Nate leaned back in his chair in the unfamiliar restaurant, a single finger pulsing over his lips, studying the man sitting across from him. "I have to say, we usually go to great lengths to avoid your type of client. In fact, you're normally the type of person we target."
"Because I'm rich?"
Nate smirked. They had looked into him, done their background research. Despite the four thousand dollar custom suit he was wearing, he wasn't as rich as he portrayed himself to be. "Because you're a United States senator. In my experience a person who has been in office as long as you have isn’t possessed of a lot of redeeming qualities."
Nate watched as the lanky blonde man sat forward, maybe trying to intensify his plea, or maybe trying to look more honest or grounded. The senator placed his hands flat on the table and said, "It's more than just the clean up, Mr. Ford. These people are dangerous. They think they can destroy New York and not have to worry about the aftermath, or any of the loss of life that happened that day. They think they're soldiers, but they're really just a group of rogue vigilantes that need to be held accountable."
Nate smiled. "So, are they rogue soldiers? Or vigilantes? Because I'm not sure they can be both."
"Mr. Ford –"`
"And as for clean-up, Tony Stark is almost single handedly rebuilding downtown while Congress is trying to put blame on each others' political parties for the battle happening in the first place..." He waved his hand at the Senator, brushing away his excuses. "What is this really about?"
It was silent for a moment as he watched the senator’s internal struggle. "It's the Hulk."
"The Hulk," Nate repeated.
The man was silent for a second as if weighing his words. "My nephew went to college at Columbia. He was killed in the Hulk's rampage in 2008, and now they're saying that he's part of this group of heroes that saved Manhattan. All I see is a murderer that got lucky."
Nate considered this. The man had been less than honest in his intentions, but Nate remembered watching what little surviving footage there was from the night in question: explosions, screaming, and a shadowy figure that seemed to defy all he had previously known about the world and science...
But it wasn't just there was damage done to Harlem. No. There were lives lost.
Nate shut down that line of thinking before he gave himself too much freedom to go down that particular spiral. "Okay."
Nate shrugged. "We'll find out what we know about the Hulk, see if we can get his identity and work on getting some justice for your nephew." He stood up and held out his hand. "Pleasure doing business with you, Senator."
The senator looked stunned but eagerly shook Nate's hand, and Nate started to walk towards the door before feeling a tingle of something in the base of his spine. He turned around and studied the restaurant, making note of each of his teammates hiding in plain site as restaurant patrons, but nothing looked out of place.
Still, he ran his hands over his arms as if he could brush away the goose bumps that appeared there. The feeling in the base of his spine intensified, though, and a brief shiver took control of his body.
"Nate," he heard Eliot growl in his ear. "What's going on?" He could almost feel his team shift in their chairs around the restaurant rather than see them, all ready to come to his rescue, or disappear if needed. He furrowed his brow as he watched the senator shift in his own chair, his own back to Nate and the entrance, but nothing was amiss. "Nate?" Eliot's voice repeated.
The chill struck him harder than before, this time, but he couldn't pin point where it was coming from. "Nah. Regroup at the hotel. We've got to get started." He gave one last look around the restaurant though, before shrugging it off, and shifting his mind into the first phase of his planning.
Hardison was the first back. Their hotel was one of the few in the battle area that had come away relatively unscathed, but it was still almost empty giving them a number of large suites with varying views of the area. People were still eyeing the zone as toxic: despite the massive clean-up and colossal misinformation campaign, there were still giant skeletal remains lining the streets and the media was inciting fear in residents that some buildings still had a chance of falling down.
So really, it was the perfect place for them to have their base of operations. For the time being at least, and Hardison had rigged the suite to something like their normal war room – large plasma screens, several hard drives running to almost full capacity, and both couches and work stations for each different personality type.
Hardison surveyed the room as Nate walked in and took residence at the desk closest to the screens: the natural place of the leader, and the rest filtered in behind him.
Nate barely looked to see if the rest of them were settled. "Hardison?"
Hardison tapped some keys on his computer, and the images started flying up. "Tony Stark. He's described as a genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist. I got that off the news, but I'm inclined to think it's a self description. One," he grinned, "that I share as well."
Eliot chuckled. "Oh yeah? How much money do you have? Because I count you at two of four."
"And which other one exactly am I lacking?"
Nate stepped in. "Boys..." he called out as Sophie rolled her eyes, and took over.
"We all know about Tony Stark. Defence contractor, Iron Man... Every grifter out there has gotten something from him – and he likes it. He treats it as a game. Or, at least he did until was kidnapped and became a superhero. But why are we focusing on him?"
Hardison stepped back in, this time all business. "Because right now he's the only person that was fighting in New York against the invasion that has been positively ID'd. I've been keeping track of the blogs, and internal FBI and CIA memos and reports, and they all read like something out of a science fiction movie. And none of them know who any of those guys were... except that one of them was, apparently, a god."
"What about that other fighter, the one in the colourful costume?" Parker asked, completely unfazed by the 'god' comment and focusing instead on the most colourful thing on the screen.
"He's dressed like Captain America," Sophie answered. "I always loved his story – a soldier that proved himself on the battlefield and fell in love with his British commander – who was one of the highest ranking females in the war, by the way. And then right as they profess their love for each other, he sacrifices his own life for the good of the world." She drifted off and then shrugged. "But it's a fairy tale. War propaganda. Comic books. Conspiracy theories of a secret serum to make a super soldier. It's not real."
"Actually," Hardison spoke, "it's very real. There are all the documents required to support such a claim, including real historical records, blood samples, laboratory tests... everything. If it was a fairy tale made to look true, those records would be accessible, but these are hidden, and hidden deep. And people have been trying to replicate the process, but no has. Rumour has it that it's how the Hulk got created."
"Stories about Captain America have always been around, even when I first started in the service," Eliot added. "But when I started taking more specialized ops, more training, higher clearances..." he shook his head. "Some things that were just rumours I started seeing where they could be true. I didn't see anything about the serum, but some of the stuff I did see? Let's just say it's possible."
Sophie shook her head. "Even if it is true, he's disappeared for over 70 years, and just now comes back? The same age, good as new?"
Hardison brought up pictures from the war and tried to compare them against the grainy pictures taken from the news and shaky cell phone cameras. "None of the pictures from the attack were clear enough for facial recognition, but looking at these two? They look pretty close. They say he was trapped in an iceberg or something, and with his super healing powers they were able to bring him back."
"But that's not possible." Sophie objected.
Nate finally broke up the argument. "The last time I thought I knew what was possible we got invaded by aliens. I'm opening up what I know to be real."
There was a rare moment of silence from the team as they pondered what Nate said and watched the images that Hardison was putting on the screen: some more grainy pictures from security cameras, some that were blurs from the speed at which the target was moving, some videos that were shaking as whoever held the camera ran from the non-humanoid forms chasing them...
Hardison spoke quietly as he changed the images and videos on the screens. "The government is trying to cover up how bad it was that day, they're trying to keep how bad all the alien stuff was under wraps to avoid mass panic, but you can't stop the internet. Even so, most sites are having all these images taken down, or finding them magically corrupted. After the Harlem attack they tried to blame it on wild animals and natural disasters."
"But everyone knows differently," Parker said, in her matter-of-fact tone. "I mean, we weren't in New York at the time, but everyone saw those remains outside, and the giant hole in the sky. They think we're just going to believe that the aliens attacking were a onetime thing? And that we're not in any danger now?"
Sophie spoke up again. "People believe what they want. It's a lot easier to blame Stark for the damage then to believe that aliens are a real and continuous threat. And all people really know for sure is that something happened, Tony Stark was involved, and so was a group of other, unnamed persons. Some people say they were part of the destruction, some say they were there to help... and some are just afraid of the unknown. Take your pick."
Parker looked disgruntled, but Nate ploughed on. "So the only thing that everyone agrees on is that Iron Man was there, which means Tony Stark knew what was going on. And that means that Pepper Potts also probably knows. Which means we need access to Stark Industries if we want to find out anything about who the other masked people are. Hardison?"
Hardison felt a combination of excitement and horror as he listened to the arguments around him, still watching the images across the screen that he had studied so many times before. "Nate, I understand the job we took, and why we need to do it, but this is Tony Stark. I've worshiped this man since I could read. His security is better than most governmental agencies, and Pepper Pots runs a tight ship. Are we really going to try to con Iron Man? I mean, he's the closest thing that the world has to an actual, bona fide superhero."
"So," Eliot started, "is the problem that he's better than you? Or that you want to act out a childhood fantasy and can't bear that he might be a bad guy in all this?"
"He's not a bad guy – he's cleaning up downtown on his own –"
"Because he might have been responsible –"
"Because he has moral superiority –"
"BOYS!" Nate had to interrupt again, and they fell silent. Hardison felt his eyes on him, but he became engrossed back in his computer. "Sophie, you said that every grifter has had a piece of him. You included?"
She drew out the word. "Yes."
"Will he recognize you?"
"As Cassandra, an art dealer who also loves to paint and sculpt. I procured some paintings for him."
"And by procured you mean..."
"Sold him real paintings but switched out all the ones in his study," she said, clearly reminiscing. "My cover was never blown; I still see Pepper from time to time."
Parker looked excited. "You stole from Iron Man?"
"Wait," Hardison interrupted, "you've conned Iron Man?"
"It was actually quite brilliant –"
"Guys..." Nate trailed off and while Sophie stopped, it was clear she wanted to keep going. He looked around the room wearily. "Okay, first part of the plan is infiltration and information gathering. It's going to be a long process. Sophie?"
Sophie smiled, and started her story.
Tony Stark had plans for the evening. Plans that Pepper seemed to be intent on ruining. "It will only take a few minutes. Besides, you used to like meeting with her," she said with a smirk as she lead him through the hallways at Stark Towers.
"Only because I used to want to sleep with her."
"Used to?" Pepper said indifferently. She looked at him with far too much knowledge in her eyes. "She is very beautiful."
"Who needs beautiful women when I've got you?" She raised a single eyebrow at him. "Wait –"
She waved him off. "She's expanded her business; she's not just art procurement and sales anymore."
"That's good, because I gave all my art away."
"Yeah, because you thought you were going to die."
"It seemed like the right thing to do at the time."
Pepper moved on. "She's into architecture now too, with an emphasis on recycled materials."
"So you think she'd be good for the rebuilding efforts. Okay, I get it."
"So you don't want to sleep with her?"
"Oh, I definitely want to sleep with her. And she's got that accent. I think I've got a thing for accents."
"You's got a sing vor accents?"
"German? That was accent you decided to go with?" She shrugged. "Actually, that strangely did it for me."
"But it's normally British accents," she added with a smile.
He nodded matter of factly, and they continued their pace through some of the labs before snaking their way to the elevator. "She contacted you?"
Pepper shook her head. "I heard she was in town and I invited her for drinks. That's when I got the idea about bringing her in as a consultant for the rebuilding projects."
Tony was confused. "You two are friends? Since when do you like any of the females I work with?"
"Since she never succumbed to your charm, and I never had to usher her out in the morning."
"That's fair, but I'm starting to think she did that so she could keep working with you."
"She's smart. She knew that if you lost interest she'd be out a client."
"No, I'm saying that she wanted to work with you. It's the only possible explanation for her not sleeping with me." He paused, and smirked. "And if you're open to that kind of thing..."
Pepper rolled her eyes as she pressed the Lobby button in the elevator. "Jarvis has a British accent."
"Butlers are British. Everyone knows that."
The elevator opened and Pepper took one last shot at him before they greeted the newcomers. "Be nice".
Tony walked out of the elevator to see Cassandra Croft standing in the lobby, talking rather sternly to the tall young man standing beside her. He looked concerned, but as soon as they noticed his presence they shed their discomfort and greeted him warmly.
"Cassandra," he exclaimed, kissing her on both cheeks. "Pepper tells me that your art dealing is going well."
"I always manage to get what I want," she replied, her voice flirty but her smile genuine. "Let me introduce you to Mason Bradford. I trust Pepper has brought you up to speed?"
"Of course," he said while shaking her associate's hand. Even beneath the young man's dark skin, he could see the colour start to drain from his face. Interesting. "Though Pepper seems to have forgotten that we have other things on the schedule tonight."
Pepper waved him off. "We can always make time for someone whose priorities align with our own."
She started to lead them into the elevator to an upper level conference room and while they were exchanging pleasantries he pulled out his phone.
The amount of information he was able to dig up on Mason was small, but thorough. Masters in Architecture, graduated top of his class at each level, worked for a large firm on a variety of small projects before joining a smaller firm and taking on LEED and smart buildings... he also took some engineering classes on properties and mechanics of materials... He shut his phone. The faster he could finish this meeting, the faster he could whisk Pepper back to the evening he had planned.
They all sat down around the table, and as much as he wanted to pay attention to the meeting, Pepper's skirt started to rise just a little on her leg...
She cleared her throat and he whipped back to attention. "Okay Mason, what do you have for me?"
He pulled out a small laptop and plugged it into the port on the table that linked to the projector, and started right into the presentation. "After the destruction of any building, whether it be from natural disaster or attack, the clean up usually consists of taking the rubble and disposing of it. And that makes sense – the steel beams are compromised, the concrete is filled with rebar, and all the structural elements are combined with everything else from buildings, like insulation, electrical..." He trailed off to make sure that everyone was still with him, and then continued on.
"In this case, we have even more rubble, because we have these giant alien-y things also lining the street. I did my masters' thesis on re-using the structural steel from a demolished building that had been damaged in an earthquake in California."
Tony interrupted. "So, you want to take a look at these half alien reptile, half robot things, and see if they can be reused as building material."
Cassandra smiled. "He's quite smart, but we don't have a base of operations here. He needs a lab."
"Perfect," Tony said, slapping his hands together. "We'll start with two weeks as a trial, beginning tomorrow morning. Ms. Potts, arrange to have some scaly things brought into one of the labs so he can get moving right away. Jarvis?"
"Arrange security protocols for Mason and Cassandra, and get them whatever they need." He stood up with a smile at the two guests. Mason looked shell shocked, like he couldn't actually believe that he had agreed to support his research, mixed with almost a little disappointment that he didn't get to finish his presentation. Cassandra just looked smug. Interesting.
Cassandra interrupted his train of thought. "He also has two interns that would get value from this experience."
Tony studied her. Something was not quite right, but Pepper agreed. "We'll get things arranged for them as well, after you get settled."
They all shook hand again, and one of the guards escorted them out. "Did they seem weird to you?" he asked Pepper, as soon as they were out of earshot. "I think they seemed weird."
"I think it's just because Cassandra didn't pay you as much attention as she normally does."
He shrugged and had already started to move onto other things when Jarvis cut in. "Sir, there's a unauthorized program running through the server that originated from this room."
Tony smirked at Pepper. "Still think nothing was weird?" He ran his hand through his hair. "Jarvis, what's the program doing? And why wasn't it immediately stopped?"
It was silent for a moment. "It appears that the program is just indexing the drives. It was not malicious in intent, nor is it sending the information externally. It's well written, and it passed the security protocols because it's not actually going through any of the files and so it didn't flag as malicious. It was only noticed because it began during the nightly system scan."
Tony thought it through. "It's not going through the files. It's just looking at the organizational structure of them." He mumbled to himself, running his hands over his face and hair absently before speaking out loud. "It's looking for where the secure files might be. That's smart. Okay, Jarvis, don't stop it. Let it run, but take notes on what it finds. I want to know what Mason finds out about us, and what he continues to look for."
He turned back to Pepper who was now frowning. "I had no idea this was going to happen. I bet Cassandra doesn't even know about it –"
"It doesn't matter what she knows, you gave a hacker access to our –"
"Are you upset that he's looking into your files or that you wouldn't have caught him without Jarvis –"
"Without Jarvis? Jarvis is how I caught him, I built Jarvis, therefore I still caught him –"
"Or are you afraid that he's better than you –"
"Better than me?" They finally stopped speaking over each other and Pepper gave him a cheeky smile. "He's not better than me. I just want to see how far he gets."
"You're going to obsess about this now."
"No, I just want to get into a computer and see what he's up to," Tony answered as he started to walk away from her.
"I thought we had plans," she responded, drawing out the words, and he stopped dead in his tracks. The computers were calling to him, and so was his work shop, but Pepper just sat down in a chair in one of the lobby areas, her skirt starting to creep back up...
"Yes. Plans." He walked over to her and pulled her up. "I've got some lederhosen you can put on."
"Why on Earthy do you have lederhosen?" She asked with a laugh, and while he knew he had no chance of her wearing them, he might get her to try the German accent again.
Sophie rolled her eyes again at Hardison as they made their way to Stark Tower in the morning. "I stayed up for a week straight learning about architecture, and then he doesn't ask me a single question. I had Parker studying it with me, and I had to learn about engineering. Engineering!" he exclaimed, but Sophie knew it was more for show than anything. "Me and Parker, studying, while you went out for drinks with Pepper, and who knows what Eliot and Nate were doing. Eliot, by the way, who is supposed to be one of my interns, but didn't have to study at all!"
Sophie just laughed, partly due to Hardison complaining about studying when they both knew that he loved every second of learning something new and he definitely loved doing it with Parker (who was actually particularly apt at the design part of things), and partly because she remembered the look on Eliot's face when Nate told him that Hardison would be playing his boss.
"Oh, come off it, Hardison. You did really well. And it had to be you, because you had to be inside to get into the computer. And Nate's doing his..." she waved her hand. "Whatever it is that he does. And Eliot? Well, he's got our back. He'll fake it when it's necessary. But today it's just you and me. You've got this, yeah?"
He took a deep breath, and then nodded. "Yeah. Today it's just finding out what my crawlers have got, and meet some of the other people in the lab."
"And, you actually do have to run some tests on the alien armour, to maintain our cover."
He nodded, still looking a little nervous, but by this time they had reached the doors, and turned back into Cassandra and Mason.
It didn't take long before they were led up to one of the R&D labs, and Tony and Pepper were there waiting for him with another man who was slightly older and looked at them with a serene smile.
Pepper introduced them, and Sophie immediately liked Dr. Banner. "When he heard your ideas on using the debris as recycled materials, he couldn't wait to join in. He's familiar with the labs, and knows how to acquire any other machines or testing materials you may need."
Pepper then looked at Tony expectantly, as if he needed prompting. And he clearly did. "Ah yes. I'm here to welcome you officially, etc, etc" he waved a hand in the air like he could just push all those pleasantries along. "I'm interested to see what you find. I'll, uh, be checking in. Periodically. Because I'm curious."
Sophie studied him with concern. While it was clear he wasn't nervous, he was stumbling a bit over his words like he was being careful not to say something... and all the while Pepper was glaring at him, silently keeping him in check, ready to intervene at any point.
A quick and efficient knock at the door caught all their attention, and a petite woman with striking red hair entered the room holding a leather folder.
The young woman was gorgeous – anyone could tell that – but what caught the eye of Sophie was how she moved. Sure, she was wearing a pressed white button down shirt and heels that still did very little to her short stature, but she moved with the confidence of someone that was very aware of her surroundings and self, and with the athletic grace of someone that was both nimble and strong. The hairs on the back of Sophie's neck were standing straight up, but Hardison seemed unaware. Well, unaware of her danger. He was definitely aware of her beauty.
One thing was for sure, though. If Eliot was here, he would be telling them to run in the other direction, and fast.
"Mr. Stark," was all the woman said, and she greeted him with a brisk nod.
"Natalie!" Pepper exclaimed, either unaware of the woman's underlying power, or expecting it. "You brought those forms I asked about?"
"Ms. Rushman, is it?" Tony finally responded, and she gave him a passive glare.
"Just standard confidentiality clauses, non-competition agreements, and a release and waiver of liability."
"Of course," Sophie replied lightly, careful to keep the conversation normal. She glanced over the forms quickly and signed Cassandra's name to the bottom. "So, you work for Mr. Stark?"
Natalie's gaze was unblinking. "I work in the Legal Department."
The papers were handed over to Hardison who examined them a bit more closely, but Natalie's green eyes held her own dark ones. Her own advice to Hardison during the moon-walking-bear con came back to her now. Don't look away, but keep your eyes soft. You need to project strength but without challenging him.
Finally, Hardison broke the silence and Natalie smiled, gathering the papers and starting towards the exit. "Mr. Stark, Ms. Potts?" she asked, pausing to look back at them from the door.
Tony still looked a little shocked but a new anger was starting to bubble inside, while Pepper just looked... polite. Sophie always knew that Pepper was one of the most capable people she had ever met, but Sophie's respect for her just continued to grow. And she was still the epitome of professionalism, exchanging more pleasantries even as they left, following Natalie out the door.
Sophie let out a breath she didn't know she was holding, and turned to look at an oblivious Hardison and a quietly amused Dr. Banner.
"So," Dr. Banner started, with a small quirk of a smile, "she's really something, isn't she?"
Pepper watched the struggle between Tony and Natasha with both exasperation and amusement. She knew she probably should have told Tony that she called Natasha when he went back to look at the hacker's program after he couldn't sleep... but he was in one of his weird head spaces, and quite frankly, this was more fun.
"Pepper, what?" he asked her, when the three of them exited the room and closed the door. "You had to get SHIELD involved? He hasn't done anything yet, and this is definitely not SHIELD's type of problem –"
"I called her only to see if she knew anything about –"
"And out of all the SHIELD people, you called in Agent Romanov –"
"I just called for an opinion –"
"Aren't her qualifications a bit high for a hacker –"
"HEY!" Natasha shouted out, and the other two fell silent. "Pepper asked for my opinion and I gave it to her, and then decided to come and check it out for myself. Now, how well do you know them?"
Pepper answered. "We just met Mason yesterday, but we've worked with Cassandra off and on for years. She's got a great reputation, and comes very highly recommended." She paused, and felt almost like she had to defend the people she’d invited into the tower. "Cassandra and I have become friends. I had no reason to distrust her, and she may not even know what Mason has –"
"She knows." Pepper felt shock at Natasha's proclamation, and Natasha continued. "But she's good. Very good. Definitely a pro, but a professional what I'm not sure."
Tony had been silent for a while, and she turned to him for support. "Tony –"
"It's true. I can't believe I didn't put it together before. Of course..." and in typical Tony fashion, he started walking away, his mind moving a million miles a minute, and he didn't stop to let anyone else in.
Pepper and Natasha share a single look before chasing after him. "Tony, what are you talking about?"
"Before I switched to Paladium. I wanted to give away all my art, and I did, I gave away most of it."
"I know, Tony, I handled the charities, I even sold some of them through Cassandra."
"Yes, but not all of them, and I became CEO again before you finished." They rounded another corner and went into his office, where there were still a number of very beautiful, very expensive paintings still lining the room. "A bunch of the paintings came back. They were forgeries."
Natasha for once looked surprised, but Pepper was not. "Tony, back when you were still making weapons you had a bunch of con artists come through here, and you let them. You enjoyed it."
Tony shrugged. "It was fun. I usually threw them out before they could steal anything valuable."
"Look around, Tony! You don't think these are valuable?"
"Well, I'm sure they were valuable..."
Natasha finally joined back in, shutting down their argument. "If she's an art thief, then she already knows that you've given away all the valuable pieces. She's after something else, and she's had to get outside help. If she hired a hacker, then she wants something that's on the network. If she's as good as I think she is, she may have been hired by a third party, for a very large payout. She may not even know what she's been hired to steal, or its worth."
Pepper's head swivelled to Tony, who was now absently scratching his temple. "Tony, please tell me that –"
"No. All of the arc reactor and weapons technology is partitioned from the labs and business side of Stark Industries."
"That's not what she's worried about and you know it," Natasha said, and even Pepper was unnerved by the unnamed threat her in tone.
"Iron Man and all the Avengers Initiative information – it's all inaccessible. The servers aren't connected to each other, and the superhero data is all on an internal network, only accessible through certain very controlled workstations. They'll have no access to it."
Natasha opened her mouth and closed it again, but Pepper wouldn't let her get away with it. Besides, this was Natasha. She didn't let a vulnerability show unless she wanted it to.
"Natasha..." Pepper prompted.
She sighed. "It might be SHIELD. They might have hired a third party to do surveillance."
Tony smirked. "Oh, like you surveilled me?" And despite the seriousness of the situation, he got sidetracked. "Surveilled? Surveyed? Seriously, what's the past tense of that word?"
Natasha didn't look amused. "I only had you under surveillance —"
"—because we were afraid what you might do with your technology when you thought you were dying. Turns out, it was the right decision. And this is far more likely to be someone who is just after the Iron Man technology again, which you opened yourself up to."
Natasha and Tony glared at each other in a contest of wills, but Pepper was still concerned about the subject at hand and ignored their posturing. "So what do we do about them? Whether it's SHIELD or an art thief, their intentions are less than genuine. Should we kick them out?"
For once Tony looked at her like he didn't know, and they both swivelled back to Natasha. "Let them keep going. If your files are secure, then that's enough for now. Let them continue. Keep Bruce and Jarvis on them, and we will just have to be ready when they make their move."
Pepper was still concerned. "But what if they find what they're looking for?"
Natasha's voice was cold and calculating. "Then we'll catch them stealing it. And then we'll go after or confront the person or group that hired them to get it." She paused, and Pepper saw her lips turn a little, and she almost missed the ghost of smile. "We'll figure it out, Pepper."
"We?" she repeated, and this time Natasha's smile wasn't so much of a ghost.
"Don't let them know we're onto them. Cassandra is already suspicious of me so I'll be discreet, but I'll send in reinforcements." And with a quick nod at each of them, she moved out of the office faster than either could have matched, and she was gone.
Pepper and Tony exchanged looks, somewhat stunned by the turn of events, but also strangely excited. "So, Ms. Potts. Are you interested in spying on our new guests?"
She just shook her head.
Cassandra and Mason had been on site for a week now, though Natasha hadn't been able to check in with anyone since that first day. All reports from Banner said that they were smart, conscientious people that took pride in their work.
Mason was very smart and knew a lot about what he was talking about, even being boastful – if a little surprised – about some their accomplishments in the lab, and Cassandra managed him. She kept him and Bruce on task and relevant to the overall goal when they started to spiral into the more... well, the stuff that she didn't quite understand, nor did she have any desire to.
She was staring at the laptop screen, scanning through some security feeds of the two when she felt a brief breeze and heard a soft foot fall from behind her. Seeing the room's only door in front of her and the knowing the pattern of the steps, she wasn't at all surprised when Clint's soft breath went by her cheek as he stuck his head over her shoulder. "They still bugging you?"
She shifted away from him, shutting the computer as she went, and turning to face him. "You look tired."
"It was a rough mission," he said briefly as they stared at each other in their constant game of wills. "I like when you're dressed as the lawyer." She raised an eyebrow and he turned a corner of his mouth into a smile, content to lose that game, before sliding over to where she was sitting and reopening the laptop, Cassandra, Mason, and Bruce's images coming back up on the screen. "So, what's happening?"
She sat back next to him and gave him a rundown of what they knew so far, which wasn't much. There were the art thefts and the unauthorized software, but that was all they had. It didn't help that Pepper and Tony had been working on the rebuilding efforts all week and didn't have much time to devote to the mystery. That was why she had come back to it.
Clint was still as he watched the three of them move around the lab. "Do you think they have any idea who they're working with?"
"I don't know. But the woman is good at reading people. I saw her warning bells go off as soon as she met me."
Clint looked impressed, but then turned back to the screen. "Well, they're packing up for the day. Want to see where they go?"
Natasha gave him the once over. He was still dressed in his SHIELD uniform, complete with arm-guard and soft boots. His empty quiver and a duffel lay by his feet, and she picked up his duffel and threw it at him. "You have two minutes to change. Don’t stand out."
When he caught the bag he let out an oomph, but she knew he was just doing it for show. She cracked a smile but raised her eyebrow again all the same, and broke into a full smile when he retreated to the washroom to clean up, looking slightly abashed.
Five minutes later he was dressed business casual to match the lawyer persona, and they each had matching messenger bags full of whatever spy equipment Natasha had managed to get over the past few minutes. However, it was her, so he wouldn't have been surprised if they could live on the run with the bags for months. He briefly peered into his, and was slapped on the hand for his curiosity. It was probably for the best, knowing the kinds of dangerous equipment that Nat regularly brought with her. Still, he liked the way her brow furrowed just the tiniest bit when he was annoying her.
They arrived in the lobby just in time to see Cassandra and Mason leave by the front doors, and they easily followed, staying back quite a distance and not drawing any attention to themselves. They hung back when the others slowed down; they ducked into a coffee shop when Mason pulled out a phone and they turned to face each other. They stuck to the other side of the street when it suited them better.
"Anything?" Clint finally mumbled to Nat, not wanting to distract her before then, but still not knowing what he was looking for.
He felt Natasha shrug beside him. "Cassandra touches the hair on her right side a lot, by her ear, but..."
When she trailed off he followed her gaze to the new person in their little party: a skinny blond girl that looked about Mason's age. "Girlfriend?" Clint said, and sure enough Mason tucked his arm around her before they ducked into a usually very busy and high end hotel that had been seriously degraded after the attacks.
They both immediately stopped and while Clint immediately turned his gaze skyward, Natasha pulled out a small laptop computer. "They didn't hide where they were staying. I got the blue prints to the hotel this morning in case we needed them, and I found out from a staff member that they've got a block of rooms booked on the east side..." and then she gazed upwards too.
"There," he pointed to the building with the best shot. "You got a floor number?"
He let Natasha take the lead and soon they were inside an office building and peering over the street and into the window of a hotel room that looked... well, not very much like a hotel room anymore. As she assembled something from her bag, he pulled out the scope he had tucked into a holster on his belt. The room had been done up like a war room, with large white boards and he could just see the edge of what he believed to be an array of TVs against the perpendicular wall.
He heard the very faint whirring sound of something electrical being started up and was only slightly surprised to Natasha assembling a parabolic microphone and cables that hooked back into the small laptop. He turned back to the room while she continued to assemble her equipment. From what he could see, Cassandra, Mason, and the new blonde girl met a fourth man in the room. He looked bit older than Cassandra and was tall and lanky, but Clint had never seen him before.
The man started talking once the four of them got in the room and settled, all facing the screens that were just out of view. He swore under his breath. If only he could get a better angle...
Just then the microphone started working and the unknown man's voice came out clearly from the laptop speakers. "So we're nowhere?"
"Well," Mason said, holding a small keyboard. "We do know quite a bit about the material properties of the alien skeletons, but..."
"I thought you had connections, Sophie. That once you were in this would be easy."
Clint's focus in the binoculars followed the question to the blonde, but he was startled to hear Cassandra answer. "Nate," she whined, and managed to make his name into two syllables. "We've been stuck in the lab the entire week. And other than Dr. Banner and the security people that escort us to and from the lab, we haven't interacted with anyone else since the first day."
"And you haven't seen the lawyer again? The one that you –"
"The one that I said was not a lawyer? No. We haven't seen her again, and quite frankly I'm okay with that."
The man that they now knew was named Nate turned to Mason. "Hardison, still nothing?"
"Nah, man. I mean, I got a map of where the drives are located, but there is no sensitive data on that network. If we want to get what we need, we need to hard wire in from somewhere that we don't have access to. And the Doc's with us all the time. I think it's time for Parker."
Nate nodded and the blonde girl looked gleeful, and Clint turned to Natasha. "Sophie? Hardison? Who are these people?"
Natasha shrugged and then tuned back into the room as Hardison / Mason started talking again. "What about you, Nate? You and El find anything in Harlem?"
For the first time he and Nat realized there was a fifth person in the room as the other four turned and glanced the person that would have been the against the wall, beside the window. The microphone barely picked up the soft voice, but he and Natasha froze.
It was almost like the feeling that he associated with the moment right before Thor swung his hammer where the air felt charged and you knew something big was coming. Half the words were indistinguishable but the voice and cadence were unmistakable – and when the long haired man came into view, there was no doubt that whatever these people were up to was not going to be good.
He couldn't tear his eyes away from the man that was saying something about a university, and he couldn't even concentrate on the words. Instead, his entire focus was set on the man that should have been dead, or in jail, or been paying in some other way for his many sins. It was finally Natasha that spoke and broke him from his spell, with the simple admission that she had seen the same thing he did. "Eliot Spencer. Well I'll be damned."
Hardison was currently huddled over some squiggly lines produced by some machine that had to do with something about the "tensile strength" with Dr. Banner and they both looked excited, but Sophie really had no idea what they were going on about. Still, she enjoyed watching the two of them work together. Dr. Banner ('Bruce', he had requested softly, but she liked the way his eyes lit up when she called him 'Doctor') had brought out something in Hardison that she didn't normally get to see, and she was enjoying it.
She turned back to her project: since she was supposed to be an artist, she was making art. Or, in any case, it was going to be art. At the very least it was going to pretend to be art. Right now it was just a bunch of sketches on paper with the materials nearby. No. If the pieces were actually going to get assembled, she was going to need Parker.
As if on cue, the voice she was waiting for sounded in her ear. "They just gave me my badge, and I'm being escorted to the lab." Sophie locked eyes with Hardison quickly, and he went back to talking with Dr. Banner, clinging to his cover. Even though they were there just for access, Sophie observed that he was really quite enjoying himself. It was hard not to get pulled in by Dr. Banner's enthusiasm for everything in the lab, even though his excitement always hid just below the surface, always bubbling, never erupting.
There weren't many people that she instinctively liked, but his self assured awkwardness was something that he embraced. He always sort of shuffled as if he didn't want to get noticed, and he used sarcasm to deflect any real questions about his life. She had seen his type before: there were some people that were just so smart that they had trouble relating to the rest of the world, but when they found that person that they connected with, it was like stepping into the sun.
They were the easiest marks but the ones she hated conning the most.
Still, there was something about him that bothered her slightly – the flip side to the awkward man in front of her was the men that were so smart that they also had a fair amount of cockiness to them, much like Tony Stark – but there was none of that in his personality at all. There was something about his humbleness that impressed her – and maybe that was what worried her. She wasn't easily impressed.
A man in a suit and with an earpiece himself opened the door and let Parker in, and Sophie could see her already searching for the air ducts. "Not yet, Parker," she murmured under her breath and Parker made a face in response; the air ducts in this room were huge.
"Dr. Banner," Sophie started, and when he looked up, he had that sort of serene smile on his face again. "I'd like to introduce you to Alice White, one of our interns."
He put out his hand and Parker went over to shake it, but when they touched he said politely, "I thought the interns were his interns."
Sophie could see a flash of fear cross Hardison's face, but he was behind Dr. Banner, so she quickly jumped in. "Most of the time they are, but I like to steal Alice whenever I can – she's an excellent welder." He seemed to be placated, and Parker shook his hand – stumbling slightly on the way – before making her way to Sophie with a smile on her face.
Sophie groaned internally, and positioned herself so that she was between Hardison and her work, and Parker came up beside her. "I'll give it back," Parker responded to the unasked question, and she thumbed through his wallet. "He doesn't have an address, or ID. That's weird, right? No ID?"
She passed Sophie the wallet and she took a look herself. There wasn't much inside the wallet at all – a couple bucks, a pre-paid credit card with no name attached to it, a couple receipts for some restaurants nearby... and that was it. "Put it back, Parker. Quickly. There's something very not right here."
Sophie watched off a reflection as Parker expertly returned the wallet, also taking the time to let Hardison show off some of his findings, although Sophie could tell that while Parker could have probably held her own in the experiments and science talk, she was already bored.
"Alice," Sophie interrupted. "I've got something for you to work on here." She watched as Parker bounded back to her and she let out a slow breath. There was nothing they could do until they were alone, and that didn't seem like it was happening any time soon.
As much as Bruce knew he was put in this lab to spy on this group, he really wasn't kept in the loop. He knew that Clint and Natasha had done their own reconnaissance on them yesterday – he was able to piece that much together from the questions they asked him last night – but if there was supposed to be something in particular that he was looking for, well, he had no idea. As far as he could tell, they seemed both nice and smart, and good at their jobs.
That aside, Bruce noted the new girl with confusion. For someone who was supposed to be working for Mason, she didn't seem to actually have any interest in repurposed materials, even as much as Mason was trying to engage her in the conversation. No, she flitted back and forth between her two bosses as if nothing was quite holding her focus – until Cassandra gestured over to the blowtorch and they started discussing the sketches done earlier. Then her expression was gleeful.
Bruce snuck a peak over at Mason, and sure enough, he had abandoned his own studies in front of him to watch her work. "So," Bruce said calmly, with his usual aloofness. "Are you two...?" He trailed off and was amused by Mason's reaction.
"What? Me and... nah, that would be... you know, because she works for me and stuff, and..." he had trailed off and sort of brushed his nose with his thumb. "And, uh, you know, with the, uh, work, and the –"
Bruce studied the man as he was trying to cover something up... so it was either that they were already together and trying to hide it, or that he was embarrassed about liking her. Maybe. Or maybe this was all part of whatever they were doing in this building in the first place. He really wasn't any good at the spy stuff. "And she's totally out of your league?" he tried.
Mason's looked... relieved. Maybe. "Yeah. I mean... look at her."
Bruce followed his gaze as she reached for a welder's helmet, and he could see what the other man was talking about. He cleared his throat. "Anyway," he said, gesturing back to the data they were supposed to analysing, and he was grateful when Mason turned back with him, even though he caught him looking at her several more times throughout the morning.
It was almost lunch when they were interrupted by a knock on the door and Steve poked his head through. "Dr. Banner," he said with a nod, addressing him formally in front of their guests.
He was about to respond back with Captain before he stopped himself. Cassandra looked almost a little too eager to hear what he was about to say, so instead he just nodded with a distracted, "yeah?"
He was aware of Steve's inquisitive look, and how he looked almost hurt at not being introduced. Bruce sighed. "Everyone, this is Steve Rogers. He, uh," his hand absently went to scratch the back of his head. "Works here too."
Steve's smile was out in full force again, and Bruce took quick measure of the rest of the people in the room. Cassandra was touching her hair as if she couldn't help but want to primp front of him. Mason had his eyes narrowed towards the Captain in an unfriendly manner, and when Bruce followed his gaze back he understood why: the Captain was very clearly, and very obviously, checking out Alice.
Alice, as she was with Mason, seemed completely unaware of the attraction.
Mason started to move and Bruce figured he should intervene before the tension got too high in there. "Steve, a word?"
They exited the room and went around to the side with the large windows, so they could still keep an eye on their guests. "So, that's them?" Steve asked, when they could see them clearly again.
They both glanced through the window at the three of them, who had abandoned their work to come close to talk to each other.
Bruce nodded. "Yeah, they... they're good. I mean, Mason and Cassandra at least. I don't know anything about Alice yet."
Steve looked through the window at her and smiled. "Let's go get lunch. It would be a good idea to take them out of the lab and assess the threat level and their interactions in an unfamiliar setting."
"Uh, sure, but..."
"Good." Steve was already back into the lab and asking them all to a diner down the block before Bruce had a chance to object. Still, he had better take precautions. "Jarvis?" He called out tentatively, and the AI responded. "Can you tell Tony and Pepper, and Natasha if she's around that Steve is taking our guests to lunch, and maybe to... send backup?"
Hardison studied the interloper suspiciously. Sure, the guy was tall, and pretty fit, and had some pretty defined features... no, he had learned his lesson on that. He wasn't jealous. Nope. He just... didn't know how Parker would react to Steve's flirting. Yeah, that's why he was watching them interact. Sure.
He should have known that Parker wouldn't have even acknowledged it. She probably didn't even know he was flirting with her.
The company they kept was interesting enough before they met up with Pepper and Natalie in the lobby, with Pepper apologizing that Tony wanted to come, but couldn't because he was in his penthouse doing some research and, well, apparently they should know how he gets.
So the seven of them walked to a cafe that had only mostly been destroyed. "It used to have the nicest patio," Steve had been saying to Parker as they sat down at one of the large fold out tables that had been put out in place of the previously intimate settings. "Well, the building used to have a front to it as well. The only that's left of this place is the kitchen. But that's all we need, right?" He smiled at Parker as she unintentionally ignored him, focusing on Natalie instead.
"That's smart," Parker said to her, and Hardison didn't actually know what she was talking about, and he had no idea if Natalie was following along either... but then Parker pointed to her wrists and Natalie's face flashed something else for a micro second before composing herself once more.
Steve gestured at an open table and Hardison took a corner seat with Pepper sitting next to him with a genuine smile, and he couldn't help but smile back, even when he saw that Steve had failed at orchestrating the seating plan so he could sit next to Parker. Grimacing, Steve sat across from her instead.
Even after all this time of working with Sophie he still wasn't great at reading people, but this particular group made it easy. While everyone else got comfortable and chatted around him, he most stayed silent and amused himself by watching their interactions.
Sophie was playing the part of art dealer and socialite very well and seemed to be having a great time talking with Pepper, but was still trying to avoid interactions with Natalie. Parker – for whatever reason, seemed to be fascinated with Natalie, who was doing HER best to ignore the girl she knew as Alice, but she somehow ended up sitting next to anyway. Steve was trying to flirt with Alice, but all his pick-up lines ended up sounding like something from those films that his Nana tried to get him to watch growing up – and Parker was again oblivious. And to top it all off, the waitress seemed to want to flirt with Steve, who had no idea how to interact with her at all.
He caught the eye of Bruce and he could see they shared the amusement. "People, right?" Hardison offered, and Bruce smiled. Their food started arriving and Hardison decided that if he wasn't going to be social, he could at least tell the scientist about a thought he had on the walk over when Bruce's spine straightened and his shoulders went rigid.
"Cap?" Bruce said as he made a face like the word slipped out involuntarily, and Hardison followed Bruce's eyes across the table to Steve. The table immediately grew quiet. Natalie had previously been leaning across the table to cut off Parker and talk to Pepper but she straightened looked like she was about to pounce, and Steve turned around in his seat to see what made Bruce respond like that.
Hardison had been so focused on watching them react that he almost didn't turn around to look at what was behind him... and once he did, he kind of wished he hadn’t.
The dozen large men dressed in some sort of protective suit walking together in an almost addled state towards the table may have been cause for concern on their own, but what really alarmed Hardison were the spear type objects that they were holding with their heavily protected hands that, well...
They were glowing. The bright blue seemed almost hypnotizing in its almost unnoticeable rhythmic pulsing. The men all seemed to stop on command and he was about to pull out his computer to search for other communication signals when something far more pressing came about: the men adjusted the spears into a position that made Hardison realise that they weren't just spears, no. They were also some sort of firing device.
The rational side of his brain protested that these things looked like props from a science fiction movie, not something that would be a threat to him at this instant, here, in this plaza, where he was just trying to have lunch – but even before that thought fully formed he remembered that the plaza had been destroyed because that's exactly the type of world they were living in now.
At this point, despite the struggle his rational brain was having with accepting the situation, he could feel the survival instincts taking over – and all this had happened in the seconds it took for the spears to be moved into place.
"Get DOWN!" he heard Natalie scream before the first burst of blue -- well, he didn't know what it was, but it came out of the end of the spear and blew up the chair that Natalie had just jumped from. Bruce had grabbed Sophie and had pulled her down under the table and Parker had already disappeared, but Pepper had all her attention on rummaging for her phone, and didn't see the second man take aim.
Without a though, Hardison grabbed Pepper around the waist and launched himself backwards just in time to see the spot where Pepper had been sitting explode from another jet of blue. The energy from the blast carried them up into the air he felt like he was flying. The concrete loomed behind him but he instead crashed through another table, it breaking the fall (and probably a few ribs) and letting him avoid hitting his head on the unforgiving ground. The relief, though, was short lived as Pepper landed on his chest, knocking the wind out of him and moving his body with his arm trapped under the rubble.
The choked breath he took forcing air back into his lugs felt like it was lighting his chest on fire and the slight movement of his shoulder made stars flash behind his eyes. Yep. His left shoulder was definitely dislocated. A quick assessment told him that other than his shoulder and ribs he was fine, but his earbud had come out during the fall.
By the time he caught his breath, Steve was turning the table on its side to provide for a shelter, Pepper had recovered and was removing her four-inch pumps, he could hear distant screams of the other people that were in the plaza, Parker was making her way over where he and Pepper had landed, and the third man was taking aim.
Hardison was still flat on his back but he looked widely about and spied a large concrete planter behind Pepper – in fact it was the first one in a row of evenly spaced planters that lead away from the courtyard. Parker had almost made it to his location and Steve had taken a large serving plate from the debris around the table and was firing it like a Frisbee at the man who was taking aim at Parker...
And Hardison breathed out a sigh of relief as the man was struck in the head causing the blast to go wide, and then the man's eye's rolled back in his head and he collapsed.
Parker and Pepper helped Hardison up and with barely a head-nod to the planter, Parker understood and lead them all there. "You okay?" she whispered to him, her hands urgently checking his head, torso and legs as he collapse behind the concrete wall, gasping when she touches his arms just causing himself further harm. Her hands jumped back and she was staring at his shoulder with wide eyes.
"I'm fine," he stressed, trying to alleviate his own fears as much as hers, but she pulled out a scarf that and Sophie had been wearing earlier and made a sling to immobilize his arm.
"I thought you might have been bleeding," she said, and he could almost detect a bit of disappointment in her voice mixed in with the worry.
"There, all better," he said, and gave her a brave smile. He turned to Pepper. "Tony?" he asked, but she shook her head. He rubbed his right hand over his face and paused at his ear, hoping that Parker got his meaning. He had another earbud in his pocket but it wasn't going to do him any good until he had a minute to get it, preferably when Pepper wasn't watching. "If only there was someone that could call him for some backup."
She got the meaning immediately. "Yes," she repeated in a wooden voice. "If only there was someone with a phone that could call Stark Industries and get Iron Man to save us from these twelve men with blue glow-y weapons." Her eyes looked to the side and her delivery would have been comical if not for the situation they were in. A second later she nodded, and he sighed in relief.
Pepper peeked out from behind the planter and it seemed that she took stock of the situation. A fourth blast was heard and she ducked back to them. "There are other customers still out there, we have to help them."
"Where?" Parker responded, her eyes fiery and her body already ready to spring.
He expected Pepper to dismiss Parker, but she clearly saw that Parker was someone that she could use in this situation. Pepper answered with the precise instructions that told Hardison that she'd done this before, and Hardison was surprised that he didn't give her the proper credit she deserved much earlier. She was, after all, Iron Man's girlfriend. This type of situation was probably routine for her. "Three people hiding behind a table 6 feet up and 8 feet over. There's broken glass just on the other side of the planter." While he was still taking stock of his injuries and trying not to move, they were in the next stages of planning. "There," Pepper pointed, in the same direction as the rest of the planters. "Around that corner there's another courtyard with more and bigger concrete objects. Lots of room to hide and we won't get boxed in."
He could almost see Parker drawing the map in her head as she listened to Pepper and he thought she was completely in her heist planning mode, but an errant hand reached over and had gripped his good one. He squeezed it tight as Parker once again awkwardly repeated the instructions of where they were going, knowing that this time they were for Eliot's benefit. "Hey," he said when Parker finished. "I'll meet you there."
It looked like Parker was struggling with what to say to him, but instead of settling on something that might sound too much like goodbye, she kissed him hard and fast and just as the next blast exploded somewhere on the other side of the plaza, and with a whisper of "for luck," she dove forward to help the people that were in more danger than he was.
He had lost track of what was happening with the others while he was immobile behind the planter, but Pepper had again peeked out from their hiding spot taken control of the situation. "The others are still fine. Whoever those men are, they're spreading out, and coming in this direction, but they're moving slowly. Mason," she said, and he had to remind himself that she was speaking to him. "There are other customers we can collect on our way to the plaza. Are you ready?"
He pushed himself up with one hand and nodded. He may have been injured, but he was going to get to that plaza and help as many people as he could until Eliot showed up and got them all to safety, and Iron Man showed up and blasted these guys out of the park all-together.
Natasha had been the first target of the blue weapons, and had it had been anyone else she was pretty confident that they wouldn't have gotten out of the way in time. Even then, she was impressed with Mason's quick thinking in grabbing Pepper – they were the only two still out in the open and were clearly where the second blast was going to go. Natasha had been convinced that she was going to have to explain to Tony Stark why his girlfriend was dead.
But that wasn't her biggest fear anymore. No. It wasn't for the people that were wielding what Steve had called Hydra weapons before, either. Sure, they were large and menacing and the weapons were terrifying, but they looked like they were normal people, acting under the influence of the Tessaract again. She could recognize that glassy look in their eyes anywhere. But no, that was not her fear.
Steve had just flipped over the table to protect Alice and Cassandra and was doing an admirable job of making the blasts not get their intended target. He, however, was missing the biggest threat.
She launched herself back behind the table to the far end and came beside a Bruce that had his eyes clenched shut and was breathing heavily, crouched on all fours. Her mind flashed to the helicarrier, and while she knew that he had better control now and that he was doing so much better, this was still not the best time to let the other guy loose. There were civilians all around, and even politically it could be catastrophic for him – never mind the fact that she still didn't know what Cassandra and the Hacker were up to.
"Bruce," she said calmly, curling one leg beneath her. He didn't respond. "Bruce, I'm going to touch you on the shoulder," she warned him, and then followed through. She had lost track of where Cassandra and Steve had gone, but she had seen Alice run across an opening a moment before, waiting for the moment of calm just after a blast. Good. All of her previous misgivings about the girl were gone and she was just thankful she could take care of Pepper and Mason. "Bruce," she repeated again, softly and calmly, despite the screaming and explosions around them. "Sit down. You're okay."
He was still breathing heavily, but he let her guide him into a sitting position, his eyes still clenched shut. "Bruce," she said again, hoping that he would anchor himself to his name. "Look at me. Open your eyes."
Her hand was still on his shoulder and she wrapped it around his neck at the back. "I'm right here, Bruce, open your eyes." When he finally did she could see the fear deep inside of them, but his breathing had begun to even out. She stared him right in the eye, even leaning forward into him. "I'm not leaving you, Bruce, you can do this."
They stared at each other, a single vision of quiet and still in the middle of chaos and he nodded, even cracking a bit of a smile. "Let's get out of here, shall we?" he asked, just as if he was bored at dinner, and she smiled.
"Yeah." She looked around quickly and located Cassandra a few tables back. She had made her way to where some other customers had gotten hurt, and Steve was finding as many serving trays he could to throw at the men, and she could see that he was severely missing his shield. "Can you get to Cassandra?" she asked him and he nodded. "Good. Get them out of here, and then you get away from the excitement, okay?"
He barely nodded before he was gone, reaching Cassandra and the hurt civilians, and pulling them to safety.
She turned back to the fight, and after seeing that Steve had already knocked out four of the men on his own, their spears rolling around useless on the ground, she chased after the six that had their sights on Pepper.
Her widow's bite wasn't much use against the protective suits, and she had to be careful not to touch the spears when fighting, but they were slow moving under the force of the Tesseract and she was inside the range of the explosive powers of the spears. Three had taken her on, and the remaining three continued around the corner, where she didn't see what happened to them. It didn't take her long to get three good punches to the head, and by then Steve had taken care of his remaining two.
It was just as she had taken a protective glove to trap a spear that was starting to roll away did she hear the familiar sound of Tony's suit flying through the air. He made a loop through the courtyard around the corner that most of the civilians had made their way to, and landed beside her.
His face shield popped up as he comically looked around at the mayhem. "What, you couldn't save some for me?"
Sophie had been giving Eliot instructions in his ear the whole time: how the weapons seemed to work, how to incapacitate the goons, and when there was going to be a new bunch of people coming around the corner that needed rescuing. He had just taken out two of the operators when Iron Man himself seemed to stop briefly at the top of one of the buildings surrounding the courtyard, and then flew around a few times before rounding the corner out of site.
Eliot had backed the third man up against the boarded up shop at the far side of the courtyard when he realised his mistake. One of the wounded women from the plaza had taken refuge there, behind that concrete bench. The man raised the spear and while he was too close to his target to use the jet stream of blue... whatever that was... the spear itself could still do a lot of harm...
Eliot saw no choice. The only way to stop the spear from coming down on the already wounded woman was to get in the way of the spear itself. He was about to make his move...
And then an arrow pierced through the man's protective gear, missing his flesh, but pinning him to the plywood behind him. Eliot didn't waste time, then, looking for the sniper that he knew he wouldn't be able to see, and took his opportunity, crashing the man's head against the wall behind, and watching him collapse.
The battle was done and he spied Hardison, Parker, and Sophie walking to an ambulance that had finally arrived. He overheard Pepper say to Sophie to take care of themselves tonight and to come back to Stark Tower in the morning, and Sophie agree.
Some of the people in hiding were starting to come back out, now, and he knew it would only be a matter of time before someone came looking for the final weapon and bad guy. "Sophie," he muttered while turning and walking away from the rubble. "I gotta go check on something. I'll see you back at the hotel later tonight."
Eliot looked in the reflection of the glass at street level, checking the positions of the people around him. He barely needed to think about it anymore. He just did it. Always checking, always careful. This time however, he wanted to be seen.
He kept his earbud in until he knew that everyone was okay, but he needed quiet in his head for a few minutes. He didn't mention it to the team, but he swore that he’d recognized something from the battle. He didn't want to mention it to them yet, not when he wasn't sure...
He grunted to himself. Of course he was sure. There was no one else that could have hit that target from that far away. Only him.
Eliot's hair brushed in front of his face and normally he liked it. It hid him from the people that he was trying to avoid, the co-workers-turned-enemies when he left them behind. But today, he needed to be seen. He needed his attention.
He brushed his hair out from in front of his face and looked towards the sky, scanning the roof tops and windows. He didn't expect to see him. He never did. But still, he hoped he was there.
He had walked to the other side of Manhattan where the people weren't cowering inside or hiding from the unknown assailants, and he finally found a good spot.
Eliot entered the dark bar and aimed his seat at the door hoping that the adjustment from the bright outdoors to the dark bar could give him a millisecond of advantage, if it was needed. Instead, the shape came from behind, and nimbly sat in the seat at the end of the table – the one with clear sightlines of the entire bar and the two exits. Dammit. He didn't expect him to come through the kitchen. Still, the other seat was harder to get out of, so he still felt like made the better choice.
The man sat perfectly still and their eyes bore into each other, each examining the other man, noticing each other's taunt muscles and hidden weapons. Finally Eliot blinked. If the other man wanted him dead, it wasn't going to be from close combat.
Eliot nodded and signalled for the bartender who deposited two beer bottles on the table, which Clint immediately grabbed. "There's not many people who can say that they've had a beer with Eliot Spencer," Clint said casually. "Especially ones with our type of history."
"A lot more now than before, Barton."
The other man barely blinked, but pulled from his beer anyway, and Eliot knew that he would be the one that would have to speak first. Barton was just like that. He watched and waited for whatever was needed to come to him. "You were in the battle," Eliot said finally. "The one that destroyed New York."
Eliot was baiting Barton, and he could see that Barton knew it, still, he played along. "The one that saved New York. Probably a lot more, too."
Eliot was getting tired of this. This was the game for Nate and Sophie. He hated the veiled threats and plays on words. He just wanted to get answers to his questions – but he actually hadn't asked any questions yet. The others didn't know he was here... so what did he want to know?
"A lot of people think that we never would have gotten attacked in the first place if we hadn't demonstrated the ability to fight back," Eliot finally stammered through, copying what he once heard Hardison go on length about. "Super soldiers, Tony's suit... The Hulk."
Eliot examined Barton as he said those words, and he noticed the tiniest bit of a reaction, but he really didn't know how to interpret it. Dammit. He needed Sophie for this... but there was no way he would put her in this kind of harm's way.
While he was debating what to say next in his head, Barton initiated the conversation for the first time. "I saw you fight those guys before, with the spears. You were good."
"Yeah, well, couldn't let them go and hurt innocent people."
"Really? You're concerned about innocence?"
He could feel his body tensing and he could see that Barton could tell he was reacting. "Things've changed. I don't do that anymore, you get that? I'm in the business of helping people now. I know you get that."
"Yeah, well, forgive me if we're still a little wary." He paused to take another sip of his beer. "Why are you here, Spencer?"
Eliot finally sat back. "Got a job here. Have a client who was screwed by someone more powerful than him, and I'm trying to make it right."
Barton was studying him – he could feel it. He was content to wait it out, but then something that Barton said struck him. "If we're a little wary?" he quoted. "Who's we?"
Clint was silent, and Eliot could almost see the frustration on his face for letting something out that he shouldn't have, and things started to fall into place. "You're working for SHIELD again, aren't you?"
Barton cracked a smile. "Sometimes. When it suits me."
"And when it doesn't?"
"Whoever's the group of people that are doing the most amount of good."
Eliot paused. "You've changed."
"So have you."
He nodded and they assessed each other. He watched Clint drink more of his beer, not on edge, but not comfortable either. "So, we good?"
Clint put his bottle on the table and looked conflicted. "Me and you? Right now? Yeah. We're good. But if you – you or your people cause problems – then no. We are not okay. It's up to you how you want to keep it. And know that things might be more than what they seem." And with that, he got up from the table and walked towards the back entrance, sending a "thanks for the drink" over his shoulder just before he went out of earshot.
Eliot sat at the table for another five minutes before he pulled the earbud out of his pocket and murmured, "guys, we need to talk. We might be blown."
Clint was on Eliot's tail the second he left the bar. After their... well, it wasn't quite a confrontation, but after their discussion he thought he may have sent the team into hiding, but Eliot just went back to the hotel.
Clint went back up to the office where they had spied on them before, and wasn't at all surprised to see Natasha there, waiting for him. "Did he say anything interesting?"
Clint didn't even try hiding where he went, and he shrugged. "It's Spencer."
He could tell that Natasha knew that there was more, but she left it at that, reconnecting the parabolic microphone to the computer. "He just got here, and started checking for surveillance in the room." Clint knew that they hadn't risked putting anything inside, knowing that if they moved they might not even have the vantage that they had now.
They waited quietly until the other four people showed up in the room, the man they had referred to has Hardison being guided by the girl they called Parker, with his arm in a sling and a glassy look in his eyes.
They watched as Eliot delicately checked out Hardison's injuries, finally deeming the work the hospital did satisfactory. "You okay?" he had asked him, clutching the man's good arm.
The other man nodded and Clint and Natasha exchanged a look. Was Eliot Spencer actually concerned about a teammate?
"You care about us," Clint offered to her, but she ignored him, turning back to their targets.
The tall man once again took charge. "Eliot, you said that we're blown. What happened?"
Eliot outlined the conversation in far greater detail than Clint just did, and everyone listened. "But Sophie," he finally finished, "I don't know what his relationship is with Tony Stark. After you guys worked at getting people out safely, they might trust you more. This could lead to the info we need."
It seemed that even though Nate was clearly the leader, she had control of this operation. "Then I say we show up tomorrow, just like we told Pepper we would. Eliot, you and Nate be close in case we need an extraction, but I think we have to follow this through."
And with that, she left with Nate, and Eliot and Parker turned to tend to Hardison's drooping eyelids.
Natasha had the rest of the equipment put back away by the time he had realized that they weren't going to talk about it again for the rest of the night. "What now?"
"Now we plan."
Pepper was nervous. She knew that Clint, Tony, Steve, and Bruce were all watching the feeds from the security room they had just set up and that even if these people were dangerous, she was in no real danger. Intellectually she knew this. She did. But actually executing the plan that had been hatched the night before just felt wrong.
Mason had saved her life and endangered his own. Cassandra was her friend. And maybe they had stolen from Tony and had sinister intentions, but every fibre in her being was telling her that there was something else going on.
She watched them enter Stark Tower and she didn't have to fake the smile she gave them. Cassandra looked around with interest – barely any staff were in the lobby when normally the place was buzzing with activity. "Everyone else is helping with the clean-up and debrief today, which is actually where I need to take you."
Pepper had been directed to lead them to a conference room on the main floor immediately as per the plan, but she turned to Mason before continuing. "Thank you for pulling me out of the way," she said to him. She needed to get that out before whatever happened next, and she was rewarded with what she thought was a real smile.
"Hey, just doing what anyone would do."
Sadly, from personal experience she knew that wasn't the case, but she pushed that thought away. There were other things at work now.
The room was extremely large with doors at each end, and remnants of some sort of technical presentation strewn about. She could see that Hardison was fascinated by all the clutter, but she was focused on other matters.
There was something wrong. Sophie knew it, but she couldn't figure out what, nor what she was supposed to do about it. They were being led through exactly the sort of debriefing she was expecting from Pepper and Natalie, and she, Hardison and Parker were answering as much as they could without giving anything away. They left out the parts about the earbuds and Sophie seeing Natalie fight like an expert. She had just told them how Dr. Banner managed to save those people that were injured, and then they escorted them to safety.
It should have been enough, but somehow, it wasn't. Maybe Eliot was right, that whoever the man was from Eliot's past was somehow working with these people, that he had warned them that they were not who they said they were.
But how much did they know? Did they know anything at all? Pepper seemed genuinely happy to see them this morning. She knew Pepper was capable, but was she that good of an actress?
Pepper started outlining safety protocols in case an attack happened again when her first tell showed, and Sophie had to interject. "Sorry, but do we expect another attack in the near future?"
Pepper looked at Natalie as if she held the answers, but responded instead. "We believe that it was the first attack in many that will be happening over the next few days, and since we think it was targeted..."
Sophie narrowed her eyes suspiciously but she heard Hardison and Parker both shift nervously beside her. They believed her and she couldn't figure out why she didn't...
And then as if it was on cue, the door exploded behind Pepper, and an object that looked like a cross between Hammer's rogue drones and that thing that had been photographed in the New Mexico desert the previous year.
They all ducked in surprise and Natalie and Pepper screamed perhaps a little too convincingly. She turned around to look at the door behind her – but one of the pieces from the explosion had lit a large drafters' pad of paper on fire in their path. They were effectively trapped.
In a mirror of what happened yesterday, Natalie and Pepper ran to their side of the table and they hid behind it before a project easel exploded too.
Wait, the easel had exploded? She surveyed the room. There were plenty of small objects that the machine could target its fire power before turning to them, but why would the machine target the inanimate objects instead of the people that were running? Another object exploded, and for all the show, none of the projectiles actually did any damage. And the fire was orange, not blue.
Eliot was already in her ear telling her to hold on, that he was coming to help soon, and she frantically whispered no but her pleas were unheeded.
Beside her, Natalie showed none of the expertise she displayed yesterday, though Pepper still managed to seem both genuinely frightened and in planning mode, rummaging again for a cell phone that was just out of reach, and giving Natalie some sort of directions that she's sure Natalie didn't need.
Parker and Hardison were arguing, and she tuned in just long enough to realize that they too had missed her plea to stop. "It's just a machine!" Parker was protesting over the noise of the small explosions. "Can't you stop it? Just –" she waved her hands at Hardison. "Hack into it!"
"Hack into -- hack into it?" he cried back at her. "You think it's connected to the internet? You see a USB port? No worries, because this thing's got Bluetooth!"
