It started like this:
"God-fucking-dammit," said Steve, in an outburst of cursing that went above and beyond even what he'd occasionally use on the battlefield. "Can't any of you - look, I'm not asking for much, and you can roll as many bowling balls as you like down the locker room corridors and I don't even want to know what the foaming purple goo is on Bruce's desk, but for fuck's sake can we please sit through one single briefing where everyone acts like the professionals - like the adults - they fucking well are?"
Everyone was so surprised at the speech that they did, indeed, sit through the rest of the briefing in professional silence, only breaking for intelligent questions and relevant suggestions.
It helped that Tony was in medical nursing three broken ribs and a minor concussion throughout.
"Look, I know perfectly well that we're not all soldiers," said Steve afterwards. "But random comm chatter nearly got Tony killed today. It's not even the first time and I honestly expected better of two of you at least."
He fixed a glare on Natasha and Clint that was half-way between utterly disappointed and barely contained fury. Clint sucked in a breath. His shoulders suddenly had a tension that suggested he was an inch away from saluting. Natasha's face closed off - people who didn't know her would have said she simply assumed a serious, professional, no-nonsense expression. People who did know her would have said that all the life went out of her. Steve was too caught between worry and frustration and anger and a need to get them to all stop acting like - like lunatics set loose in an ammo dump - no, that wasn't fair either - but either way, Steve didn't really notice anyone's reactions. All that comm chatter had kept them all distracted, and he should have had an eye on Tony above him instead of yelling at the others to knock it off, and then that psychic shockwave had happened and half a building had hit Tony from behind and he'd fallen.
Not far - nearly on top of Steve, in point of fact - but far enough.
Steve's hands were still shaking. If it had been Clint or Nat they would not have survived. Hell, even he probably wouldn't have survived. As it was the armour was trashed.
"You're right," said Natasha, so suddenly that Bruce's angry retort was cut off completely. "It won't happen again."
Steve nodded curtly and left. His angry silence lingered.
When they told Tony his hand fell onto the table top with a smack that made everyone jump and jarred his ribs. "Fuck him," he said "I'll out-professional Captain fucking America, no fucking problem. Ouch, ouch, ouch."
It did, at least, bring a smile back to Natasha's face.
"That was unnecessary," said Thor.
Steve emptied his clip into the target - perfect cluster of shots around the herat - before he took the headphones off and turned to his friend.
"Was it," he said, "Prince of Asgard. I have met the Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, you know."
Thor shrugged. "They are warriors, born and bred," he said. "Our friends are not all, as you so rightly remarked."
"They need to learn a few tricks of the trade if they're going to survive," said Steve. He felt like snapping. It was a damn effort not to.
He felt, if he was being honest with himself, the way he had that first day on the helicarrier, when Tony's jokes had kept crawling under his skin and lodging there, when anything that opened his world up wide and threw him off-balance was a thing to be feared, because he was trapped alone in a time he neither knew nor understood and couldn't see what it was he was balancing on; if he came off it, even for a second, he'd be lost forever.
"They have done quite well for themselves so far," said Thor dryly and left him to it.
Steve didn't go back to Avengers Tower. He slipped off to Brooklyn for a week instead, hiding in the dingy apartment SHIELD had let him have after he'd woken up, playing Springsteen too loud and ignoring the voice in his mind that suggested, every now and then, that he'd been an idiot, and that he ought to just go home and tell the others they could block the comms with as much chatter as they liked. It was his own fault for letting their voices and words distract him in the first place. He was a super-soldier, he had better concentration than that. It definitely hadn't been fair to put it on Nat and Clint like that.
It was a voice that sounded a lot like Bucky's, and thus was easy to push aside. He and Bucky had always been good at preaching at one another - especially the things they didn't practice.
Steve was a stubborn son of a bitch. Protocols, like chains of command, were there for a reason. He was happy to break them if you had good grounds, but a three way argument between Bruce, Clint and Natasha over strawberry milkshake versus chocolate was just not one of them, and never would be. Bruce didn't even have the excuse of being the Hulk at the time.
Their next briefing went so smoothly that Coulson gave them all suspicious looks. The mission was an utter success as well. Everyone was crisp and calm and professional, and they got done in record time.
