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Bruce glances around the study and heaves a purely internal sigh. Now that negotiations are over, there’s the matter of Jiaying’s books and other things—and knowing her, they can’t trust that she didn’t lay traps for anyone who might access them without her permission.

 

“What are we going to do with all of this?” Skye asks.

 

“I think that’s up to you,” Bruce replies. “We could leave it here, and it might be safer that way, or we could box it up and take it with us.”

 

Skye hesitates. “There might be some valuable information in here, but I think only other Inhumans should look at this stuff, just in case there are terrigen crystals.”

 

“I agree,” Bruce replies. “We can set up a clean room back at the compound for you.”

 

Skye picks up a box with a small charm inside and touches it briefly before setting it down again. “Sounds good.”

 

Bruce gives her a long, hard look, wondering if she’s really taking this as well as she seems to be. Right now, when they’re standing in the midst of the dead woman’s things, doesn’t seem like a good time to ask.

 

Someone clears their throat from the doorway, and they both turn to see Lincoln standing there. “Do you need any help?”

 

“Yeah, if you would help me box this stuff up, that would be great,” Skye replies. “I don’t want to risk Bruce getting exposed to terrigen.”

 

Lincoln grimaces. “Yeah, I can’t see that going well.”

 

Bruce knows when it’s time to leave, and he steps out. Another day or two, and they’ll be heading back to New York. The Inhumans who decided not to stay have already been ferried out by SHIELD, and deposited in the city of their choice.

 

Afterlife itself feels much diminished, the sense of safety and security gone, revealed to be no more than a sham.

 

His phone rings, and he picks up to hear Tony’s voice on the other end. “I wanted to give you the news before you saw it yourself.”

 

Bruce winces. “How bad?”

 

“A crystal broke in a college library,” Tony replies. “We’re not sure how many were affected because at least one of them has—had—an affinity for fire. There are at least three dead and a dozen injured.”

 

“And the Inhuman?”

 

“She was shot by the cops arriving on the scene,” Tony admits. “It’s bad, Bruce.”

 

“Yeah, it is,” Bruce replies, not knowing what else to say. He thinks about Jiaying’s papers, her careful records of Inhumans that span decades, and what the government would do with those records.

 

It’s ironic that Jiaying’s actions will likely cause the very situation she claimed to fear.

 

“When are you coming home?” Tony asks. “I’m a little worried about you being out of the country.”

 

“We’re packing up her personal papers,” Bruce replies. “I’ll make sure we hurry, and we’ll be heading straight for the compound.”

 

“See you there then.” Tony pauses. “Do you want me to call the others?”

 

Bruce sighs. “No, we can wait until I’m back and then discuss how we want to handle things.”

 

“I’ve missed you,” Tony says. “Hurry home.” And then he hangs up.

 

Bruce chuckles at that, mostly because neither of them is particularly good at putting their feelings into words.

 

He pokes his head into Jiaying’s old office and says, “There’s been another incident, and Tony thinks we should probably hurry back.”

 

Skye’s mouth sets in a grim line. “Okay. We’ll move as fast as we can.”

 

Bruce knows his whole team is worried when Clint and Steve show up the following day with the Quinjet. “We thought we’d help pack,” Steve explains, nodding to Lincoln and Skye. “Are you all set?”

 

“We are,” Bruce replies. “What’s the mood like?”

 

“People are scared, and President Ellis is talking about setting up a task force,” Steve replies. “But I doubt anything will change right away.”

 

That makes sense to Bruce, since the random nature of the attacks will keep people off balance and make it harder to formulate a response.

 

“I think we should make an announcement, offering our continued help,” Bruce says. “And maybe think about how the Avengers will respond to someone who loses control.”

 

Steve nods, and then glances at Skye, who has been listening in on the conversation as they load the plane. “We were hoping Skye would help with that, actually.”

 

“Makes sense,” Skye comments. “It should probably be me or Lincoln, just to set their minds at ease, since Lincoln wants to stick around a little longer.”

 

Bruce sighs. “Well, maybe if people see the Avengers responding calmly, they’ll proceed accordingly.”

 

Clint pulls a face. “Let’s hope so, doc, because we definitely don’t need any more panic.”

 

Somehow, Bruce thinks the hard work is probably just getting started.

 

~~~~~

 

Tony is pleased with the way things around the compound have come along. It’s spacious, modern, and there are plenty of safe rooms for Inhumans who need them.

 

Assuming that the Avengers can get to them before all hell breaks loose.

 

Plus, it was nice to have a project while Bruce was off playing the diplomat.

 

“This is a great place,” Coulson comments, glancing around. He’d called ahead to ask when Bruce and Skye would be back, and if he could meet them. Tony knows that they should probably coordinate their efforts with SHIELD, especially after that mess with Gonzales, and hadn’t come up with a good reason to refuse. “How many could you house?”

 

“Probably as many as 30, if they double up,” Tony admits. “The space isn’t a problem.”

 

“And the isolation rooms?”

 

“Should be able to take anything an Inhuman could dish out,” Tony replies, trying not to stare at the blank space where Coulson’s left hand used to be. “And there’s Bruce now.”

 

Clint sets the Quinjet down, and Bruce is the first one out, wrapping Tony up in a tight hug. “Hey there.”

 

“You’ve been gone too long,” Tony complains, although he knows it was by necessity. Bruce and Skye had needed to be the ones to deal with the other Inhumans. “How did the wrap up go?”

 

“Fine,” Bruce replies. “We brought most of Jiaying’s things back with us. Skye thought she should be the one to go through them.”

 

“She was Skye’s mother,” Tony agrees.

 

Skye is greeting Coulson with a hug. “How are you feeling?”

 

Coulson shrugs. “Fine for the most part. Fitz is working on a prosthetic that he says will be ready once I’m healed enough to use it.”

 

Skye nods. “How is my—Cal?”

 

“He took the deal,” Coulson replies. “The procedure worked as well as we’d hoped, and he’s been resettled under a new name as a veterinarian. We’ll continue to monitor him, but he’ll have a good life.”

 

Tony thinks it’s a mark of how much Skye’s father really had loved her to make that deal, willingly giving up his memories to give them both a fresh start.

 

“Let’s go inside,” Tony says. “We’re in the conference room.”

 

They range around the table, and Coulson clears his throat. “I still have a few friends remaining, and the word is that the president isn’t just putting together a task force to deal with new Inhumans that emerge.”

 

“What is he planning?” Bruce asks.

 

“There’s a group called the Alien Threat Containment Unit,” Coulson replies. “They’re focusing on taking those judged to be dangerous into custody, but I’m not entirely clear how they plan to do it, or what they’ll do with the Inhumans they do have.”

 

“They need training, not jail,” Skye protests.

 

Coulson nods. “I agree, which is why I asked to see you all. I would suggest that if an Inhuman manages to catch the ATCU’s attention, SHIELD or the Avengers should probably get there first.”

 

Bruce frowns. “What’s their stance on us, then?”

 

“SHIELD and the Avengers are currently working in a gray area,” Coulson admits. “There have been no specific policies put into place, and we should probably keep it that way.”

 

“So, we just let the ATCU do what it wants?” Steve asks.

 

Bruce shakes his head. “No, we do what we did when this first started—we make ourselves available, and we try to get there before they do.”

 

Skye straightens and looks at Clint. “I think I’m going to need those flying lessons.”

 

Clint nods. “Agreed. We’ll get started tomorrow.”

 

Coulson glances at Skye. “I know Jiaying kept records on the Inhumans. I’d like copies—not to do anything with them, just to be able to keep an eye on things.”

 

“You mean like welfare checks?” Skye asks, glancing over at Lincoln. “What do you think?”

 

Lincoln nods slowly. “Without Gordon around, there’s no way of knowing when someone gets into trouble. It probably would be a good idea to check in on them occasionally.”

 

“You have my word that’s the only thing that information will be used for,” Coulson says.

 

Skye nods. “All right. Once I find it, I’ll pass it along. She kept a lot of other records, too, so it might take me some time.”

 

Tony begins making a mental list of all the things he’s going to need to do in the next few days and weeks. They’ll want to stay on top of the situation with the ATCU, and that brings something to mind.

 

“Do we know who’s behind the ATCU?” he asks.

 

Coulson nods. “His name is Gideon Malick, and he’s one of the president’s top advisors.”

 

Tony frowns. “I know that guy. He did some business with SI before we stopped making weapons.”

 

“We’ll need to keep going through Klaue’s files,” Bruce adds. “We know there are others in Hydra we haven’t smoked out yet, and we all know how interested Hydra is in enhanced people.”

 

Coulson nods. “I’d like to coordinate our efforts on that front. Hill has volunteered to help with that.”

 

“Good,” Tony replies. “I’d rather not get blindsided again.”

 

Coulson hesitates. “There’s just one more thing.”

 

“Of course there is,” Tony mutters. “What is it?”

 

“Jiaying and Gordon appeared to be interested in the monolith on board the ship,” Coulson says. “It’s been in SHIELD’s possession for some time, but we’re not sure what it does.”

 

“Okay,” Bruce says slowly. “Did something happen?”

 

“Simmons has disappeared,” Coulson says bluntly. “It appears to have transported her to another location.”

 

Skye leans forward. “What? Is there anything I can do?”

 

Coulson shakes his head. “No. Fitz is working on it. If you and Mr. Stark are willing, Dr. Banner, I’d like to send him your way if he needs help.”

 

“Of course,” Bruce agrees. “Send us everything you can.”

 

Tony can see the worry writ large on Bruce’s face, and for a moment he regrets getting them into this mess. He and Bruce had a really good thing going before Coulson called them, doing science and working on taking down Hydra. Dealing with the Inhumans is going to open them up to all kinds of problems.

 

But Bruce is invested in Skye, and Tony is invested in Bruce, so they’re truly in the thick of the fight.

 

~~~~~

 

Skye makes another note in her inventory spreadsheet and passes the book over to Lincoln. “This one should be safe.”

 

They’ve set up in one of the holding rooms at the compound. All of the rooms are relatively spacious, if very, very white, and built to withstand just about anything an Inhuman could throw at them. If someone has to go on lockdown, Skye is willing to bet they’ll be more comfortable here than wherever the ATCU is stashing them.

 

“Is this the list of the people who left Afterlife?” Lincoln asks as he packs the ledger away.

 

She nods. “Yeah, it is. Do you think they’re safe?”

 

“Safe from the ATCU or safe to be around?” Lincoln asks.

 

She shrugs. “Both. Either.”

 

“Jiaying wouldn’t have let them leave if they weren’t safe to be around,” Lincoln replies definitively. “And they wouldn’t risk anybody knowing that they’re Inhumans.”

 

The alarm sounds, and Skye is on her feet immediately. She’s been wearing her uniform daily for just this reason.

 

She exits the clean room at a run and fumbles the earpiece in. “Where?”

 

“Close,” Tony replies. “Natasha is on pilot duty.”

 

Skye breathes out a sigh of relief. Both the Avengers and SHIELD have been responding to reports of Inhumans breaking out with sudden powers, but without much success. Most of them end up in the custody of the ATCU before the Avengers or SHIELD arrive on the scene.

 

In the four weeks since Jiaying made her play, Skye hasn’t managed to make contact with a single Inhuman.

 

She sits down in the co-pilot’s seat, and Steve sits in the back next to the containment unit. “What are the initial reports?”

 

“An affinity for metal,” Steve replies, “which is why Tony isn’t going. He and Bruce are monitoring the situation with Jarvis.”

 

Skye nods. “Any sign of the ATCU?”

 

“None so far, but he’s got some pretty spectacular moves, so they’re probably not too far away,” Bruce replies. “Be careful on approach.”

 

“Will do,” Skye promises.

 

This marks the fourth call-out, but the first that’s in NYC and therefore close to home base. With a little luck, the Avengers will beat the ATCU there this time.

 

As they get closer, Skye sees what Bruce means by spectacular as she can see a scaffolding collapse and a couple of cars explode.

 

“Okay, let’s get him calmed down and into the containment unit,” Steve says, pulling his cowl over his face and settling his shield on his back.

 

“We’ve got company,” Natasha warns. “The ATCU is two minutes out.”

 

“I think Cap and I can get this done quickly,” Skye replies. “And I have no problem knocking them back a couple of steps.”

 

The back hatch opens as soon as Natasha sets down, and she says, “I’ll keep the engine running.”

 

Steve pulls the containment unit out, and Skye begins to approach the man. He looks to be in his thirties, Latino, and he’s clearly freaked out. “Please,” he says. “Please, I don’t know what’s happening. I need someone to help me.”

 

“That’s what we’re here for,” Skye calls. “Hey, it’s okay. What’s your name?”

 

“Joey,” he replies, and she can tell he’s responding to her uniform. “You’re with the Avengers?”

 

“That’s right, and we’re here to help,” Steve replies. “I know you’re going through something pretty scary right now, but you’re not the first, and you probably won’t be the last.”

 

Joey has the same response most people do to Captain America: he trusts him. “Okay,” he says with a sigh of relief, and some of the more spectacular fireworks cease as he calms down.

 

“Stop! Stop right there!”

 

Bruce refers to the ATCU as “jackbooted thugs,” and she doesn’t disagree. The sight of a bunch of guys in black tactical gear with guns in their hands causes Joey to panic again, and Skye snarls, throwing up a force field.

 

“I know you’re freaked out right now, but I need you to get into the containment unit,” Skye says. “I promise, we aren’t going to let you hurt anybody while you figure out how to control your abilities.”

 

“We’re going to take care of you, Joey,” Steve adds. “We just need to you trust us.”

 

Joey dives into the containment unit, and Steve pushes the button that will send it back into the Quinjet.

 

“Let’s move,” Steve orders, and Skye gives a little push, sending the ATCU goons stumbling back a few steps.

 

They’re in the air a few seconds later, and Skye blows out a breath.

 

“How’s it going?” Tony asks over coms. “Did you get him?”

 

“Right under their noses,” Skye replies. “They probably aren’t going to be very happy with me.”

 

Tony snorts. “Who cares? We contained the threat, and we already announced that we’d help any Inhumans who came. Did he ask for our help?”

 

“Uh, pretty clearly,” Skye replies.

 

“Then we’re covered,” Tony insists. “We’ll issue a press release.”

 

Steve shrugs. “Stark has a point. We already knew we’d probably ruffle a few feathers.” He turns on the intercom to the containment module. “You okay in there, Joey?”

 

“What is this?” he asks.

 

“It’s a safe space that will contain your powers until we can get you back to a safe room,” Steve says. “We’ll explain everything once we get there if you can sit tight for thirty minutes or so.”

 

“Yeah,” Joey says, and Skye can hear the exhaustion in the poor guy’s voice. “Yeah, okay.”

 

Skye feels exhilarated. This has been their first real victory, and she hopes Joey can eventually adjust the way she and Lincoln had.

 

By the time the Quinjet lands, Joey is out like a light, probably exhausted from the energy expenditure he had when he first transformed.

 

“How is he?” Bruce asks as he meets them.

 

“Asleep,” Skye replies. “I think we can probably move him into one of the safe rooms.”

 

“Do you want me to approach him once he’s awake?” Bruce asks.

 

Skye hesitates, then nods. “Yeah, I know Lincoln volunteered, but he was pretty out of control. He might feel better knowing that he can’t hurt you.”

 

Bruce nods. “No problem. I’ll go fix something to eat.”

 

Lincoln helps Steve move Joey to one of the prepared safe rooms, and Skye looks around. “Where’s Tony?” she asks.

 

“One of Coulson’s people called for some advice,” Lincoln replies. “Bruce and Tony were both working on it.”

 

“Was it Fitz?” Skye asks. “Is there news on Jemma?”

 

Lincoln shrugs. “I’m not sure. He’s still on the call as far as I know.”

 

Skye nods. “Keep an eye on him for me? Let me know when he wakes up.”

 

“Sure,” Lincoln says, shoving his hands in his pockets, his expression a little sullen in spite of their victory.

 

Skye knows he’s not thrilled to be here, and he’s a little bit at loose ends, plus he feels guilty for what Jiaying had done.

 

She just wishes he would stop hating his life so much, because he’s a pain to be around.

 

“Hey,” Tony says when she enters the lab. “Congratulations on a successful mission.”

 

“Thanks,” Skye replies. “Hey, Fitz,” she says. “Lincoln said you called.”

 

“I think I’m getting closer,” Fitz replies without responding to her greeting. “Oh, hi.”

 

“You doing okay?” Skye asks. “Are you getting any sleep?”

 

Fitz shrugs. “Some.”

 

Skye realizes she’s not going to get much more out of him. “All right. Hang in there, Leo.”

 

“You too,” he replies. “But Mr. Stark, as I was saying—”

 

Tony offers an apologetic grimace, and Skye knows when she’s not wanted. She goes to find Bruce, who’s putting together a plate of sandwiches in the kitchen.

 

“Did Tony kick you out?” Bruce asks, amused.

 

“No, I’m pretty sure that was Fitz,” Skye replies. “He’s really worried about Jemma.”

 

“I don’t blame him,” Bruce replies. “I’d probably be working every moment of every day if it were Tony. How did Joey seem?”

 

“Freaked,” Skye replies. “I think he might have a little harder time with it.”

 

“We’ll deal with it,” Bruce says with the certainty that had so reassured Skye at the beginning of this mess.

 

~~~~~

 

Bruce enters the safe room with the sandwiches and a bottle of water as soon as Joey is awake. He sits down across from Joey with Skye next to him. “How are you feeling?”

 

“Dr. Banner?” Joey asks. “Is—where are we?”

 

“We’re at the Avengers’ compound in upstate New York,” Bruce replies. “In a safe room that will contain your abilities until you get control.”

 

Joey glances at Skye. “Is this where you went?”

 

“I went to a cabin in the woods,” Skye replies. “Same difference.”

 

“What happened?” Joey asks. “Do you know?”

 

“You were exposed to something we call terrigenesis,” Skye says. “It affects everybody differently, and it changes your DNA to bring out certain abilities.”

 

“But you can fix it, right?” he asks.

 

Skye shakes her head. “No, it’s not something to fix, but you can learn control.”

 

“Joey, even though you didn’t know you were an Inhuman, it’s something that’s always been a part of you,” Bruce says quietly. “I know what it’s like to feel like you’re out of control, but you’re going to figure this out, and you’re going to be fine.”

 

Joey swallows. “So, I’m kind of a superhero now?”

 

“Well, I think we still have to get through the training montage, but eventually,” Skye teases.

 

“Who were the other people?” Joey asks. “The ones in black?”

 

“The ATCU,” Bruce replies. “We’re having a small disagreement as to how we’re dealing with Inhumans. The important thing is that you’re safe here, and we’re going keep you safe.”

 

Joey nods. “Okay. I guess if you can’t trust the Avengers, who can you trust?”

 

“That’s the spirit,” Skye replies. “As Bruce will probably tell you, sleep and food will help, and also you can’t hurt someone here, so panicking isn’t necessary.”

 

“There’s a difference between it being necessary and warranted,” Joey points out.

 

Bruce chuckles. “Fair enough. I did my share of panicking.”

 

“Am I going to get my life back?” Joey asks.

 

“We’re going to work on that,” Bruce promises. “But I won’t lie to you, Joey. You may wind up having to make a new life for yourself.”

 

Joey swallows. “Okay. Thanks for being honest.”

 

Bruce pats him on the shoulder. “You can count on me for that. I have to go help Tony with the thing, but I’ll be around. Just holler if you need me. Jarvis will notify me.”

 

Bruce spots Lincoln lingering outside the safe room. “Did you want to go in there?”

 

“No, that’s fine,” Lincoln replies. “I have some stuff to send to Coulson.”

 

“Do you want me to make arrangements?” Bruce asks. “I think Tony and I are half committed to helping Fitz get his girlfriend back.”

 

Lincoln shrugs, his expression not giving anything away, other than the fact he clearly doesn’t want to be here. “Yeah, that’s fine.”

 

“Box it up, and we’ll take it,” Bruce replies neutrally.

 

“Already done. I left it in your lab,” Lincoln says. “Is there anything else you want me to do?”

 

“If you want to keep going through the information on Hydra, that would be a help,” Bruce replies. “Thanks.”

 

Lincoln nods and wanders off, and Bruce sighs. He knows Lincoln isn’t happy, but he’s not sure what to do about it. Unlike with Skye or Joey, he doesn’t want Bruce’s help, and so Lincoln will just have to figure things out on his own.

 

