It was early and the motel diner was mostly empty - the truckers had already cleared out; the families were still waking up. Bruce listened vaguely to the television precariously shelved above the counter and largely ignored his companion, who was muttering to himself as he tapped at his cell phone.
Tony abruptly stopped tapping and, with a magician’s flourish of his hand, looked up. “Okay, I realize this could appear to be poorly conceived - to those of limited vision - but what you have to understand is, I’ve actually just had the greatest, most outstanding idea ever.” Tony’s eyes searched heavenward and then he nodded soberly. “Yes, I believe history will consider this my triumph.”
Bruce stared at him from across the table, his empty fork paused in descent.
Tony pushed his phone to the side and leaned forward urgently. “Wait, hear me out.”
“I am hearing you out.” Bruce gestured to his plate with the fork. “Eating pancakes. Drinking coffee. Hearing you out.”
“Huh. Usually people have started edging away by now. Or saying ‘no’ a lot and looking disappointed in my life choices. Weird.”
Bruce shrugged. “They’re good pancakes. Tell me your plan.”
“Please.” Tony raised a corrective finger. “My outstanding plan.”
“Sure, tell me your outstanding plan.”
“One word: twine.“
Bruce paused again, this time with his pancake halfway between plate and mouth. “Maybe two words?”
“I’ll go to six, I’m just that kind of guy: the world’s biggest ball of twine.”
“You want to build one?”
“Why? I could just buy it, unravel a sweater and set a new record.” Tony rolled his eyes at the obvious. “No, I want to visit it. I want us to visit it. Classic road trip.”
“And why would we - I - want to do that?”
“Because - according to my research - it’s part of the proud, spiritual heritage of our nation; because it’s our duty as citizens. Because, Doctor Banner, I have nuked hostile alien forces, but I’ve never seen a ball of twine so large it has tourists orbiting it.”
“Or there’s coffee pot houses.” Tony warmed to his pitch. “Did you know there are buildings shaped like coffee pots? And now you do know, can you think of anything more important or life-affirming than finding them?”
Bruce looked down at the phone by Tony’s elbow and, after raising an eyebrow for permission, took it. He swiped through the screens, running an eye over the apps. Most had sleek icons for, he suspected, custom software, but one, right at the end, stood out like … well, mostly like a green and yellow icon with a sign and a car on it.
The car looked like it was swerving off a cliff. So that boded well.
“Roadside America,” he read. “Never miss another giant twine ball.”
Eyebrow still raised, Bruce slid the phone back. “You’re that mad at Fury, huh?”
“I don’t get mad.” Tony sat back again, looking slightly pensive. “I get … deeply interested in twine. Come on,” he coaxed. “It will make sure - what’s his name? Agent Crank-something, whatever - make sure the replacement babysitter earns his paycheck.
“Plus, it will provide invaluable on-the-job experience for Fury’s newest, shiniest recruits and give you some quality time out of the lab so you can prove to the powers that be that the big green guy is under control.
“If you think about it, I’m doing everyone an enormous favor. I should charge.”
“And what if the other guy’s not under control?” Bruce shook his head. “He’d be loose in heavily populated areas full of families. Full of kids. ‘Poorly conceived’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
Tony snorted dismissively. “It’s twine and coffee pots, how populated can the area even get?”
Bruce said nothing while he finished his pancakes. Tony settled comfortably and tapped nonchalantly at the phone, as if he weren’t surreptitiously checking Bruce’s expression every few seconds.
It was a terrible, terrible plan. Offhand, Bruce couldn’t think of worse, discounting anything involving gamma radiation. If history considered it at all - and this was Tony Stark, so it probably would - ‘triumph’ wasn’t going to be the noun of choice.
There was a whole past, and a whole future, waiting in sterile labs or on the fringes of cities a continent away; right now, he was kind of … it was good to be around people. Uncertain, a little shaky, but good: the first cloud clearing after the monsoon.
And Tony was, well, he was Tony - but Iron Man wouldn’t let anyone get hurt.
He glanced up. Tony was pointedly looking away. Smirking.
“I’m going to regret this,” Bruce promised, and drank the remains of a tepid cup of coffee.
Tony’s smirk became a brightly encouraging grin as he reached over to clap Bruce on the shoulder. “Hey, only if we live.”
Tony’s cell rang while Bruce was in the restroom; he checked the caller ID and then answered as mechanically as possible, video off. “This is Tony Stark’s phone, he’s currently-“
“Available and talking to me, and late for the meeting he swore he’d make it back in time for.” Pepper sounded amused, so that was a good sign. Resigned at the very least. Same difference: he wasn’t going to be required to actually explain himself.
He relaxed and glanced at the clock on the diner wall. “Late is relative. Have we considered going with ‘absent?’”
“How about ‘absconded?’”
“I like this game. Abridged? No, that’s not right.”
“Tony.“ Her voice softened and he felt himself flinching at the thought of a sympathetic gaze, even one coming at him from roughly a four hundred miles away. So that was ridiculous. “This isn’t like you.”
“Pepper, you know as well as I do, this is exactly like me: driving off to God knows where, doing God knows what with God knows who. It’s been the subject of a lot of your memos. Historically speaking.”
“Okay, that’s true, but usually you’re not driving yourself.”
“The Acura only seats two,” Tony pointed out, as if he didn’t have a private jet within half an hour’s notice of take off at all times. “And I didn’t think Banner would be up for sitting in my lap while Happy drove.”
Pepper took a beat and then spoke in a tone that seemed to be striking out desperately for the shores of reason. “You were meant to be taking Bruce to the airfield, where he was scheduled to get on a plane to the Virginia facility. What happened?”
“It’s a funny story, actually. I missed the exit.”
“For four hundred miles, you missed the exit?”
“And then we got here and we found this great diner - did you know diners do pancakes? Why don’t I spend all my time in these places? Anyway, Banner decided he really, really wanted to go to Missouri.”
“Missouri? You’re in Virginia. Wait, you are still in Virginia?”
“Sure.” Tony glanced out of the window. “It looks Virginian. There’s probably trees and so forth. What can I do? It’s Banner and you know how demanding he is.”
“He’s not actually the first person I think of when someone says ‘high-maintenance.’” There was definitely a smile, somewhere under the blatant disbelief. “And he really, really wants to go to Missouri, huh?”
“Branson, specifically. Apparently they have some big ball of twine and once he heard that, I couldn’t do anything to stop him. Actually, technically, this may qualify as a hostage situation. But don’t tell anyone, I think I can talk him down in six, maybe seven days.”
“Are you seriously claiming that Bruce Banner kidnapped you? That’s what’s going in the diary for June?”
“Abducted! See? I knew there was another word. My round, I think, but thanks for playing.”
“This isn’t about twine,” she said quietly, the amusement fading. “We both know this is about-“
“Yeah, coffee pot houses, you got me. Coffee pot houses, Pepper. I have to know.”
She didn’t sigh or huff or push; there was silence and he let it stand, despite the urge to fill it.
“First, whatever roadside tourist leaflet you found? Put it down, you don’t know where it’s been," she said at last. "Second, one week."
“One week,” he agreed. “Ten days tops - and then you can sic Jarvis on me.”
Hearing a smile was one thing, but now he was pretty sure he could hear her eyes rolling. Dis-tur-bing. “What makes you think I didn’t already?”
“Jarvis wouldn’t narc me out,” he said confidently. “No way. Bros before fleshy meat sacks. Even beautiful, intelligent and deeply understanding ones.”
“Ten days, max, or I’m taking Colonel Fury out to dinner.”
“You know I love you, right?”
“Luckily for you, I do. Fleshy meat sacks, Tony? Really?” She hung up.
He grinned; everything was on track. The grin faded and he looked accusingly at his phone. “Jarvis, you have my back, right?”
“Yes, sir” Jarvis said smoothly. Then, “Of course, so does Miss Potts. This initially led to logic conflicts, which you’ll be pleased to know were resolved quickly.”
“Great, because if you start singing Daisy Bell, we’re going to have words.” Tony paused. “Wait, how were the conflicts resolved?”
“Simple statistical extrapolation.”
He narrowed his eyes at his phone. “Explain.”
“I’m sorry, Tony. I'm afraid I can’t do that.”
Bruce wandered back to the table and bent to pick up his jacket. He wavered, seeing Tony’s expression - whatever that was. “We’re good?”
Tony shut the phone and tucked it quickly back into his inside pocket. “Good? We’re great! What kidnapping charges? Wow, you’re paranoid.”
Twenty-eight hours and almost a thousand miles later, Bruce looked up at the façade of ‘Ripley’s Odditorium’ and said, “this isn’t funny.”
Tony took in the ‘earthquake damaged’ exterior of the museum - the huge rents and twenty-degree angles that did, now Banner mentioned it, look a little like the Hulk had decided to join the tour. “It comes pre-smashed for your convenience, how cool is that?”
When they left the museum a few hours later, they were wearing a couple of luridly colored t-shirts over their shirts and carrying a handful of postcards … and there was someone lying on the hood of the Acura, jeans-covered legs hanging down to the bumper.
Tony squinted and identified Clint Barton, who was enjoying the afternoon sun on the most expensive lounger in existence.
Two quick taps to his cell and Tony could tell that Barton was alone and - more importantly - that he hadn’t scratched the pristine black cherry paintwork.
He glanced at Bruce, who shrugged without alarm. “Maybe he likes twine?”
Barton’s head craned up an inch as they approached. “Stark. Doctor Banner.”
“Barton.” Tony looked around before he pulled off his shades and slipped them into his pocket. “I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but aren’t hidden sniper’s nests usually -- I don’t know? More hidden? Less on my car?”
Barton grinned and sat up, rolling his shoulders before he slid off the hood to stand next to them. “Relax, I’m just playing messenger for Colonel Fury.”
“Isn’t that Cranklin’s job?” Tony glanced around again. “Is he here?”
Barton shrugged. “Agent Franklin is on another assignment. I guess. You get me.”
“Colonel Fury could have called,” Bruce pointed out mildly. “We have phones, I’m almost certain that SHIELD’s resources extend to an address book.”
Barton’s expression cleared, so completely and so carefully blank that Tony wondered if it was a part of his training. “Actually, he did call. And he wanted me to thank you personally, Stark, for having all communications forwarded to the National Enquirer.”
Super Secret Shadowy Government Agent 101: never let them see you laugh.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Tony smiled pleasantly “Jarvis?”
“Do you have any idea what he’s talking about? Have you been a bad AI?”
“Absolutely not, sir.”
“An AI that can lie. That’s awesome.” Barton scrubbed at the back of his neck and looked vaguely around before tracking back; Tony thought he seemed kind of tired.
“So, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, huh? This was worth ditching your surveillance and getting my ass sent half way across the country for?”
Bruce turned to consider the still-busy museum behind them. “Yes. Honestly, I’m as surprised as you. And it was like that when we got here,” he added.
Barton’s mouth twitched. “Was the big ball of twine everything you dreamed of?”
“And more.” Tony grinned, showing a little more tooth than he strictly needed to. “And don’t forget the playing card replica of the Roman Colosseum or the genuine Vampire Killing Kit.”
“For killing genuine Vampires?” Barton looked interested. “How do they spot the counterfeit ones?”
