Fury was going to kill a junior agent or six. There was no question in anyone's mind, he was going to kill them with just the pure force of his rage.
“Does anyone want to tell me how, exactly, Stark got back in the building? The building that was quarantined, with a secure perimeter? Anyone?”
“He walked,” Steve said, his voice calm and quiet. “Sir, we all know that when he's determined to do something, he's going to do it.” He was leaning up against the wall, arms folded across his chest. He was exhausted, nerves strained. He couldn't stop replaying his final conversation with Tony, over and over and over. It didn't change anything, and it only made him feel worse.
And he still couldn't stop.
Fury gave a snort of displeasure. “Natasha, find out which dumbasses let him in, and give them a severe re-education.”
Natasha nodded, her body swaying as she set off. Steve gave her a stern look as she passed, and she patted his arm with light fingertips. “Don't worry,” she said in an undertone. “They'll live.”
Steve gave her a grateful smile, and she chuckled. Fury gave them all a look, but before he could start in again, Hill hijacked his attention. Steve was rather relieved about that, as well.
Not that anyone else was paying any attention to the director. Bruce was on about a twelve way conference call with Reed Richards, Jane Foster, Hank Pym, and a bunch of people that Steve didn't know, and the scientific jargon was flying fast and hard. Steve understood some nouns and the occasional proposition, but that was about all. Thor had disappeared, supposedly to do recon, but everyone knew that he was attempting to get in touch with his crazed brother, to see if his magic might undo this tangle. It was a slim chance, but it made Thor feel better to have tried.
And to have given Loki yet another chance to redeem himself.
At the far end of the table, on his own, Phil was hunched over a stack of paperwork, dealing with the junior agents the scurried up, carrying information and bad news and requisition forms and requests from various government agencies as to what the heck was happening at SHIELD headquarters. Coulson dealt with all of it without so much as changing expression, but there were tight lines around his mouth, between his eyebrows.
Someone had left a paper tray of steaming coffee cups on the table, and Steve glanced at them before he picked two up and headed over to Coulson's side. He leaned over, offering Coulson the cup. “This one has your name on it,” he said, when the agent glanced up. “Literally.” Coulson took it with a faint smile.
“Thank you.” He nodded at the seat next to him, and Steve took it, knowing it was a peace offering. Coulson took a sip from his cup and then set it aside. “I'm sorry.”
Steve looked up from his own drink. “For what?”
“For blaming Stark for the situation,” Coulson said, going back to his paperwork. “He wouldn't have-”
“Yes, he would've.” Steve shook his head. “He's quicker to blame himself than anyone else. He went in there with the da-” He swallowed. “With the dang suitcase suit. He planned this all along. Nothing either of us could've said could've stopped him.” And he did not want to think about how much that hurt.
“It didn't help, though,” Coulson said, a sharp twist to his words. “I lost my temper.”
“You lost an agent, that's enough to make anyone's nerves short. Natasha said that you were Clint's handler for a couple of years before the Avengers,” Steve said, folding his hands around his coffee cup. The heat was comforting, even if his nerves were already a jangled mess. It wasn't like caffeine affected him, any more than alcohol did, but he liked the scent, and the warmth, and the sense of community that came with the drink.
“Yes,” Coulson said, head bent over his paperwork. His shoulders were a straight, tight line beneath his suit jacket. “Almost three years, before the Initiative was put into place.” His pen moved in quick, controlled strokes, precise, no flourishes or excess energy. “Most specialists and agents worked with a variety of handlers, but for the most part, Clint was only assigned to me.”
Steve's lips quirked. “He can be a bit difficult to anticipate in the field.”
“It never seemed to bother you,” Coulson said, sparing Steve a glance.
Steve shrugged. “My first real command experience was with the Howling Commandos, Coulson. That's not a name that you give to a bunch of guys who are good at standing around, waiting for orders and obeying military protocol. That's the name you give to a bunch of guys who you trust to know what to do, and how to get the job done, no matter how unconventional their tactics.” He gave Coulson a lopsided smile. “It's not that they couldn't follow orders. It's that I knew when they didn't need to. If that makes sense.”
Coulson's pen was hovering over the page. “It does, yes.” He glanced up at Steve. “It's still a hard thing for a commander to do, to relinquish control.”
“It's a trust issue,” Steve mused. “I mean, I guess. I had to trust them to know that if they were doing something insane, it was because it was the best option they saw. And they had to trust me when I pulled on the leash, and said, no, this time, I'm calling the shots. If either side didn't trust the other, it would've ended badly, so you find a place where everyone can do their job, and everyone can feel like they're trusted, and-” He paused, shook his head with a sigh. “And the job gets done.”
Coulson rotated his pen between his fingers, back and forth, a nervous tic of movement that Steve had never seen before. “Clint and Natasha could've been a disaster, as part of the Initiative,” he said, his voice low. “I'm the one who pushed for it.”
Steve blinked. “I didn't know that,” he said, and he hadn't.
Coulson leaned back in his chair. “From both a usage standpoint, and a PR standpoint, they were a natural fit. Their abilities were so far beyond the rest of SHIELD's agents. They were capable of more. Both from a physical and a personal standpoint. Also, let's be honest, it makes the general population a bit nervous when a team like this is made up of super humans. It's an instinctive fear thing. Adding some humans to the roster, ordinary people with extraordinary abilities and training, it smooths ruffled feathers. Keeps people calm. It's not an us or them situation, Natasha and Clint were the stand-ins for the American people on this team. It's a psychological thing, makes the Initiative easier to accept.”
