It began with an idea.
"I'm not technically a prisoner," Tony said, once he'd introduced himself, offered Bruce a backhanded compliment, and poured a glass of very good scotch for each of them. Bruce, sitting at the table across from him, cocked his head.
"Funny, 'cause it looks that way to me," he said. He still felt groggy from whatever they'd dosed the Hulk with to put him down, but he was inclined not to smash at the moment. Reconnaissance was important. So was control.
"No, technically I'm a consultant, and SHIELD's guest," Tony continued, with a dry smile. "Their concession to the fact that I'm famous and powerful and rich, and if I disappeared completely, people would notice."
"But you're still ultimately stuck here," Bruce said, indicating the lab, the two spartan bedrooms beyond, the single bathroom. The blast-proof door.
"Well, yes, but that's the deal we struck," Tony replied.
"What have they got on you?"
"Who," Tony said. They'd given him a remarkable amount of tech and leeway with it, Bruce saw; Tony's hands danced across a clear readout screen and he swung it around to face Bruce. A pretty redheaded woman was walking down a hallway, past a sign reading STARK INDUSTRIES.
"Pepper Potts," Bruce said. "I read about her. She's your CEO. She's in on this?"
"Christ, no," Tony replied disdainfully. He looked up at the image of her with something close to worship on his face. "SHIELD saw what happens when I'm given a prison and some tech; they knew better than to just lock me up. She's the hostage."
"Explain this to me," Bruce said.
"How much do you know about the incident at the Stark Expo?"
"Not a lot," Bruce said.
"SHIELD got hold of her in the confusion. They infected her with a virus -- super-new biotech stuff, cutting edge. It's dormant for now. If I try to leave, they flip the switch and my girlfriend goes bye-bye."
Bruce stared at him in horror.
"Nick Fury's very good at psychological warfare," Tony said contemplatively. "It's the same reason you're in this room with me."
Bruce held out his glass. Tony poured out another few fingers of scotch.
"See, they've got my suit," he continued. "But I set them up; they can't dismantle it without cutting it, and if they cut it, it's rigged to blow, so they can't do jack with it. Same with this baby," he added, tapping his chest. "Try to remove it or access it and the reactor will also blow. I'll die, but I'll take half the carrier with me. So I'm safe. And they think -- "
"You can keep me safe."
"Because you can control it now, right?"
"They knew that. That's why they brought you in now. If you trigger big green, they flip the switch on Pepper unless I trigger the reactor. In that case, we both go down, but she lives," Tony said.
"She's that important to you?"
"She's everything to me. Don't think I won't kill us both for her."
"Does she know she's infected?"
Tony was silent, watching the camera angles change as they followed Potts down hallways and through lobbies, into a conference room. He wiped the screen clear.
"Anyway, they give me all the cool toys and plenty of leisure time to keep Stark Industries afloat with new gadgets. It's not that different from my life before, except I don't get to leave the workshop and I don't get laid. Food's all right, and they let me buy my own booze. Not a bad deal for you either; at least you're in from the cold."
"Calcutta wasn't cold."
"Figuratively speaking. Come on, I'll give you the tour. It's like Candyland up in here."
"More like Mousetrap," Bruce muttered as Tony began showing him around the lab that was now their home.
But that wasn't the idea.
Neither was this:
Steve woke in the little white fake-hospital room and he did try to escape once, but the blast doors were sealed tight. He could have threatened the woman they sent to him, the one they dressed up like a dame from his time and tried to fool him with, but they knew he wouldn't hurt her. There was no point in bluffing.
She explained to him, kindly, that he could have anything he wanted: books, films, even something called the Internet, whatever that was, but he wasn't at liberty to leave. For national security purposes.
Steve didn't buy that for a hot minute, but he needed time to think this through, and he needed resources before he could try again.
He asked if they'd give him a real radio, but he didn't listen to it much. The news was incomprehensible, the music just noise, and the talk-radio was mostly obscene. He read history books about the decades he'd slept through, and watched movies that sounded interesting but frequently turned out to be pretty racy.
He asked for a real prison cell, or at least a different room, but they wouldn't agree. So he spent his days in the big steel room, and at night he slept in the little white room with the fake decor, like some kind of purgatory for his sins.
