Chapter 1: Open Your Eyes
"Agent Romanov." Nick Fury acknowledged the woman who had silently entered his office.
"Waiting for Psych to clear Barton is pointless," she answered, without preamble.
"He's been bullshitting Psych since the day he got here."
"Which is why they won't believe a word he says now."
"He hasn't requested to return to the field."
"Being on the Helicarrier isn't helping. The people here, they saw him kill their friends, their colleagues. Even the ones who know exactly why it happened can't help making a face or standing a little stiffly when he walks by. He's got good eyes, sir. You can't think he doesn't notice."
Fury nodded silently.
"And he spends a lot of time at the spot where Coulson was murdered."
Fury didn't react to that statement at all. Instead he said, "Bio-engineering still hasn't come up with a way to test for lingering magical influence."
"No one's come up with a way to test for lingering KGB influence. You still put me in the field."
"I! AM! IRON MAN! Nyah-nuh nyah-nuh nyah-nuh-nuh-nuh nyah-nyah-nyah."
Pepper hid her face behind her menu. They were in the far corner of the restaurant, but drawing attention was Tony's specialty. Also, she didn't particularly like Black Sabbath.
"I nuked space. I actually nuked space. Do you realize how awesome that is?"
"Does Iron Man know what he's going to order?"
"Iron Man does know, because Iron Man always knows. Incidentally, Iron Man will be referring to himself solely in the third person from now on."
"Iron Man will be doing so from the sofa."
"Tony Stark is sorry." He made puppy dog eyes. "Although, Pepper, that's not really a good threat. I mean, even with the damage, there's still about 6 functional bedrooms up there, 8 if you don't mind a nice cross breeze. So I really wouldn't be sleeping on the couch, is what I'm saying."
"Have you heard back from Steve?"
"I may not have actually messaged him yet." He raised his hands to shield himself from her disapproving look. "It's awkward, Pepper. I mean, he's him and I'm me."
"I thought you were Iron Man."
"I'm really getting mixed messages from you this morning."
"How about Dr. Banner?"
"Yeah, he's game as long as I'll meet him someplace besides New York City. I suggested Tokyo and he managed to glare at me over the phone. I don't know how you do that in general, but it's even more impressive since he's living in a cave in the Yukon or Antartica or the Sahara or something, I wasn't really paying attention. I wonder if I could talk him into bringing me a penguin. The point is, I want to know who he's getting his cell phone reception from and I think we should buy them out."
Steve Rogers was strongly considering dyeing his hair. He was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, but he still kept getting recognized. He was just here to help clear rubble; the heroic rescues had all been finished days ago.
He knew his clothes weren't really quite right, that he still looked pretty old fashioned, even without suspenders. Maybe if he wore something more standard, he'd stick out less. It couldn't be that hard to match what most people were wearing, but he really hated clothes shopping, always had.
He looked up at what remained of the Stark Industries tower. It still offended him on an architectural level, though not on a personal one, not anymore.
"Oh my god, are you-?" A passing woman gaped at him.
"I'm just a soldier, ma'am." It was the truth. He tried not to lie point-blank, but avoiding the uncomfortable attention was worth being a little deceptive.
"Oh." She blushed. "You just, you look a lot like-"
Steve shrugged. It wasn't technically a lie.
"Well, it's…um, it's so kind of you to give your time."
"Thank you, ma'am," said Steve, because that was the polite thing to say. But really, all he had was time; giving it away was almost a meaningless gesture, like a grain of sand from a man who owns a beach. Seventy years wasted, frozen in the sea. And now, now he really had no work, nothing to accomplish, just endless time and nothing to do with it. He had money, enough to live comfortably. First, SHIELD had claimed it was his 'back pay' but Steve pointed out that he was hardly working as a soldier while he was frozen. Then they'd put him on salary as a 'consultant' despite the fact that Steve was hardly qualified to consult on modern technology and politics. Finally, they had just told him that the money would be there in his bank account whether he liked it or not.
So he didn't need to work.
Except he really, really needed to work. If this Avengers business had taught him anything, it was that having a mission, having a battle made the world seem right again.
Clint Barton sat on the port side of the Helicarrier, his legs hanging over the side. He was looking down through a pair of high tech binoculars, an egg in his hand.
Natasha watched him perch that way, perfectly still, for almost fifteen minutes before she spoke. "What are you looking for?"
She sat down next to him, cross legged, a few inches back from the edge. "There's going to be a memorial service for all of the agents who…it's on Thursday. It's up to you if you want to come."
"Who notified Coulson's family?"
Clint opened his hand and let the egg drop. It was almost a minute before he let out a satisfied whoop. "Some asshole is going to have a hell of a story about his commute."
This was how conversations with Barton went. Natasha was used to his resistance to serious topics. "You sitting on the ledge out here isn't really reassuring Psych."
"Eh, they've always had it in for me."
She took pity on him and changed the subject. "So how exactly do you remember Budapest?"
"You said we remember it differently. I remember a horde of scaly dog-beasts climbing out of the sewers."
"Yeah, we agree on that part. It's the part where you broke my arm that's always been a sticking point."
"I didn't break your arm, I straightened it."
"Arms are supposed to bend. That's what elbows are for."
"Yes, but your shoulder was knocked out of the socket and you couldn't hold your bow properly unless your elbow stayed straight."
"Yeah, you remember that as really clever. I remember that as really painful."
"I remember that you wanted to keep one of the subterranean demon dogs as a pet."
"No, see, you're completely twisting the story. It wasn't a demon dog, it was more of a hellfire puppy larva."
"Good pets do not have a larval form."
"I need to borrow your login. They've shut me out of medical records."
"They'll recover or they won't, Clint. It was Loki, not you."
"That's not what I-" Hawkeye sighed. "Phil would have followed up on his agents, but I'm not Phil. I have other plans."
"Don't have plans. Your plans are awful."
"Hand me another egg."
Chapter 2: Cover Your Ears
One day ago
Thor does not want to hear the Allfather's words. Loki is to be exiled to the Isle of Silence as punishment for his poisonous speech. The Allfather thinks perhaps that exile will teach Loki as it once taught Thor. But the Isle is barren, and Loki will not learn. He will only grow more twisted.
Once Thor thought his brother lost forever before he returned with such terrible purpose that Thor could see no reason to celebrate their reunion.
Loki genuflects before the Allfather, his eyes dark and mad.
Thor fears his brother is lost forever.
Many years ago
Natasha Romanov does not want to hear the sounds of the girl writhing and kicking beneath her. It's odd, really. One of the selling points of strangulation as a murder technique is that it's quiet, but this one is pounding her foot uselessly into the mattress, winding the sheets around her hands, and her struggles remind Natasha of other little girls and other useless struggles.
The girl has done nothing to deserve this, of course. She's the daughter of a diplomat who has been insufficiently receptive to the message of Natasha's employer.
Natasha doesn't know what the message is, nor does she care.
She just wishes the squirming youth beneath her hands would stop rustling and thumping against the sheets.
She thinks to herself, 'Strangulation is quick. This will be over soon. I can manage. I am Romanov. I am strong.'
A few days ago
Clint Barton does not want to hear what Nick Fury is saying. He doesn't want to think about where Phil was during the battle and why he never heard Phil's voice in his ear, tinny and calming, like he usually does during ops.
After Loki is bound and Clint is in Medical, waiting for the dizziness that comes with his anti-infective shot to wear off, Fury approaches him, stands only a few feet away.
"Before the battle," Fury says, "Phil Coulson confronted Loki with the Destroyer weapon. Loki stabbed him through the heart with his scepter. Phil lost consciousness almost immediately, and died a few minutes later. He died doing what he wanted to do. He died saving the world."
Clint says nothing and for a moment, Fury deeply pities him. He doesn't like Barton, never has. Barton is arrogant and reckless and ignores procedure – Phil was the only one who could keep him in line; what were they going to do now? And when the Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out, Barton had given Fury a parrot. Ha-fucking-ha. So he doesn't like Barton, but Clint's a good man and a good sniper and Fury's not made of stone.
"You're owed leave time," Fury says. "I know the two of you weren't technically…" He waves a hand vaguely. "But I don't give a damn about the technicalities."
"I care about the technicalities." Clint's voice is flat.
"Another thing I have to tell you. His family has requested a private funeral. It's not fair and it's not right, but you are an agent of SHIELD and I expect you will honor their wishes."
"I will. I don't like funerals."
He doesn't like Barton, but he respects him. Barton's a self-made man and that counts for something. Fury puts his hand on Barton's shoulder. "I really am sorry for your loss."
A few years ago
Bruce does not want to hear the names on the radio. They're having some sort of memorial service, reading aloud the list of all those who died in what they're calling the Harlem Massacre. He could just turn it off, save the batteries, but he doesn't.
He can tell himself that more people would have died if no one had stopped the Abomination. He could tell himself that, but he doesn't.
There's a buzz from his phone and he knows it's a message from Betty and he knows what it's going to say and he knows it's for the best. He could pick up the phone and read the message, but he doesn't.
He leaves the radio on, but tells himself not to think about all of the deaths, tries to discipline his mind. Tries not to think about how unfair it is, because that's a very childish thought and also because when he thinks about fairness, he gets angry because so many things in the world are so very unfair so don't think about that, don't think about any of that.
Think about the Krebs cycle. You start with oxaloacetate and acetyl CoA and water, then citrate synthase causes an aldol condensation resulting in citrate and CoA-SH. Is there an extra hydrogen there? Better draw it out just to be sure.
And Bruce drags his finger through the dirt and counts all his hydrogens and keeps his breathing nice and steady until the radio finishes reading the names.
A few weeks ago
Steve does not want to hear this endless horrible litany of the dead, but he doesn't want to be the sort of man who hides from these things.
After he'd woken up, they'd helped him to make a list of everyone he knew – everyone from his neighborhood, from his art school, from the war. And they offered to help him find what became of these people. They were mostly dead, and the ones who were alive were mostly suffering from dementia.
SHIELD takes him to Arlington cemetery and the Director with the eye-patch reads from their findings. Dugan lived to age 73 and died of a stroke. Arthur, a boy from his neighborhood, became blind in an industrial accident and died in a house fire. His cousin in Boston that he never saw, she lived to age 64 when she died of pancreatic cancer. She had a son who died in Vietnam. Farnsworth died of complications from emphysema a few years after the war.
It goes on and on.
The man stops and asks Steve if he wants him to continue.
Steve says yes without really thinking about it.
Many years ago
Tony does not want to hear another stupid word from his stupid dad about stupid Captain stupid America. He's eleven years old and he's curled in the passenger seat of his dad's car, trying to ignore the way his dad is going on and on about how great and wonderful and perfect Steve Rogers was and how Steve Rogers never would have wrecked a four story boarding school dormitory testing an impact-responsive expanding foam.
Tony sighs loudly. He's already explained himself a dozen times.
"Don't take that attitude with me. You can't even begin to imagine how much trouble you're in. I was in a meeting with one of our biggest stockholders when they pulled me out to handle this mess."
"Why didn't you just send Jarvis?"
"Because if I didn't talk to them myself, they would have kicked you out."
'Talk to them' is code for writing a very large check.
"Maybe I should have let them expel you. Pulling all these fucking stunts, one after another."
An empty threat. The last thing Tony's dad wants is a brilliant preadolescent underfoot.
Howard Stark opens his mouth to continue his rant, but he hiccups instead.
Tony rolls his eyes. "You're drunk, Dad. You shouldn't be driving."
Another hiccup. "Right, because you know what's best for everyone all the time. Anthony knows everything." His tone is mocking. "And I'm not drunk." He hiccups twice more. "Though Lord knows I need a drink to deal with you."
They pull into the driveway. Tony gets out of the car first. He watches Howard sway and steady himself on the car door as he stands. Howard almost stumbles again, but he grabs Tony's arm to steady himself. He jerks Tony forward along the path, pretending it was intentional, that he grabbed Tony to drag him into the house, not to lean on him for support. "Come on." His grip is tight on Tony's arm. "Get a move on; you're in so much trouble."
They stagger up the walk and enter the house by way of the kitchen. Howard pushes Tony forward, into the counter. "Jarvis, he's home. Handle this."
Clint poked at his entrée suspiciously before picking up a stalk of broccoli and gnawing at it like a hamster. He was in the far corner of the mess hall, surrounded by empty seats.
Natasha was used to Clint's awful table manners. "I don't think I've ever seen you voluntarily eat a vegetable."
"I love broccoli. I just imagine I'm a giant and I'm biting the tops off trees." Clint chomped viciously. "Take that, gentle woodland creatures!"
"Hill wants you to in her office at 13:30."
"And she sent you to tell me? That's ominous."
"You weren't at the service this morning."
"Yeah, I figured it might come off as disrespectful if I were there."
She nodded and twirled a fork between her fingers. "Barton," she said after a beat, "this is important. And I know Psych has asked, but now I'm asking. Do you remember being under?"
"Yeah. It's not hazy or anything, but it's…it's more like remembering something stupid you memorized than like remembering a story."
"Could you think clearly while you were under?"
"Pretty much, yeah. I mean, if you had asked me what 14 times 28 was, I could've worked it out just fine. It was me except I just didn't really want anything except to finish Loki's mission. I knew, I definitely knew the consequences of my actions; I just didn't care." His voice got lower for the last sentence.
"Were you suffering?"
Clint's head twitched; he was surprised by the question. "Now that's one they didn't ask in Psych."
"And your answer?"
"I don't…I guess not. Nothing really bothered me. I wasn't, it wasn't like there was the regular Hawkeye trapped in there and getting all angry about all the stuff Loki was making him do. There was just one of me and that guy wasn't really all that concerned with anything."
"No wants so no suffering," mused Natasha. "Very Buddhist."
"I don't think I know any good Buddhist jokes. Oh no, wait, I've got one. So the Buddha goes up to a hot dog vendor and he says, 'Make me one with everything'."
"I'll choose to ignore your pathetic attempts at humor." She smiled affectionately for a moment before her features returned to their usual flat state. "No suffering," she repeated, "but when you woke up, you said he 'unmade' you?"
"Yeah…well, I wasn't suffering once I was under, but getting there was a real bitch. I've seen the security videos, I know in real time, it was just a few seconds from when the glowy magic stick touches me to when I holster my piece and start following orders, but I swear to you, it felt like hours, maybe days."
"But once you were under, you weren't in pain?"
It was weird for Natasha to repeat herself. "Why are you asking me these things?"
"I'm concerned about you."
"No," Clint shook his head. "No, that's not your style."
"Can't a girl change her style?"
"Now I know you're up to something." He smirked. "You never call yourself a girl when you're not on ops."
"It's 13:27." Natasha pulled his lunch tray across the table. "Go meet with Hill."
"You're going to call Steve today, right?" asked Pepper.
"I'm not even sure the guy knows how to use a telephone," complained Tony. "I'll probably have to stand in the street and wave around semaphore flags. Or maybe I could write it on a piece of paper and attach it to a carrier pigeon." Somehow, Tony managed to make writing on paper sound more esoteric and old-fashioned than transmitting messages by bird.
"You're avoiding him. At first, it was little bit cute. Now it's not."
"I'm not avoiding him. I'm a very busy man."
"A very busy man who spent almost three hours yesterday sitting in Central Park in the Iron Man suit signing autographs."
"I've got to make time for my fans."
"It's just a dinner. He doesn't really know many people, right? It's a little like he just moved into town. It's the polite thing to do."
"You know who we should have to dinner? Thor. I've always wanted to take a Norse god out on the town and he could bring that hot scientist girlfriend of his. I wonder if they have swinging in Asgard."
Pepper's eyes narrowed. "Tony?"
Nick Fury does not want to hear what the doctors are saying about this patient.
They are saying that the man in the observation room is stable and recovering with regard to the stab wound. Recovering too quickly, actually.
