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Spring Thaw

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The greatest event of Tony Stark’s life occurred two years and seven days after a fuckup with the press – his explanation of the incident, anyway – had gotten him booted out of the Avengers and summarily banished to his mansion in Malibu by his girlfriend, who was also the CEO of his company. It was not said girlfriend agreeing to marry him, although she finally had a few months earlier. It was not reconciling with his former teammates, because it had never occurred to him that he needed to. And it was not inventing something new and revolutionary and world-changing, because he did stuff like that on a fairly regular basis.

It was the day he got a Skype call from space. More to the point, from a spaceship flying in space, from a group of heroes who called themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy and who were heading toward Earth to meet with him because there was a threat coming and they were going to need local superhero assistance to defeat it. Tony, of course, had said sure and told them where they could safely land and been there to greet them and welcome them to his mansion. They’d seemed surprised that he was the only person there to meet them, but he’d blown that off. He was Iron Man! And this was space stuff, not like a bunch of tech-light ground fighters were going to be any help at all, although he had asked his visitors if they knew anyone from Asgard and wasn’t all that surprised to find out they’d never heard of the place.

Tony had a vague idea that he really should let somebody else know about his visitors, but he brushed it aside. They’d called him! From space! A team of space-heroes had called him because they wanted help saving the galaxy in general and Earth in particular, and he just wanted to bask in it for a little while. He hadn’t even told Pepper, because he knew she’d tattle on him. And he was planning to find a way to gloat all over Fury about it later – prejudiced his ass, one of the Guardians was a goddamned raccoon, and Tony was getting along with him just fine.

Not to mention two of the other Guardians were green, another one was a walking tree, and their leader, Star Lord, was what would happen if Rogers and Barton had a baby. Star Lord was also originally from Earth, and he had gotten annoyed and somewhat defensive when Tony had made fun of his Walkman and offered to upgrade it.

What Tony hadn’t realized was that the Guardians hadn’t been surprised to just meet one guy, they’d been horrified. Their information had said there was a team of superheroes active on-planet, possibly more than one, and a resource-laden government agency they worked with to boot. Thanos turning his attention toward Earth was an all-hands-on-deck sort of situation, one guy in an overbuilt mech suit was not going to cut it.

Peter Quill, also known as Star Lord, knew something was wrong. Stark was annoying, yeah, but not half as annoying as Rocket and Peter actually lived with Rocket. No, what was bothering him was the feeling that Stark was gloating about something, hiding something, and that made him nervous. So he had insisted that his team needed to go back to their ship for a little bit, just in case, and then asked everyone for their opinion of Stark. Gamora had put hers very succinctly. “He acts like a little boy hiding a secret. I do not think he is a villain, but I do not trust him.”

“Nor do I,” Drax put in. “Something is not right. Did we pick the wrong man?”

“I am Groot.”

Rocket was busy on his computer and didn’t translate that, so Peter just nodded. “I hope not, Drax – we’ll have a hell of a time getting the good guys to work with us if the first person we contacted turns out to be not so good.”

“I am Groot.”

“Groot doesn’t think Stark has switched sides,” Rocket threw over his shoulder. “Him not calling for anyone else is suspicious, though. I’m looking, give me a few – anything big enough to separate him from the rest of the hero community was bound to have been big enough to make the news.” They all waited, and less than five minutes later he’d found it. “Oh boy,” he said. “Well, yeah, we sort of picked the wrong guy…but that’s because our information was out of date, so totally not our fault. Iron Man was one of the Avengers, and then his ego got the better of him and he did something stupid.” He put the information on the main screen so they could all see it. “Real stupid.”

Peter scanned what was there, scowling. “Well crap, that’s just great – we needed to get some people on the ball to save the planet, and we picked the one guy none of the other superheroes on the planet will talk to…”

And then a little black window appeared in the center of the screen, words typing across it in blocky white letters:

 

THE AVENGERS HAVE BEEN NOTIFIED. THEY ARE ON THEIR WAY.

Rocket scowled, moved the blinking cursor down and typed back: WHO ARE YOU?

