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Nick Fury, still the director of the organization known as SHIELD in spite of all the crap that had fallen on said organization over the past year, stepped out of his clandestinely-obtained boat and onto the dock on what was apparently now called Monster Island. And which the U.N. considered an individual commonwealth, meaning his presence on the island uninvited could technically be considered an act of aggression. Which it wasn’t, he was just there to pass along some information. And hopefully to gather some intelligence about the now mostly off-the-radar inhabitants of the island, of course, but that was a secondary consideration.

He was starting to wonder if maybe they didn’t have anyone watching the dock and he was going to have to go looking for an entrance into the compound on his own when a tall man came strolling down the rocky beach with a rifle slung over his shoulder. The man waved, and Fury frowned - it was Belinda’s son’s husband, Max Tegan. His frown became a scowl when he saw the eyepatch. The surveillance teams had noted that the man was wearing the patch on a few different occasions, but no one knew why he was wearing it and the supposition had been a minor eye injury. That had been quite a while ago, though. Fury gestured vaguely at his own patch. “You still have that?”

“Well duh. You may have worn it first, but my husband says I wear it best,” Tegan quipped. “Welcome to Monster Island, by the way. You here for sanctuary or dick-swinging?”

Dammit, he did not have time to stand around playing games with a civilian. “I want to talk to someone in charge.”

“Okay, dick swinging.” Tegan tapped the earpiece he was wearing. “Hey, anyone want to talk to that Fury guy? Because he’s down here swinging his dick, but apparently I’m not the one he wants to show it to. Okay…yeah, okay, we’ll wait for you. Maybe a little farther up and in, though, because I see a crocappo heading this way.” He tapped again and then motioned for Fury to follow him. “Okay, you heard me, up and in – follow the path, we just need to get off the beach so the crocappo doesn’t try to eat us. It won’t climb up into the rocks.”

Fury looked in spite of himself, and saw a creature about the size of a small hippo swimming for shore. “It’s a what?”

“A crocappo – one of the mutations from the trench. That’s just what I call them, Bruce has some fancy name picked out that has his name embedded in it with Latin camouflage, because scientists do things like that.”

Tegan led Fury to a path that climbed steeply up away from the ocean, and they continued to climb until they’d reached a vantage point from which they had a good view of the beach. And the aforementioned mutation, which had crawled up out of the water and was wallowing in the sand. It looked something like a salamander or maybe a monitor lizard with short, stumpy legs and a long tail, but it was heavy-bodied like a seal and had a long, angular snout. So it did kind of look like a combination of a crocodile and a hippo…Fury shook his head. Now was not the time to get sidetracked. He briefly considered taking control of the gun the younger man was carrying and then forcing him to lead the way to the entrance to the Avengers’ compound, but he decided against it. He wanted these people to listen to him, they weren’t going to do that if he tried to force his way in. He did want to show them how stupid it was to let everyone have a turn guarding the dock, though, so maybe he’d just take the gun and make the younger man sit down on the rocks while they waited – it would embarrass him, but it would teach the rest of them a lesson. He moved to get into position so he could do that…

…But discovered that he couldn’t move, and the man he’d been planning to disarm was now somehow behind him. “Has he always been this much of a control freak?” Tegan was asking someone, presumably by way of his earpiece. “Because if so, I’m amazed he hasn’t stroked out by now.”

Fury found himself highly offended by this observation, but at the same time entirely confused about what had just happened. Alien tech, maybe? The Avengers were working with Thor’s people, after all. Or possibly magic, because they were also working with the Sorcerer Supreme…he realized he was getting sidetracked again, stopped himself. It didn’t matter what they’d done, but the fact that they’d done it did prove the point he’d been planning to make – this man obviously wasn’t able to guard the beach on his own. “Why exactly do they have you out here again?” he snapped. “Just trying to keep you out of the way, or are they using you as a decoy to get intruders into position?”

To his utter surprise, Tegan snickered. “Hey guys,” he said. “Now he’s trying to make me doubt the rest of you, presumably to cause a rift in the team. Are you sure Scarlet didn’t scramble his brains?”

“There is nothing wrong with me! If you didn’t have me immobilized I’d show you why you don’t belong out here!”

A chuckle. “Nothing’s holding you, Fury.”

Fury tried to move…and did. He straightened his coat and turned around, weathering the smirk. “How long are we going to hang around out here playing games? I have important information, and I need to pass it along to someone important.”

The smirk stayed where it was. “That was weak. Why not just be nice, or at least polite? You wanted to talk to someone, I called for someone to come talk to you. And it was already obvious that what you had to say must be important, because you came all the way out here in person. No drama was necessary in this situation, so why did you feel you needed to create some?”

Fury scowled at him, folding his arms across his chest. “I’m not here to talk to you.”

“Fair enough.” Tegan didn’t seem bothered by the dismissal; he just shrugged and tapped his earpiece again. “Hey Blake, is Blue with you? I just thought I saw something moving down by the beach, I wanted to make sure she wasn’t stalking the crocappo…no, it’s a little one, maybe six or eight feet long, but she doesn’t need to be eating them…”

They had a dog out here too? What did they think this was, a Disney movie? Fury rolled his eye and stalked to the side of the path, looking up and down the beach. The mutation had stopped wallowing and was now stretched out in the sand on its back, enjoying the sun from the look of it. He didn’t see a dog, or anything else moving for that matter except the waves. Which, he noticed in spite of himself, were all in really pretty shifting shades of azure and turquoise. The water here was clear, like it was down in the Keys - he did take vacations sometimes, no matter what anyone thought to the contrary - and between that and the untouched beach with its wild frame of almost jungle-ish greenery the whole scene looked like an oil painting…

A new voice startled him out of his inexplicable distraction. “What, you couldn’t get him to go down and pet the crocappo too?”