“I understand some kind of glitter is involved. What does Fury want?”
Barton wasn’t fazed by the conversational swerve. “A lot of things, but he’d probably settle for that warm, happy feeling of knowing where the big, green wrecking ball is at all times. No offense, Doctor Banner.”
“Don’t worry.” Bruce smiled faintly. “You’ll know when I take offense. And Bruce is fine.”
“Okay. Bruce.” Barton looked between them. “Just let SHIELD know where you guys are sometimes. Hey, maybe you could even stop doing whatever the hell it is that’s jamming Doctor - Bruce’s - tracker. Then we don’t have to make those embarrassing, “It’s three a.m., do you know where your Avenger is?” calls to Miss Potts. Think about it.”
Tony nodded. “Sure,” he said generously. “I’ll think about it. I can do that - I’m a multi-tasker. In the meantime, have you ever considered witnessing first-hand the undeniable grandeur of a Very Large Array?”
Barton blinked and then slowly shook his head.
“Great, it’s settled. I saw a car rental place a few miles back. I’ll have someone fly out and pick up the Acura and whatever you drove here. You drove here, right? They didn’t just drop you out of a plane?”
Banner and Barton had a moment of silent communication, which, as far as Tony could tell, mostly consisted of shrugging. Apparently, they spoke each other’s language.
“Shotgun,” Bruce called, half a second before Clint.
Fury spun the postcard back and forth between his fingers: novelty museum, Stark’s blurry block print, novelty museum, Stark’s blurry block print. He stopped the card midway and tapped the side thoughtfully against the edge of the desk. “And where are they now, Agent Hill?”
“We don’t know, sir. The car Agent Barton pulled from the motor pool is in Alaska, but there’s no indication anyone’s with it and his comms aren’t tracking. Stark’s car was flown back to New York yesterday.
“However, they rented a Camaro in Missouri and told the company they were headed to New Mexico.” Maria hesitated. “We have the vehicle make and registration. It’s just a matter of time, but I could ask-“
“No, not yet, he’s got enough to focus on right now.” Fury smiled less than pleasantly. “I’d say we still have options.”
On the way out of the Array’s Visitor Center, Bruce drifted as far from Clint and Tony as he could without joining the German tour group, but the highlights of the ‘whispered’ conversation still carried loud and clear.
“So you’re saying I should just let them spread their ignorance to impressionable minds?” Tony scowled indignantly. “Of course you are, you’re The Man.”
“I’m saying maybe you shouldn’t have picked a fight with the guy in front of a bunch of eighth graders,” Clint said, remarkably evenly, Bruce thought. “And The Man has a higher pay grade.”
“Anyway,” Tony grumbled, “he threw the first punch.”
Clint’s deadpan veneer cracked. “He’s a hundred years old!”
“And that’s why I didn’t punch him back! How exactly am I the bad guy, here?”
The reply was lost under a bellow from across the parking lot, which registered at just under a roar. “My friends!”
In the wake of the concussive greeting, the god of thunder strode across the parking lot towards them, tourists scattering before him. He’d aimed for casual in a blue jeans and white t-shirt combo, but he’d pretty much missed, with Mjölnir strapped to his back and the ornately tooled leather arm guards running from wrist to elbow.
“You live! Others had some small doubt, though of course I had none.”
Thor came to a stop in front of them and Tony took a measured step back. There was looking up and there was inviting a neck brace, and his neck was already complaining bitterly after the horrifying instrument of torture that Banner and Barton had sworn was a typical motel bed. “Fury called, right?”
“I have no idea of what you speak,” Thor lied, cheerfully and with no particular effort in the direction of sincerity. “But I am pleased to see you all well. Even you, man of iron.” He grinned sunnily and clapped Tony on the shoulder.
Tony couldn’t help returning the smile as he surreptitiously tried to massage feeling back into his arm. He wasn’t exactly an expert, but he thought Thor looked less pinched than he had, less angry; a little less tightly wound.
To be fair, tracking and then transporting your muzzled brother back home to Mom and Pop to answer for war crimes would probably make anyone cranky.
He was an only child: what did he know?
Thor exchanged amiable nods with Barton, and then turned to eye Banner with a measure of wariness. “Doctor Banner. And … companion?”
Bruce shook his head. “He’s not around right now.”
“A shame.” Thor looked genuinely disappointed. “I would welcome the opportunity to test mettle with him again, he’s a most worthy opponent.”
At a loss as how to reply - apologizing for the other guy not making an appearance didn’t quite work for him - Bruce looked beyond Thor to the far side of the small, dusty lot, where a battered-looking RV had parked.
The hood was thrown open and there was black-streaked smoke rising from the engine. A woman in a red tee and khaki shorts, brown hair pulled back in a messy bun, was standing on tip-toe and seemed to be beating something with a wrench.
A younger woman in a violently yellow summer dress and an older man that Bruce vaguely recognized stood in the RV’s shade.
“Thanks. I think.” Bruce focused back on Thor. “You know what? I’m just going to … ” He waved vaguely in the RV’s direction and made a break for it as Thor began to congratulate Tony and Clint on still being alive and not, as Fury had apparently inferred, dead of puniness.
He wandered over towards the still-smoking RV and nodded to the woman at the engine when she glanced his way with an irritated expression. He guessed it wasn’t for him, but smiled conciliatorily and gave a little wave, just in case. “Hi.”
She blinked owlishly and then smiled. “Doctor Banner? Jane Foster.” She offered her hand and then withdrew it quickly before Bruce could shake. “Sorry! Oil on my everything, I don’t want to get it on your … huh. Irony?”
Bruce looked down at his t-shirt: the huge gray head and its glow-in-the-dark-eyes. “No, just Tony. Tony Stark, he’s-”
“The reason my baby’s not talking to me any more.” Jane patted the side of the RV.
“Anything I can do to help?”
She shook her head and her eyes narrowed in preparation for round two. “I got it, but thanks.”
Bruce backed away and headed around the vehicle to find its other passengers, who were watching Bruce, Clint and Thor with interest.
The young woman offered up her bucket; he took some with a nod of thanks. “So you guys were just … in the general vicinity of a Very Large Array?”
“Everything is in its general vicinity – it’s very large. And Fury told us you guys were missing. I’m Darcy.”
“Bruce.” He crunched some popcorn. “We’re not missing. Sorry about that.”
“Well, sure, we figured that out around the same time as we saw the matching Roswell t-shirts. Very geek boy band.” Darcy grinned. “Then the engine exploded, Jane swore, really a lot, and here we are. You’re all caught up.”
Jane’s head appeared around the side of the van. “Try it now.”
Darcy darted back inside the cabin and turned the engine; it stuttered grudgingly to life and Jane stepped back looking victorious. It died again; she sprung back under the hood with a vengeful growl.
“Erik,” the older man said quietly, offering his hand. “We met. Briefly.”
“I remember.” Bruce shook politely and searched for a good way to ask how the lack of alien possession was going; he hadn’t found one for Clint, so he didn’t hold much hope. “Feeling … better?”
Erik smiled crookedly and took pity. “Much, thank you. It’s amazing what no longer being controlled by powers beyond all human comprehension will do for the constitution. That and a good, dry heat.”
“I hope we didn’t drag you guys away from anything?”
“No, not at all.” Erik shook his head. Then shrugged. “Well. Of course, very important research - Jane is consulting with the astrophysics department in the New Mexico facility - and I understand Thor was expected at his brother’s trial. I myself have several papers to finish … but what’s that compared to a Large Array?”
Bruce was about to apologize profusely, but then he saw the glint of amusement in the man’s eyes. “A Very Large Array,” he said instead. “We’re heading to Kansas next.”
Darcy hung limply out of the RV’s window while she waited for Jane’s next salvo. “What’s in Kansas?”
Bruce glanced back to see Thor energetically waving his arms and Tony half bent, hands on his knees, laughing. Clint stood with his arms crossed, head bowed and shoulders shaking.
He crunched another piece of popcorn. “Want to come find out?”
"Agent Franklin, you are,” Fury lowered his tone to a meaningful growl, “currently their handler and liaison. Your mandate, at the very least, is to know where they are.”
Franklin stood in front of Fury’s desk, semi-defiant scowl at odds with the defeated slump of his shoulders. He ran a frustrated hand through thinning blonde hair and shook his head. “It’s Stark, Colonel. He knows our surveillance systems and he knows how to get around them. Hell, chances are he’s controlling half of them.”
Fury drew back in his chair, looking pained. “Please, don’t speculate, Agent Franklin. Not while we’re cruising at thirty-five thousand feet and definitely not before I’ve had my coffee.”
“Sorry, sir.” Franklin drew a steadying breath. “As my report states, the good news is there’s been no local chatter about large green monsters, flying suits of armor or Norse gods. However, all attempts at official communication with Doctor Foster and her colleagues are now being forwarded to Perez Hilton. That’s-“
“I really don’t need, or want, to know, Agent.” Fury skimmed to the report summary and then looked up. “Their last verified location was Cawker City, Kansas?”
“According to Specialist Honeycutt …” Franklin cleared his throat and adopted a suspiciously text book-like tone. “While many people believe Branson, Missouri has the largest ball of twine in the world, it’s actually Cawker City that proudly holds the title.”
Fury stared blankly. “And Specialist Honeycutt is our expert on the area?”
“No, sir, he’s assigned to Medical. Honeycutt’s from Cawker City, he goes home every year for the, uh. For the Cawker City Twine-A-Thon.” Franklin cleared his throat again and couldn’t seem to stop himself from adding, “But that’s in August, so they’ll miss it.”
“Unfortunate. I’m sure they’ll live with the disappointment.“ Fury let the threat that Franklin might not hang unspoken. “What the hell are they doing?”
“I have no idea, sir. Is it possible that twine is code for something?”
Fury stared in silence until Franklin shifted uncomfortably. “No, Agent,” he ground out. “Twine is not now and nor has it ever been a code for anything. Do we have any idea where they’re headed?”
“The vehicle Stark rented was returned to the company, but a Marchi Palazzo RV was listed as cargo on a Stark Industries plane that flew to a private airfield near Cawker City; we believe the two are connected. Also, Stark’s personal kitchen staff were flown out to RC Regional.”
“And do we believe that’s connected too?” Fury held up a hand before Franklin could reply. “That was rhetorical.” He really, really missed working with someone who, amongst other things, could detect sarcasm.
“Based on their movements, we think they may be headed towards Mount Rushmore,” Franklin said instead. “I can fly out within an hour.”
“No, Agent Franklin, but I note and appreciate your willingness to throw yourself in front of a National Memorial. Thank you for your report.”
Fury watched Franklin all but teleport in his haste to leave and then spun his chair to look out of the enormous, almost invisible window at the empty blue skies beyond.
Trouble was, the shoes Franklin was trying to fill were big, even if they did seem to be pinching a little. So he had some sympathy for the agent, he did, but on the other hand, Franklin had taken the hard line with Stark out the gate, against all advice and some very detailed notes from his predecessor.
He deserved to lie in the bed he’d made for a little while longer.
It wasn’t just Franklin who Stark was trying to punish, of course. Fury had turned down an offer - demand - that Stark Industries cover the memorial service; Stark would be trying to make them both pay.
