The Hub is aptly named, Tony thinks not for the first time, as a countless number of S.H.I.E.L.D. spy agents of varying rank and purpose bustle about him. There are agents in gear ready to head out on assignment. There are agents clearly just back from assignment as they look worn and ready to just have their debriefings and be done with it. There are medics and scientists and new recruits and even some young kids over in one corner on a field trip from The Academy, not that they'll see much beyond the safe places designated for lower level agents just in case.
As Tony strolls up to a glass elevator that his access card can open, he muses on how there are floors and floors below where those kids and many agents will never have the right to go for some reason or another. He smirks a little, relishing in the privilege as the doors slide shut and he descends into the belly of the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. The glass elevator glows with a florescent blue as it passes one floor after another. Those floors are also open to view by large glass windows – the transparent theme throughout the agency is either a great strategy or proof of how cynical and untrusting they all are by nature of the game they play. His personal favorite is the Research and Development levels so he decides to bring the elevator to a stop on the main floor of the department rather than go straight to his meeting with Director Fury; annoying the Director with his tardiness will be a bonus.
The elevator doors slide open again and Tony is greeted with a very different hub of activity. Brilliant scientists and engineers fill the space with so much intelligence and creativity that Tony could get drunk on it. From weapons to espionage tech to innovative forms of communication to robots to projects made solely for the purpose of bettering the world they all work to keep at peace, the space is alive and breathing. It's matched only by the R&D levels of his own Stark Tower, but Tony can admit it's in part because many of his scientists are also S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists and they bring the equipment and breakthroughs that can't be published by the spy agency to Stark Industries where they can.
Tony's eyes immediately scan the various stations around him as he walks through, feet moving in one direction in particular, and he picks up on the designs and equations with ease. He can't stop himself from stopping and adding his two cents here and there. His first stop is in front of two of the newest promoted scientists, barely out of The Academy, and quite the duo of genius. He watches them in amusement as they bicker at one another about which subatomic particle to power a phase gun prototype they're working on.
"If it helps, you're both wrong," he says with a smirk and they stop to look up at him.
"Yes, well, it doesn't," the male half of the duo, Agent Fitz, says tartly.
"Hush," the charming female half, Agent Simmons, admonishes him and then smiles brightly. "Thank you for your input, Agent Stark. What would you suggest?"
Tony shrugs. "Honestly, why reinvent the wheel? We already have plenty of effective items for stunning a person. Why not build on those, see if you can't streamline them into something more effective."
Simmons' smile strains a little as if put on the spot and not enjoying the pressure and it's Fitz that snaps his fingers in a show of sudden clarity. "Yes," he agrees. "Like dendrotoxin," he says with a nod and immediately pulls up a holographic screen to write on.
"Dendrotoxin?" Simmons reels back around to look at him. Tony shakes his head, leaving them to start a new argument.
He continues on through the science ballet taking place all around him until another sight catches his eyes. He can't help but stop, smile like an imp and then clear his throat. Agent Blake, code name Thor, and his tech specialist, Agent Foster – Dr. Jane Foster, she would clarify to anyone who doubted her know-how – break apart from their kiss and look at him with wide eyes before realizing it isn't anyone who might reprimand them for the on-the-clock fraternization.
"Oh, it's just you." Foster manages to sigh and glare at the same time.
"I'm wondering how it is Fury's never separated you two," Tony says, shaking his head. He then looks Thor over, six foot three and all bulging muscle – a man truly built for brawn missions – and decides if he were Fury he wouldn't want to take on the blond either.
Foster scoffs. "As if Fury cares about that," she says with a wave of her hand. "Besides, nobody else here had the patience to be this goof's tech specialist." She scrunches her nose fondly at her boyfriend then shrugs. "Now it's just a matter of not making anyone else have to learn what makes him tick."
"Fair enough," Tony concedes.
It's true in that the whole point of tech specialists is to match R&D agents with field agents much like field agents are sometimes assigned to one another as partners or in teams. With one R&D scientist per one spy, there is a chance to build up an understanding of the individual spy's unique skills and needs in the field, among other benefits.
"But I suppose you wouldn't think about that," Foster goads.
She's referring to the fact that since he's a literal engineering genius, he's never needed someone to come up with cool gadgets for him. He's always been able to come up with that stuff on his own, even out in the field as he goes when need be. He doesn't have to wait around on a tech specialist to give him new stuff. He doesn't have an additional person he has to consult with regularly.
