"I need you on your best behavior today," Peter said. Those were the first words out of his mouth as soon as he spotted Neal waiting for him, as requested, on the corner of 42nd and Vanderbilt. "Better, if you can manage it."
"I'm here at 9am on a Saturday," Neal pointed out. "How much better can I get?"
There was no petulance to Neal's question, though. It was merely a tease he'd decided to go with after mentally flipping a coin between that and joking about Peter only requesting good behavior from him for a single day. In truth he'd already been awake when Peter called. His only other plans were meeting up with Mozzie. If helping Peter made Neal late for that, well Moz would understand.
"I mean it." Peter tapped Neal's arm to indicate they should start walking uptown. "This is a delicate case. We're going to have a lot of eyes on us, not just FBI."
Neal couldn't help but glance in the direction of the police cars parked across the street. They were a fixture around Grand Central, moreso lately, but even still. "Sounds serious."
Peter passed him the file folder he'd been holding. "What do you know about the theft of a Hickman?"
"That I was hopefully with you at the time it happened?" Neal replied. He flipped the manila folder open. Inside was a color printout of a night sky over dark purple and green silhouettes of mountains. A Post-It identified the painting as Look to the Adirondacks No. 3, which meant it was one of John Hickman's later pieces. A turn of the page confirmed that the painting had been completed in 1952. Neal whistled appreciatively. "Done right before Hickman's death. That adds a few million to the value."
Peter shot Neal a knowing look. Neal kept his own face in a well-practiced expression of innocence. "I'm only talking about possible motives, of course."
"Of course," Peter replied, with his own well-practiced expression of not believing Neal for a second. "The painting was stolen from a private collection. We've been called in to handle the case. By which I mean you and me specifically."
"Our reputation for closing is that good?" Neal asked. He side-stepped around a group of tourists taking pictures of Grand Central's rebuilt facade. Neal wanted to point out they'd get a better view of the repairs if they went around the corner, but Peter grabbed his attention again.
"Yes, but this is also a favor for a friend," Peter told him. "He's the one who requested us. His agency doesn't deal with art theft. We do."
Neal started to get the picture. "So when you said we'd have more than the eyes of the Bureau on us - "
"I meant we're taking on a case that represents the highest level of inter-agency cooperation that the FBI, let alone our division, has handled," Peter told him. He turned to the right once the stone exterior of Grand Central gave way to sleek, dark glass, angling himself towards the line of doorways just past a handful of steps. "Which means screwing this up is probably the last mistake either one of us wants to make."
Neal stopped when he realized what building they were about to enter. "The Hickman was stolen from Stark Tower?"
"Best behavior," Peter said as he led the way inside.
The usual New York City noises of people and traffic gave way to the much more muted, though by no means less busy, lobby of Stark Tower. In contrast to its Beaux-Arts next door neighbor, the lobby's style was all about simple, modern design with no room for extraneous embellishment. If Neal had to pick a single word to describe it, the word would be clean. Elegant, clean lines. Light, clean colors. Even the air smelled clean, with no hint of the exhaust fumes or sweet and savory scents of hot dog stands that could be found back on the sidewalk. Though if Neal took a deep breath, he could detect a hint of recently placed drywall, which of course made sense.
Actually if Neal thought about it, maybe the word he wanted to use to describe the place was sterile.
A man in a dark blue suit stepped away from the front desk. He was shorter than both Peter and Neal, and had a receding hairline.
"Peter," the man said as he came closer. He smiled and held out his hand. "Thanks for coming."
"Anytime," Peter replied. He took the man's hand to shake, then indicated Neal standing beside him. "This is Neal Caffrey. Neal, this is Agent Phil Coulson of SHIELD."
"So, I finally get to meet Neal Caffrey." Coulson turned to look Neal over. He stopped once he saw Neal's fedora. "Huh. You weren't kidding about the hat."
"Why would I make up a detail like the hat?" Peter asked.
A few tumblers clicked into place inside of Neal's brain. "Wait - this is your friend Phil? Phil of the every third Thursday beer and bitc - " Peter gave Neal a look, so Neal quickly amended what he was saying to " - bonding sessions?"
"Schedule permitting," Coulson said, by way of confirmation.
"By the way, El says I'm not allowed to leave until you agree to a day for dinner," Peter told Coulson.
Neal was still processing what he'd just found out. "You never said you had a friend who worked for SHIELD."
"Peter's discretion regarding such matters is one of the reasons why I requested him for the case," Coulson said. He stepped back and swept his arm in the direction of the far end of the lobby. "Shall we?"
Peter and Neal fell into step behind Coulson. "I told Neal about the Hickman," Peter said.
Coulson nodded, as though that was expected. "Art crimes aren't exactly within SHIELD's domain. However, given the location of the theft, SHIELD does have an interest in making sure sensitive materials and information are kept secure."
"You don't want anybody blabbing the state secrets," Neal said, to show he understood.
"Precisely." Coulson stopped when they reached a nondescript door at the back of the lobby. He pulled a plastic card out of his suit pocket and held it up to a black box on the wall beside the door's handle. A red light above the box turned green. Coulson opened the door and gestured for Peter and Neal to go ahead of him. "Someone was needed who was both capable of solving the case and who could be trusted around highly classified information. Fortunately, Peter can do both."
"And Neal promises to be on his best behavior," Peter added, though his glance at Neal indicated he said that more for Neal's benefit than Coulson's.
"I wouldn't even think of doing otherwise," Neal promised.
"Good," Peter said. He gave Neal a far too cheerful smile. "Because if you did I would think about having the radius on your tracking anklet changed from two miles to ten feet."
"Funny," Neal said. He gave Peter a look of his own for how old those jokes were getting.
Coulson led them further back into the depths of the Tower. Card swipe security led to keyed-in passcodes, then fingerprint identification. Finally they arrived at a hallway with a single elevator at the end. This time Coulson held still for a retinal scan. Neal found himself feeling glad that going into the FBI offices didn't require so much hassle.
"Any ideas who might have stolen the Hickman?" Neal asked as the elevator lifted them through the Tower. There were no buttons on the inside to indicate where they were going. That didn't stop Neal from wondering how he - or their thief - might hack into the system to get where they wanted to be.
"I wish I could say yes," Coulson said. "SHIELD's surveillance systems picked up chatter about the painting, but not enough to produce a solid lead. We're hoping this is where your experience will come into play. As far as this sort of crime goes, we can only collect the data. We need experts in the field to help analyze it."
"Neal's nothing if not an expert at figuring out art theft," Peter said.
There was a faint touch of pride in Peter's voice, which made Neal inclined to reply, in kind, "You'd be the expert at catching them."
"Hopefully the both of you can resolve this matter quickly," Coulson said.
"Where was the painting stolen from anyway?" Neal asked.
The elevator slowed to a stop. "We're here," Coulson said.
The elevator doors slid open to reveal the penthouse of Stark Tower.
"Don't touch anything," Peter told Neal.
Neal was trying not to stare, truly he was. But the amount of times he'd been inside of a billionaire's home legally, and thus with plenty of time to stare, were, in Neal's opinion, too few and far between. Neal took in the view of the penthouse like a contestant on a game show who'd just had the grand prize room revealed to him. His practiced eye looked over at everything and immediately saw both the beauty of the items and the price of what a thief could get for them: A Pierre Paulin side table, the perfect example of the designer's ability to mix modernity with elegance: $2,000. A Mies van der Rohe chair of bright chrome and luxurious leather: $7,000.
And then Tony Stark himself came into view and Neal's mental price tags had a rare moment of not being able to count that high.
"Stark," Coulson said, and apparently that passed for a greeting. "This is Special Agent Peter Burke of the FBI."
Peter was immediately all business. "Mr. Stark, what can you tell us about the night the painting was stolen?"
Tony Stark, a man Neal had only ever seen on the news or the covers of magazines, took one look at Peter and then immediately turned to Coulson. "It's in a suit and it's talking to me. I thought we agreed you were the only member of your species allowed to do that."
"You may have said words. I undoubtedly ignored them." Coulson then seemed to notice, for the first time, that Stark was dressed in a tux. The black bow tie was undone, as were the top two buttons of the shirt. The rest of the outfit was complete, right down to the emerald cufflinks that, unless Neal missed his guess, were Cartier and worth about $11,000. "Have you even gone to bed? Do not tell me you just got home. You knew we had this meeting."
"You may have said something about a meeting. I undoubtedly ignored you." Stark flashed a grin at Coulson to punctuate his comment. "See how that works out?"
Peter wasn't nearly as interested in Stark as Neal and Coulson were. Instead his gaze was focused over at a man sitting by the bar who, with his salt and pepper hair, slumped posture, and rumpled clothing, fit the very definition of nondescript. Neal wasn't surprised Peter managed to spot the guy anyway.
"Dr. Banner," Peter said, and someone who didn't know Peter as well as Neal did probably wouldn't pick up on the note of suspicion in Peter's voice. "I didn't expect to find you here."
"Neither did I," Coulson added.
Banner shrunk back under the sudden scrutiny. "This wasn't my idea. Believe me."
"Ah," Stark cleared his throat to draw everyone's attention back in his direction. "Dr. Banner is here because he's the only person who could raise his hand if asked the question who does Tony Stark currently want in his living room. And let's be honest, I wouldn't even raise my hand if asked that question. Why am I here right now?"
"You asked for my help with the stolen painting," Coulson reminded him.
"I asked for you to handle it," Stark said. He flicked his hand towards Neal and Peter. "New people in my home isn't you handling it, this is you making me handle it. Totally not what I requested."
"Hm." Coulson didn't look bothered by Stark's words. "I guess if I worked for you that might actually be a problem. Since I don't, you can take what help I give and say thank you."
"I'm gonna throw out two words here," Stark said. He swirled his right hand back and forth between him and Coulson. "They're going to clarify the who-owes-whom dynamic of our relationship in what I personally find to be a very descriptive nutshell. Are you ready?"
Now Coulson rolled his eyes. "Stark -"
"Fake. Death." Stark replied. He suddenly turned his attention to Neal and Peter. "Am I wrong? Wait, why am I asking you? What do you even know about it?"
"Perhaps if we could get back to talking about the painting?" Peter suggested.
Neal couldn't help but notice a decided lack of any space in the apartment that indicated a spot where a painting the size of the Hickman was missing. Which prompted Neal to ask, "How did you even know it was gone?"
Everyone looked at Neal curiously, so he continued. "The Hickman. It wasn't kept in this room and, well, Mr. Stark, you once bought a Pollock and immediately locked it away in storage." Not that Neal was still appalled by that or anything. "So you don't strike me as the kind of guy who keeps intimate tabs on his collection."
"Neal…" Peter said, in a low voice of warning.
Stark tilted his head as he studied Neal, "That's remarkably specific knowledge about my things considering that at no time was there any kind of announcement about what I did with the Pollock."
Neal tried to shrug it off. "I'm something of a dabbler in the art world."
"Hmm." Stark took a step back, then walked towards the windows that provided an expansive view of the Chrysler building and the rest of Manhattan beyond. "JARVIS, how did he know that about my painting?"
Neal looked around to try to see who Stark was talking to. Then an electronic voice, polite and with a British accent, spoke up. With it came pictures that appeared one by one along the windows of Stark's apartment.
"Neal Caffrey," the voice said, as Neal's last prison headshot appeared. It was followed by various scans of Neal's paperwork. "Convicted for bond forgery. Suspected of counterfeiting, securities fraud, art theft, and racketeering. Known aliases include Nicholas "Nick" Halden, Steve Tabernacle, Benjamin Cooper - "
"Those are confidential FBI files," Peter said, looking none too thrilled about their appearance outside of the Bureau's offices.
"He didn't get them from me," Coulson promised. He shot a glare over at Stark.
"Protip: the FBI needs to spend more than, like, five cents on their security system." Stark, utterly unperturbed, waved a hand to dismiss the pictures. "I'd recommend StarkTech but I'm pretty sure you can't afford me. But my question of the day is why, when I ask for help with a stolen painting, do I get an art thief in my living room? I assume he's not here to make a confession."
"Alleged art thief," Neal said, so the distinction was clear.
"He's a consultant," Coulson told Stark.
"I think I'd only want to consult with a criminal if I was looking to commit a crime," Stark replied.
Out of the corner of his eye, Neal spotted Banner covering a smirk with his hand. Neal couldn't tell who Banner was responding to, though, or who he was trying to hide the expression from.
Coulson folded his arms and tried to stare Stark down. "Caffrey consults with the FBI on white collar crimes. He works with Special Agent Burke, who not only is one of the best agents in the white collar division, but who is kind enough to respond to my request to take on this case as a favor for a friend - "
"Whoa, wait, hang on a sec - " Stark tried holding up a hand to get Coulson to stop.
Coulson ignored him. "- because he can be trusted to be around information about SHIELD, the Avengers, and you and keep it quiet."
"Hold the phone everybody." Stark looked at all of them to make sure they wouldn't interrupt him before turning his attention back to Coulson. "Since when do you have friends?"
"You know, you're not the only one who had better things to do on a Saturday," Coulson said. "Or the only one who wishes he was anywhere but here right now."
Stark had already turned his back on Coulson. He crossed the room, pointing a finger at Peter. "You! How long have you known him? Please say since college. I will give you a million dollars in cash right now for your best, most embarrassing college story about him."
"Stark - " Coulson's voice had a warning tone.
"Five million if you can provide pictures." Stark's eyes lit up hopefully. "Please say you have pictures."
"There's no story, there are no pictures," Peter said. Neal recognized the expression of tired annoyance on Peter's face as he talked to Stark. It was the look Peter usually had towards Neal. "And if there were, not even you could pay me enough for them."
"What about you, Thomas Crown?" Stark asked, turning his attention towards Neal. He frowned, taking in Neal's appearance for the first time. "Seriously? With the hat? Nice Devore, though."
"Sorry," Neal said. "The only embarrassing pictures I have are of Peter." Off Peter's betrayed look, Neal added, as though the problem was simply that Peter had forgotten, "Mustache."
"You are not allowed to talk anymore," Peter told him.
"Hey, not everyone can pull off facial hair as well as I do," Stark said, giving Peter a look not unlike sympathy. "The crime is not admitting it. Who's drinking?"
"No one," Coulson said. "It's morning."
"And I'm awake which means even less reason for me to be sober," Stark replied. He walked around to the other side of the bar and grabbed a bottle of what looked like whiskey. "Anyone? Suit yourselves. More for me."
Peter flipped open the file folder to the picture of the Hickman and held it out to Stark. "The painting, Mr. Stark?"
Stark took a step back from the file. "I don't like being handed things. You know if you really were a friend of Phil's you'd probably know that."
"I'd only mention it if I was a friend of yours," Coulson said. "I find that greatly stretches the definition of our relationship."
Neal noticed Banner had quietly left the bar to go stand by the windows. Seeing that Peter and Coulson were both doing their best to get Stark to pay attention for more than a second, Neal decided to follow a hunch. He relaxed his posture and sauntered over to stand near Banner as though he, too, was only interested in taking in the view.
After a few moments of patient silence, Banner spoke.
"I'd, uh, apologize for Tony but - " Banner looked over his shoulder at where Stark was saying something to Coulson while making huge, expressive motions with his hands that, once Neal thought about it, actually looked vaguely obscene. " - he'd render it moot in about a second, so…."
"No apologies needed," Neal assured him. He flashed Banner a smile he hoped played off as friendly but not pushy. "Did your Saturday get ruined by the stolen painting too?"
Banner didn't hold Neal's gaze for long. With what seemed more like uncertainty than guilt, he began fiddling with the strap of his watch. It was, Neal noticed, a lot nicer than the clothes Banner was wearing. "Oh I wouldn't say that, exactly."
Sensing that Banner needed encouragement to open up, Neal lowered his voice as though confessing a secret of his own. "Peter really is the best. He caught me. Twice. If anybody can get this guy, it's him."
"With your help," Banner noted. His brown eyes moved away from the watch and back up to Neal.
"I'll do whatever I can," Neal said. He had a feeling modesty was going to get him further with Banner than bragging would. Maybe modesty and a touch of truth. "It's how I'm working off my sentence."
"Hm," Banner said, his tone non-committal. He glanced towards the bar - towards Stark, Neal noticed. Then, apparently having made a decision of some kind, turned his attention back to Neal. "It belonged to his father."
"The Hickman." Neal said. He thought about it. "That's why Stark noticed it was missing."
"Nobody would accuse Tony of being sentimental," Banner said with a shrug. "But…"
"Boys and their fathers," Neal finished, when Banner trailed off.
"Something like that," Banner replied.
"Neal!" Peter's voice cut through their conversation. He gave Neal the double finger point to summon him over. Neal replied with an innocent look to indicate he'd just been talking, but Peter had already turned away, safe in the assumption that Neal would come because he'd told him to. Neal tried not to be resentful of how, in this case, Peter was correct.
"Wow," Stark was saying, his voice laced with dry sarcasm. Coulson seemed to be the direct recipient of his remarks. "Why didn't I think of that? Provide the security footage of the painting being stolen. That is genius, that is brilliant. That's certainly not an idea I ever would've come up with - "
"We get the point," Coulson told him.
" - on my own," Stark continued talking right over him. "Since, you know, I'm so bad with technology and all. I mean It is amazing I even manage to turn the lights on around here - "
"Seriously, you can wind this down any day now," Coulson said. If anything, he looked bored.
" - because I find machines so obscure and frightening and - don't cameras steal away your soul?" Stark placed a hand to his chest in a pantomime of fear. "I recall hearing something about that. Good thing I stick to chiseling my ideas down on stone and living in the dark until the the gods of thunder create… okay that one got away from me, I'll admit it. Should've thought it through before I started. But come on. If I had footage of the theft don't you think I'd give it to you?"
"You? Hide something from SHIELD?" Coulson simply quirked his eyebrows up a notch. "Can't imagine why I'd suspect it."
"Yeah, and I can't imagine why I'd do it," Stark replied. He took a swallow of his drink. "But in this case I don't have to. I can't give you the footage because there isn't any. See, this is where I was hoping your little g-man buddies could fill in some of the blanks."
"I wouldn't call myself a g-man," Neal said.
"How does somebody get the drop on the famous Tony Stark technology?" Peter asked. "Was the footage erased or did it not get recorded?"
Stark refilled his glass. "See, again, that's where you guys come in. Aren't you supposed to be the big shots in this? You should be telling me what happened."
"I think this is as cooperative as he's going to be," Coulson told Peter.
"I resent being labeled as uncooperative when I've given you everything I've got on this," Stark said. "C'mon. There are plenty of better reasons to say I don't cooperate."
"We'll work with what we have," Peter said. He gathered up the paperwork and slipped it back into the manila folder. "See if we can't scare up some leads."
"Also plenty of reason to say I do cooperate," Stark added. "I mean I don't wanna bring up the nuke again because, let's face it, even I think it's starting to cheapen the moment - "
"The day you said I had to get you a latte because you flew a bomb into a portal is precisely when you cheapened the moment," Coulson told him.
"In my defense it was pumpkin spice," Stark replied. "Special occasion. And my point now is I think I've earned a little extra legwork from people who are alive because of me. Just saying."
"We're done here," Coulson said. He pushed away from the bar and headed towards the elevator.
"Man, you weren't kidding about the way he constantly runs his mouth," Peter muttered as he walked beside Coulson.
Coulson's lips hinted at a smile. "Why would I make up a detail like the way he constantly runs his mouth?"
"Neal." Peter jerked his head to indicate Neal needed to catch up. "Let's go."
"Right. Yeah." Neal started to come forward. Then, following another hunch, he pivoted once he passed the bar and held his hand out to shake. "Mr. Stark, I just wanted to say it was a real honor to meet you."
Stark hesitated for a half second, then clasped Neal's hand in return. "It always is."
"I look forward to seeing you again," Neal added. He turned to resume the walk towards the elevator -
- and discreetly slipped one of Stark's $11,000 cufflinks into his coat pocket.
"There are so many reasons I don't regret not working for SHIELD," Peter said, once the two of them were inside of Peter's Taurus. They'd said goodbye to Coulson outside of the Tower, with Peter promising to keep him posted on what they found out.
Neal looked up from his study of the printout of the Hickman. There was something about the painting which was bothering him, but he couldn't put his finger on what. However, at the moment, Peter was more interesting. "That was an option?"
Peter shrugged. "I had offers."
"Here I thought the Fortune 500 companies were the only surprising alternatives," Neal said. "So does your pal Phil regret not working for the FBI? Or is that only when he has to wrangle billionaires whose attention spans are as short as their wallets are large?"
"You were drooling back there, weren't you?" Peter asked.
"A little bit," Neal admitted. "Can you blame me?"
"Well," Peter said as they stopped at a light, "since you spent so much time thinking about it, tell me. How would Neal Caffrey go about stealing from Tony Stark?"
Neal looked over at Peter. "Hypothetically, right?"
Peter gave Neal his own version of an innocent look. "Of course."
"Then hypothetically I might notice he's too dependent on technology," Neal said.
"Considering the company he's in charge of, is that a bad thing?" Peter asked.
"It is if that's all you're using," Neal said. "It means your weakness is people. Sure, we had to go through all kinds of checkpoints to get to the elevator, but you and I sailed through because we were with someone who had access. Makes me wonder how far into the building someone could get with nothing but a FedEx uniform and a charming smile."
Peter looked over at him again.
"Hypothetically," Neal added.
"Inside job would explain the lack of security footage," Peter said.
"Over reliance on technology also explains why a thief wouldn't have a hard time once they knew how to get past the cameras," Neal said. "Stark believes in his tech so much he's got no plan B. Or another form of tech is the plan B. Where are the security guards? Where are the SHIELD agents looking to earn a little overtime? Okay he's got that guy who talks to him out of the ceiling - "
"Was that a guy?" Peter asked. "I figured it was Stark's version of that voice in the iPhones."
Neal shrugged. Technology like that wasn't exactly his forte. "Either way, for someone with all his money, he lacks people. Except that Banner guy. Who's he? And why were you so upset about me talking to him?"
Peter's mouth pressed into a thin line. They drove past another block before he said, "Officially, Dr. Bruce Banner is the world's foremost expert on gamma radiation. He acts as a consultant to SHIELD whenever they've got an issue with gamma radiation or any other aspect of nuclear physics."
"Uh huh." Neal watched Peter's face for any hints of what he was thinking. "And unofficially?"
"Unofficially nothing. But, as a random comment which, of course, has nothing to do with your question - " Peter glanced at Neal to see if he understood. Neal nodded. "I might ask if you remember seeing a big, green monster during the alien invasion."
Neal had. The news had considered the sight of the giant, human-like creature swatting an alien vehicle out of the sky to be a money shot on par with the one of Stark flying the nuke into the portal. Given what Peter had told him so far, Neal made a guess. "Banner created it?"
Peter snorted in something like laughter. "Eliminate the middle man."
