance though so if you want to take it as slashable please do.
Bruce Wayne sipped his wine and smiled at Darcy across the table. She was the daughter of someone influential, a friend of his father's who still had an interest in Wayne Enterprises. It was the only reason he was still sat here listening to her witter on about...Whatever she was going on about, when he could be out there, doing something useful with his time. Alfred was right on one thing though: even if he hadn't found himself having fun by accident yet, it was important to keep up the right appearances.
The murmurs of the other patrons rose as everyone turned to the door.
"Oh! Tony Stark!" Darcy said, one hand fluttering at her throat. "I didn't know he was in Gotham!"
It was clear from her tone that she wouldn't have been out with Bruce Wayne if Stark was on offer. Bruce knocked back the last of his drink and hailed a waiter for another.
"If it isn't Bruce Wayne," Bruce looked up into Stark's face. He had a leggy blond on one arm, a model if Bruce was any judge, probably someone he should know. "I haven't seen you since that conference in...San Francisco?"
"Miami," Bruce said and stood to take the offered hand with a smile he molded onto his face. "Though with the amount we were all drinking I'm surprised I remember that much."
"But your speech was excellent."
"You didn't go to my lecture."
Tony looked confused. "Oh. Well wherever I that was interesting too." He gestured to the free table next to Bruce's own. "Mind if we join you?"
Bruce gestured to the spare table and the hovering servers rushed to put the two together. The whole restaurant was staring. Here was Tony Stark, self-proclaimed Iron Man, sitting down with the wealthiest man in Gotham city. There wasn't anyone in this city who didn't know Bruce Wayne and that was just how he wanted it. The more people knew Bruce Wayne the less they would suspect that such a self-indulgent rich kid could ever be Batman.
Tony gestured at his date as she eased herself into the chair beside Bruce. "Bruce, this is...What's you name again sweetheart?"
"Olesia," she said, an eastern European accent thick over the word.
"Right," Tony said, not even trying to pronounce the foreign word. "Meet Bruce Wayne. One of the architects of this fair city."
'Fair' seemed to be overdoing it a bit, but then what could he expect of Tony? He accepted the dubious praise with a nod and smiled at Olesia, before turning back to Tony.
"Allow me to introduce Darcy Crane, daughter of Senator Crane. Darcy, this is-"
"Oh everybody knows Tony Stark!" She exclaimed breathlessly, putting out a limp hand to be taken while the other twined its fingers around the thin platinum chain of her necklace. Her eyes were wide, enraptured. "What's it like to be Iron Man?"
Tony took the limp hand, releasing it quickly and leaning back in his chair. "Well, I have to admit it's probably the coolest thing I've ever done. But, of course, being a man of iron is a lot of pressure, though I'm pleased to say I've been able to live up to it so far."
Darcy giggled, while Olesia looked him up and down and Bruce smiled politely. That he could be so brash, so careless of what he did: he was going to get someone he loved hurt. Maybe he felt safe because there wasn't anyone he loved more than himself. Bruce didn't have that luxury.
When the dramatic effect had subsided, Tony poured himself some wine from the bottle Bruce had left to breathe and took a long sip.
"But you've got your own hero here, right? Iron Man must be old news to you with Batman around making your streets safer."
Darcy snorted and Olesia looked unimpressed. Bruce was glad to know he had such an effect on those who were supposed to be his peers.
"The freak in the bat suit?" Darcy said, her voice dripping scorn.
Olesia shook her head sadly. "I still fear to walk home at night. Batman is a good man, but it takes more than one man to make a difference."
Tony's eyes darkened slightly, looking beyond their small table. "I thought he would have been more popular."
Bruce chuckled. "Worried the gloss is going to come off your iron suit?" At Tony's startled look Bruce continued, and tried to ignore the frustration that wormed into him to hear how people still thought of him. He believed in making this city a better place, and even if the criminal element knew to fear him, still the rich still saw him as just a weirdo.
"Don't get me wrong," Bruce said for Tony's benefit, his demeanour as nonchalant as he could make it. "We need someone in this city to clean up the scum that sinks to the bottom, but why the mask? What's he hiding?" Bruce took a sip of his own drink and tried not to think about what he was hiding. He could sell this, he did it every day. "If a man like you can stand in front of a press conference and admit you fly around in a metal suit, why can't Batman unmask himself?"
Tony looked mildly intrigued, and leaned forward, spinning the stem of the wine glass lazily between his fingers. "You mean Batman's identity is still a mystery?"
