Nate leaned back in his chair in the unfamiliar restaurant, a single finger pulsing over his lips, studying the man sitting across from him. "I have to say, we usually go to great lengths to avoid your type of client. In fact, you're normally the type of person we target."
"Because I'm rich?"
Nate smirked. They had looked into him, done their background research. Despite the four thousand dollar custom suit he was wearing, he wasn't as rich as he portrayed himself to be. "Because you're a United States senator. In my experience a person who has been in office as long as you have isn’t possessed of a lot of redeeming qualities."
Nate watched as the lanky blonde man sat forward, maybe trying to intensify his plea, or maybe trying to look more honest or grounded. The senator placed his hands flat on the table and said, "It's more than just the clean up, Mr. Ford. These people are dangerous. They think they can destroy New York and not have to worry about the aftermath, or any of the loss of life that happened that day. They think they're soldiers, but they're really just a group of rogue vigilantes that need to be held accountable."
Nate smiled. "So, are they rogue soldiers? Or vigilantes? Because I'm not sure they can be both."
"Mr. Ford –"`
"And as for clean-up, Tony Stark is almost single handedly rebuilding downtown while Congress is trying to put blame on each others' political parties for the battle happening in the first place..." He waved his hand at the Senator, brushing away his excuses. "What is this really about?"
It was silent for a moment as he watched the senator’s internal struggle. "It's the Hulk."
"The Hulk," Nate repeated.
The man was silent for a second as if weighing his words. "My nephew went to college at Columbia. He was killed in the Hulk's rampage in 2008, and now they're saying that he's part of this group of heroes that saved Manhattan. All I see is a murderer that got lucky."
Nate considered this. The man had been less than honest in his intentions, but Nate remembered watching what little surviving footage there was from the night in question: explosions, screaming, and a shadowy figure that seemed to defy all he had previously known about the world and science...
But it wasn't just there was damage done to Harlem. No. There were lives lost.
Nate shut down that line of thinking before he gave himself too much freedom to go down that particular spiral. "Okay."
Nate shrugged. "We'll find out what we know about the Hulk, see if we can get his identity and work on getting some justice for your nephew." He stood up and held out his hand. "Pleasure doing business with you, Senator."
The senator looked stunned but eagerly shook Nate's hand, and Nate started to walk towards the door before feeling a tingle of something in the base of his spine. He turned around and studied the restaurant, making note of each of his teammates hiding in plain site as restaurant patrons, but nothing looked out of place.
Still, he ran his hands over his arms as if he could brush away the goose bumps that appeared there. The feeling in the base of his spine intensified, though, and a brief shiver took control of his body.
"Nate," he heard Eliot growl in his ear. "What's going on?" He could almost feel his team shift in their chairs around the restaurant rather than see them, all ready to come to his rescue, or disappear if needed. He furrowed his brow as he watched the senator shift in his own chair, his own back to Nate and the entrance, but nothing was amiss. "Nate?" Eliot's voice repeated.
The chill struck him harder than before, this time, but he couldn't pin point where it was coming from. "Nah. Regroup at the hotel. We've got to get started." He gave one last look around the restaurant though, before shrugging it off, and shifting his mind into the first phase of his planning.
Hardison was the first back. Their hotel was one of the few in the battle area that had come away relatively unscathed, but it was still almost empty giving them a number of large suites with varying views of the area. People were still eyeing the zone as toxic: despite the massive clean-up and colossal misinformation campaign, there were still giant skeletal remains lining the streets and the media was inciting fear in residents that some buildings still had a chance of falling down.
So really, it was the perfect place for them to have their base of operations. For the time being at least, and Hardison had rigged the suite to something like their normal war room – large plasma screens, several hard drives running to almost full capacity, and both couches and work stations for each different personality type.
Hardison surveyed the room as Nate walked in and took residence at the desk closest to the screens: the natural place of the leader, and the rest filtered in behind him.
Nate barely looked to see if the rest of them were settled. "Hardison?"
Hardison tapped some keys on his computer, and the images started flying up. "Tony Stark. He's described as a genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist. I got that off the news, but I'm inclined to think it's a self description. One," he grinned, "that I share as well."
Eliot chuckled. "Oh yeah? How much money do you have? Because I count you at two of four."
"And which other one exactly am I lacking?"
Nate stepped in. "Boys..." he called out as Sophie rolled her eyes, and took over.
"We all know about Tony Stark. Defence contractor, Iron Man... Every grifter out there has gotten something from him – and he likes it. He treats it as a game. Or, at least he did until was kidnapped and became a superhero. But why are we focusing on him?"
Hardison stepped back in, this time all business. "Because right now he's the only person that was fighting in New York against the invasion that has been positively ID'd. I've been keeping track of the blogs, and internal FBI and CIA memos and reports, and they all read like something out of a science fiction movie. And none of them know who any of those guys were... except that one of them was, apparently, a god."
