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Labyrinth

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On the day the signal came Bruce made lunch and carried two plates into the lab, just like he had many times before. He made butter chicken in tomato gravy because it was relatively simple and easy to make, and because he'd spent enough time in India to learn to cook the local cuisine. He'd had to learn that skill many times over in different countries, really, but classic Indian food was the one he liked the best (and was best at.)

It was also a dish he'd successfully gotten Tony to eat before, thus short-circuiting another argument about getting Tony to try unfamiliar dishes. Honestly, for a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, Iron Man could be such a child at times.

The thought tugged the corner of his mouth upwards in a smile as he carried the plates through the corridors, doors helpfully opening and shutting for him without needing his hands. Tony was in his suit workshop, as he had been all morning, head-down in computer terminals while the inner workings of the suit fanned out in a wide array on the tables around him. He didn't look up when the doors hissed open and Bruce stepped in, either because he was too engrossed in his work to hear him or because he didn't register Bruce's presence as a threat or unusual enough to need attention. Or both.

Bruce found a clear spot at the edge of the table and carefully set the dishes down before peeking in on Tony's work. "Trying to make the self-repair system work again?" he asked after a few moments of interpreting the results.

"Huh?" Tony raised his head, pushing a magnifying goggles up over his hair. His dark hair was already mussed and stuck together with either sweat or oil, probably the latter as he didn't look like he was wrestling anything large enough to break out a sweat. "Oh, yeah. For those marathon training sessions, y'know?"

Bruce hummed in agreement. He definitely understood and shared Tony's interest in getting a functional self-repair component into the Iron Man suit; the longer a fight wore on, the more the suits tended to accumulate little dings and dents that individually wouldn't incapacitate him, but all together added up to something more dangerous. Iron Man didn't always have the ability to call a time-out on a battle to conduct repairs to his suit, so anything that would help Tony to be more protected was a plus in Bruce's book. "What's the problem? The prototype you put together last week seemed to be running fine."

"Sure, in lab conditions," Tony said, pushing aside his work with a sigh. "The problem is that anything that hits the suit hard enough to seriously damage its functionality is also likely to knock out the self-repair system. Catch-22. Self-repairing systems don't do any good if the first thing they have to repair is themselves."

"Ah." Bruce pulled up a lab stool and took up his own plate, taking a thoughtful bite. "So, you need to make the self-repair system more contained, less centralized."

"I thought of that, but it's the same basic problem, since even if the different parts of the suit are compartmentalized with their own self-repair systems, any part that takes damage is still likely to knock out that area's system."

"You're not thinking small enough," Bruce said, gesturing with his fork. "The repair function needs to be inherent to the very materials of the suit, native in every part of it. Think of a cell, isolated and self-contained, but still containing the tools it needs to repair its own damage. The smaller and more discrete the units are, the harder it will be for macro level damage to take it out of commission."

Tony groaned. "Fuck. You're totally right. And that is such a fucking biologist answer, too. Give me hydraulics and circuitry any day, none of this 'organic systems' bullshit."

Bruce grinned. "Speaking of organic systems," he said, and slid Tony's plate pointedly across the table towards him. "You missed breakfast. Eat."

Tony looked greatly put-upon and longsuffering, but obediently took up the plate and began to eat. "Did you make this?" he asked. " 'Cause I want to say it's good, but I don't want you to think that I only love you for your cooking."

Before Bruce could respond to that, a cheerful "Hoy!" echoed through the room. Bruce knew who it was without turning around - he knew that voice, as much as he knew there was only one person likely to be here with the lungs to shout through Tony's soundproofing. And because he recognized the voice, he did not let his heart rate jump when a loud banging started up on the glass door.

"Ah, hell," Tony muttered, craning his neck towards the door. Sure enough, there was Thor, beaming and waving through the glass; with Steve beside him. The two of them, a double dose of big, blond, and effervescent, looked not unlike a rising sun on the other side of the glass.

Tony let out a sigh. "Guess we should go out and be social; I don't really want those two bulls in this particular china shop."

He made a motion to call up his mid-air control panel, and started the lab shutdown before strolling towards the glass doors. Bruce followed behind him, still smiling.

"Welcome back," Bruce said as the glass door fell shut behind him. He took in their clothing: Thor was wearing civilian gear today, jeans and a jacket over a t-shirt. Steve stood beside him, similarly geared but with a baseball cap and logo stitched onto his jacket. "Where did you go?"

Steve answered. "The Mets were in town this week, so I asked Thor if he wanted to go take in a game, and he said yes."

"Really?" Tony said, following behind Bruce as he firmly locked the lab doors. "You took our resident alien to see America's most boring pastime?"

Bruce sighed. "Tony..." he said warningly.

