It started on one of those days.
"There's nothing in the world I'd like more than some backup!" Tony's voice rang over the com. The waves of distortion indicated he was firing all his repulsors at full blast. "I know I said don't bother if it was too much trouble, but that was before. This is now. I don't care if you're bothered. I'd like some backup, right now! This instant! Immediately- don't make me get a thesaurus up in here!"
"Hang on, Iron Man, we're getting to you," Steve cut over Iron Man's chatter, which had gone up in pitch and speed, meaning that he was being mauled more than they'd assumed. "Spider-Woman, can you get a lock on his position?"
"No, he's gone after the big one alone!" Spider-Woman said at the same time Tony yelled: "Could really use some help here!"
The 'big one' referred to a particularly large specimen of spider-like robots that were running through the New York Harbor, generally upsetting everyone from dockworker to shareholder. Although most of the destruction was confined to warehouses and containers - predominantly because the spider-robots seemed to 'be' containers up to the point where they sprouted eight legs, an arsenal of weaponry and jumped on you - the Avengers had quickly found out there were a lot more containers in the Harbor than they'd assumed.
They'd been at it for a while now.
One scenario they'd discussed was simply sweeping all containers into the water, and was based on the assumption that the media would blame the Avengers for the destruction anyway, so they might as well have a go. Steve agreed those were reasonable odds, because as Tony had pointed out: the Avengers were far more sue-able than twenty-foot tall, machine-gun toting robot spiders. They also fit better in court benches and probably paid better settlements.
To be fair, Steve thought, the Avengers did accidentally punch a robot through a crane. Which had toppled onto a ship. Which had capsized, and took two smaller boats and the entire pier with it. Which had been made of wood. Which was a significant design oversight as far as some Avengers had been concerned whilst others were trying to work the affair into a media-relatable story.
Steve had to admit that there could not really be a positive spin on destroying the entire harbor.
"Anyone remember Stark's original orders?" asked Luke at nobody in particular. He'd taken the right flank into the container park by himself, making good time with his own interpretation of hit-and-run: he'd punch a bunch of containers, and the ones that punched back he punched some more. It was good to have him on the team to cover for the absence of Thor and Thunderbolt, and Steve tried to think of a way to convince Luke to be an Avenger permanently again.
"No, I get it," replied Hawkeye. "It's a classic story: man sees something shiny, man bites off more than he can chew. Speaking of which, did you hear he's dating Ms. Marvel?"
"Really?" Luke sounded like he wasn't particularly interested. Whatever Tony had offered the man, Steve was unsure he couldn't offer anything more.
He grit his teeth and pushed forward, ducking and weaving between containers and remains. Iron Man and Spider-Woman had last been seen around the warehouses, trying to hold the line while Spider-Man evacuated the dockworkers. The way things looked now, Steve thought, today was going to be one of those days.
Although technically, this whole mess had already started a few weeks earlier.
"I don't understand," Spider-Woman had said quietly to Steve a few weeks before the Harbor incident. "The new and improved, accountable Avengers are fully operational. Why would you want all of us on your team?"
"What's not to get?" Wolverine cut in from across the room. He opened a can of beer. "Put all the problem children in one location, make everyone keep an eye on Stark, the aliens and the band. SHIELD likes keeping their eye on things."
"Those are not the reasons," Steve said and he meant it, despite the distinct gnawing feeling in his stomach that he was telling a lie. "I want you all on my team because we've always been a team. I'm not here to keep you in line."
"You got that right, pal, you're on the watch list as much as everyone." Wolverine's voice came from the doorway.
"We understand that." Spider-Woman's tone was a little sharper, which it always was on this topic. In a sense Wolverine was right, Steve knew. He still had trouble sleeping at night. In his dreams he saw the faces of some of his friends, some of his enemies and he saw Tony, looking at him gravely. Discussing him as if he weren't there, telling him to forget.
Spider-Woman looked from Wolverine's retreating form to Steve and remained completely motionless until they were alone again. Then she gave him a small smile. "I also understand that things wouldn't be the same without Tony Stark's financial and technical backup-"
"All of you," Steve insisted and Spider-Woman sat down heavily next to him.
"OK. Since we're on that topic, have you heard anything from Carol? I'm worried about her."
"No." Steve looked at her. Spider-Woman shifted uncomfortably. "Why?"
"She's been running errands for Tony and I have a bad feeling about the whole thing."
"I see," Steve said, while he really hadn't up until now. When Tony and him had discussed how to organize the new Avengers roster and what everybody's role within the organization would be, he'd had no problem in reinstating Iron Man as co-founder and leader. Tony had declined. Quickly. Steve had offered him second-in-command, a regular membership, gadgeteer, anything, but Tony had kept declining, saying that he would first have to be a consultant, nothing more.
"Just until I have my act together," he'd said and he'd looked like he never expected that to happen again, so Steve had put his hand on the man's shoulder. He'd felt him flinch at the contact, but not as heavily as before.
After a moment of companionable silence, the tension under his fingers drained away and he'd said: "Promise me you won't be too hard on yourself."
"Sure," Tony had replied, but by then he'd already been leaning into Steve, fiddling with the buckle of the leather straps that held the shield in place. "As long as you let me fix this."
"Do you want me to take it off for you?" he'd asked when Tony invaded his personal space and started maneuvering Steve's arms as if he were a mannequin. But Tony had just glanced at him and given him that slightly crooked smile.
Later, when Steve had gone to recruit Luke, the man had opted out because of his family. When he'd gone for Carol, she'd instantly declined to join altogether, citing different projects that needed her attention. She'd looked sad and haggard and in hindsight, Steve thought, maybe he should've been more conscientious about that.
"I'm worried about her," Spider-Woman said again. She crossed her legs and spread her arms out over the back of the sofa. Her black hair fell over the edge. "She told me it's a personal errand, something between Tony and her. But I don't believe her. She's been looking into a lot of official Avengers business."
"You think Tony's asked her to do that?"
"Good question," Spider-Woman said to the ceiling. "If he wants to know something, he's going to find out whether it's good for him or not. You know what he's like."
"I might have a frame of reference," Steve admitted.
"So here is my gut feeling. I think he's got Carol looking for his government super-villain protocols."
"Are you sure? He has access to all of those." Then he remembered their diminished status as government officials and the fact that people like Reed and Tony had been stripped of their clearance levels and had to act through a liaison. "Or, he had, once. Since when has ‘revoked access' ever stopped him, Jessica?"
"I mean, I think he's got Carol looking for protocols on Iron Man," Spider-Woman said and she turned her head to look at Steve. "What I wonder is: what will Carol find?
There was a sudden ice-cold vice around Steve chest and he remembered that moment, a few years ago, when he thought Tony had gone mad. When he thought the government had gone mad and when he was willing to give anything to find a solution, to find a way to win this. That's when he'd anonymously received some old plans the government had in place to terminate highly volatile villains, with Tony's face among the printouts.
"That's what I thought," Spider-Woman said. "Look, I really like Tony, but he's not the most stable person. I know there's a protocol for him - don't look at me like that, I was a PI, remember? Why does nobody ever remember that? I worked inside SHIELD for months, I spent hours in their system! But the point is: why is he looking for that now? What's he keeping from us?"
Steve took a deep breath. "Assuming what you say is true-"
"Steve, I know you two are friends-" she gave him a look, but Steve wasn't sure whether it was admonishing or meaningful "-but we're still reeling from his last control issues."
"I'm not sure that's fair," Steve said, but he wasn't sure who he wanted to convince and considering Tony's track record he caught himself wavering already. He shook his head to clear the fog. "I need something concrete before I can undertake any action."
"I've got nothing," Spider-Woman sighed. "I've got nothing but the fact that I know Carol is working for him and she's looking at Avengers protocols. I know she's been sighted hanging around SHIELD offices and various research facilities. And everyone knows she spends a lot of time with Tony."
"Do they? How?"
Spider-Woman sat up straight and held her fingers in the air as quotation marks. "Last week's gossip mags said she was spotted in the park with 'genius inventor jet-setter Tony Stark' and two weeks ago it was 'new army squeeze, Stark likes them big and blonde'. You won't believe what Fox News had on them the other day."
"Probably not," Steve said, picking up his papers again. "But that's hardly conclusive evidence."
"I know." Spider-Woman scowled slightly. "Can't you at least, you know, ask some questions? Be subtle about it. Pretend to be jealous?"
Steve blinked. "Jealous of who?"
"Oh please," Spider-Woman said, getting back up again. She gave Steve a look that was most definitely admonishing. "And it's whom."
The Harbor was a mess. When Steve ran through the docks on his way to Iron Man and Spider-Woman's last know location, he heard a sudden roar of gunfire. The sound came from a large warehouse that had a giant white 2 painted on the walls. When he slowed down to look, he could see Spider-Woman flip backwards off one of the creature's unexpectedly old-fashioned turret guns, causing it to blow holes through another creature's body. Behind a wall of pallets and boxes stood a group of people staring blindly at the scene in front of them.
"Everything under control?" He asked.
Spider-Woman grinned and held up her thumb.
"Avengers, steer clear of Warehouse 4, it's about to blow!" Tony's voice hitched slightly and was followed by a wave of distorted static when an explosion shook the docks.
"Status!" Steve yelled as he picked up speed again. "Iron Man, I need your status!"
"Sure, hold on."
"Report?! I'm being eaten!" Somewhere, Luke huffed loud enough to be heard on the line. Tony cursed a blue streak. "We're going under, I need firepower. Lots of firepower. Lots and lots -"
"Somebody get that man his thesaurus," Spider-Man said.
Steve sped unto the remnants of the pier, only to be greeted with the sight of minor collateral damage, two slowly sinking boats and a stretch of violently whirling water. Tony's breath was still in his ear. It sounded labored. Every two seconds there was the sound of a crunch followed by a hollow, metallic scrape.
"Hawkeye, can you get a shot in?!" Steve stood on the edge of the remains of the wooden boards and squinted against the sun with his hand over his eyes. The shimmer of light reflecting off the top of the water made it impossible for him to see anything.
"Negative, Captain." Hawkeye was perched on top of a crane that hung over the bay. "But I can see it move under the surface. Oh, and it's definitely trying to eat Iron Man."
"Trying being the operative word here, I hope," Spider-Man added.
Then all sound of struggling from Iron Man's communicator stopped.
Hawkeye cleared his throat.
"I'll admit to being a little worried now."
"Iron Man, can you-" which was as far as Steve got when he heard a high whistling sound approaching. He barely had enough time to hold his shield up to protect him from being blinded by a sudden flash of white light. Another explosion shook the pier and Steve's gut told him to duck. However, there was a familiar rush of air, so he stood fast with his shield until the sea-water showered over him, drenching him.
"That was awesome." Hawkeye's voice sounded muffled, but excited. "All-clear from up here, Cap."
Steve lowered his shield to see Ms. Marvel hauling an extremely dented and scraped up Iron Man away from the sinking remains of the creature.
"Is everyone alright?" Ms. Marvel asked.
"Container park's clear," Luke said.
"Warehouse 1 through 3 secure," Spider-Woman added.
Spider-Man landed next to Steve. "Yo."
"I'm fine. I'm fine." Tony still sounded winded when he was lowered down gently unto the pier. "Tell me someone got their hands on some intact robot heads? I want to take a look at them."
"Guys?" Spider-Woman's voice sounded slightly concerned now. "You might want to come and have a look at the people over here."
"On my way," Steve acknowledged. He wiped some of the water off his brow and tried to ignore the taste. "Somebody call Damage Control and get a quote."
"On it." Spider-Man padded himself down until he produced a flipphone from somewhere, then he stopped and cocked his head. "I've been wondering about that. Why doesn't he ever call Damage Control?"
"He yelled at them once and now he feels bad." Hawkeye's voice rang double over the communicators for a moment when he dropped down next to them. "The DC crew knocked him over the head once. They also dropped the Avengers mansion in the water. I keep telling Cap, Ms. Hoag is a nice old lady, just call her and pretend nothing has happened and she'll sort us out."
"Yeah, she's a real sweetheart, alright," Luke chuckled.
"On the subject of sweethearts," Hawkeye said, twirling an arrow between his fingers and pointing it at Iron Man. "Could you be one and look at this type 4.3 again?"
Iron Man turned so fast he swayed a little. "Why? There's nothing wrong my design."
"You say that..." Hawkeye started and Steve resolutely stepped out of the argument.
He walked up to Ms. Marvel.
"Carol, I'm glad you could be here. Without our heavy hitters none of us are equipped to take a battle under water."
"No problem." Ms. Marvel smiled as she tried to wring the water from her sash. "Glad I could help. This isn't actually the first time somebody called me while being chewed on, believe me."
"I believe you," Steve said. "So, you're still not ready to join us? Still have other projects?"
She shook her head. "Sorry, it's nothing personal and on a related note, could you do me a favor?"
Steve nearly took a step back when she moved close. "Trust him," she whispered.
Before Steve could reply, a familiar metal hand clasped him on his shoulder. "Cap, come on, before SHIELD gets here."
"Why would SHIELD come out for this?" Steve asked, but Iron Man was already walking off.
The people in the warehouse were trapped in the darkest corner of the building, behind a stack of crates that Spider-Woman had dumped there. There was daylight leaking in from the bullet-holes in the walls and a rather spectacular hole in the roof. Spider-Woman stood by a pile of metal limbs and robot left-overs with her hands on her hips, surveying the trapped men in gray overalls. They did not appear to acknowledge her, or to be distressed in any form.
They looked calm and vacant, while they kept pushing and scratching away at the wood.
"Spider-Woman, what's going on here?" Steve stopped next to her. "Are they alright?"
"I don't know. They're not visibly injured, but they have some nasty scars."
"You didn't touch them, did you?" Iron Man asked, his voice sounding pensive even through the modulator. "Nobody touch them."
"Why?" Steve demanded.
"I have a hunch..." Iron Man trailed off and looked up at the hole in the roof where the sound of helicopter blades and engines become louder. he indicated towards the pile of robots. "I need to have a look at these before, you know, in come the Spanish inquisition."
"Make it quick."
Steve squatted down in front of the crates as Iron Man went for the remains of the robots and started tearing through the pile.
"Hey," Steve greeted and waved his hand in front of one of the younger men. "Can you hear me?"
"It's almost like they're sedated," Spider-Woman mused, then leapt back when one of them punched though the crate and made a grab for Steve. "Jesus, forget I said anything!"
Iron Man's voice floated from between the pile of robot debris. "What did I say about getting too close?"
"Nothing!" Steve snapped, scrambling to his feet. Spider-Woman offered him a hand, but he was up fast in case his assailant would come in for a second round.
There was no second round. Instead, the man simply stood there and whimpered, clutching his hand. The hole through the wood was considerable and suggested some form of super-human strength, Steve noted as he snapped a piece of the splintered remains in two.
"Heads up!" Luke's voice sounded over the com. A moment later, the man came jogging through the warehouse doors. "SHIELD's here and they're not happy about the collateral damage."
"I bet," Iron Man mumbled while holding up one of the red 'eyes' from the robotic creatures in front of his face.
Luke too came to a stop at the make-shift barricade, surveying the damaged pallets and Spider-Woman and Steve's frown.
"What's with them? They don't look too good."
"What I'd like to know is who these people are," Steve said, carefully approaching them with his shield in front of him. They reacted instantly by snarling and clawing at it. The moment he backed off, they settled down again. "The head-count of evacuees was complete. Somebody must be missing them."
"Maybe they're aliens, you know, illegal immigrants," Luke offered. "Brought here to work with no passports, no rights, work for food instead of salary."
Spider-Woman crinkled her nose. "That's disgusting."
"That's brilliant," Iron Man exclaimed. He looked up. "What? No, I mean this." He held out part of the red eye', with an assortment of wires hanging from it. Some of the copper-coloured ones were hooked up to two sets of green circuitry and the one black wire in the jumble was hooked into his gauntlet.
"Is that safe?" Steve asked before he could stop himself.
Fortunately, Iron Man didn't miss a beat. "It's damaged, but it's got an integrated learning system separate from the memory cores and central processors in the head and body... what? No? Well it is brilliant, but I'll need a couple more to get a complete-"
"You can't keep that," a voice interrupted.
They turned around to see a squad of special service soldiers and five suited SHIELD agents in the doorway. At the head of them was a familiar face.
"We need that back," Black Widow said. She held out her hand.
"Is there a reason they're wearing hazmat suits?" Iron Man asked, tucking the red eyeball to his heavily scratched and dented chest. "Is there a reason why you're not?"
"That's an excellent question," Luke growled, stepping up to the soldiers. Some of them raised their guns at him. "Because I am going home to my kid in a minute."
Black Widow shook her head. "We're just taking precautions. There were some hazardous chemicals stored here, which you already know, considering your company owns these warehouses."
"Sure," Iron Man said, turning his upper body even further away from her. "Carol, I could use a ride, my left thruster is out."
"You can't leave," Black Widow said pointedly, stepping forward. "And that is now part of a federal investigation."
"This is something I found in my warehouse," Iron Man said. "Its factor of interest has increased about eightfold since you came in here with an armed force trying to take it. I will keep my thing that I found in my warehouse."
"Iron Man," Steve warned.
There was a rustle of air and Ms. Marvel dropped down from the hole in the roof, landing next to Iron Man in a crouch.
The agents and soldiers behind Black Widow aimed their weapons, but she motioned for them to stand down. "Stark, you will be charged with theft of government property."
"I'm not taking government property," Iron Man said, swinging an arm around Ms. Marvel's shoulder. "I'm taking precautions."
A few days later, Steve was having breakfast when Hawkeye entered in his pajamas, carrying his bow.
"I'm not an ass!" Hawkeye said to Steve. There was sweat running down his brow and he was turning his wrist around in counter-clockwise circles. "Tell him, Steve."
Tony followed, dressed in a business suit, except his tie was loosened and the left side of his clothing, face and hair looked blackened and dirty. He glared at Hawkeye. "He is, there's nothing, nothing wrong with my design."
"There's a deviation to the right."
"There is not! The tests are conclusive. Steve, can I do you next? I'll need your phone for starters."
"Uh," Steve started, realizing that this was probably the start or possibly the middle of one of those insane disputes the two men had. "My suit is fine, I don't need any alterations."
Tony raked a hand through his hair, even though the gesture was more habit than functional, considering how short it was now. The hand came out with more soot than when it went in and the corners of his eyes crinkled with good natured irritation.
"Yes, you do. If I let you run around with that stitching I'll never be able to sleep. Your phone needs upgrading too. Hand it over."
"Trying to get your grimy hands on his stuff again?" Hawkeye asked, heading towards the fridge.
Tony scoffed. "You're just jealous, you've had your chance."
Steve felt a smile tug at the corner of his lips when he handed Tony his phone. "Fine, it was a little slow anyway. Let me suit up."
He hadn't made it halfway to the door when Tony's own phone started beeping. For a moment the man looked like an advertisement for stress-relief: disheveled, covered in soot, holding a cell phone in each hand and looking for all the world like he'd give his kidney for an extra set of limbs.
It lasted only a second before he pocketed Steve's phone and started fiddling with his.
"Apparently, we have more of our friends the robot-spiders," Tony said and looked up. "We should go investigate."
"Did you set up a Google-alert or what?" Hawkeye asked. "There's no official alarm."
"There's no government endorsed alarm," Tony corrected. "Since when do we only adhere to official alarms? I think we should investigate stuff that doesn't raise alarms. Actually, wait, if you want an alarm, I can give you an alarm. Give me a minute. Any minute. Hold on."
"Don't hack their system," Steve warned. "SHIELD doesn't need another excuse to come down on us."
