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Insight World

Chapter Text

July 27th, 2010

Once, the building at the end of the National Mall had housed the Lincoln Memorial, but in 2006 the statue had been ripped down, along with many other such landmarks. Abraham Lincoln stood for too many ideals that did not line up with Hydra’s vision for the world. The crumbling ruins of the statue were still there, but hidden by a rough scaffold. The foundations of a new statue had been laid on top of it, but no one save the architects yet knew what it was supposed to represent. No one was working on it now. It was not that it was too early; even in the grey pre-dawn light there was usually a crew of government-selected architects already at work. Today, Hydra needed the space for something else.

Crowds gathered in front of the steps to what had once been the Lincoln Memorial. Attendance wasn’t mandatory. It didn’t have to be.

Iron Man had been in Hydra’s custody for three months, but the novelty of the revelation that former billionaire and weapons contractor Tony Stark was not only alive but had taken to flying around in a red and gold metal suit and to all intents and purposes heading up the liberation movement against the fascist movement still had not worn off. Even in the face of his impending public execution, people were curious. People were chattering. People were sharing every well-told story of the man - the hero, as some would say.

One of those people was currently standing on the tips of her toes in an effort to see the steps better, prattling away in nervous distraction to a complete stranger who was standing just behind her. She didn’t give him more than a glance; he was tall, blond, and carried an oversized backpack, but other than that there was nothing particularly remarkable about him. “Hydra’s… well, you know, not wrong, you know, not wrong, but mistaken, overreacting, you know. Iron Man’s not a bad guy. He wants to help people, to save them from -- you know, sometimes Hydra doesn’t think about that enough. Helping people. Much at all, really, you know.”

“You mean they’re wrong,” the man said quietly. The woman looked back in concern. He forced a smile that he clearly wasn’t feeling. “It’s fine. I’m not going to report you.”

The woman shrugged and turned back to the front. “Okay, so they’re wrong. There. I said it. I think Hydra hurts people for no good reason. Iron Man doesn’t.”

The whispering of the crowd fell silent as a truck pulled up and slammed to a halt. The back opened and two men in Hydra uniforms jumped out. Behind them a man in grey prison scrubs, his hands cuffed in front of him, was shoved out of the back of the truck. He stumbled, but didn’t fall, and looked up over his shoulder at someone still in the truck. “Easy on the goods.” His voice could be heard across a fair portion of the crowd. “Worst hospitality ever. Giving that one club in Rio a run for its money.” His attitude belied the ragged, overgrown facial hair and the bruises that could be seen as far back as the two criticizers.

The woman bit the fingers of her left hand for a moment. “My sister wanted to leave, after they took over the U.S.,” she said, quiet enough that only her fellow dissenter could hear. “Before they got Germany. She was going to go there. No particular reason. She fit into their new society well enough. We didn’t lose anyone close. She just didn’t think it was right. She didn’t want to be a part of it. The night before they were supposed to leave this gang showed up, hail Hydras out the wazoo. Then Iron Man showed up. I don’t know where my sister is but she’s alive. I think she’s alive.”

Iron Man was shoved towards the steps, complaining all the way. “Wow, wow, I can walk. Look at me, putting one foot up in front of the --” He tripped a few steps up and barely caught himself with his bound hands. The two guards walking behind him didn’t wait for him to get up again. They grabbed him by his shoulders and started to drag him. About two thirds of the way up the steps he managed to regain his feet. At the top of the stairs another man stepped out from behind one of the pillars and stood, hands clasped behind his back. At a distance it was hard to tell, but he was glaring at the prisoner with barely concealed enmity.

“Alexander Pierce,” the woman said. “One of the top dogs. You know, I think he offed the rest of the World Security Council to get where he is. I really do. I don’t care if it’s a conspiracy theory. I believe it. He’s the type. Even if he didn’t, he would’ve. Look at the man.”

Her companion was already looking. “Does he have something against Tony Stark? Personally?”

“Who doesn’t? I mean, who doesn’t who’s in charge. But yeah. Yeah. The Lissing Court-Martial. Remember? Iron Man punched him through a wall? Don’t you remember? You been living under a rock?”

“Something like that,” the man replied. He swung his backpack off and set it on the ground at his feet with a solid clunk, then knelt down and began to unzip it.

Tony Stark reached the top of the steps. Most people could hear his voice echo across the National Mall, but only those close to the front could clearly make out his words. “How long have you been standing there waiting for a dramatic entrance? Seriously, did you drag your ass out of bed early for that?”

Pierce didn’t respond. There must have been a microphone attached to his collar, because when he spoke his voice rang out across the crowd, projected by speakers. “Anthony Stark is an anarchist. He has disrupted the peace, he has disobeyed the law and encouraged others to disobey the law, and he has committed acts of terrorism. For the sake of order and public safety, he will be put to death.” One of the guards unholstered a handgun and raised it.

“Aw, man. I was hoping for a guillotine,” Stark said.

The woman rolled off of the tips of her toes and lowered her eyes. “He’s not a bad guy,” she said again. She stretched up to see and then changed her mind. “I don’t think he should die. But I’m not him. I’m not Iron Man. There’s nothing I can do.”

“Actually, there is.” The blond man behind her stood up, leaving his backpack on the ground, forgotten. Even as the woman turned back to see what he meant, a few other people standing around saw the object in his hands and gasped in surprise. Several backed away.

The white and red stripes on the shield flashed in the early morning light as the man raised it, tested its weight unconsciously in his hands. His eyes narrowed as he examined the scene before him, calculating a flight path. The line of his shoulders marked the moment he found one that satisfied him, an easy, battle-ready tenseness settling across his body. Fingers closed a little tighter on the rim of the shield and he pulled back, readying himself for the throw.

“Get out of the way.”

Chapter Text

March 13th, 2010

“You’ve got to be the luckiest man I’ve ever heard of.”

“Comfortable” would have been the wrong word for the folding chair Steve was sitting in, but it was much better than the floor, which was hard plastic trying to masquerade as hardwood. He still shifted, trying to find a position where his tailbone wasn’t digging into unyielding canvas, as he replied. “I don’t feel very lucky.”

“Son, you’re alive. Sixty-five years on ice and you’re alive.” The old man sat down in a chair next to Steve’s and poked him in the chest. “You feel that? That’s air. In your lungs. It’s a bloody miracle.”

“I know, Stanley, I know.” The thermal tent was almost too warm. It had been days since he’d first regained consciousness in that same tent, but it felt like his bones had turned into ice and being in the warm space was physically hurting him. “It’s just a lot to take in. Last I remember it was 1945 and we were at war. Now you tell me it’s 2010 and Hydra’s taken over the world. Not even the Reich. Hydra.”

“Not the whole world,” Stanley said.

“Right. The North Pole is free. It’s not really a great outlook when refugees are going to the North Pole.”

“This is just a stopping point. To throw them off our trail. They don’t expect us to go here. There are huge chunks of Russia holding out, and they have less than half of Africa. In a couple of weeks there will be a transport coming to pick us up. I think we’re going to Sudan, but I’m not sure. They don’t tell us. Plausible deniability, they say.” He settled back in the chair, sliding his hips forward a little bit. “You’re lucky we were here when that plane resurfaced. You’re lucky we had the time and resources to thaw you out. You’re lucky we didn’t accidentally kill you before we realized you were still alive.”

“I’m lucky you decided to thaw me out in the first place, right?”

“There’s no force on earth that would stop us from doing that, son. Every single one of these people had their lives uprooted and destroyed by Hydra. You stand for everything they don’t. You stood against them in their early days. Even the memory of you gives them hope. You ought to have a proper burial.”

“Thanks, I think,” Steve said. “And I bet I’m older than you.”

The man looked at him quizzically for a moment before his face lit up with understanding. “Force of habit. You look like my grandson. And yeah, you are. I was born in 1922.”

Steve smirked for a moment, then leaned back in the chair. To his surprise, it became almost nice to sit in it once his tailbone stopped poking straight down into the seat. “Any chance I can get back to the U.S.?” he said.

“About a month from now, there’ll be a boat coming with supplies and any new refugees. If you ask nicely they might take you back. Not to the States, not directly. To St. Anthony. From there you can probably make your own way back.”

“Yeah.” Steve stood up, rolling his shoulders. “Tell me about their strategies. How do they keep people from fighting back?”

Order through pain. That’s their motto. If you fight back or say no you disappear. If you’re big enough you get a public execution. When they took over, they used these flying ships to take out a lot of threats. Somehow, that’s the most subtle they’ve ever been about getting rid of people they don’t like.”

“Order? What order?” Steve asked. “What are their goals?”

“World domination, I guess. Hasn’t that always been it?”

“That was Schmidt. His plans for Hydra must have stuck after he died.” Steve picked up his shield from where it was leaning against the wall of the little tent. The leather of the straps had eroded with time. He’d been told that when they’d thawed it out it had fallen off in stiff chunks. Someone had replaced it with something they’d described as “seatbelt material”. It was uncomfortable to hold, but it did the job. He slid the shield onto his arm and held it up for a moment.

“You said a lot of threats. Not all of them. And someone’s organizing this refugee program. So some people are fighting back?”

“Are they ever. There’s a few of them, but Iron Man is the big one. He’s got this suit that lets him fly and shoot missiles and everything. He mainly targets their weapons research labs, but if he hears about people being targeted, he gets them out.”

Captain America turned back to Stanley, skin wrinkling around his eyes as he considered the new information. “I need to know everything you know. Even if it’s only rumor.”

Stanley leaned forward in his chair. “They call themselves the Avengers.”

Chapter Text

July 27th, 2010

Steve Rogers had always been good at applicable geometry. As a child he had beaten all of his playmates so soundly at marbles that they eventually banned him from games. As a teen he had paid for medicine and sometimes even rent by showing up at pool halls and intentionally playing badly, then driving the betting pool up and taking all the other players to school. And in his twenties he had become Captain America, and he had learned how to hone and weaponize skills he already had in order to bring down enemies on the battlefield.

Aiming his shield was easy. Steve ran his mental calculations three times, just to be sure, as there was no room for error, but he was right the first time. His shield cleared the heads of the people in front of him, bounced off the nearest pillar on the Lincoln Memorial, and then sharply turned downwards and shattered the guard’s hand, clattering to the ground between the guard and Stark, surrounded by pieces of the gun.

The people split in front of him like the Red Sea. Men in riot gear decorated with Hydra patches started toward him. Steve pulled a pistol from his pocket and fired it into the row of men before they could fully prepare themselves. The first three dropped dead immediately, but the fourth managed to raise a bulletproof riot shield. Steve lowered his gun without wasting the shot and ran forward instead, leaping into the air at the last minute and landing his entire weight on the top of the shield. The man behind it was crushed into the pavement. A fifth guard pointed a pistol of his own around the edge of his shield. Steve shot the hand holding the pistol and then spun around, running toward Iron Man and the guards standing around him.

There had been six guards, each with a weapon of some sort trained on the prisoner, but now there were only three, and even as Steve ran forward one of them raised a gun and fired twice in quick succession. The other two guards crumpled and the last one turned on Pierce, who had already raised a gun of his own and pointed it at the man. Steve reached the top of the steps and scooped up his shield, sliding it onto his arm. He turned back to the crowd as bullets rat-tat-tatted against the surface of his shield. One of the riot guards holstered his handgun and hoisted up an eerily familiar weapon. Steve dodged the energy bolt from the Tesseract-enhanced weapon and shot the man holding it. A gunshot sounded behind him and he glanced over his shoulder just in time to see the guard take a shot at Pierce, who dove out of the way, too late to dodge the bullet entirely. Clutching his arm, he ducked inside the Memorial. Steve toyed with the idea of throwing his shield after him, but the sight of Tony Stark bending over to get a gun from one of the dead guards reminded him that he had not come here to stop Alexander Pierce.

“Cover me!” he shouted to the guard, whose features were still hidden by the mask of a high-ranking Hydra agent. “Put your hands on the ground and spread them out,” he said to Stark.

“You weren’t part of the plan,” the guard observed as he fired at approaching enemies.

Steve slammed the edge of his shield into the ground between Stark’s hands, shattering the link that held the cuffs together.

“Yeah, ‘cause you clearly had everything under control,” Stark said. He picked up a gun and added to the defensive fire. “I like the plan where I don’t get shot. Speaking of plans, did you have an exit plan? Either of you?”

“Head out the north side,” the guard said.

Steve turned and glanced between the colossal pillars and the wall, putting the gun back in his pocket in preparation to use his shield with both hands. The escape route was already full of police with riot shields. A quick look confirmed that the south side was as well. “Not an option,” he said. “They’re trying to block us in.” Both groups were coming closer, and a line was assembling at the foot of the steps.

“Change of plans, Natasha,” the guard said. “Bring the car around front. Watch out for civilians. There are still a few stragglers.” Most of the so-called stragglers were huddled together with phones out, pointed at the three men at the top of the steps. “Get down the steps!” he shouted.

Steve threw his shield, taking out a Hydra agent who had lowered his shield just a little too much. It bounced off a pillar and he caught it as it came back. As the three of them started down the steps, their enemies closed in faster. The guard and Stark went on ahead, while Steve followed up the rear, covering himself with his shield and taking out following guards. His gun ran out of bullets after five shots, and he dropped the magazine. Before he could reload with the spare magazine in his back pocket, he spotted another agent raise an energy weapon. The gun clattered to the ground as he grabbed Stark with his free hand and jerked him to the side. The energy bolt shot over the heads of the civilians, who scattered, babbling as they did so.