"Oh, there is endless speculation," Darcy said, leaning towards Tony, her eyes flashing for his attention. "Just about every man in Gotham has been suspected of being Batman at one time or another. Even Bruce."
Tony's eyes met his and for just a moment Bruce thought he saw something like hope in those eyes, before he realised it was just shock as Tony laughed loudly. Other patrons stared at them until Bruce wished he would stop.
"Bruce?! Bruce as Batman? Can you imagine it?"
Darcy and Olesia laughed with him and Bruce smiled at the supposed joke. It was ridiculous. Before he had travelled, before the monastery, he would have felt the same way. He hadn't understood what the world was really like, what was needed to get Gotham back on track and what one man could do. Things were different now: he couldn't ignore the things he had seen, been a part of. These rich people: they didn't know what lurked beneath them. They thought their money would always protect them, and maybe it would, but there were other people who needed protecting.
Bruce tried to turn the conversation after that, but would Tony always find a way to bring it back to Batman. It wasn't hard, it could almost have been a mistake. Batman was on everyone's lips these days whether to be praised or reviled, everyone was talking about the things he had done. Darcy and Olesia asked Tony about his time as Iron Man as well and Bruce wasn't surprised to find that Tony Stark had so far acted to assuage his own conscience and little else. His had been producing and selling weapons since before he was born and he had paid so little attention to the realities of even his own company that his business partner had managed to sell weapons to both sides in every war since the first round in Iraq. It was only when his own life was put in danger that Tony Stark realised what effect his work might have.
Rachel's words came back to him. He hadn't been so different from Tony or this facade he now put on before it had been his life that had been effected. Maybe no one could truly understand what others dealt with until they had had a taste of it themselves. If that was true, if Tony turned his attention now to the fight Bruce fought every night, then he could possibly be a powerful ally.
"You know, Darcy, you are a truly beautiful woman. I think you should come back to my hotel room with Olesia and me and we could all get to know each other better."
Then again, for Tony the playboy attitude wasn't a facade. He wasn't serious about justice, he just wanted to play with his toys, blow some things up and tell himself he had made a difference, before he sold his suit to the highest bidder.
"If you'll excuse me," Bruce said as he rose from his seat. Darcy made no move to join him, ready to accept Tony's offer. "I have an early meeting."
Tony rose with him, the women momentarily forgotten. "I'll walk you out."
He fell into step beside him as Bruce went to take his coat from the waiting attendent. Tony met his eyes seriously for a moment.
"I have something of an ulterior motive for coming to Gotham."
Tony nodded, all seriousness. "I'm sure you're aware that since Stark Industries stopped trading in weapons our stock has...Not been at its best."
Bruce shrugged on his coat. "It plummeted."
Tony allowed that with a shrug. "So it plummeted. It was necessary. Now I'm left looking for new directions for the company before the Board locks me out for good."
"And you thought you would see how a company that had never traded in weapons had become successful?"
There was a glint of amusement in Tony's eyes. "Mind if I visit you at Wayne Enterprises some time?"
Bruce had to respect the brazen attitude and the willingness to put himself and his reputation out on a limb. If the press found out Tony Stark was taking advice from Wayne Enterprises it could only help Bruce's own reputation: and hinder Tony's when he was already in a vulnerable position.
Bruce nodded. "My door is always open to Stark Industries. Come by the office some time and we'll talk."
Tony visibly relaxed, he must have had more on the line than even Bruce knew.
"Thanks. I'll see you there. Now I better get back to those ladies before they miss me."
Bruce leered as was expected of him. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
Tony smirked and waved as he turned back to the table and the women waiting for him. Bruce turned to meet the night air, and the calling he had sworn himself to.
The morning dawned too early as it usually did. He hadn't lied when he had said he had an early meeting and his fresh bruises from the thugs the night before didn't thank him for putting his muscles to work so soon after their injury. Alfred seemed as rested as always as he waited for Bruce to finish his work out. He served breakfast and pointedly and avoided commenting on the new pattern of colours which must have been obvious on Bruce's bare back. He took the Lamborghini to the office, solid in his roll as Bruce Wayne as he prepared for the meeting in his head as he drove.
He hadn't expected Stark to be there waiting for him.
"Tony! I wasn't expecting you so soon," he said as he shook his hand in the foyer.