Steve was immensely, utterly relieved.
"Guys, that was perfect."
Afterwards, Clint said, "Hah!" darkly. "Project Adulthood is a go, people."
Tony disappeared into his workshop that night. Everyone else was sort of subdued, but Steve told himself it was nothing, and acted like nothing was wrong. They all watched TV and chatted for a bit, and then went to bed.
By the fourth week, the third flawless briefing, Coulson had graduated to fingering his sidearm and twitching whenever someone said something sensible. Tony hadn't worn anything but a perfect suit in three weeks, even in the workshop (the way Howard had), and had attended meetings and made proposals and spent so much time in R&D that Pepper was beginning to look uncomfortable. Bruce had been spotted in an actual lab coat. Clint hadn't folded a paper aeroplane in forever.
But the team was running like clockwork.
Steve hadn't had a one-on-one conversation with any of the others since - well. He hadn't talked to any of them about anything other than work or the weather since then, either.
Worst of all, Natasha hadn't smiled once in all this time.
And yet. Three missions in a row was the longest they'd ever gone without some kind of injury, mild or serious, on at least one of them. The now-permanent knot in Steve's chest was a small price to pay for the kind of efficiency that guaranteed his people's safety.
He knew, after all, how to be - he had practice at this. At being - he had. Quite a bit of practice, Bucky notwithstanding. There had been a before Bucky. (Apparently there was going to be an after the Avengers.)
He'd be fine as long as they were fine.
It was no worse than missing the Commandos, than missing Bucky and Peggy. That ache had (never) faded away.
This would too.
Goddammit, he'd really fucked this up.
"Well, I'd've said it was an improvement," said Maria. "Personally."
"It's not," said Steve. "I had no idea how much it would not be an improvement. I mean, nobody's got hurt in forever, which is so much of an improvement I can't even tell you, and we're functioning like a well-oiled machine, but -"
"You don't like well-oiled machines?"
"The Commandos were professionals," said Steve. "To a man. All of us. Peggy most of all. And the first thing I did as Scout leader was open a tab and promise her I'd take her dancing."
Maria patted the back of his hand, patronising, amused and concerned all at once. "You'll work it out," she said.
Steve didn't think so anymore.
Another week went by. Coulson became almost impressed with, but stayed conspicuously wary of, everyone's ongoing seriousness and sensible attitude. Maria got worried, rather against her own inclinations, as Steve got quieter. There was a set to his jaw that she just didn't like. He'd told her about Bucky once. She rather wished he was here now. She had the impression Barnes would punch him right out of this ridiculous mess and give the others a well-deserved lecture as a bonus.
Failing any way of achieving the right kick up the ass from probably the only person Steve would take it from, she went to Thor.
"This has got to stop," she said.
"He started -"
"Oh God, stop. You're going to be stubborn at each other until you drive each other into the grave, or the line of an enemy bullet."
Thor crossed his arms over his chest.
"Don't give me that," said Maria. "If Tony had been functioning at anything remotely resembling full capacity when this started they would have had an epic fight and not thought about it again."
"I - cannot deny that," Thor admitted.
"So go provoke a fight," snarled Maria.
There wasn't time - truly, there wasn't. Thor had just resolved to speak to Bruce about enlisting his help, if he was even willing, but Thor was sure he would be; Steve was not the only one regretting that they had let this come to this pass. By the Allfather, were they children, to be so cowed by him? No. Steve led them in battle, but he was a first among equals; they owed him no obedience beyond that, and certainly had not felt the need to demonstrate any in the past. The Lady Maria was more than right. In any other situation, Tony and Steve would have been tearing at each other within seconds: they would have shouted and accused and possibly even thrown an object or two, and by the next morning it would have been over. Something, somewhere, had just... gone wrong.
But before Thor had reached any further conclusions than that, SHIELD was attacked.
When he was small, his lady mother had used to say that there was a balance to all things in life. Tony called it a Newtonian law, action and reaction. Whichever terminology you chose to use, Thor knew long before he arrived in the debris-littered west wing of HQ that Steve would be injured.
"I'll tell you fucking why," Tony bellowed, just about ready to start jumping up and down in the corridor outside medical. "I was being professional is why -"
"We sat through the goddamn R&D meeting instead of skipping it like we usually do," said Bruce, pale-faced. "We never sit through the weekly R&D meeting. If we'd been here sooner - the suit would have picked it up. Jarvis' sensors. The bomb."
