Fandom: The Avengers (2012)/Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Pairing(s)/Character(s): Selina Kyle/Bruce Wayne; Natasha Romanov, Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, Clint Barton, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Nick Fury, Steve Rogers
Author's Note: I see this as the second in my series of Batman/Avengers/Superman crossover fics, but the first part ("The Devil is in the Details") is set solely in the TDKR 'verse. You can read this current fic as a stand alone without needing to read the first fic, but you might get a little confused about where mentions of Superman and Lex Luther suddenly pop up in this fic.
It's a harder task than she first believes, but it's far from impossible.
Natasha's assignment becomes easier once she figures out that tracking the butler is the best way to find Wayne. She watches from the shadows of a doorway as Alfred Pennyworth gets out of an aged Buick, carrying a single briefcase with him into the Montebello. The bellhop has a brief, muddled struggle with getting the luggage out in the trunk, but Alfred seems to be a good sport and waits patiently. She watches as he tips heavily for the service, anyway.
It's been six months since the reign of Bane over Gotham City has come to an end, and Natasha has been given another file marked Eyes Only. Nothing in it surprises her, but then again, not much at all manages to surprise the Black Widow these days. Aliens and Gods, or men with God complexes, she feels like she's seen it all lately. So, a billionaire recluse, even one presumed dead several times over, who plays a dark savior in one of the most corrupt cities in the world – it doesn't even merit a blink of an eye.
Batman has always been of interest to Natasha, a cold study of how identity and duality of crime-fighting on a single-man scale could operate. Fury had it as mandatory reading for any recruits that walked through SHIELD doors eight years ago, back before Natasha had even been an agent for the so-called good guys. They hadn't known Batman's true identity back then. It wasn't until he resurfaced again, at the same time Bruce Wayne made a reappearance in the tabloids, when Wayne Enterprises started making headlines once more (this time for bankruptcy rather than financial success), that someone in the intelligence department put two and two together. Before the report could be acted upon, the city fell into the hands of Bane and things had become messy.
Batman was presumed KIA, and SHIELD was given strict orders not to run any type of interference under threat of nuclear deterrent.
Shitty call, but someone above Fury's head had made it.
She follows Alfred Pennyworth for three days in Florence. In a café the first two days, he always lingers, his hand resting almost gently, protectively, overtop his hat as he sets it on the table. He orders a Fernet Branca and unfolds a newspaper. In the bright sunlight and chilly wind that picks up off the banks of the river, most would mistake him for a vacationing man in his retirement. But Natasha watches the hard lines on his face, the etch of worry, of pain – and something else, some expression that she can't identity at first. If she were looking for confirmation on the status of his ward, dead or alive, Natasha knows she wouldn't find it on Alfred Pennyworth's face. She isn't here for that, of course. She already knows Bruce Wayne is alive. It's just a matter of finding him.
The third day, at noon precisely, she follows Alfred's routine back to the same café, to the same table, and sits in the back sipping a latté light on foam while his eye catches something across the patio. Natasha shifts her gaze, sliding across half a dozen patrons, to the stark and familiar face of Bruce Wayne.
She finally recognizes the unknown expression on Alfred's face for what it is – hope.
It's Bruce's companion, the woman, that proves the unknown factor.
A run on her prints draws a black. No records, no history, no intel on her whatsoever. It's like she doesn't exist, never existed in the first place, and even fictional people, people like Natalie Rushmore, Natalia Kashlinksy, Nisha Udaloff, Nancy Rushmore, or any of the other dozen aliases that Natasha has used over the years have records. There's no such thing as a non-entity, but the woman is a ghost with no past and SHIELD records prove useless.
She calls in a favor from Stark. "I need access to your facial recognition software."
Tony's voice is, as always, a clean split between arrogant and amused. "You seriously need to work on your phone sex. You're supposed to ask me what I'm wearing first."
Natasha could get this over with quicker if she used Pepper instead, but it's almost amusing to her how Tony still tries to needle her. "I'm sending you a photo. Upload and analyze and get it back to me ASAP."