A black Prius circled around the monument from the north and pulled to a halt near the prison truck. The passenger side window rolled down and a woman leaned out, a gun in each hand, and started shooting the riot guards at the bottom of the steps, most of whom were facing away from her. “Always changing plans at the last minute, Clint,” she shouted.

“Oh, you know me,” the guard said. “Just can’t make up my mind on these things.” He ran down the last few stairs, shooting two guards in his path, threw open the passenger side door, and jumped into the car. Stark followed, and Steve slammed the door shut just in time for a few bullets to bounce off of it.

“Who the hell is this?” the woman asked as she hit the gas, twisting around the south side of the Memorial.

The guard, Clint, pulled his mask off and ran his hand through short brown hair. “Who the hell are you?” he asked Steve.

“I’m Captain America,” Steve said, distracted by a pain in his left arm. He slid his shield off his arm and discovered that one of the straps had cut through the fabric of his shirt and sliced into the skin just above the inside of his elbow. It was red and swollen, but not deep, so he ignored it and snapped his attention up to the other people in the car. The woman was driving, but the two men were staring at him, two pairs of eyebrows climbing skyward. “It’s a long story,” he said.

The car shook as it drove over a low median. “We weren’t planning on shooting our way out of this one,” the woman said. “Stark, I need you to try to calibrate the license plate camouflage.”

Stark started to climb over the console. “You haven’t gotten that up and running yet?” he asked.

“Johnson and Tortels were caught a couple of months back because their blue Ford F-150 matched to a hot pink Thunderbird’s plate,” Clint offered.

“What year?” Stark asked as he slid into the seat, popped open the glovebox, and pried open a panel inside. “Some Thunderbird models have similar unused fuel levels. That might be confusing the emissions sensor.” Inside the panel was a small screen with a keypad. Stark started tapping away. “I don’t suppose we have time to make a pit stop at the hardware store? I need some palladium.”

“Dare I ask what for?” Clint asked.

“They’ve got a read on my arc reactor’s energy signature. I can make it some better shielding when I get tools, but until then I’m a walking tracking device. If I replace the core with palladium the signature will be different enough that they should lose it.” Stark grabbed a small screwdriver from the glovebox and pried the screen off of the panel, revealing a motherboard beneath it.

“Get rid of it,” said the woman. “We came prepared.” She reached into the console and pulled out a round glowing blue object. “Your last model. The energy signatures should be different enough.”

“Exactly how often do you go rooting through my trash, Romanoff?” Stark asked. He leaned back to pull up his shirt and twist something in his chest. A few seconds later, he lifted a similar glowing blue circle away from himself, trailing coiled wires. Once he had it out, Romanoff rolled down the passenger side window. Stark chucked the arc reactor out of it without a second glance.

“Wow,” said Clint. “I thought you were gonna make a bigger deal out of that.”

“I have to make some changes to the design,” Stark said. “Nothing significant, just enough to confuse them if they get their hands on it again. Power feedback loops, Trojan horse protocols. They studied the hell out of that. Couldn’t reproduce it, of course.” He slid the new reactor into the hole the old one had left and pulled his shirt down again. “Still don’t want to walk around with a powerhouse they have the blueprints to in my chest.”

Bullets bounced off the back of the car. Steve glanced over his shoulder to see the prison van in pursuit. As the woman slammed on the brakes and turned them onto another street, a military vehicle with a gun mounted on top came from the other direction. “We’ve got almost a mile to go before we can get on the interstate,” Romanoff said. “Clint, get them off our trail, will you?”

Clint nodded and leaned forward. He opened a case under the driver’s seat and retrieved a quiver of arrows from it, slinging it across his back. Then he leaned down and got a bow. A press of a button opened a sunroof over the back seat, and he put his head through it and then immediately pulled it back down as a hail of bullets hit the top of the car. “Cap,” he said. “Want to give me some cover?”

Steve nodded and climbed, shield first, out of the sunroof, then slid down the back window until his feet hit the spoiler. He braced himself there. Bullets bounced off his shield, and Clint popped up behind him and notched an arrow. The shield covered both of them until Clint straightened up to look over it, inhaling quickly and smoothly as he did. For a split second he stood upright, bow drawn fully back, and then he released the string. The arrow hit the prison truck in the tire and exploded and the vehicle swerved off the road, across a stretch of grass and a walking path, and crashed into the Potomac. Steve peered over his shield to see that now there were two military vehicles behind them. Even as he watched, the archer behind him took another one out. This one went across the median into the other lane of traffic, which was fortunately mostly empty. One car slammed on its brakes in time to prevent the airbags from going off, but not in time to prevent its front bumper from being crushed. The man standing in the back of the military vehicle took a few shots at them as they drove away, but soon it was left far behind.

The last car tried to weave back and forth, but to no avail. Its driver steered them to the median and managed to stop almost entirely on it, just as Romanoff started to merge onto the highway. Clint ducked down into the car and Steve followed, dropping onto the back console and then shifting into the right seat. Clint was putting his bow away.

“There will be more waiting for us on the other side of the river,” he said, just as the entrance ramp ended and they merged into traffic.

Stark replaced the panel in the glovebox. “And by then, there will be at least six other cars they’ll need to check out. The emissions sensors weren’t calibrated closely enough, but now this should only match with other Priuses. Color’s gonna have to wait until I can get under the car. Hey Romanoff, don’t drive next to any hot pink Priuses.” He closed the glove box and leaned back. “Don’t all thank me at once.”

Chapter Text

August 22nd, 1976

It was clear to the young boy crouched on the floor between a floral-patterned couch and the floor-to-ceiling beige curtains that the inside of the talking G.I. Joe’s voice box hinged on the negator spring. The coiled piece of metal was supposed to move the tape that had the voice recordings on it, but at the moment it was poking out the back of the toy, which was lying facedown on the leopard-print carpet. He leaned over it and pulled on the sliver of metal, trying to lift it free of the rest of the contraption. “A buuullllet in the baaarrrrellll of yooooooouuuuuurrrrrr beeeee-” the toy slurred, before the spring came loose and the sound cut off entirely. The boy examined the spring for a moment, turning it over in his hands, before setting it aside and picking up the toy. He shifted so that his back was to the window and the light shone over his shoulder into the chest cavity of the toy.

He glanced up when the door opened. From his position behind the couch, he could just see a man sporting greying hair and wire-rimmed spectacles walk into the living room, holding a newspaper in one hand and a cup in the other. He walked over to the couch and sat down, reading the paper as he went. The boy watched him for a few moments and then returned to his examination of the toy in his hand. The voice box was glued to the front of the toy’s chest, and he rather suspected that this was part of the reason the toy was generally very difficult to understand. He tried to pry the voice box out, but realized quickly that if he pulled too hard the device itself would break. Leaving the back of the toy and the spring on the floor, he stood up and leaned over the back of the couch across from the man.

“Dad,” he said, “can I have some of the glue solvent you were using the other day?”

“Ask Jarvis,” said Howard Stark as he turned the newspaper to page B8.

The boy started to turn away. Jarvis wouldn’t be able to give him the solvent he wanted, the high-quality stuff that Howard Stark used for important projects like the arc reactor or the gene sequences that would, if all went according to plan, nearly double the output of some breeds of wheat. But it probably wasn’t worth it to bother his father about it any more. He wasn’t supposed to see the man working at all, and now he thought about it, he couldn’t find a good alibi for why he would know about it in the first place.

“Wait,” said his father.

Tony Stark turned back to his father slowly, clutching the G.I. Joe in his hands for security.

“What do you need glue solvent for?”

Tony held up the toy. “There’s glue on the front of the voice box,” he said. “It muffles the sound. And I was going to replace the tape.”

Howard pulled his glasses off and held out his hand for the toy. Tony stepped forward just enough to deposit it in his hand. The older man looked it over. It was difficult to reproduce a face accurately at that scale, and the short blond hair stuck straight up from the head in a way it never would have on a real person, but it was clearly recognizable as a limited edition Captain America G.I. Joe doll. “Where did you get this?” he asked.

“Jarvis gave it to me.”

Howard frowned with his forehead. “What were you planning on replacing the tape with?” he asked.

Tony shifted. “I saw some old newsreels outside the west-wing storage room the other day when you were in there. I was going to make some recordings from them.”

An adult Tony Stark might have recognized the look that flitted across Howard’s face as amusement, followed by a hint of sadness. The child who was actually present didn’t know what to make of it and only stared in confusion. Hasbro had played enough commercials on television that everyone knew the doll’s ten featured phrases, including such gems as, “Each one you buy is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy’s gun,” and “Who are we? We’re Howling Commandos!” The recordings were scratchy and difficult to make out and unrecognizable as Steve Rogers by anyone who had known him personally, or watched enough recordings of the man.

At his young son’s suggestion, Howard could hardly help but imagine the doll with a new set of lines; things Captain America had actually said and meant, such as “Language, Morita,” or “Eating Brach’s fudge before you throw up does not make it taste better. Save it for after, soldier.”

The man set the toy on the coffee table. “Don’t you have more important things to be doing?” he asked.

Small eyes narrowed, laying the groundwork for wrinkles that would set in over years of stress. “I finished all my homework for the weekend.”

“Work ahead, then. Don’t waste your time with this toy. It’s a misrepresentation of an American hero and I won’t have it in my house.”

“How do I know it’s the doll that’s got it wrong and not you? No one’s as good as you say he was!” shouted Tony, and he turned and ran out of the room.

He did not speak to his father again for the rest of the weekend, and when he returned to the living room after dinner that day, the toy was gone, even the back of the chest cavity and the negator spring that he had left behind the couch.

Chapter Text

July 27 th , 2010

“Spit in this.” Romanoff handed Steve a clear plastic cup and then turned back to the desktop computer. She didn’t sit down at the desk, instead lifting a picture from the wall above it. A retinal scanner was built into the wall and she allowed it to scan her for a moment before leaning over and entering a password. The computer was the only immediate evidence that the studio apartment was used for anything at all. Aside from that, the room was too clean, bed made up like it was for showing the apartments, an unused bar of soap sitting next to the sink in the bathroom, and several changes of sharply creased clothes with the tags still on in the closet.

Steve dropped some saliva into the cup and handed it back to Romanoff. “What for?” he asked.

“DNA test,” Stark said, walking over to the window and twisting the blinds so they showed a view of Raleigh Road. The sun had come all the way up and it cast bars of light across the cream carpet. “That shield is obviously made of vibranium, and you obviously know how to use it, but you can’t just come up claiming to be Steve Rogers and expect us to believe you. If you are, great! We could use someone to… throw things at the bad guys, I guess. If you’re not, I for one would like to know why you’re trying to convince us you are.” He walked over to the nightstand and opened the drawer, pulling out a lockpicking kit in a black zippered bag.

“You think I’m a mole?”

Stark looked up from pressing one of the picks into one of the cuffs still attached to his wrists. “I think you showed up at a really convenient time.” He twisted the hook the tiniest bit and then pinned it there with his hand while he selected a different pick and started to maneuver it in to the cuff.

“Yeah, and that worked out so badly for you.”

“The story’s too ridiculous, Stark,” Romanoff said as she took the spit cup and poured the liquid inside it onto a little slide, which she slid into a slot on the side of the computer. “Would Hydra really expect us to believe Captain America managed to survive being frozen for seventy years and then showed up and tried to help us?”

“And would Hydra really give up the opportunity to kill Iron Man for this? There are better ways to plant a mole,” Clint said. He went to the kitchenette and opened a cupboard, pulling out four green plastic glasses still decorated with “Essential Home” stickers. He started to fill them with water from the sink.

Steve accepted the cup of water that Clint handed him and took a sip. The taste of exertion and dirt rinsed off of his teeth. Romanoff typed something into the computer.

“Isn’t the guy from 1945 going to ask what a DNA test is?” Clint asked as he handed a second cup to Stark.

“I know what DNA is,” Steve said. “I would like to know why you have mine on file.”

“S.H.I.E.L.D. had it on file,” Romanoff said. “We keep a database of all the information S.H.I.E.L.D. had when Hydra took over.” She straightened up and took the cup Clint offered her. “S.H.I.E.L.D. was the successor of the SSR. In its earliest days it was run by Howard Stark and Peggy Carter.”

Steve took a drink and let his gaze slide between the slats of the blinds. A few cars were driving by; like the Prius he had arrived here in, they were more streamlined than the vehicles he was used to, more aerodynamic.

The computer beeped and a screen popped up. “Positive match” blinked in bright green letters. “You have Steve Rogers’ DNA,” Romanoff said. The other three in the room exchanged glances, and then Romanoff shrugged. She stepped forward and extended her hand. “Natasha Romanoff,” she said. “Codename Black Widow.”

Steve shook her hand. “Pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” he said.

Clint had settled down on the bed and seemed reluctant to move. He waved his free hand at Steve. “Clint Barton. Hawkeye.”

“Tony Stark. Iron Man.” Stark was facing towards him, and the lines of light from the blinds were streaking across his face, illuminating bruises and scratches.

“Why didn’t they kill you right away?” Steve asked him.

“My charming personality and genius brain.” Stark sent him a dazzling grin, although exhaustion showed in the brevity of it. “They can copy my designs all they want, but they’ll never be able to build a miniaturized arc reactor, or an Iron Man suit. Or anything that can compete with it. Not for decades.”

“So they wanted you to build it for them.”

Stark nodded. “No worries, Spangles. I told them where they could shove it.”

“They may be decades behind, but we don’t want to give them a head start,” Natasha said. “What’s the status on your suit?”

“You don’t think I have a self-destruct built into my suits in case the wrong people get hold of them?” Stark scoffed. “That thing was toast as soon as they got me out of it. Kaput. Nothing but a shell.”