There was a horrified silence. Then Natasha started to laugh.
"Oh God," she said. "Jesus, I can't do this. I give up. He's an idiot -"
"He's our idiot," said Clint. "Also, like, barely thirty, people make mistakes, it's our job not to listen to him when he gets like this. Did we all get infected with Tony's concussion, what the hell."
"Seconded," said Natasha.
"The collapse of the building was caused by a pyschic shockwave," said Bruce. "No, what, I mean, thirded of course. Tony?"
"I'm going to break his kneecaps with a wrench and trash his goddamn apartment," said Tony, which everyone rightly took to mean yes.
Thor was rather relieved about this.
When Steve woke up - aching all over, pain flaring in his left arm, his left leg, much of his left side, resigned to the knowledge that no painkiller would ever work on him and he would just have to endure it - Natasha was asleep in the chair by his bedside, wrapped in one of Tony's hoodies.
Steve knew forgiveness unhoped-for when he saw it. He reached out, muscles screaming indignantly, and curled his throbbing, swollen fingers around hers before he passed out again.
Three days later, finally back home, he sat down to breakfast with everyone else, drew a tight breath, and said, "Guys, I'm so sorry. I've been an ass. I was scared and I took it out on you, and - I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry," said Tony. "I should've stoved your stupid head in then and there."
"You were barely capable of sitting upright," said Steve.
Tony threw the fresh packet of butter at him. Steve ducked, so that it hit the corner of the backrest of his chair and ricoched off into Thor's cereal bowl.
"So," said Clint over the ensuing racket. "Project Adulthood officially scrapped?"
"I think that's safest for all involved," said Bruce.
Not even Coulson could bring himself to mourn it.
"OK," said Steve, "so we've all been sort of idiots about this, but I'm really not going to back down about some stuff."
"This is... really not the conversation I ever thought I'd have once I was on a superhero team," said Bruce.
"Shut it," said Steve. "I'm being serious. Item one. Knock off the comm chatter. I don't care how fundamentally ridiculous an emergency is."
"Fine," said Clint. "Tony gets a special dispensation for occasional bouts of irresistible sarcasm."
"Ha ha ha," said Tony sourly. "All right. All bitching restricted to base."
"What's item two?"
"Training programmes," said Steve, feeling smug.
There was a horrified silence.
"Barton," said Nat. "Just. I did leave Russia, didn't I?"
"We do, in fact, all train, you know," said Clint.
"Obviously not well enough," said Steve. "Which, no, no, I'm sorry, that... didn't come out the way I meant it to, what I meant was, we've been doing this for less than a year as a group. We've all got individual habits and we keep falling back on them."
That... made sense. The others looked grudging, but nobody argued.
"Wait," said Tony suspiciously. "Is this leading up to a giant team-building exercise?"
"We don't need to team-build," said Steve. "We need to work as a team. Flawlessly."
Clint was grinning. "I want it known," he said, "that this was my idea. No, really."
"It was. Apparently shooting at each other is a game now, which, OK, I can handle that -"
"Paintball?" Bruce demanded at the same time as Tony whooped, "Laser tag!"
"Take your pick," said Steve. "We're playing against Coulson. And Maria. And Rhodey said he'd bring a couple people, there's a Carol Danvers that he knows -"
"Rhodey's on my team!" Tony said, hugely indignant.
"He wasn't for last week," Steve pointed out. "With the giant walking... whatever they were. Toasters, or -"
"Microwaves," said Tony. "Way more threatening. Because of radiation."
"I thought you were a scientist," said Bruce, looking disappointed.
"Guys..." said Steve.
"Who else are we playing against?" asked Natasha.
"Well," said Steve, and angled a glance at Thor.
"The Lady Sif and the Warriors Three have offered their services," said Thor.
There was a horrified silence.
"Can I at least wear the suit?" Tony asked.
"No," said Steve, grinning.