"Mason!" Sophie exclaimed, trying to derail their debate before they blew their cover even more, but Hardison seemed to have forgotten his name. And anyway, it was too late to stop everyone from falling into the trap, because Eliot had arrived at the door.
Natasha surveyed the damage around the room. When they were developing the plan, they didn't actually think that Spencer would be able to rip the head right off the drone, though she had warned them that it was a possibility. Still, Tony told her that it didn't matter, as long as it wasn't taking fire at that exact moment.
Well, the resounding explosion that happened right after he entered the room told her that he did exactly that. While they had planned on a simple exposure and confrontation once they drew Spencer out of hiding, instead there were eleven people in the room staring daggers at each other while Eliot corralled his people behind him despite the burn on his arm.
For a brief second she actually wanted to see what Eliot in top form could do when fighting Steve, but she pushed that thought away. With Hardison and Eliot both facing injuries, this was not the time or place for a battle. "I think it's time to come clean," she said calmly. "This has gone far enough."
She was surprised when it was Cassandra – no, Sophie – that spoke up first, and even more with how angry her voice was. "You couldn't have exposed us without endangering all of our lives?"
Nate put his hand on her arm to stop her, and Natasha cut her off before she could continue. "You're right. It was a bad plan. There were other ways of doing this." She caught Tony almost protesting out of the corner of her eye before Pepper stopped him. Great. He wasn't going to stay placated for long.
Before Natasha started again, Pepper stepped up to where she was standing, almost creating a shield between the imposters and Tony as if that would keep him calm longer. "Look, Nat can be calm and soothing all day, but the only way this is going to end if you start talking. Now." There was silence for a moment as if the others were all figuring out who should go first, but Pepper of all people was getting impatient. "Who are you people?" she finally exclaimed.
"Please," Parker scoffed. "As if we're the only ones that were lying; there's no way she's a lawyer."
Tony jumped in. "There's no way he's an architect!"
"Look," Steve said, taking his turn. "Agent Romanov was only here because you did something with the computers. Maybe if you just tell us why you're here this can end."
Nate was confrontational. "We took a client that had been screwed by you guys, and so went on a fact finding mission to see how the heroes of the year could actually be the bad guys. With the way you put my people in danger, it's not that hard to believe."
Natasha could see Tony's temper rising and even Bruce shifted at his words, but before she could answer, Eliot's face shone of recognition and she knew that the calm portion of the negotiations were over. "Agent... Romanov?" He turned to Clint. "You grill me about how I care about innocent lives and you have the Black Widow on your payroll?"
Tony, for all his faults, jumped to her defence. "Hey, you can't talk to her like that –"
Steve jumped into the fray, addressing Nate. "And you just believe this client of yours?"
Clint was still arguing with Eliot, and the noise level was rising, with each person ending up arguing with more than one other.
"She stole millions of dollars of paintings –"
"One of his family members was killed because of one of your Avengers –"
"I'm a grifter, and hardly the worst one that he went through –"
"Hardison was hurt saving one of you and you tried to blow him up –"
"And you just try to ruin people's lives because you can –"
" – couldn't handle himself –"
"I personally vet all our clients and everything he said at the meeting was true –"
"—think you can just use my labs –"
"And that other guy at the meeting was really creepy."
"What other guy?"
"See? The blonde doesn't even know who was at the meeting. It's crazy!"
Everyone had exploded at the same time and now it had dropped to a whisper just in time for Parker to defiantly say, "I'm not crazy!" and Bruce to whisper, "Harlem?"
It was quiet, and Nate turned to the blonde. "Parker, there was only one person at the meeting."
"No, there were two. The Senator, and the guy talking to the Senator."
Natasha knew that at moments like these it was best to just stay silent, but now was the time that Steve decided to be chivalrous, taking at step forward and extending his hand as if to pat her on the shoulder. "Maybe you were thinking of another meeting..."
She just jerked away and backed out of the room with the other exit now clear. "I know what I saw."
Hardison turned to follow her but she was already long gone and he still wasn't in any condition to follow her, but that wasn't her biggest worry right now. Whoever the Senator was, he had intelligence on them, and it was good. And, if she could believe Parker's word, there was something much bigger here going on. She exchanged a look with Clint and he nodded. He was thinking the same thing as she was.
They needed to deal this immediately. But first, they needed to find Parker.
Clint left the explaining and details to Natasha and Steve, but he did manage to figure out before leaving that Parker had ditched whatever way that they had of tracking each other. He ran out the doors and looked around. They were planning a search of the tower – which could take hours, because apparently she liked to go in all the places that Jarvis didn't have sensors – but she hadn't yet left the building. That was the only thing they knew for sure.
Clint closed his eyes and breathed in, thinking of everything she knew about the girl – which really wasn't much. In his mind he scanned through the video they took of the hotel room from his perch and the recovered video from the fight yesterday, thinking about the way she moved, the things she said, and finally one thing stuck out: the way she jumped out of the way of a blue blast at the end of the battle, grabbing the bottom of a fire escape and swinging out of the way. Natasha would have jumped behind the wall. It was an easier jump and far safer, but Parker thought the same way he did, which meant...
It took him a while to figure out how to bypass all of Tony's protocols, but when he finally reached the roof he wasn't at all surprised to see the girl sitting at the edge, almost wistfully looking down.
"I'm not making things up," she said, without turning around. He didn't think he had made any noise.
"I'm not crazy, either."
"I know that too." She turned around and squinted up at him, his shadow falling across her with the sun at his back. It must have been painful for her so he sat beside her instead. He looked down, appreciating the view. "Most people I know would be scared to be up here."
The corner of Parker's mouth twitched into a tiny smile before it disappeared again. "Alec's afraid of heights."
"I –" he absently rubbed his temple, thinking. "I don't actually know who that is."
Her twitched smile reappeared again, and she playfully shoved his arm. While on top of a skyscraper. While they were sitting on the edge. Maybe she was a little crazy. But that's not why he was there now. "Hardison. Or, Mason. We're dating. And it's funny that he's afraid of heights because you should see what we did on vacation..."
He let her talk and he was fascinated, not only by the stories that she told but also the way her mind went from subject to subject, weaving conclusions that he may have missed and things that were obvious to him were foreign to her. Maybe that's why... "Parker," he asked when she had finished. "What did this other man at the meeting look like?"
"Really tall, really straight teeth, long dark hair..."
"You are definitely not crazy, Parker. You're just really perceptive. And you just saved everything."
Nate was starting to worry. This job had gotten out of his control, and he couldn't figure out where it had gone wrong.
At least Parker was okay – Clint had notified the AI which had let the rest of them know to gather in a different conference room. He appreciated it. This one was in significantly better shape than the one they had vacated.
After he had explained who they all were and what they really did, Natasha and Pepper had given them quite the briefing before they left to search for Parker as well. Hardison was still working with Tony to verify each others' stories, but it seemed like they were telling the truth. Mild mannered Dr. Banner was the monster they were hunting, but he was not the monster that had killed the Senator's nephew.
And Captain America was alive and well, and had a crush on Parker.
Of course he did.
Nate rubbed his eyes. He could really use a drink.
The rest of their absurd group joined him at the table with Parker and Clint bringing up the rear. "We know what happened," the man said to the group, and with great gravity he announced, "Loki."
Half the people looked shocked and reacted with what he assumed was the appropriate level of fear, but he just shrugged. "Who's Loki?"
Apparently they hadn't gotten to that part of the briefing before. "Remember when we told you about Thor?" Natasha asked, though it was really more of a statement. "He's Thor's brother. He... he sent the aliens and wants to destroy Earth."
"Oh," Hardison squeaked.
"I don't understand," Tony piped up. "Thor took him home. That should be the end."
Clint answered. "In New Mexico we found out that Loki had appeared to Thor while still being in Asgard, and Dr. Selvig confided that the feeling we had while we were under the influence of the Tesseract? He had felt that before. It had been driving much of his work on it."
"You think that Loki is implanting ideas? Controlling people from his jail cell?" Tony added.
"There's only one way to figure out," Pepper concluded. "I'll call Jane. She can contact Thor and see what he might be up to." She glanced at her smart phone's calendar. "But the opening for contact won't be for another few days. What do we do until then?"
"The Senator," Natasha said. "He's the key. Which Senator?"
"He's on all the right committees," Tony responded. "He'd know about SHIELD, right?"
"And could have access to their weapons," Steve added. "That explains the men from yesterday."
Nate noticed Natasha and Clint exchange a look, and Natasha nodded once before Clint said, "He's part of the World Security Council too."
"Who are they?" Parker asked for all of them.
"They're the ones that sent a missile to New York City," Pepper answered darkly. "They're the ones doing the campaigns of misinformation and tried to release the man that did all real damage in Harlem that they tried to blame on Bruce."
"And now Loki has one of them under his control," Eliot added for clarification.
Nate listened to the arguments unfold around him and he sat back in his chair, putting his index fingers up to his lips. "I know that look," Sophie purred at him, and he smiled.
"Alright gang," he said, and everyone turned to look at him. "I think we just found ourselves a new mark." Tony looked interested and Natasha looked wary, but he knew this was the beginning of a wonderful partnership.
"Let's go steal a Council."
Thanks to everyone for sticking with this! I really enjoyed writing it and participating in my first big bang. I hope you enjoyed it!