It took Neal a second. "Banner is it?"
"Let that be a lesson in the dangers of gamma radiation," Peter said.
Neal tried to reconcile the images of the monster with the quiet, downright shy person he'd just met. "How?"
"According to Phil, it's triggered by anger," Peter said. He let go of the wheel long enough to indicate an explosion. "Fine enough guy when he's in a good mood, but get him ticked and, well, try not to get him ticked."
There were so many questions that immediately suggested themselves, but Neal had to go with, "Wait, why's a guy who really has to watch his temper hanging around with somebody like Tony Stark?"
"Welcome to Phil's nightmares," Peter said. This time his laugh was more obvious, though also more sardonic. "According to him, nobody at SHIELD gets it either. Supposedly they bond over science. But who knows? Maybe Stark got tired of channeling his death wish through his liver."
"Doesn't explain why Banner lets him," Neal pointed out. He drummed his fingers against his arm rest. "You said he contracts for SHIELD. What's that pay?"
Peter shrugged. "No idea. Why?"
"You must have some idea from what your friend makes," Neal said. "Ballpark it. Government salary? Not unlike yours?"
"I suppose." Peter looked over at Neal suspiciously. "Where are you going with this?"
"I find it interesting that a guy who depends on that kind of money is also sporting an $8,000 Jaeger watch," Neal said.
"Maybe if you can turn into a 900 pound green gorilla, you can ask for any salary you like," Peter suggested. He pulled to a stop in front of June's house. "Or do you think he's got other sources of cash?"
"I think there's more going on with Dr. Banner than his 900 pound green gorilla," Neal said. "I also think it's a lot easier to steal something right under Tony Stark's nose than he suspects."
Peter looked at Neal. "Do I want to know why you said that bit about stealing?"
"Probably not," Neal replied, and got out of the car.
"You robbed Tony Stark?" Moz gaped at Neal in horror. "Have you lost your mind?"
Neal put the cufflink on his dining table. "You know, I knew you were going to say that. I just thought it'd come after I told you I was going to give this back to him."
"You - you - "Moz pressed his hands to his temples. "Neal, why do we never use Stark phones?"
"Because you're paranoid?" Neal suggested.
"Because the man has a disregard for consumer privacy that has even Mark Zuckerberg telling him to take it down a notch!" Moz replied. He pointed at the cufflink accusingly. "He has ways of peeking into everything! And that's with devices that are made for communication. Who knows what kind of freaky robotic spytech he's put into that thing?"
"It's a cufflink," Neal said. "I don't think it's going to attack you."
"It's an article of clothing from the guy who wears a weaponized suit as his business casual," Moz replied. "Yeah, I'm sure it's just a cufflink. How could you bring this into our home?"
Neal quirked a single eyebrow upward. "'Our' home?"
"All right, not technically," Moz admitted. "But spiritually I have a stake in the health and safety of this abode just as much as you do. Which is why, unlike you, I never bring things here which could kill us or maim us or force us to spout poetry!"
"Well if the cufflink starts making you talk in couplets I'll tranquilize you for both our sakes," Neal promised. He shrugged out of his suit jacket and draped it over a chair. "In the meanwhile I'm pretty sure a guy like Tony Stark has better things to do than inflict you with iambic pentameter."
Moz waved a dismissive hand towards Neal. "This from the man who thinks the alien invasion wasn't an elaborate ruse to cover up how the New York City Comptroller was replaced with a life model decoy."
Normally Neal knew better than to ask, but - "Why the Comptroller? Why not the president? Or even the mayor?"
"Because that's exactly what everyone would suspect," Moz replied. "There are layers within layers of this, my friend. You're lucky I'm here to look out for you."
"I remind myself of that every day," Neal said. He meant it. Though probably not in the way Moz was thinking.
"As well you should." Moz motioned for Neal to step back from the table. "Touch nothing. I'm getting my equipment. Then we'll see what game this so-called superhero is playing."
Moz was a friend, so Neal waited until he was out of the room and down the hall towards the walk-in closet before sitting at his table. Neal pulled his laptop over and started searching. Not that he expected to find anything the FBI didn't already know, or SHIELD for that matter, but Neal was hoping something would jog his memory or give him a flash of inspiration about why the printout of the Hickman was bothering him.
Wikipedia refreshed Neal's memory on Hickman's life, including a mention of Howard Stark's interest in the artist's work during Hickman's final years. Which led Neal to trust his instincts that Banner hadn't lied to him back in Stark's apartment. At least, not about Tony Stark's personal connection to the painting. Neal didn't rule out that Banner might have lied about other things. Not that Banner had said much to begin with.
Neal started searching on pictures. He found some images of Hickman's earlier works, though not as many from his later years. Neal paused when he found a scanned copy of a newspaper photo which showed Howard Stark with the now-stolen painting behind him. According to the caption, the photo was taken in Howard Stark's New York office during the planning stages for the 1974 Stark Expo.
It didn't take many clicks from there to start pulling up images of Tony Stark. The family resemblance was obvious, particularly in comparison of one Stark Expo to another. There were more pictures of Tony than his father, though. Tony Stark at his Stark Expo. Tony Stark in front of a Congressional hearing. Tony Stark on the red carpet with business partner (and former girlfriend, the gossip sites noted) Virginia "Pepper" Potts. Tony Stark apparently at home and -
"I did not need to see that," Neal said. He pushed the laptop away.
Moz came back into the room. He peered over Neal's shoulder. "How many times do I tell you to keep safe search on?"
"Clearly I should've listened to you," Neal said. He closed the tab the photo was in. The model Stark was with was pretty, but Neal preferred his nudes more classical, and without the feeling that looking at them was an invasion of their privacy. Neal turned his attention back to Moz. And then stared. "When you said you were getting your equipment I didn't think you meant enough to take down the next alien invasion."
Moz began unloading a double armful of boxes onto the table. "When it comes to traps such as these, you will find that I always start with the bigger boat."
"The bigger boat was a quote from Jaws," Neal reminded him.
"And if you can think of a more apt comparison for Tony Stark, I welcome you to share it," Moz replied. He frowned at the cufflink, then went to Neal's kitchenette to rummage inside the drawers. When he returned to the table he was carrying a pair of salad tongs which he used to pick up the cufflink without touching it.
"I use those on food, Moz," Neal said, giving him a glare.
"Then my use of them now shouldn't bother you if this is truly a harmless object," Moz said. He moved the cufflink over to the first of his many devices that once belonged to the KGB. "We shall see which of us is in the right."
"If it's you you're getting me new tongs," Neal told him.
"Am I interrupting?" June asked from the doorway. Neal had left the door open for her, so she didn't slow her stride as she came in. She held up a slim volume of pictures she kept in her library. "Neal, was this the book you were thinking of?"
Neal took the book from her. The title read The Art of John Hickman, 1940-1950. It was just short of the time period of the stolen painting, but it was exactly what Neal had remembered seeing on June's shelves. "It is, thank you."
"What's this all about anyway?" June asked. She leaned over to look at what Moz was working on without getting in his way.
"It's a case Peter and I are working on with SHIELD," Neal said. He flipped through the book, his eyes skimming over one painting after another.
"With SHIELD and Tony Stark," Moz said. He gestured towards Neal with the tongs. "He's leaving off the detail that explains why his involvement with this case is a dubious idea at best."
"Tony?" June smiled. "You don't say. You know, I knew his father." Off of both Neal and Moz's looks, she shook her head. "Oh not like that. But we traveled in some of the same circles, back in the day."
"Really?" Neal motioned for June to sit if she wanted. "What was he like?"
"I only ever saw him at events," June said as she made herself comfortable in the chair next to Neal. "Charity functions and the like. He was a very driven man. Almost always working. Much like his son is now, I suppose."
"Was he a big fan of art?" Neal asked.
"Oh no," June said. "At least, not that he was known for. He did buy art, but he never struck me as the sort who did it for personal pleasure. I don't think he could've told you Monet and Manet were different painters."
"Interesting," Neal said. He stopped flipping through the book. His attention was caught by the picture of a nighttime landscape of Hickman's titled Saranac Lake. It depicted an area not far from the place shown in the stolen painting. And yet Neal noticed several key differences. "Do you think Howard Stark would've - "
"Ah!" Moz yelped. There was a spark at the end of the table, then a splash as Moz flung the cufflink into his ever-present glass of Neal's wine. "I told you! I told you it was an item of malevolent intent!"
"Are you all right?" June asked.
"Moz, what the hell?" Neal added.
Moz gestured at the glass with the salad tongs. "It's a bug. Stark's been spying on us this whole time."
"It doesn't make sense," Neal said. He knew he was repeating himself, but he couldn't help it. No matter how many times he and Moz had gone over it since June had left them alone, Neal couldn't make the pieces fit together.
"Hm. Tony Stark does something which doesn't make sense." Moz held up a fresh wineglass - since his previous one still had the cufflink in it - as though to toast the occasion. "Quite the newsflash. Stay tuned for film at 11."
"Why would he wear a bug?" Neal asked.
"Not unreasonable distrust for SHIELD and the FBI?" Moz suggested. "I'd do much the same, if I were in his position."
"We were in his home," Neal said. "If he wanted to record what was going on he could've hidden the bugs anywhere in the room. Not like we would've known where to look."
"What about Friend of Suit?" Moz asked. "He works with Stark. Maybe he would've noticed something."
"Maybe." Neal ran through his memories of the morning's meeting. "But again it doesn't make sense. Stark'd just gotten back from somewhere. He didn't even have time to change out of his tux, let alone switch his cufflinks for bugged ones. I don't think it was our meeting he was trying to record."
"Don't suppose he was thoughtful enough to mention who he met with before you?" Moz asked.
"Nope." Neal gestured towards his laptop. "Gossip sites were no luck either. Wherever he went, he didn't have cameras on him. Which brings us to the next thing that doesn't make sense: why no security footage of the theft?"
"You and I would have vastly curtailed careers if all security cameras were infallible," Moz pointed out. He took another sip of wine.
"A tech failure for a guy who's got both Tony Stark's brains and paranoia?" Neal replied. "You don't trust his factory-made phones but suddenly his personal security is hit or miss?"
"I see your point," Moz conceded as he put his glass back down. "So we have unknown reasons for bugging, and mysterious failure of security. What else?"
"I think the painting's a fake," Neal said.
Moz threw up his hands. "Of course it is. Heaven forfend there be a part of this which doesn't have mysteries and lies attached to it. What's left? Are you sure you were in Stark Tower today? Perhaps it was a SHIELD linen closet decorated with Iron Man toys."
"Surprisingly he doesn't actually have those all over his living room," Neal said. He sat forward as he thought about Moz's point. Sure he'd been in Stark Tower, but still, it wasn't like that had given him the information he needed. Though that wasn't to say the information wasn't there. An idea occurred to Neal."Moz, how soon do you think you could whip me up a plausible ID for Stark Industries?"
"It all depends on your definition of 'plausible'," Moz replied. He looked at Neal suspiciously. "Why? What are you planning?"
Neal stood and started to unbutton his shirt. "I'm going to see how far I can get into Stark Tower using a uniform and a smile."
It was nighttime when Neal returned to Stark Tower. Moz had needed a few hours to mock up an ID, and Neal knew the ploy he was about to try wouldn't work as well during the day.
Research on the usual gossip and celebrity stalker sites had failed to turn up any signs of Tony Stark out and about in Manhattan. But it was a Saturday night and it was Tony Stark, so the odds were still in Neal's favor. Plus the general consensus was that if Stark wasn't partying, he was working. Both options meant he wouldn't be in his apartment, which was exactly where Neal wanted to break into.
He just had to get past security first.
The uniform he'd gone with, so to speak, was everything dark, form-fitting, and easy to move in. In this case it meant black jeans, thin black turtleneck, and a buttery-soft black leather jacket with matching gloves tucked into the pockets. The perfect outfit for stealing about - both figuratively and literally - in the night.
Coincidentally it was also the perfect outfit to suggest that Neal had perfectly legitimate reasons to be trying to get into a well-secured apartment well past the hour when normal people would be visiting. Moz always griped that Neal's looks opened more doors than any lockpicks ever could. Neal hoped tonight wouldn't break that streak.
It was late enough when Neal entered the lobby of the Tower that there wasn't nearly the amount of people that had been there in the morning. A few men and women in business suits walked through as they went from one place to another, but no one lingered. That was good. It meant there wasn't much to distract the security guard from seeing Neal when he walked in and purposefully strode for the same door at the back of the lobby that Coulson had led him and Peter to that morning.
As he got close, Neal pulled the fake ID Moz had given him out of his pocket. Neal kept his movements loose, suggesting actions born of muscle memory more than thought. He brought the fake ID up to the black box Coulson had swiped his own card against and kept moving, as though he'd had every right to expect that the light would turn green and the door would open except -
- Neal brought himself up short. He jiggled the door handle. When the door didn't open, Neal swiped his card again. Then again. Then one more time with a loud sigh. "Oh for the love of - Tony did you honestly change this again?"
"Can I help you?" The security guard - a Latina woman who looked to be in her early 30s - walked over to where Neal was standing.
Neal pretended to be startled that she'd heard him. Then he smiled, as though he was thrilled to see her. "Yes, thank you. I'm here to - oh!"
Neal took a step back, now schooling his expression and overall body language to seem apologetic once he had a look at the woman's name tag, which said Julia and had the Stark Tower logo on it. "Oh! Oh geez, I'm sorry. I didn't realize you don't have clearance for this. Thank you, really, for the offer. But I guess not, huh?"
Julia frowned in confusion. "What clearance?"
"You know." Neal gestured towards her name tag as though it was missing something. "The red and gold level? I don't see the insignia on your name tag. Which is a shame because I could use the help right now."
"What red and gold level?" Julia asked. Her frown grew deeper.
"This place'll drive you nuts with all the security and clearance, won't it?" Neal flashed her a grin like they were sharing a well-known joke. He then pulled out his cellphone and pretended to scan for numbers. "I swear half the time I don't even know what I don't know. Look, don't mind me. Sorry I bothered you. I'll just call… huh. No, he's in Japan. She's undercover. I could try Pepper but man I hate to bother her at this hour."
Neal had lowered his voice for the last part, as though speaking to himself. As he hoped, that encouraged Julia to try talking to him again.
"What are you trying to do?" she asked. She gestured back towards the front desk. "Maybe there's someone here I could contact for you?"
Neal pocketed his phone again. He ran a hand through his hair and let out a long breath like he was thinking her offer over. Then he looked back at her, leaning in and lowering his voice to suggest they were somehow peers in the conversation. "Okay, normally I wouldn't do this but Pepper's got enough to deal with without me calling her. So maybe there's a way you and I can talk without either one of us breaking anybody's clearance levels."
"I've got a lot of clearance," Julia said, as though Neal was the one who needed to be reassured about this sort of thing.
"I'm sure you do," Neal replied. He gave her a wink. "Which is why we both know I can't say anything and of course you never heard anything and neither one of us was ever here and all that stuff they love for us to parrot when we're being lectured in the security briefings, right?"
"Right." Julia's mouth curved into a smile, which told Neal he'd been right to assume at least some things were consistent across agencies. Namely that the grunts who dealt with the day to day security issues for SHIELD and Stark Tower could find all the rules and reminders about it to be as tedious to listen to as their counterparts at the FBI did.
"So without really saying anything," Neal continued, "you know how things have been a little crazy here since the incident the other night?"
Julia gave him a blank look. Which surprised Neal. He would've thought even the lowest level of security would've been told about something being stolen from the Tower. "The incident?"
"Never mind. No incident. Nothing happened." Neal quickly covered his surprise by making it look like he'd realized he'd said too much. Which had the added benefit of potentially being true. "Instead let's go with… you know how Tony - uh, I mean Mr. Stark - has been stressed lately?"
"Isn't he always?" Julie replied with a wry smirk.
"Man, isn't that the truth? Yeah, so Pepper asked if I could swing by. You know. To 'help' - " Neal mimed the air quotes " - Mr. Stark with his 'stress.'"
"Ohhhh." Julia nodded, as though she'd seen all this before - which was one of the things Neal had been counting on. Another note for Stark's file: his well-known lifestyle was as much a weakness for him as people were. "I gotcha. Wait here and I'll call - "
"No!" Neal managed to hit the right note of quick interruption without sounding like there was a real danger to him if she contacted someone in the building. "See, the thing is Pepper wanted me to surprise him. Which normally wouldn't be a problem but I guess they changed the security settings after the other night, so my card's not working." Neal held up his fake ID with a sheepish look, then quickly pocketed it before Julia could see any details. "That's why I was thinking I could try Pepper, but she's busy with the other thing and I hate to bug her when this is such a silly little problem but…"
"I could let you in," Julia said. She looked towards her desk to make sure no one was waiting for her. "I mean if it's just the card…."
"Are you sure? I don't want to get you in any trouble or anything." Neal pulled his phone out again. "Because I could call Pepper right now if it'll make you feel better."
"It's fine," Julia assured him. She swiped her card over the black box and held the door open for Neal when the red light turned green.
"You are a saint," Neal told her as he walked through the door. Then he gave her one of his most charming smiles. "Actually, would you mind getting the rest? That retinal scan always gives me a migraine."
Moments later Neal was in the elevator heading directly for the penthouse. He mentally reviewed the layout of the place as he remembered it from that morning. He'd have to be careful to try to snoop around for information without setting off any alarms or other security features that existed inside of the apartment. There were a few cabinets that might hold something useful. And the stairway to the left of the elevator had looked as though it might lead to the bedroom. Neal knew he couldn't count on having a lot of time, but he felt he had a good chance of being able to search through both of those locations before he had to make a break for it.
The two things in his favor were that, as far as Neal could tell, the only ways Stark could get back into his apartment were either the elevator or the landing pad outside. Neal had never seen the Iron Man outfit in person, but he was willing to bet flying armor made a fair amount of noise when it got close. Between that and the sounds of the elevator working, Neal figured he'd have plenty of warning if he needed to run or hide before he got caught.
What Neal didn't expect was for the elevator doors to open and for Stark to be sitting in the living room waiting for him.
"Wanna give me my cufflink back now, Caffrey?" Stark said with a smirk, and held his hand out expectantly.
Neal figured there was no point in pretending. He fished the cufflink out of his coat pocket and tossed it to Stark in an easy underhand. "Your security's got a few holes in it."
"Sometimes yes," Stark agreed. He caught the cufflink and gave it a quick glance. "But not for the reason you're thinking of. JARVIS would've stopped you if I didn't want you back here tonight."
"What if JARVIS makes a mistake?" Neal asked.
"Then there is a world of shit going down," Stark said. "To the point that a guy sneaking in with the offer of a stress-relief BJ would actually be a welcome distraction. No offense if I don't take you up on that offer now, though. I'm kinda getting spoiled on that end at the moment."
"No offense taken," Neal said. "Though I didn't actually need the details about why. If you wanted me back here why didn't you just ask?"
"Information." Stark got up from his chair. Neal noticed he was dressed down from that morning in an outfit of sneakers, jeans faded from wear, and a dark olive green polo shirt. "Also a test. Part of a job interview, if you will. Which is incredibly flattering for you, by the way. I rarely conduct these in person since it involves, you know, people. Drink?"
"Sure," Neal said, because there was no way he was going to turn down a free sample of Tony Stark's private stash twice in one day. "Does that mean I passed or is it still going on?"
"Still going on," Stark said. He walked over to the bar, leaving the cufflink by a few bottles already on the black countertop. He took a crystal whiskey decanter and two tumblers off of the glass shelves behind the bar and set them up so he could start pouring. "What makes you say my dad's painting was a fake?"
That answered the question of whether Stark had actually used the bug to listen in on Neal's conversations. Neal shrugged. "Besides my years of expertise?"
"Isn't that alleged expertise?" Stark asked with a smirk. He pushed a tumbler with two fingers worth of whiskey in Neal's direction.
"You could be an expert in art forgery without committing any," Neal pointed out. He took a seat on one of the bar stools. He silently saluted Stark with his drink before taking a sip of the contents. The whiskey had a rich, nutty flavor that Neal allowed himself a moment to savor before he continued. "It was the stars."
Stark took a swallow of his own drink as easily as if he was holding a glass of water. "Explain."
"Hickman was a scientist," Neal said. "An astronomer. The thing that made his landscapes unique was the attention he gave to the night sky. He used the land to frame what he liked to call the beauty of the galaxy. Which means he never got the position of the stars wrong."
"Except in Dad's painting," Stark guessed.
"Exactly," Neal said. "I compared a printout of the painting to another one of Hickman's that he did at nearly the same time. The locations aren't the same, but the timing and geography are close enough that the skies should match more. They don't."
"How many people would notice something like that?" Stark asked.
Neal thought about it. "Art history buffs? Anyone with a strong knowledge of astronomy? Anyone who stared at it long enough? To be honest, whoever did that painting did a poor job of making it look like a Hickman."
Stark smirked as though Neal had said something funny. "Could you do better?"
"Depends on why you're asking," Neal replied.
"I need a forger," Stark said. He took another swallow of his drink. "One who doesn't mind lying to government agencies."
"Which ones?" Neal asked.
"All of them." Stark lifted a single shoulder in a dismissive shrug. "Of course some people might consider that a bonus."
"Some might," Neal agreed, since most days he was one of them. "But why's a guy with your money need forgeries? Why not deal with the originals?"
"Because the originals are what's giving us a problem," a new voice said from over by the stairs next to the fireplace - the ones Neal suspected led to the more private rooms. Both Neal and Stark looked in that direction and saw Banner standing there. Unlike Stark, he was wearing the same clothes he'd had on that morning.
"I was getting to that," Stark said.
"You were taking too long," Banner replied. He walked over and took a seat on the second bar stool, angling himself so he could look at both Neal and Stark. "Nice seeing you again, Neal."
"He's my witness that you just said I was showing too much patience," Stark said. "Don't think I'm not going to bring that up at some later date."
"He needs to know the reason we're asking him to do this," Banner said.
Stark turned to Neal. "I will give you an offensively large amount of money in unmarked cash and/or the untraceable offshore accounts of your choice if you'll make these forgeries for me. How's that for a reason?"
"It takes a lot of money for me to consider it offensive," Neal said.
"I'm willing to bet it takes even more before I consider it large," Stark replied. He tilted his head thoughtfully. "You know, not unlike - "
"Stop it right there," Banner told him.
Stark huffed out a put-upon breath. "You don't even know what I was going to say."
"I think I could make a guess," Banner replied.
"You are no fun." Stark moved around behind the bar and produced a steaming mug of what looked like tea. He held it out to Banner then pulled it back before Banner could take it. "Actually, forget it. I'm saving this for your other half. At least he gets my humor."
"Only because you're both about as mature as a pair of four year olds," Banner said. Though he looked amused, which was not the emotion Neal would have guessed Banner would have about someone joking about… a man with his condition. "Actually some days I think he's got you beat."