“And your arc reactor? You said they’d studied it.”

“They didn’t learn much. They’ve already stolen the blueprints for the industrial version, but they still don’t know how to make it smaller.”

“Is there any chance they might have copied it?” Natasha asked.

“Come on, Romanoff, the fact that they got a chance to look at the tech doesn’t change the fact that they’re not me.” Stark shrugged and smiled, hands spread out almost innocently. “The day some Hydra lackey can copy my advanced designs will never come.”

“Hydra has three of the top five smartest people in the world working for them,” Clint pointed out.

“If they were that smart, they wouldn’t be working for Hydra, would they?”

“Are you going to take this seriously?” Steve cut in.

“How seriously do you want me to take it?” Stark asked. “Should I cry? Is this supposed to be some huge setback for me, like I didn’t realized there was a risk they’d steal my tech?”

“There’s a risk all right. The risk is all the people they’ll kill if they get their hands on a suit like yours.”

“You mean all the people they’re killing anyway because someone didn’t do their job right the first time?”

Steve set the glass of water he was holding on the counter and stepped toward Stark, his hands curling into fists at his side. “Big man in a suit. Take that off, what are you? You think you get to fly around and be some kind of hero because you can put yourself in a tin can?”

“Yes, actually, I do.” Stark swirled the water in his cup and took a drink. “I’m a genius, Rogers, born and bred. Everything special about you came out of a bottle.”

“You wanna test that?” Steve growled.

Someone banged on the door. Clint and Natasha, who had been watching the exchange silently, each pulled out a gun and pointed it at the door. Steve and Tony turned to look at it.

“I ain’t letting you lot rent a place in my building and covering for you when you ain’t around so y’all can start a screaming match and get the cops called on your asses!” shouted a woman from the hall.

Steve’s voice was still strung tight with irritation. “Apologies, ma’am. It won’t happen again.”

The woman’s voice receded down the hall, mumbling now. “That’ll be the day. Mighty Avengers get caught ‘cause someone next complex over calls in domestic violence. Incredible. Why do you even stick your neck out for this lot, Rosa?”

Steve picked up his glass of water and finished it in one go. He set the cup down and then addressed Natasha. “They care about domestic violence?” he asked.

“Not really,” she said. “It’s mostly a catch-all, in case someone they don’t like didn’t technically do anything illegal and they can’t just vanish them.”

“They check out reports, though,” Clint said. The muscles around his mouth contracted, forcing his lips into a thin line. “Some of the abusers get recruited.”

“What’s their propaganda angle?” Steve asked.

Natasha turned back to the computer, opened a web browser, and directed it to a website titled, “The New Civilization”. A video was in the center of the screen, and she expanded it to full-screen. “Here’s the public propaganda TV channel,” she said.

She stepped aside and Steve leaned forward, resting his hands on the back of the chair as he studied the screen. Two men sat at a table, one a white man with short brown hair and the other a hispanic man with his long black hair tied at the back of his head. Both wore blue suits and red ties.

“-- people broke up the Iron Man execution earlier today. Did you hear about that?” Brown Hair said.

“Did I?” his compatriot responded. “Check out this footage. This guy is crazy.” A video popped up behind him of Steve firing his gun at the riot guards, right after he had initially thrown his shield. “He’s firing into the crowd, look at that. Insane.”

The footage froze with Steve still mostly standing on top of a riot shield, the guard pinned beneath it. “Any injuries?”

“This guy shot three bystanders. One is dead, the other two are in the hospital.” Close-ups of three people popped up over the footage, with dotted lines indicating where they had stood in the crowd.

Steve scowled. “I didn’t shoot those people,” he said.

Barton leaned over his shoulder. “No, he did,” he said, pointing at a man who was just visible at the left edge of the footage, leaning out the back of the prison van. “Pretty standard practice for when we crash events like this. If they can paint us as trigger-happy anarchists, people are less likely to trust us.”

Stark glanced over. “I’ll hack into their channel later and release some undoctored footage,” he said. Steve looked over his shoulder, calculating eyes gauging the man almost suspiciously. Stark shrugged. “What? Captain America’s back. We can’t have people thinking he’s a civilian-killing maniac.”

“The other guy injured Executor Pierce and killed a bystander. We think he’s the anarchist who goes by Hawkeye,” Black Hair said.

“Oh, come on,” Clint said. “When would I have even had the chance to kill a bystander?” As if in answer to his question, footage of the car chase appeared. Steve was already crouched on the back of the vehicle, and the video started just in time for Clint to pop out of the sunroof and notch an arrow. The video showed a young man being hit by the prison truck as it swerved into the Potomac.

Clint straightened up. “There was no one there,” he said. Then he turned and walked away, returning to the bed and sitting on the edge of it.

“Who’s the other guy?” Brown Hair was asking. A close-up shot of Steve appeared on the screen, his face just visible over the rim of his shield.

“We’ve got no matches on facial recognition yet. He’s not American or Canadian. They’re scanning the Western European databanks now.”

“I gotta say, the whole shield thing is super lame. He trying to be Captain America or something?”

Black Hair laughed and a clip from an old newsreel popped up, of a USO tour; one of the earlier ones, Steve thought, as he could see himself still reading his lines off the back of his shield. “Yeah, this guy’s super intimidating. Maybe not the best quote-unquote hero to emulate.” The man became serious and turned directly to the screen. “Remember, these people are dangerous. If you see them, do not approach and call the police immediately.” Pictures of Clint and Tony appeared next to the close-up of Steve, labeled with their codenames and real names.

Steve grabbed the mouse and closed the video. “People are falling for this?” he asked.

“Some people,” Stark said quickly. “Some people fall for it hook, line, and sinker. Some people love Hydra for letting them get rid of their inconvenient neighbors. Some are just shaking in their britches. Don’t do that thing with your forehead, Cap. It makes you look old.”

Steve wasn’t sure what “thing” Stark was talking about, but he made no attempt to stop doing it. “How far does your network stretch? The people helping refugees, people who let you use their space? What are our resources?”

Clint and Natasha exchanged a glance that communicated something. “We have a few hours before our flight,” Natasha said.

“We’re gonna need another ticket,” Clint said. He pulled a phone from his pocket and started doing something on it.

Natasha sat down at the computer and pulled up a map of the East Coast. “This is where Hydra’s hold on the U.S. is strongest,” she began.

Chapter Text

July 23rd, 2010

When Natasha opened the door to the apartment, Clint was standing in front of the mini stove with a frying pan in his hand. The smell of buttery pasta and tomato sauce tried to escape the apartment, but she shut the door and closed it inside. “You’re reporting in at midnight,” she said. “Your name is Harold Aalto. Here’s your operating number and I.D.” She placed a card and a slip of paper on the counter.

Clint nodded, reaching back with his free hand to pick up the piece of paper, which had a twelve-digit number scribbled on it. He read through the number four times and then set the paper down and ran it again through his head. Natasha shed her coat and threw it across the bed. “Is that spaghetti?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Clint said. “There were some canned tomatoes and half a box of pasta. Figured we might as well have something nice to eat while we wait.”

Natasha nodded as she walked over to the counter and leaned against it almost casually. Clint knew she was tightly strung, ready to spring into action at any moment, but the average observer would not have picked up on that. “I’m not doing your dishes,” she said.

“Even though I cooked for you? Harsh.” Clint turned off the stove and took the pan off, using a fork to divide the contents between two plates.

“Your cooking is nothing impressive, Barton,” Natasha said as she pulled the plate toward herself and took the proffered fork.

Clint perched on the edge of the counter with his plate balanced on his knee and used the handle of the fork to poke the piece of paper with the operating number on it into a position where he could see it more clearly. He had the first four digits down, but the fifth was difficult. He wanted to say five, but it was three. “You’re still eating it,” he pointed out as he firmly impressed the idea of three in his head.

Natahsa took a bite. “That’s because it’s not an MRE,” she said. “Anything beats Chili and Macaroni with Toaster Pastry, Frosted Brown Sugar.”

Clint’s mouth was full as he spoke. “Any personal details I should know?” he asked.

“You’ve got a sister eight months pregnant in the hospital with complications and you accepted this assignment to help pay her medical bill. That’s your cover story if you need to contact me.”

“What’s wrong with her?” Clint asked.

“Placenta previa,” Natasha said. “Did you put anything in this sauce besides tomatoes?”

“Just some plant I found growing out in the front garden. Not sure what it is, but it was all over the place.” Clint flipped the piece of paper over and mentally ran through the number in his head.

Natasha continued eating, unconcerned by her partner’s joke. “You know, secrets are why S.H.I.E.L.D. fell,” she teased.

“Oh, yeah, those helicarriers would never have launched without my spaghetti sauce recipe. I think the words you’re looking for are ‘This is surprisingly good’.”

“Those are definitely not the words I’m looking for,” Natasha said. “Also, you’re a high-school dropout. A few suspensions for violent behavior, but mostly you left because you were bored. Worked at Loaf ’N Jug for a few years until you got a job with them.”

“Usual emergency code words?”

“Same as always.” Natasha reached into her back pocket and pulled out a power pack for one of the energy weapons Hydra strike units used. “Here’s one of the tranqs. Rest are in your vest ammo pockets.”

“We sure this is safe?” Clint asked as he took it.

“It’s safer than what those weapons normally pack,” Natasha said. “It emulates the effects of DMT. It was built with Stark specifically in mind. It shouldn’t damage his arc reactor.”

“Assuming he still has his arc reactor,” Clint said.

“If he does, try to get that too, but don’t give yourself away. Our priority is Stark. If they get his tech, someone else can handle it. Banner, maybe.”

“Nine-eight-five-two- three -seven-seven-six-seven-one-nine-seven,” Clint said. “I thought Banner’s assignment was classified.”

“Secrets are why S.H.I.E.L.D. fell,” Natasha repeated.

Clint picked up the piece of paper and dropped it onto the still-hot coils of the mini stove. It sat there for a moment, curling against the heat, and then burst into flame for two brief seconds before collapsing into ash. The agent stood up and tossed his dishes into the sink. He was already wearing the black uniform that Hydra strike agents wore, black BDUs and combat boots. He picked up a helmet from the end of the counter and put it on. Almost his entire face was covered, and the small eye holes were difficult to see through. He felt his way through putting on the bulletproof vest. The ID went in his breast pocket and the tranq pack went in the ammo pocket.

“How do I look?” he asked, turning to Natasha.

“Like a murderous asshole,” she said. She took her last bite and tossed her own dishes into the sink. Clint started toward the door, but she stopped him with a word. “Clint. Be careful.”

“I will be,” he said, and then he walked out the door.

Natasha stood and looked at the door for just a few seconds before she turned back to the kitchenette. The next stage of the plan was in good hands. Clint would be able to infiltrate the local strike units and get himself assigned to the one that would be carrying out the execution. If anyone could manage that, Clint Barton could. That was the hard bit. After that he just had to slip the tranq pack into the weapon that would be used and the rest would practically manage itself. Tony Stark would, to all intents and purposes, be dead for just over one hour. Making off with the body would not be too challenging.

Natasha’s job for the next few days was the hardest job of all - waiting.

She turned back to the kitchen and grabbed a glass from the cupboard. When she went to fill it with water from the tap, though, she froze. Clint’s dishes sat in the sink, spotted with tomato sauce and bits of spaghetti. “Son of a bitch,” she grumbled.

Chapter Text

July 28th, 2010

Natasha put on an irritated look and snapped, “It’s a pacemaker. You know what a pacemaker is, right? People have them.” She shoved a file folder at the bored-looking security guard, who took it, opened it, and then immediately closed it and handed it back without apparently having read any of it. Natasha took it back without pausing in her angry muttering, and the two people behind their little group joined in, impatient at the delay.

“Fine, fine,” the guard grumbled, waving them through. “Get out of here.”

Natasha pushed the wheelchair forward, moving herself and Tony the rest of the way through the scanners. Clint straightened up from where he’d slouched against the edge of the scanner and followed, playing the part of the protective husband perfectly as he glared at the guard. The small device he’d left stuck to the scanner when they arrived was only visible to someone who knew it was there; as he stepped forward Steve noticed it nestled in a crack between the calibration controls and the Rapiscan brand name plaque.

Steve followed Clint through the scanner, his hands in his pockets and his shoulders slumped. The guard glanced at him and he shot back a discontented glare. To his surprise, he could practically see the moment the guard dismissed him to focus on the two men following their group.

“Well, that worked,” Tony commented as soon as they were outside the airport. “If you ever make me pretend to be an invalid in a wheelchair again, I am so out of this revolution.”

“You just had open heart surgery after five months of chemotherapy. Don’t sound so chipper,” Natasha hissed.

“And Cap, look more excited to see your uncle Tony,” Clint said. Now that he was no longer putting on a show for the security guard, his amusement at the situation was clear.

Steve pasted a fake grin on his face. It was the same one he’d used to pose for pictures with babies while men were dying.

“Stick with the sullen act. You’re better at it,” Natasha said.

A brown Volkswagen squareback pulled up in front of them and came to a stop. The door opened and a man in a suit jumped out. “Welcome to Lincoln,” he said. “Any hold-ups in security?”

“Nope,” Tony said. “Is no one going to mention how I managed to reprogram that virus to make the scanners overlook vibranium with no measuring equipment? No one?”

“Shut up and get in the car, Uncle Tony,” Natasha said. Clint grabbed Tony’s shoulders and made a show of supporting him as he climbed into the back seat of the SUV. Steve grabbed a bag off the back of the wheelchair and followed the other two men into the back seat. Natasha and the newcomer the wheelchair into the back and climbed into the front seats.

