Fury stood in his office and carefully looked over his desk. Something was wrong here. He wasn’t sure what but something had been changed in the time he’d been in meetings. His office had been locked, so no one should have been in here. And who would be brazen enough to break into the office of one of the highest officials of the Shifter Force?
His remaining good eye widened when it occurred to him just who would not draw attention and be brazen enough. He pulled open the middle drawer, then opened the small hidden compartment at the back.
There was a brisk knock at the door, then Coulson came in without waiting for him to react. “Sir, the Avengers...”
The compartment was empty.
Fury bit back a curse.
The Avengers were a new team he had been tasked to create. It seemed that it had finally occurred to The Power That Be that there were problems and situations the regular agents were not equipped to handle, either because it required unorthodox methods or because the situation did not yet officially concern shifters of the Shifter Force. Fury could hardly tell them that such a team existed already, founded and led by Trevor Trevorian, one of his fellow Triplets. The three of them were not actually related, never mind triplets. They had first shifted around the same time, however, and escaped persecution by humans, then been unofficially trained together with twelve others to become Problem Solvers. Ten of them had not survived the training. Two had turned on their trainers and killed them, only to be killed in turn by him, Trevorian and Vlastimil. They had decided to continue as Problem Solvers, Vlastimil among the Dark Shifters, he in the Shifter Force and Trevorian in the in-between with his team that technically belonged to the Shifter Force but did not officially exist and which no one in the Shifter Force, apart from him as Trevorian’s contact, knew about.
He had very carefully considered who to recruit for the Avengers. Considering the special rules – or rather the absence of them – for the task force envisioned, he’d needed members who would not be corrupted by the Shifter Force or the Dark Shifters, who would, if necessary, follow their conscience and disobey the Shifter Force.
Just not now and not yet, not without cause.
Natasha Romanov and Clint Barton had both been recruited from among the Dark Shifters and had been working for the Shifter Force under his command for a few years now. Bruce Banner who had not been born with the all genes necessary to shift but had become the victim of a scientist who had found out about shifters and had tried to artificially create more shifters. Tony Stark, technically one of the Dark Shifters, as his parents had managed to keep his ability a secret from the Shifter Force until he had used it to escape from terrorists who had taken him hostage. Steve Rogers, a legendary Shifter Force agent who had been frozen for decades due to an accident. Fury was pretty certain it was because of him that they were gone. They had found out about rumours and hints that James Barnes, one of his team mates, had somehow survived as well, though he was being controlled through unknown means by HYDRA, a terrorist organisation. Fury had passed on copies of what they had found to Trevorian and had asked him to look into the rumours and, if possible, free Barnes. The Avengers had not been supposed to get involved, not least because Rogers would obviously be compromised where Barnes was concerned.
“Any hints where they’ve gone?” he asked Coulson.
“They’ve bought tickets to Frankfurt, Germany. The plane has departed ten minutes ago.”
Fury was tempted to ask him why he knew about it now but not in time to stop them but refrained. He could guess. Instead he just sighed and reached for his phone. Trevorian could deal with them.
Tony reached over to still Steve’s nervously drumming fingers. “That’s not making the landing or disembarking go any quicker,” he pointed out calmly. His grip tightened. “And if you don’t stop drawing attention you’re flying as cargo on all flights in the foreseeable future,” he hissed under his breath.
Steve forced himself to relax. He knew that Tony was right. And that he was lucky Tony was the one who call him on it. He doubted Natasha would have been as nice about it.
Tony nodded in satisfaction. He could understand Steve, of course, but he was stressed enough about the flight. He, like most shifters with an avian form, did not overly like travelling by plane. He glanced across the aisle to Clint who had the same problem but was covering it even better, managing to appear relaxed to any casual observer. “Almost there,” he assured Steve quietly.
It still felt like hours until they had landed and made their way off the plane. Natasha still had contacts among the Dark Shifters in a number of countries in Eastern Europe. Their next destination would depend on what she could shake loose. They turned towards the exit of the airport, planning to catch a taxi, when a young man stopped them and asked in heavily accented English: “Are you the agents I’m supposed to pick up and take to hotel?” He flashed them identification from the Shifter Force.