"No time like the present." Tony said and slapped him on the back, making him wince as the open palm came in contact with his fresh bruises. He tried to keep his expression blank, but obviously wasn't quite successful enough. "You alright?"
Bruce convinced himself he was. "Fine, but I have a meeting I'm late for." He turned to the woman behind the dark wood reception desk, polished to a mirror shine. She was young, but immaculately presented and perfectly polite. "Would you arrange a tour of the building for Mr Stark. Anything he'd like to see. No need to bother Mr Fox though you understand? He's working on something very important and I don't want him disturbed."
A blink of darkly kohled eyes was the only recognition that she had understood his meaning before she turned a winning smile to Tony. "Of course sir. If you would take a seat for a moment someone will be with you momentarily."
Bruce clapped him on the shoulder as he passed, headed towards the lifts. "Come up to my office when you're done and we'll talk."
The meeting was a bore and by the end Bruce's back ached. His office chair was much more comfortable and as he sank into it, safely alone, he let out a sigh of relief. Hours passed in work before he realised that Tony hadn't shown up yet. Wayne Enterprises was big, but it wasn't that big and Bruce didn't like where that thought took him.
He buzzed reception. "Tony Stark was on a tour, do you know where he is now?"
"I have him signed out Mr Wayne."
Stark Industries was failing a little more every day, Tony needed his help, he wouldn't have just left. Which meant he was still here, and there was only one place that would interest Tony Stark that much.
The lift stopped with a jolt and let Bruce out on to the basement level that was R&D.
"He's not here!"
Stark's voice, coming from the work room. Bruce made his way there and stopped dead to find Tony, jacket off, shirt sleeves rolled up, as he tinkered with parts on the scarred old bench. He blew scraps away from something, and considered his work carefully, drumming his fingers on his chest in an odd absent-minded gesture, before he looked up.
"Hi." Tony said and set the work down. He reached for a welder's visor.
Tony set the visor on top of his head. "Uh, he got a call and had to leave. You're going to want to look away."
Stark snapped the visor down and picked up the torch clicking it on in one fluid move before Bruce could turn away. Shielding his eyes from the glare with his arm he made his way over to the gas tank, fumbled with the dial and managed to turn it off.
The visor snapped up again. "Hey, what did you do that for?"
Bruce was not happy. This was the last place he wanted Tony Stark: a man more intelligent than Lucius and currently unaware that he was working on Batman's equipment.
"You're working on Wayne Enterprises R&D and you're asking me that?"
Tony shrugged and started to roll his sleeves back down. "Only on the cancelled stuff. Bruce, I can make these work. Sell these projects to Stark Industries, I'll pay you good money for them and make them saleable."
Bruce fought back a sigh of relief. Business negotiations he could handle. He knew which projects he planned to persue for Batman, which ones still had some life in and which ones were permanently shelved. If the price was right he wouldn't lose anything by getting rid of them and Tony need never know how close he was to uncovering the identity of Batman.
Bruce directed Tony out of the workshop and towards the lift. "I'm sure we can work something out. Why don't we just go up to my office."
Tony gestured back the way they had come. "Yeah, but I was actually in the middle of something there."
"Well," Bruce clapped him on the shoulder. "When it's yours you'll be able to do whatever you want with it."
"What do you think you will get out of this exactly?"
Tony blinked, changing the HUD to show Pepper on the video. "You don't want to meet Batman?"
Pepper had that exasperated look that was so cute on her. "That's hardly the point. Why are you so desperate to meet him?"
He wasn't sure himself. He just knew he needed to meet him. Batman was a legend already, cleaning up Gotham more than anyone ever had before. But it wasn't his works that interested Tony. Gotham wasn't his city, it made no difference to him whether it was overrun with crime or not. No, what interested him was something else. Ever since he had been captured, ever since he had first woken up, his heart hooked up to a car battery, his life had changed. Long before Iron Man, long before even the suit. There was a darkness inside him now, something that wouldn't come clean and for some reason, when he saw the reports about Batman, heard from the people who had been saved by him, he thought the Dark Knight would know what this meant. What he was supposed to do.
Maybe he would become a superhero too.
"Can we just get on with finding him? There is only so much night left."
She rolled her eyes at him. It really was adorable. Sometimes he annoyed her just to see that face.
"There's plenty of noise over the police scanner, but no reports of him so far. Why don't you just give it up Tony? Even if he does show he not going to stick around long enough for whatever you want."