“That would have been mean,” Tegan said primly. “You know they don’t like to be touched.”

“Very true.” Fury turned around and found Clay smirking at him. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

Fury just huffed. “If we’re done playing games, I have important information…”

“You have information you can’t trust your own people with and don’t dare put in writing anywhere,” Clay corrected him. “If it was just something generally important, you’d have sent us a message or called someone. Not like Tony doesn’t have the same cell number he’s always had.” He waved a casual hand, and Fury grudgingly fell into step with him, heading farther up the path. “Pretty much everybody is here, we can conference in anyone who’s not. So what has you so on edge, Colonel? Max was right, you’re tense enough to snap.”

“Why are you letting a civilian stand guard?”

Clay snorted a laugh. “We aren’t - not that I wouldn’t if we actually needed it and he wanted to, Max can take care of himself, but we just had him waiting down there to lead you to the path and keep an eye on your boat. That crocappo that came up on the beach isn’t alone, you know. They travel in pods, like dolphins or sea lions.”

“They eat meat?”

“They eat everything, and if they can’t eat it they play with it. Don’t worry, though, Max will keep them off your boat. Next time call first and we’ll guide you in to the secure dock on the other side of the island.”

Fury considered that. “I don’t have a secure way to contact you.”

Clay shrugged. “And we’re not going to give you one, because we know you’d try to reverse-engineer it so you could breach our security.” He smirked, but there wasn’t any humor in it. “You compromise us you compromise Earth, Fury. The kid was right about that, too - this obsessive need to have every single string in your hands and your hands alone is a problem. We all keep telling you that, how come you aren’t listening? Because in all honesty, the more you act like this, the less we’re inclined to trust you with anything important.”

The taller man stopped in his tracks, scowling. “If you don’t want my help…”

“We don’t need your help,” Clay pointed out calmly. “You do need ours, though, and pretty much everyone here is okay with that.”

In spite of himself, Fury winced. “He needs to get over it.”

“No, you need to stop fucking with him and his family,” the other man corrected, more sharply this time. “And consider this the last warning you’re going to get, from anyone, ever. The only reason he didn’t kill you in Malibu that last time was because he was in the middle of getting married and couldn’t be bothered.” A hard smile. “Beautiful ceremony, wasn’t it? Did you get some good pictures?”

The expression which had been a scowl was almost on the verge of becoming a sulk. “We have to keep tabs on all of these people - you of all people should know that, Colonel.”

“I do know that, because I’m the one who keeps tabs on them,” was Clay’s response. “Well, me and my team and Jarvis. You are not a part of that equation, the U.N. specifically said you aren’t a part of that equation, so what you were doing was just spying.” He raised an eyebrow. “I’ll ask again: Did you enjoy watching?”

The scowl came back. “It was a beautiful wedding,” Fury admitted - although he wasn’t going to admit that he’d saved some of the surveillance photos on a personal flash drive. “I still don’t think it was a good idea that he married a civilian, though.”

Clay shrugged. “He married the woman he loved. Who is perfectly okay with the idea of him tearing you limb from limb, by the way, just so you don’t get any ideas about trying to exploit that supposed weak spot - she’d cheer him on and then mock your surprised corpse afterward.”

Fury winced again. “I suppose I should thank Gomez for that?” Clay raised an eyebrow, and he rolled his eye. “I am not calling her Gomez-Blacula, she only changed her name that way to piss me off.”

“And it worked, too.” They’d gone fairly high up the path now, and the view when Fury looked back was even more breathtaking. And then, quite suddenly, he was standing on a flagged stone patio and looking at a completely different view which included a shorts- and t-shirt-clad Stark and a smirking Strange who was wearing what looked like a silk smoking jacket over a pair of fairly tight swimming trunks and nothing else. “Thanks, Stephen.”

“Any time, Clay - I know how much you hate making small-talk.” The Sorcerer Supreme looked Fury up and down and rolled his eyes. “I’m starting to wonder if this is just the only outfit you have. Adding a little splash of color isn’t going to kill you, you know. Maybe a nice deep blue, sort of ease into it?”

Fury was entirely unsure how he should respond to this - a problem he often had around Strange - and was also unsure whether he’d just been insulted or not. Luckily Stark didn’t give him time to have to come up with something to say. “You are not giving this man a makeover,” he said, shaking an admonishing finger at the Sorcerer Supreme. “If he wore color to work, they’d probably think something was wrong with him.” He made an expansive gesture. “Welcome to Superhero Headquarters, Fury, or at least the only part of it you’re getting to see today. Nice view, huh? Have a seat anywhere but the chaise, everyone else should be out here in a few minutes and then we can get started. Want some water since you’re going to be talking a lot?”

Fury swallowed his irritation and nodded - popping off at Stark wouldn’t get him anywhere. “Water would be nice, thank you. How many of you are here?”

Stark shrugged. “Most of us, right now. Jarvis, ask someone to bring out a bottle of water for Director Fury.”