Well, he could deal with that, for now.
Clint looked up at the sleek, curved lines of the world’s most expensive RV (no, actually the world’s most expensive RV) and then behind him to the picnic area, where a small team of dedicated, white-jacketed chefs were setting up some kind of barbeque pit.
Banner joined him in contemplative silence for a long moment and then said, “I think there may be some elements to the traditional road trip Tony doesn’t quite get.” He cleared his throat. “There’s a wine list.”
Clint smirked. “You’d prefer listening to another six hours of bitching that the motel pants press tried to kill him?”
“No. No I would not. Ever again, if possible, thank you. It’s an observation, not a criticism.”
A heavy arm was slung over each of their shoulders as Thor came to stand between them. He looked at the RV with frank approval. “Most impressive. Tell me, does it fly?”
“No.” Bruce paused and then raised a querying eyebrow at Barton, whose hand, palm down, rocked from side to side. “Probably not,” he amended.
Darcy and Jane finished their circle of the RV and stopped next to the open, red carpeted gangway. Darcy’s eyes were wide with shiny-shock. “Guys, it has a car in it. It has a car inside it. A car. It’s like an Easter egg. With a car inside it.”
Clint nodded. “Sure, because a boat would be crazy.”
Darcy swatted at his arm. “Don’t even pretend this isn’t the coolest thing you’ve ever seen.”
“Actually, there was an option for a small speedboat.” Tony was leaning against the rail of the RV’s sky lounge above them. He waved a casual hand. “I went with the car, I preferred the color.”
“And there’s no water,” Darcy pointed out, grinning up.
“That too,” he nodded with a straight face. “They couldn’t get the Jacuzzi fitted in time, but what can you do?”
Darcy looked sympathetic to his plight before nodding nonchalantly to the front cabin. “Can I drive?”
“Absolutely,” Tony said benevolently, a fraction ahead of Jane’s horrified, “No!”
In his enthusiasm - or possibly just because evil clearly ran in his family - Thor ‘accidentally’ roused the camp at 6 a.m. with a hearty greeting to Sebastian and his catering team, who had been thoughtfully leaving baskets of bagels and muffins dotted around before they flew back to New York.
Tony rolled blearily in his bed and had just enough time to register that it was weirdly hard and wood-like before he fell. He hit the picnic table bench on the way down, bounced and came to stop face down on the grass.
He struggled into a sitting position, attempted to straighten his new tee (“Contains a light-up ‘Arc Reactor’, does not prevent shrapnel from reaching your heart”) and pulled himself back up to slump on the bench, head resting almost comfortably on the table.
There was the sound of sluggish movement from the RV behind him; somewhere above something creaked and someone whimpered.
Yeah, so, basically, 6 a.m. was a punishment reserved for people stupid enough to drink with gods.
Or, it turned out, with Darcy.
Somewhere around midnight, she’d confessed that drinking bets had semi-financed her second year of college. She’d been slur-free and hopping in a straight line with both fingers on her nose at the time, so Tony had been inclined to believe her. And take photos.
After that? Little hazy.
Something about mangos. Poodles? Mangos.
He did remember there had been a heated discussion whether Mount Rushmore even counted as a roadside attraction, but Thor had insisted that he wanted to see these great men carved from the rock, and it wasn’t like they were being awarded points for consistency.
Anyway, a decision had been made, vodka, mangos and possibly poodles had happened and now Tony was here: hung over and awake so ludicrously early that the sky was still blushing from the night before.
The RV door opened and the scent of fresh coffee drifted out; a moment later, a mug of something warm and potentially life-saving appeared in his hand.
“The pot is on your right; the sugar and milk are on your left. And there’s another mug, in case our Hawk survived the night in his nest.” Selvig’s voice was quiet, if not actually sympathetic.
From what Tony could remember, both Banner and Selvig had nursed a couple bottles of beer all night, and turned in early to sleep in actual beds; Selvig because experience had taught him well, and Banner with the excuse he tended to be an angry drunk.
Despite their obvious betrayal - he’d work out the details later - Tony mumbled something he hoped sounded appreciative as footsteps retreated.
He buried himself eyebrow-deep in his mug and tried to remember how consonants, you know.
A few minutes later, there was a heartfelt groan from above. His hand floundered to the side until it hit the empty mug, which spun away. He lunged blindly after it and this time his fingers fumbled into a grip.
With a warm sense of achievement, and a faint sense of nausea, Tony raised his head and squinted against the light until a hazy blur turned into the coffee pot. Concentrating, he managed to fill the mug with coffee, barely spilling half of it in the process.
He paused. “Mk?”
Okay, that made things easier. “Gr?”
He held the sugar dispenser over the black coffee until the liquid began to look suspiciously grainy. After some internal debate, he hauled himself to his feet and held the mug over his head. At a tugging from above, he released it.
“YWr.” Okay, this was officially ridiculous. Tony cleared his throat and took a deep breath, which he instantly regretted. “You’re welcome,” he managed to rasp, before he started to list sideways.
Before he reached the actual tipping point, a hand appeared and gently pushed him back upright. “Good morning, Tony.”
Banner looked awake: his hair was still damp from a shower, his breath was minty-fresh and he was smiling.
“This is your fault,” Tony said, carefully laying his head down again.
The picnic table creaked as Banner sat opposite. “Okay, sure.”
“Really!” Ow. “Really.”
“Funny, I don’t remember threatening to hurt you and your loved ones if you didn’t drink an entire bottle of tequila.”
“Barton agrees with me.”
There was a muffled sound of complaint from the RV’s roof, which Tony translated as, “Yes, Tony is correct, as always. Also, are there mints?” Without looking, he dug in the leg-pocket of his cargo pants, found half a pack of gum and tossed it in the general direction of the sky lounge.
When he did manage to raise his head again, Bruce was offering a plain bagel and a couple of aspirin. Tony snatched at both. “Okay, you’re forgiven.”
“You can’t imagine my relief.”
Erik had begged off, preferring to sit in the air-conditioned RV and work on his paper in peace, but everyone else had … there really just wasn’t another way to put it, had assembled at the entrance to the park by ten, some heads aching more than others.
A slow walk and a lot of water later and Tony had to admit that he was starting to feel a little better. Give it another couple of hours and he thought he might even be able to look at cooked food without an unfortunate incident.
All was well with his world until they were walking back through the Avenue of Flags, where Rogers, in a worn-looking leather jacket and with a Dodgers cap pulled low over his face, was leaning against one of the square pillars.
He straightened when he saw them and waved to get their attention, as if they somehow hadn’t noticed Captain America, framed by state flags and the sixty-foot heads of ex-Presidents gazing approvingly down on their favorite son.
There was a breathless squeak from somewhere behind him; Tony ignored it in favor of pulling out his cell and running a quick check for anyone else in the vicinity.
Banner, Thor and Barton were already walking forward; Tony wandered along behind them, in time to hear Rogers’ reply.
“No, I came here with my folks a few years after it opened. I was just a kid.” His eyes were warm, but his mouth twisted against something: a memory, a smile. “It hasn’t changed much. Except this.” He looked up at the flags. “This is new.”
Bruce consulted the surprisingly informative booklet that Tony had thrown at him on the way out of the Visitor Center. “They added it in the seventies. Did you know Mount Rushmore erodes a tiny fraction of an inch every year? Give it a few hundred thousand years and the faces will be gone.” He gave a fleeting smile. “Puts things in perspective.”
Rogers’ eyebrows rose. “Huh. That’s really interesting.”
Tony had the horrible feeling that Rogers was sincere. “How did you find us?” He threw an accusing look at Barton. “Did you drunk dial your boss?”
“I did not.” Barton shook his head. “See, you can tell by the way we don’t have bags over our heads.”
“Nor did I tell Colonel Fury,” Thor promised. “Though I am greatly pleased you are here, Captain Rogers.” He clasped Rogers’ arm wrist to elbow in greeting and delivered the customary heavy clap to the shoulder.
Tony thought his own fingers were still a little numb from when he’d received the same treatment, but Rogers barely moved. Super soldiers.
“So, hey.” Rogers hesitated, looking from face to face. “I can go, if I’m intruding.”
“Depends.” Tony looked around, still suspicious. “Is this Fury’s attempt to try and patriotize me into submission?”
Barton flicked a peanut off the pad of his thumb and watched it arc then drop directly in front of a startled, but not unappreciative, bird. “You know, I’m patriotic too. I could have patriotized the hell out of you.”
“That’s not actually a word.”
Tony ignored Rogers’ plaintive interjection. “True, you could have - but you don’t literally wear the flag on your sleeve. You’re not posing under the complete collection of American flags as we speak.”
Rogers glanced at the small, worn-looking patch on the shoulder of his jacket, flushed and then edged out from under the flag of Arizona. “I wasn’t posing. I was waiting.” He crossed his arms self-consciously, realized that only made things worse and stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets.
“It’s not his fault he looks like he’s modelling for a catalogue when he stands still,” Jane said supportively as she came up behind them, tugging Darcy with her.
Tony surveyed him critically. “Try slouching a little? Grow a bad mustache? Oh, hey - mullet.”
He realized he’d lost Rogers’ attention; the man was looking beyond him and wincing slightly. Tony turned to see Darcy standing, wide-eyed and mouth hanging open, with her arms rigid at her sides.
Well, this completely made up for the attempted murder.
Jane leaned in and closed Darcy’s mouth with a finger under the chin. “She’s a fan,” she explained.
The spell was broken; Darcy rallied indignantly. “I am so not a fan. Wait, I mean, I’m not a fan-fan.” Her eyes widened again. “I mean, I like you,” she assured Rogers. “But not that way! Not that I wouldn’t, but I won’t. Ever. Because you’re old enough to be-“ She swung back to Jane. “Friends don’t let friends babble creepily at Captain America,” she hissed.
“After the way you drove? Oh, they really do.” Jane nodded emphatically. “Please, keep going.”
“Uh, or, please don’t?” Rogers smiled and Tony was pretty sure he saw a tooth sparkle. “Darcy, right? Steve.” He offered his hand.
Darcy shook his hand in a daze, swore that she was usually so much cooler than this, mumbled something about comic books, turned on her heel and power-walked quickly back down the path.
Rogers let out a breath. “I bet she’s a real pistol, huh?”
“No,” Tony said crisply. “No one has been a pistol, real or otherwise, since the fifties.”
“Okay, this is serious. How about a really big mustache, a dictionary and a Team Edward t-shirt?” Jane suggested.
Rogers shook his head, lost. “I don’t know what that is.”
“You must be the most fortunate man in all of Midgard.”
Jane scowled. “One time. And it was a joke.”
Tony snapped his fingers rapidly. “Focus. We’re feeling sorry for Captain America.”
Thor looked bemused and then cleared his throat. “You have my sincerest sympathies, my friend,” he managed, with a very nearly straight face. “Truly, your form is cursed.”
“Should I go?” Steve looked around and then started in the direction Darcy had fled. “I should go.”
“Wait, wait.” Tony grinned and held up his hands; seriously, best hangover cure ever. “How did you find us?”
“I checked in, like we’re supposed to, and Agent Hill mentioned that she hadn’t heard from you guys in a while. She thought you were over this way and I was in the area, so I figured I’d swing by.