They are saying that he does not speak unless spoken to, does not act unless commanded.
They are saying that Phil Coulson is certainly not dead, but they're not entirely sure he's alive.
Chapter 3: Stretch Your Legs
"Well, it's very nice to meet you, Dr. Banner." Pepper slid into the booth next to Tony.
"Just Bruce is fine. And it's nice to meet you too. Sorry about the location; I'm guessing you guys are used to nicer restaurants."
Before Pepper could reassure Bruce that the backwater diner was fine, Tony grabbed two sugar packets of each type and began arranging them along the table's edge. "Here's the question that's been bothering me," he said. "Why doesn't the Hulk have chest hair? I mean, you do. You've got the whole Robin Williams thing going, but the Hulk looks like he waxes."
Bruce rolled his eyes and looked at the menu.
"This is a serious line of scientific inquiry!" Tony wagged his finger for emphasis. "What happens to the hair? Do you shed? Does it get reabsorbed into the increased muscle mass? Does the keratin somehow get converted to other protein? This is keeping me up at night."
Pepper sighed and offered Bruce a sympathetic look. "I really wish I could tell you that's not true but…"
Bruce gave a quiet half-laugh. "I'm pretty sure I don't shed, because then I suppose I would be clean shaven when I turn back, and I'm not."
"True." Tony nodded, looking serious, almost grave. "I have to think about this some more."
"No," Bruce shook his head. "I really don't think you do."
"Fine then, down to business. Have you scoped out the spot?"
"Yeah, it's down in a ravine. Nearest humans are at least 70 kilometers away."
"Speak American." Tony pounded his fist lightly on the table.
"It's Canada; they use metric."
"Okay, but I don't want this getting back to Rogers. He'd have conniptions if he knew we were measuring things like the communists."
Bruce grinned. "I've contacted SHIELD about borrowing Barton for a few days. The other guy can jump at least half a kilometer – I'm sorry, 547 yards – in one go, so we want someone who can take potshots from outside of that range, distract him if he gets hostile."
Pepper flagged down the waitress for more coffee, then turned back to the table. "Do I want to know what you guys have been planning?"
"Every time the other guy has come out, everyone's tried to contain him or subdue him and it hasn't gone well. Every time until the Chituari attack. Then he took orders, helped people, played as part of a team. If we can make that happen reliably, then…" Bruce shrugged hopefully.
Maria Hill handed Barton a file folder. "It seems that Stark and Dr. Banner want to run some experiments on the Hulk. You're to fly them back and forth from the test grounds in Central Canada, assist as requested, and keep Stark from doing anything monstrously stupid."
Hill raised an eyebrow. Barton usually argued with his orders. "Agent Romanov will be assigned also to keep you from doing anything monstrously stupid."
"She's there to kill or capture me in case it turns out I'm still possessed by a murderous alien god."
"On the nose." Hill was kind of a bitch and she wasn't one to mince words. Clint had a certain fondness for her.
Thor knelt before the throne. "Allfather," he said, "I request the use of the Tesseract."
"Be wary," answered Odin. "It is a willful thing and it is best that even minds such as ours avoid rousing its powers."
"You told me once that Mjolnir can be a tool to build, but even with the hammer's power, we are no closer to reconstructing the Bifrost."
"It is far easier to destroy than to build."
Thor waited in silence for his father's decision.
"Nonetheless," said Odin, "it was for feats such as this that the Tesseract was made. Fare well in your task and in your journeys."
Natasha queued up some music before taking off her shoes and padding across the gym to Clint, who was already stretching on the mat.
He squinted when he recognized the song. "Nightwish? Aren't they like, Norwegian? I don't think they're Russian."
"You're suggesting that I can only listen to Russian music? If so, I would suggest that you can only listen to music with banjos in it."
Clint snorted. Nat always got a kick out of making white trash jokes. "Maybe just the theme from Deliverance." He sang the first few notes before shouting in an affected southern twang, "I'm gonna make you squeal like a pig!"
"You're going to try. And you're going to fail. Hill give you marching orders?"
"Yep. I assume that was your doing."
"You don't like it?" she teased. "Little Clint is scared to play with the big boys?"
Clint rose and bounced on the balls of his feet like a boxer. "Oh, it's on." He kicked forward, knowing that she would roll back and dodge.
"Don't worry, I'm sure the Hulk and the billionaire genius will be very excited to hear about the time you shot a moose with a rusty speargun." She could put so much mockery in so little smile.
"I think Rusty Speargun is going to be my new porn name." He rubbed his shin. "Ow!"
"Pretty sweet digs you've got here, Stark." Clint sank down into the couch. "I mean, if you ignore all the debris."
"Perhaps I met you at an odd time in your life," said Natasha, "but it seems that this is the norm for your dwellings.
"Are you guys here to help or to mock?" Tony examined the readouts from another set of diagnostics.
"Can't it be both?" Clint put on his best shit-eating grin.
The elevator was dinging. The elevator was not supposed to be dinging. This was what Tony meant about security problems.
"Excuse me, Mr. Stark?"
And the elevator doors opened to reveal Steve-fucking-Rogers. Whom Tony wanted to emphasize he had absolutely no problem with.
"Oh, uh, hello, Agent Romanov, Agent Barton. I didn't know you were, um-" Steve had the manner of a man who had just stumbled across a party he wasn't invited to. "Tony, can I have a word, please?"
"Hawkward," sing-songed Clint.
Natasha glared at him and stood. "We'll wait out by the jet."
As they left, Steve continued to stand awkwardly in the doorway. It was remarkable, the contrast between Steve Rogers and Captain America. "Tony," he began, "I actually just came over here because I realized I never apologized for some of the things I said to you on the first day."
"In all fairness to you, we were at a very high altitude and that can-"
Steve raised a hand to interrupt him and kept talking. "I assumed you were all flash and no substance and I was wrong. I'm sorry. And I'm especially sorry because I should have known better. After all, I knew your father. He was…flashy, but he was a good man."
Tony could feel his own personal Hulk wriggling in his head, but he could also hear a nagging voice that sounded a lot like Pepper demanding that he be nice to the poor little time-dislodged super-soldier, so he patted Steve's forearm and amiably said, "Well, 500 is a good batting average. We're gonna go poke the Hulk with a stick. Want to come?"
They settled in to the jumpseats into the back of the jet as Barton finished up his pre-takeoff checklist. It was sweltering outside, and he had hung his flack vest over the door. This revealed his shirt.
"What's that?" Tony pointed at Clint's torso.
Clint was wearing a pale linen shirt, vertically striped in different shades of green. It looked oddly feminine. "It's a shirt, Stark. I know your servants usually dress you, but I would have thought you'd at least know the names for different kinds of clothing.
"I'm not quite sure about modern fashion," began Steve, "but-"
Natasha shook her head at Steve. "Don't use him as an example of how to dress. Clint is…do you know the expression 'trailer trash'?"
"I am not trailer trash!" yelled Clint over his shoulder.
"You lived in a trailer," answered Natasha, "and it was full of trash."
"It wasn't a trailer," argued Clint. "It was a crooked ring toss game. And it wasn't full of trash. Those were prizes."
Natasha turned to Steve with an eyebrow raised. "He thinks this is somehow supporting his argument."
"Why did you live in a ring toss game?" asked Steve.
"I was a carnie. And the Tilt-o-Whirl got lumpy." Barton flipped several switches. "Pre-flight check's complete, power to manual."
"Well," said Tony, "I think we can count Operation: Hulk as a success."
"It went well," agreed Bruce. "But I still think we should run a few more trials before I start hanging around New York City."
"Safety first, that's what I always say," answered Tony. "I mean, almost always. Well, pretty often, anyway."
"Dr. Banner, if I may," said Steve, "I did want to ask you something about the Hulk, if you don't mind."
Bruce shrugged. "As long as it's not about body hair."
Steve looked confused for a moment, but then he shook it off. "When you get angry, you turn into the Hulk, but then you said your secret is that you're angry all the time. I'm not sure I understand how that works."
Bruce's brow lowered and he exhaled quietly. "There's an answer to that question, but it's pretty long, and possibly slightly disgusting."
"Hawkeye," yelled Steve, "what's our ETA?"
"Ninety minutes or so."
"I'd say we have plenty of time."
Bruce half-smiled again. "Well, it's like this. My parents were both physicians. And they were both hippies."
"Hippies who named you Bruce?" said Tony skeptically.
"Bruce is a family name. My middle name is Moonsong."
"Wait, what?" Clint swiveled around from the front of the plane.
"Eyes on the road," answered Tony. "But no, that is incredible. I think that should be your new superhero name. We can be Iron Man and Captain America and Moonsong. Fits right in."
"I always wanted to change it," said Bruce, "but I kept putting it off and then, well, I couldn't exactly just walk into the county courthouse."
"What are hippies?" asked Steve, apparently willing to ignore the Moonsong debate.
"Oh happy day!" cried Tony, "We get to teach you about the 60s!"
"I think Dr. Banner has first dibs on that topic," said Natasha. They'd almost forgotten she was there.
Tony pouted. "Okay, but I call teaching him about designer drugs and Fleshlights."
"So you have to start with the 50s," said Bruce. "World War II had just ended with an atomic bomb and the communists took power in Russia and they were developing nukes too. So everyone was scared and they channeled that into bring really rigid and proper and conformist. Then came the hippies who tried to be the opposite. They were pacifists, naturalists, do-what-you-feel types. Make sense?"
"My mother taught anatomy and procedures to first and second year medical students. Mostly they practiced on models or patients. For procedures they had to get right the first time, like intubating someone, they practiced on cadavers. But, luckily, there aren't very many baby cadavers, and doing procedures on babies is different, needs its own practice. It turns out that an adult ferret has a throat about the same size as a human infant, so when they had to learn tracheotomies, they would practice on ferrets. Here's where the hippie part comes in. My mom understood the value to practicing on them, but she didn't want the ferrets to die, so we'd adopt them. We would get a new bunch each year and they would live a couple of years, so pretty soon we had a whole bunch of trached ferrets running around. I would name them and teach them to do tricks and I thought it was really fun.
"But eventually they'd die. And not all at once, one at a time. And since we had so many, one died every month or two. I started to get really upset about it and I stopped naming them or playing with them. Being around them made me angry, so I avoided them. My father was an oncologist. I asked him why it never made him angry, the way his patients kept dying. He said it did, he just learned to get a different kind of angry.
"I really forgot all about that. After the first Hulk incident, I focused all my energy on not getting angry, on staying perfectly calm. I spent so much time meditating that I can intentionally lower my heart rate to fifty beats per minute. But after a while, I remembered what my father had said about getting a different kind of angry. Maybe the solution wasn't to never get angry, it was to get angry in a way that didn't make me transform involuntarily. So I started sneaking into towns at night and getting newspapers – there's always something to make you angry in a newspaper. I started just a little at a time, built up to more and worse once I got the hang of it. Then I realized I was reflexively calming myself every time I started to feel a little annoyed, so I made myself listen to the worst kind of talk radio while going for a run to keep my heart rate up. Once I could deal with two hours of Glenn Beck, I knew I was ready to live around people again."
"I wouldn't call Glenn Beck 'people'," said Natasha.
"Hey," said Tony, "Steve, it was fun, wasn't it? It was fun having you along today. You want to drop by for dinner some night?"
She held the phone to her ear. "Romanov."
"It's Fury. The shock treatments were unsuccessful."
"Any reaction at all?"
"He said ow."
"What are they going to try next?"
"They haven't told me. I have a sneaking suspicion that they don't know."
"There's no sign of any after-effects on Barton. He's pretty much his usual self."
"Does he suspect anything?"
"I don't think so, but he knows SHIELD, and with all due respect, he knows you."
"Keep him distracted. You know how this could go down. We don't need this situation getting any worse."
Given Clint's years and years of extremely poor costume choices, it has always been my headcanon that he has absolutely terrible fashion sense.
Also, I've completely rewritten Bruce Banner's backstory. For reasons .
Chapter 4: Bite Your Tongue
"So people are going along and then he just jumps out and starts singing at them?"
"No, Steve," Tony rubbed his temples in frustration. "The real Rick Astley has nothing to do with it. Other people have a video of him singing and they play it at surprising times."
The room was dingy and dimly lit. It wasn't well-ventilated, so it smelled of every kind of sex. Clint pulled out his wallet and counted out the bills. "I just want oral. And I'd rather you didn't talk."
The prostitute nodded and went to work. Barton barely reacted to the touch, but when he climaxed, his eyes were wet. "Go," he hissed, batting his hand sharply at the door, "just go. I need a minute. I'll pay for the time."
He curled onto his side, pulled a sheet over his legs, and wept.
Five minutes later, his eyes were dry. He stood, dressed, and did some quick mental math before dropping an extra thirty dollars on the mattress.
When he stepped out into the rain, he tapped his phone. He couldn't put this off any longer. "Stark, I need a favor. SHIELD access codes. Either change the security on mine or get me someone else's."
Tony was shifting from one screen to the next on his multipanel display, trying to explain the essence of the space race.
"The Russians were the first to put a satellite in orbit around the Earth. It was called Sputnik and it wasn't very powerful, mostly just blinked. People weren't afraid of the capsule itself; they were scared that the USSR was able to put it into space, that they had rockets with that much thrust capacity."
Steve froze for a moment before turning to face Tony. "Wait. Would this be an appropriate time to say, 'that's what she said'?"
"Yes!" Tony leapt up and hugged him. "Yes! Brilliant! My little Stevie's growing up! You deserve a Steve treat! What do you like? Cocaine? Courtside seats? Pornography? Patriotism?"
Bruce double checked his phone. Today was the day. He sent the same flowers every year; he had always managed to find a way.
"The card should say, 'Happy Birthday, Betty. I wish you all the best. From your old friend, with love'."
"And your name?" The clerk inspected her fingernails.
"No, just exactly what I said."
"We can't do anonymous orders anymore."
"She'll know who it is, and I'm paying with cash."
"No, it's company policy. Too many weirdoes sending anonymous bouquets to celebrities and people who have restraining orders against them and that sort of thing. It's a liability issue," she waved vaguely, "nothing personal."
"I've sent this same arrangement for the past ten years."
She shrugged blithely. "I don't make the rules, I just get fired if I let people break them."
So what now? Well, he could make up a name, but what if they asked for ID? And he could give his real name, couldn't he? He did just help save the world from the Chitauri invasion. That had to count for something.
He opened up his wallet and pulled out his license. "Banner," he said. "Bruce Banner, spelled like it sounds."
The clerk finally seemed to find her customer more interesting than her nails. "Are you the guy who-?"
"I'm the guy who wants to buy some flowers," he snapped, "and you're the florist, and you have my name and you have my order, so can you tell me my total so I can pay you?"
"All right, all right, you don't have to get angry."
It was another successful trial – their third. The Hulk could be…not contained exactly, but managed, reasoned with. Maybe it was because Banner was more in control these days or maybe it was because they were among the few people who had approached the Hulk with some sort of decency instead of bullets and tranquilizer darts. Whatever it was, it called for celebration, so Banner had accompanied the group back to Tony's penthouse to set up an experiment.
"I don't see why you don't just stay," said Tony. "We've practically got the green guy playing canasta."
Bruce grinned. "I think there's still more testing to do. In the immortal words of the great philosopher Michael Tyson, 'Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth'."
Natasha looked up from her laptop. "Did you just quote Mike Tyson?"
"I did indeed," said Bruce before glancing over at Steve and adding, "He's a boxer who only got crazier and more violent after years of head injuries. Bit a guy's ear off."
"That's nothing," said Clint, wandering into the kitchen. "I've seen Tasha bite a guy's tongue off."
Natasha merely raised an eyebrow and returned to her computer work.