“I... Never thought of that,” Steve said, slumping in his chair. The coffee cup was shaking in his hands, and he set it down on the table. “I never...” He let his head fall forward, rubbed a palm on the back of his neck. “I'm not used to thinking of myself as a 'them,' I guess.”
Coulson sighed. “It's a trust issue,” he said, his voice unexpectedly kind. “You're a hero, because of who you are, Captain, but there has always been an instinctive fear of the different. Having Black Widow and Hawkeye there makes it easier. But the whole thing hinged on you. You and Thor and Stark and Banner allowing them to do their jobs.” He looked up, clear, intelligent eyes meeting Steve's head on without flinching. “I had faith in you,” he said, with a faint smile. “I put my agents in your hands, and prayed I was doing the right thing.”
Steve stared at him. “Thank you,” he said at last, and he meant it.
“No, thank you.” Coulson looked down at his pen, and he seemed to come to a decision. His indrawn breath was audible. “I was assigned to be his handler about four years ago,” he said, eyes meeting Steve's again. “We started sleeping together about two years ago.”
Steve felt his mouth drop open. “Oh,” he said. And again, “Oh,” because, yes. That was the piece of the puzzle that he'd been missing, and it made sense, now that he knew, now that he could understand, understand the way the two of them moved around each other, in each others space, as if they were hyper-aware of where the other one was at all times, the way that Coulson could predict when Clint wasn't where he was supposed to be in the field, and the way that Clint would volunteer his condition over the comms if something bad went down. The way that it was always Coulson who marched Clint into medical when he got hurt and the way that Clint was the only one who could get Coulson to movie night when the paperwork was piling up. The way that Clint had been unbearable, snappish and nasty and just horrible to live with when Coulson was sent off on a SHIELD assignment that didn't involve the Avengers and how Coulson got cold and quiet and sharp when Clint was off on recon or assigned to another SHIELD group. The way that Steve sometimes found them in the kitchen after an early morning run, just the two of them and the NYT crossword puzzle, Coulson calling out clues while Clint made omelets and came up with answers that even Steve knew were wrong. The way that Coulson would smack Clint on the back of the head when he was being obnoxious, and the way that Clint grinned in a way that only came out when he got that reaction.
The way that Coulson seemed brittle and fragile and over armored, all at once right now. Right now, as he looked at Steve, chin up, shoulders back, eyes steady. “I hope this won't make things difficult for you, but I felt you should know. The circumstances being what they are.”
And, heck, yes, 'oh' could be taken as a bad reaction, that was a bad reaction, because this was just something very personal and very private and Coulson was clearly thinking that Steve was going to have a problem with this, because, yeah, this wasn't something anyone talked about when he was younger. And he really didn't know what to say here, what was he supposed to say?
Steve took a deep breath. “I'm glad,” he said, because he was. Because that was true. “Um, that he's got you. He clearly-” Steve could feel his cheeks heat. “I always knew that you were his favorite. He's much, um, happier when you're around. Much more himself, less defensive. I'm glad you've got him, too. And-” He ducked his head. “I'm glad you told me. I won't say anything to anyone, I promise, but-” He looked back up and smiled, feeling like he'd passed some test, gotten past something with Coulson. “Thank you. For trusting me enough to tell me.”
Coulson's surprise was telegraphed in a single blink. A flicker of movement, uncontrolled and unexpected, and then his lips quirked up. “Thank you,” he said at last. “For understanding.”
“We'll get him back,” Steve said, because this must be an agony. He glanced across the room. “We have the finest scientific minds in the world working on it. And, well, Thor.”
That startled a laugh out of Coulson. “I know we will,” he said. “Thank you, Cap. Thanks for, well-” And there was a hint of red to his cheeks. “I didn't want to make you uncomfortable.”
Steve gave him a look. “Why does everyone think that no one was having sex in the forties?” he said, knowing he sounded forlorn, but unable to do anything about it. Okay, so, HE wasn't having sex, but that didn't mean that he didn't know what sex was, and, well, war made strange bedfellows sometimes, it wasn't anything that bothered him much. As long as everyone was consenting and happy, well, it didn't seem like it was any of his business. “Um, if I can just? Think about telling the rest of the team, okay? I mean, no pressure, but... It's easier to make sure that we stay off of each others' sore spots if we know where they are.”
Coulson nodded. “You were the one I was concerned about,” he said, in his usual, deadpan manner, and Steve flinched.
“I hope I haven't done anything to make you think-” he started, and Coulson cut him off.
“No. You haven't. But just because you seem to have adapted to the 21st century with such ease, it's unfair to assume that you're not getting a lot of things thrown at your head for which you have no frame of reference.”
“Tony helps with a lot of it,” Steve said, and he felt his face heat. “Well, Tony and Jarvis.” And there was no real reason for him to bring up the fact that he had, in fact, had Jarvis assist him with learning about a lot of equal rights struggles through the years. Not that he had any reason to look up gay rights, specifically. And if his brain did not stop thinking about Tony right now, he was going to have to go stick his head in the nearest sink until he could get his stupid blush under control.
“You can always ask me, as well. If there's anything you don't want to discuss with your teammates,” Coulson was saying, and Steve reached for his now cold cup of coffee.
