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Merry Christmas, Colonel Fury

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It took Nick Fury, director of SHIELD, a little longer than he liked to finally get around to trying to talk to the Avengers about everything that had been going on. He might have had an easier time setting something up if he’d just gone through HR to call his consultants in for a ‘consultants meeting,’ but he’d been avoiding talking to Allison Clarke, the director of SHIELD’s HR department, ever since he’d gone over to her apartment after he’d gotten back from Washington that last time. Not just because his unannounced visit had left him with egg on his face – again – for trying to catch the four members of the HR department doing something they shouldn’t have been, but also because his talk with the President had brought up some things which he’d been thinking about ever since, and at this point just walking past HR’s office door almost made the hair stand up on the back of his neck.

Maroon carpet and soundproof walls. He couldn’t believe the President of the United States, a man whose only experience with military service consisted of junkets to visit the troops and who probably thought half of what he saw in spy movies was accurate, had caught the significance of that before he had. Fury had been looking at the little foursome of ‘pastel-wearing happy people,’ as he’d heard some other members of his staff call the HR department, for years, and he’d really stopped seeing them as anything else. Office workers. Paper pushers. Chirpy rule-quoting pains in his ass. He’d stopped seeing the almost supernaturally skilled sniper, the technological supergenius, the pretty-boy chameleon, and the hard-bitten, ruthless tactical leader – the highly cohesive extraction unit that he had reluctantly agreed to have ‘burned’ when the right opportunity arose because some of the higher-ups had decided the team was too dangerous to be allowed to continue. Fury hadn’t known it at the time, but those same higher-ups had made that decision because they’d been opening doors for a psychotic ex-CIA bastard who Badger Team had made up their minds to take down with extreme prejudice before he could wantonly murder any more of their fellow agents. Fury also hadn’t known that burning Badger Team would turn out to be the last thing the at-that-time HR director would ever do before she ‘retired.’ In fact, he hadn’t even realized his entire HR staff had been replaced until he’d gone stalking into the HR office one day to ask (yell) about a memo he’d gotten and had been greeted by a perky little blonde woman with a saccharine cartoon-character voice who had introduced herself as his new HR director, Allison Clarke.

They’d had maroon plush carpet then, too. And it had taken him a month to connect the new HR team with the burned extraction team, but the four of them hadn’t seemed to be doing anything except running HR – and running it better than their predecessors had – so he’d let it go. Every once in a while the four of them would all call in sick at the same time and he’d be pretty sure they were out doing something they shouldn’t have been, but he could never prove anything was going on and he’d finally just stopped worrying about that too. He’d known they couldn’t be doing anything too bad, because it wasn’t like they would still be able to function at extraction-team levels after leaving the field to take desk jobs, right?

And then SHIELD headquarters had been attacked, taken completely by surprise by a well-trained squad of even more well-armed assailants. Or at least everyone had been taken by surprise except the HR department, who had handed the attackers their asses and then taken control of the building’s fire stairs and ‘liberated’ the other floors one at a time. After which they’d all gotten cleaned up and trotted off for ice cream while the rest of the building was still reeling in shock. Fury only had that from secondhand reports, he hadn’t been in New York at the time, but it had been pretty obvious once he’d sorted out what had happened that he’d made a mistake in judgment. Which he had then proceeded not to learn from after he’d confronted his HR personnel about it – and had not-entirely mistakenly attributed the damp spots in their office’s carpet to them having had the carpet cleaned after the attack – and Allison Clarke had coldly informed him that the Badgers had been burned and were no longer active, nor would they ever be active again. She had also warned him that as long as he never tried to make that happen to any other employees of SHIELD on her watch, they weren’t going to have any problems.

And, like an idiot, he’d blown that warning off too and had been surprised yet again when it had bitten him in the ass. If you could call what HR did biting him in the ass per se, because all they’d really done was stop him from breaking SHIELD’s employment regulations and smack his hands for doing it in the first place. It had been all about rules and regs and him getting reprimanded for breaking same, although that time Clarke had gone out of her way to remind him that they had those rules for a reason. Fury had stayed away from HR for a while after that, too, and had maintained a reluctant hands-off policy with the Avengers. He felt it was important to keep the upper hand with his picked team of superheroes, but he’d also seen Clarke’s point that the way he’d been going about that was needlessly heavy-handed and had been causing problems which he hadn’t thought to take into account.