"Sorry, no offense intended," Tony said, grinning, "I just meant that it's not gonna be much fun if you don't know anything about the game. It's just a bunch of guys standing around with only occasional bursts of sprinting."

"I did explain the rules as we went," Steve defended.

"Nay, I quite enjoyed myself," Thor said with a smile. "I did not need to know the rules of the game in order to take in the fine weather and great expanse of outdoors in the stadium, the spirit and excitement of the crowd who had assembled for this most joyous occasion. Nor did I need to know the rules of the game to admire the sportsmanship of the athletes, the great effort and valor that they poured into their craft, and the impressive physiques of their bodies!"

Tony snickered. "Heh, no wonder given how hopped up those guys are on ster - Ow!" He hunched over, hamming it up, as Bruce jabbed him in the ribs with a sharp elbow.

"That's very poetic, Thor," Bruce said. "I'm glad you had a good time."

Whatever might have been said next was cut off by the sudden, sharp buzzing noise of two custom-built, extra-sturdy Stark communicators. Thor's hand went to his breast pocket as Steve reached for his hip; at the same moment, Bruce heard a tinny melody from his phone that indicated he'd gotten mail.

"Sir," JARVIS spoke from overhead. "It seems that the Director has called an alert on the Avengers emergency frequency."

"Emergency alert, eh?" Tony rubbed his hands together, working off a stray spot of grease. "How many apocalypses?"

"I believe this would rate as a two point five on your apocalypse scale, sir," JARVIS reported obediently. "He classes the situation as 'urgent, but not critical.' "

"Then I'd better change and get down there, I guess," Steve said.

Thor nodded. "Aye, I as well," he said as Steve put action to words, bowing himself out. "Although if the need is not too urgent I do believe I will indulge in a shower first. Over the course of the match, I was ritually anointed with the mead of several overenthusiastic fans in the benches behind."

He looked no less the cheerful for it as he exited, leaving Bruce and Tony alone once more.

Bruce sighed. He had honestly been enjoying the peace and quiet. "Well," he said, "I guess we should head on down to the War Room as well."

All at once, Tony's arms were on either side of him, pinning him up against the glass wall of the lab. "Not so fast, tiger," Tony purred, with a wicked gleam in his eye. "Let Agent cool his heels for a while. Sometimes he needs to be reminded that we don't jump when he says frog."

Bruce couldn't help but smile, warmed with a heat that was one part embarrassment and two parts desire. "Tony, sometimes I wonder if I should worry that you consider defying authority a turn-on," he half-complained.

"I find lots of things a turn-on," Tony said, nuzzling the edge of his lapel where it fell across Bruce's throat. "Like sexy scientists in business casual labcoats in my workshop."

His hand began to wander up under the hem of Bruce's shirt, and Bruce captured it firmly in his own. "No, Tony," he said. "I refuse to show up at an Avengers briefing smelling like I just had sex."

Tony gave him a pleading look. "We could shower afterwards..." he offered.

"That would just make it even more obvious what we've been doing," Bruce said firmly. "We can wait."

"You with your 'work ethic' and 'sense of professionalism,' " Tony grumbled, leaning back and letting Bruce up. "Fine. But if we both die on this mission without ever having sex again, I get to say "I told you so."


The Avengers weren't part of SHIELD any more; they weren't under Coulson's command like they had been under Fury's (inasmuch as Fury had ever been able to control them in the first place.) SHIELD had fallen, and rebuilt itself into something much smaller, stealthier, lower to the ground. No, he did not command the Avengers; but he had eyes and ears in places they did not, and if a new menace appeared that would come to threaten their world, Coulson would hear about it sooner rather than later. So they had… an understanding. Call it a professional relationship. He didn't try to use the Avengers for his personal empire-building and in return, when he called on them, they took him seriously.

Although he'd been a part of the Avengers Initiative from the beginning, and had given more than anyone else (up to and including his actual life) to make it a reality, Philip Coulson didn't actually enjoy calling up the Avengers for every little problem and situation. They were too flashy, too visible, drawing attention like a beacon wherever they went. Coulson generally preferred to use his own resources where he could teams and agents that obeyed orders and carried out operations without the whole thing being an exercise in herding cats. Besides which, the Avengers tended to leave behind almost as much chaos and destruction as whatever threat they'd been sent to stop.

That's why he waited five days after the first report crossed his desk before he hit the button that sent out the call.

There were several different codes they had agreed on, before the motley cast of heroes had all scattered to go their own ways, to let them know if they were needed once more. Code Red was the most urgent - it indicated a threat was immediate, and the Avengers would drop whatever else they were doing and congregate at the nearest possible meeting point as quickly as possible. The one that Coulson used today was a few steps down from that - Code Yellow, which meant that they should come to the War Room for a full debrief, if not within the hour, then at least by the end of the day.