At least not officially.
"Just cutting out the middle man," Tony says, unaffected, and leaves them. Ironically, he heads once more in the direction of the middle man.
At the far end of the space is a partitioned off area, a lab within a lab so to speak, belonging to Agent Banner – or Dr. Bruce Banner as Tony would be quick to point out to anyone who might underestimate the man's brilliance – the head of R&D. Tony stops in the opening that acts as a door to the partitioned space and watches him for a moment. The guy is barely as tall as he himself is, and they're both on the slighter side, and he fits the cliché image of rumpled, awkward scientist rather well. He's currently bent over a work station fiddling with wires like they're a Rubik's cube – engineering not being his primary – as he holds his tongue between his teeth in concentration.
Banner isn't his tech specialist, but it's an unspoken truth that if he had one it would be Bruce. It also happens to be a universally known truth and perhaps partly the reason Bruce has never been any other agent's tech specialist, taking on the universal role as head instead. It allows him to help any and all as needed and that, of course, also means Tony is free to call on him at any time. Tony doesn't need a tech specialist, but he values Bruce's input and trusts him perhaps more than anyone else employed by S.H.I.E.L.D. In the rare instances Tony needs any kind of technical backup during a mission Bruce gets his call and another unspoken truth is that, unless it means somebody else less capable will be placed in dire straits on account of it, Bruce always takes that call as if Tony is his assigned agent and thus his only priority.
"Aha, gotcha," Bruce chirps in triumph and Tony smiles. He then applauds for good measure and Bruce startles ever so slightly as he turns his head to see him. The startled expression turns to a thin smile as Bruce straightens his back to stand upright.
"Just so you know if large quantities of dendrotoxin suddenly go missing it's FitzSimmons," Tony says without segue as he moves further into the space. Bruce's smile fades and his face scrunches up. "Uh, also, I had nothing to do with it."
Bruce gives a considering look. “I don't know if I like the idea of those two playing around with dendrotoxin.” Then he throws Tony a wry look before turning his attention back to his project. “Also I don’t believe you. What do they even want it for?”
“They’re working on a phaser gun of some sort,” Tony answers as he moves to stand on the opposite side of the work station to study what Bruce is toiling away at this time. It's bound to be infinitely more interesting than the junior set. “And all I did was tell them not to reinvent the wheel.”
“A phaser gun? With dendrotoxin?” Bruce mulls over it aloud and then shakes his head. “This should be good. And that’s more than enough for me to hold you responsible.” Bruce flashes an amused grin at him across the station.
“A radiation scanner?” Tony lifts an eyebrow, changing the subject more out of genuine curiosity than any threat of being held responsible for future dendrotoxin-related lab accidents.
“Hmm?” Bruce hums and then blinks as if his mind had wandered. “Oh, mhmm. I’m recalibrating it to scan for gamma signatures.”
“Of course you are,” Tony responds, allowing his tone to be fonder than is strictly professional. “But don’t tell me our targets are into gamma radiation now,” he adds, grimacing.
Bruce chuckles. “I certainly hope not," he agrees. "But apparently we do have a guy stealing relics with gamma signatures." He shrugs and then picks up one of the pieces to inspect.
Tony knows they’re not supposed to over share when it comes to assignments, but he wonders if it’s the current bastard that eludes him. “Code name: Tesseract?” he ventures.
Bruce pauses and looks at him again. "Your assignment?" Tony gives a single nod. "Huh. They don't usually give me tasks related to your assignments," he ponders and there's a line between his eyes. "And you didn't ask?"
"No," Tony confirms. He considers what it might mean before pursing his lips and hitching a shoulder. "Maybe they just figured I'd need the help this time and decided to skip to the part where you step in. Gamma is a bit out of my wheelhouse."
Bruce raises his eyebrows high above the rims of his glasses. "Oh, a bit, huh? I hold a doctorate in nuclear physics with a concentration in gamma and you, Mr. Masters, you think you can just stand there and say it's only a bit out of your wheelhouse?"
Tony smiles wide as he sets a palm firmly on the work bench and leans sideways across it in a casual pose. "Well, I am looking for a tutor. Interested?" He looks at him imploringly.
Tony sees the way Bruce's lips twitch in humor at the edges. Bruce places both of his palms flat against the work bench and leans across it. He shakes his head twice and says slowly, "Not a chance."