Probably not, but Tony wasn't always as dumb as people thought he was and since Obadiah he took a lot of care in monitoring the people around him. He wasn't paranoid: just being prepared for the next knife in his back. Everyone laughed off the idea that Bruce Wayne could be Batman: maybe Tony was just being delusional, but he wasn't laughing.
She sighed, the soft sound distorted by the audio equipment in the helmet. He'd have to fine tune that.
"Nothi- Wait. 151st street and 75th," the rockets in his boots roared to life as she continued talking. "A gang fight, it sounds like Batman is involved. Police are on the way."
Tony switched the HUD to his flight telemetry. "Thanks Pepper. Keep an eye out for me."
"Good luck Tony."
In the suit it was only a matter of seconds before he was at his destination. It was a gang fight alright, with Batman taking on all comers. Some were already running, some dragging their injured crew with them. The police were still a long way off...It would be impolite not to lend a hand.
He dropped the ground, metal ringing out on concrete as the suit cushioned him from the impact. More of the gangs ran while some started to shoot at him. He shook the bullets off, grabbing the nearest gun pointed at him and squeezing until it was nothing more that a mangled piece of metal with a gangbanger hanging off it. He raise his arm, lifting the gang member off his feet.
"You know I'm going to have to re-spray this thing again don't you?"
A casual toss and Tony had already forgotten about him. After terrorists and a super-charged business partner, gangs just didn't seem like such a big thing. Sirens wailed in the distance and the last of the gangs scattered, leaving Tony alone with the Batman.
He was shorter in person, though Tony had to admit the whole creature of the night look worked in its own way.
"Hey," Tony said, lifting a hand in greeting. "So how's it going?"
There was no disguising the anger behind the mask, though the Bat's voice was controlled.
"What are you doing here?"
"Hoping to meet you actually. How about those gangs, eh?"
"Leave. This isn't some game you can have a hand of when you feel like it."
Batman turned away and Tony hurried to pull him back. "Hey! I wanted to talk to you!"
Batman looked him directly in the eyes and it was like the helmet wasn't there. Tony met those eyes that spoke of terror and pain and took a step back, releasing his hold and out of the corner of his eye catching sight of one last gang member, knife aimed at Batman's back.
Tony pointed his arm at the thug, activating the gun concealed in the casing. Before he could fire Batman grabbed his wrist to hold his arm up high, leaving his back exposed.
Impact, then a flurry of motion Tony could hardly follow and the thug was on the floor, groaning, but alive. Batman stood over him, looking at Tony sidelong.
"This is not Afghanistan. This is not a terrorist cell. This is not even New York!" Those eyes from out of the at mask cut him. "This is my city. If you can't obey the law here I will make sure you pay. No matter who you are." He fired a line from his wrist. "Don't follow me again."
The line retracted, pulling Batman away to the rooftops. The sirens were louder now, almost here. Time for Tony to leave too, but this wasn't over. The morning would be soon enough for the next round.
Bruce gasped as the needle pierced the skin again, but stayed perfectly still. Alfred hated this, hated having to patch up his young charge, as he still thought of him, but there was no one else. He'd learnt a lot about medicine out of necessity these past few months.
"He's dangerous Alfred," Bruce was saying as he finished the last stitch. "He almost killed someone last night. He doesn't care about Gotham or what's right, only about getting what he wants and making the biggest sensation."
"No doubt meeting Batman would be one of those sensations."
Alfred swabbed down his work with alcohol and Bruce arched away from the sting with a hiss of breath. "Exactly Alfred. He can't be trusted."
Alfred started to put the medical things away. They didn't have far to go: he'd started keeping them in a spare cupboard in Bruce's room since the master seemed to be making such a habit of needing them. There was plenty of space: the penthouse was smaller than the mansion, but when the mansion had gone up so had most of their belongings so it all worked out. It was quieter though, all the old memories that little more removed, more distant and colder. Everything was minimal here, impersonal, where at the mansion they had been surrounded by not onle the history of the Waynes, but by all those they had lost. It had been hard to let that home go, but, as in everything, he was his master's servant. He would support Bruce and do the best for him as long as they both lived.
"That may be true Master Bruce, but have you thought that maybe Tony Stark is the only man on earth who might actually come close to being your equal?"
Bruce pulled a face that reminded Alfred of when he was a little boy. "I'm hardly that conceited Alfred."