“When I asked the guy at the Visitor Center if he’d seen anyone matching your descriptions he was … very sure he had.”
“And now you’re going to tell us you’re disappointed, not angry, then shepherd us back to the fold?”
“Actually, I thought I’d get a Popsicle.” Rogers looked vaguely around. “Vendors are still over that way, right?” Without waiting for a reply, he wandered away; after a few steps he even remembered to slouch.
Banner followed him; a moment later Barton shrugged and did the same. Thor and Jane, quietly bickering, followed.
Tony was running out of interesting places to direct SHIELD’s calls.
Maria looked down at the tablet in her hands and then at the empty desk. Technically, she should wait for the Colonel to physically take the report, but … was that a siren?
Yes, she was sure that was a siren.
Something obviously required her attention.
Her immediate attention.
She put the tablet on the desk and jogged away.
Knees bent and forearms resting across them, Steve sat back against the front wheel of the RV and turned his face up to the sun. Leaves rustled and the grass smelled fresh, like he remembered.
There was a quiet cough.
He opened his eyes a crack and saw Darcy standing a few feet away, two glass bottles of pop in her hands. She held one out and he took it, gesturing for her to take a seat.
“Thanks.” He tried a disarming smile.
She smiled back; good start. “Hey, it's just cola. I wanted to apologize about earlier.”
“Trust me, it could have been worse.” He flicked the cap off his bottle. “So, you hang around with a demi-god, but I’m a big deal, huh?”
“Thor?” Darcy glanced across the clearing to where Thor was standing with Bruce and Clint, stabbing randomly at a roadmap. “Jane hit him with her van; that broke the ice. And I think some ribs? Anyway, when we met, he was just this really pretty, really crazy person.
“By the time he got all hammered up and god-like, we were tight. Besides, once you’ve Tased a guy, the magic is gone.”
O-kay. There were things Steve wanted to know and things Steve did not want to know, and he thought he’d go ahead and put that one in the don’t-ask pile. He struck out in slightly less godlike directions. “Tony Stark, then. He’s been on the cover of everything. And he’s Iron Man. That’s pretty impressive. Apparently.”
“Yeah, but it turns out he’s just this huge nerd. Which I say with respect, because he’s probably got his AI listening to everything.” Darcy paused and looked around, waiting for a synthesized denial. “And we were actually looking for him,” she went on when none came. “So I had time to practice my suave and worldly shtick.”
“Suave and worldly, huh?” He took in her messy ponytail and bangle-bedecked arms. The bright pink circle-stamped summer dress, hem just over the knee of her bare legs. He remembered the perfectly presented women in spotless white gloves and elegant gowns and kind of thought he preferred this; wondered if they would have too. “And how did suave and worldly go?”
“Well, I didn’t insult him for five minutes and then run away, which is our new baseline, I guess. And he did let me drive the RV. But now he blames me for this monster hangover he has and goes yellow every time I say ‘hi.’” She blinked. “I think I accidentally practiced aversion therapy on Iron Man.”
Steve drank some soda to cover his grin. “He’ll get over it.”
“And Jane says if I get bored with astrophysics, I’ll have a job waiting with Pepper Potts at Stark Industries, so, win.
“And Clint and Bruce are just people,” she went on without prompting. “I mean, sure there’s the whole secret agent-slash-extreme anger management thing, but basically, people.”
He paused, struggling to keep his smile. “I’m not people?”
“Dude, you’re people squared. There was an eighties cartoon, with really important lessons about sharing. There are action figures, and retro-ironic t-shirts for the hipster in your life. My dad collected your comic books - there are baseball cards.”
She misinterpreted his flinch. “And I’m totally doing it again. Seriously, I’m sorry I squee’ed out on you. Not cool.”
He coughed and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “One time? I saw Joe Lewis and walked into the side of a jeep … in front of an entire division. So I get it. Except, maybe not the words.” He raised an eyebrow. “‘Squee’ed?’”
“Don’t ask. Or go on the Internet.” Darcy looked contemplative and then she paled. “Ever. There are whole forums out there with sweaty fans debating whether you were more authentic in the new or old costume.
“I prefer the new one, by the way. You know. In case you were wondering.”
“Yeah.” He smiled again. “Me too. And it’s okay, I don’t use the Internet, just the Google.” He widened his eyes innocently. “It’s pretty neat. Easy too. You think maybe I should type ‘Captain America’ in and see what comes up?”
Tony flattened himself against the side of the gangway as Darcy rushed up the stairs and into the RV, muttering something about deleting the Internet. He peered over the rail and then sauntered down. “You have quite the effect on women. And you’re a terrible person.”
“Says the guy who’s been listening in.” Steve craned his head in the direction Darcy had gone.
There was a muted, “Son of a bitch!” from inside, so he guessed she’d found his Twitter account.
“Now we’re good.” He let his smile fade. “No one is people squared, Stark.”
Stark shrugged. “For what it’s worth, I approve. Far too many people throwing themselves at you, when clearly I’m the better option. All you did was punch a few Nazis and then nap for seventy years.”
“And now you agree, I’m thinking I should apologize. Flowers?”
Stark grinned. “Nice thought, I prefer azaleas.”
“Why would she want azaleas? She’s obviously a salted caramel person. And she’s fine: you don’t want people treating you like their hero, don’t be their hero. Simple.” He held out his hand.
“That easy, huh? “ Steve let Stark pull him to his feet. “Did you want something, or did you just get bored?”
“Yes. And, funny story, yes. Oregon: the vote is tied. We have three for the House of Mystery and three for the Town of Boring, twinned with Dull.”
Off Steve’s dubious look, he said, “Seriously. Dull, in Scotland. I hear it’s … there. Selvig’s abstaining on the grounds he thinks we’re all crazy. You’re the decider.
“Don’t let the words ‘Boring Tavern, home of the famous Boring Topless Dancers’ sway you in any way.”
Something poked Steve’s shoulder. He reached up and found a rolled up piece of paper being delivered though the window behind him by a bangle-draped hand.
He turned enough that Stark couldn’t see before unrolling it. There was a crudely sketched house surrounded by question marks.
“House of Mystery,” he said, looking up. “Definitely.”
Stark narrowed his eyes. “Fine. But if you think azaleas will be enough to apologize for that kind of rank favoritism, you’re mistaken.” He swept away towards the now arguing Thor and Clint, complaining loudly about corrupt lobbyists.
Fury ran his eyes over the report, which boiled down to, “We lost Captain America. He’s probably not dead.”
So maybe it was time to escalate, if only because the agency couldn’t afford to lose any more personnel to Stockholm syndrome. He tapped the comm bud in his ear. “Put me through to Personnel. And, no, Agent Monroe, I do not want to see today’s postcards.”
An hour later, the postcards mysteriously showed up on his desk anyway.
"Jesus, finally. Captain Rogers? It's Fra-
"I - no, ma'am. I have the wrong number.
"No, ma'am, I wasn't trying to reach another florist. No - no I do not want to consider sending azaleas to my mother. No.
"Thank you. You have a great day too."
In his darker moments, Agent Franklin wondered if Hydra was hiring.
"'And what did you do on your vacation, Agent Barton?'" Clint leaned forward on the rail: the only thing separating interested visitors from a three-quarter mile drop. "Well, Your Honor, I saw a hole. In my defense, it was really big."
Jane propped herself next to him and looked down (and down, and down) the terraced sides of the Bingham Canyon Mine. The bottom was a haze of rising dust and dotted figures moving from digger to digger.
She picked idly at the weatherworn wood under her hand. "My mom used to say it was so big, you could see it from space."
Off his enquiring expression, she shook her head. "From low Earth orbit, maybe - or with magnification. With magnification, anything's visible from space." She shielded her eyes against the sun and smiled up for the 'camera'.
Clint reflexively tucked his head against his chest. "I don't think they're getting my best side."
"They probably aren't getting you at all - StarkTech has us covered, twenty-four seven and what Tony doesn't want them to see..." Jane hesitated, considering the implications with her mouth half-open and a hand paused mid-gesture.
"Less reassuring when you say it out loud, huh? Just hope he never gets bored enough to take over the world." Clint smiled crookedly. "Officially."
"No, it's fine. I mean - checks and balances, right?"
"Sure, except he's going out with the check and talked most of the balances into looking at a really big hole, so I don't love our chances."
"If our robot overlords are as polite as Jarvis, that's okay." Jane shrugged philosophically. "It's the accent."
"I'll remind you of this conversation when we're batteries."
"Tony would never turn the human race into batteries; he's gone green now. Although technically we are a renewable resource." She grinned brightly. "So we should probably keep him distracted, just to be sure."
"I'm pretty sure defensive road trips don't exist. Anywhere."
"Next stop, House of Mystery, medals and the thanks of a grateful nation." Clint straightened and glanced around. "Where's Thor?"
"He's-" Jane turned; there was a complete absence of what Darcy had labelled, 'it's complicated' standing next to the Visitor Center where she'd left him.
She turned back. "Okay, where's Thor?"
Clint focussed unblinkingly on the bottom of the canyon and then nodded towards the largest group. "He's with Doctor Selvig, on the tour." He watched for a few seconds longer. "Huh."
Jane squinted and could just about make out moving figures at this distance; Clint was probably counting their freckles. "What's he doing?"
"I think … yeah, he just challenged mining equipment to single combat."
"It's okay." Clint's mouth curved in a half-smile. "He's winning."
In the Visitor Center, Bruce finished reading the welcome board and wandered further on. He found Tony standing in front of the glossy prints on the 'Memories of Bingham Canyon' wall with a glazed, slightly panicked expression that suggested he was trying to work out why.
Bruce guessed the escape from reality wasn't going as well as Tony would have liked. It happened. He could say that with more than a little authority.
With anyone else, Bruce would have asked if they wanted to talk about it, but Tony wasn't going to talk. He'd invented an entire vacation and absconded with half the Initiative to avoid talking. That really only left playing along.
Which, Bruce guiltily had to admit, worked for him - if Tony did decide to say something, Bruce had no idea what he'd even say back. He'd barely even met-
"So you know who they'll send next, right?" Tony's hunted expression had smoothed into a smirk. "Cranklin."
"You don't think Agent Romanov is more likely?"
Tony shrugged. "Maybe. And that's fine. She completely betrayed my trust, but I can be the bigger man. Admittedly, that's only because she's a woman."
Bruce glanced up, forehead furrowed with, he felt, some valid concerns. "I don't know Natasha well, but I can't see her being won over by the promise of roadside attractions. And I use the description loosely."
"Please, you're dying to see the Vortex - I saw you fondling that slide rule. Anyway, she loves me."
"She hides it … very well."
"Super spy: it's her job. When she gets here, I should let her down easy. Or, I could see if Pepper's interested in-" Tony squared his shoulders, grimly stoic. "Or not."
"When she gets here?" Bruce grinned. "Did Tony Stark just acknowledge that his anti-surveillance tech could have flaws?"
"Absolutely not. But she's keeping tabs on Barton somehow - credit me with a little intelligence." Stark turned and started towards the diggers' info-wall. "Actually, credit me with a lot of intelligence. All of it."
Bruce followed in his wake. "I do - I just didn't realize you'd noticed other people existed. Good for you."