"Um, what I meant," said Bruce, "is that we've only tested if you can handle the other guy when I voluntarily transform, but that's no guarantee that things will be the same in an involuntary transformation."
"No biggie," said Tony. "We'll fly go back to Canada tomorrow and push you out of the plane."
"That sounds…fantastic," said Bruce with minimal enthusiasm, "but until we run that test, I don't think I should stay here. It's an unnecessary risk."
"You want a ride to the edge of town?" Natasha looked up from her work again. "I have business on the Helicarrier."
"And you're leaving me behind?" Clint shouted in from the kitchen, mock-hurt.
"There's a full bar here. There's no booze on the Helicarrier."
"You're right, get out of here, leave me be, woman!"
"No thanks, actually," said Bruce. "It'll be another couple of hours for me to finish setting this up. I'll just take the subway."
While Tony and Bruce returned to their real-grownup-science-stuff, Clint rifled through the refrigerator, singing absently to himself. He just wanted a goddamn sandwich, but apparently rich people ate weird food.
"There was an old farmer who lived on a rock / He sat in the meadow just shaking his / Fist at some boys who were down by the crick / Their feet in the water, their hands on their / Marbles and playthings and…what the fuck is liverwurst?"
Steve chuckled. "You sort of remind me of my old friend, Bucky."
"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" Clint found a jar pickles and decided that was familiar enough to eat.
"It's a…he was a very good man. He knew all these dirty marching chants and jokes and rhymes, but he also knew all these ones that started dirty but really weren't. So if I ever told him to clean up his language, he would get all mock offended." Steve put on a different voice, a little higher, smoother, and more nasal than his own. "Rogers, I was only going to say that she has a nice front, you know, as opposed to a side view. Were you thinking-? Oh! You have a real dirty mind, Rogers."
"You're blushing, man."
Steve looked to the side and got redder.
"Lookin' good there, Steve," said Tony as he handed Clint a jump drive. "Barton, you owe me."
Clint squinted at the drive. "Thanks." He pocketed it before starting in on his third pickle and returning his attention to Steve. "I don't know if you know this, but Phil Coulson idolized you."
"I heard about the trading cards." This turn of discussion was doing nothing to help Steve feel any less embarrassed.
"Yeah, that was a thing, but that wasn't the half of it. When he was a kid, he and his sisters used to always get their picture taken with one of those Captain America impersonators every 4th of July. When he finished high school, his mom took all those pictures and made him a…I don't know what you call it, she just arranged 'em real nice. He kept it hung up in his apartment."
Steve was quite motivated to change the tack of the conversation away from the existence of Captain America impersonators. "So you were friends with Agent Coulson?"
"Uh, yeah, you could say that." Clint reached into his pocket. He just wanted to touch the jump drive, know that it was there. He suddenly felt a weird urge, one he didn't usually feel. "He was my boyfriend," Clint blurted out, "my fiancé, actually."
The look on Steve's face was hard to describe. There was discomfort certainly, mixed with disapproval and disappointment and uncertainty. "Oh," he said, "oh. I didn't…well, I'm sure he was…"
Barton's expression turned hard. "Sure he was what?"
"I mean," said Steve, "I just, there have been so many advances in medicine since I…and I just assumed they would have found a cure by now."
"A cure? Because I'm sick? Because I'm diseased? Is that what you think of Phil? Because let me tell you, you can say whatever the fuck you want about me, but you say one word against him and I swear to god, I will cut you open." Steve had at least 8 inches and 80 pounds on Clint, but there was no trace of irony or hyperbole in the smaller man's threat.
"I…" said Steve. "If you…"
"Think very carefully about how you want to finish that sentence," said Clint.
"Don't you threaten me!" Steve was on his feet.
"I was going to marry him, and then I lead the team that killed him. I'm not afraid of you." Clint's expression was hard and wild.
"Two men can't get married!" shouted Steve, in a voice that suggested he was less expressing an opinion and more making a bewildered statement of fact.
Tony and Bruce had taken notice, had put their equipment aside and walked toward the argument. "What about the cellist in Portland?" asked Tony.
"That's his daughter, asshole," answered Clint. "She was going to play at our wedding."
"Wait," said Steve, "if Coulson had that…problem, how can he have a daughter?"
Clint punched him – hard, bare-knuckled, right across the jaw. Clint's fist was obviously hurt much worse than Steve's face, but Steve had never been one to just sit back and take a beating, so he launched forward, pushing Clint back into the wall.
"STOP!" shouted Bruce before looking from side to side as if surprised by his own voice. "Stop! This is, this is making me angry and we haven't tested- So you," he pointed to Steve, "and you," he pointed to Clint, "need to separate yourselves."
"We've tried concussive force, electroshock, insulin coma, massive doses of anticonvulsants, massive doses of stimulants, cold shock…" The medic trailed off.
Fury rubbed his temples. Romanov stood stock-still.
The medic added, "No enhancements on MRI. EEG shows normal brain activity, but he's obviously not normal."
"Have we tried letting a telepath poke around?" asked Natasha.
"We don't have anyone in-house," said Fury, "and he knows too many secrets for a consultant."
"I'm rushing background checks on two telepaths and a sorcerer," said Hill.
"Based on Barton's intel, he's not suffering," said Natasha. "That takes some of the time pressure off."
"A bit," answered Hill. "He had access to virtually all of SHIELD's intel, and now he's incapable of keeping a secret. I tested him, I had some scrub from the linguistics lab walk in and ask for the access codes to safe house 14-C. He turned them right over. As long as he's like this and he's alive, he's a risk."
P.S. The song Clint was singing was The Assumption Song by The Arrogant Worms.
Chapter 5: Grit Your Teeth
Mild warning: There's some more homophobic talk that's not particularly well-refuted by other characters, not because they agree, but because the character who would be doing the refuting is not very good with touchy social topics in general.
Also, just FYI, my normal pattern is about 60% banter and 40% angst, irregularly spread throughout the story. In other words, if you see a lot of angst, don't worry because banter is coming soon. If you see a lot of banter, angst shall return post-haste. If you see a lot of Banner, I would suggest that you run.
Lastly, a correction, The Assumption Song was actually by Vito Petroccitto Jr. Thanks to the eagle-eyed reader who pointed that out.
"You need a quick ride out of the city?" asked Tony. "Because you look fine to me."
Bruce shook his head, smirking shyly. "I'm not actually feeling green. I just thought it was the quickest way to break that fight up."
"Clever, clever. I knew I liked you." Tony chewed on the end of the pencil. "This is only going to work if we find a particle with 2.5 spin."
Bruce ignored science in favor of the problem at hand. "You take one, I take the other?"
"I don't know which conversation is worse."
Barton was in the stairwell, jogging up and down.
"Hey," said Bruce. He stood on the landing, one hand in the other. "So, um…that went really badly."
"Yeah, my next performance review is gonna be a blast. Agent Barton's written documentation continues to be delayed and substandard. Also, he punched Captain America in the face."
"Everyone's got a plan until…"
Clint chuckled. "You watch boxing?"
"Not really. I was never much into sports as a kid and once I grew up," he shook his head, "too violent."
Clint stopped halfway up the stairwell, turned back and sat down. "I know what you're going to say." He held up his hands in a 'stop' gesture. "Rogers is from the Dark Ages, doesn't know any better, he didn't mean anything by it."
Steve was standing out on the landing pad, feet shoulder width apart, hands clasped behind his back. Tony thought he looked very captain-y and very American.
When the door clicked shut, Steve spoke. "I really messed that one up, didn't I?"
Tony scratched the side of his nose. "Remember how we had that little conversation about not using the word Japs?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
"I-" Steve's hands dropped to his sides. "I obviously said something very hurtful, but I don't understand what the problem was."
"The problem is that you were talking like it would be great to cure him of being gay."
"Is that what it's called now?" Steve shook his head. "He's not the first person like that I've ever met, but I've always thought of it like epilepsy or manic depression. You treat those people with respect, you don't use it as an excuse to bully them, but they'd still be better off without it."
Tony sighed. "Yeah, that sounds sensible, except it's not. I would say it's like someone trying to cure you of being American, but I'm betting that isn't really going to sink in either. Look, I have no idea how to talk about these sorts of things. Not my style."
"Then why are you out here?"
"Because I chose heads and the coin came up tails."
Bruce was quiet for a moment. "How long have you guys known each other?"
Clint rolled his eyes up and to the left. "Jesus, it's almost ten years. Only been dating for three, though. He's the one who recruited me into SHIELD. First we were in different departments, then he was my handler, and then he was my 'handler'." Clint smirked. "Tasha always said it with a straight face unless she was really wasted. Then she thought it was hilarious."
"I'm just asking because I don't want to cause trouble for you. Did other people at SHIELD know, besides Natasha?"
"Some did, some didn't. SHIELD hasn't had a don't-ask-don't-tell policy for as long as I've been there. So, it wasn't exactly a secret. Fury knew. Phil insisted we tell him because it was a fraternization issue and if you looked in section whatever of the manual, blah blah blah." Clint popped his knuckles; Bruce winced at the sound. "Fury actually offered me bereavement leave. That's technically just supposed to be for spouses."
"And you didn't take it?"
"Would you? We weren't married. We hadn't even set a date yet. Doesn't seem right to pretend like things went further than they did."
Bruce sat down sideways, a few steps below.
Steve shifted his weight to his left foot and brought the right one closer. He was standing in something closer to a normal posture. "So men can get married now? To each other?"
"In some states, yup. I mean, they can have an informal ceremony wherever they want, but they only get the legal benefits in states that have a specific law."
"I just, I can't picture that. It doesn't make any sense to me. What side of the church do people sit on? Who changes their name?"
"Yeah, I don't even know where to go from there." Tony tipped his head to the side. "Let's try this. You like FDR, right? What if I told you FDR was gay?"
"He had kids!"
"So did Phil Coulson."
"FDR was…like that?"
"No, not that I know, but my point is, he could have been and doesn't that blow your mind?"
Steve sighed loudly.
"Okay, look at it this way. Men die younger than women, so arguably it's better to be female. Also, you get to have tits and that looks like a lot of fun. So how about I cure you of being male?"
"You can't change someone's sex."
"Actually, you can, but maybe that's a conversation for another day."
Steve's mouth open and shut several times.
Clint tilted his head back until he was looking straight up at the ceiling. "Everyone thinks I can't handle what happened with Loki, and that's bullshit." He paused. "Well, they're right, I guess, but for all the wrong reasons." He pulled the jump drive out of his pocket. "I've been putting this off. This will get me into all the medical records and then I can find out who survived, who died, who lost an arm."
"I always waited before finding out things like that," said Bruce. "It's overwhelming."
"Maybe to you, yeah, but you're a civilian. No offense." He glanced at Bruce. "This is what I do, it's my job and I'm good at it. And part of being good at it is splitting things up: this is today's problem, that's not; this was my mistake, that couldn't be helped." He took a long, slow breath. "That's what Phil was good at, helping you separate things and focus on what you have to do." Another long pause as Clint stretched his fingers. "One time, we were at this, I don't know, some kind of cult – I never pay attention in mission briefings – and the head guy, he had rigged up all these buildings with explosives, including the one he was in. He had a kill switch on him so if he pressed a button or he died, everything would blow, so I couldn't just go in there and shoot him. I have to keep an arrow trained on him and hold position. While a bunch of agents are running around trying to defuse the bombs, he calls all his wives and his kids into this room and he starts killing them one at a time, slitting their throats with a big hunting knife. He starts with the youngest, the babies and don't think I'm a terrible person when I say that wasn't as bad because babies cry all the time, so if you close your eyes, it's just a baby crying. But then he starts in on the little kids, the two- and three- and four-year-olds and it's just- You can hear their squeaky lispy little voices going 'Mama, mama, please, mama save me, mama, no, please' and I've got an arrow pointed right at him and I could kill him right there, but I've got Phil's voice in my ear telling me I just have to wait a little longer. When it was over, I swear to god I thought I would never sleep again. But I did. And that's because of Phil."
Bruce imagined waking up in his dingy little room in Brazil when he'd been dreaming about tanks firing at him or seeing the faces of the people the other guy had killed. He imagined how he had woken up alone and found himself feeling just a little bit jealous of Clint Barton.
"So now this thing happened and it's awful and I feel bad, but I could handle it, if Phil wasn't-" He stopped before finishing the sentence, took a breath, then tried again. "If Phil wasn't dead."
"I just want everything to stop changing! It's all these little, stupid things. Why don't men wear hats anymore? Soda pop comes in cans! Everybody's got these tiny music boxes that they swear are telephones! Yesterday, I saw a man with green hair in two spiky points, like horns! And now you're telling me that men can turn into women and women can turn into men and men can marry men and probably next you're going to tell me that women can marry dogs!"
"Yeah, don't make that comparison in front of Barton. I mean, do whatever you want, but you're probably going to get smacked again – which, I want to emphasize, was hilarious."
"Tony," said Steve, "one month ago, everyone I ever knew died, all at once. I just want the world to slow down for a little while and let me catch up."
"Look, I can't send you back in time because that would violate the laws of physics. We could theoretically slow time down, but of course, your personal time would also slow, so it wouldn't seem to be moving any slower from your perspective."
"Here's my point. You were being a real asshat in there and I strongly support that because you're too damn perfect all the time, but if you want to avoid being an asshat in the future, you have to act like it's 2012 and not 1940."
"It just doesn't seem like the sort of thing that would change over time."
"Okay, let's look at this differently. You and Barton are on the same team, you have something in common. You're both living in the past – he's an archer, for fuck's sake! So you guys should, like, stick together. Go Team Regression!"
Steve sighed again, but with a little less frustration. "They were really in love with each other?"
"How the hell should I know? But it would be a really weird thing for Barton to lie about."
Steve turned around to head back indoors. "I still don't quite understand, but I'll apologize."
"So how 'bout you?" Clint stretched backwards again. "Is there a Mrs. 'Roid Rage?"
Bruce shook his head. "A long time ago, but it…ah, it wasn't meant to be."
"That sucks, man. You'll find somebody, though. You're a doctor."
"I'm a not-that-kind-of-doctor," corrected Bruce. "But thanks."
Clint chuckled and got to his feet.
"And I wasn't," said Bruce, "I wasn't coming out here to tell you to cut Rogers some slack. I was coming out here to apologize for not speaking up sooner."
"I have, uh…" he held up the jump drive, "some work to do. See you tomorrow."
As a child, Thor had adored magic, had reveled in his brother's tricks and shows. Now, Thor distrusted magic and felt uneasy, even if it was his own mother casting the spell.
Frigga was weaving the Bifost back together, out of strings drawn from Mjolnir and Thor himself, from the Tesseract, and from Heimdall. He could see the threads, could smell them, but he could only feel them as a sort of itching urgency. He was required to remain still and silent, a task which had always come to him only with great difficulty, but he busied his mind with thoughts of Jane Foster, of returning to Midgard, and yes, perhaps, of seeing his brother once more.
Chapter 6: Stand on Your Own Two Feet
This is Bruce Banner.
He is 10 years old and he's the biggest kid on his block, now that Chase Parker and his family moved to Florida. Everybody knows that when Bruce's mom gives him money for ice cream, somebody will take it from him. He doesn't even try to fight back. He doesn't talk much and his family is really weird and he smells strange. He says he smells like ferrets, but that doesn't really make other kids like him any better. Not that they dislike him; there's nothing to dislike. He's not mean or annoying or a tattletale. He's just not much of anything, really.
It's summer and the kids are outside catching fireflies. Bruce likes bugs.
Some of the boys figure out that if you pull off the back end of the firefly, the part that glows, you can use it like glow-in-the-dark paint. They're putting spooky lines around their eyes and writing their names on the sidewalks.
Bruce says quietly, "Stop it. Stop killing them."