"Ma'am, yes ma'am," he throws back, and she can almost imagine with a wince the mockery of a salute he'd give. "Anything else you want? My firstborn, perhaps? My priceless collection of Star Wars movie memorabilia? I can picture you in the Princess Leia slave outfit, no problem. It's the original."
"Just do it, Stark. Or I'll drain one of your offshore accounts just for shits and giggles."
"Ah. Extortion. You know a simple please and thank you would—"
She hangs up. After sending the picture she took of Wayne's companion, Natasha tries to analyze everything she observed of the woman while waiting for a hit from Stark's databases. Body language between Wayne and the woman, even sitting across the table from each other, had been intimate in the few minutes Natasha observed them. Slight touches, brief but telling – a hand resting over another, a brush of digits as she passed him a napkin, the way Wayne's eyes stayed riveted on her after Alfred had left. Their smiles had seemed genuine.
She is Wayne's lover, obviously.
Natasha gets an email from Tony rather than a call back, and the subject line reads meow and nothing else. When she opens it, she finds a string of newspaper clippings from the Gotham Gazette – identifying Wayne's companion as one Selina Kyle, some high-risk jewel thief and cat burglar from the wrong side of town. Natasha searches through SHIELD's database again and comes up empty-handed with the name. She frowns. The clippings indicated several arrests spanning over a decade, the earliest at the age of sixteen, but there's no official record anywhere to back it up.
Things aren't adding up, and that annoys Natasha.
It's a matter of professional pride.
It's Bruce Banner that figures it out, and she doesn't even have to guess how he got involved. Tony is a man whose definition of keeping a secret identity was blabbing away about it at a national press conference; he is, in Natasha's professional opinion, a man that can never be trusted to keep a secret. Natasha still doesn't like the Hulk much, but Bruce she's warming up to. It's a distinction she can't afford to make in the field during an op, but over the phone Bruce always sounds like the reasonable, calm scientist she can respect rather than the startling monster she dreads.
Their relationship is still an evolving work in progress.
Anyway, it's Bruce that figures it out. "You need to look into Rykin Data. Something called the Clean Slate Program. Last I heard, it was in Prototype stage—"
"It was a fairytale," Natasha cuts in, familiar with the rumor. "There is no such program."
Bruce is silent for a beat. "Don't tell me you've never gotten your intel wrong before, Agent Romanoff?" and he sounds dry, amused, almost pitying. "Rykin Data had it in the final stages. I know that, because I was interested in the program for my own personal use. Back, before, anyway – when I still thought I could hide from Big Brother."
Natasha absorbs the information. "I'll keep it in mind."
In her hand, there is a small rectangular piece of plastic, imprinted with useless words, but it keeps her hands busy, her fingers tapping the corner of it against the glass surface of the table. The pieces could fit, she knows. Rykin Data was bought out in the summer of '09 by Ronald Daggat, a late board member of Wayne Enterprises. The Gotham connection is there. How or when Selina Kyle got her hands on it is a mystery that Natasha intends to figure out. In the meantime, overt intelligence collected from public sources seems to be more instructive than anything SHIELD has to offer.
Selina Kyle looks to be a talented thief and a possible con artist. Several unspecified skill sets, possibly including martial arts and weapons training. Aptitude unknown.
Natasha adjusts the parameters of her mission to accommodate for the question marks.
For a certain poetic dichotomy, some higher-up calls Selina Kyle by the moniker of Catwoman, and it sticks. The Batman and Catwoman. Natasha's mission is basic: assess and provide recommendations. No cold approach. Not yet. She keeps her distance as she follows them for the first two months, using a combination of satellite espionage and non-official assets to track them. They seem to know what they're doing, both Bruce and Selina, but Natasha has done this all her life. Their major docs are all clean, but Natasha slowly gathers intel and confirms two offshore accounts in Dubai, another in Burma, and one in the Cayman Islands – and those are just his. Selina has assets accessible through storage in New York, Mexico, and possibly Quebec. All under unburned aliases, of course. They're good at hiding their tracks from anyone that isn't Natasha.
