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Noticing

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The charity ball was a ritzy ordeal, full of champagne and tuxedos and the drone of polite, meaningless small talk. It was the event of the holiday season, when Chicago’s elite gathered to show off their wealth and exchange forced pleasantries under the guise of a good cause.

And although he was both host and guest of honor due to his rather sizeable donation (for the children, of course), John Marcone hated every minute of it.

He stood near one of the ballroom windows, staring past his reflection and into the glowing winter nightscape of downtown Chicago. He swirled his drink, listened to the ice clink against the glass, and heaved a sigh.

He could not have been more bored.

In order to amuse himself, he let his green eyes scan the reflection of the elaborate scene behind him. He spotted the senator and his wife, both dressed to the nines to hide their looming middle age. They were speaking with an elderly businessman, who was chuckling heartily at one of the senator’s undoubtedly inane comments. Beyond that group was a small gaggle of provocatively clad women, all nursing sparkling glasses of champagne and whispering as they eyed a broad-shouldered man standing near the hors d’ouevres table.

Marcone let his gaze drift in that direction, and his breath caught in his throat when sharp blue eyes met his in the reflection. Marcone recovered quickly from his surprise and glared at the other man, who grinned at him, all easy confidence with his classy designer suit and sleek black hair.

Marcone knew who he was, of course. He had been watching him with interest all evening. It was the first time he had seen the man in person, but there was no mistaking that strutting playboy persona.

Bruce Wayne, billionaire industrialist, philanthropist, and CEO of Wayne Enterprises.

“Brucie!” cooed one of the women, a blonde in a black dress who Marcone recognized as a prominent journalist at the Tribune. She sidled up to the dark-haired man with a lascivious smirk, running her fingers over his lapel, and whispered something into his ear that made Wayne grin and the rest of the women flush with jealousy. Wayne replied in a sotto rumble that Marcone did not quite catch, and then the prominent journalist actually giggled and took a hasty chug of her champagne.

Marcone raised an eyebrow, but he was not all that surprised. Wayne was known for having a certain… way with women.

The group of women began to prattle amongst themselves and Wayne slipped away with more stealth than should have befitted a young socialite. He came to stand beside Marcone, sharp eyes fixed on the world outside.

“You’ve been watching me,” he said, voice pitched low enough for only the two of them to hear.

Marcone smiled a predator’s smile. “Perhaps.”

“Seen anything interesting?”

“Not really. Your charade is quite good, if a bit dull.” Marcone sipped his drink and glanced over at Wayne, who had paused for only the barest moment before sliding easily back into character.

“What makes you think it’s a charade?”

“You have yet to finish a single drink, but for some reason have been faking inebriation all night. You have been constantly distracted, checking your phone as though you’re waiting for someone important to call. And you haven’t shown any interest in the women who keep throwing themselves at you.”

Wayne’s lips twitched slightly. “Is that all?”

“So far. But the night is young.” Marcone shifted slightly and held out a hand. “John Marcone.”

“I know who you are,” Wayne said. “And you will forgive me if I don’t stoop to shake hands with a criminal.” He glanced at Marcone, eyes glinting in the dim glow of the city. “Although I must admit, crime in Chicago has been much more well-contained since you took over, so I’ll ignore your role as a mob boss for now.”

“How kind of you,” said Marcone dryly.

“It’s the least I could do,” Wayne said. “You throw a hell of a party.”

Marcone chuckled and looked back out the window. Wayne did the same and Marcone noted those sharp blue eyes scanning the room in the reflection, just as Marcone had been doing mere minutes before. For some reason it made Marcone feel self-conscious. There was something too sharp, too deadly in those ice blue eyes…

And then Wayne’s champagne flute slipped from his hand and shattered on the hardwood floor.

“DOWN!” Wayne yelled, and before Marcone could even react he was being tackled to the ground just as the window exploded into shards of ice-cold glass. Freezing December air rushed into the room and people began to scream and it took Marcone a moment to realize that Bruce Wayne – who was now crouched over him, brushing shards of glass off his suit jacket and sporting a rather impressive gash on his forehead – had just saved his life.