Everybody ignores him.
"Stop it!" yells Bruce, and all the kids look up. Nobody's ever heard Bruce yell before. "They're alive and you're killing them! What did they ever do to you?" Bruce wants to punch them and make them stop.
Charlie Miller catches another and looks Bruce right in the eye before squishing it between his palms.
"Stop it!" screams Bruce. Bruce wants to beat them up. He could do it, he's the biggest. He could give them all bloody noses and wreck their clothes and break the Dawson twins' glasses.
The other kids join in smashing the bugs. It's fun to watch Bruce twitch and sniffle and finally Jessica Lester yells out in her I'm-telling voice, "He's crying! Bruce is crying!"
And he is. His face is red and his shoulders are hunched and his chin is tucked down to his chest. He walks home ashamed and miserable and furious, his hands in fists at his sides.
Clint watched as the woman touched up her lipstick before rushing out the door. A night-shift nurse with a completely clean record - she wouldn't end up taking the rap for his use of her computer. He shot a grappling arrow and used his bow to zipline to the window sill across the alley. Then opening the window? The latch wasn't any real obstacle. Honestly, how did anyone manage to not get robbed blind in this city?
He grabbed a paper towel and wiped his feet off when he got inside – he wasn't a total ingrate – before grabbing an apple from the bowl on the kitchen counter and sitting down at the woman's computer to work.
He would start at the end of the alphabet and work his way back. Slightly fewer keystrokes that way, which meant he was less likely to be caught. And he wanted to know what happened to Vinicetti. He knew he shot her square in the eye. The arrow would have pierced her brain, which in his experience left her with about a 50/50 shot of dying outright versus being a vegetable.
Clint rebooted the computer in command line mode and started telnet. He wasn't really all that skilled with technology, but SHIELD had taught him most of what he needed to know. Tony's jump drive would do the rest.
"You're over-thinking this, Rogers." Tony stirred his scotch with his index finger.
"Okay, how about her?" Steve pointed to a woman on the screen. "Is she a hollaback girl?"
"Then I'm just confused."
It's Natasha who saw the problem with their plan. "There is a famous Cold War puzzle. Imagine a telepath has offered you a million dollars if you agree to drink this horribly painful, but non-lethal poison. You don't have to actually drink it, you just have to intend to drink it, and since he is a telepath, he will know. So you think, I will intend to drink it and change my mind at the last minute and thus get the money without suffering the poison, but that is not really intending to drink it, so no money. The crux of the problem is that intent is not something you can form and discard freely." She cocked her head to the side. "If Banner is willing to undergo a test of his involuntary transformation, then it's not really involuntary."
Clint rubbed his temples, the apple forgotten on the table beside him. Vinicetti was dead, that was good. They hadn't been close friends, but Clint knew her well enough to know that she wouldn't have wanted to live a brain-dead half-life. Some kid named Carlos Rescorla had died of an infection secondary to an arrow wound. Clint hadn't even known he had tagged him. He had shot the kid's supervisor, the arrow passed through, and apparently punctured Rescorla's gut deeply enough for him to kick off. The supervisor was alive, though, for now.
Jacob Perkins died quick. In retrospect, Clint knew that. It was a clean shot, right to the heart, and Clint had fired enough of those in his life to know they only ended one way. The SHIELD medical examiner estimated death in under a minute. Clint was glad. He hated Perkins, the snide Ivy-educated asshole who always treated Clint like an idiot and Natasha like a whore. Clint hated Perkins, so it would feel more like it was his fault if things had gone down with a lot of pain and suffering. He looked at the post-mortem photo, felt a little vindicated, and hated himself.
There were no O's, two N's, three M's. Clint made himself stop counting. He knew exactly what he was trying to avoid, why he was going through the alphabet backwards rather than forwards.
"Where is Barton?" asked Natasha.
"He went out last night," said Bruce. "Said he had some things to take care of." If Barton wasn't supposed to have access to those records, Bruce wasn't going to be the one to rat him out.
Steve briefly made a guilty face before looking serious again.
"Aw, cheer up." Tony patted Steve on the arm. "JARVIS," he said, "check the news and 911 records for any report of a liquor store being robbed at arrowpoint."
"No reports of such incident exist."
"See?" said Tony. "He's fine."
Natasha showed no particular reaction to this sequence of events. "We should be able to run the test without him."
Okay, Clint had gone from Z back to D, then circled around and looked at Anderson, Andres, and Callahan. The enormity of what he had done (of what Loki had done, it was Loki) felt like drowning. He tried to breathe in, but he couldn't seem to get enough air in his lungs.
He briefly considering rummaging through his unwitting hostess's liquor cabinet, but no, that was too much like something Stark would do.
This was bad. This was terrible, really. But thinking about it over and over – what did that son-of-a-bitch SHIELD psychologist used to call it? Ruminating, that's right – wasn't going to make it any better. Neither was delaying; the nurse would be home soon.
Clint Barton was going to make his way through the last of his list and then he was going to get back to work.
He called up Coulson's file.
Romanov brought the jet down in the usual spot. The landing was a little bumpy; she hadn't logged nearly as many hours on this model as Barton had.
"We need to be sure," she explained, "that the transformation is truly involuntary. Mr. Stark?" She made an open-palmed 'go ahead' gesture.
"Right," said Tony, voice tinny from within the Iron Man suit. He held up a portable hard drive. "This is all your data on tachyon stabilization of gamma radiation. I pulled it off your computer last night and erased your copies. If you transform within the next sixty minutes…" He dangled the drive in front of a repulsor which whirred threateningly.
"No! Not those experiments! It took me six years to pull together everything I needed to run that!"
Iron Man appeared perfectly passive and indifferent.
The hatch opened. "I'll give you a three, no…five minute head start," said Tony.
Bruce could do this. All he had to do was avoid Tony and the others and whatever horrors they had imagined for one hour and then they could find a way to examine this hypothesis without putting his tachyon data at risk.
All he had to do was run and hide. He was good at running and hiding. He had spent most of his adult life doing just that. Tony's suit probably had infrared, so he'd be hardest to spot if he kept to areas with wide temperature variations. He veered to the west, toward the hot spring they had found two tests ago. Coniferous forest meant few vines, mostly brambles and scrub pines. It would be harder to hide in the undergrowth. If he could find some reeds that were hollow and airtight, he could probably wait them out underwater. Could the suit function underwater?
Bruce saw a skunk nosing at some juniper berries and momentarily entertained the possibility of using it defensively, but no, this wasn't real danger and he wasn't going to start weaponizing small mammals.
He had just turned north to avoid a rocky outcropping that would provide no cover when he very nearly ran into Natasha.
"Agent…Romanov," he gasped. He was out of breath because he wasn't in particularly good shape. But just because she caught you, he reminded himself, doesn't mean she can make you transform. It's probably been ten minutes already, so you only have to endure fifty minutes of whatever she's got planned.
"Dr. Banner," she answered. She smiled as she reached into a pouch on the side of her combat suit and retrieved a heavy-duty syringe. "SHIELD would like a blood sample."
Bruce took a step back. "Oh, no no no. Last guy who had a sample of my blood had plans to make an army of monsters, and he was just crazy. I'd hate to see what military-industrial arrogance can-"
"I wasn't asking, Dr. Banner. You might possibly be able to out-sprint me in the short term, but I'll catch you as you tire. And you may be stronger than me, I don't know, but I don't think you'll hit a lady. I don't think you're that sort of man."
Bruce leaned further backwards, but there were thick fir branches in his way. She was right, damn it. She was right: he wasn't going to hit her, even if she could easily best him in a fight. He had too many inhibitions against the act to make it remotely useful.
"Give me your arm, doctor."
Had this been Romanov's plan all along? To corner him in the wilderness when a transformation was expected so there wouldn't be any questions, any mess to clean up?
She snatched at his shirt sleeve and he jerked his arm backward with a snarl.
There. He saw it. It only lasted a moment, but there was a flash of fear on her face.
He pushed her to the side and started to run, still going west toward the hot springs. Cover didn't matter so much now. He clambered over glacial till, painfully aware that knowing the proper name for it wasn't really going to improve his situation. Glacial till reminded him of geology which reminded him of terraforming which reminded him of Star Trek because a frustratingly high percentage of Bruce's trains of thought led to Star Trek if allowed to continue uninterrupted.
Star Trek made Bruce think of the Kobayashi Maru, the unbeatable test that Starfleet put its command trainees through to see how they handled failure. Captain Kirk beat the test…or at least, Kirk cheated and it sort of looked like he beat the test.
This is an unwinnable situation. Romanov must not be allowed to take the blood. Bruce was starting to trust some of these Avengers, but he didn't trust anyone with a tissue sample and he barely trusted SHIELD at all. But if he fought her, if he resisted, the other guy would come out angry and then she would really have something to be afraid of.
So cheat. Break the game. Do the one thing that's against the rules.
Bruce sat down on a boulder and took off his shoes just as he heard Natasha's footsteps closing in. He took a deep breath and relaxed as much as he could.
Natasha ducked into the clearing to see the Hulk crouching atop two enormous boulders. "LADY TRY NEEDLE NOW!" he roared and chuckled.
The flight back was quiet.
"Please tell me," said Bruce after over an hour in the air, "that you didn't really destroy the data."
"I might've," said Tony. He waited a beat before adding, "But I didn't."
"So do we have to do this again?" Bruce yawned. Transforming always exhausted him.
Rogers shook his head. "I don't think so. You transformed voluntarily at cost to yourself, to avoid possibly hurting someone by transforming involuntarily. I don't really know what more we could ask for."
Natasha's voice was broadcast back through the jet. "By the way, Dr. Banner, Clint would tell you that I most certainly do not count as a lady."
"And some people would say I don't count as a person," said Bruce. "I think we'll err on the side of caution."
"I think you count as a lady!" shouted Tony. "I think you count as two or three ladies! Speaking of which-"
Steve clamped a hand over his mouth.
When the jet touched down outside of Stark Tower, they were in a celebratory mood, dampened only slightly by Tony's realization that only 50% of their contingent drank.
"You can't get drunk at all? Or does it just wear off really quickly? I'm sure we can fix this. This is a top priority, Rogers," said Tony as he walked inside.
"I'd be happy to run some liver enzyme tests," chimed in Bruce.
The three men's chatter slowed to a stop as they realized that Natasha was standing stock-still in the doorway. They looked back at her, then followed her gaze up to the ceiling.
Clint Barton was wedged against a lighting fixture, an arrow trained right on Romanov. "When were you going to tell me, Nat? Before or after the killed him?" There was a click as Tony reached for his bracers. Clint took his eyes off his target for only a moment as he roared wordlessly at Tony, before he turned back to face Natasha. "When were you going to tell me that Phil Coulson is alive?"
If anyone is curious, Natasha is referencing Kavka's Toxin Puzzle and it's kind of a mindfuck if you think about it for too long. Why does Natasha know this bit of philo-sophistry? I'm guessing that she saw the title of the paper and mistakenly thought it would provide her with new information about poisons.
Chapter 7: Hold Your Breath
Everyone in the room froze.
Banner was the first to speak. "I knew we couldn't trust SHIELD."
Natasha didn't move a muscle as she answered, "Barton is manipulating you. I'm not sure why. Perhaps to turn you against SHIELD. Perhaps to goad you into attacking SHIELD so they have an excuse to imprison you."
"How the fuck am I manipulating them?" hissed Clint from the ceiling. "You're the one who's had Phil Coulson alive and decided not to tell anyone."
Natasha didn't answer Clint at all. Instead, she said, "Barton's accusation is based on SHIELD data which he claims to have viewed, conveniently far away from any witnesses. I'm sure now he'll offer to show his findings, but – again, conveniently – the access codes will no longer work."
Bruce shook his head. "He didn't leave last night to be secretive, he left because-"
Natasha interrupted him, "Because he had a fight with Captain Rogers? Hm, no. He quite obviously intentionally picked a fight with the Captain to give himself an excuse to leave and plan. Think about it. Dr. Banner has told us his parents were hippies. The child of such parents will either be quite liberal, like them, or rebel and become extremely conservative, but Banner's told us that he listens to Glen Beck to anger himself, so it's obviously option A. Mr. Stark is fiscally conservative insofar as he doesn't like to pay his taxes, but his libertine philosophy of sex is well known. And then there is Steve Rogers, who comes from an era in which Marilyn Monroe's thigh was considered risqué. If he were really looking for support or sympathy, his choice was exceedingly poor."
"That's your argument?" shouted Clint indignantly. "That's the kind of crazy plan that you come up with, not me! I don't plan that far ahead. Just because everyone's political leanings are obvious to you doesn't mean that somebody like me can-"
"Hang on," said Tony, looking up at Clint, "you're saying we should trust you because you're too stupid to deceive us?"
"Yes! That's exactly what I'm saying! She's trying to distract you!"
"But why did you bring that up with me?" asked Steve, straightforward, a genuine question that had frankly been on his mind. Barton's statement the previous night had seemed to come out of nowhere and Natasha made a good, if vaguely insulting, point.
Clint exhaled through bare teeth, but otherwise remained perfectly still, arrow still cocked at the ready. "His funeral was today," he said low voice, "Phil's funeral. And I wanted to attend, but his family, they're not-. I figured if I could convince you to go with me, who would say no to Captain America, right? I didn't want to make a scene, I just wanted to be there, okay? Now you know and knowing is half the battle or whatever." He huffed, embarrassed and angry.
"You couldn't go to-" Steve began, but Bruce cut him off with a gesture and a look that promised to explain later.
"If he's alive," said Bruce, "then what was buried at the funeral?"
"Easy," answered Clint, "SHIELD agents are always cremated so no one can steal our biomarkers. Ashes all look the same."
"It's not that I don't love a good game of he-said/she-said/Blade-wannabe-airship-commando-said," Tony paused to give everyone in the room a moment to realize that the last clause referred to Nick Fury, "but I want Thai food for dinner and it's going to be really awkward for the delivery guy if he walks into the middle of a standoff."
"Stark is right," said Steve, eyes briefly widening in surprise at his agreement before they narrowed and he looked serious again. "This isn't how we're going to argue. Agent Romanov, Agent Barton, disarm yourselves."
Clint laxed his bow as Natasha placed both of her guns on the floor, but he held back from returning his arrow to the quiver. "All of it, Nat," he said.
Romanov sighed, then produced another gun, three knives, and what appeared to be a miniaturized taser.
"Where did you keep all that?" asked Tony. "Did you have a knife in your hair? How would that even work? I'm terrified but oddly aroused."
Steve glared. "Stark, could you focus on the problem at hand and stop thinking with your dick for one minute?"
"I happen to have an extraordinarily intelligent dick," answered Tony smugly.
Clint hooked his bow over his shoulder and dropped down from the lighting fixture. He sounded miserable and exhausted. "Why are you trying to play both sides? Are you really going to try to string me out here?"
When a strategy stopped working, Natasha abandoned it. It would have been best if she could have isolated Clint from the others; it would be hard enough convincing him to behave rationally without throwing Banner's paranoia, Stark's rebellion at all authority, and Rogers' deep-set misunderstanding of modern medicine into the mix. But she clearly wasn't succeeding in convincing the others to shy away from Clint, so she switched to friendship and honesty – not often the best policy, but she wasn't so hardened as to rule it out as a matter of course. "It's been almost a year," she answered Clint with a blasé smile, "we were due for some light betrayal." Then she let her eyes fall just a fraction of an inch. "And I was trying to protect you."
"From what?" Clint spat.
"He's not alive, Clint," she whispered. "It's just his body. He's stuck under. He's not Phil. And yes," she breathed sadly, "we've discussed destroying the body, but not until every feasible solution has been tried."
"Under," said Bruce. "What exactly do you mean, 'under'?"