She follows them to Cuba in late September, and Natasha keeps an eye out for subtle details. Selina is the type that isolates herself through courtesies and etiquette, covers her cons with beauty and a coyish charm so that nobody will look beyond the first blush. The act drops quickly once she's achieved her set goal. Bruce, on the other hand, is very much like a wary animal; he can get along the way men do, but he can't seem to keep up a woman's company for any length of time without adopting a flirtatious attitude that Natasha can clock from a hundred yard distance as utterly artificial.
Bruce doesn't seem to mind low-key hideouts either, but they must trade on selecting places because every other city, they put themselves up in a place where the hobbled accommodations aren't quite to the standard of disparity that he's apparently comfortable with. Natasha recognizes a female touch in the villa in Havana, vastly different from their crumbling apartment in Puerto Vallarta but not too dissimilar to the tasteful beach house in France - and Natasha knows that Selina's definition of lying low doesn't have the same literal meaning as her boyfriend's. The layout is always the same, though: the position of the bed facing the door, the house void of anything personal, barren of anything revealing, anything that couldn't be abandoned without hesitation.
Their stays in Metropolis are the only holidays that break pattern.
"They're after Lex Luthor," she reports to Fury on a Friday.
Fury looks up. "Luthor?"
"Even SHIELD flagged his charity contributions to Gotham's rehabilitation efforts," Natasha says. "Could be that Wayne and Kyle are still keeping an eye out on the general welfare of their city, even from a distance."
"Christ," Fury says, annoyed, like he's contemplating the decision to retire early and just leave this superhero bullshit to someone else. (It's a daily ritual for Fury.) "Metropolis is already a high priority for us with the emergence of Superman."
Natasha doesn't respond. She isn't on the Superman taskforce, but she wonders who is; it isn't her place to ask. Still, for a superhero that hadn't existed two months ago, Superman is certainly making a fast name for himself. People are already selling merchandise with his logo on it in every corner drugstore. Tony's been a little jealous.
"You ready to bring Wayne in?" Fury asks.
Natasha hesitates. "It's too soon. The effort it took to fake his death, and for her to clean slate… it highlights a clear motivation to disappear, to leave the game. Lex Luther is a target to them, but it's too soon to say how committed they still are to the cause."
"There's rumors in Gotham," Fury tells her, "another masked vigilante that's taken up patrolling the streets at night."
"Nightwing," Natasha acknowledges.
Fury rolls his eyes, but she can tell he's worried – in that frantic, pissed-off way of being worried he has going on his good days. "First this goddamn flying man in red and blue tights in Metropolis – and how the fuck doesn't he know that the Cap already has that shit trademarked? And now more flying rodents. I fucking miss the Cold War. At least then you knew who you were dealing with. Now we've got superheroes and villains with enough body power and weaponry to start World War III with a single incident."
Natasha allows herself to voice the obvious, "Which is why the Avengers Initiative needs to expand, sir." Fury nods, rising from his chair. She presses, "What about focusing our attention on Nightwin—"
"We're working on Superman, but a rising protégé isn't what I'm looking for at the moment. I want the Bat. He's trained and seasoned."
Volumes could be written about the psychology of the Batman. On the one hand, there is his almost superhuman courage (is it thrill-seeking? obliviousness to risk? or just bravery run amuck?), his devotion to duty, his loyalty, his capacity for concentration, even his exceptional detective skills and his highly developed hand-eye coordination and combat training. Before he'd gone into reclusion for eight years, he seemed driven to cultivate a promiscuous reputation, but his inability to form lasting close relationships is entirely genuine. Selina Kyle seems to be an anomaly. Still, Natasha can easily see the personal price that he's paid to function and she knows what assessment to make for the moment.
Natasha stands firm. "He won't say yes. Not right now. We approach, and it'll be a clear rejection."
"What about her? The Catwoman."
"Evaluation is ongoing," Natasha informs. "She could be an important asset or a damning liability. A smart bet right now would place it at even odds."
"Wait, sir," she tells him. "We wait."
The following week, the front-page story of every major news outlet in the world is about Captain America and Superman encountering one another in the heartland of Metropolis. The photo of them, both in shades of red and blue while shaking hands, is the type of paraphernalia that citizens of the world will salivate over for decades. She has to hand it to Fury: he knew exactly which asset to send in to recruit.
It makes her reconsider why she was assigned the Batman.