~~~~~

 

Tony wanders into Bruce’s lab and asks, “Where’s our newest acquisition?”

 

“Still working out a few kinks,” Bruce replies. “Skye and Lincoln are running him through some exercises that Jiaying taught Lincoln. What are you working on?”

 

“I thought I’d take a look at Fitz’s final calculations, since he asked me to,” Tony replies. “I think he’ll be making the attempt to open the portal soon.”

 

Bruce nods. “Skye will be relieved.”

 

“What has you worried?” Tony asks. “Because I can tell you have worried face.”

 

Bruce shakes his head. “Did you realize that Joey is the only Inhuman we’ve managed to retrieve? The ATCU keeps beating us to the punch, and I know we’re working on dismantling Hydra—”

 

“We’ve had some wins,” Tony interjects.

 

“But we put out one fire and five more pop up,” Bruce continues.

 

Tony wraps an arm around Bruce’s shoulders. “Okay, granted, the thing with the Inhumans is getting away from us, but we have a lot on our plates. There are at least three Hydra strongholds we’re planning to raze just as soon as Clint and Natasha get back from their reconnaissance.”

 

“Granted,” Bruce replies. “And the Watchdogs—”

 

“People are people,” Tony points out. “They fear and hate what they don’t understand.”

 

“It’s going to be a problem,” Bruce says. “They’re going to keep cracking down on folks.”

 

“We knew that,” Tony replies. “Hey, what’s up?”

 

“I just—I feel responsible for them,” Bruce admits. “I know where they’re coming from, I understand them, and I wish this didn’t suck as much as it does.”

 

“It doesn’t suck for all of them,” Tony points out. “We’re going to figure it out.”

 

Bruce takes a deep breath. “Yeah, I know. I have some projects to work on, but if you need me—”

 

Tony kisses him. “No, I’m good. Get stuff done, and I’ll see you later.”

 

He heads back to his own lab, deep in thought. Bruce makes a good point, and there aren’t that many Inhumans—enough to cause the occasional problem, but not so many that they can effectively advocate for themselves. People make policy, and people at the highest levels hold the most power to change policy.

 

Tony drums his fingers on his workbench and thinks about how to protect Bruce and people like him, people like Skye, and he has an idea.

 

“Jarvis, I want to know everything there is to know about President Ellis and the person most likely to replace him,” Tony says. “I think it might be time to get ourselves a cabinet position.”

 

Then he turns his attention back to Fitz’s calculations, because he thinks he might be able to save one more person.

 

~~~~~

 

“Are you sure?” Joey asks.

 

Skye offers a reassuring smile. “You’re doing really well, and it’s just a strategy meeting. Lincoln and I are going to check on some other Inhumans, so we’ll be gone for the next few days. You should get comfortable with the other Avengers.”

 

“If you say so,” he replies, and follows her out tentatively.

 

She and Lincoln—and sometimes Bruce—have been working with him for two weeks now, and he’s slowly starting to gain a measure of control. Also, Skye’s getting a feel for his personality under all the panic.

 

“Hey, Joey, good to see you,” Bruce says as they enter the conference room. “How are you feeling?”

 

Joey smiles. “Better, thanks.”

 

“There’s a fresh pot of coffee if you want some,” Bruce offers, settling down with a mug of his own, although Skye can see the tag hanging over the side.

 

Joey grabs a cup for himself, and Skye notices that he settles near Bruce. “How’s the family?” Bruce asks.

 

Joey immediately brightens. “Good. Really good, in fact. I just spoke to my mom yesterday, and she’s already planning a big Sunday dinner when I can manage it. She said to invite you and Mr. Stark as a thank you for helping out.”

 

Bruce shrugs. “That’s really not necessary; I’m happy to do it.”

 

“Trust me, take the win and come for dinner,” Joey replies. “She makes the best frijoles you’ve ever tasted.”

 

Bruce’s expression goes a little dreamy. “Well, in that case, I’m going to take you up on the offer. I’m glad they’re taking your transformation well.”

 

Joey’s smile is wry. “Well, they dealt with me being gay well enough. Having superpowers and hanging out with the Avengers was a pretty easy sell in comparison.”

 

The others begin to filter in, and they all greet Joey with a studied nonchalance. Bruce’s theory—and Skye’s as well now—is that the more they treat powers as no big deal, the more comfortable new Inhumans will be. So far, with Joey, that seems to be working.

 

Lincoln is the last to arrive, and he’s clearly anxious to be anywhere but here.

 

Skye is hoping that this trip helps, since they’re going to see some of Lincoln’s old friends. She doesn’t know whether Lincoln’s problem is that he feels trapped—since there’s a good bet the ATCU will go after him if he leaves the compound—or just bored. Or maybe it’s both. With a little luck, she’ll figure out what’s eating at him, and maybe come up with a solution to fix things.

 

For once, Skye really wants a win. The last few months have been nonstop action between getting her powers, trying to take down Hydra, joining the Avengers, finding her parents, losing her parents…

 

And now she’s four months into her efforts in recruiting other Inhumans, and the only success story they’ve had is Joey.

 

Well, Joey and getting Jemma back, but Skye hadn’t been involved in that mission. That had all been Fitz with a little help from Tony and Bruce.

 

“Clint is going to drop you guys off,” Steve says. “I want you both to keep your heads down. After we tangled with the ATCU, I don’t want to risk them coming after you guys.”

 

“Why not?” Lincoln asks. “If they do that, it’s going to be really obvious what their intentions are.”

 

Bruce clears his throat. “And we don’t know what they’re doing with those the ATCU is holding. They might say it’s for the good of the public and everyone else, but I don’t want another Ethan on our hands.”

 

Lincoln pales slightly. “Yeah. I know.”

 

“Look, we’re in uncharted territory right now,” Steve says. “Stop in, make sure they’re okay, and don’t draw any attention to yourselves.”

 

Skye nods. “Got it. Low profile.”

 

In spite of the risk, that’s the main reason she and Lincoln are going. They have the best control of their powers, and they’re not public figures the way the other Avengers are.

 

They just need to know how far the ATCU has gone.

 

As promised, Clint flies them out to San Francisco to check up on the Inhuman couple who had relocated there from Afterlife a year ago.

 

Skye immediately sees the crime scene tape, and she holds Lincoln back. “Wait. We need to leave.”

 

“What? Why?” Lincoln asks, and then he sees the yellow tape. “Shit. Do you think—”

 

“We can’t afford for the authorities to ask us questions,” Skye says quietly.

 

Besides Steve’s orders, Skye knows that the police could easily decide guilt by association, and they don’t need that complication.

 

“There’s a stairwell at the other end of the hall,” Lincoln replies. “We can go down that way.”

 

They move past the doorway purposefully, and Skye scopes it out. No one is stationed outside, but there’s a forensic seal on the door, which means whatever happened, it’s considered a crime scene.

 

Lincoln’s steps slow slightly, and Skye grabs his arm and keeps him moving. “Stairs,” she reminds him in an undertone and pulls out her phone to call Bruce.

 

“We’ve got another set of disappearances,” Skye says. “Or possibly deaths. There’s crime scene tape over the door anyway, and it’s still sealed.”

 

“Shit,” Bruce says. “Any sign of the ATCU?”

 

“We’re not sticking around long enough to find out,” Skye replies. “We’re going to head back right away.”

 

“Do that,” Bruce agrees. “You were going to stay with them, right?”

 

“That was the plan.”

 

“I’ll make other arrangements,” Bruce replies. “Find somewhere to sit tight, and I’ll text you the details.”

 

“Bruce is taking care of it,” Skye says when she hangs up. “He said to find somewhere to hang and he’ll text us.”

 

Lincoln nods. “Do you think they’re ramping up? Because that’s what it feels like to me.”

 

Skye sighs and points to a coffee shop. “I know.”

 

They both get a cup of coffee and find a corner table. “We still haven’t managed to root out Hydra, and with so many going missing…” Lincoln trails off. “I wonder if it really is Ethan all over again.”

 

“We’re working on it,” Skye says defensively. “At least we managed to get to Joey first, and we got Jemma back.”

 

Lincoln scowls. “Yeah, that’s great, but a lot of my friends aren’t okay. They’re dead or maybe worse.”

 

Skye falls silent, staring down into her coffee.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says after a moment. “That wasn’t fair. This isn’t your fault, and I know you’re doing everything you can.”

 

Skye is saved from having to reply by her phone chiming with an incoming text. “Bruce got us a hotel room, and Ms. Potts is picking us up on her way to New York. I guess the jet was in Los Angeles, and she was heading there anyway.”

 

“Do you ever get used to that?” Lincoln says as they get moving.

 

“Get used to what?”

 

“I don’t know, the display of wealth,” he returns.

 

Skye glares at him. “Don’t even start. You know they’re both more than a dollar sign.”

 

Lincoln’s expression turns frustrated. “No, I know. I like them, okay? They’re—they’re both great. It’s just that you’ve been with them longer, and I wondered if you were used to it.”

 

Skye sighs. “What? Used to Tony throwing his money around? Not really, but if you pay attention, Bruce isn’t either. To Tony, money is just another tool. He has it, so he uses it.”

 

“And that doesn’t bother you.”

 

“Why should it?” Skye asks, privately thinking that it’s pretty great to have a couple of fairy godfathers. “Look, I get it, I was poor. I lived out of my van for a while. I slept on the streets sometimes before I had my van. I get not liking people because they’re rich when they’re assholes about having money, but that’s not Tony.”

 

She had a moment of realization. “It’s not just that, is it?”

 

“He has these powers, and I’m not denying he worked hard, but…”

 

“He’s not like us,” Skye supplies. “And Bruce at least changed on a molecular level, so it’s easier to accept him.”

 

Lincoln grimaces. “When you put it that way, I sound like an asshole.”

 

Skye thinks about it. “You know, I can’t pretend to know how Jiaying did things, but I do get it. If it helps, Tony had a hole carved in his chest without the benefit of general anesthesia and got tortured a bunch. I had to fight for control, but at least I was surrounded by people who cared about me.”

 

“Okay, now I really feel like a dick,” Lincoln mutters.

 

Skye rolls her eyes. “Well, considering that sometimes you are a dick, it’s good you can recognize it.”

 

Lincoln hesitates and then says, “I think it’s because they don’t want anything in exchange.”

 

“Look at it this way,” Skye replies. “When I joined SHIELD, I got uniforms, equipment, three squares, and a place to stay, all in exchange for doing a dangerous job. The same thing goes here, only we’re being funded by Tony Stark because he believes in what we’re doing. Jiaying did the same thing at Afterlife.”

 

Lincoln’s lips quirk. “Yeah. I guess I hadn’t really drawn the parallels.”

 

“Because Tony isn’t one of us.”

 

“Because he isn’t one of us,” Lincoln admits.

 

As they enter the hotel, Skye says, “I think we need to start thinking about everybody on our side as being one of us.”

 

She walks up to the registration desk and says, “I’m Skye. I believe Mr. Stark or Dr. Banner called ahead.”

 

The clerk appears dubious. “Do you have ID?”

 

Skye has the credentials provided by SHIELD, as well as the passport Bruce helped her obtain.

 

The clerk checks the reservations, and looks at her ID, and then her demeanor immediately changes. “Welcome to both of you. Mr. Stark left a note that you’re to feel free to order whatever you’d like from room service. A car will be around for you tomorrow around 11 am. Would you like a wake up call?”

 

“No, we’re good,” Skye replies. “Thanks.”

 

“Here are your key cards,” the clerk replies. “There’s a fitness room and a pool and sauna if you want to make use of them, but be sure you bring your cards.”

 

Skye nods, and glances at the woman’s nametag. “Thanks, Dara. I appreciate it.”

 

“Do you need any help with your luggage?” she asks.

 

“We’re good,” Lincoln replies. “Thanks.”

 

They’re in the elevator when Lincoln starts to laugh.

 

“What?”

 

“The Stark name sure opens a lot of doors,” Lincoln comments. “That part I can probably get used to.”

 

Skye grins. “The Stark name opens more doors than a badge does, that’s for sure.”

 

She’s a little relieved when the room has two beds, rather than one king-sized. She wouldn’t have put it past them to play matchmaker.

 

Lincoln lets out a low whistle. “I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a room this nice.”

 

“Tony says that higher end hotels are better when you want good security and anonymity,” Skye replies, going to the window and checking the view. “Also, I’m pretty sure it’s against his religion to slum it if he can avoid it.”

 

“You think he was serious about room service?” Lincoln asks.

 

Skye shrugs. “Standard operating procedure. If we go out, we’re at risk. If we stay in, we minimize the risk.”

 

“So, room service?”

 

“Room service.” Skye digs through her bag for something comfortable. “Do you mind ordering? A burger would be good. I’d like to get a shower.”

 

“No, that’s fine,” Lincoln replies. “You want anything on it?”

 

“Nothing fancy,” Skye says. “Just a burger.”

 

“You’ve got it,” Lincoln promises.

 

Skye is pretty sure he has a crush on her, but she really doesn’t want to go there at this point. Lincoln is a good guy, and he’s cute, but Skye lost her parents not that long ago. She doesn’t want to dive into a relationship right now, and she certainly doesn’t want a relationship with someone who seems to hate his life.

 

A long, hot shower restores her equilibrium, and she pulls on her most comfortable clothes that she can also run in just in case they get surprised in the middle of the night. She’s not about to take any chances.

 

“Feel better?” he asks when she emerges. “Food should be here in about fifteen.”

 

“I’m good,” she replies. “What about you?”

 

He looks away, grief swamping his features. “Not so good.”

 

Skye isn’t very good at this—comforting others—but she’s getting better, and she sits down next to him and puts an arm around his shoulders. “I’m really sorry about your friends.”

 

“I need to check on the others from Afterlife,” Lincoln replies, a hitch in his voice. “I know we said we’d stay put, but—”

 

“We can check from right here,” Skye assures him. “What I can’t find out, Jarvis can.”

 

He sniffs. “Okay. Thanks. You know I never wanted any of this.”

 

“Yeah, I know.”

 

“No, I mean—I just wanted to finish med school and be a doctor,” he insists. “I wanted to help people, especially after I…”

 

Skye waits to see if he’ll finish that sentence. “After you what?”

 

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” he says instead.

 

Skye is quiet. “Okay, do you want to tell me, or do you want me to tell you that Jarvis already did a background search?”

 

Lincoln looks up. “You know?”

 

“About the accident? Yeah.”

 

“It wasn’t an accident,” Lincoln counters. “I was drunk, Skye.”

 

Skye nods. “And that was shitty, but I haven’t seen you drink anything in the last few months.”

 

“I’m sober,” he confirms.

 

Skye nods. “Okay, so you’re sober, and you don’t want to do what we’re doing, you want to finish medical school.”

 

Lincoln shakes his head. “No, I know this is important. With Gordon and Jiaying gone, someone has to fill that gap.”

 

“It doesn’t have to be you,” Skye says gently. “If it’s not what you want. Joey’s doing really well now, and Bruce will help.”

 

Lincoln stares at her. “Skye—”

 

“I’m not saying you have to, but if you want to be a doctor, we need them,” Skye says. “How many doctors are going to know how to treat people like us?”

 

There’s a dawning hope in his eyes. “You really think so?”

 

“I know so,” Skye replies. A knock at the door heralds the arrival of their food. “Just think about it, okay? You’d make a great doctor.”

 

She believes it, and even if being an Avenger leaves her happy and fulfilled, she’s known for a while now that Lincoln is going through the motions. He feels guilty for what Jiaying and Gordon had done, and he feels responsible for those who go through the change.

 

But Skye knows that this life isn’t for everybody, and it’s not what Lincoln wants. And if it’s not what he wants, guilt shouldn’t stop him from pursuing his dream of becoming a doctor.

 

~~~~~

 

Tony gets the message from Skye, sent through Jarvis, about the troubling pattern in deaths and disappearances. Over half a dozen of those who had left Afterlife prior to Jiaying’s death, who had been living quietly, are either dead or disappeared.

 

“That’s not good,” Bruce comments, looking over Tony’s shoulder. “How would someone have found them?”

 

Tony drums his fingers on the table. “I don’t know. We’ve kept that information secret. The only other person I know of is Coulson. Jarvis, call Director Coulson, would you?”

 

Coulson picks up, and his face fills the view screen. “What can I do for you?”

 

“We have a problem,” Tony says bluntly. “Someone is killing Inhumans, and whoever is doing it has access to Jiaying’s records.”

 

“How do you know?” Coulson asks.

 

“Because all of the Inhumans who have been killed or who have disappeared left Afterlife before Jiaying died and have been living under the radar,” Tony replies.

 

Coulson frowns. “It could be one of the other Inhumans.”

 

“It could be,” Tony admits. “And we’ll see if we can track them all down, both to keep them safe and to see if one of them is the culprit. But we need to know who had access to those records.”

 

Coulson’s expression clearly indicates that he has some idea who they’re talking about, and he says, “Let me do some checking. I need to make a few inquiries.”

 

Tony exchanges a look with Bruce, and he knows Bruce is thinking the same thing—that Coulson knows who’s likely responsible. “Keep us in the loop,” he orders.

 

Coulson winces. “In the spirit of full cooperation, I’ve been in talks with the head of the ATCU. We’ve discussed collaborating, but I’m cautious. The ATCU’s stance on Inhumans is perhaps less humane than I would like.”

 

Tony’s eyes narrow. “What does that mean?”

 

“Their philosophy is more aimed towards a cure than control,” Coulson hedges.

 

“There is no cure,” Bruce says flatly. “They’re a different race. That would be like saying we’re going to cure black people from being black.”

 

Tony bites the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing at Coulson’s slightly shocked expression. People tend not to realize that Bruce has absolutely no qualms about calling them out in the bluntest possible terms. He refrains—sometimes—but when he lets loose, he really lets loose.

 

And Bruce has very strong feelings about Inhumans.

 

“I can understand where you’re coming from,” Coulson says carefully. “But there are certain Inhumans who are dangerous.”

 

“Yes, and we have a compound in upstate New York, and there’s still Afterlife,” Bruce snaps. “Do not test me on this, Phil. You will not like the results.”