Steve stopped short. “Excuse me?” He sniffed covertly. The man was a shifter, a rabbit or a similar prey species.
The man shrugged. “I just told to pick up agents.” He now looked nervous. “I not miss them?”
Some poor Three sent out to do the jobs other agents felt were beneath them, it seemed. Coulson, it appeared, had not only managed to buy them time but also arrange someplace for them to stay. They carefully exchanged glances and Natasha finally shrugged. Even if he had not been sent by Coulson, they were five of them, they would be easily able to take a Three.
They were drove into the city, where he then drove into the underground parking of some hotel they hadn’t been able to quite catch the name of. They tried to assure him that he could just drop them off in front of the hotel but he insisted on taking them to their rooms.
Steve was getting agitated again. They didn’t have time for that! They needed to start looking for more recent hints where they were keeping Bucky! He hated doing this and wasting the rooms Coulson had arranged for them but they also didn’t need someone from the Shifter Force figuring out where they were and the Three would surely catch their name when they signed in. He nodded to Clint to knock him out.
One moment Clint was moving to do so, the next he was lying on the ground, winded from the force of the throw over the shoulder. It took Natasha just a moment to react and attack him, only to find him able to match her and finally wrestle her to the ground.
“Okay, would you stop that?” he demanded in suddenly much better English. “Seriously, I’ve already had to waste enough time on you that I could have spent going after HYDRA and whatever way they have of controlling shifters!”
Steve instinctively took a step forward to help his teammates, not yet fully registering his words.
“Don’t even think about it.” Another man, younger than the first and with tussled light brown, almost blond hair, stepped out from behind the door to the staircase, a gun aimed at them. “Louis, everything okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. Our visit to Budapest was more of a challenge. This was hardly enough to let me work off the frustration at our delayed mission.” He glared at them. “We’ll go up now so your boss can yell at you and we can finally get going and kick HYDRA ass.”
They weren’t sure if they could trust them but for now, obeying was their best bet, not least because they were armed and they’d had to hide their weapons in their luggage. They really did go up into the hotel and then to one of the rooms there. Someone was already waiting there, a man around Fury’s age who pretty much screamed danger. He regarded them critically, making them all more or less consciously straighten at the all too obvious judgement in his gaze.
He pulled a phone out of his pocket and pressed something they couldn’t see. “They’re here,” he said, then turned it around so they could see the screen. It was a video call with Fury. He glared at them. “We will be discussing this when you’re back in the US. For now, you will listen to Trevorian and follow his direction.”
“Yes sir,” Natasha and Clint said, head lowered in deference, uncomfortable at the anger aimed at them from a trusted superior.
“Sir, -“ Steve began.
“You have hindered their mission to stop HYDRA and their ability to control shifters enough,” Fury interrupted harshly. “Trevorian.”
“We’ll deal with them,” the man, Trevorian, said calmly. He ended the call, then went over to the room telephone and dialled the number of another room. “Ms Noir, you can join us now.”
“Fury didn’t intend to disregard the situation,” Natasha stated.
The Three who’d driven them here, Louis something, rolled his eyes. “No, really?” he muttered.
Trevorian shot him a quelling look but didn’t reprehend him. “He did not,” he confirmed. “Louis, Cosmo, your new flight leaves in two hours.” Something in his eyes seemed to soften just a little when he looked at Cosmo. “Herman has asked that you come and see him beforehand.”
“We can help,” Steve offered. He couldn’t keep the desperation out of his voice, the desperation he’d felt since they’d learned that HYDRA had Bucky.
“No thanks,” Louis said dryly.
A blackbird flew in through the window. It landed on the ground and shifted into - a woman? Hadn’t the backbird’s feathers been black? And how was she wearing clothes instantly after shifting? Tony seemed most interested in the last point, looking the clothes over as best as he could from a distance.
“What are you looking at?” He? She? snapped, then stopped. “Oh my God, you’re Tony Stark.”
“Who is he supposed to be?” Clint demanded, startled. Obviously not an agent, not like the other three.
“She is our best chance of finding where HYDRA is hiding Barnes and the other shifters they’re controlling,” Trevorian said.