"That's not what I meant. There are no doubt many men and women greater than you in their own way, but none of them are your equal. The high society you surround yourself with as Bruce Wayne can never understand Batman, and the villians and lowlifes who surround you as Batman will never know Bruce."
Bruce shrugged on his dressing gown over the wound on his back. "What's your point Alfred?"
Alfred fought back a sigh. The master was very intelligent, but he really could be dense sometimes.
"My point is that Tony Stark is the only man who can understand both sides of your life."
Bruce's eyes were sad. They were often sad these days and Alfred wondered whether he had pushed this too hard.
"You understand me."
"I know you Master Bruce, have known you since before you can remember. That doesn't mean I'm your equal. I'm no more a billionaire than I am a superhero."
"I'm not a superhero and neither is Tony Stark. And just because we both happen to wear a suit doesn't mean Stark is my equal in anything."
The phone rang and Alfred went to answer it with a sigh.
"Hello, I'm phoning on behalf of Tony Stark, my name is Virginia Potts."
"Hello Miss Potts, how may I help you?"
There was a man's voice in the background, then the young lady snapped something at her companion.
"Oh, excuse me," she said as she came back to the phone. "Actually I think it's me who can help you. We are on our way to Mr Wayne's penthouse at the moment and I thought you'd like to be notified."
"Uh, thank you. When should we expect you?"
He heard the screech of tires even over the phone.
"Right about now."
The call ended abruptly and Alfred headed to the intercom.
"Frank it's me. Yeah I thought they'd be there. We're expecting them, show them up, I'll buzz open the lift. Alright. Thanks Frank." He called down the corridor. "Bruce, we're about to have visitors!"
"Oh?" Bruce poked his head out of the bedroom. "I'm not expecting anyone."
Alfred opened the door when the buzzer sounded and stepped out of the way as Tony Stark exited.
He had to admit Bruce slapped the billionaire facade into place disturbingly quickly.
"Tony! What are you doing here? Come in. Alfred just made some coffee."
"Bruce," Mr Stark said shortly, before following the master to his room.
A harried looking young woman with pretty red hair followed him out of the lift. Alfred smiled. Looked like for once he had got the better end of Bruce's socialising.
"Miss Potts I presume," he said with a smile which she returned beautifully.
"Please call me Pepper. I'm so sorry for turning up unexpected like this. Tony-"
Alfred gestured her to walk with him. "I am very familiar with following other people's whims, not to worry. Would you like some tea?"
"Oh yes, thank you, I'd love some. I don't know what's got into Tony lately, but he's been absolutely impossible!"
Alfred couldn't help smiling. Sounded familiar.
"I've found it doesn't do to get too worked up about it. We'll have a sit down and a cup of tea and let them sort it out."
Pepper took a seat on a stool in the kitchen while Alfred set about putting the tea on.
"Earl grey for me thank you, if you have it. If not normal is fine," she said, before continuing. "It's just that with the stocks falling and Iron Man and this sudden need to find Batman, I just don't know what's going on in Tony's head anymore. Not that I think it's a bad thing that he wanted to stop trading weapons it's just..." She heaved a sigh and flapped helplessly. "I don't even know."
Yes this did sound familiar. He remembered feeling much the same when he had found out Bruce was alive and well and had been scrubbing round the world training in god only knew what. They say people never change, but the truth was that we can just never truly fit the new person they've become into our view of them.
"He's changed." Alfred said gently, "For better or worse it takes time to get used to the really big changes. Consider yourself fortunate it is for the better." He put down the tea in front of her and sat on an opposite stool. She took a grateful sip and breathed a sigh of relief.
"You sound like you know what I'm talking about."
"You don't get to be my age without learning a thing or two about people. Take Master Wayne for example. I've worked for his family since before he was born and sometimes I still catch myself doing things I remember he liked as a child even if he hasn't liked them for years."
She smiled. "That's so sweet."
Raised voices from another room interrupted them. They shared a look for a moment before Pepper spoke.
"I'm sure they can handle whatever it is without us."
Bruce forced himself to calm. Tony Stark, in his penthouse, the morning after interrupting Batman. He seemed excited about something and Bruce had a feeling he wasn't going to like it.
He poured them both coffee and ignored the pull of the fresh stitches in his back. His body armour had deflected most of the blow, but it had skidded into the join between the torso and arm plates and now pulled every time he moved his arm. He put it to the back of his mind as he had been trained to do: he wouldn't notice it again until he could afford to. All his gestures had to be natural if he was going to get out of this.