“Coulson, if there was something I couldn't discuss with my teammates, why would I be able to discuss it with you?” he asked. “After all, you're one of my teammates, too.” He stood, and clapped a broad hand on Coulson's shoulder, squeezing as lightly as he could so as not to wrinkle Coulson's suit. “Don't worry. We'll get them both back.”
Coulson's hand covered his, just for a second, and he squeezed back. “I know we will.”
Tony just lay there, stunned, for a moment, or maybe a few moments. “Jarvis?” he called, and wasn't surprised when his AI didn't respond. It was a little traumatizing, however, he hated it when the voice went silent. He'd gotten so accustomed to it, back when Jarvis and the bots had really been his only, well, company for days on end, that when Jarvis ceased to reply to him, he had to choke back an urge to panic like a little kid.
Nice to know that he really hadn't ever grown up.
The HUD responded, snapping into place, and Tony did a quick scan of his surroundings. Thankfully, the atmosphere was breathable, no toxins or poisons that he could detect, no issues with temperature and the scanner was only picking up one life sign, human, and it was probably Barton, because said life sign was currently leaning over Tony, poking him in the face with a shiny stick.
With a sigh, Tony flipped up the visor.
Clint stared down at him. He was wearing what appeared to be a massive, lopsided and jewel-encrusted crown, holding a scepter and surrounded by a floating mass of Roombas. “Welcome to the sovereign nation of Bartonia,” he said, with a straight face. “My subjects, the Roombas, the drones and one random mechanical bird thing that I found, and I welcome you, and ask you what the fuck you think you're doing here, you are seriously a fucking moron.”
“I'm here,” Tony gritted out, “to rescue you, and what kind of fucking attitude is that?.”
“A little short for a storm trooper, aren't you?” Clint said, arching an eyebrow. He offered Tony a hand.
“Are you wearing a crown? Seriously? Where did you get a- Why are you wearing a crown?” Tony asked, taking it and allowing Clint to help lever him back to his feet.
“Listen, dude, I have learned something about myself today. Mostly, I have learned that if I end up in some sort of alien rubbish dump surrounded by neurotic robots and without a clue as to if I'm ever going to make it home, if I find a crown, I'm putting that bad boy on. There should never be a time when you do not wear a crown. Find a crown, you wear it and declare sovereignty over the vast mechanical wastes.” Clint waved his scepter around a bit, making the Roombas dodge. “Thus, Bartonia.”
Tony looked around for the first time and the blood promptly drained out of his head. “Are we...” he choked out, dizzy with it. “Hummmmina,” Tony managed, because, heeeeeeeello, tech boner.
“Sitting in a gigantic, almost unending room filled with stolen technology? Why, yes, yes we are. You're having a heart attack aren't you? I'm going to assume that's your heart attack face, because if that's your 'this is my new fetish' face, I have to live with that knowledge.”
“I would kiss you right now, if not for the fact that I would deeply regret it later.”
“Try it and die. You have cooties.” Clint took a seat on what appeared to be a flying tank. Its flying days were currently over, but Tony was pretty sure he could fix that. “I have it from a good source.”
“Pepper only tells people that so that she doesn't have to pay sexual harassment lawsuits,” Tony explained, not really paying attention. So many pretty shinys. He had to seriously resist the urge to just do a belly flop into the nearest pile and roll around in them. “I've been cootie-free for at least a decade.”
“Seriously, you make your ex-girlfriend deal with your corporate sexual harassment lawsuits? You might be the worst ex ever, and I know from a crazy ex. Talk about the Facebook status of 'it's complicated.'” Clint reached up and caught one of the Roombas as it flew by. It lifted him up for a second, and he swung his legs in mid-air before it allowed itself to be dragged back down.
“I never actually get sued. I'm surprisingly charismatic. And Pepper is unsurprisingly terrifying.” Tony flipped his visor down and took off, floating above the ground. The room seemed like it was never ending, and it was packed to the gills with stuff. All sorts of amazing stuff. Tony made a whimpering noise. “Holy fuck, I am never leaving this place.”
“Just to be clear, I am not looking forward to dying alone of thirst after I kill and eat you, Stark, so tell me that you had a plan before you ended up here.”
“There's a plan, it's an excellent plan, Jesus, what'd you think, that I didn't have a plan? I always have a plan, and often times, those plans actually work, it's not like we were just going to leave you.” Tony said. He did some quick scans, and realized that there was only silence. He looked down at Clint, who was staring at the Roomba on his lap, calloused fingers rubbing over the casing.
“Wow. You don't think much of us, do you?” Tony asked, as he dropped himself down to the ground. “I mean, I don't blame you, we're pretty dysfunctional and all, but really. We've crossed dimensional borders to bring back Doom, and I hate that guy. We like you, and besides, it's your night to cook, screw you, if you think you're going to get out of that just because you were dumb enough to get eaten by the SHIELD ventilation system.” Tony smirked at him. “I am never letting you live that down, by the way.”
“I figured you thought I was dead.” Clint shrugged, resigned to that. “Hell, I thought I was dead until I woke up. It was one of those, 'son of a bitch' moments.”
“Yeah, I know that one,” Tony said, grinning. “Like, 'fuck, yes, I'm not dead, wait, oh, fuck, what do I do now?'” He shrugged. “Common occurrence. Sometimes, the relief at being not dead is tempered by the fact that being dead would sure be a hell of a lot easier.”
