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a world of darkness//a world of silence

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“They're going to notice.“

"I'm aware it's a possibility. But I know you'll do your best to ensure it doesn't come back to me."

“And you will do your best to assure they will not follow me afterwards.“

"You are, as far as my powers extend, under our protection."

“Such as it is.“

"If you cannot evade them, then your skills have been greatly underestimated and I have no need of you to proceed."

“My skills have not been underestimated. Is that it?“

"Yes. Consider this a loan. Consider it not being returned a declaration of war and treason."

“Understood. Sir.

"Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit."

“It's better than none at all.“

"I'd rather sleep in a self-built yurt." Clint's jaw tightens for a moment as they stare down the location for their newest—and possibly vaguest so far - assignment. "Do you remember my last attempt at building a yurt?"

Natasha doesn't turn to look at him. Besides it being a waste of energy, she can also see enough of his dismayed reflection in the stainless steel bar holding the neon, partially-flashing sign up high. "You can take all the watches if you're particularly opposed to sleeping," she tells him.

Clint shudders. "I don't think the world could withstand you taking that amount of beauty sleep. Then again, there is that rumor."

Natasha does award him with a slight turn of her body and the raising of a single eyebrow.

"That you get your looks from bathing in the blood of your victims," Clint says, shrugging.

Natasha shows him a smile with a few too many teeth. "Make any stupid jokes while we're here," she says, "and maybe you'll find out."

Clint swallows and smiles brightly. "I guess we'd better get this over and done with. Like ripping off a band-aid."

"Band-aids are for wimps," Natasha mutters, but takes the lead into the building, pulling out the SHIELD-issued credit card and heading straight for the main counter. She can see Clint in the corner of her eyes, slouching. Trying not to appear like he's such a threat. Natasha would laugh, except he pulls it off with ease around civilians.

Trained assassins, on the other hand, can identify their own in an instant, and dress him up however you like, Clint's poise spells trained from any direction.

"King or two queens," the clerk says, without looking up from his entirely fascinating magazine about amateur volleyball.

"Don't know about Tash here," Clint drawls, "but I'm fabulous."

Natasha shoots him a look. She's an expert shot. Clint's brief surge of a good mood withers as she holds up two fingers and the clerk starts to take their payment, sliding over a grimy key. "I hate motels," Clint mutters. The clerk looks at him with an expression that clearly says, mister, you have no idea how much I agree with you.

Natasha follows up both of their expressions with one of her own: a trademark you both are idiots. Clint and the clerk share a shrug, because being told off by the Black Widow is kinda hot. Natasha sighs, and leaves Clint to carry both of their bags.

The recon is simple. The motel block is U-shaped, with fourteen apartments on the ground and twelve along the top floor, plus a shared bathroom which smells like Clint's feet, and a small office. There's a gas station a little along the road with a small mechanics garage and a selection of stale snacks on sale, and a roadside diner on the other side of the freeway.

After a perfunctory sweep of the room and a check-in with SHIELD that they have reached their location, they head out, still passably dressed as tourists. Clint surreptitiously tags the cars in the lot as they amble across the curiously empty freeway to the diner. Their mark will turn up at there, sooner or later, because if their brief is correct and their target is staying at this motel for several days, then there is nowhere else around.

They're both expecting for it to take several days of observation, because that's what their assignment papers said, but Natasha freezes in the doorway and Clint instantly tenses and drops a small blade automatically into his palm—arrows are his biggest strength, but any projectile makes him instantly lethal.

"Well," Natasha says, in a strange tone, "I think I know who our mark is."

"Who?" Clint asks, inching forwards just a little, and then he knows too. Because apart from a pretty blonde waitress and the shuffle of a shadow behind the kitchen hatch, there's only one person in the diner.

And it's someone they know.

The man, sitting at the main counter and disturbed by the draft from the door, looks up from his cup of coffee, sees them, and sags. "Great," Dr. Bruce Banner sighs, "an assassination attempt before my breakfast is even ready. This is my life."

There's no point even taking another booth and trying to talk covertly. Natasha and Clint sit either side of Bruce and argue over the top of him.

It's not exactly efficient, entirely awkward, but it feels like the thing to do.

"Are you sure Dr. Banner is our intended target?" Clint says.

"Call me Bruce," Bruce says, all faux-cheerfulness, "you might as well take that liberty along with following my every move."

"Weren't you going to Stark tower, last we saw you?" Natasha asks Bruce, conversationally.

"It doesn't say it's him," Clint says, tapping at their SHIELD-issued tablet, bringing up the message again.

"Would you voluntarily work in a relatively—for the Other Guy—small space with Tony Stark?" Bruce asks. It's highly rhetorical. The waitress—her name tag reads Beth—brings across an omelette for Bruce, and then smiles at Clint and Natasha.

"Can I get you two anything?"

Natasha asks for coffee and toast. Clint asks for the special, and tips Beth a wink which makes her dimple a smile and hurry back to the hatch. Natasha frowns at Clint.

"What's the special?" Natasha asks, leaning back on her stool and looking up at the painted menu on the wall. It's dense with text. "I didn't know you could read that fast."

"I can't," Clint says, scanning the menu too. "But every dodgy motel diner has a breakfast special."

"So you just came to this motel I just happened to be staying at to be domestic," Bruce says.

"I resent that," Clint says.

"No one," Natasha says, staring at Bruce, "has ever used the word domestic on me." The words and lived hang heavily in the silence.

"It says our target is level 4 sensitive," Clint says.

"Let me guess," Bruce says, "I'm level 4."

"Technically," Natasha says, "we set you at level 4 because creating a higher level cost too much. Bureaucracy's a bitch."

"It pleases me to still be classed as one of SHIELD's top worries," Bruce says.

"Really?" Clint asks, startled. "I'd be kind of pissed. Well, I was kind of pissed."

"It still amazes me how he can dish sarcasm out but not take it," Natasha tells Bruce.

"Pleasant as this is," Bruce says, "I'm guessing surveillance by two of SHIELD's top, uh-" Bruce eyeballs the hatch where he can hear the clatter of kitchen equipment "-retrieval specialists doesn't mean you're going to take me out for a picnic."

Natasha shrugs awkwardly. "Actually, we don't know."

"Blank assignment," Clint says, tipping the tablet towards Bruce for a moment. "You still might not be our assignment. This is just a routine track-and-tag for now. Further orders normally come later."

"Well, if it turns out to your usual kind of order," Bruce says, taking a drag of coffee, "I'd start thinking about what you did to piss SHIELD off, 'cause that's the only real path of reasoning I've got."

"It still might be someone else," Clint says, optimistically. "We got our orders two days ago. When did you get here?"

"Last night," Bruce says. He pauses mid-fork swipe, and frowns. "It's funny, I meant to keep off the freeway but there was a town back there, all clogged up with redirect. And then the back tyre of my Prius blew-"

"You drive a Prius?" Clint interrupts.

"It's a geo-friendly choice," Bruce says. "Also the least obnoxious automobile Stark tried to foist onto me."

"Should have taken the Lexus," Natasha says, somewhat dreamily. "Moves like nothing you've ever ridden."

Clint makes an odd sort of noise that no one calls him on.

"Anyway, there was that mechanic over the road, he took a look and... then the engine went funky, and-" Bruce trails off. "You know, I didn't realize how odd it sounds when spoken out loud. The guy said it'd take him three days to fix the car, so I thought I'd hole up here."

"That is oddly convenient," Natasha says, as Beth comes in with their order. Natasha winces at Clint's plate full of what looks like fried stuff with cheese. Maybe the cheese is fried too. "If you die on this job," Natasha tells Clint, "I'm not even going to let anyone know."

"You always say the sweetest thing, honey bunches," Clint tells Natasha, which makes Beth-the-waitress grin into the condiment carousel she pushed towards them.

"Right back at you, sweet stuff," Natasha says, in her forced I can kill you with my pinkie and not even sweat doing it tone. Clint doesn't even flinch—it's practically the only tone she uses with him. He's accepted that his posthumous SHIELD report will read death by Natasha.

"Unfortunately," Clint says, "convenient in our business never means sunshine and puppies."

"It doesn't in any business, sugar," Beth the waitress tells him. "Is that all I can get you for now?"

"We're good," Natasha says.

"Holler if you want anything," Beth says, and picks up some cleaning supplies, heading out into the rear of the diner to wipe down some tables.

"So what are you saying?" Bruce says. "SHIELD pushed me here to make your job easier?"

"I don't know," Natasha says, "but-" She tenses, suddenly. Clint's cutlery instantly changes position in his hands from food-shovelling to I-could-kill-you-with-just-the-handles. "There's someone coming," she says.

Bruce frowns as if she's crazy, but Clint's gaze goes to the door. "Yeah, I hear it too," Clint says, after a moment. "Maybe a motorbike?"

"Could just be a tourist," Clint says, but he doesn't sound too optimistic.

"Wait, wait," Bruce says. "I might legitimately be a target. Why are we being paranoid?"

"'cause Fury would have told us," Natasha says, gently lowering herself from her stool.