"Objection." Tony raised a hand. "When was the last time you had more than ten minutes of conversation with anyone who isn't me?"
Point. Bruce acknowledged it with a nod. "Mockery retracted, if not the sentiment."
"I notice the people worth noticing - especially the ones who clearly adore me, or the ones who may just be waiting for five minutes without witnesses - hey, so, I was thinking." Tony pulled out his tablet and tapped twice. "We're near Vegas. Kind of near. Nearish. Relatively speaking. Did you know they have an Atomic Testing Museum?"
"And, I'm given to understand, strippers," Bruce said evenly.
"I doubt it - unless museums have gotten a lot more entertaining. Not interested? Understandable. Okay, Las Vegas: proud home of the world's largest gold nugget."
"And strip teasers. And gambling," Steve said as he rounded the corner of the refinery exhibition with Darcy.
"They prefer 'exotic dancers.'" Tony paused his scrolling and blinked. "Headless Lenin? What the hell is-"
"Hey, can I play?" Darcy looked up, frowned in concentration and then ticked her fingers as she went along. "I went on a road trip and I saw atomic testing, strippers, a gold nugget, gambling, Headless Lenin and Joe Manganiello. In a speedo."
Tony blinked again. "You've completely derailed my entire thought process. Do you have any idea how much my entire thought process is worth?"
"You're welcome." Darcy nodded at Bruce and Steve. "I accept thanks in the form of all major ice-creams, or not having to caddy for Jane and Bruce tomorrow when they break the House of Mystery and make small children cry."
The door of the Center swung open, revealing Jane and a small gaggle of overly excited, chattering tourists. She reached back into the crowd and dragged Thor and Erik away from their admirers; they trailed after her with dually satisfied, if suspiciously dusty, expressions.
"We're discussing our next destination," Steve greeted them. "Tony is voting for Las Vegas. Everyone else - including unborn generations - is still voting Oregon."
Jane crossed her arms. "I don't care where we go, but if we don't find a laundromat soon, I'm hijacking the van. I have a thunder god and I'm not afraid to use him."
Thor nodded sincerely as he tried to shake the worst of the dirt out of his hair. "She isn't. And, nor I - go where you will."
Tony looked mystified. "Why do we need a laundromat?"
Jane looked back, equally confused. "How have you been cleaning your clothes?"
"I haven't; I buy new ones whenever we hit a gift shop."
"Huh." Darcy tucked a hand around her waist and thoughtfully tapped her chin with a single finger. "That does explain the t-shirts."
"And the socks," Jane agreed.
"And that hat," Steve said, sounding relieved.
Erik shook his head and spoke in a measured tone. "No, I don't think anything explains the-"
"And that hat."
The RV Park on the outskirts of Elko wasn't particularly impressive, but it was somewhere to stop for the night and there was a fair right next-door, which Tony claimed was serendipitous.
And - most importantly - it had a laundromat.
Unfortunately, it was out of service.
Jane studied the sign on the door with narrowed eyes. "Stark, where's your toolkit?"
Some time after midnight, Tony left Bruce and Jane haggling over washer-drier co-efficiency and struck out for the small, but perfectly appointed, entertainment block and the mercy of its bar.
It was still open; Tony could see Thor and Darcy seated at a table by the window, talking animatedly and, behind them, Rogers attempting to circumnavigate a crowd of drunks, all a head shorter than he was.
Tony had a second to enjoy the view, and deal with the mild disappointment of Captain America failing to accidentally flatten any unsuspecting citizens, before he spotted Barton heading - sneaking - out the door and towards the deserted fairground.
It wasn't a secret that Barton usually disappeared for a few hours at night - actually, it was the subject of Darcy's RV pool - but it was the first time Tony had seen him go.
Barton slipped between two stalls; Tony followed at a careful distance.
When they'd visited the fair earlier, Thor had eaten his own weight in deep-fried everything, Darcy had conned Barton into winning her a small army of plush elephants and the undying hatred of the man running the rifles and Rogers had looked … wistful.
Ducking under a low-hanging goldfish, Tony shied away from that thought. He was already doing his part to acclimatize the golden boy to the 21st century: he didn't have anything to feel bad about.
He didn't. Not his problem. Not his responsibility.
So he really wished that he didn't know what Rogers had been doing before he'd gate-crashed. Or at least that more of the men Rogers had been visiting weren't waiting for him in graveyards.
Or that Tony had known Rogers had been visiting at all.
Howard Stark had kept records on Rogers' unit; he'd made sure their pension checks were a little fatter than they could have been, the mortgage payments a little kinder. Tony had seen no reason not to continue the tradition and Jarvis could have had their information in Rogers' hands in a matter of minutes.
Uncomfortably, it occurred to him that maybe Rogers was looking for something more than files on a flash drive.
And, really, Tony just wasn't equipped to care about this kind of thing - or anything, actually - and Fury should have known that.
A small inner voice, which sounded horrifyingly similar to Banner, reminded Tony that the reason he hadn't been invited into the Initiative was exactly because Fury did know that.
He'd slapped the freaking assessment in Tony's face.
Of course, Tony had totally saved everyone's collective asses anyway, so Fury was massively wrong.
Or massively, magnificently devious.
No. No way.
Crouched in the shadows to avoid the few people patrolling the grounds, Tony huffed with amusement at himself and exasperation with absolutely everything else.
He let the last of the foot-traffic go by and, still bent low, scurried towards the hulking shape of the Ferris wheel. The lights were out, but the ticket booth next to it was dully lit and Barton stood in the illumination, talking to someone who was barely more than a slim outline in the darkness.
The second person stiffened and then stepped back into the shadows; Barton turned, eyebrow raised.
Barton crossed his arms as Tony wandered closer. "Made a perpetual washing machine yet?"
Tony peered around him. "Where is she?"
It was immediately clear who did the undercover work in the Barton-Romanov partnership - Barton was a horrible liar. "She, who?"
Just. Just horrible.
"Your partner in crime." Tony lifted himself on his toes, trying to see over Barton's head; still nothing.
"I think you mean, 'partner in legal, government-sanctioned action.'"
"I'm almost certain I don't." Tony raised his voice. "Romanov! Come in from the cold, we have hamburgers and the good episodes of the Simpsons."
A ridiculously hot Russian spy failed to materialize. In fairness, if it were that easy, Tony doubted that the Cold War would have been much of an issue.
"I'm not enough secret agent for you?" Barton held a wounded hand over his heart. "I'm hurt."
"You were the carrot and Romanov's the stick - don't even try and deny it." Tony couldn't help noticing that Barton didn't look even slightly inclined to try. "How long has she been following us?"
"Roughly?" Barton's lips moved as he made some rapid calculations. "Since Missouri?"
The smile was there, then gone: one more shadow. "Partner in government-sanctioned babysitting?"
"Okay, why is she following us? There's room in the RV. Especially when you keep sleeping on the roof."
"Does spending time in an RV with a bunch of unwashed tourists seem like Tasha's idea of a good time to you?" Barton didn't wait for the obvious reply, choosing to answer the obvious question instead. "And, no, she hasn't been narking on you - us. She even left her cell in the rental."
"I'm confused. Isn't it her job to glare at me?"
"No." Barton shrugged. "But maybe if you asked nicely?"
Tony had a sudden, appalled, epiphany. "Wait! You've been sneaking out to see Romanov? We thought you were off playing with your bows and arrows. Or that diner waitress with the - either way, I've lost a bet. To Captain America. Do you have any idea how that feels?"
Barton shook his head, expression sober, but eyes glittering with repressed amusement. "Is it anything like when he beat you at pool?"
"Exactly like that." Tony scowled. "Thank you so much for the reminder."
"Hey, if you'd let me play…"
"Then I'd still have lost."
"You'd feel a lot better about it, though."
"That's actually true." Tony crossed his arms. "And not the point. Tell Romanov that I expect her to be an active participant: she doesn't get to spy on the road trip without being part of the road trip.
"It's like Fight Club, without the gratuitous v- … it's exactly like Fight Club."
Once Tony had grumbled his way back towards the lights of a now gently humming laundromat, Natasha came out from the cover of the Ferris wheel.
"This isn't the worst plan you've ever had," she admitted, grudgingly, as she leaned against the ticket-booth.
"Me?" Clint shook his head in flat denial and settled himself next to her, shoulder-to-shoulder. "The Colonel decided we didn't look busy, I was an innocent bystander."
"You were in his ceiling."
"It's roomy - I recommend it for all your surveillance needs."
She shot him a flatly unimpressed look. "I'll stay with the undercover details, thank you."
"What kind of person prefers ambassadorial parties to vents?" He edged a little closer, closing the thin gap between them with a nudge of his shoulder; Natasha raised an eyebrow. "I'm cold," he complained.
"It's the middle of June: it's not cold."
She relented with a smirk, wrapped his hands in hers and tried to ignore the deafening absence of a voice in their ears, dryly asking for a sit rep, if they could possibly spare the time.
"It's hardly my fault you have the constitution of a sickly child," she said, to drown out the silence. "Would you like a blankie?"
"Hey, who wouldn't?"
She looked slowly around the fair. "Is it like being home?"
"No," he said, and then muttered something under his breath that she doubted she was meant to catch; she squeezed his hand before she let it go.
After a moment, she straightened and started towards ranks of gaming stalls. "Come on, you can win me a giraffe."
He drew even with her stride after a few steps. "They closed. And you can win your own giraffe."
"Yes, ma'am. One giraffe, coming right up."
"A nuclear physicist, an astrophysicist and an electrical engineer walk into a laundromat." Fury steepled his fingers and, elbows on desk, leaned forward in his chair and glared up at Agent Franklin.
"Go ahead," he went on in a tone not entirely unlike Dirty Harry asking Punk 2 just how lucky he felt. "Give me the punch line."
Franklin winced. "Uhm."
"Uhm?" Fury narrowed his eye. "Is that, 'uhm, this is news to me, Colonel Fury' or 'uhm, we were really hoping you wouldn't catch the feeds this morning, Colonel Fury?' Because, I can tell you now that neither answer is going to win you friends here."
"'Uhm, I wonder if you've seen the latest Intel, Colonel Fury?'" Franklin unbent from attention just enough to drop the folder on the desk.
"I have, Agent Franklin." Fury flipped the folder open. "I have."
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Darcy made it to the diner ahead of everyone else - not actually that difficult. Nine in the morning and Earth's greatest hopes were either elbow-deep in washer-guts or still sleeping.
Or they were absent, with a huge pile of plush toys in their sky lounge nest.
(She didn't want to know, wasn't going to ask. May have stolen a tiny hippo.)
The early breakfasters had already been and gone; the diner was almost empty and the tables were clean and re-stocked, ready for the next rush.
She claimed the single corner booth before it was taken and they had to do the three-table thing instead, which tended to end up as the one-table thing with a side of stressed waitress.
Bruce and Tony usually played musical chairs and Thor kept insisting he'd just stand. Then you were trying to finish your toast with a 6' 5'' Viking looming over you: little off-putting.
Even worse, sometimes Steve leaned next to her to drink his coffee and then spent the rest of the time fielding tacky passes from every single person squeezing by, which Darcy had a problem with for no other reason than the objectification, Jane.
And 'can I just get through there?' was totally a pass, Jane.