"Without a doubt," Stark agreed. He gave Banner the mug - Neal saw from the tag that the tea was chamomile - and Banner accepted it easily. "But let's admit I am better at negotiating in any and all situations that don't require a smash at the end of them."
"Not that you're wrong," Neal said, hoping Banner wouldn't mind him cutting in on the conversation, "and not that I'm turning down the job or the money. But if I'm being asked to lie to every government agency I'm going to need more information before I make my decision. Particularly since it involves lying to the FBI."
"The FBI," Banner asked, his brown eyes looking at Neal thoughtfully, "or Agent Burke?"
Neal shrugged. "It depends on what I'm being asked to lie about."
Banner and Stark exchanged a look. Then, apparently after some silent agreement, Stark gestured for Banner to go ahead.
"What you noticed in the painting was a code," Banner said. "Or part of one. The difference in the placement of the stars creates a sequence that, once the code is cracked, ties to a formula Tony's father did some work with."
"Dad was a genius but he couldn't always do what he wanted," Stark said. He used the hand holding his drink to indicate the various spots around the living room clearly dedicated to Stark's work. "Sometimes because he was limited by the technology that was available. Sometimes because his lab partner was killed by Nazis. When little roadblocks like that cropped up, Dad would hide his notes with the hopes that in the future a smarter person, such as myself, would find them."
"Like in the painting," Neal said.
"Like in several paintings," Stark replied. "Look to the Adirondacks No. 3, remember? It's actually a set of six."
"Sounds like a complicated formula," Neal said.
"Have you ever heard of the Super Soldier Serum?" Banner asked.
"As much as anyone else has." Neal shrugged. "That's what made Captain America, right?"
"Right," Stark said. "And, for our purposes, incredibly accurate. As in it made Captain America, period, full stop. That would be when our pals the Nazis stepped in."
"The man who created the formula was Dr. Erskine," Banner said. "He was killed before he could make any record about what made the attempt on Cap successful. No one's been able to recreate his results since then. But many have tried."
"Tried, using what notes they did have," Stark added. "All stuff cobbled together after the fact by people who weren't as involved or as smart as my dad was."
"Which got people far," Banner said, "but not far enough."
"Now Dad wasn't a biologist by any stretch of the imagination." Stark finished off his drink and poured himself another glass. Neal noticed Banner watching Stark closely, though he couldn't say for certain if the concern in Banner's eyes was related to how much Stark was drinking or about something else. "But - well let's say he hated to see good science go to waste. Or maybe he wanted one more up on the Nazis. Or any number of motivations. Regardless, he took notes on what he could remember, if not understand, about Erskine's formula. The next step was hiding it."
"Inside the forgeries," Neal guessed.
"Except they aren't forgeries," Banner said.
Neal felt some of the puzzle pieces fit together. "Your father's sponsorship of Hickman. He paid him to make the paintings."
"A love of starry skies does not, apparently, beat a desire to make sure your wife and kids have something to live on after you're gone," Stark said. "Hickman had cancer, Dad had money to burn. Match made in misplaced constellation Heaven."
"Nobody knew about Howard Stark's hidden records of Erskine's formula," Banner added.
Stark used his glass to indicate Banner. "Hell, I didn't even know until Bruce and his enormous - "
"Tony," Banner warned, but his mouth was quirked in a smile.
"What? Brain. Honestly, you're the one who's got a fixation here, not me," Stark told him. He turned back to Neal. "Anyway, genius over there figured it out when he saw the picture of the painting in response to the noise SHIELD picked up about a theft."
"The noise which, by the way, was true," Banner said.
"The theft, however - " Stark made a so-so motion with his hand.
Neal had to laugh. "Which explains the lack of security footage."
"It's not often I tell SHIELD something that's not a total lie," Stark said. "They should be treating this like a gift."
"Assuming they ever find out," Banner said, though he looked amused as well.
"But why fake it?" Neal asked. "Wasn't the possibility of someone stealing it enough?"
"Wanting to steal from me? Not uncommon," Stark explained. "Wanting to steal something of mine that isn't tech? Slightly unusual. The desire to do so coming from the corners of the world SHIELD keeps its eyes and ears on instead of, say, one of your BFFs? Big red flag. I knew I needed to get my hands on more data without giving away what information I already had. Saying one of the paintings got stolen was a great way to do it. All of the help without having to show anything."
"Except the photo of it," Neal pointed out.
"Just the one," Stark said. "That one was already common knowledge thanks to Dad making sure to get his picture taken with it. There weren't any pictures of the other five. I checked."
"So what are you looking for?" Neal asked. "Sounds to me like the paintings are safe, the formula was found again - isn't this a happy ending?"
"That assumes we want the formula to be found," Stark said. He looked Neal in the eyes. "We very much do not."
Neal didn't particularly care one way or the other, but he had to ask. "No more Captain Americas?"
"The formula doesn't do that. Not anymore," Banner said. He looked down contemplatively at his tea as he pushed the still full mug out of reach. "Even if this was all of what Erskine knew - which it isn't - nobody's using it to make the next Captain America."
"What are they trying to make?" Neal asked.
Banner's mouth twisted into a humorless smile. "Me."
"But aren't you one of the good guys?" Neal asked before he could stop himself.
"There are those who have that opinion," Banner said, and once again his eyes flickered towards Stark. "But the Other Guy - the Hulk - is still dangerous."
"Besides, fond as I am of jolly green," Stark said, "the people who are working on the formula these days are trying to make a version that could be summed up as being for those who like the Hulk, but wish he wasn't quite so laid back. And that's the folks in our country. Fuck knows what our enemies would like to try."
"Normally I'm not the kind of guy to suggest this," Neal said, "but if the paintings are that dangerous why not destroy them?"
"That won't stop the research," Banner said. "Or tell us who was trying to take the paintings."
"Which would be where you come in," Stark said. "And my offer for the offensive amounts of cash in exchange for some forgeries and never telling anyone about what you did."
"Our hope is that the forgeries will provide some protection," Banner said. "So that even if the thieves or any of the government agencies investigating this figure out something was off in the one painting, the lack of code in the other five will keep the information safe."
"Not just the information," Stark said. His dark eyes were locked on Banner so hard that Neal suspected not even a Hulk could've pulled him away.
Banner sighed. "Tony - "
"They get the information, they have more reason to come after you," Stark snapped. "That's the part I give a shit about. Fuck the paintings."
Neal didn't know why they'd be after Banner, but understood the desire to keep government agencies at bay. "I'll help. I'm in."
"Thank you," Banner said.
"There's one condition," Neal said. He looked back and forth at both of them. "I have to tell Peter."
"What part of never telling anyone was unclear?" Stark asked.
Neal held up a hand for patience. "Hear me out. Peter is good at his job. If you want some to help flush out your art thief wannabes, it's him. But more to the point, Peter is smart. It won't take him long to figure out there's more going on with this case than meets the eye. Once he knows that, he won't stop until he gets the full story. He especially won't stop if he even thinks I'm hiding something from him.
"On the other hand," Neal continued, "Peter is a good guy. He believes in justice, not blind obedience. He knows that just because someone works for the government doesn't necessarily mean they're on the right side. Which I'm guessing is something you picked up on when you first hacked into my file and decided to work with me instead of any number of forgers out there."
"Not entirely untrue," Stark said, giving Neal a nod of acknowledgment.
"Peter believes in me," Neal said. "He's had my back when it could've cost him his career any number of times. I can bring him in on this enough that he'll help without needing the full story."
"Are you sure?" Banner asked.
"Absolutely," Neal said. "I do the things he can't and I make sure he doesn't cross the line of plausible deniability. It's been our working relationship for years."
Banner quirked both eyebrows upward. "Would he agree with you describing it that way?"
Neal flashed Banner a smile. "Well, if he admitted that he couldn't exactly deny it, so…"
"I don't like it," Stark said.
"Put the bug back on me if it makes you feel better," Neal told him. "You can listen in on the entire conversation. But let's be honest, you're already trusting me to know this much and not go and tell the FBI, or sell information about the paintings to the highest bidder. Trust that I'm right when I say we can bring Peter in on this."
"I am barely trusting you, Caffrey," Stark said. "Why exactly am I extending that trust even further?"
Neal took a gamble that an honest confession would keep Stark from getting pissed at him for pointing out the elephant in the room. "Because I know what it's like to be willing to do anything to protect the person you love."
Stark didn't look at Neal. But that was only because he was once again looking at Banner.
"You can talk to Peter," Banner said.
Neal showed up at Peter and Elizabeth's house after sleep, a change of clothes, and a stop for some cinnamon rolls and croissants. The sunlight was still the pink-orange of the start of the day when Peter opened his door.
"Already I don't like this," Peter said.
"What?" Neal asked.
"You're here first thing on a Sunday, unannounced, with pastries, and you have that look on your face which means I'm not going to approve of what you're about tell me," Peter said.
"This is my normal expression," Neal said.
"Exactly," Peter said, but he stood aside to let Neal enter.
Not much later Peter and Neal were sitting in the Burkes' backyard with cooling cups of coffee on the patio table, buttery crumbs on napkins, and Satchmo asleep in a spot that managed to be exactly in between Peter and Neal's feet. El was inside so Peter and Neal could have their privacy.
"I had plans for this weekend," Peter said. "El had a list. I was going to repair things. Maybe clean out the gutters. Try to understand what I'm saying here as I'm telling you I am fondly thinking of that instead of this whole Stark situation."
"We've done similar things in the past," Neal pointed out.
"Which of our cases was similar to Iron Man and the Hulk wanting us to commit fraud for them?" Peter asked. "Because I have to tell you I'm racking my brain and nothing's coming to mind."
"Well there was the one with the comic boo - " Neal started to say, but stopped when Peter gave him a look. "All right, fine. But technically speaking this isn't fraud. Stark asked me to make some paintings for him. Fraud would only come into play if he sold them as something they weren't, which he isn't going to do."
"Mm-hm." Peter didn't look convinced. "And we trust Stark, who by your admission has already lied to us about the theft, because…?"
"He was doing it for the right reasons," Neal said. "C'mon. Tell me you wouldn't do something similar if it meant protecting Elizabeth."
"I question what Tony Stark considers right reasons," Peter said. He frowned. "Wait, who's El in this? Didn't he break up with that Potts woman?"
"Remember how we wondered why Banner hangs around?" Neal replied.
"Oh God." Peter pinched the bridge of his nose. "No wonder Phil looks so stressed all the time."
"They seem quite happy together," Neal said, in case it might help. Peter shot him another look. "Right, not the point."
"What's your angle?" Peter asked.
"Why do I have to have an angle?" Neal replied.
"Because Neal Caffrey never met a line he couldn't try to bend," Peter told him. "Damn it, Neal, I told you this case was important!"
"Which is why I came to you!" Neal said. He leaned in, lowering his voice. "Peter, Stark thinks somebody within the government is trying to use the paintings as a ruse to hurt him or steal his technology. He didn't even want to include you in the plans! I insisted. I told him he could trust you."
"Why does he trust you?" Peter asked.
"I have that kind of face?" Neal guessed. He grew serious when he saw Peter's thunderous expression. "Okay. Fine. He may have offered me money in exchange for my help."
"Oh this keeps getting better," Peter said. He sat back in his chair. "May have offered you money?"
"Did," Neal admitted. He cleared his throat. "He did offer me money. But just a little!"
Peter's eyebrows raised. "A little."
"For Tony Stark, sure." Neal tried giving Peter one of his more charming looks.
"You turned him down, of course," Peter said. When Neal didn't reply right away, Peter glared. "Neal - "
"It was hard enough getting him to agree to let me talk to you!" Neal said. "I knew you'd want me to do whatever it took to keep the case alive. How would it - you - look if we blew our moment of inter-agency cooperation because Stark told us to get lost?"
"Oh, so this is all for my benefit now?" Peter asked.
"Exactly," Neal said.
"Why were you at Stark's apartment last night again?"
"That's not really relevant to the discussion," Neal told him.
Peter sighed. "All right. We will help. But we will do this my way. Which means no more surprises from you."
"Absolutely. Oh! Except you might want to know that I kind of gave one of Stark's employees the impression that he and I were f - " Neal trailed off when he saw Peter gripping his butter knife as though remembering that it could be used as a weapon. "Actually, uh, never mind."
"I've decided there's no part of this that I like," Peter told him.
"There are going to be rules," Peter said. It was late Sunday morning and they were back in Stark's penthouse. Stark, Banner, and Neal were seated on the dark brown leather chairs that circled the sunken shag carpet in the living room. Neal tried not to get too distracted with pondering how much money was represented in the small part of Stark's property that was within his arm's reach. Stark's fingers were in constant motion over his phone with what Stark swore was work in spite of the occasional bells and chimes that sounded like an arcade game. Banner sat closest to Stark, his posture relaxed but attentive. Peter stood a step above them, holding court like they were back at the Bureau and he was addressing his junior agents.
"I don't like that word." Stark screwed up his face as though he'd tasted something foul. "Rules."
"You're free to hate them," Peter said, completely unaffected by Stark's pouting. "But if you want me and Neal to help, you will follow them."
Stark looked like he was about to say something, but Banner spoke over him. "What do you need us to do?"
"This case needs to be on the up and up," Peter said. "If I'm turning a blind eye to the things Neal says that I am - "
"Which, officially, is nothing," Neal interjected.
" - then everything else has to be as clean as possible," Peter continued. "We can't run the risk of some misspelled name or dubiously acquired evidence giving anyone a reason to look closer."
"I like it better when I can pay people to stop looking," Stark said. He appealed to the room in general. "Are we sure that's not still an option?"
"I'm going to pretend you didn't just essentially offer to bribe government officials," Peter told him.
"Who said I meant you?" Stark replied with a grin.
"I don't think we have any problem with keeping the investigation legal," Banner said. "We want the bad guys put away just as much as you do."
"Good, because we're going to have to do some work to get there," Peter said. "Thanks to Mr. Stark's lie about the theft - "
"A tiny fib." Stark drew circling motions in the air. "Surrounded by quite a few expertly crafted truths."
" - we don't have anything we can arrest someone for," Peter continued, ignoring him. "Not that we have a someone to arrest in the first place."
"The threats SHIELD found aren't enough evidence?" Banner asked.
"Could've been just talk." Peter shrugged. "Believe me, if I could arrest someone for thinking about committing a crime, my life with Neal would be a lot easier."
"Or more complicated," Neal pointed out.
"You say things like that as though I want to hear them," Peter said. "You would be wrong."
"Not another word," Neal promised, a hand over his heart. "Well, on that topic anyway."
"Speaking of Neal," Peter continued, "let me say on his behalf that, while Mr. Stark's offer was very generous, Neal will be turning down the money."
"I never actually said I was turning down the money," Neal told him.
Peter shot him a glare. "Fine. Then I'll put it this way: if Neal accepts so much as a single cent from Mr. Stark or anyone else, he will be in violation of his agreement with the FBI. Which means that he will go right back to prison for the remainder of his sentence. I may even escort him personally. How's that?"
"Very nice," Neal said. "Not at all humiliating, in case you were wondering."
"Why'd you even tell him?" Stark asked, lowering his phone just enough so that he could look at Neal.
"Like I'm not second guessing that decision now?" Neal replied.
"What did I just say?" Peter asked him.
"That's fine," Banner said, even as Stark looked like he was about to protest. "We certainly don't want to get anyone into trouble."
"Finally," Peter said, "I want one of my people embedded with you, Stark, to pick up any clues and evidence that can only come from being on the ground. The person I have in mind is - "
"Me," Neal said.
"Diana," Peter said, frowning at Neal. "What do you mean you?"
"I have to help with the paintings," Neal reminded him.
"Yeah, so you won't be here," Peter said.
"Hang on." Stark snapped his fingers to get their attention. "Who's this Diana?"
"One of Peter's agents," Neal said, hoping Stark would pick up on the implication. "Kind of his right hand woman."
Stark looked thoughtful. "Is she hot?"
"She has a girlfriend," Neal told him.
"Even better," Stark said, turning his attention back to his phone. "Bruce and I think four is a lovely number."
"Do we now?" Banner asked.
"Technically speaking you and I have always been a threesome, hot stuff," Stark replied. He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Which I guess would actually make our favorite number in this case five."
"Could you not sexually harass my agents when they aren't even in the room?" Peter asked. "Or ever?"
"Could, yes," Stark said. "Want to, on the other hand - "
"It's fine," Banner spoke before Stark could say any more. He fiddled with his watch band. "Your suggestion, I mean. We know you're doing us a favor, Agent Burke. Whoever you want to put here is fine by us."
"Glad that's settled," Peter said.
"We'll just have to make accommodations for the gamma signature in the paintings," Banner added.
"Right," Peter said. He blinked. "Wait, what?"
Banner looked up as though surprised to be asked the question. "The gamma signature. Sorry, I assumed Neal had explained it."
"I hadn't gotten to that part yet," Neal said. Mostly because he didn't know what Banner was talking about, but something told him to act like he did.
"Oh. Well Hickman painted the originals while with Tony's father," Banner said. "At the time Howard Stark was doing experiments with gamma radiation. Which means the paintings have a faint gamma signature from their exposure. If Neal's forgeries are going to pass the sniff test, they'll need to have the same signature. I mean I assume that'd be something a knowledgeable authenticator would look for."
"Absolutely," Neal said when Banner glanced in his direction. "I mean it'd be one of the first ways to spot a fake. Radiation's kind of annoying like that, if you're into forgery."
"So we'll have to work our way around it," Banner said. "We assumed Neal could do the paintings in the Tower's labs but we're not tied to that. Tony, you've got a portable gamma emitter, right?"
Stark made a dismissive sound. His fingers stayed in constant motion on the screen of his phone. "Hello, I have twelve."
"There we go." Banner inclined his head towards Stark as though that solved their problem. "Of course Neal couldn't use that in a residential zone but one of the FBI's crime labs should have the safety measures in place that would let him use it there."
"Fine," Peter said. "We'll do that."
"'Course that means borrowing my tech," Stark said, picking up where Banner left off. He tilted his chair back so he could prop his feet up on the glass coffee table. "Means, actually, a government agency borrowing my tech, which I tend to be a little antsy about."
Peter gave him a dry look. "What, you want a security deposit?"
"Please." Stark waved him off. "Like you could even afford it. No, I'd just want someone keeping an eye on it to make sure that it doesn't get stolen."
"Okay," Peter said. "Send one of your people."
"I would," Stark said. "Except this is gamma and it relates back to the paintings and the whole point of this is the fewer eyes on it the better. Plus you'd need someone smart enough to actually operate the gamma emitter - "
"Oh no," Peter said. Realization came over his face. "No way."
" - which narrows the list of possible names down to… me." Stark grinned. "Looks like the FBI and I are going to get cozy. How long'd you say this was going to take, Caffrey? A week?"
"Oh at least," Neal agreed.
"I'm going to need those labs stocked with good coffee," Stark said. "And an office of my own so my work doesn't suffer while I'm indisposed."
"Fine." Peter threw up his hands in defeat. "Neal, you stay here. Don't make me regret this."
"I can't imagine why you'd think I would," Neal said, schooling himself into the very picture of innocence.
Banner, for his part, looked thoughtful. "Are you sure you're all right with this, Agent Burke? Helping us out means you're going to be keeping secrets from your friend."
"Phil once sniped me out of an eBay auction for a mint condition 'Sentinel of our Shores' Captain America card," Peter said. "We'll call this his karmic payback. Neal, let's work on setting up your alias and providing some cover for why you're spending time with Stark."
"Well there's an obvious reason that comes to mind," Stark said.
"Professionally," Peter clarified.
Stark shrugged. "Again - "
"Don't worry," Neal said to them. "I'm way ahead of all of you on this."
Peter narrowed his eyes at Neal. "What are you thinking of?"
Just then there was the sound of the elevator doors sliding open. Coulson appeared, holding a file in his hand. "Stark - "
Neal immediately got to his feet. He grabbed a Stark tablet off of a side table and intercepted Coulson before he could get more than a few steps into the room. "George Danbury, Mr. Stark's new assistant. I'm sorry, but do you have an appointment?"
Coulson stared at him. "I - "
Neal ignored him. He held up the tablet and hoped he'd watched enough of Stark with his tech to get this right. "JARVIS, can you please show me Mr. Stark's schedule?" Sure enough, a calendar appeared on the formerly clear screen. "Hmm, I'm not seeing anything that looks like Mr. Stark having time for you today. But I think I could pencil you in for five minutes say… two weeks from now?"
"Cute," Coulson said. He moved to go around Neal, holding out the file for Stark to take. "I need you to sign something."
Neal smoothly grabbed the file out of Coulson's hand. "I'm afraid Mr. Stark doesn't like being handed things."
"Was this your idea?" Coulson asked, shooting an exasperated look at Peter.
"Far as I'm concerned, he's hired," Stark said from where he was sitting. He turned to Peter. "Not kidding. What is that? 20% finder's fee for the FBI or do I just pay off everything he stole?"
"Neal's not for sale," Peter said, glaring at Stark.
"You could actually pay for all of that?" Neal asked. Off of Peter's look Neal immediately added, "Not that I've stolen that much. Or anything. Provably."
"I am so glad you're in charge of babysitting this particular circus," Coulson told Peter.
"Don't think I'm not planning revenge," Peter replied.
Peter pulled Coulson off to the side to, Peter said, coordinate the logistics of the continuing investigation. Neal knew it was actually Peter providing a believable explanation for why Neal was staying with Stark without giving away any details about why Neal was forging the paintings. Neal took a moment to admire how effortlessly Peter could spin his own web of lies and half-truths in the name of doing the right thing. He did it so well that sometimes not even Neal could tell when Peter was pulling a con. Not that Peter would ever call what he did any form of con artistry.
Speaking of which, Neal took advantage of the relative privacy to talk with Banner and Stark.
"Okay, I have to ask," Neal said, keeping his voice soft, "all those things you said about the radiation - "
Stark snorted a laugh. "Completely untrue. Brilliantly untrue, in fact."
"I may have lied a little," Banner admitted, with the same casual expression he'd used when talking about the radiation before. Only this time a sly smile touched his lips. Neal realized that Banner's green alter ego wasn't the only form of him that could be dangerous.
"You lied a lot," Stark told him. "Which reminds me - have I mentioned lately how hot you are when you use your brain to troll government agencies?"
"No, but thanks," Banner said.
"Because seriously." Stark gestured towards himself. "I could use my nipples to etch your name into the suit right now, they're that hard. To say nothing of - "
"I'm still standing here," Neal said, since apparently Stark needed the reminder.
"You say that like I'd change my behavior in any way if you weren't," Stark pointed out.
"Tony's ideas of appropriate behavior aren't… in existence yet," Banner explained. "We're working on it."
"I'm getting that," Neal said. "Though that does bring up my next question."
