When he closed his eyes, Fury knelt before him. He opened them to a surgeon’s mask partially covering a stranger’s panic. He was still cold. The spear had brought with it numbing chill, and he suspected from the gloves and surgical gowns and blinding lights above him that he should be grateful. So he lay still, frozen and numb, and listened to the medical team above him shout nonsense about anesthesia, then closed his eyes again.
“Barton, you idiot. You got roofied. It’s not like you found a higher bidder.”
Steve sighed and scrawled “Ru-fee’d” on the last page of his sketchbook. Above it, hastily written and carefully crossed-out, were “turning to the dark side”, “Jersey Shore”, “Katniss”, and “rickrolled’. He stroked a fingertip along the cap of the flying monkey at the top of the page before the edge in Clint’s voice caught his attention again.
“ .. sometime after calling in and burning every deep cover I had access to, pulling on terrorist cells and mercenary groups, destroying years of intel work, to gather an army to bring against SHIELD, emptying every covert account, burning every fucking safe house, drawing from memory the blueprints for a top secret military installation, one that doesn’t technically exist, it’s so fucking secret, and by my own hand killing a couple dozen trained agents.”
Tony didn’t look up from the widget he was playing with as he said, “That’s a lot of damage for a schmuck with an outdated weapon. Good thing you’re on our side.”
Clint went white and still. “Fuck you, Stark.” He walked away from them, the door opening in front of him. He and Natasha stood, silently facing one another, until she swept out of his way, letting him stalk past. She stepped into the room with a nod to Steve.
Fury followed, leaving the door open behind him. “I’m the one calling this meeting; I’d prefer you not dismiss people when I get here.”
Natasha shrugged. “He’s headed to Medical. Looks like he’s having trouble with his ribs.”
“I do understand how troubling a pain in the side can be,” Fury answered, looking at Tony, who widened his eyes in a ridiculous parody of innocence.
“But re-wrapping only does so much good,” Clint said from the door. “Found our lost sheep.”
“I wasn’t actually lost,” Bruce protested, as he took the seat Clint had vacated, near Tony. Steve kicked the chair nearest himself gently and stared at Clint until he walked stiffly over. Natasha leaned across Tony to drag Clint’s tablet from where he’d left it and flicked it across the conference table at him.
“Background research,” Fury said, and all their tablets went ping except for Steve’s which announced that he had mail in a breathy voice.
Clint grinned at the tablet that Steve was scrambling to unlock. “Stark, is that -- “
“No, it’s special.”
“How come he gets the porn voice?” Clint whined like a kid and Steve wondered, for a moment, where the cold rage of two minutes before had gone. Bruce wasn’t the only one with a monster under his skin. Come to think of it, neither was Clint.
Fury said, “One hopes because he wouldn’t call it the porn voice.”
Steve rubbed his temples. “If I call it the porn voice, Tony, will you make mine be exactly like everyone else’s?”
“You want to be boring?” Tony asked with what sounded like genuine surprise.
Clint frowned at his tablet. “I got Banner’s file.”
“You all got the same file,” Fury answered.
“This is fascinating.” Bruce gnawed on the earpiece of his glasses.
Natasha cleared her screen and put the tablet back on the table in front of her. “It’s also highly theoretical.”
“No, look, appendix E. Recent testing.” Clint flipped his to show her the screen. She shrugged and he leaned back, scrolling.
“Let the grownups do the talking and you handle the pointy sticks. Wait, Fury, are these real?”
Steve tuned out Fury’s retort and leaned over to whisper to Clint, “Okay, are you yanking his chain or do you really follow all of this?”
“All of it? No, though Bruce might.” They both glanced up to where Bruce was making faces at his own tablet. “Probably does. Skip the technobabble and hit the chapter headings and the last two paragraphs of each section.” He flicked his thumb to scroll down the wall of text and tapped his pinky against the screen, highlighting a paragraph. “The summaries are higher level, so they tend to be written in actual words.”
“Hunh, yeah, thanks.” Steve dragged his index finger against the screen, significantly more slowly. “Cellular regeneration? Director, please tell me that this research doesn’t stem from that damn Super Soldier serum.”
Fury kept direct eye contact as he said, evenly and slowly, “This research does not stem from the damned Super Soldier Serum.”