They went down. They went down really hard. And, OK, they were outnumbered two-to-one, which was the way Steve had wanted it; he had, as he pointed out, been raiding enormous Nazi facilities with less than ten people for nearly three years; they had to count on always, always being outnumbered. And both Rhodey's people and Thor's had been the kind of well-oiled machine the Avengers were supposed to be for years.
Still. It was humiliating. Natasha was cursing a blue streak in six different languages as they left the field of battle. Thor, being rather more used to having Sif kick his ass, was more composed, but the set of Tony's shoulders was furious, and Clint was glaring, and even Bruce felt just a bit offended.
"Told you," said Rhodey to Steve afterwards. "You wanna manipulate Tony Stark, you don't appeal to his conscience. You show him that he's not the best at something."
"I'll have to remember that," Steve said ruefully, stripping off coveralls stiffened with drying paint.
"He likes being challenged," said Rhodey.
As it turned out, so did the others. It took Steve ten minutes to clear Natasha's battle plans off the breakfast table the next morning.
The laser tag match was held in the Tower. They knew their ground better than the others, and thus held their own for longer - it was their home, for crying out loud - but they still went down. Coulson was beginning to look smug.
Plainly drastic action was, in fact, needed. Natasha and Tony drummed up a training programme that involved a lot of semi-feral robots, various obstacle courses, and a rock-paper-scissors method of picking the Damsel In Distress that got scrapped when everyone started picking up on the fact that Clint always drew scissors.
Two weeks later they won one paintball match out of three and drew on the second, with Natasha and Rhodey's friend Danvers the last two standing.
"Not good enough," Tony grated in the showers and went away to build better training robots. Steve gave Danvers a more thoughtful look-over than he had before and said at dinner, "I don't suppose -"
Danvers grinned. He'd liked her at once; she was fearless and sharp and reminded him rather of Dum Dum Dugan. "I'll think about it."
The Avengers cheated, shamelessly, on the second laser tag match. Natasha and Clint wormed their way through the vents and took down Rhodey, Sif, Danvers and Hogun one by one while they were sleeping; the rest of the match descended into an all-out shootout on the top level of the Tower until Tony got the kind of shot that Steve had once thought only Bucky was capable of taking and hit Coulson square in the chest.
The next two days training were an unmitigated disaster, because Iron Man simply would not stop gloating.
"Congratulations," said Maria, tipping her beer at him.
"Hah," said Steve. "We'll see. Nat's got bruised ribs again -"
"Nat's always got bruised ribs," she said. "So have you. You're reckless morons, no amount of training is going to beat that out of you."
"Well, maybe not."
"But it's nice to see you kids have worked your communication issues out and are getting along so well."
"Gee whiz, thanks Mom."
She laughed at him.
"I'm not sure I even believe this is happening," said Fury, standing over Clint's prone body on the floor. "Barton -"
"Sorry, sir, I'm a corpse," he said. "No communication allowed."
"There's a mission," said Fury. "Get resurrected."
Clint sighed. "Dammit, we've almost won this one."
"Unmitigated success is the expression, is it not?" said Thor.
"You know, here on Midgard we have a saying," Steve said. "Don't count your chickens until they're hatched."
"Oh, come now. Yesterday -"
"Yesterday was perfect, until the post-mission briefing derailed into an argument about the applicability of that episode of Star Trek."
"I thought the comparison was particularly well-chosen."
"No you didn't, because it wasn't," said Steve. "Go chase a tornado and stop setting people off."
The God of Thunder grinned. "Would you like to come?"
Steve thought about this for three whole seconds, which was three whole seconds longer than he needed to. "Hell yes."
The day they won three paintball matches out of three Rhodey climbed onto the pool table with a beer in either hand afterwards and proclaimed to the ceiling light that his work here was done; Tony, Danvers and Clint pelted him with fries until he got down again.
"Lady Natasha," said Sif, later on that same evening. "I would be honoured to name you sister."
Natasha clasped her hand, wrist to wrist the way Thor had shown her. "The honour is mine," she said.
"Excellent," said Maria. "Another round, Carol?"
"Mine, I think," said Danvers.
"Effective, if irritating," said Fury to Steve.
"I'll take that as a compliment, sir," said Steve, and shot him in the chest.
Fury glared. "Are you trying to tell me you don't have rules for this laser tag nonsense?"
"They got lost on the second day," said Steve. "One of Tony's robots ate them."