Tony turns to mirror Bruce's two-palmed lean. "I pay really well," he insists.
"I only do pro bono for worthy causes," Bruce quips.
"Hippie," Tony retorts.
There's a feminine clearing of a throat and they both turn their heads in sync to see Foster standing at the door with a smirk. "Oh, so that's why he's not officially your tech specialist," she says, looking at Tony. "Makes sense now."
"It does?" Bruce asks as he straightens up. "Okay, if you say so," he then concedes, entirely oblivious, and returns to his task.
Tony, of course, isn't oblivious and so frowns at the other scientist. "It's hardly comparable," he tells her. She just shrugs in a way that says she doesn't believe him, like she thinks they were actually on the verge of the same lip-lock she and hers had been engaged in.
"Coulson stopped by," Foster informs him before he can dwell too much on her assumptions. She moves over to the work station to study Bruce's work as well; it's a scientist thing. "Says you have two minutes to get to Fury's office or he will personally Taser you himself."
"Uh oh," Bruce intones rather adorably, not even pausing or looking up.
"And he might have said something about watching Super Nanny while you drool into the carpet," she adds. Her face quirks after the fact, clearly not sure what to do with that.
"He means business," Tony says knowingly and it's in stereo as Bruce says it at the same time. "Jinx," Tony adds quickly as he moves from the room, earning a chuckle and glance from Bruce as he does. "Sodas are on you, Brucey," he finishes with a point at him before making his exit. He only just catches Jane's mmhmm. Tony just rolls his eyes and heads toward the elevator, taking it the rest of the way to the floor Fury's office is on.
The elevator opens onto the true control center of The Hub. This is where Fury's hand-picked deputy officers, handlers, coordinators and communications specialists do much of their busy work as missions unfold all over the globe. He's immediately assaulted by the various commands, coordinates and 'do you copy?'s' being spouted out in a chorus throughout the space.
Commander Maria Hill is currently the one overseeing the controlled chaos. She pauses when she notices him and Tony doesn't miss the way she holds on hard to an unprofessional eye roll. "Agent Stark," she says, much too surly, "Fury's been expecting you."
"Sorry," he says in a dismissive tone, because two can play this game – and they have been for as long as he can recall. "My tutoring session on nuclear physics ran a little long." She furrows her brow as if not sure how to take that. He almost suspects she's wondering if that's some sort of lewd code speak, which he has no qualms with whatsoever if she does.
He bounds past the hustle of the control center and toward the offices and briefing rooms that reside in a corridor off the right. He follows the hall all the way to the office at its end, passing entirely nondescript rooms as he goes. The door is open, so he enters without a second thought.
"I give you an eight a.m. meeting time knowing damn well you'd take that to mean nine a.m.," Fury clips, brusque as can be, and points to a chair across from his own. "Now here it is going on nine-thirty."
Most people are afraid of the director, who cuts a formidable figure with his black eye patch, covering the left eye he'd damaged permanently in a mission when he was a field agent, and matching all black leather get up complete with trench coat, of of which may or may not match his black heart if you were to ask Tony's opinion. Black heart or no,Tony is not one of those people. The predecessor of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the S.S.R. and the S.S.R. was co-founded by none other than Howard Stark, Tony's father. It gives him a sort of privilege that he's always known how to abuse.
Thus, Tony sits down in the chair and crosses his arms behind his head in a nonchalant fashion. "So maybe you should have scheduled the meeting for eight-thirty," he suggests.
Fury draws his lips into a straight line and narrows his eye. "Then you wouldn't have been here until ten."
Tony beams at him and opens his palms up behind his head. "So you do get how this works. Just checking."
"What will your wife ever do with you, Stark?" Fury says grimly.
It takes a second for Tony to process, but when he does he's suddenly sitting up straight in his chair as he chokes out, "My what?" He blinks several times and tries to be rational. "Okay, are the tabloids saying I've gone and gotten drunk-hitched in Vegas again?" After all, he's a practical celebrity in his everyday life, outside of his job as a spy. And tabloid stories such as this one, suggesting the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist has finally settled down, are at least a biannual occurrence.
"No, because that's not enough of the kind of cover we need right now," Fury says evenly. "More like several long weeks of publicity and opulent wedding-planning and a reception at the home of the Tesseract itself."