“Can’t you people figure out when to leave well enough alone? Um, no offense, Bruce.”
“Remarkably little offense taken, Steve,” Bruce answered.
“Also not ‘us people’,” Tony said. “And let me say it’s nice not to be the asshole in the room for a change. But I don’t know this company.”
Natasha mused, “Given the fatality rate on these, I suspect they’re a wholly autonomous division of a subsidiary of a offshore branch of--“
“Holdings Holdings, Incorporated?” Tony finished with a grin at her.
She nodded. “Owned by Umbrella Corp.”
Clint reached over, took Steve’s pencil, flipped open his sketchbook and wrote Umbrella Corp under ru-fee’d.
Hill sat on the foot of his bed, eating from a Chinese takeout box. “We could get Stark to build you a wheelchair.”
“Please don’t make me laugh. It hurts.” He kept a part of his mind on breathing shallowly and not pushing the button. He was holding the cord, but not pushing it. This was his goal for this hour. Eventually, he knew, he would let the morphine fold him into blue grey sleep and then, when he woke again, he’d set new goals. He eyed the catheter. That was on the long term list, relegated to after tomorrow.
Hill was still talking. “After all, the suit’s just a medical prosthetic right? Isn’t that what he told the subcommittee?”
He was not pushing the button. “You think he’d let me borrow the WarMonger suit?”
“No, he’d make you one. If you catch him on a good day, it’ll even look human.”
“Oh god, he’d make me a horse’s ass.” He had to stop, to deliberately take a breath and blow it out again evenly. He continued, calmly, “You think he’d build me a centaur suit? I can hear him, four legs are more stable than two, so making it equine would actually be for my own good.”
“Nah, you’d have to be centered in the middle instead of all on one edge, so it’d be more like a spider chair. You could be sitting on a table that walks. Like those baby walker bouncy things.”
“Okay, yeah, that’d be a bad day idea.”
She chewed another shrimp and dug her chopsticks into the noodles. “So, how long are you off solids?”
“The rest of my life, which was what, three days ago?”
She chewed and swallowed. “Should have read the fine print.”
“Hill, I wrote that fine print.”
“The historical stuff, the foundation work, yeah, that’s the old Hydra files,” Tony announced. “But this, I know this code. You’ve got …”
“If you cannot separate corporate concerns from SHIELD assignments, I cannot use you on this team, Mr. Stark.”
“The fact that I can recognize a research division fingerprint from a white paper means you need me on this team. This isn’t U.S. funded, is it?” Fury didn’t answer but Tony drummed his fingernails on the table and glared out the window. “Yeah, so you’ve got three options of –“
“Bullshit. The Russians don’t have the f—“ Tony glanced at Natasha, who was leaning back in her chair, the tablet in front of her. Steve could see Clint, beside him, move slightly, not a twitch but a slow shift and suddenly he remembered what the three seconds after pulling the key from a grenade felt like. Steve leaned forward and tapped the table, deliberately redirecting all the attention in the room to himself.
Then he had it, Fury’s cold stare, Tony’s vibrating anger, Bruce’s reserved regard and Natasha’s coiled fury, all on him. He swallowed heavily and said, “Setting aside corporate or geopolitical issues, we are not one country’s pawn. Why is cellular regeneration and medical technology an Avengers problem?”
“It isn’t a problem. It’s background research. You may or may not have an opportunity to need this research at some point in the future. And if someone is using it, geopolitical issues will not apply.”
Stark interrupted, “Because they’re using human volunteers for testing.”
“So do we, I mean, so does the SSR, or rather, SHIELD,” Steve said. “Right?”
Barton rubbed his wrist and frowned at the table in front of him.
“So, Berenowski?” Phil said, keeping his eyes closed. “His bedside manner leaves a bit to be desired.”
Fury shrugged. “The chimps don’t bitch to HR.”
“Do I want to know why a specialist in purely theoretical research was drawing my blood?”
“Pretty sure you don’t have to worry unless he was cackling.”
“There was a decided air of mad scientist in the room, yes.”
Fury was silent. Phil concentrated on keeping his breathing even. “It worked. The team. You were right. They pulled together to avenge a fallen comrade.”
“But now I’m dead.”
“I’d rather have you in the field, Agent.”