“Certainly, sir.” The A.I.’s voice was coming out of speakers embedded into the stone parapet that surrounded the large patio, and Stark shook his head when he saw Fury notice that. “No, they were already here - the cartel leader who owned this place liked his music, he’d put in a kick-ass sound system. Custom-built speakers, gold-plated connectors, the whole nine yards. We actually sort of bonded over it, he still sends me tracks he wants me to hear on this system and I have Jarvis tune his new speakers for him.”

Fury had heard about that. “You convinced them to stop fighting.”

Stark shrugged again. “By telling them the truth. We’ve got aliens who want to take over the planet, who have already been making moves to soften us up so they can do it easier, so we no longer have the luxury to keep fucking around with each other anymore over stupid shit. Manny’s not an idiot; he called up some people and got them to agree to a temporary truce because the Avengers were the ones asking, we had a kind of cartel summit right here on the patio and everyone agreed that keeping aliens from taking our planet away from us was a good reason to work together.” He smirked. “Of course, it also helped that Rhodey’s bosses called up someone in Washington and asked them very politely if they could pretty please call a halt to all of the reindeer games they still had going on in South America before they got us all killed. And then Clay and Allison called up some more people and got them to promise that they’d ‘encourage’ any stragglers to get their asses back home, and that pretty much solved that problem. The CIA tried to sneak somebody out here to the island for the summit, but the crocappos got to him before we did so that was kind of a bust - hence the friendly greeting you got on the beach today, we don’t want them to start thinking people are tasty.”

“Oh, they already think that.” Banner had come out onto the patio with a laptop, and other people were starting to trickle in behind him, some of them carrying folding chairs. He plopped into a nicely cushioned chair that had already been there. “Enjoying the view, Director Fury? It’s really nice from this side, on a clear day you can even see the bigger mutations swimming around.”

That was something Fury had been wondering about. “You are really close to that trench. How do you keep the big ones from coming up here?”

Banner shrugged. “We don’t have to, most of them are purely aquatic and can’t function very well on land. There are a few pseudo-mammalian ones, like the Hydroamalis banneri you saw on the beach, and at least one that’s closer to a true amphibian…”

“Jerry,” Barton supplied for no apparent reason, handing Fury the requested bottle of water before unfolding a chair nearby. “He looks like more a lizard, though.”

Banner rolled his eyes. “He’s not a lizard.”

“I know, he just looks like one.” Barton put his feet up and got comfortable. “Hey, Fury, how’s it hangin’?”

“To the left, as usual,” Romanov answered before Fury could say anything. She plopped down in the chair with the now-snickering Banner. “You have not seen Jerry, have you?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean we won’t.” Banner kissed her hair in the absent way of a long-time lover, fiddling with his laptop. “Who’s got the screen?”

“I do.” That was Rogers, who was carrying something large that was rolled up - maybe a projector screen? - while his wife carried a small box that had a cable dangling over one side. Barton started to get up, but his wife came out and plopped their toddler into his lap before going to help herself. She and Rogers unrolled the screen and then Rogers hung it from a frame while she started taking things out of the box and hooking them up. Finally she took the box too and made a shooing motion. “Josie, look at your ankles! Go sit down and put your feet up.”

“I’m tired of sitting down with my feet up - just like you were,” the redhead reminded her, but she still waddled over to the off-limits chaise lounge and sank down onto it, putting her feet up with a grimace. “Shouldn’t I be able to feel it when they look like this?”

“You’ve gotten used to it, so no,” Banner reassured her. “Don’t worry, it looks awful but it’s not really that bad.”

Fury was watching this exchange and trying not to show how interested he was. Josie Noonan-Rogers was pregnant - really pregnant, to his eye - which meant the first naturally-conceived child of Earth’s first and only full supersoldier was about to be born. Would it be like Rogers? Had the serum replicated itself during the conception process, producing a super baby, or would it just be an exceptionally healthy child? Would it have any of its mother’s traits at all, or would it be like the first round of experimental children had been, their mothers’ DNA almost completely overriden by Rogers’ enhanced genetic code…

A heavy hand on his shoulder, on his blind side, startled him - which was a startling occurrence all by itself. “The polite thing is to say ‘congratulations’ and not stare at the mommy-to-be as though you wanted to eat her,” a lightly accented voice said in his ear. Barnes, it had to be. How had he gotten so close? The hand squeezed a slight warning, then let go. “Be glad he did not see you, he is…overprotective. And so am I…and so is her physician. Such pretty green eyes he has, yes?”

Barnes wandered away, and Fury swallowed, meeting Banner’s green-rimmed eyes and raised eyebrow with a nod to indicate he understood the warning and would heed it. And then he nodded to Rogers’ wife. “Mrs. Rogers, I hadn’t heard the good news, I was surprised. Congratulations.”

“Thank you.” For some reason, everyone around her relaxed when she said that. Interesting, he’d consider what that might mean later -  probably just that she was pregnant and hormonal and they’d been waiting to see if she’d snap at him. He made a mental note not to respond in kind if that happened. “So what’s the new Starbucks flavor this month? That fruity thing they had last month was nasty.”

She’d been off the island recently too? He’d have to figure out why his information about her was so incomplete, someone should definitely have seen her. “They’re still on that one,” he told her. “Hill was complaining about it too. I just stick to plain black myself.”

That made her giggle behind her hand, and Stark aimed a warning finger at Strange, who was about to make a comment. “I said no, Stephen!”