"Whether your tracking anklet is part of the whole D/s vibe with you and Agent Mulder over there?" Stark asked.
"No," Neal said, automatically. Then he realized the actual question. "Really no."
"I don't judge," Stark added.
"That is nowhere near the issue I had with your question," Neal told him. "What I was going to say is I think we need to bring one more person into this."
"Is that safe?" Banner asked.
"It's not a movie, Danny Ocean," Stark said. "You don't get to bring in 10 of your buddies just to fill out the title."
"Just one," Neal said. "The last one, I promise. I realized if we're actively lying to the government, we're missing a key player."
"Who?" Banner asked.
Neal considered several replies before deciding to go with, "A friend."
George Danbury's first day on the job started with Neal bringing donuts to the security desk in the lobby of Stark Tower.
"For me?" Julia asked, when she saw what Neal was carrying.
"Hot off the line," Neal said. He flipped open the box so she could see the selection. "My way of saying thanks for your help the other night."
Julia plucked a glazed donut out of the dozen. "Anytime. I take it everything's okay? Word is you'll be sticking around the next few days."
"What can I say?" Neal winked at her. "Tony wanted me to stay and give him a hand."
Julia groaned. Neal chuckled and helped himself to a donut while he waited for Moz to arrive.
It didn't take long for someone of Moz's height and build to appear. As for appearance -
"Is that guy wearing a fake beard?" Julia asked.
"He's with me," Neal told her. He hoped that would suffice for an explanation.
"Man, Stark really does take all types," Julia said.
"You have no idea," Neal said, thinking of Stark's actual boyfriend. He left the security desk to intercept Moz before he got too far. "Fake beard? Really?"
"Shhh!" Moz hissed. He turned away from Neal so it wouldn't look like they were talking. "Pretend you don't know me!"
"That sounds more tempting than you realize," Neal said. He tugged at Moz's shirt sleeve. "But we don't have time for this. C'mon. Nobody knows who you are. There's no need for the dead animal on your face."
"Nobody knows who I am because of careful planning on my part," Moz told him. "And how am I supposed to take it off in full view of everyone in this lobby and who knows how many security cameras? What will people think?"
Neal glanced over at Julia who was still watching them. "That today's activities don't include role play. Now let's go."
Moz blinked. "What do you mean role play?"
"Don't worry about it," Neal suggested. He led Moz to the doorway at the back of the lobby, grateful that this time he had a keycard that worked.
"I'm merely pointing out that I have an inalienable right to privacy," Moz said as the elevator brought them up through the Tower. He rubbed his jaw, checking for the last of the glue that had held his beard in place. "A right to control how much of me is available for anyone's consumption, let alone that of the person who just made us run a security gauntlet the likes of which has not been seen since the last time I watched the opening credits for Get Smart!"
Neal frowned. "Julia?"
"Stark!" Moz threw up his hands in frustration. "He probably took DNA samples from us while he was at it! To say nothing of what he could do with fingerprints and retinal scans."
"That was all me," Neal reminded him.
"Which was bad enough!" Moz replied. He shook his head. "No. I should never have let you talk me into this. Why did I let you talk me into this?"
"Because it involves an elaborate con against the government. You would've never spoken to me again if I didn't include you," Neal said.
"Oh." Moz drummed his fingers against his leather satchel. "I suppose your point is not entirely untrue. But so help me if I come to regret this!"
The elevator doors opened on a floor that was not Stark's penthouse. A wheeled mechanical arm stretched towards them. Its pincer fingers turned, then clicked together.
"I've come to regret it," Moz decided.
"Dummy, get out of there!" Stark's voice came from somewhere left of the elevator. Soon enough the man himself appeared. He wore dark jeans and a long sleeved shirt with a faded Nine Inch Nails Closer T-shirt on top of it. He held a white bowl in one hand that appeared to be filled with pomegranate seeds.
For a moment Neal thought Stark was talking to him, but the mechanical arm pulled away from the elevator and turned towards Stark.
"Go on," Stark told it. He pointed forward. "Go into the lab and do nothing until I come for you. Do less than nothing. Unless you can find Butterfingers before he breaks something in Bruce's lab. Actually, do that. Now. Shoo."
Neal stepped out of the elevator. "Mr. Stark - "
"Who's Hans Moleman and why is he in my elevator?" Stark asked. He cocked his head to the side as he studied Moz.
"This is the friend I told you about," Neal explained. "Moz - "
"Let's not quibble with names." Moz held up a hand to stop Neal. "All the Iron Suit needs to know is that the experts have arrived."
"What he doesn't know about fooling the government isn't worth knowing," Neal added.
Stark chewed on a handful of pomegranate seeds. "Yeah I tuned both of you out, like, an hour ago. He's with you. Whatever."
Stark walked off. Neal and Moz looked at each other quizzically, then followed along.
"This is the floor you'll be working on," Stark said, talking as though there'd been no break in the conversation. He pointed in various directions, each way leading to white and chrome-colored spaces filled with machinery Neal couldn't identify, but which certainly looked expensive. "Bruce's lab. My lab. If you need to get anywhere, JARVIS will give you directions. If there are places you need to be, JARVIS will let you in. Please tell me you're noticing the theme here so I don't have to keep explaining it."
"Got it," Neal said.
"Uh, who's JARVIS?" Moz asked.
"I am Mr. Stark's AI," said the polite, accented voice that Neal had heard on his first visit.
"He runs everything in the building," Stark added. He used his hip to bump open a glass door that led into an empty lab space.
"Oh good," Moz said. "So nice to know that we're on a first name basis with Skynet. That should bode well for us after the rise of the machines."
"It's what I'm counting on," Stark said. He spread his arms wide to indicate the whole of the space. "This is you. Do whatever to make the magic happen. Hopefully that's not literal."
"What about my cover?" Neal asked.
Stark shrugged. "Head downstairs sometime, introduce yourself around."
"A new guy shows up and says he's your assistant?" Neal asked. "That won't seem strange?"
"My assistant does whatever to make my life easier, which includes taking care of details like getting himself set up on the first day of the job," Stark said. He tossed another seed into his mouth. "Besides, if I went around saying hey, everybody, meet Greg - "
"George," Neal reminded him.
" - they'd think it was weird I even remembered your name," Stark finished, apparently both unaware of Neal's interruption or how he'd just proven his own point. "Or that I showed up for work. By the way, I'm not doing that."
"Remembering my name?" Neal asked.
"Showing up for work," Stark said. He set his bowl on top of a metal filing cabinet and sucked a stray bit of bright red juice off of his thumb. "I've got my own thing I'm going to be doing. I'll be in my lab the whole time. Anybody downstairs tries to get me out of there, tell 'em they can bite me."
"Hopefully also not literally," Moz muttered from behind Neal.
"Depends on who's doing the asking," Stark replied. He flashed a grin that Neal at first thought was aimed at Moz before realizing that Banner was now standing in the doorway behind them.
"Subtle," Banner said, though his mouth was twisted in a smile.
"Aren't I always?" Stark replied. He looked pleased when Banner snickered.
"Is this your friend, Neal?" Banner asked, nodding towards Moz.
"This is Mozzie," Neal confirmed. "Moz, this is Dr. Banner. "
"Ban - you mean Bruce Banner?" Moz's face - the only description Neal could come up with was lit up. He looked like a kid at Christmas. Or like the last time Neal had managed to stock his wine collection with a '59 Chateau Montrose Bordeaux. "Neal, how could you not tell me that Bruce Banner - the Hulk was involved?"
"I wasn't sure how," Neal admitted. "I mean considering how you get around hospitals I figured gamma radiation - wait, how did you know he was the Hulk?"
"I was wondering the same thing," Stark said.
"Please, we do not speak of these things," Moz said. He twirled his hand in an approximation of a worldly gesture. "Suffice it to say that I neither confirm nor deny the existence of online communities which may discuss certain events which allegedly happened at Culver University. Nor can I speak of how, if said topics are discussed, the understanding is that said events were not accidents."
"Oh," Banner said.
"You know what he's talking about?" Stark asked.
"Well if I did I couldn't exactly confirm it now, could I?" Banner replied. That sly look was playing about his lips again.
"Is what we're doing going to help you out?" Moz asked Banner.
"It very much is," Stark said, before Banner had a chance to reply.
Moz glared at Neal. "You should have told me."
"Obviously," Neal said, even though he felt it was anything but.
"We're going to need canvasses and pigments from the year the paintings were done," Neal said. They'd moved on to figuring out the details of how to set up the forgeries. Neal paced the space to determine where he wanted to arrange his supplies once he started painting. "Depending on how accurate you want these forgeries to be - "
"Extremely," Stark said.
" - then the best bet is other paintings from that same period," Neal said. "Bits of paint from the actual paintings would be better. If you let me or Moz spend some time with them we could take the samples we needed. "
"I'm devoting my life to chastity," Stark said. Off of Neal's confused look, he added, "What? I thought we were having a contest to state things that would never happen. Such as me letting you or anybody else see those paintings."
"We're not going to steal them," Neal said.
"Don't care," Stark told him. "Nobody sees the paintings, nobody sees the code. Find a way to forge them without it."
"You're quite paranoid," Moz said. He nodded in satisfaction. "I must commend you for it."
"You're not helping," Neal told him.
"I could take the samples," Banner said. "If you or Mozzie told me what you needed, I could get it."
"I'll make a list," Moz said. "And teach you how to get the pigments without causing undue damage to the paintings."
"It's going to be hard for me to forge something I can't see," Neal pointed out.
Stark grinned. "JARVIS, help us out here."
"Yes, sir," the AI said. Then the air around Neal was filled with one landscape after another. The six paintings surrounded Neal in a circle, each one showing a different view of the Adirondacks in holographic form. The images were so detailed that Neal could see right down to the brush strokes. Looking really closely, Neal could even see the flecks of dust that had embedded themselves deep into the grooves of the carvings in their wooden frames. He felt like he could touch the paintings, except for how they lacked the smells of oil and age their real counterparts undoubtedly had.
They weren't the paintings, but they were the next best thing to having them for a forger. Perfect down to the last inch. Except -
"There's no sky," Neal said, indicating the five paintings that were missing any features above the mountains.
"JARVIS is taking care of that too," Stark said. "Show him, J."
"I have taken the positions of the stars in the sky based upon the time the paintings were created," JARVIS said. The holograms changed as the stars were added in. "Based upon the artist's style, I have extrapolated what the paintings would have looked like."
"That's not going to work," Moz said.
"You're saying JARVIS got it wrong?" Stark asked, his eyebrows shooting up.
Moz sighed. "This is why you never send a scientist to do a con artist's job. Everyone knows about the first painting, right? The one you said got stolen?"
"It's the one that made it to the public eye," Stark confirmed.
"Precisely," Moz said. "It's out there enough that you have to assume you're not the only ones who figured out there's a code! You can't have one painting with a code and five without. At that point you may as well do the other five in crayon, because it will be obvious to even the most stupid of observers that they're not the real thing."
"We need to put a fake message in the others," Neal said, as he began to understand.
Banner folded his arms and stared at the paintings thoughtfully. "It'd need to work with the code in the first painting but not give any information away."
"But look like it's giving information away," Moz said. "People searching for a secret won't be happy until they find one. What you hide in there will need to be good enough to satisfy their curiosity."
"The arc reactors," Stark said.
Banner shook his head. "Tony - "
"It's something Dad worked on, it's something people would believe he'd want to keep secret." Stark hopped off of the counter he'd been sitting on. "It's something people would believe I want to keep secret - "
"Because you do," Banner replied.
"So it can go into the paintings," Stark said. He turned to Neal. "I'll give you enough details on specs for you to throw something in there."
"Over my dead body," Banner said.
"Ignoring you." Stark didn't turn around to face Banner, but he did hold up a hand as though to block him from going further. "Also you can't die."
"You wanna have this argument with him?" Banner asked.
"He adores me so he'd never argue," Stark replied. "Anyway, I'm not saying everything. Just some hints. Vague thoughts. Nothing that anybody who isn't me could figure out anyway."
"Even if that was the case, it wouldn't work," Banner said. "The one painting has code about the serum. Let me come up with the rest. I can create something that sounds plausible about the serum and gamma radiation but won't do anything if somebody decodes it and tries it."
Stark grimaced. "Yeah, but - "
"Remember the one thing the other guy and I agree on?" Banner asked, raising an eyebrow at him.
Stark stared at him for a long time before nodding. "Right. Okay. Fine. I'll be in my lab."
"All right." Banner stepped back so Stark could go past him.
When the three of them were alone, Neal had to ask. "What's the one thing you and the other guy agree on?"
Banner folded his arms. It was probably a trick of the light, but Neal could swear Banner seemed more solid, somehow.
"We protect Tony," Banner said.
While Moz and Banner worked on the new code, Neal took the time to meet the people in the building who were ostensibly his co-workers. He took a Stark tablet with him, which allowed JARVIS to discreetly supply him with information Tony Stark's assistant was supposed to have. Though, when possible, Neal played the clueless new employee as often as he could. It encouraged people to talk more, especially when Neal made a point of saying he would be sure to tell Mr. Stark how helpful they'd been.
Over the course of the morning Neal learned that Stark hired smart and rewarded it heavily. Those who worked for Stark found the man to be mercurial and egotistical, but more than worth it for the resources Stark put at their disposal. And that was to say nothing of the money. The stories of stock options and bonuses were almost enough to make Neal wish he'd paid attention in his science classes.
The flip side was that anyone who betrayed Stark was cast out, with their careers ruined if Stark had any say in the matter (and he often did). It was no surprise there had been mass defections when Stark had shut down the company's weapons program after his return from Afghanistan. For the most part those had been allowed, and former employees ended up working for rival companies like Hammer Industries or Novice.
It was after, when Stark moved his company into the clean energy business, that the line was drawn. Anyone found selling proprietary information to other companies, especially if the goal was to weaponize it, felt the full force of Stark's wrath.
Neal figured that meant anyone who did it was either clever enough to make certain the information they were holding was worth the risk, or too stupid to realize what they'd gotten themselves into.
Neal returned to the lab floor in time for lunch. He found Banner and Moz sitting at a table in the break room, talking about notes and frequencies and other things Neal couldn't follow. Stark was by the windows, his hands in constant motion over displays of graphs and blueprints while at the same time having what sounded like at least two separate telephone conversations.
"Any leads?" Moz asked.
"A few avenues that might be worth exploring," Neal said. He put his Stark tablet on an unused spot of the kitchenette counter. "Also phone numbers of various people who'd like me to call either when Stark gets tired of me, or if he's interested in having them join us in an orgy."
"People will do that," Banner said, not sounding surprised.
Neal sat across from him. On the one hand this was a dangerous topic of conversation, but on the other he figured better to talk it out with Banner before Banner's alter-ego decided to have the conversation with him. "That doesn't bother you? That people are assuming he and I are, well - "
"Forging?" Moz suggested.
"That," Neal agreed.
Banner shrugged. "Tony's reputation exists for a reason. It'd be more unusual if people weren't making that assumption about him. Though if that's not what you want as part of your cover - "
"Oh no." Neal waved it off. "I just figured it'd have to bother you. I can see myself being a little touchy about it if it was my boyfriend, and I don't have nearly the, well - "
"Same stress issues that I do?" Banner suggested.
"Something like that, yeah," Neal said. "Not that it's any of my business."
"If you mean why Tony and I aren't more public, for the most part it's part of our cover," Banner said. He wrapped both hands around his coffee mug. "You'd be surprised at how helpful it is when certain people don't realize how much Hulk and Iron Man have each other's backs. On the other hand, if you mean do I worry that his flirting and reputation somehow reflects on his feelings about me? Well - "
Banner leaned back in his chair. He looked over to where Stark was engrossed in all of his work. Casually, as though it was part of any regular conversation, Banner said, "Tony?"
Stark flicked a hand, cutting off the displays and the voices coming through the speakers. He looked at Banner, giving him his full attention. "What's up?"
Banner turned back to Neal. "I can't say it's a concern."
"What's a concern?" Stark asked. He took a seat next to Banner, positioning himself so he could rest his arm on the back of Banner's chair.
"Not you," Banner told him.
"Clearly I'm not trying hard enough," Stark said. He looked over the heavily marked up papers scattered on the table between Banner and Moz. "You do remember this entire building is pretty much made of computers, right?"
"Mozzie's homes aren't," Banner said.
"I refuse to acknowledge that way of life as a possibility," Stark replied.
Neal pulled one of the pages over to him. It didn't make any more sense now that it was closer. "What is all this?"
"Bruce was teaching me what he knows about staying under government radar," Moz said. He clasped his hands together reverently. "I can't begin to tell you how this is going to affect the safety measures on Thursday!"
"What's happening Thursday?" Stark asked.
"I'll explain later," Banner told him.
Stark turned his attention towards Neal. "Do I need to be worried about this?"
"The world's greatest conspiracy theorist has met someone who is actually at the center of a conspiracy," Neal said. "Moz just might be moving in."
Stark gave him a look.
"Moz won't be moving in," Neal promised.
"Though if you did we could call it Friday," Banner said. Neal didn't know if it was scarier that Banner actually understood Moz's strange safe house coding system, or that he'd gotten it well enough to make a joke that Moz actually laughed at.
JARVIS's voice interrupted. "Sir, lunch and Agent Burke have arrived."
"You're the assistant," Stark said. He pointed towards the elevator. "Go get 'em, Gerald."
Neal didn't bother correcting Stark on his alias again. "How much should I tip?"
"Be creative," Stark said. "Lots of zeros."
"What the Hell?" Peter asked when the elevator doors opened and one of Stark's robots was there to greet him.
"A little help here?" Neal called back towards the break room.
Stark whistled. "You! Go bother Dummy for a while. Leave Dale Cooper alone. He hasn't annoyed me yet."
"It'd be nice if I could say the same in return," Peter muttered, his voice low enough that it was entirely for Neal's benefit. He stared at the robot as it rolled away. "Do I even wanna know what that was?"
"They're pets, as far as I can tell. On the bright side at least you made it here in time for lunch." Neal said. He took a large shopping bag from the man who'd come up in the elevator with Peter. He signed for the food, his eyes widening when he saw where it was from and the total cost. Based on Stark's suggestion he filled in a tip for the same price as the meal, signed George's name, and gave the slip back with his thanks.
Moz looked up when Neal and Peter entered the break room. He frowned at the name on the bag. "I didn't know that Per Se made lunch on Mondays."
"I didn't know that Per Se delivered," Neal replied. He unpacked the bag and started sorting silverware and cartons that had labels on them.
"They'll do both if you're me," Stark said. He gestured for Neal to put one of the boxes by him. "Atlantic cod's mine."
"I can't stay long," Peter said.
"You're staying for this food," Neal told him. He used a fork to snag a piece of dry-aged Waygu and held it out for Peter to taste. "Here. Meat and potatoes, your favorites."
As soon as Peter tasted the beef his eyes closed in an expression of bliss. Neal was tempted to point out that boiled ham sandwiches in no way elicited that kind of reaction from either Peter or anyone around him when he took a bite, but even Neal knew he couldn't press his luck all of the time. Instead he moved the carton with the beef over to an empty chair and made sure Peter had everything he needed to treat himself to a lunch made of the finer things in life.
Stark watched all of this. When Neal caught Stark looking at him, Stark said, "Yeah, can't imagine why I thought what I did about your anklet."
"Please." Moz waved a hand dismissively. "I've given up on attempting to understand all of the nuances of that particular enigma long ago."
Peter stared down the table. "Mozzie, why are you here?"
"Suit!" Moz protested. "Names! For all you know I could be undercover!"
"Strangely I don't get too worried about whether I'm busting up one of yours and Neal's schemes," Peter said. "Especially the ones I don't know about. Spill it."
"I invited him," Banner said, surprising everyone at the table except Stark. Banner took a moment to spoon carnaroli risotto onto his plate. "When I explained to Neal what we needed for the gamma signature, he told me he knew someone who was an expert on spectrographic imagery as it relates to post World War II canvases."
"Oh I have forgotten more on that subject than many would ever hope to know," Moz said. "I could write volumes, if I trusted that doing so wouldn't put the wrong kind of information into government hands. In fact - "
"That's enough, Moz," Neal told him, before he could get carried away and oversell the lie.
"You brought up Moz?" Peter asked. He watched Neal in the way he had which looked casual, but Neal knew was anything but.
"He is an expert," Neal said, glad that this part of his confession was actually true. "I wanted to make sure things were done right. And once Dr. Banner said he wanted me to bring Moz in - well, someone told me I should try not to do anything that might tick him off. No offense, Dr. Banner."
"None taken," Banner said. Behind Banner, at an angle Peter couldn't see, Stark gave Neal a thumbs-up.
"Mm-hm," Peter said. He looked at Neal a moment longer. Neal knew Peter wasn't completely buying it, but he wasn't going to drop his facade and prove Peter right.
"Did you have an update, Agent Burke?" Banner asked, somehow managing to do so without sounding like he was deliberately changing the subject.
"Some leads." Peter put his food aside to make room for files he'd brought with him. "Mr. Stark, I don't suppose you've pissed off any Russians recently?"
"What, like in the last hour?" Stark asked.
Peter didn't humor Stark with so much as a change of expression. "It's a serious question."
"I was giving you a serious answer," Stark said. "I'm a busy guy and the number of people I've pissed off is global. The amount of Russians I've pissed off ranges from competitive companies to a guy who tried killing me in Monaco to a teammate who thinks I looked through her underwear drawer."
"You did," Banner pointed out.
"I maintain that it was an accident," Stark replied. "I needed a hand towel. They could've been anywhere on the Helicarrier. That place is a mess. Also? What I saw made it totally worthwhile. Especially the red satin number that I swear had these - "
"Mr. Stark," Peter said, clearing his throat as Stark started to pantomime something complicated in the area of his left shoulder. Peter pulled a picture out of one of the file folders and held it for Stark to take. "How about this Russian?"
Stark simply stared at the photo in Peter's hand until Peter rolled his eyes and put it on the table. Banner took care of pulling the photo over so he and Stark could see.
"Not ringing a bell," Stark said.
"Who is it?" Banner asked. He moved the picture so Neal and Moz could take a look.
"Oh no," Moz said, when he saw. "Sergei?"
"Oh yes," Peter said. Then, for Banner and Stark's benefit, he added, "Russian mafia. We've had some dealings with them before."
"What's their connection to the paintings?" Neal asked.
"As far as we can tell, they're the ones planning to steal them," Peter said.
Neal frowned. "Normally they don't get their hands dirty with art crime. Not directly. Why no intermediary?"
"Good question," Peter said. He took the photo and slipped it back into its folder. "It could be they haven't hired one yet."
"Or maybe they're the ones being hired," Neal pointed out. "A job like this you'd only want to contract out so far."
Peter leaned back in his chair as he listened. "What are you thinking?"