Once upon a time he’d had…someone who had just always quietly taken those kind of things into account for him, but now he didn’t have that anymore.

Things had been quiet for a while after all of the remaining Avengers had relocated out of SHIELD headquarters and out of Fury’s direct control, absolutely nothing had seemed to be going on. Or so he’d thought, until the entire HR department had abruptly come down with the flu and half of the superheroes in the city had just as suddenly been unaccounted for. And then a certain multi-agency covert program had gotten blown so wide open that the White House had gotten involved and a certain psychotic ex-CIA bastard had gotten executed and multiple high-ranking people had abruptly retired and somewhere a badly burned but now completely cleared team not quite as dangerous but ten times as messy as the Badgers had gone missing and were now presumed to be drinking mai-tais on a beach somewhere and high-fiving each other every chance they got. If Fury ever got his hands on the Losers…well, he wasn’t going to be able to do a god-damned thing to them, but they weren’t going to know that and he thought he could probably ‘convince’ them that coming to work for SHIELD and doing whatever he told them was the only real choice they had.

That was actually one of the things he wanted to talk to the Avengers about, but which he did not want HR to be a part of. He knew the Avengers wouldn’t have any difficulty tracking down or containing the Losers, and if he spun that story as being all about protecting the now-exonerated team, about getting to them before some ex-government bad guys did…well, even if the others didn’t fall into line with that story all at once, he knew Rogers wouldn’t hesitate. The Losers were Army just like him, after all. And if any of the other Avengers kept objecting over their team-leader’s approval, he thought he could probably use that to widen the gap between them, make them a little less comfortable with each other. Which, if he played things just right, might also provide the leverage he needed to stop the Avengers from working so closely with the Fantastic Four, too.

He was doing his best to conveniently forget that the President liked all of the superheroes getting along and working together and hoped it would continue. Fury didn’t like it, and he felt he knew better than the President did on that one. He wasn’t nearly so concerned about Captain Rogers being related to two of the Fantastic Four, due to the nature of the family relationship three of the Four already had with each other – no way was Rogers going to want to be a part of the overdramatized domestic mess that was constantly going on at the Baxter Building. And Fury was sure the wide-eyed fanboy situation the other Avengers had painted for him regarding Rogers’ friendship with Ben Grimm was an exaggeration, because Grimm was a rude, sarcastic, often foul-mouthed bastard a lot of the time and Fury couldn’t picture Captain America wanting to hang around with someone like that, astronaut or no astronaut.

Still though, in spite of everything else weighing on his mind and time, Fury eventually sat down in his office and called up Tony Stark to demand an immediate meeting. He got the AI answering machine again, of course, with the same message as before, but he knew the computer would let Stark know that he was calling and Stark would call him back almost immediately. Like he’d done before.

Except that this time, an hour went by and Stark still hadn’t called him back. Fury called again. Another hour went by, the call still wasn’t returned. He checked the calendar, wondering if he’d forgotten another holiday, but he hadn’t – it was still two days before Christmas. Although it was a Saturday…

His phone rang, and the caller ID said Anthony Stark. Fury answered by saying he needed the Avengers to come to headquarters for a meeting immediately.

There was a pause, and then Stark said, “Is something attacking the city?”

“No.”

“Is something attacking some other city?”

“Why would I call you about some other city?”

“Because you would totally do that, because we’re awesome. So you just…want to talk? Right now, today?”

Fury growled. “I need to talk to you and the other Avengers about some things that have been going on lately. And I have an urgent mission coming up for you.”

Another pause. Then, “What day does your calendar say it is?”

“It’s the twenty-third.”

Stark sighed. “No, it’s the twenty-fifth. Remind me to give you a calendar that isn’t made out of a dead tree the next time I see you, this is embarrassing. But it being Christmas Day and all, no, nobody is coming down there for a meeting unless something is attacking the city and you’re sitting on the only weapon that can stop it.” He cleared his throat. “If you really need to pass along some information right now today, you can stop by the Tower and Jarvis will let you in. Just…tone it down and be nice, okay? It’s Christmas and there are a ton of people here, some of whom might be put off by your distinctly non-sparkling everyday badass personality.”