The answer:

 

J.A.R.V.I.S.

The Guardians all looked at each other. Jarvis was Stark’s A.I. butler. What was going on here?

A new line started:

 

CAPTAIN ROGERS ASKS ME TO TELL YOU NOT TO WORRY ABOUT IT, HIS TEAM AND THE OTHERS CAN WORK WITH MR. STARK.

The cursor blinked a few times:

 

HE ALSO SAYS I SHOULD EXPLAIN MYSELF. I AM UNDER STRICT ORDERS FROM MS. POTTS TO PREVENT SIR FROM ‘MAKING STUPID MISTAKES WHEN HIS EGO GETS AWAY FROM HIM’, END QUOTE. MS. POTTS HAS ALSO BEEN NOTIFIED OF YOUR ARRIVAL. SHE SAYS WELCOME TO EARTH, WE ARE PLEASED YOU HAVE COME TO VISIT US, AND SHE HAS FURTHER NOTIFIED THE AIR FORCE THAT YOU ARE HERE AND ARE NOT TO BE CONSIDERED A THREAT. THEY WILL BE SENDING A REPRESENTATIVE OF THEIR OWN TO SPEAK WITH YOU ABOUT THE COMING PROBLEM AS WELL. HIS NAME IS COLONEL RHODES.

More blinking:

 

COLONEL RHODES HAS JUST CONTACTED MR. STARK IN ORDER TO CHASTISE HIM FOR NOT INFORMING ANYONE OF YOUR ARRIVAL. SIR WILL DOUBTLESS BE SULKING FOR THE REMAINDER OF THE EVENING. PLEASE DO NOT TAKE THIS PERSONALLY.

And then the words END COMMUNICATION appeared, and a moment later the black window vanished. Rocket looked up at the rest of the team. “I don’t know if I’m jealous of the guy or I pity him. Can I steal Jarvis?”

“No.” Peter was frowning. “Ms. Potts?”

“Stark’s fiancée, and the CEO of his company.” Rocket started pulling up more data. “Rhodes…okay, he’s got a suit like Stark’s, they call him War Machine. Used to be Stark’s liaison with the Air Force, looks like they were buddies…until the incident with the Avengers, and then the Air Force officially cut ties with Iron Man. Which is also when Stark moved out here, the rest of them are on the other side of the continent.” He looked some more. “Captain Rogers – code name Captain America – went to ground with his team to protect them from the fallout from Stark’s run of mouth diarrhea. He made an alliance with another group called the Fantastic Four, who were the senior team of superheroes in the city, and maintained working ties with the organization called SHIELD and the US military. From the looks of it, if he says everybody pitch in to help save the planet, everybody is going to pitch in to help save the fucking planet. Oh, and that one thing Stark asked us about…” He pulled up a picture of a big blond guy wearing armor and a cape, summoning lighting with what looked like a hammer. “I know what he was talking about now. Asgard must be one of the planets in the Rainbow Bridge cult – bunch of isolationist weirdoes, from what I’d always heard, but this guy got sent down here for some reason and then his brother attacked the place – twice – and now the guy splits his time between here and his homeworld. He supposedly has an Earth-Human girlfriend, too.”

“So if we’ve got him…”

“We might also have his planet – cultists, yes, but they’re also freaky techno-magic users and really territorial from what I understand. If they’ve extended Rainbow Bridge to include this planet, Thanos will have to go through their forces first to get here.”

“Which sucks for them but could buy us the time we need.”

“I am Groot.”

Rocket’s ears went up. “What…no, you’re shitting me, really?”

The tree creature nodded. “I am Groot.”

“Asgard more than likely has at least one of the Infinity Stones.”

Drax frowned. “We must…”

“No.” Peter was frowning even harder. “Techno-magic? Sort of like the way we captured the first stone?” Rocket’s eyes widened. “I’d say it’s safe enough on Asgard, then. And to be honest, I’d rather at least one stone be safe somewhere that isn’t the Alliance. I’d have been willing to let the Collector keep ours if I’d known what it actually was at the time – he’s an asshole, but he’d have just locked it up and gloated over it. He actually knew better than to try to use it.”