"This isn't just stealing some paintings," Neal said. "Pricey as they are, there are dozens worth as much money, if not more, and don't include the chance of running into a guy in a weaponized flying suit while you're taking them. If I'm planning on stealing paintings, I'd be putting those places on my list. Not here."
Peter simply lifted his eyebrows.
"Hypothetically," Neal added. "I'm just saying it's an unnecessary risk compared to the reward. You wouldn't do it only for the paintings. I think we're looking for someone who's more than an art collector."
"Like who?" Peter asked.
"What military ties do your Russian buddies have?" Stark asked.
Peter looked at him. "You think whoever wants the paintings has something to do with the military?"
"It's somebody trying to steal something from me," Stark said. "What are the odds it doesn't have to do with the military? I may be out of the weapons business, but that doesn't stop some folks from trying to use my tech to kill people."
"Fair point," Peter said. "I'll have Diana and Jones look into it."
"Maybe cross reference it with former employees," Neal suggested. "Someone with a grudge and knowledge of where Stark keeps his stuff."
"See this is when I wish firing people involved actual fire," Stark said as he refilled his glass from a cobalt blue water bottle.
"And here I thought it was your partner who had problems with his temper," Peter said.
"A common mistake," Stark said. He smiled another magazine-cover worthy smile. "Bruce gets angry. I get revenge."
After Peter left, Neal stayed on the lab floor to begin work on forging the paintings. Moz and Banner were still finalizing the code, but Neal wanted to practice on Look to the Adirondacks No. 3 first. Technically speaking it didn't need a forged copy, but Neal wanted to get used to the rhythm of Hickman's brush strokes. Using the most complete version of the painting he could look at just made sense. Besides, it didn't hurt to have a copy that would match the other five when it came to claiming authenticity.
Moz left sometime after dinner, promising to be back in the morning with some book on Tibetan monasteries he and Banner had been talking about. Neal admittedly hadn't been clear on the details. Though that was partially due to the loud music Stark played while in his lab. Neal had gotten his first exposure to it after lunch, when Stark went back to work and the subsequent hard rock had come out at a volume so high it rattled the dishes on the table.
"Doesn't that bother you?" Neal had asked Banner, shouting so he could be heard.
Banner shrugged. "Tony likes it."
"Can't we ask him to turn it down?" Neal replied.
"The other guy likes it too," Banner said.
"I can wear earplugs," Neal decided.
"Top drawer on the left," Banner told him, pointing.
The earplugs had clearly been Stark designed, because once he had them on Neal couldn't hear a thing. Though that hadn't stopped the vibrations that could be felt even through the floor. Neal figured that was probably more a comment on the strength of Stark's speakers than it was on the weakness of the building material.
Regardless, Neal was able to get into a meditative zone as he worked the canvas. Even in his final years, Hickman had a gift for using the reflected light of the moon and stars in his paintings in a way that used minimal strokes yet created results that made his paintings appear to glow with their own illumination. The use of paint wasn't quite as playful as in Hickman's earlier works. Neal wondered how much of that had been due to the man's illness, a weakness in his body forcing him to an economy of creation that, in turn, brought about a stronger line.
Neal worked that way for hours until his gut told him it was time to step back. At a certain point paintings had to live on their own. Either the artist had given them enough soul to survive, or they died on the wall and adding more paint wouldn't change anything.
It didn't escape Neal's attention that most of the art he brought to life was copied. Oh he could make the paintings and sculptures live - he could make them sing, just as their originals had done, but that was a different magic altogether than the alchemy needed to create the pieces where there had been nothing before.
If he was honest, the most original things he'd ever created were his cons.
Well, that and what he managed to do by working with Peter.
Neal shook his head and finished cleaning off his brushes. He'd been working too long, clearly. Time to pack it up and start fresh in the morning.
As Neal headed toward the elevator, he spotted a light coming from Stark's lab, and heard mechanical sounds - buzzes and pops not unlike what could be heard in a garage. Neal frowned. He hadn't noticed when the music had gone away - much like a jackhammer or car alarm, it had simply faded from Neal's conscious notice even before he'd taken the earplugs out - but he assumed that meant Stark had gone elsewhere too.
Curious, and half convinced it might be Stark's robots doing a late night while the man himself wasn't around, Neal went to investigate.
Stark's lab was not what Neal had been expecting. He assumed it would be like the other lab spaces - white, cold, clinical. Instead it was, well, everything. Color filled the room from posters and paintings on the walls to well-worn brown leather furniture to holograms that hovered in the air and depicted things Neal couldn't even begin to try to understand.
The robots Neal had met and more moved about, holding things, joining things together, and sweeping up spilled screws and bolts from the floor.
The place smelled of grease, and metal, and sweat.
In the center was Stark. He was wearing the same dark jeans he'd had on earlier, but he'd stripped his shirts down to a black tank top. His bare arms bore streaks of oil. His hair stuck out in all directions, in part from the product that had faded out of it over time and in part from the goggles he'd pushed up above his forehead. He sat on a backless rolling chair and clutched a screwdriver in his mouth like a dog holding a bone, while using yet another, smaller screwdriver to tighten something on one of his suits.
One of his Iron Man suits.
Neal stared. He'd never once seen the suits in person, not even from afar. In pictures and on TV, certainly. But those were not the same as face to face. Not by a long shot.
Neal didn't know what he'd been expecting. Even with the pictures part of Neal's mind had equated the suit with weapons, and as such something inelegant and unworthy of his time.
He'd never expected the suits to be beautiful.
Neal's mind could easily supply the comparisons - so many plants and animals were both beautiful and deadly. But that didn't stop him from noticing the smooth, curved lines which mimicked the human shape in metal form. The inner workings, on display as Stark worked on the top half of the suit and the bottom was somewhere unseen, were far from being a tangle of wires and parts. Instead they were marvels of geometric efficiency, fitting so much into each square inch of space without sacrificing functionality or aesthetics. Neal was reminded of yachts, or Japanese apartments.
The red and gold colors were, of course, bright and meant to be noticed. But they worked, Neal thought. The silhouette of the suit made it look like it was going a thousand miles an hour even as it stood perfectly still. At which point red and gold was merely matching color to - well, to the soul of the piece.
"It's like a Lamborghini you can wear," Neal said aloud, before he could stop himself.
"What?" Stark, whose back had been to Neal, twisted around. He blinked, eyebrows creasing together, as he realized Neal was standing there. His shoulders relaxed as though he remembered who Neal was. "Oh. Yeah. Or Ferrari. I've heard Ferrari."
Neal took a few steps into the room. One of the bots swiveled in his direction but otherwise stayed where it was. "What would you call it?"
"Right now I'll call it anything so long as it withstands a few tanks." Stark dropped his screwdrivers onto a table littered with soldering equipment and other tools. He stood, moving with the slow, stiff motions of one who'd been sitting in a single position for far too long.
Neal looked back at the suit. It seemed fast and deadly, but not sturdy. Then again, Captain America's shield didn't look solid either. "Are tanks a common problem?"
"I'd prefer not but sadly there are some things not even my money and brilliance can make go away." Stark moved from one table to another, lifting coffee mugs until he found one with liquid in it. He sniffed it, took a sip, and grimaced at the taste. "That's when I switch to plan B."
"Revenge?" Neal guessed.
"That allows shit to happen in the first place. I'd rather be more proactive." Stark brought the coffee mug over to a sink and poured out the contents. He stood there, leaning against the counter for long enough that Neal assumed he was lost in thought. Then he realized Stark was looking at himself in the reflection in the stainless steel backsplash. Not to preen. Just staring, as though waiting to see who would blink first.
Neal could leave. He knew that. Stark had been the only person in the room and yet Neal still felt like he'd intruded on a private moment. But his gut told him to take a different option. "Dr. Banner and Moz been getting along pretty well. Apparently they both spent time in foster care? Not at the same time or anything, but I guess it doesn't matter if you've been there. Normally Moz doesn't like to talk about it. I didn't take this job for his sake, but Moz is one of my closest friends. If doing this means he got to meet someone who understands what that part of his life was like, I'm glad."
Stark turned around while Neal was talking. His eyes narrowed at the mention of foster care but when Neal stood there, calm and without judgment, he nodded. Not as though agreeing with Neal, more as though he'd just confirmed something for himself. "Before the FBI thing, before jail, you were on the run, right?"
"For years," Neal said. He gave a wry smile. "Mostly from Peter."
"Safe to say during that time you weren't acting as the most upstanding of the world's citizens?" Stark asked. "You know, allegedly?"
"Allegedly," Neal agreed.
"When I came back from Afghanistan, when I started all this - " Stark gestured to indicate his lab " - it wasn't about me being a hero. It's not about me being a nice guy. I'm amazing, don't get me wrong. But anyone who thinks my motivations here are anything except a highly elaborate and expensive form of autofellatio is epically mistaken."
Neal suspected what Stark said wasn't really true, but he knew now wasn't the time to dispute it. "Okay."
"Know what Bruce did when he was on the run?" Stark asked. "Volunteer work. Charity. Build a well here, help a few people with TB there. Never mind that what's inside of his head could change the way the entire planet looks at nuclear physics and that it's a fucking crime against humanity for that to go to waste. Never mind that the only reason he was on the run is because of something that was done to him. Never mind that he has every reason in life to hate people and the world and to use everything at his disposal, Hulk included, to tell us all to fuck off."
Stark pushed away from the counter. He grabbed a ripped, gray rag and used it to scrub at his hands. "He had all that and he went to help people. And when SHIELD came to him and said hey, we need your brain because aliens are about to attack the planet, he said okay. And anytime someone needs help, he says okay. Yet you know what people see when they look at him?"
"The monster," Neal guessed.
"They go after him with tanks," Stark said. The lights from holograms and monitors that were processing something flickered across his face."That's the US army for you. Tanks and planes and weapons with my fucking name on the side and try to bring him down. Or, if it's SHIELD, then they try to lock him in a cage where the failsafe is like something a Bond villain would come up with. Never mind that he doesn't deserve that. Never mind that there isn't a damn thing wrong with Hulk if you try talking instead of shooting at him. They treat him like an animal, and people die which is something neither Bruce or Hulk want but it happens and you get a shiny gold star if you can guess who takes on the burden of all that guilt even though he doesn't bear any responsibility for it."
Stark gave up on his hands and tossed the rag to the side. "All that, and they don't even want to kill him. They want to trap him again, like after the accident. Experiment on him to see what makes him tick. Except I know science and I know torture and lemme tell you what they do isn't anywhere near science. That's what they want to do now, Caffrey. They've been kept away because SHIELD currently thinks Bruce is useful and they're happy to piss on him to mark their territory so the army fucks off. But that doesn't mean anyone has stopped. They've paused. And if they find out that there's a line on Erskine's formula…."
Stark looked at his suit in progress. "Yeah. I'm gonna need to be able to hold off a tank or twelve."
Neal thought about how far removed this was from anything he normally dealt with. Armies. Weapons. Torture.
Then again, looking at Stark, Neal realized how much of it was very similar.
"We won't let that happen," Neal promised.
When Neal returned the next morning he brought coffee and two sets of donuts - one for Julia, another for everyone upstairs. He found Moz and Banner already working on the code, with Banner manipulating the holograms of the five paintings to place the stars that he and Moz had already decided upon.
"It's genius," Moz explained as Neal shrugged out of his coat. "The code is plausible enough to look like the serum, but anyone attempting to analyze it with a computer will find they've activated a system-wide virus. To say nothing if they attempt the chemistry."
"That won't cause anything fatal," Banner said. He took off his glasses and tucked them into his shirt pocket. "More… whimsical. Enough to put a stop to anyone trying to follow this path any further."
"Sounds like I'm up, then," Neal said. "If you're confident enough in this for me to start painting."
"Start with one or five," Moz told him. "Bruce and I are still debating the position of constellations in the other pieces. I maintain that the even numbers should bear their own code separate from the odd, while he feels it's enough to ensure each code takes into account whether the painting contains a prime number."
Moz looked at Neal as though expecting Neal to agree with him. Neal side-stepped out of it by smiling and saying, "Just let me know when you figure it out."
"Let's have Tony take a look at it," Banner suggested. "Between him and JARVIS we'll know which version gives us better odds."
"Where is he?" Neal asked. "He was still working when I left here last night."
"Still working when I got here this morning," Banner said. He shrugged. "Tony can get a little, uh, focused when he's on a project."
Neal was about to ask if that always happened when Stark worked on the suit, when there was a shout and a slam from the direction of Stark's lab. The man himself then appeared.
"Well fuck me with Fury's eyepatch," Stark announced as he came into the room. He had a smile on his face that Neal suspected he wouldn't want to see across from him at a conference table. Stark clapped his hands together twice, like a head cheerleader calling the team to order, then pointed towards one of the coffee cups. "Is that fully loaded? Never mind, I'll take care of it."
Stark used the heel of his shoe to kick open a cabinet door behind him. Without looking he pulled out a bottle of cognac. He undid the stopper and poured a three count's worth of liquid into the nearest cup.
Neal knew it wasn't his place to say anything. And yet, "Did you just use a seven thousand dollar bottle of Delemain Le Voyage cognac to Irish up your coffee?"
"There was alcohol in there this whole time?" Moz asked. "That's it, I'm checking all of the cabinets."
"Tony," Banner said, moving to stand in front of Stark. "What happened?"
"Change of plans for today." Stark took a large swallow of his drink. "Not that you knew what those plans were because I was going to surprise you. I was going to take you to lunch at that Vietnamese place in Astoria you like in spite of its staggeringly ugly decor. Then on the way home I was going to blow you in the car as a prelude to a few other things I had in mind for us once I got you back upstairs. Only now that's all scrapped. Instead I'm going to be attacking the helicarrier. Which is especially annoying because the suit I'd like to use for that isn't even done yet, but at this point they're asking for it. Anyway, give me a rain check until dinner?"
"You're not attacking the helicarrier," Banner told him.
Stark put his drink aside. "No, see, I am. Because they are a bunch of limp-dicked assholes who couldn't mind their own business. So now I have to remind them that they won't like me when I'm angry."
"Excuse me," Moz said. "Much though I am, generally speaking, all for the takedown of shadowy organizations and their equally suspect modes of transportation, what exactly did they do?"
Banner and Stark looked at each other. Stark shrugged, and Banner sighed.
"SHIELD figured out that the painting has a code in it," Stark said. "That means they're on their way to cracking it, if they haven't already. At which point it won't matter what we do with the forgeries. The secret's out."
"How do you know?" Neal asked.
"I've had JARVIS keeping an eye on their networks since this whole thing started," Stark explained. "He knew everything they did, said, and wrote about the painting until this morning. At which point - "
Stark made a broad gesture of invitation. JARVIS spoke up, "All records regarding the painting have disappeared from SHIELD's servers as of 0400 hours. I have made every possible effort to find where the information has been relocated, to no avail."
If Neal didn't know any better, he would've sworn the AI's voice was filled with disappointment. "How do you know that means they've cracked the code?"
"Why else would they take it offline?" Stark replied.
"Aha!" Moz pointed towards the ceiling in a gesture of triumph. "You see? Lack of a secret to find is an admission of a secret hidden! Clearly they could benefit from my wisdom. Not that I would give it to them, of course."
"Would they take it entirely offline though?" Neal asked. "I got the impression this isn't the kind of thing you handle with a piece of paper and a slide rule."
"Odds are they moved their information to a server that's not on any network," Banner said. "They know JARVIS can hack into anything he can connect to."
"Okay, but someone has to be able to access that, right?" Neal asked. "It's not that they stopped working on it, it's that they've isolated the records. Made it so whoever is using them has to do so in person."
"Probably," Stark said. He tilted his head to the side as he looked at Neal. "Why?"
"Is there some way you could connect JARVIS to that server so long as someone got in front of it?" Neal asked. "Like with a portable drive?"
Stark smirked. "How do you think he hacked into SHIELD the first time?"
Neal turned to Moz. "We could handle this."
"What do you have in mind?" Moz asked.
"Off of the top of my head?" Neal shrugged. "A Bambi's mother."
"A good start," Moz said. He folded his arms as he thought it over. "But for this sort of job we'd need more."
"You think we should run it with a Gatsby?" Neal asked.
"Hmm, that, or - " Moz snapped his fingers. "Or! How about only the best snoring Andre of all time?"
Neal looked at Stark and Banner. "That… could actually work. Though if it does I think we're going to have to rename that con."
"Guys, we can't ask for your help with this," Banner said. "Not that it isn't appreciated, but we're talking an entirely new level of danger. One that neither of you is prepared for."
"Please." Moz waved him off. "You're practically one of us. Fugitive code demands that we give you assistance. And I suppose the Iron Suit as well. But only because you're so attached to him."
Stark shrugged. "Well sure there's the occasional bondage but - "
Banner gave Stark a look. "We are not letting them do this."
"They seem insistent," Stark replied. "I think it would be rude to argue."
"If the danger's the only issue, we wouldn't be doing it entirely on our own," Neal said. "We would actually need both of you to help us pull this off."
"How?" Stark asked.
"To start," Neal said, "how do you feel about having an event where you give away the forged paintings?"
Stark grinned. Looking as though he knew perfectly well what the answer was, he replied, "Know any good party planners?"
A few days later found Peter and Elizabeth joining Neal and Moz for a meeting in the living room of Stark's penthouse. El and Moz made themselves comfortable in the sunken seating area. Stark remained behind his bar and Banner stayed further removed than that, positioning himself close to the exit to the landing pad. Peter and Neal took positions near the stairs, which made it easy for them to address the group as a whole.
"Since Sergei and his friends have proven so good at hiding," Peter said, "we're going to try to draw them out."
"We'll use a party as a cover," Neal said, picking up where Peter left off. "A big event, in honor of Tony Stark making a donation to the Thayer museum. Specifically a donation of several paintings, including five previously never before seen works of John Hickman."
"Which was, if I may say so, a brilliant idea on your part, Suit," Moz said. He toasted Peter with what was now his second glass of Stark's wine.
Neal tried to make a discreet slashing motion across his throat to get Moz to stop with that line of conversation. "We're not trying to convince Peter that this was his idea anymore."
Moz frowned. "Why not?"
"Because, unlike some of your IDs, I wasn't born yesterday," Peter told him.
"You wound me," Moz said. He placed his free hand over his heart. "Incorrectly calculating the birth year is such an amateur mistake. Do you think so little of my work?"
"You would have to have a job for me to consider what you do to be work," Peter said.
Stark spoke up as he poured himself a glass of water. "I have a question."
"No you don't," Peter said.
Stark ignored him, instead pointing at El as he addressed the room at large. "How'd Richie Cunningham end up with the hot wife?"
"Richie Cunningham?" Peter asked.
"With that hair?" Stark replied. He shrugged. "What? I'm curious. Lemme guess: you're all clean-cut during the day but secretly a demon in the sack. Am I right?"
"Stark, it's amazing the things you say to my wife when I am standing right here," Peter told him. "Also I'm armed."
"Honey, it's fine," El said. She motioned for Peter to take a seat. "I don't mind. Besides, you are a demon in the sack."
"I don't need to know these things," Neal said. "Ever. Just in case either of you were wondering."
"Maybe we should get back to talking about the plan?" Banner suggested.
"Maybe we should never talk about anything else," Moz agreed.
"Gladly," Neal said. He tried to put all thoughts of Peter and El's sex life out of his mind. "We've spread word in both legal and not so legal channels about the donation. That should be enough bait to get the attention of our would-be thieves. The next step is picking a location for them to rob us from."
"Why not the museum?" El asked.
"Too small for the scheme," Moz explained.
"It's also too secure," Neal said. "We need a place where rent-a-cops are a plausible option for protecting the paintings. Which rules out Stark Tower as well."
JARVIS's voice interrupted him. "Sir, Ms. Potts has arrived."
Stark frowned. "Pepper? Why is she here? "
The elevator doors slid open. A red-haired woman dressed in a white Dolce & Gabbana wrap blouse with a matching black pencil skirt and six-inch Louboutins came out. She pulled up short when she saw Neal.
"Caffrey," Stark said, as he quickly came out from behind the bar, "you may want to - "
"Oh you have got to be kidding me with this one," Pepper said.
" - duck and cover," Stark finished.
Pepper flung a hand in Neal's direction. "Seriously, Tony? Did you even bother to check a resume?"
"No, but in my defense I don't think he has one," Stark said.
"Do you know what you have?" Pepper asked. "An assistant."
Stark blinked. "Really? Since when?"
"Since - since - " Pepper put a hand to her forehead. "Tony, Katherine is a perfectly lovely woman - "
Katherine? Stark mouthed, looking as though he'd never heard the name before.
" - who is more than qualified for the job - "
"If she was qualified or any good I think I'd remember her," Stark pointed out. "Are you sure her name is Katherine?"
" - and who you treat horribly - "
"How can I treat someone horribly if I've never even met them?"
" - just because she's not some - some - " Pepper let out a breath of frustration and flicked her hand towards Neal again " - brainless piece of eye candy -"
"I object to being called brainless. I actually have a very high IQ," Neal said.
" - who just became old enough to register to vote!" Pepper finished.
Stark made a tsking sound. "Pepper, that is incredibly ageist of you. I'll have you know I have had lust for and amazing sex with plenty of people over - what is she? 65?"
"Not the point," Pepper told him.
"75? What? Give me a ballpark."
"You can't get rid of your assistant just to have a pretty face around!" Pepper said.
"I didn't get rid of my assistant!" Stark replied. "I - uh - "
"Sent her on vacation," Neal said, since that had been part of setting up his cover.
"See?" Stark spread his hands out as though inviting Pepper to find fault with that. "A perfectly nice vacation to - "
"Cape Verde," Neal said.
"Cape Verde," Stark continued, as though he'd already known. "Which I'm sure is lovely this time of year."
"It is," Neal said. "Great hiking, windsurfing - "
"And no extradition treaty with the US," Moz added.
Everyone stared at him.
"If you're into that sort of thing," Moz said, and took a healthy sip from his wineglass.
Pepper opened and closed her mouth a few times. "Who - no, I don't even want to get into that now. Tony: why?"
"This isn't what it looks like," Stark told her. "He's with the FBI."
The frown lines in Pepper's forehead grew deeper. "Why do you have an FBI agent acting as your assistant?"
"He's not an agent," Peter said.
"Criminal consultant," Neal clarified.
"That does not make it better!" Pepper closed her eyes. In a calmer voice, she asked, "Tony, are you dying again?"
"In a way it does because - " Stark's hands danced uselessly in the air as Pepper's question derailed him. "Am I what?"
"Dying." Pepper opened her eyes again. "Because if you are and you're not telling me - "
"Why would I be dying again?"