The man in the suit took the vehicle out of park and started to drive them out of the parking lot. “I take it this is the shield guy,” he said.

“That’s what you went with?” Clint asked. “‘Shield guy’?”

“Until we had some kind of identification, yes,” the man replied, his tone indicating that he would very much appreciate that identification now.

“Hey Natasha, grab the steering wheel. He’s going to have a heart attack,” Clint said.

“Cap, meet Agent Phil Coulson,” said Natasha. “Coulson, this is Captain America.”

“We got the Captain America theme,” Coulson replied. “Everyone did. Who is he?”

“Steve Rogers,” Steve cut in. “Good to meet you.” He caught Coulson’s eyes studying him in the rearview mirror.

“You don’t seem very surprised by this,” Tony pointed out, sounding almost disappointed.

“I’ve seen stranger,” Coulson said. “You should have been in New Mexico last year. How’d he get here?”

“I crashed into the arctic and froze.” The explanation didn’t sound quite as insane anymore as it had when Stanley had first explained it to him, perhaps because he had explained it himself so many times.

“Wow. Uh, wow.” Despite his lack of concern over the circumstances of Steve’s survival, Coulson seemed quite perturbed by his presence. It was an awkwardness Steve remembered encountering in ten-year-old boys. “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.”

“This is all hideously embarrassing,” Tony interrupted. “I’m embarrassed for both of you.” Clint, who had almost been smirking at the exchange, elbowed him in the ribs. Tony grunted in pain and he immediately pulled back, giving him some space. Natasha glanced back at him, narrowed, calculating eyes taking in his every move. “I knew you liked Captain America, with the trading cards and all, but try not to be too much of a fanboy.”

“Trading cards?” Steve’s interruption served the dual purpose of satisfying his own curiosity and diverting the conversation from Tony’s involuntary sound of pain. Iron Man clearly wanted to cover up the fact that he’d gasped, and Steve didn’t see the point of drawing attention to it now. As he’d insisted in the apartment, his injuries would keep.

“They’re near mint,” Coulson said. Clint’s smirk returned, more evident in the crease of skin around his eyes and nose than in his mouth. “Some slight foxing around the edges. It took me a few years to collect them all. I’m only missing one.”

Steve nodded and looked out the window. The fields spread out for miles around in orderly rows of corn. He had never been to Nebraska before, though he had once claimed to be from Iowa on an enlistment form. “What are we doing in Nebraska?” he asked.

“Safest place to fuel a helicarrier,” Clint said. He continued without prompting. “The population in the Midwest is more spread out than it is on the coasts. There are fewer centers of power, and the communities are isolated and set in their ways. Hydra’s grip on the continent is weakest here. People won’t openly rebel, not after Fort Riley, but the oversight is less effective. People are more willing to overlook things they should report.”

“Fort Riley?”

This time Coulson explained. “Hydra took down the military first. Too many of them would never have sat back and let them take over, and they were armed. But they spared potential recruits. We think their play was threatening family members, tempting them with power and benefits. They have great dental, actually.” Steve turned his gaze from the fields to Coulson, waiting for him to continue. “It backfired at Fort Riley; a lot of the people they spared were thugs, but Hydra was too far for them. They took back the fort and a few miles around it. People that were being targeted saw it as a safe zone and migrated there like birds. Hydra sent one of the Insight Carriers and carpet bombed fifty miles all around Fort Riley. We looked for survivors, but we didn’t find any.”

Steve nodded, working the muscles in his jaw. He’d seen one of the Insight Carriers flying overhead while he was making his way through Montreal. People had ducked into the nearest building like that would somehow shelter them if it fired. He knew from the stories he’d heard that it would not; Insight’s targeting systems could read people through feet of concrete and punched through cinderblock like it was paper.

The car slowed and Coulson turned down a dirt road that led to a tiny municipal airport. He parked the vehicle at the end of the road and everyone got out. “Bring the wheelchair,” Natasha said to the group in general. Steve paused to pull it out of the trunk and then followed Coulson toward the northernmost building.

They rounded the building, entering the refueling area for small aircraft. A helicopter sat next to the refueling station, and as they approached it they were greeted by a black man with an eyepatch, who placed his hands on his hips and watched as the group approached. “I’ve got four seats in my helicopter and I’m seeing five people walking toward me,” he observed.

“Director Fury,” Coulson greeted with a smile as he stopped in front of the man. “This is Captain America.”

Fury shot a questioning look at Natasha. “We’re sure, sir,” she said. “He matches the DNA we have on file for Steve Rogers, and there’s unusual activity in his cells. I’d need more specialized equipment to be sure, but it’s consistent with the data we have on the serum.”

Fury looked at Steve for barely a moment before apparently gathering all the information he needed. “Welcome aboard, Captain,” he said, and then turned his attention to Tony, who was standing next to Clint. “You’re three months behind on your rent, Stark.”

“I wasn’t technically using that space,” Tony pointed out.

“Your cat was.”

A middle-aged man approached them from the shed. “Your tanks are full,” he said.

“Thank you, Mr. Yackley,” Fury said. “Your payment will come from the usual account.” He gestured to the waiting group. “Get in the helicopter,” he said. “And Stark. It’s good to see you in one piece.”

Chapter Text

April 4th, 2005

“Director Fury. To what do I owe the dubious pleasure of your company?”

“Someone tried to kill me today, Agent Carter.” Nick Fury leaned forward just enough to glance between the curtain and the wall, taking in a sliver of the brightly lit street outside.

Peggy Carter dropped her purse on the table next to the door and then strolled into the kitchen of her apartment and opened a cupboard. She pulled out a glass and started to fill it with ice from her refrigerator. “Are you surprised?” she asked. “Also, as you and several other people are fond of reminding me, I’m retired. So it’s not ‘Agent’ anymore.”

Fury waited until the clack-shick-cuckle-tink of the ice hitting the bottom of the glass stopped before he spoke. “People have tried to kill me before, but they usually don’t use machine guns and grenade launchers on crowded city streets. And I normally don’t have reason to believe that S.H.I.E.L.D. ordered the hit.”

Peggy paused with her glass half full of water. “And what makes you think S.H.I.E.L.D. would try to kill you?” she asked. “I’m sure there are other people out for your head.”

“There are. I keep an exhaustive list of the people who want me dead, and a much shorter exhaustive list of the people I trust.” Fury looked out the window again and then sat down in a chair in the corner next to the window. “The World Security Council have never been on that second list. But there’s a project. A peacekeeping initiative. I noticed a bug in the programming and brought it up to the Council and within an hour my accesses had been revoked.”

Peggy took a sip of her water and nodded. “Go on, then.”

“I left headquarters almost two hours earlier than usual, but he was waiting for me. And he knew exactly where to hit on a S.H.I.E.L.D. armored car. None of our enemies has that kind of information. This guy came from inside S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“Hmm. Imagine that.”

“Carter, if the next words out of your mouth amount in any way to ‘I told you so’,” Fury snapped.

“You know, I think I prefer ‘Agent Carter’,” Peggy said. She sat down in the chair across from him and set her water on the end table between the chairs. “I’m sure you’re aware my apartment is bugged.”

“I’m aware that you relocated all of the bugs to your upstairs neighbor’s apartment.”

“Well, in that case, I can’t help you without all the information. Tell me about this so-called peacekeeping initiative.”

“I made a copy of the plans when I realized there was a problem. It’s on this drive.” He lifted the drive in question out of his coat pocket before dropping it back in. “Three helicarriers, state of --”

The sniper’s bullet tore through the wall and passed through Nick Fury, entering through the back of his shoulder and exiting just under the front of his collarbone. Peggy hit the floor and crawled to the center of the room, flipped her coffee table onto its side, and crouched behind it. A pistol was strapped to the bottom of the table and she unholstered it before peering over the top of her makeshift shelter. She only just saw the flash of a man disappearing from the roof of the building across the street. She scanned for other potential threats, but saw none.

She crawled back to where Fury lay slumped over the arm of the chair and groaned as she pulled herself up into a kneeling position next to him -- a life spent running and firing guns had contributed to arthritis in the worst way possible. He was alive, barely -- she could see his chest moving just slightly as his body struggled to breathe. Her eyes swept the room, checking for any further threats before finally landing on the purse she’d left by the door. Her landline was closer than the cell phone in her bag, sitting on the counter in the kitchen, but to reach it she would have to cross the window again, exposing herself to any potential shooters. She made her decision.

Before she left Nick Fury’s side, she slipped her hand into his coat pocket and retrieved the drive.

Chapter Text

July 28th, 2010

Tony Stark prided himself on avoiding the debriefings Nick Fury wanted to have every time he left the helicarrier. He didn’t consider himself a part of Fury’s militia; he preferred to think of himself as an independent agent in a mutually beneficial relationship with them. The helicarrier provided a safe base of operations and contacts to get refugees he picked up on his missions to safety. In return, he provided the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. with technology and funds from what was left of his billion-dollar-empire. Every few months, Hydra would shut down another independent banking system and he would be out another hundred thousand dollars or so, but he had become quite good at predicting their next strike. It was like playing the stock market, but, ironically enough, easier.

Three months in Hydra custody, he was pleased to find, did not appear to have had a negative effect on his debriefing avoidance skills. Almost immediately after they landed on the helicarrier he locked himself in his lab. “Keep the door locked, Jarvis. I’m not in the mood for Nick Fury’s drama today. Where were we?” he asked as he walked toward his workbench, taking off the dark blue jacket he’d been wearing and tossing it to the side without much regard for where it landed.

“It is good to see you too, sir,” Jarvis responded. “You were working on late-stage development of the Mark VI armor.”

“Great,” Tony said. “Bring it up.”

“If I may, sir, the arc reactor you are currently using does not support the power surge demands necessary for the Mark VI.”

“Right, arc reactor.” Tony opened a drawer in the bottom of his workbench and pulled out a package of fruit snacks. “Copy the plans for my latest model into a new project file. I need some kind of shielding to distort the energy signature. Run a simulation using the biometric signature camouflage, recalibrated 2.361 degrees and tuned to a non-biological wavelength.”

“Would you like me to deactivate the Pierce Protocol?”

“Yeah, do that.” Tony stuffed a handful of fruit snacks into his mouth. “And put on some music.”

Tony didn’t know exactly how long he had been working, but he had listened to an entire Black Sabbath album and part of a second before the door opened and Steve Rogers walked in.

“Stark,” he said. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Um, hello, what happened to keeping the door locked?” Tony asked the ceiling.

“The Captain made a very convincing argument,” Jarvis said.

“Traitor,” Tony whispered.

“When was the last time you ate?” Steve asked.

“What are you, my mother?” Tony picked up the empty fruit snack package from where it sat on his workbench and waved it in Steve’s general direction.

“I’m trying to help you.”

“I’m touched, but this arc reactor shielding isn’t going to fabricate itself, so…”

“Actually, sir, nowhere in my programming does it state that you must be present for automated fabrication processes.”

“Yeah, but he didn’t know that,” Tony hissed.

“The Captain reported that you have not slept since you were rescued yesterday morning. In addition, Welch’s Fruit Snacks are not a reliable source of nutrition.”

“Capsicle here talking my ear off isn’t going to fix either of those problems.”

“You need a medical checkup,” Steve said. “You were a prisoner of Hydra for three months. We need to know if they --”

“They didn’t,” Stark said. “Are we done?”

“How can you be so smart and so idiotic?” Steve asked.

“How can you be so not wanted and so still here?” Tony replied.

“You’re going to kill yourself.”

“I was doing just fine before you turned up.”

“I can see that.”

Tony turned back to his workbench and pulled up the arc reactor plans. The power feedback loop he was working on would adequately confuse anyone trying to study it, but it had the unfortunate side effect of generating unwanted energy with nowhere to go. “Sarcasm must be a new invention, because it just doesn’t seem right when you do it. For future reference, Jarvis, when I say to keep the door locked, that means don’t let people in.”

“Can I come in? The door was open.”

“Barton, get the hell out of my lab.”

“Fury wants to talk to you.”

“About a medical checkup, right? Jarvis, add a conductor to recycle excess energy to the simulation. On the outside of the reactor, under the shielding. Start with copper.”

“About North Platte, actually.”

“Yeah, how’d that go?” Tony went so far as to half rotate his shoulders to make eye contact with Barton.

“It was a no-go after you were captured. We couldn’t risk Hydra finding out we were planning to hit it, and we needed you on point.”

“I’m somehow flattered and offended.” Tony rotated the holographic simulation and frowned at it. “Switch to a copper-aluminum alloy. So Fury wants to run it now that I’m back? Doesn’t waste time, does he?”

“He wants to know if we can,” Clint replied.

“What’s North Platte?” Steve asked.

“Anymore it’s a death camp,” Tony replied. “They send some of the  people who ‘disappear’ there. The people who fight back but aren’t a real threat, people caught trying to leave the country, people who exercise too much freedom of speech on the internet.”

“It’s also the number one source of agricultural products for the food companies Hydra assimilated,” Barton said. “If we take it down not only are we freeing those people, but we’ll cripple one of their sources of income. Force people to buy food from companies that don’t rely on slave labor.”

“Well, if you’re wondering if I told them anything, I didn’t. So in lieu of other unforeseen disasters, yes, we can.” Tony spun the hologram over his workbench. “Widen the conductor half a millimeter. Great. Perfect. Queue the fabrication.” He turned back to Steve and Clint and made a dismissive motion with his hands. “Shoo. Get out. Go talk to Fury about North Platte or medical checkups or something. I need to brush my teeth. You can tell him I’ll be out soon.”

Steve and Clint found themselves in the hall outside the lab. They headed in silence to the meeting room behind the command center of the helicarrier, where Fury stood waiting for them. “I thought I sent you to get Stark,” he said.