"Still babysitting?" Clint asks, when she comes back late one night and he's shooting pool.
"Still bored?" she tosses back.
Clint's been on shit detail for months now. If another alien invasion doesn't shake things up soon, Natasha suspects Clint might disappear into the wilderness of the Hindu Kush and Karakoram just so he'd have a fun weekend. (He was a little boy, gangly and awkward, with skinned knees and hair that flopped into his eyes, and Natasha knows he's never really gotten over the need to excel and prove himself physically in new and increasingly stupid ways.) It's nearly dark outside, and the rain has slowed to a drizzle, and Natasha should shower, should eat something, should at the very least review the latest report from Maria. She considers all of these options, but Clint hands her a beer and she relinquishes a bit.
"What's bothering you?" Clint asks.
She doesn't bother with the denial. "Selina Kyle. She's an unknown factor."
Clint snorts. "You're casing a guy who has one of the most screwed up histories of death and violence we've ever seen – and that's saying something – not to mention an extremely dramatic alter ego, and you're busy instead puzzling out his girlfriend. Why am I not remotely surprised?"
"She has her own agenda, Clint. I can't figure out what it is. Bruce Wayne is relatively straightforward after you cut through all the bullshit."
"Looks to me like it's all straightforward."
"Yeah? And what's her motive, oh wise and powerful Oz?"
He laughs softly like he knows a joke that is his and his alone. "Love."
She doesn't have a response to that.
She thinks about Bruce, about Batman, about the connection a man has to a woman, and how logic dictates that a woman as calculating and duplicitous as Selina will never change her ways. There's a fine line between being compromised and being in love, but Natasha doesn't believe in emotions the way Clint does, the way others do – she never has. She stares at Clint across the pool table, a quick clash of looks, before she puts the bottle to her lips and tips her head back, drinking and pulling her gaze away.
She tosses a question over her shoulder at Clint as she walks away, "What do you say to being backup when I make first contact? It won't happen for a while, but when I do, I want you there."
"You need backup?" Clint asks, a hint of surprise, then concern. "The only time I've ever known you to ask for reinforcements for a simple meet-and-greet was with Banner, and you brought along a SWAT team."
"Two, actually," Natasha informs.
Clint gives her a long, thoughtful look, taking his time trying to read her. "Tell me you don't think the Bat and the Cat are as dangerous as the Hulk?"
"I don't want a SWAT team, if that's what you're asking. I just want you."
He nods, then leans over and makes an impossible bank shot. "I'm in."
Direct observation of the subjects is not required in this case, so when Natasha continues to analyze and quantify, she usually does it from a distance. She can get a lot from surveillance and tracking, but then again, there's something to be said about shadowing a mark in person that can tell a thousand little things that some sterile video can't. Natasha doesn't make the trip personally too often. Only once in following three months. Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle are the type to notice a tail, even one as skilled as Natasha.
It's informative, though.
In Paraguay, the drizzling rain covers the buildings but Natasha catches a glimpse of them making love on a balcony from across the villa. Natasha can see her pinned against the railing, half-soaked with rain while she bends over. Bruce has the curve of her body covered with his, chest-to-back, one arm snaked across her waist and the other stretched along her right arm, gripping at her wrist. The dress Selina has on is a nice little number, black and white, with the belt hanging loose around her hips where all the material is bunched up. Audio surveillance confirms that Selina's voice is strangled in the empty air, a useless courtesy that has nothing to do with their neighbors and more, Natasha suspects, with the woman's own desire.
Bruce's natural tendency is obviously to be withdrawn and isolative, an easily verifiable assumption given his eight-year stint as a recluse. But Natasha can begin to see what Clint was talking about, can begin to understand why they stick together. With Selina, there are cracks in his armor. Natasha can tell they're widening.
Afterwards, Selina slips out from under the weight of his arms and draws him back to bed. They make love twice more before sunrise.
Here's the thing: Natasha isn't one to personally identify with a potential asset.