"You have secret agents hanging around you - "
"He's not an agent. We just established that he's - "
" - and I have to find out from a press release that you're giving your art away - "
"What? Why would that possibly even mean - "
"So no," Pepper gave a hollow laugh, "I can't imagine why I might think any of this sounds familiar - "
"It happened one time, Pepper! A single instance of me giving away my art isn't a pattern - "
"- and think there's something you aren't telling me - "
" - it's not even a line. It's a dot. A solitary data point which is in no way evidence just because the only time I did it I had a few days to live - "
"You only had a few days?"
"I got better, Pepper. Focus."
"You never once told me it was only a few days!"
"How is that relevant now?" Stark asked.
"You need to tell me things!" Pepper replied.
"I tell you everything!"
Stark put his hands on her shoulders. "I promise that I tell you 100% of the things I think you need to be told."
Pepper's jaw clenched. She pointed towards the staircase near the fireplace. "Upstairs."
Stark grimaced. "Pep, I know that time in our relationship was amazing but we've moved past that and I think it's best that we - "
"All right fine." Stark walked towards the stairs. "But if I don't come back there's an FBI agent here who's a witness to you being the last person to be seen with me."
"Stop digging, Tony," Pepper said.
"I'd like her to stay for all of our meetings with Stark," Peter decided. Luckily he said it softly enough that only Neal could hear him.
El stepped up to the plate of keeping things moving.
"Dr. Banner?" she asked, calling over to where he remained by the windows. "Would you like to go over the details of the party while we wait?"
Banner twisted his hands together. He looked surprised that anyone remembered he was still in the room. "Uh - me?"
"Yes." El, in a display of one of the many reasons why Neal liked Peter's wife, gave Banner a radiant smile. She looked as though she considered Banner no different from any of her other clients. If the thought of what might happen if he got annoyed crossed her mind, she certainly didn't show it. "Even if you don't have any specific ideas we could get started with foods you like, things you might be allergic to, favorite music - "
"That - that would be Tony." Banner's mouth twisted in a smile. "He does parties. I stay out of his way… and try to remind myself he gives just as much money to charity, if not more."
El frowned. "How much money are we talking about?"
"We've got a few ideas for the event," Neal said. He grabbed his notes off of a sidetable and handed them over to El. "Broad strokes, but it's a place to start."
El skimmed the document. Her eyebrows shot upward when she reached the bottom. "Normally I'd ask, but since we're talking about Tony Stark I assume this figure doesn't have a misplaced decimal?"
"How much are we talking about?" Peter asked. He leaned in to peer over El's shoulder. Then he glared at Neal.
"What'd I do?" Neal asked.
"Went crazy with a billionaire's bank account," Peter replied. "Or are you going to tell me it's a coincidence that this says catering will be done by Monte Bello?"
"You're the one who wouldn't let me eat there," Neal reminded him. "And, sure, I may have had some input into the process but it's not as though I don't know what I'm talking about. I was simply saving Stark a little time."
"You ran up the bill," Peter said.
"Pocket change to a guy with Stark's money," Neal replied.
"And a reason for us to retire once I get paid my commission," El added. She looked more taken aback than annoyed. She looked up at Peter curiously. "Hon, is this legal? I know I've done events for your cases before but nothing quite this big."
"Technically the recommendation came through me," Neal said. "It's not as though Peter told Stark he'd only solve the case if he hired you."
"I don't care," Peter said. He jabbed a finger in the direction of the list. "Scale that down. I won't have people saying I took advantage of my position, no matter how much you twist the rules to make it legal."
"I could take a smaller commission too," El offered. She made a low whistling sound. "Though even one percent is… wow."
"It'll be even better once we get rid of the rest," Peter said.
"Get rid of what?" Stark asked as he and Pepper came back into the room. Stark went directly to the bar, while Pepper went over towards Banner.
"Bruce," she said, by way of greeting, and gave him a chaste kiss on the cheek.
"I just want it to be clear that none of this was my idea," Banner told her.
"It's an overly elaborate scheme involving the FBI and a couple of criminals," Pepper said. "I know exactly whose brilliant idea this was."
"Alleged criminals," Moz piped up.
Pepper rolled her eyes and continued talking to Banner. "By the way, have I mentioned lately how glad I am that he's your headache now?"
"Aw, Pep," Stark said as he came over to give her a glass of white wine. "I like to think I'm still a something of a headache for you. There's the business, for instance."
"You are all of my headaches," Pepper assured him. "But now Bruce gets some so I don't have to."
She took a sip of her wine, then handed the glass back to Stark to hold for her. She came towards the seating area and held a hand out to El to shake. "Hi. Virginia Potts. Please call me Pepper. Allow me to apologize both retroactively and in advance for any comments or behavior of Mr. Stark's which has, and undoubtedly will, cause offense. He can't help it. Much though we'd like him to."
"Elizabeth," El said, shaking Pepper's hand in return. She gestured to the others. "This is my husband Peter, and I guess you've heard all about Neal and Moz. And please, it's fine. We were just going over the details for the party."
"Which will be scaled down," Peter said.
Stark, who had stayed by the windows to whisper something into Banner's ear, looked up. "Wait - what? What are we scaling down?"
"Neal went a little crazy with his wish list," Peter said. "We're bringing him back to reality."
"Peter thinks it's too expensive," Neal explained.
Sure enough, those were the magic words to get Stark to come over. "Okay, what? No. There is no such thing as too expensive. Too expensive is the start point. Then we multiply it by, like, ten and then we're in an area I might consider being comfortable with. Also? My money. How is this a problem?"
"Peter doesn't like Monte Bello," Neal said.
"Molecular gastronomy? It's science you eat, what's not to like?" Stark asked. Pepper took her wineglass back before Stark could spill all of its contents as he indicated his protest with one broad gesture after another. "I'm not saying you get full off it but that's why we include - what else are we including, Caffrey?"
Neal picked the name of the most expensive restaurant he could think of. "I hear Masa's nice."
"If one would care to call a price tag of $500 per person nice," Moz muttered.
"So Monte Bello, Masa, and at least two other places," Stark said. "Done deal. What's next?"
"We can't do this," Peter said.
"Can. Will. Have to." Stark slumped onto the couch besides Pepper. He motioned for her to talk to Peter. "Ms. Potts, please explain why it is a requirement that we spend enormous amounts of my money on this event."
"He's right," Pepper admitted. "Tony's known for his parties. If this one is less elaborate than his usual people will know something is wrong."
"And so we increase the price," Stark concluded. He turned to El. "I want an elephant."
"No," Pepper said, before El could answer.
Stark pouted at her. "Why not?"
"Because you convinced me that this is a company sponsored charity event and not a five year old's birthday party," Pepper told him.
Stark quirked an eyebrow upward. "What five year olds are you hanging out with?"
"Besides you?" Pepper replied.
"How about ice sculptures?" El suggested. "We could get them shaped like elephants."
"I like it," Stark said. "So long as they're life-sized."
El thought about it, then asked, "African or Asian?"
"Ha!" Stark grinned. "One of each. And make them vodka flumes."
"I will find a way to make that happen," El said. She started scribbling notes.
"I don't want any signs of impropriety," Peter said.
"I'll waive my fee," El assured him. She looked at Pepper. "After all, wouldn't I get great publicity as one of Tony Stark's party planners?"
Pepper smiled at her. "Absolutely. I could even give you some references. Assuming everything goes well, of course."
"There, more than fair," El said.
Peter's phone rang. He looked at the ID, then answered. "Hey, Jones. What've you got?"
When Peter walked away to continue his conversation, Neal turned to the others. "We still need to figure out the location."
"It's got to be somewhere close to where Friend of Suit is working," Moz said. "Assuming it isn't that affront to physics in the sky."
"Actually the helicarrier's design is pretty solid," Banner said, then looked apologetic for interrupting.
"Are we talking about Phil?" El asked.
"Yeah," Neal said. "Why?"
"When he agreed to come to dinner he asked Peter to pick him up at Park and East 19th," El said. "If you're looking for where he's working right now, it's probably near there, right?"
"JARVIS?" Tony asked.
"SHIELD does have offices at 201 Park Avenue South, sir," JARVIS replied. "The stated reason is archival record storage."
"There's a W a few blocks from there," Neal suggested.
"I'll make some calls," Pepper said, pulling out her phone to do just that.
Banner came closer. "Thanks for the help."
"It's nothing," El said, waving it off. "Besides, if Phil didn't try to keep everything in his life a secret, maybe Portland wouldn't have been such an attractive option in comparison."
"What's your opinion on archers?" Stark asked, which for some reason made Banner snicker.
Peter rejoined them before El could answer. "Surveillance picked up on our guys doing some recruiting. Looks like they're trying to get a group together to do a big job. Odds are they're coming after those paintings. We figure out where we're setting this trap?"
"Union Square," Neal said. "But we're going to need to do more than put the paintings out there. We need to create a diversion."
"What are we talking about?" Stark asked. "Public nudity or me flying the suit through the lobby?"
"Something that makes it seem perfectly reasonable that not only all of the attention, but the focus of security will be on you," Neal said.
Stark flashed a grin at Peter. "How do you feel about punching me in the face?"
"I think I could force myself," Peter replied.
Use of the Tony Stark name meant being able to take over a busy Manhattan hotel for whatever length of time and purpose that might make Mr. Stark and his enormous checkbook happy. Pepper and El laid claim to the Great Room and adjacent ballroom for the party. In addition, entire guest room floors were set aside for the FBI to use as their base of operations. Stark, of course, took the best suite in the building for himself.
"What do you need a room for?" Peter had asked.
"And let my clothes get wrinkled in traffic?" Stark had replied. To which Peter had muttered something about looking forward to that punch.
Neal arrived at the hotel well in advance to make sure the paintings were set up properly. The forgeries were good, if he did say so himself. To the trained eye they looked exactly like the originals - except for the star patterns, of course. Once Neal had painted them, Moz had aged them. With the extra time and resources Stark had given them, Moz had been able to create masterpieces of his own. The paintings were not only aged, but aged with history. Moz, if asked, could provide the provenance behind every scuff, discoloration, and mark down to an elaborate story involving a file clerk in 1967, a doomed romance, and a cup of Sanka coffee which had left three tiny drops on the back of the canvas for Look to the Adirondacks No. 4.
Of course none of this mattered if the thieves didn't take the bait. Which was why Neal was on hand to supervise the paintings' installation, as well as any other details pertaining to the con. It was the latter, as well as his cover as Tony Stark's assistant, that made him walk up to Pepper and El - themselves busy with supervising the setup of the Great Room - with a borrowed Stark phone in his hand.
"I suppose if he's a fellow agent it would help," El was saying as Neal drew near. "There'd be some understanding of his crazy schedule, if nothing else."
"Tony likes him." Pepper shrugged a single shoulder. "Of course I don't know if that's necessarily a good endorsement, under the circumstances."
"Ms. Potts, Mrs. Burke," Neal said once he was close. "Mr. Stark has some things he'd like done for tonight's event."
"Oh?" El asked. "Like what?"
Neal read off the list currently on his Stark phone's screen. "He'd like an additional tequila bar stocked entirely with Tres-Quatro-Cinco. For the amuse bouche he wants spoons filled with alphabet soup that spells his name. And instead of a nightclub theme in the Great Room he wants a zen garden."
El, who had worked with more than her share of flaky clients, nodded along to all of this. "We may need to scramble for the soup but I suppose if we put the bar over there we could fit the garden over - "
"No," Neal said, before El could get caught up in the wrong idea. "He wants the entire room to be a zen garden."
El's eyebrows raised. "As in sand all over - "
"All 2,300 square feet," Stark finished, his voice coming out of the phone. Neal gave Pepper an El an apologetic look for not mentioning that Stark was on the line.
"No," Pepper said.
"I'm sure I could come up with something," El offered.
"That's nice of you to say but you don't have to," Pepper said. Raising her voice to be heard on the phone, she added, "Tony, we are not changing plans at this hour to give you a zen garden."
"But I think it would be very soothing," Stark said. "Plus aren't you the one saying I need to be more laid back? Why are you discouraging my growth as a person, Pepper? You know if I had a therapist I bet he'd say that was unhealthy."
"If you had a therapist, I would be the one throwing a party," Pepper told him.
"Okay, forget zen garden," Stark said, and Neal didn't have to see him to know he hadn't even registered what Pepper had said. "New theme. Stay with me here: Medieval."
"No," Pepper said.
"- you could dress like a buxom wench. I could wear a suit of armor because, yanno, ha -"
Pepper folded her arms and sighed. "No, Tony."
" - we could decorate the place with swords and torches and… wait, am I confusing my sexual fantasies with my party fantasies again?"
Pepper rolled her eyes. She reached over and tapped the icon on Neal's phone to end the call. "If he calls back, ignore him."
"Safe to say we won't be making those changes?" El asked.
"Safe to say if Tony tries asking for more changes I will not only make him sit through every board meeting from now until the end of the year," Pepper said, "but I'll schedule extras."
As if on cue, Neal's phone rang again.
In spite of what she'd just said, Pepper pulled the phone out of Neal's hands to answer it. Before Stark could get a word in edgewise, Pepper said, "Board meetings, Tony. Board meetings when Dog Cops is on."
"Now that? That is pure evil," Stark said. There was a note of admiration in his voice.
"Couldn't he DVR it?" Neal asked, after Stark hung up.
"Tony hates having to avoid spoilers until he watches," Pepper said as she gave the phone back to Neal.
Neal tucked it back into his inside coat pocket to show he wouldn't let any further calls interrupt. "How are things going besides the last minute requests?"
"Not to jinx it, but good," El said. She gestured around the room. It was still a work in progress, but black leather chairs and tables had been set up in one area, a dance floor in another, and a stage had been set up for the DJ booth. "We're close to schedule. Which means something will probably go wrong just before the party, but for now I'll take it. How's Mozzie?"
"Doing as well as you'd expect, given that he's voluntarily surrounding himself with more federal agents than he'd care to count," Neal replied.
El chuckled. "Well if he needs a place to hide, tell him he can come find me."
"Based on what you've told me, I don't know what's more surprising," Pepper said. "That your friend agreed to join in on this, or that Bruce did."
"Mr. Stark can be very persuasive," Neal said. Then, realizing how that sounded, added, "in different ways, of course."
"Of course," Pepper said, looking as though she'd heard that before.
"How will all of this work again?" El asked.
Neal motioned for the two of them to follow him into the ballroom connected to the Great Room. Unlike the room they'd just left, this area was being set up far more formally, with the decor matching the Beaux-Arts detailing of the original building the hotel was located in. This was the place where the paintings would be officially given to the Thayer museum.
The donated paintings, ten in total, were presented along the end of the room furthest from the entrance to the Great Room. They were already set up with guards posted beside them. Neal stopped at the halfway point so that everything was in view, but no one was close by enough to hear them talking.
"The group we're dealing with isn't exactly made up of high class art thieves," Neal said.
"Not everyone can be as suave as a Neal Caffrey," El said. Her eyes twinkled with amusement.
"Allegedly," Neal replied, giving her a grin. "Anyway, we're talking about people who are going to favor brawn over brains. They want a smash and grab, not an elaborate scheme. Ah - no offense meant to Dr. Banner, of course. "
"Of course," Pepper said. "Besides, I think Bruce would be the first to agree we don't want anything smashed tonight if we can help it."
"Which is where the party comes in," El guessed.
"Exactly," Neal said. "By throwing the party here, we're providing them with a way to get to the paintings that's easier than trying to break into Stark Tower. But that still runs a risk they might try something with innocent bystanders around. So, we provide them with a convenient distraction."
"Which is why my husband is going to punch one of the richest men in the world," El said. Her face screwed up with worry. "In front of his boyfriend, who doesn't want any smashing. Are we sure this is safe?"
"Bruce knows it's all an act," Pepper assured her.
"Peter will hit Mr. Stark back in the Great Room," Neal continued, pointing. "It will provide ample reason for all of the attention of the party to be focused there - "
"Not here, where the paintings are," El said. She studied the room around them. "So they grab the paintings, escape through those doors there - "
"And get arrested by your husband's team before they even hit the staircase," Neal said.
Pepper looked uncertain. "Will there be enough time for this?"
"There will be if people think Mr. Stark is truly injured," Neal said. "As his assistant, I'll take him out of the room. We'll hide where no reporters or hotel staff can find us. It'll be up to both of you, then, to sell the con and keep the crowd distracted."
"A big party and I'm the one left dealing with the reporters." Pepper shook her head, looking bemused more than anything else. "Oh Tony is so going to pay for this."
When the time was right, Neal pulled away from the preparations to go Stark's rooms on the top floor. He had a keycard to let himself in, but still knocked and said, "It's me."
"Back here," Stark called, and Neal followed the sound into the master bedroom. The he found Stark, already dressed in a navy blue Brioni suit with a wine red shirt and, naturally, a gold tie. Banner was in a slate gray Valentino suit with a purple shirt that currently had undone sleeves. Stark was taking care of the latter. As he did, Neal spotted a familiar flash of green in Stark's hands.
"Nice cufflinks," Neal said. He blinked as the combination of the cufflinks and Banner made something click into place in his mind. "And I just realized why those have emeralds."
"Tony likes to think he's funny," Banner said.
"Excuse you, I know for a fact that I am hilarious," Stark told him. He moved to attach the cufflink to Banner's other sleeve. "Besides, can you blame me for wanting something that occasionally matches the color of your eyes?"
"Why do I like you again?" Banner asked.
"Phenomenal sex and unfettered access to my lab equipment," Stark replied. "Not necessarily in that order. Though sometimes both at once, if we're going for my personal favorite."
"Hey," Neal said, philosophically, and with a strong desire to change the subject, "at least they go with the $8,000 watch?"
There was silence. Banner's eyebrows quirked upward. Stark glared at Neal. "Oh nice one, Caffrey. Do you know how hard it is to get him to accept things?"
"Really?" Banner asked, turning his attention to Stark. He looked bemused, if anything. "You gave me an $8,000 watch?"
"Yes," Stark said. "And I would've gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for that meddling con artist."
"I thought he knew!" Neal said.
Banner shook his head at Stark. "You're unbelievable."
"Which is yet another reason why you like me," Stark told him. He gave Banner a grin before moving over to the night stand. "All right, Tommy Ripley, ready to go off the grid?"
"Are you?" Neal countered.
"Not gonna lie," Stark said. He picked up a keychain from a pile of cell phones, watches, and other accessories on the table. "I feel naked in absolutely none of the ways that are fun. But I'll manage. Here."
Stark tossed the keychain over to Neal. Neal snatched it from the air and clutched it in his fist.
He was holding a key to his tracking anklet.
There were so many things Neal wanted to do - ask for a copy of the key, for starters. But the fastest way to send a con south was a lack of focus, so Neal forced himself to stick to the job at hand.
"Are we sure this is going to work?" Neal asked. On the one hand he was talking to Tony Stark. But on the other this was a part of the con that Peter wasn't aware of, which meant Neal had all the more reason to check and double check that everything would go the way it was planned.
"Yes," Stark said, slowing the word to a drawl. "I am pretty sure unlocking your anklet with that key will not raise an alert on the system. And I'm reasonably certain, no matter where you and I go tonight, the record of your anklet will show you being downstairs at the party. And I am absolutely certain I was able to accomplish all of that without, mysteriously enough, voiding the manufacturer's warranty."
"I would've been fine with 'yes'," Neal told him. Neal propped his foot on a chair. He slid the electronic key into the slot on his anklet designed for it. Neal heard the heavenly - to his ears - beep of the lock being disengaged as the light on the side turned from green to yellow. He pulled the anklet off of himself and then closed it again, sending the light back to green. Neal turned the anklet over. His gaze lingered on the white-lettered logo along the side. "I don't suppose I could convince you to stop selling your tech to the Marshals?"
"Get the FBI to cough up the money to pay me instead," Stark replied. With what was obviously a well-practiced move, he flicked open a pair of sunglasses with red-tinted lenses and put them on in a single motion. Then came the Stark grin. "But I'm open to negotiation."
"You won't be quiet for long, right?" Banner asked. He tugged at the ends of his shirtsleeves, even though to Neal's eyes they didn't need to be adjusted.
"When have you ever known me to be quiet for long?" Stark replied.
"All told this shouldn't take more than an hour," Neal offered. He stashed his tracking anklet under a stack of clean towels in the master bathroom. It didn't need to be expertly hidden, just out of immediate sight in case anyone came looking later on. "Assuming the tech works as it should - "
"That's not even an assumption," Stark said. "Consider the quality of my tech the law. Like gravity, only more reliable."
"Then we should be fine," Neal said. "Rendezvous at midnight, like we planned."
Banner nodded. "I believe you. It's just - well, I believe you."
Neal didn't know what Banner meant, but Stark had no problems understanding.
"Aw," Stark said. He went over to put an arm around Banner's waist. "Tell him I will be fine. It'll be a quick game of hide and seek, hopefully with nobody having any luck on the seeking, and then I'll be back before anybody turns into a pumpkin."
"I'll be with him the whole time," Neal promised.
"See?" Stark said. "I won't even be alone with my thoughts."
"I know." Banner gave a rueful look. "Sorry. He's… protective."
"Well if it makes you or him feel better either one of you is welcome to give me a full, in-depth examination later," Stark said, pulling Banner closer. "You know, to check for bruising. Or to add some, if that's going to be any - "
"We've got company," Banner said.
"Thank you," Neal started to say, before realizing there was noise coming from the outer room.
Stark figured it out faster than Neal did. He left Banner's side to storm down the hallway. "No, no, no, and furthermore no."
Neal and Banner followed in Stark's wake. In the foyer of the suite were Peter, Diana, Jones, and the current object of Stark's attention.
"Good evening to you too," Coulson told Stark.
"I blame myself." Stark spun on his heel, spreading his arms wide as though addressing a crowd of hundreds instead of a few people standing around him. "Admittedly when I hand my room key out it means bring as many of your hot and willing friends to the orgy as you're willing to share with. And hey - " here Stark indicated Diana and Jones " - two out of three is not bad for a first effort."
"Diana's still gay," Neal told him.
"Doesn't make her less hot," Stark replied. He brought his hand up to his sunglasses and gave a quick salute in Diana's direction. "But this is not an orgy."
"No kidding," Diana muttered. She looked as though she was contemplating kicking Stark's ass, even if it meant ruining the flawless, one shoulder, skintight, Zac Posen marocain-crepe dress she was wearing as part of her cover for the night. Neal knew the look well, since she'd leveled it at him when he'd first seen her in the dress earlier that day and asked where she hid her gun.
"Also," Stark continued, turning his attention back to Coulson, "no matter what this is, you are not invited to it."
"I don't need an invitation," Coulson pointed out.
"Then I'm rescinding whatever plus one somebody - and not that I'm mentioning names but I suspect it was J. Edgar Hoover over there - " Stark indicated Peter "- gave to you."
"A whole week before you got to Hoover," Peter said. "I can't tell if I'm impressed. But I didn't call Phil in."