"Under Loki's spell," answered Clint. His face was blank and his eyes were unfocused. "He was stabbed through the heart with the staff, it must have…Nat, I've got to see him."
"He's being kept on the detention level, which you can't access now that they've kicked down your security clearance. What if there's still some influence over you that could get information from him?"
"Doesn't anybody trust anybody around here?" Steve ran his fingers through his hair.
"It's a practical question." Natasha furrowed her brow at Clint. "How are you going to get into there without security clearance?"
"I'll…" He rolled his eyes from side to side as he tried to think of an idea. "I'll slap handcuffs on you and say I've taken you prisoner. People would believe it," he added just a bit meanly.
"Barton," she sighed, "you have got to stop basing your plans off something you saw in Star Wars."
"That ewok thing would have worked if you hadn't stopped me." Clint pouted, which was arguably an improvement over the unfocused expression of grief he had worn a few moments earlier.
"Mr. Stark," interrupted Jarvis, "there is a phone call for you from Dr. Jane Foster's line."
Tony glanced at everyone in the room and decided they could use the interruption. "Put her through."
"GREETINGS, MY METAL-ENCRUSTED BROTHER-IN-ARMS! I HAVE RETURNED TO THINE REALM ONCE MORE!"
Tony Stark could hardly recall ever having enjoyed Thai food less. Thor's phone call was okay, if only because Thor had apparently reached the conclusion that they were all miniaturized and residing in Jane's phone. He had also assumed that since they were many miles away, he would have to shout at the top of his lungs, but honestly, that wasn't much of a change from his usual volume.
Once they'd finished talking, though, and Thor had promised to visit them soon in the mighty city of York – "It's New York, buddy." – they were back where they'd been only moments ago, in an uncomfortable stalemate.
Barton was standing off to the side, standing perfectly still save for occasional blinking. He'd been silent ever since he'd been grudgingly convinced not to storm the battlements. Natasha was explaining what was known about the situation, what had already been tried and ruled out as a solution.
"He was examined yesterday by a telepath named Ruth Aldine – trained at Xavier's, but not by him. They finally got her security clearances through. She reported that there was certainly information in Coulson's mind, information that only Coulson was likely to know, but there was no organizing principle, no sense of self, no desires or beliefs."
"Like a hard drive with no operating system," mused Tony. "And you've already tried rebooting him, so you need to reinstall…" He stuffed a forkful of noodles into his mouth.
Bruce had deliberately chosen a seat as far from Natasha as possible, closer to the door than she was. Given this evening's events, he was nursing a worry that her attempts to draw his blood this morning hadn't just been for show.
"And now that Thor has returned," said Natasha, "we'll contact him. He may know something about the nature of the enchantment."
"And then you're out of ideas," said Clint. He was holding a plate of food, but he hadn't eaten any. This was magic; it didn't play by logic, but Clint knew that Phil couldn't be maintained in this state indefinitely. So once they were out of ideas… He stabbed at some sort of yellowish-green vegetable.
They lapsed into silence.
Steve suddenly looked at Clint and said, "Doesn't it bother you that she," he tipped his head back at Natasha, "just tried to convince us that you were some kind of double agent?"
Clint shrugged. "Not really. That's her thing."
"I thought the two of you have worked together before, though," said Steve.
"How can you fight alongside someone you don't trust?"
"It ain't like that," said Clint. "You're from the army. They train you to rely on each other, watch each other's backs, a band-of-brothers kind of thing. SHIELD's different, at least the black ops part is. We have our assignments and we work to accomplish them, but we might not have the same goals. We might even be working at cross-purposes." He shrugged again. "I trust that Tasha wouldn't kill me without a really good reason. Beyond that, it'd just be wishful thinking."
"We can't function like that," said Steve. "We're supposed to be a team. It has to be based on more than just agreeing to not kill each other."
"It'd be a step up for me," said Bruce. "If I could stick with a group of people and be sure they weren't trying to kill me, I'd be pretty happy with that."
"Here, here!" Tony hoisted his beer in a toast.
Steve thought back to Tony's file, how his close family friend had hired a group of terrorists to kill him, and to Bruce's file, how he'd been hunted across four continents. He rubbed his thumb in circles over the tip of his index finger, as he often did when he was thinking. "No," he said finally. "No, we can't operate that way."
"We barely know each other," pointed out Natasha. "What exactly are you hoping for?"
"It's not immediate," answered Steve. "It can't be and it shouldn't be. But we can't just settle for the bare minimum. We don't know each other; we should try to learn. This doesn't work unless we trust each other as people, not just as vaguely reliable combat machines."
Steve's jaw jutted forward and he looked so perfectly, disgustingly All-American that Tony suppressed a burp and said, "So, is it true that you piss amber waves of grain? Because that always sounded really uncomfortable, like patriotic gonorrhea."
Bruce munched on his bean sprouts thoughtfully. "What exactly are you suggesting, Rogers?"
"I don't know," said Steve, "but I think everyone in this room could use a few friends."
"Thank you, Captain After-School Special," said Tony. "I couldn't agree more. I think we should start with friendship bracelets and make t-shirts and then have sleepovers and braid each other's hair – hey, Thor got back from Asgard just in time; he's got some pretty elaborate coiffage up there."
"Okay, Thor," said Darcy, "now you give it a try." She was supposed to entertain the Asgardian while Jane ensured that data from his arrival portal was compiling correctly.
"Knock knock," said Thor, in a deep, stentorian timbre.
"Who's there?" asked Darcy patiently.
"THOR! GOD OF THUNDER!"
"No, Thor, see, it's not supposed to be your name. It's supposed to be a joke." Darcy smiled. Jane really needed to stock up on tequila. "Try it again."
Thor's eyes narrowed in thought. "Knock knock."
"Volstagg the Voluminous!"
"Okay, at least it wasn't your name, but it's supposed to be a joke."
"Volstagg tells many jokes!"
"Here," said Darcy, "have more liquor."
Chapter 8: Lick Your Lips
Steve awoke with his obligatory Holy-smokes-it's-the-future startle, but he was getting over it faster and faster each day. Today it was only a minute or two, and it might have even been shorter if he hadn't triggered JARVIS's morning information routine. It's just a computer, he reminded himself, and a computer's just like a radio and a library mixed together.
They had all stayed the night at Stark's. Bruce was officially moving into one of the extra bedrooms downstairs, since he really didn't have another place to go and it would be more convenient for his experiments. Natasha and Clint had opted to temporarily stay off the Helicarrier, so they could avoid trouble until they had a plan for dealing with it. Stark just told them not to fuck with his security system and instructed a giant metal arm to fetch them, "towels and whatever."
Steve found spending time with Stark to be exhausting. Steve found spending time in Stark Tower to be exhausting. Tony himself was the man of the future, shiny and fast and new and expensive and he actually had a neon light in his body for Pete's sake. And Stark Tower was just as new, so nothing was familiar. None of his lights had switches – they either turned on and off whenever they saw fit, or you had to tell them what you wanted them to do. You could never tell when the floors or walls or ceilings were going to open up and some new screen or machine or whatever else would come whirring on out. And then there was that JARVIS. Sometimes Steve thought he was alone in a hallway and said something softly to himself, only to have a disembodied British voice comment on his thoughts.
And yet, when it came time to leave last night, Steve found himself dreading sitting alone in the quiet of his little apartment in Brooklyn. So he asked Tony, "Mind if I…" and gestured down the hallway, a bit sheepish and ready to give an alternate explanation for his vague question if Tony gave him any trouble about it, but Tony just shrugged, said, "Knock yourself out," and took a very long sip of his whiskey.
"I do not require such conveyance!" boomed Thor, frowning at the airplane.
"I know," said Jane, "but the FAA doesn't really have a way to log the flight plan of someone throwing a hammer really, really hard."
"Bring me this FAA, that I may convince them of Mjolnir's aviational might and safety!"
Clint had nearly opened every drawer and cabinet in Tony's kitchen. Nothing was where it ought to have been and all he wanted was some goddamn breakfast. Why was the salt in the refrigerator? Wasn't the whole point of salt to cut down on the need for refrigerators? And the presence of liquor bottles in a myriad of out-of-the-way places told him everything he needed to know about Tony's drinking habit: anyone who bothers to hide booze 50 feet away from a fully stocked in-home bar has a problem.
Clint was just about to celebrate finding what he was fairly certain was baking soda when Rogers walked in. Oh goody.
"You're an early riser," commented Rogers.
Technically I'm a not-sleeper, thought Clint, but he just shrugged and cracked an egg into a coffee mug.
"I'm usually the first one up," said Steve, "in most groups I've been in."
"Actually, Bruce was in here half an hour ago looking for tea, but he went back to his room to meditate."
"What are you making?" asked Rogers, with the uneven squinty look of someone who wasn't quite sure what he was seeing.
"What's a mugcake?"
"It's cake, in a mug. Want one? I've already got all the stuff out."
"You're having cake for breakfast?"
"Sure, go ahead and judge my breakfast, too," muttered Clint before waving a hand dismissively. "Never mind. Do you want one or not?"
"Yeah, why not? I like cake."
Clint fixed up a second mug, identical to the first and then put both in the microwave. He leaned back against the kitchen counter while idly balancing a spoon across his knuckles.
"I want to say that I'm sorry," began Steve, "for the things I said before. I didn't have all the information and I should have been more careful."
"Is this some kind of team-building thing?"
"It's an apology."
The microwave beeped and Clint took out the mugs. "Let it cool before you eat it," he said. "And I guess I'm sorry about punching you. I don't normally have a real bad temper, but…" He shrugged. "You want chocolate syrup?"
"Not at this hour."
"Can I ask you a few questions?" Steve gingerly poked at the surface of the mugcake with his fork.
"Can't really stop you."
"If I say something offensive, will you let me know?"
"You mean, will I let you know with words? Yeah, why the hell not. I've been thinking about graduating kindergarten one of these days."
Steve half-smiled. "I think what I really wanted to know was, if Agent Coulson was…is that way, why does he have a daughter?"
"Well, some guys, they try to make it work, see if they can force themselves to be straight. He had the kid in high school, a dumb mistake. But she was raised by her mother's sister and Phil kept in touch with her. She's a good egg, a little flighty, but she's a nice kid."
"You ever try that?"
"What, being straight? No. I knew what I was and that was that."
"Why didn't-" Steve stopped himself, unable to think of a phrasing for the question that was inoffensive.
His meaning must have been plain though, because Barton answered him. "Because Phil had a lot more to lose than I did. We came from different walks of life. He was up for scholarships to top colleges, he was an athlete, he had a family, people respected him."
"But you both, you've always been this way? Or did it just happen sometime?"
"Nah, that's not how it works." Clint took a big bite of his cake and talked through the crumbs. "It's too bad you can't talk to Phil about it. He was always way better at explaining this crap than I was. But he always said he knew he wasn't quite normal, from the time he was a little kid. He doesn't always look it, but Phil's a tough guy, so it wasn't like he was real girly or anything, he just said that when he watched the Prince kiss the Princess in Cinderella, he just knew that wasn't in the cards for him."
"It was the same way for you?"
"Nah, when I was a kid, there was no way I was going to sit still long enough to watch Cinderella. I didn't worry about princes and princesses; I spent most of my time running around pretending to be Godzilla."
"Giant lizard. Usually ends up destroying Tokyo. Sometimes hangs out with Mothra."
"Giant moth. Usually ends up destroying Tokyo."
"I see." Steve had the squinty look again. He was running his finger along the inside of the mug to dredge up cake crumbs to eat. "Does it bother you, being this way?"
"Just say 'gay', man. It's not like saying Voldemort."
Steve had no idea who or what 'Voldemort' was, but he pressed on. "Does it bother you to be gay?"
"Nope. Maybe a little when I was younger and couldn't defend myself, cause you'd hear these stories about gay guys getting knocked around, and it sort of pissed me off that I had to be in that category. I figured I had enough on my plate. After a while, I figured that it didn't bother me to be gay, not really. It bothered me that other people were assholes and that was something else entirely."
"People being assholes," echoed Steve. "Is that why they wouldn't let you attend his funeral?"
"Yeah, Phil's family were always the we-love-you-but-we'll-pray-for-you types, meaning they didn't try to have an exorcism or anything, but they used to send him these brochures for therapists to try and make him straight."
"Does that work?"
"Who cares? If he went straight, he wouldn't have gone out with me, and think of what a tragic loss that would've been in his life."
Steve laughed very softly then furrowed his brow in a serious expression. "If there's any way at all to bring him back, we'll find it."
Clint stared off into the distance for a moment, then pressed his thumb and forefinger to his brow. His expression was unreadable, but he shook it off. "Grab the cherries out of the fridge, would you? I'm going to see if I can make mugpie."
"Good morning, Pepper," Tony smarmed into the phone. "I don't like this bed."
"Well I do like it, so you're not getting a new one."
"Oh!" he said in a eureka tone of voice. "That's what's wrong with the bed! No Pepper."
"I miss you too."
"Have I mentioned how beautiful you are?"
"Oh god, what have you done?"
"I didn't do anything! It's just, remember when the tower was being built and you kept asking why we needed all that space and what would we ever use it for and I think I may have solved that problem."
"Tony…" said Pepper in her 'warning' voice.
"No, really, it's a good idea. It's a very good idea, which shouldn't really surprise you because I have a lot of very good ideas. I just think we should invite some people to come live with us. Some Avengers, which will be handy if there's anything around the house that needs avenging. Remember, it was just last month that you were complaining that we were falling behind on our vengeance."
"Tony, remember how we had that discussion about the difference between real conversations and ones you imagine? And how imaginary conversations can't be used in arguments?"
"Oh, come on, it could be a lot worse. I didn't invite any strippers, or any unstoppable forces of destruction. Well, one unstoppable force of destruction, but he's only that way occasionally, so if you round down-"
"My flight is leaving. I have to turn off my phone now."
"I love you."
"Love you too."
They were eating dinner on the tower landing pad.
"One time," said Steve, all of a sudden, "I gave a fella a bloody nose in the back of a church."
"Was it Hitler?" asked Tony. "Because it doesn't count if it was Hitler."
"It wasn't Hitler," said Steve.
"Well come on then, out with it," said Tony. "Enquiring minds want to know."
"I'll trade," said Steve, "my story for one from each of you."
"Now this is definitely team building," said Clint through a mouthful of reheated Thai food.
"It has to be a story about something a little bad, and not something that's public knowledge."
"Clint should go first," said Natasha with a smirk. "He has a literal embarrassment of choices."
"Stark should go first," answered Clint.
"Hmm, there was the time when I accidentally violated the US embargo on Cuba," Tony mused, "but before I go any further, let me ask, is it a crime to pilot a boat while drunk?"
"Yes," answered four voices simultaneously.
"Well, then that's all I'm going to say on the matter."
"I've got one," said Bruce softly. "It's probably not as exciting as anything you all have done, but…" He trailed off and waited for them to wave him on. "Well, I was a senior in high school, and no one could think of what to do for a senior prank, so they asked me if I could build them something or…I'm not really sure what they were expecting. Anyways, there's a classic prank where you fill little Dixie cups with water and you put them on the floor in a grid, tightly packed enough that no one can walk through without tipping them over. I did something like that, but in a smaller area. I used the staircase landings, because they were better ventilated. I used vinegar instead of water and I dusted the floor with baking soda, so when someone kicked over a cup, the floor started to hiss and bubble. Everyone panicked. It was pretty funny."
Tony clapped Bruce on the back. "See, see, I knew you had it in you. That is some grade A material, my friend."
Clint glanced at Natasha. "How about you tell the thing with the Belarussian prime minister? That was funny."