"Would he, though?" Clint mutters. "But that might be my crazy distrust of authority speaking stemming from being betrayed by my first great mentor in life, pulling me the way of evil when I thought I was doing good."

Natasha eyeballs him. Clint shrugs.

The car lot for the diner is on their blind side, so Natasha casually walks over to the window, as if just checking out the sights. Her shoulders tense after just a couple of seconds, and she turns to Clint, a tight expression on her face.

"What?" Clint says, and then falls silent as Steve Rogers comes through the door.

Steve's seen sights in this decade that have shocked him. A man turning into a giant green creation that Mr. Hyde would shudder at. A helicarrier rising out of the sea and turning invisible in the sky. A box the size of his thumb capable of holding over a thousand hours of music.

He likes to tell himself that nothing will shock him now, but the sight of three Avengers—where he is not expecting Avengers—makes him startle a little.

"Uh," Steve says, "was there a memo or something that I didn't get?"

He finishes moving through the doorway, but stays near the exit. Steve hasn't been expecting anything much from his journey. He likes these roadside diners. They're pretty much what he expects. Some things haven't changed too much from the 40s, and he's been delighted to find out that gas stores and diners—if you don't look too hard at the prices on the menu—are one of those things.

"We're on assignment," Clint tells him quickly, "Bruce got waylaid here, perhaps by SHIELD. Other than that—no memo."

"Did you get one?" Natasha says, briskly. "Were you assigned here?"

"Uh," Steve says again, "no? I was just on my way to-" He moves his hands slowly into his jacket pocket, frowning a little, because Natasha looks incredibly tense. He's not surprised. He's not feeling particularly happy to be in a room with three of the people he thought he wouldn't see again for a short period. He pulls out his map. "Here. I put my route on in pencil. My next top is Alamogordo."

Not that he isn't also glad to see them—everyone Steve knows outside of them is dead, after all—but seeing as they also seem to come with disaster and danger, and he was supposed to be on vacation-

Yeah. He's happy and unhappy to see them.

"Oh," Bruce says, "Alamogardo. I've been there. They have the world's biggest pistachio nut." Clint quirks an eyebrow at him. "It's pretty impressive, actually. Green and large. It's... very soothing to look at something green and large which isn't me."

"That's what I was going to see!" Steve says, excitedly. All three of the Avengers look at him in unison. Oh. Perhaps that was a tad too enthusiastic for a giant nut. He shrugs at them. He was enjoying his vacation—they weren't supposed to be any part of it. "Um," he adds. "I just stopped to get some breakfast. Hey, is that the special?" He shoves his hands in his pockets and ambles over to the counter to look at Clint's plate. "It looks good."

"I can get you a plate-" a woman's voice says, and then adds, "Whoa."

Steve looks up at the waitress approaching them, and then does a double take. Beth is the name on her tag, but Steve doesn't need that to remember her—the serum did a number on his brain too, giving him eidetic memory and he can't forget a single thing.

Not the face and name of all the soldiers he lost during the war, or the face of someone he last saw when he was saving her life in Grand Central Station.

"Hi," Beth says, instantly looking star-struck. "Um. Hi." Her expression embarrassingly reminds Steve suddenly of Coulson, and that makes him feel a little queasy. Then she looks around him, realizes they're not alone, and she makes a very brave attempt at pretending nothing strange is going on. "Um. Welcome to Brightside Road Diner, sir. What can I get for you?"

"You always accumulate fans so quickly?" Clint asks.

"I'll have what your grouchiest diner is having, ma'am," Steve says.

Beth nods vigorously. Then leans in and squeaks, "No charge for you, ever," and darts off to the kitchen.

Steve sinks to the nearest stool, and shakes his head slowly, not knowing if this is the 21st century—or if his life is just always going to be incomprehensible.

"Sparky seems to know you," Natasha says.

Steve looks at her. "She was in New York during the Chitauri situation." He shrugs. "She must have seen my face during the station attack. I lost my mask in the process of trying to get myself blown up."

"It happens," Clint says, leaning over and patting him on the shoulder.

"To you, maybe," Natasha says, her mouth twitching smugly for a moment. "So, let's do a run down. We got a blank assignment here to follow someone. No name, no details. Dr. Banner is here, with indications some external force may have diverted him here. You're also here."

Steve shrugs. "I've been meandering all over the place," he says. "I only really planned my route out last week, so I could hit some tourist sites. I didn't submit anything to anyone to let them know I'd be here. Hell, I just decided to stop here on the spur of the moment. The air's a little dry."

"I noticed that," Bruce says. "Maybe there's a thunderstorm coming."

Steve's eyes go straight to Natasha's. She was the pilot when Thor came down onto the jet to steal Loki from them. "Where do you think that's headed down?" Steve asks.

Natasha looks around, cupping one hand over one ear to help her narrow it down. "Parking lot of the motel," she says, running for the door. Steve instantly moves with her.

"What did I miss?" Clint says, automatically following her.

"We'll be back for the food, don't clean up," Bruce says, throws his hands in the air and follows them all.

The freeway is clear, and they just about get across it when it happens. A rumble of thunder. Then a spike of lightning.

"What-?" Clint starts.

"Hawk," Natasha says, staring up at the sky, "this is officially no longer a coincidence."

He only has time to stare at her in wide-eyed realisation when the lightning splinters out sideways. In the horseshoe-curve of the motel buildings, the lightning bounces off the windows, completely frying all the cars in the lot at once in a burst of energy that hurts to look at.

Then the energy clears, and two familiar figures stand in the dust.

"Okay," Bruce says, "I get why Thor might have been lured here, but I'm not too clear at why he's brought his dog along."

Even from the short distance, Loki's glare from behind his muzzle is unmistakable.

Thor isn't exactly too pleased to see them. Looped around one hand is the metal leash that is attached to Loki's handcuffs, and the metal muzzle is still in place on Loki's lower face, and Mjolnir dangles from Thor's other hand.

"Where is she?" Thor start booming to the sky, turning around in the dusty space in between all the spaces. "You vile beast, unhand my Jane, immediately, or you will know the wrath of Asgard!"

On second observation, maybe Thor hasn't seen them yet.

Steve gestures at Natasha, and they take the lead, cautiously approaching Thor, hands outstretched to show they mean peace, just in case Thor's wrath blinds him to their identity at first.

Loki notices them, and visibly rolls his eyes, but doesn't nothing to gain Thor's attention.

"Step out and face me, you curr," Thor booms, and then catches the movement of the Avengers sneaking towards him and his mouth tenses. His voice falls in volume. "I do not understand this. You have stolen my Jane?" His voice crescendos into that last question.

"Hold on a moment, Thor," Steve says, after nodding at Natasha to indicate he'll take point on this. "We don't know what's going on, but based on the fact that you're here, as are Natasha, Clint and Dr. Banner- Signs point to us having been lured here for a reason." Steve moves closer to Thor, who looks irate. "Can you tell me what's going on? Why you're-" His gaze flickers to Loki, who looks away. "-here?"

"I received this message," Thor says, thrusting out a tight roll of parchment that looks like it has been crushed several times. Steve, cautious of Thor's mood, moves in slowly and carefully, and unrolls the parchment gingerly.

"We have your Jane Foster," Steve says, "come to... are these runes?"

"Location," Thor says, his fist tightening around Mjolnir's handle as he looks around at the motel windows suspiciously, like they may be being watched. Steve doesn't stop him—they might be. This is a trap, and that much is clear. "If you pretend there is a grid across the Earth, these runes are the number of lines up and these are the number of lines to the left."

"Longitude and latitude," Steve says, nodding. "Come to this location and we will return her to you unharmed." He looks across at Clint. "That electronic thing of yours connect to SHIELD servers?"

"Already on it," Clint says, tapping on his tablet—and then it sparks in his face. Clint drops it, clenching his fist like it's burned him. "Um," Clint says, "so we're being completely, totally set-up here."

"We really are being set-up," Bruce says.

"And your... attachment?" Steve says, nodding at Loki.

Thor shifts uncomfortably. "We were halfway through my brother's trial. As I have put my bond to his name, he is my responsibility to protect until its denouement. This is the only way our-" Thor swallows, "my father would allow me to leave Asgard."

"Totally, completely set-up," Bruce says.

"As for you," Thor says, "why are the Avengers gathered here?"

"Clint and I were sent here on assignment," Natasha says. "Guess that was a set-up too. Dr. Banner was waylaid on his trip to South America."

"I was still on my seeing-the-world vacation," Steve says. "I wasn't even going to stop at this diner, but... I guess it looked good."

"That diner looks good?" Clint says, sceptically.

"So something might be interfering with our mood, too," Steve says. "Like Loki's staff, lowering our inhibitions in the lab." Steve remembers that argument with a definite twinge. Sure he'd thought all those uncharitable things about Tony, before he got to know him—but there wasn't any way Steve would have normally gone around saying them. He can't help the firm set to his mouth. He really doesn't like it when people mess with anyone's free will.

"My mild manners are an act," Bruce says, "an act which likes to disintegrate. So you might want to listen if I say for a third time that this is a set-up and I know this with one hundred per cent certainty-"

"Dr. Banner," Steve prompts.