Oh, so that was it; Stark was having a Christmas party at the Tower. Fury kicked back in his chair. This could work out even better. “Well, you could just send Captain Rogers down. I can brief him about the mission – he might even be able to handle it by himself.”

He may have been imagining it, but the temperature of the other man’s voice dropped a good ten degrees. “Yeah, no, I don’t think so – because one, I’m not pulling him away from the party for that unless it’s a city-saving kind of emergency, and two, solo missions are against the rules unless they’ve been pre-approved or there’s just no other way.”

Jesus fucking Christ, really? Solo missions were ‘against the rules’ now? He was going to kill Allison Clarke with his bare hands – on the maroon carpet in her office so the stain wouldn’t show. “Did you just quote the rule book at me?”

“No, I quoted a rule book at you,” Stark corrected primly. “The Avengers’ rule book, to be precise. I’m sure Jarvis has a copy of yours somewhere, but it’s not like I’ve read it.” Someone in the background yelled his name, and he yelled back that he’d just be a minute. “Okay, well, as you just heard, I’m wanted in the other room doing something that isn’t talking to you. Stop by if you have to – and no, that’s not an invitation to join the party, just so we’re clear – and if you show up we can round up some people and sit down to let you get whatever it is off your chest. But you’d really be better off waiting until tomorrow. So hopefully we won’t be seeing you, merry Christmas!”

Fury sat there for a very long moment, just staring at the phone. Stark had hung up on him! Then he looked at his calendar, which was out of date because…someone had given it to him as a gift and he just hadn’t felt like taking it down yet. He stood up abruptly and reached for his coat. He was heading over to Avengers Tower to straighten out his team of superheroes with regards to missions, briefings, and who got to make rules and who didn’t. Christmas or no Christmas.

Traffic wasn’t much lighter than normal, but he still made it to the Tower within the hour. He considered getting in the way he normally would – bypassing the front door and the security system altogether – but decided against it. Stark knew he might be coming, so he was actually sort of expected, which meant the security system was probably watching for him. He buzzed himself in the private entrance and was greeted by name by Stark’s virtual British butler, who directed him to an elevator which whisked him all the way up to the penthouse level, 93 floors above the busy, slushy New York streets. The virtual butler also gave him directions for finding Stark before the doors opened, as apparently the man wasn’t currently in the main area of the penthouse where the largest part of the party was going on. Fury assured the computer that he had no desire to crash Stark’s party, he was only there to pass on some information, and with a trite, ‘Very well, Director,’ the elevator doors opened and he was in the penthouse.

The penthouse level of Avengers Tower was full of people, although not exactly the kind of well-dressed one-percent crowd Fury had expected – which explained why Captain Rogers would be participating and might not want to leave, he supposed. He spotted Colonel Rhodes, in street clothes, having a beer with another man off to one side of a knot of people who were very loudly playing a video game. Fury followed the directions he’d been given, which took him around the outer edge of the action and noise and into an adjoining room where there were fewer and quieter people, three of whom were clustered around a laptop. One of them, surprisingly, was Steve Rogers, and one of the other two, even more surprisingly, was Amanda Morris. “I told you I was in,” Rogers was saying. “The guy is using a pattern for his passwords, not like I couldn’t extrapolate the next one in the sequence. So, now what do we do?”

“Not what any of us would like to do,” the third person, a blond man with glasses, told him. “We could make it look like he supports the KKK and NAMBLA, but that would probably be too much. And if we try to enroll him in the American Nazi party I’m sort of afraid we might find out he’s already a card-carrying member.”

“I say we should stick to the classics, keep it simple,” came from Morris. “Find his porn collection and switch the folder settings to Shared on his network.”

“Or make him a new one and connect it to his Google Drive,” the other man put in. “I know where there’s some stuff, go back to that tab where we had B open…”

Fury decided to get out of there before any of them spotted him; he’d find Stark first and get to the bottom of the holiday hacking lesson he’d just seen later. The next room was the kitchen, which smelled amazing. Sue Storm was there cooking alongside a heavyset man and a pretty dark-skinned woman while Pepper Potts and a younger blonde who looked quite a bit like the man sitting with Captain Rogers in the other room chatted over cookies and coffee at the central island. Some children ran in and then ran back out squealing in mock-fear when they saw Fury; one of them also shot him in the ass with a child’s soft-projectile gun. Potts rolled her eyes at his scowl and waved him out the door at the kitchen’s opposite end, which led into a long, curving hallway. He finally found Stark sitting in a smaller version of the big living room in front of another really incredible view, having coffee with Reed Richards and Ben Grimm. “Welcome to the grownup room,” Stark announced with an expansive wave when he saw him. “Everywhere else on this floor has been taken over by the younger generation. Grab a chair, you want some coffee?”