“He says he’ll be out soon,” Clint said.

“Someone needs to remind him that this boat does not revolve around his personal day schedule,” Fury grumbled. “How is he?”

“Running himself into the ground. Trying to pretend things are normal,” Clint said. “He’ll crash and pass out in a couple of hours. We can check him into the med bay then.”

Steve sat down in one of the chairs around the conference table. “Tell me about the Tesseract,” he said. “It fell in the ocean. How did Hydra get ahold of it?”

“How did you know about the Tesseract?” Clint asked.

“Kind of hard to miss when people are shooting at me with weapons powered by it. The more important question is probably why did no one tell me?”

“I’m guessing it’s because you didn’t ask,” Fury said. “Howard Stark pulled it out of the ocean while he was looking for you. S.H.I.E.L.D. kept it in storage and when Hydra took over, well, I’m sure you can guess.”

Steve was silent for a few moments. “North Platte,” he said finally. “Are we planning on hitting it?”

“We?” Fury said, looking at Steve closely.

“I didn’t come this far to do nothing, sir,” Steve said.

“It must be hard,” Fury said, walking around the table to look across the command center and out the window, “waking up in a new world and finding out that we lost.”

“It was hard to wake up in the most godforsaken part of the world surrounded by refugees who thought it was better to go there than stay in their homes.”

Fury turned back to the table and pressed a button. A screen appeared on the table in front of Steve. “This is the layout of the compound,” he said. “Work areas, storage, detention centers, the works. The main security center is in the largest building, but there are backups in the south-east detention block, the north storage center, and this shed.” He tapped each location as he mentioned it. “They feed straight to Hydra command and if anything happens to one of them, the other three go straight to emergency mode.”

“So we have to take out all four at once,” Steve said.

“And fast,” Clint added. “Before anyone can set off the alarm. Not an easy task. That main security center is well-fortified.”

“That’s why we needed Stark for this.” No one had noticed when Natasha entered the room. Now she approached the table, crossing her arms in front of her. “His suit isn’t exactly stealth gear, but it can get him into places.”

“What are we going to do with all these people?” Steve asked. Each of the three detention blocks was divided into sixteen smaller squares, and Steve guessed that six or eight people at least would be kept in each smaller cell. “There would be too many to send them through the refugee routes I saw.”

“There’s a facility in Wyoming we’ll move them to immediately. From there we’re going to send them in small groups to eastern Russia.” Fury touched the display in front of Steve and a number of colored lines and dots appeared on it. “This was our original plan,” he said. “We were going to get some of ours in there, disguised as guards. Maybe even into one or two of those security centers, but their main priority was to protect the civilians. We’ve got no doubt they would kill all those people rather than let them be rescued.”

“Why isn’t it still the plan?” Steve asked.

“Because we used that card rescuing Stark,” Natasha said. “Barton blew his cover and now they’ll be vetting all their people more than ever. It would take too long for us to plant any guards.”

“We could still get agents in there, though.” Four heads turned to the door, where Tony Stark stood holding a toothbrush. “Guards aren’t the only people who go in there.”

“You want me to risk my people by having them pose as prisoners?” Fury said. “Enough of us get shot without it being because some Hydra grunt was bored.”

Tony responded around the toothbrush. “The plan isn’t going to work without people on the inside. We can take the facility down, easy. But you said it yourself. We’re here to protect civilians, too.”

“Even if we did send people in there, where would they get weapons? The prisoners aren’t exactly armed,” Natasha said.

“What do the guards carry?” Steve asked.

“Stun batons, Hydra pistols,” Clint answered. “The ones positioned on the outer walls have heavier weaponry, but there’s no way prisoners would be able to get to that.”

“That could be enough.”

Fury straightened up. “Rogers, every man and woman on this boat is here because they want to be. They’re here because they believe that Hydra needs to be taken down and they have the skills and the training to do it. So I hope you understand what you’re asking them to do.”

“Nothing I don’t plan on doing myself, sir.”

It took a few moments for the full meaning of Steve’s words to sink in. Tony didn’t pause in his brushing, but an eyebrow quirked. The three former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents exchanged glances.

“Shall we put it on the Suicide Board?” Natasha asked.

“The Suicide Board?” Fury asked.

“That’s what they call the Missions Volunteer Board,” Natasha replied. At Fury’s look, she shrugged. “Death’s a little further off if they can laugh at it.”

Fury sighed. “Priority level alpha, danger level purple. I want people who are experts at hand-to-hand combat.” Natasha pulled a smartphone out of her pocket and Fury turned to Steve. “Let’s hear exactly how you intend to pull this off.”

Chapter Text

April 29th, 2007

“No thanks.”

Tony Stark didn’t know, when he said the words, just how much of an effect they would have on his life. If he had, he still would have said them.

“Mr. Stark, you’re turning down a great opportunity.” Alexander Pierce had one of those smiles that looked like he’d carved it out of rubber and glued it to his face. “Working directly for the government, being our primary weapons contractor; well, I know making billions isn’t exactly new for you, but you could make billions more.”

“I’m good.” Tony picked up his glass and took a drink, then leaned back further in his chair, silently emphasizing that they were on his turf. “You know, I was actually just thinking of shutting down my weapons manufacturing branch entirely. I found this really interesting research in an old warehouse about wheat that could grow to nearly twice the usual size. Did you know that about one in nine people go hungry?”

“Is this about me being a politician? I’d heard you didn’t like them.”

“No, actually, this is about --” Tony paused for a moment. “Do we still have that little freedom of speech thing? Wouldn’t want to accidentally break any of those new laws you’ve been pumping out.”

“Of course you have freedom of speech. This is America.”

“Uh-huh. Yeah. This is about the fact that we’ve been quote-unquote assimilating most of Europe. Don’t think I didn’t hear about Paris. Then there’s all the ‘Hail Hydras’ I’ve been hearing on TV. And in the casinos and clubs. And everywhere, really.”

“You have freedom of speech but other people don’t? Double standard, Tony.”

“Oh, no, anyone can say anything they want. But as the owner of a company, a business, I have the right to refuse service to anyone I want.”

“What changed?”

“Nothing changed. I haven’t sold any new weapons to the government since 2005. When the government decided to use my weapons to shoot a ton of its own citizens.”

“We only shoot terrorists, Stark. But okay. Just think about it. You used to make the U.S. government our best stuff. The Gomorate? A few years back you presented this little device that causes short-term paralysis. It was rejected then but we’d like to open that discussion up again.”

“I have thought about it. I’m a private business owner and I’ll run it how I want.”

Pierce stood up. “In that case you should think a little harder about shutting down. You know terrorists would kill for your weapons. If you’re not selling them to us, well, we might not like who you are selling them to.”

For a moment Tony’s smile was almost as plastic as Pierce’s. “I might not either,” he said.

“Aren’t you going to show me out?”

“Pretty sure you know where the door is,” Tony said and for the first time his smile was genuine.

Pierce smiled back and then left. Tony set his glass down and stood up. For a moment he stood there, then he left the sitting room of his house. Just outside, he found his executive assistant.

“Potts, I’m shutting down all weapons production.”

“You think Pierce is going to try to assimilate Stark Industries?” Pepper said.

“Or shut it down. Send out a cease and desist for all weapons tests and have the prototypes destroyed or moved to deep storage. I’m moving all the plans to my private server.”

“You know that’s illegal.”

“Congress opens its sessions with a collective ‘Hail Hydra’, I don’t care. Set up a meeting with Rhodey, will you?”

“Rhodes is in Switzerland until the eighth,” she said.

“Then get him back here. Send my jet.”

“He’s deployed, Tony. He can’t just leave.” Pepper held out a piece of paper. “I was going to get you to sign this, but if you’re shutting down weapons production you’ll need to renegotiate it. I’ll set up a meeting for Thursday. You’ll also need to do some press. I’m looking at a press conference on Tuesday.”

“Don’t I have people I pay to negotiate contracts?” Tony started to walk toward his workshop. “If Rhodey can’t come here, I’m going to him.”

“No. You have a press conference on Tuesday. I just sent the memo. Don’t write your own speech.”

“I’ll say whatever the hell I want.”

Tony was opening the door to his workshop when Pepper spoke. “A press conference this soon after your meeting with Pierce. They’ll already have guns pointed at you. Don’t give them a reason to shoot. Please.”

Tony didn’t stop walking. “Don’t worry, I probably designed whatever they’re pointing at me!” The door swung shut behind him.

At 12:47 AM, an explosion enveloped Tony Stark’s lab and collapsed half of the Stark manor. No body was found, but the police concluded that it would have been impossible for anyone to survive the blast.

Chapter Text

August 3rd, 2010

Ian Loren Thompson had been a resident of the North Platte Agricultural Facility for nearly five months. He was almost seventeen, but at a glance he didn’t look older than fourteen or fifteen, especially with the way his hair had grown out in choppy layers. He was perceptive, though, quick at picking up emotions and intentions. It was an invaluable skill in the camp’s labor force; being able to guess when guards were looking for an excuse to brutalize someone or just too bored to safely be around, or when other prisoners were considering passing along rebellious talk to the guards in exchange for more food or reduced shifts. It had probably kept him alive.

There was a lot of intention to the large blond man leaning against the metal wall by the door. He was a newcomer, brought in with the latest batch two days ago. He had introduced himself as Steve and asked for everyone else’s name with a bright enthusiasm that didn’t fit in well with his environment. He said he was there because of anti-Hydra sentiments on his blog, but Ian didn’t believe it. It was subtle, but the word was awkward on his tongue, like when your grandpa finally figured out what a blog was and tried to impress you with his tech-savviness.

“What are you waiting for?” he finally asked. Sitting on the flat metal top bunk of one of the four bunk beds that were bolted to the floor, he could swing his legs back and forth easily over the sleeping woman below him, Lilli Parker.

Steve’s hands were flat on the floor, leaving spots of damp warmth on the otherwise cool metal. In the muggy heat of an August Nebraska evening, the smooth metal was almost a relief to touch. But he wasn’t relaxing. He glanced around, a glance that was clearly informed by extensive training and years of experience. There were no regular guards stationed in the detention block, but cameras hung on every wall, and anyone with a lick of sense would know better than to say anything too rebellious out loud.

“I just want to get out of here,” Steve said. His tone was pretty convincing, but the words were calculated, strategic. Just enough to justify his obvious dissatisfaction with the situation without being openly rebellious.

Ian opened his mouth to respond, but before he could they heard the sound of the exterior door down the hall opening, and a spear of the harsh fluorescent light from the bare bulbs that were mounted on the outside of the building stabbed itself down the hall. Eight P.M.; time for their shift to start. The four waking occupants of the small square cell stood up. A loud bell sounded and the three people who were sleeping woke up and immediately pulled themselves to their feet. Lilli rubbed her eyes as she went to stand in front of the door with the others. “Cows,” she mumbled. Their group was assigned to the dairy division, which had meant cattle maintenance for the past two weeks. “My absolute favorite.”

A couple of guards marched down the hall, followed by eight members of the previous shift. Steve stood very still, but Ian still caught the moment he locked eyes with a blonde woman walking past and the swift but intentional blink she shot him. Steve’s demeanor changed, only slightly, and Ian suddenly knew with blinding clarity that he was witnessing the beginning of an escape attempt. The woman continued down the hall and a guard swung open their door.

“Come on, get out of there,” he said, rapping his stun baton against the door. Steve stepped forward quickly, giving the guard a wide, cautious berth. He put his back to the wall outside in the hall as another group from the previous shift passed by. His hands remained visible at his sides. Everyone learned quickly that it was best to make sure the guards knew they weren’t hiding anything. The other six occupants of the cell began to follow his example. Ian hung back, unsure how close he wanted to be when the inevitable happened.

The inevitable was not what he had expected. Shouts were heard outside, followed by a crash and the distant sound of falling masonry. A number of prisoners were in the hall, either being returned to their cells or taken out, and the guards were pressed for maneuvering room. They didn’t hesitate, though. Guns came out and found targets. Hands that were already carefully kept visible flew upward.

“Get back in your cells. Back in your cells!” the guards were shouting. Ian kept his hands raised, projecting that he was not a threat, as he glanced at his fellow prisoners and shuffled further back into the cell he hadn’t actually managed to leave yet. Another crash outside.

Steve was right in front of the cell, hands raised, but not stepping back into it. For reasons that by now ought to be painfully obvious to anyone who happened to be in possession of a pair of eyes and-slash-or ears, he didn’t want to be in the little cell. The guard shoved the barrel of his sidearm into Steve’s face. “Get back in there!”

Steve grabbed the barrel of the gun and forced it downward almost faster than Ian could see. It went off, but the blast dissipated on the floor. Bystanders scattered, some returning to their cells but most simply plastering themselves to the sides of the hall. The rebellious prisoner’s knee planted itself between the legs of the guard. The man keeled over, clutching at his pelvic area, and Steve leaned forward over him and pulled the stun baton out of its holster. It didn’t take a careful observer to figure out how to turn the things on, and Steve’s was active in time to shock the guard in front of him and then spin it around and catch the one that tried to come up behind him. They both fell to the floor.

This must have been the point at which he finally registered himself as a serious threat to the guards, because three of them took advantage of the fact that for the moment he only had a short range weapon to try and surround him, sidearms out. One fired a shot that Steve dodged like he did this every day and then he was jumping, spinning in midair, and his foot connected with one of the guards’ heads. The man crumpled, and Ian reflected that if they’d known the man was capable of that, they’d never have sent him here. The North Platte Agricultural Facility was for people who had opinions and no strength to back them up. Clearly someone had made a grave paperwork error in some Hydra office somewhere.