 

Coulson frowns. “Is that a threat?”

 

“No,” Bruce snaps. “That’s a promise. You got us involved, Director. On your own head be the consequences,” and he stalks out.

 

Tony smiles thinly. “Congratulations, Director Coulson. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him that pissed off. Think about that before you start selling the Inhumans down the proverbial river.”

 

He ends the transmission, and while he’s a little amused by the fact that Coulson and Bruce aren’t seeing eye to eye, he also knows it means nothing good for the future.

 

Still, while Tony could say a lot about Coulson, he takes his responsibilities very seriously, and he’s a decent man. The same cannot be said for a lot of those in the government.

 

“Jarvis, do we know where the rest of the team is?”

 

“Agents Barton and Romanoff are running an errand, Thor is not currently on the planet, and Captain Rogers is in the gym,” Jarvis replies.

 

“And where’s Bruce?”

 

“Dr. Banner is in his lab,” Jarvis replies. “He has classical music playing.”

 

Tony sighs. He had been hoping to get laid, but classical music is a sure sign that Bruce is angry and isn’t going to calm down any time soon. Tony has no problem braving the lion’s den, but there are times let Bruce cool off.

 

Still, he probably needs to talk to Steve, because the Avengers have already cleaned up one Inhumans-related mess, and if they’re gearing up for another battle, they should be prepared.

 

Steve is working a punching bag over methodically when Tony enters the gym, and Tony can see the pent-up aggression in his form. He and Steve are actually pretty friendly these days, and Tony waits for him to pause before interrupting.

 

“Jarvis said we had a problem,” Steve says as he steps back from the punching bag. “And that Lincoln and Skye were heading back.”

 

“There are at least half a dozen confirmed kills,” Tony admits. “There are others we couldn’t find, but that could be because they’re that well hidden, or maybe they went to ground.”

 

Steve nods slowly. He’s slightly damp with sweat and stubbled, and Tony can see the same weariness infecting him.

 

“What do we know for sure?” he asks.

 

“We know that whoever is doing it probably had access to the records that Jiaying kept on the Inhumans who left Afterlife,” Tony replies. “And we think it’s someone at SHIELD or the ATCU. We called Coulson, and he said he’d make inquiries, and that the ATCU may be going after Inhumans as well.”

 

“But they’re leaving our guys alone?” Steve counters.

 

“For now,” Tony admits. “I hate to admit this, but we don’t have the resources to stake a claim to everyone who survives the exposure to terrigen. We still have our hands full with Hydra.”

 

Steve smiles. “I’ve been thinking about that. How ready are Skye and Lincoln for fieldwork?”

 

Tony frowns. “You’re asking me?”

 

“Well, I’d ask Bruce, but he’s playing classical music, and I didn’t want to disturb him,” Steve replies with a wry smile. “And while I’ll probably want to make my own assessment, you’ve been working with them for the last few months.”

 

“Skye was ready six months ago,” Tony replies. “Lincoln doesn’t mind running interference with new Inhumans, but he has no desire to do fieldwork. Joey needs more time. What are you thinking?”

 

“Auxiliary teams,” Steve says succinctly. “All under the Avengers banner, spread out over the country. That way we can quickly get to those exposed to terrigen, preferably before anybody else does. Plus, we’d have additional teams to deal with any Hydra threats.”

 

Tony nods. “You’re thinking about basically putting all Inhumans under our authority.”

 

“Or trying,” Steve agrees. “What do you think? Can it be done?”

 

“At present? No,” Tony says. “We’d need an official policy.”

 

Steve gives him a long look. “I’m guessing you have an idea about that.”

 

“I become Secretary of Defense,” Tony says bluntly.

 

Steve blinks. “You can do that?”

 

Tony shrugs. “I don’t know. I never wanted to try before, but—you know how Bruce feels about these folks, Steve. He snapped at Coulson when the director brought up curing Inhumans. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen him lose his temper?”

 

“So, you’re doing it for Bruce?” Steve asks with a smile.

 

“No, I’m doing it for us, too,” Tony counters. “Because how long do you think it’s going to be before we do some collateral damage on one of our missions, and the government starts wanting to control us, too? I give it six months to a year on the outside.”

 

Steve nods slowly. “You think we need to be in power.”

 

“I think that someone who understands the situation needs to be,” Tony replies. “And if it’s not me, then it can be someone else.”

 

But one thing Tony is certain of is that it has to be done soon.

 

“Okay,” Steve replies. “I’ll back your play. We should talk to the others next week. They’re all going to be here.”

 

Tony nods. “Good. Thanks.”

 

“You going to go try to calm Bruce down?” Steve asks with a raised eyebrow.

 

Tony shakes his head. “Nope. I’m just going to leave him alone for a while.”

 

~~~~~

 

Bruce stares at the screen, looking at the results of the research he’s been conducting. He’s had a limited sample size to work with, but his past research into the Other Guy had given him a solid foundation to build upon.

 

What he has is dangerous, incredibly dangerous, and right now only Tony has even an inkling that this is what Bruce has been working on.

 

“Hey, doc.”

 

Bruce glances over his shoulder to see Skye hovering just inside the doorway to his lab, and he waves her inside. “Did you just get in?”

 

She nods. “Yeah, we had a nice smooth ride with Ms. Potts.”

 

“Where’s Lincoln?”

 

Skye smirks. “He heard the classical music and turned tail.”

 

Bruce frowns at her.

 

“Hey, I can’t help it if you have a tell,” Skye protests.

 

“I didn’t realize I did,” Bruce admits. “Is it that obvious?”

 

“Classical music when you’re angry or upset,” Skye says, ticking off his musical choices on her fingers. “Indie when you’re feeling mellow. No music at all if you’re working on something and don’t want to be disturbed. Classic rock if you’re with Tony and you’re working on a joint project.”

 

Now that he thinks about it, Bruce can’t argue. “So, you braved coming in.”

 

“Tony and I are the only ones who will,” Skye replies. “The Hulk likes us.”

 

Bruce can’t argue with that either, and he answers her unspoken question. “We had a discussion with Coulson about who might have access to the locations of those who left Afterlife.”

 

“And that’s what pissed you off?” Skye asks.

 

Bruce sighs. He’s not sure what about the situation has left him so angry and off-balance. “What if someone said they had a cure for being Inhuman?”

 

Hurt flashes across Skye’s face. “It’s not something to be cured. You said that. You said it was part of us, and—”

 

Bruce holds up a hand before she can get too worked up. “Not me, the ATCU. That’s what they want: containment and cure.”

 

“What does containment mean?” Skye asks suspiciously.

 

“I don’t know,” Bruce admits. “But I’m guessing we’re not talking five star accommodations. I snapped at Coulson. I have no idea what Tony said to him after I walked out.”

 

Skye’s expression reflects doubt and more than a little disappointment. “I thought Coulson understood.”

 

“So did I.” Bruce rubs his eyes. “I was hoping we could trust him, but I’m not sure we can. It depends on whether he coughs up the information, I suppose.”

 

Skye clears her throat. “There’s something I wanted to talk to you about, but maybe now isn’t the right time.”

 

“No, go ahead,” Bruce invites. “I’m not getting anywhere with this project at the moment.”

 

Skye glances at the screen curiously, but doesn’t ask any questions. “Lincoln doesn’t want to do this, Bruce.”

 

“What ‘this’ are we talking about?”

 

“Being an Avenger,” Skye replies. “You know, fieldwork. He’s doing it because he feels responsible and guilty for how things went down, but it’s not his thing.”

 

Bruce nods. “It’s not for everybody. I’m assuming there’s something he does want to do.”

 

“He wants to finish med school,” Skye replies.

 

Bruce can immediately see the possibilities of having an Inhuman as a doctor, and he knows it would provide a huge advantage. “How close is he?”

 

Skye considers it. “I think he has about two years left.”

 

“Get him in here,” Bruce says. “I’m going to make a few calls.”

 

Skye blinks. “Wait, what?”

 

“You think Tony is the only one with contacts?” Bruce asks with a smile. “I have a few friends left from the old days, and there’s a doctor I’ve been communicating with recently.”

 

“I’ll grab him,” Skye replies and heads out.

 

Bruce feels a little better. He can’t do much about Coulson or the ATCU, at least not right now—and he can’t protect every Inhuman who gets exposed—but he can make a few phone calls.

 

He catches Frank on one of his few breaks. “Hey, Frank.”

 

“Bruce!” Frank replies with real pleasure in his voice. “How the hell are you?”

 

“I’m good,” Bruce says.

 

“Have you thought any more about what we talked about?” Frank asks. “You know that information is going to be safe with me.”

 

“I do know,” Bruce replies. “That’s partly why I called. I have a kid who wants to finish medical school.”

 

Frank hums. “One of the strays you’re collecting, I suppose?”

 

“More like one of those I acquired by default,” Bruce says. “He’s a good kid, though.”

 

Lincoln and Skye enter his lab.

 

“Well, I’ll need to see his transcripts, and another letter of recommendation wouldn’t go amiss, but the opportunity is too good to pass up,” Frank admits. “Does he want to go into genetics?”

 

“I have no idea,” Bruce admits. “Here, I’ll put him on and you can ask him yourself.”

 

He hands the phone to Lincoln, who takes it with a look of trepidation. “Lincoln Campbell.”

 

Bruce minimizes the data on his screen and leads Skye away to give him some privacy. “Frank will take care of him,” he says. “If he can’t find room for Lincoln in his program, he’ll know someone who can.”

 

Skye’s clearly confused. “Who is this guy?”

 

“Someone I collaborated with after I came to work for Tony full time,” Bruce admits. “We met at a fundraiser. He works for Doctors Without Borders, and we got to talking about clean water, and he expressed some interest in the Other Guy, and we just went from there. Right now, he’s interested in being one of the first doctors who understands and can treat enhanced persons of all kinds.”

 

“Holy shit,” Skye breathes. “And you have him on speed dial?”

 

“We’ve been talking about a project,” Bruce replies vaguely. “I’ve been a little cautious about sharing some data with him. I thought Lincoln might feel him out.”

 

Skye gives him a knowing look. “Is this about the thing with the Inhuman DNA?”

 

“You knew about that?” Bruce asks.

 

“I overheard you and Tony talk about it,” Skye replies without an ounce of shame. “Plus, it’s not hard to guess that you’d be interested in something like that.”

 

Lincoln hands the phone back to Bruce, looking dazed.

 

“I need him ready to start next fall,” Frank says immediately after Bruce gets back on. “I know you’ll make sure he is. I need his transcripts, and if you and Mr. Stark are willing, letters of recommendation.”

 

“Done,” Bruce agrees. “And I’ll share my research with him before he starts, so you’ll have it.”

 

“You do keep things interesting, Bruce,” Frank replies. “But thank you for thinking of me.”

 

Lincoln stares at him as Bruce hangs up. “That was Frank Moyer.”

 

“Yes, it was,” Bruce replies, with what he believes is pardonable smugness.

 

“He’s one of the top doctors in the world for genetic counseling and treatment,” Lincoln says.

 

“He is, and he routinely volunteers with Doctors Without Borders,” Bruce replies. “So, he’s not purely a research doctor.”

 

“I don’t—this is—” Lincoln stares at him. “Dr. Banner, this is—”

 

Bruce shrugs. “If you aren’t interested in genetics research, I thought you might get some good experience if you want to travel with him.”

 

“No, it’s—I mean, I hadn’t decided yet, but he’s interested in Inhumans, and if you think he can be trusted…” Lincoln rubs his eyes. “I didn’t think it would be possible.”

 

“I’ll make sure you’re up to speed and ready to go back in the fall,” Bruce promises. “In the meantime, we’d really appreciate it if you’d continue to help us out.”

 

“I, uh, yeah, of course,” Lincoln says immediately. “I’m happy to. This is more than I could have expected.”

 

Bruce claps him on the shoulder. “Lincoln, you worked hard to get where you are. There’s no reason to not finish med school if it’s something you want to do.”

 

Lincoln blinks rapidly, his voice a little husky as he says. “Got it. Thanks.”

 

“Go on, get out of here,” Bruce says. “You’re going to need to order your transcripts, and the sooner the better.”

 

Skye hugs him before she follows him outside. “That was really awesome of you.”

 

And Bruce lets out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. At least he could do this one, small thing.

 

~~~~~

 

By the time the Avengers roll back into town, Skye is more than ready to get back out in the field. Terrigen incidents have been steadily declining, suggesting that whatever happened to the remaining crystals, they’re not in high-traffic areas. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t contaminated sources, and she knows Bruce is still figuring out just how big the dose has to be in order to turn someone.

 

Joey is doing really well, well enough that he’s back at home visiting his family for a couple of weeks, and he’s over the moon about it.

 

Lincoln has been on cloud nine the last couple of weeks as well, delving into his old medical school textbooks—or at least the copies that Bruce found—and Skye realizes just how unhappy he’d been.

 

He’s wearing a constant grin, quietly exultant even while studying, and his happiness is contagious.

 

And Skye gets it. She’d felt the same way when Tony unveiled her Avengers uniform, like all the pieces slotted into place, and she belongs somewhere, doing something important.

 

The only blight is Coulson’s continued silence, and the vaguely threatening news stories, and the ATCU grabbing the one Inhuman they knew about before Lincoln and Skye could reach her.

 

That really sucked, because she’s now disappeared, and they have no idea where she is.

 

Tonight should be interesting, because Tony’s hosting a party, and the Avengers are getting together afterward to discuss strategy. Skye isn’t terribly surprised to find a new dress in her closet and she’s wrestling with the zipper when someone knocks on her door.

 

She holds the dress in place while she opens it a crack to see Lincoln there. “What’s up?”

 

“I have no idea what to wear,” he admits.

 

She opens the door wider to let him inside. “There isn’t a suit in your closet?”

 

He frowns. “No, why would there be? I don’t have one.”

 

“And yesterday, I didn’t own this dress,” Skye replies with a smile. “You’ll get used to it. Zip me up?”

 

She turns her back to him, and he obliges, hands lingering on her shoulders for a few moments. “You look great,” he says in a low voice.

 

They’ve spent a lot of time one-on-one for the past couple of weeks, and Skye can feel her resistance faltering. His reluctance to embrace being part of the Avengers has caused some friction between them, but that’s gone now. His enthusiasm and happiness is incredibly attractive.

 

“So will you, once you put on the suit that is definitely in your closet,” she teases, shivering slightly at his touch.

 

“You want to come with me to check?” Lincoln responds.

 

Impulsively, Skye kisses his cheek. “Nope. I have to finish my makeup.”

 

“How fancy is this party?” Lincoln asks.

 

“Both more and less than you’re thinking,” Skye replies. “It’s kind of hard to describe unless you’ve seen it up close and personal. But you better get a move on. We’re supposed to be there in twenty minutes.”

 

Lincoln touches her cheek. “So, if there’s not a suit in my closet?”

 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Skye orders. “Go.”

 

Lincoln smiles and leaves, and Skye is putting the finishing touches on her eye shadow when there’s another knock. “It’s Lincoln!” he calls.

 

“Come in,” Skye replies.

 

She steps into her heels on her way out of the bathroom, and finds Lincoln standing just inside the door. She’d been right—the suit is a dark blue with a light blue shirt, but the tie is looped around his neck.

 

“Do you not know how to tie it?” Skye asks.

 

Lincoln shrugs. “Not really. I haven’t worn a tie in years, and—I usually wore a clip on.”

 

She manages not to laugh. “What makes you think I know how to do it?”

 

“Well, I was kind of hoping,” Lincoln replies.

 

“Better get Bruce to do it for you,” Skye advises. “The nuns would always do it for the boys when they needed to get dressed up. I never had to learn.”

 

Bruce is pretty good about stopping by to see if she’s ready to go, and he doesn’t disappoint. He also doesn’t even blink when he spots Lincoln. “Oh, good. You found the suit,” he says.

 

Lincoln smiles hesitantly. “Thanks.”

 

“You need help with your tie?” Bruce says casually, as though it’s no big deal.

 

Lincoln blushes. “If you don’t mind.”

 

“No, it’s fine,” Bruce says immediately. “I had a roommate in grad school who was all thumbs. I tied his for him all the time because otherwise he’d never have a tie for interviews. I know how to tie my own, but I learned how to do someone else’s on him.”

 

His movements are quick and sure, and by the time he’s talking, Lincoln has a perfect Windsor knot—something Skye has learned since coming to live at the Tower.

 

“Thanks,” Lincoln says, and the expression on his face is one Skye knows well. She knows he doesn’t have a relationship with his parents, or really any family, which is one of the reasons he’d latched on to Gordon and Jiaying.

 

He doesn’t know what to do with someone like Bruce, who takes people under his wing as naturally as he breathes.

 

“I’m glad the fit is good,” Bruce says. “Now you’ll have a suit for any interviews you have at Johns Hopkins.”

 

“I don’t know what to say,” Lincoln admits.

 

“Thank you is fine,” Bruce replies. “Enjoy yourselves tonight. I know I don’t have to tell you this, but there will be a lot of folks here, and we’re having a meeting after. You don’t have to mingle if you don’t want to, but you’re going to make connections at these events you might not make otherwise.”

 

Lincoln nods. “Got it.”

 

Bruce pats him on the shoulder. “You’ll do fine. Skye?”

 

“Good to go,” she says cheerfully. “I’ll look after him.”

 

“Well, we’re out now, so I’ll be with Tony most of the night,” Bruce says wryly. “Or else you’ll find me in the corner hiding, in which case, feel free to join me.”

 

“So, shall we?” Lincoln asks her, holding out an arm.

 

Skye hesitates, and then takes his elbow. “We shall.”

 

There’s a smirk on Bruce’s face, but he doesn’t say anything. Skye decides she doesn’t care.

 

The party is pretty typical of Tony, but even more glittering than usual. Skye’s dark blue bodycon dress is just barely fancy enough, although she notices that it matches Lincoln’s suit.

 

Tony’s subtly playing matchmaker, she just knows it.

 

Skye has been to enough of these parties that she can tell who’s who. She spots the mayor of NYC, as well as the governor. There are a couple of CEOs that she recognizes, and a few people she’s pretty sure are in government.

 

“Hey, Lincoln, there’s someone you should meet,” Bruce says, and pulls them both across the room to a man who is barely taller than Skye.

 

He’s slight and dapper in a bow tie, with a neat goatee, and his face creases in an expression of delight. “This must be Lincoln! I’m Frank.”

 

Lincoln looks flustered. “Oh, it’s, uh, nice to meet you. Thank you so much for the opportunity—”

 

“Nonsense, my boy,” Frank says. “You’ve earned your spot. I got your transcripts. I know you’ve had some difficulties, but Bruce and Tony have assured me you’re well past them, and I admire your work ethic. There are a few people you should meet.”

 

Lincoln glances at Skye, and Frank adds, “And this must be Bruce’s protégé. My dear, he could not be prouder of you. Do you mind if I steal Lincoln for a bit?”

 

Skye laughs. “No, it’s fine. We’ll catch up later.”

 

And then Frank steers Lincoln away, and if Skye thought she was going to get any kind of a date night, she was sorely mistaken.

 

“Let me give you a word of advice,” Bruce says in a low voice. “There are a hundred different ways to have a relationship. You’re not going to get much of him for the next few years, but if you want to focus on the Avengers, and you’re okay with long distance, then it’s not a bad deal at all.”