“No, I’m good, thanks.” Fury sat down in a likely chair a little gingerly, feeling uncharacteristically out of his depth. This wasn’t the way he was used to dealing with people – a situation he was finding himself in more and more often thanks to…a certain unfilled position in his inner circle, and also to his HR department and the Avengers. Still, though, he’d come here for a reason. “I need to talk to you and the other Avengers about what’s been going on lately, things are out of control.”

“They definitely are today,” Stark agreed, grinning. “If this is what family holidays are supposed to be like, then I’ve been missing out all these years.”

All right, that was interesting. Stark didn’t have any family, Potts didn’t have either and most of the other Avengers were alone in the world or might as well be. The Fantastic Four were here, but the rest were probably friends or plus-ones. That made sense, and it gave him a chance to get started on the wedge he wanted to drive between the two groups. “You mean Captain Rogers’ family, right?”

“Well, you already knew he was my in-law,” Richards said with a pleasant little edge to his voice. One arm stretched out and retrieved his coffee from the table in front of him, and he checked the temperature first before he drank some of it. “Sue was in the kitchen the last time I checked, and Johnny was playing video games and encouraging the children to misbehave.”

“No, that was Bruce,” Stark corrected with a sigh. “Pepper finally made him go to bed, sleep deprivation apparently turns him evil. Not to mention, someone’s boyfriend just had to be a pastry chef who loaded them all up with sugar.”

“Nope, those were sugar-free cookies,” Ben put in. “Seth’s not dumb. It was your boy Clint who handed out the pixie sticks earlier.”

“Oh no, Clint is not mine – I’m not anywhere near old enough to be his daddy,” Stark corrected quickly. “Steve’s the only one who almost falls into that age group, thank god. Not to mention, if it was pixie sticks? They must have come from Natasha, she has a thing for colored sugar in little paper straws.” He frowned. “Dammit, I guess they’re all evil except for me and Steve.”

“Steve’s grandson is teaching him how to hack, because Steve asked him to,” Reed reminded him, and smiled into his coffee when the other man’s face fell. “And I could have sworn I saw you handing a modified Nerf weapon to his great-granddaughter earlier when you thought no one was looking.” Fury reacted to that comment, and the scientist raised an eyebrow. “Something the matter, Director? You look unwell.”

“Reed is evil too,” Ben told Tony, and then raised a rocky eyebrow of his own at Fury. “I’m sure you passed Steve on your way in, I’m guessin’ he didn’t see you because if he had the first words out of his mouth probably would have been a threat. You screwed that pooch so hard there’s nothin’ left but a hole.”

Tony almost choked on his coffee; Reed just rolled his eyes. “I suppose you wanted to discuss the government conspiracy which was just uncovered last month, Director?”

“Or maybe the supposedly rogue ex-CIA agent who was being allowed to run amok all over the place with the blessing of that conspiracy – oh, who was the same guy who framed Steve’s grandson’s spec-ops team, and who coincidentally almost killed your HR director, too,” Tony added conversationally. “Maxie-boy is out of the picture now, although I’m sure you already know that. Someone he screwed over got hold of him and made him sing like a giant canary, live-streamed it and everything. I didn’t watch it all, but he confessed to shit that sounded like it came out of a pitch meeting for the next Metal Gear sequel. And he’d apparently gone completely around the bend before that anyway, because he wanted to use necromancy to bring back his dead Canadian assistant, and if it worked he was going to offer to do it for other people for money.” He took a sip of his coffee. “Absolutely fucking nuts, I couldn’t believe my tax dollars had been helping to fund that.”     

“I doubt the government had green-lighted the necromancy,” Reed assured him. “I did contact Stephen Strange about it, though, just in case. He said he would keep an eye on the situation.”

“Wasn’t he supposed to show up today?”

Reed shrugged. “He said he would try. But sometimes time runs a bit differently in the realms he travels in.”