“True.” Gamora considered. “I believe we should rest here for the night, and return to the mansion in the morning.” Her lip curled. “I for one do not wish to deal with Stark’s ‘sulking’ – I might be tempted to kill him.”

Peter rolled his eyes, but nodded. “Yeah, you wouldn’t be the only one. Rocket, send him a polite message letting him know we’re turning in and we’ll be back over in the morning.”

 

The Guardians returned to the mansion the next morning, and were greeted by a still-sulking Stark and a capable-looking uniformed man who introduced himself as Colonel Rhodes and shook hands all around, thanked them for coming, and asked if there was anything immediate which needed to be attended to or if a full briefing could wait until the other groups arrived. Peter was so visibly relieved that the man chuckled. “Yeah, we’re all sorry about that…oversight when you got here,” Rhodes told him. “We really can all work together just fine, though, I promise.”

“I am Groot.”

“He says it’s good to know the safety of your planet comes before personal differences,” Rocket translated when Rhodes raised a questioning eyebrow. “And do you know if Rainbow Bridge – that Thor guy’s people – are on board or not?”

Tony looked confused by the question, but Rhodes didn’t. “Yes, they are,” he confirmed. “I asked Thor about that myself. He’s the Crown Prince of Asgard and has been confirmed as the Defender of Midgard – that’s what his people call Earth – so he’s authorized to summon help from his people if necessary. He has his own team of fighters on Asgard, but when he’s down here he’s part of Captain Rogers’ team, the Avengers.”

Peter had been wondering about that. “Is that the same guy who fought in World War 2, or just someone using the name?”

Rhodes grinned. “Read the comic books?” Peter nodded. “Jarvis did say you were from here. He’s the same person – they found him in the ice a few years ago and he woke up when they thawed him out, much to everyone’s surprise.”

“Including his, I am sure,” Gamora allowed, frowning when Tony looked surprised by that. “He planned to be suspended and reawakened?”

The billionaire’s mouth literally dropped open, and Rhodes rolled his eyes. “No, he didn’t,” he said. “He crashed a plane carrying a city-destroying bomb into the Arctic Ocean; we have recordings of his last transmissions, so we know he thought it was a one-way trip and so did everyone else involved.”

Tony found his voice. “My father didn’t.”

Rhodes allowed that exception with a nod. “Because your father knew things about the supersoldier project no one else did, not even Steve. And even then, all he had were suspicions, he didn’t know for sure.”

Tony suppressed his scowl at the slip. ‘Steve’. His friend Rhodey was on a first-name basis with a guy so stiff he might as well still be a popsicle. How the hell had that happened? Rogers had all the conversational charm of a traffic light, and he was boring and mopey and all – all – about work, 24/7.

His mental rant was interrupted when he noticed the tree looking at him. It had its head cocked, like a curious dog, but its eyes…he shivered, and it blinked at him and looked away again. He still felt…studied, though. Analyzed, even. The creature known as Groot had been trying to figure him out. Or maybe it had figured him out, which was a disquieting thought.

 

Pepper showed up some five minutes later, greeting Rhodes with a hug and kissing Tony’s cheek before introducing herself to the Guardians. Which didn’t mean he wasn’t in trouble, but it did mean she wouldn’t mention it unless she needed to. Tony was man enough to admit that she might. Sometimes he just…didn’t think things through well enough. Pepper wasn’t just his conscience, she was his filter and his safety net, too.

She was also gorgeous and smart and gracious, and when she wasn’t looking Star Lord raised an eyebrow at Tony and offered him a discrete thumbs-up. Which made Tony really happy because yeah, he should be congratulated for convincing a woman like Pepper to marry him.

The Avengers showed up about fifteen minutes after Pepper got there, and Jarvis let them in. Captain Rogers came off the elevator closely followed by four more men and a woman, all of them more or less in uniform, and smiled when Jarvis introduced them. “Sorry we didn’t get here sooner,” he apologized, and sounded like he actually meant it. “We’re on the other side of the continent, so even in the jet it’s not a short flight. Our SHIELD liaison and his team should be here soon. And the Fantastic Four are dealing with an issue right now, so they won’t be able to make it until later.”