"He didn't think so." Natasha raised an eyebrow, but Clint stared her down. "Oh, all right," she sighed. "There are many ways to influence people, the most obvious being threats and bribery, but sometimes it's best not to be obvious. We were undercover at a summit and we needed access to a certain set of rooms, so I had to compromise one of the delegates. I'm not entirely sure why Clint finds this so hilarious, but I deceived the prime minister of Belarus into believing that his driver had run over my dog."
"Please tell me you didn't kill a dog just for this plan," said Bruce.
"No, the city animal control organization had no shortage of both live and dead dogs."
"That's not the funny part," complained Clint. "The funny part was how you walked around the conference for two days with this horrible yippy dog, sweet talking it and calling it Cutie-poo."
"Agent Barton has difficulty with the concept of 'undercover'," said Natasha to the group, before turning to her right. "Clint, why don't you tell them about the time you met Ronald Reagan?"
"The actor?" asked Steve.
"No, the ex-president," said Clint.
"You're talking about the same person," said Natasha.
"He was president?" asked Steve at the same time Clint asked, "He was an actor?"
"Uh, anyway," said Clint, "he was apparently with a group of politicians who were touring the new SHIELD facility and no one sent me the stay-out-of-the-way memo. So I was walking along carrying a bunch of new arrows from R&D and some jerkoff opens a door right into my face. And I may have called said jerkoff a 'pigfucker'. And the Secret Service may have detained me for four fucking hours which I still say was completely unjustified."
Clint looked sulky. The others snickered.
"All right, Captain Boy Scout, that's everybody. I want to hear how you ended up having fisticuffs in a church. Was it because of a dame? A dame with gams?" Tony was determined to use every bit of slang he had ever read in old-school Dick Tracy comics.
"Not really," said Steve. "I was about fourteen. I had this friend, Bucky, and it was Friday night and we were going to a dance hall. Do they still have those?"
"No, I'm sorry, all dancing has been banned since 1973," said Tony solemnly. Bruce hit him.
"Bucky wanted to bring cigarettes even though he didn't smoke, because he thought it would be a good way to strike up a conversation with a dame, offer her a cigarette. Problem was, neither of us had any money. So his plan was to go by this construction site and steal one cigarette each from all the workers' pails, thinking they would never notice." Steve made a tolerant, doubtful sort of face.
"Long story short," continued Steve with a nostalgic grin, "they noticed. In particular, this huge Italian fella noticed and he came running after us with a big riveting wrench, so we pried up the grate and shimmied into the sewers, figuring he would never fit. And he didn't. But what he did was wait right next to the grate telling us what we had in store when we came out. We knew Brooklyn really well, and the sewers pretty much followed the streets, so we decided we would walk a few blocks down and climb back up there, but it was dark and we must have made a wrong turn, because we came out one grate down from the Italian fella, right in front of a church. We ran inside thinking he wouldn't dare follow us, but it turns out that a man who will leave his job to chase teenagers with a wrench isn't exactly respectful of holy ground. Bucky was busy trying to figure if we could lock him in somehow while the man was getting ready to take a swing at him with the wrench. I had to do something, so I took a candle-holder and smacked him in the face with it. We ran and hid while he was stumbling around. And that's the end of the story."
"Stealing mind-altering substances for the purpose of getting tail? Assault with a sanctified weapon? I approve of these new developments, Rogers." Tony nodded in an avuncular manner.
Steve blushed just a little. Everyone sat in silence for a moment before Clint wandered inside to get another beer.
The elevator whirred.
"My shieldbretheren! It is good to see you gathered together once more, under circumstances more auspicious than those which precipitated our prior assemblage!"
Chapter 9: Twist Your Neck
Four Months Ago
Phil jostled Clint's shoulder. "Wake up," he whispered. There was no need to be forceful; Clint was a light sleeper. "It's time for your meds."
Clint yawned. "You didn't have to get up. I set an alarm for myself."
"Yeah," Phil smiled affectionately, "but I know you hate self-injecting." Although with Barton on a dosing schedule of 5.5mg every four hours for the next two weeks, he was going to have plenty of opportunity to get used to it.
Clint turned on the bedside lamp and promptly sneezed.
"Are you all right? Do you need to go back to Medical?"
"I'm fine. Photic sneeze reflex."
"There's a new excuse. Where'd you pick that up?"
"I looked it up since you get all antsy every time I come back from an op with the sniffles."
"You've had run-ins with more infectious agents than pretty much anyone I've ever met. And you have bad luck with diseases – case in point, you just managed to get yourself exposed to malaria while in Belgium."
"Stupid bodyguard bled on me," muttered Clint grumpily.
Phil prepped the needle and cleaned the injection site. It was already looking bruised and brackish from repeated use.
"Why can't I get one of the cool diseases?" asked Clint. "What about the one that makes your balls enormous?"
"Elephantaisis? You don't want that. If it targets your testicles, they could grow to be up to a meter in diameter."
Phil injected the drug. "And I like your balls the way they are now."
"There you go sweet talking me again."
Phil tossed the needle in the trash before rolling over on top of Clint and kissing his neck.
"Are you sure it's okay?" asked Clint. "I don't want to get you sick."
"I asked Janine in Medical. She said transmission was very unlikely, but we should use condoms just to be safe until you have two clean blood smears in a row."
Janine was one of SHIELD's three infectious disease specialists and the one who worked with Clint most often, possibly because she was most willing to tolerate his reluctant (read: childish) patient routine. She was also at least eighty years old.
Clint pulled the covers up over the bottom half of his face. "Janine? How could you look Janine in the eye and ask her that?"
Phil shrugged. "I looked her in the eye and asked her."
Clint shuddered before softening and wrapping his arms around Phil. "Well," he said, "since we have to use condoms, how about we get the glow-in-the-dark kind and have a lightsaber battle with our penises?"
Phil laughed. "Save it for your birthday, Skywalker."
After exchanging greetings and crushingly strong handshakes, they explained the situation to Thor, Clint standing back from the group, silent and unreadable.
Natasha gave a concise summary. "It appears that whatever magic was used to mind-control others has permanently affected him. SHIELD is speculating that it's because he was run through the heart rather than tapped on the chest, but we don't know for certain. We were hoping you would know how to reverse the effects."
"I am overjoyed that the Son of Coul yet lives, but I fear there is no way the enchantment can be broken."
"Has Loki ever used magic like this before?" asked Bruce.
"Nay. His sorcery was most developed in the domain of illusions. He would sometimes cloud the minds of our enemies or convince them to take unwise action by making them believe a falsehood, but I have never before seen him create," Thor paused and searched for an appropriate word, "flying monkeys, as your people would say."
Clint looked confused.
"So, process of elimination," said Bruce. "That tells us that the mind-control magic was in the staff, not in Loki."
"I am sure you are quite wise in this world, friend Banner, but you misunderstand magic. Both the making and the breaking of a curse require a conscious being."
Tony pursed his lips. "Can it be anyone who does magic? 'Cause I've got David Copperfield on speed dial."
The others ignored him.
"The one who made the curse must unmake it, which is why your task is impossible. Loki has been banished by my father Odin to the Isle of Silence. He is not to be retrieved and mighty as you are, you cannot hope to oppose the Allfather."
"What if we went to Loki? Can we go to this Isle of Silence place?" asked Clint.
"It can be accessed via Bifrost, but only with Heimdall's guidance, and he would not defy Odin's wishes to aid a plot such as this."
"I talked a little to Jane Foster," said Bruce, "and she's pretty sure that what you're calling Bifrost is a wormhole. I've been looking over her notes and I think it might be controllable with our technology, if we had a sufficient power source." He glanced back at Tony.
"This is not wise," said Thor. "I dearly long to see my brother again but he is indeed dangerous. You would need the item of curse – the staff – as well, and of course, the Son of Coul."
"SHIELD has the staff," said Natasha, "but they certainly won't let us bring it to Loki." Her eyes flicked to the left, stealing a glance at Clint. "And they're right. It's too risky. Coulson wouldn't want us to put everyone in danger for a chance at saving him."
"And even if we had all three – the staff, Loki, and the Son of Coul – in one place, to break the curse would either require Loki's willingness to act in our aid, or the efforts of a powerful magic user." Thor furrowed his brow in consternation. "I am sorry, my friends, that I could not arrive with better news."
Bruce was sitting on a swiveling chair between three separate computer screens. One displayed a featureless grid of numbers. The second displayed a model of what looked like a doughnut turning into a coffee cup and back again repeatedly. The third was covered in endlessly changing graphs. Bruce seemed to be manipulating them with his fingers even though he wasn't actually touching the screens.
Steve watched for a few minutes without saying anything. Sometimes watching was the best way to learn.
Bruce stopped paying attention to the screens and started muttering to himself about 'spin' while pivoting back and forth in the chair.
"What's 'spin'?" asked Steve.
Bruce looked momentarily startled. "It's a property of…um, quarks, which are – they're smaller than atoms. They're pieces of atoms. In the macro world, we'd talk about rotational symmetry – how far you have to turn something before it looks the same again. Like, you'd have to turn a person 360 degrees, but you'd only have to turn a Pop-Tart 180 degrees." Upon Thor's arrival, Tony had immediately produced a sizable secret stash of Pop-Tarts, so they were all now intimately familiar with toaster pastries.
"So it has to do with their shape?"
"No, they don't really have shapes. Or sizes. Some quarks, you have to spin them around one-and-a-half times before they would look the same, and there's nothing like that in the macro world. And really, it's all a metaphor."
"Is this going to help you find the Isle of Silence?"
Bruce looked down and to the left. "It…might." He sounded a little like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Bruce looked surprised.
"We don't leave men behind," said Steve.
Bruce suddenly enlarged one of the graphs, inspected it for a moment, then shrunk it back to down to its previous size. "False alarm," he explained. He turned back to Steve. "I heard you talking to Barton this morning."
"Yeah," said Steve. "I'm still not completely…comfortable with the idea, but I- What he said about not being able to go to the funeral…I missed a lot of funerals, a lot of people I didn't get to say goodbye to."
"So you feel bad about that," acknowledged Bruce, "and I heard Fury manipulated you with Coulson's hero worship." He paused. "I think we should do this if there's a reasonable way, but if you want some free advice, Captain, guilt isn't going to help you make good decisions."
"I know you think you're making sense, but you're not," said Tony, "at all."
"It is a simple matter," answered Thor. "If I set Mjolnir upon the ground, none but Thor Odinson may lift it."
"What if I killed you and made a glove with your skin?" asked Tony, before chanting, "It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again."
"Such an attempt would not succeed."
"Okay, if you put it on the floor, it doesn't fall through the floor, right?"
"That is correct."
"What if you put it on something that couldn't bear the weight, like a spiderweb or edible underwear?"
"It would fall through the weaker object and rest solidly upon the ground."
"Okay, now imagine this. What if you put your hammer on a stack of paper, then I gripped the handle, then we set the paper on fire. The hammer would normally fall to the ground, right? But I'm holding it. Since I didn't lift it, that should work, right?"
"Why would you set the paper on fire? What is upon this paper that offends you so?"
"Forget about the paper, it's not important. The point is that your tech operates on logically inconsistent rules."
"The rule of the Allfather is harsh, but just."
"Yeah, that's lovely. What if we suspended the hammer a few inches across the ground with a repulsor blast? And what if we greased it?"
"You are a worthy ally, Anthony, but I believe I must ask that you stay far removed from Mjolnir."
Clint was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the room Tony had set aside for him.
"Barton," said Natasha from the doorway.
"Remember the part where you owe me?" His teeth remained tightly clenched as he spoke.
"I don't owe you the safety of everyone on this planet."
"You don't care about the safety of everyone on this planet." It was a statement of fact, not an accusation.
"That's true," she said, "but you do, and Phil did."
"He's dead; he doesn't get a vote," said Clint, voice flat and eyes unfocused.
"Promise me you're not going to do anything stupid."
Clint said nothing.
Natasha turned to leave.
"He admired you," said Clint, "admired how you changed, what you've become."
Natasha wasn't sure what to say to that.
"You want to know the stupidest thing in the world?" asked Clint.
"Loki comes out of the portal, we're all fighting him and he comes up and grabs my hand and he's much stronger than he looks. Then he holds up that staff and he says 'You have heart' and he goes to tap my chest with it. And in the second between him saying that and the staff touching me, I thought, 'Oh shit, I'm about to lose a fight with Captain Planet'." He gave a soft, self-deprecating laugh. "And hell, you probably don't even know who Captain Planet is, but I promise you, it's ridiculous." He shook his head. "I can't swear I won't do anything stupid. Stupid's kind of my MO. But I'll warn you first, okay?"
Natasha smiled warmly, quite certain that Clint was lying.
Chapter 10: Avert Your Eyes
"Did you ever memorize…I mean, how many digits of pi do you know?" Bruce grinned shyly, as if this were a secret sort of question and he was delighted to finally have someone to ask.
"Oh, I don't know. Ten. Maybe twenty? That's good enough for engineering precision on a wheel the size of the earth. I fully intend to build an installation at least the size of Jupiter eventually, but until I really embark on that project, I'll be satisfied with what I've got." Tony was tossing a wrench back and forth from hand to hand. "You know a hundred, don't you?"
"Five hundred," said Bruce, now looking sheepish. "In my defense, I've had a lot of free time when I was on the run. And it's sort of meditative."
"I never liked pi," said Tony with a grand, authoritative gaze. "Simple geometry. Too plebian. I'm more of an unfathomable infinities, set of all sets kind of guy."
Bruce laughed. "You know what I always loved when I was a kid? The Ackermann function sequence. It goes one, four, uncountably huge. That always cracked me up."
"You know what sequence I loved when I was a kid?" Tony put on a nasal, electronic voice, "Self-destruct sequence initiated…ten…nine…eight…" He switched back to his regular voice and chuckled. "I got so many classes cancelled that way." He spun around and caught the wrench behind his back. "Hey, I've been meaning to ask you, does it hurt when you transform?"
"Um, yes, somewhat, but it's sort of…there's a sense of…it hurts, but it's satisfying," he concluded. "Like popping a pimple."
"There's an unnecessarily disgusting analogy."
Bruce shrugged. "So tell me more about these life model decoys. Your company has been hinting at them to shareholders for a few years now, but you've been a little short on the details."
"It's a simple enough idea. We have the computer technology to make realistic three-dimensional images. Blend that in with hard-light holography and adaptive-intelligent programming and bam – you can make out with yourself."
"But you're not manufacturing them yet."
"For one thing, incredibly expensive – the market won't support it. For two things, we're really not there on the personality programming. It took me years to get JARVIS right and I still run into glitches here and there. Would you believe last week he cut off the phone system when I tried to call an escort service to give Captain Uptight a welcome-back-to-the-squishy-and-living present?"
Bruce chose to focus on the relevant aspects of what Tony had said. "So if the person you were trying to model didn't have to display much personality…"
"You're thinking about magical zombie Coulson."
"Could you do it? Do you have enough video data? We could swap the LMD out for the real one, and then-"
"And then give the staff to Loki? Because all he needed was a time out and he's ready to play nice now."
"We're not giving Loki the staff," said Bruce. "But we have to solve this one step at a time."
Tony was scrolling through several reels of security footage simultaneously. "I think I have enough imaging in here, as long as the LMD keeps his clothes on. If you want that data, I hereby assign you the job of having an awkward conversation with Barton." The wrench clattered to the floor as Tony missed a catch. He leaned down to pick it back up. "You think you can create a replica of the staff? They know what its energy readings are supposed to be."
"If I can't come up with a little spare gamma energy," said Bruce, "who can?"
Clint still couldn't sleep. He had forced himself to lie down on the ridiculously comfortable bed and he thought he might have dozed off for a few minutes here and there, but never long enough to start dreaming. That was probably a good thing.