 

“And that?” Skye asks.

 

“That was Frank asserting his ownership of his protégé,” Bruce replies. “But Lincoln has to get through med school, his residency, and then any post doctorate he might have in whatever area of the country he can find work.”

 

Skye glances at him. “Is that a warning?”

 

Bruce’s expression is soft. “No, that’s my advice to enjoy what you have while you have it. Meanwhile, let me introduce you to a few people.”

 

“You mean use me as a shield,” Skye counters.

 

“Same difference.”

 

They join Tony, and Skye is gratified to hear Bruce continually refer to her as his protégé, and Tony says, “She’s one of the brightest minds I’ve encountered.”

 

“Are you here with anyone, sweetheart?” one of the older veterans Tony probably invited on Steve’s behalf offers.

 

“That guy right over there,” Skye replies, pointing at Lincoln. “So, sorry to say I’m taken.”

 

“Is he treating you right?” he asks. “Because if he’s not, I’ll kick his ass.”

 

Skye is charmed in spite of herself. “He’s been a perfect gentleman. He’s in med school.”

 

“Let me tell you, put a ring on that,” one of the other veterans says, and Skye blushes.

 

“All right,” Bruce says. “Time to go.”

 

Skye is grateful, and amused, and a hundred things all at once. “Nice to meet you,” she says.

 

“I’ll get us all a drink,” Tony says, “and then you can interrupt Moyer’s reunion tour. That should be enough time.”

 

“Having fun?” Bruce asks as they wait for Tony to bring their drinks back, chilling in a quiet corner.

 

“Actually, yes,” she admits.

 

“And Lincoln?”

 

“He’s different when he’s not hating his life,” Skye admits.

 

Bruce laughs freely. “That doesn’t hurt. It’s one of the things that attracted me to Tony. He’s a good balance for me.”

 

Tony shows up to hand Skye her drink. “Go rescue your boy.”

 

Skye rolls her eyes, but doesn’t feel like arguing with him, and she approaches Lincoln and slips her arm through his. “Hey.”

 

“Let him go, Frank,” one of the men says. “He’s got a beautiful woman on his arm.”

 

Frank smiles. “I’m impressed I had him for as long as I did. Lincoln, it was a pleasure. Skye, you are as much of a delight as Bruce promised.”

 

“Thanks,” she says with a blush.

 

Lincoln still looks dazed, but happy. “Sorry for abandoning you.”

 

“You didn’t,” she assures him. “I like to keep Bruce company at these things since he usually appreciates a buffer, and Tony definitely is not one of those.”

 

“Well, you can be my buffer while I recover,” Lincoln jokes.

 

“Or I can introduce you to the Avengers you haven’t met yet,” she counters. “Come on. I see Clint sitting over there.”

 

“I’ve already met Clint,” Lincoln protests.

 

“I’m starting you out slowly,” Skye retorts.

 

Clint greets both of them genially and says, “So, I hear you’re leaving us for med school, Lincoln.”

 

He shifts uncomfortably. “Yeah, I mean Bruce has been helping me, so…”

 

“No judgment,” Clint says immediately. “If you ever wanted to come back, we could use a field doctor. Bruce and Steve do okay, but it might come in handy.”

 

“I think Lincoln is focusing more on Inhuman physiology,” Skye says. “How was your time at home?”

 

“It was good,” Clint replies, and then they’re on to safer topics.

 

Natasha drifts over after a little while, and then Steve, and finally Thor joins them, having arrived late to the party. Thor is the only Avenger Lincoln hasn’t met, and Skye enjoys watching Lincoln’s expression.

 

People always think they’re ready for Thor, and they almost never are. His aura is overwhelming, and yes, god-like.

 

“Well met, Lincoln,” Thor exclaims, clasping his forearm. “I hear we have something in common.”

 

Lincoln recovers slightly. “I don’t exactly have control over thunder, but electricity I can do.”

 

“Impressive, for someone of Midgard,” Thor replies.

 

Once midnight has come and gone, the guests clear out, and Tony and Bruce slump together on one of the low couches where they’ve set up camp.

 

“Why do we do this again?” Bruce complains good-naturedly.

 

“Because we can,” Tony replies. “And also because I’m me.”

 

“Oh, right,” Bruce mutters, but he relaxes into Tony’s side.

 

Skye thinks they’re pretty sweet together now that they’re officially out.

 

“We have some decisions to make, and once we do act, things are going to start moving very quickly,” Steve says, his expression a little grim. “I’ve been asking around, and it seems that the brains behind the operation is Gideon Malick.”

 

Skye has helped go over the data from SHIELD, and she knows that name. “Isn’t he one of those we suspect of being Hydra?”

 

“He is,” Bruce confirms. “He’s also very close to President Ellis, and since we don’t have hard evidence, we can’t publicly accuse him of having Hydra affiliations.”

 

“So what are they doing with Inhumans?” Lincoln asks, leaning forward.

 

Steve glances at Clint and Natasha. “What did you guys find out?”

 

“Ostensibly, the ATCU is working to contain the threat and placing them into suspended animation until there’s a cure,” Natasha says, ignoring the sound of protest Bruce makes. “In reality, we believe Malick wants more Inhumans, and is trying to spread the terrigen as far and wide as he can.”

 

“So they’re not responsible for the deaths?” Tony asks.

 

Clint shakes his head. “No, not as far as we could tell.”

 

“How do you know?” Bruce asks.

 

Natasha smiles. “Because Steve asked us to look into it, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

 

“What are we going to do?” Bruce asks. “Because unless someone volunteers for suspended animation, or they’re completely out of control, that’s shitty. They still have rights.”

 

Skye is reminded of Bruce’s outrage when Coulson tried to fence her in, even though she’d done nothing wrong.

 

“The only thing we probably can do,” Steve replies. “We have to make a statement. Any Inhumans can come to us for training and help, and so can their families. If they disappear or are killed, those responsible have to deal with us.”

 

“I may also be able to assist,” Thor rumbles. “There are places where they would be accepted, if not welcomed.”

 

Clint clears his throat. “Not that I disagree, or that I think we shouldn’t do it, but it could make us a target, too. This stance comes from the highest levels of government, and we don’t exactly have the authority to buck the system.”

 

“Sometimes it’s not about authority,” Steve states quietly. “Sometimes it’s about doing the right thing.”

 

Tony clears his throat. “I have some ideas for giving us cover, but it’s not going to happen right away, and may require having a public break.”

 

“We’re going to trick people?” Thor asks, sounding slightly scandalized.

 

“It might help me get appointed as Secretary of Defense,” Tony replies. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but we need to keep it as an option.”

 

Natasha shakes her head. “No, there’s no way that will work.”

 

“Excuse you,” Tony replies, clearly offended. “I’ll have you know that I’m an excellent actor. I could totally fake being in a fight with Steve.”

 

“Could you fake a breakup with Bruce?” she asks, arching her eyebrow. “Up to and including him moving out of the Tower and you guys not seeing each other for however long it takes?”

 

“He might be able to, but I don’t think I can,” Bruce inserts, probably to prevent Tony’s automatic protest that he could handle it. “Besides, I think it would be better to get people on board with protecting Inhumans, rather than feeding into the hysteria.”

 

Steve nods. “Agreed. We face the consequences together, but that means we need to be on the same page.”

 

“We’ve seen what happens when a group of people feels threatened by extinction,” Natasha points out. “I don’t think we want a repeat.”

 

Clint nods. “I agree.”

 

“Agreed,” Thor rumbles. “These people may someday be our comrades in arms.”

 

“You know I’m in,” Tony agrees. “And Natasha is right, I couldn’t pretend to break up with Bruce. We just came out.”

 

Bruce nods. “You know I’m in.”

 

“I think I should be the one to make the announcement,” Steve adds. “That way, if it comes down to it, Tony can distance himself from things.”

 

“We can just pretend that there’s trouble in paradise if it comes down to that,” Bruce says consolingly.

 

Everybody turns to Skye, and she blinks. “What?”

 

“Are you in?” Steve asks with a gentle smile. “You’re an Avenger. You get a say.”

 

Skye laughs. “Yeah, of course I’m in.”

 

“Lincoln, how do you think the other Inhumans will react?” Bruce asks.

 

Lincoln hesitates. “I can’t speak for everybody, but I think it will make a difference. You guys might not be exactly like us, but at least you’re not—you know.”

 

“Normal?” Tony asks, sounding amused.

 

Lincoln shrugs. “You said it, I didn’t.”

 

“I don’t think we should wait,” Steve comments. “The longer this goes on, the more people will be hurt.”

 

Tony nods. “The Tower will go on lockdown immediately after the announcement is made. I think we should all be here in case we need to respond.”

 

Skye clears her throat. “What about Hydra? If Malick is really behind all of this, they may strike.”

 

“You should call Joey back,” Lincoln says. “He’d want to be here, and he’s ready.”

 

“Tomorrow morning,” Tony agrees. “I’ll call a press conference for the afternoon. Does that work for everybody?”

 

There’s general assent, and then they all break to go to bed since it’s well after midnight, and they’re all tired.

 

Lincoln walks Skye to her door, and half leans in. “Do I get a goodnight kiss?”

 

“I think that can be arranged,” Skye admits.

 

He closes the distance but keeps the kiss light, his thumb brushing her cheekbone. “Good night.”

 

“Good night,” Skye replies, and feels a familiar fluttery feeling in her stomach.

 

And for a moment, she lets herself believe that she can have it all, and that everything will be okay.

 

~~~~~

 

Tony comes out to the common room in time for Steve’s press conference, smiling at Joey when he spots him. “Joey, good to see you again.”

 

Joey bobs his head. “You too, Mr. Stark.”

 

“Tony, please,” he says for the tenth time. “How is your family?”

 

“They’re good,” Joey replies. “They’re still waiting for you and Dr. Banner to come over for dinner.”

 

“Maybe when things calm down,” Tony replies. He sits down next to Bruce, who puts a hand on Tony’s knee. Skye and Lincoln are sitting close together, and Tony recognizes the beginning of a courtship when he sees one.

 

Clint and Natasha are sitting by the bar, and Clint has a beer in hand, and Natasha has the bottle of vodka out, although she’s not gulping—yet. Thor has elected to accompany Steve, standing behind him as a solemn, silent support.

 

Steve has elected to wear his uniform, although he’s left his cowl off, and he looks every inch the all-American hero standing in front of a bank of microphones and the gathered press. He might not be as comfortable in the spotlight as Tony is, but he has an innate understanding of optics—and the uniform matters in this case.

 

“Thanks for coming,” Steve begins. “There’s been a lot of debate about what to do with those who suddenly find themselves with special abilities, and the Avengers haven’t taken a public position yet. What I can tell you is our newest member, Skye, has been instrumental in helping us target Hydra and take them down, and she gained her abilities through exposure to terrigen.”

 

There are shouted questions, and Steve holds up a hand. “Please, guys. I need to get through this.”

 

The room falls silent, and Steve continues with the written statement. “I spent years watching Nazis target people they thought were different. They used a lot of the same words I’ve heard directed at these enhanced people, who were, after all, born with this genetic quirk. These people are still our friends and family members, and they are deserving of our help and support as they learn how to control and harness these new abilities. The hotline number at the bottom of your screen is for your use, and the Avengers will render whatever assistance we can.

 

“Thank you,” Steve finishes. “I’m not taking any questions at this time.”

 

The reporters still shout questions at him, which Steve ignores as he walks off, but one of them catches Thor’s attention. “Thor! Thor! What do you make of all this?”

 

Thor pauses. He doesn’t bother using the microphone as he replies, “On Asgard, we assume good faith until proven otherwise. To do less makes enemies out of those we might call friends.”

 

It’s an eloquent answer, and there’s a moment of silence before the press erupts with questions. This time, neither Thor nor Steve pause, heading out of the room and presumably back up to the common area.

 

Tony glances around the room to gauge reactions, and sees an expression of fierce joy on Skye’s face and nearly incredulous hope on Lincoln and Joey’s. Bruce is smiling, his expression fond, and Clint and Natasha wear twin expressions of grim pleasure.

 

Tony understands that; they’ve thrown down the gauntlet, and he suspects their move will make the Avengers targets for both the US government and Hydra.

 

Not that Tony hasn’t been in the crosshairs of both for years now.

 

“Hydra isn’t going to be able to resist that invitation,” Natasha comments, knocking back a shot.

 

“We knew that already,” Bruce points out. “Just like we knew we weren’t done when we didn’t put a stop to Strucker.”

 

Lincoln clears his throat. “You wanted to know if it would make a difference? It will. That was—”

 

He stops as the elevator chimes and Steve and Thor enter, Steve’s expression weary and grim, and Thor still solemn.

 

“How did it go?” Steve asks, and he’s transformed from Captain America to Steve, the kid from Brooklyn once again.

 

“You were great,” Bruce says immediately.

 

“You looked like a pro,” Tony replies casually.

 

Lincoln actually stands, holding out a hand for Steve to shake. “Thank you.”

 

“I didn’t go to Afterlife to broker a deal just to watch you all be hunted down,” Steve replies with some asperity, not directed at Lincoln, but at the situation, and that breaks the remaining tension in the room as they all laugh.

 

Joey, who has remained silent, also gets to his feet. “Thank you. My family thanks you. They will see what you did today, and—we won’t be so afraid.”

 

“He’s right,” Skye says. “It means a lot, more than just me being an Avenger.”

 

Steve nods sharply. “It’s what we do. We should probably increase training hours over the next week or two to ensure we’re ready for any countermeasures. Joey, I’d like you to join us. Lincoln, I know you’re going to med school, but—”

 

“No, I’m there,” Lincoln says immediately. “Whatever I can do. I don’t start until the fall.”

 

Steve smiles. “Good. Tomorrow is soon enough, but I want everybody in the gym at 7 am.”

 

Tony knows that’s generous for Steve, who will probably have gone on a two-hour run—if not longer—by then.

 

“Does that include me?” Tony asks.

 

“Everybody other than Bruce,” Steve replies, with an apologetic look leveled at Bruce.

 

Bruce shrugs. “I can’t argue, but I can make dinner.”

 

Just then, Jarvis announces, “Director Coulson is on the phone for you, sir, and he wishes to speak to Captain Rogers as well.”

 

“Skye, Lincoln, Joey, come help me,” Bruce says.

 

Skye appears mutinous. “But—”

 

“Skye,” Steve says gently. “You’re an Avenger, but we acted to protect you and the others. Let us take the heat for you. You’ll get the chance to do the same for us one of these days.”

 

She doesn’t appear happy about it, but she agrees, and they follow Bruce into the kitchen.

 

“Put it on the screen, J,” Tony orders. “I think we may all want to be here for this.”

 

Coulson’s frustrated, tired expression fills the screen. “You couldn’t have waited?”

 

“Waited for what?” Steve demands, stepping forward. “After more were killed? Do you know what the ATCU is doing with the Inhumans they capture?”

 

“They’re not responsible for the kills,” Coulson says, which is no answer at all. “It was an Inhuman, and he’s been placed in stasis for the safety of everyone.”

 

Tony raises an eyebrow. “How many agents was he responsible for killing?”

 

“Fewer agents than Inhumans,” Coulson replies. “Your information led directly to us catching him.”

 

“What was the motivation?” Steve asks.

 

“Unknown at this time, but it appears to be a compulsion related to his enhanced abilities,” Coulson replies. He glares at them. “I was trying to come to an agreement with the head of the ATCU.”

 

“Since they took custody, I’m assuming you reached one,” Steve says blandly.

 

Coulson’s glare softens slightly. “We did. She was unaware of Malick’s connection to Hydra, at least so far as I could tell.”

 

“And you believe her?” Steve asks.

 

“I do,” Coulson says evenly. “That’s not to say I trust her completely, but I believe her when she says she didn’t know the ATCU was being used by Hydra.”

 

“Do what you have to do,” Tony replies. “But we’ve made our point.”

 

“I hope you know what kind of trouble you’ve brought on yourselves,” Coulson says ominously, and then his face relaxes. “But thank you. I know they’ll be safe in your hands.”

 

Steve nods. “That’s what SHIELD is supposed to be about, isn’t it?”

 

Coulson sighs heavily. “I think those ideals may have collapsed along with the organization, Captain. Give my best to Skye, and let me know if you need support.”

 

“Of course, Director,” Steve replies formally. “Take care.”

 

The transmission ends, and Steve glances at Clint and Natasha. “Thoughts?”

 

“He’s in a tough position,” Clint says. “He’s leading an agency that’s operating in a gray area, and he’s probably going to have to ride a lot of lines and make decisions he wouldn’t have to make otherwise.”

 

“Not unlike us,” Natasha points out. “The government may not always be inclined to allow us to operate independently, and we may have just sped up that decision.”

 

“We cross that bridge when we come to it,” Steve says firmly. “And we cross it together.”

 

Tony ducks out at that point, since his planning is mostly limited to devices and media. Tactics are more their thing.

 

Besides, he wants to check in on Bruce.

 

Joey already had cooking skills, and he helped Bruce cook often once he came out of isolation. He’s mixing some sort of dough by hand while Bruce stirs something in a pot, and Lincoln and Skye chop vegetables.

 

“Taco night?” Tony asks, recognizing the elements. Taco night had been very popular with everybody, even more so when Joey began to share some techniques with Bruce.

 

“It seemed like the thing to do,” Bruce replies. He doesn’t ask Tony to help, having learned just how inept Tony is in the kitchen.

 

Tony’s pretty sure he could get better if he really tried, but Bruce likes cooking and Tony doesn’t, so it seems a fair split of labor, generally speaking.

 

The others begin to drift in, and Bruce switches places with Joey so he can begin to griddle the tortillas. Joey says, “Are we frying, or just fresh?”

 

“Fresh,” Bruce says firmly in unison with Skye.

 

Everybody turns to look at Skye who says, “What? I lived in Los Angeles, the taco capital of the US. Fresh corn tortillas are the bomb. And Joey makes some of the best I’ve had.”

 

Joey grins. “My grandma will be very glad to hear it.”

 

“When do we eat?” Tony asks.

 

“Fifteen minutes,” Bruce replies. “So, go find some plates.”

 

Tony wonders what the rest of the world would think if they heard his boyfriend bossing him around and decides that he really doesn’t care.

 

~~~~~

 

Bruce wakes to the sound of a klaxon sounding, and he groans. It’s been nearly a week since Steve’s press conference, and he’s been waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Oh, fuck.”

 

“Yeah, that exactly,” Tony replies, rolling out of bed and pulling on yesterday’s clothes, still in a pile where they’d been discarded. “Jarvis? What’s going on?”

 

“We have reports of an Inhuman-related problem in Baltimore, sir,” Jarvis announces. “Early reports are unclear, but the ATCU appears to be attempting to take several Inhumans into custody.”

 

Bruce grabs his own clothes quickly and throws them on, shoving his feet into his shoes barefoot. There’s a duffel bag under the bed that’s already packed with anything he might need after a transformation, and he follows Tony up to the roof.

 

“Clint is five minutes out,” Tony says, since he’s already on coms. “The others should be here shortly. I called them in, but I figure Cap will make the final call on who goes.”