"What about that other fighter, the one in the colourful costume?" Parker asked, completely unfazed by the 'god' comment and focusing instead on the most colourful thing on the screen.
"He's dressed like Captain America," Sophie answered. "I always loved his story – a soldier that proved himself on the battlefield and fell in love with his British commander – who was one of the highest ranking females in the war, by the way. And then right as they profess their love for each other, he sacrifices his own life for the good of the world." She drifted off and then shrugged. "But it's a fairy tale. War propaganda. Comic books. Conspiracy theories of a secret serum to make a super soldier. It's not real."
"Actually," Hardison spoke, "it's very real. There are all the documents required to support such a claim, including real historical records, blood samples, laboratory tests... everything. If it was a fairy tale made to look true, those records would be accessible, but these are hidden, and hidden deep. And people have been trying to replicate the process, but no has. Rumour has it that it's how the Hulk got created."
"Stories about Captain America have always been around, even when I first started in the service," Eliot added. "But when I started taking more specialized ops, more training, higher clearances..." he shook his head. "Some things that were just rumours I started seeing where they could be true. I didn't see anything about the serum, but some of the stuff I did see? Let's just say it's possible."
Sophie shook her head. "Even if it is true, he's disappeared for over 70 years, and just now comes back? The same age, good as new?"
Hardison brought up pictures from the war and tried to compare them against the grainy pictures taken from the news and shaky cell phone cameras. "None of the pictures from the attack were clear enough for facial recognition, but looking at these two? They look pretty close. They say he was trapped in an iceberg or something, and with his super healing powers they were able to bring him back."
"But that's not possible." Sophie objected.
Nate finally broke up the argument. "The last time I thought I knew what was possible we got invaded by aliens. I'm opening up what I know to be real."
There was a rare moment of silence from the team as they pondered what Nate said and watched the images that Hardison was putting on the screen: some more grainy pictures from security cameras, some that were blurs from the speed at which the target was moving, some videos that were shaking as whoever held the camera ran from the non-humanoid forms chasing them...
Hardison spoke quietly as he changed the images and videos on the screens. "The government is trying to cover up how bad it was that day, they're trying to keep how bad all the alien stuff was under wraps to avoid mass panic, but you can't stop the internet. Even so, most sites are having all these images taken down, or finding them magically corrupted. After the Harlem attack they tried to blame it on wild animals and natural disasters."
"But everyone knows differently," Parker said, in her matter-of-fact tone. "I mean, we weren't in New York at the time, but everyone saw those remains outside, and the giant hole in the sky. They think we're just going to believe that the aliens attacking were a onetime thing? And that we're not in any danger now?"
Sophie spoke up again. "People believe what they want. It's a lot easier to blame Stark for the damage then to believe that aliens are a real and continuous threat. And all people really know for sure is that something happened, Tony Stark was involved, and so was a group of other, unnamed persons. Some people say they were part of the destruction, some say they were there to help... and some are just afraid of the unknown. Take your pick."
Parker looked disgruntled, but Nate ploughed on. "So the only thing that everyone agrees on is that Iron Man was there, which means Tony Stark knew what was going on. And that means that Pepper Potts also probably knows. Which means we need access to Stark Industries if we want to find out anything about who the other masked people are. Hardison?"
Hardison felt a combination of excitement and horror as he listened to the arguments around him, still watching the images across the screen that he had studied so many times before. "Nate, I understand the job we took, and why we need to do it, but this is Tony Stark. I've worshiped this man since I could read. His security is better than most governmental agencies, and Pepper Pots runs a tight ship. Are we really going to try to con Iron Man? I mean, he's the closest thing that the world has to an actual, bona fide superhero."
"So," Eliot started, "is the problem that he's better than you? Or that you want to act out a childhood fantasy and can't bear that he might be a bad guy in all this?"
"He's not a bad guy – he's cleaning up downtown on his own –"
"Because he might have been responsible –"
"Because he has moral superiority –"
"BOYS!" Nate had to interrupt again, and they fell silent. Hardison felt his eyes on him, but he became engrossed back in his computer. "Sophie, you said that every grifter has had a piece of him. You included?"
She drew out the word. "Yes."
"Will he recognize you?"
"As Cassandra, an art dealer who also loves to paint and sculpt. I procured some paintings for him."
"And by procured you mean..."
"Sold him real paintings but switched out all the ones in his study," she said, clearly reminiscing. "My cover was never blown; I still see Pepper from time to time."
Parker looked excited. "You stole from Iron Man?"
"Wait," Hardison interrupted, "you've conned Iron Man?"
"It was actually quite brilliant –"
"Guys..." Nate trailed off and while Sophie stopped, it was clear she wanted to keep going. He looked around the room wearily. "Okay, first part of the plan is infiltration and information gathering. It's going to be a long process. Sophie?"
Sophie smiled, and started her story.