“That shouldn't be a common occurrence, Stark. Really. How the hell did you end up here, anyway?”
“Put on the Iron Man suit, which is the tech equivalent of wrapping myself in tasty, tasty bacon, and sat in the vent until it ate me,” Tony said. “It took about a minute.”
“Wait, you deliberately-” Clint stared at him. “That is a fucking stupid plan.”
Tony shrugged. “We can't all let Coulson come rescue us. He has other things to do.” Tony dodged when Clint swung a half-serious fist at the side of his head. “Wow, punching a guy in armor when you're not Thor: now that's pretty stupid.”
“Yeah, well, I've never been smart.” Clint gave him a wry smile. “I wasn't hired for my smart. I was hired for my ability to shoot things until they were dead.”
Tony picked up something that looked like an amazingly detailed clock, running gauntlet covered fingers over the planes of it. “Being smart's supposed to be my job,” he said, with a shrug. “And to get you back, I had to call Reed Richards. Talk about swallowing my pride. With a serious dose of arsenic as a chaser.”
“Aw, man, you called Richards? We're never going to hear the end of it,” Clint groused. “Jesus, Stark, he's going to lord that over me every time we see each other for like the next year. I will shoot him if he brings this up in the middle of a fight.”
“Yeah, I had to promise myself cookies.” Tony reached for something that might've been a high tech Rubik's cube, or it might've been a bomb. He set to work on it. “We are going for fucking cookies when we get back. Like, the good kind, the ones from that French bakery, you know, the um, the one that makes those weird little almond cookies with the fillings, in all the different colors?”
“I like those,” Clint said, kicking his legs out in front of him.
“Yeah, Pepper always buys the weird ones. Which is good, because if it were up to me, it'd just be giant bag of chocolate and hazelnut and say fuck it to anything that's pink, and the pink ones are usually really good.” He glanced over as the Roomba pulled out of his hands and hovered up to land on Clint's head, balancing precariously on the crown. “Got a friend?”
“Yeah.” He paused. “Tony?”
“Can I keep this one?”
Tony glanced up at the Roomba, which was making happy noises as it spun itself in circles. He looked back at the child's toy slash nuclear warhead in his hand. “Clint, I replaced the case, silkscreened a red cross emblem on it, and repainted it, and you'll notice it still has your sucky handwriting on it designating it Mr. Fantastic.” His lips twitched up. “And let's face it, he likes you best. If he wants to stay with you, and it appears that he does, who the hell am I to try telling him differently?”
Clint blinked. “Oh. Okay.” He reached up and the Roomba moved to brush against his fingertips. “Thanks.”
“Yeah.” Tony got the thing open and peered inside. “Oh. Well, that answers that.” He snapped it shut again and reached out to put it carefully on the ground. “Moving on.”
“What answers what?”
“Never mind. Don't... Don't touch that, okay? Pretend that doesn't exist.” Tony stood. “Richards got a lock on me and the tracker in my suit before I disappeared, I'm sure of it. So it's just a matter of finding a way to control the portal the thing makes, and they can do it.”
“In that case, why didn't you just send the damn suit without you in it?” Clint asked, standing as well. He brushed his hands off on his thighs.
“Because I'll be damned if I let the suit fall into someone else's hands. It doesn't work out well for me. Ever.”
“Better than dying, dumbass.”
“I don't agree.” Tony stretched. “Let's go see what we can find. Oh, and Hawkeye?” He waited until Clint was looking at him. “I'd like to point out I've got a long family history of wasting time and money looking for a lost comrade. My father must've spent millions looking for Steve, and I refuse to let the dead bastard win.” He gave a shrug. “Nothing to do with you, so don't get a big head.”
Clint stared at him, one eyebrow arched. “Are you trying to do some sort of emotional thing here? Because I am not A. drunk enough or B. nearly close enough to dying to allow that.”
“Of course it's not. You're wearing a fucking crown right now, there is no way to have a serious discussion with a man wearing a crown and a Roomba, it's, no, it's just too ridiculous.”
“Good,” Tony agreed. “Let's get to work.”
“What, exactly, are we doing?” Clint rolled to his feet.
“Finding out how we got here, and how we're getting out.”
Clint pointed up. “Things appear up there, fall down, go boom. Not hard.”
“Yeah, but where are they coming from?”
Clint shrugged. “All over. Look at the piles. This stuff, where we both started out, is almost all human in origin. The farther away you get, the more foreign stuff is mixed in. So I think our drop point is fixed. Except there's multiple human points of origin.”
Tony flipped his visor down and took off, hovering over the landscape. Running some quick scans, he said, “All this stuff implies that there was an intelligence, a person or people who set this up.”
“If that's the case, they haven't been back in a while.” Clint grabbed a quick boost from Mr. Fantastic and let the Roomba lift him to the top of a pile. “Look at this stuff. No one's been clearing this out, Tony. Either they're dead, or they've lost interest.”
“The former's more likely. But if there was an intelligence at work here, there must be some way to control this. They would've had some way to keep things under control.” Tony glanced at Clint. “You okay if I do a quick run around, see if I can find the perimeter?”
“Go for it. I'll wait here and baby-sit the Roombas. Just as a warning, though, we went looking for the walls, and never managed to find them.” He took a seat. “Tony? Do not get distracted by something shiny and forget to come back.”