"They'll make some up," Tony said. "I don't care what SHIELD thinks and neither should you. Besides, it's my system."
"You've really done a full three-sixty on SHIELD, haven't you?" Hawkeye asked.
But Tony only smirked and hit a button on his phone with a flourish. Without delay, the Avengers communicators started beeping and the overhead alarm went off.
"There, official alarm, now we can go," Tony said over the noise. "You're welcome."
"Two out of five for being a ham," Hawkeye said, grabbing his bow from the kitchen table. "Five out of five for efficiency."
"I'll take it." Tony shrugged, before heading back into his workshop.
The fact that there were actually robot-spiders attacking a military transport made Steve feel a bit better about messing with SHIELD's systems. Still, Black Widow's speech was still fresh in his mind and her warning to keep Iron Man - and Stark, he's not using that excuse again - out of SHIELD's investigations still rung in his ears. She might be an Avenger, she was also a black operative in heart and soul.
Fortunately, the fight was brief and any injuries were minimal and after a short while, Steve was standing next to the Colonel leading the outfit.
"Colonel Richard Bell," the man said curtly. "We never called for any back-up, son."
"We received an alarm," Steve replied with equally clipped tones, his eyes following Iron Man, who walked up to one of the large trucks and knocked on the side.
"I take it they were actually after whatever you have in here?"
The Colonel gave Steve a look. The man was about six foot four, broad in the shoulders and graying at the temples. His face was tanned and weather-beaten, with a strong jaw. He had an air of natural authority and had remained deadly calm throughout the fight. His stare was intimidating.
Steve, however, had learned over a decade ago that admonishing Iron Man in public would not have the desired effect, so he kept his face straight and raised an eyebrow.
The Colonel's eyes narrowed. "That's routine exercise material. We're on our way to a training mission."
"Sure," Iron Man said, patting the truck and moving to a second one. "It's not very green to leave all this equipment you've got in here running, is it?"
"How can he be so flippant and get away with it?" Spider-Man complained. "People give me grief all the time."
"That's not flippant," Hawkeye said. "That's inquisitive at best."
Steve, however, could see the small changes in the Colonel's stance. The man pulled his shoulders back slightly, his left foot shifted outward and his right hand moved to his thigh, where his holster was. If anything, Tony was good at upsetting people.
"There's nothing in there that is of any concern to you, Iron Man."
"Sure," Iron Man said again and knocked on the side of another truck. "This one's replying to my knocking," he added pointedly and this time Steve could hear two taps and a few scrapes.
He knew, Steve thought. Tony knew what they were transporting. That's why he led them here.
"Colonel, what's in there?" He asked and suddenly found himself looking into the blank face of stone cold military training.
"I can't disclose that information, Captain," Colonel Bell said. "We report to Defense and SHIELD only."
"SHIELD? That's interesting. Since when does SHIELD use regular army?" Iron Man asked, ignoring the fact that the soldiers that had been standing at ease around the roadside were now brandishing their weapons. He headed for the last truck.
"Halt," Colonel Bell commanded without even raising his voice. Iron Man almost hesitated in his steps and the Colonel turned to Steve. "Captain America, you are to keep your men away from the trucks, do I make myself clear?"
"Perfectly clear, sir," Steve said. "But if you're transporting personnel-"
"Incoming!" One of the soldiers yelled and pointed at the sky. There was a blur of yellow and black approaching them. For a moment there was a small commotion because it was approaching at such an odd speed and angle that nobody could make out what it was. When it showed no signs of slowing down, Steve grabbed his shield on instinct and saw Colonel Bell grab his gun.
The blur sheered over the trees and with a little swerve and headed straight down to the road where they were standing. Before Steve could process that this was uncharacteristic behavior for any projectile, it impacted with a thump rather than a crash. In the cloud of dust that followed - and the cogging of many rifles - Steve heard Ms. Marvel coughing.
"Christ," Colonel Bell said, holstering his gun again. "You should work on your landing, missy."
"No time, no time," Ms. Marvel panted, still sitting in a small crater in the road. "They're coming. SHIELD's cleanup crew's coming. Everybody run!"
"I didn't order any cleanup either," the Colonel said and eyeballed Steve.
"Why would you require a cleanup for a military exercise?" Spider-Woman asked, holding a hand out for Ms. Marvel to grab. Overhead, a small plane sailed over them so fast they all froze on the spot.
"That's not good," Hawkeye said. "That's a SHIELD fire-drone."
Before anyone could comment on that, there was a distinct, bone-chilling whistle. The sound grew louder and sharper and Steve recognized it. Knew it as the whistle of air running past stabilizer fins.
"Everybody down!" Colonel Bell barked and as his men dropped on the ground, he threw his full weight on an unpleasantly surprised Spider-Man.
Despite the ten year gap in Steve's mind between the war and now, that sound took his breath away and for a moment he saw his Commandos, one by one, their faces blown away until they were just empty bodies staggering through the torn up lands of Western Europe. Then he dove for Spider-Woman, who was still trying to help Ms. Marvel up, and pushed both women to the ground.
The impact was just as he remembered.
In the first years after waking up from the ice, he had dreamt of lying in the mud and hearing the shells drop around him. Sometimes, right before he'd wake up, he'd remember things from the war. Terrible things. Sometimes they were things that he was sure never actually happened. Sometimes he'd wake up shaking and not remembering anything at all.
In the first year after he'd woken up, he hadn't told anyone about the dreams. He never would have, until one night somebody had woken him up by tapping his cheek. The jolt had startled him, scared him. In one movement he'd shot up, grabbed the other man and pinned him down.
"Where am I!?" he'd demanded, but his throat had been so constricted he couldn't clear the tightness and the words did not come out right. "Where is this!?"
"Ungk! My sofa, my house… can't breathe," The man had wheezed, eyes watering and face red, hands shoving uselessly at Steve's shoulders. His breath had reeked of smoke and alcohol and his hair and tuxedo had been covered in a form of glitter. Recognition hit Steve in his gut like a pre-serum punch would have.
Steve had let go of Tony's neck so fast he nearly toppled off the sofa.
"I was… I was just-" he had taken stock of his surroundings and everything had slid back into place. He was in the future, in the Avengers mansion. Stark's son was here. Everything was fine.
Tony had rubbed his throat before he'd looked Steve over. Then he'd sat up and slung an arm around Steve's shoulders.
"Deep breaths, old man," he'd rasped, and only when he'd squeezed Steve's shoulder had Steve realized he'd been shaking. "Dream about the war often?"
"They come and go. Listen, you can't tell anybody. Nobody can know," Steve had pleaded, grabbing Tony, fingers digging into the man's upper arms. Even if he smelled like a brewery, even if there were ground rules about admitting this sort of thing.
"One more thing on the pile of stuff we can never talk about." Tony had shrugged loosely, accepting Steve's intrusion the same way Steve always accepted his. "One day, I'll build a monument to us."
"You're drunk," Steve had whispered, inhaling the scent of hair product and smoke, letting it overwrite the smell of mud and blood.
"Yes," Tony had slurred in his ear. "But I'm a high-functioning alcoholic, so don't worry. I know what I'm doing."
"I worry," Steve had confessed, but Tony had shushed him and stayed with him until the sun had risen.
In that split second on the ground, Steve realized they could build an entire citadel by now. He waited until the shockwave from the blast had washed over him, before he pushed himself up, looking over Spider-Woman and Ms. Marvel. They nodded at him.
"Look alive!" Colonel Bell yelled. "This place is about to blow, ladies. Retreat and make it snappy! Do not make physical contact, I repeat, do not make physical contact. Retreat!"
Steve scrambled up to see a man in a gray jumpsuit run up to them. Colonel Bell yanked Spider-Man in a standing position and aimed a gun over his shoulder. The man in the jumpsuit did not even slow down. He leapt.
Colonel Bell shot him in the face and Spider-Man ducked down again.
"Jesus," Hawkeye said.
"Retreat now!" Colonel Bell barked and everyone started running towards the trees. One of the trucks was now a burning carcass and a second truck was on its side. From the back, people in gray jumpsuits clambered out. Some of them were crawling, some of the shuffling around, some of them were lunging at soldiers. They made sounds that could be heard over the fire and the commotion. Crying, groaning, screaming.
They looked the same as those people in the Harbor, Steve realized. Except some of them were gravely injured.
"Captain, call your people back," Colonel Bell yelled. "We have a quarantine breach and a clean-up coming."
"Avengers, get the soldiers out of here!" Steve shouted, although he knew didn't have to. Hawkeye fell in step next to him.
"What's going on? Correction, what the hell is going on?" Hawkeye demanded, half-dragging a dazed soldier with him. "Are we leaving people behind?"
"SHIELD's going to level this place," Ms. Marvel yelled, rising a few foot in the air, holding two men by the scruffs of their uniform. "In about five minutes this whole patch of earth will be torched."
Steve and Colonel Bell made up the rear with most of the Avengers. When Steve looked over his shoulder, however, he spotted Iron Man running into the opposite direction, straight for the trucks. The people in gray jumpsuits headed towards Iron Man like moths to a flame. Some of them stretched out there arms and grabbed at him, but Iron Man ignored them.
"Iron Man, that's still military property!" Colonel Bell yelled, grabbing his gun once more.
"Iron Man, let's go!" Steve grit out.
Iron Man tore off the side of the truck, revealing a number of consoles and screens. He used the slab of metal to swipe away some of his half-hearted assailants.
"He's in direct violation," Colonel Bell said to Steve. "If we get out of this, I'm reporting him."
"No, this is what's in violation!" Iron Man yelled, grabbing a console and waving it over his head like it weighed nothing, before using it to smash a gray jumpsuit-wearing man over the head. "I'd say this whole operation is in violation of a wide variety of laws and a few human rights. Ms. Marvel, if you'd like to watch my back for a moment while I take this evidence somewhere safe."
Steve was suddenly overcome with the urge to grab the armor and shake it violently, and was about to voice something to that effect when he felt a hand on his arm.
"I'll get him out safely, Cap," Ms. Marvel said quickly. "Even if he is being a total jerk."
"More incoming!" Another soldier yelled, pointing at the plane that had made a loop and was en route. The Colonel turned away from the Avengers.
"Move it, people!"
"We'll distract them, you keep running," Iron Man assured them as he handed Ms. Marvel a large satellite dish. She used it as a shield and dustpan in one. "Don't tear up that old tatting, Cap!"
Steve grit his teeth, turned around and started running after the rest.
"Now that-" Hawkeye panted when he caught up with Spider-Man, "-was flippant."
"What-" Spider-Man replied, "-is a tatting?"
One evening, Steve and Tony had had a conversation about that. About his flippant attitude. They'd known each other for almost a year and after Steve had started talking to Tony about his dreams, they'd started meeting outside of Avengers business more regularly. Less colleagues, more friends. "Can't stab a back you can't see. Learned that the hard way," Tony had said to him that night, the ice-cubes in his glass clinking together as he'd moved his hand in a wide gesture.
"You shouldn't have to," Steve had said. "That's not right."
"That's why we're here, isn't? To make it right again."
Tony had swayed a little and Steve had gently pushed him down in his chair and let Tony pat his hand for the rest of the night. He'd never been sure who'd gotten the most comfort from that.
When Steve went down to Tony's workshop, he half expected to have been locked out. When the door opened, he was greeted by extremely dimmed lights and total silence.
"Hey," he said, walking up to Tony's workbench in the far corner of the shop. It was cluttered with various tools and bits of wire and had many scorch marks from many soldering irons. Tony was bent low over his stolen government property, nearly blocking out the bright LED aimed directly at it.
"Hey," Tony said without looking up. "Did they let you get away with your balls intact?"
Steve grimaced. "Barely, SHIELD is very unhappy."
"SHIELD's always unhappy." Tony shrugged and grabbed a pair of the tiniest tweezers from amidst a pile of balled up blueprints. "So, are you here to chew me out?"
Steve said nothing and settled his hip against one of the large servers that was standing against the wall. His eyes followed the bow of Tony's spine from the back of his neck to the top of his sweatpants. Technically, he should bench Tony. He should suspend him for not following orders, for going behind everybody's back. For pissing off the army. He should deny Tony his Avengers consultancy rights. But, he thought as he counted the bruises on Tony's arm and back, the years had taught both of them nobody learned anything from that particular route.
"That's a yes, then," Tony said, looking up. For a moment he had comically large eyes, until he pushed up his goggles and started a languid stretch. "You didn't even change yet. I changed, like, three times already."
"I thought you wanted to have a look at my uniform?" Steve asked.
"I did," Tony said, slowly looking Steve up and down. "I do. It's torn up."
"You also have my phone. I couldn't call you."
"Oh, right." Tony rummaged around his workbench before turning back to Steve with a lazy smile. "I upgraded everything. It now comes with a new battery that lasts literally weeks. If you ever get in a tight spot somewhere - I don't know, AIM Facility, SHIELD prison cell - hit this app here and dial some lucky sevens. Your phone will use that battery to emit an EMP."
"That's useful," Steve said. "How strong is it?"
"Don't use it while in the city, ever," Tony replied earnestly. "It can take out my suit, hell, it can take out the carrier. I'm not giving this to anyone else."
Steve felt a twitch in his stomach at this vote of confidence, but thankfully, Tony ruined the moment.
"You also shouldn't download all those sexy apps all the time. Porn makes any machine run slower, you know that."
"That's all Clint."
"Serves you right for letting him get his hands on it. Keep it on you from now on." Tony smiled, throwing the phone in Steve's direction. When Steve looked up again, Tony had spread his arms. "Alright, so, chew me out already."
Steve sighed. "I just want to know, is this really worth antagonizing everyone over?"
"Mmm," Tony said and kicked his chair backwards, sliding over to a computer-console and striking a number of keys. "The asshole in me says 'always'. The businessman in me says 'yes because they really want me not to have it'."
"Those are not opposites," Steve pointed out.
"Maybe." Tony rolled back to his workbench and pulled down a computer-screen. "But, the scientist in me has no conclusive evidence, other than that this whole thing looks very familiar and SHIELD's attitude is very suspicious. More suspicious than usual, I mean. Look, this is the code of the main eye, the big red one Hawkeye bet ten dollars would shoot lasers - shows what he knows."
"No lasers?" Steve asked, leaning over Tony's shoulder and following the path the man's finger drew on the screen over the lines of blue code. "There's a pattern in there that I'm supposed it see, isn't there?"
"You're killing me. But yes, there are still some components that I'm not sure of. This is a highly sophisticated design. Not something SHIELD could pull off, not something anyone could pull off, trust me."
"I'm not a happy, trusting team leader right now," Steve reminded him.
Tony leant back against him and rubbed the stubble on his jaw. "Off the record, here, I think SHIELD doesn't want us near these because they don't want us near the zombies."
"Don't call them zombies."
"Oh, come on! There was moaning and groaning and shuffling and decaying-"
"They weren't decaying and you're keeping things from me," Steve said, feeling the muscles in Tony's back move as the man shifted slightly. That was always a tell.
"I've been looking into some government stuff... people are not happy about that," Tony started tentatively, staring at the console in front of him. "But I don't want any of you swept up in the wake of whatever SHIELD's up to."
"What are you looking into?"
"Plans, protocols, ways to try me for war crimes. I don't want my name to be affiliated with the Avengers yet because of all that, like I said, you'll get swept up."
"Maybe I like being swept up." Steve said pointedly.
"I can smell that," Tony smirked, sniffing and rubbing his nose with the back of his hand. "Why do you still smell like that harbor? I'm going to have to get you a whole new set, it's unpleasant."
"While we're on unpleasant topics," Steve smoothly took back the reigns and steered the conversation on track again. "What are you doing with Ms. Marvel?"
"I don't see what's unpleasant about Ms. Marvel. I find Ms. Marvel very pleasant." Tony waved a hand in a curve, which was slightly offensive. Steve jostled Tony's shoulders with a bit of force. "Steve, she helps me out with some things, that's all."
"Carol is either on or off the team, Tony. She's not at your beck and call."
"At my- hah! I'd like to see you say that to her face!"
"I'm serious," Steve said. "Please, I've told you this before, there's no room for personal agendas. I already received two warnings about you in as many weeks and SHIELD is not very forgiving. You might not get a third."
For a moment the other man was silent, leaning the back of his head and shoulders against Steve's stomach.
"The good ol' three strike system, huh?" He sighed, picking up the red robot core and holding it up in front of him. "That'd be a pretty picture."
Actually, this would make a great picture, Steve thought, looking down on Tony's greasy hair. They had to do the compulsory photo-shoots once the teams had been established again. None of them had featured Iron Man, as he was not on the team, technically. Photo-shoots were all about showing camaraderie and team-bonding. It had been Tony's idea in the first place.
They needed more good pictures for the public, Tony had once said. Pictures of them being normal people and struggling with normal things. When everybody had frowned at him he'd added that it would humanize them and deter potential law-suits.
He had been backed up by a few PR people on this.
Tony had been referring to a picture in the newspapers of himself pinned under Steve: their clothes and faces white with dust. Just Tony Stark. No Iron Man suit. Just Steve Rogers and his portfolio, now torn to reveal the iconic shield that had saved them both from shrapnel and debris. Steve had his hand cupped around the back of Tony's head. "Smart move," Tony had laughed afterwards. "Wouldn't want to get sued by my company!"
But Steve still remembered the tremors he'd felt in Tony's body and the scratches he'd had on his skin from where Tony had clutched at him when the building came down. He remembered having to pry the bottle of scotch from Tony's hands eighteen hours later.
"I wasn't going to tell you yet but I might have pulled a few locations from this," Tony said, shaking Steve out of his thoughts. "I need to go there at some point."
"By whose agenda?"
Steve mentally berated himself for his tone of voice, but Tony swiveled around and edged closer until Steve could feel the man's legs against his own. He placed a hand on Steve's abdomen and drummed his fingers against the plate of body armor.
"That's exactly the problem. I have to go, even if it means pissing everyone off because otherwise I risk losing the piece of evidence I need to stop everyone and their mother from pointing their guns at my head," he said to Steve's stomach. Steve let him, because Tony used physical contact on only three occasions: when he was drunk, when he didn't want to face the problem at hand, or when others instigated it.
"Then what do you propose?" Steve prompted.
"I propose," Tony said, jamming his finger in a tear in the cloth and pulling on it slightly. "That I go alone in case it's an ambush."
"No," Steve said immediately. "No solo-missions, Tony. Especially not if it's an ambush."
"You're a spoilsport," Tony said, tugging the hem of the uniform out of Steve's belt and hooking his fingers into the tear again. "If SHIELD or whoever's going to come for me, there's nothing any of you can do."
Steve sucked in his breath. "Your hands are cold."
"You're also drama queen."
"And you're being deliberately obtuse," Steve snapped back.
"I'm not," Tony muttered. "All I have are some dodgy medical reports, some coordinates and the fact that SHIELD really has it in for me. More than is reasonable, I mean. More than I deserve - no wait, let me try again - more than is proportionately reasonable in relation to any actions prior to my recent actions-"
"I understood you on the first try," Steve interrupted.
"Sorry," Tony mumbled. "I sometimes forget you do."
Tony's hands were technically still too cold, but Steve let it go while Tony grabbed a hooked needle and some silvery, shiny thread and started on the shirt. Steve chose his words carefully, because Tony's mild, seemingly irrelevant apology held an inconvenient truth and the crux of their current problem.
"Can you at least tell us what you have found, let us make our own decisions?"
Tony huffed, but he didn't disagree. This was not necessarily a good thing, or a victory. But considering the past few days, Steve reckoned that was all he was going to get.
"It won't go well," Tony warned him. "They don't trust me and I don't blame them. Sometimes I wonder why you do."