Even as Marcone watched, the “Brucie” act disappeared completely. Wayne scrubbed irritably at the blood on his forehead, smearing it onto his expensive cuff.

“Stay down,” he snapped, and then he was gone, leaving Marcone rather dumbfounded behind him.

And for Gentleman Johnny Marcone, that was saying a lot.

A crash and a particularly piercing scream drew his attention back to the matter at hand and he regained his feet, wincing when the back of his head throbbed. Damn Wayne, slamming him to the ground like that.

Something was prowling in the middle of the floor, something tall and reptilian and too pale to be properly alive. Ice formed with every step of its clawed feet and hovered around its hands, talons clicking with deafening cracks. It stared down the terrified guests with protruding dark eyes and a leering grin.

“I seek the Baron,” it hissed, and some of the actual barons in the room cowered, but Marcone knew who the creature was actually looking for. He glanced to his left and was unsurprised to see Hendricks making his cautious way towards him, eyes never leaving the creature stalking the ballroom. Satisfied that at least some help would be available soon, Marcone pulled out his cell phone and speed-dialed five.

The phone was answered on the fourth ring with a grumbled, “Dresden.”

“Hello, Harry. Are you busy at the moment?”

“Don’t call me Harry,” Harry growled. “How’d you get this number? And why are you whispering?”

“Good, you’re not busy,” Marcone continued, pointedly ignoring the last two questions. “We have a slight situation downtown. A minion of the Winter Court has decided to come play at my charity event. Is there any chance of a Warden intervening?”

“I think we’ve covered this before, Marcone. I don’t work for you.”

“Of course, but this wouldn’t be for me. This would be for all of the terrified innocent people trapped on the thirty-fourth floor of a high-rise with a bloodthirsty demon who may or may not wreck the entire building.”

“Marcone –”

“Hold on… is that the sound of a woman in danger?” (It was, of course, because many of the women were screaming loud enough to carry over the cell phone.)

“… You’re such a bastard.”

“Thank you, Harry. I’ll see you soon.” Marcone snapped his cell shut. He scanned the room from his crouched position and noted that Bruce Wayne was still nowhere to be found. His eyes narrowed in suspicion but he was forced to stow that interesting tidbit for later because the demon was approaching him, black eyes livid, reptilian tongue lashing.

“Baron,” it snarled, tossing a dessert-laden table easily out of the way. The table groaned and iced over where the claws touched it and Marcone made a mental note to avoid any contact. He slipped his right hand underneath his suit jacket, fingers brushing the gun lodged in the holster at his back. He could feel the icy aura approaching with every step the demon took.

“You represent Queen Mab, I assume?” Marcone said, voice calm despite the chill in his bones. Hendricks was very near now, just six feet or so to the creature’s right. It seemed not to have noticed him yet.

“She is not pleased with you,” the demon said, cocking its head to one side and contemplating Marcone with eerily unblinking eyes. “But I do not understand why.” Its lips spread in a cruel mockery of a smile. “You are only a man.”

Marcone bared his teeth and gripped his gun. He was wondering vaguely what he had done to piss off the Queen of the Winter Court this time when something small and black whipped through the open window and lodged into the creature’s chest. The creature stumbled back a bit and fixed a curious gaze on the black projectile. Just as it was about to rip the annoyance out of its chest, the black thing began to flash red, beeped a few times in quick succession, and exploded.

The creature shrieked in pain and staggered backward, lifting its hands to protect its face from the smoke and fire. The force of the explosion was deafening and unbelievably strong for so small a device. It hit Marcone in a wave and he barely managed to steady himself, but then Hendricks was at his side, supporting him with one brawny arm. Marcone shook his head and the stars began to fade from his vision. Someone was speaking through the ringing in his ears.