She was born in Volgograd, in the vestiges of a rundown industrial neighborhood in what had once been one of the more important cities in Russia. Her father had been a plant manager in the large hydroelectric plant that stood a few kilometers from the western river; her mother had been a housewife with fiery red hair and kind eyes; and it had been a Tuesday when they had both been killed. Death by fire. She doesn't remember how the fire began, only that by the time she had awoken in the middle of the night, it had seemed like all of Volgograd had been in flames. The city hadn't burned, though. Just her house.
She was raised, then, by a man named Ivan Petrovitch, a man who absconded her away to the only home that she would truly remember of her childhood. Or conditioned to remember, anyway. The Red Room facility, the U.S.S.R.'s Black Widow Ops program. There, she would learn her weaponry alongside her arithmetic, would watch anti-Capitalist propaganda with her morning regime, would train in karate, judo, aikido, and savate. She'd break bone, learn discipline, have an itemized list of new goals and accomplishments by the end of any given week.
So, when Natasha looks deeper, further, for any hint of the Bat in Bruce's mannerism, she recognizes it easily. He stares off into space, face drawn tight and calculating, a quick survey around – always looking for vantage points, weaknesses in a layout, easy exits – just within the first few seconds of entering any room. Natasha recognizes the look because it's one she's seen in reflections often enough.
She understands exactly why Fury gave her this recruiting assignment.
Once again, Selina Kyle starts doing what she does best.
Natasha spends most of her days now getting updates from secondary agents. Her source in Lebanon wakes her up one early morning in late December, when she's back in Stark Towers and dealing with the fallout of another Hydra cell going operational. Her duties of shadowing the Bat and the Cat are only one of many tasks she has at any given moment, but when her source tells her, "she's on the prowl," Natasha knows immediately what it means. A second later, she's watching the forwarded video footage on the small screen of her cell.
The Catwoman costume, as Natasha dubs it in her head, is very familiar. Natasha's favorite combat apparel from her early years consisted of a synthetic stretch fabric equipped with micro-suction cups on her fingers and feet, enabling her to adhere to walls and ceilings. Natasha has made improvements since then, adapting the standard Russian ops suit to add a Stark Industries' belt of metallic discs, including plastic explosives, grappling hooks and tear gas pellets. Selina Kyle looks to have a similar version of her older uniform. Natasha almost wants to make a note to ask where she got it, when they finally meet.
Catwoman climbs up to the rafters, flips down a level to hang against the ledge of the four-story building, then crawls in through the open window on the east wing. The entire robbery takes less than five minutes, with a grace and agility that even Natasha can appreciate.
"Two Rembrandts," the source informs, "and one Raphael."
Natasha almost smiles.
Turns out, though, Bruce doesn't share her admiration.
The next day, Selina and Bruce split. Natasha keeps track of both, as one flies South for winter to Brazil and the other goes east to Istanbul. A lover's spat. A deviation in their routine is subject to further inquiry, and Natasha has no choice but to alter protocol. She sends Clint to look after Bruce in São Paulo because there's bad memories there and Clint understands without her telling; instead, she follows Selina to Turkey where both women disappear into the throngs of people at a local bazaar. Natasha is wearing a light blue scarf to cover her hair, pretending to haggle with an elderly man over the price of a pair of leather gloves, when she looses sight of Selina for just for a second.
The crowd is thick, and Natasha knows better than to panic, and a second later she rediscovers Selina headed out of the market and towards a back alley. The buildings are tight, the alleyway congesting, so Natasha follows from a higher vantage point on the rooftops, trailing after Selina from a subtle distance.
She gets a beep over her earpiece, and Clint is on the other end. "Nat," he says, sounding frustrated. "Don't know what to tell you, but your intel is wrong. No way the Bat is in Brazil. As far as I can tell, he never boarded the plane."
The alleyway is suddenly empty, and Natasha's senses heighten. She abruptly realizes what's going on, restrategizes and recoils in one single breath. It's too late. Someone jumps her from behind, and Natasha hits the floor, log-rolls gracefully forward and throws a smoke bomb with her trailing hand. Natasha flings herself over the side of the building and catches herself on the rungs of a fire escape. She drops onto the ledge and breaks through a window, crashing through an empty flat just as Selina swings down after her.
In the shabby living room, Selina stalks forward. "Who are you?"