She briefly smiled at him in thanks, then turned to Louis. “So, Fluffy, I’ve managed to find where they kept him at least until yesterday. The base is definitely not empty but I haven’t been able to verify that he’s still there. I’ve sent you the details already. Flight’s booked and checked in, boarding pass in your inbox already.”
“Thanks, Merle,” Cosmo said.
“We can help,” Tony repeated Steve’s words far more calmly. “I can go over the data with her and Natasha and Clint can accompany them as back-up, just in case.”
Steve turned to stare at him when he made no mention of him going with them.
Tony gentle took the bag out of Steve’s hand. “You’re compromised, Steve,” he said softly but emphatically, then continued, so softly only he could hear it with how close they were standing: “I know how important Barnes is but you’re not thinking clearly. You heard them, we already hindered their mission to save him and stop HYDRA by disobeying orders and coming here.” To tell the truth, he was as well, considering what HYDRA had made Barnes do.
“He’s like my brother.”
“I know. But can you swear that you won’t lose your head and ignore the plan to get to him? Can you swear you won’t compromise the mission?”
Steve’s shoulders dropped. Tony was right. He couldn’t swear it.
Tony nodded, eyes full of compassion. He gently squeezed Steve’s wrist, then turned to Trevorian. “Steve and Bruce will stay here until we fly back.” The ‘so you can keep an eye on him to be sure he doesn’t follow’ was pretty clearly implied.
Trevorian inclined his head. “Very well.”
Steve hated waiting. He hated it at the best of time but knowing his best friend, his brother in all but blood, was in trouble and being unable to do anything about it was the hardest he’d gone through. Bruce and Tony were trying to keep him distracted. In between discussions with Merle and Herman he could not follow, at least. Well, he was being unfair. Even when he was having two different discussions with them at the same time, Tony tended to make sure to stay near Steve, letting their shoulders or arms brush from time to time. Unfortunately it made the wait only a little less unbearable.
Finally, three days later, Trevorian returned from wherever he’d been in the meantime. “They’re on their way back.”
Steve was instantly out of his seat. “Did they -? Is Bucky okay?”
“They were successful in taking out the HYDRA cell and freeing all their prisoners,” Trevorian replied. He waited a moment, taking in Steve’s reaction to the implied criticism. “The shifter force has taken over the care of most of the prisoners but Agents Romanova and Agent Barton have assumed custody of James Barnes. They will arrive tomorrow.”
Steve sank back down in his seat. “Oh. Oh, thank God.” A day. Just one day more and he’d get to see Bucky. He felt Tony step closer to him and rest a supportive hand on his shoulder, making him smile. His team, his family was great.
It was still some time until sunrise but Tony found himself unable to sleep. He helped himself to a cup of coffee, then went up to the roof terrace of the hotel they were staying in. Perhaps it was the raven in him but when he felt uncertain or stressed, he liked to be up high and in the open.
He would come face to face with Barnes later today. He would meet the man who had killed his parents. Under the control of HYDRA but it had still been his hands. Tony had had months to come to terms with the knowledge and he understood that it had not been his fault, that he was a victim as well.
“You should talk to Louis, when they get back,” Herman had told him. “He can relate.”
“What do you mean?”
“A wolf shifter killed his partner, a pika. Lost control and tore him to shreds in front of Louis. He only later learned that the wolf had been given an experimental drug that forced a shifter’s human side asleep, that made them forget they’re human.”
Herman had just nodded. Really, what else could he say? Loosing a partner was bad enough as it was but like that? “So he gets having contradictory feelings about someone.”
Who knows, Tony might actually seek him out later.
He startled slightly when Steve dropped down to sit beside him. He cleared his throat. “Can’t sleep?”
“I could ask you the same,” Steve said quietly. “Are you okay? With seeing him later, I mean.”
Tony shrugged. “I know it’s not his fault. I don’t blame him.”
“If you don’t want to see him...”
“I’ll be fine, Cap,” Tony interrupted him. “I’m not going to attack him.”
“I didn’t think you would,” Steve quickly assured him, sounding more confident in Tony’s control than he himself felt. “I don’t want you to get hurt. So, you know, if you’d rather avoid him, I can take him to the US with Nat and you and Bruce can spend some more time with Merle and Herman.”