“Says the guy in the crown. I'll be back in ten minutes, whether I find anything or not.”
“Cool. I'm just going to dig around in this pile of, I don't know, the late nineties, I guess?”
Chuckling, Tony shot off, scanning as he went. The room was larger than he'd thought, but not unmanageable, a couple of hundred yards from where he'd started, he found a wall. Blank and metal and smooth as silk, it didn't tell him much, but at least he'd found it. Just about to turn back, he heard a crack, and turned his head in time to see something come tumbling down.
By the time he got back, Clint and the Roombas had made the trip to the new arrival. “What've we got?” Tony asked, coming in for a landing and flipping his visor back.
“Somewhere out there, there is a sobbing artist, because they just lost an exceptionally nice desk with a light box embedded in it,” Clint said. “Find anything?”
“A wall. And-” Tony paused, flipped the visor back down and went through his readings. “Bingo. I think I got a lock on the point of origin for our little portals. That's the good news.”
“And what's the bad news?”
Tony tipped his head back. “Well, there appear to be hundreds of them. And I don't know which one we came out of. Do you?” He blinked as the computer display pinpointed dozens of points where the energy signatures were waiting to spew out more stuff.
“I can't even see them.” Clint followed his gaze anyway. “Can we use one to get back?”
“I think I can make something that would push them open, but without knowing which one we came out of, God only knows where we'll end up.”
“Like the doors in 'Monsters, Inc'?”
“Do you watch anything other than extreme violence and cartoons?”
“Good point.” Tony paused. “If I could get these open, or at least cracked, can you get something through them?”
“Yes.” Clint grinned. “I think I found just the thing. You get to work on yours, and I'll get to work on mine. Let's go, I wanna go home.”
“Well, that's quite something,” Bruce said, leaning over the 3d map projection of SHIELD headquarters that Jarvis had helped Richards put together. There was a wide swath of red throughout the core of it. “You think all of that is our little guest?”
“It's almost certain. The readings from when Tony disappeared were enlightening, to say the least. I think it's moveable, it's certainly not forced to stay where it is, but for whatever reason, it may be more comfortable surrounded by metal, so the ducts are a natural place for it to retreat. But if Tony's right about the thefts, and there's no reason to think that he's wrong at this point, it can move around, as it wishes to.”
“Is it alive?” Coulson asked, arms folded over his chest.
“Doubtful. It seems to be a limited intelligence AI. I could be mistaken, but there's nothing that matches any known life form we've ever encountered.” He leaned over. “Jarvis, can you please show the potential course of movement that we think it's followed?”
“Of course.” There was a flicker, and then the red patch re-solidified on one of the lower levels.
“It moved up through the building, following the vents. There's whole swaths of the building it never got close to. And if you follow the path, it managed to avoid most of the sensitive laboratories and the workshops, which explains why nothing SHIELD would be worried about went missing. The air systems in the sensitive areas are much more complex, to prevent accidental cross-contamination, in both directions.” Reed leaned forward. “So it moved through the building, likely in this pattern-” The red patch moved, marking points where thefts had been reported with flashing dots. “Ending up here.”
“Which would also explain why we didn't lose Tony earlier,” Bruce said. “He's unlikely to have crossed paths with it at any point. He would keep to these areas.” He leaned forward and touched the map, lighting up the more isolated laboratories and the executive offices. “As it is, at least when Clint went missing, we were watching. Otherwise, Tony would've just vanished one day, and it's unlikely we would've been able to figure out why or how.”
Steve did his best to keep a calm face. It probably wasn't good that the thought alone was enough to send a shot of panic through him. He sucked in a careful breath, his hands digging into his thighs under the cover of the table. “Is it being controlled?”
“Unlikely,” Richards said. “The movements have been too erratic, its targets too random. It almost seems like some alien version of Tony's Roombas. Enough intelligence to go looking for what it's supposed to be collecting, but not enough to prioritize.”
“So nothing to worry about?” Natasha asked, her arms crossed over her chest.
“I wouldn't say that.” Richards tapped the tablet. “Jarvis, if you could, please, the globe?”
A projection of the earth popped up. “Because we caught it in the act of opening its portal, I was able to map the energy signature, and this is the interesting thing. There's dozens more that we've located using the Oracle network.” Red dots appeared across the surface of the globe. “And these may just be the ones that are active right now.”
“You are kidding me,” Fury said, his voice flat.
“Unfortunately, no.” Bruce gave the globe a spin. “Because these things don't take people, or even animals, just tech, it's gone unnoticed. There's no telling how long they've been here, or what they've taken.”
“Wonderful.” Steve shifted in his chair. “Can we reverse it? Make the portal it creates a stable, two-way thing?”
“We think so. We just need a little more time, a little more data,” Jane said. She'd become SHIELD's go-to girl on trans-dimensional portals. “What we'd suggest doing now, is to get it out of the vents so that we can try to get some better readings.
“How?” Coulson asked.
“Lure it out with tech. Watch how it reacts, what it's interested in, what it's not.”
“What do you have in mind?” Fury asked.
“We still have thirty Roombas, and it seems to really, really like the Roombas,” Bruce suggested.
“Good choice. Do it.” Fury stood. “You think we can start bringing people back in?”