Natasha attacks, grabbing Selina's arm, twisting at the wrist, but Selina sidesteps and crouches, breaking free. She slams an elbow into Natasha's face, and tries to buckle a knee with razor sharp heels. Natasha dodges backwards with a handspring. Selina throws a right cross. Natasha blocks with a left elbow. Natasha sticks out her foot, snagging Selina by the ankle but the Catwoman just rolls into a dive and comes back up on her legs.
Selina crouches, ready to dodge. "You know, a girl doesn't really liked to be stalked. Don't get me wrong, I'm flattered and all, but I'm already seeing someone and it's kinda serious. You know what I mean?"
Natasha slowly rises to her feet and adopts a fighting stance, chin tucked low, eyes staring straight ahead with a threat inherent in them. She already knows the score on this.
Her opponent flashes a lazy, feral grin. "This would be a whole lot easier if you'd just tell me what I want to know," Selina says, with false sweetness.
"Where would be the fun in that?" Natasha throws back.
The arrogant prod is more than enough to propel Selina back into the fight, and the next thing she knows there's a series of blows, traded one for another, high velocity and higher impact. But while Selina is talented and well-trained, she's a thief at heart and Natasha is an assassin. There's a measure of difference between the two, and that's all the upper hand that Natasha needs.
Unfortunately, less than ten seconds later, the rules change again.
Batman is standing behind her. Well, not Batman, because the cape and cowl are missing, but it's Bruce Wayne all the same and there's no difference now that Natasha can see. Two against one. Normally odds that Natasha wouldn't mind, but this isn't how she wanted to play it for their first meet. Professional pride forces her to the test the boundaries just a little, throwing a punch with enough force to hear a jaw crack, but then he's coming at her from behind and Selina is rushing her from ahead, and there's another twenty seconds of an all-out, knock-down, drag-out fight before adaptation to the new game became necessary to survival.
"Alright," Natasha says, panting. "You've got me."
When Selina knocks her out cold, it's just to be mean.
(Natasha can respect that.)
When she wakes up, she's squinting into the darkness of an abandoned warehouse. She breathes once, twice, three times before testing the restraints and finding them bound tightly. The chair is steel-reinforced, bolted to the floor. Her earpiece is gone, as is her all her weapons. She's been stripped of her tracker, her watch, even the small thin razor she keeps stashed subcutaneously on her forearm. There's a bloody bandage in its place, which tells her two things. One, that they don't want her dead. Two, that they've found all the weapons on her body, and no one has ever done that before, not even SHIELD agents.
She also isn't alone.
Natasha asks, curiously, "How long have you known I've been following you?"
"If it makes you feel better," a male voice answers from behind, wryly, "it wasn't you but one of your subordinates. They were sloppy with their bugs."
Bruce Wayne walks into her line of sight, halting at the foot of some staircase. He's several days unshaven, dressed casually in loosely fitted washed jeans and a blue shirt that hangs open at the collar. There's a cane in his hand again, but Natasha knows better than to discount for it; she gauged enough of his physical abilities during their earlier bout. His entire demeanor makes him look rumpled, aged, almost careless in his appearance like he's just rolled out of bed and staggered through the door.
A false appearance, of course.
"So," he continues, in that same wry tone. "How are we going to play this?"
Natasha works a stiff kink out of her neck by rolling her shoulders. No point in playing helpless; she's already shown them her training. Can't play a criminal; Bruce Wayne would dig too deep into any of her covers. There's a small possibility this can be salvaged if she starts off on the right foot, but she needs to establish trust and not the mere illusion of it.
The truth, then.
"Look," she says, calmly. "This isn't what you think. My name is Natasha Ro—"
"Romanova," Bruce interrupts, "codename Black Widow, agent of SHIELD and the Avenger's Initiative. I know who you are, I know why you're here, and it is exactlywhat I think."
Natasha stares, coolly. "Don't let me interrupt. Please, continue."
"I'm going to save you and your organization – or band of misfits or whatever it is you want to call it – a lot time and trouble. I'm not interested. I'm off grid for a reason."
"Faking your death is more than just going off grid," Natasha corrects. "And if you really wanted to be gone, you should have used the Clean Slate Program just like your girlfriend."
