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It had been six months since the group of mostly extraterrestrial superheroes known as the Guardians of the Galaxy had shown up to warn Earth’s superheroes about the coming of Thanos, and ever since then things had been quiet on the surface but crazy underneath. Part of this was because it was difficult enough to prepare for an intergalactic war without also having to keep it a secret from the rest of your barely spacefaring planet, but the rest...well, they knew Thanos already had agents working for him on Earth, and possibly had for decades. So the rest of the crazy was coming from flat-out paranoia, because nobody could be sure who the bad guys actually were at this point and that meant trusting anyone at all was taking a big risk.

This was not, of course, much different from the way someone in Nick Fury’s position usually thought - SHIELD had been dealing with this sort of thing almost since its founding, after all. But that was part of the problem Fury was currently having, because SHIELD had been at least partially founded by HYDRA, and Captain Rogers had told the Guardians that there were things about HYDRA nobody but him remembered. Because those reports had all been burned back in the forties, because the general in charge of Rogers’ unit had decided the information the reports had contained could not be allowed to get out.

Because it was ‘weird stuff’. Weird stuff HYDRA had been doing, possibly with alien tech, while using the Nazi war machine as a cover for their own world-domination agenda. Weird stuff Coulson hadn’t wanted Rogers to share with the Guardians, supposedly because it was and always had been highly classified. But then, Coulson had been acting weird himself at that meeting, so much so that Fury had been forced to reprimand him for it afterwards.

Of course, Coulson himself had been resurrected and reprogrammed by HYDRA in their guise as the upper echelons of SHIELD. They hadn’t changed a lot, not really, but the resultant personality shift had been just enough to be off-putting to a lot of people who had known the man well – a situation Fury had initially handled by making sure nobody on Coulson’s new team had ever worked with him before. There had been a few times Fury had wondered if maybe that hadn’t been a good decision – the nearly disastrous meeting with the Guardians of the Galaxy being the most recent – but he hadn’t needed to reprimand Coulson again since then, which to his way of thinking was a good enough sign that he’d stopped worrying too much about it in favor of worrying about other things.

Like the really big secret he’d just found out every superhero in the city had been keeping from SHIELD in general and himself and Coulson in particular. It was Captain Rogers’ secret, really, but Fury knew the rest of them all had to have known about it. And now that Fury knew about it, and knew they’d all been keeping it from him, he had to decide what to do about it and how to go about acting on whatever decision he came to without alienating every other superhero in the city right at a time when a new schism between the groups was something they could not afford to have.

It was late and Fury was alone in his office, still trying to make up his mind on the best way to get around all that to do what he felt needed to be done, when his door opened and a very familiar man strolled in. The man was on the short side, dark-haired and affecting a neat goatee, and he took the chair on the other side of the desk just like he’d been invited to come in for a casual chat. Fury’s eye widened. “How did you get in here?!”

Stark smirked at him. “The same way you kept getting into my tower – turnabout and fair play and all that jazz. Jarvis told me you’d found out about Rogers’ little tree friend, though, so I figured I’d better come stop you from making yet another knee-jerk mistake.”

So apparently Stark’s all-knowing supercomputer hadn’t pulled as far out of SHIELD’s systems as they’d originally thought. Fury raised an eyebrow. “Well, you would know all about those, wouldn’t you?”

Stark made a face. “Yes, yes I would. And I may not be able to fix mine, but I can do my damnedest to stop you from starting a new one.” He was serious, Fury saw, and a serious Stark was a worried Stark. “Groot gave Rogers a twig, before they left Earth. I know why, even though it did take a green alien assassin pointing it out to make me see it, and you would too if you thought about it.” He leaned forward. “Fury, Rogers expected to be dead when he crashed that plane. He didn’t ask you guys to wake him up 70 years in the future and then immediately start using him the way the government was doing back in the forties. He thought his best friend was dead; he had no idea he’d made Barnes just like him just by being more than friends, or that your Nazi frenemies had warped the guy so much with brainwashing that they’ll never have anything like that between them again. So now Barnes is with Barton, Banner inexplicably hooked up with Romanov, and Thor is long-distance dating the scientist you keep sending to Antarctica.” He rolled his eyes when Fury didn’t get it. “You guys brought him back from the dead into a world where he was all alone, you cold-blooded asshole,” he said, mostly without heat. “You took everything away from him except for the dancing monkey persona he hated. You kept secrets from him, used him, guilt-tripped him, threw him into impossible situations with incomplete information and then blamed him for not being able to fix them. Oh, and then as the cherry on top you’re forcing him to work with his communications guy’s brain-fucked former handler-slash-boyfriend, who he’s now having to protect said communications guy from at the same time.”