Or maybe, he amended, the error had been a deception of some sort and Steve had been planted here. The blonde woman from before appeared behind one of the guards, slid his sidearm out of its holster without him noticing, and shot him in the back. Steve brought the stun baton down on the head of the last one in the immediate area. It didn’t knock him out, thanks to the black helmet all the guards wore, but the man staggered backwards and was down for the count. Further down the hall, radio static echoed. “Breakout in south-east --” the man started. Steve flung the baton in his hand and a second later there was a clunk and a swear word.

“Cover the other hall!” Steve yelled and the woman nodded and ran down the hall without a word. Steve bent over to retrieve a sidearm that had fallen to the ground.

One of the fallen guards got up, wielding a stun baton, and jabbed it into the prisoner’s ribs. Steve stumbled with a pained grunt and twisted around, breaking contact and stopping the flow of electricity. The guard thrusted at him again and he quickly stepped back to avoid the weapon. Then he stepped forward again, grabbing at the handle of the baton with his left hand while his right pulled back for a punch. The guard yanked on the baton and didn’t entirely manage to free it, but he did manage to slide Steve’s hand down so that it was just touching the electrified metal. Steve released it at once, and the guard took advantage and jabbed the baton into his stomach. The prisoner tried to step back again, but he was against the far wall of the hall and there was nowhere to go.

Ian heard the bolt on the door to his cell click into the locked position. The lights shut off abruptly and the faint crackling noise the batons made cut out. Ian couldn’t see anything, but he heard the stun baton clatter to the ground. Steve grunted and the guard squeaked and then suddenly Ian heard fabric and plastic and skin hitting the metal floor. He blinked a few times and his vision adjusted enough that he could see Steve. The man grabbed the guard’s sidearm from the ground where it had fallen and shot all three living guards.

Steve looked around and received a lot of stares in return. Most of the detention center’s residents were in the hall, but a few cages were still locked. “Anyone with any training, grab a gun. Stay here and keep the guards out.” He turned and ran for the exterior door.

Three guards stepped inside as he approached the door and one raised his weapon, but Steve dodged the first shot and then took down all three of them in quick succession. A fourth guard lunged for a lever on the wall near the door, but Steve reached him first and threw his entire body weight into a kick that connected with the man’s lower back. He hit the wall and didn’t get up. The lever wasn’t labeled, but everyone knew what it was. Gas was too risky in such close proximity to food, which was why all the cells were lined with metal. Steve didn’t think it would actually work -- Tony had promised that they wouldn’t be able to restore power after the EMP went off, even from their backup generators -- but he wasn’t willing to take the risk.

Outside the detention building was chaos. Steve stepped outside just in time to see Iron Man drop from the sky onto the roof of the main building, which had already seen some wear and tear. Part of the wall facing his position was gone, crumbled into little pieces on the dirt ground of the compound. A shift’s worth of guards were running back and forth, weapons out. Some were converging on the main building, but many of them were headed for the detention centers. Iron Man was picking them off, but there was only so much he could do. Steve shot a guard and an arrow hit the one next to him in the back. The Captain followed its trajectory upward to where Hawkeye was crouched on top of the communications tower next to the main building. From there he would have a clear view of the three detention centers and most of the rest of the compound. Returning his attention to his own location, Steve took down four of the approaching guards before they managed to return fire and he was forced to duck back inside the door for a moment. He listened carefully, leaned out, and took down one more guard. Just before he pulled back behind his cover, he saw an arrow hit the ground in front of him. It immediately started billowing smoke, reducing the already low visibility drastically.

The blonde woman joined him. Three people were with her, holding commandeered pistols, two women Steve didn’t recognize and Ian from his own cell. “This building’s clear,” the agent said. “Eight cells are locked. These guns aren’t gonna crack them open.”

“Coulson should be along any minute now with the cutters,” Steve said. A guard emerged from the smoke outside, eyes red and running. The blonde woman shot him.

Steve glanced around the edge of the door. The wind was blowing the smoke away and a crowd of guards were becoming visible beyond it. Both of them began shooting with quick, practiced precision. The three civilians also raised their weapons, though their shots were slower and more cautious. Clearly none of them had any sort of military background. “Any other ways out of here?” Steve asked.

“No,” she responded. “This is it. We have to clear a way through here for the civilians.”

Through the smoke they could just see the first of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents dropping out of the sky, black parachutes collapsing behind them like capes flapping in the wind. The guards nearest them turned and began to fire at them. One agent fell, but the rest returned fire, forming a ring in the middle of an open space in the compound. A few arrows struck down guards firing at the group as well. The guards slowly began to pay more attention to the new, better armed threat that was falling into their midst, giving the people crouched in the doorway to the detention center a break.

Another parachute blocked out the stars for a few seconds. No one would have noticed it in the chaos of the firefight if the figure hanging below it hadn’t thrown something down as he passed overhead. Steve’s shield hit the ground in front of the door, rolled in a small circle, and then landed face-up on the concrete, the star on its surface shining in the low light. Steve threw himself out of the shadow of the door, tucked into a roll, and came up with the shield between him and the guards firing on him. Strapped to the back of it was a bag containing a laser-based coping saw and two earpieces. Steve kept the shield in front of him as he retreated back into the detention block. He opened the bag and passed one of the earpieces to his companion, sliding the other into his ear.

“Captain America online,” he said.

“Agent Thirteen online,” the woman said.

“What’s the status, Iron Man?” Steve asked. With his shield in his hand, he was able to step away from the door to line up more effective shots.

“Communication centers are down. No distress calls went to Hydra command,” Tony said. Steve huffed out a tiny breath of relief. There was too much else to focus on to enjoy the moment, though. “Guard barracks are a hell of a lot smaller than they were, and, you know, more full of rubble and dead Hydra goons."

“The power’s out in the south-east detention block. We have civilians trapped in the cells. What’s the status on the other detention blocks?”

Coulson responded. “Delta team are at the south-east block, covering the door. I see Agent Thirty-Five at the west block. No word on Twenty-Two. Looks like the power’s down everywhere.”

Fury’s voice joined the conversation. “The perimeter’s holding. No Hydra agents have tried to leave, but if they do, we’ll stop them.”

“Looks like the guards are focused on the strike teams,” Steve commented. None of them were paying any attention to the detention blocks anymore. Five agents with stolen weapons and a handful of armed prisoners weren’t nearly as threatening as the sixteen heavily armed people in the middle of the compound.

“Give me the saw,” Agent Thirteen said. “I’ve got the civilians here. Make sure they have somewhere to go. You three,” she said to the people who had picked up weapons and followed her, “cover the door.”

Steve nodded and stepped behind the door again for just long enough to remove the saw from his shield and hand it to her. When he stepped out again, he had the advantage of surprise, as it seemed the guards had forgotten about him entirely. He ran across the courtyard, shooting guards as he went, carving a path through them to the group of agents in the center. As he looked around he saw the agents crouching in the doorways of the other two detention blocks. None of them had the supplies Coulson had got to him by virtue of his shield. With that in mind, he made for the agent in question.

“Give me the dropoffs!” he shouted, and Coulson tossed him two bags like the one that had been attached to the back of his shield. He caught them without slowing, immediately turning and running toward the south-east detention block, where two friendlies stood with Hydra pistols in hand. They stopped actively shooting when they saw him running toward them. There was no immediate threat from guards who were more interested in the newcomers than in the rebelling prisoners.

When Steve was in range of the south-west block he threw one of the bags as hard as he could. He didn’t need to look to know that it landed a few feet from the door, where the agents could easily reach it. Steve turned again and headed for the west block with the last bag. “Status on Twenty-Two?” he shouted as soon as he was close enough to expect the woman standing in the door to hear him.

“Alive, trapped in a cell!” she responded. “Detention block secure!” Steve threw the last bag before turning back toward the center of the compound.

Natasha’s voice echoed over the intercom. “If anyone’s not busy, I need someone in the other storage centers. More guards in this one than we expected, and a few civilians.”

“On it,” Stark responded. Iron Man blasted off of the roof of the main building earlier and took off toward the north-east.

When Natasha spoke again, her voice had gained a harsh edge of urgency. “Hurry it up, they’re using the civilians as hostages!”

“Forty-Two online,” said a new voice. “South-west detention block clear. Citizens trapped but being freed as we speak.”

“Agent Twenty-Nine online,” his partner said. “No enemies left in here. Sounds like Black Widow needs help. Permission --”

“Stay where you are, Twenty-Nine,” Steve snapped.

“South-east detention block ready to move,” Thirteen said. “One hundred and fifteen civilians, no urgent injuries.”

“Agent Thirty-Five online.”

“Twenty-Two online. East detention block clear. All civilians free.”

“South-west detention block ready to move,” said Agent Twenty-Nine, her voice betraying restless irritation. “I’m not needed here, there are no injuries or hostiles. If there are people being held hostage in the storage buildings --”

Steve threw his shield and took out a guard who was lining up a shot at an agent in the center of the compound. “You have an assignment, soldier,” he said. “Last I checked, it was getting the civilians from the south-east detention block into a quinjet.”

“Fields are clear,” a new voice said, “and we’ve just finished sweeping the outer wall. No enemies left out there. Ready to land Quinjet One.”

“Head to my position,” Coulson said. “Put her down as soon as we’ve cleared out all the guards. Get ready to board the civilians. Thirteen, you’re up.”

Steve’s pistol finally ran out of power. He dropped it and grabbed another one from the ground.

Natasha sounded out of breath when she spoke. “South storage buildings secure. We can easily salvage some of the food that was ready to be shipped out. Send a quinjet.”

“I got the north building,” Stark said.

Agents in the center of the compound were scattering, picking off any remaining guards, who were beginning to be very rare. A quinjet came in for a landing, hovering overhead until the people below had spread out enough. Steve glanced back to the south-east detention block and saw Agent Thirteen standing in the doorway, waving directions and shouting at the civilians. Slowly, they started to file out, jogging nervously in a group toward the landing ship. The quinjets were generally supposed to transport no more than twenty people at a time, but as in this case the jet would be making very short runs, ferrying civilians to the nearby helicarrier, they had decided to crowd as many people as possible on. Tests had indicated that thirty-eight people could be carried at once without significantly affecting the ship’s power consumption. Still, it would take three jets to move all of the civilians from each detention block.

“There’s one more storage building. Is no one going to check on that?” Twenty-Nine said.

Steve took out a guard who had stood up and was raising his gun toward the group of civilians. He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything Hawkeye cut in. “Stand down, Agent. You’re needed where you are.” He sounded confident, so Steve tuned out the radio chatter and focused on what he was doing, which was watching for threats to the group of civilians. The three people who had picked up weapons from fallen guards were at the sides, weapons at the ready, but there was nothing for them to shoot at.

The front of the group reached the quinjet and pandemonium broke out as they realized that there was not room for all of them in the transport. People scrambled and shoved to be the first into the ship. Steve ran up and joined Agent Thirteen, who was shouting to be heard. “Stop it!” he shouted. No one seemed to hear him either, so he clanged his shield against the side of the quinjet. The ringing shlunck silenced the crowd and people stared at them with wide eyes.

Agent Thirteen sectioned off a group, pointing to a young man with dark skin and jet-black hair. “Everyone in front of him, get in the jet. There is another one waiting to land. You are all going to get out of here, so stay calm.”

Her words helped. The people obeyed her orders, apparently trusting their rescuers for the most part.

“West detention block ready to move,” Agent Twenty-Two said. “One hundred seventeen civvies and one serious injury. Guy has a broken leg.”

“Wait on my word,” Steve said.

“Roger that,” the man replied.

The quinjet took off and headed into the darkness to the east, toward where the helicarrier was waiting. Another one came in to land. Steve glanced around, just in time to catch sight of someone running across the north side of the compound near the main building. At first, he took it for a guard and he started to sprint after it. His first hint was the yellow scrubs that the prisoners wore, and as he drew close, he recognized Agent Twenty-Nine. “Agent Twenty-Nine, stand down,” he said over the com, and he saw her stop and turn.

Suddenly, Fury’s voice crackled over the com. “There are six bogies heading your way from the north-east. Smaller than a plane, bigger than missiles. Hurry it up, people.”

Steve turned back to the group of agents clustered around Quinjet Two. “Defensive formations!” he shouted. “Protect the civilians. Iron Man?”

“On it, Cap,” Stark said. Iron Man shot up into the sky from the north-east corner of the compound. The last passenger boarded the quinjet and it took off. Now Steve could see the bogies Fury had mentioned, streaks of light getting bigger and bigger in the sky.

A few tense moments passed. Finally, Iron Man spoke. “Rip-offs,” he said. “Cheaper, crappier versions of my suit. I was wondering when they were going to manage to get these off the ground. Engaging now.”

“How much of a threat are they?” Steve asked.

“Not much. They were designed by Justin Hammer. Anything he builds, I can break. I just need to figure out how.” The sound of repulsors firing could be heard over the com for a few tense moments. Steve watched the north-east and saw the flashes of light as Iron Man took on the enemy, holding all six of them back for the moment. One exploded. “Seriously?” This comment was followed by a huffing, gasping noise.

“Iron Man?” Steve asked.

“Sorry,” Stark replied breathily, and Steve realized that he had been laughing. “Aim for the reactors. They’re not shielded. Weapons systems are pretty effective, though.”

“Got them in my sights,” Hawkeye said. Another one exploded and lit up the little convoy as it approached the compound. The four remaining suits split as they approached, surrounding the group of agents and civilians in the center of the compound. The civilians started to panic again, and some of them started to scatter, moving in the general direction of the detention block they’d come from. One of them set off in pursuit of the quinjet.