"It doesn't work like that and you know it. And Selina has nothing to do with this. Just this once, I'm saying this as a courtesy. Next time I have to have this discussion with a SHIELD agent, it won't be so polite."
"I wasn't aware kidnapping was considered the equivalent of a tea party in the Wayne household. What has Alfred been teaching you?"
That provokes a reaction. "Leave my people out of this!" Bruce barks, striding forward.
"I'm not the one that brought them into it," Natasha returns, smoothly. "You did. Death doesn't change that."
"So this is how SHIELD recruits? Blackmail and—"
"That wasn't a threat, Mr. Wayne. You're a smart man, and you know the difference. I am simply stating the obvious. This isn't a game to us. We've held back from approach because we realized you wouldn't be open to recruitment at this point in time, but we are an intelligence agency first and foremost. We need to know where potential threats are at all times."
"I'm only a threat if you make me angry," Bruce warns.
Natasha smiles. "That line isn't as intimidating coming from you as you'd think. I've heard it from another guy before."
Bruce eases off. His face grows somber, his fingers closing tight around the cane, a grip that channels emotions, keeps them contained. "You're talking about Banner?"
Just as she suspected. If he's aware of her codename, he knows about the Hulk as well. She wonders where he's getting his information because while the Hulk is national news, his true identity is not. She's going to have to recommend to Fury to run another investigation into the security of the SHIELD mainframe again. Bruce Wayne may be capable of going toe-to-toe with Tony, though it's equally obvious that applied science isn't where the true ingenuity of this man lies.
Psychological assessment of the Batman is still the most troubling aspect of recruiting him, but she adds another tally to the column marking his intellectual capabilities. She re-estimates Bruce's IQ to be at least 195.
"Believe it or not, Mr. Wayne, we're the good guys. You have resources and tools, obviously, but even the handful of offshore accounts and your considerable talents for espionage isn't enough. One man can't win a war. As I heard it, even Batman had friends in the end helping him out." She pauses, waiting for him to respond. He doesn't, so she adds, "We can be friends, Mr. Wayne."
He's studying her now, eyes dark and focused in the low light, speculative and clearly mistrusting. "Do yourself a favor? Forget a man named Bruce Wayne ever existed."
It's a while later before a new voice interrupts Natasha's silent meditation, full of scorn, "Catwoman? Please, dear god, tell me that's not what people are legitimately calling me."
Selina Kyle enters the room, four-inch serrated heels clicking against the concrete floor in an antagonized staccato.
"We needed a name," Natasha offers, with an unapologetic shrug. "I didn't pick it."
Selina shakes her head ruefully. "You people and your names. The Hulk, Hawkeye," she tosses a glare back over her shoulder, to the staircase. "Batman. It's like you're trying to figure out a name for an indie rock band, but you can't go above two syllables."
"Catwoman has three," Natasha offers, dryly.
Selina rolls her eyes, then grabs a nearby chair, flips it end over end and slams it on its legs in front of Natasha. She straddles it backwards, facing Natasha with a smile as she settles in. The look is neither friendly nor amused. Selina Kyle has always been the unknown factor in the equation, but Natasha slowly realizes she's also the only one in this threesome that's sincere about her duplicity. Natasha can play a bandit of words with Bruce all day long, but she already knows it's not going to be as easy with Selina.
"Look," Selina says, "let's not mince words. I know how organizations like yours work. You wouldn't let us drop off the radar so much as wipe us off it."
"I'm not in the business of assassination." Natasha pauses, just for a beat, and because she's trying to remain truthful in this discussion, adds, "anymore."
"Points for honesty," Selina approves, wryly, then shrugs a little, "but given we already know your history, you're not telling us anything new. You've got quite the kill count."
Natasha meets Selina's gaze evenly. "We've all got red in the ledger."
Selina reads the mutual judgment loud and clear, and smiles at it. "Let's cut to the chase, shall we? What do you want from him?"
"His help and assistance on matters of national and global security."
"He's given enough."
"Yours, too," Natasha adds, without acknowledging Selina's response.
"You want my help?" She keeps her voice light, taunting, "Wow. You must be desperate."
"We recognize talent."
"You're obvious, and flattery doesn't work on me."