“No, today I was just running late,” a disembodied voice said, and then there was a billowing puff of glittery pink smoke and Stephen Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, appeared in the room. He looked pretty much like he had the last time Fury had seen him, although apparently in honor of the holiday he’d changed his purple-lined cape for one of dark crimson velvet edged with black fur, and his dark blue outfit was accented with hair-fine silver and gold threads sewn into arcane patterns, some of which were centered on faceted emeralds. He bowed deeply to Tony, Reed and Ben – who acknowledged the greeting with nods and raised coffee cups – and then arched a black eyebrow at Fury and nodded a greeting at him. “Director, this is a surprise.”

“Dr. Strange,” Fury returned, not really sure what else he could say. Strange, like the Fantastic Four, had flat-out refused to work for SHIELD – something about conformity and not being comfortable working for such an aggressively normative organization, which Fury had assumed at the time was his way of saying he didn’t want to work with non-magical people – so Fury was less than happy that the man was here in Avengers Tower as an invited guest at the ‘family’ Christmas party. “I’m surprised to see you here, I thought you were pagan.”

Strange rolled his eyes. “Yule, Solstice, Christmas – same traditions with different names, it’s still a wonderfully good time no matter what you call it.” He reached back into nothing and pulled out a red velvet bag, which he held up. “Direct me to your tree, Tony? I have some trinkets from the Netherworld to put under it. Nothing alive or demonic, I promise.”

Tony grinned at him and waved at the door. “Pepper will show you, I’m sure Jarvis already told her you were here.”

Sure enough, Pepper appeared in the doorway seconds later. “Stephen, you made it!”

“Of course I did, because you invited me,” he told her. She gave him a hug, and he kissed her cheek and then pulled back looked her up and down appraisingly. “Pepper, my dear, you get lovelier every time I see you. Now show me to the tree if you would, and then I have a special present for dear little Sue.”

He had his arm wrapped around Pepper’s waist when they walked out, and Fury raised his eyebrow at Tony and Reed, neither of whom seemed bothered by the hugging, kissing and innuendo which had just gone on right in front of them. “That was…blatant. Are you two that afraid of him?”

At first they didn’t seem to understand what he meant, but then Tony got it and laughed, shaking his head. “Strange?” he snorted. “He’s gayer than Liberace, where have you been? I mean, the outfit should have been a dead giveaway all by itself.”

“He’s a sorcerer…”

“He’s flamin’,” Ben corrected. “Becomin’ a sorcerer just gave him an excuse to blow the doors off his closet – which was apparently full of outfits like that.”

“Stephen’s clothing choices are sometimes a little strange,” Reed added. With a straight face, which became a smirk when Tony almost snorted coffee out his nose. “He is a very good man, though. I’m glad he’s agreed to work with us.”

This time Fury was the one who choked. “He…”

“You heard me.” Reed cocked an eyebrow at him, amusement gone as quickly as it had appeared. “I am getting tired of playing with you, Director,” he said. “So why don’t we just stop doing that. You came here to try to regain some portion of control over the Avengers, to attempt to once again drive a wedge between our two teams, and probably to request that someone…”

“Meaning Steve,” Stark interjected.

“…assist you in tracking down and possibly apprehending the team which was exonerated by the President just before Thanksgiving,” Reed finished. “None of that is going to happen. And I would advise you not to attempt to approach my grandfather-in-law about that situation on your own, his reaction would not be what you are assuming it would.”

Fury frowned. This was one of the things he didn’t like about ‘Mr. Fantastic’, the man was just smart enough to be a pompous know-it-all, even when he didn’t actually know anything. “They’re Army, like him. I don’t expect the rest of you to understand, this is a military thing. We need to find that team, and fast, before someone else does. There are a lot of people who would like them to just disappear. SHIELD can protect them, but first we have to find them.”

Tony smiled again, but this time it wasn’t a nice smile. “SHIELD wants to co-opt them,” he corrected. “Part of me can’t blame you for that, they’re really good. But the other part…you know some of those guys have families, right?”

“Their families were told they were dead.” Fury raised a hand when Stark opened his mouth again. “No, I’m sure their families know better, but that doesn’t matter; in spite of that executive order and the big media apology, they’re still going to be hunted, and it’s not like anyone else is going to give them a legitimate job. It’s better for their families if they just stay dead.”