"About that," Steve said. Tony hummed in response while methodically sewing up the edge of the double layer of cloth holding the extra body armor weave. Steve could have easily mended this himself, but he was not going to point that out when Tony was this close to him with a needle.
"I know you can go from A to Z under a second. But some of us need the steps in between. We need information that helps us put matters into context. I'm not like you, Tony, I need a lot more pieces of the puzzle and I know that's frustrating, but bear with me. We're all out to do good here, but one of your many assets to this team is the ability to provide us with the right intel to make an informed decision. I rely on you for this, I trust you, and a lot of people's lives depend on our decisions and actions."
"This is a good chewing out," Tony said, and he sounded tired and sincere.
"Please, don't exclude the others. They care about each other, they care about you - don't do that - okay, how about this? They care about the people you've sworn to protect. The people we're all trying to protect. Nobody is in this for the fame and glory or the great pay. You know this. We all have our reasons for getting back up, licking our wounds and doing the same song and dance again and again."
Tony knotted the thread three times before cutting it with a pair of overly sized sheers, then he simply sat there.
Steve continued. "This has affected us already. We're already in this now. I'm not asking for things to be as they were in the past. I am actually specifically asking for things to not be as they were. Because in the past we were both too stubborn to allow each other any say in our own business. This is the present and I'm asking you now, will you please tell me what you're doing?"
Tony pulled down Steve's shirt and took great care to tuck it back in. This picture, Steve thought, would probably herald the end of their careers.
After a moment Tony gave a tiny snort and said: "I may need a minute."
"You look like you need a week," Steve chuckled, patting the man's back.
"It's your motivational speeches, Cap. They do it for me every time."
Steve patted him again for good measure.
"In your own time."
"How about Dr. Doom?" Spider-Man asked while he grabbed a yellow file off the pile on the seat next to Wolverine. "He's big on robots."
"It's not Doom," Tony said. "These robots have elegance. Flair. Doom's work is far more sensible."
"So, who is sending them?" Spider-Man asked, poking at the stack. "And what are we doing exactly? We're not going to ignore SHIELD alarms are we?"
"For the moment, SHIELD alarms don't hold much worth," Tony said, leaning against the counter in his suit, holding his Iron Man helmet in his hands. "I called this meeting because I think we have a real problem that I feel deserves our attention more than taking down a few robots. Especially since SHIELD's trying their very best to keep us away from this."
"I need a better reason," Luke said. "People could get hurt if we don't answer promptly."
Tony frowned at Luke.
"Who invited him? No wait, never mind. Pot. Kettle and so on. It doesn't matter."
"Luke has agreed to stay with us until Thor comes back," Steve cut in. "And he has a point, these robots nearly chewed you up."
"Yes, nearly. I don't think they're actually dangerous. I mean, technically, yes, but not really. There've been two similar incidents before the Harbor and we didn't exactly receive an official call for the last one," Tony said pointedly. "I think the call to the Harbor was an accident. Or a PR thing, since it was a public location. SHIELD will more likely hinder us that help us."
"I think you're giving SHIELD way too much credit here," Hawkeye said. "Why would they have it in for you? I mean aside from the obvious."
"Look through the files," Tony replied.
Steve leafed through his copy. They contained mostly poorly photocopied parts of handwritten notes, of formulas scribbled on scraps of paper. There were three pages that logged the mental cognition progress of some patients and finally, some pictures. They were of surprisingly good quality, despite being from what looked like security cameras. The pictures were of people in gray jumpsuits, some sitting on the ground, staring blankly ahead. Some of people in gray jumpsuits snarling at the camera, with considerable wounds to the face and upper arms.
"Anyone care to elaborate for us non-science types?" Hawkeye asked. "All I see here is infection and neural detriment and a lot of chemical formulas."
"That's a pretty accurate summary, actually," Spider-Man muttered, sorting through the papers and shifting the notes around the table as if they were one giant puzzle. eventually he settled on a pattern that had some holes in it. "This is very incomplete. How did you get this?"
"From the military transport SHIELD tried to evaporate," Tony replied. "And other private sources."
"What does this mean?" Spider-Woman asked.
"It means that somebody has been trying to create a way to repair severe tissue damage," Spider-Man said, looking at some of the notes spread out in front of him. "Once again, trying is the operative word here, because what they're getting is brain damaged zombies."
"Should we use the word zombie when we don't know-" Steve began.
"Fox News has been calling them zombies since the Harbor," Wolverine said.
"Fox News did a bit on your cigars killing more people through second hand smoke than you save," Spider-Man pointed out.
"Fox News got footage of Cap and Stark making big eyes at each other at the baseball game and claimed they were an item," Hawkeye added smugly. "Two months later they did the same with Spider-Man and Wolverine."
"Ugh," Spider-Man said. "I could never! Uh, not that you don't look nice, in a burly sort of animalistic-"
"We'll call them something else!" Wolverine snarled. "Christ."
"I think Peter's right," Tony said and when the Avengers looked at him in stunned silence he elaborated. "About the effects of this pathogen. The intent is to repair damage in a very short time, an artificial healing factor. So far, it's not working out. I think we should refocus our efforts on whoever is doing this and ignore whatever SHIELD is playing us for."
"We can't simply ignore a call," Luke pointed out, crossing his arms. "They're hostile. We protect citizens, we fight the hostiles. We report to SHIELD as a favor. Not because it's an order."
"It's not that simple," Tony said and looked around. "You guys know it's not that simple, right?"
"You should know by now that we're not supposed to just pick battles," Luke said.
"That's precisely what we should do," Tony said, "Instead of reacting, we should be preventing. SHIELD is only sending us in after the fact and with half the information. I don't like being used for convenience, that's not why I do this."
"What do you suggest, then?" Steve said, holding up a hand to stop Luke from retorting.
"I think we should go for maximum efficiency. Cut out SHIELD, operate independently. That was the plan all along, wasn't it? We are accountable for our own actions, are we not? Then we make our own decisions. We have two facts to work from: one, we have evidence that somebody is using human experimentation in creating a pathogen that heals severe biological damage. Two: we have robots that SHIELD called a priority one threat once, but then go out of their way to stop anyone from finding out who built them and why."
"They are a threat," Luke corrected.
"Says SHIELD. If SHIELD really wants them stopped, they'd have called us in weeks ago."
"Fact remains the robots hurt people," Luke said. "You can't blame SHIELD for issuing a perceived threat level."
"Robots have a directive." Tony snapped. "They don't do things of their own volition."
"You say that-" Spider-Woman started but Tony slammed his helmet down on the counter.
"Correlation does not imply causation! This is grade school stuff, people."
"Tony's right, it doesn't," Spider-Man said softly and everybody fell silent at that. Spider-Man shifted in his chair and tapped the papers. "But we can't just test your hypothesis. Not with people's lives."
"I'm saying we refocus our efforts," Tony repeated sharper this time. "Before SHIELD sweeps the whole thing under a giant napalm rug, or worse. The soldiers who died this week were designated as an acceptable loss. These infected people are from military backgrounds too. If this thing gets out, it won't discriminate between career choices. Cutting out SHIELD is a chance we need to take."
"How can you say that with a straight face?" Luke exclaimed. "You're calculating civilian victims on nothing but a hunch about future numbers."
"It's called crisis management."
"You cannot calculate acceptable losses with people's lives!"
"I disagree," Tony said matter-of-factly and Luke got out of his chair so fast it nearly fell over..
"Everyone calm down!" Steve snapped, positioning himself between the two men. He could almost feel Tony's glare over his shoulder, but Luke crossed his arms and stuck out his chin.
He took a deep breath.
"We protect people, that's the most important thing. We protect them from direct attacks and from potential attacks. You're both arguing for the same thing."
"I don't have an additional agenda," Luke said.
"If you're implying I do," Tony began. "You've really not been listening."
"Enough," Steve said. "I think we can all agree that Tony's lead warrants investigation, however I also want people on stand-by in case SHIELD does raise an alarm."
"The end never justify the means," Luke grumbled and glared at Steve. "As long as Stark remembers that as well as the fact that he's not calling the shots, I'm on board with the investigation."
"Great, we have a compromise then," Tony said cheerfully, but when he looked at Steve there wasn't a shred of sincerity in his smile.
As it turned out, they never got to investigate much, because six hours later, after they came back from a relatively simple and straightforward threat in Queens, they were greeted by the sight of at least eight SHIELD trucks lined up outside the tower.
A young agent stood at the front steps.
"What's going on here?" Steve asked, before a bullet hit the concrete over his head. He ducked and raised his shield. "Hold your fire, I'm unarmed!"
The young agent raised his gun.
"Technically, sir, that's uh, not true," he finished quietly, eyeing the shield.
"Why is SHIELD in my herb garden?" Hawkeye demanded, cupping his hand over his mouth and shouting up the building at two men aiming at them from the upper tier. "Hey you, yeah you, the dude on the balcony. I see you! Get your feet out of my sage!"
Some of the agents on the ground scooted a little closer to each other. They were all young, Steve noted, which meant the Avengers had a significant upper hand.
"Sir, we're here to arrest Iron Man, sir," the young man said, eyes flicking about between Captain America's shield and Hawkeye's bow. The other Avengers banded together behind Steve, but the young agent stood fast, even if his gun was trembling slightly.
"On what charges?" Steve demanded.
"Cyberattacks on the ministry of Defense, theft of government property, hindering a federal investigatio- don't come closer! We- we have orders to-"
"Easy there, we're not going to do anything, agent...?" Steve said, trying to sound calm while in the distance he could hear the buzz of machinery and the fizzle of high voltage. If Tony had stayed home like he said he would, odds were that he was somewhere in the building.
"It's Andrew," agent Andrew said and almost flinched when there was a small shockwave washing over the square. The windows of the tower rattled. A bead of sweat rolled down his temple. "P-please let us do our job. Iron Man w-will be taken back to SHIELD for questioning pending a - phew - a federal investigation and- and..." he trailed off as Luke stepped forward anyway, towering over him.
"She sent a few junior agents to detain Iron Man?" Luke asked.
"No," agent Andrew said and swallowed, lowering his gun. "She sent more than that."
"Get that laser out of my face, son," Wolverine sneered at one of the soldiers, who mumbled a pardon and aimed lower.
"Please don't hinder us," agent Andrew implored, looking Steve in the eyes over his sunglasses. "Captain, sir."
Steve held up his hand. There was a distorted bang in the distance, like a speaker blowing a fuse, or a sudden surge of air releasing pressure and Steve picked up the distinct smell of ozone. Glass shattered somewhere up high and all the lights in the tower flickered.
"Iron Man's getting away!" One of the soldiers yelled and sure enough there was the sound of Iron Man's repulsors and thrusters overhead, before a red and gold line swept past them, swerving between the buildings.
"Great, he got away, well done. You can stop aiming a gun at my face," Luke said. "And before you back-talk me, I wasn't asking."
"No, sirs, madam, we need to ask you some questions as well, could you come with us, uh, please?"
Another agent came running through the gates. He looked far too young for the weaponry he was sporting and Steve wondered for a moment what Natasha was thinking, sending in so many young recruits. The young man walked up and said something in agent Andrew's ear. Steve could not pick it up, but Wolverine and Spider-Man looked at each other, then shook their heads at him.
He put on his best Captain America face and lowered his shield.
"Avengers, do as agent Andrew says."
"Thank you!" agent Andrew laughed nervously, then checked himself. "Please, follow me."
Steve remembered moments, rather than actual dates. Tony was the one good with dates. Sometimes that was better, because in Steve's head, the moments flowed together and drifted apart, meaning he could not pinpoint certain junctions exactly.
Tony could probably tell him the exact time and date Steve and him went wrong.
Steve had tried many times, but he couldn't remember what line was crossed and when it was crossed exactly. If there was really such a thing. In Steve's mind, the whole thing flowed together from that night when Tony, drunk and melancholy, kept one hand firmly on Steve's - the other all white knuckles around a glass tumbler - to him squeezing the man's shoulder when he'd agreed to be on the team again this time.
Somewhere in between those years there was one point, Steve was sure, where he went a bit wrong about Tony.
This point had been well before the first incident they never discussed seriously ever. Steve remembered that date because the next day was in the newspapers, on government files as well as marked on calendars as an official memorial day. For Steve and Tony it wasn't a good date either and Tony's smile was always bittersweet when it came up. Steve shared that smile, but they never discussed it.
The Avengers weren't doing well at the time and had disbanded, forming smaller factions of superheroes, two of which Steve joined on and off at that time. His main job had been working directly for SHIELD, being constantly sent out on solo-missions as a black-ops. It was also when he'd gone through his particular heavy breakup with Sharon and had been taken out by his SHIELD friends in a valiant attempt to make him forget.
After his friends had forgotten how to walk, Steve had decided to send them home.
The moment he forgot himself was actually after he'd made his way back to his barracks on the SHIELD helicarrier. When he'd felt sorry for himself and wished he could just go back to sleep for a few years. When Tony had made a surprise visit after being off the radar for weeks while he was wanted for questioning on a suspected murder charge. When he heard Tony's voice in the dark say: "I was beginning to think you didn't live here."
"Go on, be a little louder, I don't think all the spies and guards heard you," Tony had said, looking up from the book he'd been reading.
He had actually been lying on Steve's bed, wearing his entire armor except for the helmet. He'd motioned with a big gesture, which had told Steve he'd either been drunk or he hadn't been to sleep for a long time. Maybe both.
"Close the door, would you?"
Steve had done so, resting his forehead on the cold metal in front of him. It took him a moment to realize that he hadn't seen or heard from Iron Man or Tony in a while. Behind him he had heard the hiss and whir of the Iron Man armor releasing. There was a creak from the bed and finally Tony's hand on his wrist.
"You'll break it," Tony had said gently, and Steve had looked at the metal warping in his grip. "SHIELD will dock your pay."
He'd let go.
"You only have twenty hours before all hell will break loose," Tony had said in his ear. Steve had not been wearing his uniform, just a dress shirt, and he had felt the heat of their points of contact. He had felt Tony's breath on his skin, the fingers around his wrist tugging slightly. When he'd turned around there had been bits of armor on his bed between the newspapers and the magazines.
"Come on," Tony had said, going into the bathroom. Steve had followed.
"There, nice and secure." Tony had said, closing the door. "SHIELD doesn't bug their bathrooms yet. So, what's up?"
"I..." Steve had been lost for words at the sight of Tony standing there in his under armor, smiling at him like there was nothing wrong with the world. "Where have you been?"
"Uh," Tony had said, pursing his lips. "Are you going to get mad if tell you I can't tell you?"
Steve had pinched the bridge of his nose.
"You're still mad at me," Tony had sighed.
"You wound me up."
Tony had held up his hands. "I apologize. I do. I wind everybody up. I wind myself up and I probably said some things that I shouldn't have, maybe did some things I shouldn't have-"
"You don't actually know what you did that got to me, do you?"
Tony had not denied that. The bathroom had been small and cramped and despite the fact they were on opposite ends, it had felt claustrophobic. Steve had taken the moment of silence to breathe deeply and settle the hammering of his heart.
"Why-" he'd asked slowly, "-are you here?"
Tony had given him a weak smile.
"I missed you? No? I did, though, I wanted to check in on you, because- you know."
Steve had frowned, but Tony had stepped forward and had placed both his hands on Steve's chest. He'd smelled of alcohol. Of battle and of Iron Man. Old sweat and metal. "I'm also worried about the state of your armor, which I took the liberty of examining while you were out."
"Didn't know you made house calls," Steve had said quietly, keeping his hands flat against the cool metal of the door. "I wish you stopped drinking."
He had felt Tony sigh against him. A warm puff of breath against his shoulder. Tony's fingers had been moving over Steve's shirt, tracing over his pectoral muscles, going under his arms, tracing softly down his side, causing him to inhale sharply. His stomach had twitched in reflex and he had been overcome with an impulse to bolt, to run, to escape, but he'd kept his hands against the door.
"What are you doing?" He'd asked. His voice sounded had much kinder and calmer than he'd felt. But Tony had shushed him and felt up his abdomen, before pressing his hands against his stomach, splaying his fingers. The thumb of his right hand brushing up and down in a line.
The seams, Steve had finally realized. Tony was tracing the seams and lines of his old Captain America armor on his body. His thumb had been marking places that Steve knew had been repaired, had been torn and had patches and reinforcements sewn in. Stopping in places Steve knew were weak spots that could be exploited by the enemy.
The room had been warm, but the beads that had formed on Steve's brow and neck had very little to do with that.
Tony's fingers had slid down his abdomen, but when they caught on the belt of his pants he'd stopped.
"Yeah, you need a new set," Tony had said and let go. Steve's hand had shot up, but he'd aborted the movement halfway.
"SHIELD's stuff just doesn't cut it, but don't worry I have the pattern up in here," Tony had continued, taking a step back and fiddling with his phone. "And since you're off alone a lot, I prefer you all wrapped up in the best, even if it can't be the red, white and blue."
Steve had swallowed, thinking about every time Tony had measured him for gear. Every time Tony had passed out against his shoulder, had counted his own breakups as a mathematically acceptable loss. About every time Tony had distracted him, consoled him and stayed with him when his relationship with Sharon was on the rocks. About every time Tony got under his skin and made him want to shake the man until he rattled.
The room had been decidedly too small and Steve had tried to remember how much he had tried to drink tonight and if any of it could have effect. Any at all.
"You're a bit bigger around the chest than my original patterns show, but I can compensate for that, not a problem," Tony had said, typing away. "I'll make it stylish too. I tell you, the fashion industry lost a great man the day I decided not to be a tailor, I have some really good fabrics and some excellent design ideas, don't let Jan tell you otherwise. I know fashio- oof"
To his credit, Steve thought, he hadn't dropped his phone when Steve had grabbed him.
"Uh, Steve, buddy?" Tony had mumbled into Steve's shoulder.
"How do you deal with this," Steve had asked. "This..."
Tony had been still in his arms for a moment, until one hand had come up on Steve's back and he'd awkwardly returned the embrace.
"In case you haven't noticed, I talk and I drink."
Steve had laughed, except it didn't make any sound and it had been quite pathetic. Tony had patted him gently.
"I'm sorry," Steve had said, heart hammering in this throat. "I'm no good."
Tony had hummed. "You kidding? You're the best at this. You're way more restrained than me. We've got our little routine down, old man. So work with me here, you know how it goes: I push your buttons, we go on a mission, we save the day, you yell at me, I jerk off in the shower, happy end for all."
"Inappropriate," Steve had pointed out. "But point taken."
"My point is, I have no idea what to do either. But we'll get you through this, don't worry."
Steve had held the man at arm length and looked at him. This close, there were clear visible lines in his face and the crows-feet next to his eyes had become more prominent over the years. Sharon used to joke about the worry-lines on Steve's forehead, saying he would worry himself to death one day. The knot in his chest still coiled when he thought of Sharon and the air of silent fury she'd exuded when Steve had said the Avengers would come first.
"I worry," he had confessed for what felt like the millionth time, reaching out again. "And I missed you, Shellhead."
There had not been moment of delay in Tony's reaction. The sound of the phone clattering on the tiles had been almost deafening, but he'd held on to Steve for a long time.
God, but Steve had felt like a bastard for taking advantage like this.
He remembered wishing Tony was happier. That Sharon was happier. That Tony would stop drinking for good. He still wished Tony was happier.
He had wished they were all different people.
When he'd mustered the strength to let go Tony's eyes had been slightly wide.
"I'm still engaged, you know," the man had half-joked. "If I'm ever acquitted."
"I know," Steve had said. "... what do you need from me?"