For his part, Bruce seems content to remain in the backdrop for the moment. Natasha knows better than to presume he isn't watching this all unfold from some other room, because that's virtually guaranteed, but she also wonders if this is all by design. First, Bruce, followed by a one-on-one with Selina. Judging by the two extremes, Bruce has proven to be the lesser hostile, but Natasha seriously doubts he'd ever willingly participate in any known version of good cop, bad cop where he isn't playing the darker half.
"Does this plan for atonement of yours have an expiration date?" Selina asks, almost bored. "Because me, I'm more of a live-for-today kind of girl."
Natasha pauses, then goes out on a ledge with, "I know you're after Lex Luthor, and I know it was originally your score and not Bruce's."
The beat of pregnant silence is all she needs for confirmation.
"How do you know about that?" Selina asks, darkly.
"I'm good at my job," she replies, and Natasha is, of course – but in this particular case, it'd been an educated guess, nothing more. No need for them to know that. "We have resources you need."
"We don't need your help."
Natasha leans in, too, angles her head so that they mirror each other. "We're on the same side."
"There's only two people on my side. Me, and Mr. Tall, Dark and Broodishly Handsome upstairs. Anyone else is just in the way, or on the other side."
"That's a stupid way of making unnecessary enemies."
"You're only the second person in my entire life that's ever accused me of being stupid," Selina breathes, rather heavily. "You want to take a guess at what happened to the first?"
"I'm overly-flattering, and now I'm insulting?"
"It's a woman's prerogative to change her mind."
"Okay, enough," Bruce announces, from the top of the stairs. "Selina, this is getting us nowhere."
On the contrary, Selina Kyle has the makings of an excellent agent. Interrogation is more than just about asking questions. Often that's too direct to shake an intelligent mark. It's just as much about stall tactics, the right sort of misdirection, making sure the mark doesn't gleam answers from a badly phrased response – Natasha can see a valuable skill set in Selina, not too unlike her own. They both make an art out of stringing truths and falsehoods together into an enticing, duplicitous mess that works well in disorienting a mark. Bruce Wayne, in all his wisdom and aptitude, doesn't recognize that, but Selina does.
That, oddly enough, is what clinches it for Natasha. When this is all over, Natasha will give her final endorsement to Fury.
Of course, the recommendation won't be put into effect for quite some time, because as suspected, Bruce quickly shuts down the conversation and Natasha is left in the corner of the warehouse while the other two talk quietly near the staircase. Natasha isn't too worried. Batman has never claimed the same virtuous, upstanding standards that Superman is preaching – truth, liberty, and justice for all– but he does have a moral code that keeps him from crossing certain lines.
"We're leaving," Bruce announces. "You won't find us again."
Natasha almost wishes it would be that simple. "The world isn't as big of a place as you think. It also needs more than a little protection."
He shakes his head, ruefully, as if he's privy to a joke that's more than a little painful. "You need to learn to be a little more trusting of the people."
"Fallaces sunt rerum species et hominum spes fallunt."
Bruce knows Latin, of course, and easily translates, "The appearances of things are deceptive and the hope of men is deceived."
"Save the dramatic declarations, honey," Selina says to Natasha, wryly. "You're talking to the Batman. That's basically his bread and butter."
They knock her out with drugs, and when she comes to, Natasha is back in the hotel she booked when she first arrived in Istanbul. Her professional pride stings, and she really wants to know how Bruce gathered all this damn information without tipping her off. When she meets with Fury again, it is at her favorite café in Manhattan the following Thursday. They don't normally debrief in public, but she'd been told to take a few personal days without first returning to the helicarrier, and Natasha is smart enough to know there's a reason behind it that doesn't –not without a better cause than one false start at recruitment – question her ability as an agent.
She finds out that she's getting a new task, off the books. It's not so much a reassignment as it is a new direction. "Gotham City," Fury tells her. "Metropolis. Lex Luthor. I need more information. Connect the dots for me."
Natasha nods, and stands to leave. "Understood."
Fury stops her before she can make it three steps. "You still think you can get Wayne and Kyle?"
"It's a harder task than I first believed," she tells him, "but it's far from impossible."