Maria’s day started off so well. She logged seven consecutive hours of sleep—nearly a record—and there was fresh coffee in the mess when she got there. She even managed to clear enough time in her schedule to work with some of the newer agents for most of the morning. Her presence may have scared the hell out of them, but they hid it well and made good progress.
A few urgent reports came in around noon, and she had to throw herself into making up for the incompetence of an agent who really should have known better, but things didn’t start going to hell in earnest until nearly fifteen hundred hours. Again, nearly a record.
But by eighteen thirty hours any gains she managed that morning are wiped clean, and by nineteen forty-five hours she’s ready for early retirement. Just another twenty years to go.
She sighs. The sludge in her coffee cup burns as it goes down, but the heat keeps her from tasting it much, so all things considered it’s just as well. They’ve averted three minor catastrophes, but the latest report presages a headache like they haven’t had in weeks.
She triple confirms with the terrified agent offering his report, and in the end comes out with no certainty at all, but dark enough suspicions that they can’t wait.
She takes a breath, taps off her com, and crosses the bridge to Fury's station. "Reports suggest that the robots may be Doom's, Sir."
"'May'?" By his voice, his day isn’t going any better than hers.
"No confirmation yet. Our people haven't able to get close enough to get a good look. But the technology is close enough that we're proceeding under the assumption that Doom is involved. And after what happened last time—"
"We need full deployment. Four teams, five if we can get them. Rogers on point."
"No. Time to bring in the big guns. Rogers works better with them anyway."
"Respectfully, Sir, Rogers has worked with them all of twice, and we don’t have a lot of time. How do we even know they'll come in again?"
"They'll come in.”
“You always say that. One of these days we’re going to need them and they aren’t going to come.”
“Not today. Pull Barton and Romanoff out of Kiev and get Rogers to bring in Banner and Thor. Coulson will handle Stark."
Maria breathes a sigh of relief. At least a little of the morning’s luck is still with her. "As long as I don't have to," she mutters. Fury gives her a dark look and even she isn’t immune to that. She adds a belated “Sir,” and returns to her post.
The day is fine and fair, the sky a cloudless blue, and the sun warm on Thor's shoulders. An excellent day to go out in the world and enjoy the pleasures of it.
Jane, unfortunately, disagrees. Her preparations for some significant celestial event were interesting for the first few days, but eventually he grew tired of following her calculations. Texts and films on the great leaders of this realm kept him busy for several days more, but on this fine day he must admit, to himself at least, that he is growing bored.
The call from Captain Rogers is therefore most welcome, and he readily agrees to join his once and future comrades in the defense of the great and fabled city of Detroit.
Provided that someone will tell him how to get there.
"OK, I'll go handle Doom's hunks of junk. No, strike that, that definitely came out wrong. I'll deal with his little doombots or whatever ridiculous crap he's come up with now. I heard how he kicked your asses last month, and I've magnanimously decided to give you guys a hand."
"You're bored, aren't you?"
"Or death's just made you persuasive. How is that whole 'dead' thing working out for you anyway?"
Coulson's eyeroll is almost audible. "Greatly exaggerated, as I've explained. Repeatedly."
"And yet the exaggerator hasn't apologized once."
"He's got nothing to apologize for, Stark. Move the hell on. You'll be in Detroit by zero nine hundred tomorrow?"
"For my favorite corpse, sure thing."
Bruce eyes the buzzing phone warily. Honestly, most days it slips his mind that the thing's a phone at all, and not just an ultra-portable lab computer. The number isn't one he recognizes, and his phone doesn't know it either. Which narrows things down only as far as "not Tony Stark." And even that's only because Stark gave him the gadget with his contact information already programmed in, complete with glamour photo and Black Sabbath ring tone.
He considers answering, but before he makes up his mind the call goes to voicemail. He shrugs and turns back to his notes, but the phone is still for only a moment before the buzzing starts up again.