Strange stuck his tongue out. “You’re no fun.”

It was all Fury could do not to roll his eye and try to call them all to order the way he’d do…well, pretty much anywhere else. Instead he uncapped his water - the bottle was labeled Avengers Initiative Hydration Substance: Plain, which made him briefly wonder if they actually had other flavors or if it was just a joke. He leaned toward the joke. It was still kind of amazing to him some days that the Avengers Initiative ever got anything done, since usually whenever he saw them they were playing around like a bunch of kids. 

Movement caught his attention, something large out by the water, and he immediately shook off the distraction and went on the alert: it was one of the mutations from the trench, a big one, and it looked like it was heading right for them. Overland, no less, stalking up from the beach - weren’t they supposed to be mostly aquatic? This one, from what he could see of it, looked something like a lizard and had a mouth like a dinosaur. And then it roared, shaking what felt like the whole island, before starting to climb up the side of the cliff.

And nobody moved. Stark tapped his earpiece. “Hey, we need you. Yeah, well, I just wanted to make sure you guys weren’t doing the nasty on the beach first, because my wife is currently in Switzerland and not due back for another week. Yeah…okay, I’ll tell him.” He waved at Strange, who had already raised one languid hand. “No need, he said they’ll take the Kitty Express. Assuming she’s not more interested in taunting the crocappos…”

There was a blue shimmer, and then Belinda’s son and his husband were standing on the patio, a shimmering blue-furred floating tiger-like creature beside them. If there hadn’t been a fucking monster headed their way, Fury would have been wondering if any of the information he had about the members of the Initiative was complete. “You are such a good kitty,” Tegan told the tiger, ruffling its ears. “Don’t attack Jerry, though, he might eat you by accident.”

That was when two sets of claws curled over the edge of the parapet, followed by a huge, dinosaur-like snout. “Jerry, no,” Tegan told the creature, pretty much like he was talking to a misbehaving dog. He strolled over to it and reached out to scratch the ridge over a slit-pupiled golden eye that was bigger than his head. “You and I have talked about this,” he scolded mildly. “If you want attention, I’ll come down to the beach - you’re too big to fit on the patio!”

The monster rumbled just a little - even that still vibrated the flagstones under Fury’s feet - and leaned into the scratching, eyes going half-lidded like a purring cat. Banner got up and wandered over, stroking a raised ridge on the scaly skin. “Hmm, someone’s been in another fight. Looks like he won, though.”

“Jerry always wins,” Tegan stopped scratching, patted the eye ridge and looked into the huge eye that was looking at him. “Okay, you’ve had pets and showed us your new scar,” he said. “Now go curl up in the sun.”

Another rumble, but the monster obligingly disappeared and a moment later - after an earth-shaking thud, presumably when it jumped the rest of the way down - Fury saw it wading back through the foliage toward the beach. He turned a suspicious eye on Tegan and Banner. “What was that?”

“Jerry,” Banner supplied placidly, wandering back to his chair. “I haven’t been able to come up with a species designation for him yet. I got in touch with another scientist who studies radiation-initiated mutations and he’s going to come help me figure Jerry out. If he ever shows up on one of your beaches, though, call us and don’t send planes after him,” he warned. “You just saw how he can climb, and he can jump, too. He’d swat them out of the air like mosquitoes.”

Fury swallowed. “So you’re saying that was Godzilla.”

Banner laughed; so did Tegan. “No, because Godzilla is a fictional character that breathes radioactive fire. Jerry is just a big amphibious creature that likes to have his eye-ridges scratched and crawls up on the beach so I can scrape barnacles off his tail.” The glowing, floating tiger-cat nudged itself under his hand, and he absently stroked the top of its head. “Speaking of, Bruce; did Dr. Tatopoulos ever get back to you about the barnacle thing?”

“Next week when he comes out,” Banner told him. “He wants to see how they’re attaching for himself before he proposes any theories, but he suspects the barnacles may be mutations too. Which means another paper, and another non-Other Guy entry on my Wikipedia page.” He emphasized that with a fist-pump, and Romanov ruffled his hair.

“And another non-worm entry on Nick’s,” Stark put in. The screen Captain Rogers and Amanda Barton nee Morris had been setting up came on. “Hey guys, look who came to visit! Sadly, though, you just missed Jerry.”

“Next week,” Banner said before the image of Reed Richards on the screen could open its mouth. “Nick will be here next week.”

“Is he still dating that awful reporter?” Sue Storm-Richards wanted to know, and made a face when both Banner and Romanov nodded. “Eww.”

“I don’t think it’s going to last much longer,” Mrs. Rogers put in. “He’s comfortable and she isn’t, she’s just hanging on to see if she can use him to advance what passes for her career.”

“Oh thank god. I hate seeing a sweetheart like Nick tied to…that.”

Her distaste was obvious, and Fury made a mental note to look into that situation. Niko Tatopoulos was one of the few scientists in his field - not that there were many scientists in his field to begin with - who had high enough security clearance to conduct his research at government testing facilities just by showing up and asking to be let in. He was also oblivious to most things that weren’t related to his research - namely worms - so the idea that he had a conniving reporter pretending to be his girlfriend could be considered a risk to national security. Fury turned his attention to Stark. “Is this everyone?”

“It’s all we’re getting today,” Stark told him. “Don’t worry, though, Jarvis will make sure everyone who’s not here gets filled in.”

