Tony can hear clear as day over a hundred yards and he raises an arm in acknowledgement, pushing against the slight underwater feeling of the suit’s compensation servos. The inside of the helm is warm against the back of his head, his breath loud when there isn’t any relevant stimulus relayed to him by Jarvis. When he closes his eyes he can pretend he’s standing alone in front of his bed at the mansion, barefoot in the moonlight.
“Ready, Tony?” Steve’s voice is sweet and low, pitched so it sounds like it’s murmured straight into his ear, close enough that Tony expects warm air puffed over his skin to match the shiver that travels down his spine.
“Ready,” he says roughly, and focuses on the blinking blue of the suit’s HUD. It’s stripped to the minimum amount of information: a video-game bar of armor “health” and energy with the appropriate numbers, targeting systems, communications and auto-focus. Jarvis is managing nearly everything, all that Tony can’t right now, and he’s never been so grateful for his reckless behavior in the past that made such protocols possible, even necessary.
“You’re heading in with the first wave,” Steve says. “And Tony--”
“Be careful, please.”
“I will,” Tony says. “I promise.”
He put the belt around my life,
I heard the buckle snap
And turned away, imperial,
My lifetime folding up.
It begins a little over two months ago, on what should have been a routine mop-up of whatever copycat villain decided to reveal themselves that week. Instead, halfway through the battle Steve disappears under half a collapsed building. He doesn’t answer his comm.
Then the rest of them have more immediate things to worry about, because Black Widow curses loud and long in a stream of Russian, favoring her left leg; Hawkeye starts missing every shot; the Hulk is suddenly merely Bruce Banner, half-naked and confused; Thor drops abruptly out of sight. Tony fumbles his way through exploding slow, fairly harmless purple squid-monsters whilst trying to direct the rest of the team to find Steve. In typical efficient manner, SHIELD is at the scene working to dig him out by the time the last squid is repulsor-blasted into paste.
Tony and Natasha are the first to see him uncovered: a pale arm, thin fingers. They don’t even realize that it’s Steve until they reach his face, the same but for the slightly thinner jaw.
Tony is glad the suit flattens out vocal modulation.
”I think we have a big problem.”
None of them are allowed to see Steve until they’ve been debriefed. Fury is full of tightly constrained rage, as usual, yet completely in control. It makes him all the more intimidating, if Tony is honest.
“Does somebody want to enlighten me what that giant clusterfuck was out there, ladies and gentlemen? Did all of you suddenly forget how to fight once your leader was taken out?”
When no one answers, he glares. “Well?”
Thor, hair mussed and with uncharacteristic dirt, soot and blood smeared over his face, steps forward. His mouth is tight and turned down at the corners.
“All seemed routine for the first half of the battle,” he says. “Yet then Mjolnir became unwieldy, and I could no longer lift it. I would think my father had once again recalled his favor, but my strength and familial armor is yet available to me.”
“I couldn’t shoot for shit,” Clint volunteers.
“Coupled with what has befallen the honorable Steve Rogers,” Thor continues, “it is most likely that we have been affected by foul sorcery, designed to vanquish or steal away the source of our power. Yet as we are not sorcerers ourselves, the spell has taken various physical attributes in place of magical strength.”
“So, what?” Clint’s voice raises. “I’m never going to be able to shoot again, is that what you’re saying? Is my hand-to-hand fucked too?”
“I--” Bruce blinks. “The Hulk is gone. I don’t--the Hulk is gone.”
Natasha mutters something doubtlessly unflattering under her breath.
“Oh, great, that’s wonderful for you--” Clint is scathing. He takes a step toward Bruce, who backs away in automatic reaction before straightening, realizing he can get angry now, fight back without unforgivable consequences.
“That’s right, it is--”
“Can I just interject that I didn’t lose the armor or anything? No?”
“Gentlemen,” Fury says, and is ignored.
The noise level rises. Clint and Bruce are yelling at each other while Thor tries to talk over them about how they shouldn’t fight, and Natasha is starting to look murderous enough to whip out her stun gun. Tony stays out of it feeling both smug and guilty that he doesn’t seem to have been affected.
”SHUT UP!” Fury roars, and everybody falls silent. “Good. Now if all of you are done bickering like children, here’s what we’re going to do. SHIELD will to try and find a cure, and the rest of you are to lie low and train, because sooner or later a threat’s going to come up that needs your attention and I won’t have a useless team lying around, got it?”
Tony understands perfectly: the Avengers are a powerful tool, and SHIELD will lose influence if the team is neutralized. Not to mention the crazies will come out of the woodwork if word gets out that there’s nobody to hold them back. They have to at least keep up the illusion of normalcy.
“It may be best if I returned to Asgard and consulted our mages there,” Thor says. He doesn’t seem to have been fazed by Fury’s outburst. Then again, Thor isn’t fazed by anything, it seems, except his brother. Tony doesn’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. Family. It fucks you up, big time. “There is a higher likelihood that the Aesir will know more about this spell than those of Midgard.”
“All right,” Fury grants. “And we’ll be keeping an eye on that hammer of yours, you can be sure of that.”
“My thanks.” Thor gets up, does his manly warrior arm-clasping thing with Clint, then Bruce, and then with Tony. He bows to Natasha. “I shall give my regards to the honorable Captain before I depart. Until later, friends.”
And then he’s gone, and the room feels emptier, which, obviously it is, because Thor is huge, but. Emptier in spirit, too. Tony knows it’s not scientific, that it doesn’t make sense. Fine, people normally think he doesn’t make sense a lot anyways.
“So,” he says, because he doesn’t do silence, silence sucks, it really does, “do we get to do any of this curing stuff while we lie low, oh fearless leader?”
“Captain Hook was never really fearless,” Clint snickers. Fury glares.
“If,” he says. “If you can keep your conditions a secret, you can try to work this out. That means no fucking explosions or news disasters, understand?”
Everybody blames Tony, it just isn’t fair.
“Got it,” Tony waves. “And Bruce gets it too, right? We’ll be good boys, Dad.”
“If I were your father I would beat you,” Fury says, and pinches the bridge of his nose. “All of you, dismissed. And don’t swarm the med bay either, I get enough complaints as it is.”
“Yes, sir!” Tony salutes.
Steve is asleep when Tony sneaks in to see him, sneak being a relative term because he’s still in the armor and it clangs on the floor when he walks. Tony stands at his bedside for a bit, cataloguing the way Steve’s eyelashes fall against his cheek, the tracery of veins along the paleness of his wrist, the delicate wings of his collarbones. Then he feels like a creeper and clangs away as quietly as he can.
The flight back is -- strange. It feels off somehow, but a systems check shows everything working fine, and he can still do the adrenaline-pumping corkscrews and freefalls that make the bottom of his stomach drop out, his breath catch in his chest. His face stretches into an honest grin, glee expanding up his chest and into his throat to escape in a whoop. He lands wobbly, as bad as his first month in the armor, but chalks it up to exhaustion and post-battle crashing; Fury kept then later than usual and he visited Steve for a while to boot. He’s fine.
“Jarvis, I’m going to shower and sleep.”
“An excellent choice, sir.”
The water is already running when Tony stumbles up to his room, steam curling up over the glass stall and fogging up the mirrors and Tony loves Jarvis, he really does. Stripping out of the undersuit is harder than it should be, but soon he’s got amazing water pressure pounding along the back of his neck and loosening the tightness in his shoulders. He tips his head back to let rivulets of warmth bead their way over his forehead, down the bridge of his nose and along his temples. Washing his hair with real shampoo is too much trouble; he soaps up his hands and runs them over his scalp a couple of times, cleaning the rest of himself just a quickly. He’s half-hard with a post-adrenaline boner but ignores it as too much trouble. There’s still the morning, after all, the team on stand-down for the moment.
Jarvis dims the lights when Tony falls into bed, hair still wet and entirely naked.
“Don’t you dare wake me up,” he says, and falls immediately asleep.
Tony jerks upright, staring into the dark. For a moment he panics—
--gasping for breath, every inch aching, sitting up only to feel the tug of wires in his chest, inside his chest oh god--
--and then he makes out the shadowed outlines of his own bedroom.
“Jarvis, time.” His voice is sleep-rough and hoarse; he needs a drink.
“Six forty-seven AM. You have been asleep for approximately eleven hours, sir.”
“Good for me,” Tony croaks. God, he’s hungry. And thirsty. And he needs to piss.
In the bathroom he squints at his reflection: hair a mess, only to be expected when he slept with it wet, and pillow creases along one cheek. The minty taste of toothpaste helps wake him up a little, the cold water he splashes on his face more so, and by the time he’s pulled on some sweatpants and a ratty ‘I heart NY’ tee he’s nearly fully functional.
“Any word on Steve?”
“I believe that hacking into SHIELD communications was strictly forbidden by Fury, sir.”
“And that’s relevant how?”
“Merely reminding you of a rule you choose to ignore. Captain Rogers has been released from SHIELD medical facilities under strict supervision.”
“Smartass,” Tony mutters, already calculating how he can break Cap out from under the ever-watchful eyes of the med team. Doctors are so, so scary; they don’t want to kill you, just take all your blood and test it. Creepier than supervillians any day.
“Right, I’m heading over after breakfast. Have the suit ready for me, would you dear?”
“Your sense of humor never fails to disappoint, sir,” Jarvis replies, which Tony takes as a yes. Programming in sarcasm was a great idea. The greatest.
Also, Tony got tired of having to cancel orders he didn’t mean when Jarvis couldn’t tell the difference. This is better for everybody.
“Oh,” Tony says when he nears the kitchen. Lovely, beautiful coffee smells waft through the air. “Oh, thank you Jarvis, I love you.”
The coffee is black, perfect as always, and Tony takes a long moment to inhale, to feel the steam warm and damp on his face, pooling in the hollow his eye sockets and escaping past the plane of his forehead. He rolls his first sip around in his mouth, bitter on the back of his tongue, just hot enough to nearly burn, before swallowing with a sigh.
“So tell me about my day, honeypie.”
A video screen projects onto the window as Tony sits down. Robotic limbs hand him a plate of buttered toast and eggs.
“Boring.” Tony vetoes FOX news. “No, no – oh hey, keep that, it’s us.”
Somebody – Tony squints and thinks it may be the NBC – is running shaky footage of the Avengers fighting the purple squid monsters. The voiceover is wondering mostly about collateral damage and public opinion, which Tony hates but listens to anyways because he’s the one paying out of pocket. Fury’s going to have an aneurism again, and mock them about being thrown through buildings; Coulson will mutter dire imprecations against the first amendment and not-so-secretly plot to take over media networks. He’s a busy bee, that one.
“Do I have anything to do today?” Tony wonders abruptly through a mouthful of eggs. Jarvis helpfully pulls up a schedule. Besides meeting Pepper at three, there’s nothing.
“Good.” Tony scrapes up the last of his eggs and dumps his plate in the sink. “Time to go rescue the good Captain.”
The armor is clean, if not in the best condition, and Tony makes a mental note to put aside some time to work on it. Perhaps it’s even a good idea to start making the Mark V. Maybe find a way to make a force field, or a semi-permeable face mask so he can feel the wind on his face when he flies. God, there’s nothing like it, and to think what it would be like cutting through the air under his own power, no metal between the himself and the rushing wind—
Well. It isn’t likely to happen, but he can always dream.
Steve is still in the commissary when Tony arrives, so Tony takes off his helmet and disassembles his gauntlets. It’s… really weird, actually, to see Steve so small. He’s nearly swimming in his t-shirt, belt cinched tight around his waist, and Tony can actually look down at him.