“Iron Man!” Steve said. “One of them’s going after the quinjet. Take him down.”

“Quinjet Three,” said someone over the com. “Ready to land, please advise.”

“Keep clear,” Steve said. He turned to the civilians. “Scatter, take shelter!” he shouted, as if they needed him to tell them to do that. He turned back toward Agent Twenty-Nine.

Hawkeye fell out of the sky and landed in a roll between them. He came up, an arrow notched, and fired. His arrow embedded itself in the reactor of a suit that had just landed and was approaching them with weapons out, springing from seemingly every crack and crevice on the thing. The suit stopped when it was hit for just a moment and Steve hazarded a guess as to what was about to happen.

“Get down!” he shouted and flung himself at Hawkeye and Agent Twenty-Nine. He grabbed the archer and wrapped his free arm around him as he tried to keep going to reach the other agent. But then he heard the sound of metal plates twisting themselves apart and knew he had less than a second to make his decision and with a roiling ocean crashing against the inside of his abdomen he realized that it would take him at least a second to do anything else, so he did the only thing he could. He crouched, keeping himself and Hawkeye tucked behind the shield as the suit went through its death throes next to them.

Agent Twenty-Nine was too close to the blast radius. Steve saw her turn as if to run just as the explosion erupted. When the light from the brief flashes of ignited fuel calmed down and the shrapnel stopped raining he saw her again, this time flat on the ground. He’d seen enough dead people that he didn’t need to check for a pulse, but he did anyway.

Behind him Hawkeye climbed to his feet and took in the sight of Steve crouching over the fallen agent. “Cap?” he asked.

Steve shook his head and stood up himself. The suit was now nothing more than a scattering of twisted metal covered in blood and other things that he tried not to think about.

Hawkeye notched an arrow and started to run toward the center of the compound. There were still two suits harassing the civilians and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Hawkeye was heading for the one on the left. Steve turned and ran toward the one on the right, which was hovering several feet off the ground. He threw his shield, planting it directly in the chest of the suit, over the glowing circle that mirrored Stark’s own suit. The suit was pushed back by the pressure and the operator had to flail a little to regain his balance, but he did not fall. The shield was lodged in the casing of the armor, but it had not cut far enough through it to significantly damage the reactor. The suit operator grabbed the shield and tried to pull it out, but it did not budge. Steve raised his gun and fired, but the energy of the weapon dissipated on the surface plating, and he could not get a clear shot at the reactor, with the way his shield was lodged in place. The suit started to move toward him. Steve slowly retreated, continuing to fire at the glowing circle.

The suit fired at him and he swung to his right, dodging the first shot, and then threw himself forward and rolled under the second, coming up behind his enemy. Several shots at potential weak points (joints, armpits, visible weapons and chinks) showed that Justin Hammer had taken every precaution against people attacking his creations from behind. The suit turned around, shoulder mounted guns popping up and zeroing in on Steve. He leapt forward and scrambled for the straps of his shield, but his fingers slid off of the slick material that the replacement straps had been made of. He dropped the gun he was holding to try with both hands, but before he could regain his grip, the suit’s left arm grabbed him by the neck and pulled him away from itself. Steve grabbed its wrist and scrabbled for anything that would give him an advantage. What looked like a miniature rocket launcher popped out of the forearm to menace him and Steve snapped it off and stabbed it into the hole it had come out of. Sparks flew and he felt the grip loosen. Before he could extricate himself from the hand, the suit swung its whole body and flung him away. He hit the ground flat on his back. For a moment, he could only lay there, trying to regain the breath that had been forced out of him when he’d landed and willing himself to compartmentalize the pain in his head.

Something exploded nearby and someone screamed. Steve forced himself to sit up. “Cap? Cap?” someone was saying in his ear.

“I’m fine,” Steve said as he rolled to his feet. He turned to face the suit he was fighting just in time for it to hit him squarely in the chest, forcing the breath out of him again as it physically carried him across the compound. This time he hit a wall and felt the concrete shake. The suit released him and pulled back for a punch. Really? Steve vaguely thought. All those guns and he’s punching me? He lunged forward and grabbed at his shield, and this time his hand closed around the straps and he put one foot against the leg of the suit to give himself some leverage as he yanked it out.

The shield clipped him in the chin as it came loose, and caught as he was between the wall and the suit, there wasn’t enough room to use it as a weapon. He held it up with his left hand to shelter his head from the metal fists and punched the reactor as hard as he could with his right hand. The casing cracked, but the suit kept up its barrage of attacks. He punched it again. Shards of the semi-opaque cover cracked off, one of them slicing through the skin on the back of his fingers. Steve pulled back for another punch. He saw the panels on the sides of the chest begin to move, revealing a weapon beneath, and immediately covered himself with his shield.

The explosion shoved him back into the wall and he felt the concrete crack. He must be against the main communications building, which couldn’t be at its most stable after Iron Man had collapsed part of it earlier. Pebble-sized pieces of it rained down on him. He raised his shield above his head just in time for the first of several pieces larger than his head to bounce off of it. This exposed him to the suit, which did not appear damaged from the explosion. He skimmed for escape routes, but found that he was literally cornered, back to a building that had just taken the last assault it could handle.

“Oh look,” Stark said over the com. “It defends against its own weaponry. I wonder how many prototypes Hammer had to wreck before he decided that was a good idea.”

The guns mounted on the shoulders of the suit moved minutely, targeting Steve. He was still trapped between the suit and the wall, and pieces of masonry were still clanging against his shield above his head. There was no using that to defend himself. His brain roared with a countdown until the guns fired.

A flash of red appeared behind the suit. Iron Man grabbed it by the arm and yanked, throwing it off and scattering the bullets in a messy string across the wall. The suit swung around to engage Stark, which was its last mistake. Stark raised one hand and sent a single repulsor blast into the damaged reactor. The suit froze. Iron Man grabbed it by the arm with apparent ease and flung it away, toward the currently empty center of the compound, where it exploded. “Let’s get out of here, Cap. This place is about to come down,” Stark said.

Steve didn’t need to be told twice. As he sprinted away from the building after Iron Man, he shouted, “Report on the bogies!”

An explosion briefly illuminated the area, from somewhere in the sky. A quinjet swooped overhead. “Last one down,” came Natasha’s voice.

“They might send more. Keep scanning,” Steve said. “Iron Man, secure the perimeter. If any more come in you keep them back. Widow, with him. Quinjet Three, get down here. Continue with the evacuation.”

It took ten trips in total, with five quinjets, to ferry all of the civilians to the helicarrier. The only interruption was a collection of standard military jets that approached as the fifth quinjet was being loaded. Black Widow and Iron Man had the advantage of superior weaponry and thus no trouble dispatching them quickly. The small convoy was standard for when bases dropped off the communications grid. It usually was nothing more than equipment failure or user error, so Hydra almost never wasted full task forces on it. When this group failed to report back more would come, but not before they had finished their business there and left.

The agents piled onto the final quinjet with the last four civilians. The flight to the helicarrier was so short that they did not even bother to close the back of the jet. Steve had an excellent view of the camp from above, completely empty with a slowly collapsing main building and an inner compound full of wreckage and bodies.

“Iron Man, Widow?” Fury asked.

“On our way,” Natasha said. “I have a few civilians with me from the storage buildings. One of them is in pretty rough shape.”

“Casualties?” Fury continued.

“We lost seven civilians,” said Coulson.

“Four agents,” someone else added over the com. “Keglovitz, Thompson, Alihad, and Green.”

Everyone was silent for a long moment. Steve didn’t have a face to put to any of those names, except that one of them had belonged to Agent Twenty-Nine. He only knew a few agents by name; the team Fury had assembled to infiltrate the camp with him had been known simply by operating number. The less they knew about each other the safer it would be if they were compromised.

The silence lasted a few minutes, until the quinjet landed in the stern hangar of the helicarrier. Half of the hangar had been cordoned off and was full of civilians, mostly awkwardly milling around, looking for familiar faces. Some were being examined by medical personnel, and others were sitting on the floor or on chairs. It was cramped, but the civilians would only be on the helicarrier for a little under two hours, before it reached the facility in Wyoming to drop them off.

Steve finally felt the various aches and pains he’d set aside for the past three days as he stepped out of the quinjet. He didn’t bruise for very long, and he hadn’t suffered any serious injuries, but there were scrapes and grazes all over from the recent battle. His chin hurt, and he wasn’t sure why. A headache was chipping away at his skull because serum or no, his head still was not made to be pounded into concrete. He took a steadying breath and discovered that at least one of his ribs was damaged. He should probably have someone make sure it was in the right place before he let it heal.

“Are you really Captain America?”

He turned to see Ian looking at him. He forced a tired smile. “Yeah,” he said.

“That’s crazy.”

“You’re telling me.” Steve barely had time to recall his over-rehearsed explanations of the same questions he’d already been asked far too many times before someone else cut in.

“Yeah, it’s fantastic, kid. How about we leave the nice captain alone for a minute to talk to his bestest buddy?” The boots of Stark’s suit clacked against the hangar floor as he approached. His faceplate folded into the collar of the suit as he approached.

“You said they wouldn’t be able to replicate your arc reactor,” Steve said.

“Cap, if my arc reactor was as big a piece of garbage as those things, I’d die of embarrassment. Also cardiac arrest, because it wouldn’t hold up under the strain of, y’know, life.” He waved a hand around, vaguely indicating nothing in particular.

“And you,” the kid said. “You’re Iron Man.”

“Congratulations on your astute observation. Don’t you have someplace to be?” Tony said. “Go check in with the agents over there.” He pointed at the people who were checking civilians for injuries and passing out MREs. Ian nodded and walked away slowly, handing the Hydra pistol he was still carrying to a woman who came forward to meet him.

“How were the suits flying, then?” Steve asked.

“It’s based off my arc reactor’s design, but there’s no reacting going on in there.” Stark held out his hand, showing Steve one of the reactors from the suits that had attacked them, finger-shaped indents around its edges showing where he must have grabbed it to tear it out of the machine. “They’ve got the shape and the materials, but the size ratios and processes are all wrong. They looked at my reactor and didn’t understand it and made a glorified car battery.”

The last quinjet flew into the hangar and landed. The door opened and Barton put his head out. “We need a medic over here!” he shouted. Someone standing at the edge of the cordoned-off area waved to show he understood and started to make his way over.

“Hawkeye, just the man I was waiting for.” Stark gestured at a group of agents who had gathered nearby. “Barton, Derrins, everyone without a secret identity to protect get over here. You too, Stars ‘n Stripes. Helicarrier’s about to start moving, so let’s not waste our window!”

S.H.I.E.L.D.’s victory selfies were hard to find, but even with strict government censorship, the internet was still the internet and someone who knew where to look could find almost anything on it. Steve had been shown a few by various people along the evacuation route he had followed back to the States. On the surface it was casual taunting; disadvantaged resistance members rubbing in the fact that they had gained a victory, however small. More practically, it was publicity, reminding people that they existed and were active. It would be taken down in less than fifteen minutes, but in that time thousands, perhaps even millions of people would see it, and word would spread. The Avengers had taken down North Platte. Hydra would look weak; they could provide inexpensive food, apparently at the expense of good security. The caption that accompanied the image would mention almost casually that three hundred and thirty two people had been held against their will there and were now free and on their way to a better life.

The internet, Steve thought, was a powerful tool.

“Perfect, we’ve got a great view of the compound from here,” Stark said. “Everybody hold still. Henson, move to your left.” He raised a phone, adjusting the camera and framing it so the ruins of the place were clearly visible over the heads of the gathered agents, particularly the partially collapsed main building. “Jarvis, update on my Instagram.” None of the people standing there could hear the AI’s response. “Well, make a new one, then. Everyone say ‘Hydra sucks!’” He snapped the photo. “This one should be a collectible. First one where I have my mask off and the first one with Cap. First one with you, too, Barton.”

“Third,” Clint said. “We kept up the tradition while you were gone. And my first one was technically after New Mexico.”

“Doesn’t count. That was just you and Coulson and a blond guy you won’t tell me anything about.”

“Aliens,” Barton said.

“See what I mean?” Tony said to Steve. “They won’t tell me anything.”

The other agents were starting to leave, but Coulson paused. “Agent Barton and I got this whole operation started, Stark. If anything the ones that don’t have us are the ones that don’t count.”

“Well, I got the selfies started. Before I came along you were doing press releases. Which no one read. You’re welcome for that.” He turned and sized Steve up. “Speaking of which, I don’t think I’ve heard a thank you yet.”

“For what?” Steve asked.

“For saving your life back there.”

“Funny how that works,” Steve said. “Neither have I.” He slid his shield off his arm, opting to hold it by the rim instead, and walked toward the door in the back of the hangar, leaving Stark by himself.

“Coulson,” Tony said, “I’d like to register a complaint. As the resident Captain America buff, I would like to know why you never saw fit to tell us he could be such an ass.”

Coulson had already started toward the door to the hangar, but he paused and glanced back. “You never asked, Stark.”

Chapter Text

August 3rd, 2010

Your call has been forwarded to an automated voice messaging system. Seven-two-zero-eight-nine-nine-four-three-seven-one is not available. At the tone, please record your message. When you’ve finished recording, you may hang up or press one for more options.


Hey Tony, it’s Bruce. You sure picked a hell of a time to not answer your phone. I’m glad you didn’t get shot, by the way.

I was calling because I need an extraction, but since you’re not available I guess I’ll manage it myself. Secret identities are kind of outdated anyway. Heh.