“No reason to completely repopulate the building, but if we strip people of anything tech or metal. No one with any sort of medical devices. Pacemakers, replacement joints, even pins or metal plates.” Richards leaned his hands on the table. “Anything that could draw this thing's attention.”
“Makes sense. Let's get this moving, people. See if we can't get this thing down to one of the empty labs and get it scanned in some way that doesn't result in it stealing the scanners.” He glanced at Richards, at Bruce. “You can keep it under control?”
“We may be able to isolate it and find a way to deactivate it. But we don't want to take that chance until we've retrieved Clint and Tony,” Bruce explained. “Though finding the other portals give us a chance, if this one fails, to find another way to them.
Steve took a deep breath. Relief was a rather mild word for that. As the team scrambled, Coulson already on the phone and Hill and Fury arguing over something in a low voice, Steve smiled at Bruce. “Good job,” he said, making Bruce smile back.
“Mostly Reed's work,” he said. “But I'm glad we were able to get as much as we were. I was...” He slid his fingers over the edge of the tablet, a nervous tic of a motion. “Quite concerned.”
Steve stood and patted him on the shoulder. “So was I. But we're going to get them back. Mostly thanks to what you've done.”
“It's not over yet. I'm going to go find myself a cart or two of Roombas and see if we can't get this thing moving,” Bruce said. “Reed, you have time to help us out with this?”
“Oh, this is fascinating,” Reed agreed. “I'd love to see the infamous Roombas. Tony has such a, well, let's say a charming childishness about his creations.”
Luckily he left before Steve could do something equally childish, like tripping the man. He let out a faint sigh. Okay, so he'd never admit it to Tony, but sometimes Steve had to agree with his accessment of Reed Richards; the man seemed to work at being annoying.
Steve's phone buzzed, and he pulled it out, frowning at the display. Unknown number. Curious, he took the call. “Hello, Steve Rogers.”
There was a beat of silence. “Hi, um, this is going to sound really weird, but my name is Stuart Murphy, and I live in Ames, Iowa. I was in the stairwell of my apartment building, and a foam dart, like, from a Nerf gun? It just fell out of nowhere. It had a note attached that said to call this number and tell Steve that Tony and Clint are safe, and they need another Roomba. And then it says, 'I'll get you a car if you do it.' Which is pretty funny. So I'm doing it. Even if there's no car.”
Steve slumped against the wall, sucking in a long, slow breath. “Oh, he'll get you a car. One moment, please.” He covered the phone with his palm. “We've got contact,” he said, and realized that all around the room, phones were ringing, people were talking, and grins were breaking out everywhere. Coulson glanced in his direction, and his eyes were filled with relief, and Steve grinned at him. Coulson smiled back, and amidst the chaos, the two of them shared a silent moment.
Steve wondered if these times would be worse, or better, if he ever did tell Tony he maybe might be in love with him.
“Get the Roombas,” Fury yelled. “Let's get our boys back!”
Tony Stark's first words upon tumbling back to Earth were, “I'm going to have to buy so many fucking cars, aren't I?”
Steve Roger's first words were, “So very many cars. You can start after we have a long discussion about using yourself as bait.”
Clint Barton's first words were, “I have negotiated the mineral and stolen tech rights to Bartonia to StarkIndustries in exchange for a lifetime supply of Swedish Fish, craft beer and the rights to drive any of Tony's cars whenever I want. I am a fucking boss at negotiation.”
Phil Coulson's first words were, “Are you wearing a crown?”
Fury ignored them all, because he was getting really good at pretending that the Avengers didn't exist when there wasn't an alien attack happening at that very moment. Something about his bleeding ulcer thriving on denial. With Richard and Stark working on it, they got the portal generator isolated and deactivated, and a SHIELD team was being put together to use the data that the eggheads had gathered to hunt down the rest of them.
It was Stark that went toe to toe with Fury, explaining in no uncertain terms that there was no way he was letting SHIELD back through the portals without a scientific expedition going along to deal with the tech that was there. Fury had kindly consented to send a SHIELD scientific team. Stark had laughed in his face. It hadn't helped that he was already carrying a sack of stuff that he flatly refused to let Fury anywhere near.
Coulson didn't want to know what he was doing with what looked to him to be a microwave, a round glass and metal piece that resembled a school house clock with a sequence of interlocking plates beneath the crystal face, a pile of flexible metal sheets, a disco ball of a Rubik's cube and a robot hand. Some part of him was terrified that out of the landscape being described, THESE were the things that Tony Stark had handpicked to bring back.
Coulson had waited a good thirty seconds before he collared Clint and dragged him off towards medical. “I'm fine, sir,” Clint said, but he fell into step behind Coulson without any further argument.
“Not your call to make,” Coulson said, very careful to keep his hands to himself. It was proving to be very difficult. Hell, for that matter, it was hard to keep his hands from shaking.
“I understand, and I'm going to medical, you'll notice I am going to medical, but I want you to understand, I am fine, sir.”
Coulson's head snapped in his direction. “Are you humoring me, agent?”
“Perish the thought, sir. Trying to be reassuring.” Clint gave him a faint smile. “Just providing important intel in a timely manner so that you can be fully informed as to my current status. It's in the SHIELD rule book, I need to keep my handler updated at all times.”
“I'm not your handler any longer, Barton.”