Bruce points in an arc. They all follow the trail of his finger, even surly Loki in his bonds. Rising up from the ground, straight up, is a blue, crackling-wall of energy.

"It's nearly at the sky," Steve says. He casts around, and leaps up onto one of the nearest jeeps, and then leaps up onto the walkway on the second floor of the motel, before using the wire fence to get up onto the roof. "It's all around. Maybe twenty feet and rising."

"The other guy can leap that," Bruce calls, already heading out, "want me to-"

"-do it," Steve says.

Bruce sheds his shirt and runs for the barrier, Hulking out as he runs, his skin swelling and turning green until it's the Incredible Hulk running out to the climbing barrier. Hulk leaps—collides with the barrier—and gets thrown back towards them.

Clint and Natasha scatter. Loki tries to—but the leash holding him tautens and snaps, nearly knocking him to the ground. He shoots a terrible but impotent look in Thor's direction, as Thor starts swinging Mjolnir. For a moment Steve thinks Thor's going to attack the Hulk, but the Hulk scrabbles in the sand and it slows him down enough so he doesn't smash into Thor and an incredibly unimpressed Loki.

"Hold on," Thor says, and Steve is confused until Loki grabs onto Thor's shoulders and Thor lets Mjolnir go, and he zooms upwards to where the energy barrier is curving and closing together, like they're being enclosed into a snow globe. At the same time, the Hulk turns and heads up to the motel's roof, using the same path as Steve had but causing a little more damage—a dent in the jeep, a quirk in the fence, and cracks in the roof.

The Hulk leaps for the gap at the same time as Thor flies up with Loki as a living cloak—the Hulk seems to be going in more of a straight line than Thor, which confuses Steve, until he sees that Thor isn't actually going for the rapidly closing gap.

He's going for the small red blur hurtling through the gap.

Steve leaps down to the ground again, via the balcony and roof of one of the cars, just in time for Thor to reach the ground with his cargo. Loki looks especially disgusted as he lowers himself down from Thor's back.

Rescuing Iron Man is probably not high up Loki's regular to-do list.

Still, escaping from here is Steve's number one priority, so even as he's hurrying over to kneel down by Tony's side, to see how he is, he stares up as Hulk reaches the apex of the curving energy just in time for it to close.

Hulk smashes full force into it, like it's made of impenetrable glass—and he falls to the ground hard. Hulk roars, and his oversized muscles bulge even more as he coils up like a spring and charges to the perimeter of the field, smashing himself against it. He sprawls in the dirt and tries again, beating his large fists against the field, howling and screaming.

With Hulk otherwise engaged, Steve turns down to his next pressing concern. Thor's already lifted the mask. Tony's unconscious. "Tony? Tony, it's Steve," Steve says. No response. Steve shares a worried glance with Thor. Loki's eyes crease, like under the muzzle he's smiling, and Steve looks down at Tony's lax face in worry. He puts a finger under Tony's nose and sighs in relief. "He's alive," Steve tells Thor. The tightness in Thor's expression lightens a little, but does not go away.

"This is a trap," Thor says, his voice low.

"Definitely some sort of trap," Clint agrees, coming in close to them. He's got his bow in his hand and a steely expression on his face. He notches an arrow into the bow and casually points it at Loki's face. Loki glares. "And your prisoner's going to tell us how he's accomplished it."

"Wait one moment." Thor steps up from Tony's side, pulling himself to his full, impressive height. "My brother has been under my supervision all hours of the day. By night, Heimdall, the most powerful observer of all the realms has his gaze on him. There is no way my brother's mischievous hands have been in this plot."

"I'm inclined to agree," a quiet, almost apologetic voice says from behind Steve. Bruce. Steve turns his head, but doesn't get pause from sliding two fingers gingerly into Tony's suit to feel for the pulse in his neck. "Loki likes melodrama. After humiliating him in public, he'd start with something small. Something that had a much better chance of hurting our public image. You really think the hamlet of Brightside, New Mexico would be Loki's top choice? I hate to credit him with any intelligence, but here I am and here's a smidgeon of credit. Besides... this is no trap."

"It's not?" Steve asks.

"You can't see what this is?" Bruce looks down at him, and he normally looks a little tired, but the strain now makes him look like he's aged ten years in a single moment.

Steve wouldn't discount that from happening. The world he's woken up in is strange and nothing seems impossible - or maybe it's just the company he's been keeping.

Bruce's voice is low with loathing as he says, "It's a cage."

Steve swallows, hard, because if anyone in this dysfunctional group would be able to identify a cage, it's Bruce.

"On the plus side," Clint says, "there's so many more options now for Tash and I to try and figure out who we were sent here to kill."

"You said you were here to watch someone," Bruce says, looking shocked.

"What did you think watching was a euphemism for?" Clint asks.

"Oh, I don't know," Bruce says, "watching? With just your eyeballs? Non-lethal?"

"Didn't you kill someone with an eyeball once?" Clint murmurs as an aside to Natasha, who just shrugs.

Then she drops down next to Steve. She looks down at Tony. "He's still unconscious. We should get him inside. Take the suit off. See if he's injured."

"Can we get it off?" Steve asks. "It even sounds a dumb question in my head, but- can it be removed from the outside?"

Natasha shrugs. "If we can't find some way of unscrewing it, we've got a demi-god who can rip it from him."

"And if he regains unconsciousness, then how's he going to fight with us?" Clint asks.

"He's got like, a million of these suits back in his office," Natasha says, with a shrug. "Or he did-" Then she pauses. "Why are we fighting?"

Clint points. Steve follows his gaze and immediately gets to his feet. Because standing just inside the barrier, and heading their way, are six... somethings.

"How did they even get through the barrier?" Steve questions, running for his motorbike and trying not to think about how it looks like Thor and Loki's entrance have shorted his engine out as he unhooks his shield from inside his travelling bag. He tries his best not to think about how much better he feels with the comforting weight of his shield on his arm as he takes in the enemies.

Six of them. Equal size. They don't look entirely human, but humans didn't have glowing eyes in the 40s, and Steve doesn't think that's something the 21st century's developed for real people just yet.

Robots, on the other hand...

"There's one each," Steve says. Beside him, Bruce starts to Hulk up again, and all their attention focuses on the six robots, starting towards them.

Steve swallows, and they run to meet them.

The robots are fairly simple to take care of. Ten minutes later, and Bruce is dropping back to regular size, scooping his shirt out from the dirt as he heads back towards them, and Thor's already testing the barrier with his hammer, having dispatched his robot a few minutes before anyone else.

Steve's feeling pretty good about the random attack. The only damage the Avengers have taken is that Clint has a scrape on his arm, Bruce's trousers are torn, and Hulk took a few bricks from the edge of the motel, but that's it.

He turns his attention back to Tony. Clint hurries over to help lift him, and they start to move to one of the motel rooms that Clint says is his and Natasha's. Thankfully it's on the ground floor—although Steve doesn't think Clint must be too happy with that.

They don't quite get to the door of Clint and Natasha's motel room. Clint jerks his head up just moments before the sky flashes, like they're inside and someone's flicked a switch on and off a few times, rapidly. The barrier drops—just for a brief second—and Steve's heart lurches in anticipation of escape from this place. His heart is only allowed a second.

Dark shapes fill the space where the barrier was, and then the barrier forms behind the shapes, and then the shapes plummet.

"The hell?" Clint drops Tony's heavy legs to the ground, his bow instantly stretched again, an arrow flying into the nearest creature even before Steve can even inhale. Steve drops with Tony to the ground, whipping his shield from his back, and crouches down like a turtle, covering himself and Tony's exposed face as best as he can while one of the things barrels down towards him. Steve feels the heavy weight of something slamming against the shield, and he can feel a set of claws scratching around the sides, catching against his clothes, aiming for his body—Steve coils up and leaps, pushing all his strength into his own shield, making the thing squawk and fall into the dust, only for a moment. Steve straightens, assuming a defensive posture, staying by Tony's prone body, and eyeballs the creature.

It's some sort of flying thing.

"I've seen these before," Natasha yells. Somewhere off in the distance Steve can see a flash of red hair—Natasha, of course, is trying to ride one of the damn things. "Aim for the chest. It's not entirely flesh."

Not entirely flesh. It's disturbing how quickly Steve's adapted to a phrase like that. Seeing a man rip his face off in front of him probably was the first thing that really made Steve accept the crazy. Or maybe it started when he stepped into a metal container as a ninety-pound sapling and emerged as an enhanced super soldier. Or maybe it was surviving seventy years in ice.

The not-entirely flesh thing seems to think it's a giant bird, and Hulk seems to agree.

"Hulk smash angry birds!" Hulk roars, plucking two of them from mid-air and smashing their heads together, beak first. Steve perks up at the idea of Hulk managing to take out all the bird-things that easily, but the birds adapt to Hulk crushing their heads with surprising speed, curling their bodies inwards and gripping onto him with deadly, curving claws.

"Someone should," Clint yells, unleashing arrow after arrow at the birds shoving Hulk to the ground, "whoever invented that game should be shot."