Tony, doing his best not to need a drink due to having Bucky Barnes in the same room with him, saw a chance to snark and, unwisely, took it. “So why aren’t you off helping them?”

The other man didn’t react to that. “They’re in Europe.”

Pepper’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh no, not…”

“Latveria again, yeah.” Steve smiled at Pepper. “It’s okay, Ben said they’ve got it under control – he’ll call if that changes.”

Tony saw a second chance and unwisely took that one, too. “Aw, is Dr. Doom trying to steal Reed’s wife again?”

Clint and Bucky both snickered; Steve just shook his head. “No, pretty much the opposite, actually. I could hear Sue screaming at Doom in the background, and then he made the mistake of asking her if she needed chocolate and Midol…well, Ben said to tell you don’t be surprised if you get a call from Latveria asking if you can weld a piece of living metal back on, because she was just that pissed.”

“So Dr. Doom…”

“Has it bad for Reed, yes.” Bruce wasn’t quite snickering, but he did look somewhat amused. “And has had for years, apparently, long before the accident in space.”

“It’s a really fucked-up situation,” Clint added. He raised an eyebrow at Rocket, who was snickering openly. “Okay, I know there’s no way you’re what you look like so that is one weird coincidence – infinite diversity in infinite combinations, I guess.” He held out his hand. “Clint Barton, communications guy and all-around smartass.”

Rocket beamed and shook the offered hand. “I’m Rocket. Is that a crossbow? I have one of those that I modified to shoot nets – Groot and I were picking up bounties for a while, sometimes they want them alive.”

“I’ve tried the net thing, couldn’t get it to work consistently,” Clint admitted. “It’s easier to just throw a bola and tangle up their feet.”

“I’ve done that too,” Rocket said. “Hard to use in a crowd, though.”

“True, I usually let someone else on the team have them if there’s a lot of people around – didn’t used to do it that way, but I worked on my own a lot back then.”

“I am Groot.”

Clint pulled the crossbow off his back and held it out. “Sure, you can look. Probably don’t want to string it in here, though – people tend to get upset when I accidentally bury an arrow in the wall next to their head.”

“I…am Groot.”

Clint laughed. “Good to know I’m not the only one, then. How does that work in a spaceship, though? If you puncture the hull…”

“It’s self-sealing,” Rocket told him. He cocked his head. “Translator implant?”

The archer grinned and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Yeah, present from Thor. Really useful since I’m the team’s communications guy now.”

Thor nodded. “I felt that reparations were in order, so I had new hearing devices made for him. My people were able to add many useful features, such as the translator.”

“And I don’t have to take them out, and there aren’t any batteries so I don’t have to worry about them running down at the wrong moment.” Groot asked what sounded like a pointed question, and Clint nodded. “Yes, I’m what Earth-humans call hearing impaired – without the devices I’m wearing, I can’t hear anything at all.”

Tony’s mouth dropped open. “You’re fucking deaf?!”

Pepper facepalmed, but Clint just rolled his eyes. “And here I thought that was just Fury yankin’ your chain because you said he was his cousin.” Groot said something, and he laughed and patted the tree-creature’s arm. “Yeah, it is, and it doesn’t. Some Earth-humans are stupid about stuff like that, though – a lot of ‘em think broken means useless.”

“Hey, preaching to the choir,” Rocket declared, giving his tail a meaningful shake. “A lot of people seem to think short and furry means useless too.”

Bucky gave him a once-over. “You look dangerous to me. They must be idiots.”

“I am Groot.”

“He says yeah, usually,” Clint translated. “Can I see your gun? Because the barrel says hand canon but the grip is sayin’ not so much...”