“Steve,” Tony calls, and at least the look Steve gives him is the same, surprised delight over his shoulder.
“Tony!” His voice is the same too, almost too deep for his size. He gestures to an empty chair. Tony lowers himself onto it gingerly; it holds his weight, but only just. “You look…”
“Awesome, as always?” Tony’s lips quirk. “Can’t say the same for you, though.”
“Yeah.” Steve stares at his hands, long and fine-boned. They would be great for circuitry work, Tony thinks. He pictures this Steve holding tweezers, manipulating wires thin enough to require a magnifying glass to see, the delicate gracefulness of movement. It fits surprisingly well.
“The doctors have no idea what’s wrong. They say any trace of the super-serum is gone from my blood.”
“Thor thinks it’s magic,” Tony says. Steve laughs a little at the face he makes. “Which it probably is.”
“I’d heard. He’s gone back to Asgard to try and find a cure, right?”
“Yeah.” Tony filches a fry from Steve’s tray. “Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll be fixed in no time, and then you’ll be back to pissing Fury off by destroying his punching bags.”
“That was only—“
“Five times, don’t try to deny it.”
“All right,” Steve acquiesces easily. “I won’t. Did you come over here just to check up on me, Tony?”
“Not only.” Tony places a hand over the arc reactor, feigning hurt. “I came to help you blow this popsicle stand, baby.”
Steve remains unimpressed. “I am under observation, you know.”
“Get down with your bad self,” Tony says.
He spends the next hour pestering the medical staff while Steve sighs and mimes apologies in the background, until Dr. Halloway (the woman in charge of Steve’s case) throws up her hands in disgust.
“Fine,” she snaps, thwacking a clipboard into Tony’s chest. “Sign him out. But if there are any complications—“
“We’ll call you, pinky promise,” Tony says as he scrawls a signature over the dotted lines. Steve waves his hands and mouths something. “Does he need anything to take with him?”
“Here’s an inhaler,” Dr. Halloway says. “And don’t you dare fly him in your suit. Take a car.”
“Yes ma’am,” Tony says.
“Sorry, ma’am,” Steve says.
“Just go,” Dr. Halloway says.
Tony stops by Coulson’s office to bug him about sweeping the site of their last battle. He barely touches his knuckles to polished metal before the door is yanked open.
“If you want data, check your suit,” Coulson snaps. “You always gloat about it having better sensors.”
Tony blinks. He should have remembered that. “But I just love you so much, sweetcheeks, I couldn’t bear to go a day without your smiling presence.”
“Was that really necessary?” Steve asks after Coulson slams the door in their face. Well, mostly Tony’s face, Steve is loitering in the hallway. He can’t lurk anymore, he’s too short: the best he can do is loiter.
“Absolutely,” Tony says breezily. “It’s always necessary to irritate Coulson.”
“You do know he’s in charge of our field assessments, right?”
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” Tony replies. He can practically hear Steve rolling his eyes. “So are you going to sweet-talk the motor pool into giving us a car? Because they all kind of hate me over there.”
“If you wouldn’t talk about how all the SHIELD cars are bunches of junk…” Steve says, but he picks up the pace and begins to lead the way.
“You have to admit, my cars are better.”
“Not everybody is you, Tony.”
“But they look away, then back to me, and wish they were me.”
“I don’t know that reference either.”
“What? You mean nobody’s shown you the Old Spice commercials yet? Okay, we’re fixing this right now, let me just get my phone.”
Steve wheedles them a Civic with blacked-out windows; Tony winces when he sees the car, and is visibly reluctant to get inside.
“It’s not like it’s contaminated, Tony,” Steve says. “And if you keep – keep malingering, the motor pool is going to lynch you.”
“I’d almost rather be lynched,” Tony mutters, but deigns to fold himself into the car. It rocks ominously with the weight of his armor. “Oh my god, the suspension on this thing sucks.”
“Just drive,” Tony mutters into the back of a headrest. “I’m going to pretend none of this is happening.”
Steve slides into the driver’s spot and then has to adjust the seat forward so his feet can reach the pedals. Tony doesn’t say anything.
Steve, surprisingly, drives more recklessly than usual. He nearly gets cut off at a couple of yellow lights and doesn’t notice a little Toyota Corolla until he almost sideswipes it, at which point he grips hard at the wheel and babbles frantic apologies to the windshield. Tony tries to laugh, have a heart attack, and comfort him at the same time; he kind of makes a wheezing noise and claps a hand on Steve’s thigh instead.
Then he gets distracted, because his hand covers an entire half of Steve’s thigh.
“Okay, I’ve done my duty,” Tony says when they arrive. “And I still have to do more of my duty, so feel free to, you know, do whatever you do for fun inside, Jarvis will direct you if you need help, and I’m going to be in the lab. Okay? Okay.”
He doesn’t look back at Steve, standing small and frail and alone in the open space of the garage.
Tony has Jarvis playing Headstrong before he calls up the schematics for more efficient circuitry in his gauntlets, shaving down power consumption for the repulsor blasts while keeping their efficiency. It’s nearly complete, he just has to check the math again and figure out what else he can squeeze in, and it should be easy, something to ease his head into the more serious work, but he’s looking at the model and the numbers spread out through the air and none of it makes sense.
He feels the bottom fall out of his stomach.
“Jarvis,” he croaks, and the music cuts out on the latest “fuck off, I’ll take—“
“Pull up the plans for the arc reactor.” If it’s just exhaustion, frustration, a momentary brain fart, this should be no problem; the arc reactor technology is his baby, his love, he’s been flirting with the idea since he was thirteen and continued on with the affair until the present day, it’s literally what’s keeping him alive. If there’s any technology he can walk through without thinking, it’s going to be the arc reactor.
Jarvis brings up the specifications, and he doesn’t understand a single symbol.
“No.” It’s an instinctive denial. “No, no, no..” This can’t be happening. His genius is his life; he’s an inventor. That’s his entire identity, has been since he was building circuit boards at four, and to have that taken away—
“Close,” he forces out. “Give me,” he thinks wildly, grasping, “the Aston Martin.”
The car’s sleek lines appear in front of him, peeling back to reveal a familiar engine and yes, yes he remembers, he knows how an engine works, Carnot and thermodynamics and heat conduction, thank god. He hasn’t lost everything.
“Okay,” he mutters to himself. “Okay, think about this logically.”
Logically, ha. Magic isn’t logical. But it does have rules, and so: Steve has lost the serum but nothing else, Thor his hammer but not any of his other strength. Natasha lost her fighting ability, or perhaps merely her fitness, he doesn’t know; Clint lost his aim. Bruce lost his ability to change into the Hulk. Common thread: they’ve lost their defining characteristics.
Tony’s defining characteristic isn’t that he’s Iron Man, because anybody who put on the suit could at least pretend to be Iron Man. He’s special because he created Iron Man in the first place; his defining characteristic is his genius.
That’s not so bad. That’s only everything he is.
He laughs a little, and then keeps laughing because he can’t stop. Oh, Pepper is going to have a field day with this.
In the hours before his scheduled meeting with Pepper, Tony runs through a variety of tests trying to assess what he can and can’t do or remember. At least the others lost things, quantifiable things, but when what’s been taken away is something in the mind, how is he supposed to know what he’s missing? Like: looking at a research paper on biomechanics, would he normally not understand the underlying concepts for the biological aspects, or is it the magic affecting his brain? How can he tell?
At least his IQ hasn’t really changed. It’s a statistically insignificant two points different, although the difference is in the downward direction.
He’ll take what he can get.
Pepper finds him sitting on the floor, methodically going through the project folders of the entire company. He can understand them only if he works at it, none of the instinctive touch for machines present that he had before. He finally understands how normal people feel and he hates it, hates how he doesn’t feel empty even when the core of him has been scooped away.
Maybe Steve felt like this, when he woke up from the ice.
“Tony,” Pepper sounds impatient, “get up, we need to talk about—“
She stops at soon as Tony turns to look at her.
“Oh, Tony, what’s happened?” Her voice is gentle, like the two days after he came back from Afghanistan until he annoyed her into throwing a folder at him and storming out. He doesn’t know how to deal with it now any better than he did then, except this time he doesn’t have a mission to keep him focused and it’s just infinitely worse.
Tony moves his mouth, gets nothing out, smiles crazily and stands.
“I,” he proclaims, arms spread wide, “have lost my mind.”
It takes another half hour to get Pepper up to speed. Tony spends most of this time tapping his fingers against his hip and fidgeting while Jarvis sums up what he knows, and avoiding Pepper’s eyes when she tries to give him sympathetic looks.
“I’ve got a backlog of projects for the company,” he says, because it occurred to him seventeen minutes into his non-panic non-attack that at least a third of Stark Industries product development has basis in the R&D’s adaptations of his inventions. “Enough for at least four months, so we don’t have any problems there, this should be—should be fixed by then.”
“Oh,” Pepper says. “Good. Then we’ll go on with business as normal for now. How are you going to handle the press, with Steve, Dr. Banner, and Thor gone? What does SHIELD say?”
“No idea, you coordinate it.” Tony doesn’t have the energy to be tactful or nice, not that he usually is anyway. “Give them the normal bullshit excuses. Besides, Thor isn’t really gone, he can come back at any time, he just can’t use his hammer which, yeah, bad, but he’s still an immortal god with super-strength and crazy drinking skills so—“
“Sign these papers, Tony.” Her tone of exasperated fondness is so normal that Tony smiles.
“Who’s the boss here?” he says, but takes the stack of papers.
“I am,” Pepper says. “I’ll be back in half an hour for those.” She points. “Don’t forget.”
“I love it when you’re fierce,” Tony calls to her retreating back. Then he looks down at the manila folders he’s holding.
“Jarvis, repair the armor to latest specs. I’m going to deal with my nemesis, here. Nemesi? Nemeses?”
“You were correct the first time, sir.”
What if I say I shall not wait?
What if I burst the fleshy gate
And pass, escaped, to thee?
“Listen up!” Fury barks. Tony mouths and I call this meeting to fucking order! while the people in the room fall silent.
“It’s been twenty-four hours since Operation Dorian Gray—“
“Oh, so is that what we’re calling it now?” Clint mutters, sotto voice. Fury glares without pausing in his speech.
“—which you may remember as the giant FUBAR that occurred yesterday that took out all but one of the Avengers’ heavy hitters.”
“I think Thor would object to that,” Tony volunteers.
“Thor isn’t here,” Fury retorts. “And he most likely won’t be until he discovers a cure in Asgard. Meanwhile the Avengers are short more than half their members, and frankly I don’t trust you in the field alone.”
“About that,” Tony says. He’s had a little time to come to terms with the whole being stripped of his genius thing, if frantically soldering circuit boards, drinking terrible vegetable smoothies and lying on his bed unable to sleep counts as ‘coming to terms.’ He rather thinks it doesn’t.
“I kind of lost something too.”
There’s an ominous quiet.
“By which I mean a portion of my frankly amazing intellect, not that most of you would notice because I’m still smarter than nearly everybody here, it just that now it’s kind of, you know, nearly everybody instead of everybody everybody. So. Yeah. Contracts will be slower, and no more Iron Man upgrades.”
More quiet. Fuck, Tony’s already bared his soul to the room, now they have to make him agonize? The world hates him. The universe hates him. He’s always known that, but it doesn’t have to keep reminding him.
“But you can still operate as Iron Man,” Steve says. “Right?”
“Right,” Tony agrees. “Just—“
“Oh god,” Clint groans, and lets his head fall onto the meeting room table with a thump. “We are so doomed.”