Falling asleep felt like going under, like slipping away, like his fingers peeling back from the cliff's edge, one at a time, until he's plummeting out of control and there are hands on him, fingers. And he is a little boy and his Daddy is drunk and angry but it's not his Daddy, it's Phil. And he's lost. There are hedges and circus tents and creeks and brambles and arrows stuck in the ground like fenceposts. There's Loki's voice guiding him, showing him along, how to get through the maze without getting devoured, how to avoid the mirrors that make him look violent and vile and bloody, how to draw water from the ground so he doesn't die of thirst. Loki whispers, "Obey," and the maze is gone and there's just one road and it's easy and safe, except he's actually tiny and what he thought was a tightrope is actually the string on his bow.
"Fuck," he whispered, sitting up. He threw the covers aside and pulled a t-shirt over his head.
Steve was sitting on the floor right outside Barton's room, slowly making sense out of the tablet Tony had lent to him. He could use it to play Solitaire, but what was the point? It was a little faster than playing with real cards, but the whole idea of Solitaire was to waste time. So instead, he played with the internet program. Bruce had shown him how to use it to see photographs of museum collections and that was very interesting, but now he was looking at pictures of Brooklyn, of the old Brooklyn, before the war. He didn't know any of the people in the pictures, but he could have, with suspenders and penny loafers and pressed cotton dresses. It made him homesick.
Steve heard the window creak open. "Agent Barton," he said.
Clint didn't bother looking sheepish; he just looked terrible. "Tasha told you to keep an eye…or uh, ear on me?"
"She had an inkling you were going to bolt." Steve's voice sounded a little strange.
The window creaked shut and Steve could hear Barton's bare feet pad across the floor. "Who are they?"
"No one in particular. I just liked the look of it."
"Are any of them still alive, the people you knew from back then?"
"A couple," said Steve. "Nobody I knew well."
"Did it really get to you when you first woke up?"
"It still really gets to me. Not all the time, though. Not anymore."
"Well, that's really fucking depressing. I'd say I'd buy you a drink, but I hear that doesn't work for you. Maybe we can go out for taquitos."
Steve raised an eyebrow. He wasn't exactly sure what taquitos were and he didn't really see the connection.
"I always assume taquitos will help." Clint shrugged. "They're delicious."
"And I'm normally sneakier than this, too," blurted Clint, suddenly all too aware that he hadn't even planned his escape all that well. He should have gotten into the crawlspace, then into the elevator shaft, then so on and so on until he got captured by SHIELD and ended up rotting in an underground prison for the rest of his life. "I know the air ducts in the Helicarrier like Stark knows syphilis," he added, unsure exactly why he felt the need to defend his black ops capability to a man who probably thought that microwaves were witchcraft.
Steve briefly wrinkled his brow, obviously considering the syphilis comment, but he let it pass. "Well I'm glad you know the Helicarrier. Banner and Stark are preparing facsimiles of the staff and Agent Coulson. We'll need your help to make the switch."
If Clint was surprised by this planning, it didn't show. "The staff I should probably be able to access. Phil's going to be a lot tougher. The detention levels aren't linked up with the rest of the ship and they're not giving anyone access, least of all me. We'd need someone on the inside."
"That's what I figured," said Steve. "Which is why I'm going to request access." He gave a thin smile. "Who's going to say no to Captain America?"
"Your efforts are touching," said Natasha stirring sugar into her coffee. "Of course, they're not accomplishing anything because we have no way to force Loki to lift the curse."
"You're not, um," said Bruce, "You're not big on the power of positive thinking, are you?"
"I believe in reality."
"Really? Because periodically I turn into a green idiot who somehow has four times my mass." Bruce pointed to Steve and Thor across the room. "That guy's ninety years old and that guy's a space alien who can speak Shakespearean English with a mouth full of stale Peeps. I think reality went out for some smokes a couple decades back. I'm just along for the ride."
Natasha was about to comment that Bruce's attitude was rather incompatible with being a scientist when Steve called her name from across the room.
"Agent Romanov, we need your opinion," he said. "The subterfuge with SHIELD means nothing if we can't convince them that Agent Coulson was cured some other way. How well do they understand this sort of magic?"
Rogers was deliberately including her in the planning, knowing that she might go tattle to her superiors. Interesting. "They're at a loss. They don't have any analytical principles to test their ideas against. They're not idiots, but they want Coulson back, so they'll be prepared to be credulous. If you succeeded, your alternate explanation would have to be a little more subtle than claiming you stuck a needle in a voodoo doll, but not much."
"Which brings us back to the last problem," said Steve. "Thor, you said that Loki didn't have to do anything, just had to be there, if we could find a, er…magician? strong enough to break the curse."
"Indeed," said Thor. "Though such skills are quite rare, they not the sole province of my brother. My mother practices a very powerful sorcery, but she would not defy my father in a matter such as this."
"What are the other options?" asked Steve.
"There is the demon queen of the Underworld, and Malekith of the dark elves, and there is Amora the Enchantress." Thor spoke the final name more quietly, his gaze shifting to the right.
"That last one sounded…not terrible," said Bruce. "Better than demon queens and dark elves."
"I prefer," said Thor, "to have no dealings with Amora." He paused, apparently hoping they would be satisfied with this explanation. When they obviously were not, he looked to the side again and his voice dropped. "She is…preoccupied," he mumbled, "with my manhood."
"Is she hot?" asked Tony, emerging from his lab.
"It is not her physical appearance which I find distasteful," said Thor, "it is her uncouth and manipulative persistence when I have made my opinion clear. She hath disguised herself in many false visages to gain my affections. It was not long ago that she took the form of a tree so as to taste of my lips."
"Wait," said Tony, "why would you be kissing a tree in the first place?"
"Because-" Thor squinted at Tony, head cocked to the side, as if the answer were so obvious it could not be put into words. "I do not understand the question."
"All right," said Steve, "let's get back on topic. This Amora sounds difficult to deal with, but not actually evil. I think we should try to contact her."
Tony patted Thor's bicep. "It's time to take one for the team, buddy. It's a tough job, I know, but somebody's got to-"
"I would not dishonor the Lady Jane Foster in such a fashion. Do not suggest otherwise." Thor sniffed imperiously – it was easy to forget that he was in fact a prince. "I knew the Son of Coul only briefly, but I see that he has inspired much loyalty. I will contact the Enchantress and determine whether an acceptable agreement can be reached." And with that, Thor stood and picked up two boxes of blueberry Pop-Tarts before retreating to his quarters.
Bruce looked at Natasha. "How's reality working out for you?"
Chapter 11: Fall On Your Knees
"I left my soldering iron right here," said Tony. "Who moved my soldering iron?"
"I did," said Natasha. "I don't like flammable electronic devices resting on gas stoves."
"What? Why? It's probably lost! Lonely! It misses me!" Tony cupped his hands around his mouth and called, "Here little soldering iron! Heeeeeere little soldering iron!"
Natasha rolled her eyes and returned her attention to a briefing on black market cashflow in Southeast Asia.
As Tony irritably looked in various drawers and cabinets, Steve couldn't help but chuckle. "Tony, Tony, look around, something's lost and can't be found," he chanted.
Tony straightened. "My grandmother used to say that.
Steve shrugged. "So did mine."
Thor looked quizzical. "Captain, your grandmother knew the Man of Iron?"
"No, it's just a…see, St. Anthony is the patron saint of finding things and-"
Thor enthusiastically embraced Tony. "You did not tell me that you were a saint!"
"I'm not a-" Tony pushed out from his crushed lungs. "Wait. They have saints in Asgard?"
"Of course! They are most often the size of a child's fist but will at times assume a form as large as that of the mightiest frost giant. And their many eye stalks are-"
Steve put up a hand to interrupt Thor's description. "I think we're talking about two different things."
"I'm not sure this is a good idea," said Bruce. He took off his glasses and cleaned them with the hem of his shirt.
"I wouldn't have suggested it if I didn't have complete faith in you," said Steve. "You're an integral part of this plan."
"Good afternoon, Captain. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Steve got right to the point. "I'd like to see Agent Coulson."
"I'm sorry, but his remains were cremated several days ago and the ashes were released to his family."
"I'd like to see Agent Coulson," repeated Steve.
"I'm not sure what you're getting at, but-"
"Stark likes to snoop and he has a big mouth. I know you have Coulson, or his body anyway." Steve paused. He wasn't a very practiced liar, but that didn't mean he couldn't put on an act when he had to, especially if the lie mixed with the truth. "He was one of the first people I met after I woke up. And I never did sign his trading cards." Steve sounded guilty. Steve felt guilty.
"I see," said Fury, silently damning the existence of Tony Stark. He sighed. "All right. I'll make arrangements for you to be brought up to the Helicarrier."
"Actually, I've already spoken to Agent Romanov. And the others will be coming as well."
"Others?" asked Fury in his dangerous voice, the quiet one that meant he was most definitely displeased.
"They want to see if they can help, Director," answered Steve, in a voice that sounded perfectly polite on the surface while making clear that he was most certainly not asking permission. "Thor will be consulting on matters of Asgardian magic, while Tony and Bruce would like to re-examine the staff." He paused, then added. "Agent Barton told me that he would prefer not to see Agent Coulson in this state. I understand they were close." He had gotten some tips from Natasha on how to be maximally manipulative. He hoped it was working.
"I'll consider your request." Fury sighed again. "And tell Agent Romanov I'd like to speak with her about her secure communications."
"Okay, JARVIS," said Tony. "If I don't enter access code B within 48 hours, I want you to send subfile 'holy_shit_I'm_lost_in_space' to Reed Richards. And you're clear on the difference between Reed Richards and Keith Richards now, right? Because I don't want a repeat of what happened last time."
They settled into the jet, Natasha in the pilot's seat. Clint was carefully sandwiched between Tony and Thor to hide his heat signature. While they were all putting in tiny flesh-colored earpieces, Bruce was rummaging through a knapsack, from which he produced a stack of palm-sized whiteboards.
"For later," he said. "I'm not sure how literal the Isle of Silence is, but they were three for a dollar at Duane Reade, so I thought it would be worth a try."
Tony picked up a whiteboard and made a face – he wasn't wearing his armor, though it was carried on board. "I think these project less of an 'intimidating superhero' vibe and more of a 'let's dialogue about your third-quarter earnings'."
"It's a step up from charades," said Steve, deadpan.
"I know sign language," said Clint helpfully, giving them all the finger.
It was pre-mission banter, how some people dealt with jitters. Steve was used to it; he assumed Clint and Natasha were too. There was no telling with Thor. Maybe Asgardians didn't get nervous. As it was, Thor's hammer was perched awkwardly by his ear, as if he were listening while it whispered secrets.
Bruce tapped his communicator, generously provided by Stark Industries. "Dr. Foster, we're approaching the Helicarrier. If all goes as planned, we should be in New Mexico in ninety minutes. If all doesn't go as planned, I guess you should turn on CNN for updates."
"And tell my dearest Jane," said Thor, "that I desire only to see her radiant countenance shine down again while-."
"And Thor says hi," echoed Bruce.
"Approach vector," said Natasha. "Everybody silent."
Clint had spent hundreds of hours in SHIELD's crawlspaces and air ducts, enough time that Psych had once threatened to ground him if he didn't submit to an agoraphobia eval. Psych was full of assholes, idiots, and asshole-idiots. Clint wasn't agoraphobic; he was training. He was always training. However long he could crouch perfectly still in stale, stinking rail car, he could always learn to hold position just a bit longer. However softly he could shimmy between ringing steel beams, he could always learn to sneak just a bit quieter.
The fact that it was fun to burst out at random intervals and terrify the junior agents was secondary. Really, it was.
And the fact that he had gradually learned every sensor blindspot in every SHIELD base – well, that was just a happy coincidence.
Their plan had three strands, to be executed more or less simultaneously. Natasha and Thor were responsible for Objective Alpha, which was simply to get in there and do something that looked plausibly magical, thus allowing SHIELD to look the other way if (when) Phil was suddenly fixed.
Objective Beta was to interfere with the Helicarrier's internal sensors and provide a distraction. This was the job of Stark, who was way too happy about his role, and Banner, who was obviously nervous about the whole thing. That was fine. Clint wasn't the sort to call people cowards just because they got scared now and then, not if they kept on doing what they had to do anyway. And besides, some things were worth worrying.
Objective Delta (they had skipped over Gamma, partially in deference to Bruce's malady, and partially to avoid any confusion with the discussion of gamma radiation which would naturally follow when Tony and Bruce "examined" the staff) was to actually make the switch. That was Clint's job, with help from Stark and Rogers.
He shifted his weight slowly, carefully, quietly and he waited.
Agent Romanov was escorting Thor to the detention level. She normally evoked a sort of anxious, watchful deference in her fellow agents. She knew they whispered about her and she wasn't particularly bothered by that fact. Today, though, they were more focused on the demigod, and understandably so. No one could be exactly sure what the consequences would be if they were to offend an alien crown prince. So the SHIELD drudges were edgy, which meant their perception, their thinking, their memory would all be diminished. It would work in Natasha's favor.
When they were finally allowed into the cell, Phil was just as Natasha had seen him last. His eyes were glassy and blank, and his perpetual faint smile was missing from his face, but he otherwise looked perfectly ordinary.
A pair of agents stood just inside the door. These two were more alert than afraid.
Thor dropped to one knee beside Coulson. "Son-of-Coul," he began, "I was distressed to learn of your fate."
Phil turned his head toward Thor, but otherwise did not react.
"Look at me," said Thor, "and close your eyes." He pressed his thumbs over Phil's eyelids and stared intensely. Although he was still and silent, Thor's effort was obvious. His hands dropped to his sides. "Open your eyes, Son-of-Coul."
Phil complied. His gaze was still vacant.
"We should go, Thor," said Natasha. "Thank you for trying."
"Let's get some scans running," said Bruce, picking up a spectrometer.
"You're the boss, hoss." Tony spun and jumped up to sit on the countertop, a movement which disguised the attachment of a remote access drive. It activated and began searching for ways to override the SHIELD security internal monitoring network.
"You don't think this is going to work?" asked Bruce. They hadn't exactly scripted their conversation, just agreed on the general outline of their performance for the listening ears of SHIELD.
"Nope. Willing to give it a try, but I don't have great expectations."
Bruce sighed and continued scanning.
Steve was led into Coulson's cell, the two guards standing watch just inside the door. Steve sat across from him and opened a small red folder to pull out the bloodstained trading cards. The plan called for him to act a little choked up; it wasn't a hard act to put on.
"Could you fellas give us a moment?"
"We're not supposed to-" began one, before the other interrupted, "Of course, Captain."
Steve tapped the small red button on his wrist three times.
"Cap's in position," said Natasha over the comm.
"Copy," said Clint.
"All right then, Stark, you're up," said Natasha. "Do what you do best."
Under other circumstances, at other times in his life, Tony Stark might have taken offense at the notion that being irritating was his consummate skill. And the reality was that sometime in the future, when the depression or the alcohol overtook him again, he would look back on this little assignment with bitterness and self-loathing. But that was later, and this was now and he seriously just nuked space a few days ago and there really weren't a lot of things that could bring him down at this point.
"We have no idea," said Tony, "how god-magic works. And yet here you are, trying to manipulate it, activate it and hope, hope, hope you can control it."
Bruce zoomed in on the right tail of a graph. "Your point?"
"I'm just surprised," said Tony. "I thought you would have learned your lesson about playing god, once you started turning into the not-so-Jolly Green Giant."
See, they were pretty sure that SHIELD wasn't quite clear on the whole voluntary/involuntary transformation dichotomy. And they were pretty sure that SHIELD was far less sanguine than any of them about the degree to which the Hulk could be placated and managed. And they were pretty sure that the Hulk, even if he wasn't actively tearing the ship apart, would attract enough attention that – combined with Tony's sensor-jamming program – Clint would be able to make the swaps unnoticed.