 

Steve jogs out to meet them, and he offers Bruce an apologetic look. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to come. The area is highly populated, and we can’t risk a Code Green, not right now. I’ll take Lincoln and Joey along for additional backup, just in case.”

 

Bruce doesn’t love being left behind, but he can see the wisdom behind the decision.

 

“They’ll have us,” Skye says as she joins them, still tugging her uniform into place. “It’s cool, doc.”

 

“Be careful,” Bruce orders, giving Tony a quick kiss. “All of you.”

 

He has mixed feelings about being the one left behind, but he figures he can at least ask Jarvis to patch through the coms so he can keep an ear out from a distance. He’s certainly not going to be able to get back to sleep.

 

Bruce waits to see them off, then heads to Tony’s workspace, since it has a better set up for what he wants to do. “Jarvis, please get me everything you can.”

 

“Of course, Dr. Banner,” Jarvis replies, and the first footage that comes up is from a traffic chopper, along with commentary from the reporter on board.

 

It looks like there are several enhanced persons on the ground, the reporter says, along with SWAT or perhaps military. We don’t have any information on casualties at this time.

 

He doesn’t like where this news story is going, because it’s going to be a lot harder to justify their stance on Inhumans if one of them causes death and destruction. They’ll wind up in a shoot first, ask questions later scenario, and there won’t be much the Avengers can do to counter that emotion.

 

And now what looks like an armed group of men is entering the area, the reporter adds. It’s unclear what affiliation they might have.

 

That can’t be good, Bruce thinks. It adds too many variables into an already chaotic situation, and this is Joey’s first time out.

 

“We’ve got a group of Inhumans to the east fighting the ATCU, and another group to the west,” Tony calls out. “The militia is headed east.”

 

“Joey, Lincoln, Natasha, deal with the group to the west,” Steve orders. “We’ll deal with the others.”

 

Bruce drums his fingers on the table, twitchy with the lack of information coming in, and then he hears Natasha swear furiously in Russian. “They’re our Hydra plants,” she calls furiously. “They’re here!”

 

“Where are you?” Tony demands.

 

“I need Clint!” she shouts, and then there’s only silence, and Bruce grips the edge of the lab bench, thinking about what probably happened. Probably they got to Lincoln and Joey. Probably they were lured there.

 

Probably, things are going to get a hell of a lot worse.

 

“Got ‘em,” Clint says suddenly. “I can take out the girl, no problem, but the boy is too fast for me.”

 

“Not for me,” Thor replies.

 

Bruce can hear the crack of thunder over the coms, and the sound of gunfire follows.

 

“We can’t risk injuring these assholes,” Tony snaps, sounding put out. “It’s going to backfire.”

 

“Anybody got eyes on Widow?” Steve asks.

 

“Working on it!” Clint calls. “The weird one is down, though.”

 

In the background, the reporter is talking about metal bending and electricity sparking, and Bruce buries his head in his hands because that’s exactly what they didn’t need to happen.

 

He wishes he were there. It’s a good thing he’s not, but he still wishes he were, to try to talk Joey and Lincoln down, to convince them they’re safe.

 

And now the battle seems to be really heating up between the armed militia and some of the enhanced people, the reporter says breathlessly.

 

Bruce knows, without a doubt, that this whole thing is about to get really ugly.

 

~~~~~

 

Skye isn’t sure she’s ever going to get used to the idea that she’s an Avenger now, no matter how many missions she goes on.

 

She often feels like she doesn’t quite belong, that she’s the tagalong who ended up on the ride with these seriously cool and powerful people just because her former boss decided she needed help from the Hulk.

 

On the other hand, as Cap issues orders—Joey and Lincoln with Natasha to handle the Inhumans and hopefully calm them down, Clint, Thor, and Tony to the skies above them to provide aerial support, and Skye to back Steve up.

 

And that makes Skye feel pretty great, to know that Cap chose her as back up.

 

They go to break up the fight between the ATCU and the enhanced persons, although it’s a short-lived battle. The other Inhumans scatter when they see Steve and Skye bearing down on them, and the ATCU pauses, weapons trained.

 

“We don’t want to hurt anybody,” Steve says. “We just want to get things calmed down.”

 

“We’re not here for you,” one of the agents says. “We have no reason to tangle with the Avengers.”

 

“This is a pretty public place for a confrontation, son,” Steve says with the perfect amount of disappointment and condescension.

 

Skye can’t read the man’s expression, but she gets a sudden sinking feeling when they all turn and begin to jog off in formation.

 

Then Natasha calls out, “They’re our Hydra plants! They’re here!”

 

Skye gets a really bad feeling and immediately turns.

 

“I need Clint!” Natasha shouts.

 

Steve starts to run, and Skye does her best to keep up while keeping an eye on the chaos around her and what’s going on over the coms. She can see electricity storms and metal bending, and that means Tony and Thor are going to be hampered in their attempts at getting to them.

 

“I’ve got the weird one!” Clint says triumphantly, and Skye realizes that she remembers how the fast one moved, and how the vibrations he made were just a little different than most humans.

 

She pauses and reaches out with her powers, and feels, opening up to the world in a way that’s normally hard because there’s too much information, and it all gets to be too much. She feels Steve pause next to her, to provide cover, and Skye feels that vibration and grins fiercely.

 

“Gotcha,” she whispers, and sends a seismic wave in his direction. It slams him against a nearby building, and Clint gets off a tranq arrow right away, managing to get both of them down.

 

Of course, that still doesn’t tell them where Natasha, Joey, and Lincoln are.

 

“Got Widow,” Clint says breathlessly. “She’s out of it but is shaking it off quickly.”

 

Skye frowns. “What about Lincoln and Joey?”

 

“They’re not here,” Clint says grimly. “Someone grabbed them.”

 

“The ATCU,” Skye breathes. “That was why they broke it off so quickly. They staged this whole thing.”

 

Tony lands next to her. “Not the whole thing. The armed assholes weren’t a part of it. They’re just vigilantes. But the rest of it? Yeah, I think they did.”

 

“Is that enough evidence to show that the ATCU and Hydra are related?” Steve asks.

 

Tony shakes his head. “I doubt it. Malick has hidden his ties really well. They always refer to him by a code name, and the only solid evidence we have is from Coulson—who isn’t considered a reliable witness by those we actually need to convince.”

 

“Why would they want Joey and Lincoln, though?” Skye asks. “Why not me?”

 

“Maybe they didn’t have a choice,” Tony says soberly. “Look, you were with Steve, and you didn’t lose control of your powers. They did, even if we can show they were provoked. That means the ATCU can continue their goals.”

 

“What do they want?” Skye asks.

 

“I think we need to find out,” Steve replies. “Because the bottom line is that we got played today, and we got a major black eye.”

 

~~~~~

 

It’s a somber group that brings the Maximoff siblings back to the Tower, both unconscious because no one wants to take a risk that they’ll either escape, or the girl will use her powers.

 

“Can we find them?” Bruce asks as soon as he sees the others. “Is that doable?”

 

“We’d better,” Steve replies. “We’re not leaving them in the hands of the ATCU, that’s for sure.”

 

Bruce glances at the Maximoffs. “What are we going to do with them?”

 

“I’m hoping to get some information out of them in exchange for leniency,” Steve admits. “Although even if that works, we can’t keep them imprisoned here indefinitely.”

 

“Turn them over to Coulson,” Clint advises. “This is partly his problem, and I think we should let him deal with it.”

 

“He has a point,” Tony comments. “I don’t see why we should have to do all the heavy lifting. Let’s question them, and see if we can’t get some information out of them.”

 

Steve shakes his head. “Not you, not right now. I think it should be Natasha and I to start.”

 

Natasha’s eyes narrow. “I wouldn’t mind getting a little payback for what they did to me earlier.”

 

Tony thinks about it. “There’s a conference room that’s fairly secure. We can set you up in there while we watch. I want to know what these two have against us, and why they’ve agreed to work with Hydra.”

 

To be on the safe side, they make sure the kids’ hands are zip tied behind their backs and secure the boy’s feet to the chair as well. Then the others head for Tony’s lab, where they can use the security cameras and Jarvis to observe the interrogation.

 

They’re both stirring before long, ferocious scowls taking over their expressions as soon as they realize they’ve been bound.

 

“Release us!” the boy demands—that would be Pietro, Tony thinks. “You have no right to hold us!”

 

“You were consorting with a known terrorist organization,” Steve replies evenly. “You or your sister managed to trigger the Hulk’s transformation in Central Park, resulting in property damage—and you were damn lucky no one died. You took part in an action today that was most certainly orchestrated by Hydra. Your choices at the moment are cooperate, and perhaps receive leniency, or don’t, and you will likely never be released from custody.”

 

Steve speaks bluntly, harshly, and Tony remembers that this is a guy who joined up to participate in an experiment just so he could punch Nazis in the face. He has no love for Hydra, and very little in the way of sympathy for those who collaborate with them.

 

“Why should we help you?” the girl—Wanda—spits. “You work for a murderer.”

 

Natasha leans forward, and Tony can see the way her posture softens, playing good cop to Steve’s bad cop. “And who do you think is a murderer?”

 

“Stark,” Pietro responds. “Strucker at least is honest about his intentions.”

 

“And Malick?” Natasha asks.

 

There’s some squirming at that. “Who is Malick?” Pietro asks, and the kid really needs to work on his poker face.

 

“Another head of Hydra,” Natasha replies. “We know this, and we have the proof, as well as information that he wants to use you, control you.”

 

“We don’t work for him,” Wanda replies. “We don’t know him.”

 

“But he’s why you’re here now,” Steve counters. “It was Malick behind the men who kidnapped our friends, people like you.”

 

“That has nothing to do with us,” Pietro replies hotly.

 

“Did you know what Malick has been doing with people like you?” Natasha asks. “He puts them in suspended animation, and then he uses them. You could sleep for weeks, or months, or even years, and you’d never know time had passed, and then you wake up, and the world you know is gone. Is that really what you want?”

 

“We just want to know where they took our friends,” Steve says. “That’s all.”

 

Slowly, surely, Natasha and Steve ask questions, make comments, get little bits of information out, sometimes in shrugs, sometimes in angry outbursts as they lose their tempers.

 

Eventually, it comes out that they’d lost their entire family when their house had been bombed, and those bombs came from Stark Industries. Tony feels that information like a blow, more proof of his past crimes, and he feels Bruce’s arm tight around his shoulders.

 

“Tony, you didn’t actually bomb their family,” Bruce murmurs. “You know that.”

 

“I might as well have,” he whispers back.

 

Bruce gives him a little shake. “No, if they hadn’t used your weapons, they would have used someone else’s. Give yourself a little break here. These kids joined Hydra.”

 

“Maybe they didn’t know what they were getting into,” Tony argues. “They just joined up with the first person who offered them a way of getting revenge.”

 

“So what?” Skye snaps, having overheard their conversation. “Grant Ward was a SHIELD agent, and I thought he was my friend, but it turns out that he was nothing more than a Hydra tool. He blamed it on a crappy childhood, but so what? I had a crappy childhood, and I didn’t become a Nazi.”

 

Bruce smiles. “She has a point, Tony.”

 

Eventually, it becomes clear that Natasha and Steve aren’t going to get any additional information out of them, and they leave the room.

 

“I’ll call Coulson,” Skye offers. “How are we going to locate Lincoln and Joey?”

 

Tony frowns. “I probably should have lo-jacked them.”

 

“We had no way of knowing that the ATCU would come after them while they were actually with the Avengers,” Bruce argues. “And it would have been a major breech of their privacy. I doubt Lincoln would have agreed to it.”

 

“Maybe not, but we would have been able to find them now,” Tony replies. “But it’s done. We don’t need to rehash it, we just need to figure out how we’re going to locate them.”

 

Bruce frowns. “What about Coulson’s friend? He said he was getting close to the head of the ATCU.”

 

“I’ll ask when I talk to him, then,” Skye replies, and wanders away to make the call.

 

“This is definitely not your fault,” Bruce comments. “You know that, right?”

 

“What part of it?” Tony asks sourly. “Because I’ve got a couple of kids in there that would probably argue with you.”

 

Bruce kisses him fiercely. “I love that you care, and I love that you saw you were going down the wrong path, and you changed direction. Keep that in mind before you beat yourself up too much.”

 

“I will,” Tony replies. “At least I’ll try.”

 

They regroup in the main room, with Thor drinking a beer glumly, and Clint checking over his arrows. When Skye enters, she says, “Coulson is sending Morse and Hunter to pick them up. He thinks it might be a good idea if they’re unconscious for transport.”

 

Tony can tell that Bruce doesn’t love the idea, but he doesn’t raise any objections either, probably because the idea of the Maximoffs gaining control of a Quinjet en route is not one he wants to contemplate.

 

Tony is actually more worried about the repercussions of today’s outing. One of the Avengers’ selling points had been that they could help Inhumans get control. Today, two Inhumans they had under their protection wound up doing a lot of damage.

 

Granted, that had been the fault of a couple of Hydra operatives, but Tony worries that won’t matter, not to the right people, not with Malick whispering in the president’s ear.

 

Tony ends up calling for pizza, with Natasha and Steve joining them after Coulson’s agents pick up the Maximoffs.

 

They all end up sleeping at the Tower that night, and Tony is just pouring a cup of coffee the next morning when Natasha enters the kitchen and says, “We have a problem. The president just signed an executive order.”

 

“Jarvis, turn on the news,” Tony orders.

 

The news comes on, and the White House press secretary says, “Given the recent events in Baltimore, we feel that it’s prudent to require registration and testing for all currently unidentified enhanced persons. The ATCU will handle all registration processes. Those who do not voluntarily comply will be taken into custody.”

 

“J, get everybody in here,” Tony orders. “This is big.”

 

Steve and Clint both look exhausted, while Bruce’s expression is anxious and unhappy, and Tony can understand why. He takes his responsibilities very seriously, and Joey and Lincoln had been his responsibility. The Inhumans have become his responsibility.

 

The announcement is playing on repeat at this point, and Steve’s expression is thunderous. “Can they do that? I mean, by whose authority are they doing this?”

 

Bruce shakes his head. “They’ll have to fight it out in the courts, and that will take time. In the meantime, they’ll take Inhumans into custody. Worse yet, they’re going to get those who are willing to comply.”

 

“Why is that worse?” Steve asks.

 

Natasha grimaces. “Because they won’t fight back, even if they should.”

 

“They’ll expect the system to work for them,” Bruce says. “For things to get sorted out.”

 

Clint nods. “What do we do? This seems like a pretty clear challenge.”

 

“It is,” Tony agrees. “But I’m not sure there’s a response we can make without risking everything.”

 

Bruce clears his throat. “We could make a point by registering ourselves.”

 

“We’re not unidentified,” Tony replies. “And no, because I’m not risking you. If they get you into stasis, there’s no telling how soon we’d be able to get you out.”

 

“So, what? Do we make an announcement?” Steve asks. “Tell people not to turn themselves in?”

 

“We can change the message on the hotline,” Tony says. “Tell them to lay low, and if someone comes after them, to contact us. We can start shuttling people to Afterlife if we have to.”

 

“I can also make some inquiries,” Thor offers. “But I would have to go back to Asgard.”

 

“I think we need to make sure we have that option,” Tony replies. “It’s okay, Thor. That’s just as important.”

 

Thor nods. “I will see if I can make sure they have safe passage.”

 

“In the meantime, what are we going to do?” Bruce asks.

 

Steve frowns. “I think we have to focus on rescuing Joey and Lincoln. And then—then we may need to take a stand, even if that puts us in the crosshairs.”

 

Tony takes a deep breath. “Well, once more into the breach, I guess.”

 

~~~~~

 

Bruce is going out of his mind with worry—for Lincoln, for Joey, for Skye, even for their team, because it’s entirely possible that they’ll come after the Avengers next.

 

There’s a part of him that thinks he’d be safer if they did find a way to contain the Other Guy, to put him under until a cure is found. Another part of him suspects that his greener half would never allow it, even if Tony did, and that’s never going to happen.

 

And then he thinks that it’s unfair to Lincoln and Joey and all of those other Inhumans who could lead normal, productive lives, who could change the world if given a chance, but who are being forced to sleep their lives away because people are afraid, and because Hydra wants to win.

 

He can’t help but see Hydra’s hand in this, and their desire to get ahold of Inhumans, to do exactly as Jiaying feared they would do.

 

“Once we get the dirt on Malick, there’s going to be a gap in the President’s advisors,” Tony says as they get ready to face the day. “He’s going to need an expert.”

 

“And that’s going to be you,” Bruce replies.

 

Tony shrugs. “Well, it could be you as well. He’d get two for the price of one.”

 

“They’re not going to allow the Hulk to come anywhere near the President, Tony,” Bruce feels compelled to point out. “As far as they know, I would just go green and smash him. It’s the same reason they probably won’t let an Inhuman anywhere near him.”

 

Tony knots his tie carefully. “True, but it really should be you. You were the one who put in the hard work eking out a truce with the Inhumans after Jiaying.”

 

“Yeah, and look how well that’s turned out for us,” Bruce mutters.

 

Weeks of diplomacy, careful negotiations, the delicate soothing of hurt feelings and balancing the various needs and wants of the residents of Afterlife, and they’re back at square one again.

 

All because some asshole Hydra goon wants Inhumans for his own nefarious purposes.

 

It’s been two days since the executive order, and they’ve done everything in their power to locate Lincoln and Joey, but no joy. In the end, Coulson had been the one to reach out to them with information gathered from the head of the ATCU, and one of his other team members who had been working on infiltrating Hydra. They’re having a conference first thing to discuss their plan and various options.

 

Breakfast is an informal affair, with everyone grabbing toast or cereal or just coffee, depending on preferences.

 

When Coulson arrives, Tony sends Skye out to meet him, since he’s bringing Simmons and Fitz along, and they want to give her a bit of privacy to greet her old team.

 

“How are things going?” Bruce asks once Coulson and the others are inside.

 

Coulson offers a tight-lipped smile. “Not great, but at least I can offer pertinent information.”

 

“Let’s move this to the conference room,” Tony suggests. “We have a lot of ground to cover.”

 

Steve sits at the head of the table, and Bruce glances around the room over the rim of his coffee cup. Tony and Bruce sit on one side of the table with Clint and Natasha, while Coulson, Fitz, Simmons and Skye take up the other side.

 

“Director Coulson, I think you had better go first,” Steve says.

 

Coulson nods. “Very well. From what I know, Malick is behind the executive order calling for registration. Part of that is the events in Baltimore. He’s convinced the President that the safety of the public requires it.”

 

“I don’t see how registration is going to help,” Skye mutters. “The fact that we have special abilities doesn’t determine how we use them.”

 

Coulson nods. “I would agree, but the other half of the equation is that there’s a group called the Watchdogs who have been attacking Inhumans. The President apparently feels that if he forces the issue of registration, he’ll appease both sides.”

 

Bruce groans. “This is exactly what we wanted to prevent! If Hydra has a list of Inhumans, they can treat it like a shopping list.”

 

Coulson’s expression is grim. “Agreed, which is why we need to shut down the program as soon as possible.”

 

“Shutting down the program isn’t going to do much good if we can’t demonstrate that Malick isn’t to be trusted. What do we know about him?” Steve asks.

 

Simmons clears her throat. “There’s a different planet, or maybe a dimension. Hydra wants access, and maybe wants what lives there.”

 

“What do you know about it?” Tony asks.

 

Simmons hesitates. “That’s where I spent some time. From what we’ve been able to find out, Hydra practically worshipped whatever lives there, and it has something to do with Inhumans.”

 

“The monolith,” Skye comments. “That’s what Jiaying was so worried about being in SHIELD’s hands. Was that why?”

 

“It’s a good bet,” Coulson replies. “But we can’t say for certain what it does, or what would happen if it’s released from captivity on that planet.”

 

“All right,” Steve says. “Then if we take down Malick, we also reduce the chances of him releasing this thing, and let’s face it—he’s Hydra. Anything he wants is probably a bad deal for us. Do we know where the ATCU is keeping the Inhumans they capture?”

 

Coulson nods. “We do. Rosalind was able to tell me that much before Grant Ward killed her. I also have some information on Strucker’s whereabouts, and we want to shut down his operation as well to prevent him from giving Malick any assistance.”

 

Skye nods. “Take off the heads, and you cripple the organization.”

 

“There are still quite a few heads, but the more we can do now, the better off we’ll be when we have to turn our attention on Malick,” Steve agrees. “That’s our job, along with the rest of the team—including you, Bruce.”

 

Bruce feels a momentary alarm. “Really?”

 

“We have information that Strucker has a few surprises that might call for the Hulk,” Steve says apologetically. “And Skye and Tony will be there to keep you on track.”

 

Bruce sighs. “Of course.”

 

“Strucker has taken over an old warehouse district in what used to be eastern Germany,” Coulson informs them. “He and Malick have disagreed on the best way to arm Hydra. Obviously, we’re not completely clear on Malick’s goals, but Strucker wants his own army. From what we’ve been able to get out of the Maximoffs, Strucker is going for a mechanized army.”

 

“Evil robots, great,” Tony says without enthusiasm. “So, we’re going to take him out.”

 

“That’s the idea,” Steve replies. “Strucker has been listed as a terrorist, so we’re cleared for taking him into custody.”

 

“And if he won’t come quietly?” Skye asks.

 

“Killing him has been deemed acceptable as well,” Steve says evenly.

 

Bruce wonders how many people from the public would be surprised by the fact that the Avengers don’t always take people alive.

 

“It’s a straight forward assault,” Steve says. “Without Thor, it’s going to present a bit of a challenge, which is why I’m going to preemptively call for a Code Green.”

 

Bruce nods. “Understood.”

 

Steve continues, “Widow and Hawkeye, work with Coulson’s people. We need a plan for how to rescue Lincoln and Joey, and for that we’ll need their exact locations. We also need to know if a frontal assault is going to be necessary, or if we can be sneaky about it.”

 

“Got it,” Natasha replies.

 

“Uniforms everybody,” Steve says. “We leave in fifteen minutes.”

 

Tony glances at Bruce. “You ready for this, big guy?”

 

“Do I have a choice?” Bruce counters.

 

“Doesn’t look like it,” Tony replies. “We’re going to be fine. Lincoln and Joey are going to be fine.”

 

Bruce really hopes that’s the case, and they manage to turn this thing around, but right now, they seem to be fighting a losing battle.

 