He and Rocket ended up wandering over to the nearest table to play with all their weapons, Bucky and Groot trailing along behind them, and the party started to split up into little groups. Pepper had almost jumped on Bruce, dragging him away to a corner talk to him. Steve greeted Rhodey with a cocky salute that made the older man roll his eyes and smack the supersoldier on the shoulder. “No Sam?”

“He’s working today, I told him we’d brief him later. I’m sure Jarvis is recording this meeting, so we won’t have to worry about forgetting anything we all talked about.”

“I will provide Mr. Barton with the recordings and transcript, Captain,” Jarvis put in immediately. “Should I create physical media for it?”

“No, we have a cloud server,” Steve told him. “Clint can tell you which port to use and set up authorization for you – we just went from two-factor to three-factor.” He saw Tony staring at him in disbelief and shrugged. “Not like I don’t use this tech every day, you know.”

Peter was fascinated. “Man, waking up now must have screwed with your head something awful,” he observed. “I went from the seventies to the bigger, techier galaxy outside of our solar system and that was trippy enough, even though I was still a kid and I’d been raised on science fiction.”

Steve grinned. “Honestly, one of the things that threw me the most wasn’t the new stuff, it was the lack of stuff I’d thought we’d have by now. Like flying cars - when I…left, everyone was just sure that within a few more years we’d have them. It was really weird to wake up and find out cars haven’t really changed all that much since I was around the first time.”

Small talk started to flow after that, and Tony mostly stayed out of it, feeling like he’d been caught more than a little flat-footed because he’d expected things to be strictly business once the other superheroes showed up. He especially hadn’t expected to see Rogers having an actual personality, much less being a decent conversationalist with a sense of humor. Things would stiffen up again once SHIELD got there, though, he was sure of it. Because Fury was the ultimate buzzkill for any situation.

Jarvis announced the arrival of the team from SHIELD some twenty minutes later, and if Tony was surprised not to see Fury on the security monitor he was completely blown away by who he did see. Steve apparently noticed the expression on his face, because the supersoldier came over to take a look himself. He made a face. “Oh yeah, that. I wasn’t sure if you knew or not.”

“More things you neglected to share earlier?”

Steve shook his head, ignoring the accusation. “None of us knew until our first meeting with their team. I wasn’t too happy.”

Tony took that in, frowning. He didn’t think Steve was just talking about Fury not telling any of them, something about the hard set of the seemingly younger man’s jaw. Blue eyes glanced sideways at him, then looked away again. “Fury apologized, but he shouldn’t have and I told him so – he didn’t tell any of us because of what they did when they brought Agent Coulson back. They wiped parts of his memory, basically rewrote his personality to fit their ideal.”

“Why would they do that?”

“Because they were HYDRA, they’re fucking Nazis,” Steve told him, ignoring his start at the unexpected profanity. The blue glance again. “That’s Agent Coulson, Tony, not ‘Phil’ – Phil died, they brought back his body and put a different guy in it.” Surprisingly, the set of his jaw loosened. “And that’s not Agent Coulson’s fault, either, which is why we’re just…dancing around the sore spots until they stop hurting certain members of my team. So, rules: I’m the main point of contact with SHIELD’s team, and if I’m not available it’s Bruce. Natasha goes strictly business if Coulson’s around, don’t take it personally. And Clint doesn’t work with their team at all unless we’re in the field and it’s all hands on deck. Bucky runs interference for him when that happens; them being together is working out better and better all the time.”

Tony’s eyes widened. “They’re…”

“Getting there.” The very slightest of smiles, although it was oddly sad. “HYDRA tried to ‘fix’ Bucky too, but he managed to hang on to a little bit of who he really was. Him being with Clint is good for them both.”

 

Tony would remember that smile later that night, and he would put two and two and two together and end up feeling more than a little disgusted with himself. Because the only person who had ‘lost’, really lost in HYDRA’s chess game of SHIELD pieces…had been Steve Rogers.