Stark Tower had, of course, a multitude of assembly and conference rooms, including one up near the conference level that took up the entire floor and was surrounded by a grand glass view of the city. It had a wide obsidian table, state-of-the-art videoconferencing tools, and chairs emblazoned with the symbol of each Avenger on the leather backs.

It was, of course, the target of every wannabe supervillain and espionage agent on the eastern seaboard, so they mostly only used it for debates about whose turn it was to do the cooking. The real strategy room was buried on the 31st floor, in among the janitorial and server closets, with no windows whatsoever and every electronic jamming device known to man going full blast. Only a select few had the codes necessary to call the War Room, and Coulson was one of the few.

Barton and Romanov were actually in the War Room already; Coulson had been careful to keep them in the loop since the trouble began, even before it escalated to the point of requiring the Avengers. Captain America himself showed up not long after Coulson made the call; he was always the most prompt of the entire team, the military having ingrained "if you aren't ten minutes early, you're late" in him at a bone-deep level.

"What's going on, Director Coulson?" Steve wanted to know. "I haven't heard of anything on the news - at least, not anything more than the usual." He shot the other two SHIELD agents a questioning, slightly anxious glance, no doubt wondering what he'd missed.

"As if the news networks ever know anything," Barton snorted. "Constantly caught with their pants down, they are."

Coulson knew from periodic checkups on Steve's progress that his adaptation to the 21st century had been... patchy; quick in some places, slow in others. He instantly took to the idea of televised news, that being merely an extension of the newspapers and news radio he was already familiar with. But he hadn't yet made the corollary discovery that news television was neither thorough nor reliable, dependant as they were on sensationalism and visual interest.

"There's been nothing on the internet, either," Romanov offered quietly, sliding into a seat at the end of the long table. She was already alert and guarded, her personality (and occasionally dubious sense of humor) faded into the background to allow her to concentrate fully on the threat.

"I'll explain everything, but I'd rather only have to tell it once," Coulson promised him. He glanced at the time readout on his screen. "As soon as your teammates arrive, we can get started. I said 'not critical,' not 'stop for a haircut on the way here.' "

Thor arrived next, getting Coulson's hopes up, but he was alone. "Where are Stark and Banner?" he asked, an edge creeping into his voice. "I know Stark well enough that he practically has his phone wired to his skull, and he and Banner are attached at the hip these days."

Barton snickered something that didn't make it across the microphones, but it was enough to make Steve's ears turn pink. Thor shrugged, looking unconcerned. "They told me to go on ahead, as I would not be traveling by the same means," he said.

Coulson dialed Stark's number again, and got shunted to voicemail. Just before he would have gotten annoyed enough to send an extraction team into Stark Tower after him, the man arrived. Banner trailed along behind him, looking small and rumpled as he always did, out of place amongst all the hard-edged professionalism of the rest of the team. A dangerous illusion, that harmlessness; Coulson knew all too well that he was the most dangerous one on the team. Their trump card.

"Now that we're all here," Coulson said dryly, "we can begin.

"This past Friday, a small town in Pennsylvania dropped off the grid." Coulson sent the first of the map files across the connection, from his console to their display. He brought up a map of the US and began zooming in, highways and rivers and mountains going by in a rush as he focused in on a broad, empty patch of land.

Stark began laughing. "Oh, Phil, don't tell me that you're still using Apple Maps," he exclaimed. "Seriously, I'd think you'd have learned the first time one of your agents got sent to an empty patch of the Caribbean when they were trying to get to Atlantic City."

Coulson gave him a look of severe disapproval. "This is proprietary SHIELD technology, Stark," he said.

"The designer just happens to be a bit of a Steve Jobs fanboy," Natasha murmured to the inventor. Stark laughed again, before his expression sobered.

"Seriously though, Agent, I'd be happy to write a new program for you that works much better," he offered.

"And is all full of your own little backdoors, I'm sure," Coulson said oppressively; Stark just shrugged, not denying the accusation. Banner nodded wryly and Barton snorted, while Thor and Steve just looked confused.

"Back to the problem at hand," Steve said, calling his team into line with a reproving glance at Stark. "What do you mean, dropped off the grid? You mean they're not answering phone calls, or what?"

"I mean as far as the rest of the world is concerned, Middleton, Pennsylvania has ceased to exist," Coulson replied. "Anyone trying to contact them just gets a no-signal return. Telephone, digital, power - all suddenly cut off. We called a complete quarantine of the place on Sunday night, but it's small and out-of-the-way enough that nobody's really noticed yet."

He finished centering the map view on the town in question, then expanded it to maximum size and switched to satellite view. He knew what they would see; green filled the screen, the lush rolling vegetation of the Pennsylvania countryside largely uninterrupted by artifice. The nearest town was miles away, and even the nearest highways were barely visible on the horizon. The town itself sat in an empty patch of terrain, a modest cluster of roads and buildings perched on the lip of a wide grey scar on the land.