Fury heaved a disgusted sigh.
Maria sort of hated the training robots. They tended to follow you around, yipping at your heels like they were expecting you to do a commando roll and draw on them. It was enough to make anyone jumpy. How Bruce dealt with it was a mystery beyond her ken, but her preferred method was to stride along without looking at them til she'd reached the relative safety of Tony's presence, whose voice commands they were coded to respond to.
Just that morning he had his mouth full, and waved a forkful of pie at her majestically as she came inside. Thor was with him; they were demolishing baked goods with enthusiasm.
"Long day?" Maria said dryly.
"Working," Tony said. "Haven't eaten. Since, uh. Yesterday lunchtime?"
Maria looked at Thor.
"It is impolite to allow a shield-brother to feast alone."
"And when did Volstagg make that up?"
"Listen, we might have a problem."
"Shoot," said Tony. "Except not literally, unless it's with laser guns, Pepper disapproves of bullets in the Tower. And it's her Tower."
"I think you're just lucky she was in LA for the laser tag matches," said Maria. "It's about that bombing at HQ."
"The one that Steve got caught in?"
"The one that ended your epic snit of epicness, yes," said Maria.
"He started it," Tony and Thor said simultaneously. Which, yeah, if you meant the silent treatment, Steve kind of had, fucking off to Brooklyn like that and not taking anybody's calls. But Maria was way past taking sides in that argument. She'd personally believed that communication courses - with a side of slaps-upside-the-head - would have done the lot of them far more good than laser tag, and was prepared to accept her defeat on the issue like a m- like an adult.
"Whatever," she said now. "The point is, we have something that might be a lead."
"Still not quite understanding why you're bringing this to us and not, say, the division of SHIELD that usually deals with bombings," said Tony.
Maria tossed him the USB stick. "I'm bringing it to you," she said, "as it's one of your factories. Up in Maine."
Tony shot to his feet so quickly she was taken aback; wow, training had been better to him than she'd realised, though she'd known he hadn't been a slouch before. Pepper would appreciate that, if not the robots, when she got back.
"Was anybody hurt?"
"No, the attack was timed at three-thirty last night. The nightwatchmen got off with smoke inhalation, a bit shaken-up was all."
"Not that I know of."
"Next question. Why wasn't I told?"
"The nature of the explosive matched ours from the attack, raised flags with SHIELD, the local cops shut down any other communication."
He sat down again, but the glare didn't leave. "Jarvis, call the others up here, get Pepper on the line."
Five hours later they were headed out to Maine.
"Maybe we should cut back on the paintball and read some detective stories," mused Steve.
"Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound," said Bruce.
"Oh my God," said Tony when they reached the motel. "Oh my God, I'm having flashbacks, I'm traumatised, Steve, get me out of here. I lived in greater comfort and security in a terrorist's cave in Afghanistan, oh my God."
Steve was ruthless. "Tony, you spent three hours last Tuesday lying face down in a puddle of red paint so you could ambush Rhodey on his way past and I'm pretty sure you were wearing Armani while you were doing it. Quit the melodrama."
The next morning, everyone got to spend a lot of time standing quietly and watching Tony do his thing. It was... sort of disconcerting. There wasn't much any of the others could do at this point except talk to a few people and wait around until they knew more about what was going on. And, it had to be said, Tony in Maine was a completely different creature to Tony in New York, but bore a number of similarities to Tony on a mission. Competent, firm, concentrated and only occasionally joking, he got on first-name terms with everyone in the Sheriff's office instantly, visited both security guards in the local hospital in the next town (Natasha did the actual interrogating; Tony asked about their health and spoke to their families) and wore jeans and a hoodie to the press conference that reassured the little town that no, Stark Industries would not be shutting the factory down after this; no jobs would be lost, no income destroyed. You could feel the whole area's collective sigh of relief.
"I'm not even sure why we came along," said Bruce quietly to Steve. He had a look that suggested he was doing that thing he did where he talked around the issue to see where you probably stood on it before he actually broached it, thus allowing him to strategise more efficiently. (Steve was quietly proud of himself for recognising it.) "Tony could've handled this with Nat and Clint."
"Field trip," said Steve.
Bruce gave him a look.
"Did you wanna go back?"