The man who Tony had done his best to discount, put down, and insult from the very first moment they’d met. The man he’d publicly ridiculed, forcing him to take his team and go to ground to protect them, rebuilding the resources they needed to keep going from that unfamiliar ground up. The man who had come immediately when Jarvis had let him know the safety of the world was at stake, brought his team right to the mansion and not said a single word against Tony or been anything other than polite even when Tony had done his best to push the guy’s buttons. Polite was all he’d been, though – to Tony. He’d gotten friendly with the Guardians pretty quickly, which Tony really hadn’t expected since the space-based team of heroes was pretty earthy a lot of the time. Especially Rocket. Okay, mostly Rocket – Star Lord was pretty obviously on his best behavior, trying to be diplomatic, and the others as well although whatever Groot kept saying to Clint had him cracking up a lot of the time and Rocket snickering right along with him. So whatever was being said there was probably the opposite of diplomatic.

As was Thor’s flat refusal to provide translation devices for SHIELD when Coulson asked him about it. All the response the Asgardian prince would make was, “Asgard is unwilling to trade with Earth at this time. Friend Clint’s hearing devices were a gift.” Coulson’s opening mouth had gotten him a frosty look. “Your technology is not sufficiently advanced to duplicate them; I would advise you not to attempt it. At the very least, Captain Rogers would be greatly displeased if you were to attempt to interfere with one of his people’s well-being in such a manner.”

“Captain Rogers understands…”

“Yes,” Thor had cut him off gravely. “He understands all too well…as do the rest of us.”

Okay, that had been a threat. One Steve had obviously heard and was just as obviously ignoring, chatting away with Star Lord about inconsequential things. Romanov and Gamora had joined the weapons-comparing party in front of the window. The big green guy with the red-tattoos, Drax, had been in on that for a little bit too, but then he took Thor aside and the two of them had a rather intense conversation which ended in some sort of warriors’ handshake and then a hug that lasted long enough to make Tony uncomfortable. Asgardians and…whatever the hell Drax was apparently didn’t have any issues when it came to their masculinity, because of course they didn’t. And right after that Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm finally showed up, endured some fussing from the Avengers and a new round of introductions, and then the real meeting got underway.

Something called Thanos was coming. He was ruthless, insanely powerful, and didn’t seem to have a problem getting other powerful, mostly insane and dangerous people to serve him. Star Lord had confirmed that Thor’s brother had probably been one of those people, almost apologetically. “He gets his hooks in, and they’re his,” he said. “I honestly think most of them don’t realize that once they’re in they can’t get out; the last two we’ve dealt with both seemed to think they could take the power, pay lip service to the guy who gave it to them, and then go skipping off into the sunset once they had what they wanted.”

“They thought wrongly,” Drax confirmed. “None escape the service of Thanos save through death – and sometimes not even death releases them. Yet he seems to find no shortage of fools who would choose servitude over freedom.”

Thor nodded. “The desire for power clouds the judgment of many who might otherwise be wise, and corrupts men who once had honor.” Steve patted his arm. “Thank you, my friend. My brother made his choice, though, and that choice was his own.”

Tony decided not to comment on that, because Pepper and Rhodey were both giving him warning looks and Groot…was just looking at him in that interested, figuring-out way again. “So will this guy have his minions attack us, or will he try to infiltrate us first by corrupting someone here?”

“You have almost certainly already been infiltrated,” the green woman, Gamora, told him. “Thanos has sent his people all over the galaxy. Sleeper-agents, I believe you call them.”

“Is there any way to find out how long they’ve been here?” Steve wanted to know.

The way he asked the question sounded rather more urgent than a hypothetical situation would have called for, and Rhodes immediately leaned forward to look at him. “You don’t think…”

“I think it might explain some things. Some of the missions the guys and I went on…let’s just say some of it was weirder than anyone knew what to do with, and the general burned those reports and told us never to tell anyone what had been in them.” He focused on the Guardians. “Guys, would it be like Thanos or his agents to use a war to establish a foothold on a planet?”

“You think HYDRA was aliens.” Tony rolled his eyes. “Got news for you, Star-Spangled Man, not everything is about you.”

The only member of the Earth-contingent who didn’t appear to take immediate offense at that was Steve. “HYDRA wasn’t about me; I was created because of them,” he corrected, still politely. “HYDRA was about taking over the world, and they were using the Nazis to do their dirty work for them.”