They knew what would happen if they tried to transfer him.
He had food. He had some workout equipment, even, though it took him a while to figure out how to use it. He had entertainment. Once, a guard had asked him if he'd like some female companionship and, when he'd said no in a horrified voice, asked if wanted male companionship instead.
"I don't need a prostitute," he said. "I'm not going to be in here forever, am I?"
They hadn't answered that. His days began to blur together, one long stream of grey and white.
Maybe it was best. From what he could work out about the world outside, he wouldn't fit there anyway.
Then one day they brought in a second bed, another desk, and a friend for him.
"Hi," the guy said -- just a kid, hardly a grown man, but with the look in his eye Steve recognized. This was a kid who'd been to war.
"I'm Peter," the kid continued, and proceeded to fill Steve's quiet, sad prison with noise and light and life. "Nice digs, very, uh, hipster. Is the food here any good? Have you ever seen Escape From Alcatraz? BTW, I can walk on walls, I hope that won't freak you out."
"How many of us do you keep here, in little jars like this?" Thor once asked one of his captors.
"Three others," the man said. "About to be four."
The day they brought his brother to him, paraded Loki past him, Thor screamed his lungs out, roaring in rage and impotence that they had his brother captive as well. Loki turned his head as they passed, carriage erect as any proud son of Asgard, lifted his chained wrists, and put a finger to his mouth.
"It's of no great matter, brother," he called, as Thor raged in his glass prison. "Once I get free, I'll come for you."
That definitely wasn't the idea.
This was the idea.
Natasha has never been comfortable with what was done -- what she'd done -- to Pepper. It was a betrayal of trust, and it cut her deeply to have done it, however necessary it seemed at the time. With Stark healthy, they had to control him. At least, that was what Fury said. He didn't need to explain to her why Pepper Potts was put to use; that was self-evident.
When she could, Natasha looked in on Stark to make sure that, if not happy, he was at least not miserable. When they took down Hulk outside of Calcutta, she'd made sure, persuasively, that he was put in with Stark.
The prison cameras all fed to a single bank of monitors in a single room, which meant that when she watched them, she saw Steve Rogers whether she wanted to or not. Sad, lonely Steve, who rejected prostitutes out of hand and only asked for books and a real radio, which he then couldn't bear to listen to. She didn't think he even knew he could ask for the music he wanted, the music he missed.
And she saw how he lit up when Peter was put in with him, how he took the boy under his wing and enjoyed watching Peter's acrobatics, eventually joining in, sparring and wrestling and turning their depressing steel walls into a playground. The two of them made a good team and Peter visibly idolized Steve.
She was sure, given the opportunity, the restless and furious Thor could be tempered by a man like Captain America.
Peter spoke constantly of escape; he would take the chance someday, and likely get himself killed.
She knew Loki would eventually find a way out. She could see him working the angles.
And she saw that together, these imprisoned misfits could take an army. She worried that sometime soon an army would come.
"Watching the powers again?" Clint asked one day, in the little monitor room with all their prisoners before them. She hadn't found a good way to sound him out, so in the end she'd waited for him to come to her.
"Just doing a head count," she replied.
"You're a fool if you can't see it, Natasha."
She smiled, then schooled her features as she faced him. "See what, Clint? That we're surviving? We're on this side. They're on that. We bring them in, we stay free."
"That we're prisoners just like the others. That we're on the wrong side," he said. She looked up at the camera in the room and saw it was disabled. Good boy.
"We're free to go," she pointed out.
"We're not. The minute we walk away, we might as well walk into our own shared cell."
"Could be fun," she said with a smile.
"Not that fun," he replied.
"What are we supposed to do? Risk everything we've built here for a bunch of assholes who are going to scatter the minute we open the doors?"
Clint shook his head. "We can't keep them here. Christ, Parker's barely an adult. Rogers is going to lie down one day and will himself into a coma. Stark and Banner aren't giving us everything, not even half of everything they're capable of."
"And Thor and Loki will get out one day."
He looked at her. "You've thought about this."
"I was waiting for you to."
"You have a plan?"
"Half of one. Stark will have the rest."
It began with an idea: the idea that those who wished to do good in the world should be free to act, and that those who wished to prevent them were the enemy.