Tony was about to reject the offer, then paused. “Let’s see how we’re all doing when he gets here. I’ll decide then.”
“Sounds good.” Steve shifted so that their shoulders were pressed together.
Side by side, they watched the sun rise.
Tony’s worry that he might be too emotionally compromised to differentiate between the one actual murderer and the one who had been used as a weapon proved unfounded when they brought him to the room serving as their headquarters since the team refused to take them to their base. Even if he, as an ex-weapons developer, hadn’t been well able distinguishing between the weapon and the one aiming and pulling the trigger, one look at the jumpy, worn out shadow of a man was enough. Seriously, if he didn’t know that his animal form was a Labrador, a good fit to Steve’s German Shepherd, he’d swear he were some kind of prey species. Louis, a rabbit, was far calmer in this room filled with carnivores.
Louis dropped a bag on the table. “Samples and whatever information we could get our hands on before we released the virus Merle gave us in their system. Hopefully it’s enough for Herman to come up with an antidote.”
“We were lucky most of their prisoners were kept sedated because they were not intended to go on a mission any time soon,” Cosmo added. “The others we had to take down. They will be kept sedated until they can be sure whatever they used is out of their system.”
Tony nudged Steve’s side when he noticed that he was staring at Barnes’ empty sleeve in horror.
“Bucky,” Steve exclaimed, then stopped again, at a loss of what to say.
The others gathered off to the side, giving them at least some semblance of privacy.
“A representative of the Shifter Force will land this afternoon at 3,” Trevorian said. “If Barnes is ready for a transatlantic flight, you will all leave tomorrow morning.” He looked to Herman, Louis and Cosmo, waiting to hear their opinion on Barnes’ state.
“Yes, at least either shifted and lightly sedated or on a private plane,” Herman said. “He’s in control of himself again but taking him on a long-distance flight in a cabin full of people is risky.”
Cosmo nodded in agreement. “Whatever they gave him doesn’t seem to have affected his grasp on his instincts right now but we don’t know how his control will hold up if he’s tired or startled.”
Tony shrugged. “We’re not trying to avoid detection from the Shifter Force now. I can have a jet brought here or charter one.”
“You sure, Stark?” Clint asked.
“Stark?” Bucky repeated. “Tony Stark?” When he received a restrained nod in response, he paled. “You shouldn’t.” He struggled to put his thoughts into words. “You shouldn’t spend money on me. I... I killed –“
“I know,” Tony interrupted. He was grateful that he was not trying to keep it a secret but he didn’t want to hear it out loud. “They told me when they found out. I know.” He paused. “The offer’s still open. I can arrange a private jet to take us back to the US.”
“Or you can travel while shifted,” Natasha said. “Steve could go into the shipping crate with you.”
Tony’s lips twitched. “I did threaten to have him travel back as cargo.”
“There’s time to decide until the representative arrives,” Steve pointed out.
“Until then, Costas and I could take a look at his shoulder, see if whatever solution we come up with for Costas could work for Barnes as well,” Herman said.
“If Barnes agrees,” Trevorian said.
Costas, another agent of Failed who had until now stayed away from the Shifter Force agents, turned out to be a tall Latino with long black locks and a beard – and an empty sleeve where his right arm should be. He just shrugged when he noticed Steve and Bucky stare at the empty sleeve. “I’m working on a prostheses that would work even in the field.”
“Were you also a prisoner of HYDRA?” Bucky asked.
“Oh no, I wasn’t. It was an accident. I – ah –“ Costas cleared his throat, looking rather embarrassed. “I lost control over my instincts once while shifting.”
“He’s a white shark,” Louis explained, reading in their faces that they didn’t quite understand what Costas meant.
“Dude, you bit off your own arm?” Clint demanded. He unconsciously rubbed his own right arm. As a sniper and an avian shifter, the idea of losing an arm seemed like a nightmare.
“My shark was curious,” Costas replied. He turned to Bucky. “We haven’t been able to come up with a prostheses yet that will either shift with you or at least return when you shift back into your human form but we’re making progress. I can show you the version we’re currently working on.”