Tony's not quite sure how long he stares blankly at Fury before he's able to process all of the Director's words and put them into an order that sort of make sense even if it makes for an absolutely ludicrous statement. "Just to clarify, are you suggesting I get married?"
Fury actually snorts. "No. I wouldn't actually force any poor soul to marry you even if it could be annulled."
"But I am suggesting a scenario where the public believes you're getting married and you single-handedly prevent easy access to the State Museum for the next six weeks."
"Because our latest intel suggests he'll go after his key objective within that time frame," Tony replies with a nod. He'd gotten that intel only a few nights ago from a very chatty bedmate. "Still, a fake wedding? With who? Because, you know, I don't think Ms. Potts will appreciate it now that she's with Happy. And, you know, she's also busy running my company," he says in referral to the Stark Industries CEO he had publicly dated a few years prior, making her the likeliest candidate where the masses were concerned.
"Hilarious," Fury says, tone as bland as the decor in his office. "As if we'd use a civilian. We've gone through the list of potential agents that could work with you on this, based on availability and, of course, rank. For all intents and purposes, Agent Romanoff will be assigned as the future Mrs. Stark."
Fury says it so conversationally that Tony thinks he may have misheard. He couldn't have possibly said, "Romanoff? Is this your idea of a joke because her code name is Black Widow? Or is this some elaborate scheme to off me?" Tony eyes him with suspicion. "Because if she doesn't do it, Barton will. Or he'll try anyway."
"She's my best agent," Fury explain, even if technically she isn't even number one. "She'll be able to handle this. And you," Fury adds, glowering.
Tony sighs. "This isn't up for discussion, is it?"
"Look, Stark," Fury steeples his fingers, "you're good at this. You know a good plan when you hear it. You know as well as I do that this is right in line with your cover. With any luck we can draw the guy out since we learned in Stuttgart he seems to get a thrill from having an audience."
"Do you think there's a chance he'll catch on that I'm the guy that's been trailing him?"
"Sure," Fury says with a shrug, leaning back again. "But if he truly thrives on the cat and mouse dynamic, the possibility to try and ID you may only draw him out further."
Tony sighs again. He looks down at the table, purses his lips wanting to say no, but then realizes Fury's right. It's a good plan and he really wants to catch this guy.
"When do we announce the engagement?"
"Rumor hits the stands tomorrow morning. Give it the weekend. Confirm Monday."
"Well," Tony says with as much humor as he can muster, "at least I have the party tonight to look forward to before the next six weeks of torture."
Fury gives him a long, surprisingly genuine chuckle and it becomes clear the man is enjoying this plan far too much already. "You never know, Stark. Maybe you'll get lucky and our guy will strike earlier than our intel suggests."
Tony responds with a twisted expression that he knows reads as: fuck you.
The annual Maria Stark Foundation Charity Ball is the hottest ticket in town on a Thursday night and packed to the brim with high society, celebrities, paparazzi and, of course, select S.H.I.E.L.D. spies there by invitation from either Tony Stark himself or given invitation by Director Fury because he wants them there. In fact, as Bruce looks around the current room he's wandered into, he realizes he doesn't even know which of those people he's not acquainted with are agents; in the name of self-preservation, not all S.H.I.E.L.D. agents ever meet, at least knowingly. Bruce shakes his head, clearing away thoughts of the secrets and lies, and wills himself to enjoy himself. He's there by invitation of Tony, after all, which makes him one of the few privileged.
Bruce is invited by his friend every year, he just doesn’t usually attend the crazy soiree. It's not his preferred way to spend an evening and as he looks around at all of the schmoozing and dancing and drinking and laughing and flirting and – he's not even sure what's going on in that corner over there – he's reminded of why. Rather than join in, he's able only to stand around, awkward and gawking and, occasionally, wondering why he doesn't own a nicer suit. He can barely absorb the atmosphere let alone make much effort to participate.
In reality, Bruce is only here this time because Tony had come back up to R&D after his meeting with Fury to tell him all about his latest assignment with Agent Romanoff, ignoring the general rule they all have of not divulging these kinds of details to unauthorized agents. Tony had filled him in on the situation with so little aplomb that Bruce could just foresee Tony getting smashed at the party and doing something spectacularly stupid. Like the time he'd thought it would be fun to ask a crowded room to throw targets up for him to destroy using one of his repulsor gauntlets, his own invention of course. It mostly had been empty bottles, that earlier had been full of alcohol, but Bruce is fairly certain Tony is banned from that particular venue for also shattering a hundred-year-old chandelier and destroying a grand piano after his coordination had finally gone kaput.