"Nobody did," Coulson said. "SHIELD received word of a potential threat at tonight's party. I'm here as extra security."
"Is that what brought you here?" Neal asked Jones, since Jones hadn't been scheduled to join in on this part of the planning.
"Nah. But turn down the chance to meet Tony Stark?" Jones replied. "Are you kidding?"
"I'll give you an autograph later," Stark promised. He then lowered his voice as though speaking candidly to Coulson. "Phil, I know this isn't exactly your thing but what we have here is an elaborate con - "
"When we're doing them for the FBI we're supposed to call them 'stings'," Neal told him.
"An elaborate sting," Stark said, without missing a beat, "wherein we use bait to lure - I believe the technical term is the bad guys. In other words, and stop me if I'm going too fast for you, but a threat to tonight's party is the point."
"All the more reason for me to stay," Coulson replied.
"How did SHIELD find out about it?" Banner asked. He'd positioned himself away from the rest of the group, standing behind a chair that created an additional barrier between him and everyone else. "The threat, I mean."
"Certain connections who may or may not be on the ground near where - " Coulson's eyes flickered in Stark's direction "- the bad guys potentially call home."
"You could just say Natasha," Stark told him.
"Who's Natasha?" Jones asked.
"Someone who I wouldn't mind watching as she spent a little quality time with Clarice Starling over there," Stark said, tilting his head towards Diana.
Diana turned to Peter. "Boss, can I hit him?"
"Maybe after, if things go well," Peter replied.
"I've been told to get a picture of that, by the way," Coulson said. "A little something for the break-room bulletin board."
"I thought you were here because of a threat?" Stark tilted his head to give Coulson a studious look over his sunglasses.
"Never said it couldn't be a twofer," Coulson replied.
"Look." Peter stepped forward. Neal couldn't help but admire the way Peter could take command of a room with such a simple movement. "All I care about tonight is getting a clean bust - don't say it, Stark - without anyone getting hurt."
"SHIELD doesn't care about the art crime," Coulson said. "Whatever the FBI wants to do with those offenders, we'll stay out of your way."
"You know what's out of my way?" Stark asked. "Anywhere that's not here."
There was a knock at the door to the suite, then Moz came in.
"Neal, I've found the perfect - " Moz looked panicked when he realized who was in the room. "Um - I mean never mind, my good sir! Clearly I have brought this room service order to the wrong location!"
Moz spun around to try to leave, but Peter stopped him with a firmly spoken, "Freeze."
Moz flinched. He stayed still, but kept his back to the room. "Um, no hablo inglés?"
Peter motioned for Jones to shut the door before Moz could go through it. "Why are you here, Moz?"
Moz's shoulders slumped. He turned around to give Peter a glare. "Suit! Again with the betrayal of names!"
"Still don't care about busting up your secret schemes with Neal," Peter told him. "Now why are you here? Or let me guess, Dr. Banner asked you to come up this time too?"
"Wasn't me," Banner muttered, though he seemed more focused on drumming a rhythmless pattern against the top of the chair that stood between him and the rest of the room.
"How quickly those in power forget the ones who help!" Moz said to Peter. "Or, more specifically, forget that I was one of the ones who provided key assistance in coming up with this con!"
"Sting," Neal said, behind a cough.
"Sting," Moz corrected.
"I remember," Peter said. "Which is why I also remember that right now you are supposed to be downstairs helping my wife. So why are you here, Moz?"
"Oh." Moz pursed his lips thoughtfully and took a moment before he answered. "I needed to powder my nose?"
"I'd like to point out that it's my suite and I don't care if he's here," Stark said. "Now Phil on the other hand - "
"I'm still not leaving," Coulson told Stark. "Whine all you like but the SHIELD agents and I - "
"Whoa!" Stark held up a hand. "Now we're talking agents? Plural? Bad enough when it was just you - "
"Why is Moz really here?" Peter asked Neal, having apparently decided to ignore the argument going on between Stark and Coulson.
Neal shrugged in a display of innocence. "No idea beyond what's been planned for tonight. Peter, I don't want this screwed up any more than you do."
"SHIELD has every right to investigate known threats," Coulson told Stark.
"You gave this to the FBI," Stark reminded him. "You've nobody but yourself to blame for your buddy being the one who gets to ultimately satisfy my needs."
"I did not need that mental image," Jones said, to no one in particular.
"No one did," Diana agreed.
"I can leave," Moz offered. He jerked a thumb in the direction of the door. "In fact, let me do that. Right now."
"Not until you tell me why you came up here," Peter said.
"I can't have an honest curiosity about what a Tony Stark hotel suite looks like?" Moz asked.
"You don't have an honest anything," Peter replied.
"You asked for SHIELD's help in the first place," Coulson reminded Stark. "If you want to talk blame - "
"Hang on," Stark said. "Are you literally about to blame the victim? Because if you are - "
And then Banner, whose hand had begun tapping faster and faster against the back of the chair, snarled out, "Why don't we cancel the whole damned thing?"
Neal's breath caught. He'd been afraid before. He could name, easily, dozens of times when he'd felt fear strongly enough that he could've described it as a moment of his life flashing before his eyes. But absolutely none of them matched the innate terror that gripped him at the sound of Banner's voice.
Only it wasn't Banner's voice, but something more. Something primal. Something that made Neal feel a deep and sudden kinship with any animal that learned that in the grand scheme of the universe its life was defined as being prey.
Neal wasn't the only one. Every agent in the room had grabbed their guns. Even Diana, who'd produced hers out of a thigh holster. Nobody fired. Not yet. But they were ready, their own instincts better than Neal's when it came to responding to threats.
For his part, Neal stared at Banner. Not green, he wanted to say. He had an artist's eye, he could've named and identified any color of green on the spectrum and none of them were visible on Banner's skin. But the words didn't come. He was struck mute, armed only with the hope that all of the plans for the night hadn't been destroyed by what could turn out to be a fatal miscalculation.
Naturally, Stark spoke first. "Okay, I can name many things that would make this situation very stupid, and they all rhyme with nuns. How about everyone lets go of what they're holding?"
"I - " Banner twisted his hands together. He looked around the room yet didn't make eye contact. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean - "
"You're fine," Stark told him.
Peter was the first to make a show of putting his gun away, which led the others to do the same. Without taking his eyes off of Banner, Peter said, "Phil, I can't have this in my operation."
Peter's voice hadn't been judgmental, but even so Stark protested, "Oh come on!"
"Dr. Banner," Coulson said, showing no emotion save that of a sense of calm, "perhaps it would be better if you skipped the events this evening."
"You can't ground him," Stark said. He flicked a dismissive hand. "So he needed to let off a little steam. A few drinks and he'll be good as new."
"I - I don't know if this is a little steam. Tony, the threats, the danger." Banner folded his arms tight against his chest. "This is, uh, I don't think this is little."
"I'm outta my league here, Phil," Peter said, still watching Banner.
"There's a SHIELD office not far from here," Coulson said. He kept his hands in front of him and away from his weapon. "It's not the helicarrier but if Dr. Banner is feeling - "
"Homicidal?" Jones muttered.
" - stressed," Coulson continued, "there are rooms there which will be… quieter than this hotel. Safer. For everyone."
"Bruce, you don't have to listen to him," Stark said. He moved to stand in front of Banner's chair. "C'mon. It's a party. It'll be fun."
"No, I - " Banner gave Stark an apologetic look. "Tony, I'm sorry. Can you do this without me?"
"I can help," Neal offered. "We'll have to improvise a little but we can do it."
"Thank you," Banner said.
Coulson put a hand to his ear. "I'll get some agents to escort you."
"This is bullshit," Stark said, to no one in particular.
"Moz should go with Banner," Peter said.
Moz, who had watched the entire thing from where he'd jumped behind Diana, startled at the news. "What? Did you forget that I am a key part - "
"You made yourself a wild card," Peter told him. "You get treated like a wild card. You can go with Banner or you can go with the FBI. Your choice."
"I wouldn't hate the company," Banner admitted.
"Fine." Moz drew himself up as much as he could, and pointed a finger at Peter. "But remember this moment when the time comes tonight - as it shall - when you find yourself wishing I was there!"
"I'm willing to take that chance," Peter said.
Later, when Banner and Moz had been relocated and everyone who had some form of "agent" as part of their job title had gotten into position, Neal found himself alone with Stark. The two of them shared the long elevator ride down to the party.
"I have to ask," Neal said. "Do you think Dr. Banner will be all right?"
"I'm not worried," Stark told him.
Neal studied Stark's face. Stark's expression didn't change as he watched the floor numbers count down.
"Anybody ever tell you that one day you could make an excellent con artist?" Neal asked.
"No." Stark's mouth curved into a grin. "Though I've had a lot of people tell me that I already do."
A horde of photographers and reporters was there to greet Stark when he came off of the elevator. Stark's need for sunglasses became clear as camera flashes went off so frequently and constantly that Neal's eyes swam with spots.
The reporters - gossip columnists, really - shouted questions at Stark. "Who are you wearing?" "Are you seeing anyone?" "Will any of the other Avengers be making an appearance tonight?"
Neal kept to the background. It was easy enough. Nobody was there for him. It allowed Neal to adapt the posture and demeanor of any aide or publicist on the red carpet: there to keep their client to a schedule, but to stay out of the limelight. To be safe, Neal kept his hat on and tilted at just the right angle to make sure his face didn't end up in any of the pictures.
Stark responded to it all like the showman he was. He smiled, waved, and posed. Just as the group was ready to shout itself hoarse, Stark flung his hands out to either side and declared, "Enough foreplay. Let's get to the main event!"
Next came the actual donation. For this Neal had vetoed any idea of an elaborate presentation. The last thing they needed was to discover their thieves had a sense of drama that drew them out of hiding as a curtain was lifted, or Stark took the spotlight. Peter had backed Neal's recommendation, and Stark's reputation meant it was unlikely he'd give a formal speech in the first place.
Instead Stark jumped onto a table in front of the paintings. He hoisted an open bottle of Perrier-Jouët champagne above his head, and shouted, "Look, all I know is I've seen these pictures and there isn't a single naked person in any one of them. I can not have that kind of decency in my home. Now is this party gonna start or what?"
Stark took a swig of the champagne, grinned, and threw the bottle over his shoulder. The sound it made as it shattered on the floor turned out to be the only encouragement the crowd needed to cheer and start moving to the music.
Neal stayed on the sidelines. For the distraction to work he, as Stark's assistant, couldn't be at Stark's side when the fight happened. So Neal kept watch. He studied the crowd, and the exits, and tried to determine who, if anyone, was one of their thieves. Neal found he couldn't pinpoint suspects as easily as he would like. Having SHIELD agents there - agents who Stark said he had no familiarity with - meant that anyone who seemed out of place could've been friend as much as foe.
Not that Neal was normally in the habit of thinking of SHIELD agents as friends, which added to his sense of unease. He found himself wishing Moz could've stayed with him. Someone with a habit of practiced paranoia would've come in handy.
Neal also kept his eye out for the familiar, though not in any way that was obvious. He used his peripheral vision to watch El as she supervised the party, Pepper as she spoke to reporters, and Peter and Diana as they acted out their cover as a pair of rich donors. Jones was back in the hotel room that was serving as this operation's version of the van. And Stark -
Stark was everywhere. Neal didn't have to be next to him in order to see and hear what he was doing. Even if Stark wasn't making himself the center of attention, there was always a cluster of people around him. Usually it was a group of about twenty party goers, mostly women, in various stages of sobriety and undress and each clamoring for Stark to look their way.
The level of distraction this presented would've been a pickpocket's dream, but that wasn't the job Neal was on tonight. Also Neal thought about Banner. For all he'd claimed not to be worried about Stark's feelings for him, Neal wondered if imagining this exact situation had added fuel to Banner's outburst earlier in the night. It certainly couldn't help when Stark flirted back, groped one willing guest after another, and said things like "I recall something on your chest that was white, am I close?" when a woman Neal recognized as a lingerie model asked Stark if he remembered the last time they'd been together.
Then there was the alcohol. Champagne, scotch, martinis, signature drinks in red and gold that had been made just for the event, tequila shots, vodka, drinks with fruit, drinks with umbrellas, drinks that smoked. If Stark wasn't holding one glass it was because he held two, grasping one in each hand as he encouraged whatever lithe, half-naked dancer, singer, starlet, or party-goer to join him in a little fun.
This was part of the plan. They were using Stark's infamous nature to draw attention and help pull off the entire con. Neal watched one drink after another disappear as easily as whatever hanger-on Stark abandoned for the next one that caught his eye. Neal found himself thinking over the different sides of Stark he'd seen over the past week and wondering which, if any, had been real.
There was no time for that, though. Soon enough Peter's voice rang out loud enough to be heard above the music and the noise of the crowd:
"Hands off my wife, you asshole!"
Then there was an audible thwack of what had to be Peter's fist connecting with Stark's jaw. Neal didn't wait to see. Instead he rushed forward, making a show of pushing and even elbowing people out of his way. Normally he would've moved with the group, letting its energy carry him along just as he carried away recently acquired valuables. But the goal here was no longer invisibility. In fact, it was the opposite. Stark and his assistant needed to be seen in order for this to work.
"Mr. Stark, I'm here!" Neal said as he emerged in the center of the crowd. Stark was bent over, one hand grasping his cheek. Peter stood with his hands in fists, clearly ready to go for round two. Diana was off to the side, doing an amazing impression of someone who might faint or cry thanks to whatever rude thing Stark had supposedly done to her. (The plan had been for him to grab Diana from behind. If Stark had actually managed to make contact, he was either braver or more suicidal than Neal had ever thought.)
"You think I'm afraid to fight Tony Stark?" Peter said, shouting so everyone could hear. "C'mon and face me like a man!"
"Security!" Neal said, raising his voice above Peter's. They were already on their way, of course, but part of the ballet they were performing was making sure it was clear even to the slowest of observers that all of the attention and security was here, and not around the paintings. "Arrest him! He assaulted Mr. Stark!"
"He started it!" Peter said, but Neal didn't bother listening to the rest. Peter would bluster, Diana would fake tears if she needed to, and hopefully - hopefully - the criminals would take the bait.
All Neal had to do was get Stark out of there. He made a show of talking about how hurt Stark was, that he needed help, maybe even a doctor, and right this way so they could be sure -
- which ultimately got Stark and Neal away from the crowd and into an empty stairwell.
They needed to keep moving before anyone tried to follow. But everything also needed to go perfectly. So as soon as the fire door was closed and they had something like privacy, Neal tried to see what state Stark was in.
"Look here," Neal said. He tried to make eye contact. Luckily Stark had lost his sunglasses sometime earlier in the evening. "How many of me do you see right now?"
"Jesus Christ, Caffrey." Stark straightened up, rubbing his jaw with one hand. "Your boyfriend packs a punch but I'm not concussed."
Neal blinked. "You're sober."
"Allegedly." Stark flexed his jaw a few times, then gave a nod of satisfaction. "Probably have a bruise but I'll live."
"I thought you - " Neal started to say, then stopped himself. "You do a really good job of pretending to be a drunken asshole."
"The secret is that the asshole part is never pretend," Stark replied. "And more often than not the drunk part isn't either. Now how are we blowing this particular pop stand?"
"This way." Neal started down the staircase. He and Moz had scouted a path in advance that led to the outside through areas that had been left unused when the building had been converted into a hotel. "Of course a lot depends on if our guys took the bait. If they do, Peter and the others won't start looking for us for a while. If they don't - "
"Sounds like the thing to do is make sure they can't find us until we want them to," Stark said as he followed behind Neal. "No matter when they start looking."
"Exactly." They reached the door that led into the cramped alley behind the hotel. From there Neal planned on breaking into an abandoned store down the block. Then he and Stark would sneak away before they could be spotted. The hope was that the chaos within the hotel would work in their favor, with no one thinking to look for them anywhere but the building they'd just left.
Reporters added an extra dimension to the proceedings, however. Neal knew exactly where the FBI and SHIELD had planned to cover the area. A stray paparazzo, on the other hand, could come from anywhere. So once they were out of the hotel, Neal motioned for Stark to stay put while he quickly scouted for any photographers who had also realized this was a good location to hide.
He didn't find any reporters, but being on alert meant Neal spotted movement where there shouldn't have been any. It gave Neal time enough to try to shout a warning before a pair of hands grabbed him and an unfamiliar voice called out "I have the bodyguard!"
After that Neal felt a jolt of pain go through him, and the entire world went black.
The first thing Neal was aware of was a thudding headache centered between his eyes. The next was that he was seated on a folding chair in a room that smelled of dust and mildew. Neal's hands were behind his back, and there was a familiar feeling of metal around his wrists.
Then there was Stark's voice.
"Your choice. I mean I was prepared to go quadruple but - "
"Tony Stark technology is worth more than that, I think, yes?" came another voice. This one was accented. Neal recognized it as coming from the man who'd grabbed him behind the hotel.
"Tony Stark technology is worth a significant amount of the money that runs this entire planet, actually, but my guess is the finer lessons of global economics are beyond you," Stark said. There was a creak as Stark shifted his weight, and Neal realized Stark was in a chair directly behind him. Neal figured it was safe to assume Stark was tied up as well.
"Tony Stark is worth more than that, yes?" Another male voice. Neal didn't recognize it. "I think we keep Tony Stark, and he makes for us more money."
"Wow you guys aren't even original," Stark muttered. He shifted again and Neal felt Stark's arms brushing against his - which confirmed Neal's theory about what position Stark was in. There was pressure which suggested that Stark was leaning back. Which didn't make sense to Neal until he heard Stark talk in a tone which sounded not unlike an invitation. "Okay, you got me. Congratulations on scoring the big prize. But since you boys are going to do whatever you want with me, how about you let my latest slam-piece go?"
It took Neal a moment to realize Stark was talking about him.
"I do not think so," the first man said.
"C'mon," Stark replied. "It's not like he means anything to me. Get rid of him and take me to wherever it is you're heading to. He won't know where we went and it's one less mouth for you to feed. Pretty sure that's a kidnapper win/win."
"Tony, no!" Neal gave up on pretending to be unconscious. He opened his eyes and tried to turn in Stark's direction. He couldn't see Stark, but this gave Neal the opportunity to see their kidnappers: two men, both looking to be in their thirties. One with brown hair, one a dirty blond. They wore faded jeans and sweatshirts and were broad in the body in a way that suggested a lifestyle of heavy lifting matched with a fondness for beer. Given another setting and the two of them would've looked like movers. Which was appropriate, since that was effectively what they were. They just didn't limit themselves to goods they had a right to take from one place to another.
But that wasn't important now. What mattered was that Neal knew it was a bad idea for him to be taken away from Stark. Neal put on his best big-eyed pleading expression. Stark couldn't see it, but their kidnappers would.
"Tony, I'm not leaving you," Neal said. "I love you."
Neal felt Stark try to turn towards him. "Wow have you read our relationship wrong."
"I can help," Neal said, immediately appealing to their kidnappers. "Please. I can take care of him and - and he'll listen to me, I promise."
The brown-haired kidnapper gave a snort of laughter. He turned to his companion and muttered something which sounded like Russian, but was too quiet for Neal to be sure. The blond responded with a smirk.
"He stays here," the brown-haired kidnapper said. He came over to stand in front of Stark. "I think Tony Stark cares enough to not let him die, yes?"
With that both of their kidnappers left. Neal couldn't see the door from where he was sitting, but he heard the solid slam when it closed.
"You know I don't claim to be a hero," Stark said as soon as he and Neal were alone, "but normally when I try to save someone's life they let me, Caffrey. What the hell?"
"Sorry, but I had to stay." Neal started twisting his wrists. He grasped the thin piece of metal he kept hidden in his sleeve for just such occasions, then got to work. "I may not be an Avenger, but I've got something you don't."
"It'd better not be a crush."
There was a click and Neal's hands were free. He turned around to face Stark and grinned. "How about the ability to get out of any pair of handcuffs?"
Stark stared at him, then grinned back. "That'll do. Though I'm wondering if that helps or hurts your love life."
"Little of both," Neal admitted. He undid Stark's cuffs in even less time than it took to take care of his own. "Of course the next step is getting both of us out of here."
Stark stood and rubbed his wrists where the cuffs had chafed him. "Guess that depends on where 'here' is. You're the criminal consultant. What are we dealing with?"
Neal looked around. The room had a concrete floor and what looked like walls of solid concrete to match. Except no - Neal spotted air vents near the ceiling. None of them were big enough to get even a small child through, but they at least broke up the walls a bit.
There were no windows. Shelves lined the walls on the opposite side of the room from the door. The shelves were empty, save for ripped cardboard boxes, and what appeared to be forgotten envelopes and folders.
The door to the room was metal. It wouldn't have looked out of place at a bank, or a treasury.
"My guess is a staging area," Neal said. "Things get stolen and brought here for safekeeping until they're moved somewhere else. Not sure where we are but probably near warehouses and most likely near easy transportation, like the water. Do you know how long we've been out?"
"Nope." Stark moved to start studying the door. "My sixth sense for that sort of thing is limited to blackouts of the alcohol related kind."
"So no idea if we've been gone long enough for anybody to realize we're actually missing," Neal said. He winced. "And since we deliberately put ourselves off the grid so SHIELD and the FBI couldn't find us…"
"I've been basking in that irony myself," Stark agreed. He traced his fingers along the sides of the door. "I am not looking forward to Phil's many renditions of the I told you so chorus."
"The good news is that we always planned on them looking for us," Neal said. He joined Stark to see what their options were. "They could find us before we get taken to another location."
"I'm not really a wait around to be rescued kind of guy," Stark said.
Neal immediately felt horrible. He'd been so focused on practicalities he'd forgotten Stark's history with capture. "Hey, are you - "
"I'd like to get home before somebody makes the dumbass mistake of telling Bruce I'm missing." Stark's expression didn't change, nor did he look in Neal's direction. "We've got enough problems without Hulk ripping Manhattan in two so he can find me."
Neal figured that was the best he was going to get for a reply. He put his focus back on figuring out their escape. As he looked around the room for anything that might help, he suddenly realized what was missing. "There aren't any paintings."
"Yeah, I was going to mark them down on decor when I filled out my guest satisfaction survey," Stark said. His attention was focused on a metal panel next to the door at about knee height.
"No, this is good." Neal said. "That means that part of the plan worked. They went for the paintings and got nabbed by the FBI. That means we're dealing with a smaller crew."
"Assuming they didn't call for backup," Stark pointed out.
Neal had to acknowledge that possibility. "But if they did, it's not here yet. If it was they'd be moving us to the next stop. Especially if they knew the feds were onto them. We've got a window of opportunity, if nothing else."
"Great. Let's use it." Stark's manipulations of the metal panel made it swing away from the wall. It revealed another metal panel, this time with a lock.
Stark looked at Neal. "Can you get me in there?"
"I think I can manage it," Neal said.