That last sentence fell like a blade dropping; the other three men just stared at him. And then Tony and Reed looked at Ben, who nodded and stood up, taking his coffee cup with him. “I’ll just…go get some more coffee,” he said. “Maybe hang around in the kitchen, block traffic for a while.”

“Yeah, we’ll join you later,” Tony told him. He raised an eyebrow at Fury. “Were you really, in all seriousness, going to try to spin it that way for Steve? Are you really that stupid?”

“I doubt he realizes how stupid it actually would have been,” Reed said. “Because if he did, he wouldn’t have said it in this building at all.” He shook his head. “You are very lucky Steve was not within earshot, Director – very lucky.”

“Captain Rogers would understand…”

“Yeah, that’s the problem – he’d have understood all too well,” Tony interrupted. He was shaking his head too. “Jesus, I really can’t believe you’d…I mean, do you have a deathwish? If you’d said that in front of Steve, he’d have torn your head off. Literally,” he emphasized when Fury didn’t look impressed. “Did you not realize…no, of course you didn’t, or you’d have gone a different way with it entirely. One of those guys you want to capture and then threaten into working for you is related to Steve, Fury – Jake Jensen, their comm guy, is his grandson. Who also happens to have a sister and a niece, Steve’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter, who you were also just threatening to hurt, even though it wasn’t physical hurt.” Reed cleared his throat, and Tony shook his head again. “No, that wasn’t him, remember? I may not like him and I may be shocked to the very depths of my being right now by how blindly stupid he’s being, but even I know he wouldn’t order someone to kill a kid.”

Fury was taken aback. “Kill…”

“Sue and I went to see Jake’s sister Jenny and her daughter Jessie,” Reed told him. “We wanted to introduce ourselves and explain the situation.” He toyed with his coffee cup, eyeing Fury with dislike. “Suffice it to say, someone had set them up to be killed, or at least to appear to have been killed. I believe the official explanation would have been a gas line rupture and either way no bodies would have been recovered. So we brought them back to New York with us to keep them safe until Steve could get back with Jake.”

“Wait, Captain Rogers…”

“When he found out about Jake and Jake’s team…well, he got mad. Really, really mad.” Tony made a face. “Steve’s…a lot like Bruce that way sometimes, you just shouldn’t jab the red button that pisses him off unless you’re really sure you want to deal with him being pissed off. But anyway, he and Rhodey went down to South America and got the team and brought them home, and now everybody’s here and safe and we’re just having one big happy family Christmas party – which again, I’m telling you, is amazingly fun, but that’s beside the point.”

“The point is,” Reed said,” that you do not want to push that figurative big red button, Director Fury. Because if you do, Steve will kill you. Literally. He won’t even hesitate.”

“That’s right, he won’t.” The new voice made Fury jump. Colonel Rhodes and a shorter, dark-haired man were standing in the doorway, Rhodes narrow-eyed and wary and the other man scowling. “Boys, having Ben block the door was a little too obvious, even for here. Director Fury, right?” Fury nodded. “Colonel Clay, retired. I’m sure you were looking for me and my men.”

Fury straightened; he would figure out how to get even with Stark for this later. “Colonel, I wanted to offer you and your men a job. If you were working for SHIELD, you and your families would be safe…”

“From everyone but SHIELD,” Clay interrupted him. “Yeah, thanks but no thanks. My men have families, and I have them and a job to do straightening out what you fucked up with this Initiative situation in general and that kid you pulled out of the ice in particular.” He raised an eyebrow. “And yes, Captain Rogers would kill you without even blinking if you gave him cause. Threatening his family is cause. Do you understand?”

The question had not been rhetorical, and Fury shook his head slowly. “No, I don’t believe that. He’s not a killer.”

“I didn’t say he was,” Clay replied. “He’s a soldier. He’s been trained, he’s seen heavy combat and covert ops, he has instincts that are not going to go away no matter how much you and your PR people would like for them to. Not to mention he’s been enhanced, so he can go from zero to Man of Steel in about five seconds flat if you trigger him – which you don’t seem to realize is something you really, really shouldn’t do.”