Bruce would like to prevent that kind of drunken recklessness again if he can, at least on this particular occasion. He's not Tony's keeper by any stretch of the imagination, but Tony is… well, whatever he is, Bruce thinks he's far too good to let the alcohol take him the way it can. It diminishes him. He's already the life of the party and charismatic without bringing alcoholic-induced shenanigans into it, shenanigans that really only earn him jeers and whispers and head shakes and tabloid covers when all is said and done. None of those things would be very good at a time like this, when Tony needs the media on his side. Of course, Bruce also hates drunkenness so if he can stave it off altogether that would be a nice bonus.
Bruce is broken from his thoughts when a thin, thirty-something blonde trips into him. He awkwardly attempts to steady her while she awkwardly sways a little. She's clearly already on her way to being drunk. "So... sorry," she says slowly. She then shakes her head as if to clear the bubbles and looks at him. "Guess I should lay off the free wet bar," she says with a giggle.
"It might be advisable," he replies blandly.
"Then again, you're cute," she comments with an appraising look that's followed by a twinkling-eyed smile. "I'd love to trip into you again."
"Uh…" He's pretty sure she's complimenting him and he's fairly certain he should respond, but he doesn't know quite how.
"And bashful too," she says with another giggle and Bruce bites back an exasperated sigh. He takes a casual glance around, searching for an escape, while she continues to titter.
"Hey, what's going on here?" Tony is suddenly beside him, flinging an arm around his shoulders while pointing between him and the blonde. "Don't tell me I'm going to have to cut you off, Ver," he says then to the blonde with a playfully shrewd gaze.
"No, no," she says, shaking her head and looking a little surprised by Tony's sudden appearance. She and Bruce have that in common since Bruce hadn't even glimpsed Tony anywhere nearby. "I was just saying I'm not going to drink anymore unless it means getting to trip into tall, dark and bashful here."
Tony's eyes widen and he looks at Bruce with an impish smile that crinkles his eyes. "Did you hear that, Bruce? She thinks you're tall."
Bruce tries not to smile back. "Well, she's also a little on the tipsy side so let's not trust her judgment."
"Bruce is a cute name," the blonde says. Bruce wonders if she's even aware of their ridiculing her sobriety right in front of her. "You know him, Tony?" She looks at the billionaire questioningly.
"Sure do," Tony answers, squeezing the shoulder his hand is on before letting it fall. "Veronica, Bruce. Bruce, Veronica."
Suddenly Veronica is smiling at Bruce with a predatory gleam in her eyes. Her leopard print gown seems appropriate. He isn’t sure if it’s flattering or unnerving, but if pressed he would say the latter. “So, do you dance, Bwuciekins?” she asks with such exaggerated cuteness that Bruce thinks he'd be feeling debilitating second-hand embarrassment if not for the fact his head is screaming at him to make a run for it.
“I… Uh…” Bruce glances at Tony, meaning to signal to him to bail him out before he takes matters into his own hands, in ways that would likely be as embarrassing as Veronica's antics, but Tony already has a tight smile on his face and a sharp look fixed on the woman.
“Only with guys,” Tony answers for him and Bruce’s eyebrows fly upward. Maybe he should have just ran. “Which reminds me,” Tony turns to him, “you still owe your host a dance.”
Bruce considers the excuse, but he'd rather not dance with the tipsy woman. So he plasters on a fake smile, nowhere near as good as Tony's, and goes with it.
“Nice to have met you, Veronica,” Bruce tells her politely, since lying is at least easy enough as often as he’s done it in his life. He then lets Tony steer him clear of the awkward situation. “Bit drastic to out me, but thanks,” he remarks once they’re far enough away.
Bruce startles when he realizes Tony is actually leading him toward one of the many dance floors. “Any time,” Tony replies, tone breezy. He stops and turns to him in invitation.
"Um… We don’t—"
“1. We do," Tony interjects. "Don’t let Ver’s inebriated blonde shtick fool you. Once she has a target, she locks on until she’s got it trapped." Bruce grimaces at the image that conjures in his mind. "So unless you were actually interested, probably best if you follow through with the excuse." Bruce glances around and does see Veronica eyeing them with an awareness she hadn't seemed to possess previously. "2. You’ve been hiding out all evening so if this is what it takes to spend time with my bestie…” He trails and holds out his hand further.