"Fuck," he mutters, and thumbs the accept button.
"Doctor Banner." Steve Rogers' face shows up on the screen, serious but warm. Bruce belatedly realizes that he'll be visible on the other end. Fucking StarkPhone. He runs a hand through his hair and tries to remember the last time he looked into a mirror.
"Captain," he returns.
Fucking Stark. When he gave Bruce the device, after the second time Bruce turned down an extended stay at Stark Tower, Stark swore up down and sideways that S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn't track it. "The phone?"
"The phone's how you know I'm in Greenland?"
"I doubt it. You know S.H.I.E.L.D.’s in the habit of keeping tabs on you."
He does know that. "Greenland's fine," he answers. "Peaceful. I'm making progress."
"Glad to hear it, Doctor. But right now we need you."
"Me? Or the other guy?"
Rogers glances away from the phone, and then back at it. "Both." It's not convincing.
"What is it this time?"
"It looks like Vic Doom's robots are showing up in Detroit. They're nothing we can't handle yet, but the last time we dealt with him things went bad, fast. We could use some heavy hitters."
"You've got Stark?"
"Then you don't need me. Either of me."
"Respectfully, Doctor, you didn't see how bad it got the last time."
"Respectfully, Captain, you don't seem to remember how bad things got with the other guy the last time I brought him 'round to play."
Rogers’ answer is quieter. "We all understand that that was personal for you. And the Hulk did fine. He didn't kill anybody who wasn't trying to kill us."
"Right. He gets a shiny gold star for that. But what he— what I did to the airport, not to mention the highway, and—"
Rogers cuts him off. "You won't back up the team because the other guy did some structural damage? They're pretty good at fixing highways these days."
"Do you have any idea how important infrastructure is in the developing world? How critical for distributing food, medicine?"
"Well, you're in luck, because Detroit's pretty well developed."
"Sorry Cap. I stay put this time."
Rogers pauses, as if he's trying to think of another, better argument. But then he examines Bruce's eyes, and seems to think better of it. "You'll be missed." It's apparently a farewell, because the line goes dead before Bruce can reply.
He puts down the phone and turns back to his work.
The trip from Kiev is a bitch, even in a quinjet. There's plenty of room for Clint's workout routines, and plenty of briefing materials to keep him busy after that, but he's still relieved when Natasha sets the jet down at the rendezvous point on the outskirts of the city.
Coulson's eyes flick up from his tablet the instant the doors open, and Clint feels a warm rush of relief to see the man standing.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he asks by way of greeting.
"Good to see you too."
Natasha smiles. "I hardly recognized you without all the IV lines. You're cleared to be out here?"
Coulson gives her a hard look, and she nods. That he's here is answer enough. He checks his watch, thumbs the unlock button for his sedan, and gestures for them to get in.
Natasha takes shotgun while Clint swings into the backseat, and they're off.
"What's the situation?" Natasha's voice is all business now.
"Still no confirmation on the precise nature of the robotics. They're presumed to be Doom's, but we haven't seen any other sign of him. ‘Bots have been spotted in four discrete locations around the city, but the primary area of concentration is the riverfront. We've got the tourists cleared away and plan to move in once we're all here."
Clint flinches a little at Natasha's tone. He doesn't love working with new people either, but it's a necessary evil.
"Rogers is heading this one up, and Stark and Thor will be joining us shortly. The rest of the team's backup. Rogers picked them out. They're good people."
Clint can't tell if she's hoping for a yes or a no.
She nods, and he still isn't sure whether that was the answer she wanted.
Steve looks up from his map to see Thor striding into the tourist office they've commandeered for a temporary HQ on the waterfront. "Good to see you." He stands and holds out his hand, which, after a moment's hesitation, Thor grasps in an exceptionally firm handshake. "How's New Mexico treating you?"
"It is... different from Asgard. A fine place, but I was pleased to come here to be of assistance to you and to S.H.I.E.L.D."
"We're glad to have you. You've been briefed on Doom?"
"Agent Sitwell told me of your previous encounter. We will have better luck this day."
"I sure hope so." He heads for the door and motions for Thor to follow. "So far the 'bots have mostly stuck to this area. They're coming in and out of the river there," he points at a section of railing, where a couple of roughly human-shaped robots appeared to be keeping guard. "We don't know why yet."
A silver sedan rolls up next to the security cordon, and Agents Romanoff, Barton, and Coulson emerge. Steve waves them over, smiling to see them in spite of the circumstances.
"Stark here yet?" are the first words from Romanoff's mouth.
She gets to the point. He can respect that. "Not yet." He turns to Coulson. "He said he'd be here by zero nine hundred?"
Coulson nods. "Which was eight minutes ago, I know. You've all met him." He shrugs, as if to say that Tony Stark is not his problem. Steve wishes he could do the same, but he has to admit that the man will be useful under the circumstances.
As if he were just waiting to be missed—and Steve doesn't put it past him to be listening in on his com for just that—a soft roar of repulsors echoes off the river as Stark swoops down to fly inches over the water's surface, leaving a trail of disturbed water behind him and pulling up to clear the railing at the last possible moment.
He drops to his feet next to the group and raises his visor. "We good to go?"
Steve suppresses his irritation. The job's the job, and just because Stark's an obnoxious bastard doesn't change the fact that he's very good at what he does. "We're setting up a surveillance perimeter," Steve explains. "Cameras above and below the water line, and agents around the city to help us track each individual 'bot whenever it leaves this area. We're assuming their behavior will tell us what Doom is up to, and then we can come up with a plan."
"OK, cool, well, you do that, and I'm going to go poke one with a stick." Stark's visor slides down and he turns towards the water.
"Do we really need to have this argument every time we work together?"
Stark is already moving when he answers. "Nope. I'd be fine with it if you'd just let me do it my way."
Steve mentally reviews the options for keeping Stark from doing as he damn well pleases and comes up with nothing. Shit. He turns to the others. "Romanoff, Barton, cover him. Thor, give Barton a lift up there," he points at the roof of the tourist structure, "and then get back down here for when Stark's brilliant plan goes to hell."
The robots don't move as he approaches. They don't appear to notice him at all, though Tony knows better than to read into the body language of a hunk of electronics.
"JARVIS, get their schematics."
A rough outline of the machines appears on the interior of his visor. They're reasonably sophisticated, but relatively speaking they're lightweights. Not a lot of firepower there unless they're better at fooling his scanners than they ought to be.
"Hey you." He gives one an experimental punch to the shoulder. It rocks away and then regains its balance. "What's your deal?" He hits it again, harder, and again it reacts to the blow and returns to its feet.
It's like one of those clown punching bags that won't stay down until you're really pissed off and hit it hard enough to pop it and let all the air out.
Not that he's ever done that.
"Nothing," he reports in over the com. "Nobody's home. Shall I laser one open?"
"You're asking me?" Rogers answers.
"I'm not above seeking input. You're the one with the plan."
But then, faster than his eyes can follow, one of the 'bots shoots out a long, thin dart, and sharp pain blooms in his shoulder.
"Fuck, what the hell—" That should not have happened. No way should that robot be able to pierce his suit. Its aim is good, he has to give it that. The shoulder joint's weaker than most of the armor, but it still never should have been possible.
He cuts both 'bots in two with a quick swipe of his laser, and then divides them into quarters and eights for good measure, and looks up to see if more are on their way.
The shoulder stings but it doesn't feel like real damage. "JARVIS, status."
"The suit remains fully functional, but the air seal is damaged and cannot be repaired at the moment."
"So no jaunts into outer space this time."
"Such a venture would be inadvisable, Sir."
No more 'bots appear, and Tony glances down again. A vague haze of red smoke oozes out of the 'bots' remains. "Fuck. JARVIS, analysis."
"The gas appears to be a nerve toxin, Sir. I advise moving clear."
"On it." Tony takes off into the air. "There's some kind of nerve gas coming off of this thing," he tells the others. "JARVIS can relay findings to the backup team."
"We're on it." Coulson's voice remains calm. "Can you contain the gas?"
"My suit's compromised—I can't get near it without exposure."
"Get back here."
But then three more 'bots join the first, oozing a greenish gas that mixes with the red to form a brown haze that floats over the whole of the waterfront. "JARVIS, what's this one?"
"Shit." By the time Tony lands near the SHIELD equipment, he can barely see three feet in front of his face, and he doesn't know where the others are.
"Stark! Mr. Stark!"
He can just make out a young woman in a SHIELD uniform.
"Give me your arm." She holds up a syringe. "Anti-toxin. Based on your readings we think this one will counteract the effects of the gas."
"JARVIS, make a hole."
The arm of the suit rearranges itself until his shoulder is covered only by his thin flight suit.
She jabs the syringe in fast, and he can feel the liquid burning in his veins. She pulls it out, but before he can move away there's another one. The second needle feels huge, and hurts more than the robot's dart did.
"Jesus, you people have got to get better medical equipment." She shrugs, unconcerned by his objection. "Thanks." The suit reassembles over his arm and he takes off, back into the center of the smog.
As soon as the gas starts billowing up above the riverfront, Natasha pulls a long patch off her suit and wraps it around her face. It's a stopgap—you can only make a filter so good if you plan to wear it around day in and day out just in case you might need it—but it will do for now.
She's got no idea how to contain the gas. She hopes to hell someone does—if they're lucky, Rogers' handpicked team includes a crack engineer or two. Then again, the best engineer they've got is the one that got them into the whole mess to begin with.
"Stark," she shouts into the com, trying to be heard over the din. "I'll go after the rest of the 'bots, but you've got to keep the gas out of the city."
"Romanoff's right," Rogers chimes in. "You're our best bet on that one."
"What the hell am I supposed to do, shoot at it?"
"You're the genius," Natasha answers, "you figure it out."
She ducks under the cordon, but a hand on her shoulder pulls her back. She grabs it by the wrist and twists down.
"Wait, wait, please." The woman lets her arm go limp in surrender. "I'm sorry, Agent. I needed to get your attention."
Natasha curses Coulson under her breath for letting Rogers pick the backup team. She hates working with people she doesn't know. "Never grab an agent in the field without warning," she spits. "It's unprofessional and it's dangerous. What do you need?"
The woman—a medic, by her uniform—holds up a pair of syringes. "It's what you need. Anti-toxin, for the gas. That mask isn't going to protect you."
She gives the medic a hard look. She fucking hates injections. Clint calls it a phobia, but he’s wrong. Phobias are disproportionate to the danger involved, and she’s been injected with enough chemical cocktails to know perfectly well what the dangers are. She wants to take a deep breath, but recalls in time that she should be breathing shallowly to take in as little of the toxin as possible. And with that in mind, she knows the anti-toxin is the lesser of two evils. She nods. “Do it fast.”
The woman does, administering both shots with a brisk efficiency that Natasha appreciates. She's about to turn back towards the water when she hears a familiar footfall. "Clint, over here."
"Natasha." His voice carries relief, and she winces for him. She knows too well how much he hates working blind. "Stark making any progress on dealing with the gas?"
"You know what I know."
"Agent Barton," the medic pipes up. "You need this." She pulls another pair of syringes out of her bag.
"What is it?"
"Anti-toxin. For the gas," she repeats.
"That was fast."
"We were lucky. Stark's scans suggest that our standard broad spectrum drugs should work."
"We have standard broad spectrum anti-toxin? Why does nobody tell me these things?”
"You can file a complaint later." She grabs his arm and injects him with both syringes in quick succession. "Good luck," she says, and darts away.
"Come on," Natasha urges. "We can at least immobilize the rest of the 'bots while Stark works something out."
The robots are puny things, and they snap under his hammer like twigs. The dark fog makes it difficult to find new targets, and Thor wonders if they've run out of enemies already.
He hears footsteps behind him, but not the metallic clang of the robots. "Who's there?"
"Romanoff and Barton," Agent Romanoff's clear voice comes through, though she remains hidden from his sight in the fog. "How many did you get?"
"I have slain five, and poor foes they were."
"We've taken down three."
"Do any remain?"
"That's the sixty-five thousand dollar question."
"Coulson," that must be Agent Barton—Thor can hear him a few yards away and over the communicator as well. "What was the count on the 'bots?"
"We were able to track ten," Agent Coulson answers. "No telling if there were more."
"What have you got on the underwater cams?"
"Eight came up that way, after Stark destroyed the first two. Nothing after that."
"Perhaps we have defeated them all," Thor suggests.
"We should be so lucky," Agent Coulson mutters.
"Hey Goldilocks," Stark calls over the communicator.
No one answers.
"Thor, Goldilocks is you."
Thor frowns. Stark's references tend to elude him. "What do you require?"
"A storm would be good. Get some wind going, clear out this smoke."
"And disperse nerve toxin over half of Detroit?" Captain Rogers objects.
"Nope. There is no nerve toxin. The 'bots created a kind of chemical mirage for the suit's sensors. JARVIS just finished reanalyzing the data. The gas is nothing but colored smoke. Wouldn't want to breath it for fun, but dispersed into the atmosphere it's harmless. So, Thor, make with the thunder-god bit?"
Thor raises Mjölnir and calls down the fury of the storm. Lightning arcs to meet him, illuminating the fog with an eerie brownish glow. Winds stir, and he feels himself at one with the skies of this foreign world as they swirl around him and sweep the foul vapors away.
When the air clears, he lowers the hammer and the winds slow to a light breeze.
Agent Barton gives a low whistle. "That is never gonna stop being cool."
Phil paces back and forth, letting his fingertips slide over the smooth finish of his sedan. "Sitwell, report."
"Still nothing on any of the cameras."
"No sightings anywhere on the West Side."
"Nothin' on the East Side."
"All quiet on the police frequencies."
Phil looks up to find Rogers just feet away.
"What's the situation, Sir?" Rogers asks.
"By all indications, we're in the clear."
Stark lands beside them and puts up his visor. "That was anticlimactic."
"So, any idea what the hell that was about?" Barton calls out as he, Romanoff, and Thor approach.
"Not as yet."
"I'll tell you one thing," Stark offers. "Doom did not make those robots. Shoddy workmanship, poor design. Processing systems weren't bad, but nothing compared to the specs I've seen on the doombots."
Phil nods. Given how the "battle" turned out he's not surprised by the assessment. But what the hell actually happened he still doesn't know. Nothing about the incident makes sense. "We'll leave a team here to monitor the situation. The quinjet's a couple of miles west of here—Barton, Romanoff, Rogers, you're with me. Stark, Thor, you want to meet us at the quinjet or on the helicarrier?"
"I think I'll take the scenic route." Stark's visor closes over his face. "Coming with, Fabio?"
Phil looks over to Thor, who doesn't respond to either of them.
"Fabio is also you," Stark informs him.
Thor gives him a frustrated look, and Phil can sympathize. "Are these naming conventions common to your realm, or are they an affectation of Stark's?"
"Stark's," Barton and Romanoff answer in unison.
"Definitely Stark's," Rogers agrees.
"They're an affectionate affectation."
Thor just looks at him again, as if to say that he isn't buying it. Phil knew there was a reason he likes the man. "Very well." He turns back to Phil. "We will meet you on the helicarrier."
The ride on the quinjet is quiet and short. Clint idly rubs his arm as he watches the others disembark onto the flight deck of the helicarrier. He pauses at the door, and forces himself to follow. The helicarrier's been repaired, of course, but it still bears the scars from his—from Loki's—attack, if you know where to look.
Clint knows where to look.
He forces his body into a relaxed swagger as they make their way into the belly of the beast, through the hallways and into the conference room where Fury and Hill already wait for them.
"What the ever loving hell happened down there?" Fury demands before they've even seated themselves.
"Still working on that one, boss," Coulson tells him.
"It felt like a decoy," Natasha suggests.
"Yeah," Rogers agrees, "but for what?"
Hill looks up from her tablet. "I've had our people analyzing all our other operations, and so far nothing. But decoy is still our best guess." She returns her attention to the screen.
Clint surveys the room. "Stark and Thor aren't here yet? I figured they'd beat us here for sure."
"Miss me already?" Tony swings around the door frame and into the room, wearing his flight suit and absently flipping a little robot part between the fingers of one hand. Thor follows behind him, Mjölnir clutched tight in his fist.
"What took you so long?" Fury's tone is dangerous.
Stark shrugs. "I was hungry, and turns out Thor'd never had Taco Bell. The cultural experiences, those are what's important. Besides, the food you guys have up here is really shitty."
"Shittier than Taco Bell?" Clint objects. Then he considers for a moment. "Yeah, actually, that's fair."
"Just sit your asses down. Rogers, report. What happened?"
"Sir, when I arrived the robots were primarily stationary, with limited movement into and out of the river near our position. Once the team arrived, Mr. Stark investigated to determine the nature of the 'bots. Given his expertise on the subject, that seemed like a wise start." Stark raised an eyebrow at that, but didn't interrupt. "I understand one of the 'bots damaged Stark's suit, and, after Stark destroyed two of them, they began to emit what seemed to be poisonous gas. We cleared the perimeter to keep any of our operatives from being affected. Thor, Barton, and Romanoff then dispatched the remaining targets, while Stark determined that the gas was nontoxic. Thor cleared the air, and we searched the area to confirm that no identifiable hostiles remained."
"And why the hell did you send our people into what you thought was nerve gas?"
"We got the anti-toxin," Clint told him. "We were fine."
Hill looks up. "What anti-toxin?"
Clint shrugs. "How should I know? The standard one, I guess. The medic said that it matched the specs from Stark's readings."
"We don't have a standard anti-toxin. We've tried, but our agents deal with so many chemical threats we haven't come up with an adequate broad-spectrum drug."
"So what did that medic give us?"
The room is silent for a long moment.
"Well, get him in here," Fury stands and starts pacing the room. "Was it Brooks or Torres?"
"Neither. It was a woman."
Rogers gives him a sharp look. "There weren't any female medics on the team."
Metal clatters on metal, and every head turns to Stark, who's let the robot piece fall from his fingers. He doesn't even look down.
"You too?" Clint asks.
Clint brings a hand up to press against the sore spot from the injection. Suddenly he can feel a tight, venomous oddness snaking out along his arm, pumping through his bloodstream. He takes a breath. It’s only his imagination. He felt fine a minute ago. Whatever he’s feeling is just nerves—it’s absolutely not poison eating away at his flesh from the inside out. He suppresses a shudder and looks around.
Natasha doesn't move, and her face remains calm, but he can see the tension in her shoulders.
Coulson rubs at his forehead. "Who else?"
"Me." Natasha keeps her voice carefully even.
"Not I," Thor answers, and Rogers shakes his head.
Coulson speaks into his com. "Sitwell, need you to look into something. It's urgent. Find out if any of our people received an 'anti-toxin' or another drug during the operation. And track down any reports of a woman posing as one of our medics." He looks up. "Description?"
"She was blonde. Cute in a rip-off-her-glasses-and-let-down-her-hair kind of way."
Natasha shoots Stark an irritated look. "Mid-twenties, 5'2"-5'3", 125 pounds or so, straight dark blonde hair pulled back, oval face, no eyewear, minimal make-up, no major distinguishing features visible."
"You copy that, Sitwell?" Coulson asks, and then nods, apparently satisfied by the response.
"Now get your asses to medical," Fury growls. "Hill, go with them. Coulson, keep tabs on the ground operation—get me anything you can on this woman."
Both agents nod, and Hill rises.
Clint drags himself to his feet, and gives Natasha what he hopes is a confident look. "Mystery injections, all part of the job, right?"
"Right," she agrees.
Unasked, Steve follows the others down to medical. He was point on this operation, and they're his people, more or less, so he's responsible. He's almost the last out the door, but Thor remains in the conference room, staring out the window.
"You coming with?" he asks. "For moral support?"
Thor nods, as if relieved. "Gladly."
By the time they reach the infirmary, Romanoff, Barton, and Stark are each in their own screened off area, each with a different doctor performing an examination. An agent rushes by with a tray of neatly labeled blood samples, and Steve almost trips himself trying to get out of his way.
The examination takes what feels like forever, though Steve's watch suggests that only twenty-five minutes pass before all three dress and pull back the screening curtains.
The doctors confer, and turn back. One of them, silver haired and with a confident posture that suggests command, looks at Hill and gives a tiny shrug of her shoulders. "Exams show nothing out of the ordinary. We're still waiting on the blood work, but vitals are normal. Two of them have a little swelling at the injection site, but other than that there don't appear to be any ill effects."
Hill nods and repeats that into her com for Fury's benefit. "How long until we get results back on the blood test?"
The doctor frowns. "It's taking longer than usual. But it shouldn't be more than a few minutes now."
Hill nods again.
The room falls silent, except for a rhythmic drumming. Rogers glances over to see that Barton's fingers are tapping out the pattern on the side of his cot.
Barton seems to feel the eyes on him, and he snatches his hand back. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it," Steve assures him. He tries to think of something else to say—some small talk to make or some important question to distract them. Nothing comes to mind.
Everyone starts when the door opens, and a woman in a lab coat walks in.
She looks up, surveying the room. Her mouth opens and then closes again. She clears her throat and looks down at her notes. "It looks like— it looks as though all three subjects," here she glances up at them, and thinks better of her wording. "All three of you appear to have received an injection of what's known as the super soldier serum."
If it was quiet before, it's deafeningly so now. Even the usual ambient noise of the helicarrier—the faint whir of the engines, the hum of computer fans, the distant footfalls of agents going about their duties—seems dampened, unreal.
Steve's mouth is dry. He licks his lips before speaking. "You're sure?"
The researcher shakes her head. "No. Not at all. The serum is incredibly complex, and our data on it are limited. But if it's not the serum, it's something we've never seen before."
Steve nods slowly, and looks around the room. He can't read anything on their faces, even Stark's. He wonders if there's something he ought to say. There probably is, but he doesn't know what. He looks down at his feet, and then up again. "Excuse me, I need to make a call."
It's snowing again, and Bruce has put aside his work to watch the flakes drift lazily down outside his window. A cup of tea in his hands sends slow tendrils of steam rising into the air, as if in counterbalance to the falling snow. He feels peaceful in a way that has been so rare in his life, before the incident or after it.
The sensation is flawed only by a faint guilt at his refusal to help Rogers and the others. But he was right, they don't need him. He's where he needs to be right now.
As if invited by that thought, the phone buzzes again, and this time Bruce picks it up quickly.
"Doctor Banner." Rogers' face appears again on the little screen. There's a strain in his features that was absent just yesterday. "We need you."
Bruce opens his mouth, but whether to agree or object he doesn't know.
Rogers speaks again before Bruce can do either. "You, not the other guy. Doctor Banner— Bruce. There's been an incident."