“… a warning,” the voice was saying, deep and intimidating and somehow strangely familiar. Marcone blinked and saw a man standing just inside the shattered window, a black cape around his shoulders and dark cowl over his face.

Marcone’s eyes widened; he had seen that silhouette before, gracing headlines and internet articles and even a couple of magazines. He almost laughed at the absurdity of it all.

“Who the hell is that?” Hendricks rumbled, watching as the masked man stalked toward the pale Winter Court creature, which suddenly looked much less sure of itself.

Marcone smirked. “That, my friend, is the Batman.”

“The one from Gotham?”

“The same.” Marcone relaxed slightly, dropping his hand from his gun. He had a feeling he would not be needing it quite yet.

“This does not concern you, mortal,” the Winter creature was saying, its face contorted, pale skin bubbling with burns.

“I think it does,” Batman growled, and something dark and deadly flashed in his hand before the creature shrieked in pain once more, its left cheek sliced clean open. A bat-shaped knife lodged, quivering, into the opposite wall.

“I warned you,” Batman continued, taking a single step forward. “Leave now, and I might let you keep all of your limbs.”

Marcone smiled a predator’s smile. “I think I like this guy,” he muttered, low enough that only Hendricks could hear him.

The creature hissed and whipped its hand from left to right, flinging shards of ice and freezing wind through the air towards Batman. The onslaught barely caught the ends of Batman’s cape as he darted out of the way.

“Run, little mortal,” the ice creature rasped, crouching and craning its head to follow Batman’s trail. It slammed one claw into the floor and a sheet of ice raced across the floor, cracking the wood as it went, and managed to ensnare Batman’s right foot. In a flash, the masked man had a knife in hand and was hacking at the ice, but he barely managed to free himself before another barrage of ice shards flew his way. He lifted his cape to protect his face and most of the shards embedded themselves in the heavy black fabric, but not before Marcone caught a glimpse of blood and a silent grimace of pain.

The Winter demon cackled out an eerie excuse for a laugh, but then Batman slammed his gauntleted arm down his cape, sending the ice shards rattling to the floor. Another sharp gleam, a whistling rush of air, and the Winter creature’s laugh broke off into an agonized shriek as it clawed at a bat-shaped knife buried deep in its chest. Marcone barely had time to raise an appreciative eyebrow before Batman lunged at the creature, slamming the palm of his hand into the knife and catching the creature’s jaw with his other fist, sending it reeling into a champagne fountain where it crumpled, unmoving.

There was a moment of quiet in the room, filled with nervous murmurs and dripping champagne, before the door burst open and a tall man in a duster stepped inside, looking rather displeased.

“Okay, I’m here, damn it. Now where’s the demon?” he growled, scanning the terrified faces of the crowd.

Marcone cleared his throat and stepped forward. “Mr. Dresden.” Harry glanced at him, scowling, and Marcone pointed at the Winter demon lying motionless in the mess of the fountain.

“Ah,” Harry said, deflating slightly. “And… who did that?”

“Batman,” Marcone said.

“Batman.” Harry sounded skeptical.

“That’s right.” Marcone was about to point the man out, but after a quick scan of the room he realized that the Dark Knight had vanished.

“Wasn’t he just here?” Hendricks asked quietly.

Marcone did not respond, instead eyeing the shattered window and the thirty-four floor drop he knew lay beyond it. He had heard rumors about the Batman’s uncanny tendency to disappear after a fight, of course, but this seemed ridiculous.

“Marcone.” Harry stormed over, eyes blazing and duster flaring around his legs. “Why did you call me away from a perfectly peaceful night at home for a fight that was over by the time I got here?”

Marcone shrugged, already heading for the door as the other guests began to grow louder and mill about in a horrified mob.

“How was I supposed to know Batman would show up?" he asked. "Besides, shouldn’t you take that demon into custody or something? You’re the Warden here, after all.” He patted Harry’s shoulder, ignoring the way the wizard growled at him. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to run to the restroom. I need a break from all of this excitement.”