"What's that on the edge?" Barton wanted to know.

"Coal mine," Coulson explained briefly. "Middleton started out as a coaling town, and never really grew past it when coal went out of fashion. There's not much to recommend it besides the coal mine and the refinery that went with it. The population's not more than a few hundred people nowadays."

Natasha's sharp eyes glinted as she leaned forward on the table, raising one hand to call attention to the corner of the map. "This satellite image is from a week ago," she said. "Why isn't there a more current one?"

"Because at the moment, all the satellites can get a picture of is a solid mass of smoke," Coulson replied, switching the view to current to demonstrate. "Our best guess is that something started a fire in the mine, and it's been burning for days - and it could go on burning for years, depending on how deep the coal seams go."

"But a coal fire by itself wouldn't cut off all communications, would it?" Banner exclaimed. "I mean, even if all the residents evacuated, we'd still be getting answering pings from the relay towers on the ground."

"Correct." Coulson smiled grimly. "And for your information, the residents haven't evacuated - not as far as we've been able to tell. No one's come out of there since then, and no one who's gone in has responded."

A slightly daunted silence fell, and Coulson went on with his debriefing. He brought up another filter to lay over the map, a faint violet tinge that formed a loose circle around the town. "Now all that is strange enough, but not necessarily a cause for national concern," he went on. "What is more worrying is the fact that ever since we started turning our eyes and ears on this town, we've been getting some mighty strange readings off it. There some kind of energy there - something acting as an interference field that keeps us from seeing what's going on down there. I'd say they're like nothing we've ever seen before on Earth, but unfortunately, that's not quite true. We have seen them before - mostly in the handful of cases that Dr. Stephen Strange has been able to identify for us as someone working Old Earth magic."

He carefully watched the faces of his team, gauging their reactions. Thor sat up straight, looking interested for the first time in this discussion of power lines and telephones and signals; Stark and Banner both took on a faintly pinched, harassed look as though the very existence of magic was an affront to their worldview. The rest of them looked faintly worried, but not yet worried enough.

"This was the best mapping of the interference field we were able to get Monday night," Coulson continued. He paged forward by a day; the violet circle looked largely unchanged. "By Tuesday afternoon, it had grown by approximately ten feet in all directions. By Tuesday night, twenty feet." He flipped forward several more images, each one showing the purple haze spreading alarmingly fast towards the corners of the map. "Our best estimates show that ever since then, the rate of growth has approximately doubled every twenty-four hours. The last reading we were able to get, before our nearest instruments were knocked out, showed that it was expanding at a rate of about two miles per hour."

Barton cursed softly. Two miles an hour wasn't fast - about as fast as a man could walk, if he wasn't in a hurry - but if it kept on accelerating at a geometric rate...

"Normally we would expect the expansion of such a field to slow down the larger it became, as it would require more and more energy to maintain itself," Coulson said. "But the opposite seems to be the case here. Gentlemen and lady, if this interference is not stopped, then we can expect to see half of the Northeastern United States under its influence in a week."

"What can we do to stop it?" Steve said, all business now. "I mean, none of us are experts at magic, except maybe Thor..."

Thor was already shaking his head. "Nay, that has never been my expertise," he said. "For all that it is common to our people, I never made an especial study of it. That was always left to -" He cut off abruptly, his blue eyes darkened. Barton scowled and looked away, and everybody else pretended that they hadn't just almost raised the specter of Thor's crazy little megalomanic brother in the hearing of the man who'd almost died by his hand.

"I don't know yet what you can do," Coulson said, answering Steve's question. It almost hurt to admit that, to reveal their bone-deep ignorance on the matter. "But we aren't getting any closer to figuring it out from the outside. We need someone to go in there, get to the heart of it and put a stop to it before it spreads; and since we don't know what's down there, I want to send the highest-firepower response team I have. The six of you took on an alien invasion single-handed; I'm pretty confident that you're more than a match for whatever... or whoever... is causing this, too."

He paused, surveying the room through the camera. "Any questions?" he asked.

"Lots," Banner said with a wry smile, "but I'm pretty sure you just said you don't have answers to them, if we really can't get any readings from the outside. So I guess we'll just have to answer our questions ourselves."

"Fortunately, we're pretty good at that," Stark replied confidently.

"That's why I chose you," Coulson said, and leaned in close to the camera lens. "You are the Avengers; you are the best we've got to offer. Get in there, find out what's causing this, rescue whatever civilians you can, and put a stop to it."

"Right," Rogers said, and rose from the table with his jaw squared. "Avengers, assemble!"

Coulson cut the connection.


~to be continued...