"Just in case?"
"I've been thinking," said Bruce quietly. "The day HQ was attacked. Tony and I were at that R&D meeting we usually skip."
"Yes, Nat said that."
"Well," said Bruce. "Usually, on a Friday, when we skip the R&D meeting, we arrive at HQ around the time that bomb went off."
Steve paused. "Ah," he said at last.
As it turned out, the local forensic people were only too happy to let Tony Stark have a look at what they'd recovered of the bomb that had wrecked half his factory. Clint sat in a corner while Tony worked, fingering his sidearm and pretending he was there to pass screwdrivers or fetch coffee.
Eventually Tony emerged from his work-trance, drew his plastic gloves off and said, "The timer was wrong. It should have gone off at three thirty p.m., not a.m."
"Not just a bomber," said Clint, "but an incompetent bomber?"
That really was bad news.
Meanwhile Jarvis was running lists of factory employees and local residents through SHIELD's databases and Bruce, Thor and Natasha were all losing at darts to Steve.
"This is kind of ridiculous," said Natasha.
"What, the fact that you're so bad at darts?" asked Bruce.
"The fact that we're sitting in here doing nothing for the duration of this case."
"This is why I don't understand cop shows where they have more than like three people working cases," said Bruce. "Inevitably you get a whole load of characters who never do anything but leg work."
"Have you been watching CSI again?" asked Steve. "Hah! High score. I'll get the drinks."
"We do appear to be relatively ill-suited to this type of mission," said Thor glumly. "I am not holding out hope for a single decent fight this week."
"That'd make a pleasant change, actually," said Steve.
"Oh, come now."
"We get beat up a lot during these things."
Bruce snorted. "Three of us are more than human and have enhanced healing factors," he said, "and -"
"-you, Tony and Clint -"
"I don't count. Bruises and general exhaustion don't count. Besides, you don't know how much better it is now than it used to be."
"Now you've got a roof over your head and regular meals?" Angry, rather than curious.
"Yes," said Bruce flatly.
Steve sighed. "OK. But Tony and Clint -"
"Are grown-ups," said Natasha. Suddenly she seemed to come to a kind of decision, and her voice grew lower, firmer. "Look, Clint will kill himself before he stops. And this job will kill him one day. He's a soldier and a spy and a killer. He knows the price he's paying for what he does. He chose it, and he'll choose to stick with it until his body gives up on him. It terrifies me sometimes, but it's who he is. For that matter, I might collapse tomorrow morning. I must be eighty years old by now and have no real idea whatsoever what's been done to my body."
The other two were silent. Bruce looked faintly sick, probably at the notion that he too might live as long as Natasha, unchanged and unageing.
"And as for Tony -"
"Tony's the one who's -"
"Got a giant magnet embedded in his chest that's keeping him alive," said Natasha. "Yes. And he pushes himself more than any of us. But Tony is -"
"Tony," said Bruce, "is bulletproof."
He didn't mean the suit. Tony, who'd dragged himself out of every pit he'd ever fallen into; Tony, who rolled with every punch thrown at him and came back up swinging. Bulletproof barely scratched the surface of what Tony Stark was.
"Hey," said Natasha, and nudged Steve's knee with her own under the table. "It's not your job to look after us. We're your friends, not your responsibility."
"It's not -"
"It is that simple."
Steve sighed. "I don't know," he said quietly. "I don't know how not to - I mean, Bucky and I..."
And that was a whole other sort of Gordian knot, wasn't it, the way his and Bucky's friendship had always hovered just this side of an unequal footing - first Bucky the stronger one, and then, after the serum - no, not then: after Bucky's torture, Steve. They had never quite been... the same. On a level.
They had never had time to be anything else.
"Just try and remember that," Natasha said gently. "That's all, Steve. That's all."
Back at the motel they gathered in Tony and Steve's room - Steve's side uncluttered, bed made with military precision; Tony's... not - and waited for Jarvis' results. The crisp British voice sounded small and oddly tinny over the laptop speakers.
"Several persons checked fit criteria for suspicious activity; five criminal records among factory staff, 27 veterans of the armed forces in the area with experience of explosives, two overlaps. No evidence of their presence in New York at the time of Captain Rogers' injury -"
"I wasn't the only one," Steve objected, and got shushed for his trouble.