Fury let that slide. He knew he was being recorded - he couldn’t have not known, there’d been a sign on the dock that said, ‘If You’re Here, You’re On Camera. Deal With It.’ - and he knew they weren’t going to share that video outside of their group so he really wasn’t bothered by it. “I got some intel from a contact in China who I’d thought was dead,” he told them. “And I thought that because I saw him die.”

“No way that could have been staged?” Romanov wanted to know.

There had been a time when Fury would have been offended by that question, but these days damn near anything was possible so he’d had to lower the bar somewhat on his threshold of irritation. “I was standing ten feet from him and he got his head blown off, so not likely,” he said. “Other people didn’t know he was dead, though…and now he’s back and I’m thinking it’s probably a Skrull.”

A lot of nodding from everyone except Mrs. Rogers, who was now sharing the chaise with her husband and didn’t look like she was paying attention to anything but her nails. Clay frowned. “Had anyone been using him as an identity?”

Fury shook his head. “Nobody except me. And I’d only been activating him just often enough to keep people from wondering if he was dead.”

“Did he have ties to the triads?” Morris wanted to know, and made a face at Fury’s nod. “Dammit, that’s all we need is Skrulls mixed up in that. Todji has at least one backup there too.”  

“Hong Kong?”

“Singapore. He’s used that one recently, though, and nothing funnier than usual was going on…so maybe the problem is still confined to Hong Kong?”

“No idea,” Fury admitted. “Intel from that area has gotten pretty thin, and it was never all that thick to begin with. Which makes it even more imperative for us to make sure the Skrulls aren’t getting a foothold there.”

“So your backup must be connected to Tai Huen Chai,” Belinda’s son mused, seemingly out of nowhere. “But they aren’t the ones I’d think would knowingly get involved with Skrulls; that would be more likely to be one of the up-and-comers, trying to carve out a bigger spot for themselves. Jarvis, has OTCB put out any information about a new group that’s growing fast, but that they aren’t too worried about yet because it doesn’t seem to be all that violent? Keywords infiltrate, rising, intimidation.”

“Yes, such a group has been mentioned,” the AI replied after about ten seconds. “They do not yet have a name, but the bureau has become aware of them. Scattered reports from informants say strong men who address each other only as si bing, ‘soldier’, have been encountered and appear to be quietly recruiting.” Another pause. “Most of those they show interest in, however, leave for a short time and then return to their original positions.”

“So they’ve formed a competing organization, and now they’re infiltrating the smaller triad groups preparatory to merging with them,” Belinda’s son said, nodding. “It’s already a foothold situation. Reports…reports of violent crimes have gone down, right?”

“Yes,” Jarvis confirmed. “The OTCB credits itself for the decline, based on recent aggressive enforcement.”

“Meaning the Skrulls are using them to clear out everyone who isn’t worthy of being infiltrated.” He scratched his front tooth. “They’re getting things ready so they can…so they can consolidate. Director, if you’ve got any other people in Hong Kong…you need to get them out now.”

Fury couldn’t help but notice that everyone else present accepted this immediately. He really wished they were humoring the man, but they weren’t, and with that in mind he chose his response more carefully than he actually wanted to. “I’ll need corroboration before I make any moves down there.”

The younger man looked him right in the eye. He had Belinda’s eyes, dark and direct, with a knowingness in them that was somewhat disconcerting. “Then you’re going to lose at least…at least forty percent of your people. To the Skrulls. Because they took your backup identity and they’re using it…that means they already knew he was someone’s backup. He’s dead, remember? They wouldn’t have been able to scan him. They’re using him…using him like a sock puppet to draw out whoever had been using him last.”   

“I’ll look into it,” Fury said. “I haven’t responded to him yet…”

“Which means now they know that connection goes to the hand that was up that particular puppet’s ass,” Clay pointed out, and rolled his eyes when Fury scowled at him. “Blake is right, at the very least you’ve got to pull whoever else is connected to that, and you need to do it yesterday.”

Belinda’s son leaned back in his chair to look over at Clay. “Except pulling on the other strings is going to show them exactly where the other connections are. There’s no way…there’s no way they aren’t looking for a pattern like that to surface.”

That was also correct, but Fury’s irritation was starting to get the better of him. He didn’t have time for this. “So pull them out or leave them, neither one is going to work.”

“No, you’d need to pull them all at once - all of them,” Rogers said. “You’ll probably still lose…I don’t know, ten percent?”

That had been directed at Belinda’s son, who shrugged. “Not enough data. But they’ll probably chase at least some of the ones that are pulled, and since they’ve had enough time to establish their own network…well, luck of the draw, depending on who’s where and how fast…how fast they can disentangle themselves.”

“Point.” Rogers returned his attention to Fury. “We might be able to help you get your connections out, but we’d have to move pretty fast.”

“As in, do you have that information with you right now?” Stark asked, and then rolled his eyes when Fury gave him a look. “Okay then, can you get it to us today, after you get back home? Because it sounds like the clock is ticking. How long has it been since you heard from the dead guy?”

Fury’s jaw set. “Six days.”

Clay leaned forward. “Six days? It took you nearly a week to get out here with this? Just how compromised is SHIELD right now, Fury?”