Tony's face had clouded over. "I hate to do this, but I'm glad you asked. Earth is about to be invaded. Yes, again. There will be an all-round SHIELD alarm in about twenty hours… are you sure you're alright?"
"Yes, got it. Twenty hours. Twenty hours is a lot of time," Steve had cut over him and when Tony grunted he squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed a few times. "No, really. I remember crashing, trashing and leaving the Savage Lands under twenty hours. Back in the war, when I was on tour some of the girls found very creative ways to use spare time. Hell, we could probably destroy half of this carrier under twenty minutes…"
When he had opened his eyes again, he'd realized how wrong Tony and him had gone.
"I'm sorry I'm me," Tony had said, but he hadn't sounded very cheerful, or joking. He'd sounded almost sad and now Steve felt like a real bastard. "But there's something hideous coming our way. I've already given you all the information I have. It's on the bed. This takes precedent over our ... personal issues - trust me, and they're huge, I know - but Steve, look at me. I promise we will sort this out. You, me, the Avengers. I promise."
"You're right." Steve had sighed, "You're right. OK, regrouping. You stay here, where it's safe. Grab a shower and get some sleep and I'll get everyone ready for that alarm."
"See? The man with a plan," Tony had smiled. "And strong upper arms."
He couldn't have winded Steve more if he'd punched him in the gut with his armor on.
"I-" he'd started.
"Don't say you're sorry," Tony had said, unzipping his suit. "I'll cry, for real."
"You're such an ass," Steve had said, and he'd meant it so sincerely it had been a relief for a fraction of a moment. But then Tony had been naked, which he'd seen hundreds of times before and hadn't cared about before, but he'd felt a blush creep to his cheeks and had quickly kept his eyes on the floor where Tony had dumped his suit.
"I am," Tony had said, stepping in the shower. "And your timing is the worst."
"Really. That's the problem here. My timing."
"You should clear the bed for me to land on naked and wet."
"Classy," Steve had said, opening the door and sneaking one glance through the glass at Tony turning on the taps. "Don't jerk off in my shower."
"I designed this place. It's my shower," Tony had said without looking back. "I can do what I want."
"Where's Iron Man?" Steve demanded the moment Black Widow walked into the conference room.
They had been rounded up and dropped off at SHIELD headquarters unceremoniously for the second time this week, like they were a bunch of children. To complete the humiliation, they were told SHIELD wanted to talk with them to make sure they understood the gravity of the situation.
Tony had been gone for days.
"Don't play games with me," Black Widow said. "Iron Man took out most of our second squad and escaped another attempt to bring him in. We've also lost track of Ms. Marvel."
"Ms. Marvel is not an Avenger," Spider-Man pointed out. "She's, whatever, freelance."
"I'm not an Avenger either," Luke emphasized. "This mess is exactly why I left."
"If she's innocent, she would not have shot a hole through the wall trying to get away from us with stolen technology. Yes, Captain?"
"Would you come willingly if we came for you?" Steve asked.
Black Widow closed her eyes briefly and the corner of her mouth quirked up for a moment. "I have my orders, Captain. She, apparently, has hers."
"Look, we don't want any trouble, but sending a retrieval squad after Carol, after us? After every single sighting of Iron Man?" Spider-Woman said, moving her hands up and down alternately. "Kind of blowing it out of proportions, don't you think? Especially considering we might have a zombie epidemic on our hands soon."
"Some form of epidemic," Steve said stubbornly.
"Stark has a lot of things to answer for," Black Widow said and Steve almost thought she was going to continue with 'including the epidemic'. Instead she said: "By employing Ms. Marvel he made her an accomplice."
"Hold on," Luke grumbled. "What has she done other than help Iron Man steal some robot-parts?"
"Classified," Black Widow said and ignored Luke's humorless laughter. "But Iron Man has been under investigation from the time he stepped down as head of SHIELD up until present. We know how Stark work and the intel we've collected on him does not look good. As far as SHIELD is concerned, both Iron Man and Ms. Marvel have a lot to answer for, yes Captain?"
"When were you going to call us in to investigate rampaging robots?" Steve asked.
"Whenever your help was required, we had the situation under control."
Steve nodded. "Would this be before or after the place would have gone up on flames?"
Black Widow looked at him. "That was an unfortunate incident."
"And you're sure you have the right intel? You're sure you're not on a witch-hunt?"
Steve thought she sounded a little sorry about it. He wasn't sure, however, whether this was because of the situation, because of Tony and Carol, or because she was not allowed to go at something knife and teeth.
"Great," Spider-Woman said. "What about the zombies?"
"There's no such thing as zombies, is SHIELD's official position," Black Widow said with a raised eyebrow. "Aside from your report, nobody else saw anything. We're not unreasonable. Stark gets one final chance to turn himself in, or we view him as hostile. Same goes for Danvers. We're equipped to deal with both of them."
Spider-Woman slammed her hand on the table. "Are you even listening to yourself, Natasha?"
"I'm warning you," Black Widow said a little sharper this time. "The last time Stark turned the wrong way, he nearly single-handedly got us all. Yes, Luke? "
"Say we find them," Luke said. "What do you expect us to do exactly?"
"To contact SHIELD."
"Unbelievable," Spider-Woman spat. "And you accuse them of disloyalty."
"Hah! SHIELD's been hoping for this since Iron Man was born ten years ago," Hawkeye said and shrugged when he was on the receiving end of a variety of glares. "What? Stark's psych profile says he can go both ways, no pun intended. He actually leaned a bit to the iniquitous side when we got hold of him. You have to admit his moral compass always needs a little tuning."
"Iniquitous," Wolverine drawled.
"Hey, I read!" Hawkeye protested. "Point is, SHIELD's loving this. Don't even think about denying it Natasha, SHIELD's been dying to get their hands on Stark's tech. Come on, Natasha, this whole thing has ulterior motive all over it. You must know something we don't."
Black Widow ground her teeth. "Your opinion is irrelevant. Stark has three days, now if there's no further questions I- yes, Spider-Man?"
Spider-Man quickly lowered his hand.
"I just wanted to know what 'iniquitous' meant."
Later that night, Steve was pacing around in his room to release some nervous energy. SHIELD had kept them for individual questioning, but after it had become obvious that none of the Avengers knew anything more than they did last week, they were reluctantly let go.
Mostly, Steve realized, he was angry with himself.
Tony had told him in not so many words that he had expected all of this and Steve had to wonder: how much of this was according to Tony's plans? For Steve to offer the Avengers as a lightening rod to half of SHIELD's forces? For SHIELD to show up at all? For Natasha to hunt him down? What was Steve's role in this then?
"You tried to warn me," he said to the empty room, instead of Spider-Woman. "Damnit."
He cared about Tony. The man was his best friend and had been for over a decade. Throughout the years they'd had their ups and downs, they'd come to blows and they'd had their moments. He cared a lot about Tony Stark, but dear God nobody got under his skin like that man did.
A loud bang shook him out of his thoughts. It was followed by the raised voices of Luke and Spider-Woman and soon by the other Avengers.
He found them downstairs in the hallway, standing opposite Ms. Marvel, or rather, Carol. She wasn't wearing her costume, instead she wore a gray sweater and a pair of jeans. At her feet were three black duffle bags and what looked like a power tool.
"Guys, please. I was just here to collect something from the workshop," Carol said. "That's all I did, Tony called on ahead, Wong supervised me."
"I can confirm that she has permission," Wong said quietly. "She also just took a few personal items."
"So, he's still on the run?" Luke asked.
Carol looked like she wanted to start a discussion for a moment, but then her face relaxed and she placed her hands on her hips.
"Look, I know things look bad, but you have to believe me when I say that SHIELD is wrong, we're being set-up."
Spider-Woman touched her arm. "Carol, can't you give us a little more?"
Carol shook her head, then her eyes fell on Steve at the top of the stairs. Compared to her earlier appearances, she looked decidedly more dirty and haggard, but her face lit up the moment she spotted him.
"Hey, you know SHIELD is keeping its eyes on this place, right?" Steve said, but when he reached her he gladly returned the embrace she gave him. "I'm glad you're OK. How's Tony doing?"
"He's fine, a bit, you know," she tapped a finger to her temple. "Working overtime up there. So far they set up a few traps to get him and he responds to every single one of them. This has been planned into the tiniest details on SHIELD's end. It's far too well executed for a haphazard plan."
"Is it true they sent a squad after you too?" Spider-Woman asked.
"Yeah, the two dozen soldiers ruined my apartment in the city. Trying to find new living space on my day-job salary is going to be hell."
"You'd think working for Stark would pay well enough." Hawkeye said.
"Really?" Carol said, turning a glare towards him. "Seriously?"
"Carol," Steve interrupted. "What's going on? SHIELD is extremely hostile and we have no idea what's happening."
She crossed her arms and closed her eyes for a moment. "SHIELD is hostile, but I wouldn't know about the extreme. They're acting strange. I don't even know what to do myself, but I can tell you what's happening on the military's end. Tony's ATP was activated."
Steve felt the cold vice around clench around his entire stomach this time.
"His what now?" Luke asked, looking confused.
"Adenosine Tri-Phosphate?" Spider-Man asked. "No? I'm not going to like the fact it's not, am I?"
"Antagonist Termination Protocol," Steve said slowly. "They're plans, what ifs, in case certain super powered people turn against the government or the citizens and have to be terminated."
"You mean killed," Wolverine said and looked at Spider-Man. "He means killed. When someone unstable like Stark goes supervillain and needs to be killed."
"That explains a lot," Hawkeye said. "We all got Stark supervillain training at SHIELD at some point, but nobody expected to use it. No wonder Natasha was nervous."
"Wait, you can tell?" Spider-Man asked. "Also does everybody know this but me? Do I have one?"
"The professor told me about Stark years ago," Wolverine said. "The X-Men are on standby for a number of potential threats. Why do you think I'm here full-time now?"
"Do I have one?" Luke asked, glaring at Wolverine.
"No," Steve said getting exactly the looks he always knew he'd receive. "People like Magneto and Dr. Doom have ATPs. High-profile, unstable characters do. Tony is not supposed to be on that list."
"Debatable." Hawkeye pointed at Steve, then he pointed at Carol. "What I want to know is 'why'."
"I don't know," Carol said. "It all seems seriously overdrawn. Whatever he was investigating must have ruffled some serious feathers."
"I have a different question," Luke said. "What's your stake in this?"
"My stake?" Carol repeated. "How about stopping whatever insanity is going on? Or how about helping a friend?"
"You can ask us for help," Spider-Woman said. "I want to help."
"I… I can't ask that. It's not my decision to make," Carol sighed. "You have to trust me on this. I want to join the Avengers, but I couldn't do that while we were investigating this."
"So Stark is running the show," Luke said. "Count me out."
Carol glared. "What is your problem?"
"Yeah, well, I remember the last time you two had a bright idea," Luke sneered.
"That's it!" Carol stepped forward and slapped her chest. "If you want a fight, just say so. Here I am."
"Carol!" Spider-Woman grabbed her arm.
"Try me," Luke said, grabbing the front of Carol's sweater. The fabric bunching up, pulling it tight over her shoulders. "I'd love for you to try."
"Carol, don't! Luke, let her go!" Steve grabbed the man's arm and hauled him back, aware that if Carol really wanted to do harm, they would have a real problem on their hands.
For a few seconds neither of the two moved, then Luke opened his fist. "Fine. Whatever. Go see your boss. Just don't come near us."
"You don't have that authority, actually," Hawkeye said. "Not an Avenger."
The moment Luke let go, Carol grabbed the bags and moved to the nearest window.
"Carol, wait!" Spider-Woman yelled. "Let me help."
"How can we reach you?" Steve tried.
"You can't, but if you want to help, go to the places Tony wanted to check out before SHIELD and the military get there." Carol said, opening the window and hauling the bags on her back. When she looked over her shoulder her face was set in a scowl. "And I'm not Tony Stark's lackey."
Luke straightened his shirt. "Could've fooled me."
The coordinates Carol had been referring to lead to a small town just west of the New York area.
"Anyone else getting tired of these hunks of junk?" Wolverine said as he jumped on top of a spider-robot and stuck its claws through its head.
The robots were not resisting at all. They were just sort of there, scuttling through the fields.
By the time the Avengers had suited up and landed there, the sun was already setting, making it harder to see what was going on, but easier to spot the roaring fire consuming a large shed near a farm.
"Two times is coincidence, three times is a pattern!" Hawkeye shouted and leapt over the crashing remains of a robot, using his momentum to run up the crooked leg of the biggest one and shooting it right in the lens from close range.
"How about another trap?" Spider-Woman said, blasting it from behind. "Carol said SHIELD was setting up traps."
"Once again," Hawkeye said, pulling out his arrow and using it again on another robot. "A lot of credit to SHIELD where I'm not sure it's due. They follow orders, even if they pretend they don't have to."
The robot stumbled around, turned sideways and headed straight towards Spider-Woman and Luke, who expertly tore it to shreds.
"Spider-Man, how are things over there?" Steve asked.
"Not great," Spider-Man informed them over the comline. "We have more of those zombies here. They came from inside the barn and they look kind of funny."
"Funny ha-ha?" Luke asked.
"They're not zombies," Steve said, holding up his arm and catching his shield that he just sent out to ricochet between two robot-creatures. The spider-robots were now twitching and one of them had sparks coming from its side. "But don't touch them! Can you handle things on your own?"
"There's more inside, I'll need to-"
A loud explosion drowned out Spider-Man's voice for a moment. On the other side of the field, Steve could see the sky turn orange and the green and yellow blaze overtaking both the farmhouse itself and the tinier fire burning the shed.
"- oorway's collapsed and there's more of them inside!" Spider-Man said. "I can't get to them, I can't- this is a chemical fire, it'll burn up everything in no time!"
"I'm on it," Iron Man's voice suddenly crackled over the com. He was visible for a moment, swooping in over the inferno until he apparently spotted a way in and dove straight into the flames.
"Where the hell have you been?" Hawkeye shouted.
"I've been busy and in related news," Iron Man said far too cheerfully. "This barn is a cover-up. There's some pretty impressive metal doors here."
"What about the people?" Spider-man asked.
"There is nothing I can do." Iron Man's voice was clipped . "But there's some stairs leading down and I'm willing to bet that's why they're blowing up these facilities."
"That does sound trappy, you know. Like your basic trap," Hawkeye said at the same time Steve thought it.
"Luke, Spider-Woman, get there now," Steve ordered.
"No!" For a moment there was only silence on the com, until Iron Man continued. "Things are - they're bad in here, OK? SHIELD's almost on us. This is not going to be pretty, Cap. Get everyone out of here, I'm going in."
"Negative, Iron Man," Steve said.
"Yeah, this barn is about to collapse and Natasha's bringing the armada. You can deal with her if you like, but I'm going in while I can."
"Iron Man, do not go underground alone!" Steve shouted.
"We have incoming," Hawkeye said and overhead the familiar sound of SHIELD choppers grew louder.
"What do we do?" Spider-Man's voice shrilled over the com. "Cap? It's spreading. What do we do?"
"We stay and douse the fire," Steve grit out. "Spider-Woman, scout for water. Wolverine, Luke, assist SHIELD. Spider-Man, keep the people there constrained. Hawkeye, with me."
The Avengers looked at each other before spreading out as the helicopters landed in the field, flattening the tall crops.
"Captain America!" Black Widow bellowed over the sound of the rotors. Steve was very annoyed that he felt himself stand at attention automatically.
"I am so glad I'm not in charge," Hawkeye mumbled.
"Where's Iron Man?" Black Widow demanded, walking up to them with large strides, remains of the robotic spiders crunching under her heels. "And what do you think you're doing?"
"We're rescuing civilians from hostiles," Steve said. "We're also preventing a wildfire. Are you here to take over?"
"Quit stalling and tell me what you've found."
"Aside from the usual?" Steve snapped. "The usual spider-robots, the usual zombies and the usual SHIELD armed forces?"
"Rogers, you're on thin ice-"
A rumble cut them off. Suddenly, Iron Man shot out of the remains of the blazing barn with a shower of sparks and flame. As he disappeared into sky, Black Widow slowly turned back towards Steve with the cold stare she reserved for soon-to-be-terminated targets.
Steve surveyed the area. According to the directions SHIELD had given him, this was the street.
He looked around. It was a warm day, so most of the doors of the apartment buildings were open. People sat outside, hung around cars and grouped together in the shade. It was a lively neighborhood.
There was no sign of anything wrong. No sign of impending trouble. Steve was almost sure SHIELD literally sent him here as punishment.
He started down the street. There were a lot of civilians here, but he stood out both in height and in clothing. If this was a trap, if somebody attempted to take him by force, there would be casualties. He wouldn't be able to maneuver for fear of harming the people and that made this the excellent location to corner him.
He kept to the side and looked for somebody who didn't belong there. On the steps of the building two young men sat close together, staring at a smartphone. An older, larger woman sat in a chair at the bottom of the stairs with her cane across her knees. Judging from the ashtray on the table beside her, she'd been an early bird this morning. The next building had three young women chatting away, sporting bags of shopping, toddlers and what Hawkeye would call the mother of all attitudes. Two children were running around, chasing pigeons. They screeched with laughter.
A group of young men loitered near an alleyway, eyeing up a young woman in jeans, a t-shirt and a baseball cap. She stood at the corner of the building, hidden in the shadow of the fire escape near the alleyway. Her blonde hair was tied up in a ponytail and her slouch was almost offensive. Steve had seen that perfect casual slouch before.
"Hello, Carol," he said.
She looked relieved. "Hey."
Steve followed her into the alleyway. Behind him, the young men made disgruntled noises. The alley was littered with newspapers and old paper that had been turned to slush. There were trash bins and bags everywhere and what looked like a family of some rodent. It was also a dead end, Steve noted, turning sideways so he could keep his eyes on the entrance.
"I'm supposed to kidnap you," Carol said, raising her cap and looking at him apologetically. "Well, nobody used those exact words, but that's what it comes down to."
"I see," Steve said. "Any particular reason?"
She laughed, but it sounded slightly nervous. "It's all going a bit south, really. The combined forces of SHIELD and the army is quite an enemy to have. But if Tony's right, things are going to get exponentially worse."
"Well, I appreciate your honesty," Steve said with a smirk. "Where are you supposed to take me?"
"To our current base of operations," she said, using two fingers to emphasize the words. "It's more of a trailer, really, and you'll want to call on your basic army training where comfort is concerned. Tony's having a good time of it. As for the why, you tell me. He's obsessed with keeping you in the loop."
"Tell him that so far, he's not doing a good job," Steve pointed out.
Carol laughed again.
"Tell him yourself. Considering SHIELD's attitude, he figured it was best to just collect you in person before they lock you inside the carrier. And before you say anything, I volunteered. Seriously, think about it: who would you rather pick you up?"
Steve thought about it for a moment. "Alright," he conceded. "What about the others?"
"Yeah," Carol said, pulling down her baseball cap again. "He doesn't trust them, and neither do I."
"That's… a pretty serious accusation," Steve admitted. He couldn't help but wonder on what front he'd failed. Had it been his inability to unite them as one team again? Or his inability to properly address any remaining issues. Or, as Tony had always told him, the fact he believed everyone had some decency in them.
Carol's eyes flicked around the alleyway and she lowered her voice.
"Look, I'm not sure how to go about this, but we have to go before your back-up arrives."
Steve turned to the entrance and to the alleyway's dead end. There wasn't a person in sight. Then again, he couldn't hear the screeching children or the men on the corner either.
"I'm supposed to be here alone," he said, not that he'd believed that himself at any time.
"Maybe," Carol said and grabbed his arm, pulling him back with her. "I was supposed to be Iron Man."