~~~~~

 

Skye doesn’t have much time to spend with Jemma or Fitz, which is irritating. Skye has barely been able to talk to Jemma since she returned from the alien dimension, and she can see the signs of stress on Jemma’s face, has been able to see them for the last few weeks. But while it’s not ideal, there really doesn’t seem to be a choice.

 

She doubts that this will be the last time she’s torn between her identity as an Inhuman and her position as an Avenger.

 

Skye still gets a thrill putting on her uniform, and she straps on her handguns and the variation on Natasha’s Widow’s Bite that Tony had created for her, and that she controls entirely with her powers.

 

That had been one really nice thing about training with the others for so many months; Tony had plenty of time to come up with new toys for all of them.

 

She’s at the designated location with time to spare, and she eats a protein bar in quick bites, since she doesn’t know when they’ll be able to eat next.

 

Skye feels rock steady as far as the upcoming fight goes—even excited to finally be out in the field. She’s worried about Lincoln, though, and Joey, and everything else as well.

 

She’s worried that they’ll win this battle only to lose the war.

 

“You okay?” she asks Bruce as he joins her, a duffel bag in hand.

 

Bruce looks at her, and she can’t help but think that the expression on his face is like the one her father had just before he killed Jiaying, like he knows something she doesn’t. “I’ll be happy when we’ve shut Hydra down.”

 

“Me, too,” Skye replies, but his expression still worries her. “We’re all going to be fine, you know.”

 

Bruce smiles wistfully. “I wish I did know that.”

 

The Quinjet is fast, but the trip to Germany still takes six hours. Skye spends most of the time napping with her headphones on. When they’re close, Steve says, “We’re twenty minutes out. Gear up.”

 

Tony steps back into the suit, and Bruce puts his headphones away. Steve puts the Quinjet down a few miles away from their target outside of town.

 

“Tony, come at it from above,” Steve orders. “Bruce, give Skye and I about fifteen minutes, and then approach. I’ll let you decide when and where to transform.”

 

Skye follows Steve at a jog, feeling the power at her fingertips and leaving her guns holstered for now. “Let’s try to take prisoners if we can,” Steve calls. “I have some questions I want answered.”

 

“You got it,” Skye replies.

 

They meet resistance immediately upon entering the warehouse in the form of armed gunmen. Steve puts his shield up, and Skye throws out a hand to deflect the bullets. As soon as she has, Steve throws his shield, ricocheting it off the floor to take off the first two guards.

 

Skye sends one of her bites flying, hitting the third guard and knocking him out. She pauses long enough to zip-tie the three of them, then follows Steve deeper into the building.

 

Resistance grows from there, and when they run into the next group of Hydra agents, it’s a much larger group. She and Steve take cover behind some crates and wind up pinned down.

 

“We’re pinned down,” Steve shouts over the coms as Skye returns fire. “A little help, please?”

 

“I’m a little busy out here,” Tony replies breathlessly. “They’ve got missiles. Also, robots.”

 

“Give me a sec,” Skye mutters. “Cap, hang onto something.”

 

Steve braces himself as Skye throws out a hand to send a wave of force towards the bad guys, sending them tumbling back.

 

There’s a roar, and Tony says, “All right, Jolly Green! Your timing is perfect.”

 

“How many more of them are there?” Skye asks.

 

“We have another few buildings to clear,” Steve replies, then adds when there’s another roar, “If the Hulk doesn’t take them down first.”

 

They clear the remaining buildings in much the same way. There are five warehouses being used by Hydra as a base of operations, and they’re all heavily armed. Hulk ends up drawing a lot of fire, though, which is helpful.

 

Skye has no idea why Hydra is wasting their time attacking the Hulk, when pretty much everybody knows he’s indestructible, but he makes a large, tempting target when it’s all said and done.

 

Unfortunately, Strucker is nowhere to be found in any of the buildings, although they find plenty of items better not left in Hydra’s hands that they can take back with them.

 

There are plenty of Hydra agents to question, and Skye shadows Steve while Bruce and Tony go over the remaining contents of the warehouse. Most of the Hydra agents aren’t willing to talk and remain stubbornly silent.

 

“Where’s Strucker?” Steve demands of the fifth agent they question.

 

She smirks at them. “Not here. What? You thought to find him and kill him? Sever one head, and more will grow in its place.”

 

“Actually, we were hoping to get an idea of what you have planned for the Inhumans,” Steve replies.

 

She shrugs and refuses to say any more.

 

In fact, that’s all they get out of them, and Steve calls in the Joint Counter Terrorism Center to deal with their prisoners.

 

“Okay, so no Strucker,” Skye summarizes. “Maybe there will be something here that we can use to tie back to Malick.”

 

Steve pushes his cowl back. “Let’s hope so. I’m really tired of Hydra slipping through our hands.”

 

“Do you think there’s a way to get them all together and nuke them from orbit?” Skye half-jokes.

 

“If only,” Steve mutters.

 

“Hey, guys!” Bruce calls. “I think I have something. There was apparently some communication between Strucker and the other heads of Hydra. They used code names for the most part, but we might be able to trace IP addresses.”

 

“Let’s pack it up,” Steve replies. “We should get back.”

 

Skye glances around. “Do we know anything about the others? How they’re doing?”

 

“Clint and Natasha are still out in the field with Coulson’s people,” Tony says. “They’re working on a plan, but everybody is in one piece.”

 

“Small favors,” Bruce says as he packs up the hard drive. “Let’s hope that trend continues.”

 

Skye can only hope.

 

~~~~~

 

Tony has no complaints about how well the assault on the Hydra base went, mostly because they’re all in one piece at the end of it, and they have some valuable intel. If they shut down every Hydra base, eventually they’ll have nowhere left to hide.

 

At least, that’s Tony’s goal.

 

By the time they return to the Tower, Clint and Natasha are back with a few of Coulson’s people in tow—Agents May and Morse, and Lance Hunter, who seems to be affiliated with SHIELD but isn’t actually an agent.

 

“We have a plan,” Natasha says, and they’re back in the conference room that Tony’s mentally designated a war room. “And I think we can get in and out without anyone being the wiser, although I’m sure they’ll assume it was us.”

 

“Or SHIELD,” May comments. “We’re also fairly high on the list of usual suspects.”

 

“Is that a problem?” Steve asks.

 

Hunter sneers. “You’re assuming we care what Hydra, or anybody affiliated with Hydra, thinks.”

 

“I think the political realities might outweigh your bravado,” Steve says bluntly. “What kind of blowback are we looking at here?”

 

“I estimate it to be low risk,” Coulson says, since he’s participating via videoconference. “You’re only rescuing two people. Hydra wanted the executive order, and they got it. I think the Avengers are still popular enough to weather the storm.”

 

“All right, we’ll take a small team,” Steve says. “Skye, are you up for this? It’s probably a bigger risk for you if you’re caught.”

 

“I’m down,” Skye says, a fierce light glowing in her eyes.

 

Steve nods. “Tony, you’re too showy, no offense, and we can’t risk a Code Green. That means Widow and Hawkeye, and I’d like two others.”

 

“I’ll go,” Hunter says immediately. “Bobbi should still be taking it easy.”

 

“And I told you I’m fine,” Morse says with a glare.

 

Steve appears to think about that. “Hunter and May will be the other team, but Morse, I’d like you to come, too. The success of this mission depends on us being able to get away, and I’d rather have too many pilots than too few.”

 

Morse nods. “That, I can do.”

 

“All right, we leave as soon as it gets dark, which is in about three hours,” Steve says. “Get some sleep, get something to eat, and be ready to go at sunset.”

 

Coulson says from the screen, “Good luck,” before his image winks out.

 

Eventually, he and Bruce are alone in the conference room, and Bruce appears frustrated and furious and tired.

 

Tony has a personal stake in this as well, but Bruce is different. Bruce loves being a mentor, and he had taken Lincoln under his wing and made his dreams come true. Bruce had done the same for Skye, and was starting to do that for Tony.

 

“Penny for your thoughts,” Tony offers.

 

Bruce shakes his head. “I just keep getting stuck on what Malick wants with the Inhumans, and what Jiaying feared most, and how it all fits together. If I could just make sense of it, then maybe we could pull the rug out from under Malick, stop whatever it was he wanted.”

 

“I don’t disagree,” Tony replies. “But I suspect you’re thinking along slightly different lines than I am.”

 

Tony is thinking about how to leverage his political clout, how to get involved, how to issue threats that won’t make people like President Ellis think of him as a threat, but as a very necessary ally.

 

Bruce shrugs. “The destructive power of the Hulk is immense. Skye could level cities if she wanted. So could Joey. Lincoln could take out entire power grids. Those who control us could control the world, and we know that’s one of Hydra’s main goals.”

 

“How would they control you or the others, though?” Tony asks.

 

“Maybe that’s something we should ask Malick in person,” Bruce replies. “But for now I think we have to be content with depriving him of Inhumans, at least as much as possible.”

 

“Solid life choice, really,” Tony offers. “Making sure that Hydra can’t get what they want.”

 

~~~~~

 

Skye is tired and hungry and jazzed all at the same time. She doesn’t want to leave Lincoln and Joey in enemy hands any longer than she has to, and she knows the others feel the same way.

 

They’ll be safe enough at Afterlife anyway, assuming they can get everybody there.

 

“Okay, Skye, you’re with Hawkeye. Go after Lincoln. Widow, you and I are going after Joey. May, Hunter, we need all the information we can,” Steve orders. “Files, whatever you can get.”

 

May nods. “Fitz and Simmons set us up for something like that.”

 

Skye isn’t really prepared for what she sees when they break in. There appear to be dozens, maybe hundreds of cubes, each one housing an Inhuman suspended in a kind of cryogenic state. She’s not sure what the point is, although maybe Hydra plans on defrosting the ones they want to use and leaving the rest for later.

 

“There are so many of them,” Steve says quietly over coms. “We’re going to have to come back with reinforcements.”

 

Skye appreciates that he’s at least thinking of “someday, when we can free all of them,” but it still sickens her to see that many people, losing days or weeks or months of their lives—or even years, depending on how this goes.

 

Jiaying would hate this, and Skye suddenly feels closer to her mother than she has at any other time.

 

She and Clint break off from Steve and Natasha, heading in the direction of Lincoln’s cube, at least where they’re pretty sure he’s located.

 

“Shit,” Skye says, half-expecting Steve to chide her about her language as an alarm starts to go off. “What are we going to do?”

 

“We do what we came to do,” Clint replies. “We’re not leaving them here.”

 

“But if we’re caught—”

 

Steve is the one to reply. “How are they going to explain this? People imprisoned without a trial, without having committed a crime? They can’t, so they won’t.”

 

Skye has to admit that Steve does have a point. “There.”

 

The cube is full of amber gel with Lincoln suspended in the middle, like an insect trapped in amber. Skye goes over the control panel, and is grateful when it appears fairly straightforward. “Okay, here goes nothing.”

 

The gel begins to dissolve around Lincoln, and when the door opens, she and Clint manage to catch him as he tumbles out. He’s unconscious, which worries Skye. She thought he’d wake up right away.

 

“Let’s get him out of here,” Clint says, and they sling Lincoln’s still form between them. They run into May and Hunter as they hit the doors, and security must not be terribly tight, because they haven’t seen any bad guys.

 

Then again, this place is huge, and Natasha and Clint pre-scouted the location, so they weren’t casting about blindly.

 

She and Clint get Lincoln strapped in, and then Skye realizes that Hunter has taken the co-pilot’s seat next to Morse, leaving her to sit next to May.

 

“How have you been?” May asks.

 

Skye blinks at her. “Are you trying to make small talk with me?”

 

May gives her a dirty look. “No, I’m asking how you’ve been. I haven’t seen you since—”

 

“Since my mother tried to start a war?” Skye asks. “It’s okay, you can say it.”

 

“So?” May prompts.

 

Skye shrugs. “Well, I’d be a lot better if the consequences of her actions didn’t keep rippling out. At this rate, we’ll have the war Jiaying seemed to want after all.”

 

“That’s not going to happen,” May says evenly.

 

Skye gives her a look. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

 

Whatever May might have said in response is cut off by the others’ arrival. Joey is also unconscious, and Skye closes the back hatch as Morse takes off, just as security locates them and begins to fire.

 

The Quinjet is pretty distinctive, so there’s not going to be any doubt as to who was here to break people out, but at least they weren’t captured, and they have Lincoln and Joey back.

 

It’s a small victory, and they still have to figure out how to rescue the rest of the Inhumans, or get the ATCU to release them voluntarily, and she knows they have a long road ahead of them.

 

~~~~~

 

Bruce studies the schematics that May and Hunter had obtained, along with the list of names and special abilities. The information confirms what he suspected, that while a few had presented as being out of control or unable to pass as human, most of those placed in the suspension gel had powerful gifts. Those who didn’t either hadn’t registered or hadn’t been caught.

 

“He wants control,” Bruce murmurs. “Hydra has always wanted to control Inhumans.”

 

“Granted,” Tony replies, looking over Bruce’s shoulder. “We knew that already.”

 

“But how?” Bruce asks. “That’s what I keep coming back to over and over again. How does he think he’s going to control them? Most of the Hydra agents we know were subverted early on, or lured in with promises of power. A lot of the Inhumans know that Hydra wants to use them, and they won’t be easily persuaded.”

 

“You think they have something they’re using?” Tony asks.

 

“Or something they want to use,” Bruce replies.

 

Tony nods. “You’re probably right, but I’m not sure what we’re going to do about it. I think we have to focus on getting the Inhumans released. We know how big the job is going to be now.”

 

Bruce knows he’s right, but at the same time the problem keeps niggling at him. He and Tony could come at the problem in two different ways, and maybe wind up solving it somewhere in the middle.

 

He turns his mind back to the information.

 

“What’s this?”

 

Tony’s still giving him a worried look. “What?”

 

“This is the third reference to Project Distant Star Return,” Bruce says. “It was apparently a NASA program, but what would Hydra have to do with a space program?”

 

“Inhumans originally came from space, right?” Tony asks. “Maybe it’s something to do with that.”

 

Bruce isn’t sure that’s all there is to it. “I think we need more information from Jiaying’s papers.”

 

“You’ve got idea face,” Tony says. “Do you want to share with the rest of the class?”

 

Bruce nods. “Director Coulson said that Andrew Gardner’s abilities led to a compulsion to kill other Inhumans.”

 

“You’re thinking that Malick might be looking for the opposite, an Inhuman who could control others,” Tony says.

 

Bruce shrugs. “It’s as good a theory as any.”

 

“Where does that get us?” Tony asks.

 

Bruce gives him a look. “What if we got there first? What if we took care of it before Malick could get to him? Put him on ice? Well, him or her or whatever else.”

 

Tony straightens. “There’s an idea. We could go on the offensive, instead of trying to play catch up.”

 

“I’ll go check with Skye and have her take another look through Jiaying's personal effects,” Bruce says. “What are you working on?”

 

“A shield for the compound,” Tony replies. “Tied to the arc reactor. Something that will keep everybody out if it comes down to it.”

 

Bruce raises his eyebrows. “Do you think that’s necessary?”

 

“Bruce, I’m not willing to take any chances at the moment,” Tony replies. “Not with you. Not with any Inhumans seeking shelter with us. Not with our team. I can’t take the chance that the world will turn on us, and there will be no recourse.”

 

Bruce bumps Tony’s shoulder. “We’ll always have a recourse.”

 

“If it comes down to it, if you need to, I want you to take Skye and run,” Tony replies. “I want you to go to Afterlife.”

 

“Tony—”

 

“The only people who know where it is are people I trust not to give you up,” Tony says. “Promise me.”

 

Bruce realizes that he’s serious. “What about you?”

 

“I’ll destroy every suit I have before I let them use me as a weapon,” Tony replies. “And I’m not an enhanced person. I’m just a billionaire genius.”

 

Bruce takes a deep breath. “That’s not a long term solution.”

 

“It’s a stopgap measure until I can get into a position of influence,” Tony replies. “That’s all it is. It would be temporary.”

 

He hates even thinking about it, but Bruce isn’t stupid, nor is he blind. Things do have the potential to go very badly, and they need to have contingency plans in place. “All right. We’ll keep that plan in our back pockets.”

 

Tony kisses him, hard, and Bruce holds onto him, and he wishes things were easier—but he’s had that wish for a lot of years now, and it’s almost as much a part of him as the other guy.

 

“See you later,” Tony says.

 

“Yeah, you will,” Bruce replies.

 

Skye is sitting between Lincoln and Joey’s beds in the compound’s infirmary. Three days after being removed from suspended animation, and they're both still unconscious, although showing signs of waking.

 

“How are they doing?” Bruce asks, even though he already knows.

 

“Better, I think,” Skye replies with a shaky smile. “Their eyes are moving, behind their eyelids, I mean. They haven’t woken up yet, but the doctor thinks sometime in the next 24 hours or so.”

 

Bruce perches on the side of Joey’s bed. “I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s not your fault,” Skye says firmly. “It’s the opposite of your fault.”

 

Bruce glances down at Joey’s still face. “We have another lead.”

 

“All right,” Skye says, facing him fully. “What do you need?”

 

“We think Malick may be after something or someone that could control Inhumans,” Bruce says. “Why else would he want to collect them? How does he think he could control them?”

 

Skye frowns. “Like another Inhuman? Like Lash, only with that ability?”

 

Bruce nods. “We ran across a reference to a project in the information that May and Hunter managed to get from the facility, a NASA program.”

 

“What would Hydra have to do with a NASA program?” Skye asks.

 

“That’s what I’d like to know,” Bruce replies. “But we know the stone in SHIELD’s possession was responsible for pulling Dr. Simmons into another dimension, or maybe another planet. We know Jiaying reacted poorly to a number of things, but they attacked the SHIELD vessel. I think it’s a question we have to ask.”

 

Skye nods. “What do you need me to do?”

 

“I need you to go through Jiaying’s files and look for specific references to the monolith, and why she was so afraid that SHIELD had it,” Bruce replies.

 

Skye nods. “Got it. I’ve skimmed through most of it, so I think I can narrow down the sources pretty easily.”

 

“Tony wants us to be prepared to go to Afterlife if need be,” Bruce says. “To lie low.”

 

Skye nods slowly. “Does he think it’s going to turn that bad?”

 

“I don’t know, but I figure we need to be prepared,” Bruce replies.

 

“I can do that,” Skye says. “The others too, I’m assuming.”

 

Bruce nods. “Mostly. Not Tony. I don’t know about the rest of the team.”

 

“Those of us who are different,” Skye says. “But you and Tony—”

 

“Will still be me and Tony, even if we’re on opposite sides of the world,” Bruce replies.

 

Skye nods. “I envy you guys that. That certainty.”

 

“Tony is the one thing I’m certain about in this world,” Bruce admits.

 

“And me, too, right?” Skye asks.

 

Bruce smiles. “And you, too. It’s just different.”

 

“Yeah, well, you are my Yoda,” she jokes. “Do you want to call Coulson or should I?”

 

"If you would, I think the request would be better coming from you," Bruce says.

 

Skye nods. “Would you—”

 

“I’ll stay with them,” Bruce replies. “I don’t mind.”

 

Skye nods and pats his shoulder as she passes him. “Thanks. I’ll let you know what I find out.”

 

Bruce sits down in the chair she vacated and tips his head back.

 

Part of him wishes he could see the future, and another part of him is very glad he can’t.

 