Fury swallowed. Coulson was still going after Barton, after being ordered to leave that situation strictly alone? “He could have said no…”

Stark raised an eyebrow. “Did you ever tell him he was allowed to say no, Fury? Back when it would have mattered, back at the beginning? Because I know for a fact the Army told him just the opposite.”

That was true, although Fury wasn’t going to admit that he’d known it and had deliberately played on it in order to make the Avengers Initiative happen. So instead… “You seem to be awfully concerned about a guy you told the world was a worthless relic two and a half years ago, Stark.”

That just got him another eye-roll; dissembling didn’t usually work on Stark if the man was actually paying attention. “I can admit when I’m wrong, you know. Just like you also know that I always do my best to fix things when I fuck up. I do have an ulterior motive in this situation, though. Because I think you can’t afford to alienate Rogers or his team right now – you might need them, and I don’t mean because of the Thanos situation.” An expression of near-sympathy twisted at his mouth. “I know you were hoping reprogramming Coulson’s personal preferences and deleting a bunch of ‘unproductive’ memories was all they did, but it wasn’t. He’s not the same man, and this new him…” He slid over a flash drive. “Jarvis made this for you – I didn’t ask him to, Pepper did. Because she says Phil was your friend too, and this is the side of him she saw while the Guardians were here that she thinks you haven’t been seeing; she doesn’t think you would have him working with the Avengers if you had seen it, in fact, and even Rogers told me the man wasn’t ‘Phil’ anymore, he was just Agent Coulson. Pepper was actually scared, Fury. I know Bruce noticed, and he talked to her about it before they left to come back to New York. I think she has him and Rogers both on speed-dial now just in case, but…well, as much as I hate to ask you for anything, if you could sneak in and talk with her about it yourself, I’d appreciate it. She was on a first-name basis with Phil Coulson – and I admit it, I was jealous – and now she’s seeing something I can’t. And that scares me, too.”

“I can go talk to her,” Fury agreed. He’d always respected Pepper Potts. At the very least he could set her mind at ease, and let her know she could have Jarvis contact him as well as the Avengers if something happened. “Anything else?”

Stark stood up, ignoring the sarcasm. “No, that was it. I just didn’t want you to drive Rogers any further underground than he’s already gone.” Fury was surprised by that statement – he hadn’t thought Stark knew or cared where the Avengers had gone – and the billionaire grinned. “Yeah, I figured it out – Jarvis didn’t even help me, because Pepper told him not to. But Rogers having a backup plan like that, and that complete, also tells me he’s probably got another one in case something else goes south.”

Fury nodded slowly. “Like one of his supposed allies deciding his ‘little tree friend’ needs to be taken into custody and studied before it gets any bigger, I hear you. So you aren’t worried?”

“No. Groot is apparently a nice guy – or tree-guy, whatever – and if the way Barton giggled all the way through our meeting was any indication he’s got one hell of a sense of humor. I think he may be just what Rogers needs…and I think the Guardians knew that. They saw him a lot more clearly than a lot of us did, after all.”

He had his hand on the door handle when Fury spoke again, hoping to catch him off-guard. “Are you going to throw back in with them?”

Stark stiffened, just a little, but he didn’t turn and just shook his head as he stepped through the door. “You really think they’d have me?” he threw over his shoulder. “Because I sure as hell wouldn’t if I was them.”

 

Fury waited until he was sure Stark was gone, and then he locked his door, disconnected his computer from the network, and popped in the flash drive. He watched the collected footage –which wasn’t just from the meeting that day six months ago, which worried him – and then he watched it again, pausing frequently to examine certain scenes more closely. When he was done, he took the flash drive out and put it in his pocket, then initiated the system scrubber he had installed on his computer just for situations like this one. He didn’t dare take any chances, not with this and especially not now.

Because he had seen what Pepper Potts had seen that Stark couldn’t – and that he himself hadn’t wanted to. Which he now knew had been a huge mistake. He’d seen that the man who had been Phil Coulson was a ticking time bomb, and it looked like his countdown clock might not have very much time left to run out. Possibly about the same amount of time it was going to take for Thanos to reach Earth.

Something was going to have to be done. Fury sat there in his office for a long time, just staring into space, thinking about that.