“You'll always be my handler,” Clint said, and there was something so sweet about the way he said it, a statement that should've been mocking, or at the very least, a dry status statement, but it came out like a declaration of love, and wow, that was so very wrong.
And Coulson did not want to think about just how very turned on he was right now.
“You realize this is a very messed up relationship, don't you?” he asked, trying not to sound as out of breath as he was.
“Best one I've ever had,” Clint said, cheerful about it, and that was it, the last straw, and he made a startled sound as Coulson spun around, wrapped an arm around his chest, and shoved him through a half open door. He kicked is shut behind them, manhandling Clint back into the empty office.
“I need to tell you,” Coulson said, “that I did something really horrible and outed you to Captain America.”
Clint said, “Okay,” and snagged the front of Coulson's shirt in both hands, yanking him down for a hard, fast kiss.
Coulson ripped his mouth away before he could lose what was left of his brain cells. “I'm not kidding. I told Steve I was sleeping with you. I shouldn't have done that, I-”
“I've told you like fifty fucking times, I don't care, I've never made any secret of who I've slept with, and I don't care who knows, fuck me now and I'll go back there and tell all of them about it, Jesus, Phil, we have had this discussion and I don't care.” He jerked Coulson back down. “You know I don't care, or you never would've done it, and if you don't kiss me right now, I will do something drastic.”
“Well, as long as you're okay with it-” was as far as Coulson got before a growling Clint Barton twisted him around and knocked him back onto the couch. He dragged Clint down with him, and they landed hard, arms and legs tangling as their mouths met, hard and rough. Phil's hands were everywhere, smoothing over the planes of Clint's body, his fingers finding skin everywhere that they could.
“Is this-” Clint said, biting his way down Coulson's neck, nuzzling under his collar and licking the straining cords of his throat, “The sexiest medical check ever?”
“If I find blood, I'm going to be pissed, Clint.” Pissed, but not pissed enough to stop fumbling with Clint's pants, and Clint moaned against his shoulder, breath hot through Phil's shirt.
“You and me both, Phil.” Laughing, barely able to breathe, he made short work of Phil's shirt buttons, hands sliding over familiar skin and muscle and fingers digging in, too hard, too sharp, but he couldn't be bothered to care, and he'd feel bad about the bruising tomorrow, and the fact that this barely counted as sex, because neither one of them could stop kissing or talking or sucking in desperate breaths to do more than act like teenagers doing some heavy petting.
It as fast, and intense, and Clint screamed against Phil's shoulder when he came, and clung to Phil as his body jerked and spasmed through his own climax. Gasping for breath, Clint smoothed a hand over Phil's disordered hair. “Did we just have sex at SHIELD headquarters? Don't we have rules against that?”
“I'd tell you that was a handjob, and it barely counts, but you'd take that as an excuse to start pushing all sorts of boundaries,” Phil groaned against his temple.
“Oh, I'm going to start pushing boundaries no matter what.” Clint grinned. “Not dead. You told Steve we're fuckbuddies. Just had sex in an empty office at SHIELD. It's a brand new fucking day, sir.”
Phil groaned. “I'd regret this if your hand wasn't still down my pants.”
“Yeah, why do you think I haven't moved it yet?”
Clint barely made it through the door, eyes blurry, body aching. He should probably have just stayed in bed, or, better yet, gone to stand in a hot shower for a couple of hours, but he wanted food. He wanted food and he needed coffee. He needed it like breathing.
“Morning,” Tony said, huddled around his coffee cup. He looked like death warmed over, refrozen, defrosted, and then thrown in a plastic bowl.
It had been a long week of scientific excavation of alien trash dumps. Clint wondered if Tony had slept in the last few days. It didn't seem like he had, but the majority of the Roombas were back at the tower, meaning things were winding down. Not that Clint didn't enjoy playing sentry to a bunch of crazy ass scientists lead by the eternally bickering pair of Stark and Richards, but yes, as a matter of fact, the didn't enjoy that at all.
“I swear to God, Stark, if there is not coffee in that pot, I will shoot out the tires of every car you have.”
“Cranky this morning, aren't we, and when is there ever not coffee in my coffee pot?”
Clint chuckled. “When you're chewing on a bag of grounds while waiting for a fresh pot to brew.” He stepped carefully through the kitchen, avoiding the mass of Roombas that were chittering and chirping at each other and chasing down non-existant dirt. Tony, with a self-satisfied smile, flipped off the chore chart.
Coulson entered the kitchen, eyebrows arched as he stared down. The Roombas whirled and bumped into each other and for the most part, stayed on the floor, making walking very difficult. Tony put his thumb and index finger in his mouth and blew an ear-splitting whistle. “Look, Roombas, it's Clint!”
As one, the Roombas chorused, “You have saved our lives! We are eternally grateful!”
“Holy shit,” Clint said, starting to laugh.
Tony leaned back against the counter. “Oh, did I mention, I gave them speakers? Because of reasons.” He saluted with his coffee cup, a wicked grin on his face. Calcifer the toaster popped next to him, and he leaned over to snag a horrifically colored PopTart. “Good job, thank you.”
“Oh, hell no,” Phil said, his voice flat. “No. Absolutely not.”
“I love you, Stark. I fucking love you and all of your fabulous, fabulous crazy, you are a madman, and I love it,” Clint said, laughing so hard that he could barely get the words out. Gripping the counter to keep himself upright, he looked at Phil, who was staring at the Roombas as if he wanted to light them on fire with his mind. “Let's adopt them!”