"Certainly, sir," said Jarvis smoothly. "One other relevant name, a guest at your own motel in fact, one Elizabeth Apted."
Everyone was silent for a moment, turning that name over in their minds. "Apted..." Clint said slowly. "Wait!"
"According to SHIELD internal records Miss Apted is the younger sister of that Michael Apted who encouraged 83% of the shop mannequins in the Meatpacking District to go on a killing spree some weeks ago, sir. Mr Apted is currently in SHIELD custody in Headquarters. If you recall, that was the mission that ended with -"
"Yes, all right," said Tony hastily. They all knew perfectly well how that mission had ended. "Background check, Jarvis."
"Apparently Mr and Miss Apted have been raised in various trailer parks across the country by their father Bobby, numerous arrests for drunk and disorderly behaviour, one five-year prison sentence after a bar brawl, still ongoing, no college record for either of his children, Mr Apted was unemployed, Miss Apted works as a delivery driver for FedEx, FBI flags indicate suspicion of contact with rightwing extremist groups -"
"Is that the Tea Party," said Bruce, "or homegrown terrorist-type groups?"
"Sadly the latter, Dr Banner. Based on surveillance footage of Michael Apted's arrest by Hawkeye, Miss Apted appears to have been trying to reach him when you intervened."
"But what, she blows up HQ and then travels all the way to Maine for a second strike?" said Clint.
"The local factory is in fact the nearest SI facility to New York City, discounting Avengers Tower itself."
"Wait a damn minute," said Natasha. "Did you say she was a guest here?"
"Indeed, Agent Romanov. Miss Apted appears to have the same keen eye for detail in her efforts to conceal herself as she does in her bomb-making."
"This is pretty... anticlimactic," said Clint as he and Natasha crossed the car park to the reception desk.
"Jarvis could replace us all and no one would ever notice," Natasha said, grinning. They were just making their way between a couple of parked trucks when a girl in her early twenties rounded the corner of one and almost crashed into Clint; she was carrying a package of some kind and had long, straggling blonde hair and nervous hands.
"Hey, sorry about that."
Natasha had a sudden premonition. It was a super-assassin thing. Sometimes she could shut her eyes and just know what was about to happen next.
"Miss Apted?" she asked.
The girl's head jerked. She had watery green eyes and a look that had begun hopeless but had turned angry some time ago; Clint's hand shot out for her elbow but she flung herself back and the package into their faces and ran.
"Shit!" said Natasha, barreling forwards, but Clint grabbed her around the waist and caught the package with his other hand - "You idiot!" he bellowed at her and flung it as hard as he could into the middle of the parking lot. Natasha went down on the ground under his weight.
"Moron," Natasha said and tried to stand up. That, of course, was when the bomb went off.
Tony in the armour, carrying Clint's bow and arrows and Natasha's gun belt - "Which way?" and gone before they'd even stood up; Steve behind him, shield on his arm slighty incongruous, considering that he was still wearing his jeans (although, really, no worse than Thor with Mjölnir): "Guys -"
"Go," Natasha shouted at him, louder than she meant to over the ringing in her ears. She was covered in ashes and dirt, but didn't feel hurt... no, nor was Clint - Bruce caught up to them then, and they ran after the others, bolting out of the parking lot and down the road towards the forest. Tony had a way of blazing a trail for you... off the tarmac, into the woods, jump a string of brambles, splash through a stream, duck branches and swerve around trees, finally catching up with the other three in a small clearing lit by moonlight, the armour, and a flashlight Elizabeth Apted appeared to have been carrying. Certainly neither Steve nor Thor would've thought to bring one.
The girl had - fallen? - against a tree, panting, on her knees now and shaking. Natasha thought she looked... well, malnourished. Certainly not fit enough to outrun any of the Avengers.
"Fuck you," she heaved through her pants. "Fuck you all you fucking fascist assholes. What have you done with Mickey?"
"Mickey your brother with the psychic shockwave and the mannequins of death?" asked Clint.
"Got you pretty fucking good, didn't he," said the girl, sneering.
"Are you telling me your brother made me act like a Grade-A asshole that day?" Steve demanded. Being called a fascist, he felt, was a bit much for anyone to have to endure.