Steve saw a shadow pass overhead. It could have been a cat, or a bird. It could have been a plane passing over, blocking out the sun for a second.
"Carol," he hissed. She nodded and took out a standard military issue gun from the waistband of her pants. "Why do you have that?"
"Ms. Marvel can't be seen in public. I'm keeping a low profile," she said. "They must have thought he'd come out himself for you."
"I don't like being used as bait." Steve snapped loud enough that at least someone picked it up.
"It's flattering, see it as flattery," Carol said, looking up. "Do you mind hopping to the roof?"
"Go ahead," Steve said allowing Carol to grab him. She bent her knees and jumped. The sudden acceleration took his breath away, but her hold was strong and her control excellent as they only overshot the roof by two feet.
The landing was more stable than most of his landings with Iron Man or Thor.
"I know, I'm an amazing ride," Carol said then she frowned in disapproval as if Steve was the one who had made that joke. "I've spent too much time with him."
Steve took a defensive position and peered over the edge of the building. The streets were more or less cleared, although there were a lot of people standing in the doorways of the apartment buildings. There were two white vans on each end of the street and three groups of five people in military clothing headed towards the alleyway. Steve counted seven agents.
"For every agent you see there are two more aiming at your head," Hawkeye had once said many years ago, when they were new at this. When they were younger and happier people and had gladly recruited Hawkeye into their ranks now that Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver had gone. He hadn't finished his sentence or he'd been hit in the face with a magazine.
"Yeah, you SHIELD operatives have such amazing reflexes," Tony had jeered. "We should totally recruit more of you."
Hawkeye had jumped up, landing with one foot on the back of his chair and one foot on the table with the kind of balance reserved for a fraction of Olympic athletes.
"Stark, I will end you so fast you won't know what hit you!"
"The G-forces are killing me."
"It is on!" Hawkeye had grabbed his bow.
Tony had quickly hid behind the bulk of Thor, who'd just laughed loudly and picked Tony up as if he were a rag doll, planting him back in front of him.
"Clinton has accepted your challenge," he'd grinned, completely unfazed by the fact Tony was struggling like a cat in his grip. "Steven, will you stay and judge their performance?"
"Uh," Steve had said, mentally swearing because he had almost made it to the door with his coffee without being dragged into one of Hawkeye and Tony's ridiculous contests. "I have a meeting. Not here, somewhere else, with … other people."
"Wow, smooth." Hawkeye had taken out an arrow and aimed it at Tony. "I can see why they fall for him."
"Speaking of falling," Tony had said, kicking the table into Hawkeye's chair. "Where are those other SHIELD agents, huh?"
That was when Steve had strategically exited.
"I count only seven agents, that can't be all of them," Carol said, sitting back down next to Steve. "There's a good chance they are seriously overpowered down there. How about an old fashioned retreat?"
"So is this a date or what?" Spider-Man's voice rang next to them, before Spider-Man landed in front of them and held up his hands when Carol pointed her gun at his face. "Whoa, sorry, it was a joke."
Steve breathed deeply against the surge of adrenaline. He would never get used to Spider-Man's tendency to just drop down from wherever he was sitting and joining the conversation. He really wasn't expecting it this time. Carol lowered the gun and grit her teeth.
"Damnit," she hissed. "I hate it when you do that."
"I know," Spider-Man said and he sounded gleeful. "But, seriously, imagine my face when I come back from Hells Kitchen and see SHIELD amble down the street."
"So it's just you? The Avengers are not here?" Carol asked, grabbing a phone from the pocket of her jacket and typing at it with one thumb. "OK, we can work with that."
"What are we working with?" Spider-Man asked, then turned to Steve. "Tell me, is this the worst date you've ever had?"
"Technically, it's a kidnapping," Steve said. "But, I've had better."
"Oh." Spider-Man started inching backwards. "You're not going to hit me over the head and leave me here, are you? I pissed off DareDevil something awful back there and he may or may not be out to get me."
Steve looked back over the ledge. The view was considerably different from a minute ago. There was now a lot more of everything. Material, agents, military, vehicles. There was a lot less of an audience, though and judging from the empty doorways, there would soon be agents on their roof.
"We need to go. They're coming up."
Carol nodded and made to get up, but Spider-Man stopped them. "Wait, can I come with you? Let me help. I can help. I am a biochemist, amongst other things and I really don't like SHIELD either and they're getting annoying with their constant shadowing."
Carol smiled and got up. Steve patted Spider-man's knee.
"You can help. Go back to the Avengers," he said and when Spider-Man's shoulders slumped he added. "I need someone to keep an eye on things at your end and they need someone with your knowledge, or SHIELD can tell them anything and they'd believe it."
That last bit seemed to clinch the deal, because Spider-Man nodded.
"Alright, I will. Be careful."
"Thank you," Carol said, then turned to Steve, grabbing him around the waist. "Like this."
Behind them, the door to the roof was kicked open, but the agents coming through were instantly caught in a web.
"Oops," Spider-Man said. "I thought you were burglars, what with the all-black outfit and the guns and the running around in other people's houses. So sorry, I'm not poisonous, you know. Let me look for the anti-venom just in case."
"Hold your breath," Carol said to Steve. "I'm going for speed here."
By the time they landed, Steve's fingers were almost purple and his lungs were burning from lack of oxygen. For a moment he wheezed as if he were the asthmatic, skinny pre-serum kid again. Leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees while Carol patted his back, mumbling a variety of apology and comfort.
Steve breathed and carefully stretched until he was standing straight. They were in a forest, except this had a different type of vegetation from the usual. If Steve had to guess, they were on a preserve of some sorts. The ground was mostly dirt and sand.
Awkwardly placed between the trees there stood three trailers, connected by a jumble of cables and hidden under a set of camouflage nets. The perimeter was set off by chicken-wire fences and what Steve guessed was electric wire. Four generators buzzed away on the left-side and two trucks were parked by the right trailer. Oddly enough, Steve could find no gate, until he realized how he had been brought here. All in all it was an impressive set-up for a small month's worth of hiding. Far too impressive for that timeframe and probably waiting to be used far longer than a few weeks.
"Welcome to my lair, Mr. Bond!" He turned back to the trailers to see Tony grinning at him.
"You're such a ham," Carol said, shoving at him.
Tony shrugged. He was dressed in the weirdest combination of Iron Man armor and work clothing. Instead of his underarmor, he was wearing a pair of his hideous grey sweatpants, except one leg was fully armored and both feet had the Iron man boots on. The upper muscle-plates from his right leg were missing, exposing the circuitry underneath.
He also wore a tight sleeveless shirt that at one point would have been white, but on the left side it consisted of half of the chest plate and shoulder guard with all the paint chipped off. There was considerable damage to the chest plate, consisting of scrapes and dents and even two holes under the ribs on the side. The type high impact bullet would make.
"Like what you see?" Tony smirked.
"No," Steve said solemnly. "Have you seen a doctor?"
"No," Tony said, mimicking Steve's tone of voice and adjusting one of his gloves. "I am a wanted criminal. I have better things to do, like being shot at by overzealous SHIELD agents over and over. They even used a standard EMP on me, Steve. A standard EMP."
"Are you alright?" Steve asked, grabbing Tony's chin and tilting his face so he could see the bruising that was hidden under a massive headset.
"No, I'm insulted. A standard EMP," Tony huffed, batting Steve's hand away and walking back to the trailer. "And your hands are freezing cold, you should warm yourself up."
Carol pulled on Steve's jacket and whispered in his ear: "He's been up for four days, I don't care how you get him to settle down, do it before I hit him over the head."
She slapped his back with full force, which knocked the wind out of him once more, and went inside.
"Alright then," Steve said, following her up the steps.
The inside of the trailer had consoles on both walls. They weren't the bright and nice ones Tony had in his workshop. These were almost all black with green text. Five of the screens displayed news channels; red and blue bars with white text appearing at the bottom while the presenters in various stages of disinterest spoke about topics of varying degrees of national concern.
Carol sat down on one of the overturned crates in the far corner, while Tony sat in an old wooden chair. The windows were blackened out or covered with wiring and the only light came from fluorescent TL-lighting and the green screens. It made both of them look sick.
"Why have you brought me here?" He asked.
"It's the flu," Carol said, pointing at one of the monitors where a presenter with a white smile and gray hair was speaking about the flu vaccines Stark Industries had been buying up and the number of flu-infected people being higher now than it had been all of last year. "Whatever is going on, SHIELD's not controlling it. It's in the city and it's spreading."
"People in New York are infected? Do we even know what it is yet?"
"Yes and no," Tony muttered. "Carol is the one who suggested I buy all the flu-vaccines."
"Context," Carol snapped. "I suggested you should be able to keep an eye on them, I didn't say regulate state-wide distribution of medication."
"Why?" Steve felt that was another important bit of context he needed.
"So we can disinfect the infected. You know, when we have an antidote."
"Do we have an antidote?"
"We don't even have a zombie apocalypse yet," Tony pointed out. "We just have a ... SHIELD and spider-robot problem."
"Why am I here?" Steve pushed.
"Excellent question," Carol said. "I'll leave that to the evil mastermind here."
"I have a lead and I need some tactical assets," Tony mumbled and scratched his beard. "I know who's responsible for the rampaging robots, well, in a sense. There's a factor of time and place here. So these guys: they are basically perfect. Brilliant design. Except every single one of them has a tiny flaw. A very particular, purposely placed design flaw. Sometimes it doesn't do anything, sometimes it makes them go haywire. If you gather enough robots, you could build a perfect one, in theory, or a really faulty one, but who'd want that. Except maybe because it would be fun-"
"Tony," Carol's voice was almost a singsong.
"Me, it's me. Once again I ruin the day," Tony slumped in his chair. "Hooray."
Steve sat down on a crate next to Tony and tried to ignore the pointed stare Carol gave him.
"Go on," he said.
"I designed the circuitry for the detectors once. A primitive version was part of the old Defense contracts my company held. It is supposed to determine the after-effects of weaponry on biology in a non-sustainable environment," Tony grimaced. "The spider-theme is actually functional. Like I said, they're really well built. Strong, agile, flexible and fully individually programmed."
"Programmed to do what?"
"To destroy organisms that fall outside of its pre-programmed biological parameters. But that's not all," Tony said, moving to a different part of the trailer and pointing at a different computer. "It took me this long to get a piece of tech that had enough code to verify it, because SHIELD was obstructing my investigation. Now, have you heard of Harriet North?"
Steve shook his head.
"I have, I did a story on her once," Carol said. "She was a biochemical engineer, but she was hauled up before the ethics board and... didn't she commit suicide two years ago?"
"Yeah, about that," Tony grimaced. "I hired her as a freelancer, once. Excellent mind for design and incredibly fun. Used to drive everyone up the wall. The story goes that we met at a party, had a torrid night and I hired her the next day. After three months our affair ended - because I'm a bastard - and she went back to Europe. It was in all the magazines."
"So she did this?" Steve asked.
"I'm getting to that. You see, I hate to talk down my sexual prowess, but there was no affair. Well, not in that sense. Not the fun slippery against the wall sense, but if you're talking design and logic it was one of the best affairs I've ever had."
Steve glanced at Carol, who made a face.
"What nobody knows," Tony continued, "is that I hired her after a long night of just fun and games. No, sorry, I mean, we just played around with each other's personal specifications - hey, I'm trying Carol - she had a real flair for a specific type of source code that was short of brilliant. A lot of her work shows in this. Too much to be just a copy. That was my initial hunch."
"So she did this?" Steve tried again.
"No, no no. If you'd met her, you'd understand. You see, she used to make particular strings that allowed for a different view under a different implementation. She used this to add personal comments and touches to her work, which she presented to me and I could tweak and re-order to form a reply that none of the other engineers saw."
"Oh my god, you two passed each other notes in your own secret language," Carol snorted.
"Tony," Steve said and his voice didn't sound half as plaintive as he felt. "Please wrap this up."
"Fine," Tony said and turned the console to face them. "Here."
The screen was black, except on the top left corner there were five words in green, with a little green square cursor blinking next to it. Carol leant in slightly and Steve read it twice to make sure he got what it said.
Id kill for a fag
"What does it mean?" Steve asked. "And don't you dare say 'a cigarette' because I was stationed in England and most of my commandos were British."
"It's a message, to me. She used to send me this one line all the time. Harry's a chain-smoker and every once in a while she'd be forced to give it up because she'd be forced to work in a non-smoking area. It drove her nuts."
"She's alive somewhere," Steve started. "And she's making these against her will?"
"Yes," Tony nodded. "Now think on this. I'm Iron Man, everybody knows that. Who do you call when you have big robots going nuts in the US?"
"The Avengers," Steve said slowly. "Which means you'd eventually see the code, which means you'd know she's alive and drawing attention to whatever is going on."
"Right," Carol said. "Considering SHIELD didn't want you near them, we can assume that SHIELD – at least on some level – knows about this."
"Not Natasha," Tony said. "Natasha would never stand for this, but I'm willing to bet she smells a rat somewhere. Harry will know who's pulling the strings."
"So, this is now a rescue mission. Do we have a location?"
"Yes," Tony said. "Since I got the message, I have been re-running the same decoder on all the files."
He leant back and allowed them a better view of the console. The screen showed a satellite picture view of a rocky, red and dusty area with large jagged brown rocks.
"Are you using Google Maps?" Carol asked, but she grinned when Tony elbowed her out of the way and struck a few keys and pulled up two new windows, the last of which was an overlay of the same picture. Only this time it looked like a black and green blueprint.
"That's where Harry is," Tony turned to Carol. "It's underground, so I'll need a few tiny items maybe, but you just came back and it's fine if you say no, but I have a list in case you say yes."
Carol sighed without spite. "I'll go out and shop around, but I can't pick up any more spare armor parts. I just don't know what to get and your workshop is like a hoarder's nest. I also don't want to run into any of the rest."
"About that," Steve interrupted, still standing motionless at the console, going over the situation in his head. "Why don't we go and inform the other Avengers?"
Tony looked at Carol, but she quickly grabbed the list from his hands. "Oh no, you're on your own there. I'll be back in a few hours. Get some sleep."
"The ones at the bottom are optional, the ones at the top are-"
"Yes, yes, I know your system. Get some sleep, would you?" She rummaged around the same nook she'd been sitting in and produced the same black bags she'd sported when she'd visited the mansion, then marched out and resolutely shut the door behind her.
Tony turned to Steve.
"I honestly don't know what I'd do without her."
"Sit in a SHIELD holding cell!" Carol's voice rang overhead.
Getting to the base wasn't that hard, considering that half of them could fly. It went better than expected, considering one of them had passed out eventually and slept a few hours too, Steve reckoned.
Finding the actual bunker itself also did not present a problem. The way Steve saw it, there was something to be said for hiding in plain sight. As far as the naked eye was concerned, there stood one empty bunker, surrounded by empty buildings in the middle of a large sandy plain. The whole construction was neatly tucked away under the shadow of a particularly large rock formation. It looked derelict and abandoned. There was no glass in the windows and no door in the frame. Just a concrete block in the middle of an abandoned military base that you could look right through to the other side.
"I miss arguing with Clint," Tony said. "Don't tell anyone I said that."
Carol counted down on her fingers.
"He'd ask about pop-up lasers set up in a defensive parameter, which would also be made of lasers, am I missing something?"
"The walking eye he's been promised," Steve said. "You should really just make him one, he'll never shut up otherwise."
"I'm not building him a walking eye," Tony said. "I'm also not too confident about this. It's far too quiet. There's no radio or satellite signal going in or out, there is however a significant amount of data traffic drawn down here. The amount one would need to run multiple data-packages simultaneously. Only really well-defended bunkers are this quiet and open about this stuff."
"We're not exactly dressed to impress," Steve admitted, glancing over their make-shift get-up.
Tony was wearing whatever scraps of the suit he had left. There was no armor protecting his body, just a dirty red dress-shirt. There was no helmet to protect his head either, just half of the inner shell of the mask and half of the chipped shoulder-guard. He had two gauntlets and one elbow guard, two boots, one of which still had a sputtering left thruster, as Steve's stomach had come to understand.
Steve himself was just wearing the casual outfit Carol had picked him up in, plus his shield. The latter of which Tony had blamed for wind-resistance since he refused to carry it on his back and leave Tony armorless.
"Speak for yourself," Carol said, flicking her hair over her shoulder.
Her costume, though dirty, was almost complete. She was wearing army-boots instead of her usual gear and her sash had been made into the red piece of rope holding together most of Tony's left boot after that particular mid-air scare.
"So, I'm thinking, since none of you stand much chance against a bullet: I go in and update you guys once I have a better idea about the situation," Carol said.
"I don't like that," Steve answered and he frowned a little deeper when Carol pulled out a gun and gave it to him. "I don't like this either."
"I'd like to take a bath and worry about editing deadlines."
"Where were you hiding that?" Tony asked, eyeing her up and down.
Carol put her hand on her hip and pointed a thumb over her shoulder. "None of your business and since neither of you have a better plan, I'm going to walk over there."
She turned around and started towards the bunker. For a moment, neither Tony nor Steve spoke, both scanning the area for any sign of movement in the ground, in the shadows or from behind the rocks. Nothing happened and Carol disappeared in the doorway.
"What do you think?" Steve asked, putting the safety back on the gun.
"Between her breasts?" Tony mused, not taking his eyes off the bunker. He pointed a finger at his own chest. "You know, Victoria's Secret compartment. She's what, a D-cup? It could hold a weapon."
"Tony!" Steve groaned. "I meant, what do you think about the lay-out. I want to be able to look Carol in the eyes later."
"Look at her chest and tell me if you think a gun would fit," Tony insisted. "It's where I would hide weapons if I could. I just wonder how you would fit it. I've seen plenty of Carol's bras and let me tell you-"
"I'm not checking out Carol's chest!" Steve exclaimed.
"You know I can hear you, right?" Carol's voice rang over the comlines in their ears. "I keep it on my back in the band of my sports bra. It's not pretty but it's functional, alright?"
Steve could feel his face heat up, but Tony, still with his eyes locked on the bunker, smiled wide.
"I'm so sorry," Steve said.
"I'm not," Tony shrugged. "How are things looking in there, Carol?"
"Grim. Come on over and see for yourself."
The inside of the bunker was a standard military lay-out, Steve found. The stairwell leading down from a large metal door - torn from its hinges by Carol - lead down in a wide square and were illuminated by standard tactical and work lighting. Blue-white and bright, they clearly illuminated down three floors as well as what Carol was looking at.
"That's a lot of blood," Tony commented. "Don't touch it with your bare hands."
"It's old," Steve said. The concrete had drank up all the moisture and left the stains dry and clear, like a stamp or imprint. There were new bullet holes in old stains and about three layers of blood that he could see. There were shotgun shells on the floor and a piece of a barrel
"These are not SHIELD standard," Carol noted.
"Three inch cartridges and it looks like a standard military shotgun," Tony said, picking through the debris. "That was a nasty backfire just waiting to happen. No body though…"
"From what I saw, the bodies don't start until a bit lower," Carol said. "This place smells of death."
"Right, so they were fighting their way down, that's interesting," Steve said, straightening up. "This changes things. There are three floors that we know of. The odds to finding anyone alive are now significantly lower - sorry, Tony."
"No, we go in, somebody is running a system from down there," Tony insisted.
"How big is the chance that this is an automated process?" Carol asked and Tony was quiet for a moment too long.
"I still want the data even if Harry's dead."
Steve had a good feeling they were going to enter another discussion, so he hoped to cut it off before it could begin.
"Alright, we continue as planned. If people are alive, they're likely hauled up with the equipment. I say we do a quick sweep up here for additional information. The three of us. We do not split up. I take point, Carol take the rear, Tony, keep an eye on the outside."