That stung. “It is not…”

“It sure as hell is, apparently,” Clay cut him off. “Are you positive you don’t need sanctuary? Because if it’s that bad…”

“It’s not!” Fury snapped. What was it with these people? And they said he was paranoid. “I have to be careful, I’m not supposed to be ‘unofficially’ communicating with the Initiative. But the rest of my staff doesn’t know about Terrence Li, that part of the web…well, I wove it, it’s a fail-safe just in case certain other avenues aren’t available when I need them. I cannot take a chance on anyone else getting hold of that.” He huffed out a frustrated breath. “If you’d give me a secure way to contact you, I could send you the information when I get back.”

“Okay,” Stark said. Just like that. Fury almost jumped. The billionaire scribbled something on a piece of paper, then folded the paper over and handed it to Rogers who handed it to Fury. “That’s a secure mailbox, one nobody has paid any attention to yet. It’s safe to use unless you get a vacation response, if you do that means it’s no longer secure and you’ll need to come back out here in person and have me give you another one.”

Fury opened the fold back up, saw the email address and scowled. It was blaculasgirl214@ kindlin.com. “Is this a joke?”

Stark snorted. “Hardly. They’re running a distributed network, and the company is barely even meme-worthy now - it’s not worth hacking, and it doesn’t draw any suspicion no matter how much traffic we send through it.” Fury crumpled the paper in his hand, stuffing it into his pocket, and Stark grinned. “Just remember, swipe right if you’re not interested, left if you are. Oh, and that’s also a clandestine way to get hold of any member of the Initiative if you need to, we’re all on there. Just put in ‘back-door invasion’ as a keyword under turn-ons, that will pull us all up.”

“Be sure you use the hyphen, though,” Mrs. Rogers warned, somewhat sleepily; she was covering a yawn with her hand. “Kindlin’s keyword-matching system is pretty primitive, so if you don’t use the hyphen you’re going to get…well, an entirely different set of potential matches who use that term to describe their role-playing kink.”

Fury made a face. “Thank you,” he said, only somewhat sarcastically. This must be what she did for the Initiative, then - the same job she’d been doing for Gomez’s online dating service, just to a different end. “Is there any news any of you feel the need to share with me, since I’m already here?”

“No, if we had something to say, we’d have just called you,” Clay told him, standing up. “Stephen?”

Strange raised his hand. “I’ll put you back on the path,” he said. “Just in case there are still any crocappos on the beach.”

Fury froze in place, and Max stood back up too, stretching. “I still can’t believe he’s so susceptible to this.”

Josie rolled her eyes. “That’s because you hate him and you feel sorry for him, so you’re laying it on a little thicker,” she said. Stark hit a button, and the image on the screen broke up into half a dozen smaller images - the entire Initiative had been watching. “Okay, he’s just too stubborn to admit he’s in over his head - nothing new there. He couldn’t believe everyone was listening to Blake…”

“I already knew that,” Blake said, but he was grinning. “I just love…love fucking with him that way.”

“Everyone loves doin’ that,” Clint said, bouncing Jacob on his lap to make him giggle. “Because it’s way too easy, and it shouldn’t be.”

“Yeah, exactly.” Jacob wriggled to get down, and the second his little feet hit the flagstones he made an unsteady beeline for Fury; Clay smiled and intercepted him, swinging him up and making him squeal. “Hey, little fella.” That got him a baby kiss. “Yeah, I love you too. We don’t want to wake the big guy up just yet, though. He’s cranky.”

“He was actually trying to hold it in this time,” Josie said. “He thought I was just really hormonal and he didn’t want to set me off.”

Steve kissed her cheek. “Well, he wasn’t entirely wrong…”

Her response was to kiss him back, and Tony rolled his eyes. “He just thought something sappy, I know he did. So was there anything else that came out while Fury was trying to get us killed with minimal information?”

Josie shrugged. “Not really. He doesn’t trust his staff, but he really doesn’t have a reason not to at the moment it’s just…a vague worry that someone might be compromised. So, normal enough for him. His connection with his backup in Hong Kong was tenuous anyway, but it still scared the hell out of him when the guy he killed contacted him and tried to give him information.” She made a face. “He knows he screwed up, he usually answers within a couple of days at the most. Forty percent, Blake?”

“That was a con…conservative estimate,” Blake told her. “If they were testing the connection to see whether it was the puppetmaster or some other person that was monitoring it, then forty is probably about right. But if they were just yanking his chain, we’ll be lucky to salvage any assets he might have on that end.”

“So Hong Kong is definitely about to be occupied.” On the screen, Todji shook his head; he was currently in the Botos’ office in Avengers Tower. “I’ll get on it, maybe we can at least slow them down. Stephen, how about Chinese food tonight?”    

“Sounds good. I’ll get Jake and we’ll meet you at the apartment in half an hour,” Stephen agreed. “I might be able to get some of my Asian contacts on board too, we’ll see. Or at the very least the local tiangou might be willing to get involved, or even some of the yaojing - if we’re lucky, they’ve already noticed the Skrulls but just didn’t understand what they were up to. We’ll contain the problem to the best extent that we can.”

“Hopefully Fury will contain the problem we have on Nick’s end,” Sue said. “It looked like he took the bait. How long do you think it will take him to get rid of Audrey, Josie?”

“A day, maybe two - he was pretty worried.” Josie smiled happily. “I’ll start cross-matching Nick’s profile in the system, there has to be someone out there who’d be a good match for him.”