Fury was unsure how to respond to that. He really didn’t think Rogers would kill him if he got angry – it wasn’t like he had an unstable transformation like Banner’s, turning into some sort of uncontrollable monster in the blink of a color-shifted eye. Luckily, Tony answered for him. “He doesn’t get it and he’s not going to, Clay,” he told the other man. “He’s still having trouble telling Steve apart from Captain America, and Captain America isn’t the guy you just described. Personally, I think we just need to all do a very casual walk out to the elevator with him to make sure he doesn’t display his astounding stupidity in front of anyone else. Steve would be devastated if he scared the kids.”

“Very true.” Clay considered Fury, and then nodded. “We’re walking you out, and everyone is going to pretend that this was just a normal meeting, got it? You just wanted to chew on people about the whole huge government mess and all the fallout from it, you’re done now and you’re heading off to chew on someone else – or to have your own Christmas somewhere else. Think you can handle that?”

His tone said he had doubts Fury could, and the older man got to his feet with a scowl. “Colonel Clay, you are making a very big mistake. And you aren’t in charge here.”

“Actually, he is.” Stark had stood up too, and so had Reed. “Colonel Clay is attached to the Avengers now.” He gestured. “Meet the man who wrote the rule book that put a stop to your divide-the-team bullshit earlier today.”

“No solo missions unless there’s no other option,” Clay confirmed, nodding. “No secret missions, no vendettas…,” Reed suddenly found the inside of his coffee cup very interesting, which blew Fury’s mind, “…and no gung-ho overly heroic bullshit unless, again, you have no other choice.” Fury glanced at Stark, wondering if that was an opening he could exploit, but Clay shook his head. “He had no other choice, that was a damn good call. You, however, blamed him and a twenty-six year old field captain for a god attacking your fucking airbase from the inside and using your own people and magic to do it, just because they happened to be on the airbase at the time.” He looked Fury dead in the eye. “Losing a good man is hard, Colonel, no one knows that better than a couple of old soldiers like you and I…but you dishonored the guy’s memory before he was even cold, and that was a shitty thing to do.”

“It was what he wanted, and it worked,” Fury felt compelled to defend himself. “They pulled together…”

“We’d have done that anyway,” Stark cut him off, but with a surprising lack of sharpness. “The only thing making us fight was Loki, because he needed to set Bruce off. Steve actually suspected something was up before we ever brought the bastard on board, he said it had been too easy, but the rest of us blew him off and there wasn’t anyone else he could tell who would listen.”

“Which was your fault for not putting him in the chain of command so he’d have someone to report to,” Rhodes chimed in. He looked pissed too, which also surprised Fury. “I have superiors, Clay had superiors…”

“…I have Pepper…”

“Tony has Pepper,” Rhodes added obligingly. “Unless you go all the way to the top, you pretty much always have someone to answer to and who looks out for you. You neglected to provide the kid with any kind of support structure at all and then expected him to pull a bunch of people who barely knew him into a fully functional team just because you wanted it to happen. It doesn’t work that way, and you of all people should have known better.”

“What Steve had with the Commandos was based on mutual respect and shared experience,” Clay elaborated. “It didn’t just happen because he was an awesome comic book character – in fact, the Army had a shitload of problems with his USO reputation once he actually started fighting for real, because a lot of people just assumed he wasn’t real at all and reacted to him accordingly. The Commandos knew better, though, so he didn’t have to keep proving himself to them over and over and over again –one of the smartest things he did was insist on picking his own team, made up entirely of guys who’d already fought beside him.”

“We didn’t have that,” Stark admitted with a shrug. “I’d only heard about him from Dad, and only when Dad was drunk.” Fury flinched at that, and the billionaire nodded slowly. “I know you knew him, Fury – and after hearing Steve talk about him, I know how much it must have sucked for you to watch him turn into that. You guys remember a guy I never had the pleasure of meeting.” He didn’t react to the SHIELD director’s defensive glare. “Jarvis, Fury, Jarvis – he was looking for pictures to give to Steve and he found your picture somewhere it shouldn’t have been. Don’t worry, I had him fix it and nobody here is going to say anything. But if anyone else ever finds out…well, we may not like you, but you can always come to us.”

“Agreed,” Reed said, nodding.

“Agreed,” came from Clay.