"Right," Carol nodded.
"Still clear," Tony said, touching his headset. "Still too quiet. Let's go."
Steve opened the first door on the first floor. It lead to a hallway with four doors on the left and two on the right, mostly containing barracks, ammunition and equipment and some personal touches indicating the soldiers had spent a while here. The corridor had a left turn into a storage room with cleaning supplies.
The second door on the other side of the stairwell had a similar lay-out behind it, except instead of a storage room at the far end, there was a long shaft with wiring running through.
"That's our data," Tony said, shining a light up. "I wouldn't be surprised if it runs right up through the rock formation."
"So there is definitely something actively running downstairs?" Carol asked, peering over the ledge.
Tony shone the light down past the cabling, until it landed on a jumble of cables about fifty feet down. "We have more than three floors it seems."
Suddenly there was a rattling sound, almost a groan, coming from down the shaft and the jumble of cables moved slightly, revealing a ripped up jumpsuit with dark stains. Another groan echoed through the shaft, this time louder.
"OK, that's a few more grey hairs," Carol whispered and taking the light from Tony's hand. "I think we need to get what we came for and get the hell out of here as quickly and quietly as we can."
Tony nodded and indicated to Steve, who took point again and lead them to the stairs.
The second floor down saw two long-dead soldiers, their faces unrecognizable through decay.
"Don't," Tony hissed when Steve reached out for their dog tags. "I know you mean well, but they could be infected."
Steve grit his teeth. Of course Tony was right, but it didn't sit well to leave these men here. Carol patted him on the shoulder and pointed to the first hallway. The door was slightly ajar, the lock had been shot. Steve shoved it open with his foot and held up his shield. Half of the lighting in this corridor was broken, but the bodies littered on the floor were still visible in their mangled state.
"God," Carol said, holding a hand over her nose. "Nobody alive could stay on this floor, the smell and the vermin alone…"
"Down?" Tony asked.
Steve nodded and they retreated back to the stairwell and started their descent, stepping over the bodies of what once were men, carefully avoiding any shells and empty cases as they moved.
Something creaked and shuffled in the distance and Steve held up his hand and they spread out. Tony veered right, hugging the wall, Carol rose up, keeping her back against the ceiling.
"Oh grand, mutants, we haven't had those yet, let me get out my bastard-bingo card," a male voice drawled. There was the sound of a rifle being cogged. "Right, identify yourself, give me a good reason not to shoot you etcetera etcetera."
"Not a zombie?" Carol tried. "Also not a mutant."
"Avengers," Steve said. "Technically."
From the left door a dull grunts and rattling whines started echoing through the corridors. From the door to the right a red-haired, pale man in full combat-gear stepped out, lowering his rifle and grinning.
"Oh, fuck me, it's Ms. Marvel! Harry, Hey Harry, they're here."
"Good to see you're still alive," Steve said. "What's your name, soldier?"
"Name's Vyvian and it's Major, or rather, it was before they captured us."
"Uh," Carol said, scooting down until she was up on the wall. She nodded her head at the door where a slow, sharp metallic scraping had started. "Shouldn't we do something?"
"Yeah, that'd be your fault," Vyvian said, pointing his combat rifle at the heavily barricaded door. His accent was some form of Northern English, for as far as Steve could tell. His attitude was that typical of a soldier stuck in the trenches for a long time. Dismissive of and acclimatized to the situation. "They'd been sleeping quietly for a week before you showed up."
"You isolated them?"
"Yeah, they're good in there. Hold on," Vyvian said and held a finger to his ear, adjusting the microphone taped to his cheek. "No. No, piss off, do it yourself. I don't care."
He dropped his hand and jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. "Harry says to bring you in and to tell Stark that he's late."
"How's Harry these days?" Tony asked.
"A royal pain in the arse," Vyvian grumbled, then slapped a hand against his ear. "Woman, for the love of God!"
"I like him," Tony said to Steve. "Not many people can stay cooped up with Harry for long periods of time. She's a talker, if you get what I mean."
"Oh, I think I have a frame of reference," Carol muttered.
"Took you a while!" Harry said once Vyvian had lead them through. They found Harry sitting in a wheelchair without rubber tires, wearing what looked like somebody else's military gear. Her black hair was cropped to the millimeter and her face was pale, but her eyes shone. "I can't wait to get out of here, my previous prison cells were so much better."
"You'll love your news digs," Tony said, walking up and hugging her. "I live in a trailer."
"What is the situation, then?" Steve asked.
"You mean, here?" Vyvian replied. "This lot went tits up about a month ago, when one of my lieutenants caught the flu. Turned out he'd been playing cards with some of the volunteers and some of our captors that had been through earlier. Before you knew it, one by one they started dropping, then getting up again. Most men ran away after that, but I had to stay here on account of Harry."
"He won't leave me," Harry glowered. "I told him, but does he listen?"
"You'd drag your skinny arse to the bog yourself, then?" Vyvian groused. "Woman can't even reach the damn flusher."
"So your men left you?" Steve asked, annoyed that he felt a little embarrassed.
"Let's get this straight," Vyvian sneered. "None of my men ran away, not a single one, all nine of them stood their ground to the end. The ones that ran were all Flagg's."
"Flagg? Why do I know that name…" Tony mused.
"General Flagg, he's regular army," Carol said. "He's the one who lobbied for mandatory blood and DNA samples from all super-powered people."
"Oh, him," Tony said, then suddenly his expression grew a lot darker. "Oh, him. I can see how he's easily convinced to take up arms against us."
"Listen, we all have a lot more questions," Steve interrupted. "But, I need to know two things right now. One, do they know you're still alive and two, what is their endgame?"
"Super soldiers," Harry said. "It's always super soldiers, they took me because I was involved in a group that tried to regenerate nerve tissue, then they realized I was far better at robotics. Because robotics is far better."
Tony bumped his fist with hers.
"I think she's more use to them alive," Vyvian said. "But I wouldn't bet on it. After all, plenty of scientists out there who are good at what they do. I'm sure that if you inflict some tactile damage somewhere, you can keep them bound to a chair and lock them in the bottom of a pit."
"You'd think I'd be the bitter one," Harry frowned. "There was talk of a new guy coming down in a few weeks. They rotate them, you see. Some of them kill themselves, others die escaping, some are simply taken away and I bet they don't drop them off back home. I'm not going anywhere, because of the wheels. So they just kept me for as long as I'd last."
A feeling of sudden dread came over Steve.
"You mean scientists like Tony here?" Carol asked and for a moment everybody was quiet.
It could have been simple, Steve realized. They could have simply gone to SHIELD, lift Tony out of his cell and that would have been the last they'd heard from him for a long time, possibly forever. They probably would have assumed he was dead until he'd find a way to contact them... if he'd find a way.
"Aw, you were going to be my replacement," Harry said to Tony. "Bless you. That would have been preferable to the alternative."
"Which is?" Carol asked.
"Last I heard, they were going to clean-slate the whole affair by instigating plan 61."
"That can't be true," Tony said. "We're talking about the entire New York area."
Steve felt he had to agree with that. There were only four plans that started with a six and all of those were on the bottom of the pile of drastic measures.
"I am going to hate plan 61, aren't I?" Carol said, looking from Steve to Tony.
"Yes," Steve said. "Plan 61 is for biological warfare, if I'm not mistaken. It's supposed to be a scorched earth tactic against lethal pandemics."
Carol crinkled her nose. "How can you go scorched earth on - oh."
"It means they'll wipe a location off the map," Tony said. "Are you sure that's what you've heard?"
"That's what I heard a month ago," Harry said. "But what do I know about current events, I live in a pit in the desert, I'm still bloody waiting to see the finale of the Apprentice from two years ago."
Steve was about to ask what else she'd heard when Tony held up his hand.
"OK, guys we now have a more pressing problem." He took off his half-helmet and shoulder-guard, which started sparking a little. "I'm picking up five vehicles headed this way and my circuits just fried. We're essentially boxed in."
"Talk about timing," Steve said. "They probably waited for us to go in."
"I would," Harry shrugged. "A hundred birds with one stone. Alright, so how're getting out of here?"
"Specifically, once we're outside," Vyvian added. "I could've dragged her up the stairs myself."
"Once we're outside I have jet boots, hopefully, maybe," Tony said, patting Vyvian on the arm. "Ms. Marvel can carry you and Harry both. It won't be pretty, but it'll do the trick."
"I've seen pictures of you two flying around, you have no right to call anything pretty," Harry said to Tony. "I've got a pony on you two, just so you know, you're not fooling me."
"She bet a pony on Wolverine and Spider-Man last time," Vyvian smirked as Carol lifted Harriet out of her chair. "Had to hand that one over too, didn't you, love?"
Harry raised her middle- and index finger at him in a V-sign.
"Come on," Steve said.
Backs against the wall, they used the shadows in the corridor for cover. Steve peered around the corner. From above came the slight crack of a glass fragment breaking beneath a foot and the sound of guns being cocked. From ahead came the scrape and groans from what used to be men.
"Damn, they're in the stairwell already," Steve said. "Is there no other exit?"
Harry raised her arm in the air, nearly elbowing Carol in the face.
"Sorry, honey. Captain, if I may? Ms. Marvel here is unhindered by gravity, would it be physically possible for you to carry us up the wiring shaft one by one. We'd end up on the roof of the bunker, basically. There is a slope down to the helicopter platform. If you take a right in the shaft, we exit on that platform."
"I can do that," Carol nodded.
"Won't that leave us exposed?" Tony asked. "Also, will we fit?"
"Some of us better than others. Vyv is not a problem, on account of his delicate frame and all. But you two, might be a squeeze."
"No time like the present," Tony said and Steve nodded.
"Lovely," Vyvian grumbled. "But, the wiring shaft is on the other side and I barricaded two men in there after they got the virus. Poor bastards, I have no idea if they're alive, or, you know, just regular dead."
"We'll have more of a chance against them than an armed force," Steve said. "Let's leave whoever's up there in the dark about us for now."
"How about we open that door in the hallway and let them hash it out amongst themselves," Carol said.
Before Steve could reply, there was a distinct dry click of metal on metal, the scrape of removal followed by the bouncing reverberation of a mechanism hitting the ground again and again. Carol started moving back and Vyvian swore something unintelligible.
"That's a flashbang," Harry said wide-eyed. "I know those fuckers anywhere."
"Get down!" Steve hissed, making sure everybody dropped on the floor covering their ears before doing so himself. There was the metal shriek of the grenade striking concrete.
Once, twice, three times the flashbang hit the floor until it exploded. For a moment there was no sound except the ringing in Steve's ears. As everybody got up slowly and Carol gathered Harry up in her arms again, there were a few groans and some more shuffling. Then gunfire and growling screams echoed from the stairwell.
"Yeah, what she said," Harry whispered, patting Carol on the shoulder. "Let's go."
They scrambled back through the corridor, around the corner and up to the door. Tony fired up his repulsors and Vyvian aimed his rifle.
"Ready," Steve said and kicked away Vyvian's barricade. The door swung open and two men wearing the tattered remains of a military uniform tumbled out and fell flat on the floor.
"Are they dead?" Tony asked.
"Hold on," Vyvian said and put his rifle against the wall. He pulled out a handgun, pointed it at the head of the top soldier and fired. The body spasmed and them slumped further.
"Jesus!" Carol yelled, but Vyvian shot the second man through the head, then aimed inside the closet and fired two more times. It was quiet for a moment. Steve carefully placed a hand on the man's arm as a third body in a grey jumpsuit slid slowly sideways down the wall. Vyvian sniffed once and put the gun back.
"Right, I'm going up first to secure the site," he said, tearing the tags from the soldiers' necks and stuffing them in his pocket, ignoring Tony's objections. "Ms. Marvel?"
"You can put me down wherever," Harry said, but Carol handed her over to Tony.
"I will be back soon," Carol said, while Vyvian slung an arm over her shoulder. "Don't do anything stupid."
"She means you," Tony said to Steve and Harry grimaced.
The wait seemed long, even to Steve who had mastered the hurry-up and wait tactic almost a century ago. But after a few minutes Carol returned, reporting that everything was clear upstairs and if they didn't mind some dirt and cobwebs, they should be fine. Harry was the next one going up, then Tony.
Steve thought about their conversation in the trailer, about not trusting SHIELD and not trusting the Avengers. Then he thought about their conversation after Carol had left and quickly had to derail himself from that track.
He wished Carol would hurry.
After Carol had gone out Tony had spent some time moving tools, papers and equipment from one desk to the other. It was clear he had no intention to either sleep or answer the question.
Steve had been getting increasingly agitated, being in the way no matter where he stood, until he couldn't take it anymore.
"Tony, could you settle down and answer my questions, please?"
Even though Tony had met his gaze head-on, there was little to be seen from his face. It was neutral, emotionless. It was also unshaven and bruised. After a few seconds, however, that stubborn spark crept into his eyes.
"Sure," he'd said. "You want to go back to the Avengers and SHIELD. But if you do, they'll arrest you and put you somewhere Carol or me can't get to. Odds are you'll resist arrest - don't make that face, you liar - and I need you here, as an asset away from SHIELD."
"That's not a complete answer."
"It's about 70% complete."
"You can do better," Steve had pushed. "Or I'm walking out of here."
Tony had pursed his lips and given Steve a pointed stare.
"Look, somebody really wants me gone and wants me gone in disgrace. I assume this is because I can stop them, it's way too convoluted for a personal vendetta. They could have just waited outside my house and shot me in the head when I go for my car."
Steve had closed his eyes briefly to stop himself from overthinking that statement.
He'd opened them when Tony had snapped his fingers. "It could be both, of course. It's probably both, you know how I wind people up, they like to put personal touches on things. But these people want me gone so bad they're pulling out the biggest guns they have. This is good news…" he'd trailed off, resolutely turning back to the table and fastening the screws on what looked like the missing plate from the upper right thigh armor.
Steve had sighed. "Is there bad news?"
"Yeah: it's working," Tony had said with a weak smile and Steve had felt most of his initial anger drain away. He walked up to Tony and put a hand on his shoulder.
"How about this: I promise I'll stay available as an asset while you're resting."
"That's not what I meant, you're not just a tactical asset," Tony had sighed and pushed a hand against his temple where the color of the headset and the bruise clashed violently. "You're my friend."
"I know. Look, do you have a space where you could, technically, hypothetically settle down while I statistically reduce the odds of a security breach by sitting with you?"
"Boy, do you know how to talk to me," Tony had mumbled.
"If I had a nickel for every time somebody told me that." Steve had grinned. "Sharon alone would have brought in a grand by now."
Tony had chuckled at his expense before he'd frowned. "I still think you two should try again."
"We did a while back," Steve had admitted. "It broke on the same issue it always does. We're both very independent, we have different goals, different philosophies. It's for the best."
"I don't want to be an asshole, but I'm having a hard time believing you when you have that expression on your face."
Steve had touched his face and had felt a pang of irritation when Tony gave him a smug grin.
"Maybe we're just not ready," he'd said, repeating what Sharon had told him that night when she'd told him it wasn't a good idea for her to come back with him. That it would be better if Steve went to the mansion, to the Avengers. It was also what he'd said to Tony years ago, when he'd crawled into Steve's personal space to the point Steve had been unsure if he'd been able to tell him to leave.
"It's you isn't it?" Tony had asked when he'd pointed the screwdriver at Steve's nose. "That's what they say when they think it's you. Come on, you're talking to the king of break-ups here."
"It was me," Steve had agreed. "Well, mostly me. Also the Avengers."
"‘The Avengers', that's a classic," Tony had mused. "In fact you used it on me once."
Steve had let out a short, breathy laugh, before he had been able to stop himself.
"Feel free to throw it back at me."
"Oh," Tony had said and he'd finally put down the screwdriver and turned to Steve fully. "I thought the agreement was that we had our momentary lapses outside of crises times?"
"No." Steve had shook his head. "The agreement is that when you're the one with the legislation I'm the one with the veto and vice versa."
Tony had given him a look.
"You say that," he'd started slowly. "But that makes me feel responsible."
"First, you always feel responsible. Second, you drive me up the wall with that," Steve had snapped and when Tony had smiled he'd added. "Third, I thought you were the king of break-ups?"
"Yeah, when I'm being dumped, you ass. I don't deal well with these things." Tony'd raked his hand through his hair a few times, then tried placing a hand on his hip, but apparently decided that didn't work and settled for crossing his arms in his usual defensive pose. "I don't understand you sometimes - what am I saying, most of the time. I never know how far you're thinking. I never know how much information I can give to you without giving myself up."
"I hate it when you leave me in the dark." Steve had reiterated.
"I know," Tony had said and he'd grinned. "But the full truth is so ugly. I prefer saying I want you here because I need your help and strategic insight with Harry's rescue operation. Which I do. I don't want to say that I prefer you here because I feel exposed when Carol's gone and you let me sleep next to you, and you get all my jokes."
"You don't trust me enough to say that?"
"Of course I trust you," Tony had said. "I trust you'll always do the right thing. Now look at me, I don't always want to do the right thing. I'm tired of doing the right thing. I'm tired of being set-up and I'm tired of failing at everything so hard that people around me fail at things -"
"My failure with Sharon is not your mistake."
Tony had nodded and had crossed his arms tightly in front of his chest again. "Well, here we are, again. I have the money, you have all that and you're the creative type."
"You make me sound like a trophy-wife," Steve had said and for a moment they'd looked at each other. In all the past years, there had never been a moment where they'd discussed these matters seriously. Steve was not sure they ever would. They hadn't then, at any rate. Tony had swallowed and had said: "It's not you, it's me. Also the Avengers."
Steve had smirked. "Then join The Avengers again, as my partner. We could run the initiative together."
"I would like that," Tony had said slowly, "Like the old days."
Steve had nodded. "Once this is over, Carol can be the first recruit."
"She'd love that, she says I'm intolerable without you."
"I have a frame of reference."
Tony had broken out in a full grin by now. "You know it's not official until the magazines have a header saying 'Captain America and Iron Man back together again, will nobody think of the children?'"
"And they say romance is dead," Steve had laughed. "At least we're both equally bad at this."
Tony had picked up his screw-driver again and pointed it at him. "Romance is just a concept. The concept of the emphasis of emotion over libido, and I think we both know that's not the case for most people."
Steve had joined Tony at his workbench.
"Romance is a form of narrative fiction," he'd corrected. "Romanticism is an era where the arts moved against this type of scientific rationalization."
"See, all we do is argue," Tony had said, pushing some wires into Steve's hands. "This is the worst idea since NASA woke up one morning and decided to give Michael Bay the benefit of the doubt."
"I liked Armageddon," Steve had said. "It's a beautiful story."
"We're doomed," Tony had assured him. But his smile had reached all the way to his eyes, and for the first time in months, Steve felt a little better.
"All aboard!" Carol said, appearing in the closet and shaking Steve out of his thoughts. He held on to her as she rose gently up, finding her way through the wiring and trying to prevent Steve from being squeezed or crushed in the narrow shaft. Below him, the whines and groans and gunfire faded out.
The light from the sun blinded him for a moment, but when he was outside on top of the platform, he felt considerably better than inside.
"We have a problem," Vyvian said immediately.
"Well, I have a problem," Tony said, sitting on the roof and dismantling his boots. "My left thruster is busted, it's useless. Carol, you should take everyone out of here and come back for-"
"I veto this," Steve said. "I'm staying with you."
"Don't look at me," Vyvian said. "I'm with Harry, I go with Harry."
"There is no time for discussion," Tony began but Steve overruled him immediately.
"He's right, Carol, go. We can handle this until you're back."