"These birds are an invention?" Thor roars in question, smashing claws away from his face and barreling his body directly into the softer underbelly of one. Loki's flung to the dirt too, and his eyes burn into Thor's back as he's dragged a few feet through the dirt before he can manage to get back to his feet.

"Sort of," Natasha yells, jumping up onto the trunk of a car and kickbacking from the motel wall to get enough height to launch herself onto one of the feathery bodies. "A combination of robotics and genetic engineering gone wrong."

Steve's main priority isn't learning the background of the creatures. Right now his task is protecting Tony, who can't protect himself. This fight might have been easier if Clint and he had managed to get Tony inside, but maybe that had been the wrong direction to go anyway. Steve's getting a weird feeling like the things attacking them are specifically designed to target the Avengers.

It takes them fifteen minutes to dispatch the birds in the end. Steve spends a tiring twelve minutes fending off the bird coming after him, trying to keep its sharp beak and claws away from Tony, still a much too easy target. One of Clint's arrows smash into the side of Steve's bird's head, and the bird rears back, and Steve takes the opportunity to hurl his shield into the bird's chest. The bird creature spasms, energy crackling over its body, and as Steve catches his shield in the return bounce, his bird crashes to the ground.

After checking the other birds are summarily engaged, Steve motions to Thor to cover Tony and heads for the motel office, glancing back to check none of the Avengers are in trouble of losing their prey. They're not. They're all terribly competent. Steve heads inside, and peers over the counter—the clerk is cowering, eyes wide.

"How many guests do you have in the motel at the moment?" Steve asks, in his brisk, no-nonsense tone. The clerk eyeballs Steve's shield, and swallows audibly.

"Four on the second floor, two are in at the moment. Five on the first floor. Three are inside. Two are out there, fighting with you." The clerk frowns. "Are we trapped?"

Steve frowns. Frightening civilians isn't his favourite thing to do in the world. "We'll do our best to get you out," he says, after a terse second. "I think we're drawing their fire so I'm going to try and get them away from you. Hang tight and do what we say and everything should be fine."

The clerk nods, opens his mouth to say something else—but Steve's already heading back out of the door.

"All right," Steve calls out, even as Clint's still taking down the last one with one of his exploding arrows, "we need to move. Six of us. Six of them. It's obvious we're the target. We need to move out, closer to the field, draw the fire. Maybe try and get through in the second the barrier closes. I need help moving Tony somewhere quickly." Steve eyeballs Hulk, who's already heading for the barrier in the clearest section of the enclosed area. "Thor, could you perhaps take Tony to the diner? Maybe get the waitress and cook to evacuate to the motel. They'll need cover."

"Of course," Thor says, tugging on Loki's lead. Loki drags his feet but follows him—he looks dusty but uninjured. "If an attack comes while I am thus engaged, remember to leave one for me."

"I don't think that's going to be any problem at all," Steve mutters, as Thor hefts Tony over his shoulder like the Iron Man suit doesn't weigh four hundred pounds.

And it's not a problem. Fifteen minutes after the birds are toast, the barrier flickers out again. Natasha, stationed right beside it, tries to flip through—but the energy crackles through her and she's thrown back like she weighs nothing towards where Steve and Clint are positioned. Clint dives forwards to help soften her landing, and rolls upwards, loosing an arrow from his bow as he straightens.

The arrow collides into another of the robots from before. Although this one doesn't even falter.

Steve tenses, looks at the six enemies, and goes into action.

And this time, it's much more difficult. It takes maybe thirty minutes to take them down, and it's a slog to keep them away from the motel and the people within. Thor ends up abandoning his evacuation of the diner to join in the fight, and even Loki takes up a robot arm, joining in rather than just hiding behind Thor or occasionally being his human cape. At one point, Loki feigns going down. The robot, mistakenly interpreting it as weakness, lurches towards him—leaving his flank unprotected, and giving Thor an easy opening to thrust Mjolnir into the side of its head. The robot hurtles through the dirt, its head partially caved in. It's not enough to stop the robot in its tracks, but it pushes itself back up onto its large, clunky feet just in time for the robot the Hulk is battling to land a lucky punch. Hulk hurtles through the air and lands directly on Thor's robot's chest, crushing it to pieces. Thor and Loki are already onto the next robot by then, tackling a robot's legs in unison as Clint fires arrows into its torso.

Steve actually feels a little sad at catching glimpse of them fighting together—Thor and Loki move beautifully together. If only they could have gotten along, they'd be an unstoppable force for the protection of the universe.

Then he doesn't have time to be sad. These robots are crazy difficult to fight off. They're not Stark tech—Natasha yells something about them resembling Justin Hammer's cast-offs—but they don't seem to have any obvious weakness. Even taking off the head doesn't stop them—it just makes their flailing more dangerous.

Steve's breathing hard by the time they take them down into the dust, and he stares at the barrier, wondering what else is going to come through.

"I think there's going to be a pause," Bruce says, shrinking down and not even bothering to retrieve his shirt this time, clearly waiting to Hulk out again. He doesn't look too good—pale and stressed is not a good combination for him. "See the ripples? About twenty metres apart? I noticed maybe five minutes before each attack, they grow white. They're blue now. This thing must be taking a heap of energy to run. I'd be surprised if they drop it again so quickly."

"A warning system," Steve says. He hadn't noticed the ripples. Technological things aren't really his forte. "All right. Let's regroup. Take turns keeping an eye on the ripples. Let's hope Dr. Banner's right."

"I did not manage to evacuate the two from the diner," Thor says, heading that way. Steve nods and comes with him, keeping his shield looped on his arm, one eye focussed on the barrier now he knows what to look for.

"We'll raise the alert," Natasha says. She's holding her side. Steve swallows in worry. "Go.“

Steve nods and follows Thor and Loki into the diner. Beth the waitress is mopping Tony's forehead with a flannel, looking worried. She puts it to one side and comes up to him.

"You know," Beth says, wringing her hands a little, "I came here to be safe. All the way down here, away from my friends, because my mom thought New York was too dangerous."

Steve swallows. Tenses when something moves—but it's just an older woman who looks a little like Beth and who, from the apron and flour on her cheek, must be the diner's chef. Maybe it's her mom.

"And when I saw you come in, I was so happy," Beth says. "I felt so safe. But no—safety is wherever you're not, isn't it?"

Steve tries not to flinch, because she's right. He's cursed. He tenses his jaw. "I'm not sure what's going on. But we're going to keep the threat away from the motel. We will. I just need to relocate you both there."

Beth's mom lets loose a string of Spanish. Steve recognizes enough of the words—some in his squad spoke it fluently and sometimes there was a lot of time spent waiting in the trenches, enough time to swap stories and knowledge and bond just that little too much before death took them - and he resists the urge to blanch. Loki looks pleased when they shepherd the two women out of there, but Steve still doesn't think Loki's behind it. The trickster is just taking the opportunity to smile at their misfortune.

There's no attack for an hour, and then three sets of robots and bird-things attack, one after another.

It's too much of a pattern for Steve to feel even remotely comfortable. They keep the attacks confined to the patch of land to the east of the motel, but they've had to spread out a little more with each attack.

When they dispatch the third lot of foes in this set, and enough time has passed to indicate another hour is going to pass, Steve sits down heavily in the dirt, sifting through robot remains and looking for clues while he thinks things through.

"I'm not entirely sure this is a cage," Steve says, as the other Avengers huddle closer—perhaps Steve looks like he knows what he's doing, even though he's just picking bits out.

"Working theory?" Natasha asks, bending down and tilting one of the motherboards Steve's just extracted. She passes it over to Bruce without looking at him—Bruce automatically takes it, and then looks peeved that she knows he'll take it without asking. Still, he puts his glasses back on—they've thankfully survived the chaos—and peers at it more closely.

"Someone's testing us," Steve says, straightening and looking out into the horizon. "Each set of enemies is harder than the one before. Someone wants to know what we can handle."

"I might have a theory, then," Clint says, frowning.

"This better not be one of your vodka theories," Natasha says, folding her arms, "You keep forgetting I'm Russian."

"How can I, you're always rushing about, Russian, rushing- Get it?" Clint squints at Bruce. "How close am I to getting my testicles pickled?"

"Micrometres," Bruce tells him, without even having to look up from the boards.

Clint wrinkles his nose. "Okay. Bad jokes aside-"

"Terrible, life-threatening jokes aside," Natasha mutters.

"Yes. That. There was this guy once. One of my assignments." Clint does that drawn expression that Steve's starting to recognize as that was one of my assassination assignments. "His name was Tony Masters."

Steve holds back the smirk. Because Tony's still unconscious and being amused that the guy has a surname their Tony would much prefer would be wasted without him there. And then he realizes he thought of Iron Man as their Tony and he feels a bit lightheaded, although most of that is due to the fact that Tony's still unconscious and that's not a good thing.

"Question," Bruce says. Bruce is squinting at Clint, an almost amused quirk to his mouth, "do you kill anyone that you're assigned to kill?"

Natasha—one of Clint's assignments that he hadn't killed—makes that gratuitous picture of you shrug she's good at.