Bruce huffs in amusement and shakes his head before taking it. “Don’t call me bestie,” he says dryly.
“You’re right,” Tony agrees, in that tone of his that suggests something infinitely worse is coming. “Science bro is much more appropriate.” Bruce just groans and lets Tony lead. After the first awkward minute, the one where neither talks and instead silently attempts to rationalize that dancing with one's best friend isn't weird regardless of social stigma – or at least that’s how Bruce spends it – Tony gives him a looking-over. “Not that the bohemian professor look doesn’t work for you, because it does, it’s a shame you don’t come to my parties. You’ve been holding out on how good you look in a fitted suit." Bruce blinks and swallows hard. "I’d love to let my tailor get hold of you.”
Bruce's throat is dry as he tries to find a response. First leopard-printed blondes, now Tony? He’s not used to a bombardment of flattery. It’s not that it's the first time Tony has reassured him he’s attractive; it’s just that Bruce never really believes it and the man doesn’t say it too often because he knows Bruce is easily flustered by that sort of thing.
"I bet you say that to all the people you dance with," Bruce settles for bantering since that comes easy with Tony, and it serves as good deflection.
"Well, not all," Tony replies, putting a lot of emphasis on the last word. Bruce chuckles. "So…" Tony pulls him a little closer and… it's not entirely awkward. "As my fake best man I'm counting on you to get me through this three ring... no, ten ring nightmare."
"Are you asking me?"
"Yes, of course." Tony looks at him though like it's not even up for debate. "If I'm going to get almost hitched, I at least want somebody tolerable around."
"Thank you?" Bruce scrunches his face.
Tony just flashes him a smile; that brilliant, blinding, honestly breathtaking smile that's ruined countless hearts and charmed just as many snakes. Bruce isn't even sure what category he falls into as he blinks in the face of its brightness.
Once upon a time his heart didn't let anyone in because he was dangerous and unpredictable. Then Tony had come along. He lulled him and then, being the master spy he is, managed to find a way past his defenses. Tony had settled into a special place in his heart, easily as if it had always belonged to him anyhow.
The testament to Tony's feat is in the feeling of swaying this close to the other man, while dressed to make at least some kind of impression in an obnoxious crowd he has almost nothing in common with, other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents notwithstanding. The testament to Tony's feat is in Bruce's small, answering smile despite how out of character this all should be for a man like him.
“Ah, so I’m a beard,” Natasha interrupts in a wry tone. They pause in their, somewhat graceless, swaying to look at her. Her lips are quirked ever so slightly as she stands there in her knock-out, little, black dress eyeing them with interest.
“Uh oh,” Bruce is surprised to find himself playing along, “she’s found us out. I told you we shouldn’t do this with all these people watching.”
“I couldn’t pretend anymore,” Tony goes along with it easily.
“Well, then," Natasha says, "I hope you know this means I’m going to go on fucking our wedding planner.”
Tony sputters. “I wasn’t aware we’d already gotten a wedding planner." He glances at Bruce, his expression saying he’s actually worried about this new development.
Natasha either doesn't notice Tony's discomfort or else doesn't care too much for his overreaction and simply quirks her lips a little higher. “Don’t worry," she drawls, cat-like. "Clint is very good at this sort of thing.”
Tony’s mouth falls open while Bruce tries to stifle a laugh at his friend's expense. “We—We are not letting Barton plan our fake wedding.” Natasha rolls her eyes. "I mean that. I'll take the matter to Fury if I have to."
Bruce shakes his head, still amused. “I think I should let you two work this out between yourselves,” he teases and leaves them to their good-nature bickering as they start to dance. He only looks back once to wonder a little at how believable they look and sound as a couple already. He walks as far away as possible when the thought is accompanied by something small but decidedly unpleasant in his stomach.
He wanders around the party a little, carefully avoiding any more drunken people who might trip into him. He's almost tempted to call it a night and let Tony do whatever he wants when he spots Clint chasing after a man in a waiter's outfit. Barton seems desperate and on edge. Bruce looks around to see if anyone else has noticed and then cautiously follows him.
"I haven't seen you in thirteen years. And suddenly you just emerge from the shadows and expect me not to have questions?" Bruce hears Clint practically hiss and a quick peek around a corner shows the other agent has got the man – Bruce can't see his face because his back is turned to him – in a firm grip 'round his arm. "Where the hell have you been, Barney?"