“Next week that’s going to be Jerry,” Bruce put in. “In fact, knowing Nick, you might want to run it as a three-way just in case.” He gave the frozen Fury a thoughtful look. “You know, we might want to start working on bringing Nick into the Initiative. He’s not always as oblivious as some people think he is, but he’s used to just ignoring people in authority unless they try to interfere with his work. An extra level of protection couldn’t hurt.”

“No, it couldn’t.” Reed considered it. “I’ll be coming out next week myself. Between you and I, we can probably convince him to start thinking of himself as part of the team, get him used to working with us.”

“And then from there we can probably get him to start calling us in for backup.” Bruce was nodding. “That’s a good plan, we’ll do that.” He was still frowning, though. “I think we’re about to be spreading ourselves pretty thin here, guys. We’re set to start using the portal generator next week too, after all.”

“We’ll manage,” Tony assured him. “There are plenty of us now, after all.” He, too, frowned up at Fury. “No thanks to this game-playing asshole, of course.”

 

Fury blinked…and he was back on the path, just above the beach and the dock. He looked around. Nobody else was there, and no mutations were visible. “This must be how people on Star Trek felt when someone beamed them up unexpectedly,” he grumbled, stomping down the path. The spot where the crocappo had been wallowing was a deep depression in the sand, and he looked around again. Nothing. Nothing around his boat, either. He was walking out onto the dock when he felt a puff of displaced air behind him and immediately moved to neutralize the potential threat…but abruptly found himself hugging it instead. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” Max Tegan told him, detaching. The glowing blue tiger thing had bounded off to sniff around the crocappo’s wallow. “I just wanted to bring these back to you, I’m told they’re expensive.”

‘These’ were the spider-legged bugs/homing devices Fury had dropped while on the island, and he grimaced. “Well, they aren’t cheap,” he temporized, taking them from the outstretched hand and putting them in his pocket. Honestly he had no idea how much the little devices cost, but he was relatively certain they weren’t cheap. He raised his eyebrow. “Not upset that I dropped them?”

Tegan shrugged. “No, should we be? That’s just what you do, man, everyone knows that - it’s part of your job. And Tony’s like a little kid on an Easter egg hunt after your visits, it’s fun for him.” He stepped back off the dock, throwing up a mock salute. “Have a nice trip back, it’s a pretty day to be out on the water.”

“It is,” Fury had to agree, because it was, it really was. “Do those crocappo things attack boats?”

“They’re all on the south side of the island right now,” Tegan assured him. “You’re heading west, they’ll never even see you.”

And Fury thanked him, got in his boat and headed west back to the dock he was currently using. He couldn’t stop wondering about that hug, though. He’d been moving to neutralize a threat that was coming up behind him, and in no way did that translate into a hug. Not to mention that he also didn’t usually get so distracted by a view that he ‘forgot’ to kick someone’s ass and take their gun…or at least he didn’t unless that someone didn’t happen to be entirely normal.

Fury went back to his office and pulled up the information he had on Max Tegan. There wasn’t much. PR director of Gomez’s online matchmaking service, married to Belinda Bryce’s son, somewhat estranged from his family because of that marriage. Had a degree in marketing, never been in any trouble…although he had been victimized a couple of times after work in his company’s parking lot, once by a regular mugger, once by FindLove’s former HR director. Both times the local ninja vigilante had come to his aid, which had prompted LAPD to suspect the vigilante was probably someone with a personal interest in Tegan; Fury let himself be amused by them coming that close to getting it right. Not finding anything useful there, he pulled up some footage of the last time some idiot had attacked Manhattan to see if Tegan had been involved. The superheroes had all come as soon as they were called, and of course that was the usual strangeness because most of them just seemed to appear in the city now - no planes, helicopters, Helicarriers, nothing. Stark didn’t even fly in wearing his suit; he just came walking out of a building with it on. That was a known issue, though, and SHIELD suspected it had something to do with  magic, alien tech, or some combination of the two, and they had proof that it wasn’t always Strange acting directly. Nothing could be conclusively proved - and Fury had no idea what category the glowing, floating tiger-thing belonged in - so they were basically waiting for somebody to slip and give it away. He slowed down the footage, taking his time and pausing often to note who was where and doing what. Captain Rogers was in the middle of everything and Stark, Thor, Mr. Fantastic and The Thing were acting in that general area as well. The Hulk was farther forward with Johnny Storm acting as air support, and Barnes was off to one side with Romanov and a masked shorter man and they were basically mopping up everything that got around the central group; it took Fury a moment to realize the shorter man was Belinda’s son, which he wasn’t too happy about even though it looked like the younger man was more than holding his own. He knew Barton was on top of something doing his thing because he could see projectiles hitting people from above, the Invisible Girl was working crowd control, and the field notes said Rogers’ wife had been relaying intel she was getting from who-knows-where over the Initiative’s radios - sarcastically and with a good deal of speculative commentary, but she’d been relaying it.

And then, in one corner of the screen, he saw a familiar tall man walk out of a little shop, eating an ice cream cone and looking at the battle like it was just something interesting put there for him to see. Max Tegan just stood there, in the shop’s doorway, watching…Fury backtracked, focusing on that area, and found him calmly herding people into the shop, calmly talking to the shop owner, and just as calmly watching things go down from the doorway while he ate his ice cream. A fighter came screaming up, slowed, and then lowered his gun with a confused look on his face. Tegan seemed to chat with him for a minute, then patted his shoulder and took his gun before herding him into the shop too. And then he went back to watching.