“And that would be like the agents of Thanos, yes,” Gamora agreed. “If you could tell us about some of the strange occurrences you witnessed before we leave here, we might be able to find out who may have been sent to this planet to ready things for his arrival.”

Coulson looked like he was about to object very strongly to that idea, but Steve beat him to it. “I can do that. Here on Earth that information would be considered classified, but considering the situation I think it’s in our best interest to share whatever information might prove useful. We are talking about the safety of our planet, after all.”

Rhodes immediately voiced unequivocal agreement with that and the SHIELD agent’s mouth shut, but he didn’t look happy. Tony saw one of the people who’d come with Coulson – his permanent team, apparently – give their leader a questioning look which was answered with a small, terse head shake. No one else seemed to have noticed the byplay, though, and the meeting kept going.

But someone else had noticed – and they’d also apparently noticed Coulson’s frequent glances at Clint and the way another one of his people was watching the archer – and they hadn’t liked it very much. The meeting had broken up, everyone was getting ready to go their separate ways with assurances that they’d all stay in touch and keep the other groups apprised of what was going on, when Rocket made his way over to Coulson, Groot ambling along behind him. “Hi, we’re just stopping by to threaten you.” His muzzle split into a snarl. “Stay the fuck away from Clint if you know what’s good for you. Got it?”

The agent raised an eyebrow. Tony might have missed the unfriendly, suspicious looks coming from the raccoon-appearing alien, but he hadn’t and he wasn’t a man who was easily intimidated. “I realize you don’t understand the full situation, but SHIELD…”

“Fuck SHIELD. And please tell your boss I said that in context, don’t want him to start thinking I’m interested or something. I was scanning your planet’s transmissions on the way here, I’ve seen that freaky thing you have going on with the furry animal costumes.”

Coulson sighed. Some days he hated the Internet. “We’re not the enemy, we’re just…”

Behind Rocket, Groot frowned. “I am Groot.”

Coulson shook his head, annoyed. “I can’t understand what you’re saying, I don’t have a translator.”

Rocket snorted. “He just disagreed with you and said you’d better not try to interfere with Clint.”

Groot leaned over him, right into Coulson’s personal space. “I…am…Groot.”

Coulson actually took a step back; now he was feeling intimidated. “I…didn’t understand that either.”

Rocket’s eyes had gone wide, which was worrisome. “I don’t think you want to.” He tugged on Groot’s arm. “Buddy, let’s just…”

Groot looked down at him. “I am Groot.”

Rocket’s shoulders slumped, and he nodded. “Yeah, that’s…that’s true.” He looked over at the shocked SHIELD agent. “Don’t go anywhere near Clint – no matter what happens. You understand, Agent Coulson? Because if you hurt him...”

Coulson had regathered himself. “Spare me the empty threats. You’re leaving, you won’t be here.”

The snarl again – from both of them, this time. But this time, someone else answered before either one of them could. “I will be,” Steve said. He was quite obviously furious; his blue eyes were practically glowing. He patted Groot’s arm, held out a hand to Rocket, who took it. “We may be allies, Agent Coulson, but that will change in a hurry if you go after one of my people – especially if that person is Clint. Consider this your one and only warning: These guys don’t make empty threats and neither do I.”

 

Late that night at SHIELD headquarters, Coulson finished relating the conversation to Fury. He was obviously puzzled by it and said so. “It doesn’t make sense,” he told his boss. “I don’t understand where all this hostility suddenly came from, and it worries me. Could the Guardians…”

“No, the Guardians didn’t do anything,” Fury assured him. He looked somewhere between sickened and horrified, which was throwing Coulson off even further. “That…was already there, Coulson. The Avengers have been dealing with it – and not communicating it to you or your team because Captain Rogers told them not to. He told them it wasn’t your fault, and it hasn’t been, but this…you brought this on yourself, honestly. You’ve been ignoring the cues they’ve been giving you.”

Coulson frowned. “Would you please just tell me what’s going on?”