They were looking at the safety mechanism for the door. The space was meant to keep valuables from anyone who tried to get to them from the outside. It wasn't intended as a way to keep anyone prisoner. Which meant, for practicality's sake, there had to be a way to open the door in case anyone got locked in by accident.
Neal reached into his suit jacket for his set of emergency lock picks. He smirked as he realized he had Peter to thank for his habit of keeping the picks in a hidden pocket that couldn't easily be found in a standard pat-down. Luckily their kidnappers hadn't felt a reason to be more thorough.
Stark moved aside while Neal got to work. The lock in question was a twelve pin. Fiddly, but not impossible to open. The greatest difficulty was making sure not to apply too much pressure and thus have to let all the pins go and start from the beginning. It was years since Neal could be considered a beginner, so it didn't take him long to get to the point where a twist of his tension wrench made the lock give and the panel swing open. Behind it was an electric panel with a keypad.
"There we go," Stark said. He motioned for Neal to get out of his way. Once Neal moved, Stark began pulling the panel open so he could get at the wires.
"Okay," Neal said as he watched. "That's a Portunes system. To bypass that you'll need to find the power source and - and I just realized I'm telling Tony Stark how to hack a piece of electronic equipment."
"I wasn't going to make fun to your face," Stark replied. He made quick work of the wires, stripping some and pulling and reattaching others until he was satisfied. "Okay. That door opens and you get the hell out of here."
Neal frowned. "What? Why? What are you going to do?"
"Remind these assholes why it's a bad idea to try to fuck with me or my boyfriend," Stark said.
"Look," Neal said, "I'm all for these guys being punished but they're not the ones in charge. They're goons. Their job is to follow orders and try not to think."
"Sure," Stark said. "But how do they get those orders?"
Neal shrugged, not sure where Stark was going with this. "In person? Phone? Maybe e-mail if it's secure e — oh."
"Exactly," Stark said. "I want to get my hands on whatever computer or smartphone they've got in this place. I can use whatever communications they've had to find the folks in charge and send them a love note."
"You'll need a distraction," Neal pointed out. "No way are they going to let you walk in and use their equipment."
Stark let out a breath. "Fair point. Think you can give me one?"
Neal grinned. "I'm almost hurt you had to ask."
The building they were in turned out to be a two story warehouse that felt damp enough that it had to be near the water. The room where Neal and Stark had been kept was on the second floor. A quick scouting trip revealed more locked storage rooms and boarded up windows. There was a freight elevator, and one staircase down.
Neal kept to the shadows as he crept as far down the stairs as he dared in order to get a look. The first floor was far more open than the second, and clearly meant for trucks to back into so things could be unloaded. There were crates lined along the walls. Towards the back Neal could see a small windowed room with monitors for the security cameras, all of which were aimed outside.
Their captors stood in the middle of the room. The blond was smoking a cigarette and nodding along to something the dark-haired one was saying in a voice too low for Neal to hear. A quick look at their body language suggested that they were restless, and uncertain.
Neal could work with that.
"Where the hell is Stark?" Neal demanded as he ran down the stairs. The two men jerked in surprise and Neal found himself staring down the barrels of a couple of Makarov pistols.
"Stop right there!" the blond told him.
"Whoa!" Neal put his hands up in a gesture for peace. "What are you doing? I'm the inside man, remember?"
The dark haired one looked skeptical. "What inside man?"
Neal rolled his eyes. "The inside man. The one who got Stark alone so you could grab him in the alley? Or did you think it was a coincidence Stark got a new assistant just as we were getting ready to do this job?"
"I heard nothing about an inside man," the blond said.
"Yeah, well I didn't get your names either but that doesn't mean you don't exist," Neal replied. "Didn't you figure it out when I gave you the signal to leave me with him? Sergei knew I was the only one who could get him to talk."
The two looked at each other uncertainly. Neal pressed his advantage.
"Look, I don't know how much has gotten screwed tonight with the feds showing up out of nowhere," Neal said. "All I know is I'm getting paid to deliver Stark and his information to Sergei. Believe me, if Stark gets lost I'll be sure to mention it was you two who didn't even know how to lock a door!"
"The door was locked fine!" the blond said.
"Then how did Stark escape?" Neal demanded. He gestured towards the staircase. "You two idiots left and somehow he gets out of the chair, hits me, and when I wake up he's rabbited. What, did you let him walk out of the front door too?"
The dark haired one snarled something in Russian that Neal didn't know the exact translation of, but given the tone he felt safe in making a guess. He shoved his way past Neal to get to the stairs.
"I screwed up nothing!" the blond said as he followed.
Neal ran after them. They'd wasted no time in splitting up to look, which gave Neal the chance to run back towards the room that had been their cell. "Guys!" he called out. "Come quick, I've found something!"
It shouldn't have been this easy, but in the grand scheme of crime there were those who made the plans and those who followed. The two they were dealing with had clearly never been the ones who'd made the plans. They came towards Neal without realizing where they were in relation to the security door. The door was heavy enough that when Neal shoved it closed it swept them up along the way and trapped them inside.
Neal grinned, then went to join Stark downstairs.
"How'd it go?" Stark asked when Neal came into the small office.
"Good." Neal showed the keys he was able to palm off of the guards when they hadn't been paying attention. "Couldn't grab their guns, but at least this way they'll have a harder time getting past that panel."
"And even if they did I'm kinda doubting they'd be able to figure out the new codes I put into the system," Stark said. His fingers were flying over the keyboard of the only computer the office had. One screen after another appeared and was dismissed. "Son of a - Windows XP, Caffrey. I feel myself getting stupider just sitting here. When I die make sure to donate my body to science because my brain's going to be mush."
Neal kept his eye on the security monitors. "How long do you think it'll take you to get in?"
"I'm already in," Stark said. "Question is how long will it take me to find all the evidence they thoughtfully left on their servers. Which shouldn't be very. Their firewalls are made of wet tissue paper. The coding's got enough holes in it to drive the helicarrier through. And - there!"
Neal looked over Stark's shoulder and saw tables of information appear. Stark scanned them all and brought up more too quickly for Neal to follow.
"What's white collar crime?" Stark asked as he continued to pull up data.
Neal blinked. "You're asking me that now?"
"C'mon," Stark said. His typing never slowed in spite of how much he was talking. "We're playing $100,000 Pyramid and the category is crimes your boyfriend gets to claim credit for stopping."
"He's not my - " Neal started to say, then realized what Stark was trying to do for Peter. "Right. Money laundering, identity theft, price fixing, pretty much any kind of crime with the word 'fraud' in the description…."
"Got it." Stark pulled up another window and did more rapid fire typing. Within moments the screen flashed with the letters FBI, before again being replaced by more code. "What's his email address? Never mind, I'll make him a new one."
"I'm sure he'll be thrill - " Neal started to say, then saw what username Stark was picking. "Actually I'm the only one allowed to call him Burke the Jerk."
Stark actually paused what he was doing long enough to raise his eyebrows at Neal. He then made a show of hitting the delete key with steady, precise jabs to erase each letter he'd typed.
"I'm just saying," Neal added.
"Hey, do what you want," Stark said as he resumed working. "If you choose not to hit that like the fist of an angry god, that's on you."
Neal remembered some of the things he'd heard about what happened to Stark during the invasion of Manhattan. "What's it like being hit by the fist of an angry god anyway?"
"Hurts like a bitch," Stark admitted.
There was movement in the security monitors. Neal stood to get a better look. "Bad news. Cavalry's here and it's not ours."
"Charming." Somehow Stark managed to work even faster. "What are we dealing with?"
"Truck," Neal said. The van was close enough that it could be seen by the camera focused outside the front door. "At least three in the front, no idea how many in the back. And they've got rifles. Don't suppose you've got a spare suit tucked away in your back pocket?"
"Still working on that upgrade," Stark said. He pushed away from the desk as the automatic door into the building began to roll towards the ceiling. "No time for me to build a new one. We got a plan B?"
Neal gave a quick look and spotted a red exit sign towards the back of the building. "This way."
The plan would've worked, save the van drove in before Neal and Stark could get into the shadows. Eight men in total jumped out of the vehicle. Two from the back peeled off to grab Stark, while one of the ones who'd sat up front grabbed Neal. Neal immediately began to struggle. He didn't have much fight training, but he knew some tricks for getting away. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Stark moving. There was a grunt of pain that didn't sound like Stark's voice, but then came another that very much did.
Neal went limp to turn himself into a dead weight. Surprised, his captor dropped him. Neal landed hard on the floor then scrambled to his feet. He spotted a ratty broomstick that would make do as an impromptu weapon. But before he could reach for it he found another Makarov pistol pointed towards his face, this time from a foot away.
"Let me explain," Neal said. He tried to think of some excuse or story that would buy him and Stark some time.
"Don't care," came the reply. Neal saw the finger twitch of the trigger about to be pulled and wondered if he could duck fast enough and -
"FBI! Everyone drop your weapons!"
- and Neal was never ever going to get tired of when Peter came to save the day. Especially when he did it with Jones, Diana, and a swarm of SHIELD and FBI agents in tow.
Stark left the warehouse first. Considering what Banner's stress levels had been before the kidnapping, nobody disputed the need to get Stark back to the SHIELD offices as quickly as possible.
Neal would've gone too except Peter grabbed him by the arm and said, "I've had enough disappearing acts from you tonight." and refused to let Neal out of his sight.
Once the scene was secure enough that Diana and Jones could take charge of it, Peter and Neal made their way to the SHIELD offices as well.
The building reminded Neal of the FBI. Same washed out gray coloring. Same smells of toner and burnt coffee. Same fluorescent lights which always seemed to have at least one that flickered and buzzed. Even the same types of people wearing ties and black suits regardless of gender or the fact that it was well past midnight on a weekend.
Peter and Neal were cleared to go to the elevator and ride up to where the others were waiting for them. The doors opened on an office floor not unlike the one that Peter and Neal worked on.
"So is soul-crushing interior decorating standard issue for every government office?" Neal asked Peter as they pushed through glass doors and headed towards the sounds of people talking.
"We get a group discount on chairs and matching mouse pads," Peter replied without missing a beat.
They drew near a space that was more open than the rows of desks they'd just passed. There were a few workstations, but also worn couches and a white board. It was the sort of area that would be used for what the FBI called stand-up meetings and what Neal called one of many good reasons to never become a full time office worker if he could help it.
Various SHIELD agents were scattered about the space. Some were texting, others were reading things on tablets. Still others had been cornered by Moz.
"The tension!" Moz opened his arms wide, splaying his fingers out as though holding on to a giant balloon. "The fear of knowing that at any moment things could turn green in ways that had nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with a shortened life expectancy. I tell you, if we hadn't cleared the floor there's no telling what might have happened."
"Everything okay, Moz?" Neal asked when he was close enough.
"Things appear to be in one piece," Peter pointed out. "I'm going to guess that Dr. Banner didn't turn."
"It was a very near thing," Moz said. He brought his hands back in and tightly pinched together the thumb and index finger of his right hand. "A mere hiccup and this building may have been gone!"
"Huh." Neal allowed a moment for Moz's statement to sink in. "Good thing you took that meditation class so recently."
"It really was," Moz replied. "Fortunately I was able to stay there for Dr. Banner in his time of need. And thus did the beauty of zen mindfulness soothe the savage - well you get the idea."
"Where are Stark and Banner anyway?" Peter asked.
"Away from the noise and the people who swear they aren't the Men in Black in spite of having the exact same dress sense," Moz replied. He pointed towards a corner on the opposite end of the room.
Banner was leaning his back against a wall. Sometime during the night he had lost his suit jacket because he currently had Stark's draped over his shoulders. Stark stood in front of Banner, one hand braced on the wall next to Banner as the two of them spoke.
Neal would've gone over to see how they were doing, but the glass doors on the left hand side of the room flew open and Coulson came in.
"Stark!" Coulson snapped, his voice sharp enough that everyone within earshot immediately stopped and paid attention. "What did you do to my files?"
"C'mon!" Stark replied. He turned just enough that he could face Coulson without moving far away from Banner. "If changing your name to 'Lazarus' on your driver's license isn't funny, I don't know what is."
"You know the files I'm talking about," Coulson told him.
"Really gonna need you to narrow that down," Stark said. "We talking bank accounts? SHIELD files? The videos you've got saved in your personal folder under 'training' but actually have titles like Nocking the Longrod or His Quivering Shaft? Though I suppose those could be considered some kind of training - ."
"The files that were in the server room on the same floor Dr. Banner took over tonight," Coulson said. He turned his gaze towards Banner. "The floor that was cleared for Dr. Banner tonight."
"For the safety of all," Moz said. Not that anyone was listening to him.
"Hmm." Stark pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Did I know you had a server room on that floor? Did I know what floor you were going to put Bruce on? Kinda sounds like a lot of assumptions being made on your part. You know what they say about assuming - "
"Dr. Banner," Peter interrupted, "I notice your clothes seem to be in remarkably good condition for someone who nearly had an incident."
Banner's mouth curved in a smile. "Thanks. My control is getting a lot better."
"Has been since you moved in with me," Stark pointed out.
"We don't yet have proof of that correlation," Banner said. In a move that would've drawn no attention, if not for how Neal had been looking for it, Banner adjusted his shirtsleeves with two tugs on the right and one on the left. The movement made the light glint off of the emerald cufflinks Banner still wore.
"Regardless of the reason, it sounds like we got the outcome that we wanted," Neal said, and he saw Banner quickly stifle a smirk.
"Besides," Stark leveled a searching gaze on Coulson, "why would I be interested in something you had on a server here?"
Coulson didn't flinch. "All files here are classified. That's not enough reason for you to want to steal them?"
"Oh, so we're talking theft now?" Stark asked. "I see, so you whipped out Occam's razor and concluded that everything that happened tonight was an elaborate plan to steal files? Putting aside how clearly I'm not facing a ton of competition here for being one of the smartest men in the world - except for Bruce of course - "
"Thanks," Banner said.
"It's the truth," Stark told him before turning back to Coulson. "How much is it I've supposedly stolen? Humor me. How many gigs?"
Coulson glanced over his shoulder at an agent who had followed him into the room. "How much is missing?"
The agent opened and closed her mouth a few times before saying, "Actually… nothing."
"Nothing?" Coulson turned around to face her in full. "Then why - "
"The security records showed a blip on the monitor for the server room door!" she replied. "Protocol says we have to investigate every anomaly, but as far as we can see there was no change to any of the files. Granted we haven't had enough time to check each one, but as far as the metadata is concerned everything looks the same."
"I'm no criminal consultant," Stark said. "But I would think a thief who left everything behind exactly the way he found it is probably a very bad one."
"Or," Moz pointed out, "a very good one."
"Or that," Stark agreed. "Huh. Somebody with computer skills good enough to break into a SHIELD server and leave no trace of whatever it is they did. Sounds like someone - "
"They should hire?" Neal suggested. Off of Peter's look, Neal added, "As a consultant."
"I was gonna say 'not piss off' but I suppose yours works too," Stark said. He clapped his hands together. "Anyway, I'm starving. Dr. Banner, would you care to join me for some nachos?"
"If they're on the way home," Banner replied. He pushed away from the wall so he could fall into step beside Stark.
"We're not done here," Coulson said.
"Sorry, can't hear you over the sound of the beauty sleep I need to catch up on in case I'm needed to help save the world tomorrow," Stark said, waving Coulson off. "To say nothing of the rest I need to change the face of energy for the entire planet. Wouldn't you agree, Dr. Banner?"
"Sustainable energy is very important," Banner said.
"It's honestly amazing I have time for anything else, given all that I selflessly do for humanity." Stark held the door open for Banner to head out into the hall. He then pressed two fingers to his lips and raised them over his head in a peace sign. "Night. Don't call me, I definitely won't call you."
"I'm not going to miss him," Peter said as soon as Stark was gone. "At all."
"He grows on you," Neal told him. Then, when Peter shot him a look, he added, "In his own unique way. Anyway, back in a sec. I need to hit the restroom."
Before Peter could stop him, Neal jogged out into the hallway to catch up with Stark and Banner. He spotted them standing together in the shadows as he rounded the corner that led to the elevator banks. He was about to call out to them, but then his eyes adjusted to the darkness.
Stark and Banner weren't just standing together, but were locked in a clinch. Stark had his arms on Banner's hips. Banner had one hand on Stark's shoulder and the other tangled in Stark's hair. They kissed slowly, open mouthed, and like there was nothing else in the world but the two of them.
Neal checked to be sure nobody else was coming, then backed away as silently as he could.
"Everything okay?" Peter asked him when he got back.
"Yeah," Neal said. "Looks like everything's fine."
"You know, it's still interesting to me that the records on your anklet for that night showed you at the party."
Neal looked over at Peter in the driver's seat. It had been over a week since the end of Neal's direct involvement with the Stark case. Peter was giving Neal the latest news while driving Neal back home from work. In Peter's own way it was a reward for the long day Neal had spent at his desk searching through dozens of files for evidence of a pattern that might relate to a suspect they had for the latest case of possible hedge fund fraud.
"I was, until Stark and I got snatched," Neal reminded him. He shifted in his seat, feeling the weight of the new tracking anklet that had been placed on him less than 12 hours after Peter had rescued him from the warehouse. "As for the rest - well, they did have help from a former Stark employee."
"Hughes says it looks good for getting that guy a deal," Peter said. He brought the car to a slow stop for a red light. "He turns in evidence against his Russian mafia buddies in exchange for a reduced sentence on the charges of corporate espionage."
"Stark was okay with that?" Neal asked.
"He was once he understood the guy was a patsy." Peter shrugged. "Guy gets fired, he's offered a few thousand in exchange for the full set of office photos he showed off on his Facebook page, before long he's in too deep. Not his fault he didn't realize those guys were casing Stark Tower."
Neal suspected the Russians had actually used the pictures to see if there was more evidence of the code in the paintings hung up around the offices, but he didn't say that out loud. "So the FBI nabs some white collar criminals, SHIELD gets leads on some Russians trying to steal and weaponize Stark's technology - sounds like a pretty good result for inter-agency cooperation."
"The FBI is pleased, SHIELD is pleased, we did good," Peter admitted. He put the car in motion again when the light turned back to green. "Even the Thayer museum."
"Stark went through with the donation?" Neal asked.
"For twice the dollar amount of all ten paintings," Peter confirmed. "In cash."
"It's a shame the paintings can't be made available to the public," Neal said. "But he's got a point about how it isn't safe to do that right now. No telling when the next round of armed gunmen will try to make off with them."
"Funny you should mention public," Peter said. "Because I noticed a lot of pictures from the event made it to the usual gossip sites."
"El's got you reading her favorite blogs now too?" Neal asked.
Peter ignored him. "Shots of Stark's toast in front of the Hickmans - your Hickmans, that is - made it all over the world in just a few days, and in every kind of media. That's a lot of publicity for a set of forgeries."
"Normally I'd say any publicity is good," Neal said, "but you know the catch with forgeries."
"You can't claim credit for your work," Peter replied.
"Exactly." Neal shrugged philosophically. "I'll just have to put up with the entire world thinking those are the originals."
"Mm-hm." Peter turned the final blocks that led to June's home. He gave Neal a thoughtful look. "You going to be okay? Not just with the forgeries. I mean no longer living the life of a billionaire, even if it was as his assistant."
"I'm not going to lie, the perks were nice," Neal said. He looked over at Peter. "But once the forgeries were done there was nothing there for me. I like what we do. It's got meaning. Even if the lunches aren't five star."
Peter parked his car in front of June's. He turned to face Neal. "I'm glad to hear you say that. I like you being here, even if the FBI can't compete with a Stark Industries salary."
"Pretty sure my $700/month stipend isn't even a Stark Industries minimum wage," Neal said. "But thanks."
"You're welcome." Just as Neal and went to open the car door, Peter put a hand on his arm to stop him. "One more question."
Neal sat back down. "What?"
"When Stark emailed me all that evidence from the warehouse," Peter said. "Why'd he change my email address to email@example.com?"
"I'm sure I have no idea," Neal said, and left the car before Peter could say anything else.
"A delivery came for you," June told Neal when he entered the house. She gave him a knowing smile. "From Sotheby's."
Neal frowned. "I didn't order anything from them."
"It had your name on it," June said. She motioned him upstairs. "Mozzie's looking it over now to be sure it's safe."
"Thanks," Neal said. He took the stairs to his apartment two at a time.
When he got there he found Moz standing by the kitchen table with a crowbar in his hands. A large wooden box was open before him. Straw spilled from the box and onto the floor. And inside of the box -
"That's a Jackson Pollock," Neal said.
Moz nodded both in confirmation and in understanding of why Neal hadn't bothered saying hello. "It is indeed."
Neal came close enough to the painting that he could touch it. He traced a reverential finger along the side of the frame. "This is from his Springs period."
"Also true," Moz said. He put the crowbar on the table so he could fold his arms thoughtfully. "You know, there are reports that an anonymous buyer recently purchased a painting from - "
" - the Boy Scouts," Neal said, because he and Moz had many of the same sources, both legal and not.
"For a sum of at least eight figures," Moz added.
Neal could believe it. He'd believe the price for any of Pollock's paintings, but especially for one as beautiful as this, done right when Pollock had begun experimenting with putting his canvases on the floor, and using alkyd enamels. Neal could see the evidence of the brushes and sticks Pollock had used. He could feel the energy captured in the colors, the very essence of the actions Pollock had put into the painting, the very soul -
"The Suit's not going to let you keep this," Moz pointed out.
Neal sighed as reality came crashing down. "I know."
"Of course, that assumes he finds out about it," Moz said.
Moz gently patted Neal on the back. "Want me to take care of putting this into storage?"
Neal allowed himself one last touch along the side. "Unfortunately, yes."
"Consider it merely hibernation," Moz suggested. "Not a loss, but a delay."
"I may need you to keep reminding me of that," Neal said. He looked at Moz. "And this one's for both of us. When the time comes, we'll find a way to split it."
Moz grinned. "Why do you think it's going into one of my safe spaces?"
Neal forced himself to step away. If he lingered too long he knew he would start scheming about how to keep the painting near, and that was not smart right now. Not when he was still proving to Peter that there hadn't been anything about the Stark case Peter couldn't trust Neal on. The fact that Neal had lied to Peter about many aspects of the case was all the more reason to remove unnecessary temptations. The painting could go into safe keeping, like all the other treasures Neal had - allegedly - collected and hidden over the years.
Even so -
"Sorry I'm sending you back into hiding," Neal said to the painting. He patted the wooden crate in something like a gesture of comfort and, in doing so, dislodged some of the straw.
A small white envelope peeked out from where it had previously been hidden. Neal pulled it free. There was no name on the outside. He tore the envelope open and discovered a card inside. On it, in tight, precise handwriting, it said:
I owe you one.
Neal grinned. He slipped the card into his back pocket, and thought to himself that he might keep it there for a while.