"So I met Batman last night." Stark announced.
Bruce sipped his coffee, welcoming the warmth and rush of caffeine. "Oh? What's he like in person?"
Tony quirked an eyebrow. "You should know." There was a pause. "I know you're Batman, Bruce."
Bruce laughed. It was easy: the tension just exploded out of him in the sound. "You've got to be kidding! You said yourself that it was ridiculous."
"I was trying to cover for you. I wasn't sure then, not even when I visited your R&D department, which, by the way, I still think I can do a lot with, but last night. Last night I was certain."
Bruce put down his cup. "Tony, I think maybe you need help. There are plenty of other people who have met me and Batman, people who know me better than you, and not one of them has ever thought he could possibly be me."
Tony narrowed his eyes, refusing to back down. "Then maybe they need to take another look. Or maybe it's because I don't know you that well that I can see past the facade you put on for them." He threw up his hands. "Or maybe it's because I've been there Bruce! What happened to me - there's no one who can understand it, but what's worse is there is only one person who has even tried! I know what it's like to be surrounded by people who know nothing about you except your stock price!"
"So that's it? You want someone to understand you? Some sympathy? Why do you think you'd get any of that from me?"
Tony breathed deeply, almost panting and raised his eyes to Bruce's and Bruce suddenly realised he had underestimated this man. Tony had fooled him, just like Bruce had fooled so many himself, fooled him into thinking that there was nothing more to see than what Tony showed to the cameras that followed each of them everywhere they went.
"I know." Tony said and it was irrefutable. "I know you're Batman. I don't know what happened to make you create him, but I know that feeling, the need for that outlet." He blinked. "And I can prove you're him."
And suddenly he was on him and Bruce was scrabbling to stop him removing the dressing gown and exposing the dressing on his back.
"What do you think you're doing?!"
"The man last night tried to stab you. Even with that armour it's got to have left a bruise."
All of Bruce's instincts told him to fight back, but he couldn't. One move and this ridiculous struggle could be over and he would be exposed. Bruce Wayne had no need for martial arts, only Batman.
Finally he shrugged the other man off, the world reeling slightly as he righted himself.
"What the hell Tony?! This has gone far enough! Get the hell out of my house!"
Tony blinked and made no move to go.
Bruce followed where Tony was pointing. Red drops fell to the carpet from his ankle. He could feel the trail down his back and stumbled as the pain from his shoulder fought to get through the block he had put in place. He leaned heavily on the arm of the sofa nearby, careful not to get any blood on the black leather and concentrated on breathing deeply.
"Get Alfred. Please."
Pepper looked like she was enjoying herself with the old butler, all very civilised. He almost hated to spoil it.
"Uh Alfred. Bruce needs you."
The old man rolled his eyes. "What's he gone and done now?" He hurried out of the room and Pepper rose to follow with Tony.
"What's going on?" She asked. "We heard shouting."
"Uh, well. Bruce is Batman."
"And I think he was stabbed last night."
"Are you kidding?!"
"And I think I just made it worse."
She slapped at him with her bag. "Of course you did!"
Tony winced and rubbed at his arm. "You know I am still your boss."
"Of course you did, sir."
Tony grinned as she hurried towards the living room. He wouldn't have her any other way.
Alfred had sat Bruce down on a chair taken from the dining room and the dressing gown was off, revealing a bare expanse of back marred with a trail of blood from an obviously torn wound. Tony grimaced. If he had known Bruce had been stabbed he wouldn't have tackled him. Why couldn't he just admit he was Batman in the first place? It was all out of the bag now.
"Looks like three of the stitches have been torn out. You really must be more careful, you know it's harder to stitch the second time around."
Bruce had his head on his arms resting on the back of the chair and spoke quietly, but clearly. "Sorry Alfred."
Pepper hovered close to the old man. "Shouldn't he go to a hospital?"
"And explain how he got stabbed how exactly?" Alfred smiled at her dismayed look. "Not to worry, we can fix this. Could you fetch something for me? In the master bedroom there's a medical box in a small cupboard near the bed."
"Oh yes, of course!"
Pepper tottered off to find it, leaving the three men alone.
"Now," Alfred began. "I don't care how this happened, but I trust it won't be happening again? Not now that we all understand each other?"
"It's alright Alfred." Bruce said quietly. He sounded tired, resigned. "Tony knows aout Batman. It won't happen again."