Carol looked skeptical, but lifted Harry up nonetheless. For a moment Steve thought she looked past him at Tony for approval and he wouldn't have minded if she had.
"Take this," he said, holding out his shield to Harry. "Use it to protect yourself,"
"You're never getting this back," Harry said, clutching the shield to her side. Carol let Vyvian put an arm around her shoulder and waist and kicked off, flying in the shadow of the buildings, hiding from view as much as she could. They looked only slightly ridiculous.
"You are such a pain," Tony said, following her trajectory until she had disappeared.
"I thought we agreed we were both doomed from the start," Steve replied. "All we have to do is hope the military don't find us and shoot us, or that the infected people find us and… what is it that they do?"
"I don't know," Tony said raising his arm, palm out and repulsor flaring. "But we're about to find out. Duck."
Steve ducked aside and Tony fired at a bald woman with half of her face burned off and half of a grey jumpsuit on her. She looked in agony. The blast hit her in the face and she staggered backwards until she fell over.
"OK, apparently they're not just hiding in the bunker," Steve said. "And we're drawing a lot of attention to ourselves by standing here."
"We just have to hold out until Carol gets here, she can fly half the speed of sound."
"Not when loaded with people," Steve reminded him.
"Just shoot them if they get too close," Tony said, firing the repulsor and turning around. Steve lined up his back with Tony's and they kept a broad circle of defense.
At first there appeared to be only a few figures staggering from the doorways of the derelict, multi-story buildings and Tony could take out most of them, so Steve could spare his bullets. But soon there were more and the staggering turned into a walk and then into a sprint.
Steve aimed and fired, counting down under his breath. He hit one man in the shin, splintering it. He went down with a howl, but only seconds later started clambering up again.
"Aim for the head," Tony said. "Zombie movies were built on at least one grain of truth and that's the head. They'll just get up if you shoot them in the legs. Zombies need to be shot in the head."
"They're not zombies," Steve grit out. "They're infected civilians and military personnel and if there's an antidote we can save them. Also there is no such thing as zombies."
Tony's repulsors fired and without the suit or shock absorption Steve could feel Tony's back press against him with every round. The man without a shin went down once more.
"We don't have an antidote," Tony snapped. "We have a serious problem, because we're seriously outnumbered and the ones you shoot to disable are getting up."
"And the ones you hit just get angrier," Steve yelled, firing at the woman who now had no face left, but was viciously lashing out at them while she limped forward.
"Oh great, the military's taken note of us," Tony said and Steve could see two armed vehicles rolling up to them to the right.
"You're the one who wanted to stay behind," Steve said. "Let's run to the left."
"Sure," Tony said, aiming both repulsors at the trucks and firing. In the flash that followed they both ran to the left side of the platform where a dozen more figures were pouring out of the tunnel they'd used earlier.
"How can they climb like that?" Tony demanded.
"Keep running," Steve said, shooting at one 'zombie' leaping in front of them.
They sped through the initial dozen and headed towards more vehicles. Tony fired a few blasts, before Steve grabbed his shirt and pulled him right into a narrow alley between the bunker and a multi-story building.
At the end of the alleyway, three soldiers turned and raised their rifles.
"You know what they say about people who run towards danger," Tony panted. "They say a lot, but I am looking for - for something very specific here. You know - hah - what it is? Because I do - and - it's not nice."
"Their friends would rather talk than live?" Steve asked and grabbed Tony shirt again, dragging him with him when he made another sharp right corner while overhead the bullets tore through the concrete.
"Are we - running in circles?" Tony yelled over the sound. "Because I can tell you - where this'll lead and - and it's also not nice."
"I'm buying time," Steve snapped. He wanted to say a lot more, but he stopped himself when he heard a typical familiar rush of air. Instead he said. "There she is."
"Finally," Tony wheezed while he came to a full stop by running into Steve from behind. Steve barely had enough time to turn around and cover Tony's frame from the sudden flash of white light and the explosion that followed.
"Carol's the best," Tony laughed in Steve's ear. "I'm making her her own line of sports bras."
"Look at that," Hawkeye said a little over eight hours later, not the least bit impressed about the sudden violent intrusion or the two people sprawled on his bed. "The prodigal son returns! Logan owes me ten bucks."
Carol let Steve go so he could kneel down and catch his breath. How Carol was even able to perceive what window was open and what window wasn't at these speeds, during night-time, was definitely a super-power, Steve thought.
"Hey Clint," Carol said, "How's everyone?"
"Bored," Hawkeye said. "Can I tell everyone to come up here for an emergency meeting slash slumber party? I take it you're here for an emergency meeting and not to ravish me?"
"Please," Steve said. "If you can, make sure no SHIELD agents join."
"Well, considering we've been under house-arrest since you were kidnapped, most of them will be patrolling outside. They even have the entire carrier incoming, just for us. Should be here in a few hours," Hawkeye said, stretching languidly. "I'm surprised they didn't see you."
"I can be stealthy!" Carol hissed, but Hawkeye was already out the door. She turned to Steve. "Have you got any idea what you're going to say?"
Steve shook his head.
"I usually wing these things," he admitted. It was true that the more he spoke from whatever came up in his head, the better he could express himself. The cue cards that people used to prepare for him made him feel and sound awkward. Tony was the one who'd called him out on it, way back. When they just met. Although, Steve had to admit, it was always easier when Tony was there. Maybe because Tony loved playing devil's advocate.
Once they had returned to Tony's hide-out and the three of them had sat together in private, Steve had once again insisted they should inform the others.
"I'm not going. They'll be under SHIELD's supervision," Tony had stated, holding his battered boot between his knees and using his gauntlet to illuminate the inside. "I'm not going near there. What I want to find out is whether plan 61 is indeed being authorized and how much time we have left."
"I agree with Steve," Carol had said suddenly. "The stakes are higher and we have proof and witnesses now. I think we should inform the others before they end up hurting more than they help. We'd be so much stronger if we have more people backing us up and we need all the help we can get."
"Sure," Tony had said, ignoring both of them in favor of the boot. "I understand completely and I won't stop you. Won't be able to, anyway. But I'm not coming with you. I'll stay with Harry and the Major."
That had been the end of that, although Tony had pulled him to the side just before he'd been about to leave and whispered "thanks for everything", which had highly disturbed Steve.
He was still trying to settle his thoughts, to calm himself down when the other Avengers poured into Hawkeye's room one by one. It was highly probable that Tony had sent them ahead, knowing this would yield the best results, while going off on his own. He really, really, hoped Tony had not gone off on his own.
"So Peter was right," Luke said, "Glad you're not kidnapped by SHIELD, Cap."
Spider-Man jumped down from the wall. "I told you, he was fine this whole time."
"Fine is an understatement, SHIELD used Cap as bait," Carol said. "They have some serious control issues, which means we have a serious problem."
"I'd say we do, because of your gallivanting around, we're under house-arrest," Wolverine said. "Do you know how long it's been since somebody dared put me under house-arrest?"
"I don't even know how old you are," Spider-Man commented. "I don't even know your favorite color."
"I think Stark's the one with the control issues," Luke said and when Carol glared at him he held up his hands. "Not saying they're mutually exclusive."
"SHIELD and the Avengers are being set-up," Steve said and that got their attention. "Listen, Tony's neuroses aside, we have evidence that someone has been planning his downfall in order to isolate him from us."
"Seems a bit convoluted," Luke said.
Carol stepped forward. "You think? Look at how easy it was. Both you and SHIELD didn't hesitate to jump to the conclusion that Tony was the problem. SHIELD has given us literally zero benefit of the doubt."
"We all know exactly what it was like the last time everyone stood against us," Steve continued. "The party trying to kidnap Tony is the same as the one trying to cover up an outbreak of a failed experiment, using SHIELD and the Avengers like pawns in a chess-game."
"About that failed experiment," Spider-Man piped up. "Last time we talked we were dealing with a pathogen that stimulated an advanced form of tissue regeneration. I know what's going wrong here. This process demands a lot of oxygen and especially glucose. So a lethal amount of physical damage is no longer lethal, except the person no longer has consciousness or proper brain functions either. Hey presto, zombies."
"Do you think there is an antidote," Carol said. "Or a way to make one?"
"A zombie-vaccine?" Spider-Man asked, "if they're not brain damaged then yeah, probably."
"They're not zombies," Steve felt the need to emphasize.
"So we can fix this before this place goes all Patient Zero?" Hawkeye asked, then frowned at everyone. "What?"
"Why would the government be so obsessed with- wait never mind, stupid question." Spider-Man trailed off.
"With what? Making creepy viruses that result in zombies?" Wolverine asked.
"It's super-soldiers, isn't it? It's always super-soldiers." Hawkeye said and put a hand on Steve's shoulder. "It must really suck to be you sometimes."
"Not as much as it sucks to be the scientists who keep getting kidnapped to do this kind of thing," Carol said.
"Do you have any evidence for this?" Wolverine asked.
"Yes, we do. We have Dr. Harriet North and Major Vyvian Thomas and as much data as they could carry," Carol said. "Data that proves that SHIELD is being fed the wrong information and that this operation is being orchestrated from within the government."
Carol's argument seemed to have some effect, because the Avengers now looked at each other and Spider-Woman, who was hanging up against the wall, raised her hand.
"I have a question. Why not show the evidence to SHIELD? They hate being played."
"Not as much as they hate Iron Man," Hawkeye pointed out.
"Not as much as they fear what Iron Man stands for," Steve corrected. "Granted, the fact that Tony provokes them every step of the way doesn't help. but he stands for us, the Avengers, the entire super-powered community."
"Ironic. Also because he's just the guy in a suit," Wolverine said and even if Steve felt offended on Tony's behalf - and Hawkeye flipped Wolverine off - he knew that in a sense it was true. Despite Tony's extraordinary intellect and abilities, he was in no way super-powered, nor the carrier of the mutant gene. Technically, neither was Steve, but he was enhanced to the point that he'd hardly get tired, hardly suffered from serious injuries and hardly ever ended up in the hospital bed Tony and Hawkeye found themselves in often. When that realization hit him, it made Steve feel inexplicably angry.
"So they won't be very receptive," Spider-Woman sighed. "What can we do, then?"
"It gets worse than that," Carol added. "Whoever's doing this, they know we're on their trail and they are covering up as fast as they can, as drastically as they can. You think the napalm was bad, think bigger."
"How big?" Spider-Man asked.
"New York big," Carol said. "If we're right about this, there is a lot at stake here. That's why we came here"
"So, I've been ready to move for days. What do you suggest we do?" Spider-Woman asked.
"Everyone else with us?" Steve asked.
"I'm in," Spider-Man said. "I've always wanted to talk with Harriet North and now that she's back from the death, I- I ... oh man, I need to make a zombie-pun here, but there's too many to choose from!"
"I'm totally up for some action," Hawkeye said, jumping up and opening his wardrobe. "There is nothing, literally nothing I'd like more than to not sit in my room."
"Yeah, I could use a punch-up," Wolverine said and everybody nodded.
Luke nodded. "Alright."
"Suit up and meet us in the hangar in ten," Carol said. "Be quick."
Considering the Avengers were under house-arrest, it would make sense that there were agents guarding the entrance to the hangar as well as the jet itself. Steve was weighing his options while one by one the Avengers joined him around the corner. Despite the risk of seriously injuring some of the agents, punching through seemed to be the only option that was viable from their current position.
"This doesn't look suspicious or anything," Hawkeye whispered, taking a picture of all the Avengers huddled together peering around the corner, before joining them. "Do you think we can just knock them out?"
"I can stun them," Spider-Woman said.
Steve nodded. "Do it."
The agents went down without any fuss and after making sure they were breathing, they entered the hangar. Spider-Woman took down three more agents on the runways with her sting while Carol quietly approached the two standing in front of the jet. The moment they looked up to see what was happening, she smashed their heads together and lowered them to the floor by their collars.
Steve was almost convinced they'd be able to make it when they heard a gun cock behind them.
"Please don't get on the jet," a voice said behind them. When Steve and the others turned around they saw a young agent in a slightly messy suit. He looked a little nervous, but not as nervous as when Steve had last seen him.
"Agent Andrew?" Steve asked.
The agent smiled a little and swallowed.
"Captain America, sir, good to see you're still alive. I'm afraid you're not to leave the mansion. SHIELD's orders. I've already reported your re-appearance to SHIELD and they're on their way. All of them. I mean the entire carrier. Uh, until then, you are not to leave this mansion."
"On what grounds exactly?"
Agent Andrew took a deep breath, but his voice was steady as he explained.
"We suspect Iron Man may be controlling you and may be using you as his own personal army. Pending further investigation as to your involvement in current events, you are to remain under supervision. Also, uh, you might interfere with our attempt to arrest and/or terminate Iron Man and Ms. Marvel."
"You bet I will," Carol sneered. "How would you even subdue me?"
"I- uh, we do not have the equipment to handle your uh, power level here," Andrew said. "But our main concern is Iron Man first. He's your leader, or boss, or boyfriend, as it were-"
"What-the-hell?" Carol spat.
"I mean no offense, ma'am!" Agent Andrew yelped.
"Andrew," Steve said, grabbing Carol's wrist and squeezing it hard until she unballed her fist. "We have proof that SHIELD is being fed false information and we have proof that Iron Man is being falsely accused. We need to take the jet and go. Lives are at stake."
"I- uh. I understand you think that, sir." Agent Andrew nodded, looking a bit pale. "Iron Man will have given you information that makes it look like that."
"Have you met Iron Man?" Steve asked.
"Uh, have you met Iron Man?" Hawkeye frowned at Steve.
"Yeah, that sounds pretty much like him, Cap," Spider-Woman said. "I can see how SHIELD could fall for that angle."
"It's not an angle," Agent Andrew said then a few seconds later added. "Ma'am."
"He is the most polite goon I have ever met," Hawkeye said to Spider-Man. "I almost feel sorry that we have to shoot him in the kneecaps or something."
"You know what? Screw this," Carol said, yanking her wrist from Steve's grasp. "I'm going to start the engine."
"Wait!" Agent Andrew said, but Carol jumped up, flew over the jet and disappeared from sight. He followed her with his gun as well as his eyes, which was exactly the opening Steve needed in order to make an accidental shot non-lethal. He spun around and kicked the agent's hand so the gun went flying.
It landed a few feet away and Andrew, cradling his arm, stared at it for a moment.
"That hurt," he said incredulously.
Then everybody moved at the same time.
Spider-Woman jumped up and shot two stings at the agents on the left hand. Hawkeye grabbed an arrow and shot the agent on the right in the shoulder with an electrical shock. Luke, in the meantime, simply stepped up to Agent Andrew, his height and muscle making him loom over the younger man like he had before, while he picked the other gun out of the holster and the communication link out of Andrew's ear.
The engines of the jet fired up and Andrew winced at the sound, but to his credit, hardly stuttered when he spoke.
"You're all in direct violation of..."
Luke patted him on the shoulder.
"Just be glad we're not the bad guys. This could've ended a lot worse for you."
"That does not look good," Spider-man said the moment they had landed.
Where the trailers had been, there were now three smoldering metal carcasses. The fencing had been completely destroyed and judging from the scorch marks the generators had blown up. There was still smoke rising from the area and when Steve jumped out and ran into the clearing he could still feel the heat.
Steve felt a tingle on his upper arm where Tony had grabbed him and pulled him aside. He remembered Tony's breath on his ear he'd thanked Steve.
He should have listened to his gut feeling. He should have learned to listen to his gut feelings by now. Especially when it came to Tony.
"Damnit," Carol shouted, "I knew I shouldn't have left him alone!"
"Any sign of Harry or-"
"Over here!" Harry shouted. Steve looked around and spotted her on the ground, just outside of where the original fencing would have been. She was leaning against a tree, while Vyvian was lying with his head in her lap, his hands clutched to three bloody wounds in his upper leg. His eyes were shut and his face was ashen, but he was still breathing.
"Where's Iron Man?" Steve asked, feeling pretty sick and tired of having to ask that. But Harry cocked her head to the right, raised her eyebrows and mouthed the word 'mad'.
"He's off on a suicide mission, actually," a voice said and an elderly man in full dress-uniform stepped out. "Plan 61 is meant to be the final resort when a lethal pandemic strikes one or more of the United States' cities. It was originally made in the 80s, during the Cold War."
"General Flagg," Carol said, coming up behind Steve, who held up his arm to stop anyone from coming closer. Although Flagg was not visibly armed, there was no way to know if he was. His confidence meant the man at least thought he had the upper hand against the Avengers.
"Miss Danvers," General Flagg said with a slight nod. "If I may continue. The purpose of plan 61 is one of a final nature. There's no turning back and there's no justifiable way to use it without due consideration. After all, it involves more casualties than the Bomb had during World War II. This is why it requires a unanimous decision from the President, all involved branches of the Military, the Advisory Committee's Chief, The head of SHIELD and The Minister of Defense."
"So, no plan 61 for you," Carol said, relaxing her stance slightly.
"Not as things stand now," General Flagg said slowly. "In order to get all parties involved, I would have to wait too long. You see, by the time New York has deteriorated to the point where those fools will see reason, it'll be too late already."
"Too late for what?" Steve asked.
"The project!" General Flagg said, opening his arms wide and when Steve didn't answer he took a deep breath. "Since there's only a minor problem with the serum at this time. There's no reason to scrap the entire project. We're getting results, but time is of the essence here. We cannot let one set-back stand in the way of progress. We're at war, in case you've forgotten."
"You mean this is a military funded operation?" Steve asked.
"Of course it is! Combined with our investor, who's only interest is the progress of man, we can finally continue what we planned to win World War II with."
"Your investor sounds dreamy," Spider-Man said. "Are you sure his angle isn't, you know, trying to create his own army of superhumans."
"We're not making superhumans!" General Flagg snapped, pointing at the other Avengers. "There are enough superhumans, enough mutants, enough of you. We're simply enhancing normal men."
"Why?" Steve insisted.
"We can't win the wars conventionally anymore, son," Flagg said to Steve. "You've seen the difference between back then and today with your own eyes. We're losing good people every day, because our technology is not up to scratch, because our biology is not up to scratch and instead of joining the battle, these so-called super-powered heroes run around town in spandex like a bunch of queers."
"It's aramid," Hawkeye mumbled.
"OK, you have an army of enhanced men," Carol said. "Then what?"
"Then what?" Flagg exclaimed. "Then what? This is where you lack vision. This is where I see the big picture. This is not about one war, or two, this is about the future of mankind. This, Ms. Danvers, is about who is the better man down the line of evolution and for years we've been squandering the opportunities we're being offered for the sake of politics and ethics. We can make better men and we can make man better. Good, normal, God-fearing men can be improved to the point where we no longer need any of you."
"Scott Summers would have a field-day with this guy," Hawkeye said, but General Flagg went on like he hadn't heard.
"We were getting results. Good results. But, Dr. North's antics and Stark's involvement have caused some 'collateral damage', which now has to be cleared up. I don't want to go to these extremes, but my hand is being forced here. We cannot have New York overrun by faulty experiments."
"You're the hero-" Carol said slowly. "-by blowing up New York?"
"I'm not going to blow up New York," General Flagg said indignantly. "Iron Man will. You see, I've warned SHIELD about this exact event for months. Iron Man has the means, the motive and if I may say so, his original Antagonist Termination Protocol states quite clearly to expect him to turn on authority in the most violent way. Most ATP's do, which is why I am taking the liberty of making sure all of you people will get one."
"See, I felt left out at first," Spider-Man said. "But now that he's offering, I don't really want it anymore."
"So there is a bomb?" Steve asked.
"It's very hard to do this without technology when you're not a mutant," Flagg said.