Fifteen more minutes saw five guns stacked on the sidewalk, and then not long after that things were mostly over and Barnes and Belinda’s son came trotting over. The younger man proceeded to do a brief oral cavity check on his husband, and then he and Barnes led the five still-confused soldiers out and handed them off to a couple of agents who started off being a lot more aggressive than Fury liked to see but almost immediately calmed down again. And then Barnes, Belinda’s son and Tegan went into the shop and didn’t come back out. Fury knew where they’d gone, of course, even though he wasn’t sure how - they’d gone back to the island - but that just made it weirder.

 

Nothing else he could find gave him any more information about that side-incident, so finally he just went down to the ice cream shop himself to ask the guy who owned and ran the place what had happened. Or at least he was going to do that, but the man had taken one look at him, shaken his head, and said, “You want ice cream, I’ll talk to you. If not, get out.”

Strangely, this attitude relieved Fury to no end; the guy looked and sounded like a typical New York shop owner, right down to the Lower East Side accent. He bought some ice cream. “I take it I’m not the first person who came in to ask questions?” That got a head shake. “Bunch of them, huh?”

“I didn’t say that; you said that.” The man raised a bushy, mostly gray eyebrow. “You got an actual question, or are you just wastin’ my time and yours both?”

In spite of himself, Fury grinned. “That was small talk, and I’m bad at it,” he admitted, and took a bite of his ice cream. It was good. “I was going over footage of that last battle downtown, I noticed everything in here was pretty calm. And there was a guy here eating ice cream watching everything from the door…”

“Oh, him.” The man rolled his eyes. “He just brought a bunch of people in, got them all ice cream, and told them everything was gonna be okay and not to worry.” He shrugged. “He was right, nothin’ happened over here. I know he works with the superhero people - he had an earpiece, he was listening to them - but he didn’t do nothin’ special while he was here.”

“What about those soldiers who left their guns outside?”

Another shrug. “Switched sides, maybe? He sent ‘em in, they ordered ice cream and sat down just like everyone else. One of ‘em said mine was the best ice cream he’d had in a long time and he was gonna tell his friends once all the fighting was over. Seemed like a nice kid, I figured he’d just gotten sucked into it.”

‘Nice kid’, right - the high-powered rifle with the bloody bayonet attached that he’d left outside the door notwithstanding. “Some of them do,” Fury agreed anyway. “So you didn’t see the guy with the earpiece do anything strange?”

“Mister, what’re you tryin’ to get me to say?” was the annoyed response, accompanied by another eye-roll. The man picked up a damp towel and started wiping the counter. “Strange is sea monsters and wizards and aliens, and guys that stretch like rubber married to ladies that turn invisible. Strange ain’t a guy who comes in and eats ice cream with extra sprinkles while he waits for his superhero ninja boyfriend to get done fighting.”

Dammit. “Husband, not boyfriend,” Fury corrected, and got a shrug; the man obviously couldn’t care less. “Let me guess, they left out the back?”

“Yeah, they herded all the people out that way,” the man answered. “Street was full of stuff still goin’ on, so they took the soldiers out there and then led the rest of ‘em out the back door so they could get home safe. What, you thought they got in a blue police box and flew off or something?”

“I’d wondered,” Fury snarked back, rolling his eye. He saluted the man with what was left of his cone. “It is great ice cream. Thanks for answering my questions.”

“Anytime - as long as you buy somethin’.”

Fury left then, but he kept watching the shop for a little while longer - even though SHIELD’s records said the place and its owner had been there for years, that didn’t mean the owner wasn’t working with the Initiative and planning to contact them the minute he thought Fury was gone. Or that they weren’t watching the shop and would just be magically showing up to check on things. Neither of those things happened, though. The man cleaned the counter some more, then puttered around the shop until the next trickle of customers came in. It was apparently a slow afternoon. A few more customers, a little more cleaning followed by a cup of coffee and the day’s paper, and finally Fury was satisfied and went back to his office to pursue another line of investigation.

The man behind the ice cream shop’s counter rolled his eyes. “Don’t know how he thinks he can be inconspicuous, lookin’ like that,” he muttered, shaking his head. He sipped his coffee - a special blend he’d gotten attached to in Columbia once upon a time - and idly watching people walk past and cars whiz by, waiting for his next customer. He hadn’t been too sure about the whole retirement thing, but when Lee Christmas had asked him to help set up that parolee transfer to Kansas a year or so ago he’d started thinking maybe it was time to consider changing his modus operandi. A man couldn’t be sure of his contact list when any one of them might have been replaced by a fucking lizard alien, and Elise had said they needed someone on the ground in Manhattan - she’d even gotten Tight-Ass Trench to share his ice cream recipes, and by the time Bonaparte had hit the city the shop was already there, looking like it had been there forever and six weeks, and all the paperwork said he’d been LES all his life.

And all they’d wanted in return was the use of the upstairs hall and some creative bullshit. Which he had to admit was fun for him. Lee’s kid - and wasn’t that a trip - was part of the homeworld protection patrol now, the kid’s husband was too with some kind of freaky happy magic shit, and all of Bonaparte’s old friendly contacts came around on the regular to get ice cream and shoot the shit with him about what was going on. Not to mention he got to fuck with Fury and Fury’s idiot squad on the semi-regular, because everyone who’d known Belinda hated Fury.

Especially the guys who’d always wondered if they might have been her kid’s daddy.