Steve despairs that he can decipher her so quickly. Losing Bucky, being too late for Peggy—- it had been too easy to vow to never get attached to anyone again. Emotional attachment was a painful thing when unexpectedly severed, and Steve wanted to be careful. He had vowed to try and limit who he got attached to, because life wanted to tear him from anyone he loved, and Steve was okay with not being close to anyone as long as he could keep at least fighting for what he believed in.

Except his heart apparently did not have a direct line to his brain, and had already apparently started to bond with the most volatile bunch of people probably in the whole world.

"I kill a lot of people," Clint says, "a lot of people. Tasha was an exception because she's Tasha. And it's not my fault you're indestructible."

"What," Bruce says, “wait. You were assigned to kill me? When did you ever try and kill me?"

"Narnaul, summer, 2007. Jhunjhunu, couple months later. Madhubani, 2011," Clint rattles off, counting on his fingers.

"Madhubani," Bruce says, and winces a little, "how are you even alive?"

Clint shrugs. "I'm good at what I do."

"Just not good enough to kill the Hulk," Natasha says. Like it is possible and she could maybe do it one day. No one really disagrees with her, because if any one of them could, it would probably be her.

Well, Thor and Mjolnir have the highest odds in SHIELD at the moment. But Natasha isn't far below him in that queue.

"And this Tony Masters," Thor says, low and firm, like he's tired of the banter and just wants to sort things out. Steve, still a little out of it, can definitely understand. Even though when this is all sorted out, Steve doesn't particularly have anywhere urgent to be.

"Tony Masters was a blip," Clint says, "and-"

"Wait, Tony Masters," Natasha interrupts - the realization in her tone drawing Steve fully out of his thoughts. She looks a little haunted. "You mean the Taskmaster."

"The what?" Steve says, because people only got names which you could put the in front of if they had some sort of power. The Hulk. The Black Widow. The Tony Stark (money is power in any decade.)

"The Taskmaster," Natasha says. She straightens and goes out to look out of the window. She stares like they've all been doing. Like there could be a car coming by any minute. "He's... not a superhero. SHIELD keeps tabs on everyone who might have an unusual talent. You were on their list even before your accident," she says, nodding to Bruce.

"Right," Bruce says, spreading his hands self-deprecatingly, "my super brain."

"He's not quite in your league of talented," Natasha says, "but he's good. He can mimic anyone's fighting style in moments. Not just see someone fight and know how to do it, but fully replicate it. And then he passes it on to others. SHIELD sent me under his tuition in order for me to complete my assignment against another assassin, Elektra Natchios."

"Oh, so you don't kill all your assignments either," Clint says, somewhat smugly.

Natasha shoots him a look which makes the smug smirk fade from his face instantly. "Turns out the Taskmaster was double-dealing—and teaching Elektra my moves at the same time he was teaching me hers. When we finally met, we fought for three days solid without sleep before we eventually realized the Taskmaster had set us up. By the time we decided to team up, he was gone."

"You and Elektra Natchios," Clint says, almost dreamily.

"I can hurt you," Natasha tells him.

"So... what?" Steve says. "The Taskmaster has caged us up in here, and is sending different foes at us so we're forced to reveal our fighting style? What could he do with that?"

"Train others on how to defeat us," Thor says. "The strategy is sound. I cannot count the number of training sessions when we were infiltrated by frost giants, hoping to scope out our methods to turn them against us."

Loki makes a long, muttering sound. And then looks frustrated. And growls.

"I hate to say it, but he might have something useful to say," Natasha says. Thor wrinkles his nose, but reaches obligingly, removing the mask from his brother's jaw.

"I told you not to train outside," Loki says, "I-"

"I will not hesitate to replace your muzzle," Thor tells him. Loki makes a song and dance about rolling his eyes but refrains from finishing his sentence. The knife that automatically dropped into Natasha's hand probably has something to do with that decision.

"I mean," Loki says, "if I were this Tony Taskmaster-"

"Tony Masters," Bruce interjects, helpfully.

"What need have I of mortal names," Loki says, and pulls a face. "I've had a truly awful contraption in my mouth, is water too much to ask for?" Five blank faces turn in his direction, none of them impressed. "Fine. If I were this man, I would want to observe your fighting styles separate and together. With each fight, you're giving too much away. You need to know thy enemy to defeat him."

Thor nods, looking thoughtful. "With each battle, we show our strengths and our weakness."

"But if we don't fight back," Steve says, "we risk the civilians in the motel getting injured."

"But if we give too much away of how we fight together," Clint says, "how many hundreds more are we risking in the future?"

"I can't think like this," Steve says. "Not now, not while we still have options. I want us all to get out of here, without compromising us. It's early. There's still time and we don't know if this is a pattern. Everything is conjecture at this point. We need to work with what we do have." He nods over at the forcefield. "Something like that must be hell to power. How would you power something like that?"

"Me?" Bruce stands up, dusting his hands on the ribbons of his pants. "The power source would be outside. I wouldn't risk us destroying it. Thor, you unleashed a lot of power on it. How did it feel?"

"Much like the energy barrier on the roof of Stark's tower," Thor says, "the one that unleashed the chitauri."

"Pure energy," Natasha says, eyeballing the forcefield warily.

Steve stares. "Like the Hydra- like the tesseract?"

"Impossible," Thor says. "It is with Odinfather. Without it, we would not have had the power to descend to Earth."

"The glow seems familiar," Bruce says, "like I've almost seen it before somewhere."

"You have."

They all turn around to see Tony limping out of the diner, still in the suit. He's moving slowly.

"You're awake," Steve says, feeling a knot of relief unwind in his chest. Having one less thing to worry about, like the idea of having to tell Pepper that Tony was—That he—Anyway, it feels like a little victory, and Steve clings onto that.

"Regretfully," Tony says, limping closer. "Which one of you hit me with a truck?"

Steve doesn't know whether to scowl or laugh so his mouth settles into a quirked version of both. "We'll debrief you asap," Steve says, "but as time seems to be of the essence, what do you mean by the fact we've seen that before?"

Tony taps at his chest, flicking the soft glow of his arc reactor case with a fingernail so it makes a soft clanging noise. "Ringing a bell?"

Steve looks from Tony to the shimmering energy barrier. The shade is identical. "How is this possible? I thought you only had one capable of this much output."

"Yeah," Tony says, "and whichever son of a bitch has stuck us here apparently thought it would be fun and giggles to remove the only power source in the world that doesn't kill me."

Tony smiles weakly.

"Are you-" Natasha starts, alarmed. "How are you walking around?"

"Whoever it is knows my history well enough that I found this in my emergency compartment," Tony says, tossing her a small box. "Best not to open it, cupcake."

"Palladium," Natasha says, her face getting a little pinched.

"Wait," Bruce says, "palladium—and this—whoever- put that in your chest? It's dangerously radioactive, Tony, they're—Killing you to keep us in here."

Steve, alarmed, stares at Tony, who shrugs a little.

"I survived a year of palladium powering it before," Tony says. "Irony of the thing saving my life killing me, etc. Etc. Dull, dull, dull. So as long as we find this guy and kick his butt in the next day or so, the odds are so-so. Here and there. You know how it goes."

"How did you end up here?" Steve asks.

"Registered a peak of energy over New Mexico," Tony shrugs. "So I suited up and flew out to investigate. Last thing I remember was crossing the border, JARVIS registered something coming towards me and I blacked out more thoroughly than last year's Spring Fling tequila bender. Any clue who's behind this?

"We think it may be Tony Masters," Steve says. "No solid proof, but it's a guess."

"Great name," Tony says, badly hiding a wince of pain as he bends down next to Bruce to look at some of the robot pieces. "I know the Taskmaster's rep. Never heard of him taking this sort of a play but it's what I'd do if there was a new force on the square I didn't understand."

Steve follows him down. Hovering in case Tony needs help. He doesn't know what palladium is beyond very radioactive, but he does know what radioactive can do to people. "How do you know about the Taskmaster? Run into him before?"



"Contrary to popular belief, I do read all the mission reports, all the memos, all the files I get sent. I don't know where this rep comes from—you don't satisfy genius by a reluctance to read things. It's kind of the contrary."

Steve frowns.

"Well, it's clear these are just jigsaw pieces," Tony says. "There's some Stark tech, some Hammer tech—third world killer robot construction's not what it used to be." He looks at Steve. "While you're here, make yourself useful, gramps. I need to look at the forcefield. See where my vibranium's being used."

Steve takes a second to understand that the age insult is to cover just how bad Tony's feeling. He helps Tony up to his feet without calling him on it.

"So there's been, what, six enemies each time?" Tony asks, leaning a little on Steve as Steve helps him over to the forcefield's edge. If the hour gap is consistent this time, like Bruce postulated it might be, they have a little over half an hour to figure something out before the forcefield is penetrable again.

"Each set of increasing difficulty," Steve says, realizing Tony's counted the bodies. "Three sets, an hour's break, then three more sets of six."

"And each of us have been lured here," Tony says. Behind them, the other Avengers follow, clearly interested in what Tony might see which they haven't been able to.

"Tash and I were definitely ordered here," Clint says. "I think we can assume Bruce was subtly forced here."

Bruce nods, thoughtfully. "I thought the car's tyre burst, but it could have been shot out, I guess."

"We'll take a look next time we're outside to verify," Steve says. "Thor, you and Loki were definitely lured here. I'm assuming this Masters—if he is the culprit—fabricated the evidence that he has Jane, but I promise you, if he hasn't, she's our number one priority on getting out of here."

"I appreciate that," Thor rumbles, his expression looking strained.

"So that leaves you and me, sparky," Tony says.

Steve nods. "I guess I was heading in this general direction. But nothing pushed me to this particular motel. It just happened to be the best place and time to stop."

"So someone might have realised this was where you would naturally stop," Natasha says, "and then decided to engineer the rest of us here."

"And you were literally thrown here," Steve says. "But unconscious."

"So he didn't expect you to regain consciousness," Bruce says.

Tony makes a noncommittal sound. And then freezes, and relaxes, all in one moment. Steve already knows what that means—Tony's discovered something. "What?"

"Look," Tony says, "there."

"The indentation in the ground?"

Tony nods. "There was another type of forcefield here before. Maybe four feet in from the one powered by my arc reactor's usual power source. They didn't expect me to be available."

"So what does that mean?" Steve asks.

Tony shrugs. "I don't know for sure-"

"Your best theory."

"Has anyone told you yet that you're cute when you're bossy?"

Steve stares.

"Cold audience," Tony says. "My best guess- there was another form of restraint. You've been getting six enemies. He's only expecting six Avengers to fight. I guess I wasn't expected. Or wanted."

"Or needed," Steve says, thoughtfully. "You think they made this stronger shield with your arc reactor's power source, because you just so happened to be available?"

"Best guess," Tony says, with a shrug.

"I suppose it stands to reason," Steve says.

"You know how I have to explain science logic to you?" Tony says. "Assume from now on that you need to put logic logic in English from now on. I got hit pretty hard in the head, y'know."

"The Taskmaster's MO is to... observe and replicate fighting styles," Steve says. "Why would he need to observe how you fight? There's thousands of hours of footage in the archives. I've seen the videos on TV. There's no need to put you in a cage to see how you fight."

"I could turn that back on all of you," Tony says. "There's definitely footage of Thor from his first visit to Earth. And you, Cap, a lot of grainy footage and some of you sparring. Clint, Tasha, Bruce—you've all been caught on camera over the years. Any fool can hack into SHIELD and get the footage. It's not individual fighting styles he's after at all. We were all already out in the world."

"He wants to know how we fight together," Steve says. It makes terrible, horrible sense. Steve has seen the footage from the New York chitauri attack—also known as, not a lot of it. Smoke, mostly. Steve had assumed that was just how SHIELD had cut the footage, but maybe that really is all they have of that fight.

Meaning there's no way for anyone to see how they fight together as a team.

"Right," Steve says, "but that doesn't explain why he didn't lure you here too."

"It is pretty hard to get you to do anything that wasn't your idea in the first place," Bruce suggests.

Tony looks at him coldly. "You don't have to be kind, Bruce."

"I don't-"

"You're all thinking it. The only reason Masters didn't trick me here too is because he knows I don't play well with others. He wouldn't expect me to voluntarily fight with you guys. He wouldn't expect me to be part of the team at all."

"Which just means he doesn't know enough of what went down in New York," Steve says, shrugging.

Tony exhales, and then looks out into the field. "ETA of the next attack?"

"Twenty two minutes," Steve says.

"Well, I'm up now." Tony squares his shoulders. "Doesn't matter how many he sends next time—we've got to change things up."

"What are you suggesting?" Steve asks. "Taking them all on yourself? Stark, you can barely stand up by yourself."

"Semantics," Tony grouches. "I'll push the palladium, I can handle six enemies on my own no problem. You guys hold the perimeter or whatever, but leave the fighting to me."

"No," Steve says, automatically.

"Right, you're the boss of me," Tony says. "Oh, wait, I haven't signed a contract-"

"Tony," Bruce says, warningly.

Tony shoots him a look. "We have to be pretty sure by now that this is either a cage for someone to sadistically watch us all die or the Taskmaster wanting to know how we fight. If the former, nothing's going to help. If it's the latter, everything could hurt us. We need to do the opposite of what he expects and there's not a chance in hell he's expecting Iron Man to take them on single-handedly when he was people around to do his dirty work for him."

"I like the thrust of the plan, not the execution," Steve says.

"That's what she said," Tony says, making Clint smirk a little. The reference is lost on Steve.

"With adjustments I think it's something we can all agree on," Steve says. "Until now we've been helping each other out. We need to go selfish. Pick whichever enemy we want. Do not call on each other. Try not to use our favourite moves. It's our best chance. Fight like ourselves. Ignore everyone else."

"Fighting like myself is doing it all without asking for help," Tony mutters.

"I need you elsewhere," Steve says, firmly. "Where else am I going to get a genius engineer with knowledge of vibranium?"

Tony tilts his head, and then points directly at Bruce.

"Yeah, and you're operating at 100%," Steve says, shoving Tony a little. Tony nearly totters over and throws him a glare. Steve leans in closer, keeping him upright. "I need you to figure a way to get us out of here. Out of everyone here, you can do it the fastest. I need your brain."

"Back in MIT that was my favourite pick up line," Tony says. "C'mon, Bruce, help me get a closer look and then maybe that kitchen back there will have some bits and pieces I can use to make something explosive."

"Not too explosive," Steve tells him, frowning as Bruce comes over and surreptitiously takes Steve's place, helping Tony back up to his feet and over in the direction of the force field. "Natasha, Clint, you've worked before, right?"

"There'll be a ton of footage of us," Clint says. "All of it sadly R-rated maximum." He twinges in pain. Steve can't help but be impressed—he didn't even see Natasha move, let alone see her hit him. "They rate things R for violence," Clint tells her, sounding a little sour, rubbing his side exaggeratedly.

"Yeah," Natasha says, "and that time I defenestrated that Russian was a clear NC-17 moment."

"No film's ever received an NC-17 for violence," Clint argues.

"They would if I made it."

"Can you hold a perimeter? Keep the civilians safe? I don't care if anyone knows the Avengers are here to protect people. That should be pretty damn obvious by now to anyone," Steve says.

"Absolutely," Natasha says, nodding to Clint and starting to gesture at the building, making some hand gestures that Steve semi-understands.

"Based on the last attack," Thor says, "Bruce's so-called Other Guy and myself could hold back the next wave. Perhaps you should pull back too."

"He's got a point," Bruce says. Steve starts—he hadn't realized Bruce was back. He turns to see Tony limping into the diner, already removing part of his suit on the way. Steve frowns, and looks back at Bruce. "With Clint and Tasha holding the motel, Hulk's got a selfish streak that I try and hold back. I can let him rip full strength. The last thing anyone on this planet would expect would be for Captain America to run and hide."

Steve's jaw tenses. "I don't like it."

Bruce grins, humourlessly. "That's why it's a good idea."

Steve nods, and looks out to the fence. "Keep as close to the edge as you can. And if you see each other in danger—don't help. Even if someone falls." He has to swallow hard at that last sentence.

"I will not fall," Thor says, "Gods do not fall."

"Sometimes Thor takes naps in the dirt," Loki offers with a graceful shrug. "I'm not even jesting. Right while the battle's raging. You can hear him snoring."

Thor looks like he's about to explode. Steve leaves them to it, picking over the robot bits they've already started to accumulate. He feels a little guilty. He's never found it easy turning his back to anything, but he has to do this: he can't not do something he's asked Tony to do too.


Steve finds Tony right in the back of the diner, pulling something from what looks like a broken oven. It makes sense. Tony's a creator. Working with metals, inventing things, it seems to calm him down, and Steve is a big fan of calm.

Steve watches him for a while. "You, not being expected. It bothers you," he says, after a long moment.

Tony doesn't look up from the oven, but he twitches—he hadn't realised Steve was there. "It explains a lot," he says. "My usual MO is nowhere near you guys."

"Masters—are we assuming it is him?"

"In the absence of any better theory," Tony says, steadfastly not looking at him.

"Masters doesn't know you. He doesn't know what you're really capable of," Steve says. He fidgets, but doesn't back down from his next statement—it's true, and he's never been afraid of the truth. "I underestimated you from the moment we met. It's that shallow image you project."

"I'm really that shallow," Tony says.

Steve smiles. "That, too. But- you're deep. Deeper than any of us. When it's necessary."

"This has been a good talk," Tony says, sliding a piece of the oven free and using it to lever a part of it free. "Remind me to schedule another one in my diary later for right about never."

"We know you, Tony. Masters doesn't. And as far as I'm concerned, I want to keep it that way. Every team needs a secret weapon."

"So I'm a weapon." Tony pauses, mid-yank. "No, I can roll with that. Yeah. My fragile esteem thanks you."

"Stark-" Steve starts.

Tony makes an exasperated sound and puts the piece of metal down. "Tony. My name's Tony. I- Stark was my father." He picks up the metal again, his eyes flickering away quickly like he's said something raw, painful.

Maybe it's just because Tony misses his father. Steve doesn't know. He feels bad for not knowing. He feels bad for having memories of Howard that Tony doesn't. Maybe one day he'll share them with Tony, but now's not the time. "Tony," Steve amends. "I need you to do something for me."

Tony tenses. Doesn't turn to look at Steve. Maybe Tony doesn't hear the world need very often. Or maybe people don't ask him for help. "What?"

"I need you to hold back," Steve says. "Figure out a way to take down the barrier. It's based on your power source. Out of anyone in the world, you're the one who can do that."

"I thought I might go out there in the next attack," Tony says, and then he does turn, fixing Steve with a glare, daring him to fight him. "Fix the suit. You know it makes sense - if I'm taking down the enemies, Masters can't copy any of your fighting style."

"But then he'd know," Steve says, with a shrug.

Tony makes a confused sound.

"How much you want to protect us," Steve says. "He'd know how much we meant to you."

"I don't," Tony says, turning away again, his eyes skittering over the metal pieces in front of him. "You don't."

"You can keep telling yourself that. We know different."

"You can do whatever you like," Tony says, but it's not an argument—it's Tony agreeing. "So what's the strategy, Cap?"

"If you can figure out a way to get us out, that's all the strategy we need," Steve says. He claps Tony on the shoulder and starts to head out. "And oh, Tony?"

"I will shoot myself if this is anything else remotely to do with feelings, Cap," Tony says.

"It's Steve," Steve says. "My name's Steve."

"Right," Tony says, "Steve-"

Steve saunters out of the room before Tony realises that was the last thing.

Steve manages to sit out two of the first three waves. He watches from the diner window, his fingers itching, but he forces himself to sit still. A couple of times he catches Tony watching him from inside the kitchen. The windows are clean enough that Steve can see Tony's frown in the reflection. Tony doesn't say anything, and Steve appreciates it.

Sitting out from any battle is difficult enough without Steve having to face how guilty he feels.

Bruce does a good job at letting Hulk go wild. There's absolutely no strategy to how Hulk fights, and there was some strategy in the Chitauri attack. Steve's almost dizzy watching Hulk smack into the enemies, and he has to swallow down a cheer when Hulk punches Loki full in the face in the melee.

The fights keep to the same pattern—robots, then birds, and a final pack of robots, and Steve swallows down half a smile when he sees seven robots in this last wave. Masters—if that is who is behind this—is finally adjusting to Tony being there.

Then he has no smile to swallow down, because clearly Masters intends to accelerate this thing until they can't fight back, or until some of them are hurt.

Or maybe Masters has been hired to take them all out, and he's just playing with them beforehand.

Sadly in this third run of robots, one of them comes hurtling for the diner. Steve sighs, grabs his shield, and runs out. The one launching full speed at him is chewing up the sandy ground like it's nothing, and Steve thinks about how he usually fights—close range, and then only using the shield when necessary.

So he curls up and launches the shield first.

The robot is caught off-guard. It must have been programmed to deal with Steve's usual fighting pattern. It's not caught off-guard enough to mean Steve doesn't have to do an awkward slide through the sand to hurl himself through the gap in the robot's legs. He picks up his shield and turns hard, smacking the robot in the breastplate, burning his face with a shower of friction sparks. He turtles down, curling up, because it will protect him and he never takes a defensive position. The robot hammers down on him, and Steve rides out the attack before rolling and springing forwards, using the edge of his shield like it's a knife, slicing upwards.

Then it's a game of taking and returning blows. Steve's light on his feet, something that's never left him from pre-transformation, and the robot's reach is long, but Steve's too quick for it.

Steve takes a few lessons from the person that's probably got them caught up like rats, and starts to learn the robot's patterns—it overstretches with its left arm, and favours its right foot. Of course, then Steve jumps in and just bashes the robot, because using an enemy's strategies is his best strategy. For a reason. Steve finally takes the robot down, but he gets a smack around the head for his troubles which makes his head ring.

He holds his head, and, after sharing a terse nod across the wreckage of the bodies with a heavily-breathing Bruce, Steve turns and goes back into the diner.

"Hey," Steve calls through, "how you doing?"

"Spiffy," Tony calls back. "How's the fighting?"

"Over for now," Steve says. "I think?"

"You do? How's that working out for you?"

"You're-" Steve starts, intending to call Tony something mean, and stops. He holds up a hand, shielding his eyes at the thing spinning and whirling and emitting a bright, bright light in the kitchen. "You did all that from stuff in here? But-"

Tony looks smug. "What, because I'm a billionaire and can work with the finest materials, I don't know how to improvise?" Tony gives him an inscrutable look over the small device with its spinning rings. "Your read my bio, right?" He taps his chestpiece and Steve nods cautiously. "Did you think I got fed-exed top of the range equipment to the tiny cave in the middle of nowhere? No. This is what the first Iron Man suit was made of. Bits of ovens and pieces of a fridge, mostly." Tony nudges the small box on the counter. "And a little bit of radioactivity." Steve steps back from the counter. Tony smiles, ruefully. "I'm going to need your shield to break the barrier down."

Steve looks at him, questioningly.

"The element that keeps me alive normally, without killing me? Same stuff as your shield. My father, he- Well. It'll be the same frequency. So just like using Loki's staff against the tesseract-"

"-it should get you into the forcefield enough to destroy it," Steve says. "So the... energy signatures... will be speaking the same language."

"Nice metaphor. Yes."

Steve wanders over, looking at the thing Tony's made in maybe just over an hour. "This thing, if it detonated, how much of this town would it wipe out?"

"Um," Tony says, "maybe state is the word you should have used."

Steve stares.

"Or, America."

"And you made this is a run-down diner kitchen." Steve slumps against the nearest counter. "And your SHIELD files legitimately say Iron Man is the most dangerous."

Tony focussed on his device, steadfastly tightening something which probably didn't need tightening, "Imagine if I let Iron Man manifest my ego into what I'm really capable of."

And right there, Tony's much more exposed than he's ever been. For the first time, Steve's allowed to see one of Tony's deepest fears.

"I'd stop you," Steve says, his voice feeling tight and small.

Tony looks up at him. He looks suddenly exhausted. And then- he nods. It's barely perceptible. It's not much of a movement, but in that weighted silence, it's a great moment.

"Wait," Steve says, "this thing could blow a chunk in the whole continent and you used to plug it into your chest?"

Tony grins. "I'm a mad man." Then his grin falls. "You're going to need me back in the suit."

"No," Steve says, "we're doing okay."

"Forgive me," Tony says, already heading over to his suit, and fitting the leg back onto himself, "if I don't accept the word of a super soldier who's busy bleeding all over my rudimentary workspace."

Steve touches his hand to his head. It comes away sticky and red. "Oh," Steve says. He frowns, and grabs what looks like a clean dishcloth to hold against his head. "If we get the barrier down, we may not even have to fight?"

Tony grins again, but there's no amusement this time. "We have to try and bring it down when the forcefield goes down for the second to let the enemies in. The enemies won't mindlessly disappear. And that's if we can get my device in place to disrupt the whole forcefield in the correct place at the first attempt."

Steve swallows hard. "Well, let's hope we get it right quickly. I really don't want to let Loki loose, but that's the next strategy on the list of things I wouldn't do."

"Hmm," Tony says. "Your list is much longer than mine."

Steve rolls his eyes. "Do you need any help finishing it?"

Tony shakes his head. "I can finish it out there." He pauses. "Wouldn't hurt if you helped me get it out there?"

It's not a full request for help, but it's probably the best attempt Tony Stark's capable of. Steve nods, and moves in to help.

In the end, they manage it first time.

Bruce helps calculate the optimal position for it, drawing equations in the sand. Thor contributes by muzzling Loki again, which makes them all feel better if nothing else. Because they may still be being watched, they fight selfishly, and it feels so wrong, but because it's for the right aim, Steve fights through his discomfort.

He might show some of his genuine desperation when they hunt for the power source of the forcefield, but he doesn't exactly want anything radioactive in any of the Avengers for any longer than necessary.

They break through, and defeat the wave of robots. Steve's pretty cheerful about how well they manage it while not fighting like themselves. He's less cheerful when Hulk picks him up and throws him in the face of a robot, but Steve—as he woozily slams his shield into the robot's chest—at least finds it reassuring that Hulk wouldn't use him as a missile against an enemy ordinarily.

The fight over, Steve hurries Tony over to the device feeding itself from Tony's vibranium. There's a scary moment when Tony nearly stops breathing with nothing powering his arc reactor, but his breathing levels out and Tony's instantly a jerk soon after, so Steve knows he's going to be okay.

Eventually it's apparent that the attacks have stopped, and Clint and Natasha head for their car, to see if they can get through to SHIELD. They bring back a cellphone, and as soon as Thor is assured Jane is safe, he declares he has to leave.

Steve doesn't try to stop him. Thor beckons him closer before he takes off. "When you find whoever did this," Thor says, firmly, "let them know that the gods of Asgard do not react well to being toyed with like dogs. When we find them, we will punish them according to our laws. So perhaps they may wish to relocate to somewhere I cannot find them."

Steve nods and watches Thor takes off with Loki, after promising to get someone called Heimdall to keep an eye on them so he can return if needed.

Steve watches him scorch off in the sky, and then he's replaced by the hum of something else—a SHIELD jet. He feels suddenly queasy. Even if Clint and Natasha connected through to SHIELD straight on reaching the car, it's much too fast for a SHIELD jet to get to them this quickly.

When he looks to his left, Tony nods, like he agrees it's much too quick.

"Barton," Tony says, heading back over to where his vibranium had been installed, "gimme your phone."

"So demanding," Clint says, with an approving waggle of his eyebrows. Tony blows him a kiss and catches the phone. As the SHIELD jet lands over in one of the large, abandoned fields framing the freeway, Tony hooks up the phone to the destroyed device, and starts typing furiously.

"It was being controlled remotely," Tony says, "so if I do some complicated stuff you'll understand when you get that computer sciences doctorate you've been hankering after for your whole life -"

"I'll get round to it one day," Steve deadpans.

Tony grins. "I should be able to feed a signal back. Find the origin. Patch it through StarkMaps—it's like Google Maps, but better, obviously."

"And do we have the location of the perpetrator?" Steve asks, cutting through Tony's bullshit efficiently.

"Bingo was his name." Tony holds up the screen, and a flashing dot on some sort of construct a mile over. "I'm pretty sure SHIELD's taxi service will oblige with a quick detour. I'll feign air sickness if the pilot's unwilling."

"If the pilot's unwilling," Natasha says, "I'm sure I could assist them in taking an impromptu nap." She holds up a fist for illustration.

"If you don't mind," Bruce says, "I'm going to hold back. Someone needs to keep the civilians calm. And I still don't like being in enclosed metal boxes."

Steve nods, patting him on the shoulder. "There's some spare pants in the back of my motorcycle if you need them."

Bruce points at Steve's legs, then his own, and laughs. "Your pants wouldn't fit me or the other guy, but thanks." He nods at them, and heads over to the motel. Steve watches him go for a moment and pretends it doesn't sting a little when they separate.

He really shouldn't get so attached.

"Right," Steve says, squaring his shoulders, "let's go and find some answers."

After they use the jet's comms to patch through to SHIELD and arrange for clean-up, the pilot doesn't seem super keen at first to take them to the hut, but then Tony feels better enough to power up the blaster in his right palm and the pilot becomes suddenly way more pliable to their demands.

Especially when Clint "suggests" throwing the pilot out of the window and letting him drive.

When they get to the destination, the hut is empty. Natasha's in there for maybe twenty seconds when she finds a burnt-out computer which she swears is the Taskmaster's style. SHIELD sends down a clean-up crew to the hut which lands maybe ten minutes after they do. Steve shares a wary look with Tony, but they seem to be on the same page.

Tony uses the jet's comm to call for a lift, and doesn't even startle when Steve asks, in front of the SHIELD agents and with excessive casualness, for a lift with Tony.

Natasha and Clint share a look, and Natasha surreptitiously wiggles her fingers, keep me appraised. Steve nods.

Tony's private jet touches down twenty minutes later, and Steve says goodbye to Natasha and Clint, keeping the conversation ambivalent and plain, knowing they could be overheard.

Because all of this is way too convenient, and Steve knows one thing: if something appears to be too convenient, that's because it is. Tony seems to have the same philosophy—and asks the jet to head for Fury's helicarrier without even talking it over with Steve.

Tony casually hacks into the helicarrier's security, and his jet lands on the large aircraft. They both hurry down the jet's steps onto the tarmac and straight into a row of SHIELD agents with guns.

A minute later Agent Hill appears, and orders the men to stand down.

A minute after that, Tony and Steve are marched into a small briefing room. One agent tries to take his shield. Steve just glares and the agent backs down. In the small room, Steve counts all the ways he can get out of there with the least amount of damage.

Agent Fury makes them wait nearly an hour, to regain some of the power and control he's obviously lost.

"Gentleman," he greets, his tone intimating he thinks of them as anything but. "What a pleasant surprise."

"Can it," Tony says. "And don't even ask for a briefing. You know exactly what just happened to us in Buttfuck, Nowhere."

"I have no idea," Fury says, coolly.

"So you're saying your wish to see how well we'd fight together didn't lead you to employ Tony Masters to put us in a cage?" Tony says. "Hmm. Say I buy that. But there's only one power source in the world that could have held us in that wasn't my vibranium. The palladium, sure, might have kept us in a couple of hours, max."

"I suppose if we were to ask to see Loki's sceptre that it would be miraculously safe and sound," Steve says, keeping his voice cool. Fury's single eye meets his gaze, and Fury shrugs.

"I can show you personally," Fury says, tapping on one of the glass screens in the small room, and flashing up footage of the sceptre in its cage. "And the records which state it hasn't moved an inch,“ he adds, making some text scroll up over the image of the sceptre.

"Records you signed off on," Tony says, getting to his feet.

"I'm not finished with you, Stark," Fury starts.

"For today, you are." Tony shakes his head. "You're an idiot. Masters will sell his knowledge to the highest bidder. You want to see your best force destroyed-"

"Masters has nothing," Fury says, dropping all pretence of innocence. "We've already cracked his footage. You didn't give him anything YouTube doesn't already have hold of."

"So what was this? Forcing us to bond?" Steve asks, his stomach churning. Manipulation was a government's game, but it didn't mean he had to like it.

"It worked, didn't it?" Fury says, sounding almost petulant. "Even before, you and Stark were at each other's throats. Now you're sounding like best buds."

"I don't like being manipulated, Mr. Fury," Tony says. "I'm willing to give you a pass, what with some shadowy council probably riding your ass. But if you do something like this again..." Tony drums his fingers against the room's table, menacingly.

"Are you threatening me, Mr. Stark?" Agent Fury says, almost seething with his namesake.

"Nope," Tony says. "What could I do? Squirt lemon fresh antibacterial Dawn in your eyes? Sorry, in your eye?"

"Tony," Steve says, in warning. He gets to his feet, and looks at Fury, somewhat sadly. There are so many things he wants to say, but he settles on, "You could have just asked us."

Even Tony knows that's the most cutting statement either of them could have said.

"I'm still afraid we gave too much away," Tony says as they walk back to Tony's jet. "To Masters. Fury. Any of them. All of 'em."

"How?" Steve says.

"We've shown we all care about working with each other in the future. Enough to put each other in danger."

Steve shrugs. "It was still the smallest hand we could show."

Tony looks at him for a long moment, and then he shrugs. "Perhaps. I just wish we had a magic mirror saying whether we've made the right moves or not."

"Still, Fury's right, I suppose," Steve says. Tony looks at him in surprise. "I kind of do prefer working alongside you when I don't want to slap you."

"Oh, there's a look into the future for me right now," Tony says. "For the day far in the future where I may stop wanting to slap you."

"You're hilarious," Steve says, following Tony into the plane.

"I know," Tony says. "It's a tragic curse."

"Can your ego for a spell and take me back so I can get my motorcycle."

"You really are cute when you're bossy."

"Shut up," Steve mutters, but it's hard to pretend to be mad, and when the jet takes off, he feels pretty content. They did the best they could. Masters didn't have enough to destroy them. Fury's manipulation wasn't as bad as it could be.

All in all, there hasn't been much harm done at all, and now maybe Steve can even count Tony Stark as a friend. His first friend in seventy years. What could be wrong with that?

“That was close,“ Fury says, glaring up at the monitor into Tony Master's face. “Ten seconds later and I would have had to use old footage of the sceptre and Stark would have known in seconds. You made a wrong judgement call, throwing him into the mix.“

"I had to think fast," Masters says, shrugging. Fury must see he's still a little scorched. Masters cut things close, getting out of that hut before the Black Widow stormed in to identify his computer. "You didn't warn me Tony Stark would barrel in to see what was going on."

“Nevertheless. It wasn't a failure. We know now that the Avengers will do anything for each other. All we have to do now is keep them on our side.“

"Good luck with that. They know you played them, Fury."

“I'll cross that bridge when it comes to it. Or blow it up.“

"Of course."

Masters disconnects, and then the whole room goes dark. He tenses as a smooth voice slides out of the shadows.

“Thank you so much for your game. It was... quite amusing.“

"Who are you?"

“An interested party.“

Masters twitches for his back-up power, flooding the room with light. Reflected in his blank screen, but not actually there behind him physically, is a face. A face he remembers from the files Fury sent him in part payment.

The demi-god Loki.

"Your files say you are restrained at the moment. How-" Masters starts.

Loki laughs. "My brother, my people... they think a physical leash, a restraint, a scold's bridle enough to silence me. They have no idea of the magic I have seen. The things I can do. I thank you, Masters. Your game helped me see first-hand what these so-called pitiful Avengers are worth to each other.“ The reflection image of Loki smiles, wide. Wider. “Now I know I shall enjoy ripping them apart where it hurts. I wonder how your so-called heroes deal with civil war...“