“I can’t.” Fury shrugged. “Not without making an even bigger mess, and it’s plenty big enough now.” He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his desk. “I can tell you that, after your first meeting with him, I received the most blistering phone call you can possibly imagine from Captain Rogers. Who can curse really effectively in five languages, although that fifth one may actually have been Brooklyn English and I just didn’t realize it at the time – his accent comes roaring back with a vengeance when he’s mad. At first I thought it was because I’d let them all think you were dead, and I’d expected that…but that wasn’t it at all.” He sat back. “You’re their liaison because you’re the best agent we have for that, Coulson. Captain Rogers agreed with my reasoning after I spoke with him in person, but he let me know how things were going to be, and why, and I agreed to that and asked him to convey my apologies to everyone involved. He told me I shouldn’t apologize for something that was beyond my control, but said he’d let them know I felt bad about the situation just the same.”

Coulson thought that over, and then he sat back in his chair and looked Fury in the eye. “It’s me, isn’t it? I came back…different somehow?”

Fury didn’t deny it. “Yes, but that wasn’t your fault, as I said. Consider it…brain damage, Coulson. Because it pretty much is. It can’t be fixed; you can’t go back to who you were, and you shouldn’t try. You’re a different person now, and while the people who knew you before have accepted that and don’t blame you…it hasn’t been easy for some of them to come to terms with, and that’s just going to take time. This current situation, however…” His almost friendly mood changed in an instant, becoming harder, colder. “Agent Coulson, I appointed you as that team’s liaison in spite of the difficulties I knew it might cause because it is imperative that they know they can trust us enough to work with us and keep us in the loop. You almost undid that in a single day, and I am not happy about it. Especially since you did it in front of some new, powerful allies who also now apparently think you’re the enemy and aren’t too sure about the rest of us here either.” He folded his arms across his chest. “Stark sent me video. Of Groot in action. You’re damn lucky Star Lord has that under control, or I’d be watching someone in Medical try to assemble enough pieces of you to bury right now.” Stark had also sent him some other information from the meeting that was of an even more disturbing nature, but he wasn’t going to discuss that with Coulson – or anyone else, at least for the time being. His eyebrow went up. “In spite of the amount of latitude I give you because you’re one of my best agents, that does not mean you have the authority to make the kind of calls you apparently made today. So let me make this crystal clear for you, Agent: You work for me, and I say hands off the Avengers when it comes to their equipment. Of course they have alien tech, one of their team members is an alien prince. And considering his response today when you asked about it, asking about it is now off-limits. Asking the other Avengers is off limits too, and if I find out you’re doing surveillance on any of them you and your team will be spending a month in the far North – and I don’t mean Canada. Do we understand each other?” Coulson nodded. “Now go share this conversation with your team and make sure they understand it too. Dismissed.”

Coulson left, seemingly in a much subdued state of mind, and Fury sat back in his chair with a frown. Something wasn’t right. This whole situation hadn’t been right. And Stark had apparently known it too, because his communication with Fury earlier had been serious rather than snarky and gloating – and Fury had expected the man to be gloating, since the alien team had contacted him first. He cued up the Groot video again. It hadn’t been taken at Stark’s mansion or even on Earth, the Guardians had shared it as part of a relevant if pared-down digital dossier on the members of their team and the Alliance they nominally worked for. The Groot part of the video was fascinating and terrifying at the same time – he’d already watched it multiple times – and Fury shook his head. Ally or not, the more he watched the more relieved he felt that there was apparently only this one remaining specimen of Groot’s species in the whole damned galaxy.

 

Far, far beneath the streets of Brooklyn, Steve Rogers was getting ready for bed. He checked the light Bruce had hooked up for him, felt the soil to make sure it wasn’t either too wet or too dry, and then stroked the little twig Groot had given him which was planted in that soil with his finger before laying down and activating the sleep function on his alarm clock. “Good night, little buddy,” he said, closing his eyes as the soft strains of Big Band music filled the room. If the twig swayed a little to the music, he didn’t see it.