I’ve got to take the Tesseract and run. We don’t know what it’s doing, but whatever it is, I figure it’s best if it does it somewhere away from Hydra. We cut the power about six hours ago but it’s still throwing out power surges and giving off gamma radiation. More than usual. Selvig says it’s “misbehaving”, whatever that means. You know where to meet me. I’ll try to keep hold of this phone, so -- what the hell?

Crack fzzzzzshhh broof!

Selvig, what the hell did you do?

I didn’t do anything! It’s happening. Whatever it is.

Put down the weapon and identify yourself!

Bumvvp rat-tat-tat-tat-tat bam thunk!

Please don’t. I still need that.

If you think I’m going to just give it to you --

It doesn’t matter. I will have it, whether you give it to me or not. I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose.

Loki, brother of Thor?

Heh. You’re not getting the Tesseract.

That’s what they all --


To hear your message again, press two. To erase your message, press three. For more options or to leave a callback number, press one.

Chapter Text

August 3rd, 2010

“Someone called your burner phone during the battle,” Jarvis said.

Tony stopped in the middle of thinking up a comeback to Coulson’s last comment. “How long ago?” he asked. Only a handful of people even had that number. All but one of them had been in the battle with him, and too busy to be making phone calls.

“About fifteen minutes.”

Tony turned and walked out of the hangar without a word. His boots clunk-clunked against the metal floor all the way through the twisting halls, into an elevator, and down several more hallways until he reached his lab. He had used to have actual quarters on the helicarrier, but he had spent so much time in the lab that eventually Fury had reallocated them to someone else and had a bed and toilet installed in the lab. As he entered the room an orange tabby cat wound between his legs to get inside the room and jumped up on top of a high counter that ran along one wall. Tony ignored the animal and threw open the top drawer of a metal filing cabinet that sat along another wall. It was full of clothes that he shoved aside. Under a pile of shirts was a flip phone. Tony opened it and tensely dialed his voicemail.

He had one new message. He listened to it tensely. When it was over he redialed the number, but after five rings no one had answered. He took the phone and left the room. The cat blinked after him.

Nick Fury was still in his command center when Tony walked in, still fully suited up. “Bruce called me,” he said as he walked in. He tossed the phone. Fury caught it. “He left a message.” Tony turned to walk out of the room again, but Fury cut him off.

“Stark, where are you going?”

“Chicago. Michigan City. He needs an extraction.”

“You’re going alone?”

“I’m taking the fastest transportation we’ve got, which is, oh right, my suit. He needs help now.”

Fury watched Stark leave, then dialed the phone’s voicemail and listened to the message. Once it was over, he leaned over his console and sent out a message.

Within a short time Coulson, Barton, Romanoff, and Rogers had arrived. Coulson was still wearing his combat uniform, but Barton had evidently been in the middle of changing, because he was wearing a clean black T-shirt with his filthy combat pants, and no shoes. Romanoff had tagged along with him. Rogers was still wearing his prison scrubs and carrying his shield.

He was the last to arrive, and came from the direction of the med bay. As he sat down in one of the chairs, Fury played the recording of the message Bruce had left. He didn’t speak until it was over.

“This message was left on Tony Stark’s burner phone about half an hour ago,” Fury said. The other three men exchanged glances.

“Where is Tony?” asked Natasha.

“He went to find Banner.”

“He’ll need backup,” she said, and immediately turned and walked out.

Fury let her go. “Whatever happened, it had to do with the Tesseract,” he said. “Bruce Banner was studying it, but he’s not here right now. That makes you the expert, Rogers. Anything we should know?”

Rogers’ face had darkened as he listened to the message, and when he spoke his voice carried judgement. “You should have left it in the ocean.” Everyone stared at him and he relented a little. “I only saw the Tesseract a couple of times,” he said. “I know it’s dangerous. More dangerous than it’s worth. Howard was researching it.”

“He thought it would be a source of clean renewable energy,” Fury said.

“Is that why S.H.I.E.L.D. had it?” Rogers asked.

Fury ignored the question. “Erik Selvig mentions Thor in the message. What can you tell us about this Loki character, agents?”

“Not a lot,” Barton said. “We never actually saw him. He sent the Destroyer, but stayed in Asgard himself.”

“Asgard?” Rogers asked.

There was a pause. Fury broke it. “Last year a small town in New Mexico was leveled by an extraterrestrial grudge match. An alien from a place called Asgard named Thor appeared and his brother Loki sent a creature after him to kill him. Thor returned to Asgard and we haven’t heard from him since.”

“Aliens,” Rogers said, his tone conveying disbelief, but his face showing acceptance.

“Loki is definitely a hostile,” said Coulson. “Whatever his intentions are, they aren’t good.”

“And we can’t depend on Thor for help.” Fury’s jaw set. “We work with what we have. I want everyone who knows anything about Thor or Loki here. Coulson?”

“Jane Foster,” Coulson said. “She spent a lot of time with him. And her intern, Darcy Lewis.”

“We’ll have to hurry,” Barton said. “Hydra will be after them too.”

“Go get them. They’ll recognize you.”

“Erik Selvig,” Barton said. “Hydra picked him up to work for them. Banner thinks he’s being coerced, but there’s no solid evidence either way.”

“I’ll message Agent Romanoff,” Fury said. “You worry about Foster and Lewis. I want them back here by oh-two-hundred.”

The three men stood, and Coulson and Barton turned to leave. Rogers paused, brows furrowing. “Schmidt had a lot to say about the Tesseract. I thought he was crazy at the time. He talked about the Norse gods, thought he could be like them. He thought the Tesseract was some kind of powerful Norse artifact. If you want to know more about it, maybe the Asgardians are the people to ask.”

Fury nodded, taking in Rogers’ explanation. “The more information we have, the likelier it is we’ll get to ask them,” he said.

Rogers nodded and followed Barton and Coulson out of the room.

Chapter Text

May 2nd, 2009

“Are you going to just go in there and get our stuff and then walk out?”

“No.” For a moment, Thor looked as if this was the most ridiculous proposition in the world, and then it melted into easy confidence. “I’m going to fly out.”

Jane stared after him as he ran down the hill towards the compound, and then she started to wriggle backwards down the small berm she was hiding behind, groping in her pocket for her cell phone. Erik was right; this man was obviously crazy.

Before she could find it, however, she heard the sound of a car on the other side of the hill, and then a door slam, and for a moment she froze. As soon as someone reached the peak of the hill she would be seen, and there was no cover to be had on the flat, smooth ground between her hiding place and the compound. Even as her mind turned to the compound she heard shouts coming from it; Thor must have been sighted. Footsteps could be heard above her. In a flash she made up her mind; whoever was behind her would have seen her car, but ahead of her they were preoccupied with Thor. At the very least no one was looking for her around the compound, and perhaps she could pretend to be one of the guards that paced around the outside of the compound at intervals.

She got up and scrambled down the burm, tucking her hair into her jacket as she went. At the bottom she hurried across the open ground and then, once she reached the edge of the area lit up by floodlights, she started to walk in the stiff way military types tended to, careful to stay just outside the light to hide the fact that she was wearing jeans and an oversized flannel jacket.

It wasn’t enough. An actual guard came around the corner and saw her. He seemed to see nothing amiss at first and walked toward her calmly, but as he approached, he called, “Check?”

Jane wasn’t sure how to respond. “All’s clear,” she said, and it was the wrong thing. The guard whipped out his gun and pointed it at her. Jane raised her hands, unsure of what else to do.

“We have an attempted infiltration on the south-east side of the base,” he said. “Female, looks to be in her late twenties, impersonating a guard. Recommend search of exterior perimeter.” He paused for a moment, apparently listening, and then jerked his head at her. “You,” he said. “Are you alone?”

“Yes,” Jane said immediately. The sounds of shouting men from inside the compound had been joined by crashing and fighting noises, and she decided that it would be safest to not be associated with that if she could help it.

“What’s your name? What are you doing here?”

Before Jane could answer, an arrow flew out of the darkness from off to the east and the guard dropped dead. It was so unexpected and shocking that for a few moments Jane forgot to lower her hands. It was just as well, since it saved her the trouble of putting them up again when two men dressed in black combat gear appeared from the darkness. One was carrying a bow, a second arrow already notched and ready to draw, and the other held a pistol at the ready.

“Cover us, Barton,” said the man with the gun, and with a curt nod his companion turned away, watching for any approaching guards. Even Jane knew it wouldn’t be long before the dead guard was missed. The man with the gun holstered it and held his hands out so Jane could see they were empty. “We’re not going to hurt you, ma’am,” he said. “If you’ll please come with us, we can explain everything.”

Jane dropped her hands. “Everything?” she said. “I seriously doubt that.” The sound of gunfire came from inside the compound, as if punctuating her statement.

“Did your associate go in there?” the man asked.

“Yes,” Jane said. “I don’t know if I want to be associated with him anymore, though.”

“Coulson, we’ve got incoming,” said the other man.

“We should go. Will you come with us, ma’am?” Coulson asked.

“I think my days of going places with strange men are over,” Jane said.

Coulson probably had a response to that, but before he could speak the other man raised his bow and loosed the arrow. A strangled cry floated across the darkness toward them, followed by the chrr-gh-chrr-gh of rapid gunfire. Coulson hit the ground, pulling her down with him, as the other man rolled and shot another arrow toward their attackers.

 “You’re welcome to stay,” the archer said over his shoulder, “if you feel safer here.”

“I’m not going with you!” Jane shouted. “You're shooting at government employees!”

“They're shooting at us!” the man replied. More gunfire echoed from inside the compound. “And what's your friend doing?”

"He’s not my friend,” Jane said. “I met him last night and he is insane.”

“I don't know,” the archer said. “He’s doing pretty good. Ain't easy to take down Strike units with your bare hands. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

“This is a Strike unit?” Jane asked. “Oh my god. What is this satellite thing? Oh my god, you're Hawkeye.

“Do you mind if we discuss it somewhere else?” asked Coulson. He dropped his cartridge and reloaded his pistol.

Jane really wasn’t sure about going with them; she would like to be able to say she’d learned her lesson about agreeing to go with men she didn’t know who attracted too much trouble. On the other hand, she really did want some goddamn answers. And Hydra had taken all her research materials.

The same part of her brain that had decided giving Thor a lift to the compound was a good plan kicked in and she nodded sharply. “Yeah, let’s. I expect a full explanation, though, none of this cagey Men in Black bullshit.”

“No worries. We don't work for the government anymore,” Coulson said.

Coulson and Hawkeye, as it turned out, didn't know more than she did. Less, in some cases, because they didn't have the proper equipment to get a read on the anomalies she had been tracking. To say Jane was disappointed would have been an understatement. The internal drive to find out how and why that had inspired her to go into science in the first place lay unsatisfied.

She sat in the small cafe, her hands clasped around a glass of water. It wasn't safe, the two Avengers had insisted, for her to return to her trailer or lab, not after she'd been associated with Thor.

They were wearing normal clothes now, blending in well with her and Erik and Darcy in the quiet environment. That was the only thing that was inconspicuous about the small group, as they were arguing heatedly, or Selvig and Coulson were, at any rate.

“You can’t just barge in here and insist you’re here to help. You’re making things worse.”

“I must have misheard when Miss Foster told me about how Hydra came in and confiscated all of her equipment and notes.” Coulson’s voice was cool and calm. Clearly Selvig’s accusations didn’t phase him.

“We’re in danger just from associating with you people.”

“You’re in danger from a lot of things, Dr. Selvig. We might be able to help.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“What are they gonna do to Thor?” Darcy asked.

“Interrogation,” Coulson said. “Whatever this satellite they found is, it's connected to him somehow. It could be critical. We need to get him back before they find anything out.”

“That's impossible,” Selvig scoffed. “The two of you, against a whole Strike unit?”

“Doctor Selvig,” Coulson said. “Impossible is what we do.”

Hawkeye raised an eyebrow. “How long have you been sitting on that line, Coulson?” he asked.

It was lucky Thor’s friends showed up when they did, and lucky, from a certain point of view, that the Destroyer showed up when it did, since the destruction the four Asgardians wreaked on the Hydra STRIKE unit would easily be passed off as them coming off on the wrong side of a massive alien robot.

As Thor raised his hammer and flew up into the heavens, Coulson touched Jane’s arm. “They're going to try to cover up all the loose ends and pick up anyone who knows anything,” he said. “You three are at risk.”

“We could protect you,” Hawkeye said.

“No,” Jane said. “I’m a scientist, not a revolutionary. I don't want to be involved with your rebellion. I just want to live  my life.”

“I’m not sure that’s possible, ma’am.”

“I’ll make it possible,” she said.

“Can we at least drive you to a different town?: Hawkeye offered. “Everyone here will be taken in for questioning.”

“I would like that, yes,” Darcy said.

“No,” Jane insisted. “I have my own car.”

“It doesn’t go over thirty miles per hour,” Darcy objected.

“It also got smashed,” Hawkeye added helpfully. “The robot --” he paused and waved his hand vaguely “-- thing threw it at Sif.”

Jane rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I’m in trouble either way,” she said. “But I know how to fake personal records. I’ll change my name. And if I’m associated with you lot I’m in more trouble.”

"The offer’s open if you ever change your mind,” Coulson said. “We’re always on the lookout for brilliant scientists.”

“I won’t,” Jane said. “And anyway, I’m an astrophysicist. I don’t know what you think I could do for you, but I’m pretty sure most of your problems are on this planet.”

Coulson looked like he was about to respond, no doubt with a succinct and witty retort, but Selvig cut him off, putting a hand on Jane’s shoulder.

“In light of our car being in two pieces on Main Street,” he said, “we will be taking you up on your offer of a ride.”