"Doubt that was necessary," snapped the girl.
"Burn," said Tony, grinning.
"Mickey can't make anybody do anything. He needs help, he needs looking after, he flattened half a forest once up in Canada because the gas station gave him the wrong change, he's damaged, not dangerous!"
"And you... went out and googled how to make a bomb and started attacking SHIELD and SI facilities after Mickey's arrest," said Natasha, "instead of, say... getting in touch with us and explaining what was wrong with him?"
The girl opened her mouth to respond, but no actual sound came out; she sat, bruised and sooty and awkward, and gaped at them, fishlike, while she thought this over. The Avengers exchanged looks.
Finally Elizabeth Apted pulled herself together again. "You wouldn't have listened!"
"You... didn't even try?" Steve suggested.
"I didn't need to! You're government people!"
"We're really not," said Tony.
She wasn't listening. "The fuck you're not, you're Tony Stark. You're all corrupt and you're ruthless and you stick your damn fingers in everywhere, you're meddlers -"
"You've just stood there and told us we should be meddling with your brother instead of locking him up," said Clint.
Kid was a champion backtracker. "You should let me look after him!"
"Because..." said Natasha. "That's been... working so well. I mean, you were trying to stop him, weren't you? That day. You were trying to get him to make him stop?"
At least, she really hoped she had been.
Elizabeth got the fish-look again rather than confirm to any government people that she'd been trying not to kill anyone that day in New York. Initially, at least. It wouldn't wipe out the injuries from the bomb at HQ, but it was nevertheless becoming clear that Michael Apted of the pyschic shockwaves and the ability to nurture an all-consuming kill instinct in New York City shop mannequins was not the only member of his family who needed serious help.
"You know," said Clint, face twisting, "if we time-traveled, and just shot their Dad..."
"You," said Bruce, "shut it. Go take your mouth someplace it can't run off with itself in front of the kid. Go."
When Bruce got emphatic people rarely argued with him. Clint slunk to the back of the group and concentrated hard on hiding how grateful he was that Bruce had given him something to faux-sulk over instead of brooding on crappy fucking paranoid alcoholic parenting. Elizabeth had a look that suggested she'd stick her tongue out at him if that weren't undignified for a young woman of... barely twenty-two, Natasha guessed.
"Would you like to see him?" Bruce asked. He had his talking-to-victims voice on, slow and low and gentle.
"Don't try to bribe me, asshole," snapped Elizabeth.
"With what? To do what?"
Contemplative silence. "... to come quietly?"
Steve only just remembered he'd probably break his foot if he tried to kick Tony in the shins while he was wearing the armour. Fortunately, Tony swallowed his smile pretty quickly.
Bruce was watching Elizabeth steadily.
She swallowed hard.
"No pyschic powers?"
She shook her head, very slowly.
"So, back to my initial - and, by the way, totally genuine question. Would you like to see him?"
Just as slowly, she nodded. "I. Yes." Then, when no further question came, she added, "Please."
Bruce didn't give any sign he'd been somehow waiting for that. "Any more bombs?"
"No. Just ingredients."
"That's OK. We'll send Thor, he's indestructible."
"Indeed I am not," said Thor, faintly indignant. Steve shooed him away by waving the shield and glaring; Elizabeth watched him fly off with a look that was very close to longing, streaked liberally with awe, before she remembered to wipe that off and put a disdainful glare on instead.
"Can I see Mickey now?"
"Sure," said Bruce, rising to his feet and holding out a hand to her.
She stared at it for nearly five minutes, while the Avengers shifted in increasingly awkward silence, before she took a hold of his fingers and let him help her up.
"The Adventure," said Tony on the way back, "of the Homicidal Kids Who Needed Lots Of Help."
"Can you really find out how to make a bomb on the Internet?" Steve asked curiously.
"I suppose they gave you classes," said Bruce.
"Only once," said Steve. "We got about five minutes in before the fact that Howard was a crappy teacher became too obvious to ignore."
Tony grinned. "And then?"
"Well, we were in London," said Steve. "We went down the pub."
"You know," said Natasha. "That sounds like a pretty decent plan right now."
"By a show of hands please," said Tony. "Unanimous? Nice."