With that, he left Harry to deal with the panicky crowd.

“Keep an eye out for the man I was speaking to earlier,” Marcone said as soon he and Hendricks were out of the ballroom, confident that his bodyguard would know to whom he was referring. “Let me know as soon as you find him. We never finished our conversation.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Right now I need to call Gard. She might know what this attack was pertaining to. Make sure no one enters the restroom until I’m finished.”

“Yes, sir.”

Marcone went into the men’s bathroom as Hendricks took a defensive stance in front of the door. At first glance the opulent bathroom appeared to be empty, but then Marcone heard the muted sound of running water from beyond the stalls. He paused in the act of pulling out his cell phone, his hand drifting instead to the gun holstered at his back. He stepped around the stalls and saw Bruce Wayne standing in front of one of the ornate golden sinks, running steaming water through the faucet and using a towel to wipe blood from his cheek.

Wayne met Marcone’s gaze in the mirror, blue eyes just as unnerving as they had been earlier that night.

“Mr. Marcone,” he said, smiling slightly. “It seems you survived the ordeal in the ballroom. How’s your head?”

“Tender.” Marcone leaned against the stalls, crossing his arms. “How’s the cut?”

“About the same.” Wayne winced as he dabbed at the wound once more, but Marcone could recognize an act when he saw one. “I guess this is what I get for being a good Samaritan.”

“Seems so.”

Wayne grinned and held the towel under the faucet, wringing out the blood before once more applying the warm cloth to his face. Marcone watched the ministrations silently. There were two cuts on Wayne’s face – the deep gash on his cheek and another, more superficial wound on his forehead. Marcone remembered the latter, but there was only one man he had seen that night who had suffered a cut to the cheek...

“So where’d you run off to after you shoved me to the ground?” Marcone asked, green eyes narrowed.

“Violence isn’t really my thing,” Wayne said, turning his attentions to the dried blood on his forehead. “I figured I’d get out while I still could. I assume it’s over now?”

“Yes,” Marcone said, watching him carefully. “Help arrived very soon after you left.”

“That’s fortunate.”

“Indeed.”

Wayne sighed and leaned over the sink, examining his handiwork. Marcone noted that the man’s suit was not quite as pristine as it had been earlier that night. The jacket was rumpled, as though it had been hastily removed and possibly left in a heap before being put on again. The collar was unbuttoned, the tie loose and a little crooked, and there was still a bloodstain on the left cuff.

“Well, I think I’ll call it a night,” Wayne said. He tossed the bloody towel casually into a basket and began to straighten himself up. Within seconds he was immaculate once more, back to the billionaire persona he strutted so well. “Thank you for the entertaining evening, Mr. Marcone,” he said, passing Marcone on his way out. “I hope to see you again soon.”

Marcone grabbed Wayne’s arm before he could leave, and Wayne turned to him with a frown.

“Thank you,” Marcone said in a low, surprisingly sincere voice. Wayne cocked an eyebrow.

“For what, giving you a headache?”

“Don’t play ignorant,” Marcone said, tightening his grip on Wayne’s arm. “I notice things, Mr. Wayne. It’s one of the reasons I am so good at what I do. So when a man gains a mysterious new cut on his cheek when I am positive he had previously only suffered a wound on his forehead… I notice.” He smiled when he felt Wayne tense under his hand. “But don’t worry. I won’t say anything. Except, of course, thank you.”

Marcone could see the indecision in Wayne’s eyes, watched as outright suspicion eventually became something a bit softer and Wayne accepted that there was little use in denial.

“You’re welcome,” he finally said, but it was not Bruce Wayne who said it. Not really.

Marcone released his arm, and Wayne vanished out the door.

Hendricks popped his head in a moment later. “Everything all right?”

“Yes.” Marcone straightened his tie in the mirror, adjusted a cufflink. A smile spread across his face. “Yes, everything is fine.”