"Hmm," Alfred mused. "I'll believe that when I see it. Ah Pepper, thank you," he took the box from Tony's returning assistant, set it on a glass coffee table nearby and opened it up. "Here we are." He rustled with the contents for a while. "Now then, let's get this fixed up. Oh, you may want to look away Miss Potts, it's not very pretty."
Pepper didn't look away, she hovered by the box she had provided. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"I'm afraid not miss. Now, ready Bruce?"
"Just get on with it Alfred."
"Right you are, sir."
And he did. Tony watched from across the room as the old butler calmly stitched up his young master, who didn't flinch once. They had done this before, many times if Tony was any judge. Maybe he didn't understand what made Bruce Batman. Tony knew that in theory he risked his life every time he fought someone in the suit, but that was the point: the suit was there to protect him. He didn't need to worry about get stabbed or even shot, unless they had an anti-tank missile on them. He didn't need skill to dodge or fight back, just the right sensors and targeting system. What Bruce did...how could he compare himself to that? And yet he still felt connected to Bruce. They both did this for a reason. He remember Pepper, flustered and panicking, her hands in his chest cavity because there was no one else who could help him. She turned to him and met his eyes and he knew that she was remembering the same thing. He rubbed at the reactor in his chest absently as he thought about it, the outward sign of what had happened to him. He just wondered what had happened to Bruce to leave a scar so deep it couldn't be seen.
"There, all done. And let's try to keep the stitches where they are this time."
Bruce pulled the bloodied dressing gown back on only slowly, easing it onto his shoulders in obvious pain, but his face was calm when he turned to Tony, the facade discarded. For the first time Tony met the real Bruce Wayne. Tired, in pain, angry and strong enough to bear all of that and go out looking for more. His eyes, those dark shadows in his face that had given Tony the first clue that this might be the man he was looking for, finally belonged. Pepper took a step back from him, but Tony met that glance head on. He remembered the soldiers from the fun-vy, Yensin, the people at Golmira, Obadiah's betrayal...The stone of Batman's gaze met his own wall and held.
"I'll be in town a few more days," Tony said. "We'll leave you to rest, now."
Alfred showed them to the elevator. "It's been a pleasure to meet you Pepper," the old man said, once Tony was in the lift.
"You too Alfred," Pepper replied and Tony could tell she wasn't just being polite.
"I'll be in touch."
The old guy practically winked and Pepper smirked prettily as the lift doors closed.
"What was all that about?"
Pepper smiled widely. "Nothing," she said and it was just a little too innocent for him to believe her.
The box was safely packed away once again and Bruce was in the bathroom cleaning off the worst of the blood that had run down his back.
The secret was out then. He wasn't the only one anymore. Oh there was Lucius in theory, and Rachel more recently, but that wasn't the same. Bruce didn't talk to them about his plans and they never saw the aftermath of his nights as Batman. Bruce pushed Rachel as far away as he could to keep her safe and out of the darkness that fell over him and Lucius kept careful hold of his plausible deniability. He was a sensible man after all, whereas Alfred was just and old sentimentalist.
Tony Stark: now he was something new. No matter what Bruce tried to claim, seeing him today had made Alfred sure of it. Two sides of the same coin they were: one aligning himself with the darkness to mold it and one fighting to stay out of it. They could help each other he was sure, as long as he could get Bruce to see that. Pepper was a smart girl though, he had no doubt she would convince Tony to stick around until he had had time to convince Bruce.
The sound of the water stopped and Bruce stepped out of the bathroom, a fresh shirt on over the dressing on his back.
"What is it Alfred?"
Bruce wasn't fooled. "If there's something you want to say, out with it."
"It's hardly my place sir."
That didn't fool either of them. Alfred had looked after Bruce when his parents were murdered, when he was just a child, and they had long ago let go of the traditional master/servant relationship even if the rest of the world didn't necessarily see it that way.
"Alright," Alfred said and waited while Bruce eased himself into a seat on the black leather sofa. "I think you should give Tony Stark a chance."
Bruce looked unimpressed. "A chance at what Alfred?"
Alfred took a deep breath, fortifying himself...Then let it out and sat on the chair opposite his young master.
"At friendship Master Bruce."
"I have friends Alfred."