The look of flaming death was shifted in Clint's direction, and Clint fluttered his eyelashes. “No,” Coulson said, and took the coffee pot. For a moment, it looked like he wasn't going to bother with a mug, was just going to throw back a slug of it straight from the pot. Only the smirk on Stark's face seemed to dissuade him, and he reached for a cup as the Roombas hovered around, bumping into his legs and searching the counter for stray crumbs. “I will not live with these things sneaking into my room and screaming 'Toy Story' quotes at me at all hours of the day and night.”
“Don't be ridiculous, Coulson, they only scream 'Toy Story' quotes at Clint.” Tony gave him a wide, brilliant smile. “You get 'Men in Black' quotes.” He took a sip of his coffee. “And before you ask, I did make them taser proof with the last upgrades.”
“How about bullet proof?”
“Not quite as necessary. C'mon, Coulson, he loves them so,” Tony said, as Clint, still laughing like a loon, taunted the Roomba mob with an open sugar packet.
“He's demented.” Coulson rubbed his forehead, a faint smile on his mouth. “Fine, Stark. Fine. I won't shoot at them. For now. Until you lose control again.”
“There is no reason to suspect that I'll lose control of them,” Tony said, yawning. “I fixed some of their programming, so stop being such a pain in my ass.”
“There's too many-”
Tony held up a hand. “There are eighty-seven of them. Thirty are being dispatched to SHIELD headquarters to patrol the ventilation system, and keep an eye on other places that people have trouble going. That's a large enough group to serve as a hive mind, they won't get lonely and they'll be able to patrol efficiently. Another twenty-five will serve the same purpose here at Stark Tower. Natasha's requested a few to use as sparring and target practice in the gym, and a few for the range as well. Upgraded armor and repulsors and they should make them useful as targets and attackers; twelve should work for the two locations combined. Ten will stay in my workshop, because anything that involves less cleaning on Dummy's part is to my benefit. Those will also be the core control group for if any of the others need repair or upgrade, they get along well with the fabrication units. Four will go to Bruce's lab, and yes, I'll make sure they don't annoy him. Two for Steve, because he is a softy and he secretly likes them and they're the only thing that can get eraser debris and charcoal out of my antique oriental carpets.”
He smirked at Coulson. “That leaves, um, if my calculations are correct, and they always, are, that leaves four to run around the Avengers' quarters. Which I'm pretty sure you can live with.”
“I hate you, Stark,” Coulson said. “He's only going to use them for morally and ethically questionable acts.”
“FUCK, yes,” Clint agreed, cheerful about it. “I need one of those horrible suction cup dart guns, this is going to be so awesome.”
“He's a SHIELD agent and an Avenger, that goes without saying,” Tony said. “What do you think Fury and I will be using them for? Straight, unadulterated evil.”
“No evil, Tony, I don't want to see SHIELD's plan,” Steve said, wandering into the kitchen wearing a pair of jogging pants and t-shirt, and looking entirely too chipper for the early hour. “Morning, Clint, morning, Phil, morning, Calcifer, morning, Roombas.”
“Steeeeeeeeeeeeeeve,” the Roombas chorused and Steve made an undignified squeaking noise, backpedaling like he was in fear of his life. They followed.
“You know, I almost turned down this job,” Clint said to Coulson, still laughing.
“Imagine my shock. I cannot imagine why you almost turned down this posting,” Coulson said, sipping his coffee as Steve gave up on dignity and tried to hide behind a laughing Tony. This did not dissuade the Roombas in the least. It might've encouraged them. “I mean, look at this. The chance of a lifetime.”
“Very few people can state that they've seen Captain America fend off an overly affectionate Roomba mob with its own inventor, that's true,” Clint said, one eyebrow arched. He leaned into Phil's shoulder, just a little, knowing he was pushing his luck and not caring. Maybe he could get away with it. He'd try until he was slapped down, that was just how he lived his life.
Phil slung an arm around Clint's waist, and leaned in, brushing a kiss against the marksman's jaw, and Clint's brain just shut down. With huge eyes, he glanced towards Coulson, who was now smiling, a little half-smile as he sipped his coffee and watched Tony try to convince Steve that the Roombas were not actually going to consume his brains or follow him into the bathroom.
Clint took the mug out of Coulson's hand, set it on the counter, and snagged the other man by the front of his t-shirt. Coulson arched his eyebrows, but his smile only got wider as he allowed Clint to drag him from the kitchen. Natasha, yawning, got out of their way. She gave Clint a speaking glance, and, out of sight to everyone but Phil, patted him lightly on the ass.
“Watch it,”Coulson told her.
She gave him an innocent look. “Girl talk, Coulson. Any. Time. You. Want.”
“Don't you dare,” Clint yelled over his shoulder at her. “You tell the most horrible lies.”
“If you're lucky, they'll be lies,” she called back, and there was laughter in his voice. “If you're unlucky, I'll tell them about Antwerp.”
“Antwerp?” Coulson asked Clint, allowing himself to be dragged along.
“Don't worry, sir, the statute of limitations is almost up, and anyway, they don't have the right name on the warrant. They don't even have the right alias on the warrant. And Natasha's making it all up, anyway.”
“Why do I love you, again?”
“Trashy, trashy taste in men, sir.”