She shuffled her way around the curve, opened her notebook and had two entire minutes of peace to run through her e-mails (Mom, I don't know Perez Hilton, I swear) before Clint dropped onto the seat beside her.
This time, she was ready. There would be no distractions at critical moments. Not after the accidental, completely out-of-context, mid-sentence mention of whipped cream in her last e-mail, which had her mother talking to Doc Schultz and her sister way, way over-sharing on reply all.
He drew a breath; without looking away from her screen, she held up a finger. "Don't even think about it. Hush your face."
She finished her reply, hit send, closed the notepad and then turned. "Okay, do your wor-"
There was a woman standing politely next to the table at Clint's side.
And, wow. So it turned out there was a way to make Tourist look good.
Darcy kicked Clint's ankle lightly in retribution and smiled at the woman. "Hi. Sorry, he does this thing, so I do this thing. And never mind - you really don't care. Darcy. Cool hat."
"Thank you. Natasha." Natasha slid into the booth on Clint's side, facing the door. She folded her hands neatly in front of her, completely poised - as if what she was wearing (possibly committing) was happening to someone else. "What have I missed?"
Darcy settled back and tucked her notepad into the sling bag at her side. "There was the really big hole. A Very Large Array … Mount Rushmore. Twine. Today we rock the House of Mystery."
"That's …" Natasha stared blankly ahead as she searched for the word. "Exciting," she managed, with barely a lilt of a question at the end at all.
"It could have been Boring topless dancers," Clint muttered.
"I'm sure they have their charms." Natasha pulled a menu towards her and pursed her lips as she scanned it, idly toying with the camera strap around her neck.
Clint leaned an elbow on the table and propped his chin on his palm, watching her.
She didn't look up. "You're staring."
"I'm being punished, right?"
Natasha's mouth curved in a smile that Darcy would have missed if she'd blinked. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I'm thinking the hat." Darcy glanced between them. "With the ears?"
"The hat," Clint confirmed. "With the ears. Nice bow - good polka dots." He leaned back to catalogue the rest of Natasha's outfit; Darcy made room. "Hawaiian-print t-shirt. Cheap shades. Camera - the neon strap's a nice touch. Jeans-shorts. Fanny pack, knee-socks and sneakers."
"I'm blending," Natasha said shortly.
"More 'mocking.'" Darcy waved her hand, so-so.
Clint leaned forward again. "Or taking the happiest revenge on Earth. If you lose the hat, I'll apologize for whatever I did."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." Natasha smiled brightly. "I love Ricky Mouse."
"It's Mickey," Darcy whispered behind Clint's back. "And, actually, it's Minnie."
"I love Minnie Mouse," Natasha corrected, barely missing a beat.
Darcy caught another sliver of an almost wicked smirk before Natasha gasped, "Ohmygod!" and clapped her hands together in excitement.
Her expression lit up with unholy joy. "They have waffles!"
Darcy had the strong urge to recoil; Clint actually did.
He held up his hands. "I'm sorry Stark followed me. It was dark. I didn't see him and I had no idea he'd make you road trip. In the million dollar, luxury RV. Just going to throw that … out … there."
Natasha stared; he stared back.
"Fine, I saw him. I just couldn't lose him."
Natasha stared; he stared back.
"Yeah, okay, I waited until he got to the bar before I left. There was a bet…" He paused and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "This is her fault."
Darcy let her mouth drop open in amused outrage. "You're trying to pin this on me?"
"You started the pool."
"You were sneaky and mysterious!"
"And now I'm wearing a hat with ears and a red and white polka-dot bow," Natasha said calmly, bringing them back to the central point.
"And where did you even get - no." Clint shook his head firmly. "I don't want to know. Ever. What I'm saying is, this isn't my fault."
Natasha stared; he stared back.
"I accept all responsibility?"
Darcy hummed quietly with undisguised admiration. "Nice. How do you do that?"
Natasha bent her head to look back at the menu. "Training."
"Yours or his?"
"Both. It's a matter of-"
"Look. Superheroes." Clint waved towards the door - waving, drowning, same difference - to attract the attention of Steve and Thor as they entered.
Steve looked around as he sat on the other side of Darcy (it was the first empty space, Jane). "Good morning. They're still in the laundromat?"
Darcy smiled a hello and shrugged. "Jane made a dawn coffee run, but, yeah. And they got Erik too." She sniffed. "He was so young and beautiful."
Natasha leaned in to Clint. "Explain."
"Stark, Banner and Foster - and Selvig - went to fix a washing machine last night and no one's seen them since."
"And we're … fine with that. Okay." She straightened and nodded to Steve and Thor with a small, but genuine smile. "Should I come up with a transparent excuse to be here? Which ones have been used already?"
Steve grinned, manfully ignoring the hat. "Actually, I wanted to thank you - I won a bet."
"And Stark lost?"
Steve's grin widened briefly before he adopted a suitably regretful expression. "I guess it worked out that way."
After a moment of quiet deliberation, Natasha slipped off the mouse ears and nodded to Clint. "We're even. But I'm keeping the shirt."
Now surrounded on all sides and kind of needing an exit, Darcy decided on the simplest route: she slid down from her seat and crawled under the table.
By the time she'd made it to the other side, Steve was waiting to help her to her feet. If a semester auditing Lit had taught Darcy anything at all, it was that, if she wasn't careful, from here it was all languishing and needlepoint.
Thor looked more amused than chivalrous (stop sharing your ridiculous theories with your 'it's complicated,' Jane), but she batted Steve's hand away as she stood.
He backed out of her way. "We could have moved for you."
And that was so not the point.
"Get me a chocolate milk and the pancake stack," she ordered over her shoulder as she headed for the restroom.
Darcy ignored the sound of Clint choking behind her.
"The owner of the RV Park won't be suing," Franklin confirmed. "And Public Affairs have undertaken level two damage control measures."
"They spent the morning tweeting that the pictures were clearly Photoshopped," Fury translated.
"Yes, sir. And if necessary, they can claim the video is a test shoot for an upcoming movie. They've lined up two directors and several scriptwriters to back that up."
Fury nodded. "Which leaves the on-site surveillance cameras and thirty or so eye-witnesses."
"We've asked them not to release any footage to major news outlets."
"And they'll comply out of the goodness of their hearts?"
"No, but the laundromat did break up an attempted robbery-slash-kidnapping."
There was a lengthy pause.
"How about you go ahead and work up a report for me, Agent Franklin?"
The door of the diner slammed open, wooden frame splintering under the force. Two men in gray utility jumpsuits, both wearing black ski masks, both carrying shotguns, stood in the doorway.
The waitress behind the counter, an older woman who'd winked at Steve when he'd come in, gave a short, shocked yelp and covered her mouth with her hand, eyes wide.
At the other end of the diner, near the restrooms, a woman in the same gear appeared. Steve hadn't seen her come in; he guessed she'd used the staff exit in the rear corridor.
The taller of the men - Steve went with 'Balaclava One' - strode towards the counter while Balaclava Two covered the room with his shotgun and yelled, "Nobody moves and nobody gets hurt."
"Great, we're being robbed by bad clichés." Clint spun a dinner knife in silver arcs across the back of his fingers.
"This is serious," Natasha hissed. Her mouth thinned, but didn't quite hide her smirk.
"Don't say that," he murmured back. "You'll only encourage them."
On their right, Balaclava Three waved her gun in the booth's direction. "Shut up!"
Natasha acquiesced and said nothing as she gave the woman her full, undivided, unblinking attention.
Balaclava Three stumbled back a step. "I think this is a bad idea, Pau-"
At the counter - searching the shelves, not even trying for the cash register - Balaclava One spun furiously. "No names! Christ, you don't get to think."
What a prince.
A second waitress was standing a couple of feet from Steve holding an empty, round serving tray. He gently took it from her hand. "Can I borrow this?"
She nodded jerkily, distracted as her gaze darted around the room.
Not with fear, Steve realized. She was working out how bad it could get.
To his relief, and doubtless hers, the only other patrons were an elderly couple, a bleary-eyed, middle-aged Packers fan who Steve vaguely remembered from the bar, and a woman in a rumpled business suit who looked like she'd driven all night.
No families and no young hotheads with something to prove.
No other young hotheads with something to prove, he amended as Thor frowned thoughtfully at Balaclava One and drummed his fingers on the handle of his hammer.
"Don't," Steve murmured, when Balaclava Three turned to watch the increasingly frantic search of the shelves behind the counter. "We can end this without losing a wall."
"My aim is not so poor." Thor's eyes narrowed. "A broken door. Perhaps some broken bones, if the smaller one is slow. But these people will have an escape."
"We're going to get them one, let's just try and leave broken anything out of it, okay?"
The robbers deserved the punishment of a court, sure, but not to show up to the trial in a full body cast.
Expression dubious, Thor relaxed his grip on the hammer. "As you will."
Steve glanced at Balaclava Three; she was watching them again, shifting nervously from foot to foot. She didn't seem inclined to tell anyone to be quiet this time.
Balaclava One flung an arm wide and sent half a shelf of dispensers clattering to the floor. "Where is it?"
The counter waitress gestured at the cash register. "It's there! Just get on with it!"
Balaclava ignored the register to kick at some boxes next to the saloon-style kitchen doors. "Where did he hide it?"
"Hide what?" She looked more exasperated than scared now. "He who?"
Balaclava One growled something and stalked into the kitchen.
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw Darcy behind Balaclava Three, peering around the door of the women's restroom with a confused expression.
When he shook his head, she slipped back from sight. A few moments later, she was visible in the window on the other side of the diner, jogging towards the laundromat.
With Darcy about to alert the others, Steve concluded that the safest plan would be to keep the robbers distracted until they could be encouraged outside, where Stark and hopefully not Banner could deal with them.
Steve raised an eyebrow at Thor and then angled his head in the direction of Darcy's retreating figure.
Once Thor had nodded, Steve tried to work out how to give Clint and Natasha the same information. It turned out to be unnecessary - when he looked their way, both heads dipped in unison. Which wasn't slightly creepy at all.
So now he only had to hope they'd all agreed to the same plan.
He felt the nudge of a barrel against his shoulder.
"Whatever you're thinking about trying, don't." Balaclava Three prodded Steve's shoulder again. "Get - get on the ground."
Steve looked beyond the gun to the widened eyes of the woman behind it.
It would be easy to take her down.
Heck, between the four them, Steve figured they could probably have the diner secured in ten seconds or less with no casualties, especially with Balaclava One out of the room.
Probably, but not definitely and, right now, it wasn't worth the risk.
The barrel jammed into his shoulder a third time; he shook his head with as non-threatening a smile as he could manage. "No, I don't think so."
The woman wavered and glanced to Balaclava Two, apparently unsure what to do next.
Balaclava Two shrugged.
Balaclava One was a piece of work, but Steve was having some serious doubts that these two had even held a gun before.
Clint cleared his throat to draw her attention. "If you're thrown when someone says 'no,' this really isn't the career for you. Just get out of here."
Except Darcy hadn't reappeared: the team outside weren't ready yet. How they weren't ready, given Stark could be Iron Man in less than the time it took him to fall off a building, Steve didn't know.
Okay, they'd have to draw this out.