”Just,” Tony repeats with an edge to his voice, “with slightly less efficiency. Understanding how each system works and interacts with each other makes more of a difference than you think. Also the ability to do complex multivariable equations in your head. Jarvis should be able to pick up the slack, though.”
“And you’re just informing us of this now because?”
“Oh I’m sorry.” Tony’s had enough of this. “My brain was changed on me, so well that I couldn’t tell because it felt natural, and now approximately three-fourths of my life is completely inaccessible. But obviously I should have been taking time to write a memo instead of, oh, seeing what I can still do or consulting on how to manage my company. Obviously.”
Fury narrows his eye and purses his lips, but before he can say anything else Steve cuts in.
“That just makes this meeting more urgent, then,” he says. “If Iron Man won’t be in top condition either, how are the Avengers going to keep up with missions?”
Tony can practically see Fury’s teeth grinding, but he accepts that Steve’s question is more important. Fuck him and the pirate boat he sailed in on, anyway.
“I’m putting the team on stand-down. For now we can play it off as scheduled off-duty rotation. Think of it as a vacation. You will, however,” and here he glares at both Tony and Bruce, “be working on a cure. Foster is in contact with Thor.”
“And all of you are going to report to me.” Coulson steps forward from where he’s been casually lurking. “I’ll be coordinating this operation.”
“Do we get another stupid name?”
“Can it be Operation Restore Boyband?”
“I resent that you don’t take my gender into account.”
“You’re totally one of the guys—ow! Natasha—“
Tony edges back. The way Natasha has her arms crossed is much more intimidating than it should be.
Bruce gleefully joins the argument, reveling in his ability to shout without watching his heartbeat, and things just go downhill from here.
Eventually things get worked out. The operation is named Highlander (who knew Coulson watched bad sci-fi?), those agents who are eligible are scheduled for retraining (mainly Natasha and Clint, although Tony has mandatory gym sessions as well), and they even talk about publicity. The main advice for that, though, is “don’t get into a situation where there is any.”
Bruce is waved back to his lab. Tony wishes he could do the same, but his workshop is a grave of projects he can no longer work on or understand, and – at least for the moment – he doesn’t want to go back.
“You want to go get something to eat?” Tony asks Steve. Neither of them have anything to do; if they go back to the mansion they’ll just mope separately around the house. Steve will probably decide to disappear into the depths of the New York streets, never to be seen again.
“In public?” Steve says, and oh, that’s a bad idea. Right.
Tony lets Steve order and demands sausage, barbeque chicken, and pepperoni toppings; Steve mitigates this arterial disaster by adding mushrooms, red onions, and bellpepper.
“You might as well order a Supreme,” Tony mutters, mutinous. He floors the accelerator to clear a yellow light.
Steve pointedly doesn’t reach for the oh-shit handles even as he’s pressed back into his seat. “There’s nothing wrong with Supremes,” he says.
“There’s a lack of imagination, that’s what,” says Tony. “Also there are olives. The only places olives belong are in martinis.”
“Sometimes you don’t make any sense,” Steve says.
Yeah. Par for the course.
They pick up the pizza on the way. Approximately two seconds after the box enters the car, totally irresistible warm-pizza smells permeate everything. Tony’s stomach growls.
“You can go ahead and eat,” Tony offers heroically when Steve’s gastro-intestinal tract makes a noise that frankly puts Tony’s to shame. “I don’t mind.”
(He totally minds.)
“No, it’s all right,” Steve says. He doesn’t even have the courtesy to sound self-sacrificing. “It’s too hot right now anyway.”
The pizza-smell torments Tony all the way to the house. He chivvies Steve into the kitchen in record time, procuring paper plates stored just for this kind of occasion. Nobody eats pizza on proper plates.
They devour two slices each before Tony looks up at just the wrong moment to make eye contact.
“…So,” Tony says, and bites off another piece so he can delay the awkward conversation for half a minute more. “Are you… okay?”
“Okay?” Steve tears apart his crust with his teeth.
“Yeah,” Tony continues, propelled forward by mannered momentum. “With the, you know.” He tries to wave a hand, but a strand of cheese wraps itself around his wrist. “Ack. The, um, powers thing.”
“Oh. That.” Steve moves his lower jaw sideways, then back. He shrugs. “I suppose so. It’s… awkward.”
“How does it feel?” Tony blurts out, because he’s curious and was never very good at impulse control.
“I’m shorter.” Steve flexes his fingers. “A lot weaker, too. But you have to understand,” and here he looks at Tony, the same stare he gives during briefings, studied and serious. “I was Steve Rogers a lot longer than I was Captain America.”
Steve was always Captain America, Tony thinks, caught in the clear blue of Steve’s eyes. The super-soldier serum just allowed everyone else to see it.
Then Steve blinks, and the moment is broken. Tony sits back in his chair; he didn’t even notice he was leaning toward Steve, a body pulled in by gravity.
“You’re still you, huh?”
“Yes. That never changed.”
Tony breathes out slowly through his nose. “Lucky you.”
So life goes on. Tony doesn’t deal very well, to be honest – he drinks a lot and locks himself in his workshop trying to function like he used to, and when that doesn’t work he talks manically to Jarvis or rereads his college textbooks or throws a couple of hammers at the wall or drinks some more. The bags under his eyes grow until they’re practically helipad landing sites, and showers are a thing of the past. It’s like every self-destructive period he’s ever had, except there’s no sublimating by working in the ‘shop, only more misery.
The one good thing that comes out of the mess is the state of the company. He does what he can still do with an unnerving intensity, like that’s going to be taken away any moment too. Paperwork has never been completed so quickly.
Steve brings him food, sometimes. Pepper does too.
Today is different, though, Tony can tell. Steve doesn’t leave after he deposits the plate by Tony’s elbow, and when Tony continues to ignore Steve’s existence he touches him lightly on the arm.
“Tony,” he says, all concern with an edge of… something. “You’ve got to stop this.”
“Stop what?” Tony says, because he’s a gigantic bastard and doesn’t care right now.
“Killing yourself!” And oh yes, that’s definitely anger coloring Steve’s voice now. “Everyone is worried about you. I’m worried about you, Tony.”
That gets Tony to turn the little bit to look at Steve, but he has to adjust because he looks up and Steve is shorter than him now, and that just makes him feel worse, a little spurt of misery and he’s so tired of being miserable. Hating himself isn’t new; not being able to forget about it for at least a few hours is.
Steve looks at him, steady and immovable, and Tony realizes how he must look: haggard, worn, beaten, like when he was dying of palladium poisoning.
Like when he was in a cave, heart hooked up to a car battery.
Suddenly he can’t stand it anymore, the itchy oily feeling of unwashed skin and the dull headache from too little sleep, hair lank on his face.
“I need a shower,” he says, and watches Steve’s face change. The corners of his eyes crinkle, his lips curl up.
“Don’t be smug,” he says, and Steve tries unsuccessfully to smooth out his expression.
“Come join me for lunch in the kitchen after you’re done,” Steve calls after him as he heads for the stairs. Tony flutters his fingers in reply.
He spends nearly an hour in the shower, letting the hot water pound tense and tired muscles, scrubbing the filth off his skin. He shaves too, because his beard turned into an actual beard, and the precise movement of the razor is soothing. Eventually more of his face emerges and he rubs calloused fingers over it, the smooth skin tingling.
By the time he gets downstairs he’s starving. He devours one sandwich, then two, and then Steve makes him stop before he gets sick.
“So,” Tony says, looking anywhere but at Steve.
“So,” Steve says. He doesn’t sound mocking, only soft and understanding. It doesn’t help at all.
“I may have been slightly… difficult over the past week. Ish.”
“That would be a fairly accurate assumption, yes.”
“And then you came down to my lab and—well, normally Pepper is the only one who can—and I mean—“
Steve takes pity on him then, and lays a too-thin hand on his arm.
“You’re welcome, Tony.”
It doesn’t exactly get better, but Tony learns to deal. Steve distracts him regularly with various pop culture questions and they watch a lot of bad daytime television; Tony learns more about baseball than he ever wanted to know, and he pays Steve back by introducing him to speed-skiing in the winter Olympics. (Steve, naturally, finds out about ice skating as well and becomes horribly obsessed.)
Tony goes to more meetings on time than he has in the past two years combined. Nobody comments, probably afraid that if they do he’ll stop. Tony doesn’t even care. Anything, anything at all to distract him from what he can no longer do is welcome, and the company is at least something from his life before. He finds himself holding on tight to the things from what he thinks of as his old life.
Speaking of: Clint, it turns out, has nearly as many super-secret spy skills as Natasha did, and has uncovered an organization that may or may not have been responsible for the Avengers’ powerless state.
“So what you’re saying,” Tony is not happy, “is that there’s a secret group of evil wizards that want to take over the world.”
“Sorcerers,” Clint corrects as if it matters. “They’re the Black Sorcerer’s Council.”
“Oh, good,” Tony says. “That’s a completely helpful and descriptive name. How do we take them down?”
“Uh, I kind of hate to point this out,” Bruce says, “but can we even take them down? I mean, you and Clint are the only ones even remotely—“
“Field operational,” Steve fills in with a sigh. “Please remember the rule about using words everybody can understand, Bruce, and that includes you.”
“I know what field operational means,” Bruce says, who isn’t actually indignant at all. He just enjoys being able to argue, Tony can tell. “I know perfectly well what field operational means.”
“Oh yeah? What does it mean?” Clint says, who also enjoys arguing and has a particularly strange relationship with Bruce about it. They squabble constantly but Bruce never Hulks out. It’s very impressive.
Bruce is cut off before he can say the inevitable “fuck you,” except most likely it would sound something like “I have a 168 IQ and know the meaning of the words neutral pion decay and bremsstrahlung and you don’t, so there.”
“So,” Tony says loudly. Oh god, he’s the one putting everybody back on track, when did he become the responsible one? Everything sucks.
“So,” Natasha says, and Clint abruptly shuts up. “We know who our enemy is. Now we work out a plan to defeat them, yes?”
“About that,” Clint says.
Apparently the Black Sorcerer’s Council (hereafter referred to as the BSC, Tony decides) is very mysterious and has contacts everywhere, blah blah blah. What this sums up to is that they don’t actually know who the members are, they’ve just got a couple of organizations the BSC has their fingers in.
One of them is Stark Industries.
After Tony comes down from his seething rage, he has to admit that it makes sense. SI is one of the most profitable companies in the world, and certainly one of the most… high-profile. And they have a lot more access to cutting-edge technology than most other companies.
“I’ll deal with it,” Tony promises tersely.
“Take Natasha,” Fury orders. “She’s familiar with the company and has previous ties to you.”
“Yes, dad,” Tony mutters. Somebody kicks him in the shin.
“What about me?” Clint is sitting upright, attention focused on Natasha. “Where do I go?”
“You’re back in the field,” Fury says. Clint flicks his eyes towards him, then back to Natasha. He looks grim. “Working that end.”
Clint mutters something about “next time” and “rich guy,” but Tony doesn’t catch it. Bruce chokes a little.
“And what do Bruce and I do?” Steve says.
“Lay low,” is the reply. “And get ready.”
After Steve is… he doesn’t know what to call it, really. Serum-less? De-powered? Anyway, after, Steve spends a few days worrying before he begins damage control. He tries to pick up his shield and can barely lift it; gives it up as a bad job, and dedicates his time to reading strategy books and re-watching old training videos. Not everything came from the serum.
He also spends approximately half his time trying to stop Tony from killing himself.
Oh, it isn’t as bad as the other man flinging himself off tall buildings or jumping in front of bullets. (Steve still remembers Jimmy Meyers, just a kid, who saw his brother killed in front of him. The next time they went into the field he broke cover and gunned down seven men before taking rapid semi-automatic fire to the entire body. His dog tags had to be pulled out of the remains of his heart; he had no eyes to close.) Instead, Tony works insane hours and forgets that any sustenance besides coffee exists, neglects his personal hygiene and doesn’t talk to anybody with a flesh-and-blood body for days.
Steve brings him food and stays to make sure he eats; nags until Tony consents to take a shower; conspires with Jarvis to try and get him to sleep. Nothing works, not really, until Clint comes up with a solid enemy to fight.
Everyone but Steve has a job to do, and he’s starting to resent it. It reminds him too much of how Bucky clapped him on the shoulder and left him behind to go to war alone, spine straight and so, so vulnerable.
“Hey, man,” Clint says. “You’re still our leader. You know that, right?”
“Am I?” Steve says, more out of pique than any real doubt. “No, I’m sorry, that was unfair. Thank you, Clint.”
Clint shrugs. “It’s true.”
After he leaves, Steve nods his head. He is still the leader of the Avengers, no matter his current physical shape. And a leader has to have a plan of action.
He goes to see Nick.
Here’s the thing: the Avengers is mostly a reactionary unit. They’re deployed in response to a large, direct threat, usually urgently, and once the threat is contained their roles are over. Their current problem is a completely different kettle of fish: it’s a long term op, with multiple hostiles and their supporters. It’s more like a war than anything else.
Steve, then, is the general.
Coulson puts down his pen and looks up. “Captain America. What can I do for you?”
“A war room for the Avengers, please. Operation: Highlander is going to get—“
“Complicated,” Coulson sighs. “I figured. Send me your requisitions, I’ll arrange it. And Rogers—“
Dust is the only secret,
Death the only one
You cannot find out all about
In his native town.
“You have a board meeting at two,” Natash -- Natalie says, power-walking next to him in her flats. He knows better than to make fun of her balance issues now; he tried once when this whole arrangement first started, and she demonstrated that even if she didn’t have near-supernatural flexibility and reflexes, she could still break his nose with her fist if she wanted to.
“And?” Tony says, because he never has just one thing to do. And if he did, Natalie wouldn’t deign to inform him of something so trivial.
“Another meeting, secretly, in the dead of night.”
“Right, right.” Tony flaps a hand. “That. I assume a car will come to pick us up?” Steve is still living with him, after all, even if the rest of the Avengers are (temporarily) gone.
“You assume correctly, Mr. Stark.”
Natalie slips him a folder and walks away, hips swaying. Tony looks because it’s expected and also because Natasha has a fantastic ass. Especially in her pencil skirt.
Then he goes to dig up dirt on his own company.
Clint is going to kill Steve.
He’s stuck in the pouring rain with one handgun and a half-depleted magazine, undercover as an assassin-for-hire and surrounded by three of his ‘co-workers’.
“So, hey.” He brings his hands up slowly. “How about we forget about the part where you try and kill me and we all just go out and get some drinks?”
Yeah, he thinks as the first man lunges forward. That was kind of a long shot.
Three is exactly the wrong number of people you want to fight against if you expect to stay alive: too many to fend off and not enough to get in each others’ way. These three haven’t trained together though, and that gives him a slight edge. Enough to stay conscious and free through the initial attack, at least, and then he’s got a knife in one hand, gun in the other, and he gets off two shots (both miss, what the fuck is this magic bullshit anyway) before a hit to his wrist has the gun tumbling away. He takes a blow to the ribs, grunting, and then when the next man tries to lead in with a neck-strike he ducks and buries his knife in the guy’s thigh. Blood splashes: arterial spray. One down, two to go.
Assassin Two goes for a shin kick; Clint nearly grins because that’s classic Muay Thai and he trained in that for seven years. He gets a good hit on Two’s upper bicep before Assassin Three goes for a kidney and he has to pull his elbows in again to block.
The blow only knocks him back a little, but that’s enough – he slips on a patch of mud and goes down hard. Assassin Two goes for his legs; Three kneels on his chest and starts to strangle him. Clint writhes and kicks but isn’t able to get free.
Just as his vision is starting to go dark, black spots sparking across his eyes, he glimpses a familiar, pointy shape half-buried in the mud to his right.
One last desperate heave has his fingers close around the handle. He slices his thumb open but barely notices, opening Assassin Three’s throat with one swift movement. A desperate throw at just the right moment, Assassin Two looking upward from Clint’s knees, has the knife buried in Two’s eye. Both men go limp at almost the same moment.
The world is echoingly silent. Clint can hear nothing but the steady beat of rain and his own panting breaths, steaming lightly in the cold. Slowly the slimy feeling of mud filters into his senses, the almost metallic smell of blood and dirt.
He searches the bodies, pocketing two USB drives and various weapons before limping away.
“New information has come in about the Black Council.” Steve nods at Clint. It’s still strange to see Captain America short and skinny. Some people might even say he isn’t Captain America anymore, but Clint knows that isn’t true. Steve will always be Captain America.
“You’re welcome,” Clint drawls. He knows he looks like shit -- bruises ringed around his throat, hand bandaged, stitches winding their way over his eyebrow -- but that doesn’t matter, because he’s a fucking badass and the rest of the Avengers know it.
Well, maybe not Stark, but Stark is remarkably ignorant about a lot of things. It’s the whole billionaire aspect.
“Forget about the BSC,” Stark says. He keeps speaking in acronyms: hazards of going over to the bureaucrat side, Clint supposes. “What about Thor? It’s been a week since he checked in.”
“There was nothing to report last time,” Steve says. “He said his mother was working on it.”
“And she’s been working on it for a week.” Stark’s fingers drum on the table. “Do you know how much I could get done in a week before all this? Let me tell you, it was a lot.”
“Thor will update us when he updates us,” Steve says with remarkable patience. “If you’re really desperate, you could try talking to Dr. Foster.”
“Thor’s girlfriend?” He looks faintly horrified.
“What’d you do to her?” Clint asks. He’s honestly curious – Coulson hates Stark and Jane hates Coulson, so Stark should automatically be in her good books. The fact that he isn’t means that he must have done something pretty spectacular to piss her off.
“Who said I did anything?” Stark says. He looks at the wall behind Steve’s head, the map projected onto the table, the space next to Natasha’s ear. “I could be totally innocent.”
“But you aren’t,” Clint says, and then coughs. It goes on for longer than it should and leaves him doubled over in the aftermath. “Ow.”
“Water.” Clint takes the bottle blindly from Natasha’s hand, letting each sip sit in his mouth and trickle down his throat.
“What even happened to you?” Bruce says. “You look…”
“Like somebody beat you like a drum,” Stark finishes. “Repeatedly.”
Clint swallows one more time, waiting for the tickling under his Adam’s apple to disappear. “Oh, so you mean like you on a good day.”
“Clint,” Bruce says with an edge, and it’s still instinctive for the rest of them to move away slightly when they hear him upset.
“There were assassins,” Clint gives in. “Three of them.”
Natasha and Steve look unsurprised; Bruce and Stark both raise their eyebrows.
Stark whistles. “Lucky you got out alive.”
“What were you doing with three assassins?” Bruce demands.
“What did Stark do to Foster?” Clint shoots back. He doesn’t want to rehash what should have been a fairly easy mission. If he could still shoot straight those assassins would have gone down in seconds, and he could probably have captured at least one of them alive.
“I plead the fifth.”
”Avengers.” They all jerk to a semblance of attention. “We were talking about the Black Council, remember?”
“Using the captain voice is unfair,” Stark says. Clint secretly agrees. Also it’s creepy hearing it from somebody even Bruce could snap like a twig without Hulking out.
“I wouldn’t have to use it if you didn’t act like a kid, Tony,” Steve says. “So if we could get back to business?”
The rest of the meeting goes smoothly – as smooth as Avengers meetings ever go, at least. The flash drives are full of 10-digit alphanumeric codes, completely random as far as anybody can tell.
“SHIELD’s cryptographers are on it,” Steve says. “But they haven’t got anything yet. Tony, we were hoping you would work with Jarvis to decode it?”
“Yeah.” Stark is staring at the numbers and letters projected onto the wall, chin in his hand. “I can do that.”
“Good. Clint, you’re on downtime. Bruce, have you made any progress?”
“Nothing,” Bruce says. “Although did you know that, according to your blood samples, you pretty much shouldn’t be able to walk?”
“Thank you, Bruce, that’s very helpful,” Steve says dryly.
“Er, sorry. We may be getting somewhere on isolating the serum, though,” he offers. “Now that we have pre-serum blood to compare your original samples to.”
“I’m still working on the mole at SI,” Stark says. “It’s slow going. We have over a million employees.”
“Good luck with that,” Clint says. He’d rather be getting the crap beaten out of him than slog through twenty metric shit-tons of paperwork. Natasha shoots him a dark look; he widens his eyes to simulate innocence as well as he can. Her eyes narrow. Man, he’s going to be getting it later for not vocalizing his sympathy for her.
“Well,” Steve sighs. “I guess that it. Oh – just a heads up, I’m heading Operation: Highlander now. So you all report to me, and I’ll be coordinating with Coulson.”
Stark gives him a betrayed look. “You’ve gone over to the dark side?”
“It’s about all I can do now, Tony,” Steve says. “You know that. And Coulson isn’t a bad guy, really...”
Clint doesn’t stay to watch the two of them do their Starsky and Hutch, Gone with the Wind thing. There’s blue jello in the commissary with his name on it.
“So what, um, electronics use these kind of codes?” Steve and Tony are taking omelettes and pancakes as breakfast-for-lunch in the mansion.
Tony shrugs, pouring a liberal amount of ketchup over his eggs. “A lot of banking services do,” he says. “Some security systems, some licensing databases. We may never figure out what they’re for.”
“But if anybody can do it, it’s you, Jarvis, and SHIELD.” When Steve says things firmly like that it’s hard not to picture the bigger him, the super-soldier. Looking up to see him small and scrawny is a shock.
“Mostly Jarvis and SHIELD.” Tony’s mouth twists. “I’m not much use like this -- my pattern recognition is shot, at least for any coding exercises. I couldn’t even see a trending error in fuel consumption data yesterday, Jarvis had to point it out to me. He can run more of my projects than I can right now.”
“Tony…” Steve is frowning. He doesn’t like the way Tony talks about himself, Tony knows, angry and caustic and implying he’s expendable, but when Tony Stark is just Tony Stark, not Tony Stark: genius or Tony Stark: Iron Man, he is expendable. Fury knows it. Natasha knows it.
Everybody but Steve knows it.
“Yeah, okay,” Tony says. “I’ll stop if you do. ‘It’s about all I can do now, Tony,’” he mimics, lowering his voice to scrape gravel-rough in his throat.
“Well, it’s true,” Steve snaps. “I can’t even lift my shield.”
“You’re leading the operation.” Tony stabs his eggs. “I’m a baseline human – I was to start with. Now I’m not even a genius, which, let’s be honest here, was the only reason I could keep up with the rest of you.”
“Clint and Natasha are baseline humans.”
“Who are secretly super-ninja spies! I’m a civilian. Fury never even wanted me on the team, I had to fucking convince him – practically beg--“
He clamps his mouth shut, muscle ticking in his jaw.
“Tony.” Steve’s voice is calm, and understanding, and everything that Tony doesn’t want to hear right then.
“I’ll see you later,” Tony says abruptly, standing. He abandons his breakfast on the table with Steve, who watches him leave with dark eyes.
“I have good news and bad news, sir,” Jarvis greets him when he gets into the lab. “Which would you prefer to hear first?”
“Gimme the bad,” Tony sighs. He’s already regretting his burst of temper upstairs; Steve didn’t deserve it, not really. He just feels useless.
“There are approximately three hundred and seventy five employees that could be a spy for the Black Sorcerer’s Council,” Jarvis says.
“Great.” Tony flops back into his chair. “We’re gonna have to go through that. What’s the good news?”
“I have sufficiently absorbed enough knowledge about the running of Stark Industries that I may give you accurate information about nearly every employee you have hired, although only in relation to actions regarding the company.”
“Still waiting for the good news.”
“Selection of the spy out of the numbered suspect employees will be expedited. You now also have blackmail material gathered against nearly three thousand people.”
“Oh.” Tony taps his lips with a finger. “That could actually come in handy. Good work, Jarvis.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He calls up Jarvis’ list of suspects. It’s actually likely that Jarvis could narrow it down further, but Tony wants to err on the side of caution; even though Jarvis’ cause-effect correlation recognition and logic-based decision making processes are top-of-the-line, computer programs just don’t have that little extra touch, the gut-instinct of human intuition.
At least, not yet. Tony is – was, will be – working on it.
“Okay,” he says, expanding the list so each mini-biography hangs in the air, employee photo mugshot and basic info marching across space in orderly rows and columns. “What are our basic groupings?”
“A few employees have expressed marked interest in the supernatural before their employment at Stark Industries. “Jarvis highlights some people in red. “Many of those employees also had previous altercations with law enforcement.” About a third of the red-highlighted photos gain another outline of orange. So do an additional fifty-eight people not already highlighted.
“Others,” Jarvis continues, “are or have been engaged in embezzlement from the company.”
Three-fourths of the list light up green. Tony sighs. That’s a depressing number, if unsurprising.
“And the rest?” There are only a scattered few, isolated pockets of unadorned pale blue.
“Those that have impeccable records, fairly unknown backgrounds, and access to important information.”
“Awesome.” Tony thinks for a moment. “Get rid of the ones with established backgrounds, low-incomes, and who are embezzling money. And then the ones with any sort of serious criminal charges, you know, not just with parking tickets or jaywalking.” He waves a hand. “Stuff like that.”
About two thirds of the list vanishes. Tony drums his fingers on his thigh. “Lose anybody with lower than level four clearance.”
They’re down to about fifty names now. That’s still too many. He needs...
“Wait. Yeah, system in isolation – Jarvis, how many people know the other people on this list? Explode—“
He claps his hands together, throwing his arms out, names and photos flying apart into a cube. “And give me connections. Red to violet by increasing numbers, intervals as you see fit.”
“Calculating.” Tony paces while he waits, five steps each way. He only turns twice.
“Calculations complete.” Strings of light flicker into existence, a tangled, shimmering, rainbow web. Tony hums low in his throat, stepping back for a better view.
“Cut anybody red to yellow, would you?”
“Of course, sir.” The cube-web shrinks obligingly, only cool colors remaining. “Seventeen employees remain. Shall I call up more detailed information on each individual?”
“Jarvis, you are just reading my mind today.”
“I aim to please.”
Tony grins. God, he loves Jarvis. In that moment he also loves the seventeen suspects on his list – this is the first time in two weeks that he’s felt normal.
“Oh, you do, baby,” he purrs. “You do.”
“So we’ve got some names,” Tony says, trying hard to look anywhere but at Steve. “I’ve narrowed it down to seventeen people, but there’s still some digging I can do, try and trim the numbers down some more. Uh. You might want to… Well, if you haven’t noticed, you definitely haven’t been paying attention…”
“What, Tony?” Steve sounds calm. Tony sneaks a glance at him; he looks calm too, like Tony’s outburst over breakfast-lunch never happened.
“I’m kind of, uh, not really great with people? As evidenced by, uh, possibly by my behavior over omelettes, what is it with omelettes anyway, but—“
“I forgive you, Tony, please get to the point—“
“—really it’s not that big of a deal most of the time, Pepper is good at prompting me and I can schmooze with the best of them—“
“—so an extra set of eyes couldn’t hurt. You’re good at the whole,” Tony waves his hand in a circle. “People skills thing. Although in a nice way, maybe I should get Black Widow to look too, she’d know what an evil backstabbing spy would act like—“
”Tony,” Steve says, raising his voice. Tony’s mouth clicks shut. “Just – say what you mean. And don’t insult our teammates, please?”
“Well you gotta admit,” Tony says, then holds his hands up in surrender at the look Steve gives him. “Okay, okay, I respect Natasha, all right? Mostly because she could kill me with her pinky finger. Also, I was asking, uh, for you to help me with profiling?”
“Profiling?” Steve raises an eyebrow. Jeez, he’s really making Tony work for it.
“People stuff,” Tony says with finality.
Steve smiles, a lopsided quirk of his lips that stretches his cheeks and warms his eyes.
“People stuff,” he echoes. “Of course I’ll help.”
Clint wheedles his way out of the infirmary a whole half-hour early, promising solemnly to take his pain pills every four hours on the dot. There are a lot of pills; as soon as he gets to his quarters, he pulls up the top of the toilet tank and fishes out four ziplock bags. The contents of each bottle goes into its respective bag. It would probably be safer for him to just flush them all away, but that’s wasteful. Clint doesn’t like to be wasteful.
When he exits his room, Natasha is waiting for him.
“Oh, come on,” he says. He doesn’t buy into the whole ‘crazy ninja spy assassin’ mythos nearly everybody subscribes to the Black Widow, but she is kind of crazy-scary. “I already debriefed and got my check-ups done.”
“And I’m sure you took your pain pills,” Natasha says drily. “If you don’t want me to rat you out to Medical, you’ll come with me.”
“This is harassment,” Clint says, but follows her easily enough. “I want to file a complaint.”
“I’ll just bring up all the times you hit on me.” Natasha doesn’t even look back at him to slap him down. Ouch. Being grounded must be getting to her more than he thought. “Your complaint will be dismissed out of hand.”
“To be fair,” Clint says, “I don’t hit on you half as much as Stark does.”
“Stark can’t help being an idiot,” Natasha says. “You, on the other hand, can be professional. You just aren’t.”
“But where’s the fun in that?”
“Ha, ha.” Natasha slings him into an abandoned supply closet. Clint winces as it jostles his ribs. “Now. Tell me exactly what happened out there.”
“You read my report, I know you did.”
“What you didn’t include in the report, Barton.”
“Ah.” Clint raises his hands in surrender. “Sure, sure. But seriously, I put nearly everything in the report this time. Swear.”
“But not everything?”
“Gimme a sec, okay? I’m thinking.” Clint closes his eyes picturing himself back there in the pouring rain, breathing slow and loud in his ears.
Assassin Two has a belt buckle in the shape of a dragon, Clint notices as he pats him down. It’s beautiful, even covered in mud, outstretched wings and curled tail creating the frame with a long lick of flame for the prong. He has a cleft chin, a scar under his ear, and fingers that have been broken and healed multiple times. Assassin One has a scar over his lip and Magnum combat boots. Three wears a seventy-five thousand dollar Rolex wristwatch and carries exquisite, intricately carved throwing knives. Clint takes the knives – Three doesn’t need them anymore, after all.
“And that’s it,” Clint finishes up. “No real distinguishing marks, no indications about their real employers. All the orders I got were from the proxy. For all I know, they got theirs from a proxy too.”
“Hm.” Natasha stares into the distance. Clint narrows his eyes.
“What are you thinking?”
“Did you see the autopsy reports for the operatives you killed?”
“No. I wasn’t notified.”
“One of them had a dragon tattoo at the small of his back. The other had an ouroboros on his shoulder. With wings.”
Clint has been in the business too long to believe in coincidences anymore. “An organization,” he says, reverent. “Connected to the Black Council?”
“Unknown.” Natasha’s tone is crisp, factual. Her eyes shine. “But we’re going to find out.”
“Hey, didn’t I see your ugly mug yesterday?” Stark greets Clint at that night’s Highlander meeting. Maybe they should call them Gatherings; he’ll have to mention it to Bruce, the other man will get a kick out of that. “Those—“ Stark twirls a hand around his own face, trailing fingers over the ridge of his brow and cheekbone. “Those look even worse than before.”
Clint’s bruises have fully bloomed, mottling his skin in ugly greens and purples. “Still prettier than you,” he says.
Stark grins. “Aw baby.” He mimes clutching his heart, arching dramatically backwards. “You wound me! Were you just using me for my money? Does my affection mean so little to you?”
“I’ll forgive you if you buy me a car,” Clint offers.
“How do you feel about a Ford Pinto?” Tony says. “I bet I could dig one up just for you.”
“Ugh,” Clint says. “Never mind, I spurn your affections.”
“That’s all right, I’m taken anyway,” Tony smirks, one cheek pulling to the side. “Jarvis hates to share.”
Before Clint can tell him that objectophilia isn’t the way to go, and for Stark to make a dig about his unhealthy attachment to cupid props, Coulson sweeps into the room.
“Oh my god,” Stark says, blank. “You’re late. Later than me. Is the world ending?”
“Maybe,” Coulson says. Everybody straightens.
“I was joking.” Stark rubs a hand over his face.
There’s a beat. “So was I,” Coulson says.
A longer pause, this time accompanied by incredulous stares.
“Oh, you are so evil.” Stark sounds admiring. Clint feels the same. The two of them share an appreciative look.
“Thank you,” Coulson says, composed as always. “Now if we could get to work?”
“Nag, nag, nag,” Stark says, propping a hip up against the table.
“I will taze you,” Coulson says.
“I’ll help,” Natasha says,
Tony makes his eyes wide, sticks his lower lip out. “Would you really, though?”
“Yes,” Natasha says.
“Yes,” Coulson says.
“Nobody is tazing anybody,” Steve says. He stands from where he was sitting in a chair. “We’re here because we’ve gained some new intel. Natasha?”
Natasha walks over and grabs the magical clicky remote from the briefing table, hitting buttons until the screen at the front of the room shows a photo of a man’s lower back. A tattoo of a dragon snarls out at then, dark green ink stark against skin the unhealthy blue-white of death.
“The Green Dragon Society,” she says, and clicks the remote again. Now an ouroboros stares at them, following the subtle curve of a shoulder blade. “An occult secret society that originated in Japan. Members are dedicated to mastery of the body, supposedly can control the elements, and have the power of prophecy. There is no evidence that they require members to wear identifying marks.”
Stark frowns. “Then how do we know these guys are part of it?”
“We don’t,” Bruce says. “Right? We’re guessing. Extrapolating from likely data.”
Natasha nods at him. “Yes, exactly. These men probably weren’t actually part of the organization—“
“I definitely didn’t see any magic going on when they tried to kill me,” Clint inserts dryly.
“We are thinking that they wanted to be initiated,” Natasha finishes, glaring at him. Clint twitches his shoulder in a hey, sorry gesture. “If they wished to show their dedication…”
“Permanent ink, right. Not that tattoos are really permanent.” Stark drums his fingers on the table. “Okay, say that we’ve got another group of people out to kill us. What additional information do we have on them? Demographics, where they operate, anything?”
“Who says that the Green Dragon Society and the Black Council are separate?” Natasha says.
“You’re saying that the Council might be part of the Green Dragon Society,” Steve speaks up for the first time. “The leaders?”
Natasha shrugs. “It is possible.”
”Magic,” Stark mutters, disgusted. Clint is inclined to agree; when magic is involved, things tend to get weird. Giant bugs from other dimensions weird. He can live without that, thanks.
“Are we sure, though?” Bruce says. He’s leaning forward in his seat, clearly interested. “If we aren’t…”
“It makes sense,” Steve says. “If the Dragons are magic-users, and the people pulling the strings are the Black Council--”
“The Green Dragons are minions.” Stark pulls a hand down the side of his face. “Why do villains always have minions?”
“Because they’re evil?” Clint offers. Stark shoots him a dark look. “Admit it, you’re just jealous that you don’t get to have minions.”
Stark opens his mouth, pauses. Closes it.
“So we’re basing our supposition on a supposition,” Bruce says, bringing them back on track. “That’s risky.”
“Not everything can be backed up by data.” Stark turns to face the other scientist, frowning. “Sometimes you just have to – well, guess, because you know you’re right –“
“Tony, I know.” Bruce softens the statement with a half-smile. “You forget, I was one of the leading researchers in my field, and then I started looking into biology.”
“Half guesswork anyway,” Stark mutters, wrinkling his nose. “Nobody knows anything, it’s all ‘and we think the proteins do whatever to the thingamabob.’ Ugh.”
“So I know all about logical leaps,” Bruce finishes. “That doesn’t mean I like it, though. And especially not when it has to do with super villains and crime organizations. What if we’re wrong? We’d be heading down the wrong track, and wasted time could cost lives.”
“We’d be wasting time even if we didn’t guess,” Steve says. “It’s twisty enough to be an evil plot, but not too twisty to be utterly improbable--”
“Or something by Loki,” Stark says.
“—or something by Loki,” Steve agrees. “So this is as good a lead to work on as any. Tony, do you think you could narrow down the suspect list with this?”
“Wait, what?” Clint says. “We have a suspect list? Since when?”
“Since about three hours ago,” Stark says. “Bow down in awe.”
“Fat chance,” Clint snorts.
“Now now, children,” Coulson says mildly. Wow, not fair; he didn’t reprimand anybody else when they were arguing.
He shuts up anyway. So does Stark. Pissing off Coulson right then isn’t worth the two weeks of things going wrong in the kitchen, various tazing references, and mysterious lack of donuts in their general vicinity.
“So there are seventeen of them,” Stark bursts out after approximately .08 seconds of silence. “Seventeen subjects, and if we can get more information about the GDS Jarvis can probably narrow that down even further.”
“Less than five would be ideal,” Natasha says, a finger tapping thoughtfully at her hip. “Otherwise we’ll have to bring in more manpower than would probably be wise.”
“Five and under,” Stark says. “Got it. Maybe things will go right and we’ll get a nice number, like three.”
There’s a pause.
“Yeah, I doubt it,” Clint says.
“Pretty much,” Bruce says.
“Goddammit,” Stark says.
“That can’t be right,” Tony says. “Run it again.”
“The results will not change the fifth time I run the simulation.” Jarvis is annoyed. Tony is too, although not at anything in particular. More like everything.
“Just do it,” he snaps. Jarvis heaves an electronic sigh.
“Simulation complete,” he says sulkily a few seconds later. “The result is, unsurprisingly, identical to the previous four iterations. Sir.”
Sass. Usually Tony loves having somebody who can take his sarcasm and dish it back, but right now it just makes acknowledging something he doesn’t want to hear harder than it would be normally.
“Should have expected this,” he mutters to himself. “I mean, after Obie – Pepper did a good job of cleaning house, though, and I checked – Jarvis, how did we miss this?”
“Without information on the Green Dragon Society given to us by SHIELD, there was no way of knowing,” Jarvis says. “Mr. Satsura has never shown any indication of criminal behavior, nor of harming the company in an overt manner.”
“My own fucking Board of Directors,” Tony says. “I should just get rid of all of them and run SI myself.”
“Inadvisable,” Jarvis says. “Previous data shows that you would be unable to run the company efficiently for any amount of time.”
“Ye of little faith,” Tony says, but knows Jarvis is right. “Bursting my bubble with the truth. Okay, fine. Let’s say my Head of Project Development is a spy for a crazy magical cult.”
“The Green Dragon Society is more of a cabal, sir.”
”Sass,” Tony repeats, this time out loud.
“I apologize, sir. Carry on.”
“So Satsura is a possible spy for a crazy magical cabal—“ he pauses in case Jarvis wants to interrupt again – he stays quiet. “Along with some other people who don’t match the profile as well as he does. Correct so far?”
Tony sighs, propping his chin up on his palm. “Are you sure I can’t just fire him?”
“It would be prudent to consult SHIELD before any action is taken,” Jarvis says. He pulls up the ‘phone’ program. “Shall I inform Agent Coulson?”
“No, wait, lemme talk to Steve first. He’s team project leader or whatever now, anyway, right? I think I remember that happening.”
“You are remembering correctly, sir. Captain Rogers is on the roof.”
“The roof? What’s he doing there? Never mind, don’t tell me, I’ll go get him.”
Jarvis shuts down the lab interface as he leaves, programs and holograms flickering out. The air is cold and crisp outside despite the sunny weather – Tony misses Malibu, the temperate climate that allowed him to wander around in an undershirt and boxer when he didn’t have company. And he looks terrible in winter clothing.
Steve is wrapped up in what looks like an entire duffel bag’s worth of clothing, resembling nothing so much as a giant Pillsbury doughman. Tony bites his lip and moves to sit next to him on the floor, cool concrete slowly leeching the heat from his body.
“Hey,” he offers, leaning over Steve’s shoulder to look at what he’s drawing. “Oh, wow, that’s nice, Midtown, they have good skyscrapers to fly through.”
“Hi, Tony,” Steve says, distracted, carefully sketching another line.
“Steve,” Tony says. “Steve, Steve, I came up here for a reason, what was it, I wanted to talk to you.”
“Uh huh,” Steve says, and starts to shade his buildings with neat, even cross-hatching.
“You have really well-formed fingers,” Tony says, fascinated.
“What?” Steve says.
“You…” Tony is sure Steve would be flushing if his face weren’t already pink with cold. “You said my fingers were nice?”
“Did I? Oh. Sorry. Okay well no, not actually sorry, that was a compliment, learn to take a compliment, Cap.”
”Tony,” Steve says, and Tony heaves a sigh.
“Fine,” he says. “I didn’t actually come up here to just sit around and admire your bone structure. Jarvis and I think we’ve found our mole.”
“What?” Steve says again, flipping his sketchbook shut. “Why didn’t you say so, Tony?”
“I did!” Tony says. “I came up here and I said hi and I was going to tell you, but you were drawing and then I got distracted with your hands and you doing stuff and hey, I could probably build you gauntlets to help you throw your shield, although you’d need an exoskeleton to help support the weight and supplement body strength and are you sure you won’t just allow me to build you a suit? I could build you a suit, it’d be red, white, and blue and—actually no I couldn’t could I. Right. I was talking about the mole, wasn’t I? Um, what do you know about Stark Industry’s board of directors?”
Steve looks like he wants to address the suit issue but focuses (patriotically) instead on the question of the mole. “Well,” he says. “I know they exist.”
“That’s something, at least,” Tony says. “I wish I didn’t know anything about my board all the time. Okay, quick rundown. Ready?”
Steve nods. He’s got his sketchbook open to take notes, it’s precious.
“Board of twelve,” Tony rattles off. “Three for general finance stuff, they don’t really matter – the PR manager, technically Pepper as CFO, Personnel, R and D, and production. With me so far?”
“Mhm. So who do you suspect is the mole?”
“Dr. Kevin Satsura, head of Research and Development.” Tony sighs. “He doesn’t actually, you know, research or develop anything, he’s just the guy who signs off on all the projects. But the plans all get run by him, so he sees any new tech proposals, and Jarvis came up with his name after we implemented the new search parameters, so. “
“So,” Steve agrees. “And you’re sure about him?”
“As sure as we can be,” Tony shrugs. “The search is only as good as the parameters we put in, but Jarvis is the best and he ran the simulation five times. This is as sure as we’re going to get.”
“But not proof,” Steve says, distracted and chewing on the eraser of his pencil. “We’ll have to get Natasha or Clint onto this.”
“Natasha,” Tony suggests. “She can do her crazy secret-ninja-super-PA thing and bug his office. Hack his computers? Strangle him with his own tie and torture a confession out of him?”
“Tony!” Steve says.
“What? I only say these things out of love!”
Peril as a possession
‘T is good to bear,
Danger disintegrates satiety;
There’s Basis there
Tony, despite what various sources say, is a fairly straightforward guy. At his heart he’s an engineer: he sees a problem, he designs a solution. It’s just that his solutions aren’t always other people’s solutions, so he gains a reputation for capriciousness, strangeness, genius.
Another thing Tony is: good. Which means that once he knows about a problem, he can usually devise a solution quickly. Which is why, three weeks after Satsura’s name came up as a suspect and two weeks after he was confirmed as a suspect, Tony’s going out of his mind.
“Recon and infiltration take time,” Steve says, the 19283563th reiteration in as many hours. “Come on, let’s go get some hotdogs at the park. You’ll feel better with some sunshine.”
“No I won’t,” Tony says. “I hate sunshine. I’m allergic to sunshine. Leave me alone in my misery.”
“Come on, Tony,” Steve says. “I need you to buy me hotdogs.”
Tony ignores him for .006 seconds before: “Fine!” he says. “Okay, fine, hotdogs. How much do hotdogs cost, fifty bucks should be enough, right?”
Steve makes that little strangled noise that means he’s biting back something about how Tony is richer than god and it’s just so weird. “Yeah,” he says. “Fifty bucks should be more than enough.”
Which is good, because Tony doesn’t think he has any smaller-denomination bills lying around. He digs up a roll of fifties, pulls one out from under the rubber band, and–
“Wait,” he says, scanning the bill. “Wait, I saw—“
And then he’s grabbing Steve’s wrist and pulling him down to the lab, already telling Jarvis to pull up the codes, to scan this bill, no wait, here he’ll read it, L-six-four-three-three-five-eight-eight-seven-P, compare it to the codes they got from the USB Clint stole from the Green Dra—
“Code is a match, sir,” Jarvis says. The list of codes is already floating in the air of the lab as they stumble through the door. “Shall I run the remaining codes through all dollar bills currently in circulation in the United States?”
“Yes,” Tony says. “Absolutely, do it. Oh.” He notices that he’s still clutching the fifty in one hand. “Maybe we should run some tests on this too, to make sure it isn’t… booby-trapped or something. Covered in poison, or a radioactive isotope. Or crazy killer nanobots. Or magical.”
It’s kind of sad that he’s most afraid of the ‘magical’ option.
“Wait,” Steve says, and Tony realizes that he’s still holding on to the other man’s wrist. He drops it. Steve doesn’t seem to notice. “What just happened here?”
“Uh,” Tony says. “I had a flash of genius? No, no, wait, really, the USB full of codes Clint pulled off those GDS assassins, remember? They were full of codes but we didn’t know what for, right, and I pulled out this,” he waves the fifty around, “and saw the serial number, see, here, and it looked familiar and that’s because it was, it was on the USB and now Jarvis is comparing other bills in circulation with the list.”
He’s a little out of breath after that explanation, but only with excitement.
“Is that legal?” Steve says doubtfully, totally missing the important part of everything Tony just said.
“What, the scan? Um, I don’t know. Jarvis, is your scan legal?”
“You’ve instructed me to not inform you of things that could damage a claim of plausible deniability, sir.”
“There you go,” Tony says. Steve buries his head in his hands. “We can pretend you didn’t ask, if you want.”
“No,” Steve’s voice is muffled. “I needed to know. Jarvis,” he continues, raising his eyes to the ceiling, “try not to violate anybody’s privacy too much, please.”
“I shall endeavor to respect the sanctity of citizen’s artificial boundaries,” Jarvis says.
“But get the data,” Tony says.
“Of course, sir.”
Steve sighs. He looks so comically depressed that Tony throws an arm around him without thinking about it, and that brings the two of them awkwardly close together. Tony notices again how small Steve is – shorter than him, who’s usually the one who has to look up at the rest of the team, bony under Tony’s hand and putting out less body heat than he normally does, with a thinner jaw. He still has the same eyes though, the same full mouth…
“Tony.” Steve’s breath fans over Tony’s cheek. “What are you doing?”
“Have I ever told you that you have amazing eyes?” Tony says, and then kisses him.
For a moment Steve almost responds, mouth pliant and yielding, but then he stiffens under Tony’s hands and Tony’s mouth and when his hands come up to push Tony away, Tony is nearly ready for it. He ignores the sinking feeling in his stomach.
“I,” Steve says, eyes wide. Then he closes his mouth with a dull clack, turns, and walks out of the room.
Tony stands for a moment. “So,” he says. “I just fucked up royally.”
“If it is any consolation, sir, I have located three additional matching codes so far.”
“No,” Tony sighs. “It’s not really any consolation. But thanks for trying, Jarvis.”
“I could speak to Captain Rogers,” Jarvis suggests.
“No.” Tony doesn’t even have to think about. “No, leave him alone. I’m fine.”
“Very well, sir.”
“Hi, Clint. Could you hold this?”
A beaker gets shoved into his hands before he can answer.
“Getting close to a breakthrough?”
“Hm? Oh, not really.”
“…You able to take a break?”
“What? Um, yeah, wait a sec. I need to finish these cultures, and then I’ll be right with you.”
Clint leans against the wall to watch Bruce work, calm and competent in his white lab coat. He likes Bruce; the man is soothing. He likes Hulk too, actually, but in a different way.
“Okay,” Bruce says, squiggling something on the cap of his petri dish with a permanent marker. He meets Clint’s eyes for the first time since he walked in. “I’m done, what’s going on?”
“I’m bored,” Clint says.
There’s a pause. Clint flexes his fingers as he waits for Bruce to reply.
“Sorry?” Bruce offers finally. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“I was thinking about doing some reconnaissance.”
Bruce narrows his eyes. “Why don’t you ask Natasha?”
“Natasha,” Clint says with great disdain, “is being a narc. She thinks I should follow Medical’s orders.”
Bruce looks at Clint’s bandaged hand, the ring of bruises around his throat. “You aren’t at your best,” he says.
“I’m fine,” Clint says. “Come on, let’s go spy on Fury. Or maybe annoy Coulson into giving me an assignment.”
“I feel like I’m not needed for either of those activities,” Bruce says. “Also, you probably aren’t fine.”
“Come on, man,” Clint says. “Pretend it’s a team-building exercise or something. I’m dying, here.”
Bruce sighs. “All right. Coulson or Fury?”
“Coulson,” Clint says. “And bring that hallucinogen you cooked up that time, would you?”
Bruce fails to talk Clint out of it, although he gives it a valiant effort by speculating loudly about how much paperwork Coulson will dump on Clint if they let a hazardous substance loose in the carrier, let alone in Coulson’s general vicinity. Clint huffs and drums his fingers against where a knife would normally be strapped against his thigh.
Clint almost wishes Bruce won the argument, because:
“Hawkeye,” Coulson says, fucking appearing out of nowhere behind them. Bruce twitches, and then takes a few deep breaths. Clint yelps.
He schools his face quickly. “Yeah?”
“Briefing room. Now.” Just when Clint is going to let out a sigh of relief, vial of hallucinogenic liquid hidden safely in his pockets, Coulson adds, “And have Banner take back his test tube. I know whose idea that was.”
“Fuck,” Clint mutters. Bruce pats him on the shoulder and holds out a hand for the vial.
He makes his way alone to the briefing room, unsurprised to find it empty. Coulson had looked ever-so-slightly more harried than usual, thin lines tight at the corner of his eyes and mouth. Clint isn’t entire sure if it’s a good kind of stress or bad – Coulson is one of the hardest men he’s ever tried to read.
He sits down in one of the uncomfortable metal chairs and waits. Nobody appears.
A ginger poke at sore ribs elicits a soft hiss, but the pain isn’t debilitating. They’re healing all right, won’t inhibit his movement so long as he doesn’t do anything too rough. Footfalls on the floor outside alert him to another presence – too irregular to be Coulson, too heavy to be a woman, muffled enough that the soles have to be fairly soft. Stark?
Clint is lounging back in his chair, shirt back down over his torso by the time Stark walks in. At first the other man doesn’t even notice him, head bowed over a tablet and one hand flying over the clear surface.
“No, I know that we can—I definitely remember this from college, Jarvis, I haven’t forgotten everything—no, really—oh. Hi, Clint.”
He glances back down at the tablet, hits a button and tucks it away. “We’ll finish this later, Jarvis.”
Clint raises his eyebrows. “Talking to your robotic minions? Have you implanted a computer chip in your brain?”
Stark flicks his fingers dismissively. “A chip in the brain is so passé. If I gave myself cybernetic implants they’d be through nanotechnology.”
“Giant nightlight in your chest?” Clint says.
“Non-life-saving cybernetic implants, then,” Stark says, rolling his eyes. “And what are you doing here, I called a meeting like five minutes ago.”
“I may or may not have been caught by Coulson carrying hallucinogenic substances on my way to his office,” Clint says. “I deny all charges.”
“Brave man.” Stark stands for maybe ten seconds, fidgeting, before he pulls out the tablet again. He does something and a hologram of a man appears in the air, rotating slowly. “Here, look at this.”
Clint walks over and leans his hip against the table next to him. Stark has no concept of personal space; Clint uses that to his advantage and leans in close, inspecting the image. “Who’s this?”
“Kevin Satsura, head of R&D at Stark Industries. We – well, Jarvis and I, mostly – think he may be the mole. We’re working on another lead to back it up, but this is what we’ve got right now.”
“And we want to move fast,” Clint nods. “Not too fast, though. It’s good you didn’t tip him off by, I don’t know, firing him or something.”
“I thought about it. Jarvis talked me down.”
“Sad, Stark. It’s a sad day when your robot butler has more common sense than you.”
“AI, not a robot,” Stark corrects. Then, “I have common sense!”
Clint opens his mouth to reply.
“You really don’t,” Coulson says. Clint shuts his mouth.
“Holy shit,” Stark yelps, breathing heavily. “Where the hell did you come from?”
“The dark depths of your despair,” Coulson deadpans. “Or alternatively, the doorway. We got your message. Everybody should be here within the next ten minutes. Barton, with me.”
“Yes, boss,” Clint says, and flips Stark off discreetly when the man tries to give him a look full of false sympathy. “And can I say, boss, that you’re looking particularly sharp today?”
“This isn’t about the hallucinogen,” Coulson says. “You’re going to be needed on assignment soon. I need to know if you’re up for it. No obfuscating.”
“I’m fine,” Clint says. It’s even true, mostly. “I can handle it.”
Coulson nods. “Get cleared by medical before we send you off on whatever Stark has discovered. And stop trying to hide your ribs; body armor isn’t evil, and Kevlar is your friend.”
“But then how will I show off my godly physique?”
“You’re on a team with Thor and Captain America, Barton. Your physique is like a middle schooler’s compared to Bruce Lee’s.”
“I could be Bruce Lee as a middle schooler,” Clint offers.
“No,” Coulson says. “Black Widow will mostly likely be your backup. And Stark. Tell me there won’t be any problems.”
“Problems? I’m a paragon of restraint. If there are problems, they won’t be because of me.”
“Oh, believe me,” Coulson says. “I’m going to have a long talk with Stark about controlling himself.”
“He may be physically incapable of doing so,” Natasha says, striding in.
Stark looks up from where he’d been bent over his tablet. “I hope you’re saying sweet things about me, honeybunch.”
“We’re talking about how many different ways I could kill you and hide your body.”
“Ouch. Now this is the reason why I didn’t like working with you the first time around. You say the most hurtful things.”
“It was no picnic for me either, Stark.”
“But your outfit for the annual SI barbeque was so—“
“Finish that sentence and die.”
“Wait, how come I haven’t heard about this? ‘Tasha dressed up as a civilian for a company barbeque?” Clint perks up. This is gold. “Did she wear a sundress? A cute hat? Zories?”
“What are zories?”
“Flip-flops,” Coulson says. “It’s an east coast thing. Stark, you’ve been in Malibu too long.”
“Malibu is great,” Stark says defensively. “It’s got sun and beaches and martinis, things that are seriously lacking around here, come on.”
“Can we get back to Natasha going on a picnic?” Clint says. “Are there pictures?”
“I’ll kill you in your sleep,” Natasha promises.
“Children,” Coulson says. “Don’t make me put you on time out.”
“You aren’t the boss of me!” Stark brandishes a finger. The three of them stare at where it’s approximately two centimeters from Coulson’s chest.
Starks pulls back quickly. “Fine, fine. You guys are no fun, you know that?”
“We exist only to thwart you,” Coulson agrees. “If you refrain from speaking until Banner and Rogers get here, I’ll pretend Miss Potts didn’t do all your paperwork for you again.”
“She’s my assistant,” Stark says. “She assists me, is that so wrong?”
“It is when the paperwork is classified, Stark.”
“Pepper has clearance. I distinctly remember you giving her clearance.”
“Natasha, I want you to kill him. Make it look like an accident.”
“It would be my pleasure, sir.”
“This is harassment. Red light, red light!”
“Um.” Everybody stops to look at Bruce standing in the doorway. “What did I miss?”
Stark darts over to hide behind him. “Save me!” he says, peering over Bruce’s shoulder. “Coulson’s ordered a hit. He reveals his secret identity as a mob boss at last.”
Coulson’s mouth twitches. “You’re out, Stark.”
Stark snaps his fingers and grins. “Goddamn SHIELD don’t respect nothin’.”
“Here, women are more dangerous than shotguns.”
“But I don’t want to be sleeping with the fishes.”
“Aha!” Steve says, walking in just enough to catch the tail end of Stark’s sentence. “I understood that reference! It’s from that mobster movie, right?”
“Not gonna lie, Cap, but I’m a little bit worried about your priorities here.”
“Oh.” Steve blinks. “Sorry, yes, of course. Why are you afraid for your life?”
“Coulson’s ordered Natasha to kill me,” Stark says cheerfully. He claps Bruce on the shoulder and slides out from behind him, back to the tablet lying out on the table.
“What?” Natasha shrugs at Steve’s look. “Coulson ordered me to.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to.”
“Actually, it does.” Coulson stands easy with his hands at his sides. “Fortunately I was joking. Stark, are you ready?”
“Uh-huh, let me just… there we go.” He throws his hands wide, light projecting onto all three walls. “The good captain already knows this, but Jarvis and I could have found our mole. Dr. Kevin Satsura, head of the Research and Development team of Stark Industries. He drops off the grid every two weeks for a couple of hours, disappears for a weekend every month and a half. This has been going on for maybe a year. And he fits all the parameters of the profile, unfortunately. Go on.” He makes a shooing motion. “Read up, I already know it all. Jarvis, highlight the important bits, will you?”
Certain panels gain an orange highlight. Natasha makes a thoughtful sound in the back of her throat.
“What is it, Widow?”
“He likes to go out for lunch and coffee. That’s forty-five where he’s out of his office.”
“He likes to work with other people, though,” Tony points out. “Even I know that. It’s part of why we hired him, he’s interested in the department projects. It’ll be hard to get in unnoticed.”
“We’ll find a way,” Natasha says. “I’m more worried that there won’t be any incriminating information in his office. We may just have to follow him when he disappears on his trips.”
“According to this, he should be leaving sometime in the next three days.” Steve frowns. “That doesn’t give us a lot of time to set up surveillance.”
“Better three days than another couple of weeks,” Clint says. “Trust me, a short wait is better. Plus me and ‘Tasha have worked on tighter schedules, right ‘Tasha?”
“Yes,” Natasha agrees. “Salzburg comes to mind.”
Clint winces. “Oh, Salzburg.”
“What happened in Salzburg?” Bruce says. And then: “Hey, SI is working on a dingfrang foobery-shwing?”
“Yeah.” Stark preens. “I don’t remember all the particulars, not right now, but it’s going to be full of jabberwickkies, with a yodoodle of tibbermoddle quartifribbles.”
“Have you thought of—“
“Okay,” Clint interrupts loudly, because he refuses to take more of the incomprehensible science babble. “Can we get back to the spying, please?”
“We’ll talk about this later,” Stark says to Bruce. Bruce nods.
“It sounds like you and Natasha have a plan.” Steve acts like the past few minutes didn’t happen; Clint supposes it’s a good coping mechanism as any. “Do you want any assistance from us? Tony would be in the best position to run interference, since it’s his company.”
Natasha shakes her head. “No, he’s too high profile.”
“He’ll draw attention more than deflect it,” Clint agrees. “Just let us do our thing, give us a heads up if it looks like Satsura is heading back to the office early.” He turns to Coulson. “Sir, you in?”
“I’ll be coordinating,” Coulson says.
“All right then, crazy kids.” Tony claps his hands together. “It’s a playdate.”
The next day, Clint and Natasha have reached some sort of ninja spy pact and are breaking into Satura’s office with Coulon’s supervision. Tony has been banished with Steve for lunch. It’s… awkward.
He takes a vicious bite of his sandwich. This isn’t fair – he is, if not actually used to being more stupid than he was at age six, then at least coming to terms with the situation. And then he kissed Steve. Steve, with his niceness and understanding and heroism, and who is also probably straighter than a precision ruler.
Actually, considering his reaction when Tony planted one on him, his straightness is more of a confirmed fact. It’s not a hundred percent certain, though, because maybe Steve just isn’t into Tony.
The thought doesn’t exactly make him feel better.
Steve is focused intently on his own sandwich, eyes on the table. He’s acting a little bit like the kiss didn’t happen and a little bit like a teenager after a disastrous first date.
“So hey,” Tony says because he never knows when to stop, can’t hold himself back even when he wants to. “About the whole thing in the lab where I, you know, mauled you—we’re okay, right? I mean, you aren’t interested, it’s cool, you’re not homophobic or anything because you’re basically perfect, we can just blame it on stress and forget about it.”
“I…” Steve picks a little at his crusts, bits of bread flaking onto the table. “It’s not that you aren’t attractive, Tony.”
“Whoa, okay, stop.” Tony waves his hands; a piece of lettuce goes flying. “You’re straight, it’s fine, you don’t have to let me down gently or anything. I’m a big boy, I can take it. It was just a kiss, Cap.”
Steve frowns and starts sweeping his bread crumbs away. “Just a kiss?”
“Absolutely,” Tony promises. “You know me, playboy through and through, and have you seen your mouth? Not to objectify you, but, know. A little. You have an excellent profile.”
“Sometimes I’m appalled by the things you say,” Steve sighs. Tony grins because that, that there, Steve too exasperated to be awkward: that’s what Tony was going for.
“That’s better than most people – they’re always appalled by the things I say.”
“Yeah.” Steve’s face falls again, and god, what’s wrong with him? Was Tony that bad of a kisser? Did he provoke a Big Gay Crisis? Did he finally tip Steve over the edge from ‘fondly annoyed of Tony Stark’ to just ‘annoyed’?
“Seriously,” Tony says. “What’s wrong? I wasn’t that terrible, was I?”
“No.” Steve puts his sandwich down with determination. “No, you weren’t terrible at all.”
When Steve doesn’t continue, Tony raises his eyebrows. “So…?”
“Would you have done that if I still had the serum, Tony?”
Tony blinks. “Is this a trick question?”
“No. Try and be serious for five seconds, will you?”
“I am serious! I’m totally serious, look. Pocket-sized you is adorable, but normal-you, super-soldier-you? Fantasy fuel for the rest of somebody’s natural life. You are blazing hot.”
Steve grows steadily redder as Tony speaks. By the time Tony finishes, he’s flushed up to his ears.
“Oh,” he says quietly.
Tony’s jaw drops a little. “Was that what this was about?” he says. “You were being insecure, but backwards? What, you thought I was going to, to be overwhelmed by your skinny hotness and prey on your tortured emotional state to take advantage of you?”
“No! No, it wasn’t like that.” Steve’s shoulders are hunched. “I just… you could have anyone you want. Why me? Why now?”
“Steve,” Tony says, helpless. “I—“
And that’s when the car blows up.
“My friends!” Thor booms. “I apologize for my unconventional entrance!”
“I’m going to have to pay for that,” Tony sighs over the wailing whoop of car alarms. Thor’s arrival didn’t actually blow up a car, more like flipped it, but still.
“I bring good tidings,” Thor continues. “My mother, with the help of Heimdall, has devised a solution to our plight.”
“Yeah?” Tony says. “How about we take this to a more private location, huh, buddy?"
“Oh.” Thor looks around, and then down at the point where he’s standing, runes burned into the sidewalk. “Yes, perhaps that would be wise.”
“We should head back to headquarters,” Steve says. He brings a hand up to his ear. “I’ll inform Coulson.”
The office-casing mission turns out to be a bust, as everybody half-expected. Thor’s news is barely better.
“So we have to find whatever magical container is holding our skills and break it?” Steve has his arms folded over his chest. “Do we know where it is?”
“Do we even know what it is?” Tony asks.
“Only specific, powerful magic can block Heimdall’s gaze,” Thor reassures them. “We know the vessel to be a large stone urn, approximately two hundred miles to the south.”
“Approximately isn’t really good enough when we’re dealing with hundreds of miles,” Tony says. “Can you be more specific?”
“I cannot,” Thor says. “Nor may Heimdall—this is our quest, and we must complete it. He has given us what aid he can.”
“What about your mother?” Bruce asks. “Can she help us more?”
“We would not have this information if it were not for Frigga, wife of Odin. She is the one who determined the intent of the spell cast upon us.”
“Okay, then.” Clint shrugs. “Some of us search for big stone urns in Maryland. We can still run the surveillance op on Satsura in the meantime.”
“All right.” Steve nods. “Tony, Thor, and Bruce will work on finding the urn. Clint and Natasha will work the surveillance angle. Tony, I assume you’ll want to be in on that too. Coulson and I will coordinate. Remember, Satsura is probably going to act in two days. We all have to be ready to move, just in case.”
“Don’t worry about it, Captain,” Clint says. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
“Why did you say that?” Tony asks the ceiling.
Natasha hits Clint on the back of the head.
Despite Clint’s tempting of fate, there are no incidents of Murphy’s Law. They successfully track Satsura to a house in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. Clint, Natasha, and Coulson all warn the other Avengers to stay away; they are too conspicuous, except for Bruce, but Bruce doesn’t actually want to be stuck in a surveillance van with two master assassins and Coulson, so that’s all right.
“If you don’t stop fidgeting, I’m going to stab you,” Natasha says to Clint. She has a little Bluetooth communicator feeding her sounds from wires in the house.
“But this is boring,” Clint whines. “Why can’t I set up on a roof somewhere? Being on the ground sucks.”
“You know why I vetoed that,” Coulson says, not looking up from his crossword puzzle. “What’s a four letter word for ‘eviscerate’?”
“I feel distinctly threatened,” Clint says. “Can I complain about a hostile work environment?”
“We haven’t actually tried to kill you,” Natasha says, staring pointedly at the (seriously, pretty much totally gone) ring of bruises around his neck. “I don’t think your complaint will get very far.”
“Also, I deal with all the paperwork the Avengers generate,” Coulson says. “Guess how much consideration I’m going to give any complaint you file.”
“None?” Clint ventures.
“Negative consideration, Barton,” Coulson says, raising his head. “Possibly a negative imaginary number.”
“Ow,” Clint says.
“Aha,” Coulson says. “It’s ’rend.’”
“I have something,” Natasha says.
The two of them immediately lift their fingers to their own ears, switching on their earbuds. Clint winces at a quick burst of static, but then Satsura’s voice comes through clearly.
“—ant to be involved,” he’s saying. “You told me that if I could occasionally – occasionally! – leak you information on what we were working on, you’d help keep me undetected. Whatever you did, I don’t want it to affect my job. Mr. Stark has all but left the labs. This company, all those plans you wanted, they can’t continue without him there.”
The reply is a whisper, distorted. Coulson snaps his fingers at Clint, who nods and begins typing, running the audio through a filter. He plugs in a separate set of noise-cancelling headphones.
“Transcribe it,” Coulson mouths. Clint gives him a thumbs-up.
The audio still isn’t quite audible, but Clint manages to catch a “money,” “-enty percent cut,” “Council business,” and, miraculously, “meeting at the church in Bay Ridge. Be early.” When he pulls off the headphones and clicks his own feed to the house back on, only muttered swearing comes through the comm.
“Did I miss anything?”
“No. The other voice never spoke loud enough for us to pick up, and they ended the conversation. What did you get?”
“A meeting place,” Clint grins. “Once Satsura starts to move, we can be all over this.”
“Good,” Coulson says. “If I have to argue with you one more time about what kind of takeout we should get, I would have to fire you.”
“You love me,” Clint says comfortably. “So hey, can I set up on a roof now? We need more lines of sight.”
“Shut up,” Coulson says.
They know Satsura will move within the next twenty-four hours, so they gather everybody quickly. The rest of the Avengers take a private jet (not Stark’s, who complained bitterly but bowed to the necessities of keeping a low profile) and a rental car to rendezvous with them at a hotel.
“How many teams do we have available?” Steve asks, dragging around a holographic projection of googlemaps. He peers at a clump of trees, frowns, prods at the image to move it to a different angle.
“Three teams of five,” Coulson says. He’s got his cell phone open and is texting rapidly. “The best thing to do would be to hit them fast and hard. We can—“
“Stagger them in waves,” Steve nods, expanding the map. He points. “Here and here are the best places to breach the perimeter.”
“The second wave can be positioned here, in a van or two.”
“And a sniper here, and here.” The areas Steve tap light up red. “Iron Man and Thor should go in the first wave. They can slip in as the others stage a frontal assault to draw attention. One of them should be able to recognize and smash the urn."
“Both Black Widow and Hawkeye will be in reserve.” Coulson glares as the two of them start to protest. “You won’t be helping if you go in with the others. Once you get your powers back, you can help mop up the rest of the enemy.”
“Speaking of,” Tony saunters over. “Do we know if the BSC is going to be there or not? Because personally, I don’t fancy fighting a powerful cabal of magic-users with just a couple of SHIELD agents to back me up. No offense.”
“We checked out the church,” Clint shrugs. “There was nothing we could find. No invisible force fields, no creepy blood-splattered altars, nothing. It’s just a normal church. They probably only use it every once in a while.”
“So they’re an evil renting magical council.” Tony nods. “Classy.”
“Right?” Clint grins at him. “No deadly underground lair, contracting jobs out—evil cults just aren’t what they used to be.”
“Good for us,” Bruce says. “Let’s hope our luck holds.”
“Hey, if you get angry, head on over to help.” Tony claps Bruce on the shoulder.
Bruce sighs. “I’ll try to control myself.”