"Give me one good reason not to slice you to ribbons," Wolverine growled.
"Because it doesn't matter, Mr. Howlett. Don't you see? The research will be carried out whether you kill me here or not and that's what's important. To be able to see beyond yourself to bigger goals! Killing me is maybe a tiny reprieve for your immediate animalistic urges, but in the end it won't change anything. The future of man is safe."
"OK," Hawkeye said lowering his bow and arrow. "He's gone. Cracked. Cuckoo."
"You think Stark has no idea you're using him?" Luke asked.
"Oh, I'm sure he knows. If there is one thing I've learned from all my years and campaigns, it's not to underestimate my opponents. It doesn't matter whether Stark knows or not, he's going to do it anyway. He has a history of pointing every gun straight at himself." Flagg pointed his finger to his temple. "He's even more prone to do so when others aren't there to slow him down. Especially when you are involved. He probably believes he's saving you right now. The best part is, if Stark dies, his company will inevitably return to its most profitable venture for the past fifty years. It's a win-win situation."
"A lot of that's kind of hanging on the fact that Stark won't be able to disable your bomb," Hawkeye said. "That's not really a safe bet, considering his track record, is it?"
"He'll never get to it, they'll shoot him on sight," Flagg said. "Say what you will about Tony Stark, but he would have been a good chess-partner. He knew I would never bother to interfere had there been any risk of going against you creatures, so he made sure he was alone. He knew SHIELD was investigating him, which is why he hired Ms. Danvers to do his dirty work-"
Hawkeye tapped Steve's arm and whispered at him: "Cap, we really don't have time for this."
"No, we don't," Flagg snapped and he turned to Harry and Vyvian. "Dr. North knows better than anyone that time is of the essence here, tell them why, Doctor."
Steve had seen some foul looks in his day. He'd seen some terrible things and some terrible acts, but Harry's scowl was right in the top ten for its vehemence.
"You stole my code and embedded it wrong so now your bomb doesn't have an adjustable timer and you just need a place to stuff it and do I have a suggestion for tha- augh!"
General Flagg kicked her in the side with the tip of his boot. She gasped and curled around Vyvian and Steve had to stop himself from lunging forward. Behind him he could hear the slide of Wolverine's claws, the string on Hawkeye's bow and the scrape of feet being braced in the dirt.
"There you have your answer," General Flagg said as if nothing had transpired, turning back and either not caring or unaware of the arrow Hawkeye had aimed at him once more. "So you see, the moral of this story is: never trust an engineer."
Harry lashed out and made a grab for the General's ankles, but he simply stepped out of her reach.
"What will it be, Avengers? Will you steer clear of New York and be hunted down later, or will you follow Iron Man in his noble and foolish attempt at suicide?"
"How about we save New York and stop your project?" Carol sneered. "As a bonus, you can be put through court martial."
"Oh please, Miss Danvers, as if any of that would be statistically possible," Flagg said, reaching inside the pocket of his jacket. Steve tightened the grip on his shield. "Now what is the saying? I'll see you all in hell? Oh well, I have evacuation procedures to oversee."
In one fluent movement, he drew back his hand and smashed something on the floor. A cloud of blue smoke exploded between them, engulfing them. There was cursing and coughing around Steve, who drew some breath and was in immediate agony. His throat constricted and he coughed against the itch. His eyes started to water as he stepped back away from the dissolving cloud.
"A smoke-bomb! Who uses a smoke-bomb like that anymore?!" Hawkeye choked. "Who does his exit like that nowadays!?"
"He can't have gone far, I can catch him," Carol shouted, waving her hand in front of her face.
"No," Steve said. "No, we need to think. Where would Flagg hide a bomb like that?"
"There's too many locations," Spider-Woman said. "There's the subways, the malls, the river, monuments, docks. There is no way we can cover that much ground even if we split up."
"If he's really going for, like, all of New York, we're screwed," Hawkeye said. "Is that even possible?"
"A bomb with that much yield has to be huge, right?" Carol asked.
"I know where it is," Harry said, cradling Vyvian's head. "Flagg never said we can't disarm it, he said that Tony would never ‘get to it' in time. This means it's located somewhere Tony will have the worst trouble getting to."
"He's a high-profile wanted criminal," Spider-Man said. "He has trouble getting groceries."
"SHIELD?" Steve asked before his brain had caught up with his thoughts.
"How can you even put a bomb the size of a container on the SHIELD helicarrier?" Luke asked.
"How about in a container?" Spider-Woman said.
"SHIELD," Harry confirmed. "If I wanted to blame you for this, I'd make sure the blast would be traced back to SHIELD headquarters. Flagg has had ample access and time inside SHIELD to plant it and Iron Man has ample motive an opportunity. Every agent at SHIELD is under orders to terminate him. They have facilities to neutralize demi-gods and to contain nuclear fission. If a bomb blows there… ten quid says the bomb is at SHIELD and then quid says Tony knew this all along."
"Yeah, and the carrier is on its way here" Hawkeye said darkly. "Blowing that up while it's over New York would do the trick."
"She's right," Steve said, going over the information in his head. "She's right, we need to talk to Natasha, Clint?"
"I'll call her," Hawkeye said. "But I don't have as much leverage with her as you think."
"Take me with you!" Harry insisted. "Don't leave me here. I can help! I know how it works. I can deactivate it! Also Vyv really needs medical attention and I know that considering the situation it would be deemed an acceptable loss, but -"
"Don't worry, you're both coming with me," Carol said, lifting Harry up. "I'm going to warm up the engine, if anyone doesn't want to do this, don't get on the jet."
"No such thing as an acceptable loss," Luke grumbled, squatting down and carefully picking Vyvian up. The wound was still bleeding slowly, but the man reacted with a groan when he was moved, which meant he was still conscious.
As the rest of the Avengers boarded the jet without further comment or any speech, Spider-Man looked at Steve.
"We're really going to do this, then?"
"Yes, we are," Steve said. "If you have any reservations, I understand."
"No, I'm good," Spider-Man assured him. "I do have a question, though. How much is a quid?"
"She's letting us land under her conditions," Hawkeye said, once they were approaching the helicarrier. "Please, don't piss her off, okay, she's got half the anti-aircraft gunnery aimed at us."
Their allocated slot was on the far end of the carrier, as far away from the central building as possible, Steve noted with some despair. The moment they had approached the carrier, four large search beams were trained on them. The light beaming through the windows was so bright Steve had to turn away.
"They mean business," Spider-Woman said, holding her hand over her eyes and squinting. "Wow, this whole thing deteriorated fast."
"Let me do the talking," Steve said to everyone. "We don't have ready-to-show evidence and we have a severely compressed timeframe. Whatever happens, we need to stop the carrier from reaching New York, find that bomb and disable it.
The others nodded.
"Clint, you're with me since you worked with Natasha before."
"Actually, Tony and her are the ones that got on for the past few years," Hawkeye said, plucking at the string on his bow before putting it back on his back. "It's probably the only reason she hasn't shot him through the head herself."
"Are we expecting to fight?" Luke frowned, halfway in sliding his arm under Harry's legs. "Inside SHIELD headquarters?"
"Oh no you don't," Harry said when Luke tried to put her down. "I'm going out there."
"I know I can count on you guys," Steve said, pulling on his hood and punching the button next to the door. As the hatch released and the runway extended, the light from outside flooded in, momentarily blinding them in one of the oldest, most classic strategies.
When Steve lowered his arm and his eyes adjusted, it seemed like every agent, trainee, soldier and person who could hold a gun was called back from leave. On the deck itself, and both the runways hanging over them, spotlights and guns were trained at their location. From the windows and doorways various types of weaponry had been set-up, aimed at either the jet or at a specific Avenger. Steve could see combat rifles, SHIELD issue guns, tasers as well as high-energy weapons.
A blast from that would evaporate Hawkeye and probably seriously incapacitate Spider-Man and himself, Steve thought.
"Captain," Black Widow said, standing in the middle of the runway off the platform. She wasn't holding a visible weapon, but the men standing around her were armed to the teeth. "We have an outstanding warrant for your arrest and incarceration, as well as for three more of the Avengers."
"We believe there is a bomb on the carrier," Steve said. "That takes precedent."
"At the moment, I have no reason to trust you," Black Widow said. "All I have is strict orders to neutralize the Avengers."
"And we have evidence that you're being misled," Steve said. "But there is no time if there really is a bomb. We know how to disarm it."
"You have misled me, you have assaulted my agents, you have gone against direct orders and federal warrants and now you're asking me to trust you?"
"You don't have a choice," Hawkeye pointed out. "We might blow up at any second."
"Oh, I have a choice," Black Widow smiled coldly. "I am well aware that in many places in the line of command, duty and personal interest are muddled up, leaving the body without a trustworthy head or trustworthy limbs. But this an internal Defense affair and it will be dealt with internally."
"You're going to trust the government over us?" Hawkeye exclaimed. "Have you gone nuts?"
"Have you ever trusted us in the first place?" Carol asked. "Do you even trust SHIELD command?"
"I don't trust anyone!" Black Widow snapped, her voice echoing over the sound of the carrier's engines. And despite the fact there were lines of special services soldiers in position behind her and flanking her on both sides, she looked rather small and very alone in the middle of that runway. "You are not special, you have just as much of a bias where your own are concerned as everyone else!"
"Then trust in yourself," Steve said, taking a step forward. "All I'm asking is that you just check if there might be something on this carrier. Maybe near the engines, maybe next to the reactor."
"We've already found it near the reactor," Black Widow sighed, crossing her arms and regaining her composure. "We found Iron Man with it too. Well, Tony Stark, technically, as he wasn't wearing his armor, which made it far easier to isolate him from it and neutralize him."
"You did what?" Steve asked and the vice around his stomach was back with full force.
"Have you neutralized the giant bomb that's going to kill us all?" Hawkeye demanded.
"We're working on that," Black Widow said. "We have the Military's bomb division working with our R&D and Weapons department and we're interrogating Stark."
"Let me guess, General Flagg's division?" Carol asked and when Black Widow raised an eyebrow in challenge she growled. "Flagg is the one who's put that bomb there in the first place!"
"Flagg's men won't interrogate Stark they will execute him," Hawkeye said.
"Natasha, we're going in there," Steve said, walking up the runway. Two searchlights followed him, making it appear like he had multiple long shadows stretch out on the metal. The agents and soldiers behind Black Widow took aim, although Steve was glad to see some of them at least had the decency to look upset about it.
"Captain," Black Widow warned. "Not a step closer."
"I'm going in," Steve said and despite that fact that Black Widow never looked away, never shied away from meeting anyone's eyes head-on. It was just now that he felt he wasn't looking at a wall of ice, but at the person Natasha. He remembered the first time they'd talked, after Tony had pulled her away to work for him. Away from the clutches of the old SHIELD, which she had hated being tied to with a passion. The first time they'd met outside of missions, where she was actually amicable and funny.
"I'm authorized to use lethal force," she said and for a moment it looked like he eyes were pleading.
"And I'm sworn to protect the innocent," Steve replied, taking out his phone, hitting the app on the lower right and dialling three sevens.
Many people had often berated Steve for being too trusting. For always trying to see the good in people, even if it wasn't there. It was true to a certain point. He did get played sometimes and he did have to better himself constantly and adjust his expectations and tell himself it was worth trying again, because this time… this time it would pay off. And then it did. It always did in the end. Which is why Steve knew that despite their disagreements. Despite the fact that some of the Avengers did not trust the others. They would band together when it really counted.
When he hit call, he didn't even have to look back to know how fast the Avengers could be. How well they worked together. The phone started buzzing and he nearly dropped it in his pocket. He could hear the shattering of glass, the hum of electricity and even one or two surprised cries, but then everything on the carrier went dark, including the engines.
The carrier started shaking.
He jumped to the side, hearing some creative Russian swearing that would have made Nick Fury blush. There was a whining drone and the carrier steadied itself, the engines sputtering to life. He swerved past a soldier who was trying to pull his night-goggles down over his helmet, used his shield as a ram to work his way through the rest of the runway.
"Hold your fire!" Black Widow shouted. "Hold your fire until you see where you aim!"
In hindsight, he had expected more of a resistance, but when he grabbed the doors and looked back he could see the lights from various flares and flashlights shine wildly over the carrier-deck. In the beams of lights there were shadows jumping back and forth.
He slipped in and started running down the dim red emergency-lighted corridors.
Considering the amount of people that had been outside waiting for them, there was still a surprising number of personnel inside. Some of them were scrambling, some of them pressed themselves up against the wall when he stormed past. But none of them even tried to stop him as he ran through the corridors.
Going on his memories from a different helicarrier design, he nearly sped past the sign that indicated he was getting near the reactor chambers.
After a hard left that nearly caused him to slip, he jogged down the corridor, passing one generic closed metal door after the other, hoping he was going the right way. Hoping he was not too late.
"Who taught you how hit?" Tony's voice echoed in the distance. "Your husband?"
It was followed by an 'oof' and while Steve momentarily suffered from a wild range of conflicting emotions, some of which tightened the vice in his stomach and others loosening it. He felt laughter bubble up in his chest. He had never been more grateful for Tony's penchant for mouthing off to everyone.
When he rounded the corner, he could see Tony on the floor - cackling, of all things - and three soldiers standing around him. Steve was almost ashamed at how good it felt to knock all three of them out with. The first one simply crumpled when he hit him in the stomach with the edge, the second took an elbow to the face, which unfortunately broke his nose and maybe his jawbone. The third one he kicked in the legs and would have finished off with a haymaker, but Tony, who had scrambled into a sitting position, did the same thing, resulting in the soldier falling backwards and knocking himself out on the floor.
Tony sat back and took a few shallow, quick breaths.
"Hey," Steve said, reaching out and trying to ignore the blood on Tony's face for the sake of his own temper.
"Hey," Tony said, grabbing the hand and pulling himself up with some difficulty. "You used my gadget. It works."
"Are you alright?"
"Far better than I look, I'm not the prettiest damsel at the moment."
"You're way too old to be a damsel," Steve said. "Can you disable that bomb?"
"Sure," Tony said. "Lead the way."
"Actually, I have no idea where it is," Steve admitted. "I didn't really have the chance to stop and ask for directions."
Tony cut in front of him, using the wall for leverage as he limped on. After a few feet Steve grabbed his arm and put it over his shoulder and wrapped an arm around his waist.
"Any excuse to hold me," Tony said, but they moved faster now. "It's down this hall and to the left, next to the second reactor. The explosion would cause a chain-reaction, The carrier would flatten most of New York and the blast radius could be up to ten square miles. Steve, just in case we don't get there in time, I should tell you that I never meant for us to -"
"Ssh, wait here," Steve said, parking Tony by the door and grabbing his shield. At that moment the red lights went out and the typical efficient blue SHIELD lighting illuminated the corridor again.
"Looks like their generators are up," Tony said and immediately an alarm started blaring. "Better hurry."
Steve kicked the door open, half expecting a hail of bullets to spray his shield. Instead there were five men in white labcoats standing around a military container. When he looked closer he could see they were handcuffed to the door.
"Captain America," one of them said, sounding surprised. The others looked a mixture of relieved and wary.
"How do we know you're not Flagg's men?" Steve asked. "How long do we have?"
"You can wait here with us and find out," one of the older men said, pulling on his handcuff. "We're officially shit out of time anyway, even if we did cut off our own thumbs and made a break for it."
"OK, you're a real engineer alright," Tony said, peering around the corner. "Hi, you might remember me from all those times I ripped on your designs. Steve, could I borrow your phone?"
"Don't be an ass," Steve hissed, handing the dead little machine over. But Tony pulled up his shirtsleeves, walked up to the crate and cracked the phone on the side. There were several suitcases and bags lying around with tools in them. Tony selected a few items and leant over the side of the container. The other men leant in with him as best as they could.
There was some muttering.
"And?" Steve asked, feeling his heartbeat in his throat.
"This bomb is sloppy work, Harry would be embarrassed to be associated with it," Tony said. "Stand guard by the door so no SHIELD zealots get in here and start messing everything up with their perpetual ignorance."
"Present company excepted," Tony said. "Somebody hand me a stripper or a knife."
Steve sighed and stood at the door.
In hindsight it had not been one of Steve's most memorable heroic moments, although a lot of people were already actively disagreeing with that. All he did was stand there while behind him, Tony was performing surgery on a twenty kiloton bomb, demanding tools or telling people to hold things. As far as Steve was concerned, Tony was the hero.
SHIELD did come running through the door in the end, but what they found were a bunch of angry weapons experts handcuffed to a container holding a up the remains of a diffused bomb.
"How is that for an anti-climax?" Tony had said staring down the barrel of a gun and Steve would have sworn he'd done that just for the expression on Black Widow's face. "I was right and you were wrong, and nobody ever learns from this."
"We made it," Carol said a few hours later, when they were standing on the deck of the helicarrier, once again free men and women. Vyvian, who looked grouchy, but more alive than he'd done earlier, was sitting in a wheelchair next to Harry who kept grinning at him. "It's over."
"No it isn't," Steve said. "Flagg and his investor got away."
"It isn't," Tony agreed, his scowl pulling on the band-aids on his face. "I quit."
The Avengers looked at him and Tony crossed his arms.
"I am not going to let SHIELD or anyone else use me for convenience anymore. Either you trust me or you don't, but as long as the Avengers fall under SHIELD's jurisdiction, I'm out. You're too easy to mislead and the Avengers are too easy to turn into a weapon. That is not the point of the Avengers."
"That's-" Black Widow began, but Hawkeye cut her off.
"Remember why you joined?" He looked at her until she shook her head.
"This is not my decision to make," she said and pointed a slim finger at Tony. "Nor can you simply decide to no longer acknowledge our government's jurisdiction."
"I'm not," Tony said. "I'm simply quitting any work-related activity with the group called 'the Avengers' and I'm going back to being just Iron Man. You may consult me if you need me, but I do not work under SHIELD."
"I'm with Tony," Steve said and ignored the smug face Hawkeye pulled. "If anything, this event has shown us that our current relationship does not work. We'd all benefit from more open communication and less rank-pulling. The Avengers used to do fine when they were a separate entity."
"Except when we trashed half a block of apartments," Black Widow said. "And were sued by the City."
"That's why we have Damage Control," Spider-man said. "Independent contractors who fix up super-hero damage in no time. What? They gave me free stuff. I have a head for jingles."
"I could look into buying up some shares again," Tony said. "Fisk is no longer involved and they have gone fully legitimate since the 90s. With Stark Industries' support they could be just what we needed to have something autonomous run legally and financially secure."
"You don't really have a choice, Natasha," Hawkeye said. "SHIELD would die without Stark's backing."
"I'd have to start with a call to the president," Black Widow said, then she glared at them. "I don't like calling the president."
"Nobody does," Hawkeye nodded. "But you'd make us happy. You like making people happy."
Black Widow looked at Hawkeye like she was imagining his head on a pike.
"Wait here, that means everyone. You too Iron Man," she said, before she turned on her heel and marched back inside.
"She likes you," Hawkeye ensured them.
"I know she does," Tony said. "Otherwise she'd have followed her orders and had me shot."
"Is she single?" Harry asked and when everyone looked at her she threw up her hands. "What? Nobody here thinks power is sexy?"
"No, it's loud and frustrating," Steve replied.
"Yes I am," Tony said, holding his hand up.
Hawkeye high-fived Tony with gusto, but Harry slapped Vyvian's leg hard enough for the man to jolt a little.
"You're going to lose that pony, mate."
"Have your solicitor call mine," Vyvian said with the confidence of a man who would win it back eventually. "You're never winning this bet, love."
"What's the bet?" Spider-Man asked. "And what's a pony?"
THE END (for now)