~~~~~

 

Skye smiles at Coulson when his face appears on the screen. “Hey. I wasn’t sure you’d be available.”

 

“If I have the option, I’m always available to my favorite Avenger,” Coulson replies.

 

Skye laughs. “Even above Captain America?”

 

“Well, it’s a close call, but you win it by a nose,” he replies. “What can I do for you?”

 

Skye takes a deep breath. “I need anything SHIELD has on the monolith. Bruce asked me to look for specific references in my mom’s files, and I’ve skimmed through most of it, but wouldn’t mind anything else we could find.”

 

Coulson nods. “Of course. I wondered if you’d gone through them yet. I know you sent me the information I asked for, but—”

 

“I should have been more on the ball,” Skye admits. “It’s just—it’s hard.”

 

It’s hard to feel close to her mom and not at the same time, to know that her mom’s papers are the most Skye will ever have of her.

 

To read about how much Jiaying cared for her people even as she displayed such ruthlessness to Skye.

 

“I know it’s hard,” Coulson says gently. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of. My dad left a few things behind when he died, and it took me years to get to a point where I could look at any of it.”

 

“I need to know more about the stone that transported Jemma to that other planet, or dimension, or whatever it was,” Skye says. “I think—we think—it might be important.”

 

“I can get that for you, too,” Coulson promises. “She’s made copious notes about her experiences there.”

 

Skye nods. “Thanks.”

 

“Anything I can do,” Coulson promises. “Skye, if you need help, don’t hesitate to contact me.”

 

“I won’t,” she promises. “Thanks.”

 

“I’ll send the information as soon as possible,” Coulson promises. “I can have them there tomorrow.”

 

Skye nods. “That will work.”

 

She spends a few hours with her mom’s things, and then Jarvis says, “Miss Skye, Captain Rogers said that he’s sorry to disturb you, but he’d like to have a training session.”

 

Skye knows he’s been letting her off easy the last few days, not asking her to leave the infirmary and her place at Lincoln and Joey’s side. “I’ll be there shortly,” she replies. “Can you check to see if Bruce will stay with Lincoln and Joey a little longer?”

 

After a brief pause, Jarvis says, “He says that he will be happy to do so.”

 

“Great,” Skye replies.

 

When she arrives at the training room, Steve is the only one there. “Let’s sit,” Steve says gravely. “I’ve spoken to both Tony and Bruce, and we’ve talked about some contingency plans.”

 

Skye swallows. “Bruce said we might have to go to Afterlife.”

 

Steve nods. “It’s one possible outcome, but Bruce’s face is well known at this point, and it’s possible that he won’t be able to go with you guys. It will be your job to get Lincoln and Joey out and to continue that work.”

 

Skye is already shaking her head. “No, no way. I’m not leaving Bruce to deal with things by himself.”

 

“He won’t be alone,” Steve counters. “If you go to Afterlife, though, you’re going to need to fly them. You’ll take one of the Quinjets, and if Bruce can be there, he will.”

 

Skye frowns. “What’s the other possibility?”

 

“Going to ground, and going into hiding,” Steve replies. “Bruce said that of everybody, you’re probably best suited to it, and you’d know how to stay hidden.”

 

“He’s probably right,” Skye admits. “I could probably get to other Inhumans that way, find them and help them hide.”

 

“We’ll set up a way to get those we can to Afterlife or to Thor’s safe haven if he manages to find one,” Steve promises. “And you probably won’t be alone if it comes down to it.”

 

Skye knows what he means immediately. “You too?”

 

“It’s crossed my mind,” Steve replies with a rueful smile. “We’re leaving that option on the table, depending on which way the wind blows.”

 

“What do you want me to do?” Skye asks.

 

“We’re going to start setting up caches around the country,” Steve replies. “I could use your help with that.”

 

Skye nods. “Yeah, of course. I’ve been going through Jiaying’s stuff too, but I can do both.”

 

It turns out that between the two of them, she and Steve have a pretty good idea of what’s needed in a cache, and where to hide them. The real question is how many major—and minor—cities to place them in, and how best to hide them so no one accidentally stumbles across them.

 

For safety’s sake, they won’t stash weapons. As Steve says, most Avengers and Inhumans are weapons, and they don’t want anybody finding a gun. Cash is a no-brainer, but also credit cards under fake names to be paid off by Tony if they’re used.

 

“Hair dye,” Skye says. “And scissors, probably a razor, just in case whoever finds it needs to change their appearance.”

 

“Good call,” Steve replies. “I’ll add that to the list.”

 

In the end, they have a comprehensive list of things that will go into the bags, a list of cities where the bags will be placed, and a list of potential hiding spots.

 

“We should run this by Bruce,” Skye says. “He’ll have some ideas as well.”

 

“But maybe not Tony,” Steve says. “I have a feeling plans will just get that much more elaborate if we do.”

 

“Bruce will rein him in,” Skye says confidently, “and he might have some ideas about security.”

 

Steve nods. “Fair enough.” He gives her a look. “You were a good addition to the team. I don’t know if I’ve told you that before.”

 

Skye is rather touched. “Thanks.”

 

“Of course,” Steve replies. “However this ends up shaking out, we’re not going to abandon you, or any of the Inhumans.”

 

And Skye appreciates that, too.

 

Dinner that night is a somber affair, mostly focused on contingency plans and means of protecting themselves.

 

Skye likes being with her team, but things feel weirdly tentative, with no one knowing exactly how things are going to pan out.

 

“Sir, the medical staff wants to let you know that Mr. Campbell and Mr. Gutierrez are waking up,” Jarvis announces when they’re working on after-dinner drinks.

 

Skye is on her feet in an instant, heading for the infirmary. Lincoln is just starting to sit up when she jogs in, and she’s hauling him into a hug only a few seconds after that.

 

“Hey, I’m okay,” Lincoln murmurs into her hair. “You guys got us out. We’re okay.”

 

She can hear Bruce’s voice behind her, speaking to Joey in a low voice. “I thought I’d lost you.”

 

“No, no way,” he replies. “I have medical school in the fall, remember? I'm not going to let those Hydra assholes take that from me.”

 

Skye blows out a breath. “Okay. Good. Joey, you okay?”

 

“I didn’t feel anything,” Joey replies. “One minute I’m standing on the street, and the next thing I know, I’m waking up here.”

 

“The doctors want you guys to stay in the infirmary overnight,” Bruce says. “But everything looks good right now. It doesn’t look like there will be any side effects.”

 

“I’d like to know what took us out,” Lincoln says. “It was weird, because I was in Baltimore, and suddenly I was in the car when it—” He stops, and Skye knows it’s because she knows, and Bruce does, but Joey doesn’t.

 

“That would be Wanda Maximoff’s work,” Skye says. “She’s an enhanced person—not an Inhuman—who can put the whammy on people. She hit Bruce in Central Park. That was right before we met.”

 

Joey frowns. “I was remembering the day I came out to my best friend. I thought it was just a nightmare.”

 

“That’s what it feels like,” Bruce says with a sympathetic pat on Joey’s shoulder. “I’ve been there, so I should know.”

 

Bruce stands up. “I have a few more things to get done. Skye, don’t stay too late, okay?”

 

She can’t afford to stay too late, because she still has a bunch of work to do on Jiaying’s files, but she lingers long enough to assure herself that Lincoln and Joey are fine, and then stays awake until nearly dawn ferreting out as much information as she can.

 

The next day, Skye is woken early by Jarvis. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Miss Skye, but Dr. Simmons is here for you.”

 

Skye hadn’t expected Jemma to appear personally, but she says, “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

 

Jemma is waiting nervously in the main room, which is empty. Skye knows that Bruce and Tony are in their respective labs, unless they’re still asleep. She’s not sure where everybody else spent the night. “Hey, Jemma.”

 

“Skye,” she replies and rushes forward, throwing her arms around Skye. “I’m sorry we didn’t get much of a chance to talk the last time I was here.”

 

“We were busy,” Skye replies. “I understand. How are you?”

 

Jemma’s lower lip trembles slightly. “Well, it’s certainly been an eventful few months.”

 

“Do you want coffee or tea?” Skye asks. “I can make some if you want.”

 

“I would love a coffee,” Jemma replies. “It’s early, and I could use the caffeine.”

 

“Sure,” Skye replies, knowing her way around the kitchen by now.

 

“I brought everything I have on the monolith,” Jemma says, “including all my notes, and everything else we were able to glean, but I thought I should be here to fill you in. Fitz says he’ll come, too, if he’s needed.”

 

Skye smiles. “Good. Thanks. Coulson said you had already written down your observations of what happened in that other dimension.”

 

“Yes, I did, but I thought you might want to hear it from me,” Jemma replies. “If you like.”

 

“Of course, whatever you want to tell me that you think might help,” Skye replies. “Whatever you feel comfortable telling me.”

 

Jemma takes an audibly shaky breath. “I’ve told the others most of it, but—I want to tell you. I thought you might understand, at least a bit.”

 

“Sit,” Skye says. “I’m just really glad to see you.”

 

“I’m sorry I haven’t been better about staying in touch,” Jemma says. “I should have been.”

 

Skye reaches out for her hand. “Jemma, it’s okay. We’re still friends.”

 

Jemma squeezes her hand tightly. “Thank you.”

 

“Don’t,” Skye orders. “Just tell me what happened.”

 

Jemma takes another breath. “Right, okay. It was the monolith. We think it’s a portal to this other dimension or planet.” She pauses. “Did Fitz tell you he asked me on a date?”

 

Skye blinks. “No, he didn’t mention it.”

 

“He did, right before it happened,” Jemma says. “I thought—well, I was looking forward to it.”

 

“Of course you were,” Skye replies.

 

Slowly, painfully, Jemma begins to tell her about her time in that other dimension, about Will, and about what she’d been able to discover. “There’s nothing good in that place, Skye,” Jemma finally says. “Unless it’s Will. There’s a creature, or an entity, and if that’s what Malick is after, it means nothing good.”

 

“I think that’s a given,” Skye replies. “Thanks for telling me about it. I think that will help when I’m looking.”

 

“Skye—I didn’t respond well when I found out that you were—that you were an enhanced person,” Jemma says uncertainly. “I never asked if you would forgive me for that. I always assumed there would be more time.”

 

Skye folds her into a hug. “It’s already forgiven.”

 

She’s just grateful that she has her friend back, and that Jemma survived.

 

~~~~~

 

Tony stands in the middle of his lab and sees all the elements of their plan lit up around him. He moves the hologram over to the map of the United States and sees the locations of known Hydra bases, suspected Hydra strongholds, and the locations of their caches.

 

He moves a couple of the caches to better line up with the Hydra locations, since that’s going to be their main objective. He also adds a few tools that will come in handy, and basic supplies to make a few toys if necessary.

 

“Jarvis, how are we doing with setting up the private accounts?” Tony asks.

 

“They’ve all been set up, sir,” Jarvis replies. “I used the aliases provided.”

 

Tony nods. “Okay, let’s make sure the monthly deposits can’t be traced either.”

 

“Of course, sir.”

 

“How are Barton and Romanoff doing on the safe houses?” Tony asks.

 

“They said they would be ready to depart this afternoon, once everything has been finalized.”

 

That’s one less thing to worry about, but they’ll need to have everything in place soon. Tony expects Malick to make another move soon, and they need to find a way to release all of the Inhumans from custody in a way that won’t bite them in the ass later.

 

Tony desperately wants all of this planning to be unnecessary, but he’s worried, and when he worries, he overplans.

 

Although, maybe there’s no such thing as planning too much.

 

Skye jogs in and stops cold when she sees the display. “Wow.”

 

“Too much?” Tony asks.

 

She shakes her head. “No way. When we’re dealing with Hydra, there can never be too much.”

 

“What have you got?”

 

“Between Jemma’s notes and my mom’s papers, I think I have a pretty good idea of what Malick is after, but I don’t know how we get there first.” Skye hands him a USB and Tony plugs it in, pulling the data up on a separate display. “That monolith is mentioned in Jiaying's files as being anathema to Inhumans. The details aren’t clear, but it was so dangerous that they banished the creature to another dimension. She calls it a parasite.”

 

Tony narrows his eyes. “So, they want to retrieve it. We know they don’t want to kill Inhumans, but rather control them, so I think it’s safe to assume that’s what this does. Can we get into that dimension?”

 

“Unknown,” Skye replies. “Jemma gave me her research, but that’s really more Bruce’s area, or yours, than mine. Maybe Thor’s. The problem isn’t so much getting there as getting back here. There’s a portal we can use, according to Jemma, but timing is everything.”

 

Tony frowns. “And if your timing is off, you get stuck. Let’s not do that.”

 

“Fitz opened it from this side,” Skye offers. “So, it’s possible, but it needs power and we’ll have to be pretty clear on the time frame because the thing on that world doesn’t like it when people escape.”

 

Tony nods. “Got it. All right, Jarvis, I need Bruce.”

 

Bruce arrives a few minutes later, mug of coffee in hand. “What’s up?”

 

“We think we know what Malick wants most in the world,” Tony replies. “We want to take it out before he can, and we need a nuclear physicist to look over Fitz’s calculations and improve them if possible.”

 

Bruce smiles. “I can do that. Are we talking the whole team?”

 

“Probably, other than Skye,” Tony replies.

 

Skye immediately voices a protest, but Tony holds up a hand. “Did you miss the part about controlling Inhumans? You aren’t going anywhere near it.”

 

“Tony has a point,” Bruce replies.

 

“From what Jemma said, the thing is just as dangerous to you,” Skye argues.

 

“Not to me,” Bruce says. “That’s the one good thing about the other guy. I haven’t met anything that could hurt him yet.”

 

“Don’t jinx yourself,” Skye replies.

 

“The kid has a point,” Tony says. “But so does Bruce. Of everybody, he stands the best shot of facing this thing and coming through unscathed. The rest of us will go with him, and we’ll make sure he gets back.”

 

Skye frowns. “Where does that leave me?”

 

“Holding down the fort in case something goes terribly wrong,” Tony replies. “Which is what the rest of these plans are for.”

 

Bruce is reviewing the information that Simmons provided, and he says, “Can Dr. Simmons and Fitz be available? I think we can have a workable plan with several contingencies ready to go in a couple of days if so.”

 

“The caches will be in place then,” Tony replies. “We’ll have finalized the other plans as well. If something goes wrong while we’re gone, you’ll have what you need to run or hide, or whatever it is you decide to do.”

 

Skye nods. “Okay, but I hate it for the record.”

 

“Noted,” Tony replies.

 

Skye rolls her eyes. “Okay, fine. I have training. Steve wants to test Joey and Lincoln’s fitness to see if there were any lingering effects from being in a medically induced coma. I said I’d help.”

 

“All right,” Bruce replies. “Good luck.”

 

“Can you open the portal and get back?” Tony asks.

 

Bruce nods. “Between the three of us, I think I can get things in place for a round trip ticket.”

 

“And then what’s the plan?” Tony asks.

 

“I’m thinking I might go green and smash the hell out of it,” Bruce replies. “If it’s really that dangerous, why take chances?”

 

“Good thinking,” Tony replies. “You want my help?”

 

Bruce smiles at him. “Always.”

 

~~~~~

 

Bruce has always liked working with smart people—Tony being a case in point—and Simmons and Fitz are brilliant. Simmons burbles, or refrains from burbling, more than the first time he met her, and Fitz has clearly gained some confidence. By the time they need to loop Tony in on power and space specifications, they have a detailed plan for how to get there and how to get back.

 

When all the details are perfect, Tony claps him on the back and says, “I’ll get the construction plans in place. You call the others. We should probably brief this just once.”

 

Bruce nods. “Agreed.”

 

Everyone is back at the Tower at this point, in the gym, so they’re easy enough to round up. “Did you figure it out?” Steve asks.

 

“For the most part, yes,” Bruce says. “There’s an element of uncertainty still, but I think we’re as close as we’re going to get.”

 

“Good enough,” Steve says. “All right everybody, war room.”

 

Tony has the hologram model set up when they enter, and they all range around the table. “All right,” Tony says. “The whole point of this is to show how this is going to work. Bruce is definitely going through the portal, but we discussed it, and we both think it’s safer if I stay behind, just in case.”