Steve slowly relaxed. As team leader, he should probably listen more closely as Trevorian debriefed Bauer, Baldwin, Clint and Natasha but he kept getting distracted watching Bucky. Then again, he was sure Nat and Clint would tell him what he needed to know later. For now, it was a relief to see Bucky look less and less jumpy the longer he and Costas talked. It would take time and a lot of therapy but he felt reasonably certain now that Bucky would recover.
He went over to the table where Merle had set up her computer and where she and Tony were working on something. “Have you decided?” he asked Tony quietly.
Tony stared at him for a moment, trying to figure out what he was talking about, before he remembered their conversation early this morning. He smiled. “I’m flying back with you all.” Over Steve’s shoulder, he saw the door to the hotel room open. He grimaced. “On second thought, perhaps I’ll stay a bit longer while you fly back with Fury.”
“Fury?” Steve turned around, then winced, suddenly understanding Tony’s reaction. Damn, Fury looked pissed. “Sir.” He’d been expecting Fury to send Coulson or Maria, not come himself. Hadn’t he said that they would discuss it after their return? Steve had been hoping to have some more time before that confrontation. His ears were still ringing from the conversation with Trevorian after his agents had left, accompanied by Nat and Clint. He had been very frank in his opinion about how he was obviously compromised, how he should have stayed out of it instead of risking both his team and Bucky’s chances of being rescued by running off half-cocked, with no clear plan and no back-up.
The worst part, of course, was that he could not even disagree. Still, he really could do without having the same conversation with Fury now.
Fury just glowers at him, then slowly looks around the room to glare at the rest of his agents, making them all drop their gaze. Tony holds out the longest, defiantly raising his chin until he, too, is forced to look away.
“This can’t really come as a surprise now, can it?” Louis interrupts. He gestures to them. “I’ve known them for only a few days and I can tell that they aren’t the type of agents to stick to procedures and follow orders they don’t agree with.” He pauses and considers Fury, head tilted to the side. “But you knew that. You must have, considering your background. You must have realized that, sooner or later, they would break away from the Shifter Force. So I suspect that was your attention all along.”
Fury turned to look at Trevorian but he only grinned, seeming very satisfied with his agent’s analysis. That grin sent shivers down Steve’s back. He’d known, of course, that Trevorian must be a Class One shifter, otherwise he wouldn’t be leading this organisation, but they hadn’t known what kind of shifter he was. But this grin... Yes, Steve was pretty certain that he was a coyote.
Finally Fury sighed. “Correct, Agent Bauer. They were intended to become independent, yes, but not yet.”
Steve and his team exchanged startled looks. They had not been aware of that plan.
“It was, however, our intention to prepare them better beforehand, especially Captain Rogers.” Fury’s glare made Steve flinch. “He might be willing to bend or break the rule when it suits him but he needs to learn to consider the consequences and to pick the most suitable approach, not the quickest. The general procedures taught to agents are not enough, they need to also consider more unorthodox approaches. Agent Romanov and Agent Barton might be familiar with the Dark Shifter community but they lack the experience of channelling it into the structure of the Shifter Force.” They success was partially due to Coulson’s lead, since he, like Bauer, like Trevorian and Fury himself, was able to judge which was the necessary approach without appearing to have gone rogue and risking serious retribution from the higher ups in the Shifter Force. And Fury was not willing to have Coulson join them when they went independent.
“You intended for us to meet them and work with them at some point,” Tony realized.
“Yes,” Fury confirmed. “We were waiting for a suitable mission that would require both teams to solve, a mission that would allow us to partner Rogers and Bauer, have him show Rogers the ropes.”
A quickly stifled growl made them all turn. Cosmo looked mortified by his loss of control.
Louis slowly started grinning. “Don’t worry, mein Büffelchen (my little buffalo), I’m sure he meant only in the field.”
Trevorian cut him a cup, one eyebrow raised. “It was only supposed to be in the field in his case as well,” he pointed out dryly.
Louis waved him off. “Still doesn’t mean I’m interested in exchanging my Amiboy, not even for Captain America.”
Tony crossed his arms. “Good, because we’re not interested in such a switch either.”
Steve blushed when he realized what kind of partner they were talking about but the matching embarrassed look on his and Cosmo’s face just made their teams laugh.
Why did he think his team was great again?