The man, Barney, pushes him off with a quick movement of his arm. Barton has a strong grip, thanks to expertise in long range archery of all things, so it's a testament to this Barney's strength.
"While you've been busy playing good cop, I've been off getting filthy rich," Barney tells him.
"By being a hired gun that does the dirty work for guys who don't mind if you end up taking the fall," Clint says in regards to the mystery man's line of work. So he's clearly an assassin or hired thug of some other sort. "Where's the integrity in that?"
"Really? Isn't that what you do?" Bruce furrows his brow because this guy seems intimately aware of Clint's secretive profession and that's dangerous. "Take the hard shots so the FBI and fat cats in government don't get their hands dirty? So the poor, simpleminded citizens don't learn how horrible politics really is?" Bruce furrows his brow again because that's not exactly what Clint does; he's not a hired assassin even if he has license to kill. Maybe Clint has constructed a myth for the other guy to believe.
Clint glances over and Bruce doesn't fall back so he knows there's no way Clint could have missed him, especially since Clint is known for his excellent eyesight; his code name is even Hawkeye. The spy sighs and glances back at Barney. "You're right," he says and it's good, convincing. "That is what I do." He pauses. "So why are you here, Barney? Who's the target?"
"Ah, no." Barney replies. "I'll be a sap and let you make a break for it for old times, but I'm not telling you so you can louse it up."
"What's the matter?" Clint smiles wide and it seems incongruous with the all but outright confession Barney is there with a target in sight. "Don't trust your baby brother?"
Bruce is grateful he has more training than to let out an ill-timed gasp.
"Not ever since you sold me out, you little punk."
"You mean that same time when you were going to sell me out and I beat you to the punch?" Clint asks evenly and Bruce can't help but wonder about the guy's sordid past. He knows S.H.I.E.L.D is in the business of hiring ex-cons and ex-felons and troubled souls, but if this was at least thirteen years ago then Clint couldn't have been more than 17 at the time. "Yeah, don't think you're the only one here with an interest in self-preservation, Barn. So in the spirit of self-interest, I'm interested in what game you're playing."
There's a long silence and Clint studies his older brother meticulously. At the moment, Bruce wishes he were certain regarding the game Clint is playing, but he's taking a chance that he's still on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s team whatever it is.
"What game?" Barney asks, and even Bruce can tell it's insincere. "Just a straightforward target for cash like alw—"
"Save the bullshit for someone gullible, Barney," Clint cuts him off. "I'm here so we both know that there's something bigger at stake. Maybe we even have the same target." Oh, Bruce thinks, he's trying to steer Barney away from the truth that the place is crawling with agents who need to keep their identities secret.
"Huh." Barney seems truly contemplative. "That bastard would."
"Yeah," Clint says with a derisive snort and looks away, making sure to flash a telling look in Bruce's direction; Bruce is now certain Clint is playing the spy game and trying to get the info he needs without showing his hand. "How do you think I feel? Must not trust me given my associations and sent you in instead to make sure it gets done one way or another."
Barney chuckles. "Can you blame the guy? He's got a score to settle. You know how it goes with those crazed revengers."
Clint narrows his eyes. "Yeah so we're back to the original point. Neither one of us is stupid enough to risk our necks with a crazed backer unless the payout is worth it. And I think we both know it is which brings up the next question. Which of us is going to score big here?"
"Well, from what I hear, this Loki guy never turns down the best," Barney says. Bruce sees the way Clint wills himself to be impassive the same way Bruce wills away another gasp. According to intel, Loki is a known alias of the guy Tony's been trying to take down. "So if we both take this shot and go back to Stane together saying we're a packaged deal, I don't see why he shouldn't give us both the secret password to Loki's inner sanctum. Besides, we're sure to be more persuasive with blackmail on our side. We'll know where Stark's body is buried and Stane's goons are no match for us as a team."
This time Bruce does gasp, damn it.
"What the hell!?" Clint's the first to react in alarm. Bruce knows it's in order to keep his ruse going. For his part Bruce stands there like he's just a dumbstruck guy who's wandered around the corner at the wrong time for as long as it can buy him. "I think that guy knows Stark!" Clint hisses and Bruce isn't sure why he would go that far until he realizes Clint's in this thing now. He's signed himself up for a trip all the way to the top, to this Loki guy, if he can manage it.