“I had plans for retirement. Fishing. A cabin in Nebraska.”
Fury frowned, just for a moment, in confusion. “Really?”
“No, sir. Not really.”
Fury leaned on the foot of the bed and Phil sank to one side, sliding off the stacked pillows at the small of his back. He smiled benignly into Fury’s resolve, even the edge of anger in Fury’s voice dulled by narcotics and paralysis. “I will use every tool that falls into my hand. I will not apologize for that.”
“Is that how you’re going to phrase it to Stark and Rogers? To Romanov? To Barton?”
Fury stood and rubbed at his chin, posing, now. “If only I had at hand an agent, a go-between, a liaison between me and these people.”
“I’m afraid, sir,” Phil said, and he felt the laughter bubble up past the searing pain in his chest, “that’s not my job.” The laugh become a cough, the cough bloomed into red fire and wet blood and he patted the bed for the morphine button. Fury pressed it for him and the white of the room and the burning red of his injuries faded to soft blue.
Clint pulled Steve’s sketchbook out of his hand and flipped to the back page. “Haven’t gotten around to these, hunh? Umbrella Corporation is a made up company, from a video game. No, some of them have plots and characters; it’s not all Mario Kart and dolphins swimming. Anyway, Umbrella Corp, bad guys, made zombies, ruined the world.”
“That’s a game?”
“Yeah, you play the person who’s … you know, I think it’s a save the plot point or something, I don’t actually play it. Get Natasha to watch Resident Evil with you sometime. She likes to mock Alice.” He scrawled Resident Evil (movies) under archer, hero of novel Hunger Games and tapped the page. “And roofied is the use of Rohypnol, a street drug that … doesn’t matter. Slipping a Mickey. Mickey’ing. Only …more so.”
“I’ve got it. So much for the future being better.”
“Yeah, I guess some things don’t change, eh?”
“Same concepts, faster and bigger and louder and more.”
“Lasers are cool,” Clint said. Steve nodded in concession. Lasers were pretty cool. Clint rubbed at his forearm again. Dugan and Morita would love to play poker with him, Steve thought, then shook his head and tried to focus on what Clint was saying rather than his nervous tells. “The Russians, well, not just the Russians, jeez the Brits were trying, too, but the Russians went into Berlin, when the allies did. And you know that Hydra was …um …”
“Trying to replicate Dr. Erskine’s work, yes.”
“The serum had a lot of failures and two successes. Well, technically two. I mean Schmidt was crazy before, so he wasn’t really a failure. And Banner got .. not close, but … ”
“Am I interrupting?”
“Please! Yes, rescue me.” Clint dropped his face to his palms, then pointed at Steve without looking up. “Don’t discuss philosophy or medical ethics with him.”
“Is that what we were discussing?” Steve asked. Natasha shot him a sharp look, then smiled when he pulled a face to show he was teasing.
She patted Clint on the head. “Still worried about Fury’s homework assignment?”
“I was planning to crib off your notes,” Steve said, and Clint snorted with laughter.
“We’re corrupting America’s Golden Boy. Fury’ll be so disappointed. Can we keep him?”
“Only if you clean up what he chews,” Natasha answered.
Coulson pulled the scant protection of the hospital gown up and kept his face still as Berenowski muttered under his breath. Fury nodded to him and the good doctor waved one gnarled hand, more in irritation than farewell, as he hustled out the door like a decrepit badger. Fury watched him go, which gave Phil the chance to resettle his legs. “You know, Director,” he said conversationally, “the protections that we have in place on his work?”
“The autodestruct on all physical equipment and embedded self-executing virus triggered on download or transfer of any his files to non-approved drives. The raging paranoia extreme protections? Those?”
“Yes, those. I find myself concerned.”
“His work has only gotten so f—“ Fury paused at Phil’s upraised finger. He restarted, “His work has only successfully gotten so far.”
“And I’m at that point now.”
“Any more and you fall into the same category as Rogers.”
“And Johann Schmidt,” Phil countered. “Or the thousands who didn’t survive.”
“Or the hundreds for whom there are no records.” Fury raised one hand. “I’m not talking you into it, okay? It’s your choice.”
The musical rhythm of the beat on the heavy bag stopped and Steve opened his eyes. Clint was leaning on the bag, his forearms covering his face. He shook it off, and windmilled one arm back with a grimace. “Sorry man, I’m done. Your turn.”
“Don’t you start. The docs don’t get to play with the rest of you, so they sink their claws into Tony and me.”
“Tony’s got the armor.”
Clint looked up at him with a smile that showed too much white to be friendly. “And I’ve got skills.”
From the door to the showers Natasha called, “Flirting again, Clint?”
“Always, beautiful, but you know you’ve got my heart.” Clint spun to face her as she approached, his arms outstretched, and she stopped him with an upraised hand.
“Try it and you die. I just showered and you reek.”
“Manly pheromones,” Clint protested and Steve sniffed his own shirt. Yeah, he smelled like he’d been in a gym for hours. He shrugged at Natasha, unapologetic.
She smiled back. “As long as you’re playing nicely. We need to reschedule tomorrow, though.”
“S’cool. I haven’t bought the tickets yet. You off on business?”
“No, I’m headed to Italy. I’ve got an errand to run.”
Clint flinched. Natasha moved too quickly for Steve to react, grabbing Clint by his neck and dragging him close to her. He kept his hands low and out, away from his body, as she smacked him, openhanded, with more noise than force, on the side of his head, then grabbed his hair and pulled him to her, touching her forehead to his. They stood for a moment before Clint closed his eyes and deliberately relaxed the tension in his shoulders and back. She ruffled his hair backwards as she let him go, then grimaced at her wet hands. He smoothed his hair back down and asked, “How many red blankets do I owe you?”
“Just the one.” She smiled brightly. “Your intel was old.”
“Good. You taking someone else for company?”
“Clint, you aren’t grounded. Even Hill said –“
“I’m on best behavior. I’m trying to do it right.”
“So you’re grounding yourself.”
“Until they see fit to assign me.”
“Clint, it’s been a week. Hill’s letting you heal, not punishing you for –“ He turned away, ripping the tape off his hands and she launched into a tirade in Russian at low volume. What little Steve could catch made him kind of glad he couldn’t translate it all. He stared, wary, as this tiny woman balanced on impractical heels and wearing a demure gray skirt stalked up to him and poked him in the chest with a finger like a blade to the heart. “See if you can talk some sense into him. Or beat it out of him, I don’t care.” She turned and glided out of the gym, ignoring Clint’s muttered, “Screw you” as she left.
Clint threw him one of the ubiquitous water bottles and swallowed half of his own before asking, “So, you going to continue the fight?”
Steve shook his head. “If I knew what you were fighting about … maybe?” Clint side-eyed him, and he went on, “Because knowing nothing more than what I do, and recognizing that lasers are cool, but really not much else has changed,“ he paused, timing his words, “based on personal dealings with women, I can say with moderate assurance that all things being equal… .” When Clint raised his bottle to drink, Steve finished with,"girls are always right and we’re always wrong.”
Clint laughed, water going up into his sinuses and tears springing to his eyes. “You fucker.”
“But, you know, that’s just me.” Steve patted Clint on the shoulder and headed for the showers.
“Cabin in Nebraska.” Fury said from the window. Phil had played with the controls of the bed and, sitting as high up as the brace around his pelvis would allow, he could see out that window, an inspiring panorama of hospital roof, the tinted windows of the new wing, part of a parking lot and the edge of a highway. Fury seemed fascinated as he mused, “You could take up a hobby.”
“Other than cat-herding?”
Fury snorted, and Phil thought, as he always did, how unattractive the noise was. Fury’s laugh in public was rich and rolling, but in private, when he wasn’t performing amusement for others, it was understated and weird. There was something important in that, he thought, and pushed the morphine button off the edge of the bed. Someone kept putting it back within reach.
“I think we could find someone to teach you to knit.”
“I know how. Also tatting and crochet. Also underwater demolition and –"
“Am I being selfish?” Fury asked the sky outside the hospital.
“Yes,” Phil answered. “I’m having some trouble regretting it, though.”
Steve pulled Clint to the side. “I can’t find ‘red blanket’ on Wikipedia. Or rather, I did, but without enough context.”
“Sorry, Cap, that’s not pop culture that’s … uh …”
“If it’s private, I won’t pry.”
“Uh, sort of, but not. I mean, it’s a known secret, right? She makes kind of a deal about it. It’s a home thing. Like what is it that makes where you are actually home, right? What taste or smell or sentimental item means this is your space?”
“Like my shield?”
“Heh, okay, maybe, but I’m going to give the two of you a wide berth if that’s true.”
Steve thought for a moment, then said, “Or like a specific scent, like a perfume,” and Clint lit up.
“Right! So you pick up a bottle and spritz it in a place when you move in, yeah …” Steve let Clint run with the lie and thought instead of Bucky’s smile, the laugh that let him close his eyes in foxholes, wholly sure that Bucky would cover him as he had in antiseptic group homes and the brick dust edges of their youth. He could smell the acrid undertone of Dum Dum’s cheap cigars or the constant flutter of Morita’s nervous folding of any paper unfortunate enough to come within reach, but Bucky’s laugh hit him somewhere under the ribs.
Bucky was dead, two months ago in the mountains, decades ago in the past, and Steve was alone.
“Hey, whoa, you okay?” Clint grabbed at his elbow, then stepped back when Steve twisted away.
“Sorry, just … red blanket. Why red?” It was a dumb question, a stupid thing to focus on, but it was the only thing Steve could think of.
Luckily, Clint seemed to buy it. “I dunno,” Clint said, eying Steve a little warily. “I burned one of her safe houses, so I owe her one, though. You know, I bet we could find someone to reformulate it.”
“What?” Steve was still shaken.
“Your mom’s perfume. They might still make it, even, Chanel No 5 is supposed to be the same formula since silent screen days. Unless you meant Agent Carter. Or, you know some other emotionally significant woman in your life; I’m not making judgments in any way about your homelife or romantic --.”
Steve waved one hand and Clint fell silent. “I don’t know the name.”
Clint brightened again. “It’s no fun unless it’s a challenge.” Steve felt guilty, irrationally, for misleading him. “We could make it a project, right, only without Tony blowing anything up. Perfume counters have pretty girls,” he finished in a singsong, waggling his eyebrows ridiculously. “Lots of testing. This could take weeks of chatting up salesgirls and possibly even sniffing women at random. That’d be a hell of a pickup line, right? Even better if it’s true. ‘Hey, I need to stand over here and let my friend smell you while I get your number in case we have follow up questions.’ ”
“No, I need to adapt, right, not … uh .. wallow, wasn’t it?” Steve asked and Clint’s face fell again.
“Oh, yeah, okay, that’s, yeah, that’s probably true. Besides, Stark’d find a way to set fire to the building with perfume.” Steve felt himself gape and Clint ducked his head, as though embarrassed. “Cheap perfumes can work as an accelerant, if you’re in a pinch. They don’t actually smell all that good, though, burning. So, where were you headed?”
Steve blinked at the sudden change in topic. “Mess, or rather, cafeteria.”
“Yeah, I’ll catch you later, I’ve got…stuff.”
“Right, a blanket to find.”
“One in the morning, Agent Coulson?”
Phil clutched the side of the pool. “Better than curtaining off a section when it’s otherwise occupied. Remind me of this the next time Barton complains about PT.” His hands were shaking. He was shaking. The physical therapist shoved the floating contraption toward him and Phil sank into it, his chin bobbing at water level.
“So you can one up him?”
“So I can muster a little empathy for him next time.” Phil closed his eyes. “Or play the Jaws theme.”
“They aren’t pushing you too hard?”
“Berenowski says –“
“Setting the data curve, sir. I don’t have established parameters to meet, because I’m the one establishing them.”
“Don’t set the bar too high, then. Mere mortals will walk in your footsteps, you know.”
Phil leaned back to duck under the water, closing his eyes and breathing out through his nose slowly, controlled. When he sat back up, the physical therapist’s hand in the middle of his back, and shook the water from his eyes, Fury was gone.
“Five more reps,” he said.
“Actually, Captain, if you wouldn’t mind staying for my next meeting.”
“Certainly, sir. What do you need me to do?”
“Remain a calming influence.” Fury poked at his keyboard and the screen on the wall behind Steve lit up with the Stark industries logo. “Thank you, Jarvis, if you would, please?”
Steve turned the chair so he could see the screen without putting his back completely toward the desk. “I’m not sure how much of an influence I am on him, actually.”
“More than you think, I suspect, but I meant calming me.”
With a yellow flash, Tony was peering out of the flat screen at them. “Steve! Looking wholesome and virtuous as always.”
“Showered, even,” Steve answered and Tony looked down at his hands, then ran one oil-stained hand through his hair. It didn’t make an appreciable difference.
“Priorities. See how I made this meeting a priority?”
"Thank you, Mr. Stark,” Fury said dryly. “In gratitude, I’ll make this short. Your medical prosthesis, Stark, how adaptable is it?”
Tony blinked at something behind the camera he was facing. “Depends on what you want it to do.”
“Assist with balance and walking. It may require modification, as he’s still recovering.”
Tony crossed his arms, his stance aggressive to the point of antagonstic. “Male test subject, eh? Do we have NDAs and volunteer forms signed already? “
“Full permission for medical experimentation is on file,” Fury said and Steve remembered the look on Clint’s face the week before, the cellular regeneration file, Fury’s evasion.
“Oo,” Tony leaned forward. ”Not-so-dead, hunh?” Fury narrowed his eyes and Tony laughed, sharp and mean around the edge. “I can do a mermaid’s tail, though WETA’s done that already. You sure you don’t want him to fly?”
“Just walk, thank you. I don’t need another pseudo-knight in high tech armor.”
“I’m irreplaceable, I know. And you’re a manipulative son-of-a-bitch.”
“I’m not here to feed your ego, Stark.” Fury leaned on the edge of his desk and Steve had to fight the impulse to put a hand on each man’s chest to shove them apart from one another. Modern technology, he thought. Maybe he could put one hand on Fury’s chest and the other on the flat screen? Behind him the door opened and closed. He didn’t bother turning around. He was pretty sure who it was.
Tony, on the screen glanced up, past where the camera must have been, then back directly into it. “Agent! Buddy! How nice to see you again. How’s the sucking chest wound, by the way?”
“Painful,” Coulson said from directly behind Steve. “How’s the research on the Chitauri tech that disappeared from on site going?”
“Fascinating, but distressingly bio-organic. Messy stuff, organics. Gooey at inconvenient times.”
“I find myself in agreement with you.”
All the wind seemed to go out of Tony’s sails at that. He paced to the left, then the right, then stopped again to slouch against the table where he’d started. “Pepper’s going to kill you.”
Tony stared at them for a moment, then said “Send me the files,” and raised one hand sharply. The screen went black and Steve leaned back to look behind himself. Agent Coulson, upside down, blinked at him. Steve stood and pulled the chair the six feet between them. Coulson looked down at it, and the corners of his mouth tightened, so Steve put one arm around his shoulders and guided him in a controlled fall as he let the cane in one hand fall to the carpet.
“Thank you for the support, Captain.”
“Well, we did total Manhattan for you,” Steve said as his mind raced. Clint and Natasha needed to know soonest and he’d bank his anger at Fury for the moment, until he had more data, and was he being pragmatic or selfish in hoping Tony would tell Banner?
Coulson leaned forward. “Please don’t make me laugh. Director, the wheelchair that I promised you I wouldn’t need?”
“Is in the hall.”
Phil sat on the edge of the central table in Stark’s workshop, ignoring the arcane mutterings behind him and watching Barton, cross-legged on the cement floor, a bit of gift wrap stuck to one shoe, waving half a bagel at Rogers, who stood partially over him, drawing back a holographic bow. Banner was elbow deep, literally, in color theory research that none of them would use for anything or would come in handy in some wholly unexpected way next week as Natasha toyed with the projected Pantone graph, flicking bits of various colors into the other screens. Phil rubbed at the small of his back, the double handspan of muscle and skin that was still numb.
“If you’d just let me do the implants, you could be playing tag with the Widow and Hawkeye,” Stark said.
“Are we calling it tag, now?”
“Shorter than ‘general mayhem under the pretense of strategic evasion on an improvised urban obstacle course’. How’s the cardio going? Ready for the nude yoga dvds yet?”
“Not quite yet, no. But soon, I hope.”
“Well, you know, whenever. Knees up.”
Phil nodded and leaned back to let Tony work.