“The Air Force agrees too,” Rhodey told him, and shrugged off the raised eyebrow. “My superiors have…a lot of leeway to make judgment calls, let’s put it like that,” he said. “And their last one stands: People aren’t science projects. So if you ever need safe harbor, you’ve got it, no questions asked.” He didn’t quite smile. “Merry Christmas, Colonel Fury.”

 

Fury scowled all the way out of the penthouse, mainly because he was uncomfortable with feeling so…exposed and he wasn’t entirely sure whether he should be grateful or angry about his ‘Christmas present’ from the Avengers. Who he now knew he had completely lost control over, which wasn’t making him happy either. But he kept his mouth shut and looked at the party with newly assessing eyes as they very casually walked back through it. Once upon a time he’d relied on…someone else who was a lot better at it to keep track of the personal aspects of his agents, underlings, and pawns; now he was stuck doing it himself, and he was the first one to admit – privately, anyway – that he wasn’t very good at it. He could take in what he could see, though, and think about it later. His entire HR department was there, not just Morris who he’d already known had some kind of thing going with Barton. Clarke was flirting with the heavyset man from the kitchen, Graham was rather aggressively playing a video game with a long-haired Hispanic man and Johnny Storm, and Wong…all right, Fury had really not needed to see Wong kissing Strange under some suspiciously glowing neon-green mistletoe, especially since the bespectacled blond who he had just now realized looked a hell of a lot like Captain Rogers got reeled into said kissing by both of them and didn’t appear to object at all.

And that was when he saw Captain Rogers – or rather, that was when Captain Rogers spotted him, and Fury was pinned by a very intense look from a pair of very strikingly blue eyes. The anger there, the threat he could see, actually startled him…but then Colonel Clay came up beside him and waved. “Just the usual BS,” he called over. “Stand down, soldier – oh, and one of the kids shot him in the ass with a toy gun when he came in, we’ll have to tell Cougs and Rhonda that they may have a protégé in the making.”

Rogers snorted and the moment was broken, and for some unexplainable reason Fury felt relieved – possibly because he could tell that Clay was, although he still just wasn’t seeing Rogers as any kind of a threat to him. “I want to be there when you make that announcement to their mothers,” the supersoldier responded. He hesitated a moment, then nodded to Fury. “Merry Christmas, Director.”

“Merry Christmas, Captain,” Fury returned, nodding back and then letting himself be guided to the elevator and whisked back down to the ground floor of the Tower. No, he’d been right, he thought as he got into his car and drove away, Rogers wasn’t a threat to anyone who wasn’t an alien invader or a Nazi – he was just young and hotheaded and probably prone to shooting off his mouth and then getting chewed out for it later because he’d been so carefully trained not to damage Captain America’s reputation by acting his age. His teammates and the…other people currently around him would figure that out soon enough, and then Fury could say he’d told them so.

He decided not to go back to headquarters, going home instead and picking up something to eat on the way there, and after a few hours of doing mundanely necessary things and watching the news he went to bed. Sleep wouldn’t come, though. Something was still nagging at him, he just couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Something he’d seen in the Tower earlier? Maybe something he’d seen but hadn’t realized the significance of? That felt warmer. He mulled over who he’d seen and who he hadn’t, trying to avoid thinking about the Sorcerer Supreme in a threesome with one of his HR people and Steve Rogers’ commando grandson because that was just disturbing on multiple levels. Something, someone he hadn’t seen, that was it. Something to do with Banner, maybe…

And then a thought crossed Fury’s mind that didn’t seem to mean anything at first but that, once the significance of it sank in, made him almost forget to breathe for a second. He got out of bed and went into his kitchen, pouring himself two fingers of whiskey and knocking it back in one gulp, his free hand clenched white-knuckled on the edge of the counter. The hand holding the glass was shaking. Because it was easy to tell when Bruce Banner was about to turn into the Hulk; Banner had brown eyes, but when he was about to change they turned green, supposedly due to the gamma radiation. His eyes changing color was a sign that the serum in his system was starting to become active. Everyone just took it as-read that gamma radiation had been the culprit behind the off-again on-again transformative effect the serum had had on Banner, while the ‘vital rays’ used on Rogers to activate his serum – which had been blue – had made the serum-triggered change stable and permanent.

Problem was, now that Fury was thinking about it and remembering the supersoldier staring him down earlier in Stark’s family-filled penthouse…Steve Rogers’ eyes had always been blue.