"Then we need to take this shot now before he tips him off," Barney growls. "I'll get this guy. You get Stark."
Bruce waits until the last second to run. He's glad this Barney guy had settled on sending Clint after Tony because Agent Barton won't shoot to kill. That doesn't mean he has no thought for himself so he run into the thick of the party, hoping the assassin won't be stupid enough to shoot in the middle of a crowd and risk his original business there. Also, there are agents scattered throughout the place so there's a chance one or two of them might jump in inconspicuously to help.
Of course his traitorous feet would lead him to where Tony and Natasha are, the two having moved to a different location from where he'd left them. By now he also realizes the guy isn't going to stop chasing him no matter how many guests murmur and scream because of the gun Bruce had seen him pull out during a quick glance over his shoulder.
"Bruce?" Tony's eyes widen and Bruce sees him contemplate if he should blow his cover, fingers twitching as if ready to reach for his hidden firearm. Clint comes up behind Tony at that moment. Tony is surrounded - at least in Barney's mind - so Bruce stops short, giving Barney a chance to catch him.
Barney does and yanks him back sharply. Immediately the cold metal of the gun digs into his temple as Barney holds him hostage. Tony's eyes are wide with panic and he takes a step forward.
"Get back, Tony," Bruce urges, meaning it just as much for Tony's safety as for his hopeful play. "The guy's crazy. He wants to kill you."
"Barney, don't be an idiot," Clint shouts and Natasha jerks her head to look at him. Tony doesn't look. His eyes stay fixed on his own, and Bruce has never quite noticed how intense they can be. "He's probably got this place surrounded with security," Clint says and it's an invitation.
Natasha pulls out her gun before Bruce can even blink and levels it on Barney. "Your partner's right. He does," she says, voice cold and even.
"Let him go," Tony demands, raising his hands in a placating manner. "You want me. Not him."
"You're right," Barney says. "I do want you. So it's him for you. You come with us," Barney jerks them both to look at Natasha, "without interference, and I'll let the guy here live." He sees her studying the situation with her expert level of training and intuition.
Bruce then glances at Tony and his stomach falls when he realizes Tony is contemplating the deal. "Don't do it, Tony!" If Tony goes with them, Barney may shoot to kill before Tony and Clint even get the chance to overpower him.
"You've got five seconds," Barney barks. "Five. Four."
"One," Clint says. A gunshot rings out followed by another one, both bullets striking Tony in his back. Tony topples forward onto his knees, eyes going blank and his jaw slack.
"No!" Bruce shouts in horror and wrenches away from Barney, whose hold has gone loose in surprise. He falls in front of Tony and cradles his dead weight.
Natasha takes advantage of the chaos and shoots the gun from Barney's hand. He rears back in pain and into the waiting hold of another agent. "The other guy," Natasha says into her diamond bracelet like it's a dispatch to other security. Maybe it is. "The other guy's getting away." She rushes after Clint while Barney mumbles about being sold out again. Bruce would feel bad for him if not for the fact he's holding Tony with full knowledge that if Clint's brother had taken the shot it wouldn't have been just for show.
He hears Tony groan and he helps him stand up to his feet. There are legitimate gasps from party-goers who have no idea Tony does this kind of dangerous thing on a regular basis. Now that he thinks about it that idea makes him a little uncomfortable too; so, he doesn't think about it for more than a few seconds. Behind him Barney is mumbling in confusion again.
"It's fine. I'm fine," Tony says in a strained voice and unbuttons his shirt to reveal his Kevlar vest. Only, it's not made of Kevlar. It's made from the far rarer vibranium that S.H.I.E.L.D. has managed to procure for its top agents. Bruce feels a bit of relief that Tony is one of those agents, if only because he's entitled to it since his father was the one to procure vibranium for the agency in the first place. "You don't survive a run in with terrorists and a crazy ex-CEO without learning it's a good idea to wear one of these babies," he says in a flippant tone like it's a joke. A few people actually laugh.
Crazy ex-CEO? Right. He'll have to tell Tony that Stane's out to get him and perhaps working with Loki.
Right after he dodges all of the questions Tony seems to be gearing up to ask him, if the way he's studying him is any indication. After all, Bruce had managed his side of the situation like a skilled field operative, something that can't have gone unnoticed by a highly skilled field operative. It might be a little hard to explain as a meager S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist.