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Heart of a Hero

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Four weeks passed. Four weeks with no visits to the café’s pastry case or any restaurant that didn’t serve salad for Josie, Max and Blake, because formal wedding-guest finery is not designed to be forgiving of stress eating. Elise was still eating whatever she wanted, of course, but Josie had figured out early on in her career at FindLove that Elise was not a standard a normal human should use to measure themselves against.

Going to the airport to catch their flight was a relief, and Josie spent most of the flight alternating between tapping away at code on her tablet, reading the Skymall catalog because it was full of weird things, and watching Max watch a movie across the aisle while Blake napped against his shoulder. She normally wasn’t quite so intent on keeping herself busy when she flew…but this flight was different, because this flight was going to end in New York, home of Josie’s boyfriend Steve and the place where Steve had promised he was going to tell her everything. Like his last name and what he really did for a living. And exactly why he was famous, which thanks to Max Josie now knew went far beyond him having just gotten a medal or something from the Army.

By the time the plane touched down at JFK, Josie had created a new subroutine that would display personally interesting items from the Skymall catalog by using the matching algorithm, tagging it as a potential paid add-on for the site. Elise, who had slept through most of the flight just like Blake, had been interested but hadn’t wanted to talk about it right then. “Happy as I am that you channeled your nervous energy into coming up with a way to make more money for the company,” she said, covering a yawn with one perfectly manicured hand, “I really don’t want to think about work right now. We’re likely to end up doing some tonight and tomorrow as it is.”

Josie wasn’t sure what she meant by that, unless it was because some of their investors would be there and might want to talk about the business, but she couldn’t really ask about that on a plane full of people so she just concentrated on getting off the plane and hoping all of their luggage had made it. Luck was with them on that score, and while they were sorting out suitcases a man in a chauffeur’s uniform approached Elise and after some I.D. verification on all sides led them to an extremely nice town car, helped Max and Blake load the luggage into the trunk, and then started navigating the perpetually congested New York traffic with what Josie could only assume was the ease of long practice and/or a complete disregard for safety, his own life, and several laws of physics.

It took them nearly an hour to get downtown, and when they finally reached their destination Josie was more than surprised that it turned out to be a very tall building with a large red ‘A’ on the top. “Wait, this is Avengers Tower! Why are we at Avengers Tower?”

“Because it’s where we’re staying,” Elise told her. “Security is an issue with a shindig like this, obviously, so all of the out-of-town guests are being put up in the safest place possible. Not that you’re in any danger,” she assured Josie airily. “You and Max and Seth are probably the three safest civilians on the planet this weekend, the whole city would be rubble before anything could touch you.” She arched a perfect eyebrow. “Allison and I are…well, we’re friendly rivals, let’s put it that way; Blake’s mother trained us both.”

Josie’s eyes widened. “You’re one of them! ‘Law enforcement’!”

Blake cracked up, falling against Max’s shoulder. Max was grinning. “The whole family is,” he explained. “Some of them are actually related, the rest of them just sort of adopted each other. But if the current level of interrelationships keeps steady, we’ll all be legitimately related eventually.” He raised an eyebrow at Elise. “Are you sure there isn’t a supervillain out there we could marry my sister off to? I’m telling you, she’d have him de-balled within six months at the outside, he’d never bother any of you again.”

“That would be cruel and unusual,” Elise told him. “I’m still considering it, I’ll let you know when I make a decision one way or the other.”

“Fair enough.” The town car pulled into a parking area at the base of the tower, the security bar raising automatically to let it in. It stopped by a set of glass doors, and the driver got out to hold open one door for Josie and Elise; Max and Blake got out the other side and went for the luggage, but the driver waved them off. “We’ll take those up for you,” he assured them. “Just go straight through into the lobby, the receptionist will tell you which elevator to get on – Jarvis will have already told Ms. Potts you’re here, so they’re expecting you.”

He waited until they’d gone through the doors, then got back in the car and drove farther into the parking garage. The lobby they stepped into was beautiful, all glass and chrome and gleaming burgundy-veined marble floors, and the receptionist greeted Elise by name. “Ms. Gomez, so glad you could make it. How was your flight?”

“There were no crying babies on board, so it was fine,” Elise told her. “Ms. Potts is expecting us?”

“Well, Mr. Stark is,” the receptionist responded. “Ms. Potts had a meeting, she’ll be back later. If you’d care to step into the elevator on the left, it will take you to the penthouse level.”

Elise looked somewhat surprised by that, but she nodded and herded the rest of them to the indicated elevator, which had no floor indicator above it, just a simple and rather old-fashioned looking up/down arrow. The doors opened when they approached them, and closed as soon as they were all in; the interior of the elevator was paneled with beautiful burled wood and had no buttons of any kind on the walls. And it went up for what seemed like a long, long time before it finally stopped, doors opening into a strangely homey-looking foyer with coat hooks on the wall, some of which were occupied – one of them by a jacket Josie was intimately familiar with. “Steve is here? I thought he lived in the city.”

  A British-accented voice came out of nowhere, making her jump – making all of them jump, in fact. “Captain Rogers lives here, Ms. Noonan, although he is out at the moment,” it said. “I do apologize for startling you. I am Jarvis. Mr. Stark is currently distracted by science and did not come when I called him, but Agent Barton is on his way.”

Sure enough, a few seconds later Consultant Ken, otherwise known as Clint and apparently also Agent Barton, came hurrying around a corner. He was wearing sweatpants and a sleeveless t-shirt that looked like it had seen better days, and the straps crossing his chest said he had something on his back. He had on fingerless black leather gloves, and weirdly he was also barefoot. “Sorry guys, Tony has trouble with the concept of ‘time’ some days,” he said, grinning. “Come on in, have a seat. Pepper should be back soon, she’s probably on the phone yellin’ at Tony right now.” He accepted the hug Max offered him with a laugh. “I’m gonna get you all sweaty, I was in the gym.”

“We were just on a plane, Clint,” Blake told him, getting a hug of his own. “We’re probably nastier, believe me.”

“It’s all good, then.” Clint wiped his hand on his pants and offered it to Elise, and then to Josie. “I am especially glad to see you,” he told her. “Steve’s been drivin’ everyone nuts all month, hopefully he’ll calm down now.” He cocked an eyebrow. “He did tell you, right? I mean, you know who he is.”

Steve hadn’t yet, of course, but Josie wasn’t Science for nothing: ‘law enforcement’ plus dog tags plus really famous and living in Avengers Tower could only add up to one answer. “He’s Captain America, right?”

And Clint grinned. “Aw, he didn’t tell you – I’m gonna give him shit about this forever.”

“I will totally help you with that,” a new voice said. The man it belonged to was about Blake’s height with dark wavy hair and a neat goatee, and even though he was wearing a stained t-shirt and jeans instead of a suit he was instantly recognizable as Tony Stark. And he apparently knew that, because he didn’t bother to introduce himself. “Welcome to the Avengers’ living room, everyone. I was in the basement, I didn’t hear you come in. And I would be going back to the basement, but I’ve been informed that if I don’t stay out here like a good normal host I’m sleeping alone tonight. So would anyone like a drink? Because I’m having one.”

  “Ms. Potts left a pitcher of lemonade in the refrigerator, sir,” Jarvis said, in what was obviously a reminding tone. “And there are cookies hidden in the locked cupboard.”

“Thank you, Jarvis. Lemonade it is.” Tony rolled his eyes. “And the cookies were hidden and locked up because there probably wouldn’t be any left if they hadn’t been, because superheroes and commandos are all locusts in human form.”

“I only ate one,” came from Clint, who was shrugging out of the harness he was wearing; he dropped it and the thing it was connected to – a quiver? – next to the coat rack. “Bruce ate three.”

“That’s because Brucie is Pepper’s favorite,” Tony snarked back. “And he wallows in it.” He started herding his guests toward the couches. “Go get what’s left, Clint – I had two, myself, but I’m pretty sure Steve was a good boy and didn’t touch them. He’s Pepper’s other favorite,” he informed Josie airily, “hence all of the ‘errands’ she kept sending him on to L.A. after the wedding. He figured it out after about the third trip and made her a painting to hang in her office. Which I can’t really complain about, since it has me in it, but still.”

Clint came back with the tray of cookies, which did look a little more lopsided than six missing cookies would account for. There were some pieces of paper under a cookie on the lesser side, and Clint was snickering. He fished the papers out from under the cookie and handed them to Tony. “You’d better find out what she’s bribing him with and fast, man, or none of us will be safe.”

Tony snatched the papers, looked at them, and groaned. “God dammit.” He held them out to Josie. “Here, see what it is you’re dating – a cookie spy for my girlfriend.”

Josie took them and looked. They were pencil sketches, instantly recognizable as Steve’s by anyone who’d ever seen him draw, apparently of the Tower’s kitchen. One showed Clint getting a cookie, one showed Tony looking around furtively while reaching into the cupboard, a cookie already in his mouth, and one showed a rumpled-looking man she’d never seen before – Bruce, most likely – accessing the cupboard while the woman she knew was Natasha kept watch. Elise, who had been looking over her shoulder, burst out laughing and handed the pictures to Max and Blake, who both laughed over them too, and then Clint took them back and laid them on the coffee table next to the plate of cookies. “I’ll put them on the refrigerator later, Bruce will probably want them – I think he’s got a scrapbook. Steve’s a compulsive sketch-artist, he leaves them everywhere,” he explained. “We’re not sure he’s ever realized that a hundred years from now every single one of them’s gonna be priceless.”

“Of course he hasn’t.” The rumpled-looking man from the sketch had come wandering out. He took a chair, a cookie, and the sketches. “Hmm, he’s using the camera in the kitchen now instead of hiding in the pantry, I guess the booby trap worked as a deterrent if nothing else. Oh, I’m Bruce,” he introduced himself with a little wave. “Natasha’s downtown, she won’t be back until tonight. And yes, I am keeping a scrapbook, because the ones that aren’t beautiful are hilarious.” He held up the one of Tony with the cookie in his mouth and grinned. “Like this one.”

That made Tony huff. “Just don’t show that to Pepper.”

“You know he already sent it to her phone, Tony.”

“Yeah, but if she has the original she’ll frame it.”

“Nope, I’m calling dibs on this one.” Bruce carefully rolled up the sketches and tucked them into his shirt pocket. “So where exactly is Steve, anyway?”

“Out earnin’ his consultant’s pay for the week,” Clint answered, but shook his head when Tony stiffened. “No, nothin’ serious – and it was Clay who called it in, not Fury. They had another sighting of Lightning Boy, Steve went down there to help search – nobody knows Brooklyn like he does.”

“Lightning Boy?” Elise inquired. “New supervillian, or just a regular bad guy?”

“Wish we knew,” Clint told her. “People keep sayin’ they’ve seen him all over the city, but by the time anyone gets there he’s long gone. Young guy, light brown hair, average height, moves so fast he’s just a blue-white blur, and seems to be generating some kind of force from his hands. He likes to knock people over with it, or shock them, but they all swear he didn’t actually touch them. Hasn’t killed anyone yet, but we think it’s just a matter of time – he’s been escalating.”

Blake was interested now. “No pattern?”

Clint grinned. “Not that we could see, but you’re welcome to have a look. A fresh set of eyes can’t hurt.” He shook his head again, though, when Blake and Elise both started to stand up. “No need to get up. Jarvis?”

“Certainly, Agent Barton.” The massive flat-screen television across from the couches lit up with a map of the city, and a scattering of blue dots appeared. And one red dot which was steadily moving away from Brooklyn. “I was assisting Captain Rogers to correlate his search with previous sightings. The red dot is his current location.”

Josie saw Tony smile. “Is he speeding back this way because you reminded him of what time it was, Jarvis?”

“I did tell him to be careful, sir.”

“Of course you did.” He raised an eyebrow at Blake. “Well, any ideas that my supercomputer A.I. hasn’t already had?”

Blake ignored the snark, frowning at the screen. “Jarvis, can you color the dots with a gradient, oldest to most recent?” Jarvis apparently could, because some of the dots changed color. “Thanks. That…that’s what I thought, it’s a deliberately randomized pattern, not an actually random pattern. He’s…he’s messing with you, trying to keep you running from one end…from one end of the city to the other without looking like he’s doing it. He’s divided the city into a…a pie with ten slices, and he’s counting around it by fours.”

There was a moment of shocked silence, and then Jarvis spoke up again. “I believe Mr. Bryce-Tegan may be correct.” A circle appeared on the map, divided into wedges. “If so, the next sighting should be in the vicinity of Wall Street.”

“Do you know what time?”

Jarvis put the times of the other sightings up next to the dots without being asked. Blake squinted. “Around noon. He’s…he’s getting the time by taking the number of the slice he’s on and adding nine to it. He’s using military time, twenty-four hours instead of twelve.”

The look on Tony’s face was priceless. Clint and Bruce were laughing – at Tony, quite obviously – Elise was smiling a very self-satisfied smile, and Max looked like he was about to burst with pride. Clint recovered himself enough to lean over and clap Blake on the shoulder. “Man, that was awesome, thanks – I had a feelin’ you’d be able to see the pattern we were missing.”

Josie’s intuition clicked on, and she blinked. He was telling the truth, but he’d brought it up in the first place because he’d been trying to make a point to Tony about something. Not to mention, he liked Blake and he’d wanted Tony and Bruce to see what Blake could do with data and be impressed by it. This was probably also what Elise had meant when she’d mentioned possibly having to ‘work’ earlier  - she’d been talking about ‘law-enforcement’ work, not the business of online matchmaking, and Clint had been making sure the others wouldn’t discount Blake if something happened. Josie smiled, liking that…and Clint saw the smile and winked at her before moseying back to the kitchen to get the lemonade and glasses. Oh, he was good, he was really good. No wonder he was an Avenger.   

“I have informed Captain Rogers and Colonel Clay of the next scheduled sighting,” Jarvis intoned. “The colonel says he will be back later to go over the existing data again in hopes of finding more clues.” A pause. “Ms. Potts has just informed him that he will be back later for dinner and he is not allowed to call a meeting or conscript anyone to help him until after everyone’s dessert has settled.” Another pause. “Ms. Potts told him, quote, to ‘suck it up and stop whining’ when he protested.”

“Of course she did.” Tony stood up to take the lemonade pitcher from Clint and started filling glasses. “She tells me that all the time.”

Josie took her glass gratefully, hiding what she was sure was a really sappy smile behind it. Because her intuition was still on, and Tony loved Pepper a lot.

 

About fifteen minutes of small-talk later, the elevator door opened and Steve came blowing in. He dropped what looked like a large portfolio case next to Clint’s quiver, looked around…and then broke into that very special smile when he saw Josie. She heard Tony gasp and Bruce chuckle, and then Steve walked across the room, leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Sorry, I was helping Clay and I lost track of time,” he told her. “Good flight?”

“Long flight, but not bad,” she responded. “Did you find anything?”

“I wish we had.” He circled around and found a spot on the couch for himself – next to Tony, who handed him his glass of lemonade and didn’t even blink when Steve drank it down practically in one swallow. “Thanks. No sign of Lightning Boy anywhere, and no witnesses who can say where he goes after an attack.”

Max frowned. “How can there not be any witnesses?”

“Good question,” Steve shook his head. “People remember seeing him, but they all swear he just stopped being there after that - they didn’t see him go, no blur, he just stopped being there. The police think they were all just scared, hiding, and don’t want to admit that they weren’t looking.”

“That…doesn’t make sense.” Blake put down his glass. “People are...people are nosy, someone would have looked no matter how…no matter how scared they were.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Steve agreed.

Josie was frowning now. “Could he be doing the same kind of thing Stephen does?” Everyone stared at her. “I mean, could he be making people forget they saw him leave?”

Elise’s mouth dropped open; so did just about everyone else’s. Max, though, was nodding. “Crap, yes, that would explain it, wouldn’t it? Blake said he was messing with you guys. If he has more than just running really fast and knocking people down powers he could just stroll off down the sidewalk, maybe even stop for coffee and kick back to watch everyone show up to look for him.”

Tony blinked, then blinked again and sat back against the couch cushions. “Am I just getting too old for this or what?”

Clint was laughing. “Fresh eyes, I told you,” he said, and clapped Max on the shoulder. “You guys wanna come down and watch me show off for a while? It’s a few hours ‘til dinner yet, and if you’re out here when Clay comes in we’re all gonna be workin’, Pepper or no Pepper.”

“We’ll come with you,” Blake told him, standing up and pulling Max up with him. “Is Amanda going out with Aunt Allison tonight?”

“Her and Rhonda both, and Sue and Pepper,” Clint confirmed. “Come on Steve, you and Josie come too. You can shower in the gym while she watches me in awe.”

Clint wanted to get them all out of the living room – for some reason he really didn’t want them to be there when whoever Clay was showed up. Steve apparently agreed with him, because they exchanged a little nod and then he immediately got up and stretched. “That’s a good idea, I need a shower. Josie?”

“I’d love to come watch Clint show off,” she agreed, getting up herself. Steve met her on the other side of the couch, taking her hand in his. “Missed me?”

“All month,” was his reply, and then he kissed her again and they trotted off after Clint.

 

As soon as they were well out of earshot Tony raised an eyebrow at Elise, who shook her head. “I didn’t know until Max told me, because she asked him about it. She has no idea who Stephen actually is, but she knew he’d tried to wipe out her memory of a certain conversation the three of them got into on a sidewalk on the…other side of L.A.”

“Bad or just inconvenient?” Bruce wanted to know. He was looking a lot less laid-back and a lot more intense now. “And how did she know?”

“Josie has an…ability to hear the truth of a person when they talk; it became active just over two years ago for some reason but it isn’t ‘on’ all the time that I know of,” Elise explained. “The way the story was related to me, Stephen was teasing Steve about being clueless, Josie’s ability turned on and she corrected him, and Stephen reacted with a great deal of surprise.” She smirked. “She’s actually more clueless than her boyfriend can be, she thinks he tried to erase the conversation because someone might have overheard and thought we were doing something unethical at work.”

“Oh Jesus Christ.” Tony wiped a hand down his face. “Yeah, Stephen probably about had kittens. I don’t suppose you’ve heard from him since then, have you? Or she has?”

Elise tensed up. “Don’t tell me he’s missing.”

“We don’t know if he’s missing or not,” Bruce told her. “But we do know nobody’s seen him for at least a couple of weeks, and if we’ve got another magic user running around the city…”

“It’s a leap, but not a very long one,” Elise agreed. “How do you usually contact him? I know Steve uses his phone.”

“Yeah, that’s how we all do it,” Tony said. “Allison and Pepper both say he hasn’t been answering texts or calls, though, and Jarvis can’t trace his line because Stephen has a free Netherworld calling plan that I’m pretty sure is called ‘I have magic, therefore my phone works’, so I can’t tell if the phone is actually in use or not.” He sighed. “It’s possible he’s just off someplace where time doesn’t run the same…but for some reason I don’t think that’s it.”

“I wouldn’t think so either. Clay?”

“Colonel Clay says he also does not think it is a coincidence, Ms. Gomez,” Jarvis intoned. “And Captain Rogers would like to know if what Dr. Strange made him forget may have some bearing on the situation.”

“No, I doubt it,” Elise said. “If it did, someone would have already come after Josie and I doubt we’d have been able to stop them. We’ve had Amanda’s security-camera program keeping an eye on her to and from work, just in case, but nothing untoward has happened.”

“Thank god for that small favor, anyway.” Tony was shaking his head. “You had plans…”

“Of course we do – she’s working for me and dating Captain America, not to mention she attended Blake’s wedding at your mansion in Malibu.” This time Elise sighed. “The coincidences are piling up, though, and I don’t like it. Something is going on.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Bruce assured her. “Just about everyone will be here tonight, we’ll have a meeting. And on the plus side, it’s good to know Stephen’s Jedi mind-trick doesn’t work on her – he’ll be glad to hear that, once we find him.” Elise looked a question, and the scientist shrugged. “He worries about it – becoming compromised, that is. I do too, but Stephen could actually do a lot more damage than I could. Knowing that someone is even a little bit immune to his powers will be a relief to him.”

“Yeah, it will.” Tony snorted, pouring himself more lemonade. “So now we just have to find him and tell him about it.”