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Matchstick Heroes

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Eliot hasn’t liked much about this job. Truth be told, he’s starting to regret that he hadn’t gone with his gut on this one and passed on it. But he’d wanted to bolster his reputation as a retrieval specialist, and maybe, if he was lucky, shake off some of his reputation from Moreau.

He should’ve known there’d be competition.

The thin guy — vaguely familiar and too elegant for this kind of work — fits within Eliot’s list of ways this job goes wrong. The fact that there’s a second man with the thin guy does too. But when Eliot rounds the corner and nearly runs into him, he has to look up. And up.

The guy’s gotta be a hitter. He’s just… so… big. And smiley. It happens to guys who’ve been hit in the head too many times, although to be fair, this one’s got more intelligence in his blue eyes than most. The big guy crosses his arms.
Eliot wonders if he’s been waiting for something interesting to happen.

It’s only far too much experience that keeps Eliot from swallowing loudly and stepping backward. That makes the big guy smile even more, and ain’t it just Eliot’s luck? Couldn’t he have been a little intimidated?

Still, the thin one is the clever one, with bright green eyes and swift fingers. “Thor.”

“Of course, brother,” the big guy — Thor, apparently — says, and damn if he sounds downright jovial. “Just as you planned.” He steps sideways, somehow seeming just a little bit bigger, filling up all that empty space between Eliot and the thin guy.

“Excellent,” Eliot hears green-eyes say, but he’s too busy ducking Thor’s first punch to do much about it.

As it turns out, Thor’s not just big, he’s well trained. Exceptionally well trained. Somewhere between still trying to get around him for the goods and realizing this job isn’t going to get him paid, he realized that Thor wasn’t trying to kill him, just stop him. And that they were both enjoying themselves, enjoying the challenge.

Eventually they wore themselves out, and just went their separate ways.

Eliot likes to think if they ever met under other circumstances, they’d make great sparring partners.


Tony sort of likes being a ghost. Although, okay, he recognizes that this is probably only true because he managed to maintain a hold on his inheritance. Pepper saw to that, saw to the fact that the legacy and inheritance of Howard Stark couldn’t be swallowed whole by Obadiah Stane. Nearly killing Tony and getting full control of the company — he refuses to think of it as Stark Industries, as Stark anything — would just have to be enough.

He doesn’t have to make nice for the press anymore, which is almost the best part. And he doesn’t make things that kill people anymore, which has gotta be good for his karma. Or something. No press, no weapons, no renewed fervor for trying to corner the tech market… He might as well be dead, right?

The only one that seems to care anymore is Pepper. But she always frowns when she sees him. Always says I hate seeing you like this.

“You should stop pouting, sir,” Jarvis intones, and the AI actually manages some level of sounding sympathetic.

“I’m not pouting,” Tony replies. He’s sure his tone only reinforces Jarvis’ probability matrix on the subject, but that’s beside the point. “I’m coding.”

It’s not as though Tony could actually leave well enough alone. He’s an inventor at heart, after all. He crawled part way out of the bottle by building machines for himself. He crawled out a little farther by realizing he could stick it to Stane where it hurts without it ever tracing back to himself. Oh yes.

“Of course.” If Jarvis could raise an eyebrow at him skeptically, Tony’s quite certain he’d be doing it right about now. “You might want to take a look at one of your shell entities, though. It seems some bright young mind is attempting to hack past it again.”

“Hn.” Tony doesn’t stop coding, but he stops pouting. A little. “Which one is this?”

“Handle: DORKY-USERNAME.” Jarvis pauses for a moment.

“…That’s actually the hacker alias?” Tony blinks, then begins chuckling. Someone’s got a sense of humor.

“As far as I am capable of detecting, yes. Further information will require your personal attention. The hacker has acceptable protocols in place.”

Tony frowns thoughtfully, puts a pin in his coding and turns to another of his monitors. “Covering his tracks, huh?” His fingers fly across his keyboard, putting protocols in place, putting things in the hacker’s way to buy him enough time to sneak his way backward across the information stream. He’s intrigued… and then pleased.

“Sir,” Jarvis says, and Tony imagines if he had a head, he’d be tipping it thoughtfully, “hasn’t he tried twice already?”

“Mmm.” Tony shifts his focus, watches the code. “He’s gotten better every time. You’ve just gotten interesting, Alec Hardison.” And then he grins. Tony Stark never claimed to have lost his ego. “And now I am gonna make your day.”


Natasha moves through the room, a picture of elegance, demure and almost floating. A small wiggle of fingers, a smile at just the right moment, a turn so the light can catch just so on the silky curve of her dress, and she has them eating from her hand with a predatory grace none of them see coming. This is her event, a glamorous little lie that will earn a sizable payday before she slips back into the ether, with nought but a trace of her current identity left behind.

Being ex-intelligence has its perks, after all.

She spots the other woman from across the room a little less than halfway through the gala. Instinct says it’s another grifter, and it’s only years of far too much practice that keeps her smile in place. At best, it’s insulting; at worst, it could jeopardize her entire operation.

Drawing closer, Natasha finally catches a good look at the new competition. She knows that face, and in a business where reputation cannot be staked merely on a name… It placates her latter fear and negates the first — surely this was coincidence — but introduces a new one.

Sophie Devereux (or whatever name she happens to be using now, she wears and sheds them like actors in a theater troupe) could very well steal the con out from under her.

“Oh, darling,” Devereux says, adding a ‘k’ to the word as though to emphasize her false accent. Was that meant to be Russian? “It is excellent to finally be meeting you. Mister Hansford was just pointing you out to me. This is a, how to say it, beautiful event.” She settles a hand on Hansford’s arm with a possessiveness that mimics affection, making the man smile up at her, all but forgetting Natasha.

She’s good, Natasha allows to herself. “Thank you. It’s an extraordinary amount of work, but so worth it.” She sounds earnest, but she puts meaning into it.

“I can only imagine,” Devereux allows. After a thoughtful moment she adds, “I do not think I could do such a thing.” She winks; Natasha imagines it’s because she could run circles around an event like this. She probably already has. “Perhaps someday. For now I am satisfied just to soon be a wife.” Devereux squeezes Hansford’s arm again.

Natasha smiles wide. She can do with one less donation, after all. “Congratulations!”


Parker doesn’t run into real competition very often. There was the woman with the short white hair, who wasn’t old even though her hair was white, or maybe she was so old she started looking young again. And there was the guy in Copenhagen with the very fine hat that reminded her an awful lot of Archie. She’s heard of people that could be competition, like that one guy in Vegas who’s hands are supposed to be magic.

But nothing like this.

He grins at her from the opposite balcony, obviously as amped on adrenaline as she is. She raises an eyebrow, gesturing to her goal with the international sign of dibs. He looks, and then narrows his eyes at her, shaking his head when he mouths Oh no, I was here first.

She huffs at him, indignant. You were not! she mouths back. The guy rolls his eyes at her. Parker squares her shoulders and stretches a little. Cos oh, it’s on now.

He gets the jump on her by just seven tenths of a second, and she’s gotta admit she’s impressed. He takes two bounding steps and vaults over the railing, spinning in the air, twisting so that he can grab hold of the dangling industrial art installation between them. It’s all heavy cords interspersed with drapes and finer threads that catch the light. Somehow he loops some of it around his arm and leg and glides downward toward the floor.

It looks pretty, but Parker is faster and has better gear. It takes her a moment to set up, sure. But she’s counting every second, has already had things planned.

Why bother touching the ground when you can soar through the air?

Parker pats him on the head as she swings past him.

“What the ff—” he says, ducking. He looks ready to roll and defend himself, then whistles softly to himself when he sees her rigging.

She smirks back at him, wiggling her fingers in the .03 seconds she has before grabbing what she wants and swinging away, soaring wide of his position.

“Maybe next time!” he calls after her.

She has to laugh at that, honestly surprised he didn’t try to steal this away from her. Thieves only do that for friends…


Coulson presses his lips together. If the man in front of him was any good, he would have recognized by now that Coulson was Not Happy, and then would have made things that much more difficult on him. But no, he’s oblivious in his arrogance, and Coulson is a true stoic.

Coulson is also one of SHIELD’s very best agents. And yet.

“You can take care of that for me, right? Of course you can. I’ll let Fury know…”

He doesn’t get to finish the sentence. Just because Coulson is not in the position to refuse the thinly veiled order doesn’t mean he likes punitive orders. Dealing with insurance claims is not his division, is actually, literally beneath him in most circumstances.

Thankfully most of the junior agents on this floor are better judges of body language than the man he just left behind, and as Coulson aims for the empty office next to the elevators they make sure to keep out of the way. Even if he does hear one of the rookies calling it the Guest Room; he supposes it’s accurate enough, considering it’s the room for people who make it up to this level past the myriad of other floors and appropriate agents for one reason or another — despite their actual clearance level — but don’t need to be thrown into holding or interrogation cells. This is more polite.

Or it looks more polite, in any case, and often that’s enough.

Coulson smoothes his tie and buttons his coat before opening the door. The room is small and painfully neutral, with few accents and enough useless paperwork to give it substance. It only serves to make him all the more aware of how this is on purpose, given that his own office is on the opposite side, a good bit larger and with real windows, with personality (however subtle). This little task is meant to make him feel disenfranchised, inconsequential, and he bristles at it inwardly.

Coulson is surprised by the man he finds pacing inside, all sharp edges and sharp eyes, hardly suited to something as boring as an insurance investigator. He makes a mental note to himself to run a check on him and see if he’s as useful as he seems. The man turns to him, looking agitated and expectant, eyebrows raised.

“I’m Agent Coulson,” he says, not bothering with any pleasantries like holding out a hand. He’s almost certain that this investigator doesn’t give a damn. He does gesture to a chair, and he can tell what kind of meeting this is going to be when the other man waves him off.

“Nate Ford, with IYS.” Coulson barely resists the urge to raise an eyebrow at the heavy stench of alcohol carried with those words. It suits Ford’s somewhat disheveled clothes — no tie, a few buttons undone, coat open — but it does nothing to  diminish the man’s intensity and little to dull his focus. “I suppose we’re coming up on the part where you explain to me that SHIELD has no intention of returning my client’s property.”

If Ford manages to notice the shadow of a grin that briefly tugs at the corner of Coulson’s mouth, he doesn’t react. “Unfortunately you are correct.” Coulson keeps his voice neutral, implacable. “We’ve seized the property in question with full authority pursuant to the State of New York's Property Code, Article 37, section J.”

Ford frowns thoughtfully, eyes narrowing. “Despite the fact that you seized it while it was stolen.” It isn’t a question, and Coulson doesn’t answer. “It isn’t even being used as evidence. In fact, I’m not even sure SHIELD has jurisdiction in something like this.”

“Mr. Ford, the property having been stolen is merely what brought it to our attention. Had SHIELD become aware that the items in question were in your client’s possession to begin with, we would have seized them directly.” Coulson pauses briefly to let that sink in, but not long enough to let Ford begin to argue with him. “I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time coming in today.”

“Hardly,” Ford retorts, his voice tight with what Coulson reads as some amount of anger (and has a hunch that it’s not at him, per se, but at the job, at something beyond the job, festering). He alters his mental note — poaching the man for SHIELD when he’s on the verge of a breakdown is useless. “In lieu of returning the property, I need to see it to ascertain that it is, in fact, my client’s property, and its current condition and evaluate the value with regard to IYS’s responsibility. There’s hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, and I had a hard enough time even determining that SHIELD was involved.”

Coulson lifts his chin a fraction, and says, “I’m afraid that’s simply not possible at this time.” Ford opens his mouth to object, but Coulson just holds up a hand. “If you speak with Agent Morgan on the third floor, office thirty-one eleven, she can get you the forms you need to placate your employers.”

Ford clenches his jaw, clearly not happy about Coulson’s resolute position. “Does that mean my client can expect to reclaim the property?”

“I’m not at liberty to disclose that, Mr. Ford. But be assured that in such an event, SHIELD will be in direct contact with your client.”

Ford huffs, and all but stomps toward the door, but pauses, his hand on the knob. “Fine. Thirty-one eleven, Agent Morgan, right?” He looks over his shoulder at Coulson. Coulson can see the intelligence glinting in his eyes, observing him. “What does SHIELD need with Nordic art unearthed in the 40’s anyway?”

Coulson presses his lips together in something mimicking a polite smile. “Have a good afternoon, Mr. Ford.”

Ford watches him for a moment longer, then nods. “You too.” It almost sounds like sympathy.