"Don't call me that," said Bruce, blandly.
"What would you prefer? Captain Photosynthesis? Mean Joe Green? Steroid Kermit? Moonbeam?"
"It's Moonsong and don't call me that either." He sounded a little annoyed.
"I just can't believe that you of all people think this is a good idea. Unless I'm mistaken, the last time you played this tune…well, I was going to say you got gonged off stage, but you probably broke the gong in half and threw it at the crowd."
"Maybe it didn't turn out so bad after all. I seem to recall that the other guy saved your life." Bruce squinted at the graph, but kept glancing back at Tony, as if his attempts to concentrate on the work were failing.
"Right." Tony snorted sarcastically. "But there's no Mrs. Grinch-Who-Stole-Protein-Powder, is there? And I know why. I heard you smashed h-"
"Shut up!" Bruce had never before had to look angry while trying to stay calm. For some reason, he could only get his right arm to tremble convincingly, but it would have to do.
"Oh relax," said Tony, patting him on the back.
"Get out of my space!" Bruce jerked away and rolled his shoulders.
"Aw," said Tony, "are we mad that there's no princess for Shrek?"
There was an incredible burst of warnings and alarms and crosstalk on the lines Natasha was monitoring; Sitwell sounded downright rattled. She tapped her communicator. "The Hulk is out. Make the switch."
"Yes sir," answered Clint without a trace of irony. He rapped lightly on the bulkhead panel and waited for Steve to line up his magnetic screwdriver so they could start taking out the flat-face bolts.
It seemed to take forever. Clint had always thought the physical security on the detention cells was pretty clever. There were no regular screws that could be manipulated with a nail file or a multitool or a coin. Instead, all of the fasteners were simply long, finely grooved bolts that were perfectly flat on both ends. They could only be effectively turned with a pair of magnetic drivers, one on each side.
After two bolts fell, Clint tapped his earpieces so he could listen in on the Helicarrier channels. They were still basically in panic mode. The Hulk apparently hadn't left the laboratory yet, according to the commentators, either because Stark was successfully reasoning with it or because it really wanted to smash up Stark. Either way, it had destroyed the lab table which held up the staff; hopefully that gave Tony time to make the switch.
A third bolt fell, then a fourth. The bulkhead shifted and Phil's cell came into view. Clint wanted to rush forward, but he knew better than to tempt fate. He was perched uncomfortably beneath the opening and he couldn't see Steve through the open panel, but he could hear him say in his best commander voice, "Crawl into there. Follow Agent Barton." Steve must have turned his head, because his voice sounded clearer, with less echo. "We'll see you at the jet, Barton."
Steve put the panel back in place and began carefully following the steps Tony had drilled into him to activate the life model decoy.
"Do you know who I am?" asked Clint. It was stupid to torture himself with this, it really was and he shouldn't do it and he was doing it any way. "Do you remember me?"
"Yes," said Phil, as he followed Clint over yet another ladder. They reached a small awning and stopped. "You're Clint Barton."
"That's it? That's all?"
"Clinton Francis Barton," said Phil.
Clint threw his arms around him, pulling him close. "I can't- I…I don't…if you're in there, we're coming for you." It was an awkward hug because it only had one real participant. "We need to keep moving. We have to go."
"Where are we going?" asked Phil.
"New Mexico," said Clint, "then magical space prison."
Chapter 12: Open Your Hands
Steve and Tony walked on either side of Bruce, who was now dressed in SHIELD sweatpants, as they made their way back to the plane. The escort formation wasn't really necessary, but it was part of the show and it kept Fury happy, which was to say 'slightly less enraged'.
"You played your parts well," said Steve, "both of you."
"Agreed," said Tony. "Huzzahs all around." He slapped Bruce on the back. "But we have got to do something about your enormous green wang."
"You want to circumcise the other guy?"
"I was thinking more of a Prince Albert," mused Tony. "No, actually, I was thinking that I know this guy who works in materials science, mainly in substances that can grow or shrink. Name's Pym. I'll give you his number. Maybe he can find a way to keep the little Hulk contained."
"Thanks. That would be…a big help, actually."
"As long as I don't have to talk to him. Guy's a little…off. And whatever you do, don't bring up bugs. He'll talk your ear off."
"I'm not much for bugs," said Bruce. "I like arthropods, though."
When they reached the plane, the others were already there, including Barton and Coulson hiding, huddled silently in the back. The staff was secured underneath the starboard jumpseats. Natasha was already in the pilot's seat, spinning up the engines, while Thor was sitting cross-legged in the aisle. He looked contemplative, even sad.
Natasha was the only one who acknowledged them. "Strap in," she said, before tapping her earpiece and addressing Jane Foster. "En route to your position, now."
The flight to New Mexico was quiet, other than the rustling and clanking sounds they made as they suited up. Everyone kept stealing glances at Coulson, who appeared singularly unconcerned with the proceedings – everyone except Clint, whose coping strategy was apparently to studiously avoid looking in Phil's direction. Even Tony fizzled out after a few abortive attempts to explain how he would improve on the design of the SHIELD jet and resigned himself to day trading via his smartphone.
When they landed in New Mexico at the coordinates provided by Dr. Foster, they were still in a somber mood. Their plan had seemed so clever, or at least adventuresome, when they had lain it out the night before. And now they were carting about a SHIELD agent who was suspended between life and death, while they were on their way to step through a wormhole and hand-deliver a devastating weapon to the prison planet of an unhinged alien god. Excitement and audacity had allowed them to ignore the dangerous and frankly unsettling aspects thus far, but after ninety minutes of downtime in the air under Coulson's unsettling gaze with the staff beneath their knees, the risks were all too apparent.
They stepped out into the dust to see a beat-up van next to a circular knotwork etching embedded into the ground. Steve carried the staff, for no reason other than the lack of better options.
"My dearest Jane," said Thor. Dr. Foster was not a short woman, but she looked very small in Thor's embrace. He was whispering something and she looked concerned briefly before she nodded and kissed him.
They separated and Jane brushed her hair behind her ears. "There's no reliable way to communicate between realms with our technology thus far, so the best solution I could come up with on short notice was to reopen the portal thirty minutes later. It'll be open for sixty seconds in the exact spot where it drops you off initially. If for some reason you miss that, Thor said that Heimdall will notice you…eventually."
"Is everyone ready?" asked Steve. It was easier to be the leader when he was in uniform. When the others nodded, Steve turned to Jane. "Then open the portal, Dr. Foster."
Jane began pressing buttons and turning knobs in a pattern that obviously meant something to her. Worryingly, one of the machines was making an irregular hissing noise and something smelled like burnt hair. There was a rising, indistinct sound, like roaring white noise as bands of color and shadow stretched down from the sky to the pattern on the ground. Steve felt as though he might well owe Director Fury another ten dollars. Bruce felt as though he ought to be taking notes.
"Step into the Bifrost!" yelled Thor over the noise.
Tony looked at Steve. "Leaders lead," he said. With the armor on, no one could see his smirk, but the tone carried his message well enough.
Steve inhaled deeply, still not entirely convinced that he was going to be able to travel through space without an air supply, and stepped into the circle. Thor followed first, then the rest. They were sucked upwards into the clouds, except up and down no longer meant anything and they certainly couldn't be said to be moving toward or away from anything. It wasn't clear that they were going anywhere but they were quite obviously moving very quickly.
It was impossible to say how long they traveled before they landed feet first in the thick grey mist that blanketed the Isle of Silence. None stumbled or fell, although they hit the ground with force, but there was no sound.
Tony stamped on the ground repeatedly, then knocked his left and right gauntlet together, but there was no noise whatsoever. It was unnerving. Steve and Natasha tried speaking and clapping with no success. Thor watched them experiment, wearing a slightly patronizing smile – even if he'd never been to this particular realm, he knew the variety of laws that governed the many worlds and so was unsurprised.
Bruce, conversely, immediately opened his knapsack to pull out a whiteboard and a marker. He tried to write his name. In fact, he was fairly certain that he did write his name, but he couldn't read what was on the board. It looked like writing, but like a foreign language. He tried producing the few words he knew in American Sign Language, but just like the writing, they looked wrong. He erased whatever he had scribed and wrote SNAP YOUR FINGERS. He held it up to Natasha. She looked at it for a moment, then shrugged and shook her head. So she couldn't read it either. Interesting. He drew a stick figure and a cartoon tree. That looked right. And Natasha could respond with body language, so it wasn't all communication that was blocked, just language and sound. If he ever returned to this place, Bruce decided, he was bringing bees to find out if they communicate through dance.
Tony responded to all of this by making a string of unrelated gestures – among them the Vulcan salute and 'these aren't the droids you're looking for' – concluding with an air guitar solo.
Unable to give verbal orders and unwilling to count on Coulson to stay with the group in his present state, Clint was standing right next to him, gripping his tie. He and Phil had never really been the holding hands type of couple to begin with, but even if they had been, Clint had no intention of taking Phil's hand right now, knowing that he wouldn't squeeze back. It would be too much like touching a corpse.
Thor beckoned to all of them and raised his hammer. He struck the ground and it trembled.
Thor struck the ground with his hammer again.
Thor raised his hammer for a third blow when the mists began to swirl and part as two thin figures approached. On the right was Loki. His skin was blue and he was wearing his leathers and cape, though his helmet was conspicuously absent. His hair was limp and stringy and he wore a resentful snarl. On the left was a thin, tall woman with hair so blonde it was almost white. Her garments could best be described as a thin satin bikini, but it had a falseness to it, giving the viewer the sense that if he just looked from the correct angle, it would disappear. She wore knee-high leather boots and she cocked her hips as she walked.
Steve was frankly glad that Tony couldn't speak.
Thor took a step toward his brother, but froze, Loki's angry scowl speaking more clearly than words. Thor's shoulders dropped, disappointment evident.
Amora approached Thor instead, placing one hand on his chest and the other on his backside, leaving the others to wonder exactly what Thor had offered to convince Amora to help. Thor's stance under her hands was almost awkward, obviously avoiding her gaze.
Amora turned to Steve and held her hand out for the staff. Clint dropped Phil's tie and pulled him forward by the sleeve of his suitcoat. Loki looked down and to the right, but he approached them as well.
She gestured for them to kneel, but Loki flicked his fingers at her in what was obviously an Asgardian rude gesture. Thor stepped up and held his brother's wrists – not harshly, but tightly enough that there was no escape. Loki knelt, and with Clint's guidance, Phil followed suit. Amora held out the staff between them and the mists seemed to turn to thick streams of liquid unbound by gravity, moving in great arcs from across the realm. They converged on the staff, causing it to tremble violently, its shape deforming with each new cascade, only to reform a moment later. Loki's expression became pained and his back arched; Thor kept hold of his arms, but he pressed his face against the back of Loki's head in hopes of offering some comfort. Coulson's gaze remained as vacant as ever.
The mists continued to batter the staff. Now, it was not so quick to return to its original shape following each blow. It was becoming weak and malformed. Loki was sweating intensely and he seemed to be gasping for breath, tears stinging his eyes.
A final geyser of the smoky liquid burst up from the solid ground, shattering the staff, its metal rending into thin strands that summarily disappeared, along with Amora.
The portal opened. It was thirty yards away. They thought they hadn't left their arrival point but with no landmarks and endless fog, it was impossible to tell.
Clint began to lift Phil – don't think of it as Phil's body, not until the mission is done – but it was obvious he would move more slowly carrying a full grown man and they only had sixty seconds to make it to the Bifrost bridge. Steve took the body and ran with Clint across the grey expanse. Bruce, Tony, and Natasha followed.
Thor knelt and touched his brother's face gently, wishing that his gratitude, his sadness, his hope could all be conveyed by a simple flexing of a hand.
Loki nodded, and Thor turned to rejoin the others.
They leapt into the Bifrost more readily this time, first Steve and Phil, followed by Clint and Bruce. Then, as Tony and Natasha were leaping forward and the portal was wavering, their sixty seconds almost over, Loki rushed past Thor, obviously seeing a chance for escape. Thor tackled his brother, throwing him soundlessly to the ground.
The portal closed.
They landed on Earth with as much force as before, but now they could hear the stuttered thuds and grunts.
Steve lay Phil's body out along the ground and felt for a pulse. "He's alive," said Steve, as Clint came running over. Bruce followed, hobbling – he must have landed wrong – with Tony and Natasha right behind him.
Clint grasped Phil's right hand in both of his own, lips moving in a silent plea or litany or prayer. "Come on, you stubborn bastard," he whispered, "you can't die getting stabbed by a god. I thought you wanted your death to be interesting." He swallowed. "Please," he said, "please."
Phil coughed weakly and brought his free hand to Clint's face. "You're using manners," he whispered. "I'm impressed."
Bruce looked around. "Where's Thor?"
Natasha said, "He was fighting with Loki when we jumped, he-"
Jane interrupted. "He knew he wasn't coming back. That's what he said to me before he left. He won't be there forever. Odin or Heimdall will do something, but for now…he said he has to, he can't just abandon his brother." Her expression was soft, a mix of wistful and proud.
Stark Tower was not quiet and peaceful, though to be fair, it had never been.
Pepper spent an unreasonable amount of time explaining to contractors that no matter what Mr. Stark said, he did not really want the a series of colored solar panels installed in the shape of the Iron Man faceplate, and no, they really weren't seeking a permit for a moat.
Tony spent what he felt was a perfectly reasonable amount of time explaining to contractors that even if they lacked a moat, there was no reason they couldn't install a perfectly serviceable drawbridge.
Natasha prided herself on her ability to cope with virtually any circumstances. She could insinuate herself with the crudest infantry and the most refined diplomats. She could, but that didn't mean she wanted to. Now she spent her days designing a new training gym, teaching Banner the basics of hand-to-hand combat, and scouting the tower security for weaknesses. And she allowed herself to be dragged along to movie nights and poker games and an unusually poorly planned attempt to collectively out-drink Steve Rogers. She could be doing almost anything, but she had to admit, she was enjoying herself.
Tony gave Bruce his own lab space, and a bedroom that looked ridiculous because he didn't have anything to put in it. Almost trying to convince himself that he was done running, he went to a library book sale and bought two dozen volumes he barely wanted, just so he could place something on a shelf and know that he was going to return to it later. It was six dollars well spent. He borrowed a phone and dialed a number he knew by heart. It went to voicemail, but that was okay.
"It's me," he said, whispering before he remembered he didn't have to whisper. "You've probably seen the news by now. It looks like I might be staying in one place for a while. I'm not suggesting that- I just, I'm okay and I thought you would like to know. You can call at this number, if you want. If you don't, that's fine too. Goodbye."
Bruce looked at his bookshelf and smiled.
Steve could see Clint and Phil sitting on the sofa, leaning on one another, watching some television program in which young people apparently competed for the chance to be mocked by a British man. They were still recovering, both of them, but they were good for each other, Steve realized. It occurred to him that the men he had known who were…gay (he made himself think the word, and not just 'like that'), he had never seen them doing that simple thing, sitting together, enjoying the other person's touch, and maybe he'd never seen it because they'd had to hide it. There were things Steve missed about the past, but maybe there were parts that he was glad to leave behind.
Clint was imitating one of the singers on TV and Phil was laughing and Steve couldn't see anything in either of them that needed to be cured.
This was a tough chapter to write because I'm definitely more of a dialogue person, so I would say that it was a poor decision for me to send my characters to a place that prohibits all speech. Oh well.
Now that I'm done with this, I'm starting on my next piece, which will be a Hawkeye backstory (incorporating some of the plot points from You Can't Spell Sniper Without Spin ), tentatively titled The Hunter of Waverly, Iowa .
I will also be starting a dramatic piece focusing on the underlying psychosexual conflicts that motivate Galaga Boy. (Fact Check: No, I am not.)