Alfred shook his head. "You have people around you, I won't deny that, but can you name a single friend?" Bruce's gaze slipped to the carpet and Alfred wondered if this was too hard and too fast. Ah well, in for a penny. "Not to say you don't have support, sir, and people who care about you, but it's not the same as friendship. I will always be here for you, you know that, and Rachel loves you in her own way, but it's like I said before: you need an equal, someone who will understand."
The old butler sat back, his job done for the moment. "I'm just saying don't reject Tony Stark out of hand. There. I've said my piece. How about something to eat."
Bruce was lost in thought as Alfred left for the kitchen, but that was nothing new. The boy would think it through in his own time and make his own decision. Alfred hadn't raised him to be an idiot: he was sure his young charge would make the right choice.
The party wasn't really Bruce's thing, but he had to make an appearance. Evening dress, champagne, miniscule donations to no doubt worthy causes. He'd rather be out on the streets as Batman: at least then he would be doing some worthwhile, not just standing around listening to the rich and pointless congratulate each other on how far above the masses they were.
The crowd parted and for a moment his heart lifted. Rachel. She stood talking to a senator: he couldn't hear what she was saying over the crowd, but the look on her face and the way she gripped her glass told him that she was refusing to back down to whatever he was trying to convince her of. Of course, she was an up and coming DA with a reputation now for making things happen, they had invited her to see if she could be swayed to their way of thinking. They were in for a surprise. He watched her talk with a smile just curving his lips. He loved her more than he would ever be able to express. How could he chain a woman like her to a man like him: she would never allow it for a start.
She glanced his way and faltered as their eyes met, before she quickly turned back to her conversation. But now her attention was distracted her eyes kept flicking to his. He moved away, not wanting to disturb her. They had agreed, it wasn't time for them yet, it may never be, and it wasn't right to torment each other with the familiarity they had once shared.
He greeted a few old friends and was pulled aside by men and women looking for favours from the wealthiest man in Gotham. Few got the responses they wanted, but he was charming and sociable and manoueuvred them where he wanted them until he he couldn't take it anymore and excused himself to the balcony with a fresh glass. Water, which he drank quickly, his throat sore. There were a handful of people out on the balcony, couples in places taking advantage of what they probably thought was a picturesque night in the city. If only they knew what was going on out there while they partied and drank up here. All Bruce saw when he looked out across the city was blackness, a blackness so dark it threatened to quench the few lights that remained.
"I promise I'll come back."
Tony's voice, and his assistant's in reply.
"No. I remember what happened last time. I'm not going to end up standing out here in the cold waiting all by myself."
"That was," Tony flapped as he searched for the right answer, "a blip. This time-"
Pepper smirked and quieted him with fingers on his lips. "There is no this time. Now, do you need me for anything else this evening?"
"...No. No Miss Potts, that will be all. Enjoy the party."
She patted his arm as she headed back inside. "Thank you."
Tony watched her leave and Bruce recognised the look on his face. It had been on his own face too many times for him to mistake it. Tony knew she wasn't for him, just like he knew Rachel could never be his while he was still Batman. Bruce didn't know what there was between Tony and Pepper that stopped them being together, but he could sympathise.
"She's a beautiful woman," Bruce said. Tony blinked in surprise and looked round at him. Bruce gestured after the departing Pepper with his drink. "Pepper. She seems like a smart woman."
"Smart enough not to get involved with me," Tony said and sauntered over to where Bruce stood. "She knows me well enough not to trust me." He sighed and scrubbed a hand back through his hair, adding a scruffiness that somehow suited his black tie. "Hell! I don't even know if I trust me. Since...The kidnapping I've been looking at everything differently."
The lingering look through the door where his assistant had disappeared certainly made one thing clear that he was thinking about. Bruce thought of Rachel, of how everything had been different after he came back. How neither the public face he put on as Bruce or his persona as Batman could be the man for her.
"See the woman over there in the dark green dress?" he said.
Tony nodded and took a drink as his eyes lingered on her.
"Her name's Rachel. We've known each other since we were kids. She knows."
By Tony's startled expression he understood what Bruce meant. Tony's eyes flicked between the two of them as realisation dawned.
Tony knocked back the last of his drink and placed both their glasses on a passing server's tray.
"You know what I do when I feel like this? Meet me on the roof of your building in 20 minutes. We're going to have our very own come as you aren't party."
For once Bruce liked the sound of that. He felt a race of anticipation through his veins as they maneuvred their way through the incipid guests, the night just waiting for them outside.
"Bet my car can beat your rocket boots."
Tony clapped him on his back as they entered the elevator.