 

“The portal responds to precise vibrations,” Bruce adds. “We wake it up, up to four of us go through, then Tony brings us back.”

 

“What are we going to do with the creature or entity we find?” Steve asks.

 

Bruce shrugs. “Well, Hydra wants it badly enough to create a secret law enforcement entity to kidnap Inhumans. I say we make sure Hydra doesn’t get what it wants.”

 

Steve nods. “Good enough for me. I think it should be me, you, and Natasha.”

 

“You’re not leaving me behind!” Clint protests immediately. “What the hell, Cap?”

 

“You were a SHIELD agent, Clint,” Steve replies. “You know where the caches are, and you can pilot the Quinjet. Someone like that needs to stay here and provide support.”

 

Clint sighs. “Yeah, okay. I get it.”

 

“Look, none of us want to think about what might happen if we don't return, but it’s still a possibility that we have to consider,” Steve says.

 

Bruce clears his throat. “There’s also the chance that we could be stuck there for a while. In that case, the Avengers need to continue functioning.”

 

“In any case, this is how it will work,” Tony says and sets the model in motion. “We’ll vibrate the stone, and the three of you will get pulled through. You’ll need to return to the same location in order to get back through the portal. I’ll give you 24 hours before trying again, and then we’ll try every 12 hours after that. The arc reactor will give us that kind of power without shorting out the power grid.”

 

“We’ll take the necessary supplies to outfit us for 30 days,” Steve says. “We have most of that together already. We can be ready to leave in a few hours.”

 

“I think time is of the essence,” Bruce says. “The sooner we can bring back proof that this threat is gone, the sooner we can dismantle Malick’s plans. Hanging on to the Inhumans isn’t going to make sense once his means of controlling them is gone.”

 

“That doesn’t mean Hydra will lose interest in Inhumans,” Natasha points out. “Strucker wanted them, too.”

 

“Granted,” Bruce says. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”

 

Steve nods. “Everybody gear up, and let’s get moving.”

 

Bruce feels better for having a plan and a course of action, although he’s worried about how well this plan is going to work.

 

“You okay with this?” Tony asks, following Bruce into their bedroom.

 

“I could ask the same thing,” Bruce replies. “It’s easier for me.”

 

“I know,” Tony replies. “But one of us has to stay behind, and you were right. You’re less likely to get hurt.”

 

Bruce puts his hands on either side of Tony’s face. “I will come back to you.”

 

“You’d better,” Tony replies.

 

They kiss for a long moment, and then Bruce pulls back. “I have to finish packing, Tony.”

 

“I know,” Tony replies. “I’m going to check on where we are. Coulson should be delivering the monolith any minute now.”

 

Bruce shoves a few more clothes in his bag and zips it up, slinging it over his shoulder.

 

Coulson has completed delivery of the monolith, and they’ve loaded it into the hangar for the Quinjets. Tony has been setting up the appropriate equipment for the last two days, as soon as they realized what they needed to create the portal.

 

Steve and Natasha also have their bags packed, and there are three more bags containing supplies they think they’ll need. They have the bare minimum, which is a risk, but Steve agrees that they need to be mobile if they want to find and destroy the creature.

 

“Good luck,” Skye says, pulling Bruce in for a quick hug. “Be careful.”

 

Tony repeats the advice, with another kiss for luck, as he says, and then he starts up the machine that will create the portal.

 

They at least have the benefit of knowing what to expect on the other side, unlike Dr. Simmons. The monolith opens and swallows them whole, and then they’re in the twilight world that Simmons described in her notes.

 

“We won’t set up camp here,” Steve says. “So let’s plant the beacon.”

 

Bruce does so. They’re all wearing trackers so they can find their way back to the location where they first entered.

 

Simmons had described a place where they had to work to avoid the creature, and where it usually stayed, and that’s the general direction they head for now.

 

Bruce thinks that the three of them together makes for an odd triad, given where they all started. At least Steve doesn’t seem to be all that bothered by Bruce’s relationship with Tony, and Natasha had been a friend, covering for them while they were working out whether to go public.

 

But they’re friends now, as strange as that sometimes seems, and they’re teammates, comrades in arms.

 

And even that seems strange when Bruce thinks about his life as it was before the Avengers, and then after.

 

“This way,” Natasha says. “That's where Dr. Simmons says they saw the creature.”

 

“We’ll keep an eye out for the man, too,” Steve replies. “He might still be alive.”

 

Bruce doubts it, not after what Simmons shared, but hope springs eternal.

 

They prepared for the wind and sand, and all three of them pull the goggles they brought over their eyes and tie bandanas over their mouths.

 

The environment is harsh and unpleasant, and while Bruce doesn’t know Dr. Simmons well, his respect for her goes up. Even if she’d had help, the fact that she survived says a lot about her mettle.

 

“I don’t know how we’re supposed to find anybody in this,” Steve calls out.

 

“There’s a good chance that it will find us,” Bruce replies. “At least according to Dr. Simmons.”

 

It makes sense, Bruce thinks. If the creature had been banished here, it would make sense that it would want to go home.

 

They make their way across the forbidding landscape, keeping a sharp eye out for anything moving around.

 

“Hey!” The man approaching them is wearing the tattered remains of a flight suit. “Who are—” He stops cold at the sight of Steve. “Captain America?”

 

“You can call me Steve,” he replies easily. “Are you Will Daniels?”

 

The man smiles. “Yeah, did Jemma send you?”

 

“She did,” Steve replies. “We’re also here for the creature. We have reason to believe that a group called Hydra is going to try to bring it back over, and we have to prevent that.”

 

“You can’t kill it,” Will replies. “Plenty of people have tried.”

 

Bruce feels the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. There’s something that strikes him as being off, and he trusts those instincts. He pushes his goggles up and takes a good look at the man, glancing down to see the injury to his leg.

 

It’s a serious injury, and yet the man—if he is a man—is standing, and had walked towards them with no evidence of a limp.

 

Bruce backs up a few steps, pulling Natasha and Steve with him. “Who are you really?”

 

“I told you, I’m Will Daniels.”

 

“No, I don’t think you are,” Bruce replies. “Not anymore.”

 

“Well, aren’t you the smart one,” he replies. “What gave it away?”

 

“You probably should have faked a limp with that injury,” Bruce says calmly, although his heart is hammering in his chest.

 

“An error on my part,” he replies.

 

“What are you?” Bruce presses.

 

“I hardly think that matters.” He smiles. “This man, Will, has memories of Captain America. He seems to think that his body is stronger than others, stronger than most.”

 

That’s the only warning they get before Will attacks Steve, and while Natasha draws her weapon, Will is right on Steve, and there’s no way to shoot Will without hitting Steve.

 

Bruce isn’t sanguine about bullets having much of an effect. The guy had been walking around on a severely injured leg, and he’s pretty sure the body is dead—which means he plans on killing Steve and taking over his body.

 

But that’s part of the reason why Bruce is here, and he calls on the ever-present anger and transforms, his only thought to protect Steve and prevent the creature from returning to earth with them.

 

His memories are always fractured after a transformation, and when he comes around again, they’re next to the beacon, and someone has at least made an attempt to clean him up. He knows because there’s a streak of blood or something like it on the inside of his left wrist, and he’s covered by the thin blanket they brought.

 

“We have about twelve hours to the portal opening,” Steve says. “Thanks for earlier by the way.”

 

Bruce sits up slowly and accepts the clothing Natasha holds out to him. “Did I leave anything?”

 

“He splattered,” Natasha replies. “I estimate that the body had been dead for weeks.”

 

“And there was no sign of it afterward?” Bruce presses, his shirt momentarily muffling his words as he pulls it on over his head.

 

Steve shrugs. “It looked like this slug thing, but it moved away pretty fast when we started attacking it.”

 

“We have to close the portal,” Bruce says. “All of them. We can’t risk it coming back through.”

 

“Agreed,” Natasha says quietly. “We don’t know how many people it could possess, but Hydra could control anybody.”

 

“And Jiaying was scared of it,” Bruce points out. “Hydra wants it to control Inhumans, too. Except maybe Inhumans don’t have to be dead in order to be under its control.”

 

“That’s a lot of supposition,” Steve objects. “But we can't take the chance.”

 

“Here,” Natasha says, handing Bruce a protein bar. “When we get back, we'll make a plan for ensuring that no one can ever return here.”

 

Bruce looks around and feels a momentary pang of regret. There’s so much they could learn here—but other people thought the same, and they had died. The creature that lived here was too dangerous.

 

“Agreed,” he says, and he really can’t wait to get home.

 

~~~~~

 

Skye picks up her phone on the second ring. “This is Skye.”

 

“It’s me,” Coulson says. “You should turn on the news.”

 

Skye frowns and says, “Jarvis, can you put the news on?”

 

She’s hanging out with the other Inhumans in the common room, and her eyes widen when she sees a picture of Malick with Grant Ward. “…Gideon Malick is considered one of President Ellis’ most influential advisors. These pictures taken of him in the company of Grant Ward, who is on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and is a member of Hydra, the terrorist organization, call into question whether the president knew of Mr. Malick’s ties to Hydra. The president has yet to comment on this photo. The Director of the FBI has stated that they will bring Mr. Malick in for questioning to determine whether he knows Ward’s current whereabouts.”

 

“What the hell, Coulson?” Skye asks, putting him on speaker.

 

“We needed to discredit him,” Coulson replies. “With the Avengers focused on stopping him from accessing that other world, we could put him under surveillance. You can thank Hunter and Fitz for the photos.”

 

“How?” Skye asks.

 

“Hunter went undercover and smuggled in one of Fitz’s robots,” Coulson replies with pardonable pride. “I don’t expect that the president will rescind his registration order right away, but I just got off the phone with Stark.”

 

Skye blows out a breath. “Do you think it’s going to make a difference?”

 

“Yeah, I do,” Coulson replies. “Look, sit tight for now and don’t go anywhere. You’re safe at the compound, at least for now.”

 

Skye agrees. “Yeah, okay. I can do that.”

 

“See you soon,” Coulson promises. “We can talk about how we’re going to handle any other Inhumans who emerge.”

 

“Okay.” Skye tucks her hair behind her ears. “Be careful.”

 

“You too.”

 

She looks at the others. “Guys, I think we’re in the clear.”

 

“Seriously?” Lincoln asks. “I mean, won’t some other asshole get to the president, tell him we’re better off in cages?”

 

“Not if I can get there first,” Tony says, striding into the room. “I’ve got six hours before I can open the portal again, and I need to strike while the iron is hot. Barton’s going with me. Skye, do you remember the sequence?”

 

“Yeah, I can take care of it,” Skye promises. “I’ll look after Bruce.”

 

“I know you will,” Tony replies. “I hate leaving him, but—”

 

“Relax,” Skye replies. “I’ve got this. You go make sure the president stops being stupid on the topic of Inhumans.”

 

Tony straightens his tie, and Skye admires the charcoal gray three-piece suit and dark blue silk tie. “If I’m not here when Bruce gets back, tell him that I’m nominating him for liaising with the Inhumans in the future.”

 

Skye laughs, because she’s pretty sure that Bruce volunteered himself for that job when he insisted on sticking with her during the thing with Jiaying. “Good luck.”

 

“I don’t need luck, because I’m just that good,” is Tony’s predictable response.

 

“Do you think he’ll manage it?” Joey asks, a thread of hope running through his voice.

 

“Yeah, I do,” Skye replies. “He’s Tony Stark.”

 

They sit around and talk about what they might want to do next—Lincoln is definitely going back to medical school, whereas Joey is leaning towards working with Inhumans full time. Part of Skye is hesitant to get her hopes up, but at the same time, she trusts Tony and Coulson.

 

Coulson had managed to take down Malick after all, and maybe they would finally manage to shut down Hydra once and for all.

 

Skye is at least hopeful.

 

~~~~~

 

“Are you sure about this?” Barton asks.

 

“I’m sure that someone needs to share a few home truths with the president, and absent Cap being here, that should probably be me,” Tony replies as Clint sets the helicopter down on the back lawn of the White House. “Also, Malick was a rich industrialist. Ellis is going to need another one of those in his corner, and he knows it.”

 

“Do you think he’s Hydra?” Barton asks.

 

Tony snorts. “No, I think he can be bought, like most politicians. Bruce and I have been talking about this; I know what buttons to push.”

 

The Secret Service isn’t about to let anybody into the Oval Office armed—unless it’s them—so Barton leaves his weapons secured in the chopper. They get a polite escort inside, and then are left to cool their heels until the president arrives.

 

Barton looks around, humming under his breath, but Tony doesn’t call him on it. He’s worried about Bruce, worried that he won’t be back in time to make the pre-arranged time, but he knows this has to be done.

 

If someone else like Ross gets to Ellis first, if someone convinces him to let the registration order stand, they’ll have to rethink their entire plan.

 

Ellis enters half an hour after they arrive, looking tired and harried. “You got here quickly.”

 

“I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me, Mr. President,” Tony replies, because he can do smooth and diplomatic when necessary.

 

Not that many people ever see that side of him.

 

“Did I have a choice?” Ellis asks. “How long have you known about Gid—Malick’s loyalties?”

 

“We received that information a few months ago,” Tony admits, “but there wasn’t any proof until just recently.”

 

Ellis invites Tony into the Oval Office, leaving Clint to cool his heels outside, and sits down on one of the couches, waving Tony into a seat. “My generals are in an uproar, the press is demanding an explanation, and the question that no one is asking is whether I’m actually Hydra.”

 

Tony smiles. “There’s an easy way for you to prove you aren’t, you know.”

 

Ellis glares. “Oh? And what’s that?”

 

“You denounce Hydra and everything it stands for,” Tony replies. “And that includes their stance on Inhumans.”

 

Ellis is already shaking his head. “It’s too dangerous. They’re too dangerous.”

 

“So is a kid with a loaded weapon, but you aren’t suggesting doing away with the Second Amendment,” Tony counters. “Let the Avengers deal with the Inhumans. Bruce Banner has already proven successful in helping several get control of their abilities. We have at least two Inhumans who are dedicated to just that goal.”

 

Ellis gives him a narrow-eyed look. “Some would say that the Avengers are too dangerous.”

 

“And yet, we saved the world,” Tony replies. “The planet would be under alien rule without us.”

 

Ellis sighs. “Agreed.”

 

“We’re years out from an actual cure,” Tony says, while privately thinking that a cure isn’t what they truly need. “Maybe decades. You put these folks on ice, and they wake up the same age they are today, having lost years out of their lives. Their loved ones lose out, too, and then the government is on the hook for supporting them while they get their lives back in order. It’s an untenable solution. What I’m offering is a way for them to continue being productive members of society.”

 

Ellis rubs his eyes. “I’m not up for reelection. You could wait for my replacement, make a deal with him—or her.”

 

“I could,” Tony agrees. “But you ran on a promise of protection for our country, and you have the opportunity to make good on it. If you move forward with a policy like this now, whoever comes behind you will have to respond, and it could shape the narrative.”

 

“And give you a good idea of whose campaign to support,” Ellis says shrewdly. He throws up his hands. “Fine, I agree, if only because I can’t think of a better option in the middle of this mess. I will warn you, though, Mr. Stark—there’s a secure facility being built to contain threats of the nature that some Inhumans might present, at least the ones breaking the law. That’s not to say it can’t hold others.”

 

Or that someone won’t try and put us there, Tony thinks. “Understood,” is what he says out loud.

 

Ellis smiles. “I hope I can continue to count on your counsel as we move forward?”

 

“Of course,” Tony replies. “It would be an honor, Mr. President.”

 

And that’s that. They’re ushered out by the Secret Service, and Barton has them up in the air after the preflight checks are complete.

 

Tony checks his watch. There’s still plenty of time to get back before they’re scheduled to try and make contact with Bruce.

 

“And that’s it?” Barton asks.

 

“That’s never it,” Tony says. “But at least it’s a start. Ellis is going to have to make an announcement and soon. I expect to see him making a speech in the Rose Garden before we even land.”

 

And, indeed, the kids are watching the news coverage in the common room of the upstate compound when he and Barton enter.

 

“…this is a reversal from the president’s earlier policy requiring registration and categorization of Inhumans, with mandatory confinement for those deemed to present a danger,” the anchor is saying. “President Ellis explained that he had been swayed by Gideon Malick into proceeding with that policy, in spite of urgings from others to support the Avengers’ plans to help enhanced persons control their unique gifts. He was deceived by Malick as so many others were, and has issued a statement to that effect.”

 

Skye catches sight of him. “Was that you?”

 

“I think he was halfway there already,” Tony admits. “Besides, this way he gets to wash his hands of the problem and blame everything on us when something goes wrong.”

 

“Let’s hope nothing goes wrong then,” Barton mutters.

 

Tony checks his watch again. “I need to go prep for opening the portal.”

 

He isn’t terribly surprised when everybody follows him, taking up stations around the perimeter of the room, out of harm’s way.

 

Tony holds his breath as he starts up the machine that will hopefully bring Bruce back to him and doesn’t release it until all three of his teammates appear—a little dusty, but appearing any the worse for wear.

 

He turns on the forcefield he’s using to contain the monolith and then grabs Bruce in a tight hug. “How did it go?”

 

“We found it,” Bruce replies. “It appears to be some kind of parasite, and it was controlling the body of the man Dr. Simmons met there. The other guy took exception toit trying to kill Steve.”

 

“Great exception,” Natasha says dryly. “The parasite didn’t seem to have much in the way of preservation abilities. The body was already badly decomposed.”

 

Tony grimaces. “Gross.”

 

“That would be the word,” Steve agrees. “Is everything okay here?”

 

“Coulson got pictures of Malick with a known Hydra agent, and he’s now wanted for questioning,” Skye says gleefully. “And Tony spoke to the president, and he’s backtracking.”

 

Tony nods. “He’s going to let the Avengers handle the Inhumans. I’m sure that decision will get more nuanced as time goes by, but at least no one is going to be hunting them down.”

 

“No one sanctioned by the government anyway,” Barton points out.

 

“Let’s solve one problem at a time,” Steve replies. “If the government doesn’t sanction attacks on Inhumans, maybe others will fall in line.”

 

“Hey, so you guys look like you could do with food and a shower,” Tony says. “Why don’t we see what we can pull together?”

 

“Why don’t we see what we can pull together?” Skye counters. “You’re not allowed in the kitchen, remember? Come on, guys.”

 

Skye, Lincoln, and Joey troop off, and Tony can see Skye blossoming and knows he made the right call. They’re going to take care of everybody.

 

“See you in a bit,” Steve says. “I have dust in places I really don’t want it.”

 

“Same,” Natasha says, and hauls Barton along with her.

 

That leaves Tony alone with Bruce, and he asks, “Are you really okay?”

 

“As a scientist, I’m really sorry that we have to close the portal and make sure no one ever goes there again,” Bruce replies, resting his forehead on Tony’s shoulder. “But to be honest? It was really fucking creepy.”

 

“Zombies are creepy,” Tony agrees, running his fingers through Bruce’s dust-streaked hair. “But we will. We’ll shut the portals down, and we’ll keep outsmarting Hydra, and we’ll keep saving the world.”

 

Bruce pulls back. “You want to join me in the shower?”

 

“I thought you’d never ask,” Tony replies.