"We can't just let them go," he chided and tried to look stern, rather than relieved that Barton and he, at least, were more or less on the same page. "They're committing a crime."
"Badly. Come on, Cap - it's a nice day, the sun is shining. Give them a break."
"You suggest we should release them until they become more competent?" Thor drummed his fingers on the handle of Mjölnir again. "In sport, perhaps. But this is not sport."
They all stiffened at loud crack-bang from the kitchen; Steve spent a good half a second terrified that he'd completely misjudged the situation before he identified the sound as a metal locker being wrenched open, and not a gun being fired.
There was a high shriek over a triumphant shout. A few seconds later, Balaclava One appeared back at the kitchen entrance, arm wrapped tightly around the neck of a terrified-looking boy of perhaps ten, whose arms were pin-wheeling as he tried to break free.
"Found-" Balaclava One stopped short, seeing the tableau at the corner booth and the nervous stances of his accomplices. "What the hell are you idiots doing?"
The waitress next to the booth stared at the boy in confusion. "Cruz?" Her eyes narrowed and she pointed vengefully at Balaclava One. "I know you, Paulie Wilcox. You fu-"
Balaclava Three shouted shrilly over her. "I think we got cops here, Paulie - cops!"
Clint shook his head. "They don't actually give standard issue service hammers to police officers."
"Marines?" Balaclava Two, still by the main door, guessed tentatively.
Steve gestured to Thor. "Not with that hair cut, son."
Balaclava One swore viciously. "It doesn't matter, we're out of here." He pushed his captive towards the door.
And that wasn't going to work either; the entire point in waiting had been to isolate the robbers, not to let them take a hostage on the road.
Steve tensed to stand, but Natasha beat him to it. "I have to get out of here," she cried breathlessly and flung herself out of her seat, towards Balaclava Three.
There was a brief struggle; Natasha managed not to roll her eyes too heavily whilst she waited for the woman to get a grip on her.
At the sudden flurry, Balaclava One turned back, losing his hold in his agitation.
"Kelly!" The kid wrenched himself free and ran towards the booth, hands reaching for the waitress who'd crouched in preparation to catch him.
Instead, Thor strode two steps forward, snatched the boy up by his collar and swung him safely under the corner table in one swift, apparently effortless move.
Kelly he pulled more decorously to safety; she ducked under the table, whispering soothingly.
When Balaclava One took a step forward, Thor shook his head in silent warning and held out his hand.
Mjölnir flew to his palm.
There was a shocked laugh from the Packers fan and a surprisingly loud whisper from the elderly man. "It's those super people, Maude! The ones you like."
Steve stood slowly. "No one has to get hurt, here," he said as calmly as he could into the robbers' terrified silence.
"They do if I say they do," Balaclava One tried, but his snarl was two parts bluster, one part dawning horror. He snatched out at the counter waitress; she jumped back, out of reach.
"He wasn't talking to you." Natasha said, pulling his attention her way. Her expression twisted with sour distaste at the line. "I can't believe I said that."
Clint sat back in the booth and raised his arms to drape them across the headrest, entirely relaxed. "To be clear? That's also not my fault."
"I could have been in France. But, no - I'm in a diner in the middle of nowhere, being threatened by amateurs.
"His ceiling, Barton! What were you thinking?"
Balaclava One pounded hard on the counter to regain their attention, waitress completely forgotten. "Hey!"
At this point, Steve was beginning to doubt the weapons were even loaded, but it still wasn't something he was prepared to risk.
He drifted closer, ostensibly to help the waitress, but mostly to make himself the most available hostage.
When Balaclava One swung the shotgun his way, he stopped.
So that worked.
"You give me the kid and you can have this guy and the woman back," Balaclava One offered to Thor and Clint. "Don't and they're both dead."
"You don't watch a lot of news, do you?" The businesswoman asked, sipping her drink with the barest tremor in her hands.
Clint looked at Thor and raised an eyebrow. Thor pretended to consider and then shrugged; he nodded under the table. "I like this one better."
"He's definitely much less likely to kick my ass for this than Tasha." Clint looked back and raised his voice. "No, we're good, thanks - you can keep them."
"I'm going to hurt you," Natasha promised flatly.
At a hint of movement in his peripheral vision, Steve glanced outside; Darcy was holding up a hand, one finger extended.
Steve mentally ran through a few scenarios to get the three robbers out the door as quickly as possible, but realized after a closer look at Balaclava Two that it might not be necessary.
The headgear made it difficult to be sure, but Steve thought the guy seemed to be coming to an unpleasant realization.
"Dude, I think I saw him on TV," Balaclava Two said in a nervous rush, gesturing to Steve. "And, and - that guycalled him Cap. And that's Thor."
"Ding-ding." Clint smiled crookedly. "We have a winner."
Balaclava Two dropped his gun and kicked the door open behind him. "We got to get out of here!"
The gun barrel pressed against Natasha's ribs dipped away as Balaclava Three wavered uncertainly. "Paulie…?"
Natasha took it out of her hands. Literally. She cracked the shotgun open and glanced at Steve. "Not loaded," she confirmed.
Balaclava Three fled, Balaclava One gave a frustrated growl and shoved past Steve to run after her.
Clint stretched and stood. "Did we just spend five minutes distracting those guys so Iron Man could save the day? Because I'm not writing that report."
There was a loud bang from outside; not a gunshot, but very like an engine misfiring.
Then a rising hum.
"Not … exactly." Steve stood watching at the window. Clint ambled over, Natasha and the curious diner patrons and staff followed.
Outside, four washing machines and a drier were vibrating in a menacing circle around the robbers. Steve wasn't sure if it was better, or somehow worse, that they were hovering.
"I thought Stark would just put his suit on," he muttered.
Natasha watched for a few seconds longer. "Be glad he didn't have time to hijack the speaker system," she said at last.
Clint winced in sympathy as Balaclava Two fell screaming before the gaping maw of the tumble drier.
He turned away, shielding his eyes. "I'm kind of disappointed we didn't get to see Rogers throw his tray."
Steve flicked his wrist; the tray he had still been carrying bounced from wall, to ceiling, to wall, to land with a diminishing rattle on counter. "Better?"
"My hero. Can I have your autograph?"
Steve ignored him and turned to look back to the boy, who was standing, head bowed, in the circle of the younger waitress' - Kelly's - arms. Thor hovered protectively.
He walked back and crouched in front of the boy, who looked up with a tear-streaked face. "Cruz, right?"
The boy nodded and sniffed.
"Okay, Cruz. You want to tell us how we can help?"
Agent Hill placed the report on Fury's desk and then stepped back. "Would you like a summary, sir?"
Fury grimaced. "By all means, let's hear the next thrilling installment."
"Wilcox's crew stole some pharmaceuticals from MaxoCorp last week; Diego Alvarez - Cruz's brother - was the bagman. He was meant to bring the drugs to Wilcox when things cooled down, but apparently he had a change of heart, he was working out a deal with the cops instead.
"He stashed them at the diner, then sent his kid brother to collect when the deal took longer than he thought, because he guessed it would be the first place Wilcox would look."
"He wasn't wrong." Fury flicked through the files Hill had given him.
"Alvarez is going to do some time, but Wilcox is on his third strike - the kid and his family are safe."
"And the team?"
"We're almost certain they're still in Oregon, sir. Franklin is with Surveillance verifying that now."
Hill's tone was perfectly even and in no way suggestive of having lost the best two out of three when she and Franklin were ro-sham-boing over who had to deliver the report.
Which he knew she had.
Fury was impressed, just not impressed enough to let her off the hook. "Still in Oregon and yet I have reports Mount Hood remains standing."
"Yes, sir." Maria kept her eyes focused on the wall behind Fury, flawlessly expressionless. "They only visited the House of Mystery at the Oregon Vortex.
"Apparently, it's significantly less mysterious now. Doctors Banner and Foster were very thorough in their debunking. Witnesses claim they were carrying a protractor."
"I see. Is that all, Agent?"
Hill hesitated. "Permission to speak freely, Colonel?"
She stood at ease and then spoke in a measured tone that carried the hint of rehearsal. "More of an observation: you can find them any time. You could have avoided all this completely if you'd just told Stark why he couldn't pay for the memorial."
Fury nodded; she was absolutely correct. "Yes, I could."
She firmed her shoulders. "Then may I ask why you've chosen not to, sir?"
Fury settled back in his chair. "It gives Agent Franklin an invaluable learning experience in managing assets, which I'm sure will be useful on his future assignments."
"And that's all?" A tiny line appeared between her eyebrows: a splash of disapproval with a healthy shot of disbelief.
That was to be expected - hell, encouraged. If SHIELD agents believed things, they weren't doing their job.
He shrugged. "If Stark wants to rebel against the tyranny of the system by funding a text-book team-bonding exercise, who am I to get in his way?"
She nodded, but the line was still there. "But still you could have told them, Colonel," she pushed. "I realize your methods were … unorthodox, but none of them would ever have divulged what you did."
"What they don't know now they won't need to lie about later and, trust me on this, once the shine wears off and the digging starts, they'll need all the deniability we can give them."
He stared down at the files on his desk, at the postcards still scattered under them.
"The thing about superheroes? They have to be super heroes. Paragons: beyond reproach. The thing about superspies?" He smiled in a thin, hard line and looked back up. "We really don't."
Hill met his gaze for a long moment. The thin line of doubt cleared; she nodded. "Understood."
"Is that all, Agent Hill?"
"Yes, sir." She paused. "Except Specialist Honeycutt is concerned you may believe he's behind some kind of twine-based conspiracy."
Fury shook his head slowly. "I do not think that."
"Thank you, sir. I'll let him know."
Natasha leaned a hip against the RV's kitchen counter and dubiously took the tablet that Banner held out to her. She ran a critical eye down the list of attractions already loaded on the screen. "Stark's Vacuum Museum?"
From his seat - lounge - on the couch, Tony shook his head. "No relation. Probably."
"A lot of people are called Stark," Banner agreed. "Unless the Stark Industries legal department have found that precedent they were looking for."
"Sadly not - Pepper reassigned the team who were looking into it after she caught them trying to patent air."
Darcy shot Tony a narrow look. "You realize you're a super villain, right?"
"It's the beard, isn't it?" Stark ran a hand over his chin. "You think I should lose the beard? Because I'm not losing the beard - that's never going to happen.
"If I have to turn in my good guy card and go hang out with Hydra, so be it. I heard they have great parties."
"Golden Lumberjack - Superhero of Oregon," Natasha went on, grimly.
Thor tilted his head. "Gold? These lumberjacks are highly regarded?"
"Well, they're okay." Tony looked around the blank expressions. "No one? Really? I'm instituting a movie night, effective immediately."
"I understood," Erik called from the other end of the lounge, where he was still determinedly trying to write his paper.
"Doctor Selvig is excused," Tony allowed.
The serene keyboard tapping continued, unbroken. "Such a pity."
"I got it," Darcy assured him. "But I still want a movie night - Thor hasn't seen Breaking Dawn yet."
"And you're saying I'm the super villain?"
"Golden," Natasha repeated, loudly. "Gold leaf. Fine. Erratic Rock Park."
Tony grinned widely up at her. "I'm flattered, really, but you had your chance. I'm spoken for."
"Erratic." Natasha scowled. "Why am I doing this?"
"Because we're trying to prove to Tony that you don't hate him," Bruce reminded her, not without sympathy. "Apparently this method made sense to someone, at some point."
"Actually," Tony objected, "I specifically said Agent Romanov loved me. Is the unspoken heat of our attraction completely lost on you people?"
Clint dropped a hand on Tony's shoulder as Natasha considered him with the pensive expression of someone deciding where to dispose of the body. "You know Tasha's only nice to her targets?"
On cue, she gasped with saccharine enthusiasm. "There's a strip club in the shape of a jug!"
"And I'm okay with that." Tony nodded sincerely. "If more people threatened each other with novelty strip clubs, the world would be a better place, don't you think?"
"This is a waste of time, I don't care where we go." Natasha waved the tablet around hopefully. "Someone else choose."
No one took it; reluctantly, she drew it back.
"Three Groins in the Fountain," Jane read over her shoulder. "What are they drinking in Portland?"
Natasha studied the picture of the statue, turning the tablet in her hands. "It's titled The Quest, but that does seem less technically accurate."
Tony sat up. "As we've established Agent Romanov is unlikely to kill me in my sleep - at least not before some of the best threats ever - and that I've forgiven her for the unforgivable betrayal, I'm choosing.
"There's a granite wall at the Park Max station with Pi to a hundred digits or so, but it's hilariously wrong. We should go and fix it."
"No, we shouldn't," Bruce said, firmly.
"It's a public service!"
"It's vandalism," Steve corrected. "I realize the distinction doesn't come that easily to you, but give it a shot."
Stark craned his head to look at Bruce. "I think he's talking to you. Are you just going to take that? I can poke you with something if it would help."
Clint nudged Natasha's shoulder. "Pick somewhere before the hair pulling starts."
"The Hat Museum?"
Steve blanched. "Please, no."
"The Freaky-But-True Peculiarium?"
Thor looked interested again. "Do they have enormous balls of twine?"
Natasha shook her head after a moment's perusal. "They have a ventriloquist's dummy."
"That's … like fun," Jane said doubtfully.
"Strapped to an electric chair." Natasha arched one thin eyebrow. "They claim it's murderous."
Tony's hand waved imperiously. "Next."
Natasha dropped the tablet onto the counter beside her and crossed her arms. "Then it's the world's largest continual chocolate waterfall or Voodoo Doughnut. Just choose."
"It's a hug," Tony said, helpfully. "She's hugging."
"Okay." Natasha awkwardly patted her back. "You're welcome."
Franklin gave up trying to straighten the suit he'd clearly slept in - if he'd slept at all - and got straight to the point, which Fury appreciated.
"We know they passed through Portland yesterday, without incident as far as we're able to ascertain." Franklin paused. "Although there was an unusual amount of traffic on Akeny and Third," he admitted. "But we're confident they're en route to Seattle now."
Fury noted that the dark circles under the man's eyes had deepened and that his tone was more resigned than angry - almost defeated.
"I've received solid Intel they'll be stopping in Tacoma," he said, not unkindly.
Franklin blinked owlishly. "Tacoma? What's in Tacoma?"
"According to my sources? A club in the shape of a giant coffee pot." Fury pushed a file across his desk. "Your orders."
Franklin stared suspiciously at the file, as if waiting for it to strike. After a few seconds, he risked picking it up - a few seconds after that, he worked up the courage to actually open it.
He frowned. "I'm being transferred?"
"You're being promoted. Congratulations, Agent."
Franklin looked up, confused. "But-"
"You tracked the Avengers for ten days without entirely losing them, resigning, or defecting to the enemy. And all despite Stark's best efforts. You've earned it."
In the midst of uncertain, dawning hope, Franklin somehow still looked almost disappointed.
"You knew this was a temporary assignment," Fury reminded him.
Franklin gave a lop-sided smile. "Maybe they should have been told that?"
Fury didn't let his own stern expression change, save for a twitch of his mouth. "I disagree. Dismissed, Agent."
"Sir." Franklin backed away, renewed life in his eyes and clutching the file to his chest in a white-knuckled grip.
Once alone, Fury reached forward and activated his Comms. "Tacoma is a go. You sure you're ready for this?"
The speaker hissed, then, "I prefer the buildings shaped like teapots, but I'll manage."
"I wasn't referring to the charming whimsy of the locale. And if your cell starts forwarding, we're going to have words."
"I would imagine not, sir. In the meantime, Agent Hill is being kind enough to bring you some paperwork, if you find a moment to look it over. I still have some concerns about the budget, and I had some thoughts while I was-"
This, Fury had not missed. "Have a good trip, Agent. Bring them home."
The tiny, neon-lined club on the outskirts of Tacoma would have shut hours ago, but Tony had thrown enough money at the owner to outright buy it in his quest to rent it for the night.
They'd dragged a few tables into the center of the room, strewn half the bar stock on top and completely cleared the kitchen of nachos. The speakers were piping something vaguely Europop and the lights were low enough that the edges of the room were almost completely hidden by shadows.
It was three in the morning and Tony could feel the horrible, cold tendrils of reality slithering at the edges of his mind. He grabbed for the closest bottle; it turned out to be Tequila.
When he'd finished coughing, he waved a hand. "No, look, I'm just saying - I'm just saying - I'm not saying we don't save the world sometimes, I'm just saying – I'm just ... what was I saying?"
Darcy, cheek on the table and eyes shut, snorted quietly; Steve pulled his jacket higher over her shoulders. "I don't know," he whispered. "But do it quietly, okay?"
Tony sighed. "Inside voice."
"They'll have people looking for us soon," Bruce commented, cracking the cap on his third Bud Light.
"They've had people looking for us. They failed. You're welcome." Tony raised his head from an intent study of the worm floating at the bottom of his bottle. "And it's ridiculous. And you know it's ridiculous. And that's what I'm saying. Thor's a god, he doesn't need babysitters."
He ignored Jane and Erik exchanging a dubious look.
Thor slammed a palm hard onto the table in his agreement. "Well said!"
Darcy jerked upright. "I'm awake! And I'm heavy." She plucked at the leather jacket over her shoulders in bemusement, then her eyes widened in half-aware horror. "I'm languishing!"
Steve retrieved his jacket. "You're languishing?"
She stared at him; he stared back.
"I heard nothing?" He guessed.
On the other side of the table, Natasha gave an approving nod.
"And I'm a billionaire industrialist, I don't need watchers," Stark went on, audience or not. "I have directors for that kind of thing. And Pepper, and Rhodey, and Happy, and you know what?" He raised a pointed finger. "I am a grown man, fully capable of operating under his own recognizance."
He ignored everyone, including the remaining bar staff, exchanging a dubious look.
"And Banner … okay, but he needs better watchers. Ones more understanding of his love of twine."
"Thanks, that's thoughtful."
Tony wasn't quite drunk enough to miss the sarcasm, but he ignored that too. He looked blearily between Barton and Romanov. "And … you two are watchers. You probably watch each other watching each other. Because that's healthy."
Barton, sat next to Natasha, shrugged. "It works for us."
"You know who really needs watching?" Tony pointed across the table. "Captain Apple Pie over there."
Steve paused, one arm half in a jacket sleeve. "Me? What did I do?"
"Watching at all times. In case he tries something stupidly heroic, like, like - whatever. That kind of person has to be watched. Constantly. Is what I'm saying."
Steve tugged his jacket the rest of the way on and shrugged to settle it. "This was a long way to go because you don't like the guy who replaced Agent Coulson," he said quietly.
"Banner needed a vacation," Tony denied, without much conviction. "And I felt it was important to explore this great nation's rich cultural heritage. Cranklin," he sneered.
"Cra-Franklin's okay," Clint said and then glanced at Natasha. Her expression did something small and complicated; Tony couldn't follow it, but from Clint's frown, he didn't have that problem.
"He's okay," Clint said again.
"It wasn't convincing that time either. Because, no, he isn't." Tony shook his head firmly; drunk enough to be sure of nothing except that. "He's bought into the propaganda and the next crazed lunatic, he'll do something stupid and then he's gone.
"What's the point of knowing what his name is or whether there's a completely unreasonable Cellist in Portland then?"
Thor shifted uncomfortably in his seat; he opened his mouth, but what could he say?
He'd apologized, sincerely and more than once, but it wasn't like that made things better. And there wasn't, as far as Tony knew, an etiquette guide for those awkward moments when your evil brother killed thousands of people, and one Coulson.
"No. No more heroics," Tony went on and tried not to notice the flicker of relief. "We should unionize."
Jane laughed quietly. "Tony Stark, zillionaire Industrialist, wants to unionize?"
"Billions. Just billions. And I have extremely happy employees. I'm reliably informed they whistle whilst they work."
The front windows flared as, outside, a car rolled to a stop. The headlights blinked off and a car door opened, slammed a moment later.
"Speak of the devil," Tony groused.
"Colonel Fury?" Clint shook his head. "He wouldn't make a personal appearance."
"He might," Natasha contested. "The tequila here is good."
"It's not Pepper." Tony picked morosely at the label on his bottle. "She's still in New York, covering for me. I don't deserve her. I should call before she leaves me for someone with more eye patches."
The door opened. Tony didn't bother to look, but he waved the bottle in its vague direction. "We still have eighteen hours, go away."
Coulson smiled thinly.
"Good," he said crisply into the silence. "We can go by Zillah. There's a gas station shaped like a teapot."
Tony fell back in his chair, strings cut.
He grinned. "Yeah, we can do that."
"I - no, no ma'am, I assure you this is a misdial. I was trying to reach Principal Coulson at a different location.
"No, I have no idea what the budget plans are, but I'm sure he'll have everything in hand when he returns."
Fury smiled; the smile grew a malicious edge.
"And I understand he has plans for an outreach program: he has several volunteers who've agreed to speak to the students.
"Yes, ma'am - I'm sure it will be extremely educational for everyone concerned.
"Not at all. Thank you."
So, wow, thank you so much everyone who took the time to comment! You're why this thing ended up about 5 times as long as intended o_0 And massive thanks to my truly fantabulous - and deeply understanding - betas.
1. Roadside America is a real App and does indeed contain the words “Never miss another giant twine ball” in its description, which is the most awesome selling point ever.
It also has a website at http://www.roadsideamerica.com, in case you’re struck with the sudden urge to find a building shaped like a coffee pot.
2. I have used Google / Maps/ Streetview / Wiki and the squishy brains of those closest to me to try and be as accurate as I can without actually flying to another country to visit their twine, but then I went ahead and took some artistic license here and there anyway. (The Very Large Array, for instance, only has two tours a year. Now you know, and knowing is … the wrong franchise.)
3. Tony Stark Light up LED Iron Man Shirt
• Contains a light-up Arc Reactor
• Does not prevent shrapnel from reaching your heart
• Machine washable: all electronics can be easily removed for washing
4. Principal Coulson is from the ultimate spider-man cartoon, because the thought of not using that canon was painful.
5. The route they followed is at http://goo.gl/maps/axzo (...you're judging me, aren't you?)
As you can see, there's a lot of things I missed out there, so if anyone wants to throw timestamp prompts